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.