Monday, March 30, 2009

Duplicity: Second Best

Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity keeps reminding us of its competition and coming in second. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen? We’ve seen them in Closer, where the manipulations of their hate-filled affair were palpable and electric compared to their tepid interactions here. Gilroy’s screenplay? His Bourne movies prove that you don’t have to sacrifice clarity to achieve suspense and complication. Two spies in love and at play? Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman managed both the passion and the deception much better in Notorious.

Perhaps the only area where Duplicity comes out even is in comparison to Gilroy’s own Michael Clayton. Like that earlier film, Duplicity deals with the corporate world—but this time, it’s the light side of corporate corruption. Gilroy wittily paints the competition between rival cosmetics companies as a kind of Cold Cream War, complete with product spies fresh from MI-6 (Owen) and the CIA (Roberts). In keeping with his light approach, he opens the film with two extended sequences that pair its two concerns. The first is a garden-party seduction between Roberts’ Claire Stenwick and Owen’s Roy Koval that ends in a hotel bedroom; the second is a super slow-motion fight between opposing CEO’s Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, each one backed by his private jet and a posse of trench-coat-clad lackeys. The meaning is clear. Love and business: both are clumsy, no-holds-barred struggles for supremacy.

The best bits of Duplicity are those scenes in which we watch Roberts and Owen engaged in that struggle, sizing each other up like fighters in a ring. We see mistrust and hopefulness flicker across their faces, and we get glimmers—as they do—of the life they might lead if they could simply believe in the words that they say. Appropriately, Duplicity’s neat trick is a scene of repeated dialogue from that opening garden-party sequence. Over the course of the film—and afterwards, as we try to figure out what just happened—we come to realize that Stenwick’s and Koval’s words are always shifting in and out of performance, always swinging back and forth between truth and lies. In a darker movie, this would of course be tragic; the characters would destroy each other with vituperations and pain. Wait: that’s what happens in Closer. Duplicity plays its deception for laughs, and so we leave the theater confident that neither Koval nor Stenwick is terribly torn up about the fact that they can’t trust each other.

Unfortunately, the scenes between Owen and Roberts are also the source of the movie’s unresolved confusions. A significant portion of their scenes together are taken up with one chunk of dialogue that is repeated in different settings. It’s an interesting idea—what is real and what is performed—but for it to work in the movie, we need to be able to figure out the answer, certainly by the time we leave the theater. With a jumbled timeline that Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu would be proud of, Duplicity never makes us completely understand how the pieces fit together. Rather than create suspense from within the plot—as in, say, a Bourne movie—Gilroy does it by simply not showing us things in the right sequence. We enjoy it, but it’s ultimately a kind of cheap trick.

With its double, triple, and quadruple-split screens, and its domino-effect revelations, Duplicity is The Sting for the twenty-first century, a tale of a couple of con artists teaming up against The Man. And interestingly, while it has a couple of stars whose power is almost as great as that of Redford and Newman, Duplicity resists glamour. Not everything in Duplicity is clean and shiny. For every five-star hotel room, Gilroy gives us a drab Cleveland condo or a dark and cluttered office. Not everything works out the way you’d like. In fact, if Wilkinson’s speech early on about his theory of corporate evolution is right, we’re already as good as we’re going to get. It’s up to the corporations now to struggle against each other for the chance to be the fittest and the best.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Lucky Ones: the Iraq War in a Road Movie?

Six years after the start of the Iraq War, no movie with the war as its subject has drawn much of an audience. In one weekend alone, more people saw Bride Wars than saw Rendition, Stop-Loss, and Lions for Lambs put together. Then there’s The Lucky Ones, whose audience in theaters was truly miniscule. And that is a shame. For though The Lucky Ones is not a great movie, it has a few things going for it—chief among them, the three strong performances of its mini-ensemble cast.

The movie (out on DVD since January) follows three soldiers returning to the US who band together after landing in New York in the middle of a blackout. They are a demographer’s dream: Tim Robbins’ older white guy, Michael Peña’s young Hispanic man, and Rachel McAdams’ southern naïf. Robbins’ Cheaver is done with his soldiering—and, like Odysseus, he is the one returning, in theory, to a wife—while the other two are on leave, Peña’s T.K. to see if his “upper thigh” wound will matter to his fiancée, and McAdams’ Colee to see if the family of her dead war buddy will accept her as their own.

Before we know even this much about the three soldiers, we get a nifty sequence of scenes that seem designed to remind us of the innocence of Stateside life now that the war has taken the fighting Over There. An airport packed with stranded passengers; LED screens announcing a full slate of cancelled flights; rental-car desks mobbed by grounded passengers. But it’s nothing to worry about: the only emergency that has caused this chaos is a blackout in New York. Later on, these soldiers from a conflict known for its roadside bombs (one of which has caused T.K.’s injury) drive around in a rental mini-van like a new-formed family. And when they lock themselves out of the van, they bushwhack through marshy grass to a Hummer dealership and get driven back to the van in the civilian version of their Iraq ride. An accident in the van a few miles later is just that: an accident. Again, these are the innocent iterations of the facts of war. The marsh grass isn’t in Baghdad, the Hummer is high-viz yellow, not camo, and the accident has nothing to do with an IED.

But Burger’s message here is unclear. Is he saying that by taking the fighting out of the United States, the Iraq War allows us to drive our Hummers without worrying about armor plating and to face a grounded fleet of planes with only the normal amount of aggravation? I’d be surprised if Robbins would sign on for a movie with a message like this. So then, what? Is Burger (who wrote the screenplay with Dirk Wittenborn) trying to suggest that in fact the war is always present in our lives now? Viewers of The Lucky Ones can’t help but notice the dangerous versions that lurk in every innocent scene, every military echo in a civilian moment. But again, the movie’s altogether jovial tone undermines this darker view. We can’t be too gloomy about what is, in so many ways, just a road movie. In the end, The Lucky Ones can’t decide what kind of story it wants to tell: an innocent adventure or a tale of cynicism and sorrow.

Fortunately, there is more to the movie than a policy paper about the Iraq War. The connecting lives of T.K., Cheaver, and Colee are full of stories and lies—benevolent lies that each one tells to him or her self, and that they tell to each other. As they drive from New York to St. Louis and eventually to Las Vegas, they form shifting pairs whose job it is to sustain the lie the third soldier insists on telling. It’s a kindness they perform for each other, and to watch it over the course of two hours is quite moving.

McAdams doesn’t quite get the Southern accent to shade beyond stereotype, but her performance as the gullible but at times insightful Colee is nicely nuanced (there’s a fine moment on an airport sidewalk towards the end of the film that’s what DVD scan buttons are for). Robbins has a harder task, with a character whose motivations aren’t always clear, but he conveys those mysteriously-motivated emotions with subtlety. Then there is Michael Peña, whose storyline in Crash was the only one not burdened with self-righteous obviousness. Robbins and McAdams have had plenty of exposure, but it’s a particular shame that The Lucky Ones’ tiny audience and its fleeting moment in theaters will keep Peña from getting more praise.

In the interview that is part of the DVD package, Burger says that, with The Lucky Ones, he wanted to create a portrait of the country as it is at this particular moment in history. I’m not at all sure that this is what he’s done. But where he fails to provide a large, realistic picture of the states his three soldiers travel through, he succeeds in illuminating the tiny world of their momentarily intersecting lives inside a maroon minivan. Not a bad accomplishment at all.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Natasha Richardson

I will leave it to those who have already done admirable jobs summing up--as much as is possible--the career and life of actress Natasha Richardson. Instead, I offer you a review from a theater performance of hers from sixteen years ago. I never saw Richardson's performance in Eugene O'Neill's Anna Christie, but I never forgot Frank Rich's review in the New York Times. Rich seemed to me to be describing something truly extraordinary, the kind of performance one should change schedules and cross oceans to see. On top of all the sadness in the sudden death of a young and, by all accounts, kind and lovely person, there is the sadness that we will now have no new chances to be amazed by what Rich called her "astonishing" gifts as an actress.

From Review/Theater; A Fierce View of Tragic Lives
Published: January 15, 1993, Friday

Rich has this to say:
Following the example of his peers, Mr. Leveaux seamlessly mixes actors from both sides of the Atlantic in his company. The astonishing Natasha Richardson, who was also brilliant in "Suddenly, Last Summer," gives what may prove to be the performance of the season as Anna, turning a heroine who has long been portrayed (and reviled) as a whore with a heart of gold into a tough, ruthlessly unsentimental apostle of O'Neill's tragic understanding of life. Yet Miss Richardson could not triumph without the sensitive partnering she receives from both Liam Neeson, the Irish actor recently seen courting Mia Farrow in "Husbands and Wives," and Rip Torn, an actor's actor in the gritty New York style.

And this:
Miss Richardson, seeming more like a youthful incarnation of her mother, Vanessa Redgrave, than she has before, is riveting from her first entrance through a saloon doorway's ethereal shaft of golden light. Her face bruised, her eyelids heavy, her slender frame draped in the gaudy fabrics and cheap jewelry of her trade, she is the tattered repository of a thousand anonymous men's alcoholic lusts and fists. But the actress does not make Anna a victim deserving of abject pity. She forces the audience instead to see this woman's fiercely held point of view.

To read the full review, click here.
[there is some phrasing in Rich's review that is unfortunate, given the cause of Richardson's death]

Monday, March 16, 2009

Rachel Getting Married: Everyone's Invited

Late in Rachel Getting Married (now out on DVD), Anne Hathaway’s Kym lashes out at a group of musicians playing in the next room. “Are they going to play all day long?” she cries—and some viewers surely share her sentiment. The whining and vaguely Middle Eastern tone of a violin backed by African drums, Russian balalaikas, and rock guitars plays constantly through Jonathan Demme’s film—and plays fast and loose with a host of ethnic musical traditions. It’s a multi-cultural feast of melody, and it doesn’t always sound very good at all.

But anyone who wishes Demme would silence the constant jamming is missing the point of his excellent film (and forgetting that his work with music started with his 1984 Talking Heads film Stop Making Sense). The incessant music that fills the Buchman house signals the family’s intense and dangerous self-indulgence. It’s easy for them to be open to everything and to look good doing it. What’s harder is for them to examine or even acknowledge the wrenching truths that hum through their lives like a low drone.

Rachel Getting Married anatomizes this dysfunctional and wounded family without offering them a too-easy forgiveness. And it succeeds in large part thanks to Jenny Lumet’s skillful and insightful screenplay. Lumet is a master here of revealing character through just a few lines of dialogue (dialogue which is occasionally hard to hear in Demme’s Robert-Altman-like naturalistic approach). In the film’s first scene, we learn that Kym’s father Paul played by Bill Irwin is half an hour late to pick her up from rehab so that she can attend her sister’s wedding. He introduces himself to Kym’s aide—a woman we learn he already knows from a previous visit. With two strokes, Lumet has told us almost all of what we need to know about Paul’s character and his relationship to both his daughters. It’s his combination of solicitude and neglect that will turn out to be a key emotional element of the film.

Lumet’s portrait of the Buchman family unfolds like a game of psychological whack-a-mole. Just when we think we’ve identified the One Great Manipulator among this well-to-do Connecticut brood, another character steps up to take his or her place. The easy first choice is, of course, Hathaway’s Kym, who brings self-indulgence to a peak of achievement only Kim Jong Il could rival. Her supposedly concerned questions about her sister are barbs against an invented eating disorder; her toast at the rehearsal dinner is a phony attempt to make amends; her insistence on being maid of honor has everything to do about her competition with Rachel’s lifelong friend Emma (another perfect study in passive-aggressive personality). It’s widely known by now that Hathaway shed her princessy persona for this role, but she has done far more than paint on too much eyeliner and wind thin scarves around her heavily tattoo-ed shoulders. Always on camera (even when edited out), given Demme’s hand-held filming strategy here, she gives a nuanced and utterly believable performance as a damaged soul.

We reach a point when we almost can’t bear to look at Hathaway’s petulant face or to hear her self-righteous complaining about the injustices done to her (the greatest of which was the handing over to Kate Winslet of the Best Actress Oscar). But the more we see of her father, the more we realize that the trouble with Kym has a source other than the tragic secret that the film reveals little by little. And the same is true for Paul’s ex-wife Abby, played in a miniature tour de force by Debra Winger. Each of these people is intent on sustaining the stories they want to believe about themselves and about each other. Even when to do so is to put someone’s life at risk.

Demme doesn’t leave us completely at sea. Perhaps the film’s twin loci of sanity are Anna Deaveare Smith’s Carol and Rosemarie DeWitt’s Rachel. By virtue of her outsider status, Carol is immune to the Buchman brand of mindless mindfulness. That Rachel turned out so well is a testament to her efforts to get out—to Hawaii, to a new marriage, to a new family.

Back to that mindfulness. The Buchmans are a Connecticut family in a wainscoted and book-lined home with musical instruments hanging on the wall and Persian rugs on the floor. So why do they wear saris to a wedding in which not a single South Asian appears as either a guest or a participant? Why the saag korma at the rehearsal dinner? Why, later, the samba band, and the reggae dj? Oooh, they would want us to say: look how open they are, these Buchmans. Look how mindful they are of the world’s traditions. Instead, we feel that, just as Bill will remember to shake a person’s hand but forget he’s ever met her, these people’s minds are so open that their brains fell out.

So does this mean that Kym is the film’s monster in the old tradition of the word? Like Frankenstein’s monster, does she de-monstrate for us the flaws in the family and reveal their culpability in making her an outsider? Probably not. Demme’s film is, after all, a more complicated enterprise. He manages to elicit our sympathy, in varying degrees, with all these people, monsters or not. Still, while the wedding looks like a lot of fun, I’m glad to leave the Buchmans behind—without ever getting a taste of that turmeric-flavored wedding cake.

Friday, March 13, 2009

John Banville and Benjamin Black

In an alternate universe, John Banville would be everybody’s teen crush. He’s like the high-school quarterback who gets a starring role in the spring musical. The man can write a Booker-Prize winning novel full of dense, serious prose about deep metaphysical questions, and then pull off two excellent noir novels under the cheeky pseudonym Benjamin Black. Throws the touchdown; aces the finale.

To be fair, neither Christine Falls nor The Silver Swan is exactly a traditional noir or detective novel. Sure, the characters are a bit outsized and vividly drawn; sure there are the noir requisites of dead young women, mysterious parentage, and corruption, lies, and money. There is even, in Christine Falls, a crushing kiss. “When he kissed her he crushed his mouth on hers and tasted blood, whose, hers or his, he was not sure,” Black writes. It’s a scene from a movie: the copper and the broad, then a close-up of the bloody lip.

But though you can take the Banville out of the literary, you can’t take the literary out of the Banville—even when he’s using his other name. In fact, both Black books share Banville’s persistent exploration of the murkiness of identity and history. It’s a twist on the detective tradition of Conan Doyle and Christie (to name just two). Like them, Black is concerned primarily with knowledge. But while Conan Doyle and Christie allow the satisfaction of the slow progress towards knowledge, Black’s books offer no such certainties. With Black, it’s about the impossibility of knowledge. “I don’t know,” Quirke is in the habit of saying.

Then there’s the prose. In his literary novels (the distinction is, quite clearly, less and less workable), Banville writes self-conscious and elegant passages like this one from The Sea, in which his narrator Morden describes his reactions to his wife’s fatal illness:
“My life seemed to be passing before me, not in a flash as it is said to do for those about to drown, but in a sort of leisurely convulsion, emptying itself of its secrets and its quotidian mysteries in preparation for the moment when I must step into the black boat on the shadowed river with the coin of passage cold in my already coldening hand.”

In The Silver Swan, Black doesn’t skimp on the artistry. There is this, to describe Quirke returning to his flat: “there was the usual atmosphere of tight-lipped stealth, as if something vaguely nefarious had been going on that had ceased instantly at the sound of his key in the door.” Or this, in the middle of a dialogue between pathologist and inspector: “Off to their left a herd of deer stood in the long grass amidst a shimmer of heat; a stag lifted its elaborately horned head and eyed them sideways with truculent suspicion.” The novels of Gardner, Hammet and Deighton are full of truculently suspicious people. But I’ll bet not many of them are described that way—or in sentences with semi-colons.

At the end of the day, the experience of reading the Benjamin Black books (The Silver Swan was released in paperback just a month ago) is just what you want from a book. An intelligent mind behind the language and the construction of the narrative, and a plot that makes you eager to read more. As Ron Rosenbaum put it in a recent article in Slate, on Black and two other new detective writers, “It just has to mean that nothing you’re doing (alone anyway) can possibly be as important as getting it done with and getting back to the pages that have you spellbound”. And yet, serious writers still cringe a little when someone calls their books page-turners.

The question arises: is Banville writing as Black better than, say, Raymond Chandler writing as himself? Banville didn’t win any prizes, after all, for the Black novels. (Though his publishers are doing what they can to establish a sort of street cred: the most prominent blurb on the back cover of the Silver Swan paperback features a quotation by none other than Entertainment Weekly.) Of course the real answer is that, Banville’s own professed attempts to imitate Georges Simenon notwithstanding, Black’s books are simply different from a traditional noir novel.

My own view is that, if I had to choose between slightly overcooked high-style sentences combined with noir plots and, on the other hand, the noir plots in the telegraphic, whiskey-shot prose of Chandler, I’d probably take the former. But only if I couldn’t have both. Banville writing as Black seems to me to be, like the intellectual athlete, the perfect combination.

[quotations from Christine Falls, The Sea, and The Silver Swan, copywright Henry Holt and Vintage International]

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Language Rant 3

The question has famously been posed:  it depends what the meaning of "is" is. What about how many "is"es there are?

Listen carefully and you'll hear people throwing in an extra "is" in certain places. As in:  "The problem is is that the car makes a terrible noise when I put it in gear." Or: "The sad thing is is that I really wanted to make the balcony sturdy."  Those "is"es are extra.  Don't squander them! You never know when a scandal-trapped politician might need them.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

I've Loved You So Long

If we were French, we would find Jerry Lewis funny. If we were French, we would know how to wear a scarf, and our lips would exist in a perpetually pursed state, always ready to say things like “Tu as bu mon vin cru.” (You have drunk my wine.) If we were French, we would, I hope, be pleased that Kristin Scott Thomas is able to speak our language without the perverse pronunciation of her British countrymen. As Frenchmen and women, we would immediately understand the meaning of the title of I’ve Loved You So Long, the superb and moving film, starring longtime French resident Thomas, that many say should have been this year’s Oscar selection from France. (released on DVD on March 3)

French schoolchildren know the song “Á la Claire Fontaine” from which Philippe Claudel’s movie takes its title (Il y a longtemps que je t’aime). Hundreds of years ago, the song was the nostalgic anthem of French settlers in Quebec and then the favorite of the Voyageurs who paddled their canoes to its rhythm. The verses of the song tell a fairly typical (for a folk song) story of a respite by a fountain, a lingering sadness, and a lost love. But the refrain seems to exist in another register altogether, expressing a profound and universal sentiment of love and longing. In its entirety, the refrain translates roughly to: I’ve loved you for a very long time. I will never forget you.

It’s this longing and commitment tinged with nostalgia that serves as the undercurrent of Claudel’s film. I’ve Loved You So Long tells the story of Juliette Fontaine (Thomas), released from fifteen years in prison to the home of her younger sister Léa (Elsa Zylberstein). There she takes up an uneasy place among Léa’s two young daughters, her husband, and her father-in-law who is mute since suffering a stroke. The film reveals its several mysteries, large and small, little by little—partly through halting conversations between the two sisters, but largely through the extraordinarily subtle changes in Thomas’ expressions as she makes her way in this new world. This fall in Chekhov’s The Seagull, Thomas pitched her emotions perfectly for the New York stage (I attended the Oct. 21 performance). A maximalist where it was necessary for the manipulative Arkadina, here, she is a minimalist, registering every slight shift in Juliette’s emotions with minute clarity.

Life in the university town of Nancy is joyous and warm—Léa’s mute father-in-law provides some quiet comedy as he exchanges post-it notes with his granddaughters—but is never free from an undercurrent of pain. Claudel doesn’t shy away from this sadness, nor does he make it melodramatic. Watching the American trailer for the film, you might get the sense that it is a thriller almost on a par with the 1992 movie Damage. This is, suffice it to say, not the case.

In fact, much of the film has to do with things that are never shown or that can’t be shown at all: memories—suppressed, cherished, newly-formed. At times, memory ties the two sisters together, but as often, it keeps them apart, as when Léa is dismayed to find she has no memory of Juliette’s bringing her to weekly dance lessons. One woman’s nostalgia is the other woman’s painful longing. And this is where the song comes in. For what the sisters both remember is playing the piano together—specifically, playing "Á la Claire Fontaine," a favorite for its echo of their family name. As they make their tentative approaches towards each other—and towards the events that put Juliette in prison—the song weaves through their lives, providing the leitmotif for that Gallic mixture of love and pain.

I’ve Loved You So Long is quite clearly a French film. As my teenager daughter put it, “They’re not doing anything.” And this is true: Claudel lets the camera rest on Thomas’ face, or on Zylberstein’s, for long shots during which they do nothing but think and remember. Complaint notwithstanding, my daughter did not leave the room. Either she had nothing better to do, or she could see that Claudel’s approach was paying off. He wisely trusts his actors to communicate the story without saying a word. (Another French element? An American movie would have shown us scenes of Léa taking Juliette shopping for new clothes. Claudel skips these scenes. His register of Juliette’s thawing is sex with a stranger.)

I’ve Loved You So Long isn’t the only recent film to use "Á la Claire Fontaine" as a theme. The excellent and overlooked The Painted Veil uses the song to surprisingly powerful effect. In a remote Chinese town, French nuns have taught the song in the orphanage they run. Kitty Fane, played by Naomi Watts, accompanies them on the piano. She is English, so it’s not her song; it’s not the children’s song either. But they share its lonesome refrain as a melody for their displacement and dislocation from the people and the places that they love.

It’s sad to think of those first French arrivals in the new world, singing about what they loved and would never forget, even as their memories of the France they had left behind must have grown dimmer and dimmer. At the end of the day, that’s exactly what Claudel’s film is about: our attempts to hold onto people as our connections to them grow frayed and thin.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Tilda Swinton: The One (or Two) and Only

Nobody looks like Tilda Swinton—besides, maybe David Bowie, who shares her androgynous, fashion-forward persona. She was the best thing in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and is generally the best thing in any movie she appears in. As part of the star chamber that awarded the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Penelope Cruz, Swinton did not disappoint. Her outfit was puzzling and unusual, and her handling of the whole thing seemed to say: Right, let’s just let Tilda keep the statuette, shall we?

Seeing her in the Oscars telecast reminded me of what might be the quintessential Swinton role, that of Orlando, in Sally Potter’s eponymous 1992 film. Based on the novel by Virginia Woolf, Orlando spans four hundred years as it tells the story of a young man born into wealth in Renaissance England. Yes, that was four hundred years, and yes, Swinton plays a man. But, if you’re keeping track, sometime around 1700, Orlando turns into a woman.

Potter’s casting of Swinton is an inspired choice. No one else could possibly have played the role (except, again, David Bowie--but Bowie’s acting chops are a bit below Swinton’s level). Even though Potter’s film is far from naturalistic—Swinton’s performance includes a handful of moments when she twitches her head imperceptibly towards the camera and delivers a one-line commentary on the action—Swinton deserves enormous credit for so thoroughly seeming to inhabit the skin of both a male and a female character. When Orlando is a young man, Swinton’s walk and movements—even the way she holds her head—are somehow clearly male. When Orlando is a woman, everything changes, softening, becoming somehow fuller. Swinton doesn’t simply reproduce stereotypes; this is the same individual rendered in two genders.

Potter plays around with gender—as she must, if she is to adapt Woolf’s novel for film—through the film. Quentin Crisp is creepily good as a long-haired Queen Elizabeth. Later, during the nineteenth-century portion of the story, Potter tweaks the Victorian trope of the injured female to be rescued by the man. She anticipates Ang Lee’s Sense and Sensibility by three years, as Orlando rescues Shelmerdine (easily the strangest name in all of literature) from his broken ankle. Billy Zane’s hair is almost as long as Kate Winslet’s Marianne’s.

But see for yourself. And read Woolf’s odd 1928 book. Though I first read Orlando more than twenty-five years ago, Woolf’s description of the Little Ice Age that allowed for festivals on the Thames during the Renaissance has remained vivid in my memory. Potter does a nice job recreating the scenes on film, though Woolf’s evocation wins the competition.

Orlando is indeed a writer’s movie. Orlando’s final incarnation is as a single woman, a single mother, and a writer. Taking the manuscript of her life’s story into the steel-and-glass office of a publisher, she runs into the characteristic writer’s experience: rejection. As the editor puts it:
“It’s very, very good. Written from the heart. I think it’ll sell. Provided you rewrite it. You know: increase the love interest, give it a happy ending. By the way, how long did this draft take you?”

Orlando’s reaction? Another one of those glances at the camera. The next shot shows her kick-starting her motorcycle and driving away with her child. Revision be damned!

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire: Worth the Wait

If I didn’t know the box-office numbers, I’d think I was the last person in America to have seen Slumdog Millionaire, Danny Boyle's multi-Oscar-winning movie. Judging by the size of the crowd at a Saturday afternoon showing outside Boston, I guess there were a fair number of us who waited until after the Academy Awards. I don’t know about all those other people, but I for one had been wary of the movie’s relentless hype until the goodwill became too much for me to ignore. All those happy people in their seats—but mostly at the podium—at the Oscars, and all those people who voted for the film and cheered for its success: so many people can’t be wrong, can they?

Well, they can, but not in the case of this movie. There are many reasons to like Slumdog Millionaire, and to have chosen it the best picture among the Oscar nominees—and some of these reasons even have to do with what is actually on the screen. First, the camerawork: it is sure of itself and it has something to say, and that is a combination that we don’t always find in a movie. In some films, we get a camera that is more full of itself than sure, moving around in artsy ways that have no relation to the content on screen. In others, we get a camera that just doesn’t do much of anything at all. It’s as if no one was actually making the film—and I’m not talking about auteurs who are trying to make a statement about unmediated reality. Slumdog Millionaire gets it right.

Anthony Dod Mantle uses quick cuts and tilted angles, emphasizing at one moment the angular geometry of a world (trains, empty skyscrapers, and highway underpasses) that doesn’t bother to accommodate the people in it, and at another the jumbled and cramped spaces that have been fashioned by the people themselves, as they pile shack upon shack to create their homes amid the squalor of Mumbai. But his talents don’t stop there. To set a different mood, he gives us an extended sequence of the young brothers Jamal and Salim aboard (but more accurately atop) trains after they escape from a Fagin-like impresario of beggars. I’ve seen that whole Guy on a Train thing many times before (even in Get Smart), but nothing beats the wide-angle shots of two tiny figures on the train’s roof as it crosses the Indian countryside.

Actually, something does: the very first chase scene, in which the two brothers and a crowd of other children are chased away from an airport-runway cricket game. There is something about the way that Mantle films the two children in motion, interrupting an action-film style of cuts with overhead or wide-angle shots, that sets the boys as insignificant in the larger context while at the same time intensely connecting us to them as individuals. I would argue that it is the most moving set of images in the film.

There are other reasons people like the movie, though, and they have very little to do with what is on screen. First of all, we love underdog stories. And this is an upbeat version of the classic type. Jamal Malik is the underdog who has picked up enough intelligence and information along the way to make himself a success in a world he is not a part of. He’s not unlike the character played by Isla Fisher in Confessions of A Shopaholic, or by Reese Witherspoon in Legally Blonde. These are all outsiders whose unconventional route to insight and information allow them to win over the hearts and minds of the people in power.

Jamal’s underdog run at the big prize mimics the brilliant career of the film itself. Doyle shows us crowds gathered in Mumbai, outside the Taj Mahal, in the slums, cheering Jamal on as he faces his final question. Substitute the Oscars broadcast with the movie’s game show and you have the same scenes: people gathered around television screens, hoping for the success of the Indian underdog. (And who doesn’t want to like India these days? Even before the terrorist attacks, it had become our favorite developing country.) You could say that Boyle’s movie contains the instructions for its own viewing: Love the Underdog.

At the end of the day, does it matter whether the appeal of Slumdog Millionaire comes from the movie itself or from the circumstances of its viewing? On an intellectual level, the answer must be yes. Years from now, when people aren’t awash in the goodwill generated by this particular Oscar season, the movie will have to stand on its own. The thing is, it does. When the movie ended, I was momentarily surprised to find myself in a cinema on a brisk New England evening. Thanks to Danny Boyle, I had been very far away indeed.