Friday, October 12, 2012

Tea and Chimpanzee

Earlier this year I missed seeing in the theater the huge hit film The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ YA novels, but it turned up on satellite a few nights ago. It was more enjoyable than I expected. The movie depicts a dystopian future in which a ruling elite in the Capitol demands as tribute two young people from each of 12 formerly rebellious outer districts to compete in Hunger Games as entertainment. (This harkens back to the mythic tribute of Athenian youths and maidens demanded by King Minos of Crete to face the minotaur.) In a contest called the Hunger Games, the tributes go out into the wild and hunt each other until only one survives. The winner is celebrated and feted. The sport is followed by everyone in the districts. The denizens of the 12 districts, by rooting for their own local contestants, become invested and implicated in the games and in the society.

Humans-hunting-humans is an entire genre of film, even if we leave out war movies, detective movies, and fugitive movies (even scifi as Logan’s Run) in which the sporting element in them is obscured. In all those cases the public interest is the nominal motive (even if misguided) for the violence of the characters. As Maxwell Smart says to Agent 99 in an old Get Smart episode, “We have to shoot, kill, and destroy: we represent all that’s wholesome and good in the world.” Just the films in which the gamesmanship is overt are numerous enough. A few examples:

The Most Dangerous Game (1932): This is the granddaddy of the genre. Joel McCrea and Fay Wray survive a shipwreck only to be set loose in the jungle on the private island of the immoralist big game hunter Count Zaroff who hunts them for sport. This film has been aped and parodied many times – even on an episode of the The Simpsons. The original is still the one to see.

The 10th Victim (1965) is a Franco-Italian, based on the short story by scifi author Robert Sheckley. Contestants – all volunteers – compete in the Hunt for prizes, sponsorship deals, fame, and fortune. There are ten rounds for each contestant, five as hunter and five as hunted (“victim”); the victim doesn’t know who his or her assigned hunter is. You win by killing all your opponents in all ten rounds. The Hunt is the most popularly followed sport in the world, and has the advantage of eliminating from society its most violent members. Despite undeniable campiness and some nice location shots (including the Coliseum) in Rome, this is a silly movie. Stick with Sheckley, whose writing is clever and funny.

Death Race 2000. What can one say about this cult film from 1975? On a cross-country race, drivers (David Carradine and a young Sylvester Stallone among them) in pimped-out sports cars score points by killing pedestrians.

Running Man (1987). In a movie made well before “reality TV” became a staple of programming, Richard Dawson hosts a near-future game show in which convicted criminals are released into a linear arena to run for their lives. They are chased by “stalkers” who have themes and nicknames like those of wrestlers. One called Fireball uses a flamethrower, another called Buzzkill uses a chain saw, and so on. If a criminal survives, he or she wins release. The (wrongly) convicted criminal this time is Arnold Schwarzenegger. You know the rest: bad news for stalkers and bad puns for us.

Death Race (2008). In a reimagining of Death Race 2000, drivers battle each other to the death in order to win pardons for their crimes. Once again, it is a televised sport.

These are just a sampling. The persistent popularity of books and movies with the theme suggests that they connect with something deep in the human psyche. Humans are not alone in this. The days are long gone when primatologists entertained the pleasant image of chimpanzees, our close relatives, as peaceful vegetarians. Today we know that meat is a significant part of their diet in the wild (monkeys are a favorite), and that chimpanzees hunt chimps from neighboring tribes in a way that looks a lot like sport. In the BBC film clip below, chimps raid a neighboring territory where they catch, kill, and eat another chimp. They seem to enjoy it.

Humans have the choice of rising above our natures. Most of us get along well enough with our neighbors – we don’t usually cannibalize them anyway. But we probably can succeed better at being a kinder gentler ape if we acknowledge the part of ourselves that isn’t. Denying our nature just makes it crop up surreptitiously, such as in ideologies that categorize appalling violence as justice. It is better to indulge our chimp-like qualities in a game of Halo or by watching violent movies such as The Hunger Games, while we enjoy tea with the neighbors.

Chimp hunger games  

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