by Sarah Labrie
Thanks to a two week vacation from work, I seem to have developed a worrying Gossip Girl addiction. Meanwhile, in the film world, it’s awards season. Soon the crop of movies out in theaters will, like a class of insecure New York City prep school kids, be divvied up into winners and losers by forces utterly beyond their control.
Nestled among the contenders this year is the pretty outsider, the Jenny Humphrey, if you will, who shed her Brooklyn roots to don the bright plumage of the Upper East Side and, as a result, might finally get to sit with the popular crowd. At the other end of the cafeteria sits the talented, black-hoodie clad dork (think Dan Humphrey, only way weirder) who doesn’t want to.
(Forgive the dated metaphor, I’m only halfway through the first season. By this point I imagine (hope?) that Jenny and Blair have cage-wrestled to the death and Vanessa’s pushed Dan off a building, leaving only Chuck, Nate and Serena to orchestrate awkward, obligatory three-ways.)
In this analogy, Danny Boyle is lil’ J. His Slumdog Millionaire retains just enough of the darkness of Trainspotting and 28 Days Later to make me wonder why, exactly, he decided to go in the complete opposite direction. Until, that is, I read the reviews and realize that, unlike any of his previous films, this movie will probably win an Oscar.
At its heart is a kid named Jamal (Dev Patel) who escapes the slums of Mumbai to wind up as a winning contestant on Who Wants to be a Millionaire. The night before he’s scheduled to face the final 100 million rupee question, he’s accused of cheating, arrested and tortured.
Explaining the story behind each correct answer, he blames his success on a series of not-so-lucky coincidences. Each question reveals a new piece of Jamal’s wretched autobiography. Ultimately, we discover, he’s on the show to win the heart of the beautiful girl, Latika (Freida Pinto), he’s been loving and losing his whole life.
Shot in Mumbai, Slumdog looks like it was pieced together from film left on BBC International’s cutting room floor. Boyle creates a three dimensional world set to a relentless, dangerous score. The hyperreal colors bleed offscreen, tinged with a layer of grit I didn’t see so much as feel. When a character vomited after watching a horrific mutilation, I could smell it.
Still, the film retains all the plausibility of a movie with Kate Hudson in it. For all its pretensions toward tragic authenticity, it‘s as much a modern day fairytale as any sparkly blonde-startlet helmed romcom, right down to the puppy-eyed man-child star, the hot damsel in distress, and the pattern of neat accidents that makes a happy ending unavoidable. Boyle doesn’t acknowledge the clash between the appalling plight of children born into poverty in India and the starry-eyed Jamal’s good fortune. Rather, when Jamal asks “Why does everyone love this show?” referring to Who Wants To Be a Millionaire, and the answer comes: “Because it’s a chance to escape,” Boyle is winking. Slumdog Millionaire is, after all, only a movie. Movies exist to free us temporarily from the limitations of reality. That’s why people watch them.
At the other end of the spectrum lies a film all set to blow this theory apart. If Slumdog emphasizes art as a means of escaping life, Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York throws into question the existence of a boundary between the two.
Playwright Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman) wins a MacArthur grant just after his painter wife (Catherine Keener) abandons him. Devastated and sick, Caden decides to use the money to stage a massive original work. He casts hundreds of actors, giving each person their own little fictional life to live.
In a warehouse in New York, they rehearse for decades. Time passes and the cast expands, until the line between art and real life blurs and disappears. Meanwhile, Caden grows older, remarries, divorces, falls in love. Actors he casts to play himself and his various wives and girlfriends relive mortifying scenes we’ve seen Caden endure already. All set, by the way, to an apocalyptic backdrop wherein the actual city of New York collapses in on itself for reasons never explained. By the end, the whole movie is epic and meta as an acid trip.
Over and over, through the years, as the play grows more unwieldy and Caden grows more defeated, he repeats the refrain: “I know what to do with this play now. I have an idea. I think -” Here, Kaufman’s script echoes everyone who ever screwed up, got dumped, got fired, or had to move back in with their parents. Basically, everybody. “I got it this time,” you tell yourself afterward. “I know how to fix things so that nothing this bad will ever happen ever again.”
Soon, though, like a poorly controlled video game avatar, you’re back to fighting the same evil villains as before. Every time you kill one, along comes another, bigger and scarier and harder to destroy. Kaufman not only knows this, he forces the viewer to see it too, to watch it play out on screen and realize s/he lives this way because there isn’t any other choice.
Some critics have denounced the film as incomprehensible, and its awards so far are few compared to Slumdog’s. Entertainment Weekly called it “a structure of psychosis.” Another reviewer tells me that I will “walk out of this movie feeling like a drunk bodybuilder went bowling” in my brain. None of this is untrue, but it misses the point.
Synecdoche is ambitious. It’s also very literary, with a plot more closely tied to Sterne than Spielberg. Like a good novel, and entirely unlike most films, it speaks to, rather than at, the viewer. The result is a highly individual experience that sort of defies criticism altogether.
I left the theater feeling like Kaufman had ripped open my cerebral cortex and snuggled up inside to take a nap. His nightmares became my waking life. It was difficult to look at the crowd exiting the Arclight without imagining each person’s heartbreak and dashed ambition.
The true mark of a succesful novel is that it makes the reader look at his own place in the world in a different way. It’s rare for movies to do the same. It’s not something we ask them for. With Synecdoche, Kaufman does it whether we want him to or not.
Slumdog Millionaire sets a Disney-style fairy tale, complete with dance number, in the world’s poorest city and somehow makes the story, if not believable, then, compelling. Synecdoche, meanwhile, uses an upper-middle class American white male to shove the tragic futility inherent in existence down our throats. Both elements are a testament to the power of film. But where Boyle rides twenty-first century cinematic conventions, Kaufman smashes them and builds something entirely new out of the wreckage.
Sarah LaBrie is a contributor to This Recording. This is her first appearance in these pages. She writes here.
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