Even love needs a break: The Hunger Games and interminable fictions

17 11 2014

mockingjay

The following is a translation of an article originally published in Spanish in A Sala Llena.

It’s tough to review a movie that is, in truth, half a movie. The first Hunger Games adaptation, from 2012, can be enjoyed by itself. But its sequel, Catching Fire, ends abruptly, and so does this first part of Mockingjay. The popularity of the source novel means that, as the saying goes, each movie is “too big to fail,” so that, before one of them is released, the following parts have already been filmed or green-lighted. They don’t have to stand alone, since they comprise a whole whose success has all but been guaranteed.

We meet Katniss Everdeen again (an intense and emotional Jennifer Lawrence), now turned into a revolutionary symbol for the outlying districts, which are trying to stage a disorganized revolution against the totalitarian Capitol. The war is also fought in the media, and Katniss becomes the televised face of the struggle (whose real mastermind is the discrete and scrupulous president Alma Coin, played by Julianne Moore). Katniss reconfigures the character she previously played in the titular reality show, and she uses her fame against the very dominant class that turned her into a star. Backstage, she’s directed by a team of ideologues and consultants, who manipulate her as bluntly as did the dictatorial state, although for supposedly more noble ends. Both parties, though ideological opposites, use the same communication tools, a theme already explored in artier fare (like Pablo Larrain’s No and Peter Watkins’s La Commune) but more than welcome in a mainstream spectacle.

A year from now, Mockingjay’s conclusion will be shown in theaters. Then we’ll be able to judge the quality of this preamble, which for the time being is but a fragment of an undefined whole. We’re now used to such blockbuster epics being divided up into episodes and released successively over two or three years. The Star Wars prequels, in 1999, began the trend, and were followed by The Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, Kill Bill, Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Twilight, the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and, obviously, The Hunger Games. In some cases, the individual films conclude their respective stories within their two-or-three-hour running times. But mostly, their fades to black don’t signal conclusions, not even open-ended ones, but only pauses. As in old serials, we have to return, at later points, to see the continuations of their plots. Although these classic adventures prefigured what television series would become, they have recently returned to the cinema, now as hundred-million-dollar productions (preceded, in movie history, by the Star Wars Original Trilogy and Back to the Future, inspired by the same model). Curiously, the same year that, as we said, this trend began, also saw the premiere of The Sopranos, which helped found the so-called Golden Age of television, marked by supremely ambitious shows. In some of them, like Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones, episodes don’t resolve tiny half-hour or hour-long plots, but simply progress lengthy continuous storylines, behaving like links in extended chains, structured for binge-watching on Netflix or Blu Ray. To summarize: movies have turned into televisions series, television series have turned into movies, and serials have become the new normal.

It’s likely that the median spectator is no longer satisfied with a short two-hour story: it needs something that’s three, ten, or fifteen hours long. No modern blockbuster lasts less than 120 minutes and even videogames, more and more frequently, include novelesque scripts. Such a serial architecture derives from literature: the 19th century novel, genre fiction, and comics. At any rate, it’s not a good cultural moment to be a lover of concision. In Jorge Luis Borges’s famous story, “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” a fantastic universe, collectively generated by hundreds of authors, threatens to devour reality: “A dispersed dynasty of solitary men has changed the face of the world. Their work continues. (…) So will English, French, and mere Spanish disappear from the planet. The world will be Tlön.” In our multimedia context, we’re surrounded by audiovisual fictions that, to make matters worse, suffer from narrative gigantism and occupy all of our (already limited) time. I write this as an admirer of the aforementioned sagas. But, sometimes, even love needs a break.

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