Translating the dystopian world of The Hunger Games…into 1930s scenery?

In my review of The Hunger Games movie, I noted that I was not terribly impressed by the futuristic designs in the movie. At The Atlantic, three design critics make similar arguments and note that much of the scenery and design is not from the future but rather from the 1930s. Here are a few of their thoughts:

The props, sets, and costumes are a giant mash-up of visual cues taken from eras when the socioeconomic disparity between classes was so extreme as to be dangerous. The look is sort of cherry picked from influences ranging from the French Revolution to the Third Reich to Alexander McQueen. A more unified or coherent vision, one that took the influences and used them to create something unique, might have served the story better…

The opening scenes in District 12 are atmospheric and period precise. The bleached-out blue palette, the wooden shacks, the muddy roads—you know you are in the 1930s of the Farm Services Administration photographers. There were a couple of moments, like the line of cabins going down into the hollow, or the two scrawny kids looking out of a hole in the wall, that I could almost swear were direct imitations of a photograph. I found out after I saw the movie that those scenes were filmed in Henry River, North Carolina, an abandoned mill town from the 1920s. In District 12, it is coal. In North Carolina, it was yarn…

The overall look of the Capitol was 1930s neoclassicism, an architectural style used by the Nazis and based on Roman precedents. Fascist architecture seems too easy and obvious an equivalence for Panem’s totalitarian regime. I thought Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was trying to make a trenchant point about what we all like to watch now. Making the Capitol a contemporary skyscraper city, like a forest of Far East towers, would have made a much more pointed contrast with the Appalachian opening. What about the top of Moshe Safdie’s Marina Bay Sands in Singapore, with its mile-high infinity pool, as the setting for Katniss and Peeta’s pre-Games talk? How could you get more decadent than that?…

Maybe oppressive architecture in movies has to be Fascist, in the same way that aliens need to be either robotic, humanoid, or insect-like—otherwise we don’t immediately recognize and fear what we’re seeing. The tributes’ apartment was like an outdated hotel room that was trying too hard to be hip but not quite succeeding; the green chairs were ridiculous in the same way as Effie’s shoes, hats, and makeup…

On the whole, these critics argue that the movie seems to lean on the past a lot rather than casting a new vision for the future. I understand the difficulties of doing this; futuristic settings can be too jarring or cheesy (see the city scenes in Star Wars Episodes I-III). Maybe moviegoers are more invested in the movie if there are scenes they can recognize. For example, the Nazi narrative is clear to many so invoking these ideas in the Capitol is an easy way to make a link between Nazism and the totalitarianism that made the Hunger Games possible in the first place. The movie taps into familiar cultural narratives such as the Depression or Nazism, pointing to the future while also drawing on the past.

Perhaps this comes down to an argument about whether movie makers should always try to hit a home run with design and setting or play it safe. I think The Hunger Games played it safe on this end. Rather than risk ridicule or have to develop a whole new world, they borrowed heavily from known images. Perhaps this could even drive home the possibly commentary even further that we aren’t as far away from this sort of world as we might think. In other words, the future (or the present) might look a lot similar to the pas.t But I think this was a missed opportunity: considering the budget and popularity of the books, the movie could have presented a grand vision of the future that truly captured the attention of viewers and also pushed design and popular imagery of the future further.

Great Quotes in Homeownership #2: Herbert Hoover on the value of owning a home in 1931

Herbert Hoover is not a well-regarded President. But he did have a lot to say about home ownership even as the country was going through the Great Depression. Here are some of Hoover’s thoughts from 1931:

“Next to food and clothing, the housing of a nation is its most vital problem. . . . The sentiment for home ownership is embedded in the American heart [of] millions of people who dwell in tenements, apartments and rented rows of solid brick. . . . This aspiration penetrates the heart of our national wellbeing. It makes for happier married life. It makes for better children. It makes for courage to meet the battle of life. . . . There is a wide distinction between homes and mere housing. Those immortal ballads, ‘Home, Sweet Home,’ ‘My Old Kentucky Home’ and ‘The Little Grey Home in the West’ were not written about tenements or apartments. . . . They were written about an individual abode, alive with tender associations of childhood, the family life at the fireside, the free out-of-doors, the independence, the security and the pride in possession of the family’s own home. . . . Many of our people must live under other conditions. But they never sing songs about a pile of rent receipts. . . .”

Over these warm words and some 1,900 others like them President Hoover had worked with a full heart for two months. One evening last week he took them all, in the form of a keynote address, to Constitution Hall and there, in a voice brimming with emotion, delivered them to the assembled delegates of the President’s Conference on Home Building & Home Ownership. At this great gathering President Hoover again demonstrated his ability and leadership in an unofficial activity outside the constitutional realm of the Presidency.

The conference’s major purpose, President Hoover said, was “to stimulate industrial action,” not “to set up government in the building of homes.” To promote home owning the President urged a better system of home financing, thus keying his program in with his proposed Home Loan Discount system (TIME, Nov. 23).

Of course, Hoover gets some of the blame for not being able to move the country out of a position where it was difficult for many Americans to imagine homeownership, let alone a steady job. But these and other quotes from Hoover suggest he was a President who was committed to helping average Americans move from a monthly rent to a mortgage even in dark economic times. He suggested homeownership would lead to better social outcomes plus lead to feelings of nostalgia, “independence,” “security,” and “pride.”

This is also a reminder that the American value of homeownership was not just a post-World War II phenomenon. The rate of suburbanization was impressive in the post-war period but there had been a wave of suburbanization in the more prosperous 1920s that was interrupted by the Great Depression. I have occasionally found it interesting to think about how suburban growth patterns would have been different without the Great Depression and World War II. Several things might have happened earlier, like the building of interstates or the mass building of suburban communities (exemplified by the Levittowns). Perhaps the whole process might have simply taken longer, giving citizens and politicians more time to react and adjust.

I also wonder how Hoover’s goals of homeownership are viewed by today’s scholars who look back at this period: did these sentiments directly contribute to prolonging the Great Depression? How many of Hoover’s ideas ended up getting implemented in some form by subsequent leaders?

IMF warns of social consequences of global recession

A new report from the International Monetary Fund and the International Labour Federation suggests the recent global economic crisis could lead to social instability:

A joint IMF-ILO report said 30m jobs had been lost since the crisis, three quarters in richer economies. Global unemployment has reached 210m. “The Great Recession has left gaping wounds. High and long-lasting unemployment represents a risk to the stability of existing democracies,” it said.

The study cited evidence that victims of recession in their early twenties suffer lifetime damage and lose faith in public institutions. A new twist is an apparent decline in the “employment intensity of growth” as rebounding output requires fewer extra workers. As such, it may be hard to re-absorb those laid off even if recovery gathers pace. The world must create 45m jobs a year for the next decade just to tread water.

The Telegraph headline say this social instability was termed a “social explosion.”

So what kind of social consequences are these groups talking about? A number of commentators have noted how such recessions affect future behaviors, particularly among younger generations who become scarred by such experiences. But when a term like “social explosion” is used, it suggests images like riots, labor strikes, labor demonstrations, perhaps even the collapse of democracies in the face of pressure from angry citizens. In the United States, it is hard to imagine this. (Indeed, it is an interesting question to ask: what would have to happen for a majority of Americans to participate in more demonstrative collective action?) Even the Great Depression didn’t lead to many violent or excessive disruptions (or at least the history books don’t discuss much of this).

I wonder how much of this language is prompted by particular political viewpoints. The Telegraph hints at this:

“Most advanced countries should not tighten fiscal policies before 2011: tightening sooner could undermine recovery,” said the report, rebuking Britain’s Coalition, Germany’s austerity hawks, and US Republicans. Under French socialist Strauss-Kahn, the IMF has assumed a Keynesian flavour.

The whole situation bears watching – how will average citizens respond?