Monday, February 16, 2009

In Defense of Slumdog Millionaire

Okay, I get that the Academy Awards are lightning rods for critical disaffection and that as such, films nominated or winning awards become the easy scapegoats for those frustrated at the quality and quantity of movies monopolizing our critical attention.

I get, too, the complaint that something about the process--politicking, judgment by committee--continually appears to result in the championing of mediocrity rather than daring. In the last ten years the Best Picture award has gone to: No Country for Old Men, The Departed, Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, Chicago, A Beautiful Mind, Gladiator, and American Beauty. That's a depressing list to contemplate.

I also understand that disaffection may be strong this year because the whole crop of nominations appears particularly weak, meaning that those who had films they actually valued will have their irritation level raised before it even has to settle on a particular target.

All that said, the scorn heaped on this year's front-runner, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, strikes me as particularly intense. And given the fact that, unlike, say, at least six of the films on that list two paragraphs ago, Slumdog Millionaire is not (at least in my opinion) a bad film even if it is also not (again, in my opinion) the best film, I guess I feel roused to move beyond my initial "begrudging" thumbs up to say a bit more about what I liked about this film.

First up, though, some disclaimers:

I do not claim here that anyone should like this film. How many times does this bear repeating? Affinity and critical estimation are not the same thing. You can like something (even a lot) that you don't think is very good for all sorts of reasons. You can recognize the craftsmanship in something that you nevertheless feel antipathy for. If you didn't care for Slumdog Millionaire, you aren't alone. Nobody is asking you to hand in your critic's card, or human being card. By the same token, though, recognize that a lot of people did like it. And either they are all simpering idiots, none of them is smarter than you (or even smart enough to think something you haven't thought of first), they are all deliberating lying to try to pull one over on you, or they are capable of appreciating and enjoying something that you don't. Why is the latter such an offense to so many people's sensibilities?

In talking about the critical response surrounding a film, one inevitably generalizes, stereotypes, and is selective with, others' readings of the film. This sort of survey of criticism is one of the lower forms of responses for that reason. It pretty much always comes off as more arrogant than one means it to, because it places the writer (in this case, me) in the role of adjudicator rather than participant in the debate.

Why do it, then?

Well, because my response to a second viewing was markedly different from my initial response, and in that development of opinion may (or may not, but hey that's what the delete button is for) provide some insight into where these critical divisions lie and why the gulf between them is so sharp and nasty.

My first comment is that we live in a cynical age, and sentimental works of art, by their nature, tend to be very divisive. defines sentimental as:


1. expressive of or appealing to sentiment, esp. the tender emotions and feelings, as love, pity, or nostalgia: a sentimental song.
2. pertaining to or dependent on sentiment: We kept the old photograph for purely sentimental reasons.
3. weakly emotional; mawkishly susceptible or tender: the sentimental Victorians.
4. characterized by or showing sentiment or refined feeling.

Now certainly these definitions in the aggregate do not mandate that the term must be prejudicial, but I think it has mostly become so. I would not be the first to suggest that the sentimentality of the Victorians (think Dickens on a bad day) was concurrent with (and in part wrapped up in) the rise of a less sophisticated commercial audience and is so wed in our historic consciousness with a sheen of inferiority. There are, in fact, however, works that are dependent on sentiment not simply as a gloss to cover over technical inferiority but which are combined with technical ability to great great sentimental art. (Think George MacDonald on a good day. Or Robert Burns. Or Frank Capra.)

It seems perfectly acceptable to me to say of such works that we don't care for them. But there is a difference between not caring for the genre and denigrating the artist, between saying "I don't like pop music" and "Celine Dion can't sing." The first is a defensible personal taste. The second is a snooty prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion.

One reason we don't like sentimentality may simply be personal taste. I would argue, though, that we are enculturated to dislike it, because sentimentality is the direct opposite of cynicism, and cynicism is the defensive posture of the day. It is the default attitude to which most modern viewers are calibrated. And it views sentimentality as not merely naive but false.

I read some comment somewhere from a viewer who said he or she liked the film well enough but would have liked it more if Jamal had gotten the last question wrong. Even when recognizing it as a genre piece, there is a part of us that recoils at the happy ending, that feels as though all happy endings must be "earned" (whatever the heck that means) or are not realistic.

I had one friend call Slumdog Millionaire the world's most depressing feel-good movie. I think she was right. Part of what I think she meant (or what I think she recognized if she meant something different) is that we are so uncalibrated to sentimentality, that we tend to think of it only as incessant, upbeat, Pollyanna cheerfulness--a denial of the darkness and painfulness of life rather than merely a(n increasingly foreign) response to it. Boyle's film doesn't sugarcoat the poverty, the suffering, the weight of environmental determinism and so we have a hard time dismissing it on purely sentimental grounds because it doesn't fall into the trap that bad sentimental art does.

Sometimes, too, I think we go to the other extreme. If a film refuses to be fantasy by simply denying pain, suffering, or obstacles, we insist it be cynicism by saying that those things are not just real but preeminent. Or, we put the weight on them to explain rather than merely testify to the presence of pain and suffering in the world. Now, I'll rail against films that I think play fast and loose with (or exploit) the mystery of suffering, either by offering false answers or pat ones that are really no answers at all. (Signs is one of my favorite whipping boys in this regard.)

If I've softened a bit towards films that are realistic about human suffering but sentimental in their conclusions (and certainly Slumdog Millionaire fits the bill here) it is because I can sometimes bring myself to see them as embodying the mysteries of the vagaries of providence (I use the word deliberately rather than "fate") rather than depending upon either false answer (i.e. that the innocent never suffer or that the reward is somehow and apt compensation for and hence justification of the suffering).

The essence of Slumdog Millionaire, its central theme, is announced right at the beginning. How did Jamal arrive where he is? It is the sentimental rejoinder to the much (too much in my opinion) celebrated "profoundness" of Anton Chigurgh's taunting inquiry of what use is one's philosophy if it has brought one to the point of despair (or hasn't prepared one to face the ultimate fate that awaits us all--doesn't have answers to the only questions that really matter).

"It is written" can be taken as just a cheeky reminder that what we are watching is a genre piece, a fairy tale. Jamal got here because there is an author and he wrote the script that way. And the reason he wrote the script that way is because that is how fairy tales are written. Certainly that's how I took it on a first viewing, and I laughed at the winking joke to the audience right before the fourth wall came down and everyone (from those playing happy Jamal to those playing trash heap living orphans) came out and did a happy boogey dance.

The film is very meta-fictive, even more so (for me) on a second viewing. And one quality of much metafiction is that it instructs you on how to read it (in the reader-response sort of way). The film is not just a depiction of the story, it continually breaks from the story to depict people watching the story and commenting on how and why they are watching it. From Jamal's early interactions with the police who are poring over the episode on tape to try to demonstrate their critical and intellectual superiority (but who evidence only their snobbishness and the way it threatens to blind them to a truth that is openly proclaimed right in front of them), to Latika's glossing of the show as a means of "escape," to the countless shots of people congregating around televisions in the build up to the final question, Slumdog Millionaire treats Who Wants to Be a Millionaire not just as the story within the story but as the means to be a story about stories. (Even the little bit about Jamal being fed the wrong answer by the show's host can be interpreted as a sort of meta-commentary on the determinedness of stories as one character within the story tries to usurp for himself the role of story author and finds, like we all do when we lose track of whether we are authors or characters in our own narrative that having all the answers isn't the same thing as being able to control what will happen in life.)

Still, most of my reservations about the film on first viewing, were tied to the show frame which not only showed Jamal on the show but insisted on interweaving the answers to the questions into his life experience. While this makes sense as a narrative hook, I was a bit too hung up on assuming that by underlining those events, by structuring the film around them, the story gave them a thematic significance that somehow made the game's outcome a quid-pro-quo. Sorry you got orphaned, but hey that experience got you past the $100 question. Your friend's blinding and slavery was not in vain, it led to the $50,000 answer.

If some were to read the film that way (and I can totally see how some might) I would totally understand why they might not only dislike the film but actually outright despise it. I don't think that is the film's message though, both because the final question's answer is not the product of some life experience (though it does reinforce the theme that the most important things like the most important questions, are the ones that were before us all along if we just could have eyes to see them) and also because Jamal, post answer, is not radically changed. The next shot of him is of him waiting in the train station, still alone, still unfulfilled. The money isn't the reward for the experiences, the girl is.

But isn't that the same thing? It's still happiness, whether it comes in the form of a check or a kiss. Perhaps. If that were delivered whole, all at once, and without a spot shadowing of the scars that remain as evidence of the past pain. Jamal does not so much overcome suffering as escape it. Neither--and this is important for me--is his suffering (or Latika's for that matter) portrayed as redemptive. It is not as though he is able to use the money to extricate her from her mobster's prison. Jamal is faithful through the suffering, but that faithfulness doesn't enact change so much as it makes him present and available when change becomes possible. (In large part through the agency of others.)

If Jamal's (and Latika's) progress is an escape from suffering (as opposed to a defeat of it), then my nagging doubts were about the singular and peculiar nature of that escape. Why do some live and some die? This, too, is a question that film ponders itself. Both when the blind boy says "I'll sing at your funeral" and when Salim looks down on Mumbai from the skyscraper with wonder at how they got from there to where they are now.

We need there to be some explanation, some reason, that ties that seemingly arbitrary providence to human agency, and hence merit. He need this so that we can feel not just that it is a fortuituos thing that some (including us) are rich and happy while others are not but that it is an appropriate thing.

Dallas Willard writes in The Divine Conspiracy:

It is deeply revealing of how we think about God to see the way translators struggle to make this condition of "spiritual poverty" something good in its own right and thus deserving of blessing [...] This struggle with the translation reflects our intense need to find in the condition referred to something good, something God supposedly desires or even requires, that can serve as a "reasonable" basis for the blessedness he bestows. But that precisely misses the point that the very formulation of the Beatitudes should bring to our attention.

Jesus did not say, "Blessed are the poor in spirit because they are poor in spirit." He did not think, "What a fine thing it is to be destitute of every spiritual attainment or quality. It makes people worthy of the kingdom." And we steal away the much more profound meaning of the teaching about the availability of the kingdom by replacing the state of spiritual impoverishment [...] with some supposedly praiseworthy state of mind or attitude [....]

In so doing we merely substitute another banal legalism for the ecstatic pronouncement of the gospel.

Yes, Ken, but Willard is talking about the kingdom of God, not earthly blessings. Are you saying the film is some sort of spiritual allegory?

Well, no. If by that do we mean was Vikas Swarup thinking of Matthew 5 when he wrote the novel? I don't think the film is necessarily about the New Testament beatitudunal teachings, but I do think Jamal can be a figure of them, and thinking of him as such reminds me (particularly the cynic in me) that "realistic" is not the same as "true" and that cynicism is not the same as wisdom.

You know, we don't have an answer for why the rain falls on the unjust as well as the just, but we don't reflexively sneer at films that depict it doing so. When a work of art shows the unredeemed or the unrepentant sharing in some universal blessing, we may, like Solomon (or Quoheleth, if you prefer) question why it should be so, but we don't (at least in my experience) chastise the artist for lying to people about the way things really are.

Sometimes bad things happen to good people. That sucks, but that's life.

Sometimes good things happen to bad people. That can be hard to bear, but that too is life.

Sometimes, though, good things happen to good people. Not merely because they are good. Not necessarily as a reward for their goodness, but because for one soul-lifting moment the veil is lifted and the fog of so many things we can't understand rolls away to give us a glimpse of the universe we know must be latent somewhere beneath the dirt, and death, and shit, even if we too often despair from the weight of doubt borne out the infrequency of such glimpses.

This, too, is life.


scott said...

Amazing post Ken. Thank you especially for making the distinction between overcoming suffering and escaping suffering. That had been trouble the back of my mind since seeing the movie and this helped me get it straightened.

M. Leary said...

This perspective on suffering still isn't my problem with the film. I am still more puzzled by Bordwell's comments about how Slumdog embodies and emerging "international style" and whether or not this is a good thing. And how does the film's representation of the poor in India tie into how this "international style" works in Western (a politically correct way of saying "American" audiences.

Otherwise I am intriguied by these distinctions: "And either they are all simpering idiots, none of them is smarter than you (or even smart enough to think something you haven't thought of first), they are all deliberating lying to try to pull one over on you, or they are capable of appreciating and enjoying something that you don't. Why is the latter such an offense to so many people's sensibilities?"

None of these describe what I think when I don't like a film that everyone else seems to. "The Wrestler" is a good example of this. I attack Aronofsky in my review of that because I think he needs to be taken to task as an auteur. Can I understand why people are so affected by the film? Absolutely. But I can hold this fact in tension with my beef with Aronofsky. I hate it when criticism tries attempts to invalidate someone else's experience of the film rather than opening conversation about a film in such a way that these experiences can be assessed after the fact by embedding them in something other than the immediacy of the theater experience.

Are these the only three things that I, as someone who doesn't like Slumdog that much, must be thinking about people who do?

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Thanks, Scott. I very much appreciate the feedback.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Are these the only three things that I, as someone who doesn't like Slumdog that much, must be thinking about people who do?

Short answer, "no."
Please, see, for example:

"In talking about the critical response surrounding a film, one inevitably generalizes, stereotypes, and is selective with, others' readings of the film"

The reasons people my not like a film are varied, and no defense will cover all of them, even if, unlike this one, it purports to have as its thesis that one should like the film.

I don't seriously think that my post is going to change people's minds who dislike the film. I hope it will provide some support for those who do but feel at a loss as to how to articulate many of their reasons, especially in the face of a critical marketplace that often requires of them to justify an affinity within the framework of a debate that is not their own.

I am still more puzzled by Bordwell's comments about how Slumdog embodies and emerging "international style" and whether or not this is a good thing. And how does the film's representation of the poor in India tie into how this "international style" works in Western (a politically correct way of saying "American" audiences.


Look, Bordwell has forgotten more about film than I will ever know. All I can say is that this sort of analysis of the film doesn't interest me very much and the use of it as the foundation of an evaluation for the film strikes me as...abstract.

It's somewhat analogous to my friends who pick a political candidate based on the fact that some Supreme Court judge may retire, and the candidate may appoint another judge, who may decide some case the way they want it done. That is to say, I follow the argument, but it's just not something that occupies my thoughts very much while I'm watching the film or even when I'm thinking about it afterward and deciding whether or not I like it.

I'll leave to others to write the history of film and the place of the development of an international style in it. I'm just trying to articulate what it was I thought effective and affecting about this particular film.

Peter T Chattaway said...

Funny, but I never took "it is written" to be a reference to the movie's authors. Thanks to Lawrence of Arabia, I have always associated the phrase with a certain Muslim view of God's will for human beings, analogous to Fate or Providence or Destiny -- and the main character in this film is Muslim himself, so it all fits.

M. Leary said...

"All I can say is that this sort of analysis of the film doesn't interest me very much and the use of it as the foundation of an evaluation for the film strikes me as...abstract."

I am not tracking here. How is it any less abstract than "This, too, is life." You imported those thoughts on Victorian lit into Slumdog response, which was a spot on critical judgement. (As is your reference to No Counter... which is like The Matrix of Coen Bros. films in terms of "Duh..." philosophy.) That entire paragraph is very Bordwellian in tone and intent.

FWIW, Bordwell's comments led to positive criticism of the film. That landed squarely where yours does.

And with PTC, I thought the providential reference was Islamic in scope. I honestly have as hard a time understanding the Islamic take on determinism as I do with solving the Christian version of the problem of evil. I think a lot of negative responses to the film either pick up on some of these crossed wires in the film, or just can't handle the film's obvious disinterest in "providence" as much more than a narrative device.

Regardless, are there not significantly better films that make your point: "This, too, is life."?

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

I am not tracking here.

Sorry, I just meant that the concerns expressed in the passage I quoted struck me as valuing (or not) the film more as a representative of something happening in film in general rather than on whether or not it was a particularly good (or poor) film in that trend. And I meant "don't interest me much" as means of saying, "I can't' really contribute much to that dialogue" not as a means of denigrating it.

Regardless, are there not significantly better films that make your point: "This, too, is life."?

Better? Perhaps. Significantly better? That's relative. I did say in my post that I had gone up from my initial "begrudging" thumbs up to a higher estimation but still did not think it was "the best" film. It did not make my 2008 Top Ten List (

Then again, here is a link to a list of every film I saw in 2008--

What are the significantly better films on that list that make the same point as SM?

In Bruges?
Before the Devil Knows Your Dead?
4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days?
Michael Clayton?
The Assassination of Jessee James?
Starting Out in the Evening?
Wendy and Lucy?
Eastern Promises?
Three Monkeys?
Two Legged Horse?
Taxi to the Dark Side?
The Visitor?

Yeah, I'm cherry picking from the 2007/08 films off that list, but not that much. There aren't too many hopeful films, either thematically or tonally.

Hey, there's always The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 2

Certainly there are a few non-2007/08 films that are closer to that message that are better than SM--Les Miserables, Honeydripper, maybe Redbeard, maybe The Best Years of Our Lives...but what's the criteria we are applying? A good film? One of the best films of the year? One of the best films of the last decade? Century? Of how many films I saw last year couldn't I say, "There are better films that make the same point?"

Granted, I don't watch as many movies as, professional film critics, so let me toss the question back to you...what significantly better films that share this tone or message have I missed?

M. Leary said...

Okay, I can see more clearly where you are coming from here. I am being thick about this for some reason. Biblical Studies is a discipline that will ruin you for everything else. It takes me so long to negotiate films that have to do with other social systems (and even worse: films by people in one social system about an entirely different culture), because all my research models are born in social-science. This can suck the joy out of a lot of film-watching.

Oddly enough, Wendy and Lucy makes a lot of the same points that Slumdog makes. It concludes with a sentimentality opposite to Slumdog. Sicinski criticized Wendy and Lucy for being "poverty-kitsch" just like many have slated Slumdog as "poverty-porn." There is a rich vein in there to mine somewhere.

BTW, any more comments about Slumdog as Dickensian? I am intrigued by your brief literary history on sentimentality and think you are on to something significant there.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

BTW, any more comments about Slumdog as Dickensian?

Nothing developed. I guess if I were writing a paper, I'd pick Hard Times as a parallel piece, with the Industrial Revolution standing in for the broader social upheaval making muck of people's lives, Stephen Blackpool as the the innocent savant, and a bevvy of Victorian coincidences that imply either a benevolent design or some liberal Christian wish-fulfillment.

Seriously, though, I was thinking about this tonight and the author that kept rolling around in my head was Twain. Slightly less sentimental than Dickens. When I first saw SM, I wanted to compare to to Forrest Gump as a sort of picaresque romp through broader cultural snapshot by an innocent naif. But maybe it's better to think of it as closer to Huck Finn, both in the sense that Jamal, like Huck has some more agency that affects (if not determines) his outcome. Also, in Twain the cultural criticism is a bit more pointed--neither simply a backdrop (like in Hugo) nor the central point (like in Hard Times). Heck, if you buy into the notion that Twain was primarily a local color writer who pulled a national narrative out of his hat, you might even have a bit of that cross-cultural tension that complicates SM for the Biblical Studies major in you, no? I mean HF is not Stowe writing about the South (i.e. the outsider using the foreign as a synonym for bad), but neither is Twain writing about the south the same thing as O'Connor or Faulkner.

Actually, the more I toy with this analogy--Slumdog as 21st Century Mumbai Huck Finn--the more I like it. We'll make the guy who blinds all the orphans Pap instead of Fagin and even throw in some homoerotic undertones for the Leslie Fiedler's in the crowd.

peter said...

"We'll make the guy who blinds all the orphans Pap instead of Fagin and even throw in some homoerotic undertones for the Leslie Fiedler's in the crowd."
Come back to the slum again, Jamal honey? If his brother had just been his "very good friend," then you might have had something there. ;-)

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Might? Jamal's and Salim's relationship is the actual core of the film, with the pursuit of the female as the Maguffin that moves it forward. I think Fiedler would find it fit nicely in the long line of American mythic tales built around male-male "friendships": Huck-Jim, Natty Bumpo-Chingachook, Gatsy and what's his name, The Sun Also Rises Guys, etc. etc.

Also, Salim seems more concerned with the way Latika comes between him and Jamal than anything else. (Even as kids, he doesn't want to let her come in out of the rain and sleep with them.)