Thursday, February 19, 2009

Oscar As Temperature Guage

Okay, this will be my trilogy as it relates to Slumdog Millionaire posts. If you're interested in any of my past musings, they can be found here and here.

If you look at the year thus far, it sucks. It sucks as our personal lives are concerned. The market sucks. The job market sucks. Unemployment is the highest it's been in 17 years. No one trusts financial institutions. Etc, etc, etc. So if you use the temperature of the society to help select this year's best picture then Slumdog Millionaire makes perfect sense: an underdog who rises above everything to make a slew of money and save the love of his life.

I have been harsh on this film in the past. And I have been judged harshly because of it. And I'm not necessarily saying that it has somehow turned a corner for me, but I am saying that it's not wrong for people to love this film. Especially now.

First and foremost, a movie should provide escape. During times of great sorrow (the Great Depression, World Wars) people have turned to movies to make everything okay. Or at least feel okay. It is during these times that movies wield their greatest power. They make people feel normal during extraordinary times. Better yet, they make people feel empowered.

While I still believe and will continue to believe that the Oscars should be judged objectively, I will not dismiss the idea that our outside lives rule our decisions. And come Sunday, if it makes the country feel better that the Academy has awarded an underdog story, so be it. If Slumdog becomes our modern-day Seabiscuit, and mentalities are somehow changed because of it, you'll get no gripe from me.

Is it a lot to think that one movie can do all that? Yes. It it wrong to hope that a movie can do all that? No way. Right now, we need all the help we can get.


Jason Bellamy said...

Piper: This is fantastic.

As for this ...

I still believe and will continue to believe that the Oscars should be judged objectively, I will not dismiss the idea that our outside lives rule our decisions.

I know what you mean. We're fooling ourselves if we think our short-term judgements are more objective than our long-term ones, even if they turn out to be the same. In other words: Last year I thought "No Country For Old Men" was the best film of the year. Time may prove me correct, but even if so, my objective assessment in the short-term was made within that specific context. There's no getting around that.

As for the general theme of your post ...

Films are transportive, yes. They are also reflective of the times -- not only what the pictures look like but how they are received. As you suggest, "Slumdog" might be the perfect movie for these times -- either as a pick-me-up or just as a snapshot of what audiences responded to in these tough times.

Should the Oscars be a popularity contest? Heavens, no. Then again, in a nod to recent posts on this blog, I marvel at the growing-popular notion that "Titanic" was poor Best Picture winner? What movie better defined that year in film than "Titanic"? I love "L.A. Confidential," but, sorry, that wasn't it. For me, the same logic applies to the "Lord of the Rings" films -- I don't hear folks talk about them anymore, either, but for years it was part of the culture. If the Oscars reflect that, I'm OK with that, even if I don't particularly enjoy those films.

My main gripe with the Oscars is that in recent history the winners haven't reflected the YEAR in film. Instead they've teneded to reflect some four-month period when the movie that has the most buzz at the time tends to be propelled to victory, even if that same film is almost forgotten by the time it claims its award.

For better or worse, the Oscars are annual snapshots of pop culture. Nothing more. Yes, sometimes the movie in that picture turns out to be celebrated long-term. Other times it's forgotten. But usually the Oscars are somewhat accurate in representing the emotions of the moment. "American Beauty," "Dances With Wolves," and "Crash" -- I'm fine with each of those films being the Best Picture winner of those years. I'm more irked by something like "Shakespeare in Love" winning Best Picture, because I don't remember anyone, anyone, walking around raving about it.

Anyway, I'm rambling all over the place as thoughts from previous discussions here pop into my brain. Great food for thought, this post.

Right now, we need all the help we can get.


brian said...


Great post. The year Gene Siskel was sick and dying, he picked "Babe" as his favorite movie of the year. Would he have picked it any other year? Probably not.


Moviezzz said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sarah said...


"Slumdog Millionaire" is the perfect movie for these trying times: It follows ordinary people dealing with economic hardship, crime, suffering and a country in turmoil, yet manages to end on a wonderfully uplifting note. I see it sweeping the Oscars.

Sarah said...

By the way, I'd love to do a link exchange. Interested?

Here's my movie blog:

(I'm a fellow LAMB member.)

PIPER said...


Thanks for the comments. If I weren't so damn lazy, I might actually put together a post that reflects the times as well as the Best Picture for that year to see if there's a direct correlation. I might actually still do that.

I still can't agree on Titanic. It may have been that everyone was longing for a good old fashioned romance set during extraordinary times, but I don't feel that it is serving the same purpose of Slumdog. And that's to say that a movie only gets a pass during extreme situations, which I don't know is right. And yes I realize I'm contradicting myself. As it relates to Crash, I don't feel that movie was capturing the moment. One of my main criticisms of it was that it was so late to the party. Grand Canyon was much more timely.

And yes I agree with you that the Oscars are all about the past 4 months. It's getting to be a bad formula that everyone follows and I think that's a problem.

You're point about Lord Of The Rings is an interesting one. I myself am a fan of the trilogy but I'm not sure any of them deserved to be best picture. They're very well done, especially in the context of Jackson's earlier work and I think that that's how I view them - in awe to think that he took such a leap in his career. And that's not necessarily worth an Oscar. But because I did enjoy the films so much, I think I let it slide that they didn't necessarily deserve the accolades they got.

And here I'm rambling as well.


That's a perfect example.

PIPER said...


I'm usually pretty sensitive to movies. I found Rachel Getting Married to be very depressing, but I didn't feel the same way about Slumdog. Yes it is very violent at times and a tad disturbing, but I don't think it sniffs Trainspotting in those departments. As a matter of fact, I found the movie to be a tad sentimental at the end. I guess that it could have been much darker. There could have been the irony of winning the money but losing his girl. But ultimately the message is uplifting in the end.

And it's not like I disliked the film, I just don't think it's as amazing as everyone else does.


Thanks for visiting. We will have to see what happens Sunday night. I'll check out your site.

Jason Bellamy said...

Piper: I should have been more specific about "the moment." (My previous comment was all over the place.)

What I was getting at is that sometimes "the moment" reflects what's going on in the actual culture (think "Slumdog"), sometimes it reflects what going on in the pop culture (think the uber popularity of "Titanic" and than "LOR"), and sometimes it reflects what at the time seems new or trend-breaking in film (think "Dances With Wolves," which is things most mainstream movies weren't at the time ... long and often in subtitles).

On that note, I prefer to use the Oscars as a sort of time capsule to the moment. There's usually something to be learned by the list of winners -- even if it's "Miramax can promote anything into a victory," as with "Shakespeare in Love." But this tends to apply to Best Picture more than the acting/directing categories, which so often play "honor who we've honored before" or "honor who we should have honored ages ago."

As for your post, maybe you approach it this way: Look over the past X years of Best Picture winners and try to figure out, "Why did this win?" Often it's a combination of factors that go well beyond the film itself. Not saying that's ideal, just reality.

j bowlen said...

The Missing Ingredient

You're so right about the American public's reaction to Slumdog Millionaire and the logic of it, especially now. You identified some key ingredients in this movie's success recipe: underdog rises above; escapism; empowerment.

"Mere paas ma hai. I have nothing, but I have a mother." As I listened to Ar Rahman give one of his acceptance speeches last night, it occurred to me that there was one more key ingredient playing into the success and marketability of this movie.

I'm sure I was not the only member of the audience who left the theater after seeing Slumdog thinking to myself that I'm pretty fortunate to live in this country, even now. We watched those orphaned boys trying to survive in slums where people washed their clothes in a dirty river and predators pimped and blinded children for their own gain. Even as he won his millions, the hero was beaten and electrocuted.

It's not just the happy ending that makes Slumdog a "feel good" movie. It's the reminder to us as Americans that it could be a lot worse, and is a lot worse for a lot of people out there. Yes, we've seen better days, but as I watched the story of those two little boys I felt thankful for the things I have, including a mother.

Did it deserve 6 Oscars? Did it win as a result of our circumstances rather than its own cinematic merit? Will this start a trend of low-budget Baliwood releases? I don't know the answers, but when it comes out on cable, I will probably watch this movie again and feel just as good about it, even if the economy is improved.

J. Bowlen

PIPER said...


If I'm doing this next year, I think that would be an interesting post or series of posts leading up to the Oscars. And I think you're right about a picture being rewarded more for capturing the moment. Or being able to ride the momentum behind it. And yes it's right that this applies more to the picture than the actor. If momentum were the case with actor's, I think Rourke for sure would have won.

j bowlen,

I agree that that's the missing ingredient. I think it goes without saying, but it's important to note that I am indeed thankful that I don't live in the slums of Mumbai, or the slums anywhere. As bad as things are, they ware always worse elsewhere.

Where I thought the producer missed last night in his acceptance speech was to not point out the hopeful aspect of this film and how it fits in perfectly with the world around us. It's true that the US economy sucks, but in truth this is a world economic crisis. I would have liked to see him mention this in his acceptance speech. On the other hand, it might seem refreshing that someone missed their chance to bring in other circumstances not related to movies.

Thanks for your comments.

Anonymous said...

I do think it was refreshing. I for one cringed every time Susan Sarandon, or anyone else in more recent awards history for that matter, turn the podium into a pulpit from which to preach about their latest altruistic pet project.

You're accepting a movie award. Just do that. Save the world later.


jbow said...

Didn't mean to appear "anonymous," Piper (above).

By the way, did it go without saying that that was the missing ingredient or that you prefer not to live in slums?

Because I'm happy to come on periodically in order to point out the painfully obvious --and always happy to share my opinion. I wonder how you would say in Hindi: I have nothing but I have an opinion... hmmm...


PIPER said...


I think it goes without saying on both. It's always good to get a reminder of what we're thankful for. Especially in these times.

Fletch said...

Sellout. Caver-inner. Giver-upper.

But seriously, you make a valid point. Sometimes, outside influences have as much to do with one's (or many's [sic]) enjoyment of a film (or any other piece of media) as much as the piece itself. This may be such a case.

Though, even if it's not, I can't make an argument for any of the other nominees outside of Milk. But that's just me.