Sunday, March 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (Lions' Gate/Color Force, 2014)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

With no guarantee whether or when (due to Charles’ work schedule) we’d be having an evening together any time soon, I ran Charles The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1, the awkwardly titled third film in the Hunger Games cycle based more or less on the first half of Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay. This business of stretching out a cycle of films based on a cycle of popular novels by making two films instead of one out of the final book was started by the producers of the Harry Potter films and it’s become a regrettably standard practice — Lions’ Gate films, which produced the Hunger Games movies and is also making the Divergent cycle (the second film of which, Insurgent, was just released this weekend), is splitting the final book of that Hunger Games wanna-be, Allegiant, into two films. Mockingjay, Part 1 is actually a well-made movie, though if I wanted to I could probably nit-pick it to death. It’s reasonably faithful to the book (or at least the first half of it), as one would expect given that Suzanne Collins herself is credited with the adaptation — though two other scribes, Peter Craig and Danny Strong, wrote the actual script (and Francis Lawrence repeated as director from the second film in the cycle, Catching Fire, thus putting this quintessentially feminist story largely in the hands of men), though some actions performed by one character in the book are given to another in the film, largely to fatten the part of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the fashionista and unlikely turncoat from the Capital who’s once again in charge of making over heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, authoritative as usual even though she seemed a bit bored by a script which gave her precious few opportunities for the kinds of action scenes she did so well in the previous films), this time into the “Mockingjay,” the symbol of the revolution the underground denizens of District 13 are leading against the Capital and the evil regime of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). The Hunger Games, the complete cycle, is a fascinating look at the modern-day Zeitgeist and its success first on paper and now on film says a lot about why there’s so much discontent and alienation among modern American young people facing a considerably less materially abundant life than their parents and having to work much harder than their forebears did to get by. As I noted in these pages when I read the first book, it was such an indictment of the government/corporate state one could readily imagine it having been written by an Occupy member — but the cycle as a whole is about not only the exploitation of the current regime but the hopelessness of any attempt to change it.

There were works before The Hunger Games that were aimed at young people that expressed a similar sense of hopelessness — including Pete Townshend’s song “Won’t Get Fooled Again” (with its classic final line, “Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss,” which I thought of quite frequently as I read Mockingjay, particularly the parts of it that haven’t been filmed yet) and Alexander Payne’s 1996 film Citizen Ruth, in which a drug-abusing woman, Ruth Stoops (Laura Dern), gets pregnant and finds herself aggressively and unpleasantly manipulated by both pro-choice and pro-life activists who don’t give a shit about her as a person but only seek to exploit her for the sake of their “cause.” The moral of Citizen Ruth is basically to stay away from “activists” of all sorts, avoid political involvements and cope with whatever this cracked-up civilization throws you entirely as an individual, without help from anyone except your family members and those you love. This is very much the moral of The Hunger Games — especially Mockingjay — as well; throughout the book the innocent young protagonists, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are shown as victims of sinister political and social forces seeking only to use them for their own game — Katniss in the underground world of District 13 being forced to shoot tacky propaganda films in support of the revolution being led by District 13’s president, Alma Coin (Julianne Moore, who though a woman is clearly cut from the same cloth as the Capital’s President Snow — though, oddly, the puritanical authoritarianism and sheer deadliness of the District 13 regime doesn’t come through quite as strongly in the film as it does in the book, where Katniss Everdeen’s culture shock as she finds herself in the underground world of a population she’d always believed, as the Capital had propagandized, had been completely wiped out as the price of a previous attempt at rebellion), while Peeta has been brainwashed and tortured by the Capital to make videos urging the people in the Districts not to rebel but to support the Capital in its attempts to restore order and control over Panem, the fictitious country (located in what is now the northeastern U.S., though the film’s location work was actually done in Georgia) in which the Hunger Games cycle takes place.[1] (Charles and I were morbidly amused that most of the actors pronounced the name “Pah-NEM,” with the accent on the second syllable, whereas we’d always assumed it should be “PAH-nem,” like the Latin word from which it was derived — the name came from Panem et Circenses, “bread and circuses,” the formula by which the emperors of ancient Rome said they would keep their power indefinitely, and Collins underscored the parallel by giving virtually everyone in the Capital the name of an historical ancient Roman.)

Given how abruptly the film ends — with Peeta attempting to strangle Katniss and being put in a deprogramming room in District 13 (the last shot of the movie is of him thrashing around in a bed, apparently responding either to the Capital’s programming or whatever the District 13 people are trying to deprogram him — in the latter part of the Mockingjay novel Peeta actually becomes a Gollum-like character whose loyalties are so scrambled it’s unclear what side he thinks he’s on, or wants to be on, at any given moment) — it’s clear that much of the anti-ideological ideology of the book is being saved for the last film in the sequence, but a close study of The Hunger Games and its success will offer a lot of insights into the question often asked these days: why, in a nation (and, for that matter, a world) in which the division of wealth and income is getting more and more unequal every day and people are told they must assume more and more of the risk of their lives because governments will no longer be there to protect them with such obsolete and quaint programs as Social Security, Medicare, unemployment compensation and food stamps — and why, especially in the U.S., young people are being told they can’t succeed without a college education while the cost of a college education has become so astronomical most young people can’t get one without taking out so much in student loans (the only form of debt other than taxes not dischargeable in bankruptcy, by the way) they eventually end up as indentured servants to the corporate elite for the rest of their professional lives — is there so little organized resistance? (And what resistance there is comes more from the Right than the Left in the form of the Tea Party and the Libertarian Party, both of which are growing in influence as what’s left of the U.S. Left fades further into a kind of quarrelsome and self-absorbed irrelevance.)

Historian Steve Fraser recently published a book aimed at answering that exact question, The Age of Acquiescence, in which he tries to figure out why the original Gilded Age of the 1880’s and 1890’s (the one many Libertarians and Republicans are quite open about wanting to see us return to) aroused such mass protest movements — populism, socialism, anarchism, communism — while this one seems to be meekly accepted as a force of nature and an unchangeable fact of life. On his appearance last December on the sorely missed PBS program Moyers and Company (killed when veteran PBS anchor Bill Moyers could no longer get corporations and foundations to fund it, which itself says volumes about what any attempt to revive a Left in this country is up against), Fraser said, “We live in a kind of windowless room of a kind of capitalist society to which there can be no alternatives. A kind of techno-determinism which governs the way we view things. The market is the beginning and end of life so far as we have been instructed and the media have reiterated over and over again. I think that’s one big reason.” I haven’t read his book yet but I’ve seen that interview with him and read reviews of it in the Los Angeles Times and the New Yorker (the New Yorker critic paired it with two other books about inequality and essentially ridiculed Fraser for wanting to see more social outrage against the injustice of inequality), and what most surprises me about it is he doesn’t seem to be mentioning the most obvious reason there hasn’t been a mass Left movement against economic inequality: “the failure of socialism.” Whatever you may think about the nature of the regimes in the Soviet Union, Mao’s China and the other countries that called themselves “socialist,” the fact is that the Soviet Union and its bloc crumbled in a way that was brilliantly used as propaganda by the corporate Right to say that any attempt to set up an economy and a society that are not ruled by “The Market” will inevitably lead to tyranny and ultimately collapse under the weight of its own inefficiency and its suppression of the individual entrepreneurial drive that (in the corporate Right’s view — and never mind that really existing giant corporations do more to suppress the innovative entrepreneurial spirit than to nurture it!) is the true source not only of all social progress but of all economic value.

The Left long ago lost the ideological conflict in the U.S. and is losing it worldwide — the idolatry of “The Market” and the belief that whatever human outcomes it creates are foreordained and society and its people only get in trouble when they try to mess with it has become hardened into an orthodoxy, held with the kind of faith people once put in religion and the “divine right of kings” (and it’s indicative of how totally market ideology has triumphed that old-fashioned religion, not any secular movement, is today the biggest threat the worldwide capitalist order faces: that’s the real lesson of the popular success of al-Qaeda and ISIS — with the secular socialism of Nasser, Saddam Hussein and the Assads discredited, the young rebels of the Muslim world are turning to fundamentalist Islam as the only remaining credible alternative to the Western market system). The fable people, and especially Americans, are being told today about the end of the Cold War is that it marked the final triumph of capitalism over all alternatives; the Soviet Union collapsed and China survived only by remaking itself from a Communist dictatorship into a capitalist one, and using the repressive mechanism Mao created to enforce socialist equality instead to enforce capitalist inequality and essentially turn China into a giant sweatshop Western capitalist employers can exploit (at least until the Chinese workforce starts being underbid by even sleazier competitors like Viet Nam and Bangladesh). What all this has to do with The Hunger Games is that The Hunger Games — the entire cycle, not the Left-leaning first book in it — is yet another part of the capitalist propaganda campaign to discredit the very idea of alternatives to the market system; at the end Katniss and Peeta turn away from the people on both sides who tried to manipulate them, withdraw altogether from public life and end up in an oddly Voltairean ending literally cultivating their garden. That’s the message from the books and the films: don’t bother trying to change the economic, political and social order — the best case is you’ll fail and the worst case is you’ll just end up creating something even worse (“Meet the new boss/Same as the old boss”) — just accept your world the way it’s been given to you and try your hardest to survive in it, and don’t expect any help from anyone but yourselves.

[1] — Indeed, it occurred to me, not only because District 13’s world was established underground after its above-ground civilization was utterly destroyed in a series of genocidal nuclear attacks by the Capital, but one of their principal advisors is man in a wheelchair — Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) — that Mockingjay could in a way be seen not only as a sequel to The Hunger Games and the second film in the cycle, Catching Fire, but a sequel to Dr. Strangelove as well. “We cannot allow ourselves a mineshaft gap!”