The Hunger Games: Reality TV Not Lost on Our Youth
by Steven Martin, guest contributor
Fans give the three-fingered salute of District 12. The gesture is one of admiration, meaning thanks or goodbye to one’s beloved. (photo: Doug Kline / © 2012 PopCultureGeek.com)
I was certain I was going to hate it. All of my four kids have been fans of the series of books by Suzanne Collins since before they were cool; therefore when the movie was announced, we all knew the midnight screening on the night of release was a must-do.
But in the run-up to last night’s trip to the IMAX theater, the reviews I read and heard helped confirm my feeling that this would be a disgusting movie: violent, gratuitous in every way, repulsive to my social conscience.
I was wrong. Very, very wrong.
I tend to approach these cultural phenomena with a concern that my comfort level will be jolted. What I should be concerned about is what these phenomena say about our culture, and in the case of The Hunger Games, what it says about the generation that elevated the story to its current status. With an eye to the latter, I drove home early this morning with a deep satisfaction that my kids were smarter than I was at their age, and that their generation understands something mine did not.
First: yes, the movie is violent, and disturbingly so. The story is one about a future world in which a wealthy ruling class dominates a world that it is linked to, but separate from, itself through overwhelming police and military power, and entertainment that both enthralls and intimidates the underclasses. The focus of the story is an annual gladiatorial ritual in which representatives from the “districts” under domination give up children to a tournament of slaughter and death. Yes, this movie is based around images of children killing each other.
It is a valid question to ask: why must we tell stories that constantly elevate the level of violence necessary to grab our attention? Why is it now necessary to portray children killing other children, and children dying by each others’ hands? This is indeed an important question for our society to wrestle with. But more importantly, we should direct our moralizing to the question the film itself seeks to ask: why are we satisfied to be part of a society that finds it necessary to feed upon its young?
Viral successes like The Hunger Games reach mass audiences because they strike a nerve. The audience for the books and the film, the “millennial generation,” is not lost on the message. Our society is held together by a craving for violence. What is, say, middle-school football, after all?
We should ask: is it tolerable for us to send our young boys into a game that breaks legs, destroys knees, causes concussions, and otherwise changes the course of life forever? Of course it is! Not only does the game bring our community together, provide economic opportunities, but for the lucky few, college scholarships and professional opportunities. For the players, they are willing to risk limb and even life for a lottery-styled shot at fame and fortune. For the audience, we are willing to cheer when the fallen player limps off the field, or worse, is carried off to the emergency room, sighing a concern or uttering a prayer for the well-being of the child who may suffer permanently in the name of our entertainment.
The Hunger Games causes us to consider other forms of this structural violence. Not to only pick on the venerable institution of football, the film’s prevailing metaphor can be applied to all kinds of American institutions of empire: soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan, Treyvon Martin, state-sponsored gambling (the lottery), Wall Street, and so on. Face it: our society is one that eats its young. Through its horrific portrayals of a society that dominates via a tournament in which children kill children, The Hunger Games might well shock us into seeing the way we ourselves do it.
After the movie, my kids wanted to know my reaction. Did I just see it as yet another violent kid-pic? “No,” I said, “I didn’t expect to come here and see a movie about the young Israeli soldiers sent to occupy the West Bank.”
In return I asked if, when they read the books, they saw them as overtly political. “Yes,” my fourteen- and seventeen-year-old kids replied. And while they discussed on the way home the ways the movie changed story details of the books, I went to bed at 3:15am knowing that the major theme was not lost on them.
It gives me hope.
Steven D. Martin is a documentary filmmaker, photographer, and activist. He currently serves as a founder and executive director of the New Evangelical Partnership for the Common Good. You can read more of his thoughts at the Uncommon Voices.
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Is a Machine Gun Preacher What We Wanted?
by Martin Marty, guest contributor from Sightings
Reverend Sam Childers poses with SPLA soldiers. (photo courtesy of Machine Gun Preacher)
Preachers, pastors, priests, rabbis, and imams number in the hundreds of thousands in the United States. They minister at the borders between what get tabbed “sacred” and “secular” realms, and as such cannot go unnoticed in public media.
Some critics in the culture wars complain that they too often do get unnoticed. But most representations of them in movies and on television evoke, in the minds of those who have positive regard for clergy, George Bernard Shaw’s often paraphrased saying that there are two tragedies in life: not getting what we want, and getting what we want. “Not getting what ‘we’ want,” whoever “we” are, used to be represented in comments that ministers, especially Protestants, usually came across as namby-pamby and culturally marginal types as if labeled “Handle with Care.” They often appeared begowned and silver-coiffed, viewed over the groom’s shoulder, saying, “I now pronounce you… You may kiss the bride.”
Everyone who knew, or was, a full-of-life cleric, resented that cultural posture. In today’s world, however, most clergy representatives on film are not suave mainline clerics, beloved Irish-American priests, or wan and thin play-it-safe rabbis. Today, with the rise of presumably Protestant born-again studs, manipulators of people, and takers-of-the-law-into-their-own-hands types, we see images of law-breakers with macho swagger. Those observations are background comments to this week’s version of the sometimes robed swashbucklers, in a film called Machine Gun Preacher. It was hard to evade reviews last weekend; two which found me were in our local Chicago Sun-Times and Chicago Tribune.
We don’t need to review the reviews or condense all details of the plot. The regular run of characters surrounds the Reverend Sam Childers: his ex-stripper wife, here “stuck with platitudes such as ‘God gave you a purpose, Sam Childers.’” The movie is based on a book which is based on a (presumably) true life story of a convict who gets violently born-again, thoroughly baptized, and self-licensed to pick up a gun and fight in defense of children in Sudan. Childers built an orphanage there, we are told and shown, and evidently does some good things for the kids. But that’s not what the movie is about. To compete today, it has to be violent, and is.
Michael Phillips in the Chicago Tribune deals with the scene in Sudan, personalizing it along the way. Here is how he voices the Gospel: “Staring down an enemy, he seethes: ‘The Lord I serve is the living lord Jesus. And to show you he’s alive, I’m going to send you to meet him right now!’ Blam! Another enemy, smote.” What does the viewer get to see in a plot plotted for today’s American market? Roger Ebert in the Sun-Times, on the reverend gun-slinger: he “is nothing but a one-dimensional rage machine.” So the preacher and the film-maker “can’t wait to get to the ass-whipping part of this inspirational story, [which] lacks any real sense of how Childers underwent his staggering transformation.” Well, “he isn’t the first to go to war in the name of the Lord— He’s born again, yes, but he seems otherwise relatively unchanged — He seems fueled more by anger than by spirituality.”
Until next week’s violence-in-religion movie comes along, Machine Gun Preacher invites some pondering: Is this preacher what we wanted? And, if so, who are “we”?
About the embedded image: Gerard Butler stars as Reverend Sam Childers in Machine Gun Preacher.
Martin E. Marty is the Fairfax M. Cone Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus at The University of Chicago. He’s authored many books, including Pilgrims in Their Own Land and Modern American Religion.
This essay is reprinted with permission of Sightings from the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School.
The Movie Montage That Didn’t Make the Cut
by Rob McGinley Myers, associate producer
In the original interview for this week’s program “Getting Revenge and Forgiveness,” our guest Michael McCullough mentioned the fact that human beings have been telling revenge stories for millennia. In a Greek tragedy like Medea, the main character kills her own children in revenge for her husband’s unfaithfulness. In Shakespeare, the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells him, “If thou didst ever thy dear father love— / Revenge his foul and most unnatural murder.” In Death Wish, Charles Bronson goes on an anti-crime rampage after his wife and daughter are attacked by muggers. Why are we so attracted to this plot line?
Michael McCullough argues that, as humans, we are hardwired to want revenge when we are wronged. Brain scans of people contemplating revenge resemble brain scans of people thirsty for a sweet drink. So perhaps there are few better ways to keep people listening to a story, reading a book, or watching a movie than to draw on their biological desire for retribution.
In working on this program, we put together a montage of movie clips to evoke both the appeal of revenge and its consequences. The montage got cut in the editing process — it just didn’t fit the tone of the show — but we thought you might enjoy it on its own. Let us know what movie clips would you have used, and what are your own stories about revenge and forgiveness.
Hitchcock’s Rope, Music for Our Autism Program
by Mitch Hanley, senior producer
When we first produced our autism program a little over a year ago, I had just watched Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, a fascinating movie that was shot more like a play than a movie. All of the scenes take place across two adjacent rooms and were shot with one camera, meaning all of the edits were just end-to-end, joining edits, without any cutaways to other angles, etc. So, it is as if you are watching a play without any set changes.
There is a scene in the film where Philip Morgan (Farley Granger) is playing Poulenc’s “Perpetual Motion” at the piano and Rupert Cadell (Jimmy Stewart) is asking him sensitive questions, with metronome in hand, intermittently dialing up the tempo with Morgan in lock step, playing this same piece faster and faster, the tension building.
That setting of the tune is rather anxiety-inducing, but I found the piece to be light and jaunty, with a tinge of melancholy, which reminds me of this time of year. I found James Campbell’s recording of that piece for piano and clarinet and set it into the autism program and it took on a whole other mood than was presented so cleverly by Hitchcock. You can hear the piece on the Being Playlist.
I tried to find the scene at the piano on YouTube, but I could only find the trailer in which you can faintly pick out an arrangement of the Poulenc piece for orchestra, in the background.
Hitchcock’s Rope — great movie, even if it is a bit grim. Check it out! Incidentally, if you rent the DVD, make sure you watch the additional “behind the scenes” segments; they explain the challenging shooting process (during one of the shoots, a member of the crew had his foot broken by a camera dollying across the floor!)