Wednesday 11 April 2012

Hope and fear

This post is part film review, part social critique.The two went together so they're getting blogged together. My daughter made me go to see Hunger Games with her, and I'm very glad she did. I knew it would be OK really, as Jennifer Lawrence is watchable in anything. But it has rapidly found its way into my flexible top 100. I was thoroughly absorbed from start to finish – a credible story, credible characters, credible special effects, and gripping music (bought the soundtrack, have it glued to my ears). It's best described as The Truman Show meets Winter's Bone. It's been analysed in great detail by lots of people already. Wikipedia gives a very passable summary so I won't go into detail on that here, but just make a couple of observations. The first is that with all the emphasis these days on special effects, Hunger Games shows that it pays not to overdo them. If you've got a story, a setting and characters that you can run with, you don't need anything else. Hunger Games does have its fair share but doesn't make the effects the star as so many movies seem to nowadays.

The second is to do with how the film reflects or speaks to current reality. This is dealt with quite sharply in the Wikipedia article referred to above. Hunger Games won't count as a great film, but it does deal with great themes and there are parallels to be drawn with current reality, and better still lessons to be learned (if only those who need to learn will be open to doing so). The themes sketched out in Wikipedia are feminism, politics and religion.

The feminist issue was interesting for me. I have to confess, mea culpa, that when I watched the film, I didn't notice. It's a great story and she's a great character. It didn't occur to me that there would be anything more to it than that. It's obvious though that, given the gender unfairness that still permeates the world, Katniss will be a hero for those who still have to fight those battles every day. It becomes even plainer when it is noted, per Tom Long in the Detroit News that “of the top 200 worldwide box-office hits ever ($350 million and up), not one has been built around a female action star”, which means that Hollywood still has a very long way to go. (I've no idea where he gets that figure from.) That the film's feminist undertones are not more pointed is partly due to Suzanne Collins' strategy of putting in plenty of violence but no sex, which had two effects, noted by Kate Heartfield in the Ottawa Citizen. First of all it meant patriarchal parents would not refuse to let their teenage daughters read it, (thus contributing to the success of the trilogy) and secondly the concerns of the book did not directly address the arenas in which gender battles are currently being fought in America – primarily reproductive control.

For the record, in my view, one of the most feminist bits in the film is the first music to go with the credits at the end, Arcade Fire's Abraham's Daughter – worth hanging around just to hear that.

Religion is notable in The Hunger Games for its overt absence. But there is plenty that can be painted in, and Amy Simpson in Christianity Today does a pretty good job at that. For me the resurrection allegory is a bit of a stretch, but the imagery of the bread works pretty well. I think, though, that any religious meaning is one of those make of it what you will themes. Amy Simpson also discusses hope, which she understandably puts in a religious framework. But for me, hope is one of the key ingredients that makes the film politically powerful.

As with feminism and religion, it is possible to read into the film whatever you want politically, and, apparently, left wingers, right wingers, liberals and libertarians all have. The overt themes are obvious – mistrust of government, intolerance of inequality and oppression, and a belief that people can stand up for themselves even under the most tyrannical circumstances. The moment that clicked for me in the film is where the President and the Head Game Maker discuss how to end the game satisfactorily. The President criticises the Game Maker's strategy, saying that he has allowed the players, and by extension, their people in the Districts, hope. And hope, he says, is the one thing that is more powerful  than fear. His job is to keep the majority in check, and he does it with a massive police force and pervasive surveillance, maintaining the supremacy of the Capitol with casual brutality. In one scene a salute from Catniss direct to one of the many cameras tracking her movements sparks a riot in one of the districts, which has to be put down by the police. I saw the film just as the final report of the  Riots, Communities and Victims Panel on the riots of last August was published. In some ways those riots were a blip, an inexplicable and complex occurrence which every commentator was able to interpret in their own way (in much the same way as they have been doing with Hunger Games). I think people generally see them as a blip – the very detailed Final Report has sunk without trace. Perhaps that is because the report itself lays the blame in so many places –  more or less everywhere but with the government. It takes up the theme of hope – “Many young people the Panel met expressed a sense of hopelessness”, and one of its main sections of recommendations is entitled “hopes and dreams”.

The riots came in the middle of a series of protests that were altogether more purposeful: about education, about the NHS, about cuts to welfare, that saw some premeditated, persistent and casual brutality meted out by the police charged with ensuring the safety of the public. Those protests have tailed off as the objects of their anger have ceased to be amenable to change – student fees, the privatisation of the NHS, reductions in welfare are done deals. But I would not be surprised if there were more protests, and more violent reaction to them in the summer months.

Hope and fear are currently submerged for the majority in this country under a blanket of comfort. While there is much inequality and much poverty, the fact remains that Britain is one of the richest societies in the world, and the majority of people are comfortable enough not to be so worried about the condition of the country that they will actually get up and do something about it.those who want to do something are too fragmented, and ultimately too let down by the parties that are supposed to represent them. Good people remain. I was recently very impressed by Stella Creasey, the Labour MP for Walthamstow.  (She also provides more proof that the feminist struggle is not over yet: she was refused entry to a members' lift by a Conservative minister who did not believe that she could possibly be an MP.) But I have to remind myself that she represents the party that enthusiastically continued Thatcher's privatisation of the NHS, that brought us the ruinous (to the taxpayer) PFI deals, that led us into at least one unnecessary war with futile results, which was determined to make us all carry ID cards for no purpose other than to snoop on us, which brought us E4A and ATOS, and began the (to my mind criminal) flirtation with Unum which Iain Duncan Smith and his DWP ministers still carry on today. The disconnection of the Labour elite is the main reason why a charlatan like George Galloway can find himself back in the House of Commons: and that ought to be warning enough to all of the main parties.

But the Conservative Party carries on as before, aided or at least allowed to by the Liberal Democrats, to my dismay. Parts of it are beavering away at the reintroduction of want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness, banking on the fact that most people don't seem to care. They're right - people don't. But I suspect, and hope, that people will as they begin to see what they are losing. At the moment the losers are too disparate to be a force, and the government continues with its traditional tactic of wearing people down step by step, a process made easier by the move towards individualism brought about by a generation of the politics of selfishness begun by Margaret Thatcher. Death by a thousand cuts was never more meaningful than now. But the sections of society targeted by the cuts will gradually become both more aware and more hopeless as current comfort leaks away with no prospect of future security to temper it. Then riots on the streets will not be about brand names.

The Riots Panel referred to above said "No young person should be left on the work programme without sufficient support to realistically hope to find work". Not something the DWP takes seriously; they follow the dogma of privatising everything because paying money to private companies to shuffle unemployed people around must be better than actually creating jobs. Young people tend to be energetic. And they tend to be on the streets more. At the moment they are quiescent; that may not last.

That same department leads a determined assault on disabled people, cut by vicious cut. The assault on disabled people disguises a more widespread assault on women. In this country most care is done by the family, which usually means by women, and it is they who will pick up the debris left by the  insistence of Iain Duncan Smith and the DWP on making the poorest pay the price for the mistakes made by the richest. Again, this assault does not matter to many people - in fact it is an excuse for some: disability hate crime has been rising steadily in recent months. People who have no hope very easily turn on others. Sooner or later they will turn on the government.

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