Monday, January 05, 2009

1/5/09 - Slumdog Millionaire vs. City of God

So I think I can turn in any sort of cinephile card -the 3 movies I've seen in the last 6 months are:

Iron Man The Dark Knight Slumdog Millionaire

I'm leading a populist revolution, baby! I refuse to watch your movie until it has reached critical mass - this just wasn't the year of taking fliers. So there's your top 3 of the year, by virtue of elimination. I just saw Slumdog Millionaire, and, after I had successfully separated out the movie I had just seen from all of my flashbacks to watching City of God, sat down with a set of conflicting set of reactions.

One, I loved the movie. The visuals and the music especially came in such a vivid wash that the movie grabs hold from moment one. The tight shots, the chaotic speed of the story and the rush of images, and the beauty of even the most terrible images (the bathtub filling with money, people of fire, piles upon piles of refuse), all form a sort of vortex of visual storytelling. As some movies do, Slumdog Millionaire vividly reminds the viewer that movies can tell stories in ways that no other medium can; larger than life images in a rush can provoke vertiginous feelings and reactions that words on a page, or images on a smaller screen, just can't.

And Jamal is an appealing protagonist, the movie is ultimately an emotional rush (upward), and really, despite some crushing imagery of poverty and entrapment and violence, is ultimately a fell-good movie. Wedded to the delirious tension of "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire". So I've got no complaints with the movie per se; I highly recommend it.

And yet...

And yet it's hard to shake the feeling after watching it that the movie falls apart a little bit the further it goes on and the more one thinks about it. The chief flaw is that the central relationship is the least interesting one of the entire movie. Jamal and Latika are stand-ins for the Platonic idea of love, that of the two halves that are meant for each other, against any and all logic. Their ability to find each other in all of the madness throughout the movie is beyond preposterous, the fact that his phone call to her basically kills his brother is treated as some sort of karmic balancing of the scales when really it's just florid narratively and kind of dumb, and centrally, the idea that they love each other from age 5 until their first kiss outside the studio after Jamal's just won 20 million sits uneasily with the purported social realism of the earlier parts of the movie. By the end of the movie we've shifted from hardscrabble reality brought brilliantly to live to a kind of fairy tale Never-Never Land, which rings false narratively and tonally. It's the way I felt at the conclusion of The Kite Runner: for such a messy social landscape, the central narrative sure features a lot of neat melodrama-style conclusions; the bad characters either repent or are killed or otherwise stymied, the good characters are rewarded. It's a feeling of aesthetic dishonesty in a way - a happy ending that doesn't quite jibe with the images of people on fire, the death of Jamal's mother, and the terrifying whirls of the abandoned child's life in Mumbai.

City of God came to mind while watching the movie, because what links the two is that both portray a life of poverty in a crowded city through inventive visual styling (and pointedly chaotic editing). Where they diverge is in tone and ultimate narrative goal - City of God is a social portrait, not a fairy tale, but it's a social portrait from frame one until the curtains drop. Rocket, the protagonist, falls in love when he is young and innocent too, but his lady love falls for Bene, the stylish bon vivant gangster who keeps Lil Ze in check for a lot of the movie. This is no fairy tale; it's life. I've got no complaints with the fairy tale of Slumdog Millionaire, but it makes the early scenes seem cheaper and more manipulative to find out that they are in service of a boy-meet-loses-gets-back girl story. City of God is messy in form and content; about nothing so much as the danger, excitement, and terror when poverty whittles away the basic rules of human nature.

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