Monday, May 7, 2012

What Can Be Dehumanized Will Be Dehumanized

I got an email from the Lyric Opera of Chicago today, promoting an upcoming performance by pianist Lang Lang.  Struck me as strange.  The overhead camera and screen on the stage seem designed to dehumanize the event.  Like if opera singers had cameras pointing down their throats so you could see their vocal chords moving.

An overhead camera and onstage screen will allow every audience member to witness Lang Lang's energy and grace at the piano.

All this lacks is a whispered commentary, slo-mo of Lang Lang's crazy fingers and instant replays.  Yet another example of the power of technology to dehumanize human experience.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Trouble With Noir

I've been thinking about Hollywood film noir: dark, edgy films from the Forties and Fifties.  Moody.  Quirky characters.

It occurs to me that film noir was connected in a special way to the auteur theory that French critics like Bazin pushed and that Andrew Sarris popularized writing for the Village Voice, if "popularized" is a term that makes sense in relation to esoteric subjects like film criticism and film history.  But, for those of us who do find the cinema worth thinking about, it might be interesting to talk about how film noir fits the auteur theory, a way of talking about film history that insists that directors are the real authors of films -- even Hollywood films -- and that good directors have a style of film making that is consistent throughout their body of work, and, in some cases, work over the same motifs again and again.  On one hand, there is a Wells style, a Ford style, a Lang style, a Losey style and a Huston style, even a Bud Boetticher style that is unique and recognizable.  On the other hand, some directors also deal with the same themes over and over.  Arguably, preoccupation with the same themes throughout a body of work is a higher level of authorship than simply imposing elements of style on themes that change from film to film, depending on what the producers and the script writers come up with.

What I want to suggest is that the directors shine in film noir, precisely because the film noir screenplays are, generally, lousy.

Although any film that emphasizes cynicism, sex and crime can resemble film noir, the classic noir period spans the 40's and 50's and is closely linked to the detective fiction of the Depression and the following twenty years.  The films are typically black-and-white and shot on location, often at night.  Films like Huston's The Maltese Falcon (1941), based on a novel by Dashiell Hammett, and Howard Hawks' The Big Sleep (1946), based on Raymond Chandler's novel, exemplify the style.  Neither Hammett nor Chandler worked on the screenplays for the films that were made from their books.  John Huston, the director of The Maltese Falcon, wrote the screenplay for the movie.  William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett and Jules Furthman, three writers who often worked with Hawks, collaborated on the script for The Big Sleep.  It turns out that comparing the way The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep were made into films reveals some interesting things about the relationship between screenplays and novels, and about the auteur theory as well.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Apparently, somebody convinced Suzanne Collins that the narrative of The Hunger Games, her teeny-bopper dystopian novel, needed some "fixing" for the film version of the book.  So Collins, whose millions of avid readers turned out for the opening of The Hunger Games (2012) last weekend, tinkered with the story to explain why the "game maker" -- the fellow charged with making the gladiatorial Hunger Games of a future, Fascist America entertaining and instructive for the survivors of a failed rebellion -- would change the games' rules of engagement on the fly.  And she destroyed the focus that was crucial to the success of her novel.

Why Collins would agree to fix something that wasn't broken is a mystery to me.  I'm guessing some of the money men and women behind the film were too dull to understand the overarching importance of young love, star-crossed lovers and love triangles to Collins' readers.  That a cynical game maker would play up the love angle for a sappy and spoiled audience and then sadistically pull the rug out from under the lovers didn't require any explanation at all.  Neither did the fact that the idea of the lovers committing suicide -- the ultimate symbol of  rebellion against a dystopia -- would panic the game maker. 

Certainly, there is no reason why a film should conform slavishly to the novel it's based on.  The novel is one thing and the film quite another.  But these are not trivial changes.  They go beyond "tweaks." They are irritating shifts in the narrative that complicate rather than clarify the story.  They distort the story's point of view and diminish the story's heroine, young Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

And Jennifer Lawrence is exactly what The Hunger Games (2012) has going for it. She is immensely likable; someone an audience can care about.  She moves well, and her face is large enough and smooth enough for the camera to linger on, to turn into the kind of landscape that's missing from most of the film.  Simply put, The Hunger Games doesn't need a single scene that doesn't have Jennifer Lawrence in it.


Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games (2012)

If anybody deserves a poison berry for the The Hunger Games (2012), it's Gary Ross. His direction was even worse than the script.  He never found the right mix of action and contemplation to make his film work.  Ross never catches the power of nature, violence and unreason that drives the book.  What master made the lash, Yeats asked.

Whence had they come,
The hand and lash that beat down frigid Rome?

Gary Ross doesn't have a clue.

It's hard to get from a first-person novel to a third-person film. That may explain why the producers of The Hunger Games (2012) ended up with a second-rate director. Maybe the good directors shied away from the script.  What Katniss is thinking dominates the book, and, when you take that away, an enormous weight is placed on Lawrence's delivery and body language to communicate what's going on in her mind.  In the novel, Katniss Everdeen makes a dangerous passage from a young girl to a woman, from a huntress to a warrior, and, at the end, back to a teenage girl. If The Hunger Games team had pulled that off, they would have had a great movie. All of that teenage energy, confusion and drama, dropped into the middle of gladiatorial training and combat. My god! 

It turns out, of course, that a PG-13 rating was more important.  The bad news is the team planning the sequel may be just as inept.  The producers couldn't get Tony Scott, whose Man On Fire (2004) had exactly what The Hunger Games films so badly need.  The buzz is they'll soon sign music video director Francis Lawrence who made I Am Legend (2007), a boring remake of The Omega Man (1971).  The one ray of hope is that someone on the project has signaled by dumping Ross that they think there is more at stake here than a massive boxoffice that's already a dead hog cinch.  There are moments in popular culture when great myths finally crystalize.  Maybe somebody understands that The Hunger Games novels and films could be that kind of moment.  It's a damn shame if they're not holding out for a director and writers who are equal to the task.