Not everybody has been made to feel good by the feelgood Oscar success of the feelgood ‘Slumdog Millionaire’… as a letter in the London Review of Books makes plain:
“[Slumdog Millionaire’s] intention to make money is all too clear. It does so by giving the rags-to-riches formula an exotic spin, and manages to be at once garish, extremely violent, gaggingly photogenic, too loud, sentimental and exploitative.”
There’s a lot packed in here: the snobbery, the smug and unexamined assumptions, the writer’s apparent pride in his utter ignorance of the independent film-making process, the nonsensical contradictions (can something be both “garish” and “gaggingly photogenic”?) It’s perfectly possible not to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, of course – nothing appeals to everybody, and I didn’t have enough invested in the love story for the film to lift me as much as it seems to have lifted others. But typically, when the success of a book or a film or a piece of music baffles the liberal intelligentsia, then that success will usually be put down to the cynicism of the makers, or the depressing ignorance of the consumers. (Sometimes, when these critics are trying to be nice, they make a plea for better arts education. “It’s not the public’s fault that they enjoy the paintings of Jack Vettriano. They just don’t know any better.”) This letter is a prime example of that attitude: you loved Slumdog? You’re a moron.
First of all, nobody, not Christian Coulson, the producer, or Danny Boyle, or any of the others involved in the production, thought that they would make money from this film. A movie entirely without stars, one-third of which is in Hindi and therefore partly subtitled? Works every time! A licence to print money! Coulson and Boyle hoped to be paid, of course – a reasonable aspiration, given that film-making is their profession; but, as has been well-documented by now, there were real doubts about whether the movie would ever be seen in a cinema. I love the idea that, simply by “giving the rags to riches formula an exotic twist”, one can clean up. Give it a try, Mr Letter-Writer! If you’re not a film-maker, write a novel! It would only take a few months out of your life, and even if you have to hold your nose while writing, the millions that will flood unstoppably through your front door will set you up for life!
In film people tend to talk about films “working” or “not working”, and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ clearly works – just as ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Shallow Grave’, two of Danny Boyle’s other films, worked – in fact, Boyle’s ability to turn forbiddingly unpromising material into movies that people actually want to see is remarkable. If his films are commercial, it’s because he wants them to be seen by a mainstream audience; the money-making that ensues is a by-product, rather than a goal in itself.
Every time there’s a left-field, one-off, totally unpredictable hit like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, or ‘Juno’, or ‘The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Night-time’, or ‘Stalingrad’, we should all give thanks to our gods, because they are what keeps the wheels of the whole commercial arts machine turning; without them, we’re doomed. They encourage risk – editors and commissioners can look at a script or a draft of a book and think, well, with a fair wind and a lot of luck, this might find its audience – and without risk, every new book and film and album would of necessity have to be part of a franchise.
It would be nice to think that our artier film-makers and more literary novelists could look at ‘Slumdog’ and steal a few of its underpinnings. Is energy, for example, as vulgar an attribute as many of them seem to believe? And is coherent structure really such an awful thing? On the evidence of the LRB letter, though, our intellectuals are more likely to sneer. I’m sure they’re all very clever people, but they can be terribly dim sometimes.