The Prize Is Your Life Humans Hunting Humans By Mike White. Man is a dangerous animal. For decades, audiences have delighted in films in which human beings are hunted. From The Most Dangerous Game to Predator to Hard Target to Surviving the Game, the list of “man hunting” movies continues to grow a title or two every year...
Man is a dangerous animal. For decades, audiences have delighted in films in which human beings are hunted. From The Most Dangerous Game to Predator to Hard Target to Surviving the Game, the list of “man hunting” movies continues to grow a title or two every year. Taking the predatory pursuit out of the jungle (urban or verdant), we find that mano a mano confrontations feel “safer” to audiences when placed in gladiatorial arenas of Ancient Rome or in the distant future. In both of these cases, the recreational bloodletting takes on a more political subtext-the games find sponsorship with the state.
We find that the state-funded contests stem from a desire to placate citizenry with cathartic violence. The attendees, or viewers, of these confrontations convey dronish complacency when not frothing at the mouth, chanting “Jonathan” while watching the latest Rollerball contest, screaming dissatisfaction at the antics of Ben Richards in The Running Man, or throwing themselves into the road for the love of Frankenstein in Deathrace 2000.
While showing barbarism in the distant past or “sometime in the future” provides some comfort to an audience, the real challenge comes when this kind of event takes place here and now. Far more provocative than Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in 2000 or John McTiernan’s 2002 remake of Rollerball were two films of 2001 bereft of major marketing campaigns but with a far more radical realization of mortal combat as sport.
Series 7: The Contenders
Employing an accomplished television parlance, Daniel Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders mixes the gritty vérité of COPS with a hyperbolized competition that dwarfs the contests of television shows like Survivor, The Mole, or The Runner (the latter ultimately deemed “too sensitive” for production). Shot on digital video, Series 7 stars Brooke Smith as Dawn Logarto, an expectant mother and reigning champion of this horrific competition wherein six randomly chosen civilians struggle to kill off their opponents. Their prize? Nothing more than staying alive and fighting in Series 8. Keeping the details of the contest sketchy keeps Series 7 from becoming a science fiction story and, in turn, gives it more of a punch.
Director Minahan presents Series 7 as a full season of a program boiled down to a tight 87-minute running time. As with actual television programs of its ilk, Series 7 creates drama in its presentation. The contestants come from vastly different backgrounds-from the “Angel of Death” nurse, Connie (Marylouise Burke), to the blowhard loser, Tony (Michael Kaycheck). Minahan drives further into television faux-reality by placing Series 7 in Dawn’s home town and making one of the contestants an old high school flame-Jeffrey Norman (Glenn Fitzgerald), a terminally ill artist with a long-suffering, manipulative wife (Angelina Phillips).
Series 7 presents characters in rapid-fire shorthand but, remarkably, none of them come off as stereotypes. Rather, they’re infectiously enjoyable and become so familiar so fast that the audience can invest in them (save for the underplayed Frank (Richard Venture), a conspiracy theorist).
By consciously employing the clichés of “reality shows,” Minahan brings to fore commentary about the desires of today’s audiences while not overpowering the film’s narrative. Indeed, audiences have found Series 7 disturbing in the film’s ability to minister to and underscore the undeniable bloodlust that prevails in today’s “enlightened” society.
Series 7: The Contenders succeeds in every milieu it invades. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about its distributor, USA Films. Except for “key markets,” Series 7 played in few U.S. venues. It seems that USA hoped to shirk any potential controversy that this insightfully violent film could incur. After avoiding several major film festivals, USA dumped the film onto video and DVD in late 2001-not bothering to make the film available to several major retailers or to update the film’s well-crafted website with this information.
Perhaps USA Films took its low-profile cue from the problems faced by Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale. Embroiled in controversy, Battle Royale hasn’t come under fire because it pits forty-two contestants against one another in a similar life-or-death game. Rather, the dilemma stems from the fact that the players are all high school students.
The 61st film of 70-year old director Kinji Fukasaku, Battle Royale begins with a prologue:
“At the dawn of the millennium the nation collapsed. At 15% unemployment, 10 million were out of work. 800,000 students boycotted school. The adults lost confidence and, fearing the youth, eventually passed the Millennium Educational Reform Act AKA the BR Act.”
While the logic of instating the BR Act due to the downturn of the Japanese economy is tenuous at best, Battle Royale screams into action and doesn’t allow time to ponder such issues. After a few scenes setting up core characters-Shuya (Tatsuya Fujiwara) and Noriko (Aki Maeda)-the forty-two high schoolers become trapped on a remote island where they’re reintroduced to their seventh grade teacher, Kitano (brilliantly played by “Beat” Takeshi Kitano).
“This country’s become no good,” Kitano says. “The bigwigs got together and passed [the BR Act]. So today’s lesson is... you kill each other off. ’Till there’s only one left. There’s nothing against the rules.”
Armed with a random “weapon” (some get semi-automatic guns, some get less lethal implements), each student has three days to dispatch his or her classmates in hope of being the last one standing. Again, there is little time for logic and no room for pacifism. Playing like a high-stakes version of Martin Campbell’s island prison adventure No Escape, Battle Royale finds fuel in the heightened melodrama of adolescence. As these kids struggle to stay alive, classroom rivalries skyrocket and doe-eyed crushes become heavyweight love affairs.
Shuya, whose father abandoned him by taking his own life, becomes the stand-in for the audience as well as the prototypical Japanese. Struggling in this microcosm of Japan, Shuya is a young man without a father as Japan is a country without a strong leader. Meanwhile, the only male role model for Shuya appears to be Kitano, the slump-shouldered former teacher plagued with family problems of his own.
Shot as a movie rather than a TV show, Battle Royale has its moments of “score-keeping” via graphics that appear, tallying the names of those who have died as well as how many students are left. Though not a “public spectacle,” the competition of Battle Royale sucks an audience into its world. As the body count goes higher, director Fukasaku keeps raising the stakes, never relenting in this dogged contest. Cleverly, Battle Royale doesn’t appear as an outright parody but, rather, it takes melodrama to the nth degree. The film’s score booms with emotionally riveting classical pieces, giving the proceedings an operatic tinge.
As for the controversy surrounding Battle Royale, it is to be expected. People feel they should be outraged at the idea of teenagers forced to kill one another. There is a conception that a film such as this would encourage teen violence across the country. At some level, there is a realization that countless Columbine powder kegs exist. Rather than looking at the problem from a preventative perspective and diffusing the problems that cause such combustible situations to exist, these brave little moralistic firefighters take the tack of rushing around madly, throwing water, and heaping accusations on provocative elements such as songs, television shows, and films.
Sadly, Battle Royale seems destined to never find widespread distribution in the United States. Rather, the premise of the film will keep it, and any discussions surrounding it, to a limited audience.
Shamefully, Peter Watkins’s Punishment Park suffered a similar fate in 1971 that Battle Royale endures today. Playing for a mere four days upon its U.S. release (to some violently negative reviews), Punishment Park quickly disappeared from public view. However, where the internet is ablaze with reviews and fan sites dedicated to Battle Royale, Punishment Park and its director, Peter Watkins, remain largely unknown to younger cinephiles. Until 2002, the only version of Punishment Park available on video was a French-subtitled copy whose muddy picture quality only further emphasized the subversive subject matter of the film.
Like Minahan’s Series 7: The Contenders, Watkins employs a set of stylistic conventions to give his film more weight. As with the lion’s share of Watkins’s oeuvre, he shot Punishment Park as a documentary (years before faux documentaries were in vogue).
Like Battle Royale, Punishment Park begins with a prologue that explains the basis for the film. “Under the provisions of Title 2 of the 1950 Internal Security Act, also known as the McCarran Act, the President of the United States of America is still authorized-without further approval by Congress-to determine an event of insurrection within the United States and to declare the existence of an ‘Internal Security Emergency.’ The President is then authorized to apprehend and detain each person as to whom there is reasonable ground to believe probably will engage in certain future acts of sabotage. Persons apprehended shall be given a hearing, without right of bail, without the necessity of evidence, and shall then be confined to places of detention.”
If this sounds familiar, that is probably because several of these tenents have recently made their way into the Patriot Act, which Congress hastily passed after 9/11/2001. At the time of this writing, the detention camps of Punishment Park don’t openly reside on the U.S. mainland but, rather, only at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
As a “humane” and “fair” method of sentencing, those accused of insurgency have the option of serving out their sentence in a federal penitentiary or of taking their chances in Punishment Park. The “Park” is a sun-baked, rocky landscape where participants have three days to complete a fifty three-mile trek to a U.S. flag. To add some “excitement” to the mix, the detainees must evade capture by pursuing law enforcement officers. The officers have transportation, guns, and water.
Shot “for European television,” Punishment Park follows the trial of a group of alleged dissidents. Having been held for two months without ever hearing the charges against them, they’re given a chance to speak-to a certain extent-at this tribunal. The kangaroo “courtroom” setting with the comments of those on trial and of their uptight, white, bourgeoisie jurors are inter-cut with scenes of the previous group of “troublemakers” making their arduous journey through Punishment Park.
Watkins doesn’t skimp on ironic juxtapositions of actions and sentiment between any of those involved. Yet, Watkins spares viewers from ham-fisted theatrics or preachy sentimentalism. Punishment Park is thoroughly convincing. The “acting” never feels theatrical. Instead, the performances in Punishment Park feel frighteningly real, helping audiences to invest in the story. From there, the editing and pacing are truly hypnotic.
If Punishment Park feels so shocking and relevant in 2002, I wonder how disturbing it must have been for audiences in 1971 when the Vietnam War was still in high gear. While Punishment Park (and much of Watkins’s other work) remains unreleased in the U.S., this film has recently been restored and released on DVD in France. Those interested in seeing Punishment Park would do well to make the effort to track down this DVD version, as it is a world apart from the video version that’s been available for the last few years.
The precursor of state-funded killing films, Elio Petri’s 1965 Italian film, La Decima Vittima (The Tenth Victim), finds roots in Robert Sheckley’s short story, The Seventh Victim. While containing the kernel of a good idea, La Decima Vittima folds under the weight of its gynophobia. The film’s protagonist, Marcello Polletti (Marcello Mastroianni sporting an unlikely head of flaxen hair) plays in the state-run contest wherein participants alternate roles from hunter to victim until they perish or retire after ten games. Polletti closes in on the end of his career, becoming the final prey to Caroline Meredith (Ursula Andress). More dangerous than this assassin with her bullet shooting bra are Polletti’s wife and mistress who vie for his attention and income. Despite terrific Pop Art cinematography, La Decima Vittima doesn’t know when to call it a day, having a series of false endings that only serve to help wear out its tired presence. Like Battle Royale, the contest of La Decima Vittima remains relatively free of television scrutiny.
Meanwhile, another Sheckley-inspired film, Yves Boisset’s Le Prix du Danger has TV at its core. Based on another Sheckley story, The Prize of Peril, Boisset’s film bears a strong resemblance to Paul Michael Glaser’s The Running Man. In fact, The Running Man often appears closer to Le Prix du Danger than to the Stephen King novel adapted for Glaser’s film!
Starring Gérard Lanvin as an ex-con turned TV sensation, Le Prix du Danger takes far too long to get started. Likewise, the scenes of six average citizens hunting Lanvin bear little excitement. The finale of Lanvin’s confrontation of TV host Michel Piccoli should be viewed as an unsuccessful dry run for Arnold Schwarzenegger taking on Richard Dawson four years later.
The idea of violence as public spectacle-especially for mass-consumption-becomes less farfetched with each coming television season. Boris Paval Conen’s 1998 Dutch film, Temmink: The Ultimate Fight, questions the plausability of modern day gladiatorial games as popular entertainment. Taking a cue from the frighteningly popular Pay-Per-View and video rental Ultimate Fighting Championship series, Temmink simply pushes the envelope and gives a bloodthirsty audience what they’re afraid to admit that they want. The fighters of “The Arena” don’t merely beat each other to a bloody pulp: they battle to the death!
As with nearly all participants in filmic “experimental programs,” the contestants of “The Arena” consist of convicted murderers. Jack Wouterse plays the titular fighter, finding that his uncontrollable bouts of rage come in handy during these death matches. When his face isn’t flaming crimson with anger, Temmink seems to be a fairly nice guy. Occasionally, Conen’s film feels as though it might stray into more science fiction territory but the director does well to stay his hand, providing a credible world in which “The Arena” might exist.
On the road from Roman and futuristic bloodletting to the reality-rooted state-funded killing films a handful of works reside between spectacle and scathing social satire. Too often only the lack of sheer audacity has pushed these films into the fringes. Punishment Park, Battle Royale, and Series 7: The Contenders bear backbone in abundance. By setting themselves in the now and by appropriating or playing off stylistic conventions, these films provide concurrent catharsis and caricature.
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