I Review The Hunger Games Film (And Mostly Complain About the Jumpy Camera Work)

So the wife and I went to see The Hunger Games last night. By way of readerly context: she ate up the trilogy in a spare week; I listened to the first audiobook last summer, and wrote about it here, including these sentences which loosely sum up my feelings:

Look, I get that these books are for kids, and that they’re probably a sight better than Twilight, but sheesh, exposition exposition exposition. There’s nothing wrong with letting readers fill in the gaps (especially when your book is ripping off The Running Man + a dozen other books). Also, there’s a character in this book who I think is named after pita bread.

However, I was prepared to accept that the plot of The Hunger Games could make for a fine film—I mean, it’s basically “The Most Dangerous Game,” or Lord of the Flies, or The Running Man, or Logan’s Run or whatever—so I went with an open mind.

By way of context/citation, here’s a trailer that gives a fairly accurate visual sense of the film—up to a point (I will belabor that point momentarily):

Short review:

Plot—fine.

Dialogue—fine.

Pacing—not bad.

Acting—better than average, especially Jennifer Lawrence as lead Katniss. (Lawrence stars in a better film called Winter’s Bone, which is like the real hunger games, by the bye). Woody Harrelson brought more to his character, drunken mentor Haymitch, than Collins’s cardboard book allowed, so kudos, bro.

Music/score—surprisingly good and rarely overused. I think T-Bone Burnett supervised. Also, no forced obtrusive pop songs from the “soundtrack.”

Set design—fine, I guess, although who knew the dystopian future would look like Coal Miner’s Daughter (for the plebes) and future-Vegas/Logan’s Run (for the aristocrats). The scenes in the capital city will look incredibly dated in ten years, but whatever. The thunderdome itself where the kids fight it out was underdeveloped, but this had more to do with plotting and pacing. But hey, the movie was already almost two and a half hours long, which is long, so, fine, I guess.

Editing/camera work: Not fineHorrible. I’m probably referring more to the director’s choices than to the acutal work of the DP and cinematographer here—I mean the lighting was good — what I’m talking about was the shoddiness of the framing of each shot, of the camera’s faux-unsteadiness, as if a shaky-cam in someway connotes realism or drama. The shaky cam connotes headache and nausea — especially when used so liberally. The camera seemed unable to ever simply rest on an image, particularly during the first 30 minutes. The shots—from bizarre and disparate angles—jump-cut around, refusing to actually show the audience the staging and action.

Particularly frustrating is an opening scene where Katniss hunts a deer in a lush green forest. There’s the potential here for an excellent introduction to the character—to her seriousness, her gravity, her skill, her keen attenuation to environment (all extremely relevant later, of course) — the camera could simply show the audience the hunt, linger a bit even — I’m not talking about Malickian nature-gazing, but simply taking the time to attune character to setting. Instead, the camera whips around frenetically with a nervous energy that seems to have nothing to do with Katniss’s calm, steady bowhand. It’s as if the director does not trust the audience to attend to a specific shot or angle for more than 2 seconds.

My frustration grew after this initial scene, as the director seemed determined to withhold any simple shot that would establish place or character. This frustration culminated in a climactic scene at the beginning of the Battle Royale—excuse me, Hunger Games tournament—where the contestants, admitted to the arena, either run for weapons or cover. There’s a bloodbath here, one that highlights the intense Darwinian stakes in play—only, again, we don’t really get to see it. The camera whirls around as if it were in the hands of someone’s dad at a birthday party, two beers in, as he tries to capture everything all at once on his cheap Sony — and therefore misses everything. Sure, the conceit might be that this shaky unsteady whirling is how Katniss experiences the scene, but the Hunger Games tourney is televised, so obviously we could see what the home audience could see, right? I’m not asking for gore or explicit violence here, to be clear: I simply don’t understand why the camera refused to show the basic action that was happening on the screen. Repeat this criticism for every single fight scene.

The clunky, clumsy fight scenes reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s shoddy work in the Batman films or even the sheer incomprehensibility of Michael Bay’s stuff : is this what audiences will accept? Are these what pass for action films? I’m not arguing that these Hollywood blockbusters need to adhere to the precision that we can find in Hong Kong martial arts films (or even Ang Lee’s arty take on such films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—but, c’mon, even the Jason Bourne movies and recent James Bond movies respected their audiences enough to adhere to a modicum of verisimilitude.

Verdict: The Hunger Games, like any dystopia, succeeds or fails by how well it synthesizes—and then surpasses—its myriad sources. The film, in this case, is simply okay. Dystopia has so assimilated our culture’s collective imagination (from the aforementioned Batman films to political ads to the wild financial success of Collins’s HG trilogy) that its tropes are overly-familiar, to the point that they have become comfortable, well-worn. A more successful dystopian vision—let’s take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men or Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood as ready recent examples—offers familiarity with one hand and utter strangeness with the other. Successful dystopian visions are strange, disruptive, and uncanny—they allow us to project ourselves into worlds we pray are impossible. The Hunger Games feels, dare I say, dull, predictable, and somehow awfully normal. Catch it on cable in two years.

Newt’s Children, Dystopian Visions, and Greenzone America

Newt Gingrich, a sour, puffy-faced man who somehow retains a platform for his regressive ideas, ruffled a few metaphorical feathers this weekend when he proposed that failing schools (populated mostly by poor children) should fire their janitorial staffs and replace them with child labor. In Newt’s bizarre Dickensian vision, giving these poor children an opportunity to scrub toilets and mop floors (overseen, of course by one non-unionized “master janitor” ) will offer them, I don’t know, bootstraps by which they might pull themselves up. Notice too that his idea also works to eradicate the notion of a free and equitable public education system in this country.  And while plenty of folks have called out the sheer regressivism inherent in Newt’s comments, there are far too many people in this country who think it’s not just a solid idea, but a viable plan.

Gingrich’s comments came the same weekend we witnessed police at UC Davis casually dispersing pepper spray into the faces of unarmed, peaceful students. Who were sitting down. Sitting down. The nonchalance that characterizes this particular violence against the students is particularly egregious, but it’s simply part and parcel of a greater wave of police actions targeting dissent in this country. The police themselves are not the ultimate culprit though—they are merely a tool of a corporatacracy that intends to enforce the status quo — namely, the continuing class disparity in this country that will disenfranchise the young in particular. The attitude that allows Gingrich to casually suggest reintroducing normalized child labor is the same attitude that allows one human being to casually spray poison into the face of another human being. Dehumanization underwrites all master-slave relationships.

Dehumanization in political rhetoric is nothing new. Still, I was particularly shocked while watching the Republican Presidential Candidate debate in Las Vegas last month. What shocked me was not necessarily the sentiments (or lack thereof) of most of the candidates (I’m too cynical for that), but the nakedness of their rhetoric. They made absolutely no attempt to rhetorically gloss over their dehumanizing ideas; instead, to the cheers of an audience, they trotted out one dystopian idea after another. (Read the transcript)

Herman Cain hemmed and hawed over whether or not he would build an electrified fence between the United States and Mexico. Perry insisted he would use unmanned predator drones (like the ones we are field testing in Pakistan) to, uh, “patrol” the border. Bachmann bragged about the pledge she’d signed to “build a double-walled fence with an area of security neutrality in between.”

What would a double-walled fence look like? (Especially an electrified one monitored by predator drones?).

What would that area of “security neutrality” look like?

It might resemble the refugee camp in Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón’s dystopian film that engages the fascist future head on.

It’s easy to suggest that this is a hyperbolic vision of amplified grime and violence, an extrapolation of what happens when “security neutrality” becomes the normative space. But consider Ciudad Juárez, the violent Mexican twin city of El Paso, Texas. According to some sources, there have been over 1,500 murders in the first ten months of 2011 alone. Simply put, dystopian spaces similar to the ones we see in Children of Men already exist along the nebulous edges of our country.

Dystopian fiction isn’t solely predictive; rather, its job is to comment on contemporary society. Consider Fritz Lang’s 1927 masterpiece Metropolis. There’s a robot in the movie, sure. But at its core, this is a film about a divided world, a world where an underclass is deeply alienated from the product of their labor. Metropolis depicts a world split into two distinct classes: workers who live underground and managers who live in luxurious skyscrapers.

The manager class in Metropolis (is it too much for me to call them “the 1%”?) exploit the underclass from the comfort and safety of their greenzone. The “greenzone” is an essential component of any good dystopian fiction: this is the place not only of safety, but also of leisure, and hence, the refinement of culture that that leisure can help produce. Again, Children of Men is visually instructive here, in a scene (set to King Crimson’s “In the Court of the Crimson King”) that moves from the gritty streets of London (this is the middle class!) up to the gates that protect the aristocracy (notice that there’s a double-wall there folks)—

The great lie that our own “leaders” like to sell us is that we will all share in the greenzone, that we—the prosperous, culturally-normative “middle class”—will all be kept safe from the dirty, dark other that would otherwise seek to overtake our precious space. This is one way that leaders monopolize popular sentiment and consolidate power. We’ve seen this power-grab evince for years now in nebulous unending wars on abstract nouns like “drugs” and “terror,” and it will only continue.

Neil Postman is probably right—our contemporary society is more Brave New World than 1984. Again, the concept of the greenzone is instructive here. Simply put, greenzoning is far more prevalent in BNW than it is in 1984 (along with rigid and hierarchical class distinctions — “Oh no, I don’t want to play with Delta children. And Epsilons are still worse”). And it is not so much the greenzone but the idea of getting to share the greenzone that we will latch on to, distracted as we cede hard fought freedoms. We will convince ourselves that a double-fence (electrified and monitored by predator drones) will protect our freedom to be comfortable, even as other walls are built to keep us—and our children—out.

Earlier, I referred to Gingrich and his “plan” to reintroduce 18th century child labor practices as “regressive.” The core regressivism in Gingrich’s ideas (as well as the mentality that allows peaceful dissenters to be shot in the face with pepper spray by those who are supposedly sworn to protect them) is based on the teleological assumption that history is progressing toward some ultimate great grand good. To paraphrase Slavoj Žižek (and others), we need to cognitively remap our psyches here in the great free Western World. We need to return to real history, and lose the teleological illusion of infinite progress.

This is why dystopian fiction is invaluable: with one hand, dystopian fiction offers us the technological progression that we have come to identify with the imaginative space of “science fiction”; with the other hand, dystopian fiction shows us that technological progression is never a good in and of itself. The human position—which is to say humanity itself—is always under threat, and not from technology, but from other humans. How far removed is Newty’s plan for child labor from indentured servitude for debtors? At what point does a “security neutral” zone echo a concentration camp?

I’ll end by contrasting two dystopian visions. One I loathe and one I love.

The one I love is Adam Novy’s 2010 novel The Avian Gospels, a take on power and torture and greenzoning and undergrounding and dehumanizing and rehumanizing. (And birds. Great big flocks of birds). Novy’s novel features children at work, or at least kids of an age Newtykins would have swabbing the proverbial deck, teenagers from both the privileged greenzone and the awful underworld. The Avian Gospels explores the deep humanity of all people and the possibility inherent in all children (don’t worry, it’s never shlocky or sentimental, and deserves a better description than that last treacly sentence). At the same time, Novy’s novel shows the dramatic stakes at heart in the kind of world that dehumanizes children. You probably haven’t read Novy’s novel but you should. I highly recommend it.

You probably have seen (or at least are aware of) the dystopian vision I hate, Christopher Nolan’s 2008 Batman film The Dark Knight. I’ll concede  upfront that the film seems to endorse some level of cooperation between citizens and “noncitizens” in its silly “prisoner dilemma” scene. This scene is the closest the film approaches to representing moral civic behavior, but ultimately it’s more or less another manipulative faux-moral tactic employed to manipulate the film’s audience (the first manipulation being, of course, that they are seeing a “superhero” film, and not a dystopian horrorshow). In truth, the scene invites the audience to identify with the film’s villain, the Joker, or with the fake protagonist, the fascist vigilante Batman (who is, of course, the deluded “alter-ego” of 1%er Bruce Wayne). There’s no moral dilemma; the people are not real people. The Dark Knight is a dark dystopian endorsement of fascism, one that tacitly asks people to kowtow to violent authority even as it pretends to present its “hero” as an outsider. Nolan’s Batman is an extension of Bush’s Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo Bay (just as Obama’s Guantanamo Bay extends GB’s GB). Nolan’s Batman is an extension of the Bush admin’s legacy of surveillance on private citizens. Most of all, Nolan’s Batman is an endorsement of the fake war on terror. The entire movie is predicated upon the idea that justice is relative and can be corrupted (or, in the film’s terms, normalized) by concrete events. The film’s  greatest trick is its depiction of the Joker as a terrorist, as an inhuman monster who cannot be understood, who exists outside of the psychological plain of humanity.

Once a human isn’t a human it’s easy to endorse or elect or prescribe or suggest (or ignore) a fascist program for that inhuman human. Like making that inhuman human shut up because you don’t like that inhuman human’s ideas. Or spraying poison into that inhuman human’s face. Or locking up that inhuman human in a zone of vague laws. Or torturing that inhuman human. Or indenturing that inhuman human. Or denying that inhuman human an equitable education. Rhetoric like Gingrich’s is just rhetoric until it worms its way into brains and souls, supplanting human decency, at which point it becomes its own dystopian nightmare.