Missing Reels is a Thrilling Film Preservation Mystery

Last night, I finished reading Missing Reels, the debut novel of Farran Smith Nehme, who writes about herself in the third person over at her classic film blog Self-Styled Siren. Spoiler Rich [my former blog where this essay was first posted] may be devoted to dissecting film and TV shows, but considering that the story of Missing Reels concerns a young vintage clothing salesgirl in 1980s New York obsessed with classic films, I feel obligated to share some thoughts on the novel.

Missing Reels is 339 pages long and filled mostly with rat-a-tat dialogue, primarily between Mississippi-born protagonist Ceinwein (pronounced “KINE-wen,” apparently) and her snobby English mathematician boyfriend Matthew. He doesn’t share her love of old movies, but he does become an assistant to her film preservation detective work. Ceinwein is convinced that the old woman Miriam who lives in her building had to have been a Hollywood starlet once-upon-a-time, given Miriam’s snarky comments about Jean Harlow being a slut, bemusement at Ceinwen’s preference for vintage glamour, and living room-displayed headshot of a young woman with more than a passing resemblance to Miriam. It turns out that the headshot is actually a production still from the silent film The Mysteries of Udolpho (yes, Miriam’s name was momentarily flashed on a movie theater marquee, emphasis on “momentarily”), and the autographed inscription dedicated to “Emil” refers to none other than the fictitious film’s German expatriate director Emil Arnheim, with whom Miriam had a red-hot love affair during the film shoot in the late 1920s. The usually taciturn Miriam confesses to as much upon receipt of an unexpected Christmas gift from Ceinwen. Miriam’s gift to Ceinwen is a quest: unbeknownst to the curmudgeon-y lady, Ceinwen sets out to track down the long-lost film to reunite Miriam with her long-gone lover (he wrecked his car in a drunken stupor following the film’s poor test audience reception and the studio head’s butchering of Emil’s artfully composed edit). Ceinwein wants to assure Miriam that she was right: The Mysteries of Udolpho may have gone over most people’s heads at the time of its initial release, but it was in fact a bold and interesting work, just as the one-time actress’s memory has preserved it all these years.

Unfortunately, Ceinwen’s efforts to track down the lost film only pick up halfway through the novel. The first half establishes her relationship with Matthew, a postdoc at NYU, who is in a long-term, long-distance relationship with an arrogant Italian economist. Although he is honest upfront about his romantic entanglement, Ceinwen is jealous when he spends Christmas in Europe with Anna. Right off the bat, I felt annoyed by this situation. If she had a problem being with a guy who’s attached to someone else, why pursue him? Why let him pursue her? I know, I know, the heart doesn’t know what’s good for it. That would be one thing, but Matthew is downright mean. He patronizes her for never eating, somehow forgetting that her chain-smoking is an appetite suppressant and that she’s skint more often than not (and that she seems to prefer spending her income on vintage clothes and tickets to repertory movie theaters). Ceinwen’s inability to feed herself may be the manifestation of an underexplored eating disorder but it more likely signals her poverty. Matthew doesn’t take her seriously. Virtually everything he says puts her down; he clearly has a superiority complex, because she’s eight years his junior and didn’t finish college. Reading Missing Reels, I couldn’t help but imagine that Matthew would have found an instant rapport with Hugh Grant and his chums in Four Weddings and a Funeral: he’s pompous, snarky, and elitist, too.

The one truly good thing Matthew does (at least in terms of the narrative mise-en-scene) is introduce Ceinwen to a cadre of classic film enthusiasts–no, fanatics–from his department. The book lights up at the crazy professors’ introduction; like Ceinwen, I recognized who I wanted to be while making their acquaintance. Well, minus the condescension that Harry, Matthew’s mentor, points toward Ceinwen. I would never ask someone which they prefer, Love Affair or An Affair to Remember, and then judge them harshly if they didn’t choose the former. I’d probably chalk it up to the probability that he or she saw the Cary Grant-Deborah Kerr version first. (Shot almost twenty years apart by the same director, the films are practically identical, and watching them back-to-back can be a tedious experience.)

In any case, I loved Missing Reels‘ intelligent engagement with cinephilia and classic films, mixing in the likes of Make Way for Tomorrow, Angel Heart, and The Crowd. Nehme concocts a thrilling and plausible story about what it may be like to track down an orphan film. She manages to do the seemingly impossible: make film preservation sexy. There are vivid comic scenes, whether charming or awkward, in the respective living rooms of an eccentric film collector and a gossipy former assistant film director. The scenes at Ceinwen’s place of employment, Vintage Visions, never spark with as much creative energy; they mainly exist just to serve as stock portraits of Ceinwen’s over-the-top, intractable boss. I am not a Mack Sennett aficionado, but I would love to attend an event like what the Bangville Police Society puts on. I also wish there were more scenes in the lab at the uptown Brody Institute for Cinephilia and Film Preservation. In fact, I enjoyed the friendship Ceinwen struck up with the schlubby curator Fred far more than I enjoyed Ceinwen and Matthew’s whirlwind romance.

And why couldn’t she have ended up with Fred? They’re more compatible, with the same interest in watching and preserving films. I never for one second believed that he was secretly in love with his domineering boss, Isabel. That was just Ceinwen projecting, and even Matthew was jealous of the time she spent with Fred. Matthew’s dumping Ceinwen toward the end of the book and announcing his engagement to Anna threw me for a loop, too. But worse still, the closing scenes, in which they reunite after Anna throws a plate of food onto his chest, struck a farcical tone out of step with the rest of the novel. I’m glad that Ceinwen gets a job at NYU and therefore can take advantage of tuition remission benefits, but why did she have to fall for a jerk like Matthew?

I’m purposefully leaving out the good narrative bits concerning Miriam’s reaction to Ceinwen’s investigative career and whether or not she manages to find the titular reels. I hope that the book will inspire readers to explore older films and recognize that they are pieces of history we must preserve and interpret in order to come to a fuller understanding of the evolution of popular entertainments.

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The Paradise Lost; or How I Failed To Register the News

Here is a perfect example of how, in this day and age of the 24-hour news cycle, whether on television, Twitter, or, you know, newspapers’ websites, something as important as a TV show cancellation can escape me. Twice.

Last night was the season two finale of The Paradise. This BBC series airs as part of PBS’s Masterpiece Classic program, and although I am usually indoors on Sunday nights at 8, I ritualistically DVR the show. I store the collection of episodes until they become streamable on another platform, say, Netflix. I learned to take these extra precautions when I failed to catch the first season as it unfolded last year. Back then, I had to resort to watching each of the eight installments online after they premiered but before they were yanked off PBS’s website. I know it’s not much of an accomplishment–for many have watched whole seasons of TV shows in one sitting–but it was a big deal when I watched the entirety of The Paradise season one in two days. (I did the same thing last week with the miniseries Olive Kitteridge, but that is how the HBO programmers intended.)

I recount my dedicated work ethic to TV viewing (I had to contend with buffering and commercials for river cruises I’ll never be able to afford) as a way to get across my overall pleasure in watching this show. Admittedly, I was skeptical of its raison d’etre because it premiered months after Mr Selfridge took its initial bow as part of Masterpiece Classic. Who needs two period shows about British department stores? Sure, The Paradise is loosely based on Au bonheur des dames, the eleventh installment of Emile Zola’s twenty-novel indictment of the social and political mores of the bourgeoisie in Second Empire France (1852-70), Les Rougon-Macquart, whereas Mr Selfridge is loosely based on the life of the real-life American businessman–a student of Marshall Field in Chicago–who opened his namesake department store in 1909. Although set roughly thirty years apart, The Paradise and Mr Selfridge are strikingly similar. A pretty young woman with ambitions to make a name for herself in business and/or design serves as the audience’s entree into each establishment–no, each milieu. In each program, the concept of a storewide sale springs forth from the mind of the risky but enigmatic store owner, whether John Moray in The Paradise or Harry Gordon Selfridge in you-know-what, so as to lead viewers to believe that each entrepreneur invented the idea. More than this, since each show is a primetime soap opera, there is a fair amount of gossiping behind people’s backs, securing investments with regrettable strings attached, and love triangle wrangling.

After a superb first season, one that helped me forget the wretchedness of Downton Abbey, Mr Selfridge went downhill. It revolved around Selfridge’s political entanglements and a devious member of the House of Lords trying to undo him to spite the intimate-but-platonic friendship that the politician’s wife shares with Selfridge. It also got bogged down in the espionage-tinged mystery surrounding a supporting character and brought it to a rather unfascinating conclusion through solving an uncompelling love triangle.

The Paradise, by contrast, is more emotionally and intellectually complex. It can get a little hokey, like Call the Midwife, but at least it’s not afraid to engage more overtly with the feminist struggle. The protagonist, Denise, proves herself a capable salesgirl in ladies’ wear (as well as a formidable rival in the love department), but more crucially, she is an innovative storyteller and pragmatic entrepreneur. Throughout, however, Denise’s position is tenuous because she is an ambitious woman. First it is because the store’s owner, Moray, takes a much-too-obvious liking to her, thereby triggering a guilt- and shame-laced struggle for his affections between Denise and Moray’s fiancee, the gentlewoman Katherine Glendenning who isn’t so much gentle as she is… spiteful. Then, in the second season, once Denise becomes the head of her department, Moray and Katherine use her as a pawn in their individual attempts to take over creative as well as financial control of the store. Moray may have sacrificed The Paradise when he rejected Katherine on their wedding day (through investments on Moray’s behalf, Katherine’s father owned the deeds to every store on the street where Moray was hoping to expand his store, including The Paradise itself), choosing true love with the shopgirl Denise instead, but throughout the second season of The Paradise, she starts to wonder whether they are politically and therefore romantically compatible. Most memorably, the two lovers, who by now work for Katherine and her sadistic husband, confront a rather touchy subject: Denise expresses her disgust with his longtime term of endearment for her, “my little champion,” with a vigorous slap across the face. I will not be your possession! While he pines for her, he eventually realizes that what he loves most about her is that she is her own person, whose imagination and ambition are greater than his own. Thank goodness he recognized that he believes in gender equality, too, because that is how The Paradise ends.

I didn’t know this when I watched it, but last night’s episode was the series finale. It was hours later, when I read a poorly written and minimally researched news flash from the UK’s Daily Mail that it hit me. But I didn’t register what this really meant until this morning, when I noticed that it was made public as early as February that the BBC hadn’t commissioned another season of The Paradise, the lesser rated of the media-contrived war between Mr Selfridge and The Paradise. This is when, confronted with the news a second time, I finally understood that not only did I miss news of the TV show’s cancellation before its finale aired in the US, I was also blissfully unaware of its being pulled from further production for nine months.

This morning, I wondered whether knowing this ahead of watching the finale would have affected my viewing of it. I surely would have been on the lookout for how to best summarize its impact, if any, or its legacy, if any, had I known about the show’s premature cancellation. The makers weren’t aware that this would be the last episode of The Paradise, either. It’s not a bad ending: as I pointed out before, Moray and Denise come to some common ground. Again, by sheer wit and ingenuity, Denise secures a future for herself wherein she will be her own boss. In the very last moments of the show, she pitches a millionaire acquaintance who has been interested in doing business with her on the prospect of a new beauty and cosmetics shop which will occupy her kindly uncle’s abandoned drapery storefront across the street. This way, she doesn’t need to leave the unnamed northern town, but she can be her own success alongside Moray. Wish fulfillment never looked so appealing, right? Well, until Moray realized that his calling Denise his “little champion” diminished her  potential, I was ready to write him off. Moray annoyed me to no end this season because he was never satisfied with any and all success Denise obtained. I would have been content with a third season wherein Moray was driven away from The Paradise for good by the store’s evil proprietors while Denise continued to prove herself as a capable leader and innovative problem solver, eventually taking over the store herself.

Outlander Makes a Case for Scottish Independence

Scotland is having a moment; even David Bowie noticed. In eight hours or so, residents of the northern European country will begin voting on whether they should stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain (which, as writ down in 1707, encompasses England and Scotland) and Northern Ireland. At the same time, Scotland has had a banner year in the world of film and TV. In April, the introspective story of an alien’s self-discovery amongst the urban and rural men of Scotland, Under the Skin, debuted to wide critical acclaim. (I still can’t shake it.) Although set in Dorset, the BBC murder investigation series Broadchurch, starring David Tennant as a Scottish melancholic police detective, made such a splash when it aired here that it’s getting an American remake, also starring Tennant, that’s set to premiere early next month. Peter Capaldi, who will never lose his Scottish accent, no matter what role he’s playing (even if he’s Cardinal Richelieu on The Musketeers), is now Doctor Who. Stuart Murdoch, leader of indie band Belle & Sebastian, directed a winsome Glasgow-set musical released this summer: God Help the Girl.

But for me, nothing in film or TV right now can be any more about Scotland (or better yet, “Scotland”) than Starz’s lavish costume drama Outlander, which is based on the series of books by Diana Gabaldon. In it, Caitriona Balfe stars as Claire Randall, a former WWII combat nurse on a second honeymoon in the Scottish highlands with her sensitive and intellectual husband Frank (Tobias Menzies). Somehow, touching the standing stones at Craigh na Dun near Inverness transports Claire to 1743, right before the thick of the second Jacobite rebellion. She becomes the imprisoned guest (yes, you read that correctly) of the Laird of the local Clan MacKenzie, Colum (Scottish character actor/everyman Gary Lewis). Everyone at his estate, Castle Leoch, suspects that their visitor, who appeared on their lands rather mysteriously and with a near incredulous backstory, is an English spy. Claire immerses herself in highland culture, but as an identifiably modern woman from the 20th century, she’s not afraid to confront its barbarism, misogyny, and plain backwardness. While a guest of Colum MacKenzie, she strikes up a tentative friendship with the young, noble outlaw Jamie MacTavish (Sam Heughan), who ostensibly represents everything that we love about Scotland: its wild, untameable spirit, cheeky sense of humor, romantic sense of independence, and high percentage of gingers. Although Claire wants nothing more than to return to the standing stones of Craigh na Dun in an effort to reunite with Frank in 1945, obstacles lay in her way everywhere. Chief among them is the mutual attraction between she and Jamie. Trust me, it’s pretty damn sexy.

Anyway, I couldn’t help but notice on this past week’s episode, the sixth of the season, that Claire’s confrontation with the sadistic English Army Captain Jonathan “Black Jack” Randall (expertly played by Tobias Menzies) and Frank’s direct ancestor (hence Menzies’s doing double duty on the show), sort of puts this whole Scottish independence vote in a nutshell. In episode five, Claire discovered that the members of Clan MacKenzie with whom she is forced to travel while they collect taxes from the villagers and farmers who live on MacKenzie lands are actually raising funds to bankroll a Jacobite rebellion that Claire knows, thanks to the hindsight of history, will end in their crushing defeat at Culloden in 1746. Having contracted a strain of Stockholm syndrome, Claire ruins any chance of securing the assistance of the English army in traveling back to Inverness when, after an officer “rescues” her from her Scottish “captors”/”friends” while on the road, she loses her cool over dinner with Brigadier General Lord Oliver Thomas (John Heffernan), casting doubts as to where her political (and by implication, cultural) allegiances lie.

Episode six, “The Garrison Commander,” is a two-hander featuring nothing much more than a psychological game between Black Jack Randall and Claire, a chamber piece set in a dark room where neither is willing to give in to the other’s desire for transparency. Once Lord Thomas’s men roll out at the word Scottish rebels have attacked nearby, he leaves Claire with Black Jack Randall, who, in an effort to expose her heresy, regales us with a tale about how he created a bloody masterpiece out of Jamie’s back, flogging him over one hundred times. I recommend this piece from Vulture about how the writer, producer, and actors staged the flashback scenes of Jamie’s torture and mutilation. The scene is visceral, realistic insofar as I know what it looks like for a back to peel off when repeatedly whipped, and most importantly, the loudest and most striking on-screen appeal for Scottish independence in the 18th century. But how curious this scene should air just days before the Scottish vote on 21st century independence?

Please don’t get me wrong: as much as I love the idea of Scottish independence, I think it is more Romantic than ideal or feasible. There are too many uncertainties: the fate of the Scottish currency (to join the disastrous euro zone or lose the hefty British pound? that is the question), whether England will accept an independent Scotland’s disavowal of the UK’s nuclear weapons, the real wealth that the rapidly depleting Scottish oil would bring to the new country, etc. As Steven Erlanger points out in his New York Times profile of the small, northernmost English town Berwick-upon-Tweed, independence would be catastrophic for those who live so close to the border. If you live in one country but work in another, how will you do your taxes? Small businesses are likely to go under. On top of it all, the Labour Party would lose its strongest voting bloc in Parliament if the left-leaning Scotland cuts ties for good. People are worried about what the UK’s flag will look like come 2016 if the Scots vote yes tomorrow. It seems silly, and though the polls suggest this will be a close call, I don’t think Scotland will declare its independence tomorrow.

The media everywhere are using the analogy of a divorce to describe this monumental decision. Is the married couple really that unhappy? England will throw Scotland some concessions, offering to do the washing up after dinner, even though it totally forgot how hard Scotland works during the day. Although I haven’t seen Outlander‘s seventh episode, “The Wedding,” I know that Jamie’s uncle Dougal (a gruff but charismatic Graham McTavish) has already figured out a way to save Claire from Black Jack’s clutches: making her a Scot by marrying her to a very game Jamie. This way, Black Jack cannot lawfully detain her while on MacKenzie lands. A fine political loophole that should make her transformation from Sassenach (the Gaelic word for “outlander” or, really, “Englander”) to Highlander. Lemme tell you, Saturday’s episode will be interesting no matter how the Scots decide.

The Contemporary Action Flick, the Woman’s Film & Coming of Age in a Dystopia

Divergent movie posterAside from their immediate availability, I tend to rent movies from the public library that I would never pay to see otherwise. On Wednesday, I picked up Thor: The Dark World and Divergent. I barely paid attention to what I now jokingly call Thor 2: Even Longer Hair; it was loud, stupid, and too complicated to follow while reading the New York Times. Despite its silly and childish sense of humor, the film took itself way too seriously. The same could be said of Divergent, which is the first in a series (big surprise!) of adaptations of the popular YA novels penned by Veronica Roth. However, Divergent pleasantly defied my low expectations. Once I got past the ridiculous premise, that in the undistinguished future, society is divided into five different factions in order to keep the peace, I got sucked into its dystopian world. Apparently a war some time in the past devastated the entire planet. We have no idea what in particular precipitated near total annihilation the world over; all we see is a dilapidated Chicago surrounded by an electrified fence stories high.

Given its generic provenance and overlapping themes about violence and children, Divergent is most often compared to that other YA juggernaut The Hunger Games. Years ago, I didn’t take too kindly to the first in that film series, writing that its unsubtle satire of our obsessive fascination with celebrity, competition, and violence could only really please the film’s built-in fanbase: enthusiastic readers of the novels. But catching Divergent–for free–was already on my subconscious agenda because I had just read an article by NYT film critics A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis about the changing representations of young women and girls in cinema, a survey view of contemporary trends that compliments Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday’s recent piece about “badass” female characters in film today. Hornaday doesn’t mention Divergent, but Scott writes that protagonist Tris Prior is like Katniss Everdeen, her sister in arms, “a fighter against corrupt authority.” Since I am most interested in representations of women and femininity in all kinds of films, I knew that it would probably be worth my while to check out Divergent.

I have no idea what it is like as a novel; I have no desire to read the books, but I must admit that Divergent, as directed by Neil Burger and adapted by Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman) and Vanessa Taylor (Game of Thrones), makes for quite a thrilling movie, a modern action flick with a feminist bent. It combines the trappings of a poignant coming-of-age story with those of a sophisticated political thriller. At least more sophisticated than it had any right to be.

View of Divergent's derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Divergent‘s derelict Chicago cityscape. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Shailene Woodley stars as Beatrice Prior, a teen born into the selfless faction of society. The film begins on the eve of her aptitude test, which should either decide if she is indeed Abnegation material or if she would better fit in with the scholars of Erudite, the honest folks of Candor, the hippies of Amity, or the daredevils of Dauntless. It drives me crazy that Roth didn’t use parallelism when naming her fictitious factions, opting for nouns (Abnegation, Candor, Amity) and adjectives (Erudite, Dauntless). Rather conveniently, on the day that both she and her brother Caleb (Ansel Elgort) choose their future careers, if you will, Beatrice has the option of choosing any faction to belong to. The scene, played out in a symposium-like setting with leadership from all factions present and parents sitting in the audience with the kids they may or may not lose to a whole new family, certainly dramatizes the closest real-life equivalent: choosing your college (major). Much to their parents’ surprise, Caleb elects to be Erudite, Beatrice Dauntless. But you knew that was coming from the way she watched the Dauntless teens arrive at the Choosing Ceremony, a look on her face that said, “I wish I could jump out of a speeding train and run all the way to the door!”

This is where Beatrice’s journey really begins. Choosing a faction other than the one she was born into means that she can never go home, and if she shouldn’t make the cut at Dauntless, the leaders will throw her out onto the street, where she will remain homeless, factionless, pitiful, and despised. On her first day of college, if you will, Beatrice changes her name to Tris (it sounds more futuristic, sportier), makes friends with Christina of Candor (Zoe Kravitz), and surprises everyone, especially herself, when she volunteers to jump off a building before the other “initiates.” “Initiates” is just another word for “pledges,” for the first hour or so mainly concerns the brutal training (hazing?) that the new recruits must undergo in order to join the co-ed fraternity. It goes without saying that Tris rises from the lowest performing to the top of the class, helped in so small part by her boot camp instructor named Four, a taciturn but sensitive Mr. Pamuk (Theo James). Thankfully, the filmmakers milk the sexual tension between them for most of the film; we’re never certain until the third act that Tris, and by extension, we, can trust him with her secret: the results of her aptitude test were inconclusive. In other words, Tris shows qualities from the Erudite, selfless, and Dauntless. Yes, don’t we all feel better knowing that the young woman we’re rooting for isn’t defined by just one trait? Isn’t that the whole reason the author invented this world?

Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Tris takes the leap to self-discovery. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Regardless, Divergent works as a film because its visuals are quite striking, beginning with the aptitude test. Injected with a serum that will induce hallucinations (only the first of its kind, you soon find out), Beatrice imagines herself in a hall of mirrors, the confrontation with her fractured identity very much actualized in her mind–and for the film audience. She stares down a fierce dog (Dauntless) until she tricks her mind into thinking it is only a docile puppy (Erudite) and tries to protect a little girl from the angry canine (Abnegation). The hallucinations seamlessly meld together in the edit, thereby heightening their lucid dream-like quality but at the same time lending her fears real power. The same goes for the second part of Tris’s initiation, after hand-to-hand combat and weapons training: the psychological torture/endurance test in which Four injects her with a serum that makes her hallucinate all of her fears and how she might use methods inherent to Dauntless members to overcome said phobias. In these fevered dreams, her world turns upside down, inside out. The escape from one nightmare just leads to the next before she wakes herself up. Four, conveniently equipped with technology that allows him to see what she was visualizing in her brain, quickly determines that, for instance, her method for escaping from the glass cube filling up with water (just tapping on the glass) isn’t something that would ever occur to a Dauntless MacGyver. It’s also what makes her better than someone who is merely Dauntless.

Furthermore, the production design is impressive and visually stunning. Tris’s descent into the Dauntless world is played out on an Expressionist stage. The exaggerated scale of buildings is like something out of a criminal underworld picture, or perhaps one about a motorcycle rebel gang. Or The Lost Boys (black leather and other stretchy, breathable fabrics dominate the Dauntless wardrobe). There is also a fair amount of shadowplay. The Dauntless’s environs contrast with those of the Erudite, whose architecture looks like its been designed by Buckminster Fuller, thereby undermining their claims to being factual or at least transparent in their research. Although the people in Abnegation live in concrete houses, their simple yet modern design recalls contemporary pre-fab homes or affordable housing blocks of the 1960s. In other words, modest and indistinguishable. Isn’t it remarkable, though, that Millennium Park doesn’t make an appearance in Divergent (but a Navy Pier-in-ruin does)?

View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
View of Abnegation Village from the street. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Divergent probably wouldn’t work so well if it weren’t for Woodley’s strong, sympathetic performance. She is convincing as a rebellious teen who, once she leaves her family and faction, has nothing but her own strength and wits to rely on. Although her parents support Caleb and Beatrice in their potentially life-changing decisions, vowing to love them regardless of which faction they choose, Beatrice’s desire to break free from the world of Abnegation is a quiet rebellion against her parents. As the film’s political conspiracy gradually comes to light, Tris is the only one brave and capable enough to defy the New World Order that Kate Winslet’s character, Jeanine, represents. As the leader of the Erudite, Jeanine undermines the Abnegation-led government (of which Beatrice’s parents are a part), stirring up rumors that the selfless leaders are hypocrites who beat their children. Jeanine interprets this hypocrisy as a flaw in Human Nature, which also explains her genocidal plan to turn the Dauntless into a mindless army (again, with the help of some serum injected into the neck!) that will obey her orders to kill everyone in Abnegation. She isn’t a fan of Divergents, either, since they cannot be easily controlled. In this way, Tris’s rebellious spirit is presented as an aberration of Human Nature (believe me, the way Jeanine talks about it, it deserves capitalization). Her coming-of-age story doesn’t just converge with the unraveling of widespread corruption in faction leadership; exposing Jeanine and putting a stop to her coup d’etat almost becomes her coming of age’s reason for being.

Fish eye view from inside Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Fish eye view from inside the shady Erudite Headquarters. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Almost. Remember, she’s still in “college,” and Divergent checks off a number of campus-living cliches: the “initiates'”original delight when learning dorms are co-ed and their subsequent squeamishness when they find out they’ll have absolutely no privacy, her aforementioned crush on an upperclassman/mentor who shows her the ropes (Four), and her impulsive decision to get a tattoo. At least the imprint of three black birds ascending from her collarbone isn’t a tramp stamp, but isn’t it a little too close to the revolutionary symbol central to The Hunger Games?

Divergent is, in my opinion, extremely violent, what with the brutal but narrative-driven fight scenes, attempted rape and/or murder of Tris by jealous male “pledges,” and the fact that her mother and father are killed within minutes of the other while trying to protect their children. It is also conspicuously bloodless thanks to its PG-13 rating. Most importantly, its scariest moments are presented as thrilling out-of-body experiences for Tris. In addition to the serum-induced hallucinations, she literally jumps into her journey towards self-discovery; if her leaping off a speeding L train onto the roof of a building doesn’t convince, her jump from the roof into the derelict building below sure does. However, I was completely bowled over and scared out of my rational mind when she zip-lined from a skyscraper on one side of Chicago to the Dauntless HQ down below, clear on the other side of town. This scene presents a very romantic conceptualization of her burgeoning identity not only as a Dauntless individual but also as an autonomous subject in general. Even if Tris is one “kick ass” heroine that film critics wish there were more of on screen these days, I can’t relate to her desire for what amounts to a militaristic life. But I do long for physical and emotional transcendence, like the one she experiences in the air. For her soaring through the sky shows her–and us, by extension–what she is capable of achieving and how that makes her feel. It’s my favorite scene in the film; it’s a bold statement about girlhood. And, dare I say, a superheroic one?

By way of conclusion, let’s discuss Tris’s sexual awakening. You knew it was coming. She’s in “college,” after all. Her first sexual experience arguably takes place when, in an effort to protect and train Tris, Four invites her into his own fearscape (it’s no match for her). The injection of the hallucination-causing serum acts as an exchange of fluids, and I immediately thought of the virtual sex scene in Demolition Man (Marco Brambilla, 1993) when Four and Tris plugged themselves into the computer, interacting (I mean, touching) through scenes visualized in their minds. Interestingly, and undoubtedly owing to the predominantly female audience, it is Four’s body that is put on display, revealed as a landscape that Tris discovers with her eyes and fingertips. She asks to see the expansive tattoo all over his back. The moment he takes off his shirt is meant to make audiences swoon, but it also uncovers that Four is Divergent, too. For his tattoo design incorporates the symbols for all five factions.

Four's body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.
Four’s body on display. Tris sees what makes him Divergent. Image courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Although taken seriously as a suppression of her sexual desires, Tris’s decision to forgo her first real sexual encounter occurs so quickly that I originally misinterpreted it as one in which she does indeed have sex with Four off-screen. Her choice not to have sex (yet) is presented as no big deal, because she has no anxiety over Four’s feelings towards her. Curiously, though, at her final exam in which she must maneuver her own fearscape like a true Dauntless member, she envisions a betrayal of trust on Four’s part. That is, she quashes his attempt to rape her by kicking him in the groin. I was stunned to see date rape represented in this PG-13 action flick, but I love its context of female empowerment. The worst part of Divergent, vis-a-vis Tris’s self-actualization, is when, in the final scene as she and her friends escape the city on the L train, she says that she doesn’t know who she is anymore. Understandable, given that she has no faction and no family, but it’s a shame that it’s her (male) love interest who reassures her that she is someone because he knows who she is. Two steps forward, three steps back for strong young women in film.

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite Part II

As you might have read, this month I have been revisiting the original Star Wars trilogy. Now that I have seen Return of the Jedi (I simply refuse to call them by their retroactively prescribed names, such as Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi. Who needs all that?), I can confirm that my earlier suspicions were correct: the series is indeed “one drawn-out B-movie.” It’s a stupid, bloated, and poorly made cult film series. Am I right in assuming that Return of the Jedi is the Godfather Part III to the Star Wars pantheon of films? While not wholly unnecessary (we desperately needed to know that Luke wouldn’t follow in his father’s footsteps and convert to the Dark Side) like Francis Ford Coppola’s too-little-too-late second sequel, Return of the Jedi is easily the worst of the original bunch.

Let’s see. What happens? In an effort to rescue Han Solo, still frozen in carbonite, from the giant slug Jabba the Hutt (to whom Han had been in debt), Princess Leia and the bickering droids C-P30 and R2-D2 become Jabba’s prisoners. We’re treated to a song-and-dance routine by scared sycophants/prisoners which reminds us that we’ve most certainly entered the 1980s. A sex slave, Leia is forced to wear bronze lingerie. Now I understand how her Farrah Fawcett moment must have initially affected young boys in 1983 and in the years since. When Jabba rejects Luke’s holographic message pleading for his friends’ release, the self-proclaimed jedi knight has no choice but to come down in person. He makes threats (throughout the movie, too) that no one believes he can act upon, but he predictably gets the job done. Seriously, Jabba the Hutt was so nonthreatening a minor villain that we didn’t need a prolonged desert-set battle in which Luke and co. blew up his ship before the slug could feed a newly reawakened Han Solo and obnoxious Luke to the sarlacc. I have to admit that I didn’t remember the name of the giant, perfectly round mouth in the desert floor, whose sharp teeth don’t help cut down its digestion time of eternity. In the process of identifying the sarlacc, I discovered it has its own Wikipedia page. Don’t people have more important things to do with their time?

Ah, what else? Yoda dies. After saving his friends, Luke makes good on his promise and returns to Yoda’s isolated swamp planet Dagobah (which sounds too much like the yummy chocolate company Dagoba) in order to resume his jedi training. Yoda evaporates in the air (or was he just beamed up to the heavens?), but not before attesting to Darth Vader’s claim to Luke’s paternity at the end of The Empire Strikes Back and to telling the boy that he has a sibling. Lucky for Luke, Ben Kenobi appears to him on Dagobah and explains Luke’s twisted family history: Darth Vader hid Luke from the Emperor, and in turn, Ben hid Luke’s twin sister from Darth. Luke hilariously makes one guess as to who his sister must be. “Leia!” But of course, it had to be her since there are no other significant women in any of these movies, despite the fact that there seem to be no limits to this imaginary galaxy. See? The writing hasn’t improved upon the first two films.

I know that from the prequels, we learn who is Luke and Leia’s mother. (She’s Natalie Portman, of course.) But isn’t it disgusting that the writers thought it was a good idea to never to delve into this anywhere in Episodes IV through VI? Instead, it’s all about the jedi tricks and schemes to keep the twins hidden, separated, so that they can find each other seemingly by accident and intuition. Perhaps the ultimate victim in all of this is the dispossessed mother. She doesn’t even come up.

Just when I was beginning to despair that I would never see the Ewoks (for a moment, I had thought the desert people on Tatooine in Star Wars were them; my bad), I got to see the creatures in the over-long third act on Endor, which is where the crew has landed in order to take out the Emperor’s new Death Star. It’s not much worth going into, but the Ewoks take Han Solo and the droids prisoner. Their captors are equal parts creepy and cute. These forest people resemble not only Gizmo from Gremlins and a more neutral toned Care Bears line of stuffed animals, they also recall Snow White’s dwarf friends. There’s even a shot of them walking along a narrow bridge/pathway or thick tree branch that leads us straight into their compound, much like the one that the animated dwarfs sang along while marching on their way to work. Leia, separated from the group following a borrring chase with stormtroopers on hovering jet skis and taken to Ewok Central, reunites with her brother, Han Solo, R2-D2, and C-P30, whom the Ewoks believe is some sort of god. Soon, Luke surrenders to the imperial guards in an effort to confront Darth Vader (it’s part of his destiny, you see) while the rest set up a plan to blow up the Death Star. Again.

I can’t be sure of what exactly ensued. Big action set pieces or fight scenes bore me to tears, but in this case I was also feeling dizzy and queasy due to my chronic medical condition, which causes vertigo. But I do remember that, while in Darth Vader and the Emperor’s company, Luke successfully resists giving into his hatred for both–it has to be said, disfigured–men. Every time one of them taunts him to kill so that his conversion to the Dark Side may be complete, Luke fires back at his absentee father that he can feel his goodness, trying to coax the good out of him. To make a long story short, something happened that totally surprised me: Darth Vader, who for years I have thought was the supreme baddie in this franchise, redeems himself! After Luke chops off his hand (thereby returning the favor that his father had done him at the end of The Empire Strikes Back), Darth Vader kicks the Emperor down, and his mentor falls through space. I wasn’t expecting that! And I never understood how Luke, abandoned by his evil father, could forgive and love him. Especially once he took off his mask, an act that kills him.

But perhaps the worst part of Return of the Jedi–yes, even more painful to watch than the impromptu concert scene at Jabba the Hutt’s–is the montage of worlds celebrating the end of the Empire. When it finally settles on our ragtag team of heroes swaying their arms and hips with Ewoks on Endor, I was so embarrassed. And that’s a storyline that J.J. Abrams’s much anticipated and much scrutinized sequel will continue to embellish. How could anyone think that he won’t do justice to these films? It won’t be difficult to improve upon them.

Rediscovering a Childhood Favorite

For years, whenever someone mentioned Star Wars, I recited the following response: “I used to love the original trilogy as a kid. It was something that I shared with my younger brother and my mother. The three of us bought advance tickets to see The Phantom Menace in 1999, but by that time, I think I’d already forgotten the earlier trio of films.” As you can see, I deployed this not-exactly-called-for viewing history as a diversion. It’s not that I was embarrassed–well, on second thought, maybe it was: I had forgotten virtually everything about these massive films, and the only memory that lingered was the knowledge that I was a fan.

Obviously, I wasn’t a diehard fan. But they must have meant something to me if, sixteen years after Return of the Jedi, I insisted we buy advance tickets to the first prequel, which has since been reviled for, among many other things, introducing the jabbering CGI monstrosity Jar Jar Binks. I’ll leave it to those who live and die by The Force to complain about how Lucas ruined the original trilogy with the retroactive Episodes I through III. I can’t even tell you the other prequels’ names without pushing a few keystrokes over at IMDb.

Instead, I want to talk about my recent–and still ongoing–rediscovery of Episodes IV through VI. It had been nearly two decades since I’d seen them. I decided to rent them from my local public library because I was fed up with not understanding all of the allusions to the film series that regularly float around in pop culture. Whether it’s Jamiroquai singing for us to “Use the Force” or why Adam’s toy replica of the Millennium Falcon on the ABC sitcom The Goldbergs is the boy’s most prized possession, I’ve always wondered, “What makes Star Wars so great?”

Well, I’m afraid I cannot figure it out, because the most earth-shattering observation that I have made is that these films simply are not very good. While I could criticize the special visual effects, I understand that in their day they were ground-breaking. But I doubt they are the reason why millions of people worldwide worship these films.

I will attack the acting, though. It’s atrocious, and funnily enough, Mark Hamill isn’t the worst. His all-American, aw-shucks performance fits his character’s arc well: as Luke Skywalker, he goes from living on the desolate Tatooine planet, his uncle stifling him with mundane responsibilities, before he realizes his destiny is fated elsewhere. Namely, saving the galaxy from Darth Vader’s destructive vision. Princess Leia and Han Solo, two (im)probable lovers portrayed by Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford, respectively, have the worst exchanges that are meant to pass for sexual tension. The best part was when Leia called Han Solo a “nerf herder” in The Empire Strikes Back, thereby reigniting my memory of a power-pop band that my sister and I used to listen to in the 90s. I had no idea Nerf Herder went on to lend Buffy the Vampire Slayer its theme song. I am so not a geek.

Overall, Episodes IV and V (I have yet to watch The Return of the Jedi) appear to be one drawn-out B-movie. It’s not just the special effects and acting. It’s also the set and costume designs. When inflation is taken into account, I wonder what Star Wars‘s budget of $11 million would be today, because it looks cheap. The writing is bad, and the imperial generals and admirals have some of the worst line-delivery, which the out-of-sync (and THX-mastered) audio makes even more distracting. As for the costumes: does anyone really buy Chewbacca? It’s clearly a really tall man in an itchy diarrhea-brown yeti costume. Speaking of ensembles, in one scene, Princess Leia is dressed in an all-white ski suit, the next, a drapey, polyester nightie. Don’t tell me that George Lucas and his collaborators weren’t channeling Ed Wood and Roger Vadim when they created this mythology. And I swear that everyone pronounces Leia’s name as “Leah” in Star Wars and later as “Laya” in The Empire Strikes Back. A similar transformation occurs to Han Solo’s moniker; the long A in “Han” is further accentuated.

Some people say that Star Wars is a western set in space. On what evidence? Because the good guys wear white, the bad guys black? That’s not even true; the imperial stormtroopers almost look like carbon copies of Darth Vader, but they wear white plastic armor. It’s quite a stretch to say that the Rebel forces represent villagers or homesteaders, and Darth Vader the outlaw who comes to town to disrupt their peaceful way of life.

Star Wars is a lot of things, but it is not a western. It’s primarily a paternal melodrama, because the main conflict exists between Luke, the so-called “New Hope” of Episode IV’s subtitle, and the father whose identity had always been a mystery to him. And seriously, how could Darth Vader’s confession toward the end of The Empire Strikes Back have shocked audiences in 1980, even if they don’t know that “Vater” means “father” in German? Luke’s uncle and Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness, the only interesting actor in this whole enterprise) had dropped clues that Luke’s father joined the dark (aka darth?) side. The second installment sets up how the epic battle that we’re slowly building towards will be one over Luke’s soul. Good thing the Force is strong with him!

That brings me to my next point: Yoda. Yoda is a Jedi master who has trained Jedi knights for over 800 years. A lime green puppet voiced by Frank Oz, he might be the most offensive thing about Star Wars. Given the design of his countenance and his speech pattern (his grammar goes object-subject-verb), he is most obviously modeled on a stereotypical wise old Asian man and would later be reincarnated as Mr. Miyagi. Yoda presents the best personification of The Force, some pseudo-religion about how everything is connected and therefore anything can be moved.  This is where all of the references to “Jedi mind tricks” in Kevin Smith movies come from. And this is how Lucas and co. chose to distinguish their vision of the future in space from that which appeared on TV screens in Star Trek. I’d rather be beamed somewhere distant than have a muscle spasm in my shoulder trying to move a spaceship.

Unfortunately, it’s impossible to watch Star Wars without thinking of everything that has come after it. You could say that I revisited these films because I wanted to see the parallels between the biggest movie of the year, Guardians of the Galaxy, and Star Wars. Although drawn from a lesser series of Marvel comic books than The Hulk or Iron Man were, Guardians has a lot in common with Star Wars. Peter Quill’s outlaw name, Star Lord, sounds like it was ripped from the earlier films’ iconography. Like Luke, he doesn’t know who his father is, but as we understand from the set-up for the shoo-in sequel, we’re going to find out how learning his father’s identity will have significant repercussions for the whole galaxy. Like Han Solo, Peter’s a loner, a rogue and a charmer. His beat-up, lived-in ship resembles the ramshackleness of the Millennium Falcon, and the mutual attraction between Peter and the green warrior princess Gamora is as sure a thing as Han Solo and Princess Leia finally giving in to their shared desires. The main villain of Guardians, Ronan, may be dispatched by the film’s end, but he’s kind of like Darth Vader: he defies the supreme ruler, Thanos, in an attempt to control the galaxy, destroying whole planets with the press of a button, much like Vader. But Guardians of the Galaxy, by no means my favorite film, is far more appealing, visually interesting, and more succinctly told. We don’t need a sequel or two or three, but we’ll get them anyway, because that’s Hollywood’s business model.

Speaking of superhero movies, isn’t that what Star Wars really is? For reasons that I have already described, Luke Skywalker is the quintessential superhero, for he has elements of Superman (daddy issues) and Spider-Man (his harnessing the Force is akin to Peter Parker’s web-slinging). You could even say his piloting proficiency mimics the technological prowess of Batman, whom some consider a superhero and others do not. I may one day be able to understand the appeal of these stories, but I will never be able to connect to them emotionally. They’re just fairytales for boys.

Adventures in Co-dependent Film-going

The results are in: The Washington Post Magazine has finally published the winners of their Humor Writing Contest, conducted this summer. My little ditty—a 1000-word “true memoir” (the editors’ words)—didn’t make the cut. Having previously alluded to entering the competition, I am now going to make good on my promise to publish it here. Fair warning: the humor is self-deprecating, but the story fills me with pride. It’s also very personal, but as we’re all cinephiles, I think it’s universal, too. Please note that some movie titles may seem “old” or at least not representative of what’s now in theaters because I wrote this in July.

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The auditorium isn’t as cold as it usually is. Many of the seats are filled, pairs of eyes transfixed on the animated ball bouncing across the screen. More people file in, looking up at the rows of chairs laid out stadium-style, trying to spot enough consecutive seats to accommodate the adults and children of their respective parties. From my perch in the back, I observe that most of the families here resemble my own. Like the other children in this theater waiting to see Brave, I have come with my dad. The only difference is that I am almost twenty-six, and my “peers” in this context are twelve and younger. How did I get here?

Well, my dad drove us here. Ever since I moved back home from New York City, I have depended upon him to get places because I never got my driver’s license and, in case you are wondering, I have no plans to get it now, either. So stop nagging. Living in suburban Washington, D.C., about ten miles away from the nearest movie theater, I see so few new releases these days, I get depressed. In fact, giving up the easy access to dozens of multiplexes and art-houses all around New York was the hardest part of my move; in spite of the economic crisis, I gleefully quit my dead-end retail job and toxic living arrangement. I traded them for eight months of unemployment and petty fights with my younger lay-about brother.

Going to the movies has always been my favorite pastime, especially when I lived in NYC on my own. On average, I would see two new films a week, sometimes on days before I was due at work. That’s how I spent my discretionary income. I hardly ever bought clothes or dined out. But I didn’t splash out on these movie-going experiences; I sought bargain matinee prices at a nationwide theater chain and, if permitted, flashed my student ID at the art-houses’s box offices. I went to the movies alone, a practice that I learned at work and school made me strange (my reason for moving to New York in the first place was to get a master’s degree at NYU in film theory and history, of all things). My co-workers would raise their eyebrows when I answered that I had seen Thor and The Tree of Life by myself. For them, going to the movies is an event that doesn’t happen all too often, and when it does, they prefer it to be a social experience that they share with their family, friends, or lovers.

OK. Let’s get this over with: in New York, I didn’t have many friends. And I had absolutely no lovers. (Come to think of it, not much has changed since then.) I loved going to the movies alone simply because I could. Just as I can’t get anywhere alone outside a three-mile radius now, so I couldn’t while growing up. Plus, as someone who likes to plan her activities days ahead of time so that they coincide with a film’s release, going to the movies alone meant I wasn’t beholden to someone else’s schedule. And nothing, aside from a headache or a bout of lethargy, could stop me. For example, on the day I received the essay questions for my comprehensive master’s exam, which I needed to pass in order to graduate, I went early to see the newest version of Jane Eyre. I knew that putting off seeing it for a whole week would distract me from the task at hand. Nor did I let an early morning fire raging next door deter me from my plans to see Beginners. I had waited long enough.

Other than last December’s double bill featuring The Artist and Shame, which I took a bus to see because silent pictures and Michael Fassbender’s penis do very little for my dad, I never go to the movies alone now. Unfortunately, no one I live with shares the same enthusiasm for movies and the movie-going experience. I miss being able to watch a new movie the weekend it premieres. I miss sitting alone in the dark with a bunch of strangers, most of us equally rapt in the shadowplay taking place onscreen. I miss the whir of the celluloid film projector sitting behind me (I prefer to be all the way in the back, left of center). This last gripe has probably less to do with my movie-going frequency and more to do with the fact that theaters are installing digital, 3D-ready projectors at an overwhelmingly rapid rate. Then again, just think of how many films on celluloid I missed the chance to see because I couldn’t get to them in time. I feel like my whole identity is in flux since I’m no longer experiencing the cinema every week.

I love my dad. He puts up with my neuroses, such as my fear of driving and lack of motivation in finding a job. Have you looked at the numbers lately for people my age? My future looks so bleak, I gotta crawl into bed. But my dad isn’t the best movie-going companion. For starters, he almost always falls asleep in the theater, and then he proceeds to judge a film’s worth based on whether or not it kept him awake. Siskel and Ebert we aren’t. Even getting him to agree to see a movie is a feat in and of itself. Originally, he refused to see Brave, citing his last attempt at watching a Pixar movie as reason enough not to go: he—you guessed it—fell asleep during Ratatouille. Recognizing how important it was to me to see Brave, Dad relented. He still fell asleep during it, but I loved the story about a fiery princess whose fairytale trajectory doesn’t track her steps toward the altar but rather her emotionally complex relationships with her mother and kingdom.

Now I’m trying to convince Dad to take me to Magic Mike.

News Clip: AMPAS Chooses an Oscar Host I Barely Know

I would like to thank the Academy for, in their latest attempt to court a younger viewership, choosing a host for the 85th Academy Awards whose creative output I’m completely unfamiliar with. This is a first. Congratulations, you just alienated a 26-year-old.

Per the Washington Post, the creator of the cult favorite TV show Family Guy (1999-present), Seth MacFarlane, is poised to emcee Movie Night on February 24, 2013. Isn’t he the guy who made a movie about a foul-mouthed CGI teddy bear? (Who cares if it grossed more than $420 million worldwide; what does that box office take say about us?) Isn’t MacFarlane also the guy who last week couldn’t find the microphone while presenting an award at the Emmys? Honestly, I thought this was a joke until I read press release attached to WP TV columnist Lisa de Moraes’s news brief.

It’s not that I have a list of more desirable candidates for the coveted hosting gig. But, if you insist… How about Jimmy Fallon? Hugh Jackman, perhaps? Louis C.K., if you want to be “edgy”? Ellen DeGeneres again? Wait, wait! I got it! Amy Poehler would be awesome as Oscar host. You might think she’s more associated with TV than she is with film. OK, that’s true, but so are all these other people (except Jackman, of course). After all, it’s not like MacFarlane is known for much else besides stupid animated fart jokes on TV.

None of this is to say that I won’t be watching the Oscars telecast when it airs. I hate it, always, but I can’t help myself.

Long Take: The Hunger Games Panders to a Built-In Audience and Squanders Its Narrative Potential

Viewed September 21, 2012

For months leading up to its March 2012 release, The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012) was billed as the next franchise based on a series of young adult novels set to break box office records, and it delivered. I stayed clear of the theater when it came out because news reports on TV showed the books’ fans camping out days ahead of time, and I will do pretty much anything to avoid a crowd. When I finally learned the premise (children and teens from “districts” all over a future dystopian North American nation are ritually forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised event), I quickly identified the parallels with the once-banned Battle Royale (Kinji Fukasaku, 2000). One Saturday, my dad came home from services at shul and related that his young rabbi used The Hunger Games and a crucial plot twist from the third act to make a point in his sermon (my dad told me what it was). The film effectively spoiled, I took my time seeking it out, which I only did because, as a film historian, I am interested in what people watch. Having now seen it, I can tell you that The Hunger Games was made with only its built-in audience of fanatical readers in mind: the teenagers and their parents as well as the child-free adults under 40 who never encountered a pop culture trend they didn’t like (see Fifty Shades of Grey for more proof). I can’t comment on Suzanne Collins’s trilogy, having never even read a single sentence from any of the novels, but isn’t it telling that as one of the screenwriters, the author allows co-writer-director Gary Ross to water down the disturbing conceit with a boring and self-conscious indictment of our popular culture that I’m not sure any of the rabid fans fully understands? As always, there be spoilers ahead.

Sometime in the distant future, an oppressive government in Panem institutes a sacrificial blood-letting of Olympic proportions: as penance for a past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each of the nation’s twelve districts is chosen from a lottery (called a “Reaping” and, per my dad, resembling the Nazis’ rounding up of European Jews) to train and compete in the eponymous competition. The film begins as the 74th Hunger Games get underway. Our heroine who’s handy with a bow and arrow, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), lives with her good-for-nothing mother (Paula Malcolmson) and darling younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) in the impoverished District 12. A mining and milling community with sanitation systems straight from the 19th century and simple, drab clothing that contrasts sharply with the out-there fashions of other Panem citizens, District 12 brings abject Appalachia to mind (these scenes were shot in North Carolina). At the Reaping, Primrose’s name is called in what amounts to an interminable, super-serious scene that ends in Katniss becoming the first-ever voluntary participant. Like the actress’s character in Winter’s Bone (Debra Granik, 2010), for which Lawrence received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress, Katniss is a teenage survivor who lives and is willing to die for her sister. Yes, of course, the scene is appropriately dour, but it tries too hard, what with the cartoonish appearance and overly enthusiastic pronouncements of emcee Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the audience’s failure to applaud for the Capitol-produced introductory propaganda video or the selection of Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). And this is just the tip of the iceberg. Katniss and Peeta are whisked away to the Capitol for the Games, and that’s ostensibly where the action begins, only it actually stalls.

While screening the movie on DVD, I wrote in my notes (in all caps, mind) that The Hunger Games is “indulgent”: “It takes its time [introducing characters and situations] because the filmmakers know their built-in audience has memorized everything in the book and wants to savor these characters and scenes” as much as possible. Hence Haymitch Abernathy’s (Woody Harrelson) languorous introduction as the teens’ reluctant mentor (he’s a cynical drunk who thinks neither one has got what it takes to survive and win). So much of the scene that revolves around Haymitch, on the high-speed train ride from District 12 to the Capitol, does just that: it revolves around and barely includes him. Katniss and Peeta scrutinize his character and debate whether or not they should trust his guidance, occasionally allowing a somewhat flamboyant Harrelson to participate. To me, this is storytelling as clumsy and lazy as Ross’s shooting Katniss’s earlier hunt for deer meat is cliched (with a rough, jump cut-laden, shaky documentary style). In other words, Ross proves he is not an inspired director of action (remember, he previously directed the wholesome and straight-forward Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, from 1998 and 2003 respectively).

Effie, Haymitch, and Katniss look as bored as I was while watching their movie. Not much happens in the first hour or so. Image courtesy of http://www.collider.com.

The indulgence in establishing Haymitch carries over to other characters, only their purposes remain enigmatic for the uninitiated. For example, who exactly is Effie Trinket and what does she do, other than wear grotesque 1940s-inspired skirt suits? Introduced as a villain at the Reaping, she appears to be part of District 12’s trusted team. But there is no explanation or demonstration as to why or how she can make this transition. Moreover, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) doesn’t have a clearly defined role, either. I assume that he’s merely a stylist, choosing for Katniss dresses that shoot fiery flames out of their skirts (so that she comes across as both dangerous and, well, hot). Apparently, Kravitz’s casting in this part angered many die-hard fans of the books, because he doesn’t physically conform to the Cinna of their imaginations. Meaning: they were disappointed that Cinna is played by a black man. Since Cinna is given so little to do, I don’t understand how anyone could get upset by that. If anything, the filmmakers should have cast someone who can act. Of course, one solution to this problem (that Cinna needn’t have even appeared in the film), however, is impossible: Cinna, in order to appease the fans, just has to be there.

Speaking of dresses that “light” up, let’s discuss the schizophrenic production and costume designs. As I previously mentioned, District 12 is so depressed as to be imprisoned in another century. When Effie, so far the only blatant anachronism in District 12, escorts Katniss and Peeta onto the bullet train, we ogle the 1930s interior design of the space, which coincidentally is one of the best sets. Side note: it is telling that they don’t fly to the Capitol, for the train is historically a potent symbol for modernity. Unsurprisingly, it literally transports them to another era. And what do we find at the Capitol upon arrival? As you peer through the poor visual effects, trying to make sense of the setting, you glimpse traces of Washington, DC (there’s a Mall with a reflecting pool) and vaguely neo-classical postmodern architecture. Honestly, it looks like a fascistic version of any and all representations of the mythic underwater civilization Atlantis (and maybe the Bahamian resort, too). The hordes of people gathered to watch live TV interviews are clearly dressed to go to a rave, decked out as they are with neon-colored clothes and hairstyles. There may have been glow sticks, I can’t be sure. One of the Games commentators/TV interviewers, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), wears glittery suits and purple hair pulled up into a ponytail. Since everyone looks utterly ridiculous (and has an incredibly stupid name), it’s difficult to take the proceedings seriously, and the routinely oppressed’s struggle isn’t all that palpable. The filmmakers exaggerate both the built environment and the “bizarre” fashions of Panem’s citizens so as to link the inauthenticity of this world to our own celebrity-obsessed and reality TV-centric culture. From an intellectual standpoint, I get it. But as it is executed, it comes across as pained, heavy-handed, and too self-conscious. As if to say, Just look at how horrible these people are. You know, we’re not that much different… There’s nothing wrong with this message, but I’m afraid that because it is so over-the-top yet matter-of-fact, it produces a lot of noise and very little contemplation in the pandered-to viewer.

The Hunger Games being gladiatorial bloodsport, it makes sense that each district’s team rides in on the back of chariots here, in this fascistic square, their long procession resembling the parade of nations that is part of the Opening Ceremony at the Olympics. Image courtesy of http://www.mtv.com.

Despite the book being billed as a treatise on the horrific violence of war, which we send our innocent children to fight in the spirit of freedom (talk about a paradox), the film only spends the last hour or so of the 142-minute running time depicting the Games. (Collins is often reported as saying that the juxtaposition of TV channels showcasing young people alternately competing on a reality TV show or fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan inspired the story.) Instead, so much of it is devoted to the players’ Reaping, training, gaining of sponsorships (I still don’t understand how they work), and winning the audience’s favor. Again, Collins, Ross, and co. highlight how unreal (our) reality TV is through Haymitch’s packaging Katniss and Peeta as star-crossed lovers for the media, especially as we learn about it the same way that Katniss does: watching Peeta confess to Casear Flickerman that winning the Games would be a bittersweet victory. For surviving would mean that his crush would have to have died. For much of the film, they can barely tolerate each other. Katniss holds a grudge against Peeta because he once threw a loaf of bread into the mud as she sat starved nearby in the rain. He resents that she’s a more highly ranked player (scoring 11 out of ten points) and that everyone pays more attention to her. Despite their differences, they support each other during the Battle in the Woods, and in the end, they perform their roles as younger lovers for the pervasive cameras. It’s just, are they only keeping up appearances or do they fall for it, too? It’s an interesting idea, but the filmmakers expend no energy in developing it except in the second-to-last scene when they both enjoy a hero’s welcome (I’ll get to how that’s possible in a moment) and she finds her friend/boyfriend, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), out in the crowd. The expression on her face reads: “Oh shit, I forgot about him.” (And it’s easy to see why: this character consists of so little, he only watches the soap opera that is Katniss and Peeta’s romance unfold on TV and thus exists to make it harder for Katniss and Peeta to really become lovers.)

The movie’s PG-13 rating is really no indication that The Hunger Games tones down the violence implicit in its central conceit. Besides, similarly rated films with graphic displays of violence also get past the censors at the MPAA (language and sexuality are the real sticking points, and that’s a discussion for another time). I don’t seek out film reviews, but since his write-up was sent to my inbox as part of a daily roundup of entertainment news articles that I subscribe to, I read David Edelstein’s, originally published in New York. Horrified that the on-screen carnage of kids killing kids didn’t visibly “devastate” the hungry audience of which he was a part, Edelstein attacks director Gary Ross for framing the children’s inevitable deaths with “restraint” and “tastefulness” (as if that’s commendable!), which according to him, Ross has been praised for doing. I agree with Edelstein to an extent (the editing is fast and uncontemplative), but I still found the brutality of the participants profoundly unsettling: like, for instance, the way one girl shoots Katniss’s attacker in the back with a bow and arrow from far away, not out of solidarity but because killing him is merely a means to an end (killing Katniss).

More than this, The Hunger Games falls short of producing an effective commentary on war. The filmmakers fail to develop any of the Games participants other than Katniss and Peeta (with the lone exception of Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, who comes to Katniss’s aid in the beginning before being snuffed out herself). And since we can’t even grieve for the fallen children-soldiers, you might ask, What is the point? Really, all we’re capable of, in Edelstein’s words, is this: “When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, ‘Yes!‘” The greatest missed opportunity in this regard involves the character Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who scowls at everyone during training and basks in the glory he has inherited from previous champions who overwhelmingly hail from his District (1). Cato has been gearing up for the event seemingly all his life, and in the end, before he falls back onto the ground to be ravaged by demonic dog-like creatures, he hints to the spectator that he has a form of post-traumatic stress disorder as he indignantly whines, “Killing is all I know!” So just before he falls, we can reflect that he’s been robbed of a proper childhood and is subsequently doomed. The worst of it all is that this is the full extent of the filmmakers’ engagement with the subject of how being trained or programmed to kill has wrecked their psyches. Pitiful.

Katniss doesn’t bury Rue, her sister/daughter surrogate, but she gives her the only funeral any of the children can hope to receive. Image courtesy of http://www.mockingjay.net.

But of course they’re doomed. That’s the exact point of this exercise and the dramatic irony of the oft-spoken motto, “May the odds be ever in your favor.” Because beyond manipulating diegetic viewers’ emotions with stories about Katniss’s sacrificing herself to protect her sister or Peeta’s heretofore unconfessed love for Katniss, the producer of the Games, Seneca Crane (played by Wes Bentley), influences the actions of the participants as if he were a film director (he certainly carries himself like Michael Bay). When Katniss hides out in an unpopulated corner of the playing field, he burns it down so that she runs toward those who are out to get her. The dogs that eat up Cato spontaneously appear thanks to Seneca’s puppet-mastering; he wants to up the tension and kill off Katniss if he can. Most of all, he approves of an explicit rule-change after riots break out in the predominantly black District 2 following Rue’s (televised) death: two people can win the Games so long as they are on the same team. He later rescinds the offer once Katniss and Peeta are the only ones left standing. And here’s where my dad’s rabbi supposedly spoiled the plot: the so-called lovers vow to take their lives rather than follow the renewed rules of the old game. Fearing more reprisals, Seneca allows them to be dually victorious. The scenes which demonstrate how Man has overtaken Nature through computer programming and how Katniss and Peeta repeatedly challenge the rule of law at the Games are of a piece with the central message of The Hunger Games and probably constitute its finest expression: re-evaluate the truthfulness of “reality TV.”

One of the greatest unresolved mysteries of the film is the prize that the winner(s) receive(s). Obviously, living to see another day is rewarding in and of itself, but what do they gain otherwise? Fame? Fortune? At the victory ceremony held at the Capitol, the president of the totalitarian regime, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), crowns Katniss, thereby complementing the beauty pageant-like interviews she endured earlier in the picture before the Fight to the Death commenced. Paradoxically, when she returns to District 12 triumphant, she doesn’t reunite with Primrose. (Instead, we see her look out onto Gale, confused.) As a melodrama studies scholar, I couldn’t believe that the filmmakers failed to include such a scene. If we can’t see Primrose embrace her virtuous older sister and perennial protector, then what is the point of her sacrifice anyway? Everyone, including Primrose, knows what is at stake.

This brings me to my final point. Much has been made about Katniss Everdeen as a feminist icon. Writing of the novels, Lauren Osborn of the online zine Vagina claims that, “Katniss—as a fiercely independent, loyal, and capable young woman—stands as a symbol of feminism in modern literature.” I guess she would if your only point of comparison is Bella Swan from the Twilight YA series. In her examination of this year’s female film characters (women and girls alike), Washington Post film critic Ann Hornaday praises The Hunger Games for being one of the satisfying “girl-powered fantasies” to come out recently (on the other hand, she’s disappointed that adult women are not represented as strong or compelling as their younger female counterparts). In my opinion, Katniss isn’t so much a feminist warrior as she is an amalgamation of different idealized femininities. She’s maternal, as she volunteers for the Games to spare her sister from a 100% certain death and mourns the younger Rue. (Later, Rue’s District 2 partner Thresh, played by Dayo Okeniyi, stops short of killing Katniss out of respect for her honoring Rue in death.) Despite her attitude toward the government and the Games, which she thinks makes her totally unlikable, Katniss wins over everyone because of her beauty. That flame-throwing dress works wonders. And if you think her skill with a bow and arrow makes her decidedly unfeminine, think again: she’s an archetypal Amazonian. Romance may not be a priority for Katniss, as Osborn argues, but she is nevertheless at the center of a love triangle, and neither suitor deserves her. Such is always the case.

I couldn’t find an adequate photo of Katniss in her flaming dress, so please pardon the text, though it does say it all, doesn’t it? Image courtesy of http://www.theapod.com.

I give the filmmakers credit for not belaboring how The Hunger Games continues into the sequel Catching Fire. (I swear, everyone is in a tizzy about who will direct it and who will play additional characters with unbelievably ridiculous names.) The scene of Katniss and Peeta’s heroes’ welcome is cut between Seneca’s forced suicide (punishment for having failed to keep the Games under control) and President Snow’s sorrowful glance down on the Capitol from a balcony on high. The film fades to black after he turns his back and steps into the building, subtly portending his downfall. I don’t know much about the other two novels, but I assume that Katniss will lead a revolution against Snow’s highly structured Reign of Terror. Perhaps future installments will be more action-packed and ultimately less boring. Perhaps there will be more to the characters’ social interactions besides a “will-they-or-won’t-they” storyline, preferably along the lines of race and class, which The Hunger Games sets up but barely engages. What I’m saying is, perhaps viewers who have not read the books will be given a reason to give a damn. But I’m not holding my breath.

Jump Cut: Trainspotting on TV

Tonight ushers in the premiere of CBS’s Elementary, the newest rehashing of the Sherlock Holmes story, set in a contemporary New York. It looks as if, in some circles at least, its promising buzz has turned into less-than-enthusiastic reviews. But I am going to watch anyway, for Jonny Lee Miller plays the iconic character. You see, with him returning to the American tube, this means that you can see four of the six members of the principal cast of Trainspotting (Danny Boyle, 1996) on TV every week. You might recall that besides being one of my very favorite films, Trainspotting represents a watershed moment in the history of my cinephilia.

In addition to Miller’s (Sick Boy) starring role on Elementary, three other Trainspotters keep busy as parts of big TV casts. Robert “Bobby” Carlyle (Begbie) is on the audience favorite Once Upon a Time (2011-present), playing a certain Mr. Gold, a creep whose storybook world double is Rumpelstiltskin. I only ever watched the pilot that aired last year. I watched, of course, because he is in it, but sadly it was not my cup of tea. Since 2008 (or the fifth season), Kevin McKidd (Tommy) has appeared on the same network, ABC, as Dr. Owen Hunt, Iraq War veteran/PTSD sufferer/Dr. Christina Yang husband-turned-adulterer in the commercial juggernaut that is Grey’s Anatomy (2005-present), which is entering its ninth—and hopefully last—season tonight. Finally, we have Kelly Macdonald (Diane). If there is a leading lady on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire (2010-present), then it would have to be her: she plays Margaret Shroeder, an Irish immigrant in 1920 Atlantic City who falls under the spell of the county treasurer/bootlegging gangster Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. The third season started a little more than two weeks ago with them, having gotten married to protect his investments, on the outs.

The star of Trainspotting—and the only bonafide “movie star” of the bunch—Ewan McGregor (Renton), was going to be part of an ensemble for HBO: indie auteur Noah Baumbach developed, co-wrote, and directed the pilot adaptation of The Corrections with author Jonathan Franzen’s full participation. Then in May, the cable channel pulled the plug on the production, for whatever reason. I was really looking forward to this, not because I know anything about The Corrections (which for the record, I do not), but because I knew it meant five, yes, FIVE! cast members of Trainspotting were going to be on American TV regularly. Interesting to see how their wildly different career trajectories brought them to the same medium, “across the pond” as it were, but on programs that couldn’t be any less similar.

The only cast member never to have secured a regular role on an American TV show is Ewen Bremner (Spud). What hypothetical or existing show can you imagine him having a part on? Although I gave up on it within the first five episodes of its most recent third season, I think I could imagine Ewen on FX’s Justified (2010-present). If you think the waifish Jeremy Davies can play the heir to an Appalachian drug empire with the most nervous energy, I wouldn’t put it past Mr. Bremner to do him one or two better. If he were cast—and I know this is nothing but a pipe dream—then maybe I’d tune into the show again. Even with Timothy Olyphant’s central performance, I couldn’t get interested in Justified, particularly because its Southern California filming locations betrayed its Kentucky setting to such an extent that I didn’t buy any of it. But I digress.

By way of conclusion, I think it’s worth noting the fun coincidence that the Oxford English Dictionary‘s “Word of the Day” is “trainspotter.” Not only do I subscribe to this mailing list, I collect the words I like the sound and/or meaning(s) of. Allow me to educate: according to the trusty ol’ OED, the word, a noun and originally and chiefly British, refers to 1) “A person (often a boy) whose hobby is observing trains and recording railway locomotive numbers, sometimes with other details” and 2) “In extended use (freq. depreciative): a person who enthusiastically or obsessively studies the minutiae of any subject; a collector of trivial information.” That’s me!

Though the OED gives “trainspotterish” as a related word, it stops short of giving the further association and definition of “trainspotting,” which refers to a heroin addict’s practice of finding a fresh vein into which he or she can inject the drug. (The markings on their arms resemble train tracks.) Yes, this means that the title of the book and movie Trainspotting represents a utilitarian concept, and in much the same way that we say we “geek out” whenever we get really excited about something in pop culture, thereby taking ownership of the image which may make us seem uncool or esoteric to others, I like to call myself a “trainspotter.” I don’t watch trains (but I do whenever I have the chance), and I’m not a heroin addict, but I am a trainspotter—especially when it comes to Trainspotting.