Slumdog survives pre-Oscar backlash to show true underdog spirit

February 24, 2009 at 4:17 pm (Film) (, , , , , )

Following its recent Oscar success, it seems likely that the recent backlash against Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ is only going to get worse.

slumdog_millionaire_jamal_malik_b1

In an age where any ‘underground’ success, be it in music, television or cinema, is savagely lambasted by cultural commentators and former fans alike, it seems inconceivable that any Oscar winning film can escape being critically savaged over the internet, regardless of its humble origins.

‘Slumdog’ started life as a Film4 production, after the company bought the rights to film Indian diplomat Vikas Swarup’s novel ‘Q&A’. The total cost of making the film was around £15m , relatively cheap for a major film (Oscar rival ‘Batman Begins’ cost around £130m), and received relatively little marketing prior to its release. The film’s success was instead largely based on word of mouth, and positive reviews in the press.

However, as the commercial and critical success of the film took it from underdog to favourite in first the Golden Globes and then the Oscars, the sniping began.

The accusations were varied, and in some cases contradictory. Firstly, some commentators lambasted the film for depicting a typically Western view of Mumbai, (and thus, they allege, India as a whole). They argue that by concentrating on the lives of slum dwellers for the majority of the film, that Danny Boyle is presenting an age-old colonial view of India as a backwards, filthy, corrupt, poverty stricken wasteland.

This assertion would be fair enough if the film depicted something that did not already exist. Having been to the slums of various Indian states, it is clear that the images depicted in ‘Slumdog’, the mountains of litter, the blinded beggars, the police corruption, are an accurate representation of the film’s setting. But it is also worth noting that Boyle has chosen to set his film (or at least its beginning) in these places as part of its narrative.

We do see the other side of India, as a huge, rapidly developing world power in later scenes, but these images (the hive of commerce that is uptown Mumbai, the massively successful film and telecommunications industries) are conveniently left out of negative criticisms of the film. What should be shown instead? Should Boyle ignore the fact that over 80% of Indians live on less than £1.70 a day just because he is a white, British director? Is it then fine for him to shoot scenes of squalor, drug addiction and depression in his native Scotland, just because he was born there?

Having shot the film on location and used street kids who actually lived in the slums of Mumbai for two of the main roles of the film, it seems rather odd to claim that Boyle has presented a view of India that only exists in the eyes of Westerners. Stranger still that some of the same critics are also claiming that using said street kids in the film amounted to exploitation. Several papers, most notably the Telegraph, accused the film’s producers of selling the kids short by paying them “less than many Indian domestic servants.”

The film’s distributor Fox Searchlight were quick to deny any wrongdoing, stating that “For 30 days’ work, the children were paid three times the average local annual adult salary,” as well as funds that would cover “basic living costs, health care, and any other emergencies.” In addition to this, Danny Boyle revealed in an interview with Entertainment Weekly that a trust fund had been set up for the young actors that would pay them additional funds based on how the film performed at the box office. Boyle said ‘’they have to stay in school until they’re 18. When they reach 18, and if they’ve passed all their exams, a quite substantial sum of money will be released to them.”

While the debate over how whether the kids should be paid wages comparable to similar work in their own country or in Hollywood could run and run. However one point to remember is that the producers of the film could not have envisaged that ‘Slumdog’ would have perform as well as it has at the box office, so many of the accusations that the kids were underpaid on the basis of the films surprisingly hefty ticket receipts are largely irrelevant.

One of the strangest rants against the film came from Alice Miles in the Times. Under the headline ‘Shocked by Slumdog’s poverty porn’, Miles labels the film as ‘vile’ and states that it ‘revels in the misery of India’s children. This is absolutely baffling. On one hand Miles appears to find the images in the film so distasteful that she finds it hard to watch them. This is a fair enough response to scenes which show a child’s eyes being burned with hot oil, young children working as prostitutes and Jamal being strung up by his neck and electrocuted while in a police station. These scenes are far from graphic, but could offend some people’s sensibilities, in which case I would advise them to leave the cinema and reflect that the film was not for them.

However Miles states that ‘you want to look away, but you can’t’, implying that her editor has forced her into some kind of ‘Clockwork Orange’ style viewing mechanism wherein she is forced to watched the same ‘scenes of absolute horror’ over and over again until she writes a controversial piece on it.

Alice Miles starts to wonder if working for The Times is really worth it

Alice Miles starts to wonder if working for The Times is really worth it

The biggest problem about this criticism of the film is that it implies that the audience are somehow getting their kicks not from the story, characters, music or cinematography of the film, but by the idea of people being maimed, raped and killed. Either that or Miles is trying to imply that these scenes have been invented in Danny Boyle’s head to spice up the action, that bad things like that just don’t happen in real life.

In reality, of course, some children are disfigured when they are young so that they can make more money begging. Children are sold into prostitution and young men do join gangs and get hold of weapons that are older than they are in an attempt to break out of poverty. The people who watched and enjoyed ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ are not sadists, but can understand the issues that affect some of the poorest people in the world while revelling in the determination and serendipity of the protagonist who works his way out of that life without compromising his own moral code. It is doing the films audience a massive disservice to claim that this approach simplifies or makes light of these issues in the face of Jamal’s triumph.

We leave the cinema knowing that it is fantasy, that the harsh images at the start of the film remain the reality for millions of people in India and all over the world, and they are the images that stick with us.

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Random YouTube roundup (Pt 2)

February 21, 2009 at 5:15 pm (YouTube) (, )

The Simpsons has a new intro!

To celebrate the fact that a tiny proportion of viewers are now able to watch the shows doomed attempts to re-discover its former genius in HD, the shows makers have decided on an updated (and over-long) title sequence.

Looks great, but they still look as though they’re struggling for ideas in my humble opinion.

Enjoy.

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Random YouTube round up (pt1)

February 21, 2009 at 5:07 pm (YouTube) (, , )

Along with a recent website facelift, The Strokes have released an alternative video for ‘You Only Live Once’. The video is a 2001-style vision of a post apocalyptic space mission to another planet, and begins with the end of ‘Ize of the World’. It works really well as a thematic link between the two tracks and can be found here.

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”Out of the darkness, and into the fire”

February 20, 2009 at 5:06 pm (Gigs) (, , , , )

The Walkmen – Concorde2, Brighton – 19/02/09


This wasn’t in the script. At a time in which even the freshest, most overly hyped new bands are barely given the chance to step foot inside a recording studio for the second time, the future of groups such as The Walkmen looked bleak indeed.

Having garnered a fair amount of interest with their debut and follow up ‘Bows & Arrows’ (not least as 2/5ths of the group had jumped ship from the critically lauded Jonathan Fire*Eater), it seemed that the band were falling further from public attention with every release. Live performances were less and less cohesive, and the group seemed to be losing its way and short on confidence. This is, of course, a fairly understandable state of affairs. After all, when you release one of the greatest singles of the decade and still no one’s really heard of you, it must get a little demoralising.

However, the band didn’t fizzle out or implode into a snarling alcoholic mess as some may have feared. Instead they settled down, took stock, and then to the unprecedented step of taking two years off to write and record the excellent ‘You & Me’ which has not only re-ignited some of that early critical acclaim, but brought them back to into the public eye. That they did this by reigning in some of the anger and clatter of their previous efforts and making a smoother, better paced and more organic sounding record is more surprising still.

So the crowd at the Concorde tonight is a bit of a curious mix. We have the devotees who have stuck with the band and are now rather smugly relishing the fact that they have been with them from the beginning, casual fans who remember their early promise and been stirred into life by the bands recent renaissance, and, most intriguingly, a small gaggle of kids, swelled by recent reviews in Pitchfork and DIS who seem a bit bemused that their new heroes are over the age of 25.

The band themselves seem invigorated and actually in pretty good spirits, showing admirable patience with the small vocal majority continually calling for ‘The Rat’. A large proportion of the material comes from the new album and somehow sounds both highly polished and fresh, with every element of the band’s huge reverb soaked wall of noise pitching in unison. Peter Bauer’s constant thronging bass ensures a collective unity that underpins the flanged out, almost surf-like rolling guitar of Canadian Girl, and the swampy organ chimes that are liberally dabbed on to ‘In The New Year’.

There is a real sense of confidence about the band, with singer Hamilton Leithauser happy to stand centre stage and allow the band to play around him, the guitar and organ lines being left to slowly marinade, pushed forward by Matt Barrick’s subtle drum work. This approach works beautifully on songs such the fragile encore ‘New Country’, with Leithauser standing stock still at the front of the stage, with a single guitar line undulating beneath his tender vocals.

Leithauser himself has never sounded better. The more rounded approach of his vocal work on ‘You & Me’ coming over perfectly live, infusing older songs such as ‘138th Street’ with a new found clarity and direction. His voice is still used in part as part instrument, part weapon of ear-splitting destruction, but the effect of having it higher in the mix on their latest album seems to have galvanised Leithauser into ensuring that every note, even those throat ravaging cries near the top of his register, are hit.

The Rat is finally delivered towards the end of the set, sounding every bit as powerful, contemptuous and lonely as when it first thrust the band onto MTV screens all over America. The difference now is that its power is offset by an ever increasing army of songs that are in turns beautiful, playful, fragile and exuberant, and that have given the band the confidence they may have needed to play in the way they always wanted to. In short, the new album, from its elongated recording process to the positive reactions engendered by the finished product has helped free the band from just being ‘those guys who did ‘The Rat’’ to a group with the self belief to make music on their own terms. In doing so they’ve made one of the best albums of the last year, and possibly the finest work of their careers. On this showing it could well be one that finally fulfils its promise.

Review now up on Brighton Magazine.co.uk

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Most inventive new band in Britain?

February 19, 2009 at 2:21 pm (Gigs) (, , , , , )

Step forward Late of the Pier.

The front bar at the Concorde is roughly two-deep by the time we arrive, and with a mere ten minute wait to get cloak-room, things seem a bit quiet. A little too quiet as a friend of mine remarks. Having braved a wall of pent up adolescent fury, hair and neon when Does It Offend You, Yeah? came to call a couple of months ago, I was prepared for something of an all out teenage war fuelled by a combination of snakebite and hype. Yet things seem vaguely calm in here, civilised even.

On closer inspection it appears that the support have started, and, judging by the crowd that has amassed for Micachu, the hype machine is working at full force. Either that or it’s simply the overflow from the girl’s toilet queue which is already reaching fairly ridiculous proportions.

Having read a bit about Micachu in preparation, I decide to catch what turns out to be the majority of her set and try to ascertain if much of the media attention (‘pioneering pop!’ – The Guardian, ‘a genuinely eye-opening experience‘ – Drowned in Sound, ‘utter dross’ – guy next to me) is really justified.

Micachu (and some of her 'shapes')

In short, it’s pretty hard to tell. The fact that most of those around me spent more time trying to work out the gender of said artist rather than attempting to make some sense out of the messy, mangled keyboard glitches, minimised percussion and sudden bursts of staccato shouting that make up most of the short songs on display here tells you one of two things. a) Micachu’s incredible outfits and over the top stage presence make such conversations an inevitable side attraction that frequently overshadows her music. Or b) Her songs are not really grabbing anyone’s attention, and they’re getting bored. Sadly the answer is b. This is a shame because the waves of sound coming from the stage are certainly interesting enough to warrant further inspection, and although some of it may sound overly spiky and abrasive (the term ‘quirky’ has been bandied around quite a bit, but on this showing it would seem to under sell her a bit), there is a simplicity about much of it that betrays a pure pop undercurrent.

So while some of the kids at the front are getting into the shouty bits and flailing around like demented Catherine wheels, the majority of the crowd look on in fairly bemused silence and prepare themselves for something they can sing along to.

This arrives reasonably promptly, and the front room is a closely packed, massively haired, and already fairly damp hive of excitement as Late of the Pier stride on. We have positioned ourselves to within striking distance of the stage, but after a brief rising wall of keyboard drone, the opening bars of ‘Space And the Woods’ kicks in and…. well, not too much actually. Far from the mad rush towards their (relatively) moderately dressed heroes, the crowd seem almost unprepared. Maybe they were expecting a bit more foreplay, or maybe they were still doing their hair in that ridiculous toilet queue, but it doesn’t take long before bodies are being hurled like missiles across the small gaps in the crowd.

Things quickly pick up with fan favourites ‘Heartbeat’ and ‘Broken’ getting an early airing and the mass of bodies responding with suitably frenetic dance moves/random shoving. However, some of the very best moments come when the band have settled a bit and, flush with confidence from the predictable adoration that greats the catchier numbers, start to venture into more varied territory.

Late Of The Pier

What separates Late of the Pier from many of the bands they’ve (incorrectly) been grouped with is that while many of the nu-rave facets are on display (heavy synths riffs, electronic noodling , outlandish wardrobes), many of their songs display a depth and ambition to explore different genres that is not found in their peers. Tellingly, these traits are now evident live, with tracks like ‘The Bears Are Coming’ now sounding more rounded and confident, buoyed by repeated performances on the road. Indeed the way in which the menacing warped carnival theme of ‘VW’ is tempered by the soft chimes that herald its euphoric breakdown has the crowd swaying, arms aloft in almost spiritual reverence. Similarly, tracks that sounded almost throwaway on the early Zarcorp demo’ such as ‘Random Firl’ are showing the benefit of the guiding hand of Erol Alkan. The choppy riff and 8bit chimed melody of the original feel smoother and fuller when set against a pure Beatles-esque ‘behind the clouds’ refrain that envelops the song in a dreamy, almost wistful haze.

The presence of a new song, as yet untitled hints at further development. While it’s often pretty hard to get a good feel of new material when played live, the addition of two guest vocalists to ‘sing like little girls’ hints at a continued desire to for the band to expand their horizons, while the sheer verve of attempting about seven different time signatures inside four minutes (and getting the whole cacophony to finish on a pin prick) shows admirable ambition. A more straightforward mass-sing-and-pogo-along to a rapacious ‘Focker’ whips the crowd up once more, before the opening squelches of show closer ‘Bathroom Gurgle’ kick in. The tri-part behemoth has been a live favourite since the bands early shows, and serves as a perfect example of why Late of the Pier are one of the most exiting bands around at the moment. Starting as a fairly simple, and actually quite dour Numan-esque bit of electro, the track suddenly loses all restraint and throws itself open to a spot of prog histrionics. It then somehow segues into a brash floor filler that sounds like Jack White doing the Timewarp, before veering back to falsetto harmonies and crashing guitars for the finale. And all in the space of 4 and a half minutes.

It’s a brilliant condensation of everything the band do well, and gives amble demonstration of why, on a night when the mammoths of mediocrity are slugging it out over Brit awards in London, Late of the Pier are producing something that deserves to blow them all out of the water.

Review now up on Brighton Magazine.co.uk

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Between Thought and Expression….

February 16, 2009 at 3:43 pm (Uncategorized)

…There lies a lifetime.

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