Thursday, March 29, 2012

Bleed the Poor

I enjoyed The Hunger Games more than I expected. America's last big movie sensation, Avatar, was pretty, but also pretty dull, being as it was so many white savior and environmental and sci-fi themes warmed-over. Hunger Games promises more with its title alone, an ear-catching juxtaposition of poverty and play. In practice, the movie (I haven't read the book series on which it's based, but given there are three of them I would suspect the film's biggest flaw originates therein) does a great many good and interesting things, but does not have the courage of its conception, and ends up shying away from the logical conclusions of its grim setup.

That setup is a very good one. At an unspecified time in the future, there is a nation, Panem, divided into thirteen districts. The thirteen revolted against the Capitol, which crushed the rebellion, destroying District 13 (this detail passed me by in the theater) and re-asserted its authority by decreeing that every year the remaining districts would select by lottery two children, a boy and a girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen referred to as Tributes, to go to the Capitol and battle to the death in what are known as The Hunger Games, until there is only one left standing.

The Hunger Games, the movie, takes place on the eve of the 74th such competition. District 12, a coal-mining region, selects as its Tributes Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) and baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Prim is but a girl of twelve and for her sake her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who has provided for her family by illegal trapping and hunting game beyond the District boundaries, volunteers to take her place. Katniss and Peeta are taken by a very silly escort from the Capitol (Elizabeth Banks) onto a train, where they meet their mentor, a previous Hunger Games winner and now seemingly hopeless drunk, Haymitch Abertnathy (Woody Harrelson), and head to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. Katniss and Peeta have something of a history, which will play a decisive role in how the Games eventually unfold.

While the geography of the world the movie builds occasionally feels small or ill-defined (the movie doesn't make clear that this is a far in the future America, which makes it seem all the more remarkable that of twelve presumably huge districts the two Tributes should know each other so well already), its character is quite fully realized. Far be it for me to say how The Hunger Games managed to conquer our consciousness in less than three months, but I would posit the fact that it crystallizes so much of the national mood--on reckless endangerment and death in sports and reality television; on the regression of values by endless war; even, and especially, the awareness of teen bullying--and pushes it to, in Peter Brook's phrasing, arresting extremes.

The teenager angle is especially stark, taking high school life, which feels like a life-and-death, end of the world struggle, and making it so. At one point in the Tribunes' training Katness tells Peter to demonstrate his strength, because his clumsiness is making him a target in the others' eyes. This scenario is already familiar to an audience--it may as well be happening in gym class--but here it acquires a vicious edge: they're playing for keeps, as the kids say. Accordingly the opening of the Games, in which nearly half the contenders get slaughtered making a mad dash for a cornucopia of weaponry, plays like the most lethal game of dodgeball ever conceived. The violence is not as brutal as a story like this should be, but it does about everything it can within the confines of commercial necessity. With an assortment of deaths by bludgeons, wasp stings, neck-snappings, and impalements, it's definitely on the outer limits of a hard PG-13 rating, which had already been pushed pretty far by The Dark Knight.

Ultimately, however, the movie shrinks from the horrific implications of its concept. The Tributes, the handful of the 24 that do receive some characterization, are largely written as 'good' or 'evil' types, such that it when one of them dies, it's clear whether we should be happy or sad. These scenes are generally fine in themselves--the way one death triggers a District riot is in fact one of the best moments in the movie--but there's no ambiguity. Inherent in the concept of kids fighting to the death is the possibility that Katniss and Peeta will have to kill someone they don't want to die, including the other. I can't articulate what's wrong with the second half of the movie without going into major detail, so for those who wish to remain blissfully ignorant, suffice it to say that this crushing moral dilemma is deliberately neutered.


Midway through the Games the rules are very explicitly changed so that two victors can be allowed if they're from the same district. The gamemaster who makes this change does so to keep Katniss and Peeta from being killed on orders from the President, and to encourage a 'Romeo and Juliet' angle that will play well with audiences. This completely eliminates the Hunger Games' basic tension, the zero-sum scenario that could force good people to kill each other to survive, and reduces the conflict even more to good kids vs. bad kids.

The rules are borked with even further, however, so that the final showdown with Cato, the District 2 Aryan psychopath antagonist, has to be literally conjured out of thin air, with a pack of hyena-like beasts forcing them all into one confined area. Then the two victors rule is rescinded, forcing the zero-sum conflict back into the story where it should have stayed from the beginning. And then, just when it seems like the movie might actually pull off a great ending in spite of all this narrative chicanery--that Katniss and Peeta will, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, commit suicide rather than abide by the pitiless one-victor rule, and so defy the false notion of hope the Games are built on--the rules change once more so they can both live and the audience can have a happy ending.

Making an actual character, the Gamemaster, responsible for changing the rules is a clever attempt to shift the blame for narrative inconsistency away from the story's author and screenwriter, Suzanne Collins, but it's still a cop-out. Yet as meta-textual commentary it's a smashing success. The Panem audience loves Katniss and Peeta, and The Hunger Games opens with juggernaut $211 million blitz.

I'm making this sound worse than it is. Director Gary Ross's decision to film all this with a nervous, handheld shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing is a terrible decision that sometimes results in near total geographic incoherence, but the first two-thirds of the movie manages to be very good anyway, thanks to a strong cast (Lawrence is the obvious standout, playing a girl caught between mature resolve and youthful vulnerability, but the supporting cast, including Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland as the President, are vital to realizing the world of the story), and some solid visuals, balanced between the squalid Districts and the shiny, shallow, Capitol.

In the end, the movie's done its job. In spite of the cheap ending I'm invested enough in the characters to find out what happens, and may well check out the books, which I'm told describe the world in considerably greater detail. The movie's second half, though, hurts badly, in all the wrong ways. It betrays the promise of the premise, making what could be a truly great story merely good for the sake of a follow-up. Perhaps the the sequels justify it, but for now, I'm still hungry.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

He Needs to Talk About Kevin

Fiction is an inadequate medium to address ideas of fate. A story is crafted, hopefully with care, by a writer with an intent in his plotting, a method to his sadness. Drama is ultimately about creating expectations in a story and then meeting, subverting, or at least addressing them in some way. Chekhov's third act firing gun and all that. Real life, as was elsewhere noted regarding the fictions of Mike Daisey, is decidedly not intentional. We all have expectations, but the universe is at best haphazard in dealing with them in any meaningful way. Life is less a tightly-wound plot than a freewheeling improvisation. Thus is it all the more impressive that Jeff, Who Lives at Home is as entertaining and successful as it is, being as it also is a warmed-over meditation on the 'everything happens for a reason' philosophy of the movie Signs.

That's not a joke, except that it is. The very first thing we see, after some intentionally "deep" text as said by the titular Jeff, is Jeff himself (Jason Segel) elaborating on the profundities of Signs, into a tape recorder, while he's on the toilet. It's an amusing introduction to the character, a 30-year-old man-child that Seth Rogan might have played a few years ago, who lives in his mother's basement and smokes pot all day, and who takes a random caller asking about a "Kevin" to be a sign that he should follow every Kevin he can, to find his path in life. He sets out to buy some wood glue to fix a wooden slat in the closet door for his widowed mother Sharon (Susan Sarandon)--who amid her own mid-life malaise tries with the help of her friend Carol (Rae Dawn Chong) to learn the identity of a secret admirer at work--and ends up running into brother Pat (Ed Helms), who seems to regard his wife Linda (Judy Greer) as a whiny medium through which to project his own ridiculously vain urges and desires, including a new, ill-advisedly purchased Porsche. Not at all surprisingly, the two brothers find out, Linda might be cheating on him.

It's a good setup that goes as far as it can until thematic necessities of destiny intervene with a climax and ending that, to this atheist anyway, too conveniently tie everything together and wrap it up. But it's a lot of fun while it lasts, thanks to the actors, who find great humor and warmth in characters that could easily be grating stereotypes--the lazy schlub, the asshole husband, the frazzled mother--as well as a perhaps a somewhat surprisingly sharp script. The creative team, brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, hail from the Mumblecore indie film scene, noted for its barbarically lo-fi and improvisational filmmaking approach. The only other film of theirs I have seen, the comedy-horror Baghead, was as good a representative of the genre as could be hoped for, in that it succeeded in spite of its inherent indulgences.

Since going quasi-mainstream, the brothers have upped their technical ante, though not entirely. The script, on the one hand, is marvelously crafted, with the goofy and quirky indie humor balanced by the quiet desperation of the characters. The contrast between Jeff and Pat, total opposites in life motivation yet still finding themselves adrift without their father, is nicely handled. The laughs are frequently inventive too, with the stakes constantly escalating and great mileage being made of devices as varied as a parking ticket and a cell phone.

Less deftly handled is the camera, which if not actually handheld at least feels like it is. It moves with coffee-addled jitter, and most annoyingly zooms in and out constantly, as in at least twice a minute throughout the entire film. The first time it happens it's a lovely bit of comic exaggeration, but it wears out its welcome a minute later after the fourth or fifth use. It's adaptable eventually, in the way a person with Tourette's syndrome adapts to his body and facial tics, but its no less annoying for being so. It makes the movie rather an eyesore to watch, like Cloverfield without having the expectation beforehand of motion sickness, and mars what is otherwise a very entertaining comedy.

There's also, as mentioned, the goofy 'interconnectedness of the universe' cosmology that dictates its precedings, but in the end one either buys it or one doesn't. The film is enough of a hoot that it doesn't matter that its ideas are a conscious retread of M. Night Shyamalan's second best movie. It at least knows when it's being funny and ridiculous.

Monday, March 19, 2012

A Daisey Train of Thoughts

Before The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, there was this, the original Daisey deception:

I am kidding, but not only kidding. The exaggerations of Mike Daisey and the Johnson campaign, while different in their specifics, are in fact much alike, for they were both done for a Noble Cause. The former is exposing Apple's shady manufacturing processes in order to effect their change, the other was beating Barry Goldwater for the presidency. Both causes contain clear villains whose (potential) offenses are so great as to justify whatever distortions may be used in service of the goal of defeating them.

That the things Mike Daisey described--child workers, workers poisoned by N-Hexane, workers whose hands are destroyed by repetitive motion--that these happened is not in dispute. That they happened to the people he talked to, is.

This matters. It's not enough to fall back on Apple's established bad record when attacking them. 'They've done bad before, why wouldn't they do it again?' is a righteous comfort, but not right; it's the hallmark of conspiracy theorist thinking. Indictments of individuals and organizations must rest on their actual offenses against the actual people in the actual factories.

That Daisey felt the need to make the victims he didn't meet seem as if if they were the ones he did, is also vaguely egotistical in a white savior kind of way, as if they wouldn't matter if they weren't a part of his China experience. It's irritating for the same reason that Tom MacMaster's posing as a Syrian lesbian is irritating: it re-channels the suffering of a group through a voyeur of the privileged class such that only by the contact of the one with the other is the story granted legitimacy. Granted, acknowledging that characters and events had been fictionalized might not fully inoculate Daisey from such a charge--white saviorism is the most crippling problem with The Help--but by declaring a work fiction it would justify concentrating Apple's accumulate transgressions into one narrative.

The issue of narrative is what galls the most about Daisey's defense on This American Life's retraction of their January excerpt from his show. I'm a man of the theater as Daisey is, and I am with Ira Glass a hundred percent on this:

Ira Glass: Are you going to change the way that you label this in the theater, so that the audience in the theater knows that this isn’t strictly speaking a work of truth but in fact what they’re seeing really is a work of fiction that has some true elements in it.

Mike Daisey: Well, I don’t know that I would say in a theatrical context that it isn’t true. I believe that when I perform it in a theatrical context in the theater that when people hear the story in those terms that we have different languages for what the truth means.

Ira Glass: I understand that you believe that but I think you’re kidding yourself in the way that normal people who go to see a person talk – people take it as a literal truth. I thought that the story was literally true seeing it in the theater. Brian, who’s seen other shows of yours, thought all of them were true. I saw your nuclear show, I thought that was completely true. I thought it was true because you were on stage saying ‘this happened to me.’ I took you at your word.

Mike Daisey: I think you can trust my word in the context of the theater.

I'm guessing the "context of the theater" refers to the work's own subjective, internal context. Seen on its own, as a story, it is powerful and moving. But so was Johnson's Daisy ad. It was great political theater, and it committed people to the (arguably) good cause of denying Goldwater the White House. But stories don't exist in a vacuum. And these particular stories, were not true.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Mike Daisey and Shakespeare and Greater Truths

The theater has ever been an ailing medium, wanting relevance in an increasingly technology-based world. It's with considerable discomfort, then, that I've read about Mike Daisey's fabrications in his monologue, The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs, whose popularity and success in effecting some actual change to Apple's business practices were astonishing and admirable.

Daisey's defense is that he's "not a journalist" and that he shouldn't have consented to have his show excerpted on This American Life, which is a journalistic enterprise. True enough. Daisey is an actor and performer. But what has he been performing? He describes it as "a combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license," but is this clear to the audience? When Daisey sat at his table onstage and described what he claimed to have seen in China, audiences were inclined to take him at his word. This wasn't a The Things They Carried exercise in meta-fiction; the assumption was we were hearing about the experiences of Mike Daisey, not "Mike Daisey."

But still: Daisey is a storyteller. Ought not he be allowed to use every storyteller's tool at his disposal to do his job? Well, yes and no. Many people would probably scoff at the idea that there's such thing as a "greater truth," that one doesn't need facts for, but in almost any kind of dramatic narrative, it's generally true. Any costume drama is going to elide certain facts simply for narrative convenience. There are too many details that are either irrelevant or would take too long to include in the two hours' traffic of the stage. Shakespeare was notoriously promiscuous with the facts in his "True Historie"s of England's monarchs, but to dwell on that would be to miss entirely the point of a powerful piece of theatre as Richard III.

The problem is Daisey isn't merely out to entertain the groundlings. His truth is greater than the Tudor Myth that Shakespeare appealed to; it is the very real and very bad conditions of Chinese factories manufacturing Apple products. The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs deals with Daisey's own ambivalence with Apple, yes, but it functions also as an expose and chronicling of Daisey's discoveries. At that point, when the integrity of the work is dependent on the unearthing of facts, creative license is no longer a benefit but in fact a considerable detriment. This was the critical failure of a very different work involving Shakespeare, last year's historical disaster film by Roland Emmerich, Anonymous. The goal of that grand misadventure was to tell the "truth" that "Shakespeare" wasn't actually Shakespeare, but it couldn't be bothered to get basic facts about the time period straight.

There is plenty of room in the world for both fiction and journalism. Goodness knows the internet's made it easier than ever for the propagation of falsehoods, nonsense, and pablum (see: Kony 2012), but it can also illuminate the darkest of places, such as the way Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter have helped document and sustain the Arab Spring. But one can't have it both ways. The fact of Daisey's fictions hurts the credibility of Apple's critics; mingling invention with reportage only reduces the story's potency to so much sound and fury. Thus does the illuminating power of art, that brief candle, go out, out.