Like much of the known universe, I recently trudged down to my local multiplex to see The Hunger Games, but unlike much of the known universe, I did so with little sense of excitement or anticipation. I have not read any of the novels by Suzanne Collins, of which The Hunger Games is the first, although I’m vaguely aware that my nephew loves them and that every time I’m in a Barnes & Noble they are prominently displayed next to other runaway bestsellers that I also have not yet read, such as the latest doorstopper from George R. R. Martin. None of my Facebook friends whipped me into a frenzy about the film, and I certainly was not influenced by the Twitterverse. No, I went to see The Hunger Games because I love movies and pop culture and, quite frankly, because part of me can’t stand the idea of not seeing a film that is so wildly popular (insert your own psychoanalytic interpretation here). Yet, despite my profound lack of knowledge about The Hunger Games, a decidedly uncanny feeling swept over me somewhere around the middle of the film: I’d seen this movie before.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that The Hunger Games is derivative or formulaic because it isn’t, or at least not horribly so. In fact, I found much to admire in the adventures of Katniss Everdeen and company as they struggle for survival and dignity in the nation of Panem, a dystopian near-future society in which children are forced to fight other children to the death for sport. I loved the gender equality of the story, in which it is never once considered unusual, or even commented on, that young women could compete on equal terms with young men in a “game” requiring a serious amount of brains, brawn, and steely determination to succeed. I also appreciated that the film does not shy away from depicting the ramifications of political repression, economic inequality, and the commodification of brutality. For a movie that is reaching viewers all over the world, these are no small achievements. Moreover, even though I’m not planning to download Collins’ trilogy onto my Kindle anytime soon, I left the theater with a more-or-less firm resolution to see the next two films in the series when they are released. So why did I have that feeling of cinematic déjà-vu, that “been there, done that” moment as Katniss kicked-butt in The Hunger Games? The answer is simple: I’m old.
Or, more precisely, I’m old for a lifelong pop culture junkie. You see, your pop culture age has only a passing relationship to your chronological age. After all, I’m still in my 30s, which in today’s Society of Jesus makes me a veritable toddler. By the standards of the wider world, I’m in the very prime of life, the “peak earning years” (a hilariously inappropriate term for someone with a vow of poverty who is still in grad school, but I digress). Granted, if I were a professional athlete, which I assure you I’m not, I’d be reaching the end of a no doubt illustrious career, but would perhaps have one last championship run in me. And yes, to paraphrase a line that a 30-something priest utters in the short-lived 1990s television series Nothing Sacred, in reference to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, “if I were doing my job, I’d be dead by now.” But in the pop culture universe, with its perennial youth-orientation and recycling of ideas, I’m positively ancient. Superannuated. Old.
My pop culture clock began ticking early. Because I have two older siblings, I was listening to music way above grade level and watching movies that still make me question the parenting skills of Mom and Dad by the late-1970s and early-80s. I listened to KISS on vinyl and the Steve Miller Band on 8-track. I owned the first Madonna album on cassette and remember seeing Grandmaster Flash videos in the early years of MTV. I saw the Bill Murray comedy, Stripes, in the theater when I was 8 years old (you may pause here for a horrified reaction) and soon graduated to David Lynch films a couple of years later (you may pause again). And television? You name it, I watched it. And if you ever find yourself having a beer with me, I’ll tell you why Three’s Company is a work of enduring artistic merit.
I realize that none of this makes me distinctive in the least. On the contrary, authors such as Chuck Klosterman and entire cable networks such as VH1 have created a cottage industry out of speaking to the generation that grew up on vapid sitcoms and hair metal. My generation seems to be in the grip of what I call “early onset nostalgia” (Google tells me that I’m not the first person to use this phrase, so props to whomever invented it). Movies and music (mostly, but also books, comics, fashion, etc.) that are only 20-30 years old are now parsed like ancient texts, as if they had recently been discovered in clay jars in Qumran. Even middling television shows from the late-80s like 21 Jump Street have been recently made into films (full disclosure: I’ve seen it and think it’s hilarious). But you know what the really scary part is? It’s not that people pushing 40 are starting to get nostalgic for their youth, that seems pretty normal to me as the burdens of career and child-rearing cement them firmly in the ranks of responsible adulthood. What’s really scary is just how quickly these pop culture cycles are turning. Did you know that a completely new series of Spiderman films is in the works? Yep, that one that launched in 2002 is yesterday’s news. In 2002! Wasn’t that, like, ten minutes ago? Apparently, tastes and social mores have shifted so much since then that a total reboot was in order. I’m sure that Peter Parker will be an avid social networker in this one, especially because the actor playing him was in The Social Network.
What all this means is that all of us who are fans of pop culture are aging ever more rapidly. Which is why we really shouldn’t be surprised when no one seems to know or care that Lady Gaga is an imitation of Madonna, circa 1983. Isn’t Madonna that older woman from the Super Bowl halftime show with a faux-English accent? A few years ago, I wrote a piece for America magazine’s website about a new band I liked called The Hold Steady. There are already bands out there (especially Titus Andronicus—check them out if you haven’t already) that listened to The Hold Steady when they were kids and count them as a major musical influence. When they were kids? That article is still on my hard drive! How old am I?
Believe it or not, these thoughts of pop culture, aging and mortality brought to mind a poem that I had not read since college, it’s called “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection,” by the 19th-century English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins (see? When forced, I can do high culture). On the surface, the poem couldn’t have less to do with pop culture, The Hunger Games, or anything else I’ve discussed in this humble essay. Yet, on a deeper level, it has everything to do with it. In visceral language, Hopkins describes the constant, unsettling flux of nature, an all-consuming “bonfire” that “burns on,” leaving nothing, including human beings, untouched. Throughout much of the poem, Hopkins sounds like a latter-day Qoheleth, despairing at our lives that “vastness blurs and time beats level.” Aging and death, Hopkins assures us, will come for us all, and we will be gone without a trace.
In many ways, what Hopkins experienced in ever-changing nature, I had been confronting, albeit far less eloquently, in the seemingly repetitious cycles of pop culture. Lady Gaga is not only an imitation of Madonna, but a reminder that it is no longer 1983 and I am no longer a 10 year-old boy listening to a cassette in the basement of my parent’s house. The new Spiderman series is testimony to the undeniable facts that ten years is an awfully long time in the lives of young people, and I am no longer so young. While only dimly realizing it, my pop culture obsessions had brought me into contact with mortality, at the ripe old age of 39.
Although he never shied away from darker themes in his work, as a good Jesuit Hopkins does not leave us in a place of despair in his poem. Rather, he leaves us with the hope of Christ’s Resurrection. It is Christ, and his saving love, that makes all this contingency, all this bewildering change, meaningful. It is Christ that renders the apparent smallness of our lives into something much more profound, for Christ shared the frailty of human existence. As Hopkins says, in words I could never paraphrase, “I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am.” For Hopkins, and for all Christians, there are truly intimations of eternity in even the most ephemeral of phenomena—maybe even in pop culture.
And so there I was, watching The Hunger Games and noting, along with most film critics of a certain age (see especially Joe Morgenstern in the Wall Street Journal), how this all seemed strangely familiar. Wasn’t Panem something straight out of George Orwell’s 1984? Those costumes could have come from the set of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Hey, they’re controlling reality just like in The Truman Show! Oh, and the titular Hunger Games? They’re a cross between “The Most Dangerous Game” and Lord of the Flies. I could list more, but rereading Hopkins cast my experience of The Hunger Games in a very different light. My cynicism about the endless turning of our pop culture cycles abated, and even my early-onset nostalgia seemed less a malady than an opening onto something hopeful, something true.. For many younger people, The Hunger Games is completely new, and that is a wondrous thing. For the rest of us, there is the comfort of the resurrection, the newness and meaning that can always be found in Christ, no matter our age, so long as we look around us with the eyes of faith.