by Niles Schwartz
Plucked like scribbled Post-Its from the musty cabinet containing The Niles Files and hung atop the fragrance of l’étoile’s blazing star, these are The Niles Notes, a weekly what’s-what, what-for, and what’s-that following the world of film, wide and small, national and local, mainstream and indie, new and old, from Niles Schwartz of The Niles Files.
THE HUNGER GAMES (2012, Lion’s Gate)
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones. Directed by Gary Ross. Area Theaters.
Yes, yes, I know. The cool kids point out how this was all done better in the Japanese bloodbath Battle Royale, while the retro chic dinosaurs scratch their heads and say that this is a rehash of The Running Man. There’s an array of older films that have The Hunger Games’ scenario and intimations, but considering Reality TV is only getting more absurd, Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ YA runaway bestseller is, well, a perfect mirror to who we are, culturally, politically, and aesthetically.
Remember The Truman Show? Peter Weir and Andrew Niccol’s fantasy of a man whose life is a long-running television show was released when MTV’s The Real World was winding down, and Survivor was spotted harmlessly on the horizon. But Reality TV has since grown as a cancerously dominant force on the screen. Enter The Hunger Games, a dystopian fail-safe yarn of a distant post-apocalyptic future, where the nation and its government sound like corporations (Panem, Capitol), and children are drawn, Shirley Jackson-style, to compete in a life-and-death survival game. And the whole world watches, just like, if the box office receipts tell us the truth, we are watching (and at least getting away from the television). Jennifer Lawrence, whose character of Katniss Everdeen is in many ways a double for her Winter’s Bone heroine, draws us into the horrifying immediacy, volunteering herself to save her sister as she becomes a perverse Reality TV star of death.
The Hunger Games hearkens to The Truman Show, Brazil, 1984, Children of Men, A Clockwork Orange, Rollerball, and Network, in addition to Jackson’s “The Lottery,” Lord of the Flies, and The Most Dangerous Game (or hell, let’s throw in the classic Ice-T and Rutger Hauer collaboration, Surviving the Game). Its setting is removed from time, because people can only afford to escape in TV, lost from contextualization: this world evokes Ancient Rome, pre-revolutionary France, ‘70s glam rock, and ‘80s new wave – all of which maybe just says that Lady Gaga now runs the world. But on the other side of pop plastic artifice and manipulation, director Gary Ross (whose Pleasantville had a similar interest in how images affect us) and cinematographer Tom Stern have a docudrama shaky cam approach, dually loosening the story up and immersing us in sense of verisimilitude while also reminding us: this is a movie. And like the “hunger games” in the story, we’re rooting for favorites, weeping for the dead, swooning with star-crossed lovers, and maybe even…I don’t know…enraged at the system?
Taking cue from its rich sci-fi heritage, The Hunger Games has a resonant theme: with TV, dystopia is free to masquerade as utopia, locking us in stagnation. To quote Collins’ book, “This is the final word in entertainment…It goes on and on and on, and eventually completely consumes my mind, locking out memories and hope of tomorrow, erasing everything but the present, which I begin to believe will never change.” Jean Baudrillard and Paul Virilio, eat your hearts out. Sure, it’s not Battle Royale, and it’s not perfect. But though our wafer-thin TMZ instincts are to “sit back and enjoy” the “you gotta see it” pop sheen of a mass-market phenomenon, the sights, sounds, and performances in The Hunger Games are good enough to clobber and indict our selfish and dirty voyeuristic thrills in a way that equals most small-market pictures.
APOCALYPSE NOW (1979)
Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, Robert Duvall, Dennis Hopper, Sam Bottoms, Larry Fishburne, Frederic Forrest. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola. Lagoon Cinema, Wednesday, March 28. 7:00, 10:00.
I’ve spent so much energy writing about The Godfather and its 40th anniversary these last couple weeks that I might almost overlook Francis Ford Coppola’s other distinctive 1970s masterpiece, a dreamy and operatic Vietnam odyssey loosely adapted from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, dressed up as a simple quest narrative and decorated with sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll. Captain Willard (Martin Sheen) is looking for a mission, “and for my sins they gave me one.” He’s sent to Cambodia to find a rogue Green Beret colonel, Walter Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a model military man who’s apparently gone totally insane and must be, according to Willard’s commanders, “terminated with extreme prejudice.”
The story, originally penned by John Milius, is a doozy, and Apocalypse Now was initiated by Coppola as an easy-win epic war film to further the financial interests of his studio, American Zoetrope. But over the course of a prolonged and tumultuous production of typhoons, heart attacks, Brando shenanigans, and escalating budgets, Coppola found himself channeling not only the madness of Vietnam, but also issuing perhaps the last stand of Hollywood’s Golden Age, which began with Bonnie and Clyde and was set to be toppled by a mandate for feel-good mass-market anti-ambivalent blockbusters. What’s at the end of the river for Willard, or for the collective movie audience? Is there hope, or just a heart of immense darkness? Apocalypse Now is still one of the most haunting large scale films ever made, and its conclusion of foggy indecision, derided throughout the 1980s, now seems to capture the enduring Movie Brat rebellion of its decade perfectly.
FOURTH ANNUAL ITALIAN FILM FESTIVAL
March 30 – April 1, Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD)
Springtime makes for some very Mediterranean relaxation, so why not head to MCAD for the fourth annual Italian Film Festival this weekend? Seven films will be screened over the weekend from an assortment of genres. The festival opens with the period biography Caravaggio on Friday, the screening preceded by an introduction to the painter’s life and times by Dr. Roberta Bartoli from the University of Minnesota. Saturday will feature the crime drama A Quiet Life, about a seemingly honest family man with a suspect past; Giovanna Taviani’s documentary Return to the Aeolian Islands, with Taviani conducting a discussion after the screening; and Loose Cannons, an eccentric family comedy where tradition encounters change. On Sunday, Giovanna Taviani will give a special Director’s Workshop. That will be followed by the working-class comedy Make a Fake; the culture-clash story Into Paradise; and the true-life drama 20 Cigarettes. Go to http://www.theitalianculturalcenter.org/Default.aspx?pageId=1239789 for detailed synopses, trailers, and more information.