Thursday, April 23, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire's "Hollindie Syndrome"

So I finally saw this year's "Best Picture" Oscar-winner, Slumdog Millionaire. Seeing such a celebrated film so late presents a lot of problems. On one hand, your expectations are sky high. On the other hand, there's already been plenty of time for the inevitable backlash. Was Slumdog Millionaire a brilliant "feel-good" film, or was it an egregious exercise in how to depress audiences and exploit poverty at the same time?

It's hard to be objective in such circumstances, but I'll try.

The first thing that must be said about Slumdog is that it's a brilliantly structured film. As someone who has written five screenplays (including one that didn't suck), I appreciate structure. Structure is sorely lacking in many films, including, as I recently discovered, "Bee Movie" (I have a five-year old).

Organizing a film to show the distant past by playing a tape of answers to a set of questions asked in the recent past... to find out what's going to happen in the future... I'm sorry, but that's good stuff. There's a rule of screenwriting that you should avoid flashbacks. Slumdog exposes the absurdity of such blanket assertions. At least 85 percent of the movie is told in flashback, and couldn't work any better. You learn more about the characters with each question. You come to understand them and care about them. You not only want to find out if the main character wins the money, but if he gets the girl.

No doubt about it, the movie gets your attention and keeps it. And for that, any movie should earn at least a 6 out of 10. Slumdog is also well cast and well acted, so I'd raise that to a 7. It has a clear cinematographic vision that also works well, so that raises it to an 8. But unfortunately, just as the movie reached its climax, it broke my heart. In a bad way.

I would bet one-millionth of a million dollars that the original script for Slumdog had a different ending, but that the director, the studio, an executive producer or a focus group demanded that it be changed. And in the process, lowered their collective creation from the heights of brilliance down into the tepid soup of Hollindie Syndrome.

Hollindie Syndrome is when a movie is created and intended as an "indie flick," but then changes in the massive artistic and financial collaborative process into a Hollywood flick. The result is an interim solution whose identity crisis is infuriating. You may complain that dividing movies into "indie" or "Hollywood" is polarizing and unfair. Plenty of people have tried to define those increasingly murky terms. It used to be a simple matter of whether a film was financed by a big Hollywood studio or not. Now, with studios having spun off (and then shut down) indie divisions (like Big Beer getting into the "craft" brew business), the financial line is blurred.

The best definition comes from famed screenwriter William Goldman, who said this: Hollywood films reinforce the bullshit; indie films don't.

In other words, it's about happy endings. Great movies can have happy endings and horrible movies can have unhappy endings. The point is whether the film's ultimate intent is or is not to give us hope. (In other words, this is a rebranding of comedy and tragedy.)

Slumdog actually had a glorious chance to find a solid middle ground, and I'll be incredibly specific about how it could have done so. For his final question, Jamal is asked, "Who was the third musketeer?" after being given the names of first two. He doesn't know. He phones his brother, Salim (who has undergone a quick and convenient transformation to the side of the good), but through another set of convenient circumstances, Latika, the woman of Jamal's dreams, answers Salim's phone.

There were so many ways to go at this point. (SPOILER ALERT)

1. The script could have called for Jamal not to phone a friend at all, but simply smile and answer the question, "Latika" (whom he has always seen as his third muskateer). "Latika" isn't even an option, and Jamal knows he's wrong, but that's his answer and he doesn't care. He loses the money, but Latika hears him say it, is touched, and they end up together. I'm glad they didn't do this. Cheesy.

2. Jamal calls Latika and she knows the answer. That would be weird and random.

3. Jamal knows the answer. Letdown.

4. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either. But Jamal guesses the right answer anyway. This is what actually happens in the movie. So Jamal gets the money and the girl. It was too much. In effect, love and money get equal weight. I guess that's fair if you live in the slum that Jamal comes from, but that pushed an indie-minded film firmly into Terra Hollywoodia.

5. Jamal calls Latika. She doesn't know the answer either, and Jamal guesses wrong. Jamal doesn't get the money, but he gets the girl.

This is what I would have preferred. Yes, it still reinforces "the bullshit" that love conquers all, but it doesn't toss millions of rupees on top of it.

1 comment:

Joe & Anneliese said...

Does this change your opinion to know that something very similar happened in real life?

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hr3tsMCrQgo