Happy Canada Day! Let’s go to the mall … today!
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.
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?
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter X: In the Name of the Best Within US
Pages: 1147 – 1168
Summary: Dagny, Hank, and Ragnar break into the secret facility and save John Galt. Dagny confronts a guard and gives him a philosophical ultimatum. At least that’s what Rand probably intended. Unfortunately, it comes across like yet another dogmatic Abbot and Costello routine.
After saving John Galt, they fly back to Galt’s Gulch. Kay Ludlow reads Aristotle, Judge Narragansett works on rewriting the Constitution, and Hank and Francisco discuss the creation of new locomotives and the high rates Dagny will charge. (Women, am I right?)
Finally, John Galt prepares the path to re-enter the “outside world” by drawing a dollar sign on the desolate ground.
Lest we forget, Eddie Willers got stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere. After numerous frustrations, he says the titular line of the chapter amidst yet another hissy fit.
Reflections: It’s been a long turgid road, but we finally made it. We finished Atlas Shrugged before it finished us. There’s not much to say except that this was the most overrated piece of garbage since The Phantom Menace. At least the Phantom Menace had a pod race and a decent light saber battle. If anything, Atlas Shrugged works as a primer of how not to write a novel. Even leaving aside Rand’s childish philosophy and her bloated ego, the novel is entirely lacking in characterization and drama. One needs those things in novel writing if the novelist doesn’t want to put the reader to sleep.
The philosophy itself is a failed attempt at cod-Nietzscheanism: Galt as the heroic Übermensch beyond the ken of ordinary looter morality; ferociously anti-democratic; and achingly nostalgic for Greco-Roman classical ideals. (I would compare Ayn Rand to Leni Riefenstahl, Nazi propagandist and filmmaker, except that Riefenstahl had talent.) In the end, Objectivism comes across like a gilded Satanism. Like Satanism, Objectivism fuels a hackneyed rebelliousness. Extolling the virtues of greed and selfishness may sound badass at first blush, but this is just worshipping gold instead of Satan. (At least professed Satanists like Marilyn Manson have talent.)
Objectivism is as badass as Pat Boone donning a leather jacket and doing Metallica covers. George Carlin puts it another way. On the topic of feminism, he states, “Changing your name isn’t a radical act. Castrating a man in a parking lot is a radical act.” When one owns media conglomerates, has Congressional leaders in their pocket, and possesses extreme wealth, it is rather silly having one think of oneself as a rebel.
In the end, what Atlas Shrugged needed was a good editor … or two.
Finally, the calls for freedom and personal pleasure eventually lead to things like Dave Foley’s “Groovy Teacher.”
If Objectivism is about anything, it’s about doing heroin and having affairs with 18 year olds, or very mature 17 year olds. That would explain the behavior of Silvio Berlusconi and Dominique Strauss-Kahn.
The band Karma Rocket from the TV series Party Down sings their hit “My Struggle,” voicing the pain and anguish of Objectivists in their struggle to act like greedy selfish babies. What better way to end an analysis of this horrendous book?
- “Calmly and impersonally, she, who would have hesitated to fire at an animal, pulled the trigger and fired straight at the heart of a man who wanted to exist without the responsibility of consciousness.” Makes me think of that Austrian vegetarian and animal lover who had serious deficiencies in people skills.
- “Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of production and trade …” Good to know Objectivists are in favor of slavery, child pornography, and heroin trafficking. If it’s what the market demands …
Atlas Summer: Part III: Chapter IX: The Generator
Pages: 1126 – 1146
Summary: And now … torture! John Galt, having refused the entreaties of shyster hooligan Mr. Thompson, gets stripped and strapped to Dr. Ferris’s electrical contraption. The torture is horrendous until the machine breaks and the idiot operating it doesn’t know how to fix it.
In other news, Dr. Robert Stadler heads back to Iowa where the Xylophone is under control of effeminate fascist goofball Cuffy Meigs. Words are exchanged, a melee ensues, and KA-BOOM!
Reflections: The torture scene comes across as dramatically puzzling and unintentionally funny. What kind of sociopath tortures for laughs? Oh, right …
The humor in the scene throws a giant monkey-wrench into the narrative’s tone. Granted, the electrical apparatus breaking down proves Rand’s point, but to use the phrase of libertarians, “at what cost”? Galt, the muscular genius hero guy, gets tortured by fat looter morons. What’s so dramatic about that? The characters, such broad caricatures of humanity, sap the scene of momentum and give it all the depth of a Tom and Jerry cartoon. Hell, Rocky and Bullwinkle had better plotting, better characterization, and better jokes than this banal horseshit.
The only real explanation for this nutty scene is Rand needed to make John Galt into the book’s Christ Figure. A rather odd thing considering Rand’s rabid atheism, although not that odd since cults of personality adopt the liturgical features of religion to suit the star’s egomania. (Yet another similarity Ms. Rosenbaum shares with Uncle Joe.)
Compare this to the torture scene in 1984, written by British Socialist George Orwell. In the novel, dissident functionary Winston Smith faces torture from O’Brien. Winston thought O’Brien was also rebelling against Big Brother, when in actuality O’Brien belonged to the Inner Party. Unlike the rotund dimwits in Atlas Shrugged, O’Brien uses a rat-cage that he attaches to Winston’s face. No electricity involved. It’s sustainable and has a small carbon footprint. It’s also effective as hell. Perhaps Mr. Thompson had difficulty attaining rat-cage-face-masks from Airstrip One, considering the United States is in transportation crisis in the novel?
In the end, Winston confesses and thus, 1984 becomes tragedy. Dr. Ferris’s shenanigans just seem idiotic, especially since it is in aid of making John Galt their Economic Dictator and solving all their problems. It’s a scene diametrically opposed to that of 1984. 1984 is a critically acclaimed novel that attained its rightful place in the Western Canon, easily making 100 Best lists without breaking a sweat. Atlas Shrugged, on the other hands, required market manipulation by hordes of crackpot cultists buying books in bulk in a facetious attempt at popularity. That’s just sad. But so is having the inability to break the $2 million dollar mark on opening weekend and coming in at a lame-ass #14. In Glengarry Glen Ross, Blake challenges the real estate salesmen to “Always Be Closing.” Second place is a set of steak knives, third prize is your fired! What’s 14th?
Like the Left Behind series, Atlas Shrugged isn’t literature for the ages, it’s only appeal lies with a sliver of the population that buys into its nutjob theories and infantile views of economics. In a word: marginal. Here’s another one: Inconsequential.
Call me anything you want, Objectivists. I’ll make sure to have a couch handy for you to jump on.
One chapter left and we’re done with this overwrought literary abortion. Huzzah!
- “There was nothing beyond the lighted strip but the emptiness of the prairies of Iowa.”
- “He [Cuffy Meigs] wore a tight, semi-military tunic and leather leggings; the flesh of his neck bulged over the edge of his collar; his black curls were matted with sweat.” Jeremy Clarkson?
- “We want ideas – or else!”
- “Had enough?” snarled Ferris, when the current went off. “Yes, end this book NOW! Oh, you were talking to John Galt.”
- “Don’t kill him! Don’t dare kill him! If he dies, we die!” Whew, good thing somebody explained the stakes in the scene or I wouldn’t have understood what was going in. Way to not insult the intelligence of your readers, Ayn.
- “Galt burst out laughing.”
- “Galt was watching them; his glance was too austerely perceptive.” Or if someone with actual talent rewrote the sentence: “Galt watched them; he perceived them with a muscular austerity.” Seriously, Ayn, use the money you made from The Fountainhead and take some creative writing courses at Columbia or the New School or something. Your utter lack of talent is repellent, lazy, and childish. “I’m here on a mission of mercy. If it was up to me, I’d fire your fucking ass.”
“You do not become an author just by using the language to call a cabinet minister unfit for office.”
“There are writers who can express in a mere twenty pages things I sometimes need two whole lines for.”
Karl Kraus (1874 – 1936)
Reflections: The nature of fictional storytelling requires emotional and narrative pay-offs. Starting with John Galt’s speech, Atlas Shrugged moves into the dénouement. This is where all the deck-stacking and intellectual dishonesty of Rand’s project reveal the flaws and fractures within her attempted “philosophy.”
While all the characters get shuffled into place, John Galt prepares to escape the clutches of the evil looters. The looters, in their idiotic desperation, call for John Galt’s help. The tables are turned and the looters are revealed as having a bankrupt philosophy.
When Galt is finally detained by Thompson’s men in a section of the Wayne-Falkland Hotel brimming with military men, Galt still refuses to help. Despite Galt’s two-hour speech, Mr. Thompson still doesn’t get it.
In this exchange between Galt and Thompson, we get to the essence of Atlas Shrugged, the very nubbin for why it exists in the first place.
“Okay, I’ll tell you. You want me to become Economic Dictator?” [Galt]
“And you’ll obey any order I give?”
“Then start by abolishing all income taxes.”
“Oh, no!” screamed Mr. Thompson, leaping to his feet. “We couldn’t do that! That’s … that’s not the field of production. That’s the field of distribution. How would we pay government employees?”
“Fire your government employees.”
“Oh, no! That’s politics! That’s not economics! You can’t interfere with politics! You can’t have everything!”
Galt crossed his legs on the hassock, stretching himself more comfortably in the brocaded armchair. “Want to continue this discussion? Or do you get the point?”
Do you hear that? It’s the sound of a balloon deflating. This alleged confrontation distills the philosophies of both camps, yet it’s so … so … anticlimactic. Galt is so perfect, smart, and heroic; Thompson is so conniving, weak, and contradictory. It is the immovable Idealist versus the unstoppable force of the Looter Hordes.
Narrative sterility aside, the essence of Objectivism is now revealed as Rand’s distaste for the income tax. The fucking income tax! I read over one thousand pages for this! Seriously! (I feel like James Taggart, all exclamation points and apoplexy.) Nevertheless, let’s take a step back, since I don’t want to give myself an aneurysm, least of all for this book.
Like anyone who has had to pay taxes, I understand the resentment and hatred people level at the Internal Revenue Service. Money earned through hard work, etc. But to write a 1100 page book against the injustice of the income tax is sort of silly. Like building a cathedral to why Justin Bieber sucks. It’s ridiculous and rather petty. Added to this is the Randroid perception that this is the Greatest Novel of All Time. (It would be, if you’ve never read any other book. One would also think it the Greatest Novel of All Time as a natural and logical opinion. Don’t worry, Objectivists, Scientologists hold the same opinion about Battlefield Earth. They’re both good at buying in bulk and rigging literature polls. But Objectivism is totally, totally not a cult. ***Stifled laughter***)
The trick is buying the books in bulk. Also works when selling subprime mortgages as loans.
Ironically, Rand’s philosophical novel resembles the logorrhea of Dave Sim, except Sim has talent as a comic book artist. Ayn Rand (neé Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum) is just another paranoid megalomaniac who changed her name to sound tougher to her adversaries. Wait a second … paranoid megalomaniac … name change … sounds a lot like this guy.
“Complain about the income tax all you want, I’ll be pummeling the Nazis into a slurry and sending the first man into space … with the occasional famine and purge. Have to think of the bottom line in all this. It’s not personal, it’s business.”
To adapt Stalin’s quote to the parlance of our time, “One unemployed person is a tragedy, a million unemployed people is a statistic.”
Well, after twenty years and twenty million dollars of his own money, film producer and Galtian superman John Aglialoro finally dragged Atlas Shrugged: Part One into theaters three weeks ago, to a shower of critical brickbats and universal audience indifference. Now, Aglialoro is whining that politically biased film critics poisoned the market with their non-Objective reviews that harped on such minor issues as laughable CGI effects, wooden performances, and a screenplay comprised almost entirely of discussions of metallurgy and corporate governance. In response, this titan of cinema and gym equipment manufacturing is threating to deprive the world of the two sequels no one was asking for. Some churlish sorts might claim that the free market has spoken, but that would ignore the tyrannical, market-perverting power of Todd McCarthy from the Hollywood Reporter.