Friday, November 28, 2008

Bollywood Ending: Tragedy, Art and Slumdog Millionaire

I have a confession to make. When I heard the news about the massacre in Mumbai, I felt sick to my stomach. I felt sorrow for the victims, and not just any Americans targeted in the attacks. I felt anger toward the perpetrators responsible for the death of innocents. And, of course, I felt a twinge of anxiety at the possibility that it could happen here. But if I'm being honest, I have to admit that none of these was my first reaction. When I heard the news, my first reaction was: "What's going to happen to Slumdog Millionaire"?

In what has been a dud year for movies, Slumdog Millionaire is the one -- The One -- that I have been looking forward to seeing the most. It's always hard to say what's going to capture my fancy, but it's usually an amalgam of elements. In this case, it was initially the title, both playful and oxymoronish. Then came word of the director attached to the project, the Brit Danny Boyle, a visually hyperactive yet emotionally engaged filmmaker who has made his share of interesting features and colossal embarrassments but seemed karmically poised for a huge success. This was followed by my methodical perusing of the early reviews, which combined knee-jerk raves from the likes of Roger Ebert to huzzahs from typically stingier folks like Scott Foundas, whose appealing description of the film -- "ridiculously ebullient" -- transcended the usual marquee blurbage. Finally, I was intrigued by the locale of Mumbai, India, an overflowing metropolis in a country once described by a globetrotting colleague as his favorite point of destination. "It's beautiful and frustrating and wonderful," he said of India, with a tantalizing suggestion that it's never quite clear where one quality ends and another begins.

I still plan to see Slumdog Millionaire when it opens in mid-December in my neck of the woods, but the pall of reality has made me admittedly less eager. A sucker for box-office (as well as Oscar) sleepers, I'm also worried about its chances to connect with the public: will audiences enjoy the film -- also described, in more predictable blurbese, as a crowd-pleaser, the feel-good movie of the year -- or will the horrible bloodshed on the streets where it was filmed be their (our) only thought?

Sometimes the impact of tragedy on art is mere coincidence. When Hot Fuzz -- a sharp, funny spoof of cop movies, deliberately over-the-top with its violence -- was released a few days after the Virginia Tech shootings, a friend grimly quipped that the film just won the "Bad Timing Award." Indeed, box office was relatively tepid to what it might have been under ordinary circumstances; and while I enjoyed the picture and understood what Edgar Wright, Simon Pegg and their accomplices were trying to do behind their barrage of gunplay, several of the laughs lodged uncomfortably in my throat.

In other instances, the consequences are more direct. Some years earlier, following the shocking murder of Phil Hartman, another friend and I were driving down the interstate when suddenly he exclaimed, "What's going to happen to The Simpsons"? He immediately expressed remorse for saying that, but he had a point: although Hartman was a semi-regular, his voicework -- spread across several characters, and which also could be called ridiculously ebullient -- was instrumental to the show's success.

It's easier for me now to laugh at Hot Fuzz than it is at The Simpsons. Freed of its untimely associations, Hot Fuzz holds up as a terrific comedy. The Simpsons, while still fitfully funny, hasn't aged well. This is because of several reasons that have nothing to do with Phil Hartman, but it still seems no coincidence that the series has never reached the same heights of creativity since.

Maybe, when it comes to art, I get angrier when it's comedy -- something that's supposed to make you laugh, forget your troubles, bond with your mates -- that suffers. I made the mistake of recommending sight-unseen what I'd thought would be lighthearted fare, Jonathan Demme's wedding-party crucible Rachel Getting Married, to a co-worker whose accompanying friend had previously lost a child -- not in the melodramatic manner of Anne Hathaway's Kym, but a terrible loss nonetheless. They ended up liking the movie more than I did, but my colleague admitted that afterward there had been a strain for conversation.

Escapism can be affected too, albeit less so when it's not entirely pure. On Thanksgiving Day, my parents and I went to see Quantum of Solace, the continuation of the Daniel-Craig-as-James-Bond saga following the astonishing Casino Royale. I haven't much to add to the negative reception of the latest Bond: the film is grinding and joyless, with set-pieces like an opera shootout that could have been classics in the hands of a great director (or even a good one like Casino's Martin Campbell) but with which Mark Forster reduces to hash. While watching the movie my thoughts drifted to Mumbai, and each time there was a change in locale (drab, uninspired vistas in Italy, Haiti, Bolivia) I kept hoping that India wouldn't be one of them. Turns out it wouldn't have mattered much. Quantum of Solace feints toward relevance, with a enviro-phony villain involved in something fittingly to do with oil and water: nothing meshes in this movie, an incomprehensible mess.

"Don't be so gloomy," Harry Lime, Orson Welles' blithe villain from The Third Man, advises Joseph Cotten's Holly Martins but could just as easily have said to James Bond, to Mumbai, to me. "Like the fella says, in Italy for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and the Renaissance. In Switzerland they had brotherly love -- they had five hundred years of democracy and peace, and what did that produce? The cuckoo clock." Certainly one could cite contemporary India -- no stranger to violence and upheaval, yet a leader in international cinema -- as further evidence of this.

Yet a provocative counterargument came last year courtesy of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, whose brilliant three-part South Park episode "Imaginationland" was re-aired by Comedy Central (coincidentally or not) the day after the Mumbai attacks. In "Imaginationland," the U.S. Government discovers to its horror that Islamic terrorists have "hijacked our imagination," presented as an actual parallel universe where all the lovable fictional characters ever created (including Dorothy of Oz, Charlie Brown, Santa Claus, and, um, Jesus) find their Utopian tranquility threatened by suicide bombers. For all of its hilarious bits (my favorite being when a military commander explains to M. Night Shyamalan the difference between an idea and a twist), "Imaginationland" casts vivid light on our current reality, where regular Americans wake up wondering if today will be the day al-Qaeda strikes all fifty state capitals in unison. While something, in some form, may or may not be coming, the question posited by South Park is the crux of the matter: Should we let our fears consume our lives?

Although Parker and Stone argue persuasively that good art is a byproduct of a healthy society, there remains the fact that a comedy golden age occurred during the Great Depression, that film noir surfaced from the shadowy depths of the Cold War, that the last great era of American movies came in the time of Vietnam and Watergate. Although Slumdog Millionaire was made before our current economic tailspin, the plot of the film, as I understand it, clearly has the potential to transcend cultural barriers and connect with American audiences. But will we go for it now as enthusiastically as we may have before the images of the Taj Hotel in flames?

I will file another report after seeing the movie, but already I am fascinated by -- and half-dreading -- this unexpected collision between fantasy and reality. "Boyle and his team....clearly believe that a city like Mumbai, with its shifting skyline and a population of more than fifteen million, is as ripe for storytelling as Dickens’s London, and they may be right; hence the need to get their lenses dirty on its clogged streets," writes Anthony Lane. "At the same time, the story they chose is sheer fantasy, not in its glancing details but in its emotional momentum." As reportedly Slumdog Millionaire closes with a splashy production number, I am inclined to envision this momentum as less dramatic than musical. And this just might be what saves the movie.

A former history professor, whom I will call "Dr. Z," once told me that his threadbare video collection contained no comedies, because once you know a joke is coming you're less likely to laugh at it, and definitely no dramas, but only musicals. After the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Dr. Z said, he and wife were depressed beyond repair until they decided to put on their copy of Oklahoma! and were cheered by the lyrics to the opening song: "O-k-l-a-h-o-m-a...." I find this oddly inspiring, even if it leaves me uncertain, like the "It Don't Worry Me" ditty that climaxes the assassination at the end of Robert Altman's Nashville, as to whether it's a means of ignoring tragedy or facing it head-on.

What I do know is that familiar axioms -- life is precious, time is short -- reveal their truth in difficult times. Filled with foreboding about Wall Street's impact on our culture, James Wolcott wisely notes that a "hunkered-down, bunkered-in period of cautious retrenchment smothers creative energies, and art is in what infuses life with meaning and pleasure, takes our minds off of death and paperwork." The events in Mumbai this week have brought death to the forefront again; some may argue that that is where it will always remain. So why is it that I see something hopeful in realms both fact and fiction -- from the startling image of birds in flight over the fiery Taj to my stubborn anticipation of a Bollywood ending?


Jason Bellamy said...

Nicely done, Craig. I've seen but have yet to review "Slumdog," and I'm sure that the film will stimulate thoughts of real-life events. Then again, it is a film about the human spirit. And so in some respect it's possible that your emotional experience will be enhanced by the ghosts of real life tragedy.

I'm sure I've had experiences like yours -- the story about "Rachel Getting Married" felt awkwardly familiar, like I've done something similar. But at the moment I'm not coming up with any. Still, it's amazing how long some of these reactions can last. Just tonight I happened to watch "Serpico" for the first time, and there's one fleeting image of the World Trade Center towers in the distant background. And I couldn't help but double-take and have a brief thought about 9/11.

Of course, that's kind of the point. There's tragedy in life, and through art we come together and mourn, celebrate, heal. It's comforting.

Ed Howard said...

That's a fantastic post, Craig. I like what you have to say about that South Park sequence of episodes, which was probably the last time the show has been so smart and insightful -- it's been in a tailspin almost ever since. It's easy to put down Parker and Stone, but when they're at their peak the show is easily the best satire on TV. The "Imaginationland" story stresses the importance of facing up to difficult realities, never flinching away when threatened, but also of not letting these things consume us. If all this sounds too high-falutin' for a scatological, foul-mouthed show that also features a protracted storyline about ball-sucking running through the same three episodes, well, I don't see why the two can't coexist.

Craig said...

Thanks for reading, guys.

Jason: Wasn't there a movie that came out not long after 9/11 where the Towers were digitally erased? Or at least it was discussed. I remember somebody writing, "What are we supposed to do, pretend they never existed?" In a rare moment of subtlety, Spielberg inserted them at the end of Munich; I doubt I would have noticed if I hadn't been prompted.

Ed: It's an amazing coincidence that "Imaginationland" was aired again the other day, but it felt more pertinent than ever. It's both insanely ambitious and intentionally lazy, with Cartman's subplot -- his homoerotic fixation on Kyle -- a basically meaningless but funny counterpoint.

Jason Bellamy said...

Ann Hornady of the Washington Post on pretty much this very subject ... here.

Craig said...

Thanks for linking to that piece, Jason. Good to see somebody else made the observation. And I've noticed your review over at your site and promise to read it once I've seen the film.