Now Listening to: Karate's The Bed Is In The Ocean ('specially track 2, The Same Stars)
(Um. Spoiler alert? I am going to parse the plotlines of two current releases, 'The Cabin in the Woods' and 'The Hunger Games.' If you don't want to know things about them, you should turn away. And probably avoid conversations with me. I suck at discretion.)
Once every half-decade I see a horror movie. Which is to say, I come from a less-than-deep knowledge of that particular genre, and when it comes up in conversation I've been limited to making comments about 'Cloverfield' and the Matthew Lillard vehicle '13 Ghosts' (it wasn't technically a Matthew Lillard vehicle. There was some kind of doofy, breathy brunette chick that I think was supposed to be the draw. I, though, went for le Lillard.). But this afternoon, I saw the Joss Whedon vehicle 'The Cabin in the Woods' (I think the designation may be more accurate in this instance). So now I've shored up my capacity for a horror genre conversation, but it's still a small capacity.
I'm a little more prepped for a discussion that limits itself to a comparison of themes in 'The Cabin in the Woods' and 'The Hunger Games.' To the trope of a group of young people, somehow manipulated into agreeing to their own torture, who are observed, who suffer, and are supposed to die so that society may continue. That's a rough synopsis, but it structures both plotlines. Collins' book was published in September of 2008 and Whedon's script (co-written with Drew Goddard of Buffyverse and Cloverfield fame) went into production in March of 2009. The film version of 'The Hunger Games' and 'The Cabin in the Woods' share a Summer 2012 release. So they approach, at around the same time, the same trope from within two different genres (YA fiction and horror film, respectively), and reach the public at around the same time as well, if we count the film version of the 1st book instead of the book trilogy itself. Obviously, I am going to do that.
On our way out of 'Cabin' this afternoon, my friend K. started a discussion about the similar anxieties in this film and 'Hunger Games.' Initially, I was hesitant to overdo the comparison; and I'm still hesitant to make a sweeping, ahistorical argument about a 'new' anxiety or a defining cultural moment. K.'s interest was in issues of performed vs. natural identity in an age of social media, and I'm pretty sold on that. I mean, I think that's accurate, even if I'm not sure it exhausts the texts. But I'm more interested in the notion of expatiatory violence. Because I have several Rene Girard books on the shelf behind me, and I kind of love them.
Suzanne Collins' heroine is an adolescent who 'opts' for inclusion in the games. The structure of society makes this a hollow choice, but the structure of society is such that contestants must at least follow the outline of choice. For some reason 'agency' has to be coopted to make the victim a legitimate sacrifice. Even the other contestants, who do not volunteer in someone else's place, file obediently into a public space, and walk up to the stage if their name is called. They may pay for extra rations with extra chances at being chosen. There is a system, and it feels like a trap but it performs like a voluntary association.
Whedon/Goddard's protagonist is a young woman who reads latin from a diary and calls up a family of redneck torture-mad zombies to kill everybody. (NEVER READ THE LATIN. THIS IS ... SERIOUSLY? WHY WOULD YOU READ THE LATIN. That may be the very, very stupidest of horror movie tropes. And seems to have been inserted by some old-school Catholic hierarchy in order to discourage the laity from an overly full participation in the mass. They're all like, "See? Latin is a dangerous language. If you have not been trained in its sacred arts YOU ARE GOING TO RAISE A FAMILY OF REDNECK TORTURE-MAD ZOMBIES. THANK GOD WE ARE HERE TO WARN YOU ABOUT THAT. GO AND SIN NO MORE, DUMBASS.") This is a slight distinction in the way Collins and Whedon organize their structures; the system of expatiatory violence is public knowledge in 'The Hunger Games' and secret in "Cabin in the Woods' - Katniss's community knows that they are sending kids to die for the sake of national unity, but no one outside of the 'production company' running the woodsy cabin (and their companion houses in other nations), especially including the poor doomed protagonists, know what's happening. So there's a difference in the way knowledge is used.
Once inside the arena, though, both sets of protagonists are set the same task: suffer, and die, so that human society can be saved from destruction. War, in Collins' universe; 'Old Gods' in Whedon's. Go figure, by the way, on that last one. It is really, really tempting to find in this a symptom of globalization and media-saturation; we are now aware, to a nightmarish extent, that our privilege is enjoyed on the backs of the suffering of others. The one-third world fritters hours away on iphones made through two-thirds world labor; their automobiles run on gasoline provided through predatory international foreign policy. Actually, it's more than tempting. It's compelling. I think that's a viable reading of both of these plotlines, though I also think its viability stems from a liberal worldview that I'm projecting onto both texts. There are enough of us holding a liberal worldview, though, that I think the interpretation is statistically as well as semiotically significant. That's a bit of an aside, though.
My main interest is in the ritualized, saving violence and how it plays out in two systems, one essentially political and the other essentially supernatural. I initally cast it as a distinction between the political and the metaphysical, but this is actually a good example of the slippage between 'ideological' and 'metaphysical;' both terms fit both systems, in ways that flag the difficulty of differentiating 'religoius' and 'political' violence from each other, or from their surroundings. So political and supernatural it is, then. In the political scenario (Collins), there is full public knowledge, but varying levels of misrecognition distributed along class lines. That is, the upper class central district folks think they are preserving the peace through the horrific games, the lower classes do not think there is a viable alternative, and all groups come to see in Katniss, the 'willing victim' the potential for a different outcome. In the supernatural scenario, there is no public knowlege and the misrecognition is ... complicated. I suppose you could say that the production team misrecognizes the horror of what they're doing, but the movie gives them an out by justifying their worldview; the old gods *do* rise if the human sacrifices aren't properly performed. Structurally, supernaturalism casts the escaped victims, triumphant socially in their defeat of the production company, as gloriously independent destroyers of human civilization. Politics, in this scenario, casts the escaped victims as socially triumphant and gloriously independent preservers of human civilization. Which is not to say that Collins has this all work out smoothly; I really enjoyed the way she ends the trilogy. In pain and suffering and angstful things. Well done, Collins. But Politics depends on articulate and comprehensible human figures; supernaturalism revolves around powers that do not have human heads or bodies - powers that are incommensurate and immeasurable. Beyond negotiation; or beyond something reducible to agency.
So, obviously, there are supernatural systems in which sacrifice, even interrupted sacrifice, is a perfectly good means of saving human civilization. My point here is restricted to the way in which a supernatural system functions within cultural productions, or, more specifically, within 'The Cabin in the Woods' released in Summer 2012. And here, the supernatural system allows Whedon/Goddard (and I really see so much of Whedon in this, but perhaps mostly because I haven't followed Goddard's career as closely) to do something slightly different than Collins. Both plots take victims, highlight their agency and make it a fundamental part of their victimization. In Collins universe, without a supernatural component, this agency escapes its misrecognition and in suffering productively, but not dying, ends social oppression. In Whedon/Goddard's supernatural system, agency escapes from the manipulations of the system, suffers unproductively, and in not dying ends society. To have ended differently would have required comprehensible gods, gods who are not beyond understanding or communication. The supernatural structure requires agency to function as a limited, self-indulgent glory. A glory the film absolutely celebrates, but one which it shows to be essentially pyhhric. Escaping manipulation, the emancipation of the choice, does not free the protagonists, or the society; it dooms them both.