I suppose I owe Steven Soderbergh a drink, or a bottle, or a fancy foreign-region Blu-ray disc or something. For a variety of reasons I am, as it happens, personally enjoined from writing about much of anything he does. It's arguably a "stretch" for me to extend this rule to cover works on which he did some second-unit shooting as a favor to a director who's a friend of his, but, yeah, that's how I got to "pass" on The Hunger Games, the new Gary-Ross-directed picture adapted from some kinda young adult novel that's not only very popular but also something of a cultural phenom, or something.
"You know everything about movies." People have been telling me that for as long as I can remember. It's intended as a compliment, I know, but I'll cringe when I hear it, because the fact of the matter is I know practically NOTHING about movies, I know practically nothing about anything, really. Obviously what little I do know serves in the function of making me at least a somewhat coherent reviewer/maybe-critic, but, you know, seriously, people. And I find that as I get older my favorite viewing experiences in cinema are of things that at least in part remind me of what I don't know. I know, or at least I intuit, that Aleksei Guerman's 1998 Khrustalyov, My Car! is, in the phrase of a friend of mine, one of the great films. The ways in which I can tell you why are limited, and my grasp of the film's subject matter and historical period is more limited still, but I do know that when watching it on a big screen (as I did for the third time last week) I am in the presence of an artistic power greater than myself, and I am grateful for that. Similarly, a picture such as Zulawski's 1977/1988 On The Silver Globe, while largely what you might call batshit crazy and in most ways not nearly as, um, coherent an aesthetic experience as the Guerman masterpiece, knocked me for a loop not just on account of its Zulawskian eccentricity (imagine Zulawski's better-known Possession crossed with The Mole People and you have a very small sliver of an idea of the nature of the material spun out for almost three hours here) but the extent of missing—alien, if you will—context that I wasn't getting.
This is a long-winded way of getting to my point, which is that the acceptance that you know nothing can lead to further acceptance of the fact that you're never going to know everything, which doesn't mean you can give up but maybe means that you can relax a little bit. And the acceptance that you're never going to know everything leads to the acceptance of the fact that you're not obliged to have an opinion about everything.
I feel rather fortunate, I must say, that I'm not required to have an opinion on The Hunger Games, and am gratified that the state of my mental health is such that I don't even feel a slight tug of compulsion to have an opinion about it. People are still stroking their chins about the difference between the state of "criticism" back in the day versus now-in-the-world-of-the-Jetsons or whatever. I suppose one salient difference has to do with the way that the so-called "cultural conversation" (and good God how I gag on that thoroughly fucking insipid phrase) has spread into so many aspects of our being that there's this outstanding illusion/delusion among media professionals and amateurs that their "take" is ALWAYS required. Of course I understand that in saying that I have nothing to say about The Hunger Games I am in some way saying something about it, but I'm not saying THAT much about it, man, although I am curious as to why people's hairstyles in these dystopian allegories are always something out of some Forbidden Zone version of Versailles or something...)
One weird thing I've noticed in seeing EVERYBODY ELSE weigh in on the object is that nobody seems particularly interested in treating it as a discrete piece AT ALL. It's like the starting point is "teen phenom" which is then followed by some sort of disclosure of the reviewer's relation to the phenom. There's the "Yeah I read Young Adult genre fiction and what of it?" defensive posture, or there's the "Ever since Potter there's no stigma attached to reading Young Adult genre fiction, so it's all good" shrug. (This latter posture sets up some good stuff. The DEEP DISAPPOINTMENT implied in the Always Very Concerned About Things Melissa Anderson's observation "The novelist [...] is apparently fine with the contradiction" is kind of poignantly hilarious.) None of this is as amusing as the "I'm too old for this shit" pose adopted by, among others, sworn enemies Jeffrey Wells and David Poland. Wells admits that he walked out of a Hunger Games screening early on to "kick out" some "pent-up energy" (the image of Jack Nicholson punching the air while walking down a corridor in the Overlook Hotel springs to mind), and then came back in to watch the remainder. Wells then rhetorically asks, "can I load up the shotgun and spray indiscriminate buckshot?" Having killed the horse, we can predict with confidence that he'll continue to beat it indefinitely. (Sure enough, his very next post is one in which it is revealed that he hated Hunger Games so much that it inspired him to look up the Wikipedia page on Battle Royale.)
Poland, ever the embodiment of a particular you-guys-just-don't-GET-it-do-you wannabe gravitas, goes for a more "O tempora, o mores" approach in his notice, actually leading off with the "What do you think the Devil is going to look like...?" speech from Broadcast News. And it gets more exciting from there. So while one sector of critics uses a relation to/familiarity with the source material as a jumping-off point, these guys are convinced that the most truly germane thing about the movie is their alienation from it, and by extension the source material. I know that Robert Warshow commended a criticism based on the "direct experience" of the writer but I daresay this is taking things into a more solipsistic direction than he meant. (And while of course I'm not on balance a big believer in this sentiment, the sentence "Ingrid, it's only a movie" does also come to mind, I must admit.)
From my position of relative disinterest what I see happening is less a "cultural conversation" than a kind of marking of territory. Less of an interest in actually talking about what's on the screen than in what your position about what's on the screen is saying, or is going to say, about you. It reminds me, in a not entirely indirect way, of what Robert Christgau wrote about Randy Newman's 1979 album Born Again: "[R]ather than making you think about homophobes and heavy-metal toughs and me-decade assholes the way he once made you think about rednecks and slave traders and high school belles, he makes you think about how he feels about them. Which just isn't as interesting."