Sunday, February 22, 2009
Ayush Mahesh Khedekar in Slumdog Millionaire and John Howard Davies in David Lean's Oliver Twist.
Tonight everyone expects Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire to win the Oscar. And it will [Update: it did.], although I'd certainly vote for Gus van Sant's Milk instead (despite my caveats, listed here). As Oscar winners go, Slumdog strikes me as a somewhat dishonest choice, but no more dishonest than usual; last year, when No Country for Old Men somehow beat out There Will Be Blood, one sensed a rare coincidence between award and quality; the ridiculous triumph of Crash over Brokeback Mountain a few years ago was much closer to the norm.
Still, if and when Slumdog wins, it probably means we'll all have to get used to people saying that it's "Dickensian." (Ed Siegel was the latest to jump on that meme bandwagon, here.) They have to say something, after all, to justify giving it the Oscar; they can't simply say "it was really great poverty porn shot in India!" Of course to Siegel, Slumdog's success has something to do with (wait for it) Barack Obama: "Barack Obama's 'Who Wants to Be a US President' story also has its Dickensian elements . . . " Ed points out. "Dickens and director Danny Boyle give us hope that personal and political change are possible. You might even call it the audacity of hope."
Right. Or you might call it the audacity of strained metaphor.
It's hard, actually, to think of any rise more un-Dickensian in its micro-management and meticulous master planning than that of Barack Obama. But what the hell, why not let Slumdog (and Dickens) ride his coattails along with Shepard Fairey? Anybody else want to sign up as another member of the Boston Globe's "Yes We Can" Band? I mean it's all good.
Or is it? Don't we kill just a few more brain cells when we pretend along with Ed that Slumdog Millionaire is somehow the equivalent of Dickens? I suppose you can work up a case for the glossy, turbo-charged brutality (and soul and romance!) of Slumdog; during much of the movie you feel you're being pummeled, but you're definitely always feeling something. There's torture and kids, and kids being tortured! There's virgins and murder and dancing - and true love wins in the end; it's all such a great popcorn ride, or whatever the hell it is Ty Burr calls Hollywood movies today! (To be fair, there are one or two genuinely interesting scenes with Anil Kapoor as a complicated TV host/villain.) It's only later, after the buzz wears off, that an unconscious contempt begins to seep into you about the movie, and you realize it has exploited the crushing poverty and cruelty of India for the sake of globalized soap opera. The revelation that the film's producers basically left its child stars (who give the best performances in the film) where they left them in the slums only feels like a validation of what you can sense about the movie instinctively. (Yes, I know, the producers now claim there are secret trust funds for the kids, if they can just get through school while living next to that open sewer. Please! Where are Madonna and Brangelina when we need them?)
I wonder, Ed - would Dickens have done that to Oliver Twist? Somehow I don't think so. Because Dickens's novel is often something like a scream of rage - its satire of the Christian sanctimony of the workhouse still leaps off the page today, and there's a sustained moral critique in its ongoing comic grotesquerie (it was intended to reform society, and to some degree, it did). And I'm sorry, but that level of moral censure (and grandeur) simply isn't in Mr. Danny Boyle, Esquire, because he's a sensationalist, not a moralist. He seems to almost enjoy the police-torture routines (would Dickens?), and once in the slums, he's like a squalor tourist, tuned into his I-pod while dousing his child actors in excrement and tossing acid in their eyes simply because that's really intense - and hey, it happens to kids in the Third World, so what do we expect him to do, turn away? That would be like so dishonest!
Well, color me unconvinced. And still less convinced that Slumdog Millionaire is even a patch on Dickens.