Sunday, February 22, 2009

Adam Hartzell: A Little Knowledge Can Be a Suspenseful Thing

Greetings from Portland, Oregon! I've been sampling films at the Portland International Film Festival, and visiting with family and friends. I even got to meet one of the bloggers I most admire, Thom of Film of the Year, who has vividly recreated our encounter here. Thanks, Thom! Now, as I wait for the beginning of an Oscar party I'm attending this evening, I have a few spare moments to work on Hell on Frisco Bay. With Oscars in mind, I'd like to mention that The Daily Plastic, online home to a couple of Chicago's finest film writers, Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, has been kind enough to publish a piece I wrote on the first-ever Academy Awards, announced February 1929. Last weekend's presentation of Sunrise at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival's special Valentine's Day event was preceded by a slide show I prepared on the same topic.

But I'm especially excited to present a piece by Adam Hartzell on the inter-cultural content of one of the key front-runners at this year's awards ceremony, Slumdog Millionaire. If you have not seen the film yet and don't want surprises robbed from you, please refrain from reading. If you have however, I think you'll be interested to read what Adam has to say, no matter what you think of the film:

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Cricket is a game many make fun of in the United States. Some time ago, I decided to stop making fun of sports I don’t fully understand, just as I decided to stop ridiculing music genres that provide no inspiration for me. In fact, when traveling abroad, I try to acclimate myself to local sports cultures by reading what I can and asking the locals about their loyalties and passion for their games. I have tossed aside the snarky comments of my youth and replaced them with curious inquiries about other athletic pursuits. So when my work brought me close enough to the Antipodes where the trip to Australia and New Zealand wasn’t obnoxiously long, I decided it was finally time for me to learn “the game of eleven fools”. (That’s not me being snarky, it’s George Bernard Shaw speaking of the game lovingly, I think.)

Cricket is a tough game for someone like me reared on baseball to understand. When discussing the rules that pertain to a batsman and/or explaining how runs can be scored, I keep coming from a baseball reference point that only seems to confuse me more than help. I won’t go into trying to explain the intricacies of a cricket match here because I’m limited in my own overview and such a wide description is unnecessary to this essay anyway. For those interested, I suggest checking out Harry Ricketts’ How to Catch a Cricket Match, part of the fantastic Ginger Series (so much more respectful a name than the For Dummies or Idiot’s Guide series) published by AWA Press in New Zealand. I picked this book up while in New Zealand during the Cricket World Cup in 2007. The Cricket World Cup wasn’t happening in New Zealand. It was taking place in the West Indies. But every shop with a TV had the matches on. So there were ample opportunities for me to watch and learn while having a flat white at an Esquires Coffee House (actually a Canadian chain) in Auckland or a pint of Tui at a pub in Wellington.

One way to acclimate towards an unfamiliar sport is to latch on to a sporting celebrity. As David Beckham has done for those in the States trying to acclimate to what people in the U.S. (and Australia and Canada) call soccer, the player of the moment for me to identify with the sport of cricket was, and likely still is, Australian Ricky Ponting. One of the things I do when I travel is buy jerseys from the teams of the towns I visit. When in Australia for the first time, I purchased a Ricky Ponting jersey. Whereas the true football fan might look disapprovingly at those wearing Beckham jerseys, considering such people posers, I’m not sure if cricket fanatics feel suspect of my traipsing around in the sport celebrity of the moment’s jersey. I think cricket fans are just happy to see a Yankee try to understand the joy fans find from cricket. My knowledge is limited, but I feel as if I’ve picked up enough to enjoy the game now. I don’t have the stamina to enjoy a whole match, but I can discern the actions beneficial to each team. I am not like the language learner laughing with the locals a tell-tale second too late. I reacted with the crowd watching the telly, rising up to spill my tall black in perfect time with the proper defensive play.

So when I went into Loveleen Tandan and Danny Boyle’s film Slumdog Millionaire, I arguably had more cricket knowledge than the average United States American. Because of this, I feel I experienced a layer of tactical trickery that most of my fellow citizens did not.

Brian has properly alerted you to spoilers, so you either know the pivotal scene about which I'm speaking, or, like me, you don't need to maintain ignorance of plot points to enjoy a film. The scene I'm referring to is when the game show host presents Jamal with a cricket-related question. I don't remember the exact question, but it has to do with who has the most 'centuries' ever in the sport. A 'century' is when a single batsman acquires at least 100 runs in his innings for a particular match. ("Innings" can be singular or plural in cricket.) Again, I don't remember all four answers offered, but B is Ricky Ponting and D is Jack Hobbs. Before the answers were reduced to just those two (if I remember that properly too), I remember leaning over to my wife and the friends who were with us and whispering 'It's Ricky Ponting.' Yes, I was trying to impress my wife and my friends by dropping some heavy cricket knowledge. When the choices were reduced to B-Ricky Ponting and D-Jack Hobbs, a commercial break is imposed and Jamal and host venture off for a pee break.

It is here where the host appears to assist Jamal when he writes the supposed answer on the wall, or mirror as it may, telling Jamal to choose B-Ricky Ponting. It is here where I believe I was fooled more than most US viewers because my limited cricket knowledge is tied too dependently to Ponting. I thought the host was truly Jamal's buddy, not because of character development, but because I thought I knew the correct answer. In fact, we later learn that the host was assuming Jamal would trust him. The host was attempting to exploit this non-existent trust. The host was letting his competitive and classist demons get the best of him, while Jamal was void of any similar ambitions. Yet, my limited knowledge leading me to be incorrectly led by the guest host reveals an even more devious underlying plan by the host. The host assumed a young man such as Jamal would only have a contemporary knowledge of cricket and not know that the elder statesman Jack Hobbs, aka Sir John Berry Hobbs, was the true holder of the record. I was tricked by the host due to the very assumption he made of Jamal. Such added to the suspense of the scene for me, thus adding to the surprise, thus adding to the elation when Jamal picks the correct answer by countering the guest host’s tactic. The scene still works for those completely ignorant of cricket, and it works on a different level for those well-versed in the history of the game. But I feel like my incomplete knowledge of cricket led me to layers of intrigue within the scene unavailable to those with a perfect knowledge or a complete lack of knowledge. I thought he was helping Jamal because I was naively confident in my knowledge. I was more naïve than Jamal. I was the impressionable Jamal the host thought Jamal was. Talk about breaking the boundary of the fourth wall.

The unpredictable knowledge demonstrated in dialogue and character in this scene underscores the unpredictable knowledge of the international viewer, exhibit A - myself. This is very much what adds to the pleasure of globe-traveling cinema for those of us who travel to see it. If Tandan and Boyle had a US audience in mind, they’d likely have ditched the cricket question, since our batsman pad themselves with steroids not tea. That, or else their producers or other movie company honchos would have demanded it be stricken from the record. Whereas, if I had come to the theatre with the typical US sports provincialism our media encourages by ignoring any sporting tradition outside of the USA, I wouldn’t have found that scene as utterly mesmerizing, as so intricately layered, as I did. And as I still do. My limited knowledge is what led me to not just enjoy that scene, but to freaking love that scene!

My experience with the events of that scene reinforced for me how globalization is too often too simply discussed. As films travel across the world, they run up against an unintended audience’s incomplete knowledge and the stories become different experiences for each individual viewer. Slumdog Millionaire is just another opportunity for the global to be localized within the reflexive contexts of the experiences of each individual audience member. Each audience member part of the local and global simultaneously.


  1. Great post, Brian! I enjoyed reading Adam Hartzell experience with Slumdog.

    In some ways I had a similar reaction to the film during the scene when the young Jamal swims through shit to get an autograph from Bollywood star Amitabh Bachchan. I saw the film in a rather packed theater and when the kids started shouting "Amitabh" as the helicopter arrived, I got giddy and knew exactly who they were talking about. I was thrilled for the kids and yet I noticed other people in the theater clearly confused by what was happening since they had no idea who Amitabh Bachchan was and what he represents to the average film fan in India.

    Afterward I started reading reviews of the film written by American critics and was surprised that not one I came across mentioned Amitabh Bachchan by name and it was obvious that the numerous references to various Bollywood films in Slumdog went completely over most critics heads.

    I think having a limited understanding and appreciation of Bollywood films has really colored a lot of critics views about Slumdog. In some cases for better, but for the most part it seems to have just confused them and their ignorance about Indian cinema seems obvious (at least to me anyway).

    Hopefully I'll get the chance to write out more of my thoughts on the topic soon but I just thought i'd share a few here.

  2. Slumdog Millionaire is really a great movie, i'm happy for the Oscar !

  3. Kimberly,

    Thanks for your comments. (And bar paris, glad to hear the Oscars went your way.)

    I feel as if globalization is often talked about as a direct communication when it's so much more complex than that. Global texts in particular demonstrate the unpredicability of Kristeva's 'intertextuality', how texts talk to each other (Bakhtin's ;dialogism'). Although those unfamiliar with Bollywood can figure out intellectually the importance of Amitabh by rationalizing their way through the scene, I can see from what you've commented here that you really felt that scene because of the knowledge you brought to the film.


  4. Interesting point, Adam. In my humble opinion, does that not also apply to life in general? The meaning life has for most of us is at least 50% (arguable) dependant on what we bring to the experience?

    (I say 50% arguable because I have always felt this is on a sliding scale; there are those truly serious about meditation for example who are able to 'simulate' virtually all their 'experience' in the mind, but according to my emerging belief system, that counts too...)

  5. Hi Mandingo,

    Oh, yes! I don't claim this is particular to global cinema. We can't help but bring our peculiar resevoir of knowledge to everything. My point is just to challenge the 'World Is Flat' overly simplistic argument of both sides of the globalization debate.

    btw, for those interested in a more complex view of globalization, I'm reading Carl Wilson's contribution to 33 1/3 series of album monographs, and he has a fascinating discussion of the problem with simple direct-link arguments about globalization as it is applied to world opinions of Celine Dion. Who knew I'd ever be fascinated by a book about her?! But when you lay things out as Wilson has, I can't helped but be intrigued by how she's localized her way across the globe.