Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Salaam Bombay (1988) & Slumdog Millionaire (2008): A Comparison

Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire are two films that share a similar narrative structure, are set in the same Indian location of Bombay (or the newly named Mumbai), and concern young male protagonists growing up in poverty. Both the male leads earn our sympathy as one misfortune follows another, and their need to save the object of their desire from a life of prostitution is met with difficulty of impossible odds. Despite these similarities, Nair’s and Boyle’s visions are quite different.

Salaam Bombay focuses on Krishna, a boy whose family has banished him until he can earn enough money to repay his brother for an object he destroyed. Krishna’s journey leads him to Bombay where he takes on a job delivering tea to the many dubious characters who have an ability to scheme and swindle Krishna out of money. Even Krishna’s divine name is robbed from him and replaced with Chai-pau, an identity that focuses on his position of a menial laborer or tea boy. Krishna soon meets and idolizes a young virginal girl who is being groomed as a future prostitute by pimp, Baba. Along the way, Krishna also befriends a drug addict, a young girl, and her prostitute mother. Krishna’s interactions with these helpless characters and constant financial set backs foreshadow his inability to transcend his obstacles and leave Bombay. The film’s gritty realism depicts a harsh reality for the impoverished youth of Bombay, offering little in terms of hope.

Slumdog Millionaire centers around Jamal, a boy who’s poverty-stricken lifestyle aids him in the knowledge that can possibly win him millions on a game show. Though he, too, must endure Bombay’s brutal realities, it is foreshadowed that Jamal’s story will be trace his journey from rags to riches. From the moment the “human feces-covered” Jamal gets the treasured autograph of famous Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan, the audience is aware that this boy has luck on his side. This fantasy vision presented by an outsider such as Boyle, creates an “anything is possible” scenario. Jamal, like Krishna, has a need to save a young girl, though through Boyle’s humor and optimism the audience suspects a happy ending.

In addition, the style of filmmaking is very different between the two films. Salaam Bombay has a grittier veneer that seems based in neo-realism, where Slumdog Millionaire uses flashy colors and at times resembles Bollywood-style musicals. The editing of Salaam Bombay is workman like, with each edit a means to propel the narrative, yet Slumdog Millionaire uses M.T.V. style editing that juxtaposes current modern pop music like M.I.A. to excite the audience and propel the action. At times, Salaam Bombay resembled early Satyajit Ray films or even Francois Truffaut (the ending especially is reminiscent of Truffaut’s The 400 Blows). Slumdog Millionaire seems like Danny Boyle took his grimy, flashy, pop culture referencing Trainspotting and moved it from Scotland to India. In the end, Salaam Bombay succeeds in creating a more realistic, hard-hitting, and harrowing film.

Though both Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire share similar themes, the director’s different visions are apparent. The flash and glittering images of “Slumdog Millionaire” acts a sugarcoated buffer for audience approval. When one compares its joyful, celebrative conclusion with that of “Salaam Bombay’s” downbeat uncertainty, one gets the impression of being duped by Slumdog Millionaire. Though the film is wonderfully crafted, Mira Nair’s vision comes across much more honest.

Film About A Woman Who…

Yvonne Rainer’s “Film About A Woman Who…” seems to deal mostly with a woman’s emotional and sexual dissatisfaction within her morose marriage. The placement of identity within the structure of an American marriage seems challenged through Rainer’s vision. Not only are the structures of marriage disjointed, but cinematic conventions are challenged as well. Rainer’s cinematic stylization seems to be influenced by American Structuralist cinema, as well as the French New Wave (especially director Jean Luc Godard). In addition, there appear to be non-cinematic influences such as Merce Cunningham’s modern dance, the Minimalist Art movement, and possibly feminist theorist Gumaini Grur, as well. Reiner intentionally uses a minimalist cinematic form to emphasize the lifeless marriage that the protagonists inhabit.

The characters from “Film About A Woman Who…” seem lifeless and in a zombie-like state. Affection, communication, and sexuality have been frozen as Rainer delves into the mental psychology of this frustrated housewife. In the exposition of the film, the husband and wife appear like statues as they pose for pictures. Through the process of taking photographs and the harmony that pictures suggest, Rainer is already criticizing the fa├žade of martial happiness; the pictures sell us the idea of unity and connection, yet the ending seems to dispel any such notion.

The modern dance piece that concludes the film is comprised of frozen, statue-like movements that seem to symbolize marital paralysis. The harmonious interaction that is usually found between a couple in dance is broken into singular autonomous movements, suggesting isolated forms. However, the dancers are not the central protagonists, so whether or not they mirror the main couple or if they express a universal marital theory is unclear. One thing is for certain though, to understand this climactic ending is to grasp the full meaning of Rainer’s film.

Perhaps, it is this aspect of Reiner’s minimalist cinema that seems to work against the story. As she pushes further and further into the direction of minimalism, it becomes less and less accessible to the audience. The film seems to shift its identity from one form to another, from the narration and the forty-two statements, to an almost apologetic love note for her husband (which is pasted all over her face), and concluding with the modern dance resolution. Furthermore, the film is presented in stagnant shots that are lacking in sync sound and filled with monotonous narration. The deconstruction of cinematic structures (i.e.; sync sound, camera movement, etc.) reminds one of Godard’s attempts at rebuilding cinema through the breaking of conventions. In Godard’s film, “Le Gai Savoir” (aka: “The Joy of Knowledge”), two characters inhabit a theater and attempt to rebuild cinematic expression for the entire length of the film, reminding me a bit of Rainer’s experimental narrative structure. Although Godard’s and Reiner’s films are strong examples of experimental cinema from the 60s and 70s, both efforts may leave one feeling frustrated and puzzled. It seems that director Frank Perry’s attempt to showcase the frustrations of marriage and sexuality for women is stronger realized in the more conventional and accessible “Diary Of A Mad Housewife.”

Although Reiner’s experimental cinematic style may work in conjunction with its unconventional narrative structure, its lack of a cohesive focus challenges the viewer. We are left with not much to hold onto outside of the vague outlines of a broken marriage, or a discontent wife. Unfortunately, the form that I feel this film suffers from the most is minimalism. Though I don’t know to what degree this film follows the form of minimalism or if it is rather through budget constraints. Though the film requires a certain amount of audience patience, this is still a unique film that fits perfectly in a historical timeline of burgeoning feminism and artistic experimentalism of the 70s, while simultaneously opening another door for women directors.


Since the early 70s the vigilante/ revenge genre films have emerged dealing with characters brandishing a personal form of justice. Magnum Force (1973) maybe one of the earliest of films where a group of police rookies join a vigilante group that goes after criminals who have gotten off from a crooked judicial system. The 1974, Charles Bronson film Death Wish though, really started the vigilante/ revenge genre. Soon there was Taxi Driver (1976), Rolling Thunder (1977), and Ms. 45 (1981). Yet it is director William Lustig’s and writer Richard Vetere’s Vigilante (1983) that wraps up the genre, while summing up its nihilistic message.

The story is about a man named Eddie Marino whose wife has been beaten by a gang and his son has been murdered. Though Eddie is friends with Nick, Burke and some other guys he is hesitant about joining their vigilante group. He believes that the judicial system and law is the only way to keep order, otherwise they would be no different from any other criminal. Yet Eddie’s journey through the judicial system to get the gang who murdered his son is anything but ideal. His bitchy lawyer makes the judge mad and then sentences the gang leader Rico to two years in prison. When Eddie reacts he is contempt of court and sentenced to two years in prison as well. While Eddie is in prison, Nick and the group are still cleaning up the city. A drug dealer that is selling to kids is beaten after a lengthy chase through Williamsburg’s McCaren Park and Pool. In jail Eddie is being harassed in the shower by fellow inmates, yet a guy named Rake helps to fend off his tormentors. Meanwhile, Nick is following his own lead from Horace a pimp to the leader of the drug racket Thomas “Mr. T” Stokes.

In two years Eddie is released from jail and he immediately joins the vigilante group and kills Rico who he thought killed his son. Before Rico dies he tells Eddie that Prago killed his son. Before the Vigilante group leaves one of the group members is shot by Rico’s girlfriend, who is then shot by Nick. Eddie visits his wife but she no longer wants to see him and blames him for not being there during the attack. Gang retaliates and machine-guns a car of police officers. Eddie eventually finds Prago and gives chase first on foot, then by car and climbing up a tower where the final confrontation ends with Eddie pushing Prago to fall to his death. Just when you think it is the end, Eddie blows up the judge’s car with him in it, eliminating the law he once believed in.

Like Lustig’s previous film Maniac (1980), Vigilante is a down and dirty look at New York City in the early 80s. Yet where Maniac deals with a psycho serial killer on the loose in the city, Vigilante ups the stakes and has psycho victims terrorizing the criminals. William Lustig’s film is a study of random gang violence that happens in urban cities. From the opening a man named Nick is talking to a group of people about taking the city back from the gangs and punks. But right after the credits a woman is raped at knife-point by a thug. Though an old woman saw the thug leave, it’s the same old routine and no one is talking and the police can’t do a thing. Yet in the next scene a group of Vigilantes go and get the thug, proving how ineffectual the police really are. Lustig’s direction never slows as the film’s brisk pace moves from one scene to the next, while Vetere’s crisp dialog ignites some great performances.

Vigilante might be Fred Williamson’s best and most unhinged performance as Nick. From the wild look in his eyes to his sarcastic grin, Williamson just embodies an inner city cynicism. Though it is Robert Forster’s brooding Eddie with his internal performance that really brings out the voice of the writer Vetere. Robert Forster always looked like he could be Charles Bronson’s younger brother, so it’s fitting that he should play the archetype that Bronson created. Though Robert Forster is a softer and deeper actor, and is able to pull sympathy from the viewer. By the time Forster realizes the tragedy that has befallen on his family we are in shock like him. It was nice to see a reduced part for Joe Spinell as the scum lawyer who defends Rico. After Maniac the last thing anyone wants is an entire movie of Joe Spinell, yet in a bit part he can be priceless There is great acting support from Woody Strode and Carol Lynley as Eddie’s tough lawyer as well.

Vigilante is a genre film that really depicts a different time in American cinema. The city of New York that we see in 1983 is a grimy drug and prostitution infested war zone. This film looks like it could be a precursor to the world John Carpenter created in Escape From New York (1981). In Escape To New York, the city has become a walled off war zone of criminals in a lawless world, a world Vigilante is in the process of making. The gang that terrorizes Eddie’s family looks like a mixture of Walter Hill’s The Warriors (1979) and John Carpenter’s Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), and as cold hearted as the gangs in George Miller’s Mad Max (1979). Jay Chattaway’s music for Vigilante is also similar to John Carpenter’s scores, using early 80s synth. Lustig being the big fan of cinema that he is, was probably influenced by some of the films mentioned. Interestingly the Peter Hyams’ film The Star Chamber (1983) released the same year, has similar plot points as Vigilante but on a broader more political level.

Vigilante is great thriller that concludes an interesting genre of vigilante revenge films made popular in the 70s, in a time when 42nd Street played edgy politically incorrect films to all types of vagabonds at all hours. The film resides in a time of depressed economy, when many had fears of cities and urbanization, untrustworthy presidents, and corrupt law. The belief is that the police are useless and no one is going to protect or save you but yourself. Vigilante plays on those fears and turns a man’s life into a hellish nightmare. By the time Eddie has blown up the judge and exterminated the law, what can be next but apocalyptic chaos in this new life he has created. The ending does indeed have a dark ring of humor though. Lustig would carry on with his cinematic tradition in his next film Maniac Cop (1988), which seemed to mix Maniac and Vigilante together in yet another study in American criminal corruption and its judicial process.

The Champions (TV show)

Lew Grade and the British television company ITC (Independent Television Commission) produced some of the greatest cult spy TV shows in the 60s and 70s. From massive 60s hits like Secret Agent Man to The Saint, or cult favorites like The Prisoner or The Persuaders, ITC made a name exporting strange television shows to America that are today looked upon as being classics. One show, however, that stood apart from the others thematically and spiritually was The Champions. The Champions was a flop in America when released in 1968, dumped in mid-season, and was never to be rerun again, yet the show was a massive hit in 60 other countries. Unlike some of the other ITC shows of that era, The Champions had no recognizable star power to appeal to American audiences, and the premise of the show was perhaps too inaccessible. There were only 30 shows produced, for it only lasted one season; still, after forty years, the show has amassed a cult following that increases every year.

The Champions was about three secret agents working for Nemesis: a Geneva-based, top-secret international agency dedicated to law, order, and justice. These agents usually fought villains that were would-be world conquerors, traitorous scientists or some kind of Fascist/ Nazi revivalists. The twist of the show was that these three agents had super powers, including: heightened senses, improved strength or memory, ESP, and telepathy. They were like Mod superheroes with powers that only the three of them knew about. The agents’ names were Craig Sterling, Richard Barrett, and Sharon Macready, and they took their orders from Commander W.L. Tremayne. There was nothing episodically chronological about the show outside of the pilot episode that explains their origin; each episode’s storyline stood on its own.

The Champions was conceived by producer Monty Berman and writer Dennis Spooner who decided to mix the spy genre with science fiction and added a dash of Tibetan philosophy to spice things up a bit. The production value of the show echoed other ITC shows of the time, with exterior shots from around Europe and interior shots in England. The use of rear projection and stock footage was also commonly found in the show. Limited by a lower budget than most typical American shows at the time, The Champions managed to carry on with a certain charm despite its use of paper-mache props and phony model planes. The show’s British cult film directors like Roy Ward Baker, Cyril Frankel and Robert Asher always managed to inject a touch of the bizarre into each episode, creating memorable moments throughout the series.

The main actors of the show were: Stuart Damon as Craig, William Gaunt as Richard, and Alexandra Bastedo as Sharon. Stuart Damon was the tall and athletic leader of the group, while William Gaunt was the brains and the conversationalist. The gorgeous Alexandra Bastedo was the obvious dash of glamour and sex appeal that the show needed, and she is a primary reason why the show has such a following. Alexandra Bastedo brought a certain style to the proceedings, and the episodes that have little of her tend to be the weaker ones. At times the acting can feel a little stiff or stilted, but it is in keeping with the premise of the show. These three agents, with their super human powers, have an almost alien quality that sets them apart from normal human beings, and one can sense them internally analyzing their newly found powers with trance-like movements. Though none of the actors went on to too much fame, Stuart Damon did manage to carve out a thirty-year career as an actor on General Hospital.

The first episode of The Champions is called “The Beginning” and explores the origins of the agents’ super powers. The three agents are returning from a mission near the Chinese/ Tibetan border when their plane crash-lands in the Himalayas. They are rescued from death by the mysterious inhabitants of a forgotten civilization, who treat them with a kind of medical care that results in their special powers. Under surreal psychedelic lights and a soundtrack made up of the ringing of monastic bells and the ethereal tremor of a Theremin, the agents undergo a spiritual surgery that awakens strength, telepathy, and memory. (This soundtrack will occasionally reappear in later episodes whenever the agents access their telepathic abilities.) An elderly lama explains the powers to Richard, and Richard promises to keep the secret between the three of them. The episode ends with the three agents battling against the Red Chinese army that shot their plane down. Though the first episode is more concerned with the origins of “The Champions” than the actual mission at hand, it sets up the premise of the series and foreshadows the way in which the agents will extricate themselves from future quagmires.

The Champions’ mixture of comic book and spiritual influences compliments its 1960’s aesthetics. Although this show is inspired by comic book super hero mythology, it also breaks from these conventions by not presenting the heroes in colorful disguises with capes and masks. As a matter of fact, these agents are constantly in “Clark Kent mode” without ever changing into Superman. Their powers are always hidden, and they must carry themselves as ordinary people; their Commander doesn’t even know the existence of their powers (or if he does, he specifically turns a blind eye because they get the job done). With its kitsch interiors, small gadgets, sharp suits and espionage plots, this show is really more at home with its spy contemporaries than its comic book roots.

Though the show is relatively obscure in America, the recent DVD release of the series has increased its popularity. Because of its comic book roots, spiritual philosophy, and fashionable aesthetic, The Champions sets itself apart from other 60s spy TV shows. With newer TV shows like Heroes or films like The Watchmen, challenging comic book conventions has become more and more popular. Writers and producers have taken paper-thin characters and gone much deeper with their psychology and emotions, asking what it means to be a hero with special powers. Not only is The Champions a time capsule on popular, counter and spiritual cultures of the 1960s, but it has also proven to be a forerunner in the character development of modern comic book heroes.