28.9.12

The Hunger Games

I read Lord of the Flies in school, which I imagine provides the model for this film (I haven't seen Battle Royale) – children killing each other in the wild, basically. But while Golding was interested in the darkness of man's heart, The Hunger Games goes in an Orwellian direction, exploring economic exploitation and the methods of social control used to dampen resistance to it. In other words, it's a political fable, with the kind of radical politics that I'm seeing a lot more of recently (cf. Snow White cast as a revolutionary).

The hero, Katniss Everdeen, is introduced as a Robin Hood figure, illegally hunting in the king's forests. Her display of fortitude and dignity in the contest she enters turns her into a symbol of rebellion against an authoritarian regime (Wes Bentley the Duke of Nottingham to Donald Sutherland's King John), although we'll have to wait for the next adaptation before we see her at the vanguard of an army. I'm guessing, btw. I haven't read the books.

The games are an interesting tool of ideological subjugation, their logic isn't spelled out by the film, and I'm still trying to tease it out (perhaps I really should read the books). Donald Sutherland mentions that the only thing more powerful that fear is hope, which to me suggests an analogy with the myth of the American Dream. The 'tribute' is forced to ruthlessly compete to the death in order to win fame and riches. The reality, of course, is that the rules are always stacked against them, and the privileged are shielded from the bloodbath.

If the arena is used as a microcosm for capitalist society, the analogy is sophisticated. Candidates compete on marketability as much as on survival skills. The audience don't just want spectacle, but character. The clever thing about the film is that Katniss and Peeta win the game by rejecting the dictates of competition, but in doing so they are forced into roles in another narrative chosen for them – star-crossed lovers going down together rather than tearing each other apart. And Katniss clearly isn't comfortable playing along. The film's ending is both triumphant and disquieting, since the hero survives but isn't free.

Some criticism has been levelled at the film's shakey camerawork and use of close-ups. Milage may vary on this, but I though all the action scenes were perfectly explicable, and thus well presented. Sure the camerawork was often used to convey the subjective experience of Katniss – not only the adrenaline-soaked thrills, but the moments of delirium, confusion, anger, serenity. It was effective. Not only that, but I liked the ragged montage at the beginning introducing us to District 12, and the contrast made with the glitzy stage and the clinically smooth shots of the puppet masters in the Capitol. Not a new idea, but a good one. The film as a whole was expertly put together, and one of the finest I've seen this year.

22.9.12

Moby Dick; or, the White Whale

Finished it a while ago, but was too busy / disorganised to get any thoughts down on here, so I'm going with memory, the highlights I made on my kindle, and the short update posts I've left on Whitechapel's The Book Club 2012 thread.

First, Ahab, who is actually less of a presence in the novel than I expected, and whose motivation was surprisingly easy to understand. It's all in this passage below:
Hark ye yet again—the little lower layer. All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event — in the living act, the undoubted deed — there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there's naught beyond. But 'tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him. Talk not to me of blasphemy, man; I'd strike the sun if it insulted me. For could the sun do that, then could I do the other; since there is ever a sort of fair play herein, jealousy presiding over all creations. But not my master, man, is even that fair play. Who's over me? Truth hath no confines.
The whale to Ahab represents that "outrageous strength" and "inscrutable malice" that built a universe which inflicts arbitrary punishment on its sentient inhabitants. His crusade is against a God that has left an imperfect creation for his creatures. And it's not the punishment, so much as the fact that its arbitrary, that incites Ahab's fury. This questioning of divine order is why the voyage is impious and blasphemous. Not only that, but Ahab is actually unsure if natural evil is animated by a hidden rational power – perhaps it's just arbitrary. It doesn't matter, fair play demands that Ahab fight the imbalance. The final part of the passage is a bit garbled, but it suggests that Ahab questions the notion of fair play as well, the "Truth" trumps it. But he reels himself back from such doubts, and goes on to address Starbuck's defiance.

The adjective that keeps cropping up with Ahab is "monomaniac", which serves as a useful contrast with the narrator and reigning principal of the novel, Ishmael. While Ahab's quest for vengeance supplies the propulsive narrative force of the novel, this keeps getting destabilised by the circling centrifugal nature of Ishmael's narration. Moreover, while Ahab supplies a singular reading of Moby Dick's significance, Ishmael's digressions concoct a heap of different allusions and conclusions bolted on to the whale, a lot of them (to me anyway) quite trite and unfulfilling. He is a mind at play, unbound by ideological or linguistic orthodoxies, delighting in everything around him (and mischievously undermining the veracity of his account). I think Melville didn't have to add that final epilogue explaining how Ishmael survives. It would have completed his ascension to the all-embracing, omnipresent consciousness he was moving toward through the book – from the individualistic self-definition of 'Call me Ishmael' to being dissolved into the sea and becoming one with the story he is telling.

I found the tone of the beginning of the novel to be unexpectedly wry and whimsical. A welcome surprise, but Ishmael's subsequent lack of focus on the ship became very tedious. I was left wishing that many more chapters fell under the heading of "sundry mystifications too tedious to detail". Melville tests the reader's patience in deciding to demonstrate Ishmael's irreverence and sense of wonder so comprehensively. Large sections of the book left me restless. The experiment of living provided by Ishmael, while maybe more admirable, was not that much more attractive than the experiment of living provided by Ahab, and I don't think Melville intended the two to cancel each other out.

Rape in the Media

Reposting this comment on the Whitechapel forum, as blog-padding but also so I don't lose sight of it.

I wrote this after seeing Fincher's version of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, pasting relevant paragraph below:
Depiction of rape is complicated. One argument is that it can only be justified when it is done from the P.O.V. of the victim, with his or her lack of consent irrevocably clear to the audience. Thus you try and limit the circulation of potentially dangerous sexual fantasies, which might lead to imitative behaviour in the real world. Another is more liberal, one that the Alan Moore who wrote Lost Girls might support. Fantasies are fantasies, who are you to judge what is criminal or not, if it remains inside people's heads? You can be as disgusting as you like, as long as you respect the rules of consent in the real world and ensure you do not hurt anyone. There are difficulties with such a John Stuart Mill view, but I tend to lean towards it rather than try and legislate on how sex should be portrayed in art. We should live in a world where we can be trusted to control our desires, rather than have them controlled by someone else.
The Alan Moore reference above may be a bit off. A better example might be Milo Manara, who I remember saying somewhere that the erotic aspect of his work (which includes depictions of rape) is ok because it's not real, it's just a book. From what I remember, he then goes on to suggest that porn actresses who debase themselves for their viewers' pleasure are performing a kind of public service and should be venerated, which strikes me as an infantile response to the porn industry, and may indicate some of the problems with his attitude.

But basically, I think my liberal belief that you should be able to produce whatever filth or stupidity you want and have it tried in the court of public opinion is compatible with my desire for beauty and intelligence in the art I consume. When judging the latter w/r/t rape, I prefer to do it case-by-case, that is to say, look at what a work's intentions are, what it says about rape and whether that's ok, rather than build rules for the portrayal of rape to be applied to everything you consume.

Fwiw, I thought the rape of Lisbeth in Fincher's movie overstepped the line, the scene should have cut when the door closed. More broadly, I thought the film failed in its intention to condemn violence against women. Manara's intentions as a pornographer are pretty clear, so I tend to give him a pass, tho once you get past the astonishing artwork the dude strikes me as pretty creepy. Moore's fixation on rape is certainly creepy as well, but it looks like he's aware of it, and that makes a massive difference (tho should say haven't read anything of his after the awful LoEG 1910).

8.9.12

The NeverEnding Story

This is like the urtext for two of my favourite fantasy films: MirrorMask and (to a lesser extent) Pan's Labyrinth. It's not as complex as either of those two films, however. The ending is particularly problematic, being a wholesale endorsement of make-believe as wish-fulfillment – the only way to deal with bullying is to escape into a flight of fancy where your pet dragon chases your tormentors into a skip.

The most interesting part of the film is the way it uses symbol to infer some rather unsettling ideas. The twin sphinxes as female sexual predators, their imperious gaze uncovering male doubt, annihilating male potency. The mirror which reveals the whimpering boy behind the all-conquering hero. More of that darker aspect of fantasy would have been welcome. But I guess there's only so much you can get away with in a film for children.