- Category: Culture
- Created on Monday, 16 April 2012 10:33
- Written by Mike Ely
by Mike Ely
I went to see Hunger Games this weekend.
I experienced it as a welcome and heartfelt rejection of synthetic spectacle -- today's whole revolting TV culture of celebrity, gossip, and artifice. It skewers the commodified objectification and cynical careerism that is so central to America's cultural machinery.
In this film, American Idol is reinvented as a future gladiator game -- where the victorious state demands young combatants who fight to the death.
This is an ugly and utterly amoral spectacle of murder and mutual deception (like "Survivor" with real knives). And yet, the contestants are told over and over, there is a chance of victory, riches, and "glory for your District."
That chance is described as "hope." You may, in the end, be the one who goes home. Death or Glory -- on the terms of a corrupt and rigged system.
The cultural framework is interesting here:
The capital city is run by cliques that appear to be Lady Gaga's (or perhaps Paris Hilton's) world of upper class Klub Kids -- who in this world have the armed power of the central state. This ruling culture creates a world of decadent, vain, oblivious, and narcissistic elitists. (Note: I'm not "taking a swipe" at Lady Gaga here.... but the film apparently is.)
Every momentary fashion and pleasure in their world is a major matter to be savored. Every background groan of the oppressed goes utterly ignored. Raw entitlement is worn proudly along with the caked-on glitter.
Simple goodness as a subversive value
Katniss is the oldest daughter of a broken, depressed, numbed mother... and has been thrust into the role of parent for her impoverished family -- for both her mother and sister -- after her father dies in a mine explosion.
And (as so often happens in our society) that training in hyper-responsibility for young women within "disfunctional" families brings the skills of leadership and competence that suddenly bloom on a larger stage.
Katniss is a good and straightforward person -- in a world where simple goodness is very rarely seen on the giant screens of mainstream culture.
There is a great moment when a Ryan Seacrest character tells President Snow (played by revolutionary actor Donald Sutherland) that
"Everyone roots for the underdog."
And President Snow snaps back, "I don't."
Snow is not part of the Klub Kid scene -- he is the embodiment of the dead-serious operations of an unjust state. Everything moves through his calculus of power and counter-insurgency. Where others are dazzled and perversely titillated by the gladiator spectacle, he sees the basics of domination -- symbolic at some times, brutally violent at others.
By contrast, Katniss' District 12 is a color-drained rural coalmining community (re-envisioned as roughly 1950 Appalachia). People grow up pale and hungry. The poor look with envy at crusts of bread thrown to the hogs by their neighbors.
Seeing (and Understanding) Populism in America
In some ways, this picture of social hostility straddles the populist terrain which both left or right can appeal to.
There is nothing inherently revolutionary or communist about a rural community's sense of authenticity clashing the cruel indifference and synthetic decadence of cities.
There is even a whiff of volkischness to this depiction that we should learn to perceive -- as is often true when the oppressed are portrayed as hard-working, morally-uncomplicated white working people -- and the oppressors are shown as decadent overly-sophisticated urban elites.
And that whiff appears more strongly if, in any American narrative, the complex matters of race are somehow disappeared.
The complex history of American populism, its real class hatreds and its equally real racial blindspots, is never far below the surface in our culture.
I don't know if that populism is part of the conscious terrain of the film-maker, but I do know it remains in the mental terrain of any mass audience in America -- especially in this moment when the language of revolt and hatred for the "Beltway" capital have so often been abdicated to the of Tea Party Right.
To be clear: None of that makes Hunger Games "a racist movie" or "a rightwing populist movie" in some mechanical way.
Far from it.
I'm just saying the terrain of class, oppression and revolt are depicted in (ambiguous) ways that, symbolically, leave this film open for appropriation by rightist populists.... as well as by the genuinely progressive and rebellious. (Rebellion and oppression are themes that can be employed and deployed by the radical right -- as well as by forces wanting genuine liberation).
In the world of "radical films" -- this was true, for example, around the films Braveheart and Road Warriors -- films understandably beloved by radical leftwing people -- but also by the radical right and (revealingly) centered on the antisemitic fascist actor/director Mel Gibson).
By contrast, the film 300 was deeply soaked in a Nazi aesthetic of Aryanness -- in a way that openly demonized multi-culturalism and subcultures (piercings, race mixing, sexual ambiguity, etc.)
I assume that, like me, many progressive and radical people will experience this film as an exposure and mockery of the emptiness of modern capitalist culture -- with good reasons.
But we should also understand how Christian conservatives, Tea-Party populists (and even perhaps white nationalists) might view this same stream of cultural depiction -- and how they have been actively working to appropriate those real and justified cultural tensions that give this film some of its juice.
Real vs. fake. Authentic vs. synthetic. Dignified by honest work vs. the decadence of upper class leisure. The simplicity of rural goodness vs. the complexity of urban deceit.... These are the tensions on display -- and it is a moment to understand both how many people HATE the emptiness of today's popular culture, and how such discontent is being fought over by both left and right. (And in many ways the right is currently doing a better job here than we are.)
Thought experiment: Imagine Hunger Games being played in a Christian academy high school... how much would it clash with, and how much would it vibe with, the feelings of persecution such reactionaries feed on? Would it do both? Would it affect different parts of the audience in different ways?
What are you gonna do about oppression?
There is another set of themes here in Hunger Games: Numb acceptance vs. fighting for survival vs. rising in serious rebellion.
I'll just say that this film mainly resides in that pre-political ground of "fighting to survive" (not just physically survive, but also morally survive) in a world where everything decent is under assault.
At the fringes of the picture are the beat-down passivity of the defeated (among them, Katniss' mother)... and the early rumblings of more organized resistance. The spirit of Katniss, her competence, and courage all contain a promise of resistance. There is a moment whenevents in the Hunger Games spark riots in District 11.
Pre-political: At the crossroads of revolt
Those who have read the trilogy of books know: Katniss ends this first film with a choice. She has (based on simple merit, hard-work and goodness) won the battle for survival. It is a triumph of values, not merely of force.
Can she now play "their" game? Can she turn her previous authenticity into another purchased piece of trimming on a fundamentally oppressive and inauthentic culture? Or has she already crossed a line, so that they have to crush her, in order to keep crushing the people?
And so the film ends at a crossroads, and at a question. Welcome to our times.