Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games: Hitler & America's Anti-Socialism

To gross $155 million in three days is quite compelling: there was a huge advertising campaign which paid off because, as is quite obvious, the film takes its own advice on how to advertise successfully. Is there any reason why it's being launched the week the Supreme Court decides on the constitutionality of the socialist Obamacare legislation? Yes, The Hunger Games displays a world in which capitalism is bad and socialism is therefore good. The Hunger Games is taking Brad Pitt's Moneyball and inverting the structure: whereas we saw in Moneyball an enterprise (the baseball team) with a low budget forcing  the need to maximize talent and re-think the rules so as to survive in a struggling game, The Hunger Games also shows us how to play and alter the rules in a game for survival; instead of showing us a victory of capitalism, however, the actual hunger games shows us in metaphor a socialist's perspective on the "brutality" of a free-market economy by replacing businesses with children.
Why is it called "the Hunger Games?" Because capitalism is a game of trying to figure out what people hunger for, then profiting from it by supplying for a need (supply and demand economics, demonstrated in The Lorax).  There are other ways to read the film, but I think the historical analysis will be overlooked by others, that's why I'm focusing on it. For example,  why else is it called "the Hunger Games?" We all hunger for something, and the intensity of the survival ordeal brings out what it is that we need and crave most out of life, and what it is we want to give to others. Food plays an important role in the film (perhaps not as much so as I was lead to believe it does in the books) but I think that serves to draw our attention to different forms of food than just the food we digest. For example, the love and sacrifice Katniss makes for Prim, her younger sister, is food for Prim, it satisfies the needs of both their souls, Prim to know her sister loves her and can save her from this certain doom, and Kat's need to give love to her sister. When Katniss is wounded and doesn't think she can go on, the medicine and kind words Haymitch sends to Kat is food for her will power and sense of dignity in spite of how she has just been treated like a wild animal. Why is this important? Katniss is able to give love, but she's not has good in receiving it, and in order to be a completed heroine, a successful role model for culture, she has to be balanced, and by the end of the film, she's much closer to achieving that but being confronted with two men with whom she has emotional bonds alerts the audience to the choice still ahead of  her.  
All of us have biases and preferences, so I want you to know I am a capitalist; I know there are problems with the system, but I believe it to be superior to all other economic models and the system usually only fails because people within the system fail (like Lehamnn Brothers and Bernie Madoff; I just want you to know my personal biases before I go on). One of the problems of capitalism, which The Hunger Games points out, is what capitalism does to us: we become greedy. When we become greedy, we get used to feeding our appetites, and when we get used to feeding our appetites, we don't feed anything else (such as our soul). As a Christian, I totally agree with this, we have seen this process in the deterioration of religious practices and it's very easy to make the case that individual and corporate greed were the main forces at work propelling the 2008 economic disaster. But can socialism promise we will become better people to solve these problems? No, and history demonstrates that.
Again, this image of Effie Trinket isn't in the film, but gives us an extra-topical understanding of the cultural perspective The Hunger Games wants to communicate to us. Every aspect of the dominant "players" in The Games is commercialized with an eye to selling by creating a "hunger" for designed false eyelashes, as an example (a Lady Gaga video created a hunger for round contact lenses as a real-world application).  Effie's last name is "Trinket," because "trinkets" are a part of her being. When Katniss threatens Haymitch with a butter knife, stabbing it through his resting fingers on the dining table, Effie cries out, "Careful, it's mahogany!" Why? Because things are of such an important part of Effie's own being, she's not putting the table above Haymitch's safety, rather, she's putting the table as a part of Haymitch's being, to hurt the table is to hurt Haymitch. What does Effie's eyelashes say about her? Like everything else in the film, it takes the natural and makes it artificial: the designed lashes means that Effie sees the world (her eyes) through that which is sculpted and artificial (like Seneca's beard).
The structure of the Hunger Games is the same as American economic society. In a free-market economy, you come up with a product, you market it, you compete with other products for dollars, and you try to destroy your competition so that you can corner the market while continually surviving the changing landscape of the market; that's exactly what happens in the arena of The Hunger Games. Here is a wonderful clip of the fabulous Donald Sutherland as President Snow:
What is it we hope for in a capitalist society? That we will be the inventors of the next snuggie, we will invent the pillow pet, we will invent the spork, white-out, the computer, mighty-putty, the can opener, sliced bread, the wheel, the light bulb, and we will make a fortune off our invention, just like the Once-ler or O'Hare in The Lorax. In The Hunger Games, socialism interprets capitalism that the kids are the products, and they are marketed just as a snuggie or bottle of air, they have to get sponsors and advertising dollars, they have to create an image and destroy the competition. Is this a fair interpretation of capitalism? Yes and no. In Moneyball, when Coach Beane (Brad Pitt) tells Peter (Jonah Hill) that Peter needs to learn how to fire professional baseball players, Beane sets up the impersonal/non-personal exchange that is the basis of capitalist business: you are not a person, you are a professional baseball player and this is what we have to do to survive so you are being traded to another team; thank you, good-bye. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, presents us with the (very) personal exchange: you are a human and I have to kill you to stay alive so I am going to kill you.
While this image--and a few others I will be posting--aren't necessarily in the film, they are about of the culture and belie the advertising necessary for the games and the society. Purple is the color associated with a ruler: because it was so ridiculously expensive to buy (requiring the sacrificed lives of thousands of snails to make one garment, something like that) only the excessively wealthy could wear it and, eventually, the royalty made it illegal to wear it unless you were royal. Because it's also a color associated with Christ's suffering and passion, purple signifies a person who has come by their wisdom (the wise are the royalty of the spiritual life) through great suffering. Cinna most certainly has had his share of sufferings because of his compassion for Katniss and Peeta, and his ability to see what they need as people and fulfill those needs.
The personal sides are even increased and made intimate when Peeta reveals that he's in love with Katniss and that winning (i.e., in capitalist terms, becoming a millionaire) wouldn't help him because he has to kill the girl he loves (or be killed by her) to come out alive (and, just before this, is an odd exchange over how Peeta smells like rose petals [possibly an illusion to Prim Rose] and Caesar and Peeta smell each other, and they decide Caesar smells better because he's lived there in the Capitol longer. What does this exchange mean? The upper-class have the rights of health and hygiene, whereas something like that is refused to the lower classes [remember that Kat was going to have to be "hosed down" a second time before the beauticians took her to Cinna]); the reason this is important is because it's trying to draw out how lower classes are treated like animals (not getting to practice civilized hygiene) while the upper classes practice ridiculous hygiene and are more human and civilized even though they are the ones exacerbating the barbarity of the Hunger Games, so socialism is painting the picture that a "false hygiene" covers up a "false economic virtue," capitalism:
Haymitch will play the "star-crossed lover" card, and "young love" to get Peeta a chance at survival that he would not have had otherwise, and that's all done by recognizing the power of personal exchange over non-personal exchange which capitalism is dependent upon. (The obvious rebuttal is that there are several of the contestants that we the viewers don't know, and they are non-personal sacrifices the film makes in trying to show how non-personal capitalism is). The question is: how many of us think a socialist government, such as China, gives more personal liberty, freedom and security than a capitalist government? Do we really think of socialist governments as protectors of rights and parents who foster the growth and expression of its children? How does a socialist government define human beings? People are Proletariats, there to work for the government, not ourselves. It's an international fact, established by the UN that communist China is the world's worst violator of human rights.
Shallow inclusions of shallow Christianity try to appease the religious right into believing that your religious freedom will be protected (more so than in a capitalist government) in a socialist system. By letting Katniss sacrifice for Prim, offering herself up as tribute in her sister's place, it invokes Christ offering himself up for us (it's less than two weeks before Easter when Christians celebrate exactly that).  This is the reason Katniss is "the girl on fire." What does "Katniss" mean? In the beginning of the film, when she is leaving to go hunt down food, there is a cat that Kat looks at and says, "I can still kill you and eat you," and while cats are usually meant to invoke female sexuality, I think it was easier to play off the difference in definition between our animal natures and our human natures by incorporating the name of an animal into the main character's name to make us remember that she is being treated like an animal even though she is a human, and she treats all the others as humans even when they treat her like an animal. "Killing the cat and eating it," is basically what the other tributes want to do to her in the games, and that game mentality spills into the larger society and the intimate family setting.
The Hunger Games shows us what feeding our appetites in the hunger game of capitalism does to all involved: the people at the top (in the capitol) turn shallow and artificial with insatiable hunger while the people at the bottom become poor and basically stay there. The key to understanding why the film takes such a negative view of capitalism is the real story behind the treason and rebellion of which the film speaks. In the opening title cards, the film tells of a terrible rebellion and treason which was put down at great cost and in remembrance of the people who died, they hold the Hunger Games which is in its 74th year AND THIS IS THE ENTIRE POINT OF THE FILM, ITS WHOLE FOUNDATION.
Just seconds before Katniss enters the tube to be transported to the game grounds and it's Cinna (expertly played by Lenny Kravitz) who comforts her and calms her anxiety, giving her that "nourishment" of faith and confidence that she needs in this moment of inner-crisis. In a film filled with masterful portrayals and total exploitation of character development (a sign of skillful directing), Mr. Kravitz delivers a powerful performance. Why does Katniss come to trust him? His character attributions tell us why: he wears gold lining on his eyelids and his ears are pierced four times. Because eyes will be the part of the body symbolizing wisdom (the wise are those who can "see" more than others) and because wisdom is so precious it is represented as gold, the liner on his eyes means that he can see--not only what Katniss needs--but aid her in overcoming what will harm her. Likewise, his pierced ears means that he can hear that which has not been spoken, and in a world as artificial as Panem, that is probably his own survival skill.
What happened 74 years ago?Adolf Hitler, a socialist, began steps insuring a world war, and Hitler's "rebellion" and "treason" is the reason America--so The Hunger Games posits--is so adamantly anti-socialist (the socialists started the war), hence, capitalism is good because it won't start a world war. Hitler revolted against the world order and caused the horrific suffering of World War II (along with the other socialists/communists who took over during the Cold War) so socialists think that's the reason capitalists don't want to go with socialist programs, because of World War II and a socialist starting it. If Hitler had not started the War, it is possible that America would have become a far more socialist leaning country than what we did. Democart President Roosevelt was implementing "socialist programs" during the Great Depression to "keep America afloat" (the way Democrats have been unsuccessfully trying to do the last three years) and, if Hitler hadn't started WWII, Roosevelt's programs and trends probably would have continued because the Great Depression would have continued.
Torn between two men? Since Peeta's father owns the bakery, and Gale--like Katniss--hunts and gathers for additional food, which man she chooses is a choice of what life-style she wants for herself. The Hunger Games doesn't really advocate returning to the hunter and gatherer lifestyle of primitive man (because this is what ends up happening in the arena of the Hunger Games, we know that choice ends up being a survival of the fittest competition as well, which is a phrase associated with capitalism).  It's easy to critique a system where you don't have to offer a counter system.
I guess it never entered their minds that capitalists look at history and see socialism not working and that's why we don't want to go with it, but this is why it has been released this week, because President Obama's socialist health care legislation to enforce coverage is before the Supreme Court and socialists are desperate to get it passed and capitalists are desperate to throw it in the fire and watch every ember burn.
Seneca Crane, the chairman of the Hunger Games, has a fantastically sculpted beard. The beard symbolizes our primitive nature (primitive man went natural) whereas civilized man displays his intellect and superiority above nature by shaving his face and that Seneca's beard (primitiveness) is sculpted (partial shaving) reveals how, Seneca as the chairman of the spectacle, "sculpts the appetites" of all watching the Hunger Games, by knowing what to give the audience to make it a good show. The black jacket he wears accentuates his role as a grim reaper by deciding who will die and who get another chance; the red shirt underneath the black jacket reminds us that all of that narrative we are watching is because our appetites (red is the color of the appetites) are beneath the surface hence, we are to blame for it, not Seneca.
"May the odds be forever in your favor..." What does that mean? Given the familiar analogy of capitalism and the free market as a game, the idea of the odds being in your favor is... favorable. Is that what happens in the film? No. In spite of having her name in the lottery only twice, Prim's name is chosen; in spite of having his name in there 48 times (is that correct?), Gale is not chosen, Peeta is. In spite of an announcement that two winners will be permissible if they are from the same district, the odds are then slanted back to the announcement that, again, only one winner will be recognized. How can the odds be in your favor? They can't, at least not in the world presented by socialism (which is very intentional), where the landscape and fire and genetically altered animals can be conjured out of thin air for the sake of a good show. But if socialists can do that, so, too, can capitalists, and the reasons why capitalists/risk takers can think "odds are in their favor" for new products and ideas is because of the "invisible hand" guiding the market posited by the "author" of capitalism, Adam Smith in The Wealth Of Nations (post note: please see my post on The Dark Knight Rises for more on "calculated risk" and how socialism sees it vs capitalism).
Peeta is feeding the pigs left over bread and sees Katniss huddled in the rain, hungry. He tosses her a half molding loaf of bread. It's possible to see this as the sum total of "capitalist charity" when the excess is "tossed" to the poor. If this is true, it reflects our failure as human beings, not the failure of capitalism, and I can agree with that wholeheartedly. The founding fathers, even up through "robber-barons" like Carnegie, Vanderbilt and Rockefeller, believed in the returning of money back into society to help it prosper, in the present and the future; are we really doing that now? Seeing public initiatives by private individuals, or do they use money on themselves?
Yet there are also balloons bringing much needed supplies. It's debatable whether bailing out the auto industry, housing market, banks and Wall Street was an act of capitalism or socialism, but in the film, the balloons bringing the needed supplies to keep a contestant going, symbolizes an artificial means of keeping the economy afloat with cash flow as medicine. Does this seem to be a contradiction? No, because a socialist would say, if those industries were run by the state they wouldn't need bailing out but had to be bailed out because of shoddy private enterprise; a capitalist would say, business is business and a bad company needs to die so that healthy ones can flourish in its place. Which leads us to our concluding point.
There are many ways to understand this film, which has actually been critized by others because the world author/screen writer Suzanne Collins creates is so vague that it's not consistent. I can understand that, however, I think they overlook that essential clue: 74 years ago, because that is what gave birth to the Hunger Games. Knowing that Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat trying to get America out of the Great Depression, was using socialist styled programs to do it, begs the question of America being far-more socialist today if Hitler hadn't tried to force the world to be socialist, would it have happened "naturally?" Were the hardships caused by World War II the primary reason America became so vehemently anti-Socialist? That's one for the historians, but I think that's a viable line of understanding the film takes, trying to get us to understand that capitalism--and the brutality of the free market--is far worse than socialism if we would just give it a chance. So why don't most Americans want to give it a chance? Writer John Steinbeck said socialism never took root in America because we have never looked at ourselves as oppressed workers but slightly embarrassed millionaires (referring to conditions during the Depression). While socialists will argue that American anti-socialist stances are predominantly defined by American ignorance on the subject, if one took a survey of Americans on the street, most could not tell you the difference between socialism, communism, nazism and fascism, except to say Marx, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini; and that's the American point: there are only "textbook technicalities" which differentiate the movements from each other, but they all grow out of the same evil seed of socialism.
Effie Trinket modeling in a Chinese style dress, do we want our economy to be in a Chinese style? We have to answer that question because socialism is what our government is heading towards, just like China.
Everyone will have a viewpoint on this film, and that's why, regardless of  whether you, too, will see it as a socialist film, I think you should see it: the acting is carried off well, the costumes are great and every shot is jammed packed with meaning for an intellectual feast (the vast majority I have skipped over in this post to focus on an historical analysis I think others miss). So yes, please see the film if you have any inclination to do so, because this is a perfect example of something I think will happen again this year: the political left and political right will both employ symbols and images to depict themselves that the other side employs as well. As always, the better educated we are in recognizing symbols and undercurrents in artistic thought, the more capable we are of articulating what we think and why (PLEASE READ BELOW).
I did not catch this, but it was kindly put to me: when Katniss has volunteered to take Prim's place, the people of her district who have assembled, salute her (as she does above after Rue has died). Is this the same salute used in Nazi Germany? It has been suggested that it resembles the "Heil Hitler!" (minus the parades, screaming and tanks and armed soldiers). The difference, of course, is that the Nazi salute was open-hand, but Kat and the people of District 12 salute with only three fingers; it's close enough if you want to read it that way, but if you don't want to read it as a socialist symbol of unity, it's just a coincidence.
Post Scriptum--To substantiate this position with an additional film, The Avengers, which clearly likens the villain Loki to President Obama and his policies, is first publicly scene in Hamburg, Germany, which, again, correlates Obama with Hitler and socialism. Many disagree with my position of understanding the film from the perspective of why the Hunger Games were created by the society depicted, so, too, does J.T. O'Connell who wrote Capitalism, Communism and The Hunger Games, so if you dislike this post, you might like his (he does make the common mistake of thinking I am male, but I am female, just FYI). 
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The Fine Art Diner