Monday, January 12, 2009

Who Wants to be...Mildly Entertained?

I like movies that are either entertaining or meaningful. Sometimes the entertainment and meaning overlap in the same film, but they don't necessarily need to. But it's annoying when a movie pretends to be meaningful when it really isn't.

I'm thinking specifically in this case of Slumdog Millionaire.

I suppose you could argue that SM was entertaining, and to a certain extent I agree. But this movie has been situated squarely in the category of Big Important Film Which Should Win Best Picture Awards. After last night's Golden Globe Best Picture win, Slumdog Millionaire is well on its way to achieving this strategic situation.

Salman Rushdie, great author and David Srolovitz lookalike, was interviewed by the Carpetbagger blog on The New York Times.

“I’m not a very big fan of ‘Slumdog Millionaire,’” Mr. Rushdie said. “I think it’s visually brilliant. But I have problems with the story line. I find the storyline unconvincing. It just couldn’t happen. I’m not adverse to magic realism but there has to be a level of plausibility, and I felt there were three or four moments in the film where the storyline breached that rule.”

After a pause, he added, “And I’m the only person who thinks this.”

I'm not sure how he would know this, but I agree with Mr. Rushdie. But that's not why I didn't like the film. Let's focus instead on the overarching message of this self-proclaimed important film. The message, as best I can tell, is this: If you lead a shitty life in India, you will one day win $1 million and fall in love with the girl of your dreams. Um, sure.

Now. There's nothing wrong with that message. It's just that we already have a name for this type of thing. It's called a fairy tale. I'll let Kurt Vonnegut explain, via his essay "Here is a Lesson in Creative Writing," from the book A Man Without a Country:
I want to share with your something I've learned. I'll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune--ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here--great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line, respectively].

This is the B-E axis. B for beginning, E for entropy. OK. Not every story has that very simple, very pretty shape that even a computer can understand [draws horizontal line extending from middle of G-I axis].

(Ed. Note: This image goes here in real life.)

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to movies don't like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [indicates top of the G-I axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it and it is not copyrighted. The story is "Man in Hole," but the story needn't be about a man or a hole. It's: Somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.
I've quoted enough of one essay for this post, but Vonnegut proceeds to describe two similar stories, "Boy Meets Girl" and "Cinderella." And that's what Slumdog Millionaire is: a combination of "Man in Hole" and "Boy Meets Girl" for Jamal, and a "Cinderella" for Latika, all set in India, with a dance number over the closing credits.

There's nothing wrong with fairy tales: there's a reason why they have stuck around for as long as stories have been told. But that doesn't mean they should win Best Picture awards.

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