Friday, April 6, 2012

Violence & The Hunger Games

From the moment the advertising campaign for The Hunger Games kicked into high gear, a lot of questions were raised about the film's central conceit of children murdering other children for sport. How would the film handle it? Would they embrace the violence or sanitize it completely? Just how much could they show and still get a PG-13 rating? Surprisingly, The Hunger Games handles this delicate balance between genuine suspense tastelessness gracefully. In the process, it becomes a commentary on the role of violence in contemporary cinema. No, it's not the most thorough, nor is it the most insightful investigation we have seen. But it's probably the best we were ever going to be given in a PG-13 studio-produced blockbuster aimed at both teens and adults. Besides, this is the film our blood-thirsty culture needs to see and reflect on right now.

Our culture's obsession with violence, particularly in the media, has been discussed ad nauseum since the Columbine shooting over a decade ago. We have no problem letting teens watch people gleefully kill one another in endless action films or sadistic "torture porn" horror films (Show a woman receiving oral, however, and suddenly we must think of the children and protect them). The Hunger Games is one of the few recent mainstream films I can recall where we are forced to stop and think about the violence going on. The first image we see of kid-on-kid violence doesn't occur until about 30 minutes into the film, after only hearing about it up until then. The Hunger Games commentators are showing clips from previous years, explaining how the game works. At the very end, they pause on this photo of a kid holding a brick, standing over another kid with blood coming out of his head. I laughed at first but quickly understood what I was watching was not funny. Instead, I was uncomfortable. The image only appears for a couple seconds, but I'm sick to my stomach thinking of it now. The context it's presented in passes the moment off as an ordinary moment, just an instance of one kid bringing glory to his district by winning the Games. But it's clearly not what the filmmakers want us to come away with. They are asking us to think about how anyone could not only condone this but actively participate in it every single year, looking forward to it like a six-year-old child looks forward to Christmas.

When the film gets to the actual Hunger Games, the violence becomes even more confrontational. Most of the murders take place off-screen or are obscured by rapid editing and blurry camerawork. The ones we do see, however, are just as uncomfortable to watch as that first image. We don't celebrate any of the deaths or wish for more gore as we would in a typical action film or, at least, one that starred adults; what we see is enough, thank you very much. Even when one of the contestants is killed by another to save Katniss, we don't cheer on her demise. The gleeful, psychotic monologue she delivers as she has Katniss in her clutches makes it easier to watch her death, sure. But we're only relieved that Katniss is okay, not that one of the villains is dead. Her death is just another sad consequence of this game and this culture.

When people do die, it's often presented in a surprisingly unsentimental way. There is no excessive outpouring of emotion, just the bare minimum needed to get through the scene. While watching The Hunger Games, I was reminded of Grave of the Fireflies' presentation of death: a scary reality of this harsh, unpredictable world the protagonists are thrown into. The lack of sentimentality makes the film sadder, but it also makes the deaths scarier and more realistic. Rue's (relatively) quiet death forces us to ponder the violence much more than if there was an emotional buffer to distract us. We have to question how anyone could allow such a thing could happen to such a little girl because there's nothing else to think about.

The Hunger Games makes no definitive statement on violence on cinema. To do this, the film would have needed someone like Michael Haneke to confront us openly and directly with these murderous children instead of hiding behind a blurry camera. What The Hunger Games does, though, is start the conversation by directly addressing the very same audience who goes to see these gratuitously violent films. I'm not saying it will change the world, but maybe The Hunger Games will get some people to start questioning why they enjoy watching people mutilate and kill other people at the cinema.

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