Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Meritless Meritocracy

"Divergent – Insurgent,” 2015, directed by somebody…

This is a dumb-ass dystopian movie with a dreadful lead heroine who could put a zombie to sleep.  It’s number two or three in a series knock-off of “The Hunger Games,” where the female ‘action’ protagonist Tris is no Jennifer Lawrence.  It features idiotic CGI, the vague personalities of B-movie actors and an implausible plot written by another ‘Young Adult’ novelist, Veronica Roth.  Poor Kate Winslet plays the cold aspiring dictator Jeanine.  Yet there is something to behold here.  Yes there is.

Dystopian films always reflect on our own myopia, our ‘utopia’, the civilized craptopia of the present.  This movie’s society is structured by emotional ‘factions’ – Erudite (intelligence); Abnegation (sacrifice); Amity (peace and non-violence); Dauntless (bravery); and Candor (honesty).  Tris is a member of Dauntless, but she finds out in the first film that she – along with others – are ‘divergent’ from the factions, sharing capacities with other groups.  Divergence like this is seen as bad by this society led by Erudite and the divergents have to hide.  Being different!  Bad!  Erudite ultimately is trying to control everything and kills many members of Candor in the battle that develops against the divergents.
Cheesey Map of Chicago  in Future
The film takes place in a partially-ruined city like Chicago, with some woods and fields, all surrounded by a giant white wall.  The joint factional counsel recommends no one go beyond the wall, as it is ‘dangerous’ beyond it.  This wall is reminiscent of the “The Maze Runner.”  It is either a real or a metaphorical wall – perhaps the border of the U.S., our shoreline, perhaps the fear of the ‘other’ or the unknown or foreigners. Perhaps it is the ‘jail’ that life can become.

In the peni-ultimate scene, the rebel divergent Tris passes 5 gruesome tests to prove she has all the factional characteristics  of each group.  This opens a ‘box’ which announces that the whole thing was an experiment.  The experiment was meant to prove that ‘divergence’ is exactly what is to be desired – to transcend faction, to have as many ‘characteristics’ as possible.  The people who constructed the test live beyond the wall and then invite the lab rats out.  Oh happy day.

Let’s look at this idea of ‘factions.’  The faction that attempts dictatorship is Erudite – the ‘intelligent.’  Now we know that the ruling elite in the U.S. considers themselves smarter than everyone else – otherwise why are they in control and have all the money?  It is called Social Darwinism, the ‘meritocracy,’ the cream rising to the top – or perhaps the scum.   You might even know people who believe this.  “Intelligence’ in this scenario is supposedly reduced to a grasp of abstract ideas and ‘success.’  Yet as research by Howard Gardner has shown, there are many kinds of intelligence – emotional, social, mechanical, physical, artistic – that don’t fit the standard bourgeois definition.  Some of these forms of intelligence cannot always be monetized.  This film backs that up.  Here is Gardner’s original chart, which I don’t think is complete or extensive enough even now.  He’s even added another category from his original 7:

Dancers, athletes, surgeons, crafts people
The ability to use one's physical body well.
Sales people, teachers, clinicians, politicians, religious leaders
The ability to sense other's feelings and be in tune with others.
People who have good insight into themselves and make effective use of their other intelligences
Self-awareness. The ability to know your own body and mind.
Poets, writers, orators, communicators
The ability to communicate well, perhaps both orally and in writing, perhaps in several languages.
Mathematicians, logicians
The ability to learn higher mathematics. The ability to handle complex logical arguments.
Musicians, composers
The ability to learn, perform, and compose music.
Biologists, naturalists
The ability to understand different species, recognize patterns in nature, classify natural objects.
Sailors navigating without modern navigational aids, surgeons, sculptors, painters
The ability to know where you are relative to fixed locations. The ability to accomplish tasks requiring three-dimensional visualization and placement of your hands or other parts of your body.

As you can see, many so-called intelligent people in the present definition don’t actually have the full range of possibilities.  The ‘idiot’ savant, the autistic genius, the socially awkward mathematician, the professor who can’t use a screwdriver come to mind as extreme examples.  In a way, this movie undermines the traditional belief in a narrow form of ‘intelligence’ as the fount of all wisdom.

In the process of the rebellion, Tris and her cohort come upon “Factionless,” a rough and hidden group led by a woman, Evelyn, who wants to unite with them to kill Jeanine.  Factionless are the outcasts, the homeless.  What is interesting is that even though the divergents share characteristics, they also are stamped by their prior factional membership.  Some even return to the fold.  So they mistrust the factionless, who have no pedigree at all.  One quote in particular has a subtext, as Tris’ partner Tobias warns Tris that Factionless wants to overthrow Erudite, but won’t say what comes next – hinting that they want a dictatorship too.  Factionless is the most revolutionary of the groups and the most outside the system.  Yet where did they come from? This dig at them, which will probably be continued in another film, is subtle ‘red-baiting’ and ‘poor baiting’ to my mind.

The rebellion succeeds when Factionless works with the divergents to flood Erudite’s headquarters with fighters.  The film ends with the leader of Factionless, Evelyn, putting a bullet through Jeanine’s head. I think we are supposed to be angered by Evelyn doing this.  Yet Jeanine was not going to abide by any directions to abandon the faction system, and Evelyn knew it.  Not to mention the fact that Jeanine had just killed or tortured a bunch of people. The last scenes are of the former ‘factions’ walking to meet the people outside the wall who stuck them in this ruined city as an 'experiment.' 

These factions are pale reflections of aspects of our class and ethnically stratified society, absent the economics, as no one works in this world, nor is there any apparent source of food or energy.  There is no proletarian faction, though Factionless comes closest and Amity next.  Amity is a group of mellow rural hippies living around a large Geodesic dome, raising crops by hand and horse.  They actually are the only people seen working at all.  Dauntless is a Spartan military strata that does the will of Erudite. Sound familiar? Candor is the middle class strata, led by an Asian with a judicial robe.  Abgenation must be people who work for non-profits, staff churches or do volunteer work – sensitive souls out of their league.

The use of the word 'factions' might strike Marxists as familiar. Why that word?  There are so many factions of the modern leftist movement that any message that they transcend their differences must seem really utopian.  Marxists have been accused of 'utopianism' before, so they we might want to reflect on that and perhaps see that that 'transcendence' is the way out.

So the message is that psychological – and by implication social factions - can be transcended.  Given this film is directed mostly at young people, is there some kind of social message here that goes beyond high-school cliquism?  Or is it just the rank idealism that they sell young people, only to tell them later when they get their corporate jobs that that is all bullshit.  And its just time to make money.

Reviews of all 3 ‘Hunger Games’ films, below.  Also a review of “The Maze Runner,” below.

Red Frog
October 6, 2015 

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