Saturday, April 7, 2012

Dystopia Comes to the Young

Film: “The Hunger Games,” 2012

Roman Coliseum, Lord of the Flies, the Emerald City, a Nuremberg Rally, a reality show, a high-tech surveillance society, Versailles. Bullet trains, hovering air ships. Chariots on fire. Rich sponsors swilling champagne that must ‘like you.’ Apples in pigs mouths – shades of William Tell. Knives, axes, pikes, swords and bows – all circa Rome. White, helmeted Star Wars soldiers with visors to guard them all, like cops from the RNC. Filmed in Asheville, North Carolina in Transylvania County – near the Appalachian Trail. Young Mayan sacrifices. Prior films have dealt with this scenario, especially a Japanese film called “Battle Royale” in 2000. Combination of high-tech and archaic social relations, typical of American science fiction, which is incapable of getting beyond capitalism and barbarism as twins. America is an adolescent society, so it is important what true adolescents think.

Alleged teenager Katniss Everdeen of District 12 volunteers to take her younger sister’s place as one of the ‘tributes’ to the ruling 'Capitol' in a yearly sacrifice ceremony, saving her sister’s life in the process. Katniss is tough, has archery and woods survival skills, and has been able to hunt for years. She is a Diana of the Hunt. The Districts 'owe' these sacrifices to the Capitol as payment for engaging in a civil war - or a class war - on the Capitol.

Working-class districts for the most part, where starvation and hunger rule. District 12 is Appalachian miners. In a flashback, Katniss’ father was killed in a mine explosion, her mother is emotionally catatonic. District 11 looks like older industrial workers, lots of black people. One District produces fish. Several Districts in the higher numbers, (#1, #2) train their children as ‘fighters’ and ‘killers’ from early on, so some Districts are closer to the ruling Capitol and its ‘game’ than others. These wealthier Districts looks like they represent the 9% of the population closely attached to the 1% of Panem. The ‘jock’ and ‘rich kid’ equivalents come from these Districts, and are of course called “Careers.” The Capitol itself is full of superficial, well-dressed, evidently well-fed and wealthy people who enjoy good entertainment. They really enjoy the spectacle! No bread, just circuses, circa the future.

Katniss and the boy from District 12, Peeta, put on a love story for the cameras – or at least Katniss does. She plays along to save the life of Peeta. Some of the contestants are ethical, and don’t want to kill, and will only kill to defend themselves. Katniss herself just wants to get out of the combat area. Yet the logic of ‘one winner takes all’ enforces brutality. Capitalist individualism in blood writ large. Only one can live – and it is breaking this compulsion that threatens the whole Game. Yet the “Careers’ mysteriously work together in a group to hunt Katniss – and somehow Peeta from District 12 is included in their group. (His motivation? Most likely a trick.) This is based on the “Survivor” mentality, where ‘tribes’ work together, only to cut each others throats later. Katniss is the most dangerous player, after all.

Clothes are the meta-language of class and power in the Hunger Games. TV demands ‘good looking clothing’ and actually, costumes, on show. There is a bizarre contrast between the bloody point of this exercise and the ridiculous dresses and outfits the 'soon-to-be-dead' are paraded around in. The main Hunger Games host is likable, friendly and absolutely charming – even more so than Ryan Seacrest. Another host looks like he is the mayor of the Munchkin City. President Snow – Donald Sutherland – says, “We need their raw materials and products. You see the underdogs in the Districts, you won’t like the underdogs.” Of course, all the Districts are full of underdogs. The Capitol, by extension, are the ‘over-dogs.’ Rebellion breaks out in District 11 after one black character is killed. And Snow is concerned.

Hip lefties Woody Harrelson and Lenny Kravitz help Jennifer Lawrence (“Katniss”) to ‘win’ the contest. Lawrence was the young female lead of last year’s “Winter’s Bone,” a great film about surviving in the Ozark mountains among deadly meth tweekers and real estate rip-off artists.

A lot of top bands orchestrated by T Bone Burnett (of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou” and “Raising Sand” with Robert Plant) – Arcade Fire, Decemberists, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Punch Brothers, Neko Case, the Civil Wars, Maroon Five - are on the sound-track.

A meme from liberal Christians has developed around this film, finding ‘Christ’ in Katniss’s sacrifice for her sister and others. This film actually undermines that understanding. Suffering and sacrifice are not exclusive to an alleged Christ, as the film demonstrates. Human parents, sisters, brothers and even strangers sacrifice themselves on a regular basis for other people, in this film and out. If anything, through these actions, humanity has become Christ – and not just in “Christian’ countries. In this process, Christ as a religious figure actually disappears. Humanity has taken his place. Or in this case, a girl.

The best explanation of this film is that it is a feminist, anti-government, anti-rich people’s film. Of course, movies are prisms, depending on what angle you hold the prism. This one is not political enough, given the circumstances (civil/class war about what!?), but then, we are watching a mass-market movie. The causes of the civil war can only be guessed as economic. I have been told the next two books (and the films based on them) will be far more political. This is not a ‘post-apocalyptic’ film, as some reviewers comment – this film is after another American civil war.

The real issue is why children, pre-teens, teenagers and ‘young adults’ are now interested in some kind of a dystopian future – as are some older people already. This is the really significant question. I think it can only be because they see society, nature and humanity heading for extremely dark times, and this is now penetrating into the younger population too.

Red Frog
April 7, 2012

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