REVIEW – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)

hungame2A little while ago, the editor of Videovista approached me to review the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ second Hunger Games novel Catching Fire. I had read the first two books in the Hunger Games series and reviewed the first one in a mood of profound ambivalence that carried me through into the first film. In short, I liked the way the book captured Katniss’s reactions to the world but I found both the world itself and everything that happened in said world to be somewhat tedious… hence my decision to interpret the books as a sort of psychological fantasia in which the emotional touchstones of teenaged life are recreated using the language of dystopian science fiction. The problem with this interpretation is that it doesn’t really survive the decision to adapt the books but drop the internal monologues. However, rather than simply being honest and describing Francis Lawrence’s The Hunger Games: Catching Fire as a typically dull and expensive-looking Hollywood epic, I decided to work through some of my feelings about The Hunger Games, Young Adult Fiction and Hollywood Blockbusters in an essay that runs to over 4,000 words.

On psychological fantasias:

This is why President Snow is little more than a vaguely threatening beard: Collins is drawing on a particular set of cultural images to create an image of patriarchal authority that will be comprehensible to her intended audience. Though not a particularly common approach to writing, this transition from psychological realism to metaphorical fantasy is fairly common in psychological thrillers as well as T.H. White’s children’s novel The Sword And The Stone (1938), where Arthurian knights sit around drinking port and discussing Eton because even though neither of those things actually exist in the world of the novel, the words ‘port’ and ‘Eton’ serve as placeholders for a drink, and a training establishment, with a comparable set of emotional and cultural resonances.

On the incompetence of the film’s direction:

As with the opening act, a savvy director might have played up the paranoia underpinning these scenes and turned them into simmering pots of tension that occasionally explode into violence, but Lawrence follows Ross in choosing to focus on the melodrama thereby depriving the film of any sense of lingering danger or tension so that, when the angry baboons and poisonous clouds do turn up, they appear more comical than harrowing. There is one particularly wonderful scene where Katniss’ group meets up with some other tributes and decides to make peace. Noting that they appear to be covered in sticky brown liquid, Katniss asks what happened and one of the female tribute rolls her eyes and talks about blood falling from the sky in the same tone of voice that one might talk about a ruined wedding reception or barbecue; a damp squib indeed.

On adults reading books aimed at children:

The reason that people respond to works like The Hunger Games is the same reason they cower in the shadow of their parents and feel empowered by mass-market therapy sessions written for a teen demographic: we are subject to a culture that encourages us to view ourselves as creatures that are as passive and as powerless as children. Works like The Hunger Games, Harry Potter, and Twilight benefit from this cultural mood as much as they contribute to it.

An interesting corollary to some of the ideas I explore in the essay is something written by Adam “Great Sage, Equal of Heaven” Roberts who ponders the question of why Young Adult fiction has become obsessed with Victorian imagery. I think that Adam reaches some of the same conclusions that I do but expresses them in a manner that is both more erudite and sympathetic to the materials in question. Another interesting corollary is Julianne Ross’s piece in the Atlantic which asks “Must Every YA Action Heroine Be Petite?” in which she ambles down objectivisation avenue and stumbles across a far more interesting truth:

But this is the same double standard that we’ve been subjected to again and again; just as women are expected to be sexual but not slutty, pure but not prudish, heroines should be strong but not buff. Powerful, yet still delicate enough to be cradled by their male love interests. Mature enough to lead those around them, yet so small that people confuse them with innocent little girls.

I don’t think this aesthetic has as much to do with sexual objectification as it does with the fact that Young Adult fiction is partly about allowing grown-up readers to escape into worlds dominated by melodramatic treatments of banal coming-of-age stories. Indeed, as I explain in the review, The Hunger Games is all about Katniss gaining access to the rooms in which grown-ups have grown-up conversations. Her rebellion against President Snow has less to do with real-world politics than it does with standing up to Daddy. I am not a fan of escapist fiction but I have a particular contempt for escapist fiction that presents banal teenage rebellion as something worthy of book, film and song. Stories like The Hunger Games shrink the horizons of our minds to the point where the banal seems heroic and the heroic seems impossible. Give it another ten years and adults will be reading books that make them feel empowered about the fact that they are potty trained.

 

REVIEW – John Dies At The End (2012)

JDATEVideovista have my review of Don Coscarelli’s drug-addled urban fantasy John Dies at the End.

Based on a novel by Jason Pargin writing as David Wong, John Dies at the End follows a pair of generically handsome American youths (with ‘Close Boy Faces‘ naturally) as they are sucked into a weird and evocative demimonde in which they are compelled to battle ghosts, demons and genetically-engineered Cthuloid deities. The reason I go on at considerable length about JDATE being a work of urban fantasy is that the film is clearly desperate to escape that label:

Given the structural and social barriers involved in getting a work of urban fantasy made for the big screen, it is perhaps unavoidable that most marketing departments try to position works of urban fantasy as being part of more socially acceptable genres. Thus, The Matrix trilogy was successfully marketed as a work of science fiction, while the cowardly and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Hellblazer comics was described as a ‘supernatural action-thriller’ lest girl-cooties alienate the intended audience. John Dies At The End continues this somewhat inglorious tradition with a PR campaign that tries to distance the project from the literary context that inspired the original novel, and reposition the film as the kind of gonzo horror/ comedy you would expect from the man responsible for both the Phantasm series and Bubba Ho-Tep.

The wikipedia entry for the film describes JDATE as “dark comedy-horror”.

The wikipedia entry for the book describes JDATE as “cosmic horror”.

Why should this be?

The answer has quite a lot to do with privilege and the ways in which we are socialised into a particular gender. The straight white men of today are like the painted French aristocrats of pre-revolutionary France: Pampered and protected by economic and social systems that are as unjust as they are unstable, straight white men live in unconscious fear of becoming declasse or reduced in status to a lower social rank like that of woman, BME or LGBT.

Once upon a time, the trappings of masculinity were so instantly recognisable that all a man needed to do in order to protect his privileged status was to grow a beard and either run off to war or get a job that required him to wear a tie. However, as society has been shaped and re-shaped by the tidal forces of global capitalism, the trappings of masculinity have been commodified to the point where cloaking yourself in the traditional trappings of masculinity no longer serve as a basis for differentiating one group from another. However, because straight white men are trained to take pride in their status, they are forever on the lookout for things that will identify them as straight white men and distinguish them from everyone else. Maybe it’s liking football, maybe it’s wearing sports gear, maybe it’s drinking pints, maybe it’s talking about how much you enjoy sex in a loud and boisterous manner. The problem is that every time straight white men find a way of broadcasting their group membership, fashions change and people from other groups begin adopting those characteristics. This has made straight white men hypersensitive to any product that might make them look like they might belong to a lesser social class, and this is where Urban Fantasy comes in.

Urban Fantasy shares about 80% of its DNA with Paranormal Romance. In fact, the only difference between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy places ever so slightly less emphasis on the romantic sub-plots. This association is somewhat problematic as reading Romance novels is one of those characteristics that is so unquestionably feminine that it is enough to alienate most straight men. In fact, some straight white men are so uncomfortable with the connections between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance that they have tried to re-write the history of Urban Fantasy to exclude as many female authors as possible. This is why JDATE is being marketed as “dark comedy-horror” rather than the work of cinematic Urban Fantasy it so obviously is.

Another result of the association between Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance is that Urban Fantasy is a genre with very little critical status. In fact, it’s quite telling that what I liked most about this film is the director’s valiant attempts at resisting genre narratives even though they were built into his film at script level. Some might argue that this is a reflection of my own privilege and failure to take the red pill and move beyond the gendered aesthetics fed to us by our culture but I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Our aesthetic preferences are built into us on the same level as our personality traits and there’s a point at which getting free of the system is effectively indistinguishable from becoming an entirely different person.

REVIEW – Blancanieves (2012)

BlancanievesVideoVista has my review of Pablo Berger’s Blancanieves, a silent black and white re-invention of Snow White.

Set in 1920s Spain, the film opens on a young couple who are about to have their first child. He is a successful bullfighter, She is a famed flamenco dancer. Unfortunately, tragedy strikes when He is injured in the ring and She goes into premature labour and dies in the process of giving birth to her daughter. For reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter’s daughter grows up in the care of her grandmother and is never allowed to meet her father who immediately marries his demonic and controlling nurse. When the young girl’s grandmother dies, for reasons that are not even remotely addressed, the bullfighter agrees to assume his responsibilities as a father but he refuses to meet with his daughter and so the young girl is forced to work as a scullery maid. Eventually the father and daughter meet and so the evil step-mother throws the young woman out onto the street forcing her to befriend a band of dwarven bullfighters who help her achieve fame as a successful bullfighter in her own right.

The fascinating thing about this film is that while Berger sets out to make a proper silent film, it is clear that Berger struggles to tell a story using only images and musical cues. Thus, rather than images that tell a story and musical cues that provide an emotional context for these images, Berger presents us with a series of incredibly well-composed but dramatically empty images backed up with an entirely inappropriate musical score. Indeed, Blancanieves is less a work of cinematic art than it is a fashion shoot inspired by a combination of 1920s Spain and film noir. As I say in the review:

Having failed to marshal both his visual and his musical resources in an effective manner, Berger is forced onto the decidedly contemporary footing of relying upon scripting and actors to tell the story, and this is where silent film’s lack of bandwidth really bites as the actors seem to take their cues from the inter-titles and the inter-titles are all featureless snippets of dialogue meaning that none of the actors ever transcends the childish and stereotypical origins of their characters: evil stepmother is evil, warm-hearted child is warm-hearted, broken patriarch is broken, and dwarves provide a deeply questionable combination of comedy and pathos.

Ideally, the history of film should tell a story of growing complexity and accomplishment; Each new technical innovation unlocking entire arenas of artistic potential that is broken, harnessed and added to the ever-growing toolbox of a mature art form. However, as Berger’s failure to tell a convincing story suggests, many of the techniques pioneered by silent filmmakers have dropped out of mainstream use meaning that many contemporary directors trained to make ‘talkies’ are effectively incapable of making a silent film as they lack the technical skills required to convey narrative without the use of expositionary dialogue. However, as I explain in my review, many of the skills pioneered by silent filmmakers live on in the work of art house directors:

In 1963, the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman produced a film with no dialogue at all. The Silence is a genuinely extraordinary exercise in technical self-control as while Bergman does make use of sound effects and incomprehensible mumbling, he effectively manages to tell a complex psychological story without a single line of dialogue or even an inter-title. This desire to demand more from your audience and keep them making imaginative leaps is now firmly embedded in the DNA of the art house tradition but it is particularly noticeable in such recent dialogue-free triumphs as Jose Luis Guerin’s In The City Of Sylvia, Mao Mao’s Here, Then, and Amer by Helene Cattet and Bruno Forzani. Watching these films reminds us of how crude, lazy and wasteful Hollywood filmmaking has become. It also shows us quite how much the likes of Pablo Berger need to learn before they can tell a compelling story without the use of dialogue.

For those interested, I include links to reviews of the films I mention:

Re-reading my review of Bergman’s The Silence, I am struck by how little I actually engaged with the film as a piece of silent cinema: I talk about character, I talk about mythology and I talk about the purpose of criticism precisely because at the time of writing that review (2008) I lacked the critical tools required to make sense of what it was that I was seeing on screen. In order for audiences to be able to make sense of a work of art, they must first possess the tools that will allow them to decode them. Much of what we mean when we talk about ‘education’, ‘learning’ and ‘being cultured’ is acquiring skills that allow us to make sense of particular works of art and it is in this process of acquisition that we see the true biases of our own society: Because I grew up in an era when films had dialogue, I never needed to acquire the skills required to make sense of a dialogue-free film. Because I am a straight, white man and I grew up in a culture that uses that perspective as a universal cultural default, I find films that embody different perspectives to be both a challenge and a release but I think many people view films made from non-white, non-straight and non-male perspectives in a manner comparable to the way I used to see silent film: Sure… a lot of effort went into this, but I can’t make any fucking sense of it!

REVIEW – Zaytoun (2012)

ZaytounVideovista have my review of Eran Riklis’s Zaytoun, an almost impossibly idealistic film about Arab-Israeli relations.

Set during the 1982 Lebanon war, Zaytoun tells of an Israeli fighter pilot who is shot down over a refugee camp. Locked up in a cell, the fighter pilot only frees himself by agreeing to help a Palestinian teenager to return to his family’s land in what is now Israel. Essentially a road movie, the two travelers make their way through a number of tricky encounters growing closer and closer to each other with each new mile. More symbolic vehicles than actual characters, the boy and the fighter pilot seem to represent the two sides of the conflict suggesting that if two fictional characters can make friends then surely the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships should also be able to make friends… yeah.

The real problem with Zaytoun is that while Riklis clearly made a deliberate choice to sacrifice depth of character in return for increased depth of symbolic representation, the fable he weaves around his generic archetypes is so trite and simple-minded that the audience is left with neither a decent set of characters nor a particularly good idea about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Indeed, strip away the pretty landscape photography, and the broadly comic secondary characters, and you are left with a film that suggests the Palestinian question could be solved if only both sides could be a little bit nicer to each other.

Another issue I raise in my review is the fact that recent years have seen a number of Israeli films that attempt to deal with the current state of Arab-Israeli relations by projecting the writer and director’s ideas back onto a vision of the 1982 Lebanon war. Aside from the obvious questions of historical accuracy and political cowardice raised by this trend, I am also struck by the fact that films like Zaytoun, Waltz with Bashir and Lebanon all treat the Palestinian and Lebanese as symbolic representations of Israel’s moral character: In Waltz with Bashir, the war of 1982 is treated as a sort of psychotic episode, in Lebanon the war was treated as a crucible of psychological hardship and, in Zaytoun, bopth the Palestinian people and the road to Palestine are treated as psychological stepping stones for an Israeli protagonist. The interesting thing about all of these films is that none of them treat the Palestinians as real people with an existence outside of their presence in the minds of Israeli characters. In fact, one is reminded of Chinua Achebe’s incendiary comments about the depiction of African people in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:

Africa as setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as human factor. Africa as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril. Can nobody see the preposterous and perverse arrogance in thus reducing Africa to the role of props for the break-up of one petty European mind?

The most worrying thing about films like Zaytoun is that they suggest that contemporary middle-class Israelis are falling into the same trap as White Victorian novelists. Rather than treating Palestine as a complex place filled with real and complex people, they reduce it to the state of Universal Other… a place that wandering Israeli soldiers enter at their peril. Zaytoun is clearly an idealistic film but I think it is, in the words of Achebe, ‘bloody racist’.

REVIEW – Purge (2012)

PurgeVideovista have my review of Antti Jokinen’s Purge or Pudhistus in its native Finnish.

Based on a hugely successful novel by the Finnish-Estonian writer Sofi Oksanen, Purge uses two different time frames to explore the links between the rape and brutalisation of women during the Soviet annexation of Estonia and the rape and brutalisation of women at the hands of the contemporary sex trade. Clearly, this is not only a worthy subject for a film but also a potentially fascinating one. Are contemporary sex traffickers just the latest manifestation of a systemic hatred of women? Have different generations of women responded differently to this treatment? Given that this type of thing has been going on all over the world since time immemorial, what is it that is unique to the experience of Estonian women? These are just some of the fascinating questions that Purge could have taken on but rather than raising awareness and probing the darker side of human nature, director Antti Jokinen prefers to sexualise rape and suggest that it’s something you could probably get used to eventually anyway.

Warning – The following passage is triggery for rape as is the rest of the review but it’s not nearly as triggery as the film itself:

While the male gaze may be distracting and insulting in the context of a film like Transformers 2, detecting it in a film about the systematic brutalisation of women is an absolute disgrace: every time Zara is stripped naked by her pimp, Jokinen’s camera lingers on her undergarments. Every time Zara and Aliide are raped and beaten, the camera pans down so as to ensure that the audience gets a good long look at their firm young breasts. In one scene, Zara’s pimp has her get down on all fours to masturbate while he takes photos, and Jokinen places his camera in the same position as the pimp’s, thereby ensuring that the audience is forced to see Zara through the eyes of a murderous rapist. Aside from being exploitative and downright creepy, Jokinen’s systematic sexualisation of rape serves to put his audience in a position of tacit complicity with rapists and torturers, which is precisely the opposite of what this film is supposed to be about!

Purge is a fantastic example of Jean Cocteau’s observation that “style is a simple way of saying complicated things”. The script and subject matter of Purge point to a film that decries the historical mistreatment of women by encouraging the audience to empathise with the victims of historical abuse. A competent director would have read the script and used cinematic technique to place the audience in the position of the abused women thereby encouraging them to not only understand what it would be like to be in that situation but also to get angry about the fact that those situations existed in the first place. Unfortunately, rather than encouraging us to sympathise with the victims of rape, Jokinen uses cinematic technique to place us in the position of the abusers who leer at vulnerable women and enjoy their bodies as they writhe in pain and humiliation. Simple stated, Purge is the most unpleasantly misogynistic film I have ever seen. Even worse, Antti Jokinen has directed two feature films thus far in his career and both of them have been about rape. I would never go so far as to suggest that this forms some sort of ideological pattern but I would urge Jokinen to take a long, hard look at his artistic output and consider how he really feels about women.

REVIEW – Alps (2011)

alpsVideoVista have my review of Giorgos Lanthimos’s third films Alps.

Alps is part of a suite of films that began in 2009 when Lanthimos’s second film Dogtooth won the Un Certain Regard prize at the Cannes film festival. Surreal, funny and utterly unlike anything else in contemporary art house film, Dogtooth tells of a pair of siblings who have been raised to believe that the world outside of their family home is a sort of dystopian nightmare. Much like Rolf de Heer’s incandescently brilliant Bad Boy Bubby, Lanthimos uses this set-up to explore not only the weird second-hand beliefs that parents pass onto their children, but also the oddness of contemporary life and how arbitrary our social conventions must feel to people not raised to accept them. This critique of contemporary morality and generational differences then stepped up a gear in Attenberg, a film by Athina Rachel Tsangari who also serves as Lanthimos’ producer on Dogtooth and Alps. Much like Dogtooth, Attenberg uses surrealism to draw our attention to the arbitrary nature of social mores but in a way that suggests considerably more anger towards the older generation. How are young people supposed to cope with a complex world when all their parents ever did was fill their heads with be-bop and David Attenborough documentaries. Alps is very much a part of the Dogtooth cycle but, unlike Dogtooth and Attenberg, it does away with the surreal imagery that made those earlier films so intensely eye-catching and different.

The film tells of a group of people who make a living impersonating the recently deceased. Initially, we are encouraged to look upon the gang as either crooks or amateur grief therapists, but as the film unfolds and we learn more about the characters, the reasons for the impersonations become increasingly strange and difficult to discern:

The root of the problem lies in Lanthimos’ decision to abandon the surrealism of Dogtooth and Attenberg in favour of a more realistic footing. In Dogtooth and Attenberg, the surrealism served not only to exaggerate the foibles of everyday life but also to locate the film within a context that was more symbolic and fantastical than strictly representational. This means that the audience is left stranded in a sort of philosophical ‘uncanny valley’ as the film is both too real to be metaphorical and too weird to be a representation of the real world. Neither a fable nor a drama, Alps is a hugely evocative mess of impenetrable feelings and oblique social observations that could have been a whole lot more.

Clearly, this is a film that is overflowing with ideas and I continue to think that Lanthimos and Tsangari are two of the most important filmmakers working today. However, I question the decision to shift to a more realistic register as I’m not convinced that the cinematic vocabulary of social and psychological realism can cope with the complex and frequently metaphorical nature of Lanthimos’ ideas. Still… a director whose ideas outstrip the visual elements of his film is a refreshing change to the current vogue for incredibly beautiful and well-made films that are completely devoid of new ideas.

REVIEW – The Master (2012)

masterMy review of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master has just gone live over at VideoVista.

Set in the aftermath of World War II, the film follows a thoroughly disreputable alcoholic and adventurer as he tumbles from steady job, to menial labour and finally into alcohol-sodden destitution. While on a particularly epic bender, the alcoholic (played by Joaquin Phoenix) finds his way onto a ship commanded by an equally disreputable mystic (played by Philip Seymour Hoffman). Clearly modeled on L. Ron Hubbard, this mystic is in the process of founding a cult that borrows as much from traditional mysticism as it does from experimental psychology. Sensing a degree of kinship despite the differences in their fortunes, the two men begin a sort of epic bromance that eventually comes to trouble the mystic’s terrifyingly ambitious and controlling wife. Much like the mystic, she sees the similarities between the two men and so she is worried that the alcoholic’s refusal to mend his ways will wind up dragging down the mystic.

The tension between the two characters reminded me very much of Claude Chabrol’s wonderfully murky Juste Avant La Nuit (1971), in which two characters are bound together by their intense resemblance as well as their intense hatred of what the other person represents. In my review of Juste Avant La Nuit I noted that:

The early British psychoanalyst Ernest Jones once said that we do not want to kill the people we hate most, instead we want to kill the people who evoke in us the most unbearable conflicts.  This is because it is human nature to try to resolve inner conflicts decisively.  To be one thing or another.  Much conciliatory art (such as the films that dominate the Gay Indie film scene), is based upon the idea that conflicts are a result of confusion.  Confusion that can be solved simply by ignoring one part of our nature.  However, the reality is that inner conflicts define us as people and drive us forward.  They are not battles that can be won, they are battles that are forever being fought and the dust cloud that rise from the battlefield is who and what we are.  When Charles met Laura and her need for complex sexual power dynamics, he was reminded of the conflicts that rage within his bourgeois existence : The urge to be free, the urge to be submissive.  By having an affair with Laura, he was forced to confront his own uncertainties and rather than assume the responsibility for ending the relationship, he chose to erase Laura.  To erase the source of his confusion and the reminder of his own conflicted nature.

While I enjoyed the film quite a bit, I am also aware that it felt like a wasted opportunity. As I say in my review:

While there is no denying that The Master is a beautifully made and surprisingly intense film, it is also a film that fails to make full use of its considerable assets. Indeed, despite being inspired by the founder of scientology, Anderson’s film offers no real commentary on cults other than the rather bland observation that the men who lead them are occasionally rogues. This criticism can also be levelled at There Will Be Blood in that Anderson took a complex satirical novel about the Tea Pot Dome scandal and reduced it down to a story about an oil baron being a bit of a prick. That Anderson’s films lack anything approaching a subtext or a message is undeniably a result of his placing characters at the centre of his creative process. There Will Be Blood and The Master suggest that, while this process can produce very intense films with beautifully realised characters, it is not particularly adept at producing smart films and that is a terrible shame.

The Master had the opportunity to explore not only the psychological aftermath of the Second World War but also the complex psychological dependencies that go into establishing a cult. However, rather than exploring these huge meaty issues, Paul Thomas Anderson produced little more than an entertainingly intense two-hander that is all about the performances. Which is a shame really…