April 16, 2012

A Game Of Stones


People are bagging in force on The Hunger Games’ directorial choices, specifically the drunken cameraman style of filming. Director Gary Ross has his public rationalizations, but there’s something more at play. I think Ross is trying (or acting unconsciously) to fuse different elements of dystopian science fiction — different threads that have nonetheless been woven together in the public consciousness because, hey, all science fiction is the same, right?

He’s abetted in large part by production designer Philip Messina (Steven Soderbergh’s chief designer since 2000) and cinematographer Tom Stern (bleaching out Clint Eastwood’s movies since 2002). I’d have to see it again to cite specific examples, but the disorienting shot choices and editing in the first Games skirmish, as contestants bludgeon each other to death over the goods in the Cornucopia, remind me of the kind of compositions we saw in a lot of 1960s and ’70s cinema — particularly the ones that involved handheld cameras and protagonists acting out against a bleak futuristic landscape.

The Saarinen architecture of the Cornucopia (above), site of The Hunger Games’ first, middle and final battles, evokes just such landscapes.

The film raises class questions of vast scope. The twelve subordinate Districts are poor, starving and exploited (yet Peeta has cakes to frost), sucked dry for coal and row crops, as President Snow (Donald Sutherland) outlines to Gamemaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). From these resources, the ruling elite of the Capitol can power 200mph light rail, hoverships with no visible rotors or vents, and hardlight holography that can generate deadly fireballs and dog-boar-things. They genetically engineer killer LSD wasps and formulate antibacterial salves that destroy internal infection (despite being topically applied … nanotech?) and heal third-degree burns and severe lacerations overnight. All these things bespeak massive resources and engineering prowess, while the attention paid to outré grooming and haberdashery is a hallmark of wealth and leisure.

These class issues have their physical expression in the film’s urban design. Take the Capitol, an Albert Speer wet dream of centralized power and martial glory.

Such structures are for individual heroes to measure their own stature against, megaliths with unyielding surfaces that must nonetheless be climbed and conquered.

In SF films, architectural environments began with such soaring structures, visibly optimistic testaments to human achievement. On one track of cinema, this branch of utopian urbanism — call it the Enlightened City — persisted through the 1970s.

But a subsequent school of SF city design evolved in the 1960s and paralleled the Enlightened City. This latter branch was mostly seen in dystopian SF, which employed (in a critique of the form? or a nod to budgets? or both?) the Brutalist locations offered by contemporary business parks, office complexes and public plazas. These locations were not fanciful but inhabited by the viewers of these same movies. They evoked a time that was today, and yet not.

Between the Capitol and locations like the District 12 common plaza (below), The Hunger Games seeks to remarry these two schools of design.

There’s probably another whole post to be had about how Katniss begins her story living on her own terms (as best one can in an authoritarian state), but becomes absorbed by an imposed narrative as the Games progress. The warrior-girl with the bow must dress up pretty and profess to love a boy, all because the audience expects it — because that’s how the story ends — all to win a reality show.

Oh, pop culture, how you own us.

Cross-posted from Soul Smithy.


JF said...

Re: Cabin review

While I am inclined to look askance at Whedon froth (he's a smart guy who's done uneven but occasionally brilliant work, but most of his stuff is hampered by his unfortunate conviction that the best way to guarantee quality is to make sure everything and -body onscreen projects an unseemly amount of confidence in the work's own goodness (I tend to chalk it up to his likely not fully-baked existentialism)) there's nonetheless an awful lot of baby in that 92% of Buffy Chaw pronounces bathwater. I'd put it at 20% greatness, 40% entirely enjoyable if inconsistent, 20% clunky and irritating, 20% truly embarrassing. Probably not a coincidence that the latter qualities tend to manifest themselves most in those seasons when Whedon wasn't around much. For 140something episodes the ratio of excellence to total shit actually isn't too bad. Now, Angel, on the other hand...

Cabin itself is problematic in both intention and execution, but considered separate from the ridiculous hyperbole surrounding it (which it's admittedly hard to separate it from), it's good, raggedy fun.

Also: I'm 23 and got the "I learned it from you" reference. As did my younger pal. Variations thereof still remain in the anti-drug propaganda kids are made to endure in grade school. The crowd at a midnight screening is not such a good bellwether for we Millennials' pop cultural literacy.

Stephanie said...

Do you really think there is that much intention behind it? I just never got the impression that Hunger Games was thinking that deeply: just content to give the appearance of a thing as the appearance of a thing. That's what the audience wants. After all, it's a riff on a reality t.v. show, and even the rejection of that is bathed in tropes (the boy back home, the baby sister and the downtrodden single mother).

I was never impressed by any of the designs here as seeming raw and real in the way 60s and 70s films were. It's more like a CGI pan of a city that doesn't look like where the actual action is staged, and Disney-veneers of futurism on everything as a visual distraction to cover the fact that nothing terribly interesting is actually happening. I mean, some of the sets (such as the scene with Kat shooting the arrow at the judges) are so bad that they are like Star Trek 60s sets, lacking in even their imagination.

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