Thursday, 17 January 2013

More F Words: Film Franchises and Fighting the Power, The Hunger Games and The Dark Knight Rises

As waves of disillusionment and frustration have swept over a world in economic crisis, it should hardly be surprising that at least two of this year's highest grossing films have been explicitly political in content. More remarkable, however are the corners from which this social commentary has emerged: one a children's film, and the other a comic-book superhero film.

Politics aren't new to either of these genres, of course. In the world of superheroes we've already seen ideologies clash in Watchmen and the damage done in the Middle East by the American arms trade in Iron Man. Claims have also been made for political agendas in a whole range of children's films, provoking both condemnation and praise. For many years numerous kids' films have arguably taken the side of the underdog against greedy, authoritarian or conservative baddies (see, for example, Monsters Inc., or The Hunchback of Notre Dame), and more recently many have begun taking environmentalist stances (see Wall-E or Happy Feet). Nevertheless, it's still relatively rare to find films in either category that engage openly and directly in complex ways with social and political issues - after all, what both obviously share is a tendency towards the fantastic, stories that aim at least in part for a kind of escapism. Perhaps Batman was an odd choice for Chris Nolan, perhaps children an odd choice for Suzanne Collins. Nevertheless, the massive success of both movies has proven them risks worth taking.

After enduring Chris Nolan's first two arduous attempts at a Batman film, actually enjoying The Dark Knight Rises was something of a shock for me. I've frequently expressed my feelings towards both of these earlier films, but for your benefit, here's a summary of what's been said in more detail elsewhere. With its barely coherent structure and paper-thin characterisations, Batman Begins is, in my opinion, the epic low point of in the career of an otherwise exciting, original and intellectually stimulating director. Only marginally less disappointing was The Dark Knight, which at least had two or three memorable characters and something vaguely resembling a plot. Heath Ledger's Joker was definitely well worth all the hype, with the late actor giving one of the most breathtaking performances I've ever seen in a movie. Still, the rest of it was rather slow and dull: I think I'd happily have cut every scene that he wasn't in. Harvey Dent/Twoface was okay I guess, but wasn't really given adequate time to develop as a character. The ending felt cheap and tacked on, and the inclusion of two baddies left a film which might otherwise have had some potential looking just as bad as Spider-Man 3 (and before you argue with me, that film did have its moments - The Sandman was a brilliant, very much underrated character). As a result, I don't really know why The Dark Knight Rises worked out so well by comparison, but it definitely did.

I'm probably going to upset a lot of people by suggesting that even The Dark Knight Rises isn't perfect, much as I enjoyed it. The whole business with Ra's al Ghul was still unnecessarily complicated and confusing, without really adding anything to the story. I didn't like Liam Neeson in the first film and I didn't like him any better in this one. Nor did I care particularly for Marion Cotillard as Miranda/Talia. I didn't buy into her mini-affair with Bruce that seemed to blossom out of nowhere. True, both she and others amongst our hero's friends had been pushing for it for quite some time, but Bruce in his turn had repeatedly expressed his lack of personal/sexual interest in her, and furthermore, his growing feelings for Selina Kyle were by that point already fairly obvious. Yes she had done charity work and yes she was involved in his business projects and yes, perhaps she knew him better than most people, but until that one scene with the rain, there was absolutely no chemistry between them.

Bane was by far the most interesting character, and Tom Hardy's easily the best performance in the film. Much like Shadow in American Gods, I had heard of men who were barrel-chested before, but until seeing this film, I'd had no image to accompany the metaphor. I do worry about these actors and what they're willing to do to their bodies for the sake of an acting role, but I suppose it's none of my business really. I have heard the complaints about him being difficult to understand, but I didn't really have a problem with this myself. Personally, I found his voice far less irritating than Christian Bale's stupid bat voice. Admittedly he toned that down for this film, but it was utterly ridiculous in the first two and, which annoyed me even more, he still used it when talking to characters who knew his secret identity. I've also heard the claims for Michael Caine being the best thing in it. He's good, and there are some incredibly touching moments, but I still liked Tom Hardy more.

So on to what is probably the most fascinating thing about this film. Claims have been made for The Dark Knight Rises following a specific political line from one end of the spectrum to the other. Interpretations of the film's "message" vary wildly depending on who's doing the interpreting, with some critics angrily disparaging what they see as little more than propaganda, whilst others eagerly approve of a story they believe is sympathetic with their own views. The best course seems to me to be to take Nolan at his own word, and hold back from making rash claims that the film means one thing or supports another. Says Nolan,
We throw a lot of things against the wall to see if it sticks. We put a lot of interesting questions in the air, but that's simply a backdrop for the story. What we're really trying to do is show the cracks of society, show the conflicts that somebody would try to wedge open. We're going to get wildly different interpretations of what the film is supporting and not supporting, but it's not doing any of those things. It's just telling a story. If you're saying, 'Have you made a film that's supposed to be criticizing the Occupy Wall Street movement?' – well, obviously, that's not true... If the populist movement is manipulated by somebody who is evil, that surely is a criticism of the evil person. You could also say the conditions the evil person is exploiting are problematic and should be addressed... I've got all sorts of opinions, but this isn't what we're doing here. I love when people get interested in the politics of it, when they see something in it that moves them in some way. But I'm not being disingenuous when I say that we write from a place of 'What's the worst thing our villain Bane can do? What are we most afraid of?' He's going to come in and turn our world upside down. That has happened to other societies throughout history, many times, so why not here? Why not Gotham? We want something that moves people and gets under the skin.
Much like Watchmen, then, The Dark Knight Rises represents a clash between extreme versions of opposing ideologies. Abstract theories and beliefs become embodied by particular characters, who come into physical as well as intellectual conflict with each other. Nolan's films have never really been particularly concerned with character - as a director, it's clear that he's far more interested in ideas and pushing them as far as they can go. This does land him in trouble sometimes, of course - sometimes stories suffer through insufficient or unbelievable characterisation. It is worth noting that this isn't the case with all ideas men - Ridley Scott, for example, in Prometheus, or even Watchmen itself. Nevertheless, The Dark Knight Rises is probably far less culpable of this than most Nolan movies. But if we understand his characters as essentially allegorical, things begin to make more sense: the Joker is Chaos, Two Face is Chance or Fate, Bane is the Angry Mob, Catwoman is Disillusionment, having given up on ideologies and people alike, Talia is the Extreme Revolutionary who believes that everything must be overturned before any good can be done, and Batman himself is a kind of conservative notion of Justice, working from within the system to better it. We're not asked to support any of these, but simply to observe and come to our own conclusions. The Dark Knight Rises is ultimately a non-judgmental film, showing us all perspectives and leaving us to decide for ourselves what we think.

The Hunger Games is probably my favourite film released this year. This summer I devoured the book in maybe two or three sittings, in between handing in my dissertation and revising for an exam on Joyce's Ulysses - it was that important to get it read. As I touched on in my last film post, this movie does something different to most literary adaptations, in that rather than attempting to translate the book faithfully onto the screen, it acts as a kind of companion piece, giving us a different perspective on the action and story. Not only does this mean that readers of the novel can't be disappointed by the film being unfaithful, instead being treated to something new that engages them in different ways, but it also makes perfect sense cinematically. The Hunger Games is a fantastic example of self-reflexive cinematography. Because the film is about a hyped-up on-screen entertainment show, we effectively come to share the perspective of the Panem audience of the games themselves. The film pulls us in, manipulating us just enough to make us engage with the games on their own terms, making us complicit with Panem's whole horrific social system and the murder of its children disguised as public entertainment. Much like Panem's citizens, we find ourselves rooting for particular characters, hoping they'll survive - that they'll win - which effectively means that we're hoping that the other kids will die. And, at times, we may even catch ourselves being secretly pleased when one of the "career tributes" gets their comeuppance. But just before we can get in too deep, we're pulled back up, reminded that these are children, reminded how awful the whole thing really is.

Another element of the story that's unique to the film is the "behind-the-scenes" view we get of Haymitch wining and dining Panem's rich and powerful to persuade them to send expensive gifts of food and medicine to his "mentees" in the arena, scenes which remind us of big business deals that happen every day - that could almost be something out of Mad Men. Haymitch has to become an ad-man of sorts, fighting for business against stiff competition. This, I think, serves to make things even more real, bringing the story even closer to the world we know. We also get to look in on the games-makers, designing and creating obstacles and monsters to make the games tougher for the contestants and more exciting for the viewers. This is where we really begin to understand the contest as a game. The games-makers behave almost like computer-games designers, thinking up ways of increasing the difficulty in each "level" of the game, testing "players'" skills and eventually making them fight super-creatures like end-of-level "bosses". Even the little medical and food packages sent in by sponsors will seem vaguely familiar to gamers, closely resembling the first aid kits, "extra lives" or "1ups" that you might collect in a video game world.

A lot of people have argued that the basic concept behind the story just isn't plausible enough, insisting that parents would never willingly give up their children to fight to the death, or if they were forced to, that other people wouldn't watch it or participate in it. Honestly, I think this is a very naive, overly optimistic view of human nature. The horrible truth is that it's no leap to imagine a world like that at all. In fact, I'd argue that all of the essential components of The Hunger Games to some extent already exist in our world today. In this country, mothers and fathers are already quite happy for their sons to join the military at the tender age of 16: an age considered too young to drive, to young to marry without consent, to young to smoke or drink, yet old enough to go out and fight and kill other people, some of them perhaps just as young as they are. 16 is the upper age limit for Hunger Games "tributes" (a term which encapsulates the seductive language already used to political effect in times of war - words like sacrifice and heroism, and the notion that these people are fighting and killing on our behalf, in our name, in order to protect us all), and is the age of both Katniss and Peeta when they take part. Elsewhere in the real world, much younger children are often kidnapped and forced to fight in wars that they cannot possibly understand. All over the world, footage of war zones is beamed directly into the homes of anxious audiences and, while we're perhaps supposed to be appalled by this violence, these days it's never very long before real and terrible wars become sources of fun and competitive gaming. Meanwhile, reality TV shows command ridiculous amounts of attention, and are often highly competitive, evoking visceral emotional responses in their viewers. Though it's not considered socially acceptable any more, public executions and fights to the death between adults or between men and animals have, historically, been treated as sources of public entertainment, drawing a crowd in much the same way as  reality TV contests and event films like The Hunger Games do now. A relative minority of us with consciences would probably like to think that we're past all that now, but you only need to look back to the execution of Saddam Hussein and how the video footage went viral to realise that this is simply not the case - so much of the world is still baying for the blood of whomever its been told to hate. Consequentially, I don't think it's at all difficult to imagine these things colliding and merging to create the kind of terrible monstrosity that Collins has imagined. And as she's said herself, most of her ideas came from watching television.

Nevertheless, it's not quite all misery and horror. Mostly, but not all. Both the film and the book leave us, crucially, with hope. The film features an important discussion of this between President Snow and Seneca Crane that doesn't appear in the books, in which Snow explains just how powerful this can be. I'm not going to spoil anything for those who haven't read the sequels yet, but rest assured, the hope that Katniss's defiance gives to the people of Panem becomes a pivotal part of the story. Unlike The Dark Knight, The Hunger Games does seem to have something of a moral and political message. It serves to show us that we can effect a change: that none of us is truly powerless, and that we always have a choice. In order to do this, it must first convince us of the necessity of acting and speaking out before it's too late, and the film achieves this by showing us just how bad things can get when we don't. To recycle one of my favourite quotations (generally attributed to the philosopher and political theorist Edmund Burke):
All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.
Interestingly, although the real source of this is disputed, there is something that Burke definitely wrote which perhaps fits The Hunger Games even better:
When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.

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