Image from 'Slumdog Millionaire'






Tonight Hollywood tells us once again what we should like—and they might just get it right, S. T. Karnick observes.


I haven’t watched the annual Academy Awards ceremony for several years now, as the show is so boring, overblown, self-indulgent, and overlong that I don’t get any entertainment from it at all. In addition, I can count on the highlights (usually they are embarrassing lowlights) being freely available on the web the next day. So there’s no need to wade through the boringness.

Tonight, however, I will be watching because Big Hollywood, the right-of-center website about the entertainment industry, will be hosting a live blogging event during the televised ceremony, and I’ll be writing for it.

The most interesting angle for me will be whether the highly regarded and much-awarded Slumdog Millionaire will get the Best Picture award.

All one really needs to know about the Academy Awards is that they’re not at all about quality, but about ideas and values. They tell us not what is best in the previous year’s cinema, nor what is laudable, nor what is most enjoyable, nor what is most edifiying, constructive, instructive, or conducive to personal moral development and individual and social peace and happiness.

Moreover, the awards don’t tell us what Hollywood thinks but instead what they want us to think they think, on the absurd assumption that the public will want to emulate them in this regard. Thus Hollywood people vote based on what values they want to browbeat the public into accepting lest we be thought unfashionable and neanderthalic.

So tonight it would appear that the biggest battle is between Milk and Slumdog Millionaire. Year after year, Hollywood makes a point of trying to normalize homosexuality in the public mind and to convince people that racism is rampant in American society. Lacking a Best Picture nominee painting America as a hopelessly racist society, one would expect Milk to have the upper hand in this year’s Oscar race, given the film’s valorization of a homosexual politician into a heroic martyr.

In recent years, however, the Academy voters have also tended to reward smaller-budget pictures, to show their hatred of big business and support for the less fortunate. In that regard, Slumdog Millionaire would seem to be the best choice, especially in the current climate of elites’ open hatred of market freedom. Voting for the film also enables Academy voters to express their open-mindedness about all religions except Christianity, in that the protagonists are Muslims (although the only one who displays any religious behavior is a murderous gangster). Finally, the setting in an appalling Bombay slum enables voters to feel both superior and sympathetic by endorsing the film.

Thus Slumdog Millionaire would seem well placed to make Academy voters feel very happy about themselves by voting for it.

To me the most interesting thing about Slumdog Millionaire, however, is what appears to be the real reason it has become so popular among audiences: the film is an extremely traditional Hollywood romantic melodrama but is set in an Indian slum so that it appears quite original and brilliant. In fact, the film’s plot elements go all the way back to Hollywood’s Golden Era of the 1930s and early ’40s.

The central characters of the film, for example, echo numerous love triangles from classic Hollywood films, especially MGM’s 1935 film Manhattan Melodrama: two brothers, one who ends up on the good side of the law and one on the bad side, who both love the same sweet and spunky heroine. The assignation to meet at a train station has been done numerous times before, as has the business of a character allowing himself to be killed in order to enable another to escape, the scene in which characters chase a moving train in order to escape pursuers (it was even repeated in last Friday’s episode of Psych), the image of two lovers trying to find each other in a crowded place, and much else in the film.

And of course the whole rags-to-riches story arc was a Hollywood mainstay in the studios’ heyday. None of this is meant to suggest that there’s nothing original in the film, for that’s certainly not the case, but it’s important to recognize that what is original in the film is placed in a narrative context that will be comfortably familiar to most audience members, thus making the film much easier to assimilate.

Yet director Danny Boyle and his co-scenarist refresh this hoary material by setting it in a place that has seldom if ever been show extensively in a fictional film, a vast Indian urban slum. (Even Indian filmmakers don’t film in the slums, preferring instead to build cleaner fake slums on soundstages or backlots.)

The film’s themes, moreover, are pure, old-fashioned Hollywood: the trials and eventual triumph of a romantic couple trying to rise above horrible personal circumstances; the need of all people to sustain hope in even the direst conditions; sympathy for the poor and the underdog; the struggle to remain good in a corrupt world; and the faith that God will reward those who are good and pure of heart.

Now, I do not say that this last notion is a specifically Christian thought (or perhaps even Christian at all), merely that it is a traditional-era Hollywood thought. In any case, that Slumdog Millionaire is meant to illustrate this idea (among other things, of course) is made quite clear in the multiple-choice question posed at the beginning of the film and explicitly answered at the end.

That answer the film gives, moreover, can be taken in either of two ways, as confirming a belief in a personal God or in the workings of fate. That makes it possible for the film to satisfy both the religious faithful (most audiences) and unbelievers (nearly all of Hollywood).

Thus Slumdog Millionaire is quite brilliant in luring people to a very traditional story with very old-fashioned ideas, through use of an exotic setting and characters. Moreover, there is one very good moment toward the end, the real climax of the film, in fact, in which the protagonist is given a huge moral test. The meaning one should take from that crucial scene is quite obvious.

Slumdog Millionaire makes jaded postmodern audiences accept and appreciate a very traditional and quite moralistic story. If the Academy voters don’t realize that, it might just win.

—S. T. Karnick