Blind Man with a Pistol


Ragged Jamal

“I think we can afford to leave Mott Street now,” he continued.
“This house isn’t as neat as it might be, and I shall like to live
in a nicer quarter of the city.”

“All right,” said Dick. “We’ll hunt up a new room to-morrow. I shall
have plenty of time, having retired from business. I’ll try to get
my reg’lar customers to take Johnny Nolan in my place. That boy
hasn’t any enterprise. He needs some body to look out for him.”

“You might give him your box and brush, too, Dick.”

“No,” said Dick; “I’ll give him some new ones, but mine I want
to keep, to remind me of the hard times I’ve had, when I was an
ignorant boot-black, and never expected to be anything better.”

“When, in short, you were ‘Ragged Dick.’ You must drop that name,
and think of yourself now as”–

“Richard Hunter, Esq.,” said our hero, smiling.

“A young gentleman on the way to fame and fortune,” added Fosdick.

— Horatio Alger, Ragged Dick: Or, Street Life in New York with the Boot Blacks (1868)

Boy we love that rags to riches song. And so does the Academy, with Slumdog Millionaire (2008) picking up a trunk-full of Oscars Sunday night. I thought the movie was fun, and my initial response was that considering the minefield of potential exploitation such a project portends, director Danny Boyle did rather well. He even hired an Indian co-director, Lovleen Tandan, to give the film that added oomph of authenticity. I forgot, of course, that I don’t know anything about India, Mumbai or the slumdogs. Boyle caught me, like the American tourist johns in his film, staring at my own navel and liking what I saw.

Of course, Slumdog‘s Mumbai bares little resemblance to the real one. As Mitu Sengupta of Ryerson University writes in a wonderful anti-colonialist tonic in the Star,

Most of the awards collected by the film have been accepted in the name of “the children,” suggesting that its own cast and crew regard (and are promoting) it not as a cinematically spectacular and entertaining work of fiction, which it is, but as a powerful tool of advocacy.

Nothing could be more worrying. Slumdog, despite all the hype to the contrary, delivers a deeply disempowering narrative about the poor, which undermines, if not totally negates, its apparent message of social justice….

If anything, Boyle’s magical tale, with its unconvincing one-dimensional characters and absurd plot devices, greatly understates the depth of suffering among India’s poor. It is near impossible, for example, that Jamal would emerge from his ravaged life with a dewy complexion and an upper-class accent.

However, the real problem with Slumdog is not its shallow, impressionistic portrayal of poverty. Its real problem is that it grossly minimizes the capabilities and even the basic humanity of those it claims to speak for. It is no secret that large chunks of Slumdog are meant to reflect life in Dharavi, the 213-hectare spread of slums at the heart of Mumbai. The film’s depiction of the legendary area, which is home to some one million people, is that of a feral wasteland, with little evidence of order, community or compassion.

Other than the children (the “slumdogs”), no one is even remotely well-intentioned. Hustlers, thieves, and petty warlords run amok, and even Jamal’s schoolteacher, a thin, bespectacled man who introduces him to The Three Musketeers, is inexplicably callous. This is a place of evil and decay, of a raw, chaotic tribalism.

Yet nothing could be further from the truth. Dharavi teems with dynamism and creativity, and is a hub of entrepreneurial activity, in industries such as garment manufacturing, embroidery, pottery, and leather, plastics and food processing. It is estimated that the annual turnover from Dharavi’s small businesses is between $50 and $100 million (U.S.).

Dharavi’s lanes are lined with cellphone retailers and cyber cafés and, according to surveys by Microsoft Research India, the slum’s residents exhibit a remarkably high absorption of new technologies.

In a somewhat more cantankerous tone, Salman Rushdie echoes Sengupta’s analysis and states that Boyle’s film ‘piles impossibility upon impossibility’, citing the geographical difficulty of travelling 1000 miles to the Taj Mahal between scenes and the significant improbability that the Malik brothers could procure a handgun in India.

Indeed, when we compare Slumdog to Boyle’s masterpiece, Trainspotting (1996), the fulsome laminate of the former begins to peel. While Renton, Spud and Sick Boy evince a startling grit and humanity in the tenements of Glasgow, there is no consonant authenticity to the flat protagonists of Slumdog. Indeed, when we examine the source material of both scripts, the dissonance between them is severe. Consider Irvine Welsh’s disjointed and vernacular novel set (unlike the film) in Leith where Welsh was born and raised, and the author of Q & A (2005), Vikas Swarup, an Indian diplomat who writes in English. Surely, too, Boyle, with his working-class Irish roots, is closer to the source material of Trainspotting than he is to the hearsay evidence from which he created his vision of the Dharavi slums.

I admit that discussions of ‘authenticity’ get us nowhere, but it is important to point out the scale of this illusion when it comes to films like Slumdog Millionaire. Not because we shouldn’t enjoy such films, of course we do—after all, Horatio Alger made a career out of feelgood picaresque tales of the poverty stricken achieving bougeois comfort through the power of their courage and generosity over a hundred years ago, and he was hardly the first. But because when movies like this begin to seem like more than they are (I’m reminded, fleetingly, of the nauseating Oscar-winning Paul Haggis film Crash [2005]) we need to inject a bit of perspective into the whole operation. Slumdog Millionaire was not an ‘extraordinary journey’; it does not prove that if you have ‘passion and…belief… if you have those two things, truly anything is possible’. It proves no more than that we like the taste of popcorn; that we like to believe that the poor of the world are so cursed because of their cold hearts and moral failings, and that true spirits can persevere if their will is strong; it proves, finally, that as long as we can paint our own imaginative versions of the Other, we need not confront her ourselves.

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The Worst Holocaust Movie Ever Made

No, not Jakob the Liar (1999), whose twin crimes consist of 1) enlisting the holocaust to effect unearned pathos and 2) employing Robin Williams. According to Ron Rosenbaum, this unfortunate distinction goes to Stephen Daldry’s adaptation of Bernhard Schlink’s novel, The Reader (2008). Disclosure: I have not seen the film yet, but I have read Schlink’s novel. And while I understand there are key differences between the film and novel, some of which Rosenbaum addresses in his review, Rosenbaum’s chief criticism stems from his interpretation of the novel’s conceit: namely, that Hanna, played by Kate Winslet, a concentration camp guard on trial for war crimes, is less guilty because she turns out to be illiterate. Indeed, Rosenbaum believes that the film pretends redemption because Hanna learns to read while serving her prison sentence (that she could have avoided had she admitted her illiteracy):

that’s what The Reader is about: the supposedly difficult struggle with this slowly dawning postwar awareness. As Cynthia Ozick put it in her essay: “After the war, when she is brought to trial, the narrator [‘Michael Berg’] acknowledges that she is guilty of despicable crimes—but he also believes that her illiteracy must mitigate her guilt. Had she been able to read, she would have been a factory worker, not an agent of murder. Her crimes are illiteracy’s accident. Illiteracy is her exculpation.”

Indeed, so much is made of the deep, deep exculpatory shame of illiteracy—despite the fact that burning 300 people to death doesn’t require reading skills—that some worshipful accounts of the novel (by those who buy into its ludicrous premise, perhaps because it’s been declared “classic” and “profound”) actually seem to affirm that illiteracy is something more to be ashamed of than participating in mass murder. From the Barnes & Noble Web site summary of the novel: “Michael recognizes his former lover on the stand, accused of a hideous crime. And as he watches Hanna refuse to defend herself against the charges, Michael gradually realizes that she may be guarding a secret more shameful than murder.” Yes, more shameful than murder!

Leaving aside the fact that Rosenbaum apparently gleans his plot glosses from promotional copy rather than actually reading the novel, I think, underneath Rosenbaum’s justified anger at Barnes & Noble’s reduction, the book giant inadvertently makes an important point: does shame, truly, bear any relation to the objective gravity of a crime? Indeed, is a healthy dose of shame really what we want from those who commit the most inhuman of crimes? The fact that Hanna is illiterate does not vindicate her crime, but it does demonstrate how vulnerability, no matter how it is expressed, renders the human subject susceptible to the worst demands of fascism. In fact, we know this is how fascism works: brought low through the excesses and oppression of the elite, the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated seek solace in the solution and affirmation of racism and violence. But to explain is not to excuse: it is such simplistic logic that the far-right employ to smear supporters of social democracy.

This is not to say that Rosenbaum’s criticism is without merit. He is right when he says ‘Hollywood seems to believe that if it’s a “Holocaust film,” it must be worthy of approbation, end of story’. When Steven Spielberg attempts to impart the gravity of genocide through a flash of colour from a little girl’s red dress on otherwise black and white photography, the result, when fully considered, is cartoonish if not grotesque. But Rosenbaum’s isolation of The Reader for particular opprobrium is curious. In a Slate article published three months before his request to deny The Reader an Oscar, Rosenbaum names the film as an example of an increasing obsession with the sex life of Nazis. Oddly, Rosenbaum condemns all of Germany, the only nation in the world, incidentally, ever to engage publicly with its homegrown fascism, for elevating Schlink’s novel to best-seller status; suggesting, in the process, that Germany is especially receptive to ‘Nazi porn’ or holocaust revisionism.

But Germany is unique in its journey to reconcile a fascist past with contemporary understanding. I wonder if Rosenbaum would condemn Nobel laureate Gunter Grass’s similar attempts, or indeed Peter Eisenman’s postmodern Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe. As Professor Julian Dodd wrote in the letter pages of the Guardian, Hanna’s guilt is never ‘mitigated’. It haunts the text like the 300 victims of her complicity and equivocalness:

The affair between Hannah and Michael is not “glorious”; though sexually fulfilling, it is troubled and hints at disaster from the off. When Hannah silences the judge with “What would you have done?”, the judge is not silenced by her moral honesty, but is rendered speechless by horror. (Hannah’s question ends cross-examination in which she fails to see she had a moral responsibility to save 300 people locked inside a burning church.) Finally, it was, indeed, toe-curling to see Michael attempt to carry out Hannah’s wish that her money be given to Ilana, one of her victims. But this was precisely the effect that this scene was designed to elicit: to the very end Hannah has failed to appreciate the nature of her crime and Michael, in fulfilling what he takes to be his duty to her, has failed to see this too.

Perhaps this irony is not as evident in the film as it is in the book, but I suspect Rosenbaum is uninterested in making a distinction. Besides, he condemns Schlink’s novel and David Hare’s screenplay equally. Rosenbaum’s goal remains to judge the inhabitants of 1940s Germany and their descendants unequivocally. Aside from the crude Manichean logic such a crusade necessitates, it is also supremely arrogant.  Hare composed a withering response to critics like Rosenbaum (and, specifically, to Peter Bradshaw’s review in the Guardian),

it turns out that a few broadsheet film critics in Britain do indeed belong to a category of people who would have resisted Hitler when he came to power. So the great shame is, clearly film critics should have been running Austria at the time, because Hitler would have represented no problem to them at all. [The Guardian’s] Peter Bradshaw would have known exactly what to do, and he would not have been remotely fallible to any Nazi who threatened his life. No, he would have died in heroic acts of individual resistance. So it’s a privilege to live among people who enjoy such moral certainty.

The question Hanna asks the judge, ‘What would you have done?’ is posed, naturally, for us too. It conceals a bottomless horror: a knowledge of evil without the concomitant knowledge of righteousness. It echoes both in known history and unknown contingencies. The Reader captures this echo, in its horror, its irony and its desire. Preventing genocide and fascism, something, criminally, this century has yet to accomplish, is not about deciding at which doorstep to lay the blame of past sins, but to seek the understanding, caution and fear that will keep such inhumanity at bay.



Cold Pastoral

Plenty of people are on to the emptiness, but it takes real guts to see the hopelessness.
— John Givings, Revolutionary Road

I saw Sam Mendes’s Revolutionary Road (2008) last night, which earned Kate Winslet her first Golden Globe for her performance as a postwar housewife in suburban America, who is not only caught in the suffocating tediousness of the bourgeoisie, but has lade bare the lie that sustains it for so many: the fallacy that she is ‘better’ than her neighbours and deserves to ‘break free’ more than anyone else. I was initially surprised at the press this movie was getting, or indeed, that it was made at all. Surely the recent death of John Updike reminds us that we’ve seen this before: the ‘American Pastoral’, to use Phillip Roth’s phrase—working a job you hate to support a joyless marriage in a cookie-cutter home—is a myth, and authors, filmmakers and playwrights have been telling us this for 50 years. In fact, the film’s source material, Richard Yates’s original 1961 novel, emerges in this criticism of America’s utopian promise.

So why now? Perhaps Mendes is tapping into the recent resurgence of 1950s nostalgia. Of course, wistful pining for the Cold War has popped up everywhere from the latest Indiana Jones calamity to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s excellent Das Leben der Anderen (The Lives of Others, 2006). But this nostalgia is perhaps best encapsulated in the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. As Mark Grief put it in last October’s London Review of Books:

Mad Men is an unpleasant little entry in the genre of Now We Know Better. We watch and know better about male chauvinism, homophobia, anti-semitism, workplace harassment, housewives’ depression, nutrition and smoking. We wait for the show’s advertising men or their secretaries and wives to make another gaffe for us to snigger over….

Beneath the Now We Know Better is a whiff of Doesn’t That Look Good. The drinking, the cigarettes, the opportunity to slap your children! The actresses are beautiful, the Brilliantine in the men’s hair catches the light, and everyone and everything is photographed as if in stills for a fashion spread. The show’s ‘1950s’ is a strange period that seems to stretch from the end of World War Two to 1960, the year the action begins. The less you think about the plot the more you are free to luxuriate in the low sofas and Eames chairs, the gunmetal desks and geometric ceiling tiles and shiny IBM typewriters. Not to mention the lush costuming: party dresses, skinny brown ties, angora cardigans, vivid blue suits and ruffled peignoirs, captured in the pure dark hues and wide lighting ranges that Technicolor never committed to film.

If Revolutionary Road has a darker subject material than Mad Men, what Grief calls the ‘Doesn’t that Look Good’ comes out in the glossy production values: the beautiful Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet simply glow in the foreground of a dreary, overcast decade. The stacattoed, pronounced acting style of the two protagonists emphasizes the dreamlike quality of the film: the tragedy of this couple might appeal to modern-day audiences, but their predicament is not our own.

Indeed, ‘suburbia’ as it exists in the social imagination, is no longer the domain of the white middle-classes. The young professionals DiCaprio and Winslet represent are increasingly eschewing the suburban lives of their parents and turning to the hip urban centres of the West.  Moreover, as this article at CBC Toronto suggests, new immigrants turn first the suburbs when looking to purchase their first Canadian home. It’s not surprising, then, that this social reality disappears in the nostalgia of Mad Men and Revolutionary Road. In the first season of Mad Men, the racism of pre-civil rights America is relegated to the odd anti-Semitic joke and the voiceless black elevator operator. In Mendes’s examination of middle-class struggle—in both Revolutionary Road and his modern-day-staged Oscar winner, American Beauty (1999)—race is entirely absent.

Nevertheless, Sam Mendes is a competent filmmaker and Revolutionary Road is a well-made testament to his craft. Winslet is indeed compelling in demonstrating the boxes that crop up around us, keeping our hopes and dreams at bay. To be sure, even Winslet and DiCaprio’s antidote to America’s oppression—a move to Paris ‘where people are alive’—seems pale and ill-thought out. So what then, is the benefit of superimposing a nostalgic gloss over the emptiness of life under twentieth-century capitalism?

The answer, I think, lies in the symmetry of the narrative. As James Woods writes revisiting Yates in the New Yorker,

The book’s form is a solid delight of symmetry and repetition. Just as April’s first pregnancy scuppered the original European escape (but didn’t really, because Frank never intended to go), so her third scuppers the later one (but doesn’t really, either, for the same reason). Frank’s father also worked at Knox. A play opens the novel, and a performance ends it, as the Wheelers’ neighbors, the Campbells, tell the new owners of the Wheelers’ house about the tragedy that has vacated the property. In the very last pages, Mrs. Givings, the appallingly eager real-estate agent who had sold the Wheelers their house, describes, to her husband, the new owners in the same language she once used to describe the Wheelers: “She’s very sweet and fun to talk to; he’s rather reserved. I think he must do something very brilliant in town.” Frank’s children, now motherless, will have the kind of parentless existence with their uncle that April Wheeler had as a child, and which, her husband felt, damaged her. So the horror begins all over again: these repetitions and circularities overlap to make the novel’s heavy plait of determinism.

One could say that the nostalgia inherent in Mendes’s interpretation of Yates’s novel was prefigured by the original work.  The ‘hopeless emptiness’ that infects Frank and April Wheeler infects us now, but the feeble solution held up to them—moving to Paris—yields an appealing simplicity embodied and totalized by Mendes’s revisionist 1950s that is foreclosed to us. We can appreciate and invest in the tragedy of the Wheelers because it seems somehow more manageable.  We engage with their struggle because it allows us to disavow our own; even as we see ourselves in the Wheelers, our hopeless emptiness in theirs, the veneer of nostalgia whisks us away to share the Wheeler’s pain without the complication of postindustrial economies, feminism and globalization. And so we beat on, boats against the current, etc.



This is not Bedford Falls

bedford-falls

I always disliked Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as a teenager. I couldn’t buy that George Bailey, the intrepid cavalier whose only reward for discarding his lifelong hopes and dreams for conservative family security was not committing suicide and not losing the livelihood he never wanted. I know there’s suposed to be something about the respect of your peers and the triumph of the human heart, but it always seemed rather thin to me.  This was eventualy compounded with an innate suspicion that because Paramount ‘forgot’ to renew its copyright in 1974 and let it enter the public domain, it became a “Holiday Classic” simply by virtue that broadcasters could play the movie ad nauseum.

Lately, however, my opinion of the film is changing. I’ve decided that Capra’s film is essentially a film noir in sheep’s clothing. Aesthetically, of course, the film uses many noir tropes: voice overs, flashbacks, chiaroscuro lighting and the cynical irony of Jimmy Stewart. But this style evidences nothing more than perhaps the fashion of the times. What truly establishes It’s a Wonderful Life as a noir is its treatment of the noir subject: the tough, ironic specimen of compromised masculinity who is drawn rather than travels through life, a a passive observer to forces beyond his control.

Gary Kamiya at Salon recently wrote about Capra’s opus, in which he hails the part of the film that is most explicitly film noir: the sultry, urban portrayal of a George Bailey-less world.

In Capra’s Tale of Two Cities, Pottersville is the Bad Place. It’s the demonic foil to Bedford Falls, the sweet, Norman Rockwell-like town in which George grows up. Named after the evil Mr. Potter, Pottersville is the setting for George’s brief, nightmarish trip through a world in which he never existed. In that alternative universe, Potter has triumphed, and we are intended to shudder in horror at the sinful city he has spawned — a kind of combo pack of Sodom, Gomorrah, Times Square in 1972, Tokyo’s hostess district, San Francisco’s Barbary Coast ca. 1884 and one of those demon-infested burgs dimly visible in the background of a Hieronymus Bosch painting.

There’s just one problem: Pottersville rocks!

It sure does. Or at least, it certainly appears to. But what is particularly striking about this section of the film is that Pottersville more closely resembles the ‘real’ America: dehumanizing and debauched, rife unemployment, and criminally overseen by a General Sternwood-esque capitalist magnate, Mr. Potter. Bedford Falls, on the other hand, the ‘reality’ of the film, comes across as an eerie dream world of community, fraternity and equality (albeit with a creepy dose of privacy forfeiture). This dream world pales in the context of postwar America where a generation of men are searching for their identity, women are searching for their rights, and the capitalist state apparatus is violently rebuking such ideals at every opportunity in the face of the communist menace. Indeed, there is something powerfully unsettling about the film’s opening shot that brazenly declares to the viewer “YOU ARE NOW IN BEDFORD FALLS” when we know, emphatically, we are not. Its uncanniness rivals Rene Magritte’s famous ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’.

Ironically, Bailey’s ‘dream’ world—that is, one where he has left Bedford Falls for college, travels or the war (!)—is the same as the one where he dies (paging Dr. Lacan). It’s also the real America. Essentially, America has dreamed itself, mediated by Bedford Falls where we all (do not) reside. Suddenly, we see the emergence of the noir universe, in which we are parasitic stowaways to our own capitalistic fantasies. How appropriate, then, that in the inflated consumerism of contemporary Christmas, this ‘wonderful’ film has monopolized our holidays by virtue of its repeatability, marketability and libidinal bribery.

Kamiya certainly notices this, although his conclusion is perhaps less jaded than my own:

I have made, I believe, a definitive case that Pottersville has gotten a bad rap and that Bedford Falls is grossly overrated. But if there are any who are still unconvinced, I would just like to remind them of one little detail: in the real world, Potter won.

We all live in Pottersville now. Bedford Falls is gone. The plucky little Savings and Loan closed down years ago, just like in George’s nightmare. Cleaned up, his evil eyebrows removed, armed with a good PR firm, Mr. Potter goes merrily about his business, “consolidating” the George Baileys of the world. To cling to dreams of a bucolic America where the little guy defeats the forces of Big Business and the policeman and the taxi driver and the druggist and the banker all sing Auld Lang Syne together is just to ask for heartbreak and confusion when you turn off the TV and open your front door.

So don’t fight it. It’s a Pottersville world! Welcome jitterbuggers! Get me — (ka-ching!) — I’m giving out wings!

On my last watching of It’s a Wonderful Life I found myself really, truly enjoying it, both its preciousness and its stylistic gall. Perhaps Kamiya’s solution is the best one. If you’re offering a two-for-one Boxing Day sale on wings, I’ll be the first to queue up.

hat-tip to Julio



‘I see three oranges, I juggle. I see two towers, I walk.’

philippepetittwintowers

I saw James Marsh’s fantastic Man on Wire (2008) last night. It’s a film about Philippe Petit, wire walker par excellence. Paced like an action film, Marsh uses interviews, tasteful re-enactments and original footage to recreate Petit & co.’s daring ‘coup’ in which they counterfeit identification, dress-up alternatively as workmen and businessmen, fire an arrow from one tower to the next with a cord attached and string a 450-pound cable between the newly constructed World Trade Center towers. All this for the easy part: for Petit to walk above 110 stories in the early hours of 7 August 1974.

Even the Port Authority police officer, Sgt. Charles Daniels, sober in his report to the press, couldn’t hold back his wonder in the final instance:

I observed the tightrope ‘dancer’—because you couldn’t call him a ‘walker’—approximately halfway between the two towers. And upon seeing us he started to smile and laugh and he started going into a dancing routine on the high wire….And when he got to the building we asked him to get off the high wire but instead he turned around and ran back out into the middle….I figured I was watching something that no one would ever see again, that it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

There is the added thrill of seeing these artists, vagabonds, grifters and potsmokers break into the WTC in the context of the 1993 attempted bombing and of course, 9/11. As Marsh says in an interview with Time Out,

it’s basically a plot against these buildings, and they’re all foreigners. They’re hanging around and taking all sorts of photographs and pretending to work for various official companies in order to gain access. The big difference is that the end result is something beautiful. It’s illegal, but it’s not wicked.

For me, that’s the magical part of Petit’s story. After 9/11, Electronic music pioneer Karlheinz Stockhausen, when prompted for a reaction to the attacks on the WTC, famously responded by calling them ‘the greatest work of art that is possible in the whole cosmos’. The hijackers, he continued, had achieved ‘something in one act’ that ‘we couldn’t even dream of in music’, in which ‘people practice like crazy for ten years, totally fanatically, for a concert, and then die….You have people who are so concentrated on one performance, and then 5000 people are dispatched into eternity, in a single moment’. It was grotesque detachment on the part of Stockhausen, but certainly, this sentiment is going through the back of our minds when we watch Marsh’s film. Except wonderfully, magically, Marsh, through Petit, subverts the horror, the ate of the September 11 attacks and gives us the beautiful image of a man dancing a quarter mile above the streets, kneeling in midair and saluting us with an impish flourish.

Marsh inlays Petit’s story with all the conventions of a heist flick: love interest, ‘professionals’ vs amateurs, the untrustworthy accomplice, and a bond of homosocial love between the protagonist and his lifelong friend shattered by the momentousness of the crime. However it is difficult for any mere action plot to recreate the drama contained in this candid statement from Petit:

I had to make the decision to take my foot, anchored on the building, and put it on the wire. Not many people dare to take that first step – to land on the Moon, to dive into a great abyss in the sea. I feel that sensation each time I grab the balancing pole and start a high-wire walk. It is not exactly the same feeling each time, but it is a feeling of intimate decision. Not for nothing is it called the first step, like the first step on a new continent.

It’s a beautiful thing. See it!



Child’s Play

I just saw Pixar’s WALL*E, a futuristic animated feature in which Earth has been abandoned to landfill and pollution while the human race flies around the galaxy in a commodified stupor, consuming recreation and sustenance in bland, supersized quantities. The movie is fine, as kids’ flicks go. The narrative follows the last remaining trash-bot on Earth, WALL*E, charged with cleaning up the mess the last humans left behind. The only problem is that the environmental catastrophe has proved far too massive to be fixed, and 700 years later, WALL*E is still shoveling landfill into his trash-compactor belly and stacking it miles into the sky. Cue intergalactic arrival of shiny, high-tech loveinterestbot, and subsequent heartwarming tale.

The thing I found shocking about the movie is the conspicuous political polemic underwriting the otherwise standard love story. The film opens sans dialogue, with a fifteen-minute tour of the abandoned Earth, with an unabashedly anti-capitalist message. The mega-corporation “Buy n’ Large” owns everything from food outlets to public transit, and there is no question that hyperconsumerism pushed the human race to this crisis. Moreover, the ruined Earth, despite its sci-fi feel, is not so futuristic that we can’t see the resemblance to our own current predicament. The delightful irony of the accompanying music, “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly! is scathing:

Put on your Sunday clothes,
There’s lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We’re gonna find adventure in the evening air

The movie never backs down from this political message. The diasporic Earthlings eat their meals from giant cups (roughly the size of ‘large’ movie-theatre soft drinks), their leisure activities are automated and indistinguishable from each other, their bone structures have shrunk over the years due to inactivity, and social taste is dictated by an automated media system to which every citizen is connected, every minute of their lives.

How is it that a kids movie can get away with this? If this kind of overt political message was in a live-action movie, even a satire, it would be dismissed as unimaginative, or worse, as eco-commie agit prop. Not even science fiction could pull it off. An Inconvenient Truth didn’t sport this kind of polemic. If you want to spread a subversive, emancipatory political message in Hollywood, you have to cushion it in all kinds of subterfuge, like Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006). Yet somehow, WALL*E can get away with politics that read like they come from the most radical Green Party manifesto (not to be found, of course, in the eco-capitalist Green Party of Canada).

What is it about kids movies that permits this kind of radicalism? I’d like to think that it’s because Disney wants to instill the next generation with an emancipatory politics that will save our skins. I’m sure hoping it’ll happen. But in the words of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction, ‘that shit ain’t the truth.’ Instead, it’s the same logic that sees Canada hum and haw about banning incandescent light bulbs and plastic bags while giving tax breaks to Athabasca Tar Sand corporations. Rationally, we know we’re in trouble. Big Trouble. And we’ve got to do something. But Capitalism has so ingrained artificially prescribed desires that we cannot give up. So we shift the things we have to do to realms where it just doesn’t matter.

We relegate these truths that weigh on us to realms of fairy tales, of science fiction. I hope that the message of WALL*E—that, to be prosaic, our hyperconsumerism and disdain for the environment is leading us all to our demise—gains some traction in our children, but the reality is we need it to take hold of ourselves, now. When Disney starts mocking the giant soft drinks its theatres rely on for profit, I don’t get hopeful, I despair. Consumerism—the precise type WALL*E warns us against—has stolen its own criticism from our mouths. And we’re buying it back.



Friday Night Flicks

So I’ve been away for awhile, as the paucity of posts indicates. To get back on the horse, I’m starting a new (hopefully) weekly feature showing film scenes that make me buzz.

To kick it off, here’s (fittingly) Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944), the greatest film noir ever produced, with the creative holy trinity of Billy Wilder (director), James M. Cain (author of original novel) and Raymond Chandler (adaptive screenwriter).

This scene also includes some of the tightest dialogue ever written:

Phyllis: Mr. Neff, why don’t you drop by tomorrow evening about eight-thirty. He’ll be in then.
Walter Neff: Who?
Phyllis: My husband. You were anxious to talk to him weren’t you?
Walter Neff: Yeah, I was, but I’m sort of getting over the idea, if you know what I mean.
Phyllis: There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Forty-five miles an hour.
Walter Neff: How fast was I going, officer?
Phyllis: I’d say around ninety.
Walter Neff: Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.
Phyllis: Suppose I let you off with a warning this time.
Walter Neff: Suppose it doesn’t take.
Phyllis: Suppose I have to whack you over the knuckles.
Walter Neff: Suppose I bust out crying and put my head on your shoulder.
Phyllis: Suppose you try putting it on my husband’s shoulder.
Walter Neff: That tears it.

Enjoy.