Thank you, Nick Hornby

Posted by · 10:27 am · February 26th, 2009

Nick HornbyAs many of you already know, one of my central irritations of this year’s Oscar season has been the “Slumdog” backlash, an unnecessarily cruel response to a brilliant film’s rather boring sweep of all the major film awards over the past three months.  I understand it on one level, because no one wants a predictable circuit.  But Danny Boyle’s film has been unfairly maligned if only because it is such a masterful achievement in the face of the mediocrity to which it has been compared.

Thankfully, those of us who share in this irritation have author Nick Hornby on our side.  Here is what he had to say (via Awards Daily) in response to a letter published in the London Review of Books:

There’s a lot packed in here: the snobbery, the smug and unexamined assumptions, the writer’s apparent pride in his utter ignorance of the independent film-making process, the nonsensical contradictions (can something be both “garish” and “gaggingly photogenic”?) It’s perfectly possible not to enjoy Slumdog Millionaire, of course – nothing appeals to everybody, and I didn’t have enough invested in the love story for the film to lift me as much as it seems to have lifted others. But typically, when the success of a book or a film or a piece of music baffles the liberal intelligentsia, then that success will usually be put down to the cynicism of the makers, or the depressing ignorance of the consumers. (Sometimes, when these critics are trying to be nice, they make a plea for better arts education. “It’s not the public’s fault that they enjoy the paintings of Jack Vettriano. They just don’t know any better.”) This letter is a prime example of that attitude: you loved Slumdog? You’re a moron…

In film people tend to talk about films “working” or “not working”, and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ clearly works – just as ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Shallow Grave’, two of Danny Boyle’s other films, worked – in fact, Boyle’s ability to turn forbiddingly unpromising material into movies that people actually want to see is remarkable. If his films are commercial, it’s because he wants them to be seen by a mainstream audience; the money-making that ensues is a by-product, rather than a goal in itself…

It would be nice to think that our artier film-makers and more literary novelists could look at ‘Slumdog’ and steal a few of its underpinnings. Is energy, for example, as vulgar an attribute as many of them seem to believe? And is coherent structure really such an awful thing? On the evidence of the LRB letter, though, our intellectuals are more likely to sneer. I’m sure they’re all very clever people, but they can be terribly dim sometimes.

Amen, brother.  Hornby, by the way, is likely to be in the thick of the awards season this year with his adaptation “An Education.”

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9 responses so far

  • 1 2-26-2009 at 10:54 am

    Guy Lodge said...

    Well said. Hornby would know, after all — he takes a needless amount of flak (on these shores, at least) for writing entertaining, straightforward populist novels that the public laps up.

    Perhaps he’s just steeling himself for an “An Education” backlash, given that it seems to be headed towards similar crowd-pleasing acclaim?

  • 2 2-26-2009 at 11:24 am

    Chad said...

    There’s a perfectly straight forward reason for the “backlash” against this film and “Juno” and anything else like it and it has nothing to do with snobby people wanting to go against the grain. Think about it. The more popular something becomes and the more money it makes, means that more and more people are seeing it and the law of statistics determines that you’ll have more discenting opinions. Especially with an independent film because the initial audience has to seek it out. They are going because they feel strongly about the cast, director or concept. Once it gains traction, word of mouth and spots in a multiplex, you’ll see more and more people going just because it’s there or they’ve heard something about it. You can’t make $100 mil and have satisfied every single one of those customers. Not possible.

  • 3 2-26-2009 at 12:02 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    I think the point my be more in the loudness of the detractors rather than their existence. No one is expecting “Slumdog” to be everyone’s cup of tea.

  • 4 2-26-2009 at 12:05 pm

    The Other Ryan said...

    I think most people’s problem was that they felt it was a decent film, but nowhere near the caliber of a film that deserved to sweep, so as the sweep continues people grow increasingly frustrated with the film. Something tells me this kind of backlash wouldn’t have happened if… I don’t know, let’s say There Will Be Blood had been in the same position as Slumdog.

    Personally, it came in at number three on my top ten last year. I loved it and am very glad Hornby wrote this piece.

    That being said, I’m a little guilty of this myself to a certain extent when The Reader (a reasonably average film) got in over The Dark Knight. Now when everyone asks me, “What’d you think of The Reader,” I snap back that it was awful. Damn awards season hyperbole….

  • 5 2-26-2009 at 1:51 pm

    Robert Hamer said...

    Excellent points from everyone. The only disagreement I have is with The Other Ryan about There Will Be Blood. I remember quite a harsh backlash against both it and No Country for Old Men after they recieved eight nominations last year.

    I was in the particularly difficult situation of liking but not loving Slumdog Millionaire, which earned me the ire of just about everyone in the madness of the awards season. At least when I left the theater in disgust after watching The Curious Case of Benjamin Button I knew there would be at least a few people on my side; I just had no idea how large that group would end up being, or how annoying the Kool-Aid drinkers on the other side of the aisle would behave.

  • 6 2-26-2009 at 7:39 pm

    The Other Ryan said...

    There was some backlash against Blood, but was it really as widespread as it is for Slumdog? Or as vicious? Same for No Country, which is more in line with Slumdog’s situation considering it was a strong performer in the guilds and the heavy favorite to win Best Picture.

  • 7 2-26-2009 at 7:53 pm

    Aaron said...

    As I posted on Awards Daily, which also posted this ridiculous article, anything that features “liberal intelligentsia” ranks up there with the dumbest things I have ever read.

    I’m not sure what being liberal or intelligent has to do with liking any sort of movie. Films simply have appeal or they do not.

    I’m not quite sure I have the desire to continue visiting a website that quotes such articles approvingly. Two wrongs do not make a right. Stupid backlash against stupid backlash is still stupid backlash.

  • 8 2-27-2009 at 12:48 am

    Tina said...

    I think this is just the tip of the iceberg of a problem that always comes around during awards season. I truly don’t understand people who become so angry over movies. Not everyone has the same opinion on certain movies. That’s a given. What I don’t understand is when there is hatred and anger towards a film. It’s almost as if certain people feel personally attacked and that is crazy to me. For example, I enjoyed The Reader and thought it was a very good movie. Many did not agree with this, including writers on this site. The difference is that I never felt like this site was angry or personally offended by it. The writers here just didn’t enjoy the film. I have absolutely no problem with that. Some of the articles written about that movie on other sites were ming boggling to me. Really guys, you’re that angry over a movie? Now, not everyone is going to agree. That’s why the discussions around this time are so great, but that’s how it should be. Great discussions, not personal attacks on a movie for heaven sakes. I think people need to just enjoy the films they see. I enjoyed Slumdog, wasn’t my favorite movie of the year but I’m not going to lose any sleep over the fact that it won an Oscar. Now, if Winslet would have lost the Oscar that’s a whole other story :)

  • 9 2-28-2009 at 1:47 pm

    qwiggles said...

    Embarrassing, Kris — just as it was embarrassing when Sasha called this the best defense of the film out there. If you could successfully elucidate one position Hornby has toward the actual film, not the criticism around it, I would be very impressed. Seriously, one. (And “it works” does not count, just as “I hate it” wouldn’t count in the opposite direction.)

    You may remember me, Kris, as the guy you quoted twice among your trio of “smart, against-the-grain “WALL-E” reactions from Awards Daily posters in the face of blind and offensive support for the film from commenters who have little to offer beyond quips like ‘you are too stupid to live.'”

    And yet what do you know: a few months later, I’m part of the “unnecessarily cruel” response toward a film you deem unproblematically brilliant, whose detractors must simply have been bored by the precursors, bored enough to malign something because “it is such a masterful achievement in the face of the mediocrity to which it has been compared.” Does this make sense even to you, Kris? I mean, you wrote it, so surely you can explain how maligning something because it is masterful is the only logical explanation for people who say negative things about Slumdog. Surely you’ve met some people who eat a sandwich they pronounce masterful, then immediately say, “And now, for the maligning.” Surely you’ve at least met more of these people than those who compliment the sandwich they find masterful, or those who — gasp — only criticize the sandwich if they have a problem with it.

    Suggestion: read through the Awards Daily archives over the past few months and try to see if everyone in the supposed Slumdog backlash is merely being petty and cruel and incoherent, as Hornby alleges, or if some of them are at least elucidating their points, being fair, paying credit where credit is due. And if they are, think of yourself saying “But…” about Wall-E, a film you also liked up to a point, but dared speak out on.

    Interesting that you’ve survived the Wall-E brickbats that came your way only to throw a grenade to anyone (you don’t seem to differentiate, only to say that we the “backlash” – am I still part of the backlash if I didn’t like it way back in September, before the forward lash? – are cruel) who had problems with Slumdog and said so, and to then reduce their opinions to cartoon snobbery rather than what you once more sympathetically (when you were involved) called dissension. Oh, I get it: dissension is only satisfactory if it’s over an overrated film YOU have problems with.

    I shudder to the think of the yup, unbearably cruel joy you and Sasha have culled from what amounts to one very lazy slapdown from Mr. Hornby, who has fewer positive things to say in the film’s defense than I do. Whiz, pow – he called us dissenters smug. Heh heh, he pointed out our stupid and IMPOSSIBLY ILLOGICAL suggestion that a film could look both picturesque and garish! (Nevermind that most of the positive reviews point out exactly this aesthetic tension between teeming masses of garbage and warm, vibrant colours as a strength of the film.)

    I guess my point is, don’t go feeling so subversive about being one of the few ‘robot dissenters’ on Wall-E if you’re going to throw a smarmy “Suck on this, haters” rant by Hornby as the final word on Slumdog dissenters. Remember that like Wall-E, the fans on this one far outnumber the middle ranks (where I reside) and those who outright disliked it, and that if you are irritated by a little backlash, those who dare admit to not liking it are likely even more irritated by pronouncements like this one – that we are merely smug, merely elitist, and at best, dishonest in our supposed readings for being critical. That, Kris, is what I call unfair maligning.