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"Hungering for a female hero"

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Apr. 27th, 2012 | 03:55 am

This headline appeared in the Detroit News the day before the opening of The Hunger Games movie. In the article that followed, Tom Long observed that among the “top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star.”

Now there is. One. The headline has already proved prophetic: The box-office of The Hunger Games surged past $350 million last week, its fourth. That's in North America — worldwide, it’s well over half a billion. To put this in current perspective, it has already earned as much in theatres as all nine of the 2011 films Oscar-nominated for Best Picture combined had earned when the list was announced January 24th.

I think this is not a flash in the pan but a conflagration. More than most trendy phenomena, this one is finding resonances far from its youthful target demographic, inspiring social activism, political rhetoric, sports metaphors, sitcom and sketchcom quips, a Mad Magazine feature and other parodies, editorial and other cartoons, colorful Hunger Games make-up (!) and other unlikely products, and did you hear that Olympic-style archery will be introduced this fall into New York public schools? Yes, it’s thanks to The Hunger Games, which is so much in the cultural air we breathe now that people who knew from the start that this movie was not for them are checking it out.

Talk about timely! Like the hit novel on which it is based, the movie takes place in an Americanish country (Panem) where the rich have long since conquered and divided the once-rebellious poor. The streamlined narrative of the film (sampled in this “sneak peek”) suggests that the principal function now of the poor’s 12 districts is passively to serve up annual “Tributes” — one teenage contestant of each gender, conscripted by lottery — to be trained in the Capitol [sic] for the title show, a live reality-TV marathon.

The Tributes learn how to survive in the wild, how to fight, and how to attract sponsors (popularity can be very helpful). The winner is the one left when the other 23 have been murdered by their rivals or — to keep things exciting as the numbers dwindle — killed by reality-show challenges (fireballs, insects with psychotropic stings, even computer-generated carnivores with a craving for flesh-and-blood contestants).

Now I never thought I’d say this about any movie, but I enjoyed The Hunger Games despite having to see it on a big screen. While the story and its heroine are compelling, they would be just as compelling on your phone ... and the directing of Gary Ross would be far less distractingly defective.

The best thing Ross did was to ask actress Jennifer Lawrence, who was so beautifully contained in last year’s Winter’s Bone, to repurpose that Oscar-nominated performance to the role of Katniss Everdeen. And he serves her well, allowing her luminous presence to be felt in almost every one of the movie’s 144 minutes ... without requiring her to voice-over any of her character’s narration from the book. So while she says little, she is the moral core of the movie, the reason why the its muting of so much of the novel’s violence isn’t a total betrayal — we can feel her fierce ambivalences and anguish, even when they are suppressed for safety’s sake, as clearly as the fear and fury that leaks out. (The rest of the Tributes, like most reality-show contestants, are restricted at best to one or two caricaturistics each, so there is no chance that anyone will be sorry if Katniss lives to be in another movie.)

Ross, previously best known for not totally betraying Seabiscuit, did well with the casting in general — minor characters can disappear for an hour or more and still be remembered without hesitation on their return — but I question the decision to make so many of the Capitol’s residents so cartoony. Donald Sutherland (in a cameo) is the only fearsome grownup we see, and this bleeds much of the terror out of the outrageously glamorous TV presentation of dead kids walking, makes it more Alice In Wonderland than Schindler’s List.

Another good thing for the movie is that not being restricted to the narrator’s focus opens it to elements Katniss neither knows nor imagines — arguments between the Games Masters, for example. It also, secondarily, becomes a story of the making of the most elaborate reality show on earth ... and this aspect required mightier suspension of disbelief than I could muster.

Indeed, some of the content seemed quite arbitrary, or utterly nonsensical, and I was confused enough about whom to blame for my confusion that I bought and read the ebook ($5 from Amazon on their free Kindle for Mac), doing my bit to help Suzanne Collins become what Amazon celebrated last month as “the best-selling Kindle author of all time.”

Sure enough, the book’s implausibilities are far fewer, if only because what doesn’t seem to concern Katniss in the book is less likely to concern the reader than it does the viewer (the technology, for example, that can record every move of every Tribute intimately from multiple angles — how could it be invisible to them? Well, it sure becomes a question when it is invisible to us.)

Eventually, I thought that maybe the reason I can’t recall seeing a single TV screen is because the Panemites haven’t yet invented television. It’s hard to know what to expect of a fascist feudal world so dependent on coal that it virtually enslaves its miners, but travels on smokeless high-speed trains and (according to the book) ruthlessly controls the Games’ climate... conducts surveillance with dirigibles and rips the tongues out of children caught saying the wrong thing, but loves the tear-jerking human-interest stories of Hunger Games teens in peril ... fires off a cannon at the exact moment of death of every Tribute so that (again according to the book) the bodies can be collected fresh and made to look as lifelike as possible for a hero’s burial ... and never that I recall reveals anything like a camera, not even in the pageant and the subsequent interviews that precede the Games ... but makes watching the 24/7 public screening of the Hunger Games in each District a compulsory exercise in humility, a renewal of surrender.

While the writing has the unfussy style of Katniss, who relates the story, it is meticulously crafted by author Suzanne Collins, so that the details of Who and Where and, above all, Why??? become clearer and clearer to the reader ... only after our curiosity has been ratcheted up, along with the suspense. The movie trades in this steadfast perspective for an inconsistent mess of multiple realities, with Ross lurching between directorial styles and genre referents as if this were an audition reel ... and ignoring the expectations inculcated in our culture ...

* * * * *

Moviegoers all over the world have grown up with the ‘Hollywood’ language of cinema, which has conventions, as all languages do, and allows exceptions for artists (which, if I haven’t made myself clear, Gary Ross is not).

A Film 101 convention that is even more familiar now from drama series on commercial TV is the Establishing Shot, the wide/distant view that orients us, allowing us to be absorbed into closer-up experiences.

Less familiar to most viewers, but just as important subconsciously, is the convention that when two characters are talking (or fighting) face to face, the cameras through which we are observing them, from no matter how close or far away, are all on the same side of the line between them. (A shot from the other side would suddenly reverse our sense of right and left.)

The Hunger Games has so many violations of these basic principles that for most of the movie we don’t know where characters in the same scene are in relation to each other or in relation to their environment. Even when Katniss takes refuge from the Games in a tree, for example, Ross refuses us the perspectives we need for what’s coming — how high is she? what all can she view? can she be seen from below? do contiguous trees give her a possible escape route? Ross keeps his close-up lenses in place; he’d rather read poetry in her motion, and haikus of feeling on her face, neither of which is a totally terrible alternative, but still ...

Only the few fragments of the live-TV show that we get to see on big screens — always obliquely — seem crisp, clean, composed ... like a traditional movie. (The enormous studio audience, though, gets to watch on screens that for some reason are tall and vertical, maybe it’s a décor thing.) What you get from the movie itself in the theatre is aggressively in-your-face, a style that could be described kindly as ‘subjective’ or clinically as ‘schizophrenic’. The latter seems an ever-more-fair assessment as the movie wears on.

* * * * *

At the beginning, Katniss is shown to be a caring sister, a dutiful daughter, a gifted archer-hunter, and a model pal for a great guy. This is Ross at his most efficient, and aside from the gloomy grainy greyness of what is apparently a typical day in the Districts, the only problem is his resolute refusal to establish a horizon line — we’re almost always looking from above or below whatever we’re looking at, or from too close to tell. (The flashbacks to come will return to this drab palette, and the obscurest of them — someone left a loaf out in the rain? — will be repeated until we get told what to think.)

The District 12 conscription sequence that follows introduces the shaky-cam, Ross overwhelming the scene’s cruel pageantry with jerky, claustrophobic penetrations of the crowd and jump-cuts between extreme close-ups. Then it’s time to herd the ‘winners’ onto the train, and he pulls back a bit, using (I presume) the digital equivalent of film stock that has been drained of almost all color, and pushes the Holocaust analogy so far that one starts to look around for swastikas.

Another crowd-scene borrows from Ben-Hur the chariots that bear the contestants, waxed and buffed and fabulously costumed, to be examined by the wildly colorful studio audience and the unfathomable TV audience. Spectacular stuff! but Ross’s peaking ADD dissipates every aspect of the spectacle, most especially the 12th-and-last entrance — Katniss in a long, swirly skirt with cool flames that will get her dubbed “The Girl On Fire”.

Eventually we do get to the Games and — finally! — a free-for-all scene that is meant to be chaotic. Even here, though, it wouldn’t have been hard to come up with a staging more dramatic than having Tributes running in and out of focus across the front of the cameras.

What’s really insupportable, however, is what happens afterwards, when things get acutely alarming for Katniss in the artificial wild, and suddenly it’s as if we were watching The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield or TV’s The River, all of which could justify their amateur blurry twitchiness because terrified characters were recording the bad things for themselves. But here the multiplicity of points of view betrays the scary isolation of a girl alone with the unknown in the dark. For you cannot see this scene without imagining a team of paparazzi videographers that cannot possibly exist in the world of the story.

* * * * *

Why blame the director? That too is a convention. The buck usually stops somewhere else, somewhere up the producer chain, but for artistic choices, ultimately the director is the designated decider. And while he (usually) may or may not himself be contractually obligated to publicize his work, he is certainly contractually forbidden to disclose matters that might sabotage the $u¢¢e$$ of the production. So we must feel free to speculate. And I want to understand what, besides inexperience or incompetence, might have caused this director to make so many bad decisions.

Much of it may have been the result of certain constraints. The paramount (for Lionsgate) need for a PG-13 rating, for example, may necessarily have been achieved at the cost of clarity. We are obviously used to the kind of insanely violent terrorism that permitted The Dark Knight a PG-13 (though the Parental Guidance should have been “Don’t even think about letting your pre-teen see this film!”), for this was about grownup who lives in a comic-book world. The very idea of letting children watch children killing children, however, must have caused doubt to seethe in the boardrooms of The Hunger Games backers ... until maybe Ross (or somebody) said, “Well, what if we don’t actually see it, quite?!”

Or think about the fortune that must have been saved on sets by letting us see a few small parts only of one District only, and the Capitol only at such a distance that it could be fully faked on an iPad ... and in the Capitol only one non-generic room ... and then set the Games themselves in woods and fields so ordinary that no one would desire (or by now expect) to see more of them. The only disadvantage to the backers, as it turns out, is that it’s going to be very very hard to hide the profits.

This rich reward, and a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 85% from both critics (252 of them) and amateurs (170,211 of them to date), would have put Ross, who was paid $3 million to direct and co-script the movie, in a prime position to seek improvement in his contract for the three (3) sequels. Instead, two weeks ago he apparently shocked Lionsgate by saying he would not return to direct Catching Fire. "As a writer and a director, I simply don’t have the time I need to write and prep the movie I would have wanted to make because of the fixed and tight production schedule." (One factor: The sequel requires a summer start because Jennifer Lawrence had previously been contracted to reprise her supporting role as Raven/Mystique in X-Men: First Class for a sequel that starts shooting in January.)

Last week, Lionsgate announced that the helm will be taken over by Francis Lawrence (no relation), a hugely successful director of big-deal commercials (Pepsi and Coke) and big-star videos (Lady Gaga’s “Bad Romance” won him a Grammy). He made the move into movies with Constantine (Keanu Reeves), I Am Legend (Will Smith), and Water for Elephants (Reese Witherspoon); most recently he also did the touching pilot for Touch (Kiefer Sutherland), about a single dad whose mute 11-year-old makes urgent connections between people through numbers.

So I’m uncautiously hopeful. Here is a guy who clearly has hip sensibilities and traditional big-screen values, gets along with artists, and enjoys making things look good.

Meanwhile, The Hunger Games returns today for a week in IMAX theatres across the continent. I'll be listening instead to the all-star 'soundtrack', a tribute I can watch on the back of my eyelids.

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Comments {2}

Peter Marmorek

(no subject)

from: uhclem
date: Apr. 28th, 2012 12:42 am (UTC)

Granted it may be easier to talk me out of things I wasn't going to do anyway, but you've convinced me I do not want what I haven't got the inclination for. Very fine read. I will share Esmerelde's take for your amusement, as I don't have any insights of my own:

I ended up listening to the audiobook on the drive to Florida over the break. (My kids loved it. Must work on that.), hating every second of it. What a one plot plodder. I think Collins copied the file three times, changed the names (barely), only a few of the verbs, and called it a day. And the audio book is torture! Everything sounds the same. It's a flippin' half hour read stretched out over eleven hours. I was ready to walk into the arena myself after forty minutes.

Great to read you again!

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(no subject)

from: epistemologist
date: May. 5th, 2012 03:03 am (UTC)

Consider me successfully immunized; I won't catch the Hunger Games bug. Female action heroes ? Columbiana is a balls to the walls action flick with a flawed female heroine who does in the Bad Guys. Call it a reimagining of The Professional.

Love Rick

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