Sunday, November 23, 2014

"If We Burn, You Burn With Us..."

"Hunger Games – MockingJay I,” directed by Francis Lawrence, 2014

This is the third in this series about a revolution in a dystopic U.S. against the brutal and exploitative “Capitol” of Panem.  The books they are taken from were aimed at a “YA” audience (‘young adult’ – really teenagers…) and the first-run theaters are mostly filled with young Millennials who might have read the books as teenagers or not. 

Mocking Jay I locates the action in District 13, a relatively well-armed underground bunker reminiscent of the warren inhabited by the Matrix rebels of that film series.  District 13 was virtually destroyed by Panem's violent Capitol earlier, and they have lived a secret underground life for years.  They are the hard core that knew there was no compromise with the Capitol. They now seek to reach out to the other Districts – which are in rebellion through strikes, riots and guerrilla warfare – to take down President Snow and his allies.  The rebellions started when Katniss Everdeen shot an arrow into the ‘dome’ of the Hunger Games and destroyed its force field.  This rebellious action, broadcast on TV, unleashed events across Panem. 

Most older people don’t even know about these films.  If none of this makes sense, you might want to watch the first two films. 

In this film, Katniss is a tough supposed teenager, whose tiresome, yet understandable issue is saving her friend and perhaps lover, Peeta, from his imprisonment in the Capitol.  At the same time she is being asked to be the ‘symbol’ of the revolution by the revolutionaries, the 'Mockingjay.'  This bird imitates what it hears – a sort of Appalachian parrot. She is reluctant to commit to the latter. Written this way, Katniss is supposed to represent the majority of people who only think about their family and friends, even in the midst of massive social upheaval and oppression.  At some point her obsession with Peeta in this film becomes almost laughable.  She is, of course, surrounded by determined revolutionaries dressed in Cuban-like fatigues, led by the ever-beautiful and smart Julianne Moore as President Coin of District 13, or Woody Harrelson in his 'be real' stocking cap and Philip Seymour Hoffman in his last role.

What can we glean from this film from a leftist point of view?  Suzanne Collins wrote her books based on the Iraq War, reality shows and her distaste for inequality.  This particular revolution has immediately devolved into a militarized struggle.  Only in one scene do the lumber workers from District 5 attack the storm-trooper guards taking them into the forest to work.  The other scene in District 8 is of black and white rebels and a hospital full of injured civilians in a devastated city – shades of an American Baghdad or a Soviet Stalingrad  The scenes in the District 13 bunker while it is being bombed reflect a bit what it was like for Iraqis hunkered down under the bunker-buster bombs of the U.S. Air Force, or the English during the blitz.  A massive Capitol dam later gets blown by virtually unarmed civilians in District 5 rushing it with large boxes of dynamite. Almost suicidal attacks seem to be a theme.

As such, the film does not show a mass pre-violent struggle, in a way removing the people from the film.  Instead this part of the revolution is portrayed as a spontaneous bloody rebellion, with the leadership dispersed and disconnected from the Districts.  Coin wants to use Everdeen as the symbol to unite the Districts, and so the film centers around, oddly enough, creating effective propaganda to this end.  Katniss only gets to go into combat once, shooting down a Capitol jet with an exploding arrow aimed into the turbine. (!)   This focus on propaganda is key – not organizers or parties in the districts or workers seizing the means of production or the formation of clandestine District councils to direct the struggle.  Instead it reflects a ‘televised’ response to oppression. This revolution will be televised.

The main issue is the political nature of this celluloid rebellion at this point.  Who are they talking about today?  A future U.S., taking the issues of poverty, inequality, militarization, propaganda and surveillance today and drawing them out to a logical conclusion?  Or even a present dictatorship in one of the distant districts of imperial capital.  I think so.  However, the most deluded reviewer, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon.com, thinks this film represents the “Roman Empire against the Khmer Rouge.”  He says in his review, echoing the drugged Peeta, that “revolutions … almost always end badly.”  For an American to say that is laughable.  O’Hehir thinks this film appeals equally to both the T-Party and the Occupy Left and youth.  Let’s look at these positions. 

District 13 is led by a woman who says the revolution is for ‘democracy’ and having the Districts ‘share the fruit of their labors.’ The Khmer Rouge did not fight for ‘democracy.’ The revolutionaries are not busy exiling or shooting or starving everyone in glasses or in cities.  Nor do they kill or starve other nationalities, as the KR did with Cambodians with Vietnamese roots.  Women played almost no role in the leadership of the KR, as they were a patriarchal organization.  The people in these rebellions are mostly working class, not peasants or farmers.  We cannot tell what District 13 did before they were bombed, but it seems not to be a rural area of small businessmen and farmers, aka the T-Party.

Clothing plays an important part in the symbolism of this film.  Ornate dress is pilloried as reflecting the lifestyle of the Capitol.  The organized rebels are dressed like Cuban revolutionaries or Israeli kibbutzim, not the KR.  The KR dressed in the traditional red & white krama scarf, loose black pants and rubber-tire sandals or bare feet.  These rebels are not peasants but instead technical urbanites.  There is no connection between what is in this movie and the KR except in the anti-communist mind of O’Hehir.  O’Hehir claims that Edmund Burke loved the American revolution and hated the French Revolution, and that Collins, the author, is a “Burkean.”  Both revolutions, however, involved violence.  O’Hehir himself is the Burkean here, but in this series, so far, Collins has proved she is not. 

Nor is the Capitol and President Snow like the “Roman Empire.’  Distancing this very clear modern, almost fascist dictatorship by historicizing it back to pre-Christian times is another conservative dodge.   The Capitol (again, no accident in that name) is wealthy, uses television and propaganda continuously, dresses in fancy clothes, eats continually, is high-tech and militarily dominates the Districts.  As President Snow says, the deal is the Districts provide the Capitol with goods while the Capitol responds by providing ‘peace and security.’  This is clearly a more modern empire, much closer to our own.  In fact, in present far-flung districts of the U.S. empire, rebels opposing dictatorial governments are now using the 'three-finger' salute from the film to express their opposition.  5 coup protesters in Thailand were just arrested for doing this.  Occupiers in Hong Kong used it this week as their protest camp was being cleared by police.

While making this film the director Lawrence had to choose if he was to stay with the juvenile focus on Katniss rescuing Peeta and her sister, or have Katniss grow up a bit and realize there is much more that is going on than the situation of her family or friends.  She does realize it when she sees that miners' District 12, her district, has been leveled and only 900+ people escaped.  The rest were firebombed.  Of course, who is going to dig the coal now?  The movie reflects no real understanding of how the Capitol’s economy functions and just scares the viewer.  You cannot liquidate your whole working class if you are a capitalist.  Just part of it.

Sequels, remakes, pre-quels, splitting one book into two films - as done here - are all aspects of the comodification of the arts.  Art ends at a certain natural cultural point - but if tickets are bought, then commercialization begins and 'stretches' the art into something else.  This is no secret, and is one of the ordinary complaints about this film and others. But it is not the end of the story about this film.

The director chose to stay with the text and the juvenile focus, not showing much growth by Everdeen.  In this, I think it also reflects a hesitation about the word ‘revolution’ that inhabits the U.S. polity.  And quite rightly.  After all, revolution is not a triviality.  It will occur only if the overwhelming majority of the people in the modern American ‘districts’ finally have had enough and unite against the capitalist class, their politicians and their paid military mercenaries and defend themselves.  At that point it will be the most democratic moment in U.S. history.    In the U.S., the real preparation and movement of a revolution will not be televised, much as Gil Scott Heron said.  It will mostly happen outside the frame of cable news..  However, across the seas in the 'districts' of American/European/Japanese capital, fighting dictators is not something in the future.  It is now.  And those fights only occasionally break into media view.  

But on a less orthodox level, the word ‘revolution’ is being used more and more by social democrats like Naomi Klein, Christian anarchists like Russell Brand, enraged intellectuals like Chris Hedges and many other progressives to denote ‘a big change’ – not necessarily one involving armed self-defense.  Both of these concepts co-exist together in the political and cultural atmosphere.  While juvenile, somewhat dull and limited, this film spreads that idea of revolution - in both forms - further among youth and the general population.

Prior reviews of the first two films in this series below - "The Hunger Games" and "Hunger Games - Catching Fire."  Use blog search box, upper left.

Red Frog
November 23, 2014

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