Warning: This is not a traditional movie review, but an exploration of politics and pop culture within the Hunger Games movie universe. Spoilers ahead!
“The spectacle is capital accumulated to the point where it becomes image.” – Guy Debord
Hunger Games fever is sweeping the nation! Catch it! The film adaptation, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), focuses on the story of Katniss Everdeen, a coal miner’s daughter from District 12. Through an act of selflessness, she volunteers to go in her sister’s place to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. At the Hunger Games, children between the ages of 12 to 18 fight to the death in front of a national audience.
While this represents only the bare bones of the plot, the film itself offers a unique take on the collisions of politics and pop culture. The nation of Panem had a nasty civil war where the poorer outlying districts fought against the richer central districts. When hostilities ceased, a Truce was signed. The Truce stipulated that two young children be selected from each district to fight to the death. (A nostalgic film is played on a massive public screen in District 12. This commemorative film eerily echoes Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia(1938) with its chiseled heroic youths holding swords and striking sculptural poses.) The process by which the children are drafted is named The Reaping, a term with agricultural and religious connotations. During the opening text crawl, it is explained that the Reaping and Hunger Games are “penance” the former rebellious districts must pay to the victorious districts.
Susanne Collins vision is fascinating because she shows how a political ideology transformed into a pop cultural phenomenon. After 74 years, what was once a weighty political ritual has become an empty sports spectacle, complete with sponsors, an opening ceremony, and betting. Gary Ross is a nice fit for director, since his previous effort, Pleasantville, offers an analogous situation, with Tobey Maguire and Reese Witherspoon trying to escape, then eventually trying to liberate, an entirely mediated space. The Tributes fight in a similar mediated space, since personnel associated with the Head Gamemaker can easily manipulate its environment.
Akin to the modern-day Olympics, the Hunger Games seeks to depoliticize a painful political event. Instead of killing each other for political or territorial control, the contestants kill each other in order to become victorious. Prior to the actual game, the draftees are treated as media superstars, each getting interviewed by the Emcee Caesar Flickerman.
The Hunger Games offers a fascinating blend of right- and left-wing authoritarianisms. Like North Korea or Nazi Germany, there is mass spectacle. Everyone watches the Games, the same way everyone listens to Big Brother’s instructions via television in Orwell’s 1984. The economic gap between the districts has echoes of France’s ancien regime and the Occupy movement’s nefarious 1%. The wealthy districts has a dolled-up citizenry with facepaint, make-up, and outrageous hairstyles. (Cf. Jean-Paul Gaultier’s futuristic costuming in the Fifth Element). The film is to be commended for making Elizabeth Banks ugly (she plays Effie Trinket). Not ugly in the sense of Quasimodo or someone with physical deformities, but someone whose artificiality, arrogance, and unawareness make her simply vulgar. The largest breach of decorum with her is not the televised murder or economic chasm between district, but “manners!” In the end, manners are rituals and codes one must follow in a certain socioeconomic group. Katniss is a threat to Panem, not because of her adept archery skills, but because her intelligence bespeaks a knowledge of codebreaking. She is victorious as both a tenacious fighter and one who “games the system.” (We live in an age where school shootings are commonplace, alongside stories of teenagers hacking formidable computer programs. No wonder this movie and novel trilogy speaks to so many young people.)
As the games hit their dramatic peak, someone from a wealthy district kills Rue, a young girl from District 11. This causes a riot in District 8 that boils over into other districts, creating a tense political situation. During the ensuing debacle, President Snow talks with the Gamemaker, saying to the effect that “a little hope is good, but too much hope is dangerous. Contain it.” When I first heard those lines, I recalled last year’s Arab Spring. For too long, the United States has spooned out hope in tiny portions to the peoples of the Middle East. The United States would make constant promises about freedom and liberty, and then simultaneously prop up brutal dictatorships because of either their natural resources or their geopolitical position associated with the Cold War and/or War on Terror. The Arab Spring was something the United States could not control and it scared us as much as an Osama bin Laden videotape. One recalls how the United States simultaneously talked about supporting freedom yet made constant associations between Arab Spring protesters and Al-Qaeda. Freedom and liberty are fine, control and commodities are more preferable.
It is not often that a Young Adult novel can so presciently capture the zeitgeist and offer up such lacerating commentary on our brutal, hyper-mediated culture.
Discovered this wonderful fake whiskey ad on Youtube.
Note: Bushmillls is not endorsed by Protestants.
Dictatorships: Leading an Insane Clown Posse of One’s Own
Late last year, North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died. Along with Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi and global supervillain Osama bin Laden, Kim Jong-il (1941 – 2011; Supreme Leader, 1994 – 2011) joined an esteemed list of rat bastards no one will miss. At least no rational person. That’s the rub, since the Supreme Leader of the People’s Democratic Republic of North Korea has been perceived as a crazy lunatic nutjob. Everyone from David Letterman’s writing staff to the writers on Cracked.com have made a cottage industry from the simple equation: Kim Jong-il = Crazy!
As illustrated in the clip from 30 Rock, Kim Jong-il acts like a hyper-positive weather man, asserting that North Korea is “always sunny all the time.” In a gonzo performance, comedian Margaret Cho turns the dictator into a goofy clown with absolutely no connection with reality. (Which makes him totally different from our esteemed political leaders. Right, guys?)
Critiquing dictators is nothing new in pop culture. The most prominent historical example is Charlie Chaplin’s the Great Dictator (1940). What is new is the twist given to this critique, that of insanity. Its usefulness shouldn’t be underestimated. With an accusation of insanity, a critic does not need the obligation of taking the target seriously. The critic also comes from the privileged position of “sanity.” Unlike other people who are labeled “insane” or “mentally disturbed” (the homeless, the elderly, etc.), Kim Jong-il possessed a massive concentration of military power and the unswerving obedience of the Party machinery. When not making ridiculous claims, saber-rattling North Korea’s neighbors, and living in obscene opulence, he came across as threatening as an Elvis-coiffed garden gnome.
The charge of insanity made it easier for Internet comedy writers, but was it actually useful or effective? It is hard to quantify in real foreign policy terms.
The Political Aspects of Insanity
Thus far, we have taken insanity as a given. If you’re a North Korean despot who claims to have invented the cheeseburger, the charge of insanity seems firm. However, insanity itself is a slippery concept. Like the words “reality” and “culture”, insanity can become a loaded term. How does one define “insane”? Who defines the term? What power do they have? What are the political aspects of insanity?
Insanity is a different breed of affliction than, say, high blood pressure, asthma, or tuberculosis. One can point at a chart, an X-ray, or read-out and come to an agreed upon conclusion. The term itself (“insane”) has become the cultural shorthand for the different and maladjusted. This should not be confused with those who suffer from brain defects or neurological disorders. Unlike a severe cranial trauma or brain deformation, insanity has as much to do with medical knowledge as with political consensus. Kim Jong-il was such a real-life caricature of state terror, that is was easy to label him insane. Kim’s father, Kim Il-Sung, represented a very dangerous threat to national security and his totalitarian rule was nothing to laugh at.
Today charges of insanity usually arise on Internet discussion boards when one voices doubt in the inherent durability of the American two-party system. Because the economic and global situation has become so bad, it would be utterly insane to vote for someone other than a Republican or Democrat. (Because these same two parties and the same people in power have done such a bang-up job, I should keep them in power. Now who’s being insane?)
Because the first step to being different is thinking different, insanity has been used as a regulatory measure to control one’s family life, sexuality, and personal associations.
“Only an insane person would like _______” (Pick what you detest most.)
A. Gay people marrying.
B. A literal interpretation of the Bible.
C. Kim Jong-il.
D. The Atlas Shrugged, Part I movie.
What becomes dangerous about the definition of insanity is it becomes the psychiatric tool of political consensus. Attacking the opposition by characterizing them as insane lunatics has caused the usual heated American political discourse to become completely abandoned. Since the Occupy member thinks the Tea Party member is crazypants, then it’s no use even talking to them. (The reverse is also true.) Both sides need to abandon the hyperbolic rhetoric and realize they are missing the forest for the trees. (Obviously, both those groups are insane. Hey, isn’t that no-account, corrupt, adulterous sleazbag up for re-election in my district. I need to keep him or her in office for another term to fix things. To the voting booths!)
Insanity: That’s so Gay!
The political uses of insanity have had real consequences, damaging to individuals and their families. The fields of psychology and psychiatry buttressed and refined what was formerly the province of religion. Religious persecution of homosexuality is a given with examples, modern and ancient, too numerous to recount. Adding fuel to the fire was the psychiatric community’s assertion that homosexuality was a form of insanity. Like other forms of insanity, it was seen as something “curable”. In a peculiar twist that shows the circular relationship between religion and psychiatry, certain religious organizations make routine claims that they can cure homosexuality.
Only in 1973 was homosexuality removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Its presence in the DSM made homosexuality easier to criminalize and prosecute, since persecuting homosexuality on religious grounds violates First Amendment protections. (While the First Amendment guarantees free exercise of one’s own religion or non-religion and not getting taxed by an established religious authority, the amendment does have its limits. These include human sacrifice, bigamy, and violent persecution of another group.)
Consensus can become a dangerous weapon, especially wrapped in the garb of the scientific rhetoric used in psychiatry.
Occupy North Korea
One of the predictable criticisms of the Occupy movement is that Communists run it. But this is a critique too boring and too predictable to comment on. What naïve leftists within the Occupy movement need to realize is that free market plutocracies aren’t the only places with an oppressive One Percent. It takes many forms, usually dynastic. One sees this with the Saud Family’s financial mismanagement, monumental corruption, and radioactive hypocrisy in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
North Korea also has its One Percenters. And like the United States, it asserts it is a democracy run by the people. (Don’t believe me? It’s in North Korea’s name.) The upper echelons of the North Korean Communist Party and military apparatus sport huge waistlines and live in grandiose mansions. A North Korean Party hack represents the average North Korean the same way an overpaid, multiple-married, pill-popping AM talk show host represents “the Real America.” Faux North Korean Communism is as real as Faux Conservative Populism. Both are hard to take seriously and both are manufactured and targeted at rubes too dumb or too scared (or both) to think for themselves. “If those Democrats are elected, then Obama’s gay Muslim abortionists will take my Bible away!” “If those Republicans are elected, they will ban abortion, bomb Iran, and make us all Protestant!”
And Kim Jong-il invented the cheeseburger.
In the words of self-styled exercise guru Susan Powter, “Stop the insanity!”
Greg Proops explains the story of Thanksgiving:
One of the hallmarks of this most hallowed day is eating … eating lots of stuff, then collapsing in a tryptophan coma to watch football. Patton Oswalt talks about Black Angus Steakhouse in an ode to eating. Enjoy!
Granted, I think football is a technocratic game, alternately tedious and ultraviolent. But that’s just me. I can enjoy Thanksgiving but not football, because America is all about differences of opinion. We’re not North Korea … right?
Short answer: Why not?
Long answer: The reason I’m investigating Warhammer 40K mostly stems from my own biography. As an 80s pre-teen, I enjoyed the pop culture of the time, especially if it was on TV and involved robots, vehicles, and weapons. Transformers, Voltron, and GI Joe were my favorites. (Although I owned a number of GI Joe toys, the TV show remained anathema in the house.)
I’m not sure when it happened or where, but it was probably a hobby shop somewhere in (possibly?) South Milwaukee area. While the store had the usual hobby store staples – trains, models, kites, etc. – what caught my wasn’t a model car or a Lionel product, it was the Citadel Miniatures catalogs of 1991. (And yes, I still have them.) The monsters, demons, soldiers, and armored vehicles really hooked me. In the terms of museology, I had a case of poeisia, the Greek term for wonder and awe. In the end, my dad ordered not a miniature or model, but the catalog itself.
Besides the Citadel Miniatures catalogs, I also found a copy of Rogue Trader. The illustrations, the hyper-dystopian mythology, and the ultraviolence appealed to my baser instincts. Only recently have I discovered my copy, falling apart as it is, remains a collector’s item in high demand.
Rogue Trader, the Dune Encyclopedia, and the Star Wars VHS trilogy (pre-Lucas meddling) form a constellation of precious pop culture commodities I value as one would a saint’s bone. Given the crypto-religious tone in Warhammer 40K, a reliquary for my Rogue Trader 1st edition doesn’t seem inappropriate at all.
Fast forward to the mid-2000s: I’m in the thicket of a grad school public history program. (What is public history? Short answer: The program you take when you don’t want to become a history professor.) Grad school in the humanities involves lots of reading. Lots and lots of reading. Footnotes, Foucault references, using the words “discourse” and “space” in a sentence. Heady, intellectual stuff, occasionally interspersed with writing as dense as a uranium milkshake. I don’t regret a minute of it.
I preserved my sanity by rediscovering Warhammer 40K, this time in the omnibus editions of the Black Library novels I found in the local Barnes & Noble. The hook occurred with the first sentences of Ian Watson’s magisterial trilogy The Inquisition Wars. Now considered non-canon, it remains one of the best Warhammer 40K novels I’ve ever read.
The omnibus opens with a short story entitled “The Alien Beast Within.” It concerns an Imperial Assassin infiltrating a cabal of Genestealers. Pretty standard stuff in terms of space opera and military science fiction. While the plot didn’t stand out, the language did. Watson wrote the story in a gaudy pop decadence, a delicious fantasy reincarnation of French Decadent Joris-Karl Huysmans. Here are a few opening lines:
THE GIANT EXERCISE wheel accelerated yet again while Meh’Lindi raced, caged within it. The machine towered two hundred metres high, under a fan-vaulted roof. Shafts of light, of blood-red and cyanotic blue and bilious green, beamed through tracery windows which themselves revolved kaleidoscopically. Chains of brass amulets dangling from the rotating spokes of the wheel clashed and clanged deafeningly like berserk bells as they whirled around.
I read on, blissed out on the verbal pyrotechnics. Here is Watson’s description of the God-Emperor’s Palace on Terra in the novel Draco(1990; 2002):
IF VIEWED FROM low orbit through the foul atmosphere, the continent-spanning palace was a concatenation of copulating, jewelstudded tortoise shells erupting into ornate monoliths, pyramids, and ziggurats kilometres high, pocked by landing pads, prickling with masts of antennae and weapons batteries. Whole cities were mere chambers in this palace, some grimly splendid, others despicable and deadly, and all crusted with the accretion of the ages.
Following the Inquisition Wars, I read the Eisenhorn omnibus written by the impossibly prolific Dan Abnett. The trilogy follows the eponymous Imperial Inquisitor and his rag-tag entourage across worlds. What makes Eisenhorn different from the usual Black Library volume is it spends most of the time amongst the ordinary and everyday in the grim 41st millennium. It was a nice re-introduction into this world. Both Inquisition Wars and Eisenhorn are excellent gateway volumes for those interested in the Warhammer 40K universe.
One final note: I don’t play Warhammer 40K. First, from the prohibitive pricing of just about everything in their inventory makes it financially detrimental to start an army. Second, I don’t know many players who live in my area. On the other hand, I continue to enjoy reading the novels and browsing the catalogs online.
Coffee for Closers wishes you a Happy Labor Day. Unfortunately, one of the more pressing issues this holiday season is labor itself. Due to our current economic situation, it’s either a Recession or a Depression depending on whether or not you have a job. The job shortage has created a situation where people, regardless of their background or qualifications, will go after any job simply because it pays the bills. But this time I won’t bore you with an overlong essay on political economy. (If you are actually interested, do yourself a favor and read some Marx, read some Milton Friedman, read some Paul Krugman, and others.)
Here’s the ending montage to the Wire: Season 2. The devastating effects of organized crime, de-industrialization, class stratification, and political corruption get showcased in little over 6 minutes. (If you haven’t seen the series, see it. It more than lives up to the hype.)
Here Patton Oswalt tells a whimsical tale of technological advancement and the modern American labor force.
Finally, George Carlin gives us his personal solution to paying the deficit.
Having survived Ayn Rand’s epic literary atrocity Atlas Shrugged, we thought that it is time to explore other pop cultural avenues. The two subjects under consideration are the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica and Warhammer 40,000. (Each title is shorthand for sprawling creative properties involving TV shows, role playing games, video games, web series, tie-in novels and comics, and countless other pop cultural artifacts.)
Battlestar Galactica represents a rich vein to tap into the struggles and ethical dilemmas facing the United States after the September 11th terrorist attacks. The spin-off series Caprica dealt with issues like organized religion, terrorism, virtual reality, technological advancement, organized crime, and capitalism. The franchise will expand again with the upcoming series Battlestar Galactica: Blood and Chrome, chronicling the First Cylon War.
Warhammer 40,000 (hereafter known as Warhammer 40K) began in the United Kingdom as a fantasy role-playing game. (There is also a companion RPG called Warhammer that has a fantasy setting.) Starting from the premise of The Lord of the Rings … IN SPACE!, the franchise has expanded in tie-in novels, video games, a magazine, and a vastly expanded universe. Issues like colonialism, imperialism, and posthumanism will be explored.
NOTE: For both features, there will be spoilers. These are critical analyses, not episode or book summaries. Also, given the vastness of these franchises, we at Coffee is for Closers would appreciate any feedback, corrections, etc. from fans and members of the academic community studying these pop cultural touchstones in greater detail.