Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Millionaire Shortbread

Isn't it amazing what you can get even out of trashy films?

Exhausted last night after a full day spent doing nothing very much, I curled up with the television, and surfed till I hit paydirt: Ice Princess.

Picture the scene (but don't ask why I secretly love teenage slush like this). A young girl wants to follow her dream and become an ice dancer. Her mother is a dowdy academic, and dreams of her daughter going to Harvard to study physics. Our heroine practises by herself, out on the frozen pond behind her house, and hopes and prays quietly.

Another mother, blonde-haired ex-ice dancer, trains her own daughter to compete at the highest level. She is the original ice queen, glamorous and beautiful, ruthless in her competitiveness, and determined that her daughter will win... at any price. She carries a dark secret from her own competing days.... Of course she does.

Eventually this opposition comes into conflict: the two mothers go head to head for their daughters' achievements, and our heroine, naturally, wins the hearts of everyone who watches her skate. The mothers learn that they must let their daughters go, and that they cannot fulfil their dreams and hopes by making their own children surrogates. Fly free, little one!

So what did I learn? Well, this morning, I yelled at my daughter again for not doing up her coat in as organized a way as I would have liked, and for crying because I said she couldn't take her scooter to school.

So essentially, nothing.

Did my mother want to fulfil her own dreams through my educational success? Am I doing the same for Beauty? It's both, isn't it? I certainly want the best for my child, and for me this means that she has to learn, whether she likes it or not, that others judge her on her appearance, her manners, her ability to organize herself, her grades, her accomplishments, and all the rest. Yet in my zeal to protect her from the judgement of others by arming her with what others look for, I have of course fallen straight into the trap myself -- I end up judging her for what she is not yet able to do, or willing to do (because it is so boring). I align myself with the bores and the judges.

At the same time, I hold my breath at the amazing power of her mind, her imagination, her creativity, her love of language, and play with language, her psychological insight, so acute that it hurts, her natural understanding of how drama works. I don't want to damage that in any way. But I am so scared that it will not be harnessed, will float and dissipate, will not result in anything tangible. Is that my attempt to live my dreams out through her? Probably -- because aren't her gifts the very thing I hope for in myself? And isn't dissipation what I most fear for myself? Uh-huh.

The evening's viewing went on, straight into Danny Boyle's Millions. The parallels with his later Slumdog Millionaire are more than striking. It is clear that Millions functions as an English version of the Indian parable about the meaning of rags to riches.

In Millions, two brothers lose their mother, and their father moves them to a brand new house on a characterless estate. The youngest boy is a dreamer, who takes the packing cases and builds himself a house by the railway at the bottom of the field. He sees saints, who give him messages -- he hopes that his mother is one of their number.

One day a heavy bag bounces out of a passing train, and lands flat on his cardboard house. It contains £200,000. He tells his brother, and they decide to hide the loot. His older brother is full of ideas of investing in property, and loves the material power the wealth gives him. He uses it to become top dog. The younger child uses the money to try to help the poor, giving away as much as he can.

A deadline is looming, as the British head towards joining the Eurozone, and are being warned to spend or exchange their pounds. A sinister figure appears, looking for money, and the older boy works out that the bag is linked to an audacious train robbery. The film becomes a race against time, to spend or convert the cash either before the Eurozone or the train robber close in on the boys. And there is even a moment when the boys and their father watch Who Wants to be a Millionaire.

Eventually the little boy burns what is left of the money, and his mother appears to him. He asks her if she is a saint, and she tells him that she is in with a chance. To become a saint you have to perform a miracle. "What's your miracle?" asks her child. "Don't you know? It's you," she whispers.

In Slumdog Millionaire, Boyle has done away with the father as well as the mother, and leaves only the orphaned brothers. Each character arc is tauter and clearer, more extreme, and thus more like a fairytale. The youngest boy does not see Christian saints but Muslim and Hindu sacred figures. He does not quest for his mother, but for the love of his life. He is thus oriented towards the future rather than the past. He actually competes on a gameshow, rather than having millions land in his lap: his prayers are not so directly answered as they are in Millions. He must fight for his dreams against chance, and evil. His older brother nearly goes over to the dark side, broken by his attempt to protect his younger brother's innocence. He aims for realism and pragmatism over idealism and dreaming, and it is nearly his undoing (it certainly costs him his life).

Boyle has exaggerated every element of Millions. He abandons the realistic setting of Northern Britain for the irreality of extreme poverty coupled with frenetic capitalism that characterizes contemporary urban India. By restaging his story in modern-day India, he exploits two kinds of exotic myth that both titillate and scare the West: the mysterious East together with the waking economic Tiger. Setting aside the very rapid camerawork, saturated colours, and soundtrack of Slumdog Millionaire, it is the elements of Millions that give Boyle the armature for his Indian movie.

These are tales of becoming a man: how to be good, how to protect those for whom one is responsible without foregoing one's dreams, how to win the love of an ideal woman, how to overcome weakness and uphold loyalty to one's brothers.

It seems, from one night's viewing, that girls and boys are to do this very differently. For girls, it is a process of getting out from under the suffocating smothering of their mothers' thwarted ambitions. For boys it is a matter of navigating a passage towards a desired prize without succumbing to evil or chance along the way.

1 comment:

litlove said...

Have you read the book that Millions was adapted from? It's a thing of beauty.

One thing I read recently that interested me (in Nancy Friday's My Mother, My Self) declared that we are too much on the side of children these days, too permissive, too keen to smooth things over. Much better let our children feel our barriers and demands and interdictions, and foster healthy anger against them. Then they can use that anger to separate and become their own people, not our puppets.

I thought this true, and at the same time felt utterly horrified at the thought of enacting it with my son. Who toys lightly with that burnishing love of a child? I wasn't sure I loved either of us enough to encourage natural conflict to do its work, even though I thought it right and proper that it should. I'm thinking about that still.

Oh and is it wrong of me I'd really like to watch that Ice Princess movie? :-)