Catching Fire and the most unsettling sandwich advertising campaign ever

In 2012, the thing that most excited me about the then forthcoming film of The Hunger Games was the associated product tie-in advertising campaigns.  This year, with the release of Catching Fire (which is as compelling as the first film while being a lot more emotionally brutal), I’m stuck on the advertising once again.

A Cover Girl makeup collection with much higher visibility, than the makeup tie-ins of 2012 doesn’t surprise me in the least.  Nor does the luxury chocolate collection.  Sure, they’re uncomfortable, but affection for and playing at movie magic villainy is nothing new.  It’s just that the intense consumerism and reality TV horror strikes a little closer to home in the holiday shopping season and an economic climate that has been rough for a long time now.

What’s perhaps most surprising, however, is the Subway sandwiches tie-in, because while the other product connections arguably position the consumer as part of the wealthy and elite in the Capitol (regardless of what you think of the aspirational quality of Cover Girl as a brand), the Subway promotion explicitly positions the consumer as the resident of a District.

While the book series tells us some in the Districts live well and have enough to eat, the District narrative as we are exposed to it is largely one of struggle, starvation, injustice, exploitation, and poverty.  The Games are part of an abusive system that kills District children and also holds out that political ritual as a ticket to a better individual and collective life.

Everything about the Subway campaign is fascinating, however, in its sheer audacity, and at times, something that I think resembles a deeply unpleasant honesty.  That the sandwiches are touted as “What the Victors Eat” makes it clear that we all need fuel for our (possibly life and death) struggles to survive.

That’s grim enough, but that we’re supposed to be eager to participate in the restaurant-based game through which we can win our own “victory tour” is bizarre, considering how well that works out for Katniss and Peeta and the fact that Victory Tours in the book are about death and, traditionally, insincere mourning as a form of control.

That the promotion also seeks to raise money to Feeding America (by going to a Subway location, taking a photo of their Catching Fire-related promotions, and tweeting it to get Subway to “help donate a meal”) in a way where the effort/reward ratio seems unfortunate at best, also screams particularly loudly of the Capitol and coerced collaboration.

While I don’t think engaging with and enjoying marketing is innately evil even when playing at villainy, or that luxury chocolates, makeup, and unsettlingly marketed sandwiches are our biggest problems, I do think that there are ways to play in the space of The Hunger Games series that do a lot more good than tweeting photos of Subway sandwich posters. These ways include the Odds in Our Favor and We Are the Districts programs from The Harry Potter Alliance.

However, if anyone ever happens to see any industry press on how decisions were made in putting that Subway campaign together, please send it my way.  I’m desperately curious about the audacity vs. didn’t actually read the books/see the movies ratio.

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Cabin in the Woods: The horror is in the tropes

One day, I will celebrate Halloween again.  Despite it being Patty’s favorite holiday, since we got together over six years ago, it’s pretty much been a wash.  I’m often out of the country.  One of us invariably has the flu.  It rains.  Last night was no exception.

I tried to be festive though, and told Patty we should watch a horror movie of her choosing, even though my relationship with the genre is largely one of complicated disinterest, general anxiety, and eye-related phobias.  Thankfully, she chose Cabin in the Woods.

Unfortunately for me as a blogger (a blogger who is, by the way, doing NaBloPoMo instead of NaNoWriMo, since the traditional November activity feels sort of redundant to the many writing tasks I have going on right now, mostly involving critical revisions on several projects and a lot of stuff I’m hoping to be able to discuss RSN), Cabin in the Woods is best experienced if you know absolutely nothing about it going in.  Which means it’s ow my job to convince you to watch a movie I can’t tell you anything about.  Ooops.

For me, because Cabin in the Woods plays with tropes and the fourth wall, it was a really fun viewing experience, but I know that’s a YMMV stylistic choice for a lot of audiences.  Perhaps more interestingly, and to my surprise, I was even disappointed when it got markedly less creepy (and a little bit lazy for it) in its second half.

It also made me feel a fondness for Joss Whedon’s work that I haven’t in while.  I like Buffy and I love Angel (despite that terrible “Connor is annoying” season that’s unfortunately structurally essential), am fond of Firefly; and am actually intrigued by Dollhouse. Yet, there’s only so much of the patented and interchangeable Joss Whedon tough!waif heroine device I can take.  My attempts to care about Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (I don’t; it’s low-rent American Torchwood) have highlighted my irritation with that persistent weakness in Whedon’s work, while also leaving me deeply resistant to the idea of clever being enough in any script.

If you don’t like horror, Cabin in the Woods is the horror movie for you.  It’s funny in its send-up of the genre; it gets less scary after the first 30 minutes; the gore is extremely fake; and Bradley Whitford as a guy with a really important job that is death by 1,000 paper cuts is always a joy.

Anyone else got any horror movie recommendations for people who hate horror?  Because after another foiled Halloween, they would fill my house with peace, joy, and microwave popcorn.

The Great Gatsby: Horror, property, and nostalgia

When I was a baby my family rented and lived in a guest cottage on an estate in East Hampton until one day, the neighbors poisoned our dog.  I don’t remember this, but it’s one of several stories I’ve heard about why we came back to the city, my entire life. And I can’t talk about my relationship with any iteration of The Great Gatsby without mentioning both this and my years in private school where things like old vs. new money (assuming you had either) and East or West Hampton mattered pretty desperately.

For what it’s worth, Gatsby has never been a book that I’ve liked.  It’s characters are viciously flat, its plot too neat, and its point, as argued in high school literature classes eludes me as clear or clearly good. Money, instead of corrupting good people and true love, seems merely a symptom of internal disease. And the notion of social climbing and its attendant passing as poisonous suggests, unsettlingly in book that’s also filled with racism, that people are better off if they stay with their own kind.

Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of the book (with a script penned by himself and long-time collaborator Craig Pearce), resolves none of these things, but eschews all romance except that of nostalgia in order to showcase Gatsby for what is has always been, a horror narrative plodding inexorably towards its perhaps necessarily obvious end.  Daisy is positioned as an object, not only by her suitors, but by herself, too startled or sad to react fully to either the desire (her arms hang limp at her sides, her face freezes in nearly every on screen moment of sexual content) or to the wealth possessed by both Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan.

Gatsby, for his part, is so wound up in his narrative of possession, he doesn’t see her, and aggressively and insistently insists she rewrite her own emotional history simply because he cannot fathom her having existed in any moment in which they are separated.  Buchanan, meanwhile, for all the ways in which he is repellent (in a remarkable performance by Joel Edgerton), at least manages to place Daisy as a key accessory in his own self-invention, which is as vivid, if not as creative, as Gatsby’s.

Nick Carraway, however, is of course the central raconteur of both Jay Gatsby’s construction and that of the narrative. But he is no everyman. Rather, he is only poor in contrast to the wealth around him, and his startlement and collusion and and in the drama that unfolds at his doorstep is also presented as an act of passing.  In the walk-up Buchanan rents for Myrtle and later at the barber shop, he must pretend to be more worldly and normative than he is in regard to booze, women, and business.  He’s no good at it though, and the night he stalks around one of Gatsby’s parties brandishing an invitation in order to prove he belongs proves, in fact, only the exact opposite.

While Carraway is well-handled, if uninteresting, the script misses a major opportunity to address long-standing scholarly speculation on his possible sexual interest in Gatsby, when homosexuality is not present on the list of diagnoses with which we are introduced to the character.

Luhrmann has always excelled particularly in the construction of the onscreen party, and in this film that construction is shot through with a profound menace embodied often, but not exclusively, by Jordan Baker. As an audience member I did not feel the desire to get lost in the night’s out presented, but to cut through them like her naked back, a shark in a sea of lesser and far more uninteresting creatures.

The obsession with personal commerce (prostitution narratives are explicitly and implicitly present in all of Luhrmann’s work) that I expected is certainly present, but disturbingly muted. No one seems to notice what they are buying and selling and nothing and no one is cherished for it, making the commerce present one of several elements that unexpectedly lend this film a surprisingly mature air.

Just as I cannot engage Gatsby without noting my own biography, I cannot engage this film without noting Luhrmann’s. Surely something personal is implied even if it is not actually present in a man who grew up in the middle-of-nowhere Australia and now runs a playground of creation out of a historical mansion in Sydney choosing to take on a story that is about the invention of persona to ends eventually lost sight of.

The music, which much has been made of, felt not nearly as intrusive or surprising as most reviews I have encountered have noted.  Frankly, after having listened obsessively to the soundtrack of the last week, there were many songs I couldn’t even find in the course of the film, and I often wished for music to be a more present element, even as silence is employed to great effect in one pivotal scene.

In particular, I remain most puzzled and haunted by Lana del Rey’s “Young and Beautiful” because neither youth nor fading looks seem to be remotely present in the fears of the characters. As such, it seems to serve as peculiar and really gutting commentary from some place outside the events of the film in a way that lends to the sort of melancholy maturity of the piece as a whole.

The use of 3D is at times remarkable, especially in the opening of the film, where it leads us literally back into the past as the gold logo border of the film recedes into the the screen and then sets up the deeply haunted feeling of the film through wisps of fog and a lens flare you can practically touch. My own ability to track effectively in 3D remained present, giving the film a flickery quality, which annoys me about the technology, but at least worked for the period setting.

Aside from Catherine Martin’s always exceptional design work, the other visual element that must be noted here is how great a debt this construction of New York owes to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis in architecture, in the narrative presence of the financial markets, in the congestion and flow of crowds, in the choreography of work, and in the presence of a biplane, the crash of which seems inevitable, but never arrives.

Like the rest of Lurhmann’s work, The Great Gatsby is a celebration of the idea of the creator — here, again, the writer in particular. This is most clear, perhaps, not in the presence of the words of the novel on the screen as Carraway writes his story, but in Lurhmann’s own cameo in the film, where he plays a waiter who serves Nick and Jordan at their rooftop appointment.  Here, the director places himself explicitly in service to the writer character and the author’s avatar, in a coy and delightful wink at, at least, the over-interested members of the audience.

While not unflawed — the film drags in places much as the book does, and grapples somewhat clumsily with the racism of the source material — Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby manages to be a haunting, and at times even shocking film, that makes its audience drunk and then shoves it, as the unbelonging outsider, unceremoniously out the door, leaving the viewer uncertain as to what degree they should feel relief.

Glee: Deconstructing Moulin Rouge

When I first heard that Glee was going to do a Moulin Rouge episode, I was ecstatic. Moulin Rouge is a film that has had a tremendous impact on me; once upon a time I even took a month out of my life to run away to acting school in Sydney. As such, I’m always interested in both its themes and how its stylistic construction continues to move through the culture.

Of course, my enthusiasm was tempered when it became clear we would be getting a general tribute to the movie musical on Glee instead. However, having just watched “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” I am struck by just how closely id adheres to the themes of Moulin Rouge without retelling its story or offering any direct one-to-one character correlations.

Glee achieves this thematic resonance in part because it extends out significantly from this episode, appearing first in episode 4.08 (“Thanksgiving”) when Marley collapses on stage in a torrent of confetti. This echos Satine’s final collapse in Moulin Rouge and is truthful to the structure of Baz Luhrmann’s Red Curtain Cinema (RCC) in that RCC stories always begin with the end. In keeping with this Glee’s tribute to Moulin Rouge begins in 4.08 with a reflection of the end of the film.

But Marley, of course, hasn’t collapsed from consumption on Glee. Yet, the reference to Satine’s end is still clear. Because Marley has collapsed because of what she will not allow herself to consume (food) and what she is consumed with (fear that she will wind up like her mother), thanks to the gaslighting Kitty provides as one of the clear parallels to Satine’s rival, Nini Legs-in-the-Air.

Similarly, another key element of Moulin Rouge has only been foreshadowed in “Boys (and Girls) on Film,” yet spoilers tell us that Brody isn’t a drug dealer, but a sex worker, as is Satine and essentially at the denizens of the Moulin Rouge in Luhrmann’s film. That Satine desperately wants to be “a real actress” and engages in prostitution because of her engagement with art is echoed in the fact that Brody is the first NYADA student Rachel meets. His association with the aspiration to being “a real actor” is absolute and that is why it has been unavoidable that he gets this particular sex work narrative (which is hardly Glee‘s first). This is compounded by his history with Cassandra — the power differences and his multiple uses to his employers are as essential to Brody’s role in the story as they are to the women of the Moulin Rouge.

The bulk of the deconstructed Moulin Rouge content, however, does fall within “Boys (and Girls) on Film.” Characters constantly remind each other of what happens next in multiple films to determine their next courses of action, just as Christian writes and explains his future love story with Satine through the musical they have connived to have him create for the Duke and Harold Zidler.

Also in keeping with the themes of Moulin Rouge is “Shout!” which is reminiscent of our introduction to the Moulin Rouge in “Because We Can.” They’re both seemingly positive activity songs that don’t advance the narrative but lead us into the chaotic world of the action. Just as that number in Moulin Rouge has movement on multiple levels, “Shout!” also puts people crawling on the floor and climbing on furniture. Additionally, with the number being led by Blaine, who Glee codes as feminine, and Brittany, who Glee codes as masculine, much of the gender variance which is present throughout Moulin Rouge, and particularly in “Because We Can,” is also alluded to here.

Other key elements to Moulin Rouge are evidenced in Artie’s function as director; the commune-like nature of the ever more populated New York loft (where Santana also has a Nini Legs-in-the-Air function, but is equally the older woman who prepares Satine for her performances and serves as her dresser); repeated issues around sexual consent and assault (which have appeared most explicitly around Blaine recently, but are present all over the narrative on a nearly constant basis); Glee‘s intra- and extradiegetic pop-culture borrowing, and the central questions of Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and Love.

And that’s all before we touch the two key numbers from the film that actually appear in the episode — the “Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend” / “Material Girl” mash-up (in which the line about Harold Zidler remains and Unique gets to be an explicitly sexual being) and “Come What May,” which visually references the “Elephant Love Medley” in its set and the first iteration of “Come What May” in its physical choreography.

Of course, several key pieces of the Moulin Rouge story and narrative remain missing, at least for the moment. These include Christian’s anguish in “El Tango de Roxanne,” Harold Zidler’s “The Show Must Go On,” and the final reprise of “Come What May” which features not just a wedding, but a gun.

It seems likely that “Against All Odds” in 4.17 (“Guilty Pleasures”) will serve the Blaine anguish purpose that slots in to the “El Tango de Roxanne” place. A reprise of “Come What May” for Kurt and Blaine’s eventual reunion seems a given, especially with the themes of spiritual marriage that Glee has underscored even more heavily than Moulin Rouge. But before that happens (and it may not even happen this season), we’ll certainly see a gun in 4.18 (“Shooting Star”). Meanwhile, any stand in for “The Show Must Go On” is virtually unnecessary in light of the obstacles the glee club deals with on a nearly constant basis.

Since the Kurt and Blaine break up, I’ve been reminding people that, as Leonard Cohen sings, “Love is not a victory march.” Additionally, Glee is not a love story. At least not that type of love story, which is easy to forget when you watch the show for one or more of its romances. But even as the romances seem to drive the plot forward and seem to be the central narrative, the fact is that neither Glee nor Moulin Rouge are actually, centrally, about romantic/sexual dyads.

Rather, both Glee and Moulin Rouge are about friends who make art together for fun, and for profit, and to survive, and because they are incapable, by their very natures, of not doing so. In both properties, creative acts are used as a proxy for sex and communication, while sex and communication inspire other creative acts. This feedback loop is incestuous, is an erotic drama-based pleasure, and is about loyalty and love and creative family.

Thus, the romances we think are the central story — whether Christian and Satine or Kurt and Blaine or Rachel and Finn — actually happen because of the magical space created by the community-driven narratives. That both properties also have emphasized in their supplemental material the creative family aspects of their production processes (is it any wonder that Glee‘s 500th song came in this episode?) should also not be overlooked.

Through its dialogue with Moulin Rouge in this episode and in this season, Glee has arguably never been clearer about what it is, where it’s going, and just how much it doesn’t want to let any of us watch it for merely a single strand of its many many diamonds.

Anna Karenina: Theatre as faerieland

Last year’s Anna Karenina is one of the most interesting and confounding genre pieces I’ve ever seen.  In part because it inhabits its genre spaces both more literally than many of its peers and from a greater distance.

At its most obvious, it’s a historical costume drama.  But because its setting is a world effectively built from the remains of an old theatre, it is also literally a costume drama not just for the external audience, but for the internal players. But it does not actually take place in a theatre. It’s not a stage show; there are no stage hands. Rather, the walkways meant to hold lights become train tracks. The pulleys and weights that operate the curtain form the brocade walls of a country home. A garden grows in the orchestra. And when Anna goes to the theatre the theatre returns to mimic its original purpose. 

Of course, this theatre device, along with the film’s gorgeous heightened use of movement and less successful use of rather stylized acting (not all the cast is as equally up to the task), is meant to highlight what ultimately destroys Anna — the world of appearances and those who feel beholden for it.

But somehow it is also these choices that transform Anna Karenina into a fantasy.  I felt as if I was watching faeries act out a cruel parody of the lost human world, and half my brain spent the entire film wondering how this had come to pass.  A week later, I’m still haunted by these creatures for whom the bend of a wrist, a turn of the head, the color of a dress, is a language of a world that would never be translated for me.  This otherness reminds us that as transferable as Anna story seems it occurs in a world we as viewers do not entirely know, whether that is Russia, the aristocracy, or, in this case, a faerie kingdom.

While the film is not entirely successful and somewhat unpleasant to endure for both the tragedy and cruelty that female sexuality engenders in its story, it’s incredibly compelling, and worth hunting down, especially if you can see it on the big screen before it goes away. Among other things, it makes a fascinating companion piece to Les Miserables, by introducing theatre where it was not previously present, as opposed to the withdrawal of theatre that the naturalization of the musical into film in provides.

 

Les Miserables: Yup, we can hear the people sing

After way too much time in the Philadelphia airport just after Christmas (and why don’t airports contain movie theaters?), I finally managed to see Les Miserables a couple of nights ago. I’m going to use that as the primary excuse for the horrible title of this blog entry and hope you’ll stick with me anyway.

Certainly, Les Miserables was very good, clear and satisfying Oscar bait, and made an admirable and largely successful effort to resolve a number of weaknesses in the stage production. But it wasn’t perfect, and also arguably underscored just why it’s so hard to sell audiences on the idea of the musical as a major modern film genre.

But whatever weaknesses the film might possess they aren’t, as many reviewers would tell you, that is is long or bombastic or emotionally manipulative. It’s a movie musical, after all, and complaining about these things is a bit like fretting that a thriller contains murder or an action movie contains explosions. The genre is what it is (and neither bombast nor sentimentality are inherently bad; arguably these are the very reasons some of us go to the movies and the theatre). While there is certainly space for genre films that draw in those not normally interested in the genre in question (a space which I think Les Mis does successfully occupy, even if only through marketing buzz), this ability to broaden the audience should hardly be the main criteria by which we evaluate a film.

Les Mis the film works in that it not only makes the narrative of the original show clearer, but in that it minimizes some of the elements of the show that even I always found cloying. Baby Cosette’s “Castle on a Cloud” somehow managed to be less syrupy on film, and Gavroche’s “Little People” was substantially and thankfully minimized, although Daniel Huttlestone’s performance as the boy has a surprising nuance to it.

Similarly, the film resolves a number of tone issue, with “Master of the House” being funny but quite dark, and “Lovely Ladies” being clearly terrifying from the beginning. The visual language of both songs also helps to draw a clear line from the French Revolution of 1787 to the events of the film.

Other issues, including the death of the antagonist long before the narrative concludes and a love story that while structurally necessary, completely shifts the center of the story 60% of the way through the piece, remain fixed and likely unresolvable. They make more sense on film, somehow though. As if the detail of film can successfully carry these narrative transitions in the way stage can’t.

What I remain the most conflicted about is the way the singing was naturalized through live performance at the time of filming. It’s an immense technical and artistic achievement, and without it we should have been deprived both of Anne Hathaway’s utterly shattering performance as Fantine, and the adult and palpable inner-conflict that Hugh Jackman brings to the screen as Jean Valjean. But it also renders many exquisite songs less beautiful in a way I didn’t mind at all while watching the film, but felt some regret towards when listening to the original New York cast recording later.

However, what I perhaps most missed in the performances perhaps had little to do with vocal quality and more to do with what I assume to be directorial choices. I didn’t feel menaced by this Javert and rarely encountered the delight at his own power that always struck me as so essential to the performance of his character in the stage production. The vocal duel between Javert and Jean Valjean may be my favorite moment of Broadway music ever, and it was largely lost on film thanks to the distraction of a real, if brief, challenge with weapons, and the very real possibility that Russell Crowe’s voice (which does have a quality I love, but is not perhaps meant for musical theatre) was just not up to the task.

Les Miserables is a remarkable achievement, not just for what is on screen, but for the degree to which it respects the audience’s ability to accept and enjoy it. In no way does it replace or live up to the experience of live theater. But it is also not a pale imitation of the stage production. It’s its own thing, that enhances, informs, and calls out to the experience of seeing the stage show many of us have had.

I find myself perhaps most interested in it for how it will influence whatever the next major attempt at a big screen musical proves to be, and to what degree it will inspire further demand for and acceptance of the movie musical as acceptable and in demand fare for U.S. film audiences. I am also interested in how it may impact what we view as acceptable audience behavior and participation as singing along and discussing our reactions as the film played out was common in the theater I saw it in, and that, somewhat surprisingly, actually felt anything but inappropriate.

Programming notes

Greetings from exceptionally sunny Toronto where I’m at Regeneration today in support of Doctor Who in Time and Space, which is now available for pre-order that link. I have an essay in it tentatively titled “Narrative Conflict and the Portrayal of Media, Public Relations and Marketing in Doctor Who.”

Speaking of time and space… I’ve been a bit lost in it lately. I’ve just gotten back from Switzerland where I was often working on Eastern Standard Time because of the election, before spending half of this week working from New York on European time for reasons other than jet lag; then there was a cat health drama (we have some very cute cats); and now we’re in Toronto.

I anticipate being back to my regular weekly (at least) blogging schedule by next week’s Glee episode, and catching up on other media media shortly. After all, Cloud Atlas still must be discussed; I suspect I’ll have things to say about the new Bond; the presence of “Sing!” on The New Normal can hardly be ignored; and The Carson Phillips Journal is out immanently.

I will be making at least one Glee post later today (I’m sneakily treating the Grease episodes as a duology to just my lack of recent content). For those of you looking for a media comment fix on the sorts of stuff usually mentioned here between now and then (I have to get in the shower to get ready to see a friend for brunch), you may wish to check out the discussions happening on FYeah Glee Meta! or get yourself a copy of Chicks Unravel Time, both of which are filled with great stuff from cool people I am thrilled fandom has brought into my life in one way or another.