A blog dedicated to art, entertainment, language, and culture.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games: Where a Loaf of Bread Turns into a Riot

Yes of course, I had my problems with The Hunger Games film, and as a person with access with the internet I am contractually obligated to express my hatred for everything via blog post.  While many complaints about book to film adaptations can be attributed to fan generated demand for absolute exact translation (read Tom Bombadil), I would like to hold my particular criticisms to a slightly higher standard.  There were two major exceptions I took with The Hunger Games film.  The first is a few frankly bizarre choices that sent some very different messages from the book.  The second is aesthetic choice and how a dystopic world should look and feel.  Both my issues seem to relate to "tone."

It should be needless to say, "spoilers."

I liked the book, though it certainly has its own issues.  I actually walked away from the movie with a surprisingly new appreciation for the novel.  Initially, I thought it came off as a slightly docile version of brutal arena battling, but the movie makes it seem incredibly dark by comparison.  Dehydration and ripping a quiver off a puffed up corpse take more time and are far gorier than a two-hour PG-13 movie could probably allow.  I am forever thankful that Lord of the Flies is required reading for students.  It would be much too graphic for children as a movie.  But these are minor things.  A message, even one which seems attached to brutality and survival, can be sent regardless of ratings and audience (see films like Watership Down).

Where the real cracks began to show can be summed up by examining the following difference between book and film: a loaf of bread is turned into a riot.  That is a fairly drastic change, and normally one would not imagine such a thing to be possible.  Unfortunately, it is.  When the noble Katniss fails to save her friend Rue she takes time to dress the child in flowers to honor the dead girl she cared about.  This happens in both works.  Then there is a moment where the two deviate substantially.

In the book, Katniss is rewarded for actions by the truly honored people of District 11 by receiving the District's signature loaf of bread the same way a tribute receives gifts from sponsors.  Her inner monologue notes that it must have cost the seriously impoverished district a substantial amount to send such a thoughtful present.  The action of District 11 is in line with the "bread theme" of the book.  Katniss lives because the character Peeta tossed her some bread, and it is something she thinks about a lot.  Bread is meaningful to the character and as a reoccurring symbol used by the author (the tiny gift, given in darkest times, to push one to keeping going).  In turn, she holds it up and thanks them.

In the film, we leave Katniss' perspective to see the people of District 11 watching a video screen before breaking into a full blown riot.  They smash things.  They kill guards.  They knock over fruit.  All the while Katniss is completely unaware they even noticed her kindness.  Communication goes one way, and the solidarity and respect held between oppressed peoples is lost in a tizzy of violent protest.  A riot is bigger and I guess it looks nice on a screen, but the loaf of bread says so much more, and it is a far greater act of defiance than any bloodshed.

This stripping of charity surrounding the members of District 11 goes beyond that one moment.  In the book Katniss exchanges helpful information with Rue, and they bond as they prove useful to each other.  Katniss is not just protecting Rue, they are saving one another.  Thresh, the other tribute from District 11, does an incredible favor for Katniss.  In the film, he kills Clove as revenge for the slaughter of Rue.  That's it.  In the book, he kills Clove as revenge for the slaughter of Rue, and then, presumably for Katniss, he steals the bag belonging to Cato.  This means Cato will chase after Thresh and not Katniss, because he needs what is in that bag.  Thresh is killed by Cato, and not dogs, like he is in the film.

Perhaps I am starting to knit-pick, but what is the movie supposed to be about: violence for entertainment is bad?  Seems like a hypocritical message when you start having random riots replace genuine acts of kindness.  Maybe they were trying to say that dictatorships forcing children to fight to the death is bad.  I needed a movie to tell me that.  One point of the book seemed to be: even at our cruelest and most desperate, unity and compassion are paramount to survival.  Little changes to a narrative are fine when the themes are maintained.  When the themes are lost, the story goes with them.

My second complaint is purely material.  I never felt like I was in a particularly dystopic future.  It's hard to create a good, harsh world when one-third of the narrative takes place in a beautiful, futuristic city and one-third in a wilderness arena.  It is then left on the starting location, District 12, to set the tone for our impoverished, half-starved, uneducated heroes.  What do we get:

What a pretty boy.  I find it hard to believe this person has ever been desperate for food.  Aside from our hunky love interest, District 12 feels more like a caricature of downtrodden society than an actual one.  For a good example, let's turn our eyes away from Appalachia and to the Ozarks.

The Ozarks in Winter's Bone (another film staring Jennifer Lawrence) actually look and feel more like a dystopic, poverty-stricken society than District 12.  You could argue that they are very different films, but they're actually quite similar.  Dana Steven's on the Slate Spoiler Special quoted a co-worker's observation, "How many roles is Jennifer Lawrence going to find where she has to protect helpless, younger siblings in the presence of a catatonic mother and absent father while hunting small game on the side."  The Hunger Games, of course, aims to create a fantasy world filled with oppression.  Winter's Bone settles for the far more brutal, oppressive, drug-addled reality.  The latter ends up seeming more dystopic than the former.

That was my little complaint.  I could have lived with the film's "country-cute" interpretation of internment camps.  The first reason, the narrative reason, was my big problem.  But when these two things are combined they create a tonally hollow work.  A mainstream, pretty looking but empty headed blockbuster.  There's no real contrast between District and Capitol.  There's no poignant theme.  There is nothing.  The movie was dull.

This was, of course, a single viewing and I could be wrong about a number of things.  This could be the deepest, smartest, most spectacular film in the world, and I am just a big, mean, poopy head.  But I recommend the book.  It isn't great, but it is very enjoyable and well worth reading (especially for teen readers).  If you want a good contemporary movie about survival, I would suggest Winter's Bone, The Grey, or maybe Hanna.

By Bulging, Blue Veins

Being a foreigner, I receive the occasional questions or comments from the children at my hagwon pertaining to my physical appearance.  They may be simple, complimentary observations about my red hair (which the children refer to as blonde) or green eye color (which they have referred to as blue).  Sometimes, the kids are bewildered by less blatant aspects of my appearance, like high cheekbones.  A couple students have even touched the inside of my forearms, amazed by the large, blue veins bulging out.

A heroin addict would kill for arms like these
If you think about it, there is something very odd about have pronounced veins.  Most people in the world do not, and it is most common in pale, white people, especially among the very thin where the veins almost look like an external organ.  An outside observer wouldn't be ridiculous in assuming there is something unhealthy about being so thin your veins poke out.  But I tend to be quick to turn the child's attention to themselves, pointing to their wrists where they should have visible veins and noting the similarity.

My exposed veins are a telltale sign of Northern European, white ancestry.  You can almost see through us because we're so pale.  Strangely, people rarely find this ghostly visage scary or gross.  In the culture of lightness (spelled whiteness), there have been instances where easily visible veins are envied.  Unfortunately, those are situations where it is clear that aspiring to be light skinned is the same as aspiring to be Caucasian (as if aspiring to be light skinned isn't bad enough).

One of the most fascinating examples of aspiring whiteness comes from Charles Waddell Chesnutt's short story, "The Wife of His Youth".  Throughout history and today, there has been privilege assigned to light skinned African Americans.  This is evident among the elite society of "Blue Veins" in Chesnutt's story, a group of African Americans who are so light their veins are visible.  It is not merely about skin color, the story is about status and history.  The Blue Veins want to deny their heritage and attain respectability through  being white.

For the protagonist, Mr. Ryder, he is eventually confronted by a weathered woman named Liza who had been searching for him for years.  While Mr. Ryder speaks "properly" Liza's dialog is written in a 19th century African American accent.  "And she was very black, - so black that her toothless gums, revealed when she opened her mouth to speak, were not red, but blue."  Blue.  She is "so black" that her gums are blue.

This woman was the wife of Mr. Ryder when he was in slavery, and she was part of the life he fled and spent years trying to forget.  There is a happy ending to the story.  Ryder displays the wife of his youth to the Blue Veins, and vicariously realizes the importance of his history, his heritage, and his people.  The blue gums are a perfect foil for Mr. Ryder.  They are antithetical to everything he wants to be.  He tries to use blue veins as a symbol of lightness, and whiteness, and status, and society, but the same blue blood lies in the body of this woman who is everything he wanted to forget and has to accept.

I'm not certain how envious small children are of my bizarrely pronounced blue veins.  I think they're more fascinated than anything.  But they reminded me of one of my favorite stories about race, beauty, and love.  Needless to say, if you haven't read it don't let all my spoiling stop you.  You can find it HERE if you don't mind reading off of a computer screen.  I would recommend a paper copy, or you could get the kindle version through this link.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The Center of the World

I would like to draw your attention to my Korean moon pie wrapper.  This piece of garbage, once filled with a delicious, marshmallow-chocolate desert, conceals one of the most fascinating cartographic truths imaginable.  That truth: There is no center of the world.  Most of the moon pie wrappers from the box had tiny pictures of the treats wearing stereotypical hats from around the world, but this one takes the form of a globe, and where is it centered?  The Pacific Ocean.  More specifically, it is showing us East Asia.  Why?  Because these snack cakes are meant to be eaten by South Koreans, and as we all should know, South Korea is in East Asia.

A similar thing happened to me when I was visiting family in the Philippines.  A mural of the world displayed the Philippines in the middle, and it was unusually large.  We might think of the Philippines as a very small place (which, of course, it is), and some of us might not even know where to locate it on a map.  But to the people of the Philippines, their country is smack-dab in the middle of the universe.

Looking at the picture above, it might seem funny that an image of the world would lend such a large part of itself to dull, empty water when all the interesting things are happening on land.  You would probably think that if you were American.  When an American looks at a map of the world, the United States is often sitting in the middle with Europe across the sea, Africa below Europe, and Asia split in half.  West of us is East Asia (confusingly) and India and the Middle East rest to the East.  We see land, a large piece of land as the focus, our eyes lead home, to the USA.  This could make such a watery depiction seem strange to our eyes.

Cartography is the simplest form of patriotism.  We learn to understand the world based on what we see around us.  The first time we look at a map or a globe with a parent or teacher they probably aren't going to set their finger down and say, "Here's France, Jimmy.  They make bread there!"  No, they probably set that hand down atop the United States and declare with pride, "This is where we are."  They might be even more specific, showing us to our own state.  We begin to learn about the world by discovering where we are first then expanding our gaze outward, noticing the closest and the biggest locations before much anything else.

Advice for travelers and freak shows alike: When you observe a place, do not look at their booming cities, glorious statues, and beautiful mountains until you have finished sifting through their trash.  Because in the moist warmth of another man's dumpster, you will discover precisely what the world looks like to that individual, and their culture at large.  Every wrapper pulled off of a Korean quasi-moon pie contains a potential truth about how one may perceive the world.

Here the world begins in Korea and Asia by the sea.  Across from us is North America.  Below it is South America.  Both continents are being shoved to the side.  Asia is complete, and Europe is nearly invisible, almost mocking its status as a continent entirely, and Africa sits on the fringe.  The Atlantic Ocean isn't even an after thought.  All but one of the moon pie wrappers has a funny, little, stereotypical hat representing a different country and culture, creating a lighthearted global unity, but South Korea is still the center of the world.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Umbrellas on Display

Winter is always such a lovely time of year.  It's grey, cold, and here in Gangneung that apparently means it will rain and snow and rain again in the same day.  It's not really surprising that this is the time to lock ourselves away indoors.  But when I have been forced to go out, for a cigarette usually, I've witnessed Koreans walking through the falling snow with umbrellas in hand.  It's an unusual sight for me.  I associate umbrellas with rain.  Using them in the snow is certainly not a bad idea, but it is something I wouldn't have thought to do.

Thus the wheels begin to turn in my head: what else can we do with umbrellas?

The parasol was the original umbrella and it was often used as a status symbol by the wealthy.  You could clearly tell an important person from a commoner by the lightness of their skin.  In agricultural communities, the average person worked in the beating sun during the day, earning him/herself a tanned, rough skin.  Parasols would shade the touring wealthier citizens from the sun, helping to ensure security in the physical divide between rich and poor.

The parasol is still used today as a protector from sunlight.  They can be seen outside Western cafes and restaurants for those who want to enjoy nice Spring/Summer weather without fighting the elements.  I've been told that during the Summer people flock to the beaches of Gangneung where women will rest along the shore under parasols to keep their skin from tanning.  Asia and the US have drastically different perspectives on tanning.  In the US, while being white earns one undeserved privilege, tanning is a common practice and tan skin is considered attractive.  In Korea (and most other parts of Asia), being light skinned is the preferred look.  American parasols are used (predominantly) to keep cool in the Summer.  Korean ones seem to be used to keep from tanning.

Beyond shading the holder, umbrellas and parasols have been used in many other creative ways, especially within the art world.  The example below is an advertisement for gum featuring a woman wearing an umbrella.  While it certainly ceases to serve a practical function, the shape of the umbrella lends itself beautifully to becoming an impractical skirt.

Probably the most enthralling use of umbrellas can be found in Steven Haulenbeek's "Cumulous Light Canopy" art installation.  Here the umbrellas glow, lighting their warehouse surroundings like chandeliers.

The graffiti artist Banksy inverts the rain in the below street art, turning the practical accessory into social commentary.

Umbrellas function as completely reasonable modes of transportation in the 1964 film Mary Poppins.  They can also talk.

Browsing the internet, there are tons of installations, paintings, and other works involving umbrellas that play with their purpose.  I love seeing the casual turn into the extraordinary, which is something you often witness when traveling.  You will see things that you thought were very simple and common sense being used or viewed in completely new ways.  They become fresh and curious as they never had been before.

Thursday, March 1, 2012


The topics we teach at my school are probably more interesting to the instructors than the students.  They come to us to learn English, but in order to learn English there have to be actual topics to discuss.  Some of them, especially in the higher level classes, are pretty interesting (to the instructors).  For example, in one of my classes we are talking about chimeras - mythical monsters that are part lion, goat, and snake, human-animal hybrids, and creatures made from human stem cells being injected into animal embryos.

It feels like, while the students are learning English, I am learning as well.  It might be true that my abilities to explain English and teach a class are evolving (which are definitely connected to learning), but I'm also learning about science!  Chimeras are one of the more controversial scientific pursuits, like cloning.  They are hotly contested because on one hand they are a great way to do research, but they are also using human stem cells and embryos for experimentation.  That causes controversy among primarily religious organizations.  It beckons the question, "When does something become human?"

That perspective on Chimeric research reminds me of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Those stories discuss science gone awry, especially in Frankenstein where the monster is a creation of an overambitious desire to develop life.  As the monster tries to define himself as human, the reader is presented with dilemmas about what it means to be human, why physical appearance is so valued, and where science should draw its boundaries.  Frankenstein was written in 1818, so the conflict between morals and science are nothing new.

Korean Middle-schoolers learning English aren't exactly enthralled with this topic.  I'm not sure exactly what Middle-schoolers are interested in, but it probably has very little to do with existentialism.  If these kids were to find the topics intriguing, it would probably be best to present it to them in their own language instead of a foreign one.  The reason why we are teaching them about chimeras is so they can look for the topic, main idea, and supporting details.  The goal in our class is not to gain a deep grasp of the subject matter, but to develop a skill. Alack-a-day.

I would still like them to be interested in the subject matter.  If I am able to generate some sort of interest, then they will be better able to develop their skills.  I probably won't go off on a lengthy rant, connecting chimeric research to Mary Shelley, but I can try to make them think about what a chimera is beyond another boring class lecture.  And if I fail to do that, at least I thought it was interesting, and at least they did their work.