“I saw The Hunger Games today … it was very inspiring. It felt like almost a mimic of my exact life and shit. I know it. I was like, ‘Baby we gotta be on that movie board when they writing this shit.’ And I saw Lenny Kravitz … and shit.” —Kanye West
I went to see the second Hunger Games film, too. I wouldn’t say it was a “mimic of my exact life and shit,” and I didn’t tell the babe I went with that we should be on board “when they writing this shit” because I’m not sure what that even means, though Kim Kardashian might. Still, like Kanye, Catching Fire inspired me. It got me wondering about the culture industry and revolution and shit. Can a revolutionary idea go on without a celebrity to endorse it? Does a radical thought—like the one at the core of Suzanne Collins’ popular young adult novels and the film franchise about an untwerkable teenage heroine valiantly challenging the cinematically sexy propaganda machine that holds a totalitarian state together—have any substance, does it have any meaning at all, if it’s not framed by a blinged-out telematic culture built on a ramped-up consumer fetish for camera-ready fashion and stylized cosmetic trinketry?
Maybe it can, maybe it can’t, maybe it never could. The day before we went to see Catching Fire my mate and I considered going to an IMAX. We were stoked because someone in The Wall Street Journal said Katniss Everdeen’s glitzed up entrance into the gladitorial arena before the Quarter Quell contest—the supercharged death match where kids kill other kids on reality TV for the viewing pleasure of the citizens of the Capitol and as a reminder to the impoverished people of the outlying districts that they shouldn’t rebel—was visually unprecedented in the IMAX “theatre geometry.” That format made Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss, whose eye makeup made her look like Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, a work of visual art you’d want to see for its own sake. But going to see a movie that challenges our fascination with the eye-stroking superficialities that conceal repulsive social practices at a venue that celebrates visual enhancement is hypocritical, unless you’re an unflappable hipster who thinks your day-to-day hypocrisies are just you being ironic. But then who knows? In one of those interminable bytes of intellectual history, Machiavelli, the original gangsta of political philosophers, once said “the masses are always impressed by the superficial appearance of things.” The world is prettier when I push that thought away, but he’s probably right. Maybe, like small children and kittens, and for sure like the telematic citizens of the Capitol driven by a manufactured desire to look spectacular and to look at people and things as spectacles, we’re more motivated by shiny objects and round things than by anything like ethical principles.
In any case, we went to see Catching Fire at a more plebian cinema. She’d read all the novels—and made me a fan of the badass heroine—and she’d talked about their political allusions and allegories with such beautifully unbridled enthusiasm that we thought staying away from the pomp of IMAX was the good and right thing to do. Plus, it was the week of Black Friday and we’d gotten so chafed at the state of consumer culture that we were just down with all that radically democratic talk that, at least momentarily, accompanied the film’s release.
But something strange happened while we were sitting in our chairs, chowing on popcorn and waiting to be enlivened with that hopeful revolutionary promise with which the first film ended. In the anticipatory half-lit communal haze when the audience, lulled into a fantasy sense of our own good fortune, was watching trailers and aestheticized commodities appear on screen like metaphysical totems of some devoutly narcissistic society of the spectacle—like the one emplotted in the film—there was an ad for the Catching Fire collection by COVERGIRL. To most normal people trailers aren’t that important, and they weren’t for us, either—not at the time. When you’re sitting in the theatre and the images appear, like the shadows presented to the prisoners in Plato’s cave, all that you really want to do is watch them through to the feature presentation. But that thirty-three second spot squeezed innocuously between the last trailer and the first shot—when we see Katniss in an Appalachian forest ready to fire at wild game to provide food for her family—ideology came down on us like an iron fist encased in a gossamer glove.
The Capitol Collection, named after the dystopian metropolis of post-Apocalyptic Panem—the self-contained metropolis set against the west coast mountains—is a display of brute power framed in a half-minute carnivalesque ad. It’s a line of makeup personified by characters “inspired” by the novels but clearly more indebted to the capital—$700 million—generated by the first film. “Something hot is coming to the Capitol,” the script on screen reads, followed by the slogan, “12 Districts, 12 Hot Capitol Looks” and punctuated with that iconic blazing jaybird, the franchise’s revolutionary brand and COVERGIRL’s cosmetic brand make over. The ad anticipates the costume and design of the film, an affably insane mash-up of the decadence of Imperial Rome with some feudal cast from a Dr. Seuss film, heavily accented with the proto-fascist cleanliness of 1930s Germany and the scandalously self-absorbed techno-couture of our own world. Most disturbing of all is that in what must be one of the most repulsively beautified divisions of labour in economic history, each “look” is COVERGIRL’s personification of the raw material, manufactured good or service each district produces for the Capitol in the fictional world of the story.
District 1 represents the Capitol itself, where people don’t really “do” anything except consume objects of conspicuous consumption. It’s represented by a woman in moribund gold with hair reminiscent of either the extravagant wired head-dresses of pre-Revolutionary France or an Oompa Loompa. According to the people at COVERGIRL, who provide rationalisations for each characterisation on their website, she signifies “Luxury.” District 2, responsible for masonry, is a minimally made-up meat and potatoes woman, and District 3, technology, is a sleek—and predictably—Asian woman with triangulated eyebrows and futuristic headgear. The representative for livestock-producing District 10 is earth-toned with something that looks like a Thanksgiving door ornament on her head, and the one from District 12, as you’d know if you’ve read the novels or seen the films, is stylised and coloured in hues reminiscent of mining.
From the fetishistic luxury objects to the material ones, there’s a perfect structural allegory here in how the Capitol celebrates the process of surplus-value extraction that defines its political relationship with the impoverished outlying districts. All the representative women are attractive and sexy but just like the commodities their Districts produce, they’re bound for the Capitol. So before the film even starts attention refocuses from the anticipated political struggle—will Katniss lead the revolution, how will it start?—to questions about what clothes to wear and what makeup to put on.
They say you’re not supposed to shout “fire” in a crowded theatre if there’s no fire, but can you shout it when you spot an infernal ideological ploy? Theodore Adorno, the critic who first wrote about the effects of film, TV and horoscopes on the popular mind, said that ideology comes to us in the form of contradictions. He said that to “manipulate the masses” the ideology of the culture industry must be “as internally antagonistic as the very society which it aims to control.” The word “manipulation” is abrasive to people who’ve hallucinated that ideas are manufactured in the pristine clarity of a mind centred in its own centredness and free of most external influence, but you’ve got to wonder what the Capitol Collection ad, presented a half minute before a film about a nascent rebellion against the Capitol in a theatre packed with young women, was aiming to do if not manipulate them with this contradictory message. Ideology, it seems, happens in the quietest moments, like in those thirty-three seconds we glimpsed of the parasitic betrayer of the film’s intended message. The semiotician Roland Barthes, who looked at everything from pasta ads to TV sports as a system of signs that needs to be decoded for the layers of meaning that hide political principles, once said that a “healthy” sign is one that draws attention to its own arbitrariness and doesn’t try to look “natural.” There’s a playfulness in these District “looks,” a kind of carnivalesque attitude where those who would aspire to the Capitol’s ostentation do so with a sense of self-awareness or—shudder—irony, but that sense of playfulness doesn’t erase the clear-cut idea that these products are part of the very problem that the rebellion in the film is trying to challenge.
When COVERGIRL announced it’s first-ever movie sponsorship—with this movie—in May 2013, the popularity of the second Hunger Games film was already geared more to the inoffensive costumes than to the political content of Collins’ stories. “We wanted to redefine cosmetics’ relationship to film in a fantasy-meets-reality beauty experience,” said one VP at Global Proctor and Gamble, COVERGIRL’s parent company. The campaign, she went on to say in equally pretty but nebulous language, “will bring beauty transformation to life in an aspirational, dramatic fashion.” For its part, entertainment giant Lions Gate offered a more directly sinister position through one of its VPs. “The exquisite beauty and style in the world of the Capitol is a focal point of this film. Partnering with an innovative brand like COVERGIRL to create an additional layer of beauty storytelling and inspiration for the fans is new territory that we’re delighted to explore.” The point in the Capitol Collection ad is not to make young women into politicized citizens ready to speak up against unfairness let alone fire arrows at injustice, which I think is pretty close to the point of the original novels, but to secure their positions as citizen-actors who aspire to the Capitol, which just might be, as the VP reminds us, “a focal point of this film.” Back in 1936, a time not entirely unlike the dystopian world envisioned in Collins’ novels, Walter Benjamin invented the phrase “aestheticization of politics” to describe how fascism makes its politics look aesthetically pleasing. That’s what we saw in the theatre before the movie started.
I don’t know how the other people in the theatre—especially the young women—read the ad. There was one mildly irritating teenage girl sitting beside us whose phone kept glowing but she probably wasn’t paying too much attention. But even if they weren’t paying attention, or even if they were and got drawn in by the theatrics, I bet they’d be put off by COVERGIRL’s reinterpretation of the film’s obscene political economy as thirty-three seconds of aesthetically-pleasing drama. A few months before the movie came out Miley Cyrus was going around sticking her tongue out and taking off her clothes in response to the outcry she’d started over that twerking business, and in the midst of the heated argument over slut-shaming and what young women should and shouldn’t do in front of cameras, journalist Laura Penny pointed out that “society does not care about young women . . . it cares about Young WomenTM as concept and commodity.”
More than twenty years ago, the old-school feminist, Naomi Woolf, in her old feminist book The Beauty Myth, which came out years before Sex and the City normalised the idea that a sexualised aesthetic is always good for women, argued that “the beauty myth is always actually prescribing behaviour and not appearance.” She likes the novels but can’t tolerate the idea of watching this particular film on screen, and she has a point.
COVERGIRL’s cosmic reinterpretation of The Hunger Games, a story about people taking pleasure in watching poor young people kill each other on TV, as a narrative of complicity with the Capitol and acquiescence to its garish spectacles in the name of fun is certainly ballsy for its complete reversal of original plot, but then cosmetics are in the business of making original things look different. Marx had that great line about how history happens twice—the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce—and that seems like what happened here. And yet, style, whether in the colours a young woman puts on her eyes and nails or the types of sentences a middle-aged guy uses when he speaks or a dramatically reactionary ad screened just before a politically radical movie, matters to us, just as it matters in the universe of Catching Fire, where Katniss gradually starts to understand that her appearance is the key to her survival in the games because the TV audience will only take notice of her if she is beautified and made to look gorgeous by her “stylist,” Cinna, played by the inordinately cool Lenny Kravitz, a figure who is killed off early in the movie for having stylized a too rebellious fashion statement. It’s also the key to the entire revolution, which in the novels and films has a lot more to do with the simulations of symbolism than we usually like to admit. The figure is heroic, in other words, because she has the appearance of a revolutionary and has learned how to play the cosmetic system of the games, and in that respect maybe COVERGIRL, despite its creepy politics, was onto something important because nobody ever said that pretty things and revolutionary spirit can’t go together. My mate guffawed and chortled as much as I did when during those thirty-three seconds, and she’s a stylish woman who happens to like makeup and probably owns some COVERGIRL products. Even Emma Goldman, that old anarchist, vindicated beauty in the otherwise dour, firebrand context of political agitation. When she was publicly reprimanded by some earnest young zealot who said “frivolity would only hurt the cause” when he saw her partying, she responded by saying “I want freedom, the right to self-expression, everybody’s right to beautiful, radiant things.” That exchange was the legendary source of the delightfully smart-ass riposte: “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.”
I remember Don Draper saying in the very first episode of Mad Men, back when its writers seemed more interested in the rhetorical seductions of the advertising industry than sexual seductions of secretaries, that “Advertising is based on one thing: happiness,” and then going on to tell the cigarette executive that happiness is “a billboard on the side of the road that screams with reassurance that whatever you’re doing is OK. You are OK.” That episode—“Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—featured a sly nod to the work of the marketing and public relations philosopher Edward Bernays, the man who, beginning in the 1920s, applied psychoanalytical principles to marketing for American companies and, later, for the US government in its ideological war against Germany and then the Soviet Union. In his most important work, Propaganda, a book published in 1928 when people talked openly about how to use language to get people to desire products and then buy them in a free-market economy, he said, “The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. . . . We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized. . . . In almost every act of our daily lives . . . we are dominated by the relatively small number of persons . . . who understand the mental processes and social patterns of the masses. It is they who pull the wires which control the public mind.”
The menacing and affable leader of Panem reminds me of Bernays. At one point—President Snow, who’s played by the lovely-haired Donald Sutherland—and Katniss get together in one of the most important parts of the story to talk about—wait for it—the political implications of her dress. This part of the story is thicker in the novel version. “‘I didn’t mean to start any uprisings,’ I tell him. “‘I believe you. It doesn’t matter. Your stylist turned out to be prophetic in his wardrobe choice . . . you have provided a spark that, left unattended, may grow to an inferno that destroys Panem,’ he says.” Snow knows that it’s appearances that matter more than intentions, not only for the luxuriants of the Capitol but also for the disaffected masses in the Districts. As for Katniss, well, she didn’t want to inspire a rebellion, but that’s what she ended up doing, partly as a consequence of her stylist—the same guy Kanye was going on about in that diatribe. Later in the novel, when Katniss is being beaten by a “Peacekeeper” her handler, Haymitch, intervenes. “‘Oh, excellent.’ His hand locks under my chin, lifting it. ‘She’s got a photo shoot next week modeling wedding dresses. What am I supposed to tell her stylist?’” The point here is that it doesn’t matter if she deserves the beating or not. What matters, singularly, is her appearance at the photo shoot. Her life depends on how she appears for the cameras.
Though the story is indebted to the Greek myth of Theseus and to the Roman concept of panem et circenses, the satirist Juvenal’s term for “Bread and Games,” the policy of shutting down dissent by giving people entertainment and food, Collins says she dreamed up the novels when she was flipping her TV between a Reality TV show and war coverage from the Middle East. The trilogy is about, in essence, what it’s like to live in a world where people “live” through their various virtual representations of themselves, a carnivalesque world that no longer discriminates between real-time war and hyperreal games. Two years ago The Economist printed a review of the first Hunger Games and pointed out the ethical conundrum that festers in any reasonably thoughtful person who sees the film, except maybe Kanye. “How can such a film divorce the thrills it delivers from the fictional thrill-making that it has to deplore?” In other words, if it’s a critique of visual culture, which it is, then how come it’s a film? Lobbing around words like “contradiction” or “antagonism” doesn’t really address this melon-scratcher of a question. Perhaps the best answer comes from the first film and novel where one of the characters, Gale, who by the end of the second is a declared revolutionary, asks “What if everyone just stopped watching?” But even that’s not much of an answer, is it? »
From subTerrain #66