A flaming mockingjay hung over the red carpet of the Hunger Games: Catching Fire premiere in downtown Los Angeles last night. The stars, decked out in the finest names in fashion and wearing accessories worth thousands, greeted by clamoring throngs of fans, walked beneath the symbol of a revolution where the oppressed 99% rise up against the corrupt rich.
Cognitive dissonance doesn’t even begin to explain what it’s like to go to the opulent premiere and afterparty for a movie that is baldly criticizing the way star-studded media events like this distract the masses from the fact that they’re being kept down (“You’re a distraction,” Haymitch tells Katniss. “You let [the Districts] forget the real problems.”). The afterparty really upped the ante on this by having models dressed in Capitol-esque scifi outfits wandering about, taking pictures with the goony guests (like me). There was another buffet spread and table crammed with sweets every ten feet - which is a lot of buffet spreads and sweets tables, because the afterparty was held in a space that felt as big as an aircraft hangar. There’s a scene in Catching Fire where Katniss and Peeta are at a lavish party at President Snow’s estate and someone gives them a drink that will make them sick, so they can purge all the food they’ve eaten and eat some more. Peeta is horrified that people back in District 12 are starving and in the Capitol they’re throwing up food so they can cram more in their gullets. It’s a scifi play on Roman vomitoriums, but it was weirdly reflected in the afterparty spread, especially when you realized that there were likely dozens of homeless people camped out on the streets directly outside the event. Half-eaten short rib sat cooling on tables while a few hundred feet away human beings went hungry.
The movie itself was shown at the Nokia Theater, a space usually given to concerts. The live Yahoo! red carpet coverage was projected on screen (this is a pretty common thing at premieres I’ve been to), and it featured a delicious moment of almost self-awareness; Ben Lyons, acting as the talking head for the red carpet, interviewed Stanley Tucci about his character of Ceasar Flickman, and for a moment Lyons seemed to understand that Flickman is a parody of everything he does. Not just a parody, but an actual condemnation - Flickman is a tool of the government whose purpose is to keep the population pacified.
He pacifies the people by bringing them the continuing love story of Katniss and Peeta, the victors of the 74th Hunger Games. Their romance - a phony one, enacted only for the cameras - is supposed to be what the poor and hungry of the Districts focus on, not rebellion. In the theater that night there were hundreds of young girls who were also focusing on that romance, as well as Katniss’ other potential love partners and their hot bodies.
But get this: here’s where the whole thing flips from cognitive dissonance to meta brilliance. See, while Catching Fire is a polemic against the way the media machine keeps us dumb and inactive, the movie also offers a vision for how that machine can be used against itself. The Tributes in the 75th Hunger Games - all hardened victors of previous games - understand the system and know how to manipulate it to get a message of rebellion over the airwaves. And Catching Fire itself serves the same purpose. There was a huge section of fangirls to the back of the theater - contest winners, I assume - who screamed and cooed at every kiss and declaration of love (and also a scene where Finnick O’Dair gives Peeta mouth-to-mouth - it was slash in action). While they were there for the romance - much as the people of Panem watched Katniss and Peeta’s romance - they were also getting a dose of political reality that could not be ignored.
One thing The Hunger Games ain’t is subtle, and no matter how many of those fans are in attendance just to see who Katniss kisses, there’s no way they can miss the on-the-nose critiques of the media manipulation system and the inequality of capitalism. Whether they identify with the people of the Districts is another story, but what these movies are doing is exactly the opposite of what Flickman is trying to do - they’re being brought in by the romance and then getting subtly indoctrinated in semi-radical politics.
Does anybody at Lionsgate even consider this? I can’t imagine they were thinking about it when the afterparty was being designed; it’s not hard to see some Hollywood party planner utterly missing the point of the presidential gala in the movie (although, again, it ain’t subtle. President Snow drinks up his bloodlike wine) and just finding all the designs fabulous. But Catching Fire argues that we can use the parties and the gowns and the TV appearances in a subversive way, and in this case it’s getting a whole generation into a science fiction story that’s pretty much about a socialist uprising.
But wait! Could there be more? Is it possible that the subversion of Catching Fire is actually just a trick of the system itself? Is it possible that by making us feel like political champions just because we do the three-finger salute alongside the people of District 11, The Hunger Games keeps us from making actual real-world political moves? We walked out of the movie filled with pride that we sided with the people, ignoring homeless on our way to the afterparty. The best way to make a controlled people feel free is to allow them to vent a little harmless steam at the system which controls them. Clearly if we’re allowed to make fun of our leaders they can’t be totalitarian, right?
Realistically I don’t think Lionsgate gives a single shit about the politics of the movie. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about Hollywood studios it’s that they’ll make movies espousing whatever viewpoint sells the most tickets; they’re essentially message agnostic. Lionsgate would release a movie about how Lionsgate must be destroyed if they thought it would make a dollar and a cent. It’s up to us to use the message of the movie however we like; for me it’s good to know that my two year old niece is going to grow up in a world where there’s a Katniss Everdeen to emulate, not just as a woman but also as a champion of social justice.
As for the party? It was pretty great. I drank a lot of free bourbon and ate a bunch of free food and gawked at lots of famous people wandering around. I took my cue from Catching Fire, where Plutarch Heavensbee advises Katniss on how to deal with the gauche and frivolous presidential party: “If you abandon your moral judgment it can be fun.”