Monday, February 16, 2009

Would Vladimir Nabokov Like Slumdog Millionaire?

I just posted a review for Slumdog Millionaire in which I'm pretty harsh to Danny Boyle. And deservedly so, it was because of him that the film is bollocks. But I was sitting around thinking today....what would Vladimir Nabokov think. Yes, I'm that nerdy. You see, Nabokov had this to say in regards to art: "Style is morality". Hmmm. The brilliant Martin Amis (a fan of Nabokov, he also wrote a book about the famous author) compounded upon this idea by adding: "Style is morality; style judges." Essentially what Amis and Nabokov are saying is that you don't respond to plot, you respond to style.

But I wonder if they would think that that all-style-no-substance fare of Slumdog is any good. Let me rephrase that, it's not just that the film is all style and no substance, because I will freely admit (and I think this is where Amis is coming from) I love, love, love stylistic films that are a tad loose in regards to caring about their plot (i.e. Tony Scott films). The difference between that kind of style (and the style Amis most certainly speaks of in regards to his own literature) and the 'style' of Slumdog is that the style of Boyle's film exists primarily because the story is shallow. The film's failed attempts to create an all-encompassing, transcending fairy-tale is ruined by the films overuse of style; here style has exposed the irresponsible way in which the film was storyboarded; it's all a fraud, something that the viewer, regardless of plot, has little to invest in or care about because of the way Boyle completely disallows the viewer to feel anything organically. At least in a Tony Scott film I know that Domino is as flashy and kinetic as the images that swirl around her. I can't think about how any of those adjectives (kinetic, flashy) describe Jamal, the 'slumdog'.

Before I continue, I think I should clarify what I mean by style over substance. I'm not saying that style is bad, in fact I'm not even saying that all-style is bad, good movies have been made from that prototype. What I mean by all style and no substance is that the films style exists solely because the film had no substance to begin with. Think about a film like Miami Vice, Man on Fire, or Domino, all films that have style to spare and little regard for their plot; however, their stories move with a certain ease, the directors show obvious control of the medium and know how to buoy a poor plot with amazing visuals. I don't really recall anything specific about all three of those films when it comes to major plot points, but I can relay the story to you and explain explicitly how the visual details make each film memorable.

Obviously the American public are disagreeing with the authors' basic claim that you respond to style, not plot. I think a lot of people are actually convinced that what they are seeing is something so moving, so profound, that they've disregarded that the film is beating them over the head with its visual 'style'.

I often say on this blog, that for me a great film needs to be both aesthetically pleasing and contain a narrative that makes me care. Often times there is a trade off, as is the case with most Tony Scott films (ah, but these are not great films). And yes, even someone as great as Terrence Malick (his films are great, because the visual is tells the narrative, and it's often something quite moving and thought-provoking) usually abandons plot, because he'd rather let his visuals (which are poetry) do the talking. It's apt that Malick is so often attributed to a poet, because he excels in imagism. His films are often bare-bones in the plot department (especially in regards to dialogue forwarding the storyline). Michael Mann pictures (again, I'm thinking of Miami Vice), are similar. He often has his cops, hitmen, criminals talking in half-phrases or mumbling. Most every emotional plot pot is said through silence (of course with Mann there's always rock music in the background). Danny Boyle should have studied Michael Mann to learn how to do a montage properly (Mann's The Last of the Mohicans is a perfect example of music, in lieu of dialogue, being the driving force of emotion in film).

Martin Amis and Vladimir Nabokov's quotes show that for great masters, like themselves, it's understandable why plot is second to style. When you get down to it, Martin Amis has some of the most generic plots in 20th century literature; however it's his style that sets him apart from others, showing why he is a master at the postmodern novel. But story is crucial, and that's major failing of this years lead nominee. I haven't seen The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but according to Ali Arikan at Cerebral Mastication it's no good, either. He makes a great point against the film, and it's not like I enjoy being anti-populist film, it's just that, thinking on these two quotes from these two literary giants, I can't help but think that there's some who have it in regard to the all-style-no-substance filmmaking, and those who don't.

It's important to distinguish between style as 'morality' (style is remembered, not plot) as the authors above state, and style for style's sake; the former is evident in the films of masters like Malick and Mann, the latter will get you nowhere in film....except 10 Academy Award nominations. Danny Boyle will never be any of the names I've mentioned above, but he's a decent enough director who unfortunately lets his style run amok. Sometimes that works as was the case with 28 Days Later (his penchant for extreme close-ups worked well in the horror genre) and sometimes it fails him, revealing what a weak storyteller he is (as was the case with Slumdog Millionaire). I don't think Nabokov or Amis would enjoy the film simply based on their quotes. They're not saying that story (story and plot differ, I feel as if this idea is deserving of a much bigger post) is irrelevant and style is all you need, rather the issue they are addressing is that artists need not be so wrapped up in plot, which are usually full of contrivances, and should let their visuals do the talking (again, think of Malick's films), progressing the narrative through style and imagery.


  1. For me, it's very difficult for a film that's all style and very little or no substance to win me over, but it has happened. One film like that that is pretty much forgotten now is Julien Temple's 1986 musical Absolute Beginners. A classic that I think works is Last Year at Marienbad. I agree with Ali on Benjamin Button. I just thought Slumdog was sort of a mixed bag that couldn't decide what it wanted to be when it grew up.

  2. Edward:

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting. I too struggle with films that are all style and no substance, but there are a select few (and I've named the directors in the post) who I think can pull it off. I also didn't think Slumdog Millionaire, as you state, knew it what it wanted to be. It was a mess of a movie and I think that it is being praised for such great visual style. I just can't see any evidence from the film that Boyle knew what it was he wanted up on the screen. For me the film is more than a mix-bag, it's a complete failure because instead of realizing its potential (it could have been really good, I think) it's a mess both in style and substance.

    Thanks again for stopping by.