Friday, February 24, 2012

On What Rushmore and the Hunger Games Have in Common

As promised, Crusty Old Dean is going to try to write about something than inside baseball Episcopal Church polity, as part of multi-pronged strategy to reach out to the 99.5% of the world who doesn't care about it.

Even though COD spends an inordinate amount of time reading things, apparently, no one else cares about (remembers being shocked when a) he reached the 100-book checkout limit while in graduate school, and b) someone actually requested a recall on one of them), he also tries to keep current on what's going on. See, COD is not all that Crusty. Unlike some people my age, COD doesn't think music reached perfection in 1973 with the Led Zeppelin album "Houses of the Holy" (the song Houses of the Holy, curiously, is on Physical Graffiti, not the album of the same name). It wasn't even the best album of 1973 (Stevie Wonder, Innversions) let alone the peak of Western music. You can't put baby in a corner or pigeonhole COD, who understands there is always great music being made in every era. The Replacements. Wilco. Titus Andronicus. By some band out there right now nobody knows about.

COD also keeps current in his reading, and, burying the lede once again, is engrossed in The Hunger Games. Hereafter abbreviated THG, The Hunger Games brought together COD's love and COD's hate.

Love: I have always loved dystopian and/or (preferably and) post-apocalyptic fiction ever since I saw Charlton Heston in the Omega Man. Old man alert: in the old days before daytime TV was a wasteland of reality TV, infotainment, and fawning talk shows, in the 1970s there were only three things on TV in the afternoon. Cartoons, smarmy talk shows (Mike Douglas, Dinah Shore, etc.), and reruns of old movies. Channel 6 out of Providence, RI, showed old movies every afternoon. Coming home from school COD would make some Za-rex, eat some Hydrox, and watch the afternoon movie. He saw all the Planet of the Apes Movies, countless Japanese monster films (in the process learning which color Gargantua is the good one and which color is the evil one; COD still thinks Godzilla got robbed in Godzilla v. King Kong), and old sci-fi. The Omega Man, based on the novel I Am Legend and recently remade into the pretty good Will Smith version of the same name, hooked COD on post-apocalytptic/dystopian fiction. Maybe it was growing up in a monochromatic community, but something about the genre I found frightening and compelling at the same time - the notion that our world could quickly collapse into something both recognizable and unrecognizable.

So over the years COD has devoured the obvious (Brave New World, 1984, Handmaid's Tale, Running Man, Farenheit 451 etc.), and the cult classics (I Am Legend, Canticle for Leibowitz, etc.), and downright outliers (Yevgeny Zamiatin's "We"). Zombie movies which involve post-apocalyptic scenarios are acceptable (28 Days Later), otherwise not interested. The only one COD could not finish was "The Road," mainly because I started to read it right after my son was born, and it was too intense. I couldn't rock him to sleep for his nap and then pick that book up and read about a father and son struggling to stay alive with only each other to rely on while he slept blissfully next to me. Maybe when he goes off to college I'll try again.

COD stepped cautiously into THG -- because of the hate to COD's love referenced above. Hate: Young Adult Fiction. I avoided THG mainly because the odds were stacked against it, since there is so much crap published for young adults. Last time COD was in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore (don't ask), there was even an entire SECTION with the title "Teen Paranormal Romance." An entire section! COD feared that THG would involve werewolves or mopey teens or something. I mean, come on -- the Goonies is the best teen movie of all time, and it didn't resort to Vampires or Zombies.

Rarely has COD been hooked so fast, probably the last time I was hooked this fast was when COD met the future CODW. COD was entranced after Chapter 1, and, like many others, has found it to be a book that I can't put down, and actually ration the chapters slowly, prolonging the enjoyment this kind of engrossment brings.

The best things about a good dystopian novel is its ability to bring you into that world, while leaving enough unanswered questions; and the ability to both terrify you with the barbarity of that dystopia combined with being able to see so many aspects of one's current situation present as well. The real terror in any dystopia is the fear that it could happen. Without giving away too much, THG strikes those necessary balances.

But there's even more. What distinguishes THG from, say, Canticle for Leibowitz, is the way it combines another genre: the coming of age story. The title very well could have been, "Are You There, Hunger Games? It's me, Katniss." Growing up, in the pre-paranormal teen romance days, most coming of age books were dully plotted things like A Separate Peace or the Judy Blume canon (with the excellent exception of Lord of the Flies, a sort of proto-THG in combining dystopia and coming-of-age teen fiction). The teen coming of age story is another one with a long history -- many of which COD would like to forget. But when they stand out, they stand out.

It's difficult being a teenager; THG ingeniously sets this universal experience against the backdrop of dystopia. While ostensibly thrusting its main character into a battle-t0-the-death staged by the totalitarian government that rules North America, the novel is really about figuring out who you are, negotiating changing relationships with friends and family, and dealing with traumatic events which occur to us all even when we're not in a post-apocalyptic future. This is a tricky thing, combining genres. While COD loved the Harry Potter books, he was never interested in the moping Harry of Books 5 and 6 or the moping Ron of Book 7 or the whole Cho Chang subplot. The teen angst parts of the books seemed to fall flat, but thankfully it always got back to Voldemort and light bursting out of wands.

Which is where THG has something in common with COD's favorite teenage coming of age story, Wes Anderson's classic from 1998, Rushmore. ( The fact Anderson seems to feel the need to more or less tell the same story over and over in all his movies in some form using many of the same actors has taken a little shine off, but try to think of it without the intervening 14 years worth of Anderson films.)

The genius of Rushmore was that the central, motivating factors were handled so subtly. Max is saddened and traumatized by the untimely death of his mother, something which gets so little mention and so little screen time, but which is connected intimately to his passion. It is his mother, after all, who gave him the typewriter. Similarly the other main characters, Herman (haunted by his time in Vietnam) and Rosemary (whose husband drowned) are emotionally shattered by the losses in their lives, with only Rosemary's situation being openly mentioned and discussed. Herman's past is brought out only when Max asks him, "So, you were in the shit?" and Herman replies laconically, "Yeah...I was in the shit." (He is also the only one who doesn't put on the protective goggles and earmuffs during Max's Vietnam-era play, because, after all, he lived through the real sounds of gunfire and explosions.) Anderson has no Matt Damon-Robin Williams tear-jerking "It's not your fault" scenes between any of his characters, because life is rarely like that. We are all far more like Max and Herman and Rosemary.

Similarly, though growing up in a dystopian future, Katniss, the hero of THG, is more shaped by her father's untimely death and her mother's depression, and all the trauma and responsibility those events thrust on her, than by the totalitarian regime that governs North America.

I thought of Rushmore after finishing THG: realizing that I had just finished an excellent story about how difficult it is to be a teenager, where the metaphorical minefields of negotiating changing relationships were juxtaposed against real minefield of the arena. Combining genres is a difficult thing, and THG does it masterfully.

COD just started Book 2! No spoiler alerts in any comments sections!

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