Tag Archives: movies

Better Dead

Today I will open a can of worms.  People who know me personally have no doubt been dreading that sooner or later I would be going here.  Let me first reassure those people that they will not be encountering the same old thing.  Those people are already well aware of the deep, visceral hatred I feel for the Hunger Games series.  But I will not belabor the same old points.  I will not discuss why I find the series morally repugnant, nor my objection to those who inflict it on schoolchildren because it allegedly carries some inspirational message that can apparently only be told by depicting children murdering each other.  Nor will I address the lack of literary merit nor the numerous plot contrivances.  Rather, I will simply address a single, exceptionally improbable plot point that no one else seems to have noticed, one that highlights a very disturbing hypocrisy in our society.

Let’s take the essential premise, which I assume virtually everyone knows by now: twenty-four teenagers, twelve of each gender, are rounded up, sent out into the forest armed with deadly weapons, and told to kill each other until one remains.  This is presented as entertainment, both within the context of the story, and also for the audiences who have made the movie one of the most successful of all time.  Okay, where’s the improbability?

Let’s look at it again:  Twenty-four teens.  Boys and girls.  Alone in the woods.  High on adrenaline.  Not sure they’ll be alive tomorrow.  What’s wrong with this picture?  Simple, the complete and utter absence of anything even remotely sexual.  We are told in the narrative that almost anything goes, but that the corrupt government behind this atrocity found only one point at which to draw the line, when one person engaged in cannibalism.  What about sex?  How strange, and utterly unbelievable, that it never happens, is not so much as even mentioned.

These kids are out to kill each other, and most do it willingly, mercilessly, visciously.  But at no point is there an attempted rape.  And apparently none of the competitors who band together ever engage in sex with each other.  Do you really think Cato never got it on with Glimmer?  And for that matter probably with Clove as well?

Ah, I hear the objection now: Not Clove!  She’s only fifteen, too young to have sex.    Yet she’s not too young to try to torture another girl to death, nor too young to have her head bashed in.  Face it, if this supposed dystopian society were so deranged as to enjoy watching children die, don’t you think they’d enjoy watching them do other things as well?  But no, even evil has its standards, apparently.  I can just see the scene now:

Sociopath 1:  Check out what those two are up to!

Sociopath 2:  Hold on there, Jim, they’re just kids.  That’s not appropriate.

Sociopath 1:  Gosh, you’re right, Ted.  What was I thinking?  Kill them!

The Japanese book and movie Battle Royale, which the author of The Hunger Games was accused of ripping off, acknowledges reality.  One very attractive fifteen-year-old girl uses her sexual wiles to lure several boys to their death, and another boy does indeed attempt to rape one of the girls.  That’s not far-fetched; the idea implied in The Hunger Games – that it wouldn’t happen – is. 

What’s wrong with us?  How did we get to a place where we satisfy our bloodlust by watching children die – and consider it suitable entertainment for our own children – but we dare not have the slightest hint of sex, lest our children get the idea that sex might be okay?  Shouldn’t our concerns take the exact opposite priority?  Shouldn’t we be worried that our children will find violence that much more attractive?  There have been reports of kids coming out of the theater deciding it would be cool to be in the hunger games.  And the current most popular sport among teen girls is archery.  This doesn’t seem to trouble us.  I guess in today’s culture, it’s “Better dead than in bed.”

This is nothing new; for years we have been more comfortable with violence than sex.  This despite the fact that most people would probably consider sex to be a good thing, in the right context, and violence to be a bad thing in any context.  But that’s not the way it plays out.

Let me bring to mind another movie of survival in the wilderness, made quite a few years ago now: The Blue Lagoon.  It tells the story of two children who grow up alone on a desert island.  The most well-known version was actually the third one made.  It features a great deal of nudity, shot artistically and not at all salacious, and most of it involves swimming naked, which is one of the most delightful experiences anyone can have.  Brooke Shields was only fourteen when she made the movie, but used an eighteen-year-old body double for most of the nude scenes.  More remarkable is the fact that, in the first half hour of the film, when the two characters – and the actors portraying them –  are perhaps nine years old, they both briefly appear completely nude.

In its time, it was actually rather charming, but there’s no way such a movie could be made today, at least not in the United States.  Underage nudity?  Unacceptable.  The implication that teens have sexual feelings?  Inexcusable.  But put deadly weapons in their hands and let them hack each other to death, and that’s okay, and even teaches important lessons, starting with, “Violence is an acceptable solution to political oppression.”

There we have it: two different stories of wilderness survival, one that tells a rather uplifting story of love and the beauty of nature, and another that has us cheering when one child kills another and tells us that we are all monsters at heart.

Which would you rather your children were watching?

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In Praise of the Soundtrack

As I write this I’m playing my iPod.  I have no idea what I will be hearing next. I am rather proud of the fact that I have an extremely eclectic playlist.  You name it, it’s probably on there: hard rock, bluegrass, free jazz, early music, contemporary Hawai’ian, movie soundtracks…

Let’s stop there for a moment.  Yes, I have movie soundtracks in my collection.  Rather a lot, actually, from old musicals to James Bond films and everything in between, some of it very obscure.  That’s not to say that all soundtracks are good, and for me a big part of it is that I have to like the movie, or TV series, the music comes from.  But there’s something about soundtrack music that is important, and it’s too often neglected.

We don’t often pay attention to a movie’s score, and composers who work in soundtracks don’t often get the recognition they deserve, although that’s changing.  But some of their work is simply extraordinary, and can go a long way toward establishing the effectiveness of the movie. That’s why it always mystifies me when people express disdain for soundtracks, and film music in general.  They point to particularly overwrought examples from tear-jerker movies and say, “I don’t want music to tell me how to feel.  I don’t want to be manipulated like that.”  This is an odd thing to say, for several reasons.

For one thing, anyone who doesn’t like when music “tells them how to feel,” must not like music in general, because few things in this world are as effective at conveying – and, yes, manipulating – emotions.  That’s why we respond to it, why we like it.  Just try to find a Beethoven fan who can talk about the Ninth Symphony without going on about how emotionally stirring the finale is.

Music puts us in a place in time, and can, years later, return us to that place.  That’s why so many couples over the years have had “our song.”  It connects with very important emotions.  And we generally like when it does that.  It’s the same reason that people maintain an affection for the music of their youth, when their emotions were much more volatile.  This includes music they may not have especially enjoyed at the time; it’s that recognition, that emotional trigger, that matters.

Okay, I hear you say, that’s all fine and well for the music we choose to listen to, but soundtrack music for films is another thing entirely, a blatant attempt by the filmmakers to makes us cry, or laugh, or scream, to make us excited or happy.  Well, yes, it is.  But then, that’s why we see the movie: to have our emotions manipulated.  We’re being manipulated by the screenplay, the actors’ performances, the cinematography, the editing, and all of the other tricks of the filmmaking trade.  Music is just one of those many tricks, one that happens to be particularly effective.

Great score composers are master manipulators.  Some may rely on musical clichés but that’s only because they work.  Indeed, some film composers do seem to have limitations; it’s unfortunate that Alan Silvestry’s score for the whimsical Who Framed Roger Rabbit is at times indistinguishable from his score for the brutal Predator.  But a truly original composer can do tremendous things.  It is well known that Jaws almost failed before starting because the mechanical shark didn’t work.  But instead of giving up, they took advantage of the problem, never letting us get a look at the shark until the movie was more than half way over.  Instead we got ominous shots of the water.  And that theme.  You know it.  On the double bass.  It’s what sharks sound like.  Genius.

To see just how much music can touch us deeply, look no further than Randy Newman’s score for Awakenings, one of the most tear-jerking movies of all time.  Consider what is probably the most emotionally wrenching scene in the movie: to avoid spoilers, I’ll only say it takes place in the cafeteria and involves dancing.  There, those of you who have seen it are tearing up as you read this.  The actors’ performances are exemplary, but how much more does the scene carry us away because of that haunting piano music.  Is this something to be disparaged?  Sure it’s manipulative, but that’s the whole point.  There are so many other examples it would be impossible to list even a fraction of them.

The bottom line is that music is vital, whether it be a sweeping score by John Williams or a collection of jazz standards selected by Woody Allen.  It helps tell the story.  I’m thinking about this because as I write, I wonder what would happen if my book were made into a film.  Such an occurrence is highly unlikely, because many of my conceptions are pretty much unfilmable.  But I said that about The Lord of the Rings, so who knows?

But as I write particular scenes, I find myself wondering what sort of music I would want to score it.  And my eclectic iPod sometimes helps, sometimes hinders.  Sometimes the right music helps me write a scene, or takes a scene in a direction I hadn’t expected.  Maybe that’s a bad thing.  Maybe I shouldn’t write with music.

But that’s dumb.  Music is part of how we tell stories.  It always has been, from the ancient epic poets, whose works were sung, to the latest epic filmmakers, whose soundtrack albums are sometimes as popular as the movie itself.  So play on, you soundtrack muses.  Help us to tell the stories people will remember.

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