Arts and Culture

'Midnight's Children'

Opening night, VIFF-goers critique Salman Rushdie's 'un-filmable' novel set to screen. Plus more fest picks.

By Dorothy Woodend 28 Sep 2012 | TheTyee.ca

Dorothy Woodend writes about film for The Tyee every other Friday.

Everyone is a critic and no one is a critic.  

I don't mean this facetiously, because at the Vancouver International Film Festival's opening night gala, that is quite literally what happens. People who never or rarely opine about films are suddenly called upon to offer up their critical ideas to lots of people they know well, and even more, to people they just met. It is an interesting process to witness.

There is much groping for words that will not offend, but still manage to do just that -- rather wan statements along the lines of "it was interesting" are offered up. The phrase "damning with faint praise" comes easily to mind. It's akin to standing next to a rather unfortunate painting and saying, "I like the artist's use of colour." Canadians being Canadians, we're not used to stating outright that we hate something, especially if the filmmaker happens to be close by. Offense is not something easily offered here in Canada, but it might be the one thing that is actually useful, marking as it does genuine passionate feeling.   

The VIFF's opening night film this year was Deepa Mehta's Midnight's Children, based on the celebrated novel by Salman Rushdie. I must shamefully admit that I haven't actually read the book, so I have no prior knowledge of the story or its characters. This may be a good thing when forming an opinion about the film, as there is no prejudice about the quality of the book laid alongside the cinematic adaptation, with the latter found terribly wanting. We will get back to the film in a moment, but let's return to the party for a bit, and the rather weird experience of watching everyone offer their assessment of the film, shouted over loud music and the din of a thousand other conversations. The general consensus was, while it was beautifully shot, it lacked heart. Which, oddly enough, is a pretty fair assessment.

The people have spoken.

Literary film

To be fair, a literary adaptation of a book that that won the Booker of Bookers, amongst other prizes, but was also was deemed un-filmable is a tough road to walk or film. Rushdie originally adapted the film as a five-part episodic drama and the feel of the serialization is apparent throughout as one chapter end and another begins. The life of Saleem Sinai born at the exact moment of India's independence and stretched over a tumultuous period of world history is a big story to tell. As a novelistic conceit, where hundreds of pages can encompass multiple characters, plots, and wry narration, I'm sure it works fine, but the cinematic version is jumbled, chaotic and often frightfully dull.

Switched at birth with another boy, Saleem comes of age not entirely understanding who he is or what he is meant to do with his magical abilities. Seems Saleem, along with all the other children born in India at the exact moment of Indian independence, are endowed with abilities both strange and wonderful. As Saleem sets out to discover his destiny there is war, bloodshed, love, loss, babies are born, mothers die, and a country comes to know itself. The voice of the author shepherds things along, adding insight and offering up especially juicy bits of verbiage here and there, as if to remind everyone that first and foremost this is a literary story.

If the idea of Salman Rushdie rustling about in your ear doesn't thrill, then prepare yourself for moments of supreme irritation, as Uncle Salman pops up every 10 minutes or so to gravely hiss about the events taking place in the life and times of Saleem, and by extension, also taking place in the life of his country as well. Dates regularly flash on screen denoting, I suppose, critical junctures in Indian history. This has the odd effect of making you feel like you've been in the film since Aug. 15, 1947. At 148 minutes the narrative rambles on, and scenes begin only to end seconds later, with no time to expand enough to let you follow the plot, much less care about the people being subjected to it. After a time, one becomes impatient and then irritated and finally you simply want to be released. The weird alchemy that makes for genuine electrifying art, the kind that seems to take even the artist by surprise, is a rare, elusive thing, quicksilver and mysterious and occasionally monstrous, and it does not happen here. At the screening in Vancouver, the closing credits were greeted by a round of applause that sounded almost preemptory. After all there was a party to get to, drinks to be drunk and snacks on sticks. Let's motor!

Let me add just a few more thoughts about the film. Every frame reeks of time, care, attention to detail. All the pieces are there: a great filmmaker, a grand story, the riotous colour and drama of India and Pakistan in the midst of monumental change. But the moment you leave the theatre the film instantly leaves your brain. All that time and energy and thought directed like a laser at this story, and still it fails to come to life. The thing just lays there on the table, inert and lifeless. The galvanizing rude force that takes a bunch of component pieces sewn together, adds some mysterious spark that fuses the entire enterprise into a walking, talking rampaging creature with a life of its own, does not happen here. The question is, why?

More to see

I'm sure the people involved with the production have some of the answers. The difficulty in actually making the film was alluded to in the opening remarks at the screening. But this isn't enough of an answer, really. Films have been made under worse circumstances and they still turned out pretty well. If you want an exceptionally interesting example, find yourself a copy of Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now, with its one all-time great quote, "We were in the jungle, there were too many of us, we had access to too much money, too much equipment, and little by little we went insane."

If insanity happened on the production of Midnight's Children, as it apparently did when Iran demanded that the film stop production in Sri Lanka, it did not enliven things much. Whether or not the demand stemmed from the fatwa issued in 1989 against Rushdie was unclear, although the problem was apparently resolved in that polite Canadian way, where everyone does their best and problems are mediated with diplomacy and patience. How boring is that? Canada may have severed ties with Iran, as that country teeters on the edge of conflict with Israel, but even in the midst of national upheaval and suppression Iranian filmmakers continue to make damn fine films.

Director Asghar Farhadi won the 2012 Oscar for best foreign film for A Separation and Jafar Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb's This is Not a Film was one of the most remarkable documentaries on offer last year. Meanwhile Iran has boycotted the 2013 Oscars until organizers denounce the anti-Islam film entitled Innocence of Muslims. So film, for good and for bad (very bad in the case of Innocence of Muslims), still has the power to change things. It brings to mind that old quote about the cuckoo clock and the Swiss, itself a paraphrase from an earlier source about a lecture on art given by the painter Whistler, "The Swiss in their mountains ... What more worthy people! ... yet, the perverse and scornful [goddess, Art] will have none of it, and the sons of patriots are left with the clock that turns the mill, and the sudden cuckoo, with difficulty restrained in its box!"

However, the opportunity for lightning to strike, for a bolt to ignite your synapses and leave you smoking and blackened, could still happen. The VIFF runs until Oct. 12 and there are still more 300 plus films to go, a number of which I am looking forward to seeing, including Leviathan, Room 237, Amour, but none so much as Leos Carax's Holy Motors, a film that seems to divide opinion into love or loathing in equal measure. And if you really want to see a film that you can't decide whether you love or hate, or both simultaneously, then I suggest The Ambassador.  [Tyee]

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