Saturday, June 28, 2008

Ah, Robot Love

"Some day, there will be college courses devoted to this movie"
--Lou Lumenick, New York Post

What movie? Why, Wall-E, of course. A seeminly innocuous enough film. Not much fanfare upon its release yesterday, considering it's a Disney Pixar flick, most of which seem over-promoted even before their release. In fact, I predict Wall-E won't do quite as well at the box office as its Pixar predecessors, mostly because it doesn't have the same kinetic speed, bright palate, and star voice talent. In fact it's a rather dark and somber film, for a kid's movie.

But I share Lou Lumenick's sentiment about this Masterpiece. I saw it yesterday, and already I want to teach his proposed college course about Wall-E. It is an absurdly amazing movie. Most of the major critics--Salon.com excluded--have also announced their undying love for Wall-E.

How would I teach a class about Wall-E? I'm just brainstorming here. I'd probably spend a week discussing the fundamentals of classical Hollywood storytelling, particularly the tendency for film to be a visual medium. This may seem self-evident, but it's not. If film sound had been developed at the dawn of moviemaking, the movies would be fundamentally different than they are now. Our film "language" owes a great debt to the silent era, much more than it does to theater.

No film I've seen in the last decade exhibits this truth more fundamentally as Wall-E. The actual speaking part of the film only constitute about about an eighth of its run time. The rest is dialogue-less. Certainly not silent, because the sound effects are exquisite and Oscar-worthy (all the more so because you notice them when theres no dialogue to listen to).

I'd spend probably a month of the course going over "post-Classical" "iconographic code," as described by film scholar Noel Carroll in his essay "The Future of Allusion." This is the tendency of contemporary Hollywood movies (that is, post 1960) to make allusions to other films as a shorthand to emotional impact and resonance. Wall-E doesn't need this shorthand, as its emotions are as pure an evocative as you can get, but the movie is a huge treasure trove of iconographic allusions.

This "formal" concern befits its themes, since Wall-E the robot is a collector of humankind's pop-cultural "trash." Weeks could be spent watching all the films to which Wall-E alludes--from the obvious references to Hello, Dolly to the stylistic references to Apocalyptic and Dystopian satricial sci-fi films like Aliens and Westworld. There are numerous allusions to ET and Short Circuit, not to mention Star Wars and Blade Runner and most particularly 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The science fiction angle is only the most obvious, but there are also countless allusions and inspirations drawn from the slapstick silent film comedies of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and that famous French clown whose name I forget. Wall-E himself is a direct descendant of these "sad clown" figures, right down to the design of his binocular eyes.

All this classical storytelling and allusion-making is good enough for a great film, but its ancillary to what makes Wall-E a bona-fide Masterpiece. Part of its genius is the biting satire of human (if not simply American) consumption and big business...

(side note: from a political point of view, I believe we need to be convinced through gradual changes in our culture to avoid the monsters of conspicuous consumption and big business and obesity and all that--or else we deserve to be destroyed by them. This is the basis of the American Experiment, still in progress. Satires like Wall-E sometimes help to instigate such change. What we do not need is to be forced to change by an intrusive government and its meddling policies. That is not the American Experiment. But that's beside the point here, so back to your regularly-scheduled program).

I must admit I was actually shocked at the seriously angry subtext of this film, considering it is a Disney movie (in both senses of the word--made for kids, and the product of big business). Wall-E is all the more powerful for the adult viewer because it is able to show its sharpness even within the confines--because of the confines--of a children's film.

But the satire isn't even the real masterstroke. It's the authenticity and intensity of the movie's emotional impact. I speak specifically of the romance between Eve and Wall-E, already being hailed by more than a handful of critics as one of Film's Greatest Ever. I don't think that assessment is a stretch, really. Part of this is iconographic allusion again: we see in Wall-E a bit of Chaplin's girl-wooing, the aforementioned Hello Dolly dance-courtship motif, even at least one Annie Hall moment (Wall-E the robot bears a resemblance to Woody Allen, via the sad-clown motif and the Allen-esque trope of pairing a strong, noble woman with a fussy slouch of a man).

Eve herself is firmly rooted in the tradition of badass female action heroes like Sigourney Weaver (who lends her voice to Wall-E as a Hal-like ship mainframe computer) even as she is also ET the interterrestrial horticulturist--how's that for intertextuality.

The success of a movie, on any narrative art, depends on its ability to make the audience feel by proxy the emotions the narrative is attempting to evoke, and to convince the audience that those emotions are authentic despite our absolute knowledge that they are indeed artificially manufactured. In Wall-E, the robots, by their very "nature," intensify this problem: we are being asked to feel for two pieces of metal with computer chips inside them. These pieces of metal are not particularly complex: one is a trash compactor with pincers for hands and binoculars for eyes. The other is essentially a bullet-shaped IPod. They can't really speak except to say each other's names, and even then Wall-E can't really say Eve's name correctly (which only adds to the pathos). They are merely objects, cartoon--no acting or dialogue to help us understand and empathize with them. We're not even permitted facial expressions, except the most rudimentary kind.

And yet--and yet--their romance is deeply moving. I'd have to go on for pages, and think a lot more about it, in order to explain why--but the trick is all action. The purest form of visual storytelling, and by God it works. I won't belabor the point, but all of us who are involved in the narrative arts ought to closely analyze this supposed kid's movie in order to understand the mechanics of (E)motional (M)anipulation of the (A)udience, our bread-and-butter and our salvation, no matter how much we want to talk about big ideas, lyrical language, and the like. All these secondary issues work at the service of EMA. The scene with Eve inside Wall-E's trailer/home is worth a few class meeting all by itself.

One of the hardest lessons to teach budding narrative artists is how to evoke emotion with the illusion of authenticity without resorting to sentimentality or obviousness. Of course, it's also the most fundamental skill to get right. There are numerous ways: you can announce the emotion outright ("he was pissed"), also known as "telling." This is the bad way, since it's too forced, and the audience will probably resist. Another way is to use subtext, which works, though it depends on dialogue and the keenness of th audience's analytical abilities. Yet another way is to use gesture and expression ("he narrowed his eyes"), which is pretty much as bad as telling--mainly because almost all gestures and expressions have become cliche, and if they're pushed too hard they can quickly get melodramatic, operatic.

Finally, you have action--the purest and most effective of all. Action doesn't tell, but it insinuates. Actions can be unique, and sometimes even profound. I could go on about this, but I'd rather just say:

go watch Wall-E, and see for yourself.

1 comment:

S. Craig Renfroe, Jr. said...

You have an odd definition of "tiny."