Dr. Caligari's Hunger Games
The Hunger Games, for those living in an altered reality, is a fictional competition of 24 youths age 12 to 18, 12 male, 12 female, selected by pairs from the 12 districts outlying the central ‘Capitol’ in a civilization known as Panem in the famed series of novels by Suzanne Collins first published in 2008. These young people compete against hunger, nature, and each other, while simultaneously trying to garner the support of wealthy Capitol patrons, armed with weapons provided by the arbiters, and various gifts of patrons, to the death until, it’s supposed to go, a lone victor remains. All of this, is mediated and broadcast to the citizens of this imaginary world for the spectacular enjoyment of the public. This is done, allegedly, in penance for a revolt of the districts against the Capitol in the times of tribulation, as the Capitol puts it, to “remember our past, and safeguard our future,” but it also keeps the districts in their place, and serves the purpose of “panem et circenses!” Give them bread and circuses! Oh, and it’s also a 2012 movie.
HAPPY HUNGER GAMES
The Hunger Games (2012) film is designed to manipulate from the very beginning: poor kids, cruel government, starving families, people with cool skills like archery stuck in a two-bit mining town. But that’s normal enough movie faire, and once you know what’s going on, in most movies, that’s half the battle.
Perhaps on the verge of breaking out in tears throughout several moments of the film, we’re enthralled by the beautiful young heroine Katniss’ (Jennifer Lawrence) plight, and in awe of her capable handling of the near hopeless situation she is in. She plays mother to her sister. She plays mother to her mother. She understands her male counterpart’s social rebelliousness and in her womanly ways holds over him wisdom of a greater truth. But, in fact, if one stops to think about to what degree Katniss is “media-blind”, how lacking in the all important vocal dimension of social conscience Katniss is, despite the easy overt fact that she doesn’t want to kill other people in her own situation, one has to face a lot of uneasy questions. Uneasy because they are in fact very complicated and in no way completely obvious.
THE EMPTY CABINETS OF DR. CALIGARI
In the story, Katniss’ tale will never go forward unless she keeps her mouth shut. Otherwise the action will have to stop. When Katniss shoots the apple from the mouth of the suckling pig at her evaluation before the blasé aristocratic judges, our rationality tells us that they would take her from her peers, realizing her threat to the Ancien Régime, slit her throat (or torture her first for fun) and be done with it. But instead, we let the fact fly that the ruling class is also sleepwalking in their participation in this vivid and continuous dream, in order not to break the realm of appearances. We might see this, if hazily, as a break in the willing suspension of disbelief, but we want them to let Katniss continue, so we accept the improbable and use this to justify their justness, when in fact they would behave in no such way were they more real. Our participation in the fiction is our consent to irrational thought. And who minds? But then, it is our own consciousness that is giving rise to the suspicion that things are worse than they seem, and if we think beyond the text, we are the ones creating a “harsher reality.”
Such is the emphasis of the people of the Capitol on “manners”, united with their affectations; the whole basis for why when they ‘come through’ to the district (via the touchstone annual visit for the reaping or, mainly, through surmised media-intervention, although televisions and technology are blatantly absent in District 12) they are aiming to improve their underlings through not just propaganda, but edutainment and infomercials. The short film telling the crowd about the Hunger Games is really a commercial for what life is like in the Capitol. In Capitalism. Stay in your place and do not revolt and you might just be rewarded materially, albeit through unlikely survival, through mandatory cut-throat game-playing. It might be in your best interest to not be yourself.
The German silent film classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari(1920) eerily displays the same ideological ground as The Hunger Games. In fact, they may be similar cultural markers of the consciousness of these respective civilizations, although they appeared during distant epochs.
In the lead up to the rise of Nazi Germany, many revolutionary messages, and subversive sentiments in general, were either excluded from films, changed from the filmmakers intentions, or else, under the direction of the censors in place, redacted to change the message to conform to the authoritarian intent. One such film, ipso facto, was The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.
As written originally, the script intended to portray a man who discovers, in the climax of the film, that the Dr. Caligari of the title is the head of an insane asylum, revealing that the man who has been committing murders by proxy through a hypnotic control of a somnambulist is actually in a position of malapropos power.
However, this was changed for the final form of the film, which instead features a further ‘framing’ of the film, where the man who discovers Caligari as the nefarious doctor, is himself in a mental institution, and though it is he who told us the “main” tale, in the end he falls under the benevolent treatment of another Doctor, who looks exactly like Dr. Caligari. Yet, somehow, in a twist that is simply tacked on, this character simply isn’t Dr. Caligari, but reveals he realizes now the patient under his care only “thinks I am Dr. Caligari. And now I know how to treat his illness.”
Written by Hans Janowitz and Carl Mayer, they intended the film as a criticism of the untrusted bourgeoisie and the authority that led men arrogantly into war.
The framing device was suggested by Fritz Lang while he was being considered as the director, as a “way of not scaring off the public,” according to film historian Lotte Eisner. When Lang was unable to direct because of his prior engagement on his serial film The Spiders(1920), the frame effect was adopted by the final director Robert Wiene, against the protest of the writers. “The result of these modifications was the falsify the action and ultimately reduce it to the ravings of a madman,” wrote Eisner.
Now, no one will argue that our present society isn’t struggling with the issue of a tortured belief that those in charge of our society are actually lunatics running the asylum. Another film of similar note is Capitalism: A Love Story(2009) which ends with a plea for a general revolt against authority, Wall Street, and corrupt politicians, because a great “crime has been committed” against the American people, in the form of ritual economic disparity, and that particularly obscene as of late. One has seen the ‘Occupy’ movement in action on the streets and organizing and reinforcing itself on the Internet (for as long as speech is still free on the Internet).
“YOU MUST BECOME CALIGARI”
In the affairs of the masses and in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and The Hunger Games, it is the sleepwalking state that is most troubling.
It is interesting to note a further similarity, achieved in different ways, in these two films.
The “shaky camera” of The Hunger Games is not a tactic, but a device. People either complain, or else just don’t mind.
David Konow noted that viewers feel the “off-kilter design of Dr. Caligari draws you into the film, and closes in on you at the same time.” The sets were designed in the Expressionist style and were a triumph of imagination, as the shadows and highlights were painted onto the flat backdrops of the set to save on lighting, since they could not afford the electricity to light the film in a usual manner.
Expressionism aims to show what is felt rather than what is physically apparent. It lends itself to views that appear as distorted perceptions. Think of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, and the projection of emotion onto what is depicted, viewed.
In The Hunger Games one is not seeing a naive, natural view of the action. This is not either an innocent glance of an impartial camera. Neither is it a self-conscious view. This view has an intent to conceal intention. The hand-held camera, close-ups of characters with large video screens in the background, reflections of characters viewing themselves, in those screens are convolutions that rather than emphasizing an oversaturation of virtuality, have an effect of distending one’s view, to make the viewer feel rather than see reality; arguably designed to stop one’s thoughts from having independent existence. The idea is to trap the audience’s minds in the image, and cut them off, fluidly weakening diastolic action.
The interaction between the Capitol, the Peacekeepers, and the chaperone for the two winners for district 12, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), is, despite the constant unspoken threat of violence, delicate. Much like the The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari went out of its way to make the story of the handling of a sleepwalker seem veritable, the handling of the balance here was necessarily a march lightly tread.
The Capitol’s “Peacekeepers” force is undoubtedly smaller than the combined strength of the districts, which surely audiences will find during the subsequent films in the series. And although in the first book, what is explained as the reason for the (temporary) survival of the Capitol, the mountain range between it and the 12 districts, only breached by train tunnel, it is not this gulf that this critic finds most unbridgeable.
Like Katniss’ dazed glare, audiences view the activity of the film through bunched up eyes. And if one comes to the film in this manner, already seeking something, it will send you on your way, right along through the story, like a sailboat on a silver stream, gliding right with the action, shaky camera and all.
How like our own world, our own conscripted killers, our own silent complicit drones are the ones in these tales? And how much more effective is the Doctor’s magic when all of this is designed to appear as a show? As if this is a prepositional realm, where this is only mere conspiracy that is imposed on the world; that, like The Matrix(1999), once you are outside the matrix, in the subtext of desire, you simply won’t have to worry about problems of reality, teleology, purpose, even politics. So, by Cypher, you are safe inside the net of this particular oppression. It is such a comfort.
In The Hunger Games, class struggle is no longer about rich or poor. It is about something entirely imaginary. There is no enemy, other than whatever enemy the author tells you of in this story. Therefore this revolution has no interest in the real world. It is divorced from actual situations. No notions of propriety are harmed in the making of this film.
And it’s not just telling you that this story doesn’t really matter in the real world, in your dreams. The coercion of consciousness might just be designed to separate your motivation, your basic drive for struggle (your capitalistic drive, the id, libido, élan, whatever you want to call it) from ever targeting the ‘wrong people’ again.
“How do you stay alive?” Katniss asks.
“You get people to like you.” Haymitch, her sponsor, tells her, plainly.
But there is another element to this play of blood, which is a unique feature of latter day Capitalism, where you don’t even have to bother with a heartbeat at all. Consider the scene where Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), along with the other tributes, are presented before the sponsors, riding in horse-driven chariots. Audiences are shown that Katniss and Peeta have a special stylist, in the book readers are told it is his first year, and he chose to work with District 12, generally the least favorite of the districts. This Cinna (sounds-like-“sinner”) and played by Lenny Kravitz, wants the contestants to appear original before the crowd of those affectation-laden sponsors, and in an intimate scene, it’s shared knowledge that all of the other tributes are wearing costumes. Except for Katniss and Peeta. They will wear fake fire. They are so original and beloved above their pretentious peers and the pretentious media! “Now, I love that!” glouts the glib announcer, the media spokesperson, when he sees how proud Katniss and Peeta are, to raise up their hands clasped together, in a moment of reluctant enjoyment of their, admittedly, terrible situation, proud, to represent their district. It gives you chills, to feel that as you approach the center of the city to hear the president’s address that you are special in the only non-actually-possible way! When, if you had any self-esteem, or any self-consciousness you would be doing the spot-light dance, struggling just to stay in the light of your own consciousness while you harbor yourself from the truly sinister glare. Insincere praise from Caesar!
The only chance you really have is—oh, there it is… “May the odds be ever in your favor,” says the archetype-evil-Santa-Claus President Snow (Donald Sutherland). He will give you all, and take away more.