A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro
(This one comes from February 2009, shortly after Slumdog Millionaire defeated Milk in the Oscar Race for Best Picture. It’s a highly political piece, which has relevance, I think, far beyond its critical comparison of the two movies. – A-TC)
It is fundamentally unfair to compare one piece of art with another piece of art. They must both exist in their own universes, and at their own levels. Comparing GREAT EXPECTATIONS with THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS is an act of tremendous injustice; they are both masterpieces of their kind, and the immortality of the first does not preclude the smashing entertainment value of the other, or of (naming another work at random) “The Music Box” by Laurel and Hardy. We know this. We know this well.
And yet there are times when the comparison is so instructive that it must be made anyway.
To wit: I finally caught up with MILK yesterday. And about a week before it I caught up with SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, which just won the Academy Award for Best Picture. The films are both riveting, and so different in their assumptions that they are practically different species. It would be spectacularly unfair to criticize one for not being the other. And yet this is one of those times that one must.
You see, everybody’s talking about how beautiful and magical and classic SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE was. Everybody’s dropping dead with love for that movie.
I liked it very much. It is at heart an old-fashioned movie movie, visually sumptuous and deeply involving. But I was also disturbingly dissatisfied with it, so dissatisfied that I ended up resenting it, a little.
You know what it’s about. Three children are orphaned in the hellish slums of Mumbai, and endure the horrors this world reserves only for the most destitute. Years later, one appears on the Indian version of the TV game show “Who Wants to Be A Millionaire,” where he’s mocked for his slumdog background, and is expected to do poorly. To the nation’s astonishment, he knows all the answers. It turns out (and this is not a spoiler, since the movie begins with this), that his experiences taught him exactly the answers he needed to answer these particular questions. The central question is whether he is reunited with the love of his life, who has fallen under the control of some bad people.
Now, this is what SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE did well. It had some searing scenes of poverty. It nailed the dilemma of a young boy who remained more or less unspoiled while his brother became a corrupt thug. It made us care about that standard movie trope, an unspoiled love that begins in deepest childhood and remains pure and chaste until the final clinch. I firmly confess that it worked its spell on me, and I even liked the post-narrative ending, which is straight out of Bollywood.
But I walked away unsatisfied, and I think this is why.
The protagonist did nothing.
Life happened to him. He was battered by poverty, bullied by his brother, and limited by his circumstances. He finally went to the modern equivalent of a fairy godmother, the game show, and was rewarded for just, you know, deserving it. Much was made of this being his “destiny,” and I realized upon seeing the movie that if I never hear that word again, in a storytelling context, it will be too soon.
I realized I first decided I hated that word when Crispin Glover in BACK TO THE FUTURE kept saying, “I am your density.”
Because it’s a slave’s word.
In debt? Working for a boss you can’t stand? In danger of being thrown out of your house? Working two jobs and barely a nodding acquaintance to your kids? Keep buying that lottery ticket. Someday you’ll win. It’s your destiny, or at least you’re supposed to believe it’s your destiny. As long as you have that, you might as well not work to change anything else.
The teeming masses of Mumbai, cheering our hero’s game show successes throughout SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE, represent a triumph for him. But, guess what. He got out of poverty because it was his density – er, destiny. He had a million-to-one shot on a game show, and he gets a romantic clinch as well. But them? They’re still fucked. Whether he moves to the suburbs or goes out in the streets and starts handing out his rupees, he can’t help them all. The corruption is systemic. He’s just lucky he got out.
The movie has other flaws. I did not believe for one instance that the sociopathic shit of a brother, who has always been about serving his own immediate needs, would ever extend himself to help the protagonist he has used and brutalized. He only does because the movie needs him to. And that’s “density” talking again.
Now, take MILK.
And I need to establish, first, that it’s not just subject matter and approach that makes this a better movie. MILK is brilliantly performed by a fine cast, central among them Sean Penn, who has always been brilliant but who has rarely conveyed the warmth he shows here; he’s often been cast as pricks and thugs, but rarely as a guy whose smile could persuasively make others want to do anything for him. The same could be said for supporting players Emile Hirsch, James Franco, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber and others; and for the staging of real historical events, and for the direction by Gus Van Sant (who, I should say, has here firmly earned his way out of the critical perdition some of us condemned him to, for his temerity in remaking Hitchcock’s PSYCHO; that move was asinine and corrupt, but MILK more than earns him his artistic pardon).
And who is Harvey Milk? An affable little gay guy from New York, living in closeted fear, who moves to San Francisco and gradually gets involved in local politics, running for office multiple times until he finally makes history by getting elected. Facing down the gay-bashers, defying those who tell him he’s wasting his time, he is instrumental in raising public awareness and defeating a truly noxious piece of anti-gay legislation. It’s a great personal triumph that is the culmination of his life, and that starts a legacy of change still continuing decades later; a legacy that he does not get in share in, as he and mayor George Moscone are assassinated by fellow city supervisor Dan White.
(Nor are these spoilers. It’s history, people.)
MILK has humor, it has passion, it has dialogue and performances capable of making the receptive viewer weep, it has a great performance by Penn and one very much on the same level by Josh Brolin, whose Dan White is a study in stewing resentments. (It was incidentally the real Milk’s theory, mentioned in the film, that the conservative White was a closeted “one of us,” but that diagnosis is not strictly necessary to what happens; what White really is, and what Josh Brolin captures, is a kind of uber-Nixon, driven by self-loathing without any of Nixon’s compensating talent. Nixon was bad enough as a political genius. Dan White was Nixon as mediocrity: Nixon the guy who remained certain that everybody was laughing at him and was pretty much right about that, Nixon the guy who was such a nonentity he could only achieve something by bringing others down with him. Brolin played Dan White and George W. Bush in the same year, and I’m sorry to say that it wasn’t a display of his versatility as an actor; the parts required the same chops.)
It’s a brilliant film, and possibly the best of the year on its own merits. I would like it more than SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in any event. But what happens when you compare it to the film that beat it for the Oscar?
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE gives us a character who remains more or less helpless, who gets on a game show, who hasn’t even made himself the kind of person who might win there, who is instead handed a golden ticket by the happenstance of the right questions being asked. Chance rescues him, and he is cheered by a crowd that is still in the circumstances he left.
MILK gives us a character who refuses to be helpless, who head-butts that same wall time and time again and finally breaks through it, who accomplishes great things and plants the seeds of change, who does not get to share in it, and is left by a crowd whose lives he was able to change because he lived.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about trusting the phenomenon of the happy ending. MILK is about making that happy ending happen even if it’s for other people.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “and then he won the lottery.” MILK is about “Don’t wait for it to be given to you. Demand what’s yours.”
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about wish-fulfillment. So is MILK, but it doesn’t absolve its protagonist of the responsibility to make it happen.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is about “density.” MILK is about depth.
SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE is a fairy tale. MILK is….well, that’s where the contrasts fail. (I apologize.)
Cinderella stories are crowd-pleasing. But Cinderella, the character, does nothing. She’s harassed and rewarded by powers greater than herself. People respond to that because it’s how everybody feels, sometimes. But how much satisfying is a story when the character stands up and acts?
Even Buttercup, in THE PRINCESS BRIDE, gets to tell off the Prince.
The difference, I think, is the one between a movie that provides a balm to slaves, and the one that instructs free men. Trust SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and you’re deeper in your rut. But MILK, like the beverage, is good for you.
It is, as I began this little rant by saying, fundamentally unfair to compare one work of art with another. The two movies had different aims, and that’s fine. Fantasy’s fine. After all, I’m the guy salivating to see WATCHMEN in a couple of weeks.
But there was a period in film history, beginning in the mid-seventies but strongest in the eighties and the nineties, when every hit film had to end with the protagonists getting handed everything they wanted: they had to get a great job, get famous, and end up being cheered by a huge crowd, so that the audience had that image imprinted on their eyeballs. Coming after the complexity films had in the early 1970s, which was one of the greatest periods for American film at least, was like being forced to eat pablum when we’d become used to steak. I can give MILK no higher compliment than saying that it belongs to the era of DOG DAY AFTERNOON and SERPICO and THE GODFATHER. And I can say nothing more revealing about SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE in contrast than saying it belongs more to the era of ROCKY or STAR WARS, except that it uses true human suffering as a romantic backdrop, and thus (I think) betrays its subject matter.
MILK wuz robbed.