Monday, July 22, 2013

Ghosts and Machines

One of my favorite party stunts is to corner unsuspecting guests and "explain" the 1980s cult classic Goonies to them. In order to do this, you need to start with One-Eyed Willy, the main synechdoche of whom in the movie is a penis-shaped key that our hero and future Samwise Gamgee finds in his parents' attic, and then carries around with him through the long, dark, moist, weedy and dangerous tunnels that apparently exist under most pacific northwestern small towns. Queue the comically-repressing family of matriarch and mama-whipped sons; queue underground misunderstandings that occasionally end in a kiss. Queue most importantly Sloth, whose forehead is about as phallic as foreheads come outside of the Star Trek universe, and whose homosocial bravura leads to one of the greatest metaphor for pre-teen orgasm ever put to film: a fully rigged Spanish galleon exploding out of the side of a mountain...At which point whomever I'm talking to has probably started inching slowly towards the door.

Jon Negroni's Pixar Theory is superior to mine in every way; it is also different, in that it does not try to find a meaning behind the details, characters and events in the Pixar universe. On the contrary, one of the most fascinating things about Negroni's theory (to me at least) is how it continually, almost perversely resists this drive. In this way it is both perfect, and strangely innocent - like a reading of the New Testament that traces every use of fish imagery, but without asking itself why fish might have mattered to Jesus, or the writer of the New Testament, or even us.

The next logical step for someone delighted by something like this would naturally be to ask "But why?" - except, of course, that the question has already been answered, by the delight. "Only connect," said Forrester; but what was an ethics in the early 20th century becomes, in the 21st, something both more and less. A pragmatics, let's say, meaning a way to do things: connect this to that and you will receive pleasure. And because pleasure is itself an end, don't worry about thinking about why you're doing what you're doing.

God knows this is not a criticism. Okay, that's not true: it is a criticism. Finishing Negroni's article, I found myself scrolling down, down, searching for that last cathartic paragraph that explained why the connectedness of a particular aesthetic world should interest me. Because it reflects and "proves" (the only way art proves anything) the connectedness of the actual world? Or because it shows us how shrewdly Pixar (following, let's see, Marvel, Nintendo, Lucasfilm, and pretty much every other genius popular behemoth of the last twenty years) has learned to manipulate and extend our innately human desire to join discreet entities into superbeings? Or maybe the meaning is "love", which Negroni mentions with an audacity that reminds me of Simone Weil's "The Iliad as a Poem of Force", but which also emits the kitschy sproing of flowers pulled from a magician's hat.

Well, every physics both rejects and implicitly provokes a metaphysics, which is why I find myself thinking above all, as I read this piece, about Negroni's three suggestive categories: monsters, animals, and machines. Suggestive, as in "hey, that's cool that the many different characters that we see in these different movies can really be reduced to three basic categories, which makes me think that the universe is not just ordered but basically understandable. So, by reading about these categories I must be on my way to understanding something, right?"

The German writer Heinrich Kleist has this ur-text about marionettes, much cited but still very useful. It is, to my mind at least, essentially an essay about mastery and innocence - more specifically, about the way that an art that has become bored of its own ability has to then discover or manufacture a new set of limitations, a new way to be bad. In other words, art is not a matter of being objectively awesome of something - it's a matter of creating a theater in which people can watch you going from "no way" to "wow!" - of turning the grass of adversity (reality, as Goethe said, or "That which resists us") into the hay of art. Puppets are great at this, since what we love when we watch a puppet show (or - and here we come to the germane aspect of the article - a cartoon, a piece of artistic technology) is the way that puppeteers make this clumsy little doll remind us of something real - even, if the artist is very good, of ourselves.

Pixar has always been good at this, as you might expect of a company that essentially based its appeal on overcoming something people thought could never be overcome - that is, the limits inherent in using computers (the most artificial tool around) to try and depict the natural world (presumably, the most real thing one can dry and represent). People probably don't remember this, but the question of realism is one that the studio grappled with from its very beginnings. Sure, they could figure things out quickly, but how could machines create a realistic leaf, or more importantly capture that je ne sais quoi of realistic movement that a hand-drawing animator could? The assumption - the dogma, really - was that they couldn't. There was no way. Art was something that only the human hand could make. Reality was our province, ours to imitate and evoke.

Except that, lo and behold, the copying of the real world turned out to be exactly what Pixar was best at. First there was Woody (so close to an actual marionette that the Kleist estate probably should have sued); then water; then Sully's fur; then superheroes; then red hair, and so on. Each movie a Columbus-level rediscovery of reality in this medium that was supposed to be so cold but turned out to be, mysteriously, full of exactly the "love" that Negroni ascribes to it. The power to connect things, in other words, be they monster, animal, or machine - to make them all, essentially, look like us. So that dearest human emotion turns out to be, not generosity, but defense: a desire to domesticate and humanize the strange, inanimate, or bestial world. A desire so powerful that, so far at least, nothing has been able to resist it.

The one exception to this has turned out to be us, of course. Humans are notoriously tricky to make look real - to "render," as the terminology has it. Which is why I think both we and Pixar itself need Negroni's categories. An alibi-seeking species, we disguise our rapacious hunger for reality under myths of the status-quo: the world is all alive, a giant living room, and best of all it loves us back. Love, the Pixar kind of love at least, is beautiful. It is also powerful - so powerful a technology in fact that it can make everything, from the monsters under our bed to a streetlight to an ant, into something that reminds us of ourselves.

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