Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Having read The Hunger Games, I knew that coming to grips with the film was going to be a challenge, so I took along my resident expert in Greek and Roman myths and the life and times of teenage girls -- and my personal symbol of rebellion -- when I went to the movie last night.

BG:  So what did you think of the movie?

KG:  It didn't seem like the same story.  The book didn't translate to the movie very well.

BG:  I think it's hard to get from a first-person novel to a third-person film.  That may explain why the producers ended up with a second-rate director.  The good directors shied away from the script.  If anybody deserves a poison berry for the The Hunger Games (2012), it's Gary Ross.  He just never found the right mix of action and contemplation to make his film work.  And he never got close to the horror in the book, of Cato's death for instance.  Ross never caught the power of nature, violence and unreason as a sustaining force.  

KG:  Yeah.  Maybe it would have been a better movie if they weren't trying to make "The Hunger Games."  The book is so iconic now and so many people share it that if you try to be true to the characters and plot the way all these people imagined it and trying to please everyone, you can't make a good enough movie.

BG:  Maybe it's about selection.  Picking the right things about characters and the right scenes from the novel to make a good film.

KG:  They didn't do a very good job of that.  The scenes at the cornucopia were important and they fell short.  It's such an important part of the arena, and the things that happen by it and around it set the mood for everything in the arena.  The actors they chose were wrong.  Except for Peeta and Primrose.  Josh Hutcherson was right for Peeta.  Willow Shields was perfect as Primrose.  Jennifer Lawrence was too old to play Katniss.  And she didn't look hungry.  And they dyed her hair!  Donald Sutherland was a terrible choice for President Snow.  The people in the capitol are supposed to age gracefully.  They're supposed to be thin.  And they missed a really good chance to contrast the people from the capitol with the people from the districts at the beginning when Effie Trinket comes to District 12.  She should have been way over the top.

Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games, Lionsgate, 2012

BG:  Aging gracefully means staying thin?  Got it.  The producers are going to be up against it, trying to cram in two more movies before Lawrence turns 25. And yet, Lawrence is about all that The Hunger Games (2012) has going for it. She is someone people can care about. Her face is large enough and smooth enough for the camera to linger on, to turn into the kind of landscape we're missing for most of the movie.  What do you make of the fact that Collins gave the kids from District 12 nature names, like Katniss, Primrose, Gail (like a strong wind), and even Peeta (like the bread)?

KG:  They don't have much.  All they've got is nature.  Nature helps them survive.  They'd be dead without it.

BG:  Did you miss knowing what Katniss was thinking?

KG:  Oh, yes.  Definitely.  What she was thinking is over half the book, and when you take it away there's like this enormous weight on the dialogue and the body language to communicate the depth of what she was thinking.

BG:  It's hard to find good external signs of inner dialogue and change.  Katniss goes from girl to woman, from huntress to warrior, and, at the end, back to girl.  If Ross had pulled that off, he would have had a great movie.  All of that teenage energy and drama, dropped into the middle of gladiatorial training and combat.  OMG.  The screenwriters, who included Susan Collins, and the director missed so many chances.  Katniss' thoughts at the end of the film could have been externalized by having her say them out loud to Peeta, for example.  I thought the most effective scene in the film was Katniss' hallucination in the arena.  It works because you finally get into Katniss' point of view.

KG:  At the end of the fighting, when Cato makes his big political speech, he could have been talking for Katniss. 

BG:  Anything else?

KG:  Yes, there are two main things that they changed in the movie that they should have left the same. The first one is the mockingjay pin. It's the symbol of the whole book and when they had her getting it at the hob they demolished the connection between Madge ( the mayor's daughter ) and Katniss.  The problem there is now in later movies they will need to think up a new way for her to meet Madge or leave that part out completly, butchering the story even more.  The other thing that left a lot to be desired was the dogs.  Sure they were in the movie, but they looked like pit bulls on steroids, not the terrible mutations that would later haunt Katniss and give her even more depth as a character.

BG:  Okay.  I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts.  There is a way to get The Hunger Games back. Go re-read the book.  And this.  It's from a poem by Yeats.

What master made the lash.
Whence had they come,
The hand and lash that beat down frigid Rome?

Wednesday, March 14, 2012


Are dialogue, collaboration and appropriation "the lifeblood of all great art” and "the very quintessence of culture itself” as has been suggested recently?  I'd say that's true of some segments of popular culture.  Certainly, collaboration is the name of the game in Hollywood, and appropriation is definitely the lifeblood of Madison Avenue. I suppose you could argue too, in a Hegelian sort of way, that a dialogue between two artists might, if the dialogue were an argument, lead to a synthesis that advanced art, or, that if the dialogue were jazz-like, the conversation itself might be artistic.  But I wonder if appropriation can, under any circumstances, be called the lifeblood of art.  Even collaborations and dialogues are problematic.

A long time ago I had the opportunity to collaborate on a project with a relatively well-known and successful painter who was, at the time, interested in making the remnants of ancient signs more visible in the modern world.  He asked me to produce some handmade "paper" for a series he was doing for the Contemporary Art Museum in Houston.  I was working out of Galveston, Texas, at the time.  The pieces of paper he had in mind were large photographs of a performance piece he was planning to put on at the Imperial Sugar Company warehouse on the wharf in Galveston.  I filmed some of the performance and made some black-and-white photo murals that were quite large for that time: single sheets of paper, some as large as 4' x 5', processed in huge, open tanks of chemicals in a commercial darkroom in an old Galveston building.  It took my crew of 4 people several days to produce the prints.  I ended up with some kind of chemical pneumonia from making the murals and doing the studies for the big prints in a small, poorly-ventilated darkroom in Austin, Texas.

The artist "transformed" my photo murals into art by covering them with hair, blood and semen, pins and needles, dirt and other materials.  They were first shown at the CAM and, later, some of them made a nationwide tour before ending up in the Menil collection in Houston.

For forty years, I've thought of what the artist did to my prints as "enhancing" them in some way -- as if by laying his art-world-acknowledged hands on my photos he was turning essentially worthless paper into real art. Amusing, but a little sad.

Recently, I learned that an old LA Times review of one of the artist's retrospectives had mentioned my photographs.

"A group of photographs that might be overlooked amid this sensual overload is conceptually the most interesting piece in the show. Not the usual documentary report of a performance, these black-and-white photos are more like remnants of 'Sugar Sacrifice,' a private, filmed event held in 1974 at a sugar warehouse in Galveston, Tex.

"Setting up a painted 'rug' and 'altar' in the shadow of a 20,000-pound mountain of sugar, Tracy 'sacrificed' what he regarded as his best painting. Symbolically, he meant to sacrifice art to food as a gesture of serving the greater good in a world where he believes hungry people outnumber the well-fed.

"Politically motivated art can rarely be more than a conscience-raiser. This grandiose but hermetic ritual only exists on film and photographs, but the pictures suggest a visually powerful extravaganza in which the sugar resembles an Egyptian pyramid and a warehouse is transformed into a mystically charged landscape."

Over the years, I've become more and more convinced that the best "collaborations" and "dialogues" are the ones that take place inside the same skull.