Sunday, March 25, 2012

"May the odds be ever in your favor": 8 notes on The Hunger Games

"And so it was decreed that each year, the various citizens and districts in the country of Panem that each section would offer up in tribute one young man and one young woman, to fight to the death in a pageant of honor, courage and sacrifice. The lone victor, bathed in riches and perfection for the rest of their life, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness to the rebels... to everyone."   

1) I find The Hunger Games more compelling as an idea, or a narrative with subversive implications, than as an actual film.  The film only goes so far before it begins to resemble yet another teen-oriented movie.  Haven't we seen an elect gang of kids transported on a train to a magical land before?  Or a heroine who has not one but two leads forlornly in love with her? (Oh, the anguish when a romantic scene cuts to the other one being neglected! Time to choose between Team Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Team Peeta (Josh Hutcherson)).

2) The Hunger Games suffers from the commercial dread of popular young adult novel beginning-of-the-movie-series franchisitis.  Everyone involved in the film is so bloody concerned with getting the book right (so as to not annoy the fans), the movie scarcely has a chance to exhale. Many of the scenes come across as earnest and square amidst all of the turbo-futuristic satirical trappings of the storyline.  One would like to think that Woody Harrelson as the drunken mentor Haymitch Abernathy might have some potential as a trickster figure free to make cracks at the movie's expense, but he no sooner shows up than he crudely telegraphs what a drunk he is (by grabbing a bottle of whisky), and stumbles off.  Later, we see him sober up by refusing a drink. Everything seems too programmatic, the narrative too rigid to encourage anyone to show much subtlety in their portrayals.

3) Having read half of Suzanne Collins' novel, I can understand the book's adolescent appeal (it's especially funny when Katniss acts like a sullen brat.  On page 92, when Haymitch becomes too domineering, we get this sublimely young adult passage: "I bite my lip and stalk back to my room, making sure Peeta can hear the door slam.  I sit on the bed, hating Haymitch, hating Peeta, hating myself for mentioning that day long ago in the rain.")  Unfortunately, perhaps due to the book's target audience, most all of the adults tend to be cartoonishly two-dimensional.  I like Elizabeth Banks' previous work, but as Effie Trinket, she's both unrecognizable and shallow, a grotesque figure warped by an evil empire's need to project itself. There's no particular reason why the rich in the future land of Panem couldn't wear decently styled clothes, but Collins and the filmmakers picture them as garishly brightly-colored with overly baroque beards, at times reminding me of Oz or the face-painted post-apocalyptic underground inhabitants of A Boy and His Dog (1975) if not the rich grotesques of Brazil (1985) or Metropolis (1927).  I imagine that Stanley Tucci enjoyed playing the ultimate talk show host Caesar Flickerman with his bright blue pompadour, but, while funny, he's ultimately just as limited a creation as the other adults. Only Donald Sutherland's relative gravitas as President Snow, the ruler of Capitol, the one percenter who does not like underdogs, hints at something more. I couldn't help being reminded of Sutherland's much more nuanced work as Hawkeye Pierce in Robert Altman's MASH (1970), where baby boomer anti-war rebellion shows itself in the seemingly random episodic way the film was made.  In comparison, The Hunger Games, under Gary Ross' straightforward direction, remains far too serious about hitting plot points and catering to the youth market.

4) Like much science fiction, The Hunger Games functions as a distorted mirror to contemporary economic, cultural, political, and environmental issues.

5) Environmentally, as Brian Merchant points out, the world of The Hunger Games has already irrevocably changed due to global warming, as implied by this passage: "[The mayor] tells of the history of Panem. He lists the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much of the land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained. The result was Panem, a shining Capitol ringed by thirteen districts…” Furthermore, even though Katniss is relieved to find that she gets to fight the Games in the woods, those woods are artificial creations electronically manipulated by the Games officials as they please. So, Collins' story seems split between the view of man as either a victim or the controller of nature.

6) As Katniss strives to win over sponsors through her carefully staged public appearances before the games begin, The Hunger Games proves itself just as much concerned with the process of constructing a celebrity identity as in readying its characters for battle.  What the viewing audience wants is a compelling story, so Peeta's public declaration of love for her enhances Katniss' appeal.  Since nascent celebrity is all about appearances, Cinna (played by a rather humorously sparkly Lenny Kravitz) works hard to evoke fire in Katniss's outfits, which brings attention to her and helps sell the Dragon Tattoo-esque slogan "Katniss, the girl who was on fire." In her sullen way, Katniss reminds us frequently of the artificiality of these techniques, but they work.  As an unknown from a poor Appalachian district (that otherwise tends to wear dreary 1950s clothes), Katniss has to forge a relationship with the crowd so that they (and by implication, we) can share vicariously in her dramas of revolt.  Her emotional upheavals are yet another commodity, like her killings, to be sold to sponsors. Katniss learns that the media doesn't care what she's actually like.  She must learn how to exploit whatever aspects of her past self that she can.

7) The film shows us the sickly psychological and cultural effects of constant electronic surveillance, never more so when some genuine emotion may be expressed for a mass voyeuristic audience. When Katniss pauses during the games to note a camera inside of a hole in a tree right near her (and filming her), I wanted to shout, "The Truman Show! More relevant than ever." Later in the movie (slight spoiler alert), Katniss and Peeta can't share a tender The English Patient-esque moment in a cave without the scene cutting to various goofy but official looking guys observing them in the Hunger Games media command center or Haymitch leaving her note saying "You call that a kiss?"  I remember seeing similar pseudo-romantic but observed scenes in This Means War.  Do emotional scenes need some onlookers to make them matter nowadays?

8) After all, what kind of weird ancient Roman generational atavistic pleasure are people getting from watching young people kill each other?  The movie could prove useful to the those encouraged to learn survivalistic fighting techniques, but even though The Hunger Games pays cynical lip service to Occupy Wall Street-style revolt when the people of District 12 (or is it some other District?) start to riot after Katniss sends them a three-fingered salute on TV, the movie and the book emphasizes how rigged the Hunger Games actually are. Logically enough, a tribute is seen as a "walking corpse" as soon as s/he is selected, since 23 out of 24 tributes must die. Effie Trinket and President Snow are fond of repeating the slogan "May the odds be ever in your favor" when giving speeches to the commoners, but this Darwinian struggle in the woods is really a mediated distraction from what's really going on: a government demanding sacrifice of two youths in exchange for each district's continuing survival. The powers that be cynically use adolescents as disposable puppets for theirs and the larger population's bloodthirsty appetite. At one point, Snow considers why the rulers don't just save themselves the trouble of the Games and "execute all 24 tributes all at once"? Collins likes to suggest that, as in the similar Shirley Jackson short story "The Lottery," there are darker, bloodthirstier forces at work behind the official propaganda, and that gives The Hunger Games an edge that readers and viewers can understand.          

Friday, March 23, 2012

counterinsurgency links

---a trillion dollars well spent

---the early work of Terry Gilliam

---"America has been at war for a decade now; is it really a coincidence that the biggest movie of the year is the first in a trilogy in which torture, terror, asymmetric warfare, and the manipulation of public opinion all play a role?"---counterinsurgencypropaganda, and Laurie Penny on the sexual politics of The Hunger Games

---one man's infosuicide

---Ruin

---trailers for My Family and the Wolf, Lawrence Anyways, Dark Shadows, Cosmopolis, and On the Road

---"gaming leads to a reliance on remote-controlled warfare, and this in turn makes combat more palatable."

---"as Tampa, New York City and other urban areas bulk up with high-tech anti-terrorism equipment and fusion centers have proliferated, the number of even remotely “terror-related” incidents has declined. The equipment acquired and projects inaugurated to fend off largely imaginary threats is instead increasingly deployed to address ordinary criminal activity, perceived political disruptions and the tracking and surveillance of American Muslims. The Transportation Safety Administration is now even patrolling highways. It could be called a case of mission creep, but the more accurate description might be bait-and-switch."

---the Martin Scorsese film school

---Schlosser's Fast Food Nation 10 years later

---Peris' Confrontation

---on the set of Ace in the Hole

---revisiting Reservoir Dogs

---celebrating Wally Wood

---“Stupidity is sometimes the greatest of historical forces”--Sidney Hook

---the extended take

---screenshots of despair

---a history of Occupy Wall Street

---the collected trailers of Stanley Kubrick and the zoom shots of The Shining

---Braveface

---Room 666 by Wim Wenders

---"One of these authors ended up committing suicide. One ended up on the cover of Time. And one of them — Leyner, the most intense and, in a certain sense, significant young prose writer in America — published one more novel in 1997, then stepped away from novel-writing altogether. Now, after a not-entirely-planned 15-year-hiatus from fiction, he returns this month with a new novel, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. But he’s re-emerging into a very different culture; one that in his absence has become, oddly, even more grotesquely Leyneresque — so much so that you might wonder (he certainly has) if there is a place left in it for Mark Leyner."

Saturday, March 3, 2012

ababeel links

---"public discourse has been polluted now for decades by corporate-funded disinformation"

---"People are taking the piss out of you everyday. They butt into your life, take a cheap shot at you and then disappear. They leer at you from tall buildings and make you feel small. They make flippant comments from buses that imply you’re not sexy enough and that all the fun is happening somewhere else. They are on TV making your girlfriend feel inadequate. They have access to the most sophisticated technology the world has ever seen and they bully you with it. They are The Advertisers and they are laughing at you.

You, however, are forbidden to touch them. Trademarks, intellectual property rights and copyright law mean advertisers can say what they like wherever they like with total impunity."

---"Doyathing" by Gorillaz

---the 50 greatest opening title sequences

---"It’s a great loafer’s job” and the stand-up roots of Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris 

---the iPad 3 expanding

---the battle over Citizen Kane

---Alphaville remixed

---"IT WAS IN SEPTEMBER 2006 that I heard a drone for the first time, flying over the mud-walled village of Ali Khel, a couple of miles west of Miram Shah. It was a hot summer night, too hot in the house of the building-contractor friend with whom I was staying, so I had gone out to sleep in the open along with several laborers who worked for him. The men were telling me about their travels in Afghanistan, how they would cross the border to fight for the Taliban and then return after a week or two to North Waziristan to work and make some money. Then I heard the buzzing, far above our heads -- like a bee, but heavier and unceasing, drifting in and out of earshot. The laborers said nothing."

---the problem with trying to ask the police for a complaint form

---"The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads"

---photos from Chernobyl and The Lively Morgue

---Gotye's "Easy Way Out"

---Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy discuss Spike Lee's Bamboozled

---Melissa Harris-Perry's problem with The Help

---Divine Trash, the John Waters documentary

---trailers for The Other Side of Sleep, Frankenweenie, Heist: Who Stole the American Dream?, ParaNormanBernie, The Avengers, and H+  

---La Jetee

 ---as oil prices surge, as oceans acidify, and as global temperatures rise, it will be increasingly hard to find good sushi