Thursday, 3 May 2012

What A Game

The Hunger Games: directed by Gary Ross; written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray 

Because so much of The Hunger Games depends on its allegorical thrust it would be rather simple for me to use aspects of the film as metaphors in qualifying my criticism of it. So, for example, I could say – and I’d be being honest – that after the film I felt something like the way Katniss and Peeta felt after leaving the arena. While watching the film I was caught up in all the emotion and feeling but afterwards I found myself questioning the veracity of those feelings. If that’s opening of my thoughts on the film, though, I’ve started doing two potentially dubious things. For one, I’m burying the lead, because even as the thrill of The Hunger Games is best for its immediacy and not as engendered by retrospection it is a genuinely good film. Further, that potential opening statement would lead me to a quandary, an argument I’ve managed to have with myself time and time again in relation to grading films; – what if the film is better as it happens than in retrospect? What am I grading, even? – Its effect on me as it happens; or, its effect on me post hence? Of course – unanswerable questions most of them, too.
The Hunger Games, as I mentioned, in its way is a film which has main plot that is essentially an allegory. What’s great about the use of the allegory in reference to the actual Hunger Games of the title is the subtlety with which it is orchestrated. The film is not the first to make pronounced use of allegory, nor is it the best but as far as blockbusters go in the past five years it does one of the most coherent jobs of it. Because, what’s so great about the symbolic undertones of the film’s main plot (and I do say undertones) is that it’s delicately distributed that it’s easy for an audience member to attach their own ideology to it, and call it their own. Better yet, because of the delicacy, the film is able to stand on its irrespective of what it represents and just be. The first – better – half of the film, much of which concerns itself some meticulous world-building has scene upon scene that under a more indelicate team might have come off as garish. Take, for example, the Reaping scene early on. We’re not looking at it trying to extrapolate what the reaping is representative of in real-world aspects, we’re too concerned with exploring and understanding the issues of the world at hand, as it should be.

Now, for some irony… the hubbub around Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is deserved. Playing a vaguely more reticent version of the rough-around-the-edges character she played so well in Winter’s Bone, key aspects of the film’s latter half work just because of how precise her performance. Curiously, though, that ends up being something of a crutch to the film. I understand that The Hunger Games is a first-person narrative novel, and Ross has admitted to his desire to stay as faithful to the text which would explain why – as the film develops – there’s an almost claustrophobic focus on Katniss and her machinations. It’s a (very) backhanded compliment to say, but Ross and company have succeeded so well in setting up this world in the film’s first half that it seems reductive that the participants in the Games and their plight become very subsidiary to those of Katniss. It makes sense, keeping the larger agenda of the film in mind, but then again it does not.

As an action hero (this is an action-film, right?) Katniss is rather a passive character, something which doesn’t reveal itself immediately but becomes more obvious as I ponder on it. Even if I don’t start harping on (again) about allegorical worth and whatnot, the takeaway from the Games is the base way that things unfold and it’s interesting that Katniss (and Peeta) directly harm such a small number of their competitors – one if I remember correctly – and manage to remain victors. It’s not implausible, but their passivity belies to the harshness of the situation. By keeping the narrative so firmly focused on the (passive) Katniss we witness few actual moments of on-screen death. Considering the rating, I understand, and maybe I’m being exploitative by wanting more gore – but it’s interesting how what are in film’s reality a bloody massacre comes out feeling somewhat pure in ways. To backpedal, though, one of the beauties of the off-screen deaths are the sombre, and chilling, booms accompanying a contestants death in the game – one of the fine examples of the film’s excellent sound-design at work.
Tim (Antagony and Ecstasy – whose review might be wiser to check out, even though he’s not as on-board with the film as I) mentions that the film is a “marvel of design” which returns me to my not-a-dilemma. I’m not sure it means in the vein that I’ve co-opted it – but for me, the marvel of the design is the outline of the world which Ross and company thrive at. There’s an authenticity to this dystopian world that succeeds and I wonder if it succeeds simply based on the premise which – depending on what you bring to the table – might stress you out. After finishing the film I felt rather stressed out thinking about the wildness of the Games, and as the time went by I wondered if I was stressed because the film was so good at evoking that much feeling in me or if it was simply the thought of it that moved me. In short, was I responding to the signifier (i.e. the film) or the signified (i.e. the concept of such a disorderly world), and if it’s the latter does the film get to hold credit for it since it’s story is – after all – an adaptation of a novel. And, is it even a fair criticism to say of a “good” – it’s only “good” because the book is “good” (and, I haven’t read the book to know if it’s true – but simply thinking aloud). And, this “review” goes about its business in such a tricky way it doesn’t mention things specific to the film like the generally adept cast (with Tucci, Sutherland, Banks, Bentley and more appearing doing good work) or the sleek production design. But, I’m not sure that they were the first things I responded to….does it matter, though. For now, it probably doesn’t matter why I specifically liked it. It’s enough to know that I liked it, I liked it very much.
Good Thing Going / B


Nick Prigge said...

"It’s not implausible, but their passivity belies to the harshness of the situation." That line describes to a tee my biggest issue with the film. It's strange to say but it often felt too pat to me for something so dreadfully serious.

And I totally get your quandary about those situations where a film is better as it happens then in retrospect. Like "Super 8" for me. As it was happening that movie worked liked gangbuster for me and by the time I'd set one foot in the parking lot I was already realizing everything that was wrong.

Paolo said...

I'm probably projecting here but my unease with the movie is its aesthetics. Like for a movie about an alternate universe it doesn't begin by taking the camera back and letting us absorb every detail of it. Or I don't know if it was trying to make the absorption of knowledge immediate by going a-b-c-d instead of the a 'big picture' method.

Although as you said it's easy enough for us the audience to put our own ideologies into whatever world we're looking at, despite some gaps not being filled in.

And those things stop mattering as we get to the second half when the games begin and we're wondering HOW she survives instead of IF. To me, anyway. It's like the best movie that I don't like looking at, to sum my ambivalence up.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

nick but what oh what does one do in those situations? choose the feeling we get in retrospect, the one we get watching it? strike a balance? also, the film is a bit pat at times but i don't fault it for that, much.

paolo hahaha, i hear you on both counts. staying with katniss does work on the "how" she survives, but yet i feel - i wish - she weren't such a passive hero. ah well. small gripes, i suppose.