Friday, March 23, 2012

Earlier ‘Hunger Games’: The bloodsport movie subgenre

"Battle Royale" -- is "Hunger Games" a ripoff?
Of course, I’m getting on the “Hunger Games” bandwagon. It’s the most highly pimped movie of the year, and so far reviews are by and large favorable. The adaptation of the first of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of young-adult dystopian adventure looks as though it will be a hit, regardless of its inherent merit or its faithfulness to its source material.
Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."
Collins has been given some guff for her book’s remarkable similarities to Koushun Takami’s 1999 novel “Battle Royale,” and the immensely popular film version directed by Kinju Fukasaku the following year. (The film, although it is one of the top-10 highest-grossing films in Japanese history, took 11 years to be distributed in the U.S., and is still largely unknown here.) Read Neda Ulaby’s NPR report on the controversy here.

But the tradition of a coerced hero or heroine forced to kill or be killed, especially in the context of providing vicarious thrills for onlookers, is as old as gladiatorial combat. The high-noon showdowns of the American Western are a variant, and many of the hundreds of pepla (Italian sword-and-sandal film epics of the period 1957-1965) give us oiled-up body-builder protagonists – Hercules, Maciste, Samson, Goliath, Ursus -- who must fight monsters, destroy entire armies, and dethrone despots.
The list of more specific precursors to “The Hunger Games” is surprisingly long. Most of these films are simply formulaic subgenre exercises, focusing on graphic violence and retribution. But the social commentary that enriches “Battle Royale” and “The Hunger Games” can be found in select examples, some of which we’ll dial through below.

The first and most important influence is the 1924 short story by Richard Connell, “The Most Dangerous Game” – required reading for most schoolchildren, and possibly the most anthologized short story of all time, save for the equally gruesome “The Lottery,” also a distinct influence on the genre.

In “Game,” a big-game hunter, Rainsford, falls overboard at sea and finds himself on an island dominated by a master hunter, Count Zaroff, who has grown bored hunting animals and now hunts men instead. Rainsford finds himself elected as the next prey. It doesn’t spoil the pleasure of reading it to know that evil is defeated in the end.

In fact, one of the great pleasures of the genre is the liberation that self-defense grants to the hero in these stories. Once it’s been established that he or she must act ruthlessly in order to survive, the audience members can completely give themselves over to the vicarious satisfaction of seeing rough justice done, without a whiff of guilt.

The story has been adapted more and far less faithfully nearly two dozen times; the best version is the first --

The Most Dangerous Game
Dir: Irving Pichel, Ernest B. Schoendack

The next major development in the idea came from Robert Sheckley, whose 1953 short story “Seventh Victim” became the Italian sci-fi film “The 10th Victim” a dozen years later. Now the game of human hunter and hunted is big business, a globally popular entertainment that has proved so satisfying that it has effectively eliminated war. The antagonists, played by Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, of course have conflicted feelings about each other, and the camp value is deliberately high.

The 10th Victim
Dir: Elio Petri

Peter Watkins is a radical film and television directors whose projects criticize the system in all its aspects – and specifically attacks the media’s complicity in preserving the status quo in the following two features:

The Gladiators
Dir: Peter Watkins

Punishment Park
Dir: Peter Watkins

Paul Bartel’s ludicrous “Death Race 2000,”based on Ib Melchior’s short story “The Racer,” definitely takes the low road . . . so to speak. Still, the dystopian theme and the idea of bloodsport as a nationally followed pastime is there. Brought to us by the inimitable Roger Corman! With David Carradine! And Sylvester Stallone!

Death Race 2000
Dir: Paul Bartel

And the same year’s “Rollerball.” Ah, yes. Ridiculous – and one of my favorite guilty-pleasure movies ever. Rich people blow up the few remaining trees for fun, corporations control everything – and I cried when they killed Moonpie.

“Corporate society takes care of everything. And all it asks of anyone, all it's ever asked of anyone ever, is not to interfere with management decisions.”

Dir: Norman Jewison

Another Sheckley story, “The Price of Peril,” written in 1958, eerily predicts reality shows. “Le prix du danger” is the first adaptation of it.

Le prix du danger
Dir: Yves Boisset

Oh, dear. Stephen King’s take on the template became one of Arnold Schwarzengger’s worst films, including the worst death-puns in recorded history.

The Running Man
Dir: Paul Michael Glaser

The most searing and pointed of these films, and the most successful to date, is “Battle Royale.” Its bleak vision of society, and its focus on the teenage victims of its contest, makes it almost impossible to think that Collins did not derive something from it.

Battle Royale
Dir: Kinju Fukasaku

Another worthy mention is “Series7: The Contenders,” starring Brooke Smith, best known for her role as Buffalo Bill’s final, would-be victim in “The Silence of the Lambs.”

Series 7: The Contenders
Dir: Daniel Minahan

In all these films, the central figures have to fight not only others, but an oppressive system that uses violence as entertainment. Maybe the question here is not whether Collins is a plagiarist, but why this very specific kind of fantasy is so prevalent in the zeitgeist. State-sanctioned killing, a rigged system, murder turned to righteous and even revolutionary ends, compulsive mass passive participation – and of course, the irony that the watchers of any of these given films is an echo of the complicit onlookers inside the films. Perhaps these movies are sketches for realities that haven’t been invented yet -- or are just an encoded revelation of how we live right now?

Other entries: a miscellany

Dir: Newt Arnold

Dir: Peter Manoogian

Final Round
Dir: George Erschbamer

Hard Target
Dir: John Woo

Surviving the Game
Dir: Ernest R. Dickerson

Dir: Maurice Devereaux

Reality Kills
Dir: Rafal Zielinski

Dir: Esben Storm

Battle Royale II: Requiem
Dir: Kenta Fukasaku, Kinji Fukasaku

El Nominado
Dir: Nacho Argiro, Gabriel Lopez

Dir: John Irvin

K.Y.E.: Kill Your Enemy
Dir: Max Law

The Condemned
Dir: Scott Wiper

Dir: Simon Hynd

Dir: Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor

The Tournament
Dir: Scott Mann

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"People on Sunday": the first New Wave film

Christl Ehlers in "People on Sunday."

"Kiki with African Mask," Man Ray, 1926

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)
Dir: Robert Siodmak, Edgar G. Ulmer
73 min., 1930

Thirty years before Godard's "Breathless," the first New Wave film was completed. A gaggle of Berlin twenty-somethings, starting from scratch and working with few resources, created something remarkable -- "People on Sunday."

It has been referred to in countless textbooks and histories, and I have searched for it incessantly for decades. Finally, the Criterion Collection has come to the rescue, producing a disc last year that reveals the incredible 1997 restoration by Martin Koerber of this hybrid masterpiece.

The gang of largely amateur movie men who put this piece together went on to fame and fortune, by and large. Co-directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar Ulmer went on to create such Hollywood classics as “The Spiral Staircase,” “The Killers,” and "Criss Cross” (Siodmak) and “The Black Cat” and “Detour” (Ulmer). Co-producer and scenarist Kurt Siodmak, Robert’s brother, codified the Wolfman in the popular imagination, as well as “Donovan’s Brain” and other significant sci-fi and horror scripts.

The film’s photographer, Eugen Schufftan, was the most well-known of the group at the time, having developed the optical-effects process that still bears his name, and having already worked on “Metropolis” and Gance’s “Napoleon.” He would later serve as cinematographer on classics such as “Port of Shadows,” “Eyes Without A Face,” and “The Hustler.” His assistant on the shoot – Fred Zinneman, who went on to direct “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity,” “Oklahoma!” and “A Man for All Seasons.” Not too shabby.

And the script credit itself? There was input from Siodmak's brother Curt, but credit went primarily to Billy Wilder (“Sunset Boulevard,” “Some Like It Hot,” “Double Indemnity”). It would be simple to say that all this genius gathered together is responsible for the film’s success . . . but in fact, all these men faded in and out of the production process as it stumbled along, and they disputed each others’ roles in the creation of the film for decades after. All of them used it as a calling card to further their careers. All of them found themselves in flight from the Nazis shortly after its completion.

So, what makes this film so amazing? First, it’s a seamless blend of documentary and scripted techniques (it proudly declares on an opening title card that it is “a film without actors” – not quite true, but indeed none of the five principal actors are pros). An opening montage of busy Berlin on a Saturday gradually takes us into the orbit of a stylish young man (Wolfgang von Walterhausen) who starts a conversation with a pretty young thing (Christl Ehlers) on the street.

The camera hangs back, shooting from across the square; we have to work hard to pick these two characters out of the mass of oblivious humanity that swirls around them. The film seems to have grasped onto them at random, in the context of the city’s life, and in sympathy we project ourselves into the lives of these unknowns.

Second, the camera is, save for once, never stagebound. It’s alive, unmoored from the tripod. It moves, it tracks, it pursues, it pans restlessly. In sharp contrast to Teutonic stereotype, and the controlled look of a studio-bound style, "Sunday" is loose, letting random seep in.

Wolf makes a date for Sunday with Christl. We move to an interior sequence with his friend, taxi driver Erwin (Erwin Splettstosser) and his girlfriend (Annie Schreyer). Here is the one sequence in which the camera settles down inside a lit set.

Erwin and Annie arguer over whether her hat’s brim should be up or down, which leads to them staying in for the night. As Annie pouts and then dozes, Erwin and Wolf play cards, share beer and cigarettes. In the morning, unable to wake Annie, Erwin joins Wolf and Christl, who has brought along her “best friend” (Brigitte Borchert). The impromptu foursome takes the train out from the center of the city 12 miles southwest to the popular Wannsee lakes recreation area.

Throughout, the film is focused on the mundane. We are, like the characters, subsumed in the particulars – cigarettes, beer, food, money, love, sex, music, sunlight. The concerns of the day and those only.

With an exquisite sense of rhythm, the film keeps interpolating documentary sequences with scenes that advance the simple story, blurring distinctions between the real and the imagined. The quartet play in the water, eat, nap in the sun. A wind-up gramophone distracts them. Wolf flirts unsuccessfully with Christl. Erwin clowns, dozes. Wolf and Brigitte make love.

No sequence stands out dramatically, even the love scene that is discreetly panned from and onto swaying tree branches, a pile of picnickers’ debris, and back to the post-coital couple. None of the young protagonists have marriages, children or connections to weigh them down, and they move from mood to mood with the brisk insubstantiality of the silver clouds that race above them.

“People on Sunday” catches the universality of that brief, ungrounded period of the lives of singles, the sensual emphasis that dominates before irrevocable decisions are made – a microcosm of the larger loss pending in the characters’ surroundings. The summer being filmed, 1929’s, was the last normal, peaceful and prosperous one Germany was to enjoy for more than half a century. The Depression, the Nazis, the Holocaust, the Second World War, the Cold War blues, all swept away everyone and everything you see into their maws.

The camera moves in close to these faces. Ignoring the usual close-up, middle-distance and long-shot framings that were already industry standards, the camera drinks in the expressions of the players. It sits low, dangerously close to the surface of the water they splash in. It winds through the undergrowth – in fact, the Criterion cover till of Christl’s sleeping face, framed by Wolf’s hand, and the sunlit shadows of the shore’s grasses, seems as iconic an image of that time as Man Ray’s 1926 “Kiki with African Mask.”

The only narrative commentary in the film takes place right here. We cut back to the apartment, where Annie still sleeps, and a crumpled newspaper on the table near her displays the headline, “ . . . and so you spend your fleeting days . . .”. The tension is never broken – nothing earthshaking takes place – the day ends, the players part, and they are lost in the crowd. The camera pulls back again and surveys the larger scene, and the final title cards state, “Four million waiting for next Sunday.” For everyone you see, the age of peaceful Sundays is about to vanish forever.

The Criterion release has, of course, impeccable image and new, improved English subtitles. The silent film is accompanied by two scores to choose from – one by Louisville, Colorado’s Monte Alto Orchestra and one by Elena Kats-Chernin, recorded by the Czech Film Orchestra. Gerald Koll’s illuminating “Weekend at Wannsee” documentary covers the filming process; a 1931 short from Schufftan, “Ins Blaue hinein,” is on the disc as well.

A missing piece of film history is here at last, and it stands the test of time.