© 2012 by James Clark
Just as Holy Motors kicks off with a man waking in the middle of the night, screaming, “No! No! No!” in face of a spectre of historical malignancy, a seemingly smaller-gauge film, also from this year, namely, The Hunger Games, opens with a young girl screaming amidst a nightmare only too real, about being chosen by the government to participate in a gladiatorial exhibition where twenty-four young people must fight each other to the death until only one remains alive but, in view of the powers-that-be, hardly living. (One could regard that latter diversion as pertaining to the New Year’s Bowl Season at hand.) Whereas the former, almost instant Surrealist classic, envisions a life of alienation from mainstream world history, but a life still improvable through monumental effort, the latter, giving us instant nightmares as a fixture within the same entertainment spa containing Harry Potter, deploys a domain precluding effective motion, and follows closely a protagonist who walks the walk and becomes both a public enemy and a beloved rebel.
Treating this latter vision becomes, then, both, an as always stimulating survey of an entry into avant-garde cinematic discovery, and, as never before, somewhat incredulous treading into territory so seemingly unpromising as to be frequently driving one not to believe what he’s seeing. The film industry has for a long time (in a sort of synchronization with television), and as late more pronouncedly, sprayed about franchises marketable as showing bold and consequential sensibilities—James Bond and Lord of the Rings being among the revered profit centres in this light. Though seldom articulated, the fandom of these products banks upon narratives the overtones of which imply some kind of departure from stolid certainties and pieties. It also banks upon those circumventions of Main Street safely delivering, when all is said and done, its pseudo warriors right back where they started, as restive poseurs confirmed in a normality of paralysis.
Imagine the shock, then, from the midst of what would impress the market as just another yo-yo, on encountering a trenchant disclosure of the farthest reaches of a malignancy about mainstream American experience, a devastating cripplement lurking within the drive for advantage and well-being so presciently comprehended by means of a six-month sojourn in New England and the Western territories, in 1831, by a young French writer, Alexis de Tocqueville. Tocqueville was thrilled by that gusto for material success—which the freedoms of American government facilitated—as evinced by commercial endeavors in the young Republic. Specifically he was elated to discover that New World enterprise would run to such intensity as to endow its risk-taking players with a unique disinterested composure and generosity.
“It would be difficult to depict the avidity with which the American throws himself on the immense
prey that fortune offers him… a passion stronger than love of life spurs him constantly…Among
them the desire for well-being has become a restive and ardent passion that increases while it is
being satisfied…For them, emigration began by being a need; today it has become in their eyes a
sort of game of chance, in which they love the sensation as much as the gain.”
Recognizing truly innovative features of that action, Tocqueville could also perceive that a tide of aversion to risk would likely underestimate the expansive aspect of venture, by way of securing a commercial culture emphasizing sheer quantitative payoffs and their puffery, and a spiritual culture likewise intolerant toward difficult grandeur, in the course of securing a history productive of safety, routine and suspicion. The Hunger Games gives us an America having made with a vengeance that choice of cheapness, of institutionalizing revulsion toward the dangerous dynamics once efficaciously fostered by democracy in America. At the outset of his Democracy in America, Tocqueville strikes a keynote that the writers of Hunger Games also find compelling, as a sci-fi premise for burrowing into a problematic edge never given such focus by the myriad other contrarian sallies.
“Christian people in our day appear to me to offer a frightening spectacle; the movement that
carries them along is already strong enough that it cannot be suspended, and it is not yet rapid
enough to despair of directing it: their fate is in their hands, but soon it will escape them.”
The film juxtaposes a future dispensation where bathetic gratification is de rigueur, as against a figure from woodlands remote from the governing powers but close to Tocqueville’s nineteenth-century inspiration. The protagonist in question, Katniss, is the older sister of the young child crying in the night, and promptly chosen to expose her young body to full-TV-coverage mutilation in annual dedication (this being the seventy-fourth) to having put down deviant interests and in annual revelation (while giving the populace a pornographic circus) that the powers-that-be will bring certain and horrible death to anyone deviating from the cozy interests deemed to be as far as life will go. At the lottery choosing a girl and a boy to join the show, from this District 12 of 12 segments constituting an America now named Panem (its Latinate, Bread, redolent of no-nonsense priorities, and a flourish linking to ancient Rome and to those self-centered devotees of ancient Rome, Mussolini and Hitler, and moreover, its remaining part of the mantra, Circuses, tracing its celebrity-crazed, ersatz frisson), Katniss volunteers to take her sister’s place, and therewith the Capitol, as the leadership and its Swiss-or-Singapore-enclave-like bailiwick paints itself, has unwittingly sowed the seeds of serious opposition.
Serious opposition has to be sharply divorced from statistically significant opposition, and we have, to press this point of extreme contingency, from that surprising screenplay (produced by the novelist and the director) a recurrent phrase the leadership trots out, presuming to impress thereby how benign and affectionate its procedures are in fact. The lady presiding over the selection process (of “Tributes” from District 12) sings out the little anthem (which Katniss had, a bit before, with a friend, mockingly recited) into a reverberating microphone at the stage facing the square where the District’s youth were assembled amidst optics heavily redolent of a concentration camp: “May the odds be ever in your favor!” As it happens—and here the squeaky-clean implications of the film apply some heat to the circumspective viewer—Tocqueville, the odds-maker, is not the only French factor of The Hunger Games. The rather unstable, persistently upbeat female fluttering about on that stage, fingering the envelopes containing the Tributes’ names and the glistening microphone as if operating a magic wand, brings to this tale, of a girl facing monstrous (in fact, Surreal) odds, the Lilac Fairy, who provides a different—being well-meaning—send-off to a Princess up against a dissolute father and King, who wants to marry her, all this flickering away in Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin. It is those formerly posed odds and their rather flippant and hugely disappointing resolution that our present narrative deftly incorporates by way of both cherishing the network of (odds-bending) endeavors tapped by Demy and putting to itself an even more severe level of problematicness.
Hardly a porcelain-like and spacey Royal, Katniss inhabits a forest and coal mining district where the populace lives close to the starvation point, particularly her family, whose father has been killed in a mining accident. She has trained herself to the point of becoming very accurate with bow and arrow in providing a diet of small game for her tense sister and catatonic mother. Her body is lithe (striking in a context where nearly everyone shuffles). Though OK about killing birds and rodents, she flinches in face of a doe. Not exactly a natural born killer (she is about to be coached for the event by a figure played by Woody Harrelson); but Katniss is headed into a challenge calling for a wide range of carnal depths, and in this she will perform before a viewership still in play for much bigger things than they have come to settle for. As ushered into technically advanced media exposure, her unsought celebrity tweaks the odds somewhat and therewith the film enacts, with surrealistic strangeness and extremity, a visceral showdown between a force of sensual fire and its generous warmth and a force of smart impotence and its murderous chill. On being whisked quickly from the scruffy, apartheid confines of their district, she and her male counterpart debark at the Capitol, a place reminiscent of early-Demy settings in its saturated color on structures and clothes—but no longer evoking the delicate and breezy joys of being alive (the bruising opulence taking us to late-Demy, and the Versailles of Lady Oscar [where another young woman heads into nasty combat], and also Fellini’s Via Veneto).
It is that massive shift of the design energies which conveys the steep and unforgiving communicative learning curve Katniss must master (or at least somewhat comprehend) in the two weeks she has, before putting not simply her muscle but her wit on the line. During the deluxe streamline railway ride to ground zero, conspicuously provided with many cakes and other delicacies (to the likes of which Demy’s Blue Princess and her low-wattage Red Prince suitor gluttonously succumb), Woody the Mentor pauses long enough, in his task of keeping himself drunk on expensive spirits, to feed her the major axiom of the kind of war she’s signed up for. “The best way to stay alive? You get people to like you… You’re not off to a real good start.” Still constructing a game face from out of a wilderness home that self-evidently provisions proof against the fops and sadists in her midst, she brooks no cozying up to crap, a situation inciting her to attempt to knife her Mentor for being a markedly obtuse peacock (notwithstanding his once having won this thing). Out in the open, now, the Games are not only (or even primarily) about struggle on an even playing field, but also about touching the bathetic (and more than bathetic) mainsprings of “Sponsors,” who can intervene on behalf of their favorites. The arena is a vast IT scene—in the year in question it is an electrical tracking zone tricked out to be a high-definition virtual forest—as inputted into real trees, meadows and bodies of water. It (and the two-week festival leading to it) is also, inadvertently, then, a process of seduction, of finding one’s way to a measure of carnal magic or rightness by means of which to elicit an unspoken kinship with figures presumed to be unreachable by such intensities. Though at the outset far from competent in that devious, almost courtly, survival skill—a flashback divulges how elemental she has been, in standing in the rain outside a bakery and getting a rancid bun from amidst the establishment’s herd of pigs, tossed, as it happens by her co-rep, Peeta; as does a first step, at her new home, of irate attendants hosing her down—on settling into her palatial digs she comes under the auspices of a Fairy Godmother with balls, a dark, handsome lounge lizard named, Cinna, who has honed for himself the City’s reservoir of hedonism into bona fide magic. Perhaps, when not on special assignment for the gore-fest, one of the ubiquitous “events planners” no kick-ass city can do without, Cinna’s first step with her is to weave her into a concept of “the girl on fire,” as unveiled by means of an evening parade by the “Tributes,” introducing them to the critical mass of sensation-seekers. His velvety catness immediately puts her at ease for the first time since becoming road kill, as does his instinctive rejection of cornball regional accoutrements in favor of plumbing the edgy poetry of coal. So there they are, Katniss and Peeta (the latter, as far as rockin’ goes, dead on arrival), standing in their Ben Hur two-wheeler and sending the crowd into “let’s tear this place apart” paroxysms due to the flames rising into the night from the secret weapon components of their tunics. Cinna has taken her into the other dimension of the “games,” (and their volatile “hunger”), with its oblique but operative subversion of official modesty. “I want to do something that they’ll remember…” he purrs, and it is his own covert agenda that Katniss has begun to ride. Embracing this event and its media live wires, there is wall-to-wall television coverage of the whole governmental morality play, as moderated by an anchor man with midnight-blue hair and a strikingly vibrant smarm quotient placing him in the company of unforgettable rhetoricians, and hence his name, Caesar Flickerman. And, in the midst of this after-hours flickering, cued by the ironic, “You’re live,” there is someone who has been unpleasantly distracted by the drift of what was to be a carefully muted joyousness, namely, the President. He sleepwalks through some calculated totalitarian generosity toward the victims (“We salute your courage…”); but, though he doesn’t scream, he, too, has had a brush with (a coward’s) nightmare.
The film, as distinct from the humdrum novel from which it loosely derives, proceeds from this adumbration of an untoward competition to convey both the physical stress of preparing for an immensely lethal combat and the associated challenge of changing the hopeless historical odds obtaining there. There is, near the end of the period of sharpening deadly skills, a recital of sorts, where each contestant has his or her moment alone in the spotlight to impress a galaxy of those moguls rewarded by the state with input into the course of the slaughter. Katniss, for all her general composure prone to panic, misses the mark with her first arrow; and the predators in the viewing area laugh and sneer in self-tribute that they are demonstrably superior. She regains her concentration, hits the mark; but, by then, no one is watching, the top dogs having moved on to the roast pig with a big tomato in its mouth. She lines up her third arrow and, threading amongst some fat cats, it tears the tomato out of the pig’s mouth and nails it to the wall. Woody had demanded, “Make sure they remember you.” The mixture of shock and awe in the faces of these Patrons indicates that recognition will not be a problem. Her being unable to resist giving them a mock-curtsy and saying, “Thanks for your consideration,” do not elicit similar confidence; but they do touch upon the most nourishing thread of suspense this “action thriller” puts into play. The slight smile coming to the face of the chairman of this board, and, in addition, the organizer of the Games (making him a major government official), suggests that her crude touch may be just the thing to speak to a divided clientele; but it bespeaks a lack of self-discipline, which, in the context already established, is not good news. The Mentor (“Haymitch,” a term connoting sagacity in matters of surviving tough odds) had also warned her of the dangers of arrogance. Whereas he gives her a broad smile and thumbs up, the President is far less charmed by his lieutenant. And in his increasingly splenetic disarray in having had brought to media prominence a monstrously destabilizing figure, he enunciates to the young impresario, Crane, so ready to foster heights, the regime’s first principle that heights are not to be trusted. “Why do we have a winner? If we just wanted to scare everyone, we could take the 24 Tributes out and execute them. But hope…A little hope is fine. A lot of hope is dangerous…I like you…Be careful.” On the eve of the day meant to instil little hopes, that voice-of-the-nation anchor runs solo interviews with the 24, and, when it’s her turn to win hearts, Katniss, wearing an incendiary dress designed by her “stylist,” Cinna, demonstrates that her physical agility and alertness are conducive to quickly getting the hang of making herself agreeable to fatuous dreamers. She comes onstage seemingly overcome by the huge crowd and all the technical trappings. Caesar, an emotive sponge, does not miss a beat in playing into this little-girl-lost emission. “I think someone’s a little nervous,” he shimmers, and everyone has a good time warming up to her and him. Caesar goes on to congratulate her about her spectacular dress in the parade, and he asks her how she felt wearing it. “I was hoping I wouldn’t burn to death,” is her cute fib, and this sends the moderator into a cordon bleu instance of proving that embellished nonsense is more fun than real experience. “When you came out on that chariot, my heart stopped. Did anyone else… [copious assent]…” Katniss lamely adds, “So did mine.” Then she asks, “Would you like to see the flames again?” She spins around the stage, her dress emitting something close to flames; but that leads us to notice that in the midst of that sham there is a more cogent fire in the presence of her body (Ross taking an arrow out of Demy’s quiver, which included ingénue Catherine Deneuve, who could enact a long menu of cheesiness and, by virtue of energies emanating from her face and body, still look like a genius). Caesar, for all his patent phoniness, ever the pro, delights in wrapping up that slice of strange beauty, takes her hand and lifts her arm to heights that are not to be trusted (by more respectable folks than he). “Katniss Everdeen… the girl on fire!” (The segue to this has him using up his prep point, milking the angle about her sister. Katniss, for once fully real, speaking to him alone, says, “I told her I’d try to win for her.” And Caesar, never fully real, but with something of substance added to his only-too-shifty voice, says quietly, “I’m sure you did…” Immediately signalling the cocktail here coming with equal shots of the sublime and the ridiculous, Peeta goes onstage for his 15 minutes of fame, alludes to being in love with Katniss, comes offstage only to be assaulted by her, complaining, “He made me look weak!” and in turn dressed down by Haymitch, “He made you look desirable… That might get you Sponsors. That might just save your life…”)
The slice and dice at hand puts us through the aptly visceral ordeal of Katniss’ sensual trueness being something to kill, and an equally excruciating tempering of her loving the cool, to include the uncool. Catching up with Peeta on the sleepless night before big sleeps, she listens respectfully to his image formation—“They’ve changed me. This has turned me into something I’m not… I want to find a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, it has to still be me who’s dying…” In response she gives him a nebulous Via Negativa, knowing she can’t articulate her motives from another world, and knowing he’ll never get it. “…I can’t afford to think like that.” With Cinna, someone who does get it, at the entry point to horror, she receives his telling kiss on her forehead, and hears him say, lamely, “If I were allowed to bet, I’d bet on you.” He slips her into her jacket; she walks to the glass tubing that will transport her; and, looking back at him from the silent vacuum, her eyes fill with terror.
One of 24 entities on little pedestals, like a circus act featuring trained beasts, she confronts a large steel cornucopia laden with weaponry and survival gear, while the whole country watches. From out of such a treacherous navigation route—Haymitch had warned her not to fall for that banquet, designed (successfully) to assure blood-letting fireworks from the get-go—Katniss takes us into the muscular kinetics of her sprints, climbs, tumbles and severe mutilation conflating to a bewildering engagement of the most constructive impulses to be enlisted on the killing fields. Readily using the forest to shelter her, gaining the periphery of the arena, she is driven into a clique of adversaries (including Peeta, readily captured and consigned to deliver her to a mob temporarily formed to snuff out [for this snuff entertainment] such a front runner) by ringmaster Crane, creative director of NASA-like control centre, putting into play wildfires to see what the girl on chichi fire can do with it. A fireball clips her leg, leaving it a gnarl of raw, festering meat; the mob chases her up a tree (aptly, this wildcat spends a lot of time in treetops); and as they wait her out from below a magical missile jingles through the night—the fruit of Haymitch’s lobbying for expensive sponsorship—a jar of salve, carrying the instruction, from him, a less smooth but more crucial lover than Cinna (who does nothing for the duration), “Apply generously and stay alive.” Generosity spreads apace here, in the form of a very small girl (who had paid silent tribute to her during the prep time) now surfacing in a nearby tree, and directing the remarkably recovered target to saw off (she having been unable—luckily—to resist grabbing a loot bag during the opening mêlée) a branch holding a nest of cybernetically prepared killer bees—“tracker-jackers,” as Caesar, keeping the folks at home up to all the challenging marvels tells us, sounding for all the world like a reverent TV host at the Masters (only this patter includes a factor not on the radar of golf fans, Jacques Demy)—which creates total pandemonium and one death amongst her enemies who had been sleeping below. From the new corpse she finally gets her hands on a bow and arrows, and together with petite “Rue” she commences a flow of mutual, attenuated enchantment, but not before going into a coma from toxic stings and being treated by leaf poultices from an indispensible friend. Though the name, Rue, speaks to the grief of the Black ghetto which she represents, it also, in this francophone embrace, brings forward the term, street, with its crucial implication here of transportation and communication. Rue is killed during one of their bids to beat the odds, and Katniss’ observances strongly advance our sense of the wider consequentiality of embracing one another in that outlawed rightness. “You have to win!” the brave friend tells Katniss with her dying breath. Katniss sings to her the same song she sings to her terrified sister on that night of nightmares, with its image of “a soft green pillow” to soothe pain that has to be embraced. “Deep in the meadow, under the willow, a bed of grass, a soft green pillow.” On pulling herself together after crying fiercely, Katniss trudges amidst the greenery, comes to a halt, and gives a simple salute to the millions of viewers, especially Rue’s family and neighbors, but also those others, in so many places, harboring the dangerous hope of winning something more than a tacky game. The gesture is a slow lifting of a hand and unfurling its fingers, extending the arm and holding it there. We see, therewith, the community her friend lived in, and all the hands are raised in response. (Subsequently there is a riot, readily quelled.) We had seen that gesture from her on the stage with the staccato Lilac Fairy who had called for a nice round of applause for the game kid, none forthcoming; but instead a show of hands in affectionate respect, defiance and ridicule of that leadership which doesn’t know how to move because it is afraid of the hard riches of a history it has outlawed. Accordingly, Rue had instructed Katniss, in using elements of nature (air currents, mocking birds and other kinetic things) to make contact over distances, speaking to that hope of confluence which the President knows to be anathematic to his and his tradition’s efforts to truncate the full swing of intent (in this he becoming a sort of Hollywood mogul, determined to shore up the prevalence of lives confined to [by their own cowardice and by social coercion] and celebratory of trivial victories), that swing Tocqueville found so promising about commercial ventures (as touching spiritual integrity) in the early years of the Republic. (Rue’s special focus is the jay whose mocking instinct [carrying illumination above dark thickets] parallels the happy contagion to pass along tinctures of verve.)
Those airwaves now seriously biting into the PR objectives, the President (who had demanded some time earlier, “So contain it!”) hauls the chief of the control centre up on the carpet. The latter imagines that the emotive surge can be contained within the scope of giving the public “something [presumably small] to root for.” Feeling that the generational gulf had somewhat precluded in his associate’s eyes the business of ascetic hegemony, the pure totalitarian thinks to bring to bear the malodorousness of those with wayward hopes. “So you like an underdog… Have you ever visited District 12 (and Rue’s District 11)? Well, I have. And I think if you could see them you would not root for them either.” Perhaps evincing show-biz, can’t-miss ego, or perhaps following up on that enigmatic smile during the incident with the pig, the young Games-wiz proves amenable to (non-stop lobbyist) Haymitch’s strategy of a Hollywood ending. Coming over the somehow less than typically efficient propaganda machinery is the edict, “Two victors may be crowned if both originate from the same district.” (The film wisely leaves to our own imagination how the President receives this turn of events.)
At this last campaign of the battle, Katniss’ acquisition of interpersonal understanding accelerates in fascinating ways, occupying the shadows cast by a melodramatic climax. She searches for Peeta, finds him badly wounded; and the stage management informs the survivors that resources they desperately need—in Peeta’s case, the futuristic balm—may be obtained (along with one-on-one duels) at the cornucopia. Peeta, who had more than once quite eagerly anticipated not being a survivor, insists she leave him to die. That puts Katniss on the cusp of a highly ambiguous comportment of love. That transcending affection, carrying along even a figure as cynical as Caesar, does not allow her to abandon him; but it has nothing to do with the buzz that briefly flew with Cinna. On realizing how strongly she feels about rescuing him, Peeta begins talking about how long he has worshipped her. The intensities they have shared fully sanction their embrace—and what a volatile, delicious moment of drama and cinematic manifestation that provides. Herself seriously cut up by a knife-fighter at the loot zone, she hobbles back to him, and each applies the salve to the other’s body. (All of this beaming to every household and workplace in the nation, including that of her boyfriend back in District 12, whom she charged with not letting her sister and mother starve.) Katniss has to manage pulling Peeta through, and also, coming out of the incident with Rue, she’s riveted to optics that could ignite “a lot of hope.” Chased by computer generated pit bulls to a final, bathos-satisfying struggle, they emerge together, and, once again, share a super-charged, but lightly sexual, embrace. Crane, thinking to play them like software—good for sentimentality; and good for edifying horror—also thinks to be basking in immediate induction to the media hall of fame, as intoning, “The provision of two victors has been revoked.” Peeta, again, asks for death; and this time she accedes, taking from her pocket some berries the poison of which felled one of their unfortunately hungry enemies. “They win,” he had said. “No, they don’t,” she disagrees. And she adds, “Trust me…” Both playing out the outreach by showing herself to be seriously beyond her adversaries, and, now, a strategist in manipulating masses, she raises the poison to her lips, kicking ass however it goes. It goes as she guessed. “Stop! Stop!” the gamester shouts, having banked on one corpse, Peeta, and one Barbie doll. What he gets is a shambles; and soon he’s facing those berries, the President in a rage which his own beloved system does not allow him to fully satisfy. (Not immediately, anyway.) Haymitch, the (perhaps too) canny, is aghast—“You showed them up.” The upshot of his stylistics (Cinna nowhere to be found) is Katniss in a prom dress doing Grammy Award sound bites—“I’m the happiest person…I couldn’t imagine life without him.”
Skedaddling back to District 12, Peeta (completely innocent of the love-shuffle she’s put him through, for motives she only half masters) asks, “What comes next?” She, her head swimming with discoveries and being hated by the most powerful sadist in the country, replies, “I guess we try to forget it…” Peeta is quick to insist, “I don’t want to forget it!” Nor, in fact, does she.