Feb 28, 2009

Slumdog: the final verdict

The best case for Slumdig Millionaire I have heard, from my friend Nick Hornby:

It’s perfectly possible not to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, of course – nothing appeals to everybody, and I didn’t have enough invested in the love story for the film to lift me as much as it seems to have lifted others. But typically, when the success of a book or a film or a piece of music baffles the liberal intelligentsia, then that success will usually be put down to the cynicism of the makers, or the depressing ignorance of the consumers... It would be nice to think that our artier film-makers and more literary novelists could look at ‘Slumdog’ and steal a few of its underpinnings. Is energy, for example, as vulgar an attribute as many of them seem to believe? And is coherent structure really such an awful thing? On the evidence of the LRB letter, though, our intellectuals are more likely to sneer. I’m sure they’re all very clever people, but they can be terribly dim sometimes.

Many movies and novels could do with a little more vulgar energy — The Reader springs to mind. And the structure of Slumdog was the only time I can remember enjoying, rather than enduring, flashbacks in a movie. I was happy when it came out. I could see the point of it. A stalwart addition to a decent year at the movies, I thought — a good midfielder, a dependable mid-range success story. I just never for a second imagined it would clean up at every awards ceremony western civilization has to offer. 7 Baftas and 8 Oscars, including Best Picture, depresses me for some reason. It's not a bias against popular movies: I didn't feel this way when Titanic won, or Lord of the Rings. For all its flaws I think The Dark Knight should have got a best picture nod. And it is nothing short of painful to me that movies like Knocked Up never stand a chance. But Slumdog has an offputting cunning to it, I think: come see this small, scruffy, underdog movie from the Indian subcontinent, complete with Hindi subtitles, and — guess what — it slips down as easily as the latest Janet Jackson video. There's no earthly reason why movies set in other countries have to be dour and grainy and foreign-filmish — sitting through Gomorrah is not mandatory —  but I like a little bit of foreignness, some detail that makes you sit up. There was some shots of India in The Darjeeling Limited (an otherwise bad movie) that looked as strange and stunning as a lunar landscape. I never got anything like that in Slumdog. Foreigners aren't so foreign after all, it said. They watch the same junk, they dream the same dreams. Do they? One thing Danny Boyle said in interview stuck with me, about how unexpectedly non-aspirational the slum dwellers all were, despite their crushing poverty. The westerner expected revolution, revolt; what he found was good-humored acceptance. Something to do with Hinduism? The caste system? Who knows, but that was interesting to me. I wish he'd made a movie about that — or which at least included that. It would have made his hero's arc all the more startling.

Feb 19, 2009

Words, words, words

The Millionsblogs parses an Obama sentence:—
Obama has a good memory for where he's been, grammatically, and a strong sense of where he's going. His tripartite analysis of the problem is clearly reflected in the structure of the sentence, and thus in the three main branches of the diagram. (Turn it on its side and it could be a mobile.) Obama's confidence in the basic architecture of his sentences allows him to throw in some syntactically varied riffs and qualifiers: an absolute phrase here, a correlative conjunction or comparative adjective there.

By contrast with the syntax, the diction is quite straightforward, which may account for why the majority of Americans, unlike their pundit overlords, don't seem to feel that Obama is talking down to them. The verbs here are all "to be" verbs, given weight by participles like "prosecuted" and "interested," and by the muscular commonplaces, "above the law," "looking forward" and "looking back." The only superfluous adjective is "clear," which sounds positively Bush-like, even as it serves to qualify the clause it's attached to. Even more remarkable: by virtue of the third "that," this is a complex sentence, but not a compound one. Like "I'm the decider," it has a single, copulative predicate. This may be the essential Obama gift: making complexity and caution sound bold and active, even masculine.

It is possible - mistaken, I think, but certainly possible - to dismiss this sentence as a platitudinous non-answer, and if comedians ever overcome their Obama anxiety, this may be his Achilles heel: "The beef, assuming it's in a port wine reduction, sounds, uh, amazing, but on the other hand, given that the chicken is, ah, locally grown, I'd be eager to try it."

They don't prefer blondes

The Guardian has some excellent statistics about the Oscars, including:— 43% of best actresses winners have been brunette, only 14% blondes. Playing someone with a mental illness gives you 23% chance of winning, physical illness 10%, an inspirational teacher 5%, Holocaust victim 4%, victim of homophobia 3%, nun 3%, monk, genius + victim of racism all 2%.

The mental illness/nun teacher thing is no big surprise, but the prejudice against blondes. That's fascinating.

Feb 17, 2009

If you ran the Academy

The Carpetbagger asks: what would you do if you handed out the Oscars? In his case:
Anne Hathaway would be more than an also-ran in lead actress. “Rachel Getting Married” might have snuck in to the best picture picture. Kate Winslet would have been nominated for “Revolutionary Road” instead of “The Reader.” And “Gomorrah” would not only be up for best foreign-language film, it would threaten in the best picture category.
Agreed. Plus: WALL-E would get a best picture nod, as would the Wrestler. Russell Brand would get a best supporting actor nomination for Forgetting Sarah Marshall. Marisa Tomei would be the hands-down, no-questions take-all-contenders BSA winner. Bruce Springsteen would be nominated and win. Slumdog Millionaire would be nominated and not win anything besides best editing. But here's the thing: I'm not sure I'd want to live in a universe in which the right films won the Oscars. 1) We would have nothing left to complain about; 2) Indie filmmakers would have no clue what it is they're supposed to be independent from; 3) The suits would all start smoking roll ups and block-booking Fassbinder retrospectives. 4) The word "meretricious" would lose 90% of its meaning, and probably collapse, causing untold knock-on effects in other areas of the dictionary. What makes disliking a movie like Slumdog Millionaire or The Reader such a life-sustaining experience is the sure knowledge that other people think it a work of genius. Disliking a bad movie is not enough: a bad movie must be overrated by others to instill the pain necessary for all meaningful action. What the Carpetbagger is proposing is pure through-a-wormhole-backwards chaos. It is to be resisted.

Feb 15, 2009

To be or not to be?

A bizarre debate has erupted over whether Joaquin Phoenix's display of truculence on the David Letterman Show was a 'hoax' or not:
Last month Entertainment Weekly quoted a friend of the actor who confirmed that Phoenix was playing a joke at the public's expense, claiming he told him 'It's a put-on. I'm going to pretend to have a meltdown and change careers, and Casey is going to film it.' Journalist Devin Faraci, who recently attended the press junket for Phoenix's new movie Two Lovers, says having witnessed the actor's behaviour first hand — he is convinced that it isn't all a prank.
It's a nonsensical question. Pretending to be an antisocial jerk is surely the same thing as being an antisocial jerk. There is no question of sincerity or intention. That's what makes it antisocial.

Feb 14, 2009

A beautiful thing

My favorite interview with any movie star in years: Mickey Rourke on Charlie Rose. Up there with Tom Hanks on In The Actor's Studio. There are so many good things going on inside Rourke's head, these days, that any interviewer who gets to him is in for a treat. The only thing Charlie didn't ask him is whether an Oscar win would really be the best thing for him. Might he not turn back into an a-hole again? It's got to be weighing on some voters minds. 

I go back and forth on Penn and Rourke almost daily but am currently thinking this: in a close two horse race, the underdog is to be favored. Supporting actress is still proving hard to call, not helped by the fact that I still haven't seen Doubt: it's feels like it's either Viola Davis or Penelope Cruz. I'm a bit bored of Cruz: she seems to have been front-runner for too long. And Davis makes sure that Doubt gets itself recognised. The other question I haven't answered is how they reward Benjamin Button: to go from a near record-breaking haul of 13 nominations to a couple of technical wins seems like too big a step-down.  I'm expecting it to sneak one surprise win, maybe for costume or best score? Desplat is certainly due.

Feb 13, 2009

Quote of the day

"We are functioning from a different set of views on many critical items of policy." — Judd Gregg (R) on his withdrawal from Obama's cabinet.

He just noticed?

Feb 6, 2009

Blanche does Katrina

My friend Mark Sam is being sued by The University of the South, which owns the rights for Tennesse Williams’s Streetcar Named Desire, to "cease and desist" with his new one-man show, in which he ventriloquises a modern-day Blanche Dubois weathering Hurricane Katrina at the the New Orleans Superdome. The Williams estate are disputing that this falls under the "fair use" part of Mark Sam's first amendment rights. I have no idea about the legals ins and outs of this. Does a parodist owe dues to the author of the work being parodied? I would have guessed not, or parody wouldn't exist as a form. The Williams lawyers are arguing that Mark Sam's parody is pointed the wrong way: “It seems at best to be a comedic political commentary directed at the events surrounding the Katrina catastrophe in New Orleans,” said one of the lawyers representing the university. “As you may know, in order for a parodist to take advantage of a fair-use defense, a parodist’s criticism must target the copyrighted work at least in part.” A serious error in judgment, as anyone who has seen Mark Sam's line in platinum blonde wigs can attest.

Feb 5, 2009

Pet Peeve no 33: cackling anchors

One of the unintended consequences of Jon Stewart's success is the amount of fake laughter one hears on the news these days. It was the Stewart's Daily Show, I'm assuming, that prompted cable news producers to rush around looking for freelance comedians to liven up their shows. They're everywhere now, from CNN to MSNBC, from the Rachel Maddow Show to Keith Olbermann's Countdown — a little comedy 'bit' at the end where some putz you've never heard of provides his irreverent take on the day's news events. Far worse than the comic routines themselves, however, are the fake laughs that the anchor has to provide, to reassure us that what we are hearing is, indeed, comedy. It's worse than canned laughter: at least that was once fresh into the can. Someone had to find a show funny, once upon a time, even if it is not the show you happen to be watching. This something else again — lonely, pre-rehearsed cackles from a single human being at jokes they've already heard five times that day. No technician or camerman ever joins in. The laugh dies in the muffled cocoon of the studio. Even someone as naturally spontaneous and high-spirited as Rachel Maddow sounds like she's humoring her most boring uncle. Please, guys, leave that sort of thing to Larry King.

Feb 4, 2009


The recent pictures of London under snow have made me hopelessly and horribly homesick I'm not sure why. It never snows in London. I certainly don't have any memories of snow when I lived there. And it snows all the time in New York. Maybe I'm just more facile than I thought and responded, Pavlovian fashion, to the picture-book images. Actually, I know what it is. Its not the fact that it's common. Its the fact that its uncommon and I'm missing out. I remember what it was like when Thatcher resigned and when Diana died and I imagine the snowfall to have a similar effect — a sort of big civic hug. Maybe people are bonding. Maybe they are performing small and unexpected acts of kindness. Maybe they are feeling young and foolish and giggling when they look out the window. Or then again, maybe they are shovelling grey slush out of their driveways so they don't slip and fracture a toe. Either way, I'm jealous; they're doing it all together.

Feb 2, 2009

Inducing a cosmic eeew

So I folded and saw The Reader last night. It exceeded even my expectations of how awful it might be. Here goes: a healthy young man named Michael, friendly and engaging, with a big broad smile that suggests a trusting, loving nature, enjoys his first sexual romance with an older woman. She is beautiful, distant, a little cruel, but she teaches him the ways of female flesh. Their affair lasts for a summer, at the end of which she leaves town and Michael returns to the bosom of his family. He becomes a law student, much liked, pursued by beautiful girls his own age. Then one day he attends a war crimes trial and sees his old flame in the dock for war crimes committed while a member of Hitler's SS.

You might think his reaction to this would be one of initial shock followed by rueful reflection on the poor judgment of horny sixteen-year-old-boys. But no, what happens is this: He grows up into Ralph Fiennes. A cloud follows him wherever he goes. He marries only to see the marriage falter. He has a daughter but proves a distant father. 40 years later he is still traumatised, angry, torn apart by self loathing, seeking closure, demanding catharsis, trying and failing to find some way to put his history with this woman behind him. To which any reasonable cinema goer might be forgiven for asking: what gives?

What gives is that Bernard Schlink, the book's original author wanted to provide a probing, exhaustive disinterral of post-war German guilt. In which case, can I make a suggestion? Don't pick as your hero someone who merely shagged a war criminal, Bernard. Pick a war criminal, their butler or maid. Shagging a war criminal is unlikely to provide you with probing, exhaustive disinterral of anything much except one's poor choice of shagging partners when you are a horny sixteen year old boy. Horny sixteens year old boys will shag anything. The lesson to be drawn from such a tale are, one would have thought, negligable. 

How guilty can he a sixteen year old kid be made to feel exactly for sleeping with an attractive war criminal? I would imagine the most he would feel is a kind of momentary fate-infused grodiness — a sort of sexual-cosmic eew. But to have it blight your entire life, as if guilt were some kind of contagion, passed on through the most fleeting of contacts? What a complete crock. This story was concocted by someone who has spent almost no time observing those frail, feckless creatures we call human beings and all his time having ideas about them.

Feb 1, 2009

Why do embittered losers write books?

A wonderful piece in the New Yorker Observer about how emotionally misshapen losers are taking over contemporary literature:—
One strain in particular—characterized by a self-loathing impulse to confession, a kinetic demeanor and a claim to authenticity expressed through vitriolic social critique—has emerged as a dominant model. The patron saints of this mini-genre: Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man, Salinger’s Holden Caulfield and pretty much every character Chuck Palahniuk has ever written. Some of these characters are not far from monsters—not good underneath all their flaws but worth paying attention to because of them. Disfigured, pathetic, unapologetic and occasionally hopeless, they are, on the whole, contemptuous of the world around them because of what it’s turned them into and confident that the reason for their alienation is the inescapable, toxic nastiness of modern life. They are losers—spiritually dysfunctional, often ugly physically—with chips on their shoulders and resentment in their hearts that takes the form of a self-consciously unforgiving, bombastic mode of social criticism. Over the past decade or so, characters like these seem to have become the vehicle of choice for young male writers seeking to express a certain sort of disaffection.
This is a little too kind to Paluhniuk — Palunhiyuk? I can never get that guy's name right — but it holds water. Edge sells. Gritty and unflinching rule the day. I was struck reading the obituaries of Updike, how many people paid tribute to the delightedness of his descriptions. Sam Anderson, in New York magazine, noted "his almost pathological cheerful[ness]". Adam Gopnik, in the New Yorker, went one better than pathology:—
Updike the humorist is probably the least known or recognizable Updike of them all, but something of the White-cum-Thurber sound of the New Yorker that he joined—that bemused, ironically smiling but resolutely well-wishing, anti-malicious comic tone—lingered in his work till the very end. In the last year of his life, he wrote to an admirer that “humor is my default mode,” and that he still dreamed of being the new Benchley, the next Perelman.
I wish people wouldn't wait until you are dead to say such nice things.