Saturday, 2 January 2016

'NO BREAD BUT CIRCUSES': NOT A PROPER REVIEW AT ALL OF THE HUNGER GAMES FILMS

...which still manages to include what are technically PLOT SPOILERS


The Hunger Games film series have been much spilt over by ink, with comparisons to the Occupy movement, references to the arrests of Thais who took up the three-fingered rebel salute and so on. Which suggests they weren't just successful but struck a chord. Much like the Lord of the Rings series, showings of the sequels would repeatedly be preceded by ever-multiplying trailers for copycat films, with titles like 'Skipped Lunch Furore'

On another front others have complained they lacked originality. In particular, it's been claimed they're a knock off of 'Battle Royale' (2000). But this overlooks that zeitgeisty dramas are likely to overlap, if they're sourcing from the same real-world events. It also overlooks the similarly themed films from that great era for SF dystopias, the early Seventies. And in fact the distinction between the two films occurred then. 'Battle Royale' is the inheritor of 'Punishment Park' (1971), merely swapping young delinquents for political rebels. While the Hunger Games films take up from 'Rollerball' (1975). In both a gladiatorial snuff sport takes place inside a techno-Colosseum, all designed to keep the masses quiet. In both the wrong winner just keeps winning, until the games become less a safety value for a passive public and more a lightning rod for dissent.

But the real current the films plug into is much more recent. Of course, its reality TV. We've reached the point where touchy-feely TV interviews co-existing with slaughter doesn't feel satirical, it feels incisive. The success of the films lies in their exposing something innate to reality TV, even if they do it by exaggeration. Its function is to appear a bubble environment, distinct from our workaday world. After all, by its nature its unscripted. No-one knows how it will work out. How can it possibly have an agenda? And this is precisely the root of its effectiveness. What's presented as something separate from is in actuality a microcosm of our society. As Haymitch says to Katniss “your job is to be a distraction so people forget what the real problems are”.

And what reality TV really stands for is the market. Like the market all appears natural. The combating 'tributes' battle one another in a forest, seemingly following the law of the jungle. Yet the environment is not only artificial, preserved under a dome, it's manipulated throughout by unseen hands. When Katniss tries to wait the contest out, a forest fire is conjured up to push her back in the fray. (To complete the circle, a South Korean reality TV show was even called ‘Law of the Jungle’.) Like the market, the tributes have no real choice about participating – someone will be made to go. Yet like the market everyone joins in the pretence that they're taking part voluntarily, and are even looking forward to the whole kill-or-be-killed business. Because they need to, to stand any chance of winning.

Which leads us to the most important point of all. In an advance on 'Rollerball' its not all about being skilled, having a particular knack for staying alive yourself while doing the opposite to other people. At Katniss is told, your main survival skill is getting the audience to like you. Because shows such as 'Big Brother' presumes the prime commodity you trade in is no longer your labour power but you - you present that personality in competition with your peer group. Take for example this article by Tom Peters: “Starting today you are a brand. You're every bit as much of a brand as Nike, Coke, Pepsi or the Body Shop... [your] most important job is to be head marketer for the brand called You.”

In short, it's a war of each against all, where the winners are already predetermined because they've made themselves the judges. This is why the bravura scene is so effective when Katniss' arrow brings down the dome that houses the Games, revealing the mechanism beneath. (Visually compared to firing straight at Snow himself.)


(Which leads to the irony that at the same time she's forced to play-act for the audience the Games do genuinely socialise Katniss. She starts the film as almost a feral creature, with no father and a remote mother - pretty much a stranger in her home territory. Almost her first line is the threat to cook a cat, while she seriously considers sneaking off to live in the woods. We'd probably look at that more if this was a proper review.)

Based on teen lit books, there's also a focus on the sacrificial nature of youth. While everyone has focused on the similarities to 'Battle Royale', they have much in common with 'Cabin In the Woods' (2012). In both, teens are put into a situation of combined voyeurism and life-threatening danger, in an apparent natural environment which is ceaselessly manipulated to pull their strings. In both this is a longstanding ritual, used to keep the unspoken at bay. The panopticon is all-seeing but iconoclastic, it has no space for anything but young faces. Its a world based around the cult of youth. But its that same cult of youth which eats youth up.

But most significantly, particularly for a modern American film, is the evocation of class. Without this, there'd be less comparisons made to Occupy and it's 99% vs. 1% narrative. Its not only a world where people sell their labour power, its a world where the many labour to keep the few in comfort. As Peeta says “our lives were never ours”. Anyone who objects will come face-to-face with a ruthless police force. Author of the source novels, Suzanne Collins has said she came up with the concept by putting together reality TV with the Iraq war. Which in many ways was America sending its young and its poor off into a TV spectacle. (This reaches its literalisation in the scene in the final film, where the IED unleashes a deluge of oil which nearly drowns Katniss and her team.)

Perhaps what's most significant is how anything like this is generally so absent from mainstream culture – not that it is here but that it isn't almost anywhere else. At the same time as class differences have exacerbated, the subject has disappeared from stage and screen. Dramas can evoke a form of anti-capitalism, but this is normally posed as a kind of individualised, subjective rejection of capitalism. Which of course is absurd and self-contradictory. It reduces anti-capitalism to anti-consumerism then makes anti-consumerism into a consumer choice. It presumes we're “free agents”, abstracted individuals at liberty to create our own association with the world, which is a fundamental supposition of capitalist mythology in the first place.

Whereas Katiss' situation stems largely from her social position. She resists not to express herself but for her and her sister's survival, no separation between want and need. She at first resists individually, but largely through force of circumstance starts to work collectively. (“Katniss, remember who the real enemy is” - that's actually pretty good advice.) Because you can't choose your way out of the Games. The dome needs to be smashed. That probably shouldn't seem unusual, but it does. (I haven't bothered watching any of the afore-mentioned copycat films. But their trailers give the impression they keep the youth aspect with none of the class.)

This clash of values is well presented in the film by a clash of styles. Katniss' home, District 12, is filmed in quite a social realist fashion. Then, just when we have become used to this, a mighty ship from the Capitol rumbles over the woods - like a Star Destroyer showing up in 'Kes'. The preening dandies of the Capital are grotesque and cartoony, yet we see these figures of satire rub shoulders with 'real people'.

In short its the scenario of the films, telegraphed in the title, which is the crux of the thing. 'The Hunger Games' is about the Hunger Games. And when the third film, 'Mockingjay' (split into two parts like they always are) transitions from the games to the revolution, it tends to lose it way. As it turns out a revolution is just a war with the odd ethical debate tossed in, in fact the sort of ethical debate which often finds their way into war films anyway. 'Land and Freedom', Ken Loach's acclaimed 1995 film of the Spanish Revolution features long debates over subject such as land collectivisation, but as they're pressing to the characters' lives and not abstract theorising they become compelling. It might be an ask to see something quite like that in a mainstream mulitplex film. But there's nothing even similar.


The second and third films makes little secret of the fact that rebel leader Alma Coin sees the revolt as her fast-track to Presidency, that Katniss is being played by her almost as much as she was in the Games. The Capital-like blonde streaks in her hair become a signifier of where she wants to be living. (Just as President Snow is less dandified than any other Capitol dweller.) At the time, this seems an advantage. We'd probably guess at what was coming anyway, so why try to hide it? We just wait for Katniss to catch up with it all.

But the problem is that when she eventually does, in the final instalment, there's not much else left to happen. The scene where Coin announces she's made herself “interim President” until things quieten down is nicely underplayed. (No-one has ever boldly announced a coup.) But the subsequent assassination scene tries to stir up tension where none remains. We never doubted Katniss would catch up, we just wondered when and how. So we know what will happen - and then it does.

The film holds Coin at arm's length, in order to make her more puppeteer than combatant. But this does two things at once. It means Coin's desire to seize power is merely a streak of her nature like the streaks in her hair – she was just like that. Consequently the implication becomes that by shooting her Katniss safeguards everything. She moves from seeing offing President Snow as the big fix to assuming arrowing Coin does the same thing. But when Coin argues, for example, that with Panem ravaged by war, they need a period of stability and consolidation - is it not in fact ravaged by war? Given that her death won't solve any of that, should that argument at not be given some credence? Just dramatically alone, wouldn't that be more effective?

In short Coin doesn't represent the wrong politics, at one and the same time she has no real politics at all and she represents politics – in and of itself. (Ironically the nearest character the film has to 'good politics', Heavensbee, is sidelined by accident, actor Phili Seymour Hoffman's unfortunate death.) Leaving Katniss as her opposite. As the Mockingjay is the Marianne of Panem's revolution, (see her next to Eugene Delacroix's famous painting below) she's the heart to others' brains. Coin says to her “may your aim be as true as your heart is pure” shortly before the inevitable. The right politics is always held to be innately and self-evidently correct, in short to not be politics at all. Listen to your heart, Katniss. Listen to the Force, Luke. Being pure of heart is perilously close to being pure heart, which is itself close to being pure symbol.



So while in many ways she is the positive role model for girls everyone talks about, while she might have the much-desired agency, Patrick Hayes is right to say in 'Salon' that she ultimately lacks in subjectivity. (Overall his reading of the film is skewed and a little too sweeping. Yet he's right on this point.) Even when she isn't acting like a poster girl for revolution within the film, she's still acting pretty much like a poster girl for revolution in the film. Watch a random scene and try picturing a thought balloon above Katniss's head, then populating it. Largely, you can't. She's driven by instinct and intuition. She often doesn't know herself what she'll do until she does it.

Yet should she gain any subjectivity, if for one minute she acts from reason rather than out of instinct, the film's schema is such that she'd need to start dying blonde highlights into her hair. In this way the film can feign at radicalism, appear to suggest that revolutions don't have to be betrayed, they're not fated to that outcome. Yet its suggestion is functionally useless. It leads nowhere.

The default example of a revolution people have today, even so long after the Cold War, remains Russia. And I'd be the first to agree that it did succumb to the “meet the new boss” syndrome, that its original egalitarian aims were ruthlessly betrayed by the Bolsheviks. But that historical example is dehistoricised and made a universal law. If revolutions don't always work that way in history, it was decided long ago that they do in mainstream media.

Notably, we see exactly the same doublethink as these films do over Coin. Its all to do with the personality of Lenin. He was duplicitous and treacherous and successfully played everybody. He even had a Ming the Merciless beard, what more proof could you need? Yet at the very same time we're asked to suppose that was all inevitable. Workers getting together to decide what gets done with the stuff they produce, clearly such a notion was doomed to failure. It was all Lenin's fault. But if there hadn't have been Lenin, there'd still have been a Lenin.

And this double act is achieved precisely by not considering Lenin's political motivations, looking at the context he was operating within or asking why others were willing to listen to him, but by depicting him as some Victorian melodrama villain. None of this is to defend Leninism or claim his draconian rule was justifiable. Its to say that before you can engage with Leninism, however critically, you have to concede such a thing exists. Arguing his politics were wrong involves acknowledging he had some. (You can of course find political writings which don't do any of this, which just damn the man and ignore not only the ball but the whole pitch. But they're political writings played at the level of Hollywood scripts, not the other way round.)

Or if Russia's not to your tastes you could consider the French, Chinese or Cuban revolution. It doesn't matter much because you'd only have to substitute the names. But this ceaseless repeat doesn't make the thing seem less likely – instead its held as proof of just how true it is.

And, to come back to the films, this is clearest in the response of the crowd. Not expecting Katniss' public assassination, even if we were, they react by rushing forward. To... well, actually they just rush forward. There's the suggestion they kill Snow. But Katniss, who has either traitorously shot their leader or rid them of a new dictator, they just push past her like they don't have an opinion... like it hasn't occurred to them to have an opinion. They're as devoid of subjectivity as the crowd in 'Dark Knight Rises'. Even the armed guards, previously presented as firmly loyal to Coin, do nothing. They're all there to confuse the picture, to provide a cover for Katniss to escape. (Or more accurately “be escaped”.) At that point, a cloud might as well have passed over the sun, obscuring everyone's view. Katniss's Mockingjay role is to stand for them. So its presumed they cannot act on their own accord.

(Reader, please note that in this context 'pro-revolutionary' does not mean the films stand or fall on their ability to incite popular revolt, that if the audience don't collectivise the multiplex's sweet counter on their way out then the whole thing was in vain. The suggestion that people could get together and agitate for political change, and that if it did so it would be a force to be reckoned with, that would be enough. This being the internet, you need to spell out that sort of thing.)

A summary, then of the Hunger Games films would be “half full, then half empty”. Of course, none of this is altogether surprising. Perhaps it was always going to be easier for a contemporary film to capture contemporary capitalism than to portray revolution, a situation we encounter daily versus one which almost none of us have any experience whatsoever. Perhaps in trying it busts the banks of what can be done in an adventure film. Perhaps things should have freeze-framed near the end of the second film, when Katniss shatters the dome and left us to figure out what might have happened next. Throwing the impetus back on the audience, not offering a neat and tidy resolution, that might have been a greater spanner in the works of mainstream movie-making than the two hundred and sixty minutes which follow.

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