Understanding Jacques Ellul, by Greenman, Schuchardt, and Toly, will be of special interest to Metaphilm readers as Jacques Ellul understood cinema as one of the chief tools of propaganda used by the state to distract the masses from that which matters.
Monday, November 29, 2004
Red Flag on Incredibles Politics?
Gene Seymour at Newsday has a good but not great commentary on interpretations and The Incredibles in particular (NY Newsday, 21 Nov 2004). While it’s not quite on target, he raises a good point and asks a good question. The question: “The Incredibles reflects such ambivalence to the point that you could project whatever politics you have onto its thematic template. Only why would you bother? Why isn’t it enough for an animated feature to be well-written, engrossing and imaginative? Is it because grown-ups feel so guilty about enjoying feature-length animation for its own sake that they have to grasp at socio-cultural straws?”
He has no answer, but amusingly, he offers his own interpretation of the film as he tells others to stop doing so. This ironically illustrates his observation, which is that director Brad Bird is a Boomer and subject to several self-contradictory tendencies. Consider it a subliminal hat tip to David Brooks because the implication is that Bird is a Bobo, a member of the elite that pretends it’s not the elite.
The real answer to his “why bother” question is that, while enjoyment is certainly an important, even essential, component in our response to art, interpretation is simply human nature—not to mention fun. Art that has no connection to life is boring, as A. O. Scott’s conclusion about the vapid Polar Express reminds us: “afterward there was not much to talk about, and the urge to talk about the movie is something . . . that grownups and children tend to share.” But Scott and his family are talking about The Incredibles (New York Times, 26 Nov 2004). Think of it like the difference between Star Wars and Superstar.
Metaphor (and story) is a primary way we try to make sense of the world. Don’t knock it. Particularly as you’re trying it. Seymour’s flag is a bad call.
Monday, November 22, 2004
The Monitor has a fascinating and frustrating piece on interpretation of recent films, notably The Incredibles and The Polar Express. It does at least make mention of the prevalence of alternative and competing readings of these features. But there’s a hole in the story. Take its quote on The Incredibles from Mikita Brottman, literature professor at Maryland Institute College of Art: “I can’t help thinking of [philosopher Friedrich] Nietzsche . . . The movie salutes Superman, . . . Not the ‘superman’ in comic books but the one despots believe in. Its idea seems to be that even in a democracy some people are ‘more equal’ than others, and the rest of us shouldn’t be so presumptuous as to get in their way.”
The dog that isn’t barking here is implied in the professor’s phrase, “I can’t help thinking of.” Well, why not? How does ideology influence the way we interpret what is presented to our senses? Does her reading do justice to the film? Does it help the viewers? Speaking as someone prone to this, the danger of misreading is strong. This quote strongly implies that she dislikes the film, and as George MacDonald says, “To explain to him who loves not, is but to give him the more plentiful material for misinterpretation.” He who has ears, let him hear. (“Villainy! Have politics hijacked ‘toons?”, David Sterritt, The Christian Science Monitor, 19 Nov 2004). Oh, and I don’t think The Incredibles is Randian, either.
Saturday, November 13, 2004
Two Family Movies
Something of a family theme in films of late? On the positive side, we have The Incredibles, yet another Pixar movie that has captured its cultural moment and still manages to appeal to all sides of the cultural divide. Frederica Mathewes-Green has a typically insightful comment: “Most kids’ entertainment is about kids. Pixar movies are about adults. They show children what adults are supposed to do—to be brave and self-sacrificing, to defend children even at risk to themselves, to give even in the face of ingratitude. This is wise because, after all, children aren’t going to remain children.” (National Review).
Then there’s Seed of Chucky, which you wouldn’t think bears comparison, but it’s really not a stretch. The latest member of the horror-doll franchise celebrates family by reveling in its inversion, as creator Don Mancini comments in an interview in the November 8, 2004 Washington Post: “‘So metaphorically, it’s about family discord and domestic abuse,’ explains Mancini, who is saying this with a straight face as he eats his fruit. ‘If you were to do this story with real people it would be disturbing and very sad . . . The fact that they are dolls gives you this distance. It’s really about how a child is screwed up by screwed-up parents, but because they are dolls, it is hysterical. Or at least I hope so.’”
Friday, November 12, 2004
Shaun of the Dead
S. T. Karnick has a great piece on Tech Central Station interpreting the zombie movie and particularly Shaun of the Dead, which we noted a while back. “But as with Romero’s films, the ghoulishness and mayhem have a greater purpose. The mess and tangle in the streets, the violent public behavior, and the frequent sirens don’t set off any alarm bells among the central characters, although we know that these disturbances are all being caused by zombies in their shambling hunt for food. That this level of disorder has become so commonplace in the Britain of today, and that people have become resigned to it, is a highly accurate satirical point.” Ah! but it’s a romantic comedy, and Karnick on this element is worth the read: “Aimed at showing a young couple overcoming numerous barriers to reach wedded bliss and heal the ills of society, the romantic comedy commemorates the triumph of life over death. Thus the conventions of the form fit this zombie story surprisingly well, on both the literal and symbolic levels.”
Thursday, November 11, 2004
Tom Wolfe, Frat House Film Interpreter
About a third of the way into I Am Charlotte Simmons, the new novel by the always-readable Tom Wolfe, I’m getting that deja vu feeling. Not only because “Dupont College” is a thinly veiled Swarthmore College (“in Chester, PA, 40 miles southwest of Philadelphia” is how he locates it, although Dupont has the Big East sports teams aspect that Swarthmore never had), but also because Wolfe is pulling a bit of the old Walker Percy in this one in tone and judgment, and especially in getting metacultural in his Moviegoer-ish film interpretation. Here, for example, is Wolfe’s take on the real meaning of Frat House movies:
“His strong suit was humor, irony, insouciance, and being coolly-gross, Animal House-style. In the American lit classes, they were always talking about The Catcher In The Rye, but Holden Caulfield was a whining, neurotic wuss. For his, Hoyt’s generation it was Animal House. He must have watched it ten times himself . . . The part where Belushi smacks his cheeks and says, ‘I’m a zit’ . . . awesome . . . and Dumb and Dumber and Swingers and Tommy Boy and The Usual Suspects, Old School . . . He’d loved those movies. He’d laughed his head off . . . gross, coolly gross . . . but did anybody else in this [frat] house get the serious point that made all that so awesome? Probably not. It was actually all about being a man in the age of the wuss.”
Tuesday, November 02, 2004
As our U.S. readers head for the polls (hint, hint), here’s a nice film-related piece in the Washington Post’s Style section that has a pretty comprehensive description of the agitprop documentaries and pseudo-documentaries out there trying to shape your opinion. News flash: they all flopped commercially. Why? Could it be that most are just bad films? (The article notes that two of the twenty-or-so seem actually to be good, cinematically.) Of course, we at Metaphilm are not suspicious of them because self-interpreting cinema threatens our avocation and would take most of the fun out of life. No, really. Bad films are boring.
At least we’re getting something approaching truth in advertising: “Says Michael Paradies Shoob, director of Bush’s Brain, which portrays Karl Rove as a scary puppet master: ‘The pose in the documentary world used to be, we’re filmmakers and we’re not out to change the political landscape. But Michael Moore unmasked us. We are out to change the political landscape.’” Are they any more effective than a bumper sticker? We’ll see. Hopefully soon.