The Hobbit: … and back again

When the animated special of the The Hobbit aired in 1977, I had just turned five.  I had also already seen it, because my father worked in advertising and hand, in fact, worked on the campaign for it.  During that time, I had spent months of weekends  and evenings at his office watching the film projected onto a conference room wall as he worked on his comps.  We would sing along with the warg song (“Fifteen Birds“) together, and my father would speak to me, for hours, in Gollum’s voice.  He was very good at it, and I was sort of strangely proud that Gollum was my friend.

All of which means that as much as I knew, long before the reviews started, that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit was likely to be a lesser film than those of his The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I was probably more excited for this trilogy than that one.

Don’t get me wrong, I really loved the LoTR films, and as someone who isn’t a Tolkein purist (I often wish I could be, but my mind and my patience for The Simarillion simply doesn’t work that way), that was easy to do.  But most of that love was came not in response to the story, the monsters or the protagonists, but in response to the incredibly rich and specific film vocabulary Peter Jackson and company developed to tell those stories.

That vocabulary is returned to us fully in The Hobbit, from the genius of Howard Shore’s musical themes to the writhing, Bosch-like plains of flesh that make up the film’s many battle scenes.  The importance of story within story, the impact of history, and the relentless hero shots and speeches of great men (and dwarves and elves) also remain, driving the pace and coding characters not as people but as symbols.

It’s desperately heightened, in a way that is almost overlooked because how can you have the reality part of “heightened reality” with such unreal things as orcs and storm giants and wargs?

Of course, The Hobbit as a novel does have a somewhat different tone than The Lord of the Rings.  It’s funnier.  It’s lighter. Its dangers are more wondrous and more easily escaped.  The film, in turn, utterly acknowledges this in its own tone and construction while not compromising on the visual, audio, and narrative vocabulary established for The Lord of the Rings films.

And that’s where, it seems, the mainstream professional reviews seem to be ill at ease with what was served up on screen.  The vocabulary Jackson uses is weighty, epic, and arguably bombastic, and for many critics the extension of that vocabulary to what is traditionally a children’s book doesn’t seem to sit quite right.

Of course, as a four year old who spent hours and hours singing the warg song with my father, I knew then and know now that stories for kids can often do with being as epic, dramatic, and, yes, bombastic, as stories for grownups.

Technically, The Hobbit trilogy probably won’t be as good as The Lord of the Rings trilogy if the first film is anything to go on.  And I avoided, with great effort, seeing either the 3D version (it gives me headaches) or the 48fps version because my eyes have been trained to find their moving-going truth in the softer illusions of perfection generated by 24fps, so I can’t comment on what that does, or doesn’t, add to the experience.

But if you love Peter Jackson’s cinematic vocabulary, or just the idea of cinematic vocabularies in general, The Hobbit is a treat.  It’s also joyously nostalgic.  Coming out of the theater every overheard conversation seemed to be about people’s first encounters with the story and how that tied into their response to the film.

However, my perhaps favorite moment was that even as the film lacked a warg song, it did have several others, and everyone seemed to be singing them as they left the theater. This included a trio of well-harmonized strangers who couldn’t seem to stop themselves from slipping into “The Misty Mountains” while in the ladies bathroom stalls after a screening last night in New York’s East Village.

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Pitch Perfect: Fannish fixations as film structure

Last night I finally caught up with Pitch Perfect, which was obscenely enjoyable and ridiculously tightly scripted for what’s really just another entrant in that somewhat weird genre of arts competition movies (see: the Step Up franchise; Bring It On, if you’re willing to call cheerleading an art; and the pretty fabulous Drumline). Formulas work for a reason, and Pitch Perfect might as well be the textbook on why.

That said, the film does have a few surprises, and I don’t mean vomit as a key and startling plot point (really, you have been warned). Aside from lacking any real villain — obstacles are largely just the complexities of individuals trying to decide how to prioritize their own happiness in response to the expectations of others — Pitch Perfect somehow manages to bring the world of lesbian subtext in a way that doesn’t, actually, feel like it’s for the male eye or irrelevant to actual women gay or straight.

Now, I’m not a big fan of subtext as the reason to watch something. We no longer live in a world where we have to do that, and I find myself increasingly exhausted by narrative subtexts that don’t go anywhere — it’s one of the reasons White Collar and its associated fandom has exhausted me; despite containing a canonically gay female character, everyone fixates on the subtext in the relationship between what the show pretty clearly presents as two straight men. It’s a fun show, but it’s not quite my thing and subtext is not enough to keep me hooked. Quite the opposite, really; mostly, I find the insistence that it should be tiring.

But Pitch Perfect delivers both at least one gay woman, as well as some subtext between a range of characters that read at various points along whatever arbitrary queerness spectrum exists in my head. Seeing the film in a movie theater filled mostly with women, who, statistically, I tend to assume were mostly straight, and watching them laugh with (not at) that innuendo, applaud one character’s particularly awesome breasts, and cheer for a host of awesome women being hot, was really cool, if a bit strange.

On one hand, there’s probably stuff to say about what women have learned from the male gaze and objectification and how that may or may not be toxic. But, not my department, at least today.

What fascinated me was how profoundly this was a film that seemed structured to appeal to the narrative preoccupations of fandom (homosocial content with a sexual charge; narratives that are more slice of life than obstacle-driven; in-jokes and low impulse control as defining character traits; obsession as a driver of connection and excellence). The film felt like everything fandom always wants, but (as is often not the case) about women.

The boys were an afterthought both on the screen and in the audience; the women in the film frequently used deeply masculine terminology to talk about their bodies and sexual desires; and yet no one — on screen or off — seemed to get squirmy in the bad way or feel the need to use words that relegated the films queerness or homosocialness to the safe zones of bromances and girl crushes.

Someone finally wrote a movie for fandom and somehow it’s female-focused, atmospherically deeply queer, and yet recognizes its ability to be completely maintrstream.

It’s also ridiculously funny. Glee fans who read this blog will appreciate the many pointed and deserved digs at the show. Fans of the arts competition genre will feel satisfied for the tradition of campy absurdity this continues as well as possibly recognize a few nods to films as strangely diverse as Zoolander and Strictly Ballroom. And really weird people like Patty and I will leave the theater whispering “I ate my twin in the womb” at each other.

The Hunger Games: Deathmatch – American Idol vs. Upfronts

Yesterday, I asked Patty if the reason YA is interesting to people is a desire for more mythic texts and more texts that are about myth-making. My argument, such as it was (I don’t read or what enough YA material to call it an argument comfortably), was this: because YA is arguably “simpler,” the stories it tells are unavoidably more mythic and iconic.

Patty is pretty sure I was wrong (and since she is super smart and really into YA, is probably herself correct), and said that YA is popular because it’s a genre that’s allowed to be experimental and therefore offers high returns for lower time investment, and my mythic argument is a result of self-selection and the lens I read everything I like through.

Because it’s not just Brave that is a story about how stories get made. The Land of Stories (which I have a copy of again and so a review is imminent) is also very much about the construction of myth. As is The Hunger Games, which was what we were waiting to see at the time of the convo.

I’d seen it before, actually, but hadn’t found the energy to write about it in what has been a busy and chaotic 2012. Patty hadn’t managed to catch it in Delhi though, and I was excited to take a look at it without comparing it to the book or feeling like I would have to write about it because it’s so focused on the construction of fame.

It’s really a ridiculously good movie for what it is. The craft is exceptional, the adaptation is interesting, and it expands on parts of the world meaningfully in recompense for where it had to excise material for time and clarity. It also owes some of its most effective moments to the DNA of some of my absolutely favorite films, and it’s that slyness — and the fact that the film doesn’t exist in a vacuum of a hot thing of the moment money grab — that makes it such a pleasure to watch.

The largest influence is arguably The Truman Show. While reality TV existed when it was released, it still showed up in movie theaters two years before Survivor was first on US screens. What it indicted and asked us to collude in was something that we were neither deluged with nor asked to be responsive to in 1998. It was, more conspicuously than most films that get dammed with this faint praise, very much ahead of its time.

But it’s all over The Hunger Games in the attention the film adaptation pays to Seneca Crane and the arena’s game team, which operates with a sterility and dispassion reminiscent of what films insist are true about things like operating theaters and NASA control rooms.

Particularly, the way The Hunger Games shows us the segment where Katniss is directed away from the edge of the arena, feels like the scramble in the control room in The Truman Show when Truman’s determination to get to the edge of the world becomes clear. I imagine this similarity will only become more visible in Catching Fire considering that the Tributes do actually succeed in breaking the arena open and escaping it.

But another big piece of film DNA in The Hunger Games comes from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The scenes of rioting in Rue’s district (the only part of the film to make me cry both times), the images of Katniss’s father in the mine shaft elevator, and even the positioning of Katniss as both innocent and temptress, are all things that reference Metropolis both visually and conceptually.

Both these sets of references are ridiculously satisfying. They root the world of The Hunger Games into a story we’ve been told before, but instead of making it seem repetitive, it helps makes it mythic (beyond the already excellent job Collins did with epithets in the original book that helped make the narrative sound so much like oral history at given points: the girl who was on fire and the boy with the bread — these are not characters who need names, for they are not people, but ideas). It also helps to underscore that in any future we imagine — at any time — we are always tempted, it seems, by the same mistakes of idolatry, imprisonment, and violence.

One thing that I’ve heard The Hunger Games likened to again and again is American Idol or other reality competition shows where fame is an explicit prize as opposed to an implicit one. But that’s not what I saw in Haymitch’s quest for sponsors, and Ceasar Flickerman’s odd mix of absurdity and gravitas (seriously, who is Ceasar Flickerman when he’s alone? That’s my fanfiction question of the day). I kept seeing upfronts.

Upfronts are a funny thing, because they’re about advertising dollars — sponsors — and they are something the broader audience never used to be aware of (and in all fairness, I had to explain them to a friend just a few weeks ago). Yet, there are adverts about them on the buses in New York now, and fan cultures have been paying attention to the events, parties, and performances related to them for at least a few years now.

Because while the Hunger Games are meant to instill fear and loyalty and submission in the districts, they are really just for the Capital, the sponsors, the stylists, and the creators, and while they are arguably about celebrating the tributes, they’re really about examining the goods and making the most lucrative bets that can be made.

While TV isn’t going to kill anyone, no matter what The Hunger Games, The Truman Show, and, while we’re at it, Max Headroom (remember blipverts?) say, the disconnect between what upfronts are and what they pretend to be even though everyone knows better is hard to miss, at least if you know enough people in the business. “It’s all very checking horses’ teeth,” a friend who’s been a part of the upfronts game has said to me more than once, and it’s one of those things I can’t ever seem to forget.

Ultimately, while The Hunger Games is busy being a cautionary tale (you don’t want fame — you don’t want to be Haymitch or Katniss or Glimmer or, for that matter, Seneca Crane), it’s also one that tells us that a lot of the stuff we often like to say is the end of the world as we know it — e.g., American Idol — isn’t actually that bad. The really creepy stuff in the industry actually huddles in other corners.

At least for now. Because the other thing The Hunger Games has in common with the films it gets so much of its DNA from is that it’s all about convergence. When the mechanism is also the entertainment, that’s when things get really messy. At least that’s what I can’t stop thinking every time another over-packaged behind-the-scenes video gets released from a movie or TV show I love, or there’s another ad about upfronts that makes absolutely no sense to 95% of the people who see it on NYC public transit.

Like The Truman Show and Metropolis, The Hunger Games is likely to age strangely and seem, at a given point, quaint. And that’s probably exactly when we should really worry.

Brave: Threatdown – Bears!

Last night Patty took me to see Brave, and this review actually has nothing to do with the significant bear content, but as a regular watcher of The Colbert Show I couldn’t resist the title.

At any rate, as I think I have mentioned in these pages before, I don’t really see animated features as my thing, but she’s judicious about the ones she takes me to, and I’m nostalgic enough that Pixar’s insistence on placing a short before the main feature really charms me.

While Brave‘s animation is surely a technical achievement (the hair!), what’s particularly interesting is how the structure of the script makes its format — that of an animated feature — a necessary part of the storytelling mechanism. Because while Brave is about a girl and her mother overcoming the pitched war that often goes on between mothers and daughters at some point in their lives, Brave is also, thanks in part to a very judicious use of a voiceover, about the creation of legend.

And, because Merida’s voiceover in the film suggests, when combined with her father’s recounting of his battle with a bear that everyone has heard so many times they can tell it along with him, that what we are witnessing is her story as it has come to be told as opposed to the events as they happened, Brave provides an access point for people who distrust or just don’t have the receptor sites for animated features. Because if we’re being told a legend — a broad tale meant to teach us a lesson — its not being live-action is, in its way, more honest.

It’s a fabulous trick in a film that gives repeated shout-outs to stories and story-telling: there are the troublesome triplets that turn into the three bears; Merida, like Robbin Hood, splits an arrow already occupying the bullseye location on a target; the witch’s head in the caldron evokes the The Wizard of Oz; and the importance of storytelling technologies, from oral tradition to woven tapestry is plot central.

Prior to seeing Brave, I had been warned that it’s slight, but I really don’t think it is. Rather, the film has three things happening at once — comedy; structure about storytelling; and a narrative about freedom and duty. While, as audiences, we are deeply used to films about masculine honor and duty (see: Gladiator as perhaps the most obvious example of hundreds if not thousands of films), we’re not used to, I don’t think, films about feminine honor and duty where obligations are both questioned and ultimately met through change. This, combined with the lack of romantic resolution in the film could, I suppose, make it easy to miss the amount that happens and changes in the course of it.

Also contributing to the idea that the film is slight, may be the degree to which Merida and her disinterest in marriage is something of a cypher. Is she supposed to be echoing forward to some idea of Queen Elizabeth with her red hair and statement that only she is worthy of her own hand? Is she asexual? Is she lesbian? Is she just far too young to be interested in marriage? The film never tells us, but this is less a failing and more another structural nod to the construction of legends: Merida is whatever we need her to be. It’s an awfully dutiful role for a character that just wants her freedom.

Struck by Lightning: Once upon a time there was a boy

Chris Colfer’s Struck by Lightning is an odd little gem of a film that suffers more than a bit from being excessively clever, too personal, and uncertain about its relationship with magical realism. But it’s this unevenness that’s made it linger for me — not because of the film it could have been, but because of the way its flaws make it feel so true.

Which isn’t to say SBL isn’t laugh-out-loud hilarious.  It is, and I lost a lot of lines to audience laughter.  While some of that was the nature of a highly responsive audience, the screening being both the premiere and filled with fans, I think that’s going to happen once the film is in general release too.  I’m going to have to see it again just to catch some of the zingers that I missed.

But it’s its quiet moments that work best. Like his acting, Colfer’s script is at its most adept when it’s listening and forcing you to live with the spaces in things; sometimes stuff is so terrible, there’s really nothing to say.

Scenes between Carson (Colfer) and his mother (Alison Janney) and Carson and his grandmother (Polly Bergen) are some of the best, although Carson has two big angry blowups at school that are somewhat agonizing to watch. They’re the righteous tantrums most of us who were bullied outsiders in high school probably fantasized about having, but instead of being moments that lead to change and victory they’re just met with a sort of stunned and exhausted silence.

Moments like that make watching the film feel profoundly personal but deeply murky; the temptation to decide the film contains truths about either Colfer’s life or our own is high and unpleasant, and a central conversation about the nature of ambition (someone has to be wildly successful, why shouldn’t Carson dream and work for it to be himself?) is both immensely truthful and feels weirdly naive. It’s a moment that should inspire a younger viewer and perhaps inspire regret in an older one, but it’s also awkward; because of who is in the scene it also reminds of us just how often we don’t like people who want things, or get them.

Ultimately, SBL has a great deal of compassion for people who do horrible things: a cheerleader who is cruel, a mother who sabotages; as well as for people it paints as cowards: the boys who won’t come out, the father who explicitly tries to forget his first family by neglecting to mention them to his second. It also gives us, briefly, the internal voices of the cardboard cutouts that were often the avatars of horror in many people’s high school experiences and makes them as human and lost as anyone else’s.

SBL also gives us a story about friendship that could have been ruined by veering down a “weird girl has crush on outcast boy” path. That alone is remarkable, but in keeping with a film that’s all about desire, but — for all it’s discussed — is almost never about sex.

Ultimately SBL is a very funny film about the beauties of sadness, desire and anger.  It’s neither a perfect film, nor a happy one, but it is a little victorious regardless of whether you choose to have a Watsonian or Doylist experience of it. Despite, or perhaps because of, that it also lingers like a burn and raises one particular question that can’t help but feel terrible to me: what would have happened to Carson if he hadn’t gotten out of Clover in the way he did?

The Hunger Games: How decadent! Let’s get cupcakes!

I first encountered The Hunger Games several years ago while serving as a judge for the YA Lit Track’s costume contest at Dragon*Con. An excellent young costumer showed up at Katniss, and I thought she was an elf.  While I recall the costume well and know we gave her at least one award for it, I didn’t get around to reading the book until my recent flight from Warsaw to Hanoi.

Planes are for sleeping, especially since I usually don’t have time to sleep the night before I travel, so it says something that I stayed up to read it.  It’s a quick read, but for me it was a hard book, because no matter how visceral I often found it, I didn’t really connect with any of the characters except perhaps Cinna (who is definitely my favorite, I suspect has more secrets to reveal in the later books which are currently beyond my reach), Rue, and the silent Foxface, who fought for her life the way I always played dodgeball.

But as someone who experiences fiction through identification, the book mostly sort of left me at a loss.  I didn’t identify with Katniss or the boys, and I didn’t care about the romance, true or false; I only cared about whether Peeta was a Slytherin.

But what I have cared about, passionately, since before I even read the book, is the film’s marketing campaign, which makes us all residents of the Capitol, because it’s not us, and it’s not our children.  It’s savvy — insert the audience as the audience, and a little cruel — do we feel like not nice people by virtue of being outside the story? Do we pause to consider that, just like in historical reenactment, none of us would probably be any of the fictional privileged we’re being positioned as?  And do we care as long a we can buy the limited edition nail polish celebrating this season’s Capitol fashions?

Of course, I love it.  And I love it not just as an indictment of our worse natures and our fame culture (who wouldn’t, for example, find Celebrity Apprentice more riveting (or at least finally mildly interesting) if immediately after “You’re Fired!” there was cannibalism?). I also love it as a statement of the obvious: sometimes in fiction it’s fun to be the bad guy.  If you’re a resident of the Capitol, what’s your life like?  Sex in the City with a lot of hot pink eyeliner and a little bit of blood? How decadent! Let’s get cupcakes! Do you like my new wig?

But even through all that (and if you follow my Tumblr you know that good marketing is one of my turn ons), what keeps lingering for me about The Hunger Games is the exquisite nature of some of Suzanne Collins’s phrases.

From the first time it appears on the page the girl who was on fire almost made me weep for the cadence of it, but also for the past tense of it.  Chosen and chosen and chosen again, and Katniss even wins, or at least survives.  But I feel like in that phrase is the book’s greatest warning about ordeal and spectacle: even illusions will change you; and even if you survive, everything ends.

I’ve been assured that the next book in the series is all about the stuff that really gets me going: fame and the construction of it, and I wonder if little girls in the Capitol write RPF about Katniss and Peeta, or if terrible pop songs come out about it all in that world — sort of like how the vampire Lestat has a crappy band (and speaking of the construction of fame, there’s something I need to revisit). I think about how every dress Jennifer Lawrence wears when promoting the film is flame colored; as we ponder whose fame is really being constructed in light of that, I find myself just wanting to whisper sweet nothings at another blurry fourth wall.

Of course, what I’ve said here is probably all ridiculous and trivial in the light of the second and third books, which I won’t manage to get my hands on until probably mid-April.  But I probably will get to see the film in India (after some obligatory and eagerly awaited Bollywood), which excites me beyond measure. With the largest film industry in the world (someone once told me that Bollywood has made more films about the life of Alexander the Great than all the films ever made in Hollywood combined; no idea if it’s true, but it’s my favorite piece of possibly accurate information ever), it seems like a perfect place to see a movie where we’re not just in the audience, but cast as it.

Meanwhile, I can’t believe I thought Katniss was an elf.

Wrapping up 2011: Hugo, pop culture and kind magics

Greetings from scenic Ohio, where I’m spending the week between Christmas and New Year’s with my partner’s family.

While a yearly trip at this point, it’s not a place I’ve gotten used to. I’m an only child who has never needed to rely on other people to get where I’m going, at least at home in New York. But here in Ohio, we have to cadge rides from her parents, and I have to learn about the fine art of family teasing: Patty has a brother, and there’s a mode to the household humor that I often don’t get and can sometimes rub my desperate need for approval very much the wrong way.

But this is a week each year that I need in its quiet and during which I tend to catch up on random pop culture I might not otherwise seek out. This year, that’s included the second Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes film, a Jeff Dunham comedy performance in an arena (and wow, does that need a post of its own; I have never so felt the truth of New York City as another country so uncomfortably), and Martin Scorsese’s Hugo.

It’s Hugo, of course, that really seems like the best place to wind up this blog for the year, because Hugo is about what this blog is about — the love and loss of stories, the nature of fame, and the tonality of magic. I loved it, desperately, and, towards the end of the film, when a character describes their first experience of cinema as “the kindest magic I’d ever seen,” it seemed like a balm to some of the unpleasantries of this inside/outside life that I, and many of my friends who also write about pop culture, inevitably lead.

Loving media and stories can be unkind. It is an act that does, in fact, often break our hearts: whether from within the narrative or outside of it. There’s a reason that “life ruiner” seems to be one of the most popular Tumblr tags for cute celebrity boys of the moment, no matter how much it’s meant as a joke. We measure, not just our lives in stories, but also our smiles, our bodies, and our hearts. And we measure these things not just against tales we love, but the people who create them; and so what is meant to make us feel more, can so often make us feel less.

At least, that’s what true for me and many of my friends, and none of us are snowflakes that special.

So we’ll see if I find the time to catch up with writing about some of my misadventures out here in a state that Patty insists is on the East Coast and I insist can’t be because it’s not on the coast or producing a piece on the horrors of being a girl and liking stuff that I’ve been promising my friend Rae since the night we met.

In the mean time, if you have any love of the sentimentality I can never seem to avoid when talking about pop culture, do yourself a favor and see Hugo. But be sure to follow it up with the 2000 film, Shadow of the Vampire, which is its own strange tribute to the silent era and really represents us all when the vampire grasps at the light from a projector that displays his long-forgotten the sun.

Because who here hasn’t touched the screen or held hand to heart in response to a story or a movie or a moment or a smile that moves us? We are all, I think, greedy and waiting in the dark, even when the kindest magic is also sometimes made of sorrow.

As ever, I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy New Year.