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This bronze Greek statue of a female Spartan athlete, ca. 500 BCE, serves as this year’s La Jefita award! (Winners must contact me directly to receive these excellent prizes.)

Only one more week before Oscar night, but who cares about that charade when there are the La Jefitas to think about? For the second year now I’ve compiled my list of the best 2012 films by and about women to celebrate those female bosses. It’s just one way I seek to subvert a male-dominated and sexist film industry. Because who cares about that Hollywood red carpet when you can enjoy an anonymous, verbose film blogger’s Best Of list?

Oh yeah, baby!

Unlike the flagrantly biased Oscars, the La Jefitas are selected with scientific precision; and although each year we have a select number of categories (Most Feminist Film; Best Female-Directed FilmBest Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass) we also add or tweak other categories to suit that year’s selections.

Shall we? Let’s start with a big one:

Best Actress:

Anna Paquin in Kenneth Lonergan’s Margaret. No matter how ambivalent you may feel about Paquin’s earning paychecks with fodder like True Blood (the later seasons, anyway) and the X-Men franchise, you can’t deny the force-of-nature bravura she displays in this extraordinary film. Replacing the saccharine Southern accent she put on in those other productions, she appears here with a kind of nervous mania that suits the particular cocktail of high school, trauma, selfishness, and guilt cooked up by this girl. When I wrote about it last spring, I called Paquin’s character an “asshole” — it’s hard, even now, for me to back away from that harsh term, for she has truly channeled the kind of chatterbox/ smartypants self-absorption and avoidance so crystalline in privileged teenaged girls. She captures it perfectly, and her particular vein of assholery is crucial to a film that wants us to think about the wake we leave behind us as we stride through the world.

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Paquin won Best Actress, yet I have so many honorary mentions. I’ll narrow it down to two: Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea and Nadezhda Markina in Elena — two eloquent drawing room dramas that rely on perfectly-drawn portrayals by their female leads.

 

Female-Oriented Scene I Never Expected to See Onscreen (extra points for its political riskiness):

 

The abortion scene in PrometheusSeriously? The film displayed such a strangely negative view of parenthood overall — indeed, I wondered in my long conversation with film blogger JustMeMike whether the film’s major theme was patricide — that in retrospect one was left shaking one’s head at all of Ridley Scott’s madness. And still, I return to the abortion scene. Wow — in this day and age, with abortion politics as insane as they are — did we actually witness an abortion in a major Hollywood release?

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Yes, I know she was trying to abort an evil monster/human parasite/amalgam; but I’ll bet there are 34 senators in the U.S. Senate who would argue it was God’s plan that she bring that evil monster baby to term.

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Best Fight Scene in Which a Woman Kicks a Man’s Ass:

Gina Carano has no competition this year after her performance in Steven Soderbergh’s Haywire. I know, I can’t remember the plot either; nor can I remember how it ended. And no, I’m not going to talk about the dialogue, or Carano’s acting ability.

Rather, the entire film was a paean to Carano’s superiority in ass-whupping. It was a thing of beauty — starting with her takedown of Channing Tatum in the diner and reaching its crowning glory with teaching Michael Fassbender a lesson in the hotel room. Be still my heart. Who needs plot or dialogue when you’ve got a human tornado?

Most Depressingly Anti-Feminist Trend of the Year:

quvenzhane-wallis-beasts-of-the-southern-wildWhere did all the parts for Black women go? The tiny dynamo Quvenzhané Wallis has ended up with a well-deserved nomination for Best Actress this year — for her work in Beasts of the Southern Wild, filmed when she was six years old — but people, no 6-yr-old can carry the experiences of Black women on her tiny little shoulders.

Sure, we all complained last year about The Help – really, Hollywood? you’re still giving Black women roles as maids? — but let’s not forget some of the other films last year, most notably (to me) Dee Rees’ Pariah. And although I’m not surprised to find an actress of Viola Davis’ age struggling to get good work onscreen, I want to register how utterly depressing it is to find a Black woman of her talent and stature not getting leading roles in great films.

One can argue that high-quality TV is making up for the dearth of great parts for Black women onscreen. Just think about Kerry Washington in Scandal, for example. But for the sake of the La Jefitas I’ve limited myself to film – and I want more non-white actors, dammit.

Most Feminist Trend in Film in 2012:

96e01327d031803081109f0f0a25c1e12012 was the Year of Fierce Girls. It doesn’t take much to call to mind the most obvious films, starting very much with Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild. To list a few:

Now, I will also say that with all these good parts going to awesome girls (some of them animated, however), I didn’t see as many terrific parts going to mature/ middle-aged women; but still, considering how deeply male-dominated children’s filmmaking is, this is a very positive trend indeed.

Helene Bergsholm in Norway's Turn Me On, Dammit!

Helene Bergsholm in Norway’s Turn Me On, Dammit!

Best Breakthrough Performance by an Actress Known for Very Different Roles:

Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook. I have a big ol’ crush on Lawrence from her serious roles, but I’ll be the first to admit that she found herself getting the same part over & over — that fiercely independent teen girl who struggles against the Great Forces that make life so difficult (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, The Hunger Games). Comedy wouldn’t have struck me as Lawrence’s forte.

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So count me impressed. Surrounded by excellent actors inclined toward broad humor, she does something crucial to make this film work: she balances her humor with a true gravitas that keeps this dizzy screwball comedy grounded. She’s funny, but it’s her seriousness and laser focus that stay with you and remind you what a good film this is. And part of the way she does it is through her sheer physical presence — she is so sexy while also being formidable. This is no tiny slip of a girl who’ll fade away from Bradley Cooper’s character, the way his wife left him emotionally. You get the feeling their relationship will remain a rocky road, but their attraction and shared neuroses will keep things interesting for a long, long time to come.

Best of all, this change-up will hopefully give Lawrence lots of scripts for the near future, giving her the chance to develop more chops.

Most Feminist Film:

Nadine Labaki’s Where Do We Go Now, the sneaky, funny, sexy Lebanese film about a tiny remote village split down the middle between Christians and Muslims. A wicked, perfect retelling of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata.

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Like Lysistrata, Where Do We Go Now? addresses the serious problem of war via a deep unseriousness; the Muslim and Christian women in this village seek out increasingly goofy means of distracting their men from hating one another. Add to this the fact that beautiful widow Amale (Labaki) and the handsome handyman Rabih (Julian Farhat) can barely stay away from one another, despite the fact that they hold separate faiths.

That tonal unseriousness leaves you unprepared for the terrific quality of the women’s final solution — which reminds us that the topic ultimately addressed by the film (violence in the Middle East more broadly) is so important, and so rarely examined from women’s perspectives. A terrific film that makes you wonder why no one else has mined the genius of Aristophanes until now.

Honorary mentions: Turn Me On, Dammit! and Brave.

That’s all for today — but stay tuned for tomorrow’s La Jefitas Part II post, in which I announce this year’s Film of the Year, Best Role for a Veteran Actress Who Is Not Helen Mirren or Meryl Streep, Sexiest Scene in Which A Woman Eats Food, and Best Female-Directed Film. Yes, these are all separate categories. Because reading Feminéma is like everything you’re missing at the Oscars, friends! it’s like Christmas in February!

And in the meantime, please let me know what I’ve forgotten and what you want to argue about — I do love the give and take. Winners: contact me directly at didion [at] ymail [dot] com to receive your prizes!

brave-1024list of filmsThis is ultimately a glass-20%-full question.

I have now re-read A.O. Scott’s NY Times Magazine piece, “Topsy Turvy,” several times — a piece that leads with the subtitle, “this year, the traditional Hollywood hierarchy was overturned. Heroines ruled.” I want to know exactly how he came up with that subtitle, because I don’t think the article supports it. Nor does the evidence.

Now, I have seen a lot of really good films this year — films that feature terrific female leads, stress women’s experience in fresh ways, highlight gay/trans characters, and are sometimes directed by women. Just scanning over this list makes me feel encouraged. Scott particularly mentions some of these: Brave, The Hunger Games, and Beasts of the Southern Wild. Let us not forget, too, the box office success of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II and Snow White and the Huntsman, two films that give me less encouragement but which nevertheless get women into the equation.

Four of those movies — four! — were among the 15 highest-grossing films of 2012. This is very good, for when Hollywood sees female-oriented or -directed films earning big bucks, it’s more likely to fund future projects.

But let’s not forget those other top-grossing films: the endless stream of supremely dudely fare like Ted, The Hobbit, and the superhero business in which women play the most conventional roles of all: The Avengers, Skyfall, Amazing Spider-Man, and so on. I give Anne Hathaway props for her role in The Dark Knight Rises but she remains only an interesting twist on the usual female suspects in such vehicles.

If I say this was a good year for women onscreen (and behind the camera), is that impression based solely on a perceived slight uptick from the usual — which is that women get fewer leads, fewer lines, a smaller range of interesting parts, and far less opportunities to write and direct than men? Is this glass 20% full, or 80% empty?botsw-image-3

When I look back at 2012 I see new levels of schizophrenia about women in public life. When Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls was released, she was attacked on all sides. Jennifer Lawrence was termed too fleshy for the role in The Hunger Games. But movies & TV were only the tip of the iceberg. Let’s not forget the public schizophrenia outside the world of film. Sandra Fluke’s public flogging at the hands of Rush Limbaugh; the massive troll campaign against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, who sought to scrutinize gender in video games; the revival of anti-birth control measures; unnecessary trans-vaginal ultrasounds required of women seeking abortions in Texas and (almost) Virginia; the crazy anti-woman, anti-gay GOP platform during the 2012 election; the public whack-job discussion of rape by prominent Republicans running for office.

Of course, those two politicians lost. But ladies, you’re wrong if you think this is the end of efforts to ban abortion altogether or to humiliate women who seek sexual and political equality. Let’s not kid ourselves by thinking that Hollywood doesn’t reflect that schizophrenia, at least on some level.

Was this year better than last year for women in film? Tough call. Last year had Bridesmaids, The Help, Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and Bad Teacher (oh yeah, and another Twilight) all near the top of the list of highest-grossing films, plus all those amazing foreign and independent films that delighted me during my La Jefita Awards. And hello, The Iron Lady. Maybe I can say 2011 and 2012 were equally interesting years for those of us willing to seek out and draw attention to the topic.Hunger-Games_13

Most important is the question, do these two strong years indicate a change in emphasis in Hollywood? Well, no. Sure, Pixar finally gave us a female lead in Brave. Does that mean they’ll have another one soon? I doubt it. We’ll get more Hunger Games, but we’ll also get more superhero fare in which women are negligible and/or tokens. Will Cannes allow even one single female director into competition? It’s a crap shoot; that film festival didn’t have a single female director in 2012. It looks good that Kathryn Bigelow will get nominated for Best Director at this year’s Oscars. But is that really a sign of a shift?

The best I can hope for is that we have a third good year for women in a row. But when I say good, I don’t mean that opportunities for women/ gay/ trans peoples are improving in big ways. It’s a fragile thing, this good year designation. The ever reliable Stacy L. Smith of USC’s Annenberg School, who crunches these numbers all the time, simply terms women onscreen “sidelined, sexy, and subordinate” and doesn’t dicker with minute distinctions.

Let’s just say that we have little evidence to trumpet a “Hollywood hierarchy was overturned” narrative, Mr. Scott. But I’m hoping for a good year in 2013 anyway — and by good, I mean that it’ll look a teensy bit better than 2012.

I was getting a haircut the other day, and the woman sitting next to me spoke about her reluctance to see The Hunger Games. “I just hate gorey movies,” she explained. “And the idea of children eating other children grosses me out.”

“They don’t eat one another!” I objected. “They’re forced to kill one another as part of a state-run reality TV show in a dystopian future!”

Okay, this is kind of a big difference, eating vs. merely killing one another — and for squeamish readers I can assure you that the gore factor is fairly low considering the subject matter. It’s strangely difficult to explain what made the books so compelling. Yet compelling they are: I’m pretty sure my set of books ricocheted amongst 9 different friends over the course of a 4-month period, each time resulting in late-night emails from those friends that said, “OMG The Hunger Games!”

Chalk it up in part to a powerful, driving narrative and a terrific central character in Katniss Everdeen. To quickly sum up the plot, Katniss has grown up in one of the nation’s poorest districts — so poor, in fact, that she and her best friend Gael have taught themselves to poach animals from the off-limits woods near home. Without her skills with a bow and arrow, setting traps, and scavenging for berries and other foods, her family would have starved long ago.

But then the annual Hunger Games begins. Long ago the nation’s 12 districts rebelled against the capital and when the federal government regained control, it instituted these “games.” Two children, a boy and girl, are chosen randomly from each district to compete against each other in a fantasy wilderness arena until only one is left alive. That battle is projected to every TV with the notion that it will somehow bring the nation together as they root for and celebrate the winner. But it also demands that the “tributes” make themselves TV-ready and appealing even as they kill one another or simply fight to survive — because the richest or most charismatic can get special gifts throughout the course of the games from sponsors who might tilt the balance between life and death with a packet of medicine, matches, or food. When Katniss is chosen alongside a baker’s son named Peeta, she is forced out of her “anything to survive” mentality, and must decide how much she’s willing to play the TV game.

Spoilers ahoy as you proceed!

As the blogger JustMeMike and I sat down to discuss the film, my first question to him is, have you read the books? and does the film seem to be the compelling document that I’ve described about the books?

JustMeMike: Thanks for the brief intro and plot outline. I only bought the book this past Thursday and did my utmost to keep it closed. I brought it with me on my trip to New York, but I should have left it home, as I never opened it on either flight. I will admit to reading the first three pages before I left. So at most, I went in with scant knowledge. So go right ahead, and call me a noob.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I will readily agree that it is compelling, and that I’m 100% certain that I will go through the rest of the books that follow in the series — asap.

Since you’ve read the book, and I haven’t — can you give me a sense of how the film and book compare?

Didion: That might wind up being the most talked-about subject of the day! And that’s too bad, since I’d theoretically like to think of this solely as a film, but let’s face it: I can’t.

I’d say two main things. First, I walked out feeling impressed that the film had done such a great job of covering a lot of ground in the books — my partner and I were really happy about the film overall. I especially thought Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was just amazing — and I’d been skeptical, as she’s clearly a curvy 22-year-old, whereas Katniss is a skinny, half-starved 15-year-old.

I do have one criticism comparing the two (and this is my second point). For me, the most moving thing about the books was that Katniss agonizes about appealing to TV viewers; she’s spent her whole life feeling defensive and protective of her family, so she hates smiling and pretending to like Peeta in order to gain TV fans. I felt the film gave short shrift to that storyline. Yet again, I still feel satisfied with the movie overall.

JustMeMike: Ok — my question was really too broad for a short answer or even a longish one. But I was lost about the coal mining aspect of the Seam. The Capital seemed so advanced and Katniss’s area seemed so deprived. How does the Capital have super technology and yet there are still functioning coal mines?

Didion: The future imagined in the book is one in which many of the “districts” (states) are poor and conduct basic services on behalf of the few richest districts and the Capital. Her district mines coal; other raise wheat or whatever and are just about as poor.

So part of what the book does is to juxtapose the super-rich, superficial people in the capital of Panem (there’s a Latin phrase, panem et circenses, that means “bread and circuses”; capturing its superficiality and its likeness to Rome before the fall) with the incredibly poor, manipulated citizens of faraway districts like Katniss’s. When she gets to the capital and sees everyone with their elaborate clothes and makeup and plastic surgeries, it’s like a freak show to someone who couldn’t afford to buy bread.JMM: Okay, I’d like to talk about Katniss. What impressed me most was her strength before the games or even before the Reaping. She was the protector, the provider, and at the core of her family. Yet as the Hunger Games process begins she seems a bit weak at first but it’s only temporary. She is simply a rock going forward. I simply loved that part of her.

Didion: Doesn’t she make a terrific heroine? Especially in our age of Iron Man and Spider-Man and so on — without a single super-hero skill or supernatural gift, Katniss has been forced by circumstance into obtaining precisely some of the skills she’d need to succeed at the games.

Lawrence does a great job with this role. There were a couple of strange moments that perhaps make best sense vis-à-vis the book, but she made me cry. Fantastic. Did you think she managed to be her own person?JMM: I thought she went beyond gender. I think that if you think of the sister Prim, who was weak and timid from the beginning — then Katniss seemed even stronger. But what I meant was that it was her youth and the strength of her will and determination that was so impressive. My point is that if Katniss had been a boy with those same qualities, the film would have worked just as well. Yet, I was most glad that Katniss wasn’t a boy.

In fact, I didn’t much care for Peeta at the beginning, and I had no sense of what he would reveal later on.

Didion: Oh, that’s interesting — “beyond gender.” I’m not sure I’d go that far. I think there’s a part of me who sees a female form with a bow and arrow and it’s such a direct reference to Diana that I can’t help but think about all those classical myths. But you’re so right that she embodies a kind of strength that goes beyond typical representations of women in film.

Obviously the book takes a lot longer in telling the story of the Games, and during that time Katniss wrestles with the job of killing other kids. You see a lot less of that here. Ultimately she kills, what, one kid? the one who kills Rue? I wonder if perhaps her reluctance to kill also makes her seem more humane/feminine in the books.

Argh, I hate to keep making reference to the books, but Peeta was quite hate-able at first and then becomes a total mensch. Didn’t quite play out fully satisfactorily here, but oh well.

JMM: Of course he turned himself into something to be admired. But backing up a bit — the reference to Diana from mythology is correct but it might not fit all the viewers of the film. I watched the film and didn’t go there myself.

I think that since I hadn’t read the book, and came to the film without that background — I didn’t have the sense of her unwillingness to kill. In fact I thought that she bought into Haymitch’s strategy right away. He told her to run the other way — don’t go near the Cornucopia — so she was in a defensive mode from the jump. Sure enough, half of the Game’s participants were seemingly slaughtered immediately.  When she did kill it was also an act of self defense — someone rushed her position. Didion: So I’m curious, JMM, since you hadn’t read the books, did you see important themes coming through in the film? Or does it just seem like a really great action film?

I ask because the book lends itself easily to metaphorical readings. I have now referred many times to the tenure process for young academics as The Hunger Games. And grad school. But when I watched the film I was so nervous about it doing something “wrong,” that I’m not sure I have the wherewithal to tell whether the film throws itself open to multiple readings like that.

JMM: Of course it is an action film, but it’s clearly more. It is a cautionary tale, a tale of how consumption and inequalities could lead to rebellion, and I don’t believe that it was submerged or clouded over in the film. The President made it clear that the games were both a reality show as well as a way of keeping social control. By televising the Games, and by making the 24 tributes look and act their best (to attract sponsor support as well as fan interest) made everyone a participant. By having a rooting interest or a favorite — that meant tacit support of the system which really means that the Games were just another way to control the people. Didion: That’s a relief — because I think the broader meanings of the story are one of the reasons so many people refer to this as a phenomenon, something broader than just a film.

When I first read it, the deep fears and distrust of the government at Panem almost made me wonder whether this book was going to be a Tea Party or Libertarian favorite. But as the Games progress there’s a fascinating progressive tale — all those viewers in other districts get so attached to a couple of the tributes, like Katniss, that they start riots when the Games seem to tilt against them. Fascinating during an election year, eh?

So I’ve got another question for you: apparently the filmmaker did a lot of work to ensure a PG-13 rating (by not putting much gory detail into the killing scenes, for example) — even the scenes of hand-to-hand combat are quite fuzzy and oblique — such that kids might attend in greater numbers. But the fact is, this is a pretty dark tale even if you don’t see guts spraying all over the screen. Is this one of those cases in which parents should be wary of taking their kids to see it, even if their kids loved the books? (I’m remembering our conversation about the rape scene in Girl With the Dragon Tattoo here.)
JMM: No I don’t see parental concern arising at all. I’m an adult, and I just bought the book 4 days ago. Which means that 25 million books were sold before I bought mine. I think that in most family situations, the parents became aware of the books after their children did.

As for the lack of gore — I rather liked that. I don’t think the film needed a drop of blood except after the fact. We didn’t see the spear hit Rue, but instead saw what had happened only after the fact — and that worked fine for me.

But getting to the last part of the your reply — for sure it is a dark tale. What surprised me most was that a few of the characters like Rue and a few smaller boys seemingly had no chance at all. They were slaughtered seconds into Games. How was it that there were no volunteers to protect them?
Didion: That’s one of the most brutal and depressing parts of the book — who in his/her right mind would volunteer for something that means you’ve got a 1 in 24 chance of surviving? Some of the previous Games were particularly sadistic; one was set in a desert where no one could find any water and virtually everyone died of thirst within 24 hours. So if you’re poor and skinny and all your peer-age kids are skinny too, who’s going to volunteer?

But then there are the richer districts (as the film teaches us) who train their children from the earliest ages to be ridiculously powerful and skilled so they might win — and thereby bring back food and a certain degree of riches to their districts. No volunteers needed from districts where everyone looks like Cato.

Katniss’s love for her sister is the one true passion she feels for another human. It’s that love that makes her sacrifice herself.
JMM: Yet we heard in both Effie’s speech in District 12 as well as the President’s speech at the Games, talk of their “sacrifice.” So Katniss was the only one who would change places and enter the Games as a volunteer tribute. None of the other random selectees had that happen. I’m not objecting to Katniss being the heroic girl who protects her weaker and younger sister — I just thought other districts might have had similar events. From the author’s perspective, Is it possible that Katniss volunteered as a way or reason than to make her more ideal and heroic. On the other hand, maybe the sacrifice of the young and the weak would not be as significant as when a vibrant 17 year-old was the one to go…

Didion: Oh, I see what you’re saying. I think it’s just a function of Katniss living in District 12, and they choose the tributes from that District last.

So I’ve got another question for you. I sat next to a couple of very, very over-caffeinated girls (or were they just high on too much sugar?) who had an enormous debate before the film about whether Peeta or Gael was best. In fact, my 12-year-old TX neighbor had a t-shirt that read TEAM GAEL. After the film, these girls walked out surrounding themselves with a cloud of “OH MY GAAAWWWDD”s and “HE WAS SOOOO GORGEOUS”s. (Indeed, the dude who played Gael seems to have been created in a test tube by scientists from Tiger Beat magazine.)
But I liked the fact that the film scaled back on the lovey-dovey stuff — as the book did, I thought. Did you feel that the story was going to devolve into a story of “torn between two lovers”? Or was the love interest stuff less significant? You mentioned that you liked the way the Peeta character developed; does he seem like romantic hero material for the long haul (aka, 4 projected films altogether)?

JMM:  I don’t even want to think about Peeta in 4 more films (at least right now). Not having read the book, I was shocked when right at the outset (after the mass killings at the Cornucopia) that Peeta had aligned himself with the biggest and strongest kids. Not that he joined them, but that they took him in.

As far as the crowd of 12 year olds who were gaga over the male leads — I had the opposite experience. I sat next to some older guy who got up and headed for parts unknown (but easily guessed at) three times during the show.

Now I have a question for you: For about the first twenty minutes or so, I watched and I wasn’t moved by anything — but when when the clock announced thirty seconds to go, and Katniss stepped onto the pedestal — at that precise moment I felt my pulse quicken, and my heart raced. It was so electric a moment for me physically that I could not fail to notice it. Did you have a precise moment which gave you a strong kickstart?
Didion: I probably started getting jittery when they started training while in the capital. I quite liked the way the film handled the way each of the kids tries to adjudge the others, show them up, etc. I quite liked the way they showed Katniss and Peeta arriving in the stadium with their costumes on fire (even though, honestly, that fire looked like pretty cheap CGI).

But yeah, the beginning of the Games ratchets everything up when everyone’s life is on the line. That initial slaughter at the Cornucopia is pretty gritty. So are the fireballs that send Katniss back into the area where the other tributes are.
The film is also full of prominent character actors — from Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the designer; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and so on — what did you think of them?

JMM:  When we first meet Woody’s Haymitch, he seems dissolute, like a man who cannot escape a terrible past — much like the Tom Cruise character Nathan Algren in The Last Samurai. Yet, seemingly, that was abandoned rather quickly. He took his role of advisor quite seriously. So why was he presented initially like a guy who didn’t care much about anything except where was his next drink coming from?
Didion: In the 75-year history of the Games, Katniss’s district has only had one winner — Haymitch. And now he’s a drunken, mean-spirited lout. You’re right that he’s a difficult character to fathom, and even more so in the books. You sort of intuit that the Games did this to him; he’s like a soldier with PTSD.

How about any of the other characters — Donald Sutherland as the very scary President, or that guy with the flame-like facial hair who did the behind-the-scenes work on creating the Arena?


JMM: Thought you’d never ask. Strangely enough Sutherland’s scariness wasn’t on his surface — it was his attitudes below his grandfatherly looking exterior. I didn’t care for Seneca but his role was pivotal no matter what kind of fancy beard he sported. In fact I was distressed when I realized that he and his staff were doing more than just monitoring and tracking — I was so surprised when he and the staff woman decided to send in the dogs. I thought that made the whole aspect of the games a bit false. I literally wanted Katniss to win a fair game. But the game was anything but fair. Seneca and company were actively participating in the creation of circumstances to alter the outcome. And that’s not even mentioning the rules changes.

I did rather like Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman character. He was so manipulative. That blue hair — those teeth — quite scary to me.

Didion: You have usefully fallen straight into what I was leading up to: the wonder that is Stanley Tucci. I suspect that his role is unusually generous vis-a-vis the roles of Haymitch, Cinna et als — but every time he appeared on-screen I just grinned and thought, ahh, I could look at that man hamming it up all day! There are a couple of scenes in which he’s framed by multiple screens, each of which is projecting his face with a slightly different self-serving and/or grinning expressions, and it was all good. He also has an eerily insidious quality, as if he’s got his own agenda beyond his state-appointed role. Fabulous!
JMM:  Maybe he was just thrilled by being paid to talk about the Games. Not bad work if you can get it.

Interesting comment — you can answer by referencing the book — was the character the ham, or the actor doing the hamming?

Didion: No, this seemed accurate to the way the book characterized him — it just seems we got a lot more Stanley than Haymitch, who was a much more crucial character in the book.

Okay, I have a confession (and this allows me to take one big step backward to look at the big picture here): it’s making me slightly depressed that you’ve got so many questions about the storyline, because I fear this returns me to one of my initial questions about whether this film is for True Believers (readers) like me and not newbies. The film version glosses over so much detail/context — and thank god, right? it would’ve been two times longer otherwise — that one feels a little lost in the shuffle.

You’re the perfect viewer in this respect: tell me, how would you ultimately rate the film on its own terms? Because as a reader (and using your own 5-star ranking system), I would give it a solid 4 stars; if I were grading it as an undergraduate paper, I’d give it a solid 86%. Of course, I can be a tough grader.
JMM: Great question. We approached this film from 180 degrees of difference. You read all three books, and I read none. So you have built-in reference points that I don’t. My questions about the film are not just about storylines or plot points. I gather that you’re saying you liked the film but won’t give it top marks.

I’d likely rate it similarly. But I think I have more gripes about the technical side than the gaps in the story. For example I hated the jittery, handheld effects whenever director Gary Ross showed the crowds.

Do you have any gripes about how they showed us the story?
Didion: I tried to avoid listening to any reviews of the film before seeing it, but the one I did catch called Ross a “hack” for the hand-held camerawork. So perhaps I went in fretting that it would look sloppy — and you know how going in with low expectations can lead you to like a film more than you’d expected.

Maybe I’m being unimaginative here, but the fact that Ross was trying very hard to maintain his PG-13 rating was always on my mind. The hand-held camera and the blurred, kinetic fight scenes were disorienting, but they conveyed the hellishness of those fights and those killings without showing explicit blood & guts. I don’t want to defend this as an artistic triumph by any means, but I wonder if maybe the real enemy is the US’s ratings system that forced Ross into making such choices in order to make sure that the book’s most loyal teen readers could see the film without their parents along. Or is there a better way of doing it?

JMM: I agree that he had to help sell the tickets – and that meant making sure the 13 and ups could go by themselves. And I’m okay with it because I understand it. Yeah, I would have like it better if there had been more explicit violence…but I don’t think that was the reason for giving this a 4 instead of a 5, or giving it a B+ rather than an A.

The story is really about Katniss’s heroic and brave character. We knew she would emerge victorious. But how she got there was not the key feature of the film. In fact when she first took to the high ground (up in a tree) I knew she’d wait for the action to come to her. And I was fine with it: more chances to have quality time with her. Even when she did nothing, her mind was still so alert. She was so admirable, and positive. That’s why the books sold so well, and why the film will also sell.

Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would have not missed this film for anything. I would have crawled to the theater if necessary. So basically, the flaws can be laid at the feet of the director and editor. That’s where I’m placing my blame for an 86 or a B+, or a 4.0 rating.
Didion: This is a perfect opportunity for me to ask my two final questions — but not before teasing you for your great line: “Think about it. We got no blood and yet I would not have missed this film for anything.” I like the way you sound like a horror film aficionado here, when in fact I know for certain that you have a wide appetite for many kinds of film, including the sweet and bloodless!

First question: setting aside the possibility that David Fincher would pick up this franchise and make a couple of brilliant films a la Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, is Ross’s problem inherent to the struggle of bringing a rich and dynamic book to the screen? Or do you think his directing choices and the editor’s cuts made the film look amateurish?

And last, you say you would have crawled to the theater (cheers to that, as I saw it on opening day): this film made a record $155 million on opening weekend. That set a new all-time record for a non-sequel, and marked it as the 3rd most lucrative opening weekend of all time. Meanwhile, it also made the most money on opening day ever for a non-sequel and the most money for a midnight premiere of a non-sequel (it ranks 5th and 7th overall, respectively, in those categories amongst films that are sequels). This film made money.

But what do you expect for the long haul? Will this film still be making money down the line, and for The Hunger Games II?
JMM: I was wondering when that last question would emerge…

First, as you said, I like many kinds of films but there is one exception  - and that would be horror films. I don’t think Ross’s work in this film was amateurish, but yes certainly, some directorial choices were weak.

As to whether it’ll make money down the line, or in the long haul. Yup. I think I see a Potterish future for The Hunger Games and its sequels.

My last question: the way the story played out, and the the way that the film was designed that by film’s end, there only two likeable characters. Katniss and Peeta. Obviously this is the work of the author, Suzanne Collins. But do you think this was fair? Did you feel manipulated?

Didion: Quick Q: do you mean that other likeable characters like Rue are all dead?

JMM: I didn’t mean it that way. To rephrase: excepting Cinna and Rue, who else was likable and was that fair to the readers/viewers?
Didion: I kind of loved Rue, and I would have liked even a teensy bit more of some of the other Hunger Games tributes whom Katniss fears but respects (like Cato).

But you know what? I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with your question — because it points out to me how much this is really the tale of a girl whose early life has already been hard, and who gets put into the most terrifying situation possible. We can’t help but root for someone who’s so determined to survive — but the book being told in Katniss’s voice also makes it a somewhat self-centered tale. And when I say self-centered I don’t mean to sound dismissive in the least — any tale told in the first person would be focused on one’s own emotional responses to horrible situations.

So ultimately the film rests on who they got to play Katniss. And here we come back to the fact that Lawrence nails the role. Peeta comes through as a very strong secondary character by the end; perhaps even more so because he has an almost feminine set of weaknesses when it comes to survival (I mean, he makes his cake-decorating skills work for him!) but he has a stronger sense of self, particularly in the books.

So in the end, this is a film that really is all about Katniss — and to a lesser degree about developing a Peeta who’ll get stronger as the films unfold.

Does that answer your question, or just raise new ones?

JMM: I’m satisfied with the answer. This is just the first film. As for the perspective of Katniss telling the story so it would carry the first person construct – I believe I read that Collins intended this to be a 3rd person narrative in the outlining and planning, but when her fingers met the keyboard it came out differently. I forgot one thing I meant to say – I said I would have crawled to the theater – want to know why? Because I wanted to be able to have this discussion – and that required me to see the film!

Didion: Aw, man — you mean you weren’t as excited as I was in anticipation?

JMM: Sure I wanted to see it – but I’ll bet, if it could be quantified in any way – that I couldn’t have matched you anticipatory-wise. I’ll let you have the honor of the final words.

Didion: Here’s my final thought: I’m so intrigued by your idea that the director is the reason for my giving the film a B+ that I hope this franchise takes a cue from the Potter empire: those films got infinitely better when they hired Alfonso Cuarón to do the third film. So I hope the producers hire someone more visionary to do the next one.

But speaking as a major fan of the books, I was IMPRESSED with the film, and particularly with Lawrence’s Katniss. My only hope is that Jennifer Lawrence continues to get Winter’s Bone-style art-house roles as well. I can hardly wait to see the next installment of The Hunger Games.

JMM, I can’t tell you what fun it is to chat about these movies with you! Let’s keep our eyes on the summer schedule as it becomes clear, and plan another one of these conversations. And I look forward to hearing what other viewers think of The Hunger Games.

JMM: Thank you so much. I do love this chatting about films with you.

Didion: One more thought: don’t you think it would be fun to review a film that we both hate? I’d love to do a pile-on.

JMM: Now that would be a novel idea. A pile-on. We’ll see. Cheers.

Gentle readers:

There are a few foods that are so perfect as to rank in the “cures all ills” category, and oysters are one of them. Best served with beer and one’s excellent old college friend whose conversation sparkles, along with her fabulous new specs. I am looking into how much more income I will need to eat these every day. Will report back.

Also, thanks to Sociological Images:

In other news: The Hunger Games made $68.3 million on opening day, a new record for a non-sequel, and the fifth highest opening-day box office of all time in the US. Still waiting to hear, obviously, how it does on opening weekend — but this is all good for pushing harder for films with female leads, as I rant about all the time. Stay tuned for my “conversation” with blogger JustMeMike about the film, due to get posted Tuesday (or very late Monday).

And in still other Excellent Ladies news, I hope you’re all following the Brittney Griner news, because I sure am. The Baylor University women’s basketball team — featuring the amazing 6’8″ Griner, who dunks and shoots and blocks alongside her amazing teammates — is rolling ahead in the NCAA tournament with stunning (and what look like easy) wins. They’re now in the Elite Eight and will play Tennessee on Monday night. The fact that I featured a few stories about Griner during her freshman and sophomore seasons means that my blog has had record numbers of hits for the past few weeks. It’s going to be very sad when the tournament’s over and my stats go back down to normal.

In case you’re wondering: yes, all the web searches that lead people to my site still sound like “brittney griner a man?” “brittney griner xxy” or “brittney griner in a dress.” Whatevs — I’ve said my piece about that bullshit.

And finally, I’m off to NYC for an extended research trip and complete immersion into NY film life. Judging by the listings in Time Out, I’m so overwhelmed by possibilities that I’m not sure where to start; the real question becomes, is it actually possible to see more than one film a day? More soon when I get settled into my borrowed apartment, locate a decent bagel and the blackest espresso known to man, and decide which one of the IFC Center’s t-shirts to buy — those t-shirts, that is, which use 1970s metal band imagery to decorate classic directors’ names:

Oh yeah. From a nice slideshow of (im)posters over at Entertainment Weekly. Luckily, the whole “torn between two lovers” scenario isn’t all that important to the book — or the film. But I like the notion of a Corman remake, with Vincent Price as Haymitch.

And with that, I’ve got March 23 on my calendar. (Have read the trilogy twice. Just as great the second time through.) It’s nice to know I’ve got something in common with masses of 10- to 13-year-olds everywhere.

For super-fans, I’ll admit I stayed out of the debate over whether Jennifer Lawrence, the much-beloved star of Winter’s Bone and a major player in X-Men: First Class was right for the part of Katniss; I’ve taken a wait-and-see approach. This trailer is very convincing.

As far as I’m concerned, there’s no better way to conclude my summer than to read some terrific young adult fiction — and I’ve just discovered Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (to be released this week).  It’s the most riveting young adult series I’ve read since the magnificent His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman.  Lionsgate is developing a film (eagerly anticipated by the book’s fans, many of whom have released their own versions of what the trailer should look like).  If you ask me, the best part of these books is the way they trace a teenage girl’s core struggle — a struggle over how to be true to herself in an environment that demands she appear to be a more stereotypical kind of girl.  Whereas Harry Potter got solipsistic and repetitive as he considered his own inner struggles, Katniss doesn’t have a moment to spare in the dystopian world she inhabits:  she’s been chosen to participate in the Hunger Games — a brutal televised reality show in which each of her country’s twelve districts send one boy and one girl, twenty-four in all, to fight to stay alive by killing one another until only one is left.

Partly inspired by the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, The Hunger Games explains that some seventy-five years earlier, one of the nation’s districts rebelled against the government, only to be utterly destroyed in a show of federal force; the Hunger Games thereafter became at once a reminder of the government’s absolute power and a riveting TV opiate for the masses.  The inhabitants of Katniss’s district are so poor and malnourished that only one has ever won the Games — traumatized by it, he’s now a drunk who can’t stay sober long enough to provide much coaching for Katniss and her co-participant, a shy baker’s son named Peeta.  That’s too bad, because they need help in both survivalist strategies and TV self-presentation.  Luckily, Katniss has some talents up her sleeve.  For years since her father’s death in a mining explosion, she’s supplemented her family’s meager food supplies by illegally poaching meat, fish, and berries from the woods.  The details of her skills with a bow and arrow — and the way she’s taken on conventionally male tasks in providing meat and pelts for her family – evoked for me similar passages in Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, a book I re-read dozens of times when I was 10.  Collins manages to explain methodically Katniss’s forest knowledge while also plowing ahead with a fast-paced narrative.  It might be a cliché, but this is the truth:  I read each book in less than 24 hours and then lay awake at night thinking about them.  If I were 10, I’d have created a variety of outdoor imaginary games in which I play the role of Katniss.

If this recap of the books’ dystopian elements makes you fret about its author’s political commitments (is she some kind of Tea Bagger, with these calls for rebellion against the government?), it’s cold comfort to remember that the book was written during the final year of the Bush administration.  In the end, Collins’ own beliefs don’t matter:  the same anti-Obama forces who bark about taxes and authoritarianism might well embrace these books.  But if this makes me depressed, I have to remember that the same people use the Constitution to claim there is no separation of church and state:  this is a group singularly weak in reading skills (and logic).  I have read the books carefully, and I see less a political allegory than a great read about a girl in a tight spot.

It’s more likely that girl readers eager for another Twilight-like Edward v. Jacob faceoff will obsess about Katniss’s confusion about two boys — but the books aren’t really a love story.  It’s true that she finds herself torn between Peeta, the meek boy she competes with in the Games, and Gale, the boy she used to hunt with back before the Games started (I even found a “Team Peeta” t-shirt when trawling the web for images).  Rather, the books seem to me more a reflection on how some girls find themselves thrust into romance before they’re ready.  From the outset of the series Katniss announces that she will never marry or have children; nor is she prepared to have crushes on boys, fall in love, much less deal with sex.  It’s only when she feels a make-believe romance with Peeta might help win the hearts of the reality-TV audience – benefiting them both during the competition — that she agrees to it.  Boys become impossibly confused with the crazy logic of the Games, and she wrestles throughout with the implications of that lie; she doesn’t have much time to think about her own feelings or what she wants.  As a result, the books offer a fascinating commentary on how hard it is for a girl in her teens to set her own terms for engaging with romance.  Some girls simply take a while before they’re interested.  

Oh, if only there were more of this rather than the syllabus-writing, the committee meetings, and the specter of the fall semester looming before me — good thing that final volume comes out on Tuesday.  But be assured that my enthusiasm for the series isn’t simply a distraction from my more quotidian responsibilities.  This is the best young adult heroine I’ve discovered in a long time — and with a good director and production team (go, Lionsgate!) we could have a riveting series of films before us in another year or so, too.  Here’s hoping.

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