Friday, January 30, 2009

Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Nominated for Best Picture and widely acclaimed by critics, Slumdog Millionaire is one of few recent releases I wanted to make a point of seeing. As the film is set in India, I expected a cinematographic treat, and was not disappointed; the movie is beautifully filmed.

Going into the theater, I knew Millionaire was about a young man from the slums of Mumbai who has almost won 500 million rupees on India’s version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Accordingly, I expected a story about a bright young man overcoming adversity and proving himself in spite of society’s contempt for the poor--a film with a sentiment something along the lines of Good Will Hunting or Finding Forrester.

I realized I was mistaken during the first few minutes of the film. The young man on the game show, Jamal Malik (played by Dev Patel) is not particularly intelligent or knowledgeable. He has no special virtues at all, and, in fact, hardly any personality. The reason he has been able to answer so many questions correctly is (as the filmmaker lets the viewer know at the very beginning of the film) that it was fated to be so. This is an intriguing set up, but ultimately fails to deliver.

During the first hour or so, the film’s tension is generated by individual incidents of difficulty or danger, resolving into isolated tragedies or triumphs. In my opinion, it would have been better if the entire film followed this episodic pattern. By trying to tie the incidents together into a larger narrative arc, the film ends up creating a whole which is less than the sum of its parts.

In the second hour of the film, the tension is generated by two questions: “will the boy win the game show?”; and “will the boy get the girl?” The question of whether the boy will win the game show is no more compelling than any given episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. And as for the girl, she hardly seems worth getting, being even flatter in characterization than the boy.

I will not spoil the ending for those who have not seen the film--although nothing creative has been done with the dénouement, as nothing creative (except the cinematography) has been done with the film as a whole--but I will say that in the end, it seems at best odd that Fate would have expended so much energy for so banal an end.

Though I have focused on what I consider Slumdog Millionaire’s faults, in truth, I found the movie fun and entertaining. It may be worth watching (once), but I probably would have been less disappointed with it had I not been led to believe it was one of the best pictures of the year.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Burdensome Things

As a child, I certainly had a lot of stuff--toys of various kinds, and most of all, stuffed animals. Graduating from such things in adolescence, I accumulated a very large number of books--so many, in fact, that since moving out, I've made at least three trips taking books from my father's house--and after the last two trips I mistakenly thought I had finished, only to be told by my younger sister (who still lives there) that, no, I still have another box of books (and would I please take it so it won't keep cluttering up the house even more than it is already).

Anyway, perhaps it's because of that experience that I have such a keen appreciation for not having things. During my college years, I used to wander through the aisles of Shopko (it's like Target), looking at all the nice things they had, and leaving satisfied and happy, having purchased nothing. It was good to be reminded that I already had everything I needed.

It's very nice being able to love beautiful things--lovely plates and bowls, towels and tablecloths, and especially the kind of art seen on a certain artist's blog,--and have no desire to possess them. To have rather an averse gut reaction to the idea of owning such things--because, though I am delighted that such things exist, it seems like having them would weigh me down, somehow.

But the problem is, sometimes I love things that almost everyone would consider garbage. And in that case, I would rather possess such an object than see it destroyed. And that, unfortunately, is a very bad principle to actually put into practice.

Friday, January 23, 2009

The "Tyranny of Space"

It is often pointed out that we Americans are much too concerned with things. Buying things, consuming things, coveting things. And the usual insight people come up with is that we ought to be more concerned with people. Hence the contrast between I-It and I-Thou relations. Hence the interpretation of heaven and hell, not as "places" per se, but as "relationships"--not a "place of eternal torment," or "place of eternal delight," but a "being in the presence of God," or "being painfully cut off from God."

But! I have been reading a book called The Sabbath by Jewish author Abraham Joshua Heschel, for one of my classes. Heschel also speaks of an inordinate attachment to things--the "tyranny of space"--which he contrasts, instead of with relationships, rather, with time. He describes, then, the Sabbath, as the day on which all the objects which give humankind power over the spatial realm (various tools, appliances, money), are to be set aside, left utterly untouched, that humans might declare their independence from such objects.

This high valuation of time is a difficult concept for me to get hold of. It helps when I consider that in Hebrew, the verb is more important than the noun. The verb usually comes before the subject in the sentence. Even Hebrew nouns typically come from verbal roots. And in the Hebrew Scriptures, the name of God is in the form of a verb, not a noun (I am who I am/I will be who I will be).

It also helps noting that some passages in the New Testament we translate as contrasting "this world" with "the world to come." But the Greek word we translate as "world"--a spatial term--is actually better translated "age"--a chronological term.

So perhaps rather than saying, heaven is not so much a place as a relationship, we should say, it is not so much a place as a time--and not just any time, but eternity.

Anyway, I have no idea whether any of this is at all coherent to someone who has not read Heschel's book--but if you want to know what the heck I'm babbling about, by all means, read the book; it's great!

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Alive But Boring

Just a note to confirm that my long silence is not due to a fatal traffic accident or the like. My life is just boring. School, housework, hanging out with Brandon, thinking about a frustratingly difficult story I'm trying to write, and doodling sketches of a frustratingly difficult painting I want to create just don't seem to be providing blog fodder ...

So, don't be perturbed if I write nothing--you're not missing out on anything ...