From what I’ve heard from some people on the left, the price of a ticket for a Hunger Games flick will give you the same experience as watching “Salt of the Earth” or the “Bicycle Thief”. I gave it a shot last year without spending a penny. After putting on a DVD screener the studio sent me to review for the 2012 NYFCO awards meeting, I hit the eject button after 15 minutes or so. I guess the best thing you can say about it was that I stayed with it longer than “Django Unchained”. What could others see that I could not, I wondered.
Ted Glick raved: “I was surprised to find that, in addition to another impressive performance by Lawrence, the movie was also about oppressed people rebelling against hunger, poverty and a brutally repressive government, and it was well done.” But then again this is the same Glick who picked David Cobb over Ralph Nader in 2004.
Then there’s Donald Sutherland, who plays the evil dictator in Hunger Games. He was written up in the Guardian calling for a revolution:
Donald Sutherland wants to stir revolt. A real revolt. A youth-led uprising against injustice that will overturn the US as we know it and usher in a kinder, better way. “I hope that they will take action because it’s getting drastic in this country.” Drone strikes. Corporate tax dodging. Racism. The Keystone oil pipeline. Denying food stamps to “starving Americans”. It’s all going to pot. “It’s not right. It’s not right.”
Of course, some cynics might devalue his words simply on the basis of where they were uttered: “We are high up in a Four Seasons hotel overlooking Beverly Hills, sunlight glinting off mansions and boutiques below, an unlikely cradle of revolution.” The cheapest room at the Four Seasons costs $605 per night, hardly the sort of place that would qualify as a new Smolny Institute.
Then there’s Frank Giustra, whose Lionsgate studio made the film. Think he would be interested in fomenting a revolution, particularly one that was going to throw a monkey wrench into projects like Keystone? Check this out then:
Frank Giustra – key power broker and close colleague of former President Bill Clinton – has taken a seat on the Board of Directors of U.S. Oil Sands, an Alberta-based company aiming to develop tar sands deposits in Utah’s Uintah Basin.
U.S. Oil Sands – in naming several new members to its Board – also announced it has received $80 million in “strategic financing” from Blue Pacific Investments Group Ltd., Anchorage Capital Group, L.L.C. and Spitfire Ventures, LLC.
The funding will help get the ball rolling on “tar sands south,” a miniature but increasingly controversial version of its big brother to the north, the Alberta tar sands. Giustra will likely help in opening the right doors for tar sands industry interests in the United States.
In the same way that I sat through “Django Unchained”, as necessary for a survey on slavery films, I decided to watch Hunger Games, part one and part two. My goal is not to spend that much time on the films themselves but to take up the question of why so many superficially “radical” films set in some future dystopia have been coming out of Hollywood in the recent past.
But to take up the films as art, generously speaking, you have to start with where they fit in. In my view they have much more to do with the teen romance market that includes the Twilight series than they do with a film like “Elysium” that was also greeted with much fanfare from the left. In fact that probably explains why “Catching Fire” (part 2 of the Hunger Games) has generated nearly 251 million dollars in profit, while “Elysium” is still $22 million in the red. A 15-year-old girl can go see “Catching Fire” without caring a lick about a youth-led uprising. She’s there to see a hunky boy making out with Jennifer Lawrence while her aging uncle who was in Columbia University SDS can see it for its “politics”. Then there are the 15-year-old boys who like it for the video game type violence. Clever marketing all in all.
I think unless you have been in a coma for the past 2 years, you probably know what the film is about. It is set sometime in the distant future when a failed uprising against the rulers of America has been defeated. The winners live in the capital of Panem, a city that looks something like the Emerald City in “The Wizard of Oz”, while the losers live in 12 different districts that look like the coal town in “How Green was My Valley” or where the Joads came from. The winners dress like they were in the court of Louis IV while the losers wear clothes that might be carrying a Carhartt label. While there are no specific references to the sexual preferences of the people who live in the capital city, most of the men will remind you of the lead characters in “La Cage aux Folles”, pretty much like this:
The hunger games are yearly events in which each district sends two youngsters off to the capital to participate in gladiator fights to the death until only one is left. The winner gets off with their life as well as some prize money. Suzanne Collins wrote the first of the novels that the films are based on in 2008. She said that she got the idea from watching a reality show like Survivor while the war in Iraq was still going strong. Some wonder if she plagiarized the Japanese movie “Battle Royale” that has a similar theme but she states she had never seen it. (“Battle Royale” does not try to make any overarching social statements and is little more than an hour and a half of nihilistic gore.)
The Hunger Games is a trilogy. The first installment is titled “Hunger Games” and the second, now playing in theaters everywhere, is titled “Catching Fire”. The last is titled “Mockingjay” and should come out in the next year or so. Like the Twilight vampire novels and Harry Potter, these sorts of multi-part oeuvres are made to order for a Hollywood studio’s financial department. You get the 15-year-olds to show up religiously, and can even expect them to go to see the same film multiple times. This is what struck me last night as the final minutes of “Catching Fire” were unfolding. I had no idea what was going on when around a dozen people rose from their seats and started streaming for the exits. Now that’s the way I felt 15 minutes into the film. What could have taken them so long?
When the closing credits began appearing out of the blue, I figured it out. These were people who were watching the film for second or even maybe the third time. What could possibly have gotten into them? But considering the popularity of professional wrestling and “Dancing with the Stars”, I should know better than to ask that question.
The first installment of Hunger Games concludes with its heroine Katniss and hero Peeta both surviving the gladiator games. When they announce that they’d rather commit suicide than fight each other, the rulers decide to spare both their lives in accordance with the TV audience’s wishes. So disgruntled is President Snow (Donald Sutherland) by their lack of a killer instinct that he plots to return them to a special hunger game that includes past winners, sort of the kind of contest seen in “Project Runway”, a far better show in my view.
To put it bluntly, “Catching Fire” is basically a repeat of “Hunger Games” except nearly an hour longer. While the movie was wending its way toward its conclusion, I found my mind drifting off to old girl friends. (Don’t mention that to my wife.)
In terms of both politics and entertainment, I found “Elysium” a lot more compelling. That, as you might know, is another futuristic dystopian piece with a lot more solid connections to the way we live now.
When I thought about the Hunger Games films, “Elysium”, that was preceded by “District 9”, a dystopian film set in South Africa also directed by Neill Blomkamp, as well as others that have hit theaters in recent years, I wondered what it all meant. Like the Hunger Games films, “Elysium” and “District 9” were hailed as the filmic equivalent of a Molotov cocktail.
The always useful Wikipedia tells us (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_dystopian_films) that hundreds of such films have been made since the early 50s starting with “1984”, a prototype for everything that followed. Nearly all of them portray a future society ruled by a cruel dictatorship employing capricious and violent tactics to keep the masses in line. Interestingly, the first film in this mold was made decades earlier and is arguably the best: Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”.
Despite their abundance, none has had the slightest impact on changing American society in the way that a documentary can. Despite Michael Moore’s dreadful Democratic Party politics, a film like “Roger and Me” opened our eyes to the greed and depravity of General Motors. When I was growing up, you could take the slogan “What’s good for GM is good for America” seriously. After “Roger and Me”, you could not.
There’s another reason that an audience seeing “Catching Fire” would make few connections with American society today. Despite the moral turpitude of its rulers and the ruling class it represents, it is a parliamentary democracy resting on a consensus around the belief that success is a function of your own talents and nothing else. When you lose a job, you can get pissed off at the system but you see yourself more as a victim of circumstance rather than a member of a social class in specific kind of relationship to another social class that has interests opposed to your own. Ironically, most Americans are okay with survivor of the fittest, as long as you don’t have someone like President Snow forcing villages to turn over a couple of kids each year as if it was for an Aztec type human sacrifice ritual.
Bourgeois democracy is a perfect instrument for class rule. That is why I always scratch my head over those who see fascism around the corner when someone like Richard Nixon is in the White House. Why would you use the iron fist to rule the workers when their open consent guarantees systemic stability?
I’ve heard from so many people that the Hunger Games films will have the same kind of radicalizing effect on young people that Peter Camejo’s speeches had in 1968. If so, I find no evidence of that in a forum dedicated to discussion of the Hunger Games books and movies at http://www.reddit.com/r/Hungergames/. I searched in vain for anything about relaunching the Occupy movement. Mostly, this is what you will find:
Katniss talks about this rhyme that her father used to tell her sometimes, and she also talks about how it had a dark connotation that she only realized later in life. Also her mother got angry at her father for singing it to Katniss. That’s about all I understood about that rhyme. In a series in which just about everything has symbolism, what is the symbolism/significance of this? Also why does Katniss’s mother gets so angry about it?
But the one post that suggested to me that the film was much more about style than substance was this: