Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception, for a better yesterday

Sunday, April 01, 2012


The idea of obtaining instant celebrity is a fantasy we all share, especially in the 'blogosphere' --and why not? It comes true for random people who don't deserve it, like viral video stars, and it's this fantasy that's explored in The Hunger Games. If idiots can win it all, then why not we? Killing people to get there? No problem.

 This fantasy is dramatically different than the usual hook of teen franchises like Twlight and Harry Potter, which offer a return to a pre-egoic sense of safety in cozy confines with numerous friends and attractive protectors, i.e. Hogwarts or the Cullen house, or the Starship Enterprise. In Games there is no safety, no 'base' in the future's lifelong game of tag. The only way to find any kind of fantasy fulfillment with Hunger is through unease, and the idea that one day a whole world will see you, on TV, all the time. Your very lack of a secure space is the fantasy. Omnipresent cameras depict your struggle for survival as you navigate the bully-strewn way to gym class. In Games there's not even a Coney Island to bop all the way back to and say "We fought all night to come back to this?" There's just a frail little sister who's lost without you, producing the very opposite of 'security' in your anguished teen heart.

Imagine though, knowing every time you smiled into a mirror and raised a punk rock salute a million viewers burst into unheard applause? The pain of Truman was that he was unaware he was adored by the unseen masses. The triumph of Jennifer Lawrence is that she knows... and she learns fast how to milk it.

Over on Bright Lights, C. Jerry Kutner has dropped an awesome post about Hunger Games' science fiction ancestors, including: Battle Royale, the 10th Victim, The Year of the Sex Olympics and an Outer Limits ep, which he presents in its entirety. I would also add Series 7: The Contender, a well-received but ultimately ignored 2001 indie of which I saw the first 2/3, but had to stop when the last two survivors, one of whom is the other's ex-boyfriend who is dying of cancer. Ooops, did I spoil Series 7? No, of course not, every one of these movies ends that way. And I don't actually know how they resolved it because I stopped watching, in disgust!

Series 7: The Contenders
Kill like a woman, Contender! It's your one big chance for immortality vs. eternal pussydom, and if your wounded boyfriend wants  you to win, and puts your gun to his temple, just press the trigger! After all, they shoot horses don't they? I say that when you let civilized decency stop you from pulling that trigger when the ratings demand it, then the terrorists win.

What some detractors decry about the Games, and those in the know appreciate, is Lawrence's character's relative moral aloofness (she makes Bella Swan seem bubbly) and her ability to feign love and caring to gain sponsors, to the point where even she no longer seems to know if she's sincere. Certainly we at home or in the theater don't ever learn whether her romance with her short guy partner in the games is something she genuinely wants to happen, and I like that ambiguity. It's classy. Detractors probably resent it because they don't want to admit they feign their own lives for an invisible audience too. What if Jennifer only pretended to like, for example, us?

And on that level Lawrence's characterization is a sublime modern metatextualization, illuminating the way actors pretending to love one another onscreen are no different than those 'in love' in the 'real' world. Each believes with vengeance what they know deep down not to be true. What Fleetwood Mac forgot was that players believe they love you when they're playin' -- only in the deep, deep down can admit they it's all just Liaisons Dangereuses-style seductions undertaken to impress our Marquise de Mateuil-du jour. Only later does it dawn on them that the Marquise was playing them, too, the whole time.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959)
If you ever want to break free of the chain of love-starved idiots chasing each other through the enchanted Summer Night's fairlyland woods though--not to sound like some preachy therapist--you have to start actually loving, even if you're the only one who knows you're not faking. Those who hold out for the one perfect love rather than loving the one they're with eventually fall into the Groucho club membership abyss (1) and never recognize when the right person finally comes along. Meanwhile trauma, fear, fighting, and loneliness transcend the notion of emotional truth-- just ask anyone who's ever had Stockholm syndrome. So is love really a reliable goal? Shouldn't it rather be a practice?

At the same time, pretending to love someone gives you tons of power over them, presuming they love you more. So fuck the world if they think you should act in some other way than pretense. In Falsum Veritas! When the world around you has proven it can't be trusted, only a fool ever feels secure. It's this aspect of Lawrence's character that resonates with writers such as Laura Bogart:
These books illustrate why PTSD is—as my former shrink once put it—the gift that keeps on giving: Nobody will be trustworthy, not entirely. Not when our parents and our governments, the very people who were supposed to protect us (or at least not cause us harm) are the ones who’ve thrown us in the midst of swinging fists and tracker jacker stings. How can we ever believe in anyone, even when we know (intellectually, at least) that we should? And if we can’t believe in anyone, why should we be anyone worth believing in?  The Hunger Games trilogy gives an arrow-strike of a pulse to what Genet called “the irreducibility of terror.”.  (The Nervous Breakdown, 3/12)
This level of absolute failure of trust in authority makes Games more than a metaphor for Vietnam and/or school bullying. When I first heard about Hunger Games I instantly got mad that something could get so popular without me knowing about it beforehand, and also I thought it was a ripoff of Battle Royale. Now I'm okay with all that, because what the film's endurance test grind most reminded me of was Sydney Pollack's existential period pain-a-thon, They Shoot Horses Don't They? (1969, an earlier post on it here).

Like Hunger Games, Horses involves average, starving, broke-ass poor citizens entering a grueling but possibly lucrative Depression-era dance competition as couples, two-by-two, as if upon a massive, hellish ark. The film records their signing-in, health check-ups, coaching, etc, before the competition begins, so by the time it starts we're already antsy for the inevitable pain-a-thon. As the cruel hours of the competition drag into weeks, sponsors are courted from amongst the gathered gawkers. In Games, Jennifer Lawrence feigns reciprocation for her less agile fellow entrant Josh Hutcherson because the rubes love a romance; in Horses, Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin--who barely met before signing up--get married right on the dance floor, even though at that point they no longer even like each other, just for presents from the rubes, pots and pans they can hock once the contest ends. In both films, after many torturous days and nights, the final survivors are so exhausted they're barely recognizable to themselves or us, and of course that's just what the ghoulish audience loves to gawk at... in both worlds. (2)

As in Hunger Games, Horses is keen on issues of food and starvation and the ample servings available to the participants vs. the starving cheap seat audience. Hunger's blue-haired (ugh) emcee (Stanley Tucci) compares poorly against Gig Young's award-winning performance as the 'caring' emcee of the dance marathon in Horses. Both films don't really end so much as drift away from us, carrying the sense our hero is just heading off into the next nerve-wracking scenario, and we're heading back to ours, already in progress.

In short, fellow kids, if you're looking for something cool and weird that will illustrate your own life anxiety in a profound and sexy way, something that fits the dog-eat-cat mentality of Hunger Games, Netflix the '69 Horses, and ponder the eerie similarity.... to your own cursed existence, in your own cursed country, and whether your TV is Gig Young or Stanley Tucci.

It makes no difference. Now dance.

2. Depression era dance competitions were eventually banned as inhumane - hey at least they were fed while they were there!


  1. The Year of the Sexual Olympics (1968) BBC, written by Nigel Kneale, with Leonard Rossiter (Reggie Perrin!)

    Haven't watched it myself yet; but I really liked your essay. Thanks!

  2. Brilliant comparison, Erich. Those damned costumes do make it hard to take HG's dystopia seriously, but the analogy with They Shoot Horses sparks fresh interest in the future course of Katniss's celebrity and whether she'll offer her life again in surrender or resistance. I'd say that They Shoot Horses proves that the past can be more dystopian than the future, but when Horace McCoy wrote the thing, it was the present.

  3. Thanks for the link, Ivan, it looks mighty British! And thank you too, Samuel that's damned good, 'the dystopian past' - I may use that as a post title.


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