Saturday, June 13, 2009

Flaws in the ointment

Like I said, it's because all of the performances are imperfect. A dense, artistic kind of imperfection stimulates your consciousness, keeps you alert... But listening to the D Major, I can feel the limits of what humans are capable of--that a certain type of perfection can only be realized through a limitless accumulation of the imperfect.

-- Haruki Murakami from Kafka on the Beach

Amanda Marcotte's review of the movie Up at Pandagon includes a slap at Pixar's Cars. I had only recently become aware that Cars was poorly reviewed as far-and-away Pixar's worst film and that a lot of people think it sucks. I was surprised by this because Cars is my favorite Pixar movie and the only one I ever had any desire to see more than once.

So in comments I asked what people thought was wrong with it? The typical answer, supplied by someone called junk science, is:

...the plot, character types, and pacing seem like so much paint-by-numbers feel-good Disney blandness compared to a wittier Toy Story or Monsters, Inc. Cars isn’t a bad movie, but it could have come from a lesser studio than Pixar, which is what I think bothers people.

OK. That makes sense and pretty much answered my question. But a couple other responses were worth reading for their other-than-mainstream perspectives. Mnemosyne writes:
I wasn’t too fond of Cars but my husband and most men I know really, really liked it.  It seemed to speak to them on some subconscious level about breaking through to a better, less traditional view of what being an adult man should/could be.  It’s one of the few movies out there where the male protagonist matures through his relationships with other people and not because of the adventures he encounters.  The traditional markers of male success aren’t just rejected, they’re actively subverted at the end of the film.  (Trying to avoid spoilers here, but I think you know what I mean.)

If that’s what men and boys are getting out of it, then I don’t really care that it didn’t speak to me.  Not every movie is about me. 

I thought that comment was very insightful. Do I like Cars because of a guy thing? I'm not particular into cars, often don't even own one, and would just about rather go to the dentist than watch a NASCAR race, which as far as I can see is nothing more than a lot of colorful boxes making an endless left turn in slow motion. I did like the fact that the protagonist matured through his relationship with others. That was the heart of the movie and in conjunction with the manner in which he matured (understanding that friends are better than fame and fortune) explains a good part of why I liked it so much.

RobW had a different take:
One of the central themes of Cars was the idea that individuals are born to their purpose and cannot escape being what they are, and what they all are is a collection of stereotypes.  The race car is the jock, the towtruck is the dumb redneck, the lowrider is the cholo, the only “black” characters are a Cadillac and SUVs with huge chrome rims (who, being from the city are naturally criminals- in the end we see the small town sheriff has them in custody doing hard labor and we’re supposed to laugh at them), etc. 
The smart and pretty Porsche totally falls for the race car despite the lack of any explanation why anyone would even tolerate the arrogant prick.  Because she’s a girl and he’s famous.  Then there’s the fangirls: Mazda Miatas, of course.

It is also a paean to nostalgia.  Modern is bad, the Old Ways are good, combined with the vicious racial stereotyping and reactionary message that you can only be what you are meant to be makes the film despicable, really.  Hell, the towtruck, ‘Mater, has a star turn at one point demonstrating, quite literally, the joys of going through life in reverse.  It seems you don’t need to know where you’re going, all you have to do is know where you’ve been- but this can only work if you never, ever, leave the familiar.

Oh yeah, and the happy ending: it seems the best thing that can happen to anyone is to gain the approval and support of a large corporation, the oh-so-benevolent-and-kindly OIL COMPANY of all things.  Run by a stereotypical Texan, naturally...

...So, it’s an entertaining movie for people unoffended by racial, cultural, gender stereotypes, who don’t think about its reactionary message, or who just don’t think.  Great conservative film, in other words.

RobW, I think, is a bit harsh. The idea that individuals are born to their purpose and cannot escape being what they are is not one of the central themes of Cars. It's one of the central aspects of cars. That's cars, not Cars.

Cars really are born to their purpose and don't have a lot of opportunity to be something else. A tow truck is a tow truck. A fire engine is a fire engine. They will never become race cars or minivans. I see nothing in the movie that argues the same is true for people.

As for the ethnic stereotyping, Rob makes a good point. Without thinking about it, I had liked the diverse cast of characters and the way they all got along so well. Social integration is a good thing, man. And it fit with the fictional universe of the movie. The army surplus guy is a jeep. The VW Kombi is a hippie. The low rider is a Mexican-American from East L.A. How else would you cast the low rider? They are not ashamed of their taste in cars in East L.A. But yea, how do you cast the African American woman? As a Cadillac? Uh oh, there is some negative history with that kind of stereotype. But anecdotal evidence suggests that a lot of African Americans like Cadillacs (as do geriatric white people) and don't seem particularly ashamed of it. I hesitate to call that vicious racial stereotyping. They didn't show her parked out in front of a shack.

And women fall for arrogant pricks all the time, both in real life and in film, so that's hardly unrealistic. Of course the part where the arrogant prick realizes the error of his ways and changes happens only in the movies, but Cars is a movie. What do you expect?

Perhaps Cars is a paean to nostalgia. I guess I just don't see that as necessarily a bad thing. The scene where the old neon lights of Route 66 come back to life is, I think, one of the better paeans to nostalgia in cinematographic history. It's a beautiful scene.

But enough defense against the fringe. The mainstream argument is that the story is paint-by-numbers feel-good Disney blandness.

First, I say leave Disney out of it. Cars is Pixar storytelling all the way and it tells pretty much the exact same story as Up. A socially isolated individual learns the benefits of friendship and community. All Pixar stories are painted-by-number. They are all textbook. They are all flawless from a technical storytelling perspective. Cars is just like all the rest.

That's my problem with Pixar. The flawlessness of their storytelling is their greatest flaw. You need only watch a few Studio Ghibli movies to see what I mean. Watch Howl's Moving Castle, Spirited Away, or even Totoro, and you'll see that they leave Pixar in the dust artistically. Kids like Pixar movies but they're not that crazy about them. I'm the one who always suggests going to see them. But after seeing Spirited Away, my kids begged me to watch Studio Ghibli movies. You'll love it, dad, it's great, over and over again for about a year until I finally gave in.

The big difference, I think, is that Studio Ghibli movies are the artistic vision of one man, Hayao Miyazaki. Sure his stories have flaws, but his idiosyncratic visions of flying machines, old ladies, Japanese mythology and other individualistic bric-a-brac raise them so far above Pixar's textbook stortelling that it's not even close. Pixar's stories seem the work of a committee. A very competent committee, granted, but a committee nevertheless.

Naw, that's a bit harsh as well. Pixar does excellent work. I'll end this with a couple quotes that, I think, better illustrate what I'm trying to say.

John Lasseter of Pixar:
(about making the movie Cars) I learned that the journey in life is a reward, It's about living every day to its fullest, and I knew that's what I wanted the film to be about.

Let me tell you a funny story. I took the family to see this film one weekend, I'll go to see almost any film that's good for the whole family. And so we're sitting there watching this film, which I won't name, and there are long stretches that are just not very entertaining. My little son - he was probably 6 at the time was sitting next to me, and right in the middle of this dull section, he turns to me and says, "Dad? How many letters are in my name?" I must have laughed for five minutes. I thought, Oh, man, this movie has lost this little boy.

We make the kind of movies we want to see, we love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said 'for every laugh there should be a tear'. I love movies that make me cry, because they're tapping into a real emotion in me, and I always think afterwards how did they do that?

Interesting, but again, I'll give Miyazaki the last word:
"Personally I am very pessimistic," Miyazaki says. "But when, for instance, one of my staff has a baby you can't help but bless them for a good future. Because I can't tell that child, 'Oh, you shouldn't have come into this life.' And yet I know the world is heading in a bad direction. So with those conflicting thoughts in mind, I think about what kind of films I should be making."

Perhaps this is why he tells children's stories. "Well, yes. I believe that children's souls are the inheritors of historical memory from previous generations. It's just that as they grow older and experience the everyday world that memory sinks lower and lower. I feel I need to make a film that reaches down to that level. If I could do that I would die happy."

I ask if he feels he's managed that already and he chuckles and shakes his head. Nor does he feel that film can be employed as a force for good. "Film doesn't have that kind of power," he says, gloomily. "It only exerts its influence when it stirs patriots up against other nations, or taps into aggressive, violent urges."

This is a black diagnosis indeed. But then, inexplicably, Miyazaki's mood lightens. Perhaps it's the sunshine, or the cigarette, or the fact that the interview is almost over. "Of course," he relents, "if, as artists, we try to tap into that soul level - if we say that life is worth living and the world is worth living in - then something good might come of it." He shrugs. "Maybe that's what these films are doing. They are my way of blessing the child"

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Picture of the day

I don't know who you are or why you come by here so I have no idea whether or not you are interested in the photography. I've always figured it would be in my best interest to expound on the photos. To explain my motivation for taking them. To explain what I see when I look at them. People enjoy that, I know. It makes you more likely to buy. Yet I find myself unable to do it. It's your business to interpret the photo yourself, or not. My advice is to click on it to enlarge, then spend a couple hours or more staring at it. Some kind of psychotropic substance and an appropriate soundtrack might be helpful in achieving the proper understanding. But that's your business. It's not my business what you think and I don't want it to be my business to tell you how to see.

But sometimes I wonder. What do you see when you look at this photo? I'm not going to explain it to you, but I'll tell you that getting it was not a trivial endeavor. Technically, it required an obscure combination of equipment and skill to achieve this look. Artistically, how many people are even trying to achieve it? Probably not many. I've spent many years figuring out how to take this particular photo. How to communicate this particular experience. But I can see how boring it might be at a glance. There could well be a reason why no one else is bothering to figure this out. Do people on the internets even give something like this a second look? I'm guessing no.

Deformative action pt. II

In comments below, ChrisV82 provides this chart which purportedly represents the admissions disadvantages and advantages for different groups in terms of SAT points. It's saying, for example, that being a recruited athlete adds 200 points to one's SAT score. Being an Asian lops off 50 points.

Jewish people are the group most conspicuously absent. Historically, Jews were pointedly excluded from elite universities. Today they make up a disproportionate percentage of the student body at elite schools, particularly in the northeast. I'd guess that if Jews were on the chart, they'd rate something like -150.

I do not know what the best system for college admissions would be. I guess in some ideal world (somewhere similar to France), all students would have the same curriculum in school, take the same tests based on that curriculum, then be admitted, or not, to universities based on the results. But we don't have anything close to an ideal system. We have thousands of schools teaching who knows how many different curricula and the test results track with parents income far more than anything else.

What is best for society? Should test taking ability be the most important criteria? If test taking doesn't produce diversity, should diversity trump test taking, at least for a small proportion of the student body?

Poor chuckling simply does not know. The obvious answer is to have enough good schools for everybody, but that particular solution doesn't appear to be on anybody's agenda.

So for now we'll have to leave it to the professionals. College admissions people feel that it's vitally important to have a diverse student body. Beyond easily identifiable ethnic groups, they also try for socio-economic diversity, for example giving advantage to children who are the first in their family to attend college, and international diversity. What are their reasons for this belief in diversity? Are there data that suggest that's the best way to go? Is it political? At this point, I just don't know, but now that I'm thinking about it will start asking the question.

But as long as the most privileged children in this country are getting a leg up, I don't see how anyone can seriously complain about historically disadvantaged groups, or poor kids, getting a leg up as well.