Friday, January 2, 2009

When the Horse Comes Through the Wall

"Slumdog Millionaire" deserves its popular acclaim. I wish the reviews had given some hint of the human cruelty depicted, not to ward off moviegoers but to prepare them to brace themselves on the way to the feel-good, Bollywood payoff; it's not only a game show fairy tale involving a plucky kid from the Mumbai slums but a full-on, Dickensian exploration of the harshness of poverty, including the often brutal, other-than-heroic actions of people facing that circumstance.

That's a different topic. Today I would like to perform humanity a service, one far greater than the entertaining, yet gritty depiction of authentic life in the slums of India for worldly, media-saturated Western audiences that somehow have remained staggeringly unaware of the world's inequities.

Namely, I would like to retire the tired cliche, "jumping the shark" and offer the world a replacement.

As we all know, "jumping the shark" is what happens when Hollywood writers, rewriters, script doctors, directors, producers, studio executives, and interns have run out of new ideas and say the hell with it, let's just stitch up the plot with a spectacle and move on.

Only Dickens' Mr. Scrooge would deny the orphans of "Slumdog" every possible small triumph in their two decade adventure of youthful survival. But when these vagabond train riders on a random journey are forced to jump, and they JUST HAPPEN to land within a kilometer of the Taj Mahal, they are jumping an entire school of SeaWorld sharks at the same time.

This won't do. Rather than tagging the screenwriter's picaresque plot points with an overused metaphor derived from Fonzie's motorcycle stunt jump in a "Happy Days" episode, I would like to propose a fresh, new cliche.

In Terry Gilliam's "The Adventures of Baron Munchausen", we begin from the opposite end of the credulity spectrum. We expect from the outset to be led on, lied to, and stretched beyond recognition by the Baron's tall tales. That's the story, after all. In context, riding a cannonball over the siege to conduct reconnaissance is plausible. Nobody bats an eye when Eric Idle's character Berthold revs his feet in Flintstones fashion and zooms across the landscape at cartoon speed. We cheerfully suspend disbelief when Vulcan crushes a lump of coal into a diamond for his true love, Aphrodite, who tosses it in a pile with all the others.

However, near the end, when our heroes have not so much jumped the shark as been swallowed by one, and are hanging around in the sea creature's belly digesting the circumstances, as it were -- and then, the Baron confidently whistles for his gallant white horse who comes riding through the wall into the belly chamber to rescue them; well, excuse me, Mr. Gilliam. Even compared to your inferno of intentional implausibility, you've tossed one too many logs on the fire.

Which brings us to our New Metaphor Opportunity.

We're willing to believe Jamal, Salim, and Latika could survive the urban slums by the force of their wits, willingness to accommodate, and eternal hope; millions do. We're even willing to suspend disbelief that Jamal has found his way onto "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?" and answered each question, because that's the story. But when our youthful unfortunates jump from the train and JUST HAPPEN to land in the shadow of the Taj Mahal, I propose that we henceforth characterize such a deus ex machina as "The Horse Coming Through the Wall" instead of "Jumping the Shark".

Rest in peace, fish tank hurdlers everywhere.

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