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.