Slumdog Millionaire

In 1951  Ray Bradbury wrote a collection of short stories entitled “The Illustrated Man” in which a vagrant man is completely covered with tattoos. These tattoos come to life as the foundation for each of the stories in the collection. It was a clever and creative gimmick that united several unrelated stories examining technology and psychology. I’ve never forgotten it.

“Slumdog Millionaire” uses a similar storytelling device to unite several stories in the life of a young street urchin growing up in the slums of India. I deliberately avoid the word “gimmick” here, because there is nothing slick or gimmicky about this fine film, rich in culture and deep in emotion, with its Dickensian atmosphere and Faganesque mentor (Ankur Vikal).

When 18-year-old Jamal Malik (Dev Patel; also played at different ages by Tanay Chheda and Ayush Mahesh Khedekar) a virtually homeless and unschooled street orphan, manages to work his way up to the final question on India’s version of the tv game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” he is accused of cheating. After all, the show’s emcee reasons, an impoverished ignorant boy from the slums can’t possibly accomplish a feat that no privileged, educated contestant has been able to do. So he calls in the goons.

Similar questions have been asked about other seemingly impossible accomplishments in history. How could the son of a glover in rural England with a minimal primary school education have written the most profound plays in all literature, for example? How could a man of ordinary background and education have become the greatest statesman, philosopher, scientist and diplomat in American history? Innate genius seems to be the answer.

But Jamal is no genius. So how does this uneducated street urchin correctly identify an obscure poet, the face on a foreign currency, the holder of an obscure record in cricket? How does he know the inventor of the revolver, or the items held in the hand of one of hundreds of obscure mythological gods? Surely he is cheating. His interrogators beat him up as they try to elicit a confession of outside help or find a listening device or microchip.

Instead, while his tormentors review video tape of the show and focus jeeringly on each question, the boy relates the stories that explain why these particular objects are seared into his memory. Like Bradbury’s “Illustrated Man,” Jamal’s trivial pursuit questions becomes the backdrop for his own “1001 Arabian Nights,” a collection of stunning, horrifying, uplifting, and ultimately indelible stories about survival on the streets of Bombay and Delhi.. There are stories of brotherhood, betrayal, sacrifice, determination, and the indefatigable search for his one true love. The juxtaposition of this nightmarish childhood against the backdrop of a meaningless game show of trivial pursuit for idle entertainment highlights what it means to be educated. It also elevates this film above the genre of underdog-wins-the-game movies.

Coincidentally, when I returned home from seeing this film on November 26, I watched the news reports of the terrorist attacks on Mumbai that killed over 100 and injured hundreds more. My first reaction was a horrified, “I was just there!” That’s how powerful this film is, and how brilliantly it is filmed. You will feel as though you are there with this little boy, running from his tormentors, digging through sludge, sleeping on trash heaps, and never, never, never giving up.

The Changeling

Will the Real Clint Eastwood Please Come Back?

“The Changeling.” Clint Eastwood, director. Universal/Imagine, 141 minutes.

You’ve probably seen previews for “The Changeling,” in which Angelina Jolie pounds her breast as she wails, “I want my son back!” before she is carted off to a psychiatric prison ward. The previews promise corruption in the police department, a mad psychiatrist, and a tantalizing mystery all in one film–who wouldn’t be interested?

Christine Collins (Angelina Jolie) is a single mother who comes home from work one evening to an empty house. She has no idea where her son has gone. No one in the neighborhood has seen him. He hasn’t eaten his lunch. It is every mother’s worst nightmare. Five months later the police find a boy in Illinois and bring him back to be united with his mother–but she doesn’t recognize him. When she complains to the police and begs them to continue their search, the police chief has her committed.

In one sense the film delivers on its premise. Jolie’s character does fight the system and expose corruption at several levels, including a loophole that allows the police to incarcerate unruly whistle-blowers without a trial–kind of a precursor to Gitmo.  The film reveals the perversity of a system where it is virtually impossible to prove one’s sanity. Since the doctor has deemed her unbalanced for not recognizing her son, the only way she can get out of the mental institution is to sign a false confession that she now accepts that he is her son. But signing that confession would demonstrate that she had indeed not recognized her son, thereby proving that she was mentally unbalanced…the classic Catch 22.

It’s a frightening issue, one that hasn’t gone away. Many states have an equivalent of Florida’s Baker Act, under which a person can be committed to 30 days in a mental institution without recourse, if a psychologist deems the person dangerous to himself or others (and when the psychologist is employed by the police department, it’s pretty easy to predict whether the detainee will be so deemed.)  My own daughter came frighteningly close to being Bakered when she was 17, so I know how quickly it can happen. (See “Splish Splash I Was Taken to Jail,” November 2003.)

But previews are supposed to do more than just give an idea of what a film is about. They also need to foretell the tone and subject matter of a film accurately, so the viewer can decide when and whether to see the film. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a comedy, sometimes a thriller, sometimes a romance or a drama. I don’t want to know the whole story line in advance, but I do want to know what emotions are going to be piqued before I go to a movie. And that’s where I felt duped by Eastwood this time.

So let me warn you here: the official previews–and the reviews I’ve read as well–leave out the brutal second story line, the one that shows the horrifying fate of 20 kidnapped boys. I felt completely blindsided by the grisly side of this film. Eastwood presents it masterfully–the strategically placed “smoking gun” as the detective searches the old farmhouse (in this case the “gun” is a scattering of hatchets and cleavers), the suspense-laden soundtrack, the close-up shot of the detective’s untapped cigarette ash demonstrating his own horror as he interviews a young witness. Great film-making. But come on, Clint. Couldn’t you have warned me?

The main storyline, about Collins’ victory over the police force and the psychiatric institution, seems incongruous in light of what happened to those boys. How could a mother smile about sticking it to the police department when she has imagined her son calling out for her in terror before he was hacked to pieces? I found nothing to cheer about.

I also found it hard to accept how unkind Jolie’s character is to the boy masquerading as her son. He’s a little boy, for heaven’s sake. Something terrible must have happened to him to make him try and pass himself off as someone else. Couldn’t we offer him a little compassion? I felt the same way about the young witness to the crime.

But here’s the really strange fact about the film: despite its horrifying story lines, despite Eastwood’s gorgeous sets and attention to detail, and despite Jolie’s constant tears and emotion, I felt  strangely detached.  It seems as though Eastwood comes at the story from all different directions, but never with any conviction beyond wanting to film it beautifully. As a result, it falls flat.

Moreover, for all her tears and agony, Jolie herself is emotionally detached. Notice I use the actress’s name, and not her character’s. That’s because she never connects with Christine Collins. Watch the best actresses in the business–women like Meryl Streep, Ingrid Bergman, Bette Davis. Notice how they react in a scene with their whole bodies, listening intently to the other character, seeming to gather their thoughts spontaneously, from the situation, not from a script. By contrast, I’m always aware of Angelina Jolie pretending to be someone else. She’s too aware of how the camera will capture her profile, her lips, her tear-stained makeup. She’s not afraid to look grimy, but even then she’s seems to be thinking, Look at me, see how I throw myself into this scene!  Now give me another Oscar!

In short, Eastwood can go to bed early on Oscar night this year. After directing a string of remarkable successes (“Mystic River,” “Flags of our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Million Dollar Baby”) he produced a real stinker with “The Changeling.” Can someone take this changeling back and find the real Clint?

Ease on Down “The Road”

“The Road.” Cormac McCarthy. Alfred A. Knopf, 241 pages.

In the century after this nation was born, families headed west along paths with names like the Oregon Trail, carrying their meager belongings in wagons or handcarts. In the century that followed, those dirt trails gave way to tarmac and the roads became Highways 70 and 80, transporting families and trucking goods from sea to shining sea.

Although it is never identified by name, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” is most assuredly one of these two highways, broken up and sometimes still steaming from apocalyptic fires in a not too distant future. An unnamed father and son now trudge along this same road, pushing their meager belongings in a shopping cart and carrying their most important belongings in knapsacks in case they have to run from other survivors who roam the same road, looking for food. While their ancestors had moved westward with hope and handcarts, these survivors move eastward with futility and a rusty shopping cart.

They carry a road map with them and inspect it frequently, opening and refolding it so many times that it has fallen into pieces. It’s a map to nowhere, really, the towns abandoned or obliterated. But the father holds onto it with the reverence of a scriptural guide, describing for his son the world that used to be.

This cautionary tale of survival in a gray, post-apocalyptic world is unlike any futuristic novel you’ve read. Yes, you’ll find the usual elements one expects in a dystopian novel—the threatening bands of scavengers, the barren wasteland, the futile vestiges of technology, the desperate attempt to reestablish order out of chaos, the ultimate conflict between good and evil.

But unlike, say, David Brin’s dense “The Postman,” you won’t find long detailed descriptions or philosophy or explanations of what has happened in this book. “The Road” stands out for its spare writing style, its haunting imagery, and its focus on the gentle, intense relationship between an unnamed father and his son as they journey on to escape the gray snow of winter and inevitable death.

“A long shear of light and then a series of concussions” is all that McCarthy tells us about what has caused the calamity a few years earlier, but a thick cloud of ash still covers the sky, blocking the sun and moon, suggesting that the disaster has been world wide. Their only food is what they can scavenge from abandoned homes or stores, while always on the alert for other scavengers who would surely kill and eat them if they were caught.

Yes, eat them, though it isn’t said in so many words. The language in this book is not just spare, but sparse, the sentences fragmented, the contractions written without apostrophes, signaling to the reader on the very first page that this is a society in which normal structures have broken down. In a world without renewable food, no energy can be wasted, not even for place-holding subjects, verbs and quotation marks. Details are seen, but not explained.  In fact, most of what does happen occurs offstage, just out of sight, they way the best horror films were made.  At one point the father turns his son’s head away from a grisly scene, with this exchange:

The things you put into your head are there forever.

It’s okay Papa.

It’s okay?

Theyre already there.

I don’t want you to look.

They’ll still be there.

This book is like that. It stays in your head a long time, the unwritten images recurring with such clarity that you swear you have seen it on a movie screen, even though McCarthy has given you only the barest of details. The father and son hide in the woods as a group of marauders passes by, leading “a supplementary consort of catamites illclothed against the cold and fitted in dogcollars.” You know their fate, even though you never see them again. On a mattress “darkly stained” they find “a man [who] lay with his legs gone to the hips and the stumps of them blackened and burnt,” and you know what has happened, and worse, what is going to happen, without being told. The pictures visit your dreams and wake you before dawn. It stays in your head. I hope not forever.

And yet there is such beauty in McCarthy’s poetic prose! “Lying there in the dark with the uncanny taste of a peach from some phantom orchard fading in his mouth,” he writes. “By day the banished sun circles the world like a grieving mother with a lamp.”

He creates an almost allegorical relationship between father and son as they journey inexorably toward the ocean: “He knew only that the child was his warrant. He said: If he is not the word of God God never spoke.” Their all-encompassing love is revealed through simple conversations as the father tries to shield his son from their inevitable outcome, conversations that often resolve into the gentle reassurance, “Its okay. Okay? Okay,” even when it’s not okay.

In the midst of this grayness, the boy offers a shining light of hope. He has never seen goodness, having been born a few weeks after the holocaust, and yet when they see people in the distance or meet a stranger dying on the road, his reaction is always the same: “Can we help him? Papa? Cant we help him Papa?” He hasn’t learned this by example. No one has ever given anything to them, nor has his father taught him to share with others. His goodness is innate, imprinted in his DNA somehow. What is its source?

That seems to be the point of this novel. Much has been made by critics and fans of the cryptic final paragraph of the book, which I can reveal without giving away the story. McCarthy writes: “Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current wher the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow….On their backs were the vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

Some say this paragraph lends the story a message of hope for the future, that fish are returning to the streams, while others focus on the bleakness of the words “not be made right again.”

I think the answer is found earlier in the book. Juxtaposed against the “limp and rotting” map detailing the boundaries of a dying manmade world, McCartney hints of a different kind of map, one found in nature, “the vermiculate patterns….of the world in its becoming,” that lie inside the earliest form of a fish, when life sprang out of the sea containing the DNA that would eventually produce all animal life. But this is not a Darwinian paradise. On the other side of that paragraph the boy learns that “the breath of God was his breath yet though it pass from man to man through all of time.” More than DNA swirls inside man. And though “a thing … could not be put back,” it can be started again, a spiritual thing that is “older than man [and humming] of mystery.”

You may find something entirely different when you journey down “The Road.” That’s the magic of McCarthy’s poetic style with its multiple layers of potential meaning. The book is being made into a film starring Viggo Mortensen as the father and Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son. But I recommend you read the book first–it is a journey well worth taking.