Hollywood, take me away!

The Oscar picks of 2008

In these gloomy economic times, we want to be stimulated — not only economically, but also entertainingly. This need for giddy escapism also may help explain the Oscar nominations of last year’s film output.

The Dark Knight, perhaps the darkest and most depressing film of the year (and one of the best and most successful), was snubbed in all of the major categories, save for a posthumous recognition for Heath Ledger. Perhaps its downer mood was too much for these downer days?

Four of the films that did get nominated as the year’s best (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Milk, Frost/Nixon and The Reader) still included dark themes (war, poverty, abuse, the Holocaust, political corruption, assassination, prejudice, homophobia, hurricanes, physical ailments), but their preoccupation with history presented a distraction allowing us to temporarily forget the current malaise and get lost in a mood reflective of another time and place.

And then we come to Slumdog Millionaire, also nominated for best picture. If this film isn’t the definition of feel-good escapism, then I don’t know what is. Here we have a story of a young man who struggles hard to free himself from life in the slums of Mumbai, strikes it rich through luck, determination and know-how, and ultimately gets the girl. The arc of this story seems disturbingly close to our current worries and our hopes to survive and thrive. Many of us are stressed that poverty lies ahead, and we hope that the stimulus package currently being debated in Congress will somehow magically rescue us from dire straits — not unlike the way a spin of the wheel, a roll of the dice, winning the lottery or knowing the answers to game show questions would offer a magical rescue. Our collective fate rests on how much individuals can work, spend and receive (in the form of cash or tax cuts). And each of us wants to be the one who comes out on top.

This fortuitous hopefulness — a distinctly American creation — is but one reason why no one should be surprised if Slumdog takes the top golden statuette.

But this hope also shows one of the film’s down sides. It is too American. Sure, the rest of the world has become infected with America’s fever for instant riches and consumerism — along with its economic coughs and wheezes. But it just seems inauthentic to transplant so much Americana to a foreign land.

Putting a fine point on it, compare Slumdog with Serbis, another film released last year. Interestingly, both of these films began on the film festival circuit. (I saw Slumdog at the Starz Denver International Film Festival and Serbis at the Cannes Film Festival.)

Yet, Slumdog has sung and danced its way into wide success and acclaim, while Serbis still treads in obscurity.

Both films are set in foreign lands — Slumdog in India; Serbis in the Philippines. Both depict poverty — Slumdog in the slums of Mumbai; Serbis on the streets of a town in a Philippine province. And both focus on their characters’ attempts to survive and to surmount their situations.

The action in both films centers on an American cultural icon — Slumdog on a television game show; Serbis on a porn movie theater. And each film offers a love story, misadventures among young people, sexual exploitation, struggles and absent parents — all of the things one would expect in such films.

They differ, however, in their tone, style, message and cost of production. And those differences help explain why one is on top, and the other goes begging.

Slumdog runs along at a brisk pace. It’s full of vibrant colors, snappy music and beautiful people. It is possessed of a certain glitziness that is typical of mainstream movies, which shows in the glossiness and costliness of the filmmaking itself.

The poverty in Slumdog is presented as being exciting — even adventurous. The kids are playful, flighty and industrious. They find ways to scrounge up some cash by storing tourists’ shoes at the Taj Mahal. Even the scene where, as a small boy, the main character is covered in human excrement reeks of lighthearted cutesiness.

We like our poverty dished out this way. Looking too closely and too clearly at those in the lower classes is unsettling and disturbing. We feel a nagging sense that we are but one pink slip away from a similar fate, and we want poverty to be less imposing and debasing than it really is.

How often do we turn and look away from a homeless person to avoid seeing the degradation that a life of destitution can inflict? Or because we know that there is little we can do to help — and we are gripped with a sense of self-preservation?

That’s not to say the film suggests poverty is all peaches and cream. For example, there is a brutal scene of blinding kids so that they can produce “sympathy alms” while begging on the streets. But, even here, there is a feel of thrilling Hollywood vindication when the kids turn the tables and flee from their abusers.

Slumdog ends with people dancing and winning millions. By and large, the plight of the characters in Slumdog produces a hopeful and optimist message. If only they work hard and possess a plucky attitude, the impoverished can break out and make it big.

And isn’t that message quintessentially American — a belief that we all have the ability to make it through these tough economic times?

Serbis, on the other hand, is gritty, grimy and grim. It was filmed on a shoestring budget, creating a palpable sense of fiscal paucity. You actually feel the heat, smell the stink, taste the grit, and — most striking of all — hear the screeching cacophony that fills the air of a crowded, depressed community. The soundtrack is loud and harsh. Cars and scooters rattle in the streets belching out exhaust, and people shout and bustle as they go about their daily lives.

The porn movie theater — the focus of the action that also doubles as the living quarters of the characters — is filthy — with smeared walls of crumbling paint and tile and where the plumbing fails frequently, forcing cleanups of toilets with festering mops. Trash and clothing litter the hallways and rooms.

Akin to the excrement scene in Slumdog, but depicted with a realistic starkness, a character nurses a boil on his rump and eventually pops it using an empty coke bottle (which we get to see in all its close-up, oozing glory!).

Characters have sex in the filthy seats and aisles of the theater. They randomly and clumsily go around trying to keep the place from falling apart while the matriarch, a woman who is in a legal battle with her absent former husband for bigamy, struggles to hold it all together.

Unlike Slumdog, Serbis does not focus on any particular character, but, rather, centers on a handful of people associated with the movie theater. Some are hustlers and prostitutes; some are running the business; some are friends and lovers. They seem to have aimless lives and a sense of permanence of their situation that even hard work cannot shake. Nevertheless, there is a humanistic interest in — and respect for — these people that makes the film mesmerizing and amazingly worth watching.

Serbis ends abruptly and inconclusively, as the film literally melts as if its stuck in the projector — just like the lives of those it depicts are stuck and melting away in poverty.

Serbis presents the true face of poverty — an unflinching look at the have-nots — and avoids a strained, sugarcoated sense of escapism. That may be why the more sanitized Slumdog gets all the cheers, while Serbis audiences — and award nominators — look the other way.

After all, in these difficult economic times, we want an uplifting dream, not a harsh reality.

Doug Young is The Statesman’s outstanding film critic. He also works for U.S. Sen. Mark Udall as an environmental policy adviser.