Tag Archives: film

What we can learn from Pixar

It is easy today to get lost in everything that is offered up to us. From social media to a high budget Hollywood films to episodic literary fiction there is so much to distract us, to placate us that I believe we have forgotten what we are capable of. I grew up with the internet, and love its potential… but I hate its reality. The internet and all its crowd sourcing power has changed the way we view the world ever so slightly, but in that slight change it has had a significant impact. We don’t trust the expert anymore. In the past news came from those who, through countless years of discipline, had earned the right to deliver it to us. Music was achieved through hard work and rigorous study…not song editing on youtube. And art… art was painful nuanced process that through careful analysis and inspired emotional revolution developed a modern sense. But it stopped there, it stopped because the world didn’t understand that modern sense and never tried to. Today we live without it, lost in a continuous recreation of the modern art world, not realizing that has already happened… multiple times.

Here is where PIxar comes into place. There is an underlying message in their films, and underlying push to challenge what is expected, what is believed to be wanted, and instead pushes for the new. Most literally this comes from Ratatouille where Anton Ego gives his review of the delicious meal he enjoyed. Additionally you could say that it came from an earlier scene where Remy confronts his dad about the ideas of change and nature. The message is clear that conformity and preservation are inadequate for a successful society. We must change and we must fight for that new change. Pixar may not have been directly attacking museums and our arts institutions with this film but I am. If we preserve art as something to be preserved we will lose it forever.

Let’s continue this. I have no link to explain where Wall-E fits except the credits. The credits tie the film to exactly what I have always seen it represent. The culmination of Disney’s dream, emotion through animation. For a large portion of the film dialog isn’t used to convey the plot, rather we visually follow the developing romance of two robots. Disney believed in the power of animation as a tool to convey emotion and he gave himself to his characters. In times past Disney has honored this tradition, the eyes in Pocahontas for example, but recently they lost sight of it. Wall-E set them back on the path by taking inorganic objects (robots) and giving them the emotion enough to convey an entire love story to us.

At the end of Pixar’s short Day and Night we find a radio broadcast defending just how beautiful the new is how scared we are of it. This example might be my favorite as the animation behind it is rather ingenious. Seemingly two dimensional characters are interacting for the first time and at first fighting but by the end are friendly. What makes it near breathtaking is the three dimensional environment that makes up their bodies, one filled by a daytime scene while the other a nighttime scene. As the two move throughout the film we see the environment their bodies are windows on change between day and night. Again Pixar uses no dialog save the radio announcement at the end of the film but is still very capable of telling a story.

Pixar is screaming at us to embrace the new, to fight for it and honor it. I imagine part of their interest is in their own image as the new, which isn’t far from the truth. They allowed for Disney’s second renaissance which is still going strong and pushed the boundaries of computer animation to such an extent that it now makes up the mainstream. But at the same time when in control of Disney’s animation studios, revived and expanded them to re-imagine the cartoon short.

Though this very well may be obvious to many I still wanted to gather my thoughts in one place and encourage further discussion on them. Pixar to me is a beacon of newness that is both pushing the boundary and making it popular at the same time. We need this level of creativity and risk to infiltrate more of the arts and move away from the idea that the arts is something to preserve. The arts is something that should challenge us and push our abilities both to create and to contemplate.

This is what I believe we can learn from Pixar.





3D animation… a new style of film?

Since its inception I have experienced 3D animation as I would a roller coaster in an amusement park; something that entertains and excites for only the time you are experiencing it. I never walked out of a 3D film movie thinking it was anything above possibly entertaining for the time in the theater. It was always presented as one of those “look at the spectacle we can make” or “watch how we bedazzle the screen and almost startle you a little.” That was true of EVERY 3D movie I saw up until this past weekend.

Enter Coraline.

I am not a movie reviewer and I won’t even pretend to have opinions about movies that should be listened to by any great number of people, I mean I convinced my friends to see The Weather Man on my birthday (and I actually liked it). But for this film I will forcibly put on the reviewer and critic hat and say this is the first work of art to be done in the medium of three dimensional animation. There are no gimmicks, no cliche tricks here, just pure artistic beauty coupled with an intriguing and thoughtful plot that had me analyzing it while walking home.

So here is to a new style that will hopefully develop from Coraline‘s success. But more importantly here is to the unlocking of a new theatrical experience that has been up to this point trapped behind the glass walls of consumer art.

Don’t Worry, Adulthood Still Alive

NY Times with a “culture is going downhill”-type article by A. O. Scott. It’s an enjoyable-enough read, but as a piece of cultural criticism it’s awfully naive. Scott extends the eternal adolescence of comedy actors like Adam Sandler to the U.S.’s male population as a whole, pining for some vaguely-defined adulthood that seems to have slipped away from us.

It’s currently fashionable to reject outright anything that, like this article, suggests a longing for the past. I’m skeptical of this. Certainly there’s a tendency to idealize the past and ignore the serious problems that we only began to overcome in the past grueling century. Certainly, for instance, the fifties were not as neat and tidy as the TV shows and movies that serve as some of the decade’s main emissaries to people of my generation. But it’s easy to overcorrect in attempting to avoid this glamorization of the past. It’s easy to wind up denying not just that the past might be better that the present, but that it could be different from the present at all. Of course the past is different, and it would be foolish not to consider the possibility that the present might, in some ways, be worse.

But we do have to be careful to avoid giving in to nostalgia – we have to carefully examine the terms on which we’re talking, and even more carefully consider just where our judgments about what is better than what come from – we don’t want to apply the standards from some time in the past to the present.

The NY Times article could easily be accused of that. It never makes it quite clear what it means by maturity and why we should aspire to it – no doubt we should aspire to maturity, but a concept like “maturity” is not the sort that does well outside of its natural habitat. There is a core meaning involving doing the right thing even when it involves giving up on pleasure or comfort, and that’s certainly a virtue, but “maturity” and “adulthood” carry massive loads of cultural baggage, and though we don’t have to reject this baggage, we do have to acknowledge it as cultural if we’re going to apply the terms to culture. A. O. Scott seems to treat adulthood as an eternal unchanging truth, which it is not.

But that’s not Scott’s most overt critical sin. I would just like to point out that, though Sandler’s characters are typically meant to be likable, the audience is supposed to be laughing at their childlike behavior. Laughter is basically incompatible with approval. I don’t think, like Umberto Eco, that comedy is necessarily conservative, but Adam Sandler’s characters make no sense unless we keep in mind the particular ideal of masculine adulthood that they so flagrantly fail to realize.


We’re Back… Defending the New

The conflicts of our own Wash U graduation are now behind us and following our commission on the front lines of the political battle for the past few weeks the Foundation will now resume business as usual. The Right Hand of Nixon has many posts in the work and though I have to begin preparing for Teach For America I too have much more time to devote back to this site.

So with that short introduction said and done I will also leave this short post on one of the new and pretty incredible animated films, Ratatouille. First I have found that this particular Pixar film has the potential to fill numerous posts. There is the visual representation of gustation, more generally there is the animation itself (which has moved well beyond trying to imitate reality and has entered into its own abstract version of representation). But for this short post I want to focus on the speech given by the films sinister looking yet ultimately agreeable food critic, Anton Ego. Ego delivers a speech following his proustian moment eating ratatouille.

His speech touched me the first time I saw it and again this past week when watching it. He defends the New. Here is his review in full:

In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations, the new needs friends. Last night, I experienced something new, an extraordinary meal from a singularly unexpected source. To say that both the meal and its maker have challenged my preconceptions about fine cooking is a gross understatement. They have rocked me to my core. In the past, I have made no secret of my disdain for Chef Gusteau’s famous motto: Anyone can cook. But I realize, only now do I truly understand what he meant. Not everyone can become a great artist, but a great artist can come from anywhere. It is difficult to imagine more humble origins than those of the genius now cooking at Gusteau’s, who is, in this critic’s opinion, nothing less than the finest chef in France. I will be returning to Gusteau’s soon, hungry for more.

IMDB: Ratatouille

Though when stepping outside of the world of the story we realize that the new being defended here is a cooking rat, the idea of the challenge in its defense is not outside of our world. The new at times, especially in art, can appear and actually be that outlandish (as a rat cooking better than most humans). But the reality is that though at times the new can fail it truly does need support, it needs friends.

I have nothing to say except Ratatouille and Pixar are heading in the right direction to view art in such a way as to defend the new. I hope that spirit persists in Wall*E this summer.


American Blog Post

From Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One:

“Dennis sat in one of the arm-chairs, put his feet on the trolley and settled himself to read. Life in the Air force had converted him from an amateur to a mere addict. There were certain trite passages of poetry which from a diverse multitude of associations never failed to yield the sensations he craved; he never experimented; these were the branded drug, the sure specific, big magic. He opened the anthology as a woman opens her familiar pack of cigarettes.

“Outside the windows the cars swept past continuously, out of town, into town, lights ablaze, radios at full throttle.

“‘I wither slowly in thine arms,‘ he read. ‘Here at the quiet limit of the world,” and repeated to himself: ‘Here at the quiet limit of the world. Here at the quiet limit of the world” . . . as a monk will repeat a single pregnant text, over and over again in prayer.”

I posted earlier about evocative phrases that seem to be evocative only, in some way, through cheap trickery, and here they are is again. Dennis Barlow is not only a poetry addict, but a well-known hack poet, and like nearly every character in a Waugh novel, is entirely superficial and devoid of any genuine concern for the world. Whether we’re only meant to be laughing at Dennis for his superficial use of the poem (Tennyson’s “Tithonus”), or whether Waugh is making fun of Tennyson as well (which seems likely), this sort of relationship between reader and phrase is familiar. All Dennis is after, here, is the physiological effect that the particular phrase “at the quiet limit of the world” has on him. There is certainly something wrong with his superficial style of reading and failure to move beyond the old and familiar, and that is the main point of this scene, but it also brings up an issue about poetry in general that I can’t resolve. I can’t come up with a qualitative difference between a good poetic phrase, which still has a primary purpose of creating sensations, and a “branded drug” that may turn off the discerning reader, but that is nevertheless effective. What makes one way of evoking a sensation seem ‘cheap’ while another does not?

One major difference, I suppose, is originality, which bears on the reader as well as on the poet. Outside of poetry, one example of the “branded drug” I’ve found is the use of of the word ‘American’ to give a sense of import to a title. Thus, American Pastoral, American Psycho, American Gods, American Splendor, American Graffiti, American Beauty, American Beauty, American Gangster, American Gangster, American Water. The word, used in this context, seems to have turned, over the years, into an empty commonplace used to signify that This Is Big And Important. (American Pie doesn’t count because it is nearly impossible to make food sound serious.) The reason it might seem empty now, as it seems for me, is simply that it’s been done so many times before – setting the doubts that that casts on the creator aside, that gives it the sense of being prepackaged, particularly since it is used in the title, where it can easily resemble a brand.

But it’s not just originality or novelty, and it’s not just the fact that flashy phrases can distract from bad writing, dull ideas, aesthetic blunders, and so on. Some phrases just seem easier than they ought to be, and we, too clever to be so readily manipulated, push them away. I think there is more to our preference for poetry that avoids taking shortcuts on the way to our seratonin glands than simple admiration for the amount of effort put in by the poet. But where exactly is the corny different from what we perceive as genuinely powerful?


Found Art Found Everywhere

The prime piece of remix fodder for this week happens to be “Pretty Much Everywhere, It’s Gonna Be Hot.”

This one is a bizarre 9-second interchange on a news show, possibly Haitian, though they speak English. It sets off my stupidity detector, sure, but it also sets off involuntary laughter. It may work for you, it may not, but what I want to ask is, can we call things like this art? Is the process of selecting, or at least stumbling upon, a strange old video that happens to have some peculiar entertainment value, and doing just a bit of cutting too easy? Or is the end product the only thing that matters?

I don’t think many people would argue that, for instance, The Atomic Cafe, a film constructed entirely out of old footage and audio recordings from the early Cold War, is not art. It has a clear identity of its own, a narrative arc, even though the only work the creators did involved selection, cutting, and sequencing of the source material. The same could be said of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, which I have been listening to a lot lately – Smith not only took the trouble of amassing old records and picking out the best, but he sequenced them so that they commented on each other and formed a vaguely historical arc. Perhaps not everyone would agree that the Anthology should be called a work of art, but that view is not uncommon.

If we’re going to argue that these examples are instances of art, while a single found video is not, then we will have to come up with a clear place to draw the line. It is hard to argue that one piece of art has a vision while another does not – how do we know what was in the creator’s head? – and it is also hard to argue that a single piece of footage does not reflect on the world around us. What, then, is the difference?