Bad Beginnings: Slumdog Millionaire

Imagine you got on an airplane and the captain said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, we plan to begin today’s flight to Dallas by crashing into an avocado orchard about two miles east of the airport. But after that, the flight should improve, and the middle will be fantastic.”

Well it’s a funny thing, art. Despite all its yawning canyons of subjectivity, we are stewing in it together. And despite knowing that our tastes are so disparate, I still hope each time to like the things that other people have told me they enjoyed. But I keep encountering movies whose directors take that crash first, soar later approach.

Tonight I sat down with a cup of decaf coffee and the DVD of Slumdog Millionaire. It is a widely acclaimed, very popular, successful  film. Highly recommended to me, personally, it was.

Visually dazzling and emotionally resonant, Slumdog Millionaire is a fim that’s both entertaining and powerful. – Rotten Tomatoes

So I completely expected to be enthralled to some extent; at least, to muddle through in a few sittings, and decide that it was a decent film at the end. Here’s what happened.

Scene 1: We see two sweaty, fairly dirty men in close-up. One man is young and skinny, the other older and fatter. The older man was blowing smoke in the face of the other.

Cut to Kyle’s house, where he sits in his chair. Setting his coffee aside, he says, “OK, right off, I’m disgusted, repulsed. Great start.”

Scene 2: The Indian version of the Millionaire TV show, a nervous guy, the young guy in the first scene, is a contestant. Cut scenes back and forth to (scene 1) him being beaten and tortured by the big guy.

Scene 3: Turns out the big guy is a cop. Another cop comes in, and it’s revealed they’re torturing this young guy to find out how he cheated on the TV show. He won’t talk. They proceed to attach electrodes to him and give him a shock. Cut to …

Scene 4, Kyle’s house. He ejects the DVD with the remote, walks to the TV, retrieves the disk. He picks up the red Netflix envelope, slides the disk into it, seals the envelope and carries it to the table by his front door, to go back to Netflix at his next convenience. Returning to the TV, he takes another film from a stack of red envelopes.

Turns out I don’t care how great other people think a movie is. I don’t care how many times I’ve done this, only to be told later, “Thou fool! It gets better! … Sure, it starts off slow, but then it gets good!”

Thanks, I’m sure that’s absolutely true. I have no doubt that Slumdoggie was going to improve. I just don’t think that’s a good reason to expect me to sit through a bad beginning. The beginning of everything matters. There are no ordinary moments. Life is too short. I’m writing a novel right now, and I’m trying really hard not to leave any vapid, bland, lousy paragraphs in it.

Any writer will tell you that you get one chance to set the hook, when you have the reader’s attention and you’d better do something for it. It’s entirely likely that the reader hasn’t even bought the book yet; she or he is standing in front of the shelf at Barnes & Noble, and is just going to read a few pages first.

Movies with bad beginnings rely on an old, and probably dying, paradigm: that of the viewer who has already paid to get in, or to rent, and is willing to give it some time before he does what I did. The paradigm is dying because increasingly, people are like me: two more Netflix flicks on the TV, 70+ channels of crap on TV, the vast Internet at hand, and a small library of books in the house. Plus a stack of unread magazines. We are swimming in distractions and entertainments, and nobody is getting a mulligan in this game, anymore.

It gets better is one thing I don’t ever want to hear about the humble things that I create with the talent God gave me. If the beginning doesn’t merit your attention, the whole thing belongs in the shredder. And if the first scene of a movie blows chunks, I don’t care how good the middle is, or the end. Maybe the director should have started in the middle or at the end, and left the asinine beginning on the cutting room floor, in Studio City, or Mumbai, and saved us all some time.

imagine my disappointment

For the last few months, I’ve been slowly working my way – via Netflix – through the HBO cable TV series Deadwood. Once you get past some harsh language and a slathering of violence, it’s absolutely great. Shakespeare in the old west. It has the acting, directing and writing talent that makes a guy like me wish he had a career in TV. It has interesting characters, brilliant dialogue, engrossing sets and costumes. All the best you’d expect from a high budget movie, in 36 hours instead of 2. But I never got bored.

Imagine yourself caught up in a 400 page novel, only to find that someone has torn out the last 50 pages. Imagine that To Kill A Mockingbird fades to black as Jem and Scout leave the school. That’s what happened to me with this show. I came to the end of the third season, with all sorts of story still to be resolved, and discovered they simply stopped. HBO decided not to hire the actors for a fourth season, then they tried to get the creator to make half a fourth season, then there was talk of a couple of move-length things to finish the story. But they never got made.

You can read about the show here. Scroll to the bottom to read about its demise.

Now we literate people – whether writers or readers – know how it is. You get engrossed in a story, and relate to the characters. That’s what we ask of people when we create; we seek their attention, and imply a promise to deliver something for the time we’ve asked for that attention.

Of course most TV shows don’t make it. And even those that do eventually come to an end. So it goes with everything. But after three years, the network has asked for, and in this case definitely received, a great deal of viewer loyalty. Deadwood was enormously popular, by all accounts. At that point, cancellation of the show calls for something very simple: an ending. Resolution. A sense of closure. In other words, a Series Finale.

We’re never going to get that. No last chapter for this book, boys and girls. Any why? Because HBO didn’t wait to pay the actors more money for the increasing popularity of the show; an increase which the network undoubtedly demanded as prerequisite for the show’s survival: You guys make the show popular, you can keep doing it, unless it gets too popular, and you price yourself out of the budget, then we’ll cancel it. Aaargh!

This isn’t just a case of a commercial company deciding not to deliver a product. (They are free not to do so.) But to the extent that films and television speak for and inform our collective unconscious, it’s a case of what passes for art passing into the void.

I want my closure. All I have now is the last disc, with the third season bonus features, and a can of sliced peaches. See, one of the characters – Swearengen – used to serve canned peaches at town meetings. It was a funny and strange twist in the script. So I’ll eat my peaches and