Saturday, March 24, 2012
Hungry, Hungry Allegory - 'The Hunger Games'
Watching The Hunger Games, it is almost odd to consider that it was a novel first. Its very conceit is so cinematic, staged as a critique of reality television, violent entertainment, and ideological uses of the media. It's the dark cousin of The Truman Show. More than rats in a maze though, its earnest teenage principals are caught in an act of narrative creation--a decidedly genre-based one--that foregrounds its contrivances even as it embraces them.
But I'll get back to that.
To clear the air, I haven't read Suzanne Collins' novel. So this won't be an adaptation piece. I suspect, at the very least, fans will be generally pleased with the writing of the thing, as I was. Collins serves as a co-writer with director Gary Ross and Billy Ray, the latter I suspect is their secret weapon. The writer of such lean genre fare as State of Play, Shattered Glass, and Breach (okay, and a few clunkers like Flightplan), there's a good deal of economy to the screenplay.
In the film's world, we learn, there's been some form of civil war that resulted in the crushing of the rebellion. This history is important but tangential--past mythologies are not the overt concern. What's important is the residue: each year, two representatives from each of the 12 "districts" that revolted (stripped of actual names) are randomly selected to fight to the death on television. The world watches and bets as these youth atone for the alleged crimes of previous generations.
The real kicker to this isn't just that The Hunger Games is imagining some kind of perverse post-Civil War Reconstruction gone awry, it's that the film actually has the guts to film in North Carolina. Against the beautiful backdrop of Appalachia, the allegory stings even more: These "districts" are so clearly the South, Donald Sutherland's President Snow is some kind of twisted and vengeful Lincoln, and The Capitol is Washington by way of Oz. There's poverty in the hills and coal mining is virtually the only way to live. These connections are the film's best and, tragically, among the least explored. Its engagement with Southern mythology is fleeting and mostly obvious--one can only imagine what more could have been gleaned from this.
This is the overarching pattern of The Hunger Games: it's sly, engaging and even has some really surprising moments that are just plain thrilling -- but it's too hampered, too sloppy, too afraid to really take the plunge into the criticisms it lobbies. Take The Capitol for instance: it's an art director and costume designer's dream come true. Ornate rooms, kitschy oriental makeup, garish European outfits, meshing modes of architecture--this is a wild world. But it's lit, like everything in the film, so evenly--almost blandly--that it's hard to really bathe in this space. Director Gary Ross doesn't seem to know how to linger, how to formally design how his camera works in these extremely detailed spaces. Perhaps that's his point--to normalize this space and light it like any other room, but it feels so drained, so devoid of meanings beyond the obvious.
What makes this ironic is that Ross is working with Clint Eastwood's cinematographer, Tom Stern. If anyone knows how to manipulate color palettes and do over-the-top things with lighting, it's this guy. Instead, he's in tow to make the camera bounce around. The shaky cam feels so overused in The Hunger Games it constantly teeters into aggravating. I'm not against the technique when it's used to immerse or enhance a perspective, but it just feels so awkward in most of this film, like the camera operator is just standing there shaking the camera back and forth.
Once the film gets inside "The Games," this becomes more of a problem. It's set up to play, as I mentioned above, like the violent version of The Truman Show. There are cameras all over the woods, and the space is encased by a transparent dome of sorts, where a control room can manipulate the atmosphere and insert dangers wherever the crew pleases. The Master of Ceremonies (Wes Bentley, with the year's best beard) is essentially a replica of Ed Harris's character from The Truman Show, surveying from the heart of the panoptic eye and bending the game to his narrative. But there's simply not enough of this. There are countless opportunities to explore the panoptic vision, to think about how this space is controlled and how it's being looked at from the outside, but this only really seems to matter close to the end of the film. It's again merely a wasted opportunity.
What's fascinating about the way the script works is that the Master of Ceremonies and his crew are contriving this space--changing the rules, orchestrating traps that bring players into the same area, altering conditions to try and kill players--but they're doing it to create a narrative, in this case a romance narrative. The goal is to bring our protagonist Katniss into entanglement with the male from her district, Peeta (his family owns a bakery, and his name sounds like Pita... oh, the jokes!). It's unclear (thankfully) whether Katniss and Peeta really feel for each other, or whether they're aware of this narrative that's being constructed not for them, but for the (diegetic) audience. They are not only surviving, they are acting -- and surviving through acting.
But what of our intrepid heroine, Katniss? Jennifer Lawrence, whose star I'd marked in 2009 for her fearless performance in Winter's Bone, shines big here. It would be easy for hers to be a soulless performance in total service of the narrative, where mere presence would be enough to get the economic script and style from A to Z. But she comes through in spades, providing moments of sheer vulnerability, fear, astonishment, and a sort of relentless that elevates Katniss beautifully out of the hum drum "badass action girl" basement (though not fully because, again, the fact that she can actually act seems to have thrown the film for a loop).
Most of the cast just exists as pawns on the screen, fulfilling certain character types and as necessary components of the action, but Stanley Tucci as the television host/color commentator of the games (a Ryan Seacrest with crazier hair) gives just the right amount of relief without being at all over the top. Woody Harrelson, though the part is underwritten, also has some gruff shine as Katniss's mentor.
In one scene where District 11 tries to revolt against the machine, only to be cut down in mere moments, Ross and Co. seem to want to step outside the confines of their genre space to instigate more of a criticism of this dystopic regime (and put themselves in line with Eisenstein's view of history, if clearly not his aesthetic). The muddied visual style and the scene's anomalous nature makes it stand out, but also makes it feel confused. For it to work, the criticism of the state needs to be felt more outside the realm of the games, which is just not in the screenplay. What Katniss exposes isn't so much the crookedness of the system (although the film certainly stresses the economic disparities between the "North" and "South"), but how this reality television apparatus can be manipulated. She manages to take control of the narrative and join her star-crossed not-lover in playing a long con of the game. Her growing knowledge of how the plot works is just as key to her survival as her pinpoint skill with a bow.
To what end? Well, you have to wait for the next movie!
Despite missing many opportunities, The Hunger Games still largely works. When Ross stops insisting on having his camera jerk about the place for no discernable reason, there are some well-staged suspense moments building up to fights and death. It's economical, and it moves fast for being almost two and a half hours long. It simply doesn't feel innovative or adventurous in its filmmaking -- there's no spark under these flames, and the filmmaking almost gets in the way of the story (never a good sign). There's too much convention at play. It's not a consistently thrilling ride, and the vast foundations of its allegory and social criticism aren't strong enough.
It's this allegory that feels hungriest of all, dying to be fed and nurtured and transformed. Instead, the movie is content to mellow in its own genre-driven machinations (ironically, even as it critiques those contrivances) and move the camera around a lot in close-up.