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Alistair Cartwright reviews the film The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Hunger Games

 

The news that a major studio is making a film of a favourite book, especially one from childhood or adolescence, might normally fill you with dread. New Line Cinema set a precedent with their 2007 adaptation of Philip Pullman’s The Northern Lights; who would have thought that Lyra Belacqua, a girl who taught other children the meaning of running away from home, actually resembled a plastic doll? People often express their scepticism that a film could ever live up to a book: the magic of a book is what it lets you imagine, in cinema, everything is laid out in front of you.

There is a truth to this truism, which is that cinema gives you the image of a world. The novel, in its classically realist form, is constructed out of the relations between different characters, these relations acting as the glue which binds together a world, in this way forming a kind of microcosm or internal totality. Cinema on the other hand must rely on more fragmentary means, precisely because of its proximity to ‘raw’, unmediated reality. The image is pressed so close to the surface of the world that it cannot take in the wider picture. Hence the film has to reconstruct the totality (of lived experience, or more ambitiously, of the world) out of a multiplicity of fragments. This is perhaps why cinema feels particularly attracted to dystopian visions of the future. Great dystopian films piece together an image of the future out of the fragments of the present. The rain-sodden wasteland of Tarkovsky’s Stalker for example, could be located on the edges of any medium-sized European town, just beyond the last suburbs, but before the first power stations. Likewise the boardroom in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey is straight out of an International Style modernist pavillion. These films not only testify to the degradation of the current world, but allow us to interpret the nightmare as the reconstructed dreamworld of our waking life. Like dreams, they are a way of processing reality, and given the right state of mind, a way of understanding it.

For all these reasons The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is something of a miracle. The books ask us to imagine a world wrecked by civil war, now divided into districts. Once a year each district chooses two children, a boy and a girl, to be sent to the Capitol, the single centre of power and privilege. Here they take part in a gladiatorial spectacle in which the winner is the last one standing. The film gives us this world by giving us its image. It shows us what a society based on the ritual murder of children would look like. Clearly the credit goes to author Suzanne Collins as the architect of ‘Panem’, a dystopian America whose excess and brutality make for a scarily canny impression of 21st century capitalism. But praise is also due to the production design team – Philip Messina, John Collins, Robert Fechtman, Larry Dias and Trish Summerville, all bar one of whom were retained from the first film (unlike the director) – for the wonderful sets, costumes and visualisations. The following are some notes on the images contained in the film, written by someone who hasn’t read the books.

Masks

The train that Katniss and Peeta take to the Capitol is a cross between a 1950s diner and an Edwardian smoking room: chrome shell gleaming like a hot-rod racer’s prize machine, the corner or every door and window rounded to perfection, while inside mahogany tables and tortoiseshell countertops make a show of crystal decanters.

When they reach the Capitol they are stationed in a penthouse suite, which serves as boarding room and debriefing centre. What appeared in the train as mere eclecticism, now reveals itself as a particular aesthetic logic. The dresser by the bed, with its black and green zebra stripes (seen in the first film), is clearly a nod to the postmodern furniture design of Ettore Sottsass and the Memphis studio. A similar aesthetic applies in the arena itself: the ‘cornucopia’, the base which houses the weapons, resembles a pavillion by Zaha Hadid.

It is these surfaces which first communicate the gulf of inequality separating the districts from the Capitol: the contact of the eye with so much dirt, soot, damp and corrosion on the one hand, and so much gold, chrome, marble and crystal on the other. But the intricate surfaces of the Capitol are not just a display of wealth. They are also an armour, a shell, or a mask; a way of forgetting or defending against both the outside and the inside, a poverty both exterior and interior. Nowhere is this more visible than in the make-up worn in the Capitol. Faces are powdered and rouged into gargoyle-like grimaces; absurd bouffants and perms are stained blue like toxic flowers. The fashion sense of this society – half Georgian revival, half Bladerunner punk – stems, once again, from a specifically postmodern kind of cross-breeding, in which the whole of history becomes available as a series of stylistic motifs, to be selected and combined at will. The truth of the metaphor is this: that the extreme inequality of capitalist society, the alienation of one class from another, breeds a form of self alienation in the heart of the ruling class itself. While one class feels its material life-force slipping through its fingers, so another class quits its own soul to embrace the newly liberated plethora of material comforts.

Moreover since they lack any grounding in the wider world, or interior life, these surfaces become props for the exercise of society’s technical capacity. In the world of the Hunger Games, surfaces – or masks as we might call them from now on – have approximately the same role as arms spending during the postwar boom in our own world. Both embody a kind of non-productive expenditure. The society of gold eyelashes and vomit-inducing lemonade, is the same society that would invent a poison gas that causes the skin to burn and blister upon contact. Don’t be fooled, neither is more serious, or more frivolous than the other; the blisters wash off in water just like mascara, only they cause considerably more pain.

Signs

Against the ostentation of the Capitol, resistance first appears via a series of small signs: a three finger salute, a four note whistle, the image of a bird, rising and twisting in the air. The power of the imagination is stopped dead in its tracks by the polished surfaces of the Capitol, as if crashing into a wall, but these signs somehow communicate below or across the surface.

All of the signs are appropriated or converted in some way. The salute begins life as a gesture of respect given at a funeral. The whistle signals the end of the working day in the orchards and cotton fields of district 11. And the image of the mockingjay, painted on walls next to revolutionary slogans, is simply a gift from an old woman in the black market – a good luck charm before Katniss departs for the games.

As the linguist, Ferdinand de Saussure understood, the power of the sign is bound up with its relative arbitrariness. Theoretically, this power can be invested in almost anything. Once invested, the sign becomes a carrier, a tribute. It is mobile, reproducible and potentially erratic. Just as the mockingjay turns the whistle into a form of call and response, so the salute, beamed around the world by video, changes from a sign of grief to a sign of defiance. And the gold pin given to Katniss finds a secret, unconscious echo in the gold eyelids of Cinna, the fashion designer attached to her team, and one of the few people in the Capitol to show anything approaching kindness.

Hence the sign is mercurial and potentially treacherous. The absence of make-up on the face of Philip Seymour Hoffman, who plays Plutarch, the new gamesmaster, is also read in two ways: on the one hand as a sign of his proximity to the highest echelons of the ruling class (the president also wears no makeup, just like the general who shows his face, unlike the helmeted ‘peacekeepers’ he commands); on the other hand, as a mark of disdain for the trappings of appearance, a hint at some deeper, unconditional nobility. The creases in his cheeks, the shadows under his eyes, and the lank, oilyness of his hair, invite us to trust him a little bit.

The prominence of signs in the world of the Hunger Games likewise has a double significance: on the one hand the introduction of all kinds of mythological, archaic and clearly ‘backwards’ imagery, values, rituals etc, compensates for the system’s inherent fragility (Katniss herself says as much during her encounter with the president at the beginning of the film). On the other hand, the abundance of signs is evidence of a very advanced stage of capitalist society – a society in which ideas, images and even emotions have been successfully commodified. Hence the eclecticism and sheer abundance of decor and cosmetics in the Capitol, versus the Nuremburg style banners in the stadium where the children are first presented, or the white uniforms of the soldiers.

In the world of the Hunger Games there is a perverse combination of these apparent opposites – fascism and (neo)liberalism, feudal barbarity and advanced technology. The meaning is clear: you can’t have one without at least raising the possibility of the other.

Affects

The games are orchestrated like a series of the X Factor: every stage of the proceedings, from selection process to victory tour, is presented by a hyper-actively enthusiastic host, whose job is to coach, encourage and amplify the affective participation of the audience. He even has his catch phrases (‘lethal lovers’, referring to Katniss and Peeta). There is also a training period, a series of mock examinations or trials, in which the tributes play a balancing game of forging allegiances with one another and competing for the attention of the panel (a host of Capitol worthies gathered behind a forcefield that substitutes for the plate glass of the VIP box or the recording studio). The manipulation is double because of course there can be only one winner; all the allegiances are temporary and yet the tributes are expected to smile at the camera, to treat everything in a spirit of good sport. And if someone does protest – as happens this time round – their screaming at the audience will be interpreted as the outburst of an over-emotional diva, and that too, is all part of the fun.

The only gestures that seem to cause a real disturbance are the ones of solidarity: the linked hands of the tributes as they line up on stage; or Cinna’s fabulous costume for Katniss, which transforms before our eyes from wedding dress to mockingjay, the tatters of the first falling away in a burst of flames to reveal grey feathers and outstretched wings. What could be more provocative, the symbol of rebellion rising from the ashes of so much fakery and emotional blackmail?

The other moments where some dart of genuine feeling manages to pierce the callousness of the usual facade, are usually less dazzling than Cinna’s stunt on live TV. Which is not to say they are less complex, as if crudeness were a guarantee of authenticity. What distinguishes these moments of affective truth is the combination of at least two different tones or modes. For example when Katniss gives the three finger salute after Rue’s death, it is a sign of both grief and defiance. Or when Peeta cradles a dying tribute, and asks her to look up at the sky, which is stained pink and yellow by a digital sunset, this is also the moment that Katniss falls for him, sees in him a kind of inner strength. In truth, Cinna’s gesture of defiance is an elaborate joke on the Capitol’s taste for contrast and surprise (like one of Heston Blumenthal’s exploding desserts). And the master of this complexity is Hamitch, Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, and a past victor from their home district. At first he appears as an incompetent drunk, but he is the only one who really understands irony – that is irony as the rhetoric of criticism rather than cynicism, which is all we are ever fed in the Capitol.

All of the above could be taken as a comment on celebrity culture, but it’s much more than that. The cynical mode of affective participation is the benchmark for job interviews and application forms across the burgeoning service sector of advanced capitalist countries. The interviewee is expected to show, not only competence or compliance, but also genuine enthusiasm. She is supposed to enjoy what she is given no choice about. The compulsion is therefore double – to carry out the task and to enjoy it. Such is the perversity of a system based on the free exchange of labour. Against this double compulsion (being compelled to act as if you are free) the moments of affective rebellion in the Hunger Games strike us as instances of genuine freedom, quasi-existential displays of human agency: to choose to be defiant, although you are grieving – and to hide neither of these feelings. To choose courage, although you are scared, and again, to hide neither.

Screens

In the penthouse room where Katniss stays in the first film, the big window at the foot of her bed is really a screen. A remote control changes the image from desert to ocean to forest and back to clear. Finally she settles on a crop of woodland, the very same that surrounds her home. Are they taunting her, or just trying to make her stay as comfortable as possible?

The presentation of the Games in the TV studio is also orchestrated by digital screens. They not only broadcast images, but allow them to be collaged together in ‘real time’. They create an environment that binds together these disparate fragments, giving them meaning and importance.

It’s only natural then that the people of the districts should direct their iconoclastic fury towards the screens. The first act of the rioters in district 11 is to tear down the giant screen, just like they were tearing down the bronze head of a dictator. And at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss’ final act of rebellion is to fire an arrow tied to an electrical coil at the digital sky, which is all at once screen, camera and cell wall.

In all of these examples there is a strong element of self-reflection on the nature of cinema itself. Cinema appears as an allegory threading its way throughout the film. It is cinema, with its lenses and lights, and today with its CGI and HD cameras, which conjures up the spectacular surfaces of the world. It is also cinema with its close-ups and cuts which isolates the sign, causing it to jump from one place to another. And finally it is cinema, the great coloniser and producer of affects, which has us shaking and trembling in our seats.

Early on in the film this allegorical treatment of cinema is made explicit: Katniss and Peeta step out of the door of their victors’ house to be greeted by two cameras mounted on robotic arms. The cameras track backwards to take in the scene, sliding on rails nailed into the frozen ground, and when a trip ends with the two of them on the floor, the robotic arms pivot to trace a perfect crane shot, zooming in for the final kiss.

However we should avoid interpreting the prominence of screens simply in terms of spectacle and simulacra. In the world of the Hunger Games there is an original conception of the screen, not simply as display board or monitor, but as eye, camera, barrier and mirage. The screen is therefore a kind of membrane, regulating the interchange of bodies between different spaces.

The great sky-screen that covers the arena of the Games is linked to a holographic model back in the Capitol. Standing over this model, the gamesmaster orchestrates the play. This schema of holographic model and hemispherical arena conveys the utopian ideal of society: a totally manipulable environment in which individuals appear as pieces on a chessboard and events are mere local occurrences (lightning bolts which strike from the sky and clouds of poison gas which descend almost as quickly). This conception of the sky/screen owes a lot to a recurring theme of postmodern cinema: the world as quasi-natural ecosystem, self-regulating and essentially predictable. Think, for example, of Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982), The Truman Show (dir. Peter Weir, 1998) or The Matrix (dir. Andy and Lana Wachowski, 1999). Where The Hunger Games departs from those films is in the idea of the screen as interface. Or, to put it another way, The Hunger Games has a proper conception of the outside, where the older films could only think of this zone in a nominal way. In The Truman Show or Bladerunner the outside only exists by default and the simulacrum is next to total. In The Hunger Games there is a constant passage between outside and inside, and a constant exchange of identities between the two terms.

In other words, although the screen expresses the ruling class’ desire for total control, insofar as it fulfils this function, by mediating between an abstract model and concrete reality, it opens up a gap between the two realms/levels of reality. This fissure or suture then becomes the opportune site of resistance. Resistance can therefore never be written out the picture altogether, precisely because reality is an admixture of the real and the ideal, the actual and the potential, the given and the possible.

From New left project

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright

Alistair Cartwright edits Different Skies, an online magazine and collective for experimental writing. He writes about cinema and the city. Alistair is a stalwart of Stop the War and a member of Counterfire.

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