The Briefcase

The Briefcase

Monday, April 02, 2012

Zeitgeist

We went to see the Hunger Games movie last night. This was mainly because Riley has been devouring the books and desperately wanted to see the movie, and it has been getting favorable reviews. So we all went and bought a few snacks for unreasonably high prices (the overall total to take 2 adults and 2 kids to a movie and get a few movie snacks is shocking these days). The theater was full even though it was a Sunday evening.

Normally I doubt I'd bother to write up a post about a popular movie. Lately I haven't bothered to write about much of anything, to be honest. I have been stuck in a funk for a couple of weeks, partly because I seem to have developed Metatarsalgia in the ball of my left foot, which is also the leg that has a big metal plate along the length of the tibia due to a bad break a few years back. Add my usual amount of tibia pain to the ball of the foot pain and it's keeping me from taking Yoda Bob Dog for our usual walks and it depresses me. Anyway.

I have not read the books at this point, I have only the movie and Riley's reports to form my impressions, so whatever I say can safely be taken with a grain of salt. But what an interesting cultural reaction to a really dark concept. The people shown in the Districts look straight out of 1930's dirt-poor coal miner communities, while the rich in the city are futuristic and obviously don't have to do hard menial labor; they can afford to devote most of their time to decorating themselves. The contrast has been drawn very broadly.

There are very few characters in the entire movie who are sympathetic, actually; most of them seem set up for cardboard symbolism rather than as believable developed characters. Which I'll admit irritates me; I don't like being hit over the head with the Message, however one cares to interpret the overbearing message of the movie. And it seems that different factions in American society find ways to interpret the Message for their own groups; though it's not a perfect fit it could certainly be read as a commentary on the 1% vs. 99% Occupy wealth distribution idea, and I hear that the conservatives are interpreting this movie in their own way as a condemnation of the excesses of liberal values as well. Whichever way one looks at it its painted with a very broad brush. Polarization comes to mind. It's really not a feel-good story with a satisfying happy ending, and of course the books aren't either. It's interesting since usually movie goers really want happy endings; they can handle harrowing subjects in some cases but usually those types of movies only do well if they're well made, important historical subjects and offer some light at the end of the tunnel. This particular movie doesn't offer that.

So what is the appeal; why are people so willing to go see it? This movie is doing well in the box office and getting good reviews. It's very surprising considering the really dark content; kids killing kids, poor kids being offered up as a poor underclass sacrificial punishment/payment to a rich upper class that governs with iron control. There is no real ending; though our protagonists manage to survive, there is no hint of an overall bettering of the societal ills, though the movie leaves plenty of room open for sequels. There is no satisfying blowing up of the Death Star at the end. Honestly it surprises me; if this had come out when I was a teen it would have bombed, I'm pretty certain. The societal timing of this story is everything, really. It's not like the concept of the story is really new or that different, it's more that it somehow fits in with the zeitgeist of the times right now.

So what is the flavor of the times now that this sort of story appeals so much to the younger crowd? They identify with it; they feel in tune with it. It's alien to me. Riley seems quite comfortable with the notion of a large, underprivileged, underdog class. My guys are growing up with a deep feeling that our society is not fair, that a select few have all the power and all the control. This Hunger Games story feels familiar to them, like an extreme extension of the way things are. It's a weird notion for me to grasp. It's not like the notion of working class vs. upper crust is new, after all; that's always been around. But it may be a relatively new notion that most of us as Americans are just always going to struggle, be working stiffs who can barely make ends meet. That whole notion of the American dream, the self-made man, if you work hard enough you can better yourself, is eroding away. My guys do not seem to be absorbing that idea the way that my generation did. We grew up with the clear idea that if we applied ourselves and worked hard that we could do better than our parents did, raise ourselves up. My boys see us struggling to keep jobs, struggling to pay the bills no matter how smart we are or how hard we work. I don't think this is because Paul and I are whiners, blaming everyone but ourselves. We have just fallen into harder times where most everyone is struggling and with things like the Occupy movement they are seeing that the basic structure that we live with is unfair to the majority of people. They are growing up more quickly and much more cynical than we were.

I grew up with the Vietnam body counts on the news at night. I had friends with older brothers or dads who served and were lost in Vietnam. There were still nuclear drills at school, where that special alarm would go off and you were supposed to 'duck and cover' under your desk. Like that would help, really. But as kids we were presented with external fears that probably unified us as a country, certainly as American kids. We pledged allegiance to the flag and our country, we were taught the ideas at school that we could be proud of how people wanted to come to our country because we were free, we were brave and we welcomed people who were different and gave everyone equal opportunities. It may not have been perfect or always true but we felt that at least we were working towards it, that it was the right thing to do. My boys are not growing up with those ideas, though we make our own efforts to give them good values and a sense of right and wrong and what's good and fair.

We transferred them to a public school in a richer neighborhood because it offers a science and math magnet program; if they went to their home school in our neighborhood they would not be getting taught science at all. We cannot afford private school. They will not not be able to go to the best colleges because university fees are so expensive and only the wealthier kids can afford to go. Scholarships are a possibility but those have become scarcer and the competition is fierce. College in this country is much more expensive than it was when I went, and it wasn't exactly fair then either. It's gotten worse.

It's just a fact that kids from wealthier families are given more opportunities for a better life. And my boys are soaking all of this in almost subconsciously. We're solidly middle class, and they know we could be much worse off, but they've also had to do without when money has been especially tight. And I think they have a good feel for how precarious our financial situation is. I think they're lucky, happy kids overall, but the zeitgeist of what they are absorbing in school and from the world around them is frightening.

They do not see this country as a good place, the land of the free, not the way we did as kids. They think of other countries as being better places, fairer places, more caring places. They see other countries as places for better opportunities, and this country as a place with very serious problems that they feel powerless to fix. They feel invisible and unwanted in this country. And they may well be right, though it really hurts my own deeply American heart to think that.

I'm not sure what the solution is aside from our own parental efforts to give them love and make sure they know that we value them and think they can do great things. It feels like an uphill battle to overcome the damaging massages they're getting from everywhere outside, that's for sure. All those kids that are going to see The Hunger Games are identifying with the kids being sacrificed. And what does that say?


4 comments:

  1. I started the income inequality lecture today and it struck me how very different things are than they were the last time I taught this class ~5 years ago. The consequences of relative wealth inequality (not just absolute wealth inequality) are much more in the news these days, both abroad and at home. It's more obvious how relative income inequality can lead to political instability. Not just the health and happiness problems that we have studies on that used to make up the main part of that lecture.

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  2. The thing that strikes me about The Hunger Games is that the adults who are most responsible for caring for the people in power in the country are the ones who are most viscious. We (at least I, but I think we share this) had a sense that while Nixon (say) was evil, not everyone in DC was, and the press was trying to expose the evil and such, so there were adults who were both decent/ethical and who had a fair bit of power.

    I'm guessing the novels express a sense that our generation (or older generations) has failed to take good care of the next generation in a whole lot of ways, and they need to take care of themselves rather than depend on adults to help. And if you think about it, we have: we (as a group) have failed to support education, anti-racism, social justice, the environment, and so on very well. (I used to think my generation was going to do really good things, but I have totally lost that optimism, though I still have hopes for individual people.)

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  3. Beckett, you make some great points. We have about seven or eight years until our boys go off to college. The unaffordability of college is getting so much attention right now with so many graduates unable to secure jobs and start paying off their loans that I'm hoping there will be some kind of adjustment of college expenses. People are already deciding that going $100,000 into debt is not worth it. I want to be optimistic that colleges and universities will start looking at ways not to jack up tuition 10%/year like they have been.

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  4. The issues that Justine brings up are related back to how much society values certain sorts of jobs, and then, if there's too many applicants, how many are available. If funding is continuously cut for education and for basic research, you lose the entire point of going to school and getting that far into debt when you cannot pay it off once you're struggling into the work force. This shuts you down for anything you learned, even if your dream as a kid was to be an astronaut or a doctor or a paleontologist or any of those environmental sciences we are so desperately going to need. Hell, we need them right now.
    And there's altogether too many people benefitting, right now, from the lack of those scientists telling the damn truth about what they're up to.
    I understand the competition for college slots in India is a thousand times worse than here, also, to the point that there are far too many applicants for the universities there to look at any one person for long enough to just read their essays. So they don't. They solely rely on perfect scores on a single test, they don't bother with any further detail. Thousands and thousands of bright, motivated kids who really want to to college, who can't. And only some of them are managing to go elsewhere, to other countries, filling up some of those few slots we have. That's a world trending off into the Hunger Games.
    I hate it. I hate the whole idea.
    On the other hand, I like the fact the movie is clearly grotesque enough to bring up the issues that are taking us spiralling down into that scene.
    We can change our minds.
    It's taken fifty years for the 1% to rob the commons so badly that we even noticed it. It takes awhile to turn the boat.
    We have plenty of material and industrial resources. It's just how we're allowing the 1% to decide to use it all (by default) that is, IMHO, so amazingly wrong-headed. More mountaintop removal? More coal extraction in the Coal Belt here to ship it out to China?
    Plow the bright kids back into Mickey D's so they can make more fires?
    That's what Egypt did: lots of education, no jobs.
    You see what that led into: triggering off into the Arab Spring.
    We have the resources if we want to use them, instead of handing blanket tax breaks to corporations. They sure aren't subsidizing college for lots of people (the donations to colleges are paltry compared to their profits) and they sure aren't developing resources in a way that generates the kind of jobs that require a human to make a judgement call. Robots could take over mechanical brain-dead jobs, and we'd all be fine with that if the humans had things of value to do.
    Goodness knows we've got a tone of things that need doing.
    Why aren't they putting them together?
    They might even make money doing it.
    WTF is wrong with these fools?

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