Why “Nihilism Ain’t Cool”

When I was studying in Sao Paulo in the late 80s, a fellow exchange student wanted to go see the movie “Caligula” but she didn’t want to go alone. She was a history major, and I was there to study the particulate pollution trapped in the native mosses on the deforested slopes of the Mata Atlantica – a difference I wish did more to explain my stupidity. But in my ignorance, I went with her.

In one of the most dangerous cities on the planet, we ended up in a very bad neighborhood, in a very dark theater full of shifty-eyed men – men who were all looking at us. About twenty minutes into the “coming attractions” we realized we were in the wrong place in a BIG way. Only later did we learn we were watching previews for snuff films. I didn’t even know what “snuff film” was at the time. Without going into details, I will never get those images out of my head. The horror of that experience has never left me.

Yesterday marked my second most serious lifetime film blunder; my daughter talked me into taking her to see “The Hunger Games.” She told me all her friends had read the book, they were all going to see the movie, why did I have to be like that all the time?  After a long week of being alone with my kids during a grey and rainy spring break, I gave in. I know art is supposed to take risks, but this was something else. With just a PG-13 rating, this was snuff for the masses. That’s the downside of special effects – everything has become hyperreal.

First, I must say that I had no idea what the book or the film was about. After reading only the first (and last) paragraph of Twilight, I forever turned my back on teen fiction. I claim full responsibility for my ignorance; had I known what the premise of the book was, I never would have gone. What is so appalling is how many went willingly, knowingly to what I can only consider violence pornography aimed at tweens.

I have a friend who used to escape with me once every week or so to see whatever was playing – we called it our “bad movie” date. It didn’t matter how bad the movie was but there was one unbreakable rule – no killing kids on-screen. Something changes after you have children. At least for me, the butchery of children by children on-screen in “The Hunger Games” violates – who knows. It violates everything. Whatever parallel lines this inarticulate, monstrosity of a film attempts to draw between the contemporary culture of reality television, violent video games, corporate farming of the poor, etc.,  disappears below the shimmer of its own spectacle, of its own perversion. Whether or not the book is good and plunges deeper into the forces that give rise to totalitariansism is irrelevant to the morality of putting something so profane and so vividly rendered on film.

For starters, to create a dystopian vision of the modern world work as art, you have to be able to write and write really well – like George Orwell-well. At least for me, some tiny kernel of truth must be felt by the reader to lie at the quiet center of the sound and fury. To say that “The Hunger Games” is a “parable of our time” is, in a friend’s words, “a cop-out, a weasling thesis.” If there is any shadow of wisdom in “The Hunger Games,” it comes early on when the stay-at-home boyfriend asks whatshername, “What if nobody watched?” A question to which she replies something defeatist like “everyone watches.” To say that the world is already like this, that we already desensitize children with repeated visual assaults through the media, is indeed a weasling thesis. There are always lines to cross and not to cross, and there is always a responsibility on the part of adults to decide. I understand that every link on the food chain is in ecological peril because of industrial farming, GMOs, depletion of natural resources, greed and excess, etc., but this doesn’t mean I want to have a Red Bull and pink slime for breakfast.

As a mother, no book, regardless of the popularity or whether or not a high school English teacher taught it, some hostile cyber lurker approves of it, or your mother read it, justifies a penny or a minute spent on the material production of a film in which twenty-two children – let me say it again – CHILDREN – are slaughtered on-screen. The premise of forced sacrifice to a hedonistic mob or the technocratic power-brokers of “The Hunger Games” fails because the film never succeeds in rising above the most dumbed-down nihilism; it has nothing to say that couldn’t be said in a thousand other ways.

“Winter’s Bones” a film not totally dissimilar to “The Hunger Games,” which also starred Jennifer Lawrence, did have something real to say about the bleak times we live in, yet I doubt many parents let their eleven year-olds see that one.

I guess I am continually amazed at what people are willing to look at but refuse to see. One almost always has a choice as a spectator. If I could reverse the clock, I would turn my back on the stupid, savage logic of the film, the images of children dying, the blank, unfeeling faces in the audience and disentangle myself from this sort of discourse all together. But here I am.

I may be, as a fan of the film said, “just shouting into the void,” but I reject this is as a possible future, both in life and art.  I reject the notion that we do not care enough about what happens to our children collectively to accept their depicted torture as entertainment. I reject a film that spits the irony of its obscene, commercial success back into the faces of the impressionable masses and, in so doing, relieves itself of all blame.

I’m not so naive to believe that art and violence are mutually exclusive (in fact some might argue they are mutually dependent); nor do I endorse censorship, for that matter. But sometimes you just need to turn your back and say: “Homey don’t play dat,” as you walk away.