The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Why Slumdog Millionaire Is The Obama Of Oscar Politics
David Moats , January 23rd, 2009 08:29

The nominations are in and there are no real surprises. Dave Moats compares this year's race to the American election and hopes that Slumdog Millionaire is this year's Obama.

This year's Oscar nominations may well be the most predictable ever, and that's really saying something. Not predictable because the films are of such obvious merit and cultural import, but because each of the main contenders have orchestrated their respective PR campaigns with such military precision. Seemingly, all the films in question had posters dominated by blurbs like "A real Oscar contender" or "Oscar worthy performance" or "One of the best films of the year" flanked by regiments of '5-star' ratings larger than the title. Even some of the left field nods like Heath Ledger and Robert Downey Jr. were telegraphed by the mainstream press or joked about months ago. And not only are nearly all of the nominees textbook Oscar-baiting fare, but most even have that all-important chip on their shoulder which will make them favorites to win - just think of the poor, suffering Coen Bros who were denied recognition for so long only to win it all last year.

Surely making a psycho clown believable is a far more impressive feat than pretending to enjoy snogging James Franco.

Americans love a good underdog narrative, regardless of whether or not underdog can really be applied to such big-budget endeavours. We have David Fincher the American-auteur who has thus far escaped Oscar notice with his trademark dark and subversive work, now hoping to get the attention he deserves with the shiny, uplifting Forest Gump-style-epic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. We have Mickey Rourke's comeback role in The Wrestler. Angelina Jolie begging to be taken seriously as an actress (but looking surprisingly like the Joker with her perpetually sob-smeared makeup) in Changeling. There is a self important token gesture to the gay community in the form of Milk. And finally, the little British film (little by Hollywood standards) called Slumdog Millionaire whose makers seem to talk about it as if it were a little 'mom and pop' production that just happens to be taking the world by storm. Even Heath Ledger, despite being all but canonised, is an underdog for best actor because he played a comic book villain (surely making a psycho clown believable is a far more impressive feat than Sean Penn pretending to enjoy snogging James Franco). Revolutionary Road and Frost / Nixon aren't really underdogs except in the sense that all the other films have better underdog stories than them.

The Oscars seems to me to be less and less able to maintain the pretense of being an objective measure of quality and seem more and more like a little strategic and profitable game played by studios from a film's very inception. We all know that Oscar contenders are always released in the early months of the year so that they are fresh in mind for the panel, but I think the insipid and cynical tactics go beyond that. Fincher, Aronofsky, and Gus Van Sant have all seemingly sacrificed the idiosyncratic styles that have so far defined them in order to make an Oscar bid.

The winner is not the best leader but the candidate who is best at winning elections.

It's a lot like recent American politics actually: like the way John McCain, once a man of principle, was willing to get into bed with Bush and shamelessly spoon feed the conservative christian base. Winning seemed more important than winning on his terms. But no one actually believes what politicians say. Everyone from the academics to the toothless, sister-fucking hicks on farms who think Islamic terrorists want to anthrax their cattle understand that political elections are a game. Even the American news media seem to acknowledge this by allowing their pundits to analyse the way a candidate 'spun' a bit of policy or used positive body language rather than actually assess the policy itself or the candidate's qualifications. The winner is not the best leader but the candidate who is best at winning elections.

It may not be a fair comparison since the Oscars are in no way democratic,(like X-Factor is?) but neither is it conducted like an old school political convention, decided by shady mafiosos in smoke-filled rooms. The nominations are mailed securely to members of the Academy and, we are assured, checked and double checked for 'dangling chads' and the like. It's just that the process of nominations, however transparent, has a way of coming up with fairly predictable answers. This is because we all read the same PR led journalism and the buzz becomes reality.

There certainly are exceptions to the rule. Not all nominees need to be assembly line Oscar-type films, i.e.- sweeping dramas with romance, big stars and pedantic lessons to be learned. No Country for Old Men certainly broke the mould as did the inclusion, for better or for worse, of Little Miss Sunshine. It is certainly strange to see Robert Downey Jr. getting a nomination for playing a black man in a screwball comedy.

Slumdog is the Obama of this contest. It's multi-racial, smart, good-looking, charming as fuck and carries a message of hope.

This year, the dark horse is undoubtedly Slumdog Millionaire which I like to think of as the Obama of this contest. It's multi-racial, smart, good-looking, charming as fuck and carries a message of hope, however implausible. Like the now-President, Slumdog has gotten where it is not by engaging in traditional politics but by sidestepping them completely. It has presented itself not as the traditional, high minded, pathos-heavy drama but as a light, stylish, crowd pleasing romp. I for one think it's downright refreshing to see such a willfully unpretentious film in the lineup.

I'm not the only one who thinks Slumdog Millionaire should win, but not because it's the underdog, or slumdog as it were, but because it's substantially different. The subject-matter of the ever growing mega-city slums couldn't be more topical or 'now' as is the thumping, M.I.A. helmed third-world-chic soundtrack. This is a film which captures the planetary zeitgeist, as opposed to just the Hollywood zeitgeist.

As by far the most famous awards ceremony in the world and a massive guiding influence on the output of Hollywood directors, especially those looking to cement their legacy, you'd really hope that the Oscars could stand for something like innovation, relevance or mass popular appeal. As it stands however, the winner of the Oscar is not the best film, just the best film at winning the Oscar.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.