Posts Tagged ‘rebellion’

When the Good Guys look like the Bad Guys…

In case you don’t hang around on pop culture websites, here’s the link to what you may have missed last week: the latest nugget of Hunger Games movie-franchise teaser images features the ostensible ‘rebel warriors’ who will appear in the series’ third film, Mockingjay, Part The First.
And here are the posters, all together:

HGMJ1rebs

(On a superficial note, Cressida‘s extreme undercut shaved-head look won’t hold up well in twenty years or so. Plus, good luck getting us to believe the story is set hundreds of years in the future when a character has an oh-so-trendy twenty-teens ‘do like that.)

Ugh. I think my first thought upon seeing these was something along the lines of, “Huh. Good Guys are looking pretty tacticool: black plastic submachineguns, black ninja suits…Are our protagonists planning to take the fight to the Capitol, or raid a Branch Davidian compound?”

In general, I find that the entire publicity/marketing propaganda campaign for these sequels leaves me feeling somewhat nauseous. While the ‘Capitol’ campaign is focused on ideas of ‘unity’ and decadence, the opposition seems more concerned with manufactured ‘resistance’ and being bleak. However, make no mistake, there is nothing organic about either campaign: each is meticulously planned, arranged, ‘shopped, and doled out to the masses of salivating fans.

However, in light of last month’s (justified and, frankly, long overdue) protests/riots and resulting police overkill/crackdown in Ferguson, Missouri, and the subsequent broaching of a national conversation about the militarization of police, I have to say that I find this latest batch of publicity posters pretty repulsive. Hell, even if they were released long before things went down in Ferguson, I still would have found them repulsive.

On the Wired link above, I counted (as of 4 September) 35 comments; most seemed to focus on fawning over the sole female in the lineup (I gathered that she also appears on the toxic ‘Game of Thrones’ series), complaining about the first and second films’ similarities, or technical issues. Of those 35, only a single commenter seemed able to separate his enjoyment of the franchise from the troubling visual message on display. This individual (who uses an image of a Black man as their avatar) remarked simply, “Wait, this is the Ferguson Police squad.”
Indeed. Congratulations, ‘tmsruge’, you win.

In fact, if you covered up the faces of these characters and the name of the film being promoted, I would have to assume that they were either elite, spooky, SEAL-type shadowy assassin-tools-of-the-State, or shady Blackwater-type ‘contractor’ mercenaries for private hire. But, surprise!, these are supposedly the Good Guys! Well, I’ll believe it when I see it, because as soon as you put your ‘rebels’ in matching uniforms*, they start looking entirely like oppressive, top-of-the-Pyramid Powers That Be.

And yes, tha Police fall neatly into that category.

*(History seems to show us that in a conflict, the less-civilized force will almost always be the one without uniforms (underdogs may have a similar look, but usually won’t be standardized). Star Wars is a good example of a rare exception: even though the Rebels have a standardized military, they’re still the less-Civilized of the two parties (being democratic, gylanic, and diverse, etc. versus the xenophobic, patriarchal, literal Space Nazis of the Galactic Empire.)

Why is this? Is it some kind of Stockholm Syndrome in the water? Have we become so accustomed to being oppressed by these kinds of paramilitary forces that we’re supposed to identify with—and even root for—them now?
Either the costume designers clearly do not understand what is meant by ‘ragtag resistance’, or perhaps this is a reflection of the fact that the rebels are entirely backed by District 13, whose leadership is just as corrupt as the Capitol?

Anyway, as I close, I’ll bring this back to the Real World, with a handy little tool—compliments of the Freedom of Information Act!—that reports what kind of groovy ex-military gear your local peacekeepers can bring to bear on your community. Stay informed!

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The Hunger Games™, Franchise-Branding, and Rebellion

As part of an April fundraiser at my school, I paid a dollar to ‘dress down’ one day, and wore my homemade stenciled mockingjay t-shirt:
mockingjay stencil, by me.While a number of kids (though far fewer than I’d hoped) commented on it, their comments were kind of troubling.
The loud, popular, Type-A kids would usually ask me, “Do you like The Hunger Games™ or something’?”, as if they’d forgotten our society’s penchant for using t-shirts to proclaim to others the things which one enjoys.
The ‘geeky’ kids would usually just announce that hey, they liked my shirt (at which point I would try to drum up some business by offering to make and sell them one of their very own).
What nobody said, however, was “Hey, nice mockingjay shirt” or “Cool! District Twelve, represent!”(we are in Kentucky, after all).

(at which point the addition of a D12 salute would make me giggle like a schoolgirl)

In other words, because ours is a culture which believes everything has a price (and can therefore be bought and sold), even something as simple as an encircled-bird-holding-an-arrow ceases to be a symbol of hope and resistance against tyranny, and instead simply becomes a logo representing a profitable franchise.

ADDENDUM: I wore the same shirt to a first-grade classroom a few weeks later; a couple of kids saw the shirt and declared, “The Hunger Games are bad.” Indeed! The question then becomes: what changes in how our youth view the world in the years between first and eighth grade?

Because I spend a fair amount of time in a public junior high school, I see a fair amount of ‘Hunger Games’ merch, and I’ve yet to see a single item that hasn’t been emblazoned with the name of that franchise in big, flaming letters. Now, maybe it’s because I approach my various internalized fandoms from in-universe perspectives, but I find such branding—and most of the merch, for that matter—to be pretty generally disgusting.
(Especially tasteless is a movie tie-in booklet going by the title “The Hunger Games Ultimate Tribute Guide” which is little more than a collection of glorified headshots (literally, a pocketbook that allows teenagers (the franchise’s target demographic) to examine the faces of murdered peers, 70% of whose names we never learn).
For the record, let’s remember that The Hunger Games themselves are a yearly event in which two dozen children are coerced by the threat of starvation into fighting to the death for the entertainment of their society’s elites. So, my question is…do our youth believe they have no choice in how they are able to express their enjoyment of this franchise, save going online or to the mall and purchasing—and then wearing or carrying—branded merchandise which is essentially advertising for such a deplorably transparent, blood-soaked system of control? Why the hell a thinking person would possibly want to do this is completely beyond me.

Thankfully, however, the answer is Yes, they do have a choice, but most don’t see it. The first step in breaking the chains of consumption is, as always, to UN-COOL it (in this case by pointing out the ugly truths we’re not supposed to see/think about), and then DIY it (like by making your own mockingjay shirt, as I’ve done above). Personally, I’d be on cloud nine if a teen counter-emblazoned her The Hunger Games™ backpack with a big, red “FUCK”:

(I’d settle for “F— THE”, since our hypothetical activist is probably in junior high, and such profanity generally runs counter to dress-code decency rules)

(though I’d settle for “F— ”, since our hypothetical activist is probably in junior high, and such profanity generally runs counter to dress-code decency rules)

Can you imagine? Or think: if kids took copies of glossy Hunger Games™ movie tie-in ‘books’ and added stickers drawing attention to the non-fictional plights of actual child soldiers, coal miners, and trafficked humans—to say nothing of top-down wealth inequality, unsustainable resource extraction, or the coercive, oppressive nature of pyramid-shaped prison societies, &c. (as in most dystopian fiction, when the society in question is just Ours turned up to eleven, there is no shortage of applicable parallels to be drawn). Just think of it!

Sidebar: And since I’m already talking about unthinking franchise patronage, let’s remember that this isn’t an issue unique to The Hunger Games. I’m still completely unable to grasp last year’s petition—signed by over 34,000 people—for the US government to build a Death Star. Yes, that really happened! So, I guess people will just turn off their brains and click ‘Like’ for anything that even vaguely relates to whatever their profitable geeky franchise of choice is? I shudder to imagine these people’s thought processes: “Oh, hurhur, Death Star. That mean Star Wars. Me like Star Wars. Hurhur. <sign petition>.”
Even though the White House comically vetoed the petition, their explanation neglected (most troublingly) to mention the fact that the Death Star program— and the Tarkin Doctrine it represented—was the end-result of an evil empire of FUCKING SPACE-NAZIS!?!

So, anyway. When the teaser-trailer for Catching Fire came out about the same time, I was already kind of grumbly and had these things on my mind (because I always have these things on my mind!).

What I found especially telling was a line from Woody Harrelson’s character Haymitch, breaking the news to our newly-victorious heroine Katniss that “[her] job is to be a distraction from what the real problems are.
Boy, that about sums it all up, doesn’t it? In a nutshell, that’s a pretty good reason why I have a really hard time passively watching professional sports, sitcoms, televised ‘talent’ shows, big, loud superhero blockbusters, NASCAR, and other such mainstream bread-and-circuses (the panem et circenses from which Collins took the name of her novels’ dystopian nation):
I know what the real problems are, and I don’t want to be distracted.

In the course of the teaser, the obligatory title-cards flash up and inform us that “Every revolution … begins with a spark”. While I guess that’s true, wouldn’t it be amazing if (for once!) we saw through the age-old story of plucky, ragtag rebels fighting against the System, and stopped living vicariously through the pictures on the screen and took it to the streets?
I’m really hoping against hope that Catching Fire’s release this November will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back (glad to see I’m not the only one) and bursts the dam holding back all of our simmering anger and frustration—that people will finally WAKE UP to recognize the hidden workings of Our Culture—because what we need isn’t a Revolution, but a Revolt.
I say that because unfortunately, the ‘revolution’ depicted in Collins’ trilogy is the classic definition of that word—a purely political shakeup whose outcome is not breakup of power or a cultural evolution, but simply a change in leadership (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”), maintaining the status-quo notion that we’re all incapable of governing ourselves and need someone at the top of the pyramid to tell us what to do. If people get riled up and start doing something about it (which would be good) but model on THG (which would be bad), we’ll just be right back where we started.
At this point, however, I’d be completely overjoyed if Woody Harrelson (a self-identified anarchist, let’s remember) started throwing inflammatory, expressly political, apocalyptically-minded comments about Our Culture’s systems of control into every obligatory late-night-talk-show appearance or press junket he did in support of this film!

ADDENDUM: This is a good start:

On ‘The Matrix’

So, my favorite movies.
Tied for number one are Star Wars, AVATAR, and The Matrix, because they’re pretty much the same film: a Hero Journey set alongside guerrilla warfare against a System (hey, I like movies with subtext!).  Also, groundbreaking effects from all three.  So (because I have a bit more written on it than the others), I’ll begin with The Matrix.
Mtrx1

The Matrix is one of those films that occupies a strange place in the public conscious.  On the one hand, geeks and kids taking Philosophy 101 dig it, but in general it’s remembered for all the wrong reasons (like most of Shyamalan’s oeuvre, which I also really enjoy). For most people, three things come to mind when you bring up The Matrix.
First are probably the ‘bullet-time’ effects, which (even though there were only four of these shots in the film) were parodied or ripped off ad nauseum and therefore showed up in just about every movie that came out for the next few years.
The second is probably a vague sense of the bloated ponderousness of the sequels that followed (see the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise for another more recent example); maybe you never even saw the sequels, but just learned through pop-cultural-osmosis that they were kinda slow and unintelligible (even though that’s really just Reloaded).
Third, due to an unimaginably unfortunate example of bad timing, this film was released just a few weeks before a coupla latchkey kids went tragically mad and ruined guns and black trenchcoats and Marilyn Manson for the rest of us for a good long while.

That’s what most folks will think of when you mention The Matrix.  Which is too bad, because it’s an incredible film.  Like most things I love, it works on a number of levels.  Yeah, it’s trendy and mind-bendy and full of badass visual and storytelling tropes, but it’s the subtext most people seem to overlook that really gets me.  Take this scene from the first act:

MORPHEUS
… You’re here because you know something. What you know you can’t explain. But you feel it. You’ve felt it your entire life. That there’s something wrong with the world. You don’t know what it is but it’s there, like a splinter in your mind, driving you mad. It is this feeling that has brought you to me. Do you know what I’m talking about?
NEO
The Matrix?
MORPHEUS
Do you want to know what IT is? The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us, even now, in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work, when you go to church, when you pay your taxes. It is the world that has been pulled over your eyes to blind you from the truth.
 NEO
What truth?
MORPHEUS
That you are a slave, Neo. Like everyone else you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch…
A prison for your mind.
 

Or how about this even more transparent monologue?:

MORPHEUS
The Matrix is a system, Neo. That system is our enemy. But when you’re inside, you look around. What do you see? Businessmen, teachers, lawyers, carpenters. The very minds of the people we are trying to save. But until we do, these people are still a part of that system, and that makes them our enemy. You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inert, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.

Thankfully, the idea of ‘the Matrix’ isn’t just some pseudo-philosophical mumbo-numbo in a popcorn blockbuster, it’s a metaphor for the culture we live in. In one form or another, it’s how the world has been—for an increasing majority of humanity—for about the last six thousand years. The first Mesopotamian god-king city-builders laid the foundation for the Matrix. The Egyptians lived in the Matrix. So did the Romans. In today’s all-but-conquered, global, industrialized capitalist world, 99.999999% of people live in the Matrix. It’s really a testament to the genius of the Wachowskis that they were able to package these rather heavy-handed, dangerous ideas in such an entertaining, marketable format  through their use of allegory (a la James Cameron, more on him in a bit): the average viewer won’t pick up on the film’s anarchist subtext because it’s about hackers and robots and people covered in plugs.

Sure, the film is violent.  But, as brother Cornel West explains, it’s “intellectual violence”.  The film’s heroes aren’t fighting individuals, they’re fighting against the system itself, for the opportunity to show humanity a better world. In fact, the speech that closes the film sounds like something straight out of Kalle Lasn’s Culture Jam:

I know you’re out there. I can feel you now. I know that you’re afraid. You’re afraid of us. You’re afraid of change. I don’t know the future. I didn’t come here to tell you how this is going to end. I came here to tell you how it’s going to begin. I’m going to hang up this phone and then I’m going to show these people what you don’t want them to see. I’m going to show them a world without you, a world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries, a world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.

That’s what’s so worrisome about the Matrix sequels.  Metaphorically, if the Matrix is our status quo civilized world, and the ‘real world’ is the fulfilling life outside the System, the second and third films’ suggestion that the real world is just a Matrix Within a Matrix* would suggest that even rebellion against the System will leave one still within the System…which is pretty much true.  As the PBS Frontline program Merchants of Cool put it:

The cool-hunt ends here, with teen rebellion itself becoming just another product. … The battle itself is packaged and sold right back to them…welcome to the Machine.”

*Yes, I know that’s not what the Wachowskis say, but when the official explanation is a hand-wave and ‘Fuck you, dear viewer’, I’ll take the one that actually encourages discussion.

The Suburbs: ‘Suburban War’

In Suburban War—which will take us to The Suburb’s halfway mark—we see reminders of most of the album’s main themes, including nostalgia for passed youth, alienation, war, driving, and escape, plus a very interesting notion that (like most songs on the album) solidly links back to previous material. The track begins with a beautifully bleak solo guitar playing the main riff, which is soon joined by pounding drums and high, keening fills and strummed chords from a second and third guitar(?).

Let’s go for a drive and see the town tonight
There’s nothing to do but I don’t mind when I’m with you
This town’s so strange, they built it to change
And while we sleep, we know the streets get rearranged

Boy, that’s yet another problem with the way our whole postpostmodern Industrial Lifestyle Suburban System is designed (the ‘why’ for this will be better explained come the Month of May): it doesn’t matter if you’re bored, scared, or otherwise “don’t feel right”—the answer is always ‘Go drive.’ Burning some more fossil fuels is sure to make you feel better.
And again, more changing streets and towns. Unlike the Shire, it seems things in the Suburbs and Sprawl aren’t “made to endure”. By this point in the album, I’m really starting to feel bad for the suburban kids who grew up in what sounds like a constantly-shifting landscape. Out in the country where I grew up, ‘changing streets’ meant that the highway department came through every few years and laid down some tar and fresh gravel.

With my old friends: we were so different then before your war against the suburbs began…before it began
Now the music divides us into tribes, you grew your hair, so I grew mine
You said the past won’t rest until we jump the fence and leave it behind

It’s in songs and passages like this one that people really key in on the nostalgic themes of the album. Now we come to a very exciting concept in this verse’s second line: a connection between tribalism and Music. Although it is said to “soothe the savage beast”, is Butler here proposing that in Music is found an escape from the civilizing influences of the suburbs? Possibly, if it be authentic. But such escape can be double-sided, however: if those tribes are just corporate cookiecutter scenes (see the now-meaningless labels like ‘indie’, ‘emo’, ‘metal’, ‘goth’, ‘punk’, ‘gangsta’, ‘hardcore’, &c promulgated by such outlets as Hot Topic) this inevitably leads to the empty lifestyle described in Rococo, which laments for victims of commodification and branding at the hands of the Merchants of Cool.
Finally, note the use in the third line of penal-system diction—escape from the Taker mind-prison is possible only by turning one’s back and “[jumping] the fence”.

With my old friends: I can remember when you cut your hair, I never saw you again
Now the cities we live in could be distant stars, and I search for you in every passing car

If there’s one good thing that can be said about Scenes from the Suburbs (luckily there are in fact many good things to be said about that film), it is that it fully elucidates this verse.
Here, however, is where it gets personal for me—because back in high school, I was the one who grew his hair and inspired his best friend to do the same; I was the one who cut his hair the day after graduation, I was the one who discovered deep-green, anarcho-primitivism and declared war on the whole System (and the suburbs along with it). Now, though those friends live in the ’burbs only an hour or two away, they’re sucked into the quicksand of the suburban American Dream wage slave rat-race and we see each other maybe three times a year. Distant stars, indeed.

The nights are warm, yeah, the night is so long
I’ve been living in the shadows of your song

This is a puzzling reference back to a line from Ready to Start: “I would rather be wrong than live in the shadows of your song”. So, if our Suburban War singer has been living in those shadows, what then does that mean? That he has been right? Right about what?

In the suburbs I, I learned to drive
People told me we would never survive
So grab your mother’s keys, we leave tonight

Preceded by plaintive moans, this subtly-different reprise of the album’s opening lines packs a much greater sense of urgency and bleakness. Compare to:
“In the suburbs I learned to drive/And you told me we’d never survive/Grab your mother’s keys, we’re leaving…”
Through all these songs, Butler seems to suggest that the only way to survive the suburbs…is to escape them.

You started a war that we can’t win
They keep erasing all the streets we grew up in
Now the music divides us into tribes:
You choose your side, I’ll choose my side

I’m assuming that the “war we can’t win” is the war against the suburbs begun by our singer’s lost friend in the second verse. If some find it troubling that someone like Butler sees a conflict against the Suburbs/Sprawl/System as hopeless, they’re not getting the message. It would seem that the answer encoded in the Arcade Fire’s works isn’t ‘rage against the machine, tear down the suburbs, and start over’, but something more like, ‘find your tribe, turn your back on the suburbs, and don’t look back. If you’re doing something that works, people will recognize that and take notice.’ That is, things won’t change if the bluepills are simply told not to live the way they currently do—they must be see that there is an alternate way that provides for all their needs, and works.
With this verse’s final couplet, Butler seems to bare his teeth and draw a line in the sand, restating his prayer that he “won’t live to see the death of everything that’s wild.

But my old friends, they don’t know me now
All my old friends are staring through me now
All my old friends wait…

The pounding climax of the song is alienation, plain and simple. It might have resulted from change (“we were so different then”), or it might be by choice (“I would rather be alone than pretend I feel alright”). But while our singer’s “old friends wait” (for things to change?), he is through with waiting; it’s time to do.

The Suburbs: ‘Rococo’

This is one of those songs (one of several on The Suburbs) that begs the question “how many ideas can you pack into a pop song and still have it remain a great piece of music”? In this case, a helluva lot; considering the fact that its chorus is a single repeated word and that the verses contain less than 115 words, this is an especially dense song.

Let’s go downtown and watch the modern kids
Let’s go downtown and talk to the modern kids
They will eat right out of your hand
Using great big words that they don’t understand

As we’ll see later in Sprawl II, we have to go downtown to observe this breed of millennial youth, because after growing up in the suburbs, these kids have been forced to move into the city to find their own kind. They’re probably educated (from a liberal arts institution, I’d guess), and they try to sound educated with their vocabulary of big GRE words. That third line, combined with the cooing sound of the chorus, makes me wonder if Butler isn’t equating these modern kids with pigeons…

They say, ‘Rococo, rococo, rococo, rococo…’

They build it up just to burn it back down
The wind is blowing all the ashes around
Oh my dear God, what is that horrible song they’re singing?

This verse brings back more of that conflagration-language from Neon Bible, as well as probable connections to Month of May that we’ll examine in more depth in that song’s entry.

They seem wild but they are so tame
They’re moving towards you with their colors all the same
They want to own you but they don’t know the game they’re playing…

Some have charged that Rococo as a whole (and the song’s final verse in particular) seems to hammer pretty hard on what many would identify as modern ‘hipster’ or ‘indie’ culture, and I’ll admit it’s easy to see why. Funeral– and Neon Bible-era Arcade Fire was almost universally embraced by the exact folks the band sang about (millennial kids raised in the suburbs), but when the band won their Grammy for The Suburbs, suddenly they had become ‘mainstream’—and since hipster culture is chiefly concerned with consuming media from origins of obscurity up to the point it becomes ‘cool’—and the kids who had made the band popular in the first place started jumping ship on charges of ‘selling out’.
I don’t think that the band is being too hard on these ‘ironic’ White kids in this song, but I am grateful that somebody with ‘indie cred’ has finally held up a mirror to these kids so that they might see that they’re just another cog in the Machine.
In this album’s conceptual framework, ‘wild’ is equated with the uncivilized and the anti-suburban; why then, if these kids seem so wild, are they really tame?
Indie media-outlet Pitchfork astutely describes the kids in Rococo as “a certain type of pseudo-rebellious, cynical youth” (emphasis mine). What keeps these plaid-clad masses from being truly rebellious is that these kids’ rebellion itself is a product of the corporate cool-hunt commoditized and sold right back to them. As long as they seek to define themselves by the products they buy, they are enabling the System to continue.

As another uncommonly-discerning, deserves-to-be-quoted-in-full SongMeanings user observed,
“It saddens me this song is being reduced to some “nana-nana-boo-boo” towards the hipster culture. This is a beautiful band, not only because their songs are big, but so seem to be their ideas and their hearts. This is a band that seems to love humanity too much to waste their time with some petty, hipster, turf-war anthem.
This song is not condemning youth, but feeling empathy and sympathy for them, no matter what music they listen to. They are being promoted an empty lifestyle of materialism and worshiping of the self. This promotion is a “dangerous game” being played [by] those selling it, because they are selling the soul of western-culture.
People are separated into tribes, based on hip-hop, country, pop, emo, etc.[“now the music divides us into tribes” (Suburban War)], but they are all being sold an empty road map for a vain and disconnected society where the most important person is the self. …
This is being sold by “wild” people, like Lady Gaga, but she is not Lady Gaga, but actually a rather “tame” woman from the Bronx. Lady Gaga is a McDonald’s version of the club kid scene, “downtown”, in places like New York City. I use Gaga as one example, but think of how many popular songs in any genre today are just commercials for the person singing them and an empty, materialistic lifestyle that goes along with it. They are commercials for the self and [have] nothing to do with how the self relates to others.
Also, the songs are usually meaningless at their core. Just some babble that is like an rated-R nursery rhyme. Yet no one is stopping to ask what it all means, when the answer would be: Nothing.
So, Arcade Fire chooses a seemingly gibberish phrase to use for their chorus in this song, yet if you look into its meaning, it actually describes most of popular music. Most popular music is just a disgusting effigy to the artist singing. So, modern popular music could be defined as “rococo art”.
They are saying they are trying to give you something, trying to send a message, and therefore, make a connection with anyone willing to listen.  (wastedhours, Song Meanings)

In the end, the album’s “first truly menacing song” (and the album’s first act) closes with screeching, apocalyptic feedback over a lone harpsichord picking out the chords, likely to connect this song to its namesake art-period.

‘The Suburbs’: Context & Composition

The Suburbs is (the) Arcade Fire’s third full-length album, and it continues to build on the themes of their EP and previous albums, especially 2007’s Neon Bible—so much so that it really seems a bit like a sequel or side-quel to that record.
In fact, the idea of successive sidequels continuing to explore deeper facets of an original’s theme reminds me of the life’s work of another Houstonite, Daniel Quinn, whose writings could (from a certain point of view) be interpreted to deal with the same issues as Arcade Fire (such as calls for change in how we relate to our communities; escape from the world in its present form; and imminent environmental destruction). I wonder if the Brothers Butler have read any Quinn?

But where Neon Bible seemed to focus on a cultural and environmental collapse/apocalypse brought on by the potent overlap of politics, overconsumption, religion, and television (which is to say, it’s an album about Right Now), The Suburbs dials down the doom to zoom in a bit.
While it’s entirely possible that both albums occupy the same universe, this time around, the story—while set against a backdrop of suburban war—is more intimate, focusing on a Millennial generation of nostalgic, dissatisfied Young People—alienated by technology and the sterile uniformity of their modern surroundings—yearning for a rewarding way of life outside the Sprawl.
Hopefully I haven’t scared anyone off with that serious description, but it’s just as deathly topical as its predecessor.

To provide comparisons as we start our examination of this album, I’m going to be relating examples from my previous favorite concept album (Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness), partially because they’re surprisingly similar in presentation, and partially because I’ve invested so much time studying that double-LP monster over the years it would seem like a waste if I didn’t.

So, for starters, both albums begin with an atypical-sounding first track or two. I have to wonder what the first ’Pumpkins fans to hear MCIS in 1995—expecting something similar to the swirling guitar layers of Siamese Dream—thought upon hearing the piano/synth and orchestral strings of those first two tracks (the ’Pumpkins’ signature sound would return in spades by MCIS’s third track); similarly, the splash of cymbals and the deceptively cheerful piano line that opens The Suburbs might’ve surprised Arcade Fire fans, although I suspect they’re smart enough to understand the band’s penchant for making songs in a wide variety of styles.

Since we’re talking about arrangement, I feel I should—even though I promise I’ll discuss it later as part of this series—draw attention to Scenes from The Suburbs at this point, specifically how Spike Jonze rearranges the album’s tracks to great effect to open his film.
As exciting an opening as those splashy cymbals on The Suburbs are, they sound way better when preceded by sorrowful narration and the melancholy strings of an extended version of The Suburbs Continued (the album’s coda track).
Hey kids!, just for fun, next time you listen to the album, try playing that reprise as the first track. Pretty cool, huh?
So, compositionally-speaking, this opening title track functions as an overture or prologue, containing concentrated versions of the album’s themes. The next song will open the programme proper (MCIS’s first ‘scene’, jellybelly, begins with the words, “Welcome to nowhere fast”; while after its prologue, The Suburbs launches with Ready to Start, a song that would be a perfect album-opener by nature of its musical composition, title, and lyrics).
The songs that follow will explore the themes first broached in the prologue, reaching an emotional climax about halfway through the album (Muzzle for MCIS; Suburban War for The ‘burbs), and ending the album with a Reprise of the main theme, which acts as ‘end titles’ for the listening experience.

Said title track (or in the case of MCIS, the second track, since the title track is instrumental) contains concentrated versions of most of the key themes examined in the course of the album (and in a larger sense, in all of Arcade Fire’s works). While there is some significant overlap for several of them (due to exploration of dichotomies, for instance—all coins having two sides, to be able to discuss something like the Wild without being aware at least on some level of its opposite would be an impressive feat of Orwellian thought), in their distilled forms the album’s themes may be classified thusly (in no particular order):

  • children/childhood/youth/adolescence
  • nostalgia for said carefree times ^ (the “wasted hours”)
  • Millennial Young People of today (“the Kids”)
  • music/singing/screaming
  • modernity/recent history
  • Place: Cities/Downtown/the Sprawl/Towns/the Suburbs/Home
  • one’s connection to said locales^, (especially issues that arise when said locales^ change)
  • roads and driving (inherent in our relationship to said modern locales^)
  • Destruction (either in the form of War, or another nonspecific source, and often of said locales^)
  • Technology (and its effect on the speed of life), and waiting (as metaphor for a slower-paced life)
  • alienation (often as a result of said technology)
  • authority figures with ‘power’ (emperors, kings, soldiers, police, &c.)
  • tribalism
  • insomnia/sleeping/dreaming
  • Escape
  • the “Wild” (often represented by “the Night”, used as a catch-all term for the natural/organic/uncivilized)

In fact, if someone asked me to further hyper-refine The Suburbs in 25 words, I’d say it is about ‘the dichotomy between Civilization/The Wild (and all that go along with both), explored from the vantage point of Young People in the early 21st century.’
But of course, that’s coming from someone with an anthropology/anarcho-primitivist background. Hell, as Win sings on Culture War, “You see what you want to see.”

Pretty heavy stuff, huh?

On ‘The Hunger Games’

HungerGames

So, I caught an opening day matinee (these days I pretty much only see current movies on opening day, or not at all—in theaters, at least) of the hottest Hollywood property, and for an adaptation, I was pretty pleased with how it came out.
I said I wasn’t going to see it until I read the book first, and I’ll admit, I cut it pretty close—resorting to piracy and acquiring a copy four days before the release. There’s really no excuse for this procrastination, as I’ve been hearing positive things about it for almost two years now (first brought to my attention by Linda Holmes in what must’ve been the first episode of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour).
(For what it’s worth, I’ve noticed something weird that happens when my first reading of a work is a pirated electronic version. The page count might be the same, I might recognize some character names I’ve heard about, but if there are a few typos, I’m always paranoid that I’ve been duped and I’m really reading a bootleg pdf of someone’s fan-fiction based on a trailer. It’d be a cruel joke to be talking to someone and saying, ‘Yeah, remember when so-and-so did such-and-such?’, only to be stared at as if you had two heads and hear, ‘Erm, that never happened’. It’d be like finding out that the folks you call Mom and Dad aren’t really your parents. Or something like that.)
But luckily, it seems that the copy I found was the real deal, and I zipped through in two sittings over about nine hours. This seems to have been the case with everyone else who’s read it. What can I say?—it sucks you in, just like a good book should.
And so: first, some general spoiler-y things I found worthy of comment, and then I’ll discuss it a bit in eco-, survival-y terms too.

I.
*Like I said, I was pleasantly surprised how faithful the film was to the source material; for the most part, departures were more omissions than outright changes, and the few additions actually helped to clear things up.

*I breathed a sigh of relief at the minimalistic opening title. Plenty of should-have-been-epic films have been ruined by traditional, complete credits over the opening scenes (*cough*chroniclesofnarnia*cough*).

*I tired of Gary Ross’s shaky camerawork within about the first five minutes. Thankfully I think it smoothed out somewhat as the film progressed.

*The inclusion of the Truman Show-like control deck was good—I always like scenes that show spatial relationships between characters in a landscape, and they helped clarify things like the firestorm and the mutts later on.

*By the end of the film—despite her beauty and complete competence with the role—I was kind of tired of looking at Jennifer Lawrence. I know she’s in like, every single frame but I felt like she only had two or three expressions. Also, nice to see both of the leads are from Kentucky. Represent.

*Stanley Tucci continues to be an absolute chameleon.

*The requisite time compression (the Games stretch over maybe three weeks in the book, versus maybe one week in the film) meant that there wasn’t as much time for the relationship between the two leads to evolve and mature, which meant it simply didn’t have the nuance of the book. But then again, it’s a movie; what did I expect?

*I found the aesthetics of the weapons used in the Games to be fairly unattractive.

Specifics:
*Aside from the aforementioned Gamemaker scenes, the only invented scenes I noticed were a few underwhelming bits with Donald Sutherland’s president, and a few powerful minutes of a rioting District 11 following Rue’s death.

*Ross decides to close the film with some brooding shots of Sutherland looking resentful or vengeful or something unpleasant. I haven’t read the second and third books, so maybe this is foreshadowing for later, but I think first acts of film trilogies work best as standalones. Let’s focus on wrapping up our protagonists’ plot threads properly, and save the changes in political environment for the start of film number two.

*Rue’s death got me pretty emotional. As the smallest and most childlike of the Tributes, her death hit me surprisingly hard, especially given its fidelity to the book.

*Even though it snagged a PG-13 rating, the film managed to retain the brutality of the book, using a ‘less is more’ approach to the violence, especially in regards to the ‘bloodbath of hacking’ that opens the Games.

*The mutts were handled pretty well, as being able to see their creation/insertion into the arena was clearer than how the book dealt with them. In the book, the last-minute nonsense about them having the eyes of the fallen Tributes (or were they supposed to be the Tributes themselves, reanimated in dog-form? I’m still not sure what was meant) was generally weird and unnecessary.

*Picky: I had a hard time with the branch the trackerjacker nest hung from—I didn’t really believe Katniss could’ve sawed through something so thick in the time shown. From the book’s description I was picturing a branch maybe a few fingers thick, not the five-or-so inches in the film.

*Nitpicky: I didn’t like that the Arena’s ceiling was blank at night, instead of showing stars and such. If it’s supposed to approximate the real world, while still giving the Gamemakers complete control of the environment—which we are shown they have—why no stars? It just seemed kind of lazy.

In all, it was really quite well-done, and as far as adaptations of books go, this might rate just below Jurassic Park for me. And if the hype is anything to go off, this year’s ‘PG13 violent scifi movie about strong women opening at the end of March’ will do much better than last year’s Sucker Punch.

II.
So, this trilogy’s protagonist is named Katniss. In the book, the author explains that this comes from a particular aquatic plant with arrowhead-shaped leaves, and then goes on to describe with familiarity the process of gathering the edible tubers (uproot them with your toes, and collect them as they float to the surface). Well, I’d never heard of any plants named Katniss before, but I sure know a description of the genus Sagittaria when I read it. I guess it’s an inside joke to those who know their wild edibles, that the main character—whose standout trait is her mad archery skills—is named after the Arrowhead plant. I have to wonder if Collins would’ve named her protagonist Wapatoo if it had been a male.

Anyway, I had hoped that the film would showcase any kind of survival skills. Silly me, I guess I forgot that Hollywood movies can’t be educational AND entertaining, because I was sadly disappointed:
No mention or depiction of wild edibles (only fictional, toxic ‘nightlock’ berries).
No medicinal plants.
No knots.
No firestarting.
And not even any water purification (at least the book mentioned using iodine tablets).
And I’m dubious about the whole ‘cake-decorating skills translate to camouflage skills’ angle.
So, bleh.
However, I still have to hope that this movie will at least get people (and women in particular) interested in archery and other outdoorsy activities. I know it certainly inspired me to finally finish the osage selfbow I started a couple of years ago.

Anyway, the society depicted in the book/film is especially depressing to me; it’s like my worst nightmare come true; it’s why I get nervous when people start talking about rebuilding. This is a world that has been rebuilt post-collapse, and yet is still functionally the same as ours; it’s still a Taker model of life: the 1% are still the ones holding power, the food is still under lock and key, and the 99-percenters are still—for lack of a better term—slaves to a system; in Panem it’s just more transparent.
(In my notes I had something about ‘stop watching’. This could either be a call for people to turn off the ‘reality’ tv programming that inspired the book (which would be a good start), or more likely, some kind of metaphor for enacting societal change by turning your back on what drives the society.)
To borrow from Buckminster Fuller, until we as a society can imagine a new way (which might actually look like an old—think tribalway) of organizing and governing ourselves “that makes the existing model obsolete”, our post-collapse world will likely look an awful lot like Panem.