Tuesday, February 24, 2009

It is Written

I originally intended to have this up before Oscar night, but as usual, I'm behind schedule.

Slumdog Millionaire is a romance about a boy who goes on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? in India. It also won several academy awards this past weekend, including a well deserved Best Picture of the Year. If you haven't seen the movie yet, this is your stop. Seriously, thanks for reading and see you next post. You already know more about the film than I did when I saw it, and learning more will only diminish your experience of it. The film's best quality, in true underdog fashion, is how it comes out of nowhere and wins you over before you know what happened. And oh yeah, there is also information some would consider spoilers.

As a rule, I despise modern romances because they tend to embrace the story teller's greatest most loathsome foe: The Formula. Every story has a structure, and there are only so many narrative structures one can take, so the true virtue of the craft lies in the telling as opposed to what is told. Therefore in an inherently predictable genre like the romance (which almost always sticks to the first of two traditional endings: A) They hook up or B) they don't) a writer should constantly strive for innovation and take risks to keep the audience interested. The Formula supplants such noble endeavors in the interest of holding on to the most profitable common denominator, giving rise to an industry where "Wow, I'm a cute guy who still lives at home in his 30s" is a premise that warrants a remake.

Like Love Actually and 50 First Dates, two fine romances that mannage to escape The Grim Fate of the Formula, Slumdog Millionaire is actually a collection of stories by design. Instead of being told the story of how Jamal found love and came away a millionaire, you are given the story behind each answer leading to his ultimate triumph.

As Jamal bounces between his past, the game show and his trial in the inspector's office, we are kept guessing about what will happen next, and more importantly what will happen in between. Even more than in The Dark Knight, the fractures in the film's presentation serve to bring us deeper into the movie, by comparing Jamal's experiences with our own. If you were to 'unwind' the plot according to it's strict chronology, it's structure would be far more predictable and this engaging speculative element would be lost completely. This trick of scrambling the sequence of events is hardly new, but very few films have used it to such great effect. We would simply assume, as we do with all straightforward but pre-edited, narratives, that what happens between one scene and another is edited because it is unimportant; it is the time the characters' spend riding buses or in the bathroom. Then again, one of the movies most memorable vignettes takes place in a bathroom of sorts. The net effect is that we assume there is much more to know about Jamal's life, but understand that for brevity's sake, he is only giving us the most crucial details.

By the time the plot arc becomes apparent, (which for me was around the time Jamal and Salim took the skyscraper dive), it has already swept you along like a wave, depositing you amongst Jamal's cheering fans in the Millionaire stadium (who are all curiously absent after the show's over when he's waiting for Latika in the station). That being said, some may be put off by the "happily ever after" when it finally arrives. When Contrasted against some of the film's earlier harsh sequences, it can feel particularly manufactured, simply because real life doesn't spike between those poles so drastically, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. Then again, those exceptions are the ones people tell stories about, and Slumdog Millionaire tells a story about those stories.

Despite my tirade against the derivative evil of formulas, I am something of a traditionalist, and as much as I hate modern romances, I must confess that my favorite movies are classic romances. Movies that move you through tears to laughter and back again, with violence and tenderness interspersed, finally arriving at a finish appropriate for the tale told. And though it might be simple, what ending could be more appropriate for Jamal's experiences than a happy one?

Since only those of you who have seen the movie should be reading this, I don't need to tell you how fantastic the cinematography, the soundtrack and acting are, though I was especially fond of the shots of the kids running through the shanty town, the use of MIA's Paper Planes on the train, and Freida Pinto's portrayal of Latika in the film respectively.

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