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Peter Rogers's Blog
Artist-in-Residence at Chez Firth

Monday (12/31/12) 5:23pm - ... wherein Peter posts a Weekly Media Update.

Movies:  The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, The Empire Strikes Back
TV:  <none>
Books:  The Hunger Games

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
This is Peter Jackson's long-awaited return to the world of Middle Earth, with a three-film adaptation of The Hobbit, Tolkien's young-adult novel that he eventually followed up with The Lord of the Rings.

I saw The Hobbit on a giant screen, in 3D, and at 48 frames per second.  I felt ambivalent about the 48fps presentation.  There were some parts of it that did, to my eyes, look like a cheap home movie.  There were some parts where fast motion seemed, to me, weirdly sped-up by the higher frame rate.  But by and large, it didn't intrude.  I'd have to re-watch the film in 24fps to see if 48fps really added anything, for me.  My guess is that I'm generally not watching film for spectacle, and if the added frames make things a bit prettier, I don't really care.  So: pretty much the same blasé attitude I have towards 3D.

On to the movie itself.

I'll start with a sentiment that I'm sure nobody agrees with: I'm *glad* they've stretched this out to three movies.  Sure, maybe it was uncalled for.  Sure, maybe it smacks of a cash grab.  Or maybe it's just a sign that Peter Jackson has nobody to tell him "no" anymore, and so his every precious idea makes it out onto the screen, so now his projects are bloated and meandering.

But I actually *liked* the film's slow, desultory quality.  Film is typically a propulsive medium.  You have only one and a half hours to set up your world, set up what's at stake, heighten everything repeatedly, and earn a resolution: go!  And with every frame of film, the clock is ticking.  You don't have *time* to linger.  You don't have *time* to just explore.  Every single person you meet, every single thing that happens, has to propel that main storyline forward, or you'll run out of time and wind up with half of a movie.

Turning The Hobbit into a slow, slow, slow road trip made it feel more relaxed, even in spite of the constant action.  Instead of every moment being a breathless nail-biter of "will Bilbo defeat Smaug?!", we get to linger.  We get to explore.  We see the Shire for a while.  We see the trolls.  We hear the songs that were so sorely missed in Fellowship.  On the one hand, it feels to me more like television, which at its best is more about exploring a world through a variety of distinctive viewpoints than it is about "OMG PLOT PLOT PLOT". 

But more importantly, it felt more like the book.  I'm sure that Peter Jackson et al could have easily boiled down the events of The Hobbit into something that would play in two hours.  And you could realign things so that the story really had this constant, heightening pressure of whether Bilbo would save Eberon.  But it would *feel* wrong.  It would feel like another Procrustean effort to twist a book around, squeeze out all the breathing room, strip away all the interesting bits, and make it yet another propulsive, three-acts-and-out motion picture.  The bottom line is, The Hobbit, as a book, just doesn't feel like a movie.  It has that discursive, meandering quality.  It's not about Bilbo going on a Hero's Journey and facing down some inner weakness and becoming a better, more self-actualized hobbit and yada yada yada.  It's a travelogue.  It's a fun little romp that Tolkien uses to show off this amazing world he's been constructing for years and years.

And so the best thing I can say about the movie is that it gave me an experience that *felt* like the book felt.

There were plenty of weak points in the film, and I imagine most of them can be traced directly to the book.  Tolkien wasn't exactly a master at characterization in his best moments, and The Hobbit isn't a high point in that regard.  And this weakness translates to the film -- from my point of view, it's a movie that includes Bilbo, Gandalf, Gollum, and... um... some dwarves.  And a few other magical... type... people.  As you veer away from the central cast, it becomes fun to play the Red Letter Media game of "try to describe this character without mentioning their job, hair, or clothes."

And the action sequences, while exciting, are all about the deus ex machinas.  Our heroes are about to get killed?  Surprise!  Eagles!  They're about to get eaten?  Hey! Gandalf got back!  They fell down into a two-hundred-foot crevasse?  Somehow, they brush it off!  Time and again, the characters receive victories instead of earning them.  The best you can say is "they survived long enough to get lucky".

To some extent, none of this mattered, because I so enjoyed Martin Freeman as Bilbo.  Sure, you can argue that Martin Freeman is just playing Martin Freeman, but those mannerisms and neuroses feel perfectly-suited to Bilbo, who desperately wants to go on adventuers but is just too proper and timid to do so.  Bilbo spends much of The Hobbit in a state of beleaguered irritation, and that attitude is Freeman's stock-in-trade.

So: I had fun, and I'll be back next year to see the next one.  But this wasn't the "my god, he hit it out of the park!" feeling you got with The Lord of the Rings.  Like the book, it's a smaller and simpler bit of innocent fun.

The Empire Strikes Back
I'm continuing to work my way through the original Star Wars trilogy, as preparation for the Hideout's Fandom show.

As with A New Hope, I was struck by how much *small* the film is, compared to what I remember.  I always thought of Empire as the film that blew the universe wide open, and took us from a straight-up "blow up the bad guy" storyline to something with all sorts of tangents, and world-building, and planets.  And in a way, the film is like that.  But in a way, it's not.

Structurally, the film is dirt-simple.  We start with Han and Luke together on Hoth.  They separate.  Each one meets a new character in the franchise: Han meets Lando; Luke meets Yoda.  Then, once the situation in Cloud City goes Vader-shaped, Luke returns to Cloud City.  It's eminently summarize-able in a way that, say, a Robert Altman movie is not.

But unlike the first film, Empire strains a bit to tell us SEE YOU ARE LEARNING MORE ABOUT STUFF.  Whereas A New Hope describes the Force in a few intriguing aphorisms from Obi-Wan, Empire has Obi-Wan sending Luke to Dagobah to learn about the Force from a Force teacher who will explain lots of stuff about the Force.  "Ah," says any audience member who is not deaf and blind, "like Luke, I am learning more about the Force."  Analogously with Han, we aren't given allusions to how he's a smuggler and has been on the wrong side of the law, he's going to meet one of his criminal friends with whom he has a criminal history and who now runs a big criminal operation.  It doesn't teach us as much as we think it does -- partly because A New Hope actually has *more* exposition than we think it does -- but but I think that's actually a good thing.  This is the ideal case: Empire gives us the *impression* that it's blowing the world wide open, but it's actually not bogging things down with a bunch of tell-don't-show.

Watching it again, I was really impressed with the threads they choose to pick up on from the first movie.  They seem blindingly obvious in retrospect: of *course* we let Luke learn more about the force; of *course* we let the relationship between Han and Leia flower; of *course* we have a big reveal about this enigmatic "Darth Vader" guy.  The choices are so good, and so clear, and so simple, that you forget that they could have screwed up in any number of ways.  They could have easily squandered the promising start that episode IV gave them on any number of dull, un-asked-for tangents.  (Hey, we could have learned the microcellular basis for the Force!  Wouldn't that have been neat?  And maybe we can learn about the inner workings of the Senate!)

It is so hard to answer that simple question: "What does an audience member want to see next?"  And as I'll talk about with Buffy next week, it must be even harder to answer that when you're writing a sequel.  You've just finished a story that has a definite full stop, but it's still your responsibility to find the loose threads -- find those developing relationships, those bits of world-building, and those unfinished characters that the audience wants.  Then, you change doing a sequel from a liability -- "great, we're going over *this* old ground again" -- to an advantage -- "sweet! I always wanted to know about <x>!"

And really, that's only one of many things to be impressed with here.  You've got to love the fact that, not only are they economical with bringing in new characters -- again, I think Yoda and Lando are the only ones with many lines -- but they're such sharp and distinct characters.  There is nobody in A New Hope even vaguely like Yoda.  In A New Hope, somebody who is a powerful warrior *presents* as a powerful warrior.  Vader is huge and intimidating.  The Death Star is a freakin' Death Star.  We're so used to knowing that Yoda is the greatest of all Jedi that we get blind to the fact that he's this little, frail fuzzball, and he acts not like a fighter, but like a merry prankster.  Up to this point, the Star Wars universe didn't have any pranksters.

It's the same with Lando: this is somebody different.  I am so glad they cast an African-American in the role.  Yeah, yeah, say what you like about how it's good for society or whatever -- I'm just saying, up to this point, every human has been white.  Just from a screenwriter-tactics point of view, making the new character black gives us contrast, and contrast is what we need from the new guys.  Beyond that, making him a worldly, sophisticated, smooth flirt seems head-smackingly obvious in retrospect.  Of *course* you show somebody with status and self-control after we've been follownig these hardscrabble underdogs for one film.  It's obvious.  But, again, the fact that they made one strong choice blinds us to the infinite number of weaker choices they had available.  Lando could've been vague.  He could've been low-status, or of the same class as the New Hope heroes.  Hell, we've learned from the prequel trilogy that he could've been a regrettable ethnic stereotype.  Instead, hell yes, we got Lando.

And then the structure of the film is *another* thing that seems blindingly obvious.  Yes, of *course* you go darker.  Of *course* you end on a desperate cliffhanger.  These are the things you do now that you've earned the audience's trust.  You go dark so that the cliffhanger has teeth.  And you go to the cliffhanger because that audience trusts you to find a way out of it to a strong finish.  Again, it seems obvious in retrospect, but there had many other options.  I find myself wishing that genre trilogies would slavishly follow the template that Empire lays down -- or at least default to its basic, large-scale story decisions -- but no, they go off and explore all those weaker choices that Lucas and Brackett and Kasdan deftly avoided.

That's about all I can think to say about this second outing.  I recall liking Jedi more, even while I was keenly aware that it was a weaker film than Empire.  We'll see if that's what I think upon my next viewing.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
As further preparation for Fandom, I started reading The Hunger Games.  About halfway into the book, I found out I wasn't going to be playing in our Hunger Games show.  I finished the book anyway.  Just on general principle, a book has to be really bad for me to quit halfway.

And on general principle, I should really like The Hunger Games.  In terms of social influence, it feels like the anti-Twilight.  In the Hunger-verse, girls can kick ass, they aren't defined by their relationships, and maybe, just maybe it's more important to fight the system and save the world than it is to whinge about how nobody understands you.  Yes, I know, it's a fascist regime with brutal inequalities beyond even the worst third-world tinpot dictatorship.  But still, could our society be a little more like where this book is coming from?

That said, while I agree with the book, and I was entertained by it, I wouldn't say I loved it.  Instead, it just seemed like a fun dime-store novel to blow through in a couple of hours and then never think about again.  True, you can make the argument that this is what you can expect from most young-adult literature -- it's never going to be like, say, thorny literary fiction where it's difficult to read and the precise difficulties in reading it are themselves a way of conveying meaning -- but I tend to hold everything to a high standard.  If it's geared at teens, that only means that teens should be able to read it and relate to it.  The "YA" label is never a "get out of suck free" card.

And The Hunger Games, to me, feels sort of... weightless, somehow.  I'm reminded of the writers' room for Buffy (speaking of genre fiction geared towards high-school girls), where for every episode they would ask themselves two questions: first, "What is this episode about?"; second, "What is this episode *really* about?"  Sure, it could lead to ham-fisted symbolism here and there, but it at least ensured that you weren't going through the motions of plot mechanics without the story really *meaning* anything.

And that's where I see The Hunger Games falling short.  It's about a reality-show competition.  And deep down, beneath that level of plot-spinning, it's *really* about... a reality-show competition.

You can argue that it's gripping, and I'd have to agree.  With a structure like that, you can hardly fail to be gripping.  This structure is a cheat that shows up over and over again in genre fiction, whether it's yet another fictional reality show, or something artier like The Truman Show, or any one of those thrillers and procedurals where the bad guy is an impossibly-brilliant psychopath who just wants to make something entertaining happen.  When your world is controlled by these sorts of "game-master" characters, then they function as stand-ins for the writer.  Do you need something exciting to happen?  No need to set it up earlier on and have it arise naturally from the story -- just make your GMs force it to happen!  Do you need to get your hero out of an impossible fix?  No need to actually demonstrate that this person is brave and resourceful -- the GM can solve the problem!  Eventually, the whole plot feels like it's being powered by "A wizard did it", and I can't stay engaged in it.

But still, as crutches go, the "reality show" thing is an *effective* crutch.  The basic idea is strong.  We have clear, high stakes.  Katniss has a clear objective.  We get a lot of life-or-death scenarios with a lot of action.

The first-person, present-tense perspective is also a great boon to making the story gripping and exciting.  It's the most immediate POV/tense combination available, as it puts us right there with Katniss, seeing everything from her perspective, feeling the intense danger that she's in.  But, even while it makes things more exciting, here it takes away from the weight of the story -- from what it means.

Because think about it -- the POV/present mode takes away two things: it takes away other characters' perspectives, and it takes away Katniss's ability to reflect on the events of her story.  It's all right here, right now, let's solve the immediate shitstorm that we're in.  And that's great -- it's exciting -- but what does it do to the rest of the characters?  I would argue that it flattens them way out.  I can only remember maybe six characters by name, and could only tell you much of anything about three of them: Katniss, Haymitch, and Cinna.  Even Peeta feels like a cipher to me.  And it's because I'm seeing them all exclusively through the lens of Katniss, desperately trying to stay alive.

A quick thought experiment: remember Zuko from Avatar?  Now imagine if all you knew about Zuko was from Katara's perspective, and it was pretty much just, "Zuko seems conflicted somehow.  I'll bet that weakness can help us out, tactically."  We don't get to see much inside anybody else, and no-one is, to borrow a phrase from another YA writer, 'imagined complexly'.  So many of the tributes get reduced to just a physical marker ("Foxface") and a tactic ("stealth").  And when Ms. Collins needs us to *care* about another character -- I'm thinking here of Rue -- it falls flat for me, even when she manipulates the reader as hard as she can (young innocence! sudden, pointless death! wreath of flowers! singing! my god, *singing*!), because I don't even know who this person really is.

You can argue that this is a good opportunity for situational irony -- that is, situations where we-the-audience understand these characters on a more sophisticated level than our viewpoint character does.  And you can tell that Ms. Collins attempts that, broadly, with Peeta being in love with Katniss, but Katniss being in denial about that.  But that's about as far as this technique goes here.  It takes a sophisticated prose writer to pull off that trick where the audience sees a story that the viewpoint character doesn't, and Ms. Collins, while she's an able adventure writer, just isn't working at that level.  All the characters are completely bound by Katniss's survival-instinct tunnel vision.

And then we get back to the "what's it *really* about?" question.  And I get that Ms. Collins tells me that it's really about rebelling against this unfair system.  She makes it perfectly clear that this government is as evil as the Empire in Star Wars, and that rebelling against it is certain death, and that they're just so gosh-darned evil that Katniss can't resist moments of rebellion anyway.  So I get that this is what Ms. Collins wants to talk about.

And that's great.  That's a great mission statement.  But it's not what the story *does*.  What the story does, for most of its page count, has nothing to do with its stated theme.  It's really *just* umpteen pages of survival adventure.  It's really *just* the plot mechanics spinning themselves out, goosed at appropriate intervals by the unseen authorial stand-ins.  When, say, Katniss is desperately outrunning fireballs, what does that have to do with systemic rebellion?  It's like there's no *meat* to any of this.

There are still many things to like about the story.  Again, its heart is very much in the right place; unlike with Twilight, I'm really happy to see this novel find such a die-hard following.  The action is indeed exciting.  The world-building is strong, with enough hints to sketch in a whole history for Panem, and a lot of intriguing technology available in the Capitol.  The prose won't win any awards, but it outdoes J. K. Rowling for, y'know, knowing what words mean and stuff.

And I did really enjoy that central relationship between Katniss and Peeta, just because it felt confused and out-of-whack and everything that Twilight's "oh god, oh god, he looked at me, I-have-to-lose-ten-pounds" attitude is not.  Relationships can get into confused, Gordian knots where there's no standard narrative to tell you how it's 'supposed' to go, no black hats and white hats so you know who the bad guy is, and not even a clear dilemma, let alone a clear choice to make.  So yes, I like seeing a story where Katniss has to pretend to love Peeta, but doesn't really love Peeta, but doesn't, y'know, *anti*-love Peeta, and doesn't have any idea how Peeta feels about her, and can't get any information from Peeta without dire consequences... in spite of its fancy genre trappings, that's the sort of mess that feels like *life*.  I always respect a writer who will go the extra mile towards making a relationship hopelessly FUBAR.

So all in all, it was a fun little book to blow through.  I can only complain that I *wanted* to like it so much more.

For next time:  I'll finish reading the Joss Whedon's Buffy Season 8 comics, watch Return of the Jedi, and continue reading the Doc Savage book Devil on the Moon.

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Date:Wednesday (1/2/13) 1:08am
Let me know if you'd like to borrow the gigantic Making of Empire book that came out a few years ago. It's full of far too many details, including side-by-side comparisons of the original script and Kasdan's rewrites. (Brackett was given credit as a writer mostly as a polite gesture by Lucas. Almost nothing she wrote was actually used in the final script. Though she wrote The Big Sleep screenplay so she's ok in my book...)
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