Movies, Art, and The Hunger Games

I am involved in an intermittent but (likely) ongoing conversation with a friend about the im/possibility of the movie medium qualifying as art. He says no; I still wonder. His objections seem to follow those advanced by Roger Scruton in An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, especially the chapter entitled “Surface and Surfeit,” which (chapter) I have not yet read, but have briefly skimmed.

My understanding of Scruton/my friend is that since the camera is passive, it merely records–it does not present something original. To (probably grossly) simplify, as a photograph of a painting is not art, so a series of photographs (complete with soundtrack) of a play is not a play, even if those photographs are viewed at quick enough succession to recreate the physical action and perfectly synched to said soundtrack. Ergo: not art.

(Aside to everyone: Interestingly, Neil Young [sorry] makes a similar [though not synonymous] complaint about digital recording vs. analog. Young contends that no matter how high the digital resolution of the recording, it cannot capture the complete aural experience of a person in the room in the same way analog does. I have not consulted the science of ear sensitivity vs. kbps to find out if he is only technically correct; my personal inclination, science aside, is to agree with him.)

(Aside to You-know-who-you-are: A potential objection to Scruton, and perhaps he deals with it in the book, is that this same assertion could be leveled against a microphone and one’s recording equipment of choice. If a movie cannot “make portable” a performance complete in itself and discrete from the camera, why can a CD or record or tape do so with a symphony? You will no doubt appeal to Postman, but Postman limited himself primarily to the field of public discourse as opposed to television or film drama. We can take this up later, but, assuming for now my objection overturns Scruton, I must concede that the question of the proper place of drama, if such a thing exists, remains.)

Into a mind in the midst of sorting these things out comes The Hunger Games, which I had occasion to view this weekend. (Aside to Suzanne Collins: Katniss is a perfectly ridiculous name; following closely in that perfection is Peeta.) In my opinion, the most available insight in the film has nothing to do with the moral dilemmas, but rather the role raw biography may or may not play in entertainment.

This question, begged first by Survivor and then by all its progeny (yea importunately demanded by Here Comes Honey Boo Boo) is most directly addressed when Katniss is interviewed by Stanley Tucci’s talk show host (and Hunger Games play-by-play announcer) character, Caesar Flickerman. By this point in the film, the viewer knows quite well that Flickerman does not care what Katnisss said to Prim in their last moment together other than it be something that will make “a good show”.

Nor does the studo (and home) audience (described by Mr. Joel Zartman as cruel and sentimental [aside to Joel Zartman: I nominate cruelty+sentimentality as a diagnostic for decadence]), genuinely care about Katniss and Prim as people. Instead the primary concern of producers and audience alike is that each contestant possesses (or seems to) some quality (heroic, tragic, invincible, etc.) that will allow them to feel a sufficient thrill, which they will name either triumph or loss, when that contestant kills or is killed. They seek to create/acquire mere cues that will elicit a later desired response.

This is a direct indictment of the reality show genre. Having seen more than one episode of more than one season of The Next Food Network Star (let the mockery begin), I easily recognize the social commentary. In those episodes, the onscreen coaches provided the same advice over and over to each contestant: “Tell your story with food.” The deeper the soul-baring, the more daring the revelation, the better suited to stardom a contestant was. Having the “cooking-chops” was not enough.

This then reveals the heart of reality television. Viewers are able to savor the struggles, the improvements, the tragedies, the exultation of the contestants without having any genuine investment–certainly no permanent interest–in the person herself. The investment the viewer makes is in their own self, and neither is that investment permanent. It is only as much investment as will provide him a momentary thrill at another person’s expense. This is what makes “a good show”.

But the contestant’s expense goes beyond the mere relating of personal information to amuse an uncaring crowd. As was Katniss, the contestant is prodded to go beyond their normal limits, to do and say things they would not normally do in order to make the show better. I work with a lady whose friend was a contestant on Food Network’s Cake Challenge. She related to me that her friend told her a significant amount of contestant commentary intercut with the action of the cake making is fed (harhar) to them by producers. A minor point perhaps, but if, as is likely the case, this is the standard practice in other reality shows, contestants are essentially forced to live the life, however briefly, of someone they are not. The viewer’s entertainment comes at the cost of the contestant’s personhood, or, at the very least, it’s diminution. No wonder Katniss, at the end of The Hunger Games, wishes only to forget all she and Peeta have mutually endured.

To this point we have discussed the decadence with which The Hunger Games might charge our society. Ironically, however, a very similar criticism may be made of the film itself. Consider the death of Rue. Before her demise, she appears only a handful of times, and then (Magic-Negro like?) only to amuse, assist, and endear herself to the heroine. Thus the viewer is not experiencing the emotions accompanying true personal investment, but rather a canned response. The viewer here is complicit with the producer. The latter hands out the emotional coupons, the former saves them and cashes them in for cheap exhilaration or, as in the case of Rue’s unnecessarily explicit death, dismay and outrage. Is there a real difference between what the producers of reality TV do and what those of The Hunger Games have done?

So we have returned full-circle to the question of the medium itself. I don’t have a final answer. The faults of The Hunger Games may well be due to the limitations of the medium, or they may be a discrete failure of its producers.

I suggest however, partially due to the reasons I mention late above, if The Hunger Games is art, it is flawed art.

5 comments to Movies, Art, and The Hunger Games

  • Wherein I may go off the rails a bit:

    I can’t engage in discussion until I have an understanding of this: how do you define art? Can it just be something beautiful that makes you feel?

    And could a painter be painting with the goal of eliciting a response and thus– in some smaller, less obvious way– going for the canned response of sentimentality or programmed outrage?

    Or is it that there’s more open interpretation in other mediums and that is what allows them to be considered art? And, to add to your thoughts, why does viewing art through a second medium cancel it as art? The decisions one has to make in direction, lighting, sound, etc. can be done incredibly well or be very poorly done. So… could talent equal art? Or, like the microphone, does this mean original photographs aren’t art? The moment happened, passed. The camera is a second medium to the eye.

    And what about words? Are books– is literature– art? It does require discipline to create, and it can elicit very different interpretations, but ultimately, it’s a recording of an image, a story in the author’s mind, a snapshot retelling of feeling and character that began and grew somewhere else.

    I was thinking this before you said it– “The investment the viewer makes is in their own self”– those reality shows, when they have the best of intentions (never?) are going for the connection. They want someone with problems and ideas that their audience can relate to, because even the grossest, the worst, even in that we can see ourselves. When Jersey Shore is on and the stars are drunk and glorifying tanning, though we won’t admit it, we all know we’re capable of the same stupidity and poor choices. But it’s disturbing they don’t seem to experience all of the consequences the rest of us might endure. They gain fame while we suffer from isolation due to our mistakes, or, at the least, humiliation.

    It’s difficult to universally declare ANYthing about art; it’s too sweeping. But I have to admit that I like to call things art that I positively relate to or that evoke deep feeling in me. And maybe I am allowing artists to pander to me, but these emotions are here. They exist beneath my skin, and if someone else through a creation of their own can pull those up to the surface and cause me experience feeling as related to the picture, the book, the movie, the song, then I can’t help but “feel” that’s art. This is so ridiculously subjective because I wouldn’t feel that way if the feeling the object pulled to the surface were boredom or revulsion, but the answer is the only honest one I have.

    And… I guess I can discuss this without your definition, ha.

  • p.s. I have read the books, but I have yet to see The Hunger Games movie. For some reason this feels like an important postscript. What?

  • d4v34x

    Offhand (danger, Will Robinson), I’d define art as an imaginative work in an expressive medium which resonates within the imagination of the viewer/reader/hearer/etc to the end that the receiver is enlarged in feeling/understanding/insight/experience/affection.

    I don’t mean that the painting is no longer art. I mean that the photograph of the painting is not itself art. It is a record of an object other than itself. Same with a movie. So Scruton says, and I’m still thinking about it. It would probably help me to get to that chapter and read it. 🙂

    Oh, yes; I’d definitely say literature is art. But you would certainly divide fiction in to literature and non-literature, no? So why not consider whether some media may be ill-suited at best to artistic expression?

  • d4v34x

    Also, I can’t believe you let “their own self” slide. That should be several points off.

  • Laura

    Yeah well, I was being nice, you being family and all… 🙂 To clarify, I understood what you were saying about the photograph of the painting and that the painting itself is still art. I was just trying apply the second thing you were talking about with The Hunger Games to paintings– like if one test of whether a thing is art or not is if they’re appealing to the lowest common denominator of sentimentality or sensationalism, then I think “pure” artists (for want of a better term) may do this too.

    I like your definition of art– but I think the photograph of the painting can still be art too. It’s the shadowing they choose, the placing of the painting, the light, the angle. Those are all decisions that could enhance or detract from the viewer’s enjoyment. I know you’re still considering this point.

    If I were writing a definition of art for a textbook or for the world, I would be really expansive with it, and believe that a photograph of a painting could be art; however, if I’m defining it for myself (hypocritical, I know) I’d want the art to have required some discipline to attain it. Movies fall under this category for me, and I do think they evoke a different kind of emotion and depth of feeling than plays or books, which is okay. I think, by that definition, The Transformers movie is art, but it’s not good art… lol However, not just anyone could have made the movie, it required discipline and some degree of talent (mostly by CGI artists) to create it.

    The literature question is another good one. I am very expansive in my definition of literature– it’s published, written work. But now I am wondering if I should be reconsidering. Is The Hunger Games literature? What about Janet Evanovitch’s work? (fyi, I hate her stuff) Steinbeck surely is, but what about Salinger? A lot of people think he’s rubbish. (I’m British tonight) Pretty much the only time I consider separating literature out and categorizing it (besides just “I like this” or “I hate this”) is when I’m talking about the Western canon. And it’s interesting to me that I don’t enjoy a vast majority of the work that is considered part of the canon, but I can appreciate its value to Western civilization. So I guess enjoyment doesn’t define it because it’s too subjective, individual to individual. So then… how do we define literature? *yay for rabbit trails!* Is pornographic material literature? Or work that glorifies violence? Can we call something literature but recognize that its effect on the reader could be… detrimental.

    This whole discussion, of course, reminds me of Phil. 4:8. Is it okay to consider things that aren’t lovely as we move through the world if we’re not meditating on those things?

    Yay, it’s another book/comment! Sorry. I’ve hijacked your comments.

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