Monday, January 06, 2014

The Girl Who Played with Catching Fire

So Part II of the Hunger Games Trilogy is in the theaters, and it's breaking records.  (Well, it's kind of a trilogy and kind of isn't, since there are three books, but the third book will be separated into two films.  Which isn't that unreasonable, when you consider that The Hobbit is being split into three different films.)

The Hunger Games Trilogy is ground-breaking in that it features a female lead.  We've had dozens of trilogies, of all sorts of types of stories, but I'm pretty sure this is the first time Hollywood has had a franchise of this sort whose main character is female.  It isn't, however, the first trilogy with a female lead.  Well, not really.  That depends on who you think is the lead of the Lisbeth Salander trilogy: Salander or Blomkvist. That I refer to the trilogy as the "Salander trilogy" should make my position clear.

That Hollywood gives women few opportunities like this is hardly news.  But I would argue that women have been losing ground in the past decade or so.  In the 70s and 80s there were many films created around strong leading actresses like Ellen Burstyn, Meryl Streep, Jessica Lange, Glenn Close, Sissy Spacek, Jodie Foster, etc.  I really have to wonder whether a film like The Accused could be made in today's Hollywood.

Consider what our most talented young actresses are doing: Natalie Portman is Thor's girlfriend, Kate Winslet did Mildred Pierce for HBO, and Michelle Williams is stuck doing indy films.  Ellen Page is nowhere to be seen (update: she's back as Kitty Pryde in the next X-Men film) and Anna Kendrick is playing a college frosh again in Pitch Perfect.  (I guess 27 is the new 18.) I'm hoping Jennifer Lawrence can break this pattern.

Hollywood has become very formulaic in terms of which genres will be represented in film.  There are the tentpole blockbusters, which in recent years are mostly action films and their several sequels.  The current trend is for comic book hero films, but there are still other franchises (Pirates of the Carribean comes to mind, though that particular one is done.) There are animated G-rated features, which tend to have very simplistic plots (far more simplistic than 'G' requires, but I digress).  There are "rom coms", romantic comedies which themselves tend to a small number of formulas aimed at teenagers.  Then there are horror films, which tend to be low budget (since return is unpredictable) and what I would call "Oscar Bait", the handful of films that are released in December that do not do well in the box office but rake in the nominations for the various award shows.  Recent examples include The King's Speech (dull) and The Artist (flimsy).

See the 2012 box office leaders for example.  The top two films were comic book adaptations, as with #7. We have other franchises at 3, 4, 5, and 6, and animated kids' films are at   8, 10, 11, 12.  Seth McFarlane's Ted is the only exception, but even Ted has plenty of animation (though it's hardly a kids' film).

The collapse of Hollywood's products into these pre-defined genres has meant that high quality video entertainment is largely relegated to the various cable networks.  There seems to be a working presumption by film executives that moviegoers only want to see the same thing, over and over.  There are even people in the field of "Big Data" working for Hollywood, telling them what "elements" a film needs to have to make money.  The NY Times decsribes this kind of consultant.   Apparently bowling scenes are bad for business.
Here's another discussion of this phenomenon.  In this case, the focus is on a guy named Nick Meaney, and his company, Epagogix.  My take-home quote here is

"One of the heads of the studio laughed and said, 'Oh that’s great! You’ve just saved me $12 million!'" says Meaney, recounting the conversation.  "And we said, 'How so?' And he said, 'The person I had in mind for the female lead was Ms. X,' a very well known Hollywood actress, 'and you’re saying that role doesn’t need to be as big as it was, so we don’t need her.'"  
So that's what's happened to Nicole Kidman.  A computer geek told a Hollywood executive that women are fungible.  (I don't know that he's referring specifically to Kidman, but he could be.)

And we're supposed to believe this has nothing to do with pre-conceptions, or the male domination of the board rooms.

So, back to the top: what can we hope for these two?

Lisbeth Salander

The parallel that struck me here was not only that they are in trilogies, but both of their middle volumes treat with fire.  Lisbeth's second film was "The Girl Who Played with Fire", and Katniss's is "Catching Fire".

The success of these series shows that the "analysis" of the number crunchers above provides little in terms of true predictive beyond the maxim from statistics: garbage in, garbage out.  When film executives consistently cast women only in secondary roles, they not only neglect opportunities for women, they also shape the expectations of the public.  And while the producers defend this practice by saying that their formulas predict what the audiences, I think it's clear that the audience also wants interesting stories, and to be occasionally surprised.  Perhaps this decade is more ready for a lead actress like Jennifer Lawrence than the 1990s were.  But I would argue that the history of action films with female leads is that these series have historically either used dreadful leads with little talent (Tanya Roberts?) or entailed scripts that simply tried to ignore the gender of the lead (the nonsense that Renny Harlin and Geena Roberts did in the '90s).  

So what is my general point here?  It's that people claiming to "analyze" public preferences may be doing far less than they claim to be doing.  That sexism persists in Hollywood and in society at large.  There is no other way to explain how actresses are consistently cast aside when they hit 30, while actors can stick around for decades, even as romantic leads with increasingly improbable younger female partners on screen.  (Michael Douglas is a great example here: in one four-film sequence in the early 90s he went from Kathleen Turner (b. 1954) to Melanie Griffith (b. 1957) to Sharon Stone (b. 1958) to Demi Moore (b. 1962).  And of course he's married to Catherine Zeta-Jones, b. 1969).

To get better roles for women in film, we need to get better roles for women in the society at large.  The triumphs of Katniss Everdeen and Lisbeth Salander are hopefully a step along this path.  But I'm less optimistic than I might be.

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