No Bounty for Gold Men

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The fabled “Oscar bounce” — the traditional box office boom for the season’s most nominated films — has barely materialised this year, according to The Big Picture, which offers an interesting analysis of the possible reasons why. It’s partly the economic climate: tough times make grim viewing hard to sell. It’s partly the current Hollywood distribution pattern, which loads all the big fun exploding stuff into the summer, and all the pompous arty stuff into the nomination-friendly winter months.

And maybe too it’s partly that the two have become so separate. There are, broadly speaking, three kinds of movies. There are movies that people enjoy: the traditional Hollywood fare of thrillers, comedies, action movies etc. There are movies that people admire: the traditional Oscar fare of historical dramas, literary adaptations and plays wrenched from Broadway to the screen. And then there are the movies that people love: Casablanca, Gone with the Wind, The Shawshank Redemption. Some of these win awards, but many never trouble a jury until the bandwagon has passed. You can’t set out to make these popular classics — some had the most tortuous production histories in Hollywood — but you can see what they have in common: a relentless narrative drive; a blend of the comic and dramatic; a cheerful embrace of sentiment, if not outright sentimentality; and boldly-drawn characters at a moment of crisis. These films are about people with everything at stake. 

At best these things are as true of the Oscar movies as they are of the summer movies. Frost/Nixon, on film even more than on stage, dramatises just how much is at stake for both its lead characters: it’s a far more gripping thriller than the thudding, interminable nihilism of last year’s box office champion, The Dark Knight. But too often it feels as though popular acclaim and critical acclaim have become separate entities, and separate creative ambitions. As a result our summer films have no taste, and our winter films too much. You watch a film like The Reader longing for a spot of vulgarity: something to puncture the stifling politeness of the thing. Like so many literary adaptations, it feels less like a movie than a waiting room, a place for slightly embarrassed people to flick through magazines while trying to avoid eye contact. Even its much-debated eroticism seems like porn for people who hate sex. 

All of which is why, if I were voting, I’d want Slumdog Millionaire — the one movie that certainly has had its commercial Oscar bounce — to win tonight. It has all the qualities of a great popular classic; it has become the embodiment of its own underdog spirit; and it points the way to the future of movies, and the reuniting of the heart and head.

Are movies better than they used to be?

In my annual top ten list for 2008 I quoted a conversation with my friend Paula, who had suggested that films overall were getting better. Last night, on the other hand, my co-producer was bemoaning the fact that a movie star nowadays, by comparison with the Seventies, has far fewer opportunities to produce intelligent, politically engaged work: we were comparing the careers of Brad Pitt and Robert Redford, who starred in a string of provocative pictures, including All The President’s Men, The Candidate  and Three Days of the Condor.

So which opinion is correct — or is there room for both? Certainly there are plenty of film fans who talk about the Seventies as a vanished golden age, when audiences flocked to gritty adult dramas like The Conversation, Serpico and Midnight Cowboy, rather than today’s gross-out comedies, cheesy musicals, tired sequels and superhero movies. Let’s look, then, at the US box office from exactly thirty years ago. Here are 1978’s top 5:

1. Superman

2. Grease

3. Animal House

4. Every Which Way But Loose

5. Jaws 2

Ah. But then, a lot of people date the decline of movies from the phenomenon of Jaws, which set the template for today’s wide release summer blockbusters. So let’s take the year before Jaws, 1974. Here the top 5 looks like this:

1. The Towering Inferno

2. Blazing Saddles

3. Young Frankenstein

4. Earthquake

5. The Trial of Billy Jack

Admittedly, The Godfather Part II comes in at #6, but I think it’s fair to say that popular taste hasn’t changed that much over the years. But of course, in this awards season, popular taste isn’t all that counts. How about the Academy Awards? Here are last year’s nominations for Best Picture, the winner in bold:

No Country For Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Juno, Atonement, Michael Clayton.

And here are the winners for the other years we’ve looked at:

1978: The Deer Hunter, Coming Home, Heaven Can Wait, Midnight Express, An Unmarried Woman.

1974: The Godfather: Part II, Chinatown, The Conversation, Lenny, The Towering Inferno.

By any standards, 1974 makes a strong case for the Seventies: this is a Best Picture list as good as any since the all-time best year, 1939, whose nominations included Gone with the Wind, Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz. But in truth there have always been good years and bad years; the box office has always been dominated by crowd-pleasing genre entertainment; and each new generation of film-makers includes a few great talents who will produce outstanding, lasting films. Any period that can offer directors as varied as Paul Thomas Anderson, Darren Aronofsky, David Fincher, Guillermo del Toro, Danny Boyle, Fernando Meirelles, Alfonso Cuaron, Tsai Ming-Liang, Andrea Arnold, Lynne Ramsay, Shane Meadows, Thomas Vinterberg, Lukas Moodyson, Jonathan Glazer and James Marsh just for starters has no need to fear for the future of cinema.

What is depressing about the current crop of English-language movies is the lack of passionate contemporary drama, particularly set against that Oscar list from 1974. The current box office is dominated by super-hero movies, the awards shows by self-consciously artistic period films. All the more reason, then, to applaud the triumph at the Golden Globes by Slumdog Millionaire, which is largely subtitled, has no movie stars and engages with one of the great changes of our time, as the axis of the world shifts eastwards. That alone is cause for optimism as we look forward to the year ahead. 

Slumdog Millionaire

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I’ll never forget coming out of the cinema after seeing Shallow Grave and thinking: “At last! A British movie to be proud of!” Danny Boyle’s debut feature was the first in a string of bold, confident movies that have spanned different writers, actors and genres but have maintained a number of very un-British attributes: they’re fast-paced, thrillingly-scored, beautiful to look at, unashamedly emotional and — with a few exceptions — loved by audiences worldwide. There are also a number of recurring tropes: urban chases, unexpected windfalls, sinister authority figures and bodily fluids, all of which make Slumdog a virtual Now That’s What I Call Danny Boyle.

Most British critics of the movie have seemed somewhat grudging in their praise: The Guardian called it “wildly silly but perfectly watchable”, while The Independent said, “I’m not sure it’s a great movie, but it’s a great audience movie”, as if the two are somehow incompatible. But here’s what I think they’re saying: it made them cry. Most British critics seems to have a horror of admitting the emotional power of art, whether in the gallery, the cinema or even on television. They’re happy to tell you the theme of the piece, to analyse the acting or to pull the script apart, but God forbid that they should tell you it affected them somehow. This is not, of course, anything particularly new: Dickens was dismissed as sentimental by many critics of the time. But it is unhelpful, and it inhibits a proper response to the work.

Because Slumdog Millionaire is pure emotion. As its writer, Simon Beaufoy, says: ‘Something strange [was] happening to my writing. The usual, mealy-mouthed English nuance and subtext [was] being replaced by something bordering on melodrama. What use subtext in a city of such total extremes? Nuance doesn’t stand a chance in the car horn symphony of a Mumbai traffic jam … Tonally it really shouldn’t work. In any other city in the world, I suspect it wouldn’t work. But in Mumbai, not for nothing known as Maximum City, somehow I [got] away with it.” Slumdog gets away with it triumphantly. Moving effortlessly from pathos to horror, from slapstick to shock, the film is a slap in the face to the stiff upper lip; I heard the audience I saw it with laughing, sobbing, gasping with suspense. 

But the film delivers on an intellectual level too. At its heart are two love stories: between Jamal and his brother Salim, and Jamal and his sweetheart Latika. Jamal and Salim represent two opposing approaches to the world: Salim’s is “take care of the money and the rest will follow”, whereas Jamal’s is “love will conquer all”. While no-one familiar with Boyle’s work will be surprised by the outcome, the story is more nuanced than this might suggest. There’s no romance to poverty in Slumdog Millionaire, and you’re left in no doubt about the brutality of life in the slums. But ultimately, absolutely, it’s uplifting, a hard-won happy ending that’s satisfying, bittersweet and — yes — made me cry.