Cleansing the doors of cinematic perception... for a better now

Sunday, April 01, 2012

They Shoot Horsemen: HUNGER GAMES, SERIES 7

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, who are the biggest idiots of all? Killing people to get there? No problem. Long as it's on camera butt legal. Heheh. (That's my idiot proof). Poof!

 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 it, though: every time you smiled into a mirror and raised a punk rock salute to the sky, you'd know a million viewers were bursting into unheard applause? The pain of Truman was that he was unaware he was adored by the unseen masses. He didn't feel it. The triumph of Jennifer Lawrence is that she knows... and she learns fast how to milk it. Never smile, for one thing.

This here's serious.

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 and is dying of cancer, and oh man, is that supposed to be a twist? Or is that a workshopped 'feel'? Click.

Ooops, did I spoil Series 7? No, of course not, every one of these movies ends that way. There's always a last bullet jumping up and down in its chamber like young boy hopping around anxiously waiting for his sister to get out of the bathroom. I haven't a bit of use for it! Let my bullets go!

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, cuz yr carrying his baby or whatnot, and puts your gun to his temple, just press the trigger! Feel bad later, after the lights have come up and we've forgotten your whole 15 minutes ever clicked past. Everyone deserves their shot.

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, but those in the know appreciate, is Lawrence's character's relative moral aloofness (she makes Bella Swan seem bubbly) coupled to her 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. It's the kind of thing that earns the big bucks, that brings you from ordinary high-end call-girl to platinum credit line-gifted Pretty Woman.  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 who pretend to love one another onscreen are no different than those 'in love' in the 'real' world down below in the theater, holding sweaty teenage hands, each desperate to either be seen with the other person by gossipy girlfriends or to pass unnoticed by smirking bros. Each make 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 they admit  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. That hottie is never going to reward your scorecard, Valmont! If she does, the sex will be awkward and stiff - for no one has told her half the things she's doing are painful, because she's so damned hot we figure we're just feeling it wrong.

Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1959)
Now kids, let me break the fourth wall and give you a little sinse and sin's ability: if you ever want to break free of the chain, stop being one of those love-starved idiots chasing each other through the enchanted Summer Night's fairlyland woods, pursued by a 6 as you chase an 8, as they say, well, not to sound like some preachy therapist--you have to start actually loving, for realsies, even if you're the only one who knows you're not faking. Those who hold out for the one perfect love, chasing some girl way out of their league, rather than loving the one they're with, eventually fall into the Groucho club membership abyss (1). The media, alas, gives most morons an inflated idea of themselves, it promises them--like a strutting pimp--they'll get hot babes even if they're odious to look at, Girls don't want to get them mad so they try to let them down gently, but the media says, don't give up! Play Peter Gabriel outside her window, leave her notes on her locker from chewing gum wrappers, and meanwhile the girl for you sits at home binging on brownies and rom-coms. She aint' gettin' any less dumpy, bro. Better call her before she opens another pack. Take her jogging and introduce her to Godard. See if you can help her become a butterfly! It won't work but who cares? You ain't exactly a monarch yourself, you caterpillar bitch.

This is the secret of life: the unwanted lover, pining away, is doomed, while the deisred swinger knows that pretending to love someone who adores you is always a smart bet. Fuck the world if they think you should act in some other way than pretense. In Falsum Veritas! Pretend to love 'earnest'-ly enough and even you don't know the difference. When the world has proven it can't be trusted, only a fool is honest. It's called 'being a whore'- yea- or an actor, who woos onstage so well he marries his co-star (and vice versa). It's this aspect of Lawrence's character that resonates with writers such as Laura Bogart:
These [Hunger Games] 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 wasn't that, but 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 (her real boyfriend wasn't picked in the lottery); in Horses, dancing couple Jane Fonda and Michael Sarrazin--who barely met before signing up--get married right on the dance floor for the same reason, even though at that point they no longer even like each other, they do it 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 dance marathon host. Both films don't really end so much as drift away from us, giving us 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 your own cursed show, in your own accursed mind.

2. Depression era dance competitions were eventually banned as inhumane - but--this being the age before welfare and food stamps-- at least they were fed between rounds.


  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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