Jul 16, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

More “Wall-E” bashing!

Ben Crair in the New Republic lashes out at the poor abused creature, but he’s not following the conservative line. His thesis:

The film is indeed charming and as visually stunning as its enthusiasts claim, but WALL-E‘s conservative critics are right to identify a problem with its message. Unfortunately, they’ve misdiagnosed it. There’s nothing wrong with the film’s anti-corporatism, which is just a variation of the anti-totalitarianism that’s requisite to the genre. More troublesome is the film’s complicity in the commodified culture it ostensibly critiques. This isn’t about Disney, whose external merchandise and marketing are extraneous to the film’s artistic vision. Within the movie itself, WALL-E betrays its true corporate overlord, and it isn’t Mickey. It’s Apple.

Crair sites any number of Apple references in the film to buttress his point. (Eve sort of looks like an iPod, for example. His conclusion:

A movie about the triumph of authenticity over artificiality shouldn’t also be an exercise in brand identification.

Jul 11, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

Beating up on “Wall-E”

Slate’s Daniel Engber takes a whack, arguing that the film’s equation of overweight Americans with global destruction is incorrect:

The desire to link obesity and environmental collapse seems to have more to do with politics than science.

I suppose he makes his case, but it’s tangential to the film, I think. It’s a little willful to read the movie necessarily saying that overweight people cause environmental problems. Indeed, some people have said that Hitsville’s contention that the movie is a broadside on American food consumption is wrong because the people on the spaceship have become blobs only in their exile.

Two, I think he’s underappreciating how unusual the bluntness of the societal critiques in the film are. Taken individually, it’s hard to argue with the points. Americans are overweight. Companies do foist unnecessary trash on the culture and don’t take responsibility (or have not been forced to take responsibility) for, more obviously, the recycling of dangerous materials. (They also exercise political muscle to squelch social attempts to make them.) The film is careful to make plain both sides are complicit.

And G-rated movies are, as a rule, a little more … sympathetic to the concerns of large companies, I think it’s fair to say. I don’t agree with all of Pixar’s critiques. The Incredibles, for example, had a preposterous (and fairly right-wing) framing trope*. But it’s hard to gainsay what Pixar pulled off in this instance.

p.s. And anyway, Hitsville’s main concern isn’t with the film at all. It’s that critics didn’t bother to consider the political implications of its tropes. 

p.p.s. Engber ends his piece with this poignant scene:

What happens when the movie ends and the lights come up? Does the rest of the audience stare at the lone fatty as she waddles her way toward the theater doors? Do they see in her body a validation of the film’s “darker implications”—a signpost for what we might become if we don’t change our ways? Or do they just scowl at her, convinced that she’s part of the problem?

I would like to note again that this is a somewhat sensitive issue and repeat what I’ve said in previous posts: That I don’t want to make individual judgments about folks’ lifestyles. That said, the picture Engber presents in that graf is a bigger carton that Wall-E is. We’re not talking about a “lone” person. Wall-E‘s ferocity comes from the way it essentially holds a mirror up to its audience.

* If I remember correctly, Father Incredible is driven out of the superhero business in the face of lawsuits stemming from one of his heroic rescues. You can read this is a clever sendup of the nonsensicality of the plotting in the superhero genre generally, but it has a far greater resonance in terms of the right-wing talking points about abuses of the legal system.

—————

Previously in Hitsville:

The “Wall-E” debate continues: The far right attacks!

The critical conundrum of “Wall-E” 

What if Pixar released a ferocious broadside attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn’t notice? 

Jul 03, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

The “Wall-E” debate continues: The far right attacks!

wall-e posterWall-E is now officially a political football, with conservatives attacking it for it the premises of its environmental messages.

Patrick Henry Press News aggregates some of the commentary. (Link via Hollywood Elsewhere); Dan Abrams, on MSNBC, had a segment the other night on it as well.

The objections seem to be that the film portrays humans as having been responsible for filling the earth with trash. (Glenn Beck, waxing sarcastic: “I can’t wait to teach my kids how we have destroyed the earth.”) The Washington Times goes farther:

[…S]uffice to say the film treats our capitalist system as the Earth’s ultimate sin.

On balance, the attacks strike me as legitimate; the film is a polemic, about a Wal-Mart-like company that fills the earth with trash and then takes the remainder of the human race on board a flying spaceship, on which it induces them to lie back and watch videos and grow ever fatter. There’s nothing wrong with criticizing a film whose political premises you disagree with.

The Abrams show, however, was more interesting. He was ridiculing what he called the “paramoid far right” for their criticisms, but he was doing it on the basis that it was crazy to accuse a family movie of having such themes: “This is a movie, primarily about a robot in love, seven centuries from now,” he said incredulously.

You can watch the video from a link on this page; look for the link, “Wall-E’s hidden agenda?”

Abrams, like the critics I wrote about in my two previous posts, is part of the degraded middlebrow majority who would do anything to pretend that art doesn’t mean anything, in between decrying how culture today isn’t like the good old days.

—————

Previously in Hitsville:

The critical conundrum of “Wall-E” 

What if Pixar released a ferocious broadside attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn’t notice? 

Jul 01, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

The critical conundrum of “Wall-E”

wall-e posterLots of comments on and criticism of Hitsville’s post on how most mainstream (which is to say, hard-copy) film reviewers didn’t pay much attention to the social politics of Wall-E, the latest Pixar film.

(What if Pixar released a ferocious broadside attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn’t notice?)

Comments here. Observations:

1) I noted that a few serious reviewers did mention, for example, the tableaux of human corpulence in the last half of the film. (n.b.: Here as before, I want to disassociate myself from making fun of overweight folks per se; but I think it’s fair for social commentators to take the issue on without being judgmental in the individual sense.) (n.b.b.: This does not apply to SUV drivers, however.) Sean O’Connell comments that I missed this comment from Variety:

“One can’t help but speculate about the perverse prospect of plus-sized multiplexers laughing while digging into their popcorn and slurping their sodas.”

That insight is a testament to the overall quality of Variety’s reviews, but it still qualifies as little more than a passing mention. As I responded in one of my comments, we hear constantly about the degradation of culture these days. But here’s a case where a work of pop culture is built around a transparently discernible social broadside of no little irony. More reviews should have taken explicit note of it—specifically (as the NYT and Variety but not too many others did, and again I’m talking here about mainstream print reviewers, not bloggers) the fact that the future didn’t look too much different from a typical movie-theater crowd.

2) Anne Thompson in her Risky Business blog has this to say:

Meanwhile, Hitsville runs down various critics who are are avoiding dealing with what happens to the human race in Wall-E. Bill Wyman seems to be missing the fact that some critics decided to keep back some of the reveals in the last part of the movie. What happens to humans in Wall-E was a big surprise when I saw the movie; I didn’t know that part of the story, so I was delighted and amazed by much of what I was seeing.

O’Connell makes a point similar to Thompson’s:

Consider this. Maybe critics were protecting some of the film’s second-half secrets? Virtually all of WALL-E’s promo material (trailers, commercials, etc.) reveal the scorched-Earth first act. Because the social commentary arrived once on the Axiom, maybe some critics wanted to leave a lot of that to be discovered by opening-week audiences?

I’m sure more articles will surface with deeper discussions of Pixar’s political and social statements in WALL-E. I, for one, didn’t want to let too many cats out of this overstuffed bag. I wonder if others writing about the film felt the same way.

(He’s referring to his review of Wall-E at filmcritic.com, which is here.)

That’s a fair point but it also is a bit convenient. (“I didn’t want to really get into all the prison stuff in The Gulag Archipelago because it gave away too much of the plot.”) It’s a reviewer’s job to take on the meaning of the film. I’m more radical about this than most people; critics should have something interesting to say and the chops to say it with, and that is where their responsibilities to audience or artist end.

Sometimes criticism involves discussing the plot in detail, and the internets spoiler police can bite me.

I’d argue, though, that the phenomenon I discuss in my original post hasn’t really anything to do with this. Many reviewers mentioned the portrayal of humanity; they just didn’t bother to take five seconds to think about it or engage with the ideas (too much of the time critics make references to “themes” or “ideas” in films and then never explain what they are), or if they did they didn’t want to make their audience uncomfortable.

3) O’Connell and Thompson are seconded, with vigor, by Lou Lumenick, film critic of the NY Post:

What a self-serving crock. Any careful check would reveal lots of critics, including me, who didn’t “ignore” the fat people/Wall-Mart angle. Anyone who suggests this should have been in the lead in reviews in mainstream papers doesn’t understand the function of movie reviews.

I didn’t give the Post the time of day in my original survey of the reviews, which was a mistake; Lumenick, in his take in the paper, stresses the film’s dark side as few other daily critics did:

Every time I think the studio that gave us “The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille” can’t possibly top itself, Pixar comes up with a masterpiece like “WALL-E,” which smuggles barbed political satire into a charming, hilarious robot love story aimed at the entire family.

Arguably the darkest animated feature ever released by Disney (after “Pinocchio”) and certainly the most political, “WALL-E” presents a bleak and brilliantly detailed vision of the future that puts most post-apocalyptic live-action movies to shame.

Later he takes on the implications of the film’s message as well:

This is a hugely ambitious theme for a G-rated family flick, and “WALL-E” takes risks that must have given Pixar’s consumer-oriented corporate overlords at Disney pause.

Foremost is a Swiftian take on the future of the Wal-Mart nation (no, I don’t think the movie’s title is a coincidence), where everyone has grown hugely fat and lazy, literally unable to walk as they pass their days in a semi-catatonic state at a resort/shopping mall aboard the spaceship.

(He’s also the only critic I noticed who forwent the clumsy Chaplin comparisons of Wall-E’s first forty or so minutes for the much-more-revealing reference to Tati, whose balletic and blithe wordless choreographies are the obvious inspiration for Andrew Stanton’s in Wall-E.)

4) Still, I stand by my original point: Wall-E will be remembered for a caustic worldview the implications of which few of the first-line mainstream reviewers addressed. It should have been in the ledes. Finally, I think this is true as well: If, for whatever reason, Pixar had decided to base its publicity campaign around the social satire issues in Wall-E—if the EPKs and junkets had featured Stanton ruminating on the themes of the film—it would have been in the lede of every review.

Jun 30, 2008
Posted by: Hitsville

What if Pixar released a ferocious broadside attacking the American way of life and the movie reviewers didn’t notice?

wall-e posterIf Michael Moore, or Oliver Stone, or, God forbid, some effete French director, had crafted a feature film that was a thinly disguised political broadside portraying Americans as recumbent tubbos who moved around on sliding barcaloungers with built-in video screens and soft drinks always at the ready, don’t you think there’d be some sort of notice taken?

But Pixar does it and …

… the reviewers barely mention it. The new Pixar film, Wall-E, does indeed, as you have heard, tell the story of an adorable robot working alone on a depopulated earth. There’s an obvious ecological lesson here, and this has been duly noted, along with mentions of unspecified “themes” and “messages.”

But what was rarely analyzed in the reviews is that the earth is deserted because a Wal-Mart-like company called “Buy n’ Large” has filled it up with trash, and the departed humans, expanded to Big Gulp size, are contentedly gorging themselves amid the comforts of a flying Club Med, where they slide around on those carts, on which they watch TV continuously without even having to sit up completely. While some of the better reviewers mention the beglotted humanoid forms, I found it odd that most mainstream reviewers didn’t bother to point out what the film was saying.

I’m no film theorist, but I think what director Andrew Stanton is trying to tell us is that we humans eat so much and limit our movements to such a degree that we will soon become immobile whales unable to focus past the video screens permanently affixed in front of our field of vision.

(And not subtextually, either; as my friend Michael Sragow says about such obvious material in films, “It’s not subtext. It’s text text.”) What what are those wide-bottomed, view-screen laden SUV’s that cog our highways these days but early versions of the portly trams of Wall-E? I don’t want to be judgmental about people’s lifestyles, but it’s hard to look at the rotund, popcorn-barrel-toting silhouettes in a typical suburban movieplex and not notice that Stanton’s vision of the future isn’t all that exaggerated.*

The Hollywood Reporter doesn’t even mention the human sequences**.

Entertainment Weekly breaks the news gently and doesn’t discuss the implications***:

WALL-E himself is the movie’s mascot and unlikely hero; it’s up to him to save a spacebound colony of humans who’ve ”evolved” into hilariously infantile technology-junkie couch potatoes. Yet even as the movie turns pointedly, and resonantly, satirical, it never loses its heart.

Roger Ebert, too, goes easy on the bad news:

We meet a Hoverchair family, so known because aboard ship they get around in comfy chairs that hover over surfaces and whisk them about effortlessly. They’re all as fat as Susie’s aunt.

This is not entirely their fault, since generations in the low-gravity world aboard the Axiom have evolved humanity into a race whose members resemble those folks you see whizzing around Wal-Mart in their electric shopping carts.

Claudio Puig in USA Today mentions the engorged humans, but doesn’t make the obvous connection.

Joe Morgenstern in the WSJ mentions the trope in passing late in his review:

But I will tell you that humankind’s evolution, as foretold by Mr. Stanton and his colleagues, is a blissfully inspired reductio ad absurdum—or more accurately inflatio ad absurdum—of the ethos of consumption that now sustains the economies of prosperous nations.

Ken Turan tangentially mentions the humanoids. He’s better on the corporate angle:

Not to put too fine a point on it, our planet is a disaster, a bleak and disheartening ruin where every available surface is covered by towering skyscrapers of trash. It got so bad that Buy n’ Large, the conglomerate that has somehow taken charge of the planet, leaned on the entire human population to leave with a “space is the final fun-tier” campaign that featured slogans such as, “Too much garbage in your face? There’s plenty of space out in space.”

The only mainstream review I saw that made the obvious point (emphasis added) was A.O. Scott in the NYT:

Rather than turn a tale of environmental cataclysm into a scolding, self-satisfied lecture, Mr. Stanton shows his awareness of the contradictions inherent in using the medium of popular cinema to advance a critique of corporate consumer culture. The residents of the space station, accustomed to being tended by industrious robots, have grown to resemble giant babies, with soft faces, rounded torsos and stubby, weak limbs. Consumer capitalism, anticipating every possible need and swaddling its subjects in convenience, is an infantilizing force. But as they cruise around on reclining chairs, eyes fixed on video screens, taking in calories from straws sticking out of giant cups, these overgrown space babies also look like moviegoers at a multiplex.

They’re us, in other words. And like us, they’re not all bad. The paradox at the heart of “Wall-E” is that the drive to invent new things and improve the old ones—to buy and sell and make and collect—creates the potential for disaster and also the possible path away from it. Or, put another way, some of the same impulses that fill the world of “Wall-E”—our world—with junk can also fill it with art.

I disagree with his point, but it’s his perogative to make it. But why was he the only reviewer to take the film’s message at face value and address it head on?

————-

* Compare, for example, the trenchant comments of Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells: “I understand the impulse on the part of director Andrew Stanton to call it a robot love story and leave it at that, but it’s a lie, of course—a disinforming of pig-trough moviegoers who might think twice about going to a ‘green’ movie that satirizes their lie-around, fat-ass lifestyle.”

** The standards of the Hollywood Reporter, incidentally, seem to be declining week to week. The review of Wall-E, by Kirk Hunnycut, is a piece of utterly mundane writing and doesn’t appear to have been edited. This is the review’s second graf:

The film is so clever and sophisticated that you worry, slightly, that it might be too clever to connect with mainstream audiences. But like those worries last year that having a rat for a hero in “Ratatouille” might throw off audiences, surely “WALL-E” will make that connection. It’s so sweet and funny that the multitudes undoubtedly will surrender to its many charms.

*** Owen Gleiberman in EW, incidentally, finally goes completely off his rocker into Spielberg lapdogism:

For a while, WALL-E is nearly wordless, and the director, Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), stages the early scenes with a gentle, unhurried mystery that is unabashedly Spielbergian.

Yeah, the beginning of Wall-E is a lot like the beginning of War of the Worlds: Outside of the fact that the former is deeply moving, cinematically poetic, daringly political, gracefully imagined, and executed with such taste and grace it makes you want to cry, and the latter is a loud, heavy-handed, mind-numbing, senselessly plotted crapload of thuddingly unsubtle filmmaking mechanics, they are very similar.