Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the Reluctant/Hysterical/Oblivious Revolutionary

The tragedy of the Hunger Games franchise is that its critique of the state of modern pop culture and state power is lost on viewer. Yes, the world that Katniss inhabits is cruel and unfair, but it is only a movie. One is reminded of the advertising slogan used to promote Last House on the Left “To keep from fainting, keep telling yourself it is only a movie.” There is a sense in which the ideology of “it's only a movie,” is the key to the cognitive dissidence that compartmentalizes the critique of power from being generalized into our lived reality. It is as if, because the Hunger Game is fictional the truth located in the subtext becomes fictionalized as well. Hiding the truth in supposed fiction is an all too common tactic used by mainstream media to trigger the consumers's emotions to react rather than think. Hunger Games 1 and 2 deploy these fictionalizations in different modes. Below, I will argue that the shift between the first and second film is between Farce and Tragedy. Secondly, that Katniss is an ineffective revolutionary because of her relationship with reluctance, hysteria, and obliviousness voids our capacity to empathize with her.

First as Farce, then as Tragedy 

The first Hunger Games film has a whimsical nature that the second film is seeking to undermine through repetition. The narrative in the first film centers on Katniss and her ability to conform to the dominate narrative. Each progressive scene stages an introduction to an element of the elite culture monopolizing the Captial. As she is introduced to each stage a character is quick to curb her behavior away from self definition to compliance with the dominate narrative. Haymitch, the first character she meets, suggest that Katniss accept her fate and succumb to drunken nihilism. Always the haphazard contrarian, Katniss immediately rejects Haymitch’s perspective and challenges him to fulfill his role as mentor in the regime of power. The most authentic and clear headed of the cast of characters she meets is Cinna, who while expressing sympathy with Katniss's plight only emotionally prepares her to accept her death sentence. At this point in the film the reveals the full subtext of Katiness's struggle. Not only is she to face a fight to the death, she must develop a like pop-political persona which conforms to the masses desire.

The pop-persona, here, functions to reinforce the audiences’ cognitive dissidence. The pageantry and ritual of a game show in the Hunger Games are a constitutive force where viewers distance themselves from the reality of violence by overidentification with the players in the game. Katniss by fulfilling her role as a tribute supports the viewer’s connection to the fiction that supports their imagined community. The danger to the community of viewers is that each distinct is socially separated from each other and the only interaction district members have with each other is when they are pitted against each other once a year in the Hunger Games. One is reminded of the disconnect between the Olympic Games and the racist, classist, imperialistic global foreign policy that transpires the rest of the year. On the one hand, countries unite across the planet, sending their elite to compete in a fair competition. On the other hand, during the rest of the year profit defines the rules, and exploitation is the world's primary mode of competition. Let’s make no mistake, the system is invested and profits from our distance from reality.

The second Hunger Games make explicit the bureaucracy and injustice that keep the networks of oppression operational. Leading up to a commemorative 75th Hunger Games Katniss and Peeta travel the carnival circuit through the twelve districts of apartheid giving speeches in order to reinforce the importance of the districts distracting themselves with their alienation and mystifying the distracts with their celebrity-hood. By whining about inauthenticity of their role as figureheads, rather than reflect on the structures of oppression they are trapped a re-doubled alienation. One is reminded of the runners carrying the Olympic torch in preparation for the games. One never sees photos of the runners passing through the slums, shanty towns, ghettos that make take up so much space in every country. The background for the torch run is painted with iconic elite landscapes and gated communities. In a similar fasion Capital frame each scene of the lecture tour to promote elite values. At each juncture, Katniss and Peeta, stand on a platform confronting a crowd standing in ranks the whitewashed uniforms of their district. The scenes portray the likable yet fictitious post-class vision of each community about every other community. The likability comes from the human desire for adherence to the rules and power. Say for instance, when district 3 views the Hunger Games news coverage of District 5 four they see their own conformity reflected back at them. The imagined community reinforced itself by repetition full circle.

The tragedy in the second film is made more explicit when Katniss is pulled from her achieved middle class status and re-inscribed as common proletariat. Yet, there is a certain patronizing element that include in the second film, which was not in the first. In the first Hungry Game, Katniss by volunteering to take her sister's place in the Hunger Games was ejected from poverty and inserted into the part-of-no-part. A class of people who are given a temporary place among society and the living, who are not property included or exclude from any specific district.

The Reluctant/Hysterical/Oblivious Revolutionary

In order to show Katniss's decolonization the second film repeats the trials and tribulations of the first film from a more cynicalized perspective. In other words, Katniss knows better this time, yet, nonetheless repeats her role in the ritual. This subjective tension oscillates between reluctance, hysteria and obliviousness, all the while Katniss's friends and acquaintances are plotting a revolution. The key scene that demonstrates Katiness's reluctance to perceive reality unmediated is when she argues with Gale:
Gale Hawthorne: What if they did? Just one year. What if everyone just stopped watching?
Katniss Everdeen: They won't, Gale.
Gale Hawthorne: What if they did? What if we did.
Katniss Everdeen: Won't happen.
Gale Hawthorne: Root for your favorite, cry when they get killed. It's sick.
Katniss Everdeen: Gale.
Gale Hawthorne: No one watches and they don't have a game. It's as simple as that... what?
Katniss Everdeen: Nothing.
Gale Hawthorne: Fine. Laugh at me.
Katniss Everdeen: I'm not laughing at you!
[starts smiling]
This scene takes place after Katniss attempts to convince Gale that they should run away together in order to avoid President Snow's threat to kill her family and district 13. Katniss's case is built on a selfish conservative position that seeks to avoid conflict, and values me and mines over and beyond the social good. Gale, on the other hand, is a proper revolutionary who values views the material reality of the Hunger Games in the context of the collective suffering impost on the whole. Countering Katniss's political escapism, Gale proposes a general strike on single most powerful medium of control - The Hunger Games. Katniss is of course radically oblivious to Gale’s perspective and unable to empathize with him. The tragedy, here, form me is that Gale seems like a pretty good dude, how could he fall for such a political naive woman? Why can't he see through her beauty to reveal Katniss's cold conservative heart?

Katniss's obliviousness is most detrimental in two areas; her emotional intelligence, and her inability to understand the motivations of those closest to her. Katniss demonstrates a crippling level of emotional intelligence in her romantic flip flopping between Peeta and Gayle. In both films, there are moments in which Katniss's desire align in order to demonstrate to everyone, but herself that she is able to emotional align herself to the demands of viewers. While meeting immediate desire to survive, the haphazard attempts at emotional commitments leaves one convinced of her daddy issues. Katniss clings intensely to either Peeta or Gale whenever they trigger her lost relationship with her father. Peeta and Gale have both developed strategies that play off this trauma and trigger Katniss's hysteria. Gale plays the emotionally stable advice giving father figure who taps into Katniss's unconscious desire for someone to gently tell her how to define her reality, and Peeta plays the overprotective father who considers her too fragile to protect herself. On the one hand, Peeta provided an irrational supply of unconditional love, and on the other Gale provides her with emotional stability and a mentor. No wonder she flip flops between the two, between Gale and Peeta, Katniss finds a complete father.

Katniss's flip flopping between emotional states signals reliance on others (mostly men) to define her reality, and shows us her incapacity to cognitively and emotionally commit to her actions. It is only when she is presented with a false choice; someone is in a life threatening situation, or another character metaphorically puts a gun to her head to influence her actions, that she commits to a decision. For example, it is only at the end of the second film, when situations beyond her control remove her ability to cognitively and emotionally flip flop between revolutionary/tribute and Peeta/Gale that Katniss develops the clarity she needs to choose between the two. Which is to say only when others make her choices for her that she finds personal clarity.

My deepest concern and what I see as the fundamental flaw in the Hunger Games franchise is that because Katniss is unable to articulate a political persona beyond her own immediate and individualized selfish concerns that the film reinforces the republican bootstrap ideology rendering femininity powerless. If Katniss was even minimally politically aware she would not be dependent upon others to definer her emotional reality. This personal freedom would open up a stronger opportunity for her to side with Gale and joined him in the emancipatory struggle (Like Divergent.) Maybe, then the viewer could be freed from the Twilight-ese hysterical indecisiveness, and provide us with a powerful woman present in her own head space.

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