Friday, 13 March 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and the Evils of Narrative

I‘ve been mulling over thoughts about something which came up in a Critique the other day. It was one of those moments when you realise the value of working beside people who often express radically differing opinions from your own, one of those moments when the students you teach are forced to revaluate their own critical position in relation to the arguments put forward and one of those moments which are such a valuable and essential part of art school education.

The disagreement centred around the Danny Boyle’s film "Slumdog Millionaire". My colleague brought it up as an example to illustrate a point he was making in relation to a film by one of the students. At this point I was compelled to interject and blurted out something like “that’s a terrible film!”. Then the whole emphasis of the discussion changed because it was clear that there was a substantial difference between our assessments of the film. I can’t speak for my colleague but I should say that he made a persuasive case. My point was that I feel the film is incredibly exploitative, telling a story of desperate poverty, suffering and abuse and sugar coating it as a classic rags to riches romance.

It turned out that very few of the students had actually seen the film so once we had made our points and the students had acknowledged that they really wanted to see Slumdog Millionaire “especially now!” we moved on.

Something still nagged at me though.

When I went to see Slumdog Millionaire few weeks ago I bumped into an ex student who works at the cash desk. I knew he’d be in the foyer when the film was over and I also knew he’d want my opinion of the film before I left, so as I passed the cash desk I was ready with my response: “Not bad for a glorification of poverty!”.

The truth is, I’d actually enjoyed the film – it was very well written, well told, funny, dramatic, visually stunning, spectacular even. But that’s when the alarm bells should have been ringing. Some small part of me had recognised that something was deeply wrong but the story had seduced to such an extent that I had barely been able to perceive the fact. It wasn’t until yesterday that it crystallised: Narrative or perhaps more accurately Narrative Closure.

Of course there’s nothing new about this – that’s not my point. My point is that despite all my scepticism and all the things I’ve heard, said and read about narrative it still manages to draw me in and pacify my senses.

That’s not to say that I don’t think narratives can be instructive, informative, enlightening or edifying but I do think there’s something very insidious about the way that narratives wrap everything up into neat packages which gloss over or distract us from many of the more disturbing realities of the world.

It reminds me of something Bruce Chatwin described in The Songlines where he discusses nomadic tribes and the fact that children are quieted by travel.

I think I see a short disjointed lecture forming “Narrative: the opium of the masses”.


Anonymous said...

It may well be the opiate for the masses, but I think this is the role that narrative storytelling has always taken throughout History, from stories told around cavefires to myths, legends, sonnets, ballads, parables etc. Humanity has always been interested in the tales and exploits of others, which is why fiction has always been so popular, be it in novels, cinema or even soap operas and reality shows like Big Brother. We take inspiration or learn from the stories of other people, be it real or fictional as a sort of escape from the mundanities and cynicism of everyday life.

I don’t think there is anything particularly insidious about the narrative, or its structure, and think it is there to be taken for what it is: Two or so hours of entertainment, escapism from the harsh reality of the world we need in, which is what some people need. In general, People like stories and the ideas and feelings they convey and I think as long as you take a narrative for what it is. Danny Boyles debut “Shallow Grave” is a narrative which doesn’t neatly answer any of the questions it raises, the major driving forces for the plot, such as why Keith Allan’s character had a suitcase full of money, why the two thugs were after him, how exactly the police knew that the flatmates had nicked it and carved up the body are never explained, instead the film concentrates on the breakdown of friendship because what they did for money.

Vivian Oblivion said...

This pacification of the audience, the lulling of the viewer by the story, is nothing new, as you point out, JH. Kracauer examines the "cult of distraction" and the "mass ornament" in the essays of those names ca. 1928 but concludes that escapist films are "truer" than ones that pretend to be realistic (i.e. rags to riches/social mobility).

While revolutionaries (Eisenstein, Mattelart, Balazs) have historically expected films to serve the enlightenment of the proletariat in order to act, conservatives have historically promoted film as mere escapist entertainment (UFA, Hollywood, Disney).

Battleship Potemkin, Persepolis, Metropolis, and Absolutely Safe have clear and often (arguably) revolutionary agendas. Snow White, Singing in the Rain, To Be or Not to Be, and The Palm Beach Story serve as escapist entertainment and reinforcements of traditional values.

Then there are Berlin: Symphony of a City, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the Matrix, among others. Berlin was criticized as failing to create meaning in its montage (Balazs, Kracauer). Achmed's form is ground-breaking yet its content familiar; it's been ignored or relegated to the nursery (Moritz, Pilling). The Matrix appears to be another visual spectacle, but its meta-narrative and self-reflexivity implicate contemporary society and culture.

These films resist easy categorization and often lack overt relation to reality yet are suggestively subversive, innovative, or otherwise exceptional and have repeatedly wowed audiences, stumped critics, and fascinated me.

Filmic texts at the intersection between overt visuality (escapist entertainment) and covert meaning (revolutionary agendas) is one major aspect of my diss and of my general theory of film.

Thank you for your blog, btw. I feel lucky to have located your art and writings.

Vivian Oblivion said...

Concerning Russian Formalism and "making things strange/new," I found a few quotes/sources of potential interest in my week's readings, so I thought I'd post them:
--Baudelaire (from his diaries) "What is not deformed is not perceptible"
--Bela Balazs in Theory of the Film (1945), "Custom spreads a veil over our eyes. ... Only by means of unaccustomed and unexpected...can old, familiar and therefore never seen things hit our eye with new impressions" (p. 93; Eng. trans. by Edith Bone. NY: Dover, 1970).

Balazs (as you already probably know) was a filmmaker and the 1st substantive film theorist (a formalist at that, with Marxist tendencies). Theory of the Film is his last major text and summarizes and elucidates many of his previously expounded ideas.

J. Hamlyn said...

Brilliant! Thanks Vivian.

Here's another with a veil in it:
"Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar." -Percy Bysshe Shelley

This one is going to seem unrelated but actually I think it fits in too:
"When the senses fail us, reason must step in." -Galileo Galilei

“A single event can awaken within us a stranger totally unknown to us. To live is to be slowly born.” -Antoine de Saint-Exupery

“Happiness is the perpetual possession of being well deceived.” - Jonathan Swift

"If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it." -Andy Warhol

"Hark ye yet again- the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks." Capt Ahab no less!

"There are two sorts of curiosity - the momentary and the permanent. The momentary is concerned with the odd appearance on the surface of things. The permanent is attracted by the amazing and consecutive life that flows on beneath the surface of things. " -Robert Wilson Lynd

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