Thursday, 22 September 2011

Toy Story 3

Saying how you think a film could be improved isn't arrogant or disrespectful. People are more comfortable with 'it's too sentimental' or 'it's too long' than 'it should be less sentimental' and 'I would make it shorter'. If you have judgement then you should be constructive and offer an alternative vision.

The basic story of Toy Story 3 - a child grows up and goes to university; what will happen to his toys? - is a good one. There are a number of things you can do with this premise.

Toy Story 3 takes the first step towards something interesting and enriching  just as the first step of Up, the home lifted from the ground by a cloud of balloons, offered so much promise. Would we see challenging things for children, new things, truly breathless things? No. We see not much more than shortcuts to the surface of emotion, to a sadness and a reflection that dries out as quickly as the tears.

Firstly, I think that it's a shame that neither Andy nor Bonnie, to whom he gives his toys at the end, ever discover that the toys are alive. How would they treat them? How would the toys act? Given that the toys are meant to be representations of people or at least types of people, then the revelation that they are alive would open up a raft of possibilities. Could they ever be disposed of or left lying around? What of their individualism, seeing as there are, for example, "100 million just like" Barbie? If Andy knew about the toys the story would become one about the responsibilities that come with being an adult. It wouldn't be just about moving on or leaving childish things behind. The themes we are given are rigged. We know he won't take his toys to university.

A third film should give creators some leeway to try new variations once the basis of the story has been established - to improvise on the foundational chords of the first two. Trilogies tend to either return to a starting point, with new light shed upon an old order, or opened to a new future and a new order.

Each Toy Story film is essentially the same as the last – the toys are separated from Andy. Toy Story 3 ends differently but with the beginning of the same story : Andy is reincarnated as Bonnie. “To infinity and beyond”, toys never die. Will these miniature Peter Pans really go through these upheavals of death and renewal for eternity? They never really grow up.

Interesting avenues again briefly appear...

Dragged towards a hellish furnace on a pile of trash, the toys look to their erstwhile enemy Lotso to help them. He climbs to the button, saying he wants to stop the machinery, and then runs away leaving them to their fate with the words : "Where's your kid now, Sheriff?"

It sounds like 'Where's your God now?'

Earlier Lotso, "the evil bear who smells of strawberries", shouted : "Think you're special? You're a piece of plastic, you were made to be thrown away".

What if he had said 'You're flesh and blood, you were made to die'?

These troubling ideas (too troubling for children if laid out in the open quite so clearly) and incidents end up going nowhere as the film returns to the antiseptic world (no insects, or dust) of being played with. Their minds are not opened by danger, by exposure to new ways of living, or by the bonds they make with each other. All the toys want is to be part of someone else's story, such as the opening chase over a crumbling railway bridge. They are happiest when floppy and submissive. Mrs Potato Head “deserve[s] respect”, she says, because she has “over 30 accessories” and not because she is a living thing independent of her owner. The toys do not mature. They don't even look scratched or beaten up with age (which would help put across how time makes them obsolete). I suppose, as a throwaway joke, it is funny to hear a toy say that it improvises its role, but it is also sad. They wear the same expression as they are flung about, made and forced to smile. And they like it.

Toy Story 3's 'darkness' (Lotso's prison camps, destruction by fire) is nihilistic. Critics have said it is an allegory for Communism or Socialism or even the Holocaust. Does it make the film more worthwhile if you can constipate out a link between its simple story of bullying, control and violence to something else more 'adult' or 'intellectual' or politically significant? There are no specifics in the film that justify these parallels, let alone illuminate the story through them.

Nothing comes of the darkness. It is only there to scare and terrify kids. It is a black hole. It isn't mitigated by imagination or transfigured by the good of the characters or of the world.*

*   *   *

What would have been interesting in a story about people growing up is if, just as Andy realises that he can live without his mother, the toys realise that they can live without Andy (or any humans at all for that matter). What if he had gone to his box of toys at the end and they weren't there? What if they had taken the same step into adulthood?

I understand that they are toys with a toy outlook (and it is admirable that they are a little more than stand-ins for people) but, when so human in other respects (and we are invited to empathise with them), their actions seem eternally childlike, their existence depressing and their minds stuck on original factory setting. If they are to stay on this smiley treadmill, the film would need to be changed quite significantly to properly grasp at all this would or could entail.

It is charming that Chuckles the toy clown has a tag from her owner that reads “My heart belongs to Daisy” but it appears that it actually does. The toys cannot just be. They are unable to form a proper family together, one that gives them meaning and security, not without the benevolent Parent / Guardian / Owner / Friend / Companion / God above. All this is a little abstract for young children. There is nothing that they can relate to, from the toys point of view, as they grow up.

This would work better if the toys were more literally 'given life' by their owners. It would work better if a good owner had good toys and a bad one bad toys (touching on nature / nurture) but bully Sid in Toy Story's nightmarish toys turn out to be perfectly friendly. The fact that the toys are more than what they were made to be makes it even more disappointing that the protagonist toys are not allowed to make a break of their own into the adult world.

Although the toys are saddened that Andy may not want them any more, they are never angry at him. Their loyalty is almost perfect. They wish for the joy, enlightenment and fulfilment that comes from being played with. They never truly turn against him.

It reminds me of Martin Scorsese's The Last Temptation of Christ. Jesus has profound doubts about whether he is the son of God and about what God may want from him. He rails at God but never, not once, doubts that he exists. It is those hard yards, much like the ones avoided in Toy Story 3 (turning against Andy or Andy realising that they are alive), that would have made the narrative stronger and deeper. Where is that lack of faith and certainty that one would expect? Will they reject their Gods for a life of self-made fresh-grown morality? The little green aliens end up controlling the claw that they worship but can't make anything of this discovery of the mechanics of the world.

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In Up the antagonist Muntz fell to his death from a Zeppelin. In Wall E human beings were polluting, obese babies. In Cars the fundamentals of the human character were depicted in the automobiles – farting. Toy Story 3 continues the trend of mean-spiritedness. For a second or two it looked as if Lotso was going to help the toys and turn over a new leaf. Instead, despite being told that his former owner replaced him (the start of his bitterness) precisely because she loved him and missed him, and despite being saved by Woody from the trash compactor the film would not let him be good. Evil cannot be transformed. In fact irredeemable Evil exists, children, and deserves to be tied to the front of a truck for flies to splatter into him for the rest of his life (which is neverending, don't forget). Stuff the stuffed bully.

Why? What if Andy had taken Lotso to College? It's a thought.

What I did enjoy, in Toy Story 3, how children like Bonnie are seen as givers of meaning, as nurturing, as magical (the way she strokes Jessie's cheek when she receives her). It is a shame that that goodliness was not extended to everyone or everything. A film doesn't need a message or a moral (and, yes, destruction can be fun) but does it need a negative one? Defeating evil is one thing, but revelling in your victory with schadenfreude is quite another. Who knows what the film-makers meant but this element of the story leaves a sour taste.

I enjoyed how Mrs Potato Head could leave her eye somewhere else and still see through it remotely. I enjoyed how Mr Potato Head could stay alive, his mind and soul somehow intact, with his eyes ears and mouth embedded in a tortilla. The latter is perhaps the only flash of imagination, of something that makes you giggle or sends shivers down the spine.

I have always thought that Pixar's films, and many of the new breed of animated films, are schizophrenic. Half the film is aimed over children's heads at the adults who they know are accompanying them. The other half is the simplest and most banal 'kids' stuff' whose progression can be guessed after five minutes. At times, parents and their children are watching two separate films. What is wrong with a children's film for children? Why do we need any innuendo, or meaningless pop cultural shout-outs, or tedious and strange riffs on Ken's 'girliness'? Something can be wholesome without being safe.

A good story for children is a good story for anyone : Aesop, Roald Dahl, Kipling, C.S.Lewis...I think of animated films like the Danish animation Valhalla or America's own Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs or anything from Studio Ghibli. They are fun and clever, excting and enthralling for children and adults on the same level.

Toy Story 3 isn't fun or funny. I think that the gags are too obvious. What is most disappointing is how predictable it is. Once a ball is set rolling down a hill, you can never predict exactly where it will go. But Pixar can. Once the story starts it is only ever going in one direction...

*In a way the hands of the film-makers' are tied, as they cannot fully follow through on all the implications of life and death that occur to us because we are in a children's film. We are just left with unnecessary dread.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

A Fearful America : Heroes and The Village

Claire Bennett climbs to the top of a Ferris wheel. At this moment our eyes, the eyes of the world, television cameras following her into the night sky, are fixed on one young woman. She isn't hiding herself away any longer, nor any part of what makes her uniquely her.

Is this desperation or is it hope? What did she mean by "people never change"? Does she think that she (and other 'specials' like her) can live in the open as part of a harmonious society?

Standing on top of the wheel as if on top of the world, she spreads out her arms and jumps. She hasn't given up on us. She has taken a giant leap for mankind.

The question: will they, will we, welcome her? And so Heroes ends on a note of ferocious optimism.

M Night Shyamalan's The Village tells of a place isolated from the world, set back from modern civilisation. Its elders have been caused great pain and grief by society, the society they once lived in, a society such as we might recognise. Their hearts were blackened by the "towns". Out of fear they have forged a village in which to "protect innocence" and with which to shield the young from suffering. In an effort to keep their children safe, they recount tales of deadly monsters who lurk in the woods that separate their new home from the towns.

One day one of the younger villagers, Lucius, falls ill and Ivy, who is to be his wife, travels through the woods to the towns to get medicine. She is blind. Beyond the boundary of the village and beyond the woods, she meets a man from the towns and she is shocked to find "kindness" in his voice.

When she returns to Lucius' bedside has she brought hope back with her? Can she conquer the fear of those who have only mourning, a hardening void, to comfort them? Could she lead them out to a communion with the world?

In Heroes and The Village an older generation controls how a younger generation experiences the world. They attempt to keep them from dangers, and jealously guard secrets that maintain illusions. They both concern responsibility and power - the power of special abilities, the power of being a parent and the responsibilities that come with both. They show how a genuine concern becomes a constricting possessiveness as damaging (in Heroes children are experimented on, given injections of a formula meant to give powers) as that very influence which they seek to protect their charges from.

They keep them fragile, using fear, perpetuating fear, saplings with weak roots.

Earth-mover Samuel, the embittered visionary of Heroes' Season 4, gathers 'specials' in a travelling circus. In a place of eccentricity and easy deceit where they can hide in plain sight. He has created a temporary America within America, one such as it is, or was, meant to be. Almost every tent-pole and archway is decorated with American flags. His brood of misfits and foreigners, recalls the nations who first came in the hope of forming a cohesive new world. He talks of founding a "homeland", a word nowadays followed by "security", the double-edged sword of safety and fear.

Edward Walker, founder and chief elder of The Village's community, has likewise forged an America within America and set it in a late 19th Century whose values and behavioural conventions he believes offer a healthier template for living.

Samuel and Edward have retreated from harsh reality to comfort in the shape of a(n older) narrative - gifted circus performers and selfless villagers in a benign and gay 19th Century that may never have existed.

However, whereas Edward and the men and women who have collaborated in his project want to be utterly isolated, Samuel plans to burst out of this artificial womb. He ultimately wants to use fear against the world, to bend it to his will, rather than lord it over a huddled, cowered and benumbed micro-empire. He wants to show his powers and, by revealing what he and they can do, force acceptance, and the opportunity for life, liberty and the fruits of labour, through fear.

 Two Ways of Facing Fear - Edward Walker and Samuel

Claire is different. When she exposes herself and her kind, in those last moments of the series, it is not with a threat but a prostration (she lands face first). Her subsequent stare into the camera (see end), and into the homes of potentially millions of Americans, is part challenge, part act of humility.

*         *         *

How real are the dangers they fear? Can fear be quantified and weighed for rationality?

The elders of The Village reacted to real murders that afflicted their families. Near the end of the film, in the office of a modern man, we hear a news bulletin about the death of a young girl in America and the loss of soldiers in Afghanistan.

Isolationist or interventionist?

Crucially, this is not a representation of the world, from the Director's or our point of view, that is skewed to the negative. This is what the world is like. People are killed and the villagers are the usually unseen victims, the 'collateral damage' of these atrocities. They are trying to withdraw to the fiction with which, in the eyes of the masses, the distant and unknown victim is glazed.

You are either personally affected by these horrors (1) or you are not (0). On or off.

The fear they teach to the younger members of their community is all-encompassing - fear the creatures, fear the woods, fear people - and no less real to them for being half-based in fiction. It is apt that where make-believe stands in for fact (or grows from it - the elders talk of rumours of creatures that were the basis for the full-grown horrors they visit on the young), the naive and brave Lucius will conclude a plea to go into the woods with "The End". This fictionalising could be their route to salvation outside the village, too, as the mind of a young person is receptive to the magical and transformative nature of fantasy.

The people of Heroes face the very real and constant threat of murderous ability-collector Sylar. In Season 3 the threat is wider still, as they are hunted and rounded up (orange jumpsuits, detained without charge, flown abroad - all echoes of Guantanamo Bay) by the Government. Noah, Claire's father, knows about the cruel and brutal experimentation undertaken on Elle (who can create electricity) by her own father. The 'specials' and their families know too of potential or embryonic futures (that involve 'specials' being driven underground, war and quasi-apocalyptic destruction) witnessed and reported by time travellers Peter and Hiro.

However, how a normal person in a position to shun or embrace someone different to themselves, would react to a 'special' in their midst is unknown. The heroes will occasionally show an individual what they can do, when it is absolutely necessary, and the thrill and danger they derive from this may be extrapolated to the ecstasy and dread they might feel if their secrets were blown onto the wind once and for all.

The authorities in Heroes are fearful too, especially in the light of Sylar's killing spree. They seek to hide specials away in prisons or, in one future, cure their 'mutations' with injections. These authorities are led (The Company, Pinehearst), or encouraged into action (the Government in Season 3), by 'specials' themselves who see first-hand what a cornered individual of this kind is capable of. These institutions become increasingly destructive as fear and self-loathing feed each other.

Those working for the Government, made aware of 'dangerous' specials by another of their 'kind', Nathan Petrelli, manipulate them as patsies, as false-flags to rally support for more stringent actions against what they paint to their superiors as terrorists. Matt Parkman (who can read minds) is drugged and sent out into Washington with a bomb strapped to him. The chains of imprisoned Tracy Strauss, who is able to freeze objects, are loosened so that she will escape and cause untold, and convenient, damage.

In The Village Ivy, as she is about to journey to the towns, is made aware that the creatures are only men in costume. When she is subsequently stalked by Noah (a simpleton apparently driven to insanity by his knowledge of the "farce") now dressed as the monster, her testimony give the elders a chance to perpetuate the myth and to bolster the boundaries of the village.

These are the tactics - exaggeration, opportunism and borderline falsity - that some in America and beyond have suspected their governments guilty of using to gain backing against terror, through terror. That of course is the whole set-up of the village - a fake ring of danger against a larger danger beyond. Again, this fiction embellishing and strengthening fact. A bete noire, a pacifier, the double-edged sword.

Excuses and Fear used against Fear:
Matt Parkman primed to explode (above)
Noah dressed as a Creature

Sometimes those in power are the terrorists themselves. In Heroes Linderman advocates the use of a nuclear explosion in New York City to bring people together in "a united sense of hope couched in a united sense of fear".

Fear coming from actual experience can grow larger upon closer scrutiny by grief and hate like the shadow of a menacing shape lit closer and closer. It is fuelled by ignorance, by lack of confidence and by pessimism. The village, the circus, are magnifying glasses to the rays of fear.

Perhaps one could reduce it all to age or to the battle between optimism and pessimism. The older generation of Heroes and The Village have either strayed from the straight path or wilfully abandoned it. They are set in their ways and afraid to live. They cannot imagine a life different to their own. Their experience, their 1 cannot be subtracted or cancelled out. Their fear is ossified.

The village elders demand their children eradicate the colour red from their sight as it attracts the creatures ("those we don't speak of" - a classic occupatio technique). Red is blood. Pain attracts more pain and fear multiplies exponentially.

Those who are immortal or capable of healing in Heroes, who have seen so much suffering, so many lives come and go, the same chronic illnesses of mind and body afflicting mankind, their pessimism transmogrifies into a desperation and misanthropy of a terrifying order. Adam wants to wipe out humanity with a virus and Linderman wants to wipe the slate clean. Only a cataclysm will do. Claire too, herself (if Sylar is to be believed) undying, flirts with militancy and rage in her darkest hours.

And hope? Can these lost souls truly achieve freedom and tolerance?

The curiosity and will to be independent of the young are bedfellows of hope. They want to dig up secrets and to test limits and it is this lust for discovery and truth, for finding out who one is, that is the motor for both narratives. This search will look to shatter the skeleton of fear once and for all.

You see, fear does not imprison children but embolden them. The boys in The Village stand with their backs to the dark woods and see how long they can go before they get too scared. The young here can achieve baby-step victories over fear, dipping their toes into the water until, on the precipice of adulthood, Ivy and Claire will eventually dive in, having conquered their fear of drowning.

The younger they are the more optimistic they seem. Candace, in Heroes, is a woman who can make you see what she wants you to. We are led to believe that she is a fat woman who has been bullied and abused because of her size. She appears to us and the other characters as thin and conventionally pretty. Candace tells Micah, a young boy, that the planned nuclear explosion will "heal the world" to which Micah replies defiantly that he "didn't know it was sick". In The Village Ivy, blind, says "I see the world, just not as you do".

If you are at peace with yourself, your circumstances and your abilities then you may view the world bathed in a forgiving light. This is because the world isn't Us vs Them or the U(nited) S(tates) vs Them, whether them is other races or nations or beliefs or physical attributes. Us is them. Heroes is firmly rooted in this idea. Those who are normally 'them', the odd, the 'specials', are our protagonists, our eyes and ears. They are our heroes.

So, for these people hidden away physically or hidden away within themselves, is the world good or is it bad? That is the pivot upon which their actions swing. What will happen to me when I step out into the world? Will I fall?

In other words, is it a world worth taking a chance on?

If I, Claire, am good and hopeful then the world can be too. If I, Ivy, have trust and love, then the world will move for that love. There are many obstacles for those haunted by loss and those saddled with grudges and insecurities. But life cannot be retreated from. That society you run from will grow around you from under your feet. Out of fear came hope. In The Village a bloodied knife in Lucius' chest forced courage to the fore. In Heroes when baby Claire's house burnt down she needed to be able to heal, and she did. When Becky, hunted by The Company, hid under the bed and didn't want to be found, she turned invisible. When Daphne was struck down by cerebral palsy she was given the gift to run. And faster than the wind.