“We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self” | A Riff on True Detective, HBO’s Philosophical Crime Show

HBO debuted the first episode of True Detective this weekend. The series will be an anthology, with its first eight-episode season exploring a ritualistic murder in the backwoods of Louisiana. Written by series creator Nic Pizzolatto and directed by Cary Fukunaga (who filmed a moody 2011 adaptation of Jane Eyre), True Detective stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as State murder police trying to solve the crime.

I loved the opening episode, “The Long Bright Dark.” There’s a heavy streak of Cormac McCarthy and James Ellroy here, not to mention a dose of The Wire, Michael Mann (and a pinch of David Lynch). Detractors of the show will likely single out its ponderous and cerebral dialogue, or maybe point out that, yeah, we’ve seen this story before. Such criticisms would be (will be) intertwined; those who want a murder mystery delivered with a nice neat bow on it are almost surely going to be disappointed—and most likely, will fault the show’s philosophical tone.

It’s easy—comforting, maybe—to ignore that philosophical tone, most of it delivered by McConaughey’s Rust Cohle. There’s even something of an audience surrogate in Cohle’s partner Marty Hart (Harrelson), who bristles uncomfortably at Cohle’s near-nihilism. I found this particular scene electrifying (uh, language NSFW):

The lines that stand out in particular come at about the 2 minute mark. Cohle:

I think human consciousness is a tragic misstep in evolution. We became too self aware. Nature created an aspect of nature separate from itself—we are creatures that should not exist by natural law . . . We are things that labor under the illusion of having a self, a secretion of sensory, experience, and feeling—programmed with total assurance that we are each somebody, when in fact everybody is nobody.

It’s easy to dismiss these lines, as Hart would like to—to not listen, to fail to attend to the meaning there—to pin Cohle’s outlook down as meaningless, dark gobbledygook—because the lines essentially attack “the illusion of having a self,” an illusion we all hold dear, an illusion that protects us. Cohle here echoes what Jacques Derrida called “auto-affection”—the that thinks/feels itself into being. This auto-affection stabilizes us, tells us our certitude is, y’know, certain. It authorizes us.

I’ve seen only the first episode, but my guess is that the murder that the series would seem to foreground is really its backdrop. Murder—figured here in the gruesome, abject corpse that we (to use Cohle’s term) “bear witness” to in the show’s opening moments—destabilizes the illusion of having a self. It tears down the borders between the illusion and the real.

The murder is not to be solved/resolved then. The murder instead functions to call attention to the problem that Cohle posits in the middle of this first episode: The illusion of having a self.

Advertisements

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.