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Category Archives: Overheated Ethnic Frenzy

First off, I’d like to say that I used to see just about every movie that caught my fancy. I’d even see the ones I thought I wouldn’t like, just to have a valid reason for not liking them. For the past few years, my movie-going has steadily declined, and this year, I’ve seen exactly three movies of the 2008 season. They are, in order of preference:

1. Milk (the more I think about this movie, the more my quibbles with it subside, and find a lot of full-bodied revolution in its conservative narrative trappings)
2. Wall-E (this would be #1 of THE DECADE if the rest of the movie had been like the first 30 minutes or so; I have to admit to being a bit bored by the stuff on the spaceship)
3. Slumdog Millionaire

If I had actually seen some of the movies I’d intended to see but found a reason not to–like The Visitor (got the White People Learning Things heebee-jeebies), Frozen River (worried about Indie Grit, despite the fact that Melissa Leo is one of my favorite character actors), and Rachel Getting Married (I refuse to believe that Anne Hathaway can actually act just because she is holding a cigarette and wears badly-applied mascara), then Slumdog Millionaire would have a larger number next to it. And I still intend for it to have one when I get around to seeing, oh, Revolutionary Road or The Wrestler or Wendy & Lucy. Because that is how much I did not like Slumdog Millionaire. Here is a list, because I am lazy, and ’tis the season for making lists:

1. The visually cluttered style of filmmaking that always seems to accompany Western-produced films about the Third World. I call this style Overheated Ethnic Frenzy, where the Gravity of The Situation has to be conveyed through shaky camera and grainy film stock and far too many cuts that became far too distracting to pay attention to any actual story. Also see: City of God, the progenitor of said style. In films that star white people, this style translates to the Bourne movies.

2. The narrative structure of the film. Without giving anything away, the movie concerns a “slumdog” from Mumbai being on the Indian version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire? The film takes each question as a sort of chapter, explaining how the protagonist came to know the answer. This is, of course, ludicrous, and the ludicrousness of each explanation increases with each new far-fetched coincidence (always told with FLASHY JUMP CUT). The structure becomes exponentially maddening because there is no dramatic tension; you always see The Answer either preceding or following The Question. I feel as if the story would have worked better in a straightforward manner of storytelling, allowing these series of vignettes to build into the culminating scenario of the game show. The funny thing is how this seemingly conservative narrative structure would have been more radical than this “radical” series of cutting back-and-forth. It would, for one, have made the audience need to actually think and retain information.

3. The music was pretty good throughout, but I guess it is now a rule that every movie this year has to include M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes.” I look forward to seeing Leonardo DiCaprio fake-shoot Kate Winslet four times in Revolutionary Road with his finger. Hell, Gran Torino has Clint Eastwood doing this TWICE in its trailer. Throw some M.I.A. over those eggrolls, Clint! (note: Eastwood’s character apparently refers to his Asian neighbors as eggrolls. I bet this movie is amazing)

4. A bewildering lack of conviction throughout the film. With all the filmmakers had to work with narratively, emotionally, visually, the effect ended up as a general thud. I did not feel much moral uplift; this is, boiled down to it, supposed to be a love story, but one that is filtered through the lens of gangsters and Philbin-derived capitalism. None of these elements are ever fully engaged, possibly because of the way the film’s narrative was told. The increasing back-and-forth between Game Show and Past and Love Story ended with a final moment meant to convey a moving emotional culmination but it instead feels like a cheap mess due to lack of clarity, manipulation, and unpolished performances. There is hardly any chemistry between the romantic figures, and any sense of love between them through the multiple flashbacks feels unearned and unexplained.

5. The fact that a movie like this has to incorporate all of these elements to be sold to a Western audience not accustomed to seeing brown people on their movie screens. An actual meditation on many of the issues surrounding the action of this movie–poverty, anti-Muslim sentiment, specific cultural machismo–cannot actually be told straightforward, with simplicity and dignity and a clear narrative purpose. Because that does not sell to Americans. But add Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? and a fairy tale love story, plus Overheated Ethnic Frenzy visuals, and voilĂ : you have the front-runner for Best Picture at the Academy Awards.