Oh, those dystopian futures. We can’t seem to escape them in arts and entertainment. The future is always bleak, and it’s always violent. This has been visited many times in film, including the screen adaptation of “Nineteen Eighty-Four”, “Blade Runner”, and “Children of Men”. This time, it’s not adults killing each other, though, it’s kids. This plot is almost identical to the film (also a book) “Battle Royale”, but with a few changes. This, too, is based on a popular novel series, by Suzanne Collins. Its protagonist is a girl, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who is known as a Tribute, when she “volunteers” for her sister who was selected in her District to partake in the annual Hunger Games, a tournament in which 24 Tributes (participants) compete in a battle to the death, and one sole survivor wins. That’s what I call March Madness.
The Districts are all controlled by the Capital, a place where the wealthy inhabitants look like a cross between a Star Trek convention and a Culture Club reunion. This Capital’s fascination with seeing adolescents fight to the death isn’t really explored in the film–except that I suppose it represents the harsh coldness of the ever oppressive government. This is what they’re willing to subject the people to. Oh, and it’s sort of “punishment” because at some point, one District decided to rebel against the Capital. So they control the Districts, which are all ravaged and starving, and they give these Hunger Games out as entertainment (they’re broadcast to all the Districts). They also have their own version of SportsCenter with two hosts, played amusingly and joyfully by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones, who comment on the games while they go on, and Caesar (Tucci), interviews each participant before the Games.
Before the Games begin, there is a series of trainings by mentors, and Katniss is given Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former winner in District 12 and a drunk (but he serves more as just comic relief than anything else). He helps her along the way, and the boy from the same district, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). During the interview process, Peeta reveals to Caesar on air that he has had a crush on Katniss, seemingly to spark a new interest in the two of them as they’re hyped as “star crossed lovers”.
The two of them initially don’t get along, but as Katniss recalls in a flashback, Peeta had tried to give her a loaf of bread in the rain. Instead of handing it to her, though, he merely threw it on the ground. She also mistrusts Peeta after his revelation of the crush he has because she thinks he’s only done it to gain favor by the audience. Haymitch is on Peeta’s side, however, and tells her to go along with it because it will help her chances as well.
Throughout the Games, Katniss survives by skills she had learned in her own homeland, including bow and hunting skills. She scores high during the training and is hunted by an alliance of other Districts. She escapes them with the help of Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who forms an alliance with her. Meanwhile, she has to remain faithful to Peeta as rules begin to change, and her own feelings for him do as well.
The performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson are what make this film so captivating. There are some inconsistencies in the plot and some elements that seem to set up for a bigger pay off and don’t–but the genuine chemistry between these two cannot be denied and take you from beginning to end cheering for each of them in your own way.
There are a few logical problems I had with the structure of the Games themselves: everyone at the start is right in a circle. Normally, in a game where you fight to the death to win, wouldn’t everyone just clamor at the center, grab the biggest weapon, and kill everyone they could? That sort of happens, but some people just escape into the woods, leaving themselves to the elements. It seems like if this were an option, it would be a keener idea to drop them off at random points and let them find each other. Besides, according to the Gamemakers rules, they can change just about everything in the Games’ little universe. Everything from starting forest fires to creating mean little dog-like animals seems to be at a finger’s length. So why not just randomly put them in different parts of the forest? I also didn’t see much audience participation. It’s said that they could help the Tributes by sending aid. But the only person who does that is Haymitch, for his own District. And then I thought, if he’s doing that, where are the other mentors for the other Tributes? One of them dies by eating poisonous berries. Wouldn’t their mentor have told them about things like that to watch out for? There are some other contrivances but I’d have to give away some of the secrets of the plot and I don’t want to do that.
The main reason is, for all the nitpicking I could do, I still found myself enjoying it, even though the biggest flaw with it was in its inherent theme that it seemed to be completely ambiguous on whether this dystopian future is good or not. Sure it’s violent and it’s sad to see some of the Tributes die–but on the other hand, sometimes you’re rooting for some for them to die. If you’re trying to make a statement against humankind’s violence, that pretty much betrays your message. If you’re trying to say that this is the way mankind is, then why give us any humanity to side with at all? In the end, you do of course side with Katniss and Peeta. And you certainly have no choice but to be against the cocky Tributes from other Districts who are out to get our heroes. But in a world where the Capital is the ultimate villain, it just seemed like the film merely poked fun at the outrageous way the “infotainment” motif is exploited at the expense of the human lives.
This coming from the director of films like “Pleasantville”, Gary Ross, is somewhat curious to me. In the past he’s had no problem making statements about politics (“Dave”) and the human condition (“Big”) in amusing, heartwarming ways. With “Pleasantville”, even harshly critical ways. But here in “The Hunger Games”, he, like the Capital, just lets these kids go out and slaughter each other without saying much about it. While the ride is enjoyable, it leaves you a bit hollow afterwards. And for something with a premise that has this much gravity, that’s a bit of a disappointment.
I have no idea where this came from. Maybe I was just thinking of teen movies and these two popped into my head randomly. It happens. But it got me thinking of the stark differences of the film “Kids” released in 1995, directed by Larry Clarke and written by then 19 year old Harmony Korine; and “Dazed and Confused” released in 1993 written and directed by Richard Linklater.
OK, obvious thing jumps out first: one is a comedy, a retrospective piece of nostalgia; the other is a realistic drama of the present times in teenage culture. I realize that there are major differences. But I find the differences interesting and that’s why I’m writing this. Linklater’s film is almost a love letter to the 70’s; but also, to those last days of “innocence” that we have when we don’t have to pay for the consequences we ultimately will when we become adults.
“Kids” shows us the price we do pay.
I’ll say right off the bat, that I like both of these films. But it took me a while to appreciate “Kids”. I was a teenager when this film came out, and I rented it after seeing all of the praise. Honestly, I didn’t care for it when I first saw it. I was in the wrong mind-set. I knew these kids. I saw this almost every weekend with people I knew. And I hated these kids. I resented them and hated the fact that they were being given this kind of screen time. But I missed the point. That was the idea. You weren’t supposed to condone what these kids did. Meanwhile, in “Dazed and Confused”, which I saw when I was in my 20’s, I enjoyed it as I would any nostalgic film about adolescence or growing up.
So let’s go ahead and get into the plots of the two films. If you’ve never seen it, “Kids” depicts a sort of “Day in the Life” of street kids from New York that seemingly have no parental influence at all. The gang is led by a kid named Telly (played wonderfully by Leo Fitzpatrick) who has a pretty dark secret and loves deflowering virgins. But not only virgins…young virgins. We’re talking 13, 14 year old girls. That’s his whole MO. And that’s actually what I hated first of all about this film. Its protagonist, it seemed, was such a scumbag. As the plot progressed, there were no consequences for him at all. He got away with everything. It was disgusting. It was vile. He was such a pig. And yes, all of this was lost on me. I really thought there would be some kind of redemption. Years later, I’d realize that all of the stupid things these kids do in a 24 hour period are exactly what we see every day while we’re growing up, and we do nothing about it. Larry Clarke and Harmony Korine weren’t trying to say that these kids have any hope at all–they’re showing kids for what they are. And these kids were hopeless. But there are some characters we do take pity on. Well, for one thing, the innocent virgins that are sacrificed at the hands of this total pig named Telly. And I think giving him a spreadable disease was a stroke of genius by Korine because we take for granted all of the promiscuity of our youth. We don’t think of the consequences, and that’s exactly the point of “Kids”. Now, is he offering what we can do to stop it? No. Is that irresponsible? Well…maybe. But maybe we try to bury all of that truth. Certainly in the 50’s, the youth culture is depicted as Soda and Ice Cream Shop farers who think that holding hands is a real sign of true love. But was it reality? Maybe what “Kids” is just trying to do is expose the truth in any generation of youth, not just the 90’s. 90’s youth culture wasn’t so innocently depicted. We were depressed and we had Nirvana, and we had flannel. But parents, in any generation, will put the ear muffs and blind folds on and think their kids are fine when they’re not. “Kids” is not a dated movie.
Now, moving on to “Dazed and Confused”–this movie is dated as far as it’s stamped with being in the 1970’s. But it’s not dated in its depiction of youth. The story revolves around the final days of some of the students, and some of the first days of freshmen, and some even in between. They’re all going to the same party, and some are smoking weed, all are drinking, and some are going to have sex. But there’s a sense of fun about this film. The kids aren’t ever depressed or reflective. They’re simply acting upon what’s going on in their world. Some are nerds and geeks, some are princesses, some are burnouts. All of them are there for a common purpose, even if they’re at odds with each other. But even in the few tension filled instances, we’re never worried about these characters. And so we’re presented with the difference between the two movies: “Dazed and Confused” is a comedy that shows very little of the consequences. But it does show promiscuity, underage drinking, all of the things those parent groups rail against. So why is this movie so damn charming?
Well, tone says everything. First of all, there isn’t one mention of a sexually transmitted disease, which I’m sure was rampant in the 70’s, just like any other teenage generation. Second, these kids don’t get caught. They don’t really suffer any consequences. They represent the idealistic way we think about our past. We don’t remember the bad things. We just remember how much fun we had. Now, I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I’m simply pointing out the tone of the film, which is on the other spectrum from “Kids”.
“Kids” wants you to see the reality. The scabs, the scars. “Dazed and Confused” is the make-up and photoshopping. And both serve separate purposes. “Kids” will make you sick to your stomach, even though you’re watching kids do almost the same things you’re seeing in “Dazed and Confused”. But “Dazed and Confused” doesn’t show things in a negative light, either. And there is an innocence to it, with the focal point of the freshman who has a crush on a sophomore that also thinks he’s cute. The way these two communicate and develop is so adorable, you can’t help but root for them. That isn’t present in “Kids”. In “Kids”, those two kids would’ve had sex and one of them or both of them would’ve regretted it.
So now you’re probably wondering why I’m wasting all of this word count on such an obvious argument. Well, what I guess I’m trying to say is, we need both of these films. We need to be reminded that the past was fun, youth was fun, youth needs to be celebrated and youth needs to be innocent. But we also need to be reminded that it isn’t all fun, it isn’t all games, and the harsh reality is just what it is.
The kids in “Dazed and Confused” would most likely look back 20 years later and say, “Man those were good times.” The kids in “kids” would most likely look back and say, “How are we still alive?”
Well both of those are valid, and the great thing is…if you are still alive, then you at least have the chance to remember those good times. Whatever you still have to live with, you’ll never get those times again. “Kids” and “Dazed and Confused” remind you, in very different ways, that they’re precious, and that taking anything for granted is part of youth–and whether you treasure it or you throw it away or you plague others with your self-destruction, it’s all still just a parth of youth. Kind of profound…something you’ll never appreciate while you’re that age.
“Kids” reveals something harsher, “Dazed and Confused” reveals something more enjoyble. It’ll depend on how you are as a filmgoer to determine which movie you’ll appreciate more. But coming from me, appreciate both. Equally. Just on different terms.