Jumping Axis, Producing Trauma

 

So, The Hunger Games book is about a battle of personal survival, fought by a girl. The Hunter Games movie is different. It’s about a nascent war of rebellion, waged mostly between men. [Mesle 2012][1]

As The Hunger Games book climbed the bestseller charts and contracts were inked to produce The Hunger Games movie, fans and bloggers expressed concern over how the story would be adapted for the big screen. In the novel, they argued, many of the most compelling passages or realizations by the characters, do not involve in visible actions in the world of the story. How would the screenwriter and director adapt a novel structured around a tight first person narrative into a compelling film franchise?

In broad strokes, the story is set in the fictional nation of Panem. There, the annual spectacle of the Hunger Games is staged and broadcast throughout Panem’s districts. In these games, twenty-four youthful tributes from colonized districts are placed in an arena where they die at each other’s hands, from starvation, exposure, or from falling prey to the arena’s traps. Katniss Everdeen, the story’s heroine, is precociously competent and stubbornly recalcitrant. As she navigates the games, Katniss responds with both naïve obliviousness and willful misrecognition to the kin and caretaking relationships she occupies. The traumas of Katniss’s past shape her ambivalence—providing texture and impedance to her struggle to grow and survive.

When first trying to convince me that I should read The Hunger Games, a friend described the trilogy as a cross between Project Runway and the Lord of the Flies—part reality television, part political allegory. As it turned out, the filmic adaptation drew upon formal and storytelling conventions of reality television in its rendition of The Hunger Games as a story of war and rebellion. However, director Gary Ross also elected to violate a number of standard film practices.

As films began to be composed of more and more shots, practices were assembled and devised to allow audiences to be able to move through these films with ease and the utmost clarity. [These practices enabled viewers] to never be confused as to when an action was taking place or where exactly actors or actress were in relationship to each other. [Peña 2011, http://bit.ly/MW08v3]

In part because of these standard practices, film viewers have an intuitive grasp of film language.[2] Responses to the aesthetics of The Hunger Game movie have tended to focus on the most obvious violations of standard film practice—in particular, the film’s formal strategies of producing multiple perspectives within the film.

For example, fast intercuts, jump cuts, and rapid camera motion during fight sequences simulate simultaneity and disorientation—formally rendering the story in such a way that viewers become disoriented.[3] Split screens produces a fragmented perspective on the violence and characters in the arena—this stylistic device is on display when the film portrays viewers in Panem watching broadcasts of the Hunger Games.  Intentionally shaky camera-work draws attention to the camera. In the film, these formal techniques work together to render the physical violence of the games no less potent but less explicit—in part presumably to ensure a PG-13 rating. The shaky camera effect also co-exists with camera movements that mimic surveillance technologies. As a formal strategy, the highlighting of the media apparatus of image production generates a reality effect—narrative films, before the advent of reality TV, have long exploited this effect.[4] However, in The Hunger Games, images representing a recorded spectacle within a film do not draw attention to Hollywood’s apparatus of filmmaking. Rather, these images stylistically position movie audiences as viewers of the games in Panem—watching the Capitol’s cameras record Katniss’s every move. Such formal strategies work in tandem to deny film audiences a simple perspective from which to view “the games.”

I love jumping the axis. I think that’s an absolute blast. But you have to do it in a way where you still maintain geography. [Ross 2012][5]

Director Gary Ross also uses non-standard editing techniques to convey the confusion of the film’s main characters. Such editing renders visible on screen the complex and ambivalent relationships that characters have to themselves and each other. Unlike good acting or bad exposition, such a strategy of conveying a character’s destabilized intersubjective relationships though un-conventional editing relies upon disorienting the films viewers.

I am referring to the film’s crossing the line of action, or its violation of the 180-degree rule. The 180-degree rule was invented so that screen direction and spatial continuity can be maintained when filmmakers edit two shots together. In the following YouTube clip, film scholar Richard Peña describes and illustrates the 180-degree rule with scene of samurais dueling in Masaki Kobayashi’s Hara-kiri (1962).

For those without access to YouTube, I’ll attempt a brief gloss. On screen, when two characters or objects exist in relationship to each other, an imaginary axis between them constitutes the 180º line or line of action. In order to maintain geographic continuity and consistent screen direction in film, it is standard practice for the camera to stay one side of this line or axis.

Katniss’s Gift

For example, recall the scene where Katniss gives the Mockingjay pin to Prim. The whistle of the Capitol’s train startles the Everdeen women from their preparations. Katniss sits down across from Prim and, along with the reassurance that “as long as you have it, nothing bad will happen to you,” Katniss hands it over and wraps her sister’s fingers around the pin.

Standard film practice would have the line of action drawn between the sisters; Katniss on screen right facing Prim on screen left. When the pin is handed over, the pin would be passed from Katniss’s hand emerging from screen right handing it over to screen left. Yet, in the film during this moment, the camera jumps the line. Viewers see Katniss’s hand emerge from screen left while passing the pin to Prim’s open hand on screen right. This jump reverses screen direction during the gifting of the pin and the proffering of comfort.

Reversing screen direction in this manner is tremendously disorienting for the lay viewer and distracting for those versed in standard film practice. A filmmaker with whom I teach documentary filmmaking, fumed on Facebook in a status update: “When Katniss gives Prim the Mockingjay pin in the Hunger Games movie, why does Gary Ross jump the 180 degree line? WHY??” For teachers who must annually instruct a new batch of students on the importance of 180º line, Ross’s crossing of the line is especially galling.

Yet, though this scene is not even ten minutes into the film, it is hardly the first time that the camera has crossed the line of action. After the film’s opening title cards, Katniss provides comfort to Prim whom the audience first hears screaming as she awakes from a nightmare. In this scene, as Katniss holds Prim tightly, the camera jumps the line—reversing the screen position of the two sisters. Later as Katniss talks with Gale in the meadow, each revealing to the other their hopes and fears, taking comfort in their shared situation, the camera jumps the line. After the reaping when Prim returns the gift of the Mockingjay pin, so that it might protect Katniss—the 180º rule is again violated.

Katniss’s Comfort                                                                 The Pin Returned

When asked about his decision to “jump the line” director Gary Ross enthusiastically replied:

There are like 300 jump cuts in the movie, too. You’re not supposed to cut from a person to themselves. We break a lot of rules, but it’s all very, very conscious and all within a style that we talked about in advance. It keeps the pace of the movie going and keeps the movie a little bit destabilized, as Katniss is. I love jumping the axis. I think that’s an absolute blast. But you have to do it in a way where you still maintain geography. [Ross 2012, emphasis added]

Ross is aware that the film must allow audiences an understanding of the filmic space, or geography, in which the characters exist. Yet, Ross and his editing team are interested in selectively breaking the rules that provide clarity between the relationships and actions of the characters. By crossing the axis of action, the film formally disorients viewers during moments of significance. Specifically, it would appear that Ross crosses the 180-line whenever Katniss has a poignant moment with someone she cares about. This is a filmic rendition of the confusion and trauma that animates Katniss’s significant social relationships. These issues of inter-subjective destabilization and misrecognition exist in the book—in which Katniss, as narrator, is often not aware of the import of the scenes or actions she narrates for the audience.

Audiences experience the jumping of the line as disorientation—screen direction is literally reversed. However, as most viewers don’t realize the formal reason for their disorientation, that feeling of “destabilization” becomes part of the experience of the narrative event represented on screen. The effect of this is to formally evoke, for viewers, a sense of Katniss’s trauma and confusion. Certain dimensions of the character’s subjective experience, central to the novel’s narrative of personal survival, are registered formally in the film through the violation of the standard film practice.[6] Ross’s deployment of film language in this way alerts us to the ways that adapting a story from book to movie requires drawing upon different formal devices in the latter to convey narrative aspects that are oft told through the medium of the former.

 

Robert Y. Chang encourages focus and  proper exposure.

 


[1] http://sunsetandecho.com/2012/03/26/story-remix-hunger-games-redux/

[2] For example, when two shots are edited together in sequence, viewers interpret a relationship or link between the contents of the shots. Or for example, when a character stands to the right of a screen while looking off screen right, viewers assume that another character or action will occur on the empty, anticipatory space on the left side of the screen.

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Split_screen_(filmmaking)

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shaky_camera

[5] Gary Ross interviewed by Silais Lesnic. March 20, 2012. http://www.comingsoon.net/news/movienews.php?id=88147/, accessed June 28, 2012.

[6] Moods and emotional tenor, as part of the narrative unfolding in the film, are also conveyed through use of color and slow-motion sequences. For example, the film deploys very distinctive stylized color filters during flashbacks emphasize the impact that events, characters, and actions have for the narrative into which the flashback is inserted.



  1. August 21, 2012 @ 9:48 am Sarah Mesle on Facebook

    take it straight to your syllabus, folks. LEARNING!

    Reply

  2. August 21, 2012 @ 10:09 am Sarah Mesle on Facebook

    i also want to point out how awesome it is that Robert, so gracefully, really shows the limits of my own (rather critical) reading of how the film handled it’s portrait of Katniss’s emotional life. “Specifically, it would appear that Ross crosses the 180-line whenever Katniss has a poignant moment with someone she cares about. This is a filmic rendition of the confusion and trauma that animates Katniss’s significant social relationships.” SO FREAKING SMART AND HELPFUL!

    Reply

  3. August 21, 2012 @ 11:59 am Morgan Fahey on Facebook

    That was great, actually, and particularly so that he was able to make clear through his research that it had been intentional. It’s hard to remember that there can be real purpose and thought behind what’s easy to dismiss as sloppy and/or trendy filming/ editing.

    Reply

  4. August 21, 2012 @ 12:33 pm Brian Forrest on Facebook

    The best use of this technique that I can think of is in Requiem for a Dream when Sara and Harry are having a talk at the breakfast table. The camera moves from one side of the 180 line to the other when Harry has a realization that changes his outlook, and it never comes back. That’s some shit right there.

    Reply

  5. August 21, 2012 @ 4:42 pm Robert Chang on Facebook

    !

    Reply

  6. August 21, 2012 @ 5:08 pm Kate Mann on Facebook

    Holy Shitballs! Is about all I can come up with re: Hunger Games Wedding.

    Reply

  7. August 21, 2012 @ 6:01 pm The post I should have written about The Hunger Games - Lawyers, Guns & Money : Lawyers, Guns & Money

    […] (typeof(addthis_share) == "undefined"){ addthis_share = [];}It reads like I actually did: On screen, when two characters or objects exist in relationship to each other, an imaginary axis […]

    Reply

  8. August 22, 2012 @ 9:48 am Thom Parkin

    Great piece. Well written

    And as a [former] filmmaker I was keenly aware of this disruptive style when viewing the movie.

    Reply


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