No matter how detached or aloof any of us pretends to be, there’s a thumbs-up and thumbs-down part in all of us. Herein lies an irony in the person of Roger Ebert: the man who, arguably, made contemporary movie criticism accessible to the masses, popularized the thumbs-rating system, and co-wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valley of the Dolls is one of the most verbose and pretentious chubsters to look down his nose at everyone else in the world. Oh yeah, he also wrote a book entitled, Your Movie Sucks. So, as distasteful as it is to acknowledge common ground with the guy who gave full reign to the most simplistic summary of movies the world has ever seen, a thumbs-up is in order: Ratatouille is just great and everyone should love it. The reluctance of my thumbs to gesture upwards has nothing to do with the film but, rather, the aforementioned wannabe screenwriter.
Ratatouille becomes especially interesting and quite significant when it is considered next to its director Brad Bird’s previous animated film, The Incredibles. Can’t remember where right now (probably some blah blah blog), but someone said something about Bird’s no-holds-barred, anything-goes approach to social politics as seen in his films. This is a common and deplorably lazy tactic on the part of those who, like Roger Ebert, want to boil down years of work and creativity of someone like a film director to one theme or trope which can easily be discarded. One may as well say that Pixar’s movies are all just cartoons. It turns out, though, that Bird’s films can’t be generalized so simplistically. These two films serve as good examples. The Incredibles does happen to uphold traditional family values. When Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl hook up, they get married, they have children, and they all take on the name “The Incredibles” – Mrs. Incredible is referred to later as “Elasti-Girl,” but, interestingly, there is a letter “i” on her suit. Mr. Incredible’s government-enforced ordinary life puts him in a cubicle environment that hampers his ability to fight crime and uphold justice. In a way, the moral of the film is that some people are special – implying that others aren’t. Dash expresses at least as much frustration as his father that he can’t use his powers, specifically in sports. His mother tells him that “everyone is special.” Dash replies, “Which is another way of saying, ‘No one’s special.’” The film vindicates the Incredibles’ re-entrance into crime-fighting and their use of super powers – even implying that as long as Dash sticks to 2nd place in sports, he isn’t misusing his powers.
Ratatouille is fundamentally different from The Incredibles. Right off, it’s true that Ratatouille doesn’t deny special talents and abilities; hence Remy the Rat’s culinary gift. But there is a certain moral to this story that is quintessentially egalitarian: “anyone can cook.” So plain is this lesson that it might actually be a deliberate counterpoint to the moral of The Incredibles: not everyone is super. In The Incredibles, the villain “Syndrome” was precisely the character who tried to be super and inherently was not. He utilized technology in order to bear super-traits and do super-things. (Nevermind that it would take a “super”-genius to do what he did.) Other than small roles from the babysitter, Mr. Incredible’s boss, and Syndrome’s female assistant, Syndrome is the only “non-super” given much attention at all in the film, and he’s the bad guy.
Ratatouille wisely includes the character of Linguini, the freckle-faced bastard child of Gusto who is utterly incompetent but lucky enough to run into Remy. Given almost as much screen time as Remy, Linguini learns not to take credit for the abilities of others and happily condescends to the role of server, despite owning the restaurant where his friend the rat cooks. Some people do have special gifts, Anton Ego the food critic insists, but those gifts are not spread out the way people tend to think. Skills can be taught and learned, and non-masters shouldn’t be ignored for needing an education. The masters, though, sometimes show up in unexpected places; in this case, Remy came from the sewer. Anton’s concluding article praising his rodent-prepared food is smart to insist that “not everyone can be a great artist,” but also that great artists come from the most unexpected places. So instead of backpeddling on the moral from The Incredibles, Brad Bird balances it with realist wisdom. Perhaps smarter than this point, though, is Bird’s anticipation of critical reviews of the film itself. The film makes a preemptive strike by defining the point of criticism and positing that, however good a critic is, his job is only to point out the great work of artists.
The moment when the ratatouille dish hits Ego’s taste buds, there is a return to childhood and, of course, the maternal. The food disarms Ego’s critical armor, takes him back in time, and then returns him to the present where he promptly drops his pen on the floor. Up until this point, Ego has been identified with death, an interesting insertion by Bird. Ego’s body is skeletal, his face morbidly pale, his voice inhumanly deep, and the shape of his study and objects inside of it are clearly shaped like a coffin. His identification with death prefigures his return to life when he tastes Remy’s dish. The flashback to his childhood returns warm colors to the character and allows him to return to life while his critical coldness dies, signified through the falling pen. He proverbially picks up the pen again, but only to confess his own shortcomings as a critic compared to the incomparable power of masterful art. Instead of art existing for the critic, the critic now exists for the sake of beauty.
Peter Sellers’ trademark quirkiness, this time manifest through an uptight factory manager with a tight but not tight enough reign on his voluptuous daughter, rules I’m All Right, Jack, a propaganda movie with a dimwitted idealist at its center who unwittingly launches a mini-capitalist revolution in industrial Britain to the great disdain of Sellers’ Hitler-inspired character, but mostly notable for early Sellers and Richard Attenborough roles as well as a surprise cameo by the great Malcolm Muggeridge.
He may be known more for his music (justifiably) and his dancing (damn, could he dance), but some of my earliest memories of Michael Jackson had to do with his movies. As opposed to Elvis, the only other person in pop music to have done anything like MJ, Michael didn’t sell out by creating a string of weird, cult movies that probably denigrated the untouchableness of his image. As the Scarecrow in the fantastic Wizard of Oz musical The Wiz, the 20-year-old Michael appealed to a kid the way he did when singing “ABC” with the Jackson 5. That strange film, with Diana Ross as Dorothy, did to The Wizard of Oz what Jim Henson and David Bowie’s The Labyrinth did to The Muppets. There is a weird, dark side to everything, but having Michael in The Wiz somehow made it accessible to me as a child.
More than that, however, Michael Jackson blew my mind at Disneyland, in 3-D, as the title character in Captain EO – incidentally, directed by Francis Coppola. Michael and his misfit crew were completely devoid of cynicism, bringing a quintessentially Reagan-esque message of peace and joy to the dark, Borg-like queen – incidentally, played by Anjelica Huston – of a planet that knew nothing of music. Who better to show them music than Michael Jackson? (The entire movie is viewable here in part one and here in part two, although it pails horribly in comparison to the big-screen in 3-D when you’re six years old.) And lest we forget, other memorable screen appearances by dear Michael include The Simpsons episode “Stark Raving Dad” and an uncannily appropriate cameo in Men in Black II.
Thankfully, there is plenty of classic, remarkable MJ in which to wallow right now, instead of the neverending bizarre-fest that filled the last umpteen years of his sad life. Having been born in the year of Thriller and danced in diapers to “Billie Jean,” the legend and phenomenon of “Michael Jackson” is too big for words. This much is certain: very few performers can make an audience forget there’s no live band.
While in Bookshop Santa Cruz the other day, I noticed a placard with the following quotation from Oscar Wilde (which captures the spirit of the line if not the exact words): “A book that isn’t worth re-reading multiple times isn’t worth reading at all.” And while we should take care not to embrace Wilde’s philosophy of life wholeheartedly, on matters literary he tends to be correct. There are some people who never care to read a book a second time or watch a film twice or more; we (or at least the editorial “we”) will never understand them. This must be one of the only points on which C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde would have shaken hands in agreement. (See Lewis’ excellent An Experiment in Criticism.)
This all being the case, “we” are now wondering as to the previously endorsed film Thank You For Smoking. It has so much going for it, but some of its chic-est features are those that offer fewer and fewer returns upon return viewings. It was recently mentioned here that a character playing a screenwriting lecturer within the film Adaptation. insisted that voiceover narration is simply lazy and should never be done. Charlie Kaufman clearly disagrees, and so must we, since both that film and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind used voiceover effectively. So did Fight Club, with Edward Norton’s crackly voice sarcastically understating everything from his Ikea obsession to pummeling the teeth out of another person. The Kaufman films can pull off voiceover on account of the introverted insecurity of their narrators; they don’t pretend to be more suave inside their own heads than their personae exude. Fight Club, on the other hand, walks a tightrope, with Norton’s character giving that constant wink to the audience while somehow putting all of his own pathetic weaknesses right out there.
Nick Naylor in Thank You For Smoking voices-over the narrative without ever letting his guard down, without ever voluntarily getting vulnerable with the audience. At the low point in his career, his voiceover nearly cuts out completely (maybe more than nearly). He picks up the microphone again once he’s employed his epiphanic strategy for getting back in the game. (Another problem here is that his plan to expose the female reporter’s tryst with him and in so doing discredit her claims against him works way better than it should. It’s not that ingenious, and her reaction to viewing his news conference renders a resourceful, though simple-minded, reporter yet another victim of the untouchable Nick Naylor.) When Naylor summarizes himself at the film’s end (through voiceover, naturally), he says that what he does is “talk.” It’s fitting and appropriate for him to narrate his story, then, since talking is his gift and his most effective weapon to wield power. And perhaps it’s appropriate that his talking cuts out when he’s been temporarily beaten. But this gives the audience the feeling that Nick Naylor is holding his tongue so as to fool not only his enemies within the film but his viewers as well. Problem is, the viewers get to see him at his low points and during touching moments with his son; the hint that Naylor does have a heart is veiled behind his jabber, to the detriment of the film. If this had simply been a heist movie, a plot-driven thriller about the seamy underworld of tobacco lobbyists, none of this would matter. But since the film presents itself as driven by a single character, a character who appears in nearly every scene and is the reason why we’re watching the film, a more consistent or honest character is in order – or at least a more honest film. By the end, the film itself raises Naylor back up to the status of untouchable pro; he may be mortal, but only just barely. Kaufman’s films end with characters just as human as when they began, though maybe less fractured. Even Fight Club‘s finale has Norton’s character saying, “You met me at a very strange time in my life.”
And could Reitman’s intro montage imitation of Wes Anderson BE any more overt? Observe:
Yeah, it may not be that one, but this effort – adaptation, really (it is a play, people) – from Sydney Pollack that captures some of the most comedic performances of Harrison Ford and Greg Kinnear is thoroughly enjoyable to watch, thanks to setting the right tone and mood, a script that stands on its own two feet, and enough tributes to the old one to acknowledge that it’s simply a different film, though it must be admited that the casting of the principal character was a mistake.
It would be very easy to see It Happened One Night only through the spectacles of conventional gender theory (yawn). This kind of interpretation would blab about male superiority, female submission, male power, and female sexuality. Interpretations of this sort, it must be admitted, have been done here. Unfortunately, one such boring reading was applied to Gilda, a film that deserves so very much more. It Happened One Night is another movie in that vein, broadly speaking. The back of the disc case says that this film “launched the screwball genre.” If that’s true, then Frank Capra did so in a most palatable fashion. This is no His Girl Friday, where “screwball” gets exaggerated to a new status quo six years later. Like His Girl Friday would later do, It Happened One Night incorporates those Hollywood Golden Age tropes of newspaper and reporters, allowing for a fast-paced story with incessant chatter but ultimately with nothing great at stake.
But back to Gilda: It Happened One Night shares with that classic an element that is severely lacking in the cinematic world today: sass. Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert may not have had quite the spiciness that Rita Hayworth and Glenn Ford did, but their slightly less overt characters allowed a cohesion with the narrative that wasn’t fully necessary in Gilda. That is to say, one can miss the story of Gilda and it doesn’t fundamentally matter; it’s about the character chemistry. Clark and Claudette mesh, complement, interlace with the story of It Happened One Night as only happens in the great old Hollywood films, particularly those by Frank Capra – think It’s A Wonderful Life or Arsenic and Old Lace. (The latter is as screwball as they come, but the story keeps up with Cary Grant’s zaniness.) The sass factor is still present in It Happened One Night, in both the male and female protagonists. Nowadays, it’s more en vogue for the woman to out-sass the man. People have forgotten that a woman’s sass is only as sassy as the man opposite her. Gable’s man’s man character strikes the ideal balance between aloofness toward and desperation for Colbert. It’s precisely this dialectic of his personality that provides the major point of plot conflict, when Colbert wakes up and believes that he has abandoned her…when in fact he has succumbed to his need for her and is off preparing to propose. It makes what has become a very formulaic plot device completely natural and believable, since it is organically driven. Colbert’s stubbornness, making its first appearance in the film practically before she does, takes over at this stage and she returns to her father and “King Westley.” Eventually, Colbert may leave one man for another, but Gable leaves his autonomy and self-assurance for a woman. And if “the walls of Jericho” signify the male-female hierarchy, then when the walls come tumbling down at the film’s end, so does Gable’s ego. But in this pre-code (or at least pre-enforced-code) movie, the walls stand for more than merely that.
Cute enough to be endorsed by and viewed with the namesake of this blog, Son of Rambow‘s strengths flourish in its first half, when its story’s spontaneity is driven by that of its central characters who are eventually forced to submit to a formulaic conflict-and-resolution second half that wholeheartedly embraces a strikingly overt rejection of religion as seen through a tiny sect of Plymouth Brethren before feeding the audience the ending they want and expect but not necessarily the one that satisfies most, hearkening back to such fun-to-watch-once almost-gems as Little Miss Sunshine.
Many have said that Adaptation. is simply an artsy-fartsy exercise in pretentious (read: self-reflexive) filmmaking. Indirectly, then, many have said the same about most of Charlie Kaufman’s efforts (Being John Malkovich, Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and Synecdoche, New York). Haven’t found anyone who’s said that this is Kaufman’s 8½, but no doubt someone has. Of course, the 8½ label only seems to apply to a filmmaker who has burned out while still in the middle of his prime, having produced a number of worthwhile films. Kaufman is chiefly a screenwriter, only having directed the most recent one of his films. Adaptation. came early enough in his career that this certainly isn’t his 8½. This is, as Kaufman admits through Nicholas Cage within the film, a sort of account of his paranoia of failure after a single success. (I’ve always found that Fellini’s dilemma somewhat pails in comparison to Kaufman’s. Multiple successes permit one to fail. A single success could just be a fluke, a fact that would seem much more haunting.)
If Charlie Kaufman is any kind of screenwriter, he is a convenient one; “convenient” in that his films are surprisingly straightforward from a thematic perspective. They may be “heady,” but only in the most literal sense. At least a few of his films take place, literally and/or figuratively, in the minds of their protagonists. The screenwriting lecturer in Adaptation. insists that voiceover is the laziest form of screenwriting that exists, one of many self-critical moments in the film. In Being John Malkovich, the characters find a portal into the actual head of the titular actor and don’t hesitate to explore not only Malkovich’s head but the implications of their entrance in all of its Freudian (read: sexual) glory. In Adaptation., Kaufman needs to give his filmic self an alter-ego, so what does he do? An identical twin, also a screenwriter, but socially capable and a writer of blockbuster movies. This is so un-subtle that it’s somehow subtle…or asubtle. The story we’re watching is a fictionalized version of the film itself. It is an adaptation, so why not be honest and give it that title, instead of the more sensational and mysterious The Orchid Thief, the book on which it is based. Thank goodness for Spike Jonze, a gifted yet humble enough film director to take on a couple Kaufman screenplays and let them be themselves. (It looks like Jonze is doing the same with his next film, also an adaptation of sorts: Where the Wild Things Are.)
At one point while wrestling with his non-existent script, Kaufman (the one in the film) starts over with the question of “themes.” Evidently Kaufman is incessantly poking fun at himself and the world of screenwriting even while being honest about his neurotic process of creation. So one wonders in what sense Kaufman concerned himself with potential themes prior to writing Adaptation. As “adaptation” connotes change, evolution, and alteration, the film is chock full of these sorts of images. Charles Darwin himself makes an appearance, though in a sickly state. Above all, the idea of adaptation here captures the notion of survival, quintessentially Darwinian and even more so Kaufmanian.
Adaptation.‘s textuality is of a new and rather postmodern kind. It both “is” the story of the film itself and is not. The screenwriting protagonist’s constant paranoia that he not “sell out” ironically gives way within the film “text” to the need for a Hollywood ending. The screenplay within the film moves beyond its original material and into an illicit realm which, interestingly, makes a move toward silencing the author. Susan Orlean (Meryl Streep), author of The Orchid Thief, becomes in the film separated from her own written account (both biographical and autobiographical) through the new, “adaptational” author’s attempt to get behind the text or move ahead of it. The problem with Orlean’s text to the filmic Kaufman is, ironically, that it isn’t more compelling. He wants it to stand on its own as a beautiful, non-narrative montage of the beauty of flowers, but due to the influence of his brother, he “sells out” and expands the screenplay to include scandalous, though true, narrative elements. So the filmic Kaufman adapts his own style through the influence of his brother Donald, whose Jerry Bruckheimer-like screenplay causes Charlie to bend the knee to the demands of the spectator. Conveniently, Charlie can delve deeper into the actual personal life of Orlean’s affair with the orchid thief. The real Kaufman, on the other hand, either gives into the pressure for a more compelling story by fictionalizing his supposedly non-fictional source material, or uses the almost-transparent instrument of autobiography to offer an excuse/rationale as to why the story must deviate from its source material. This isn’t an adaptation so much as an adoption.
In a meeting with a film producer, Orlean is flattered at the suggestion to turn her novel into a screenplay. She expresses concern, though, that she has never written a screenplay before. The producer (Tilda Swinton) quickly shrugs off her worry and says that they have screenwriters who can make it into a script. This effortless, simplistic suggestion that an adaptation can be done so easily and still remain the work of the original author is implicitly mocked here. Charlie Kaufman’s image-driven desire for Orlean without having met her leads to fantasizing, which in turn creates a fictional image of her that perverts her story and destroys her authorship. And while the Kaufman brothers pathetically spy on Orlean in order to gather more material for the adaptation, she moves from being a married, downtown city-dweller and writer for the New Yorker to cohorting with a toothless porn webmaster in a shanty house with a drug lab. As Kaufman adapts Orlean’s material, she becomes less and less Susan Orlean and more “Susan Orlean,” the character that Kaufman needs her to be. The destruction of her previous identity disintegrates as Kaufman takes the reigns of authorship from her. In another irony, the nervous, insecure character of Charlie Kaufman becomes the film’s conqueror. His shallow brother dies, the orchid thief dies, and Orlean’s life utterly falls apart. The real Charlie Kaufman, then, has used the power of the authorial pen to wield a control to which he had no access previously. When Orlean was the author, the control was hers, but the power shifts.
It seems possible, then, that Adaptation. really is autobiographical in the strictest sense, as long as “autobiographical” doesn’t necessasrily mean that events depicted equal actual/real events. Adaptation. is autobiographical in that the film depicts the story of Charlie Kaufman destroying Susan Orlean as an author. It’s another paradox of the world, the same world in which the academy, in all their pointless mental theorizing and blabbering, prophecies the direction of humanity fifty years before we get there. In the same way, obliterating someone, annihilating them, or, worse, appropriating them to one’s own personal vision, is best done without conventional weapons; pen and paper is more than enough.
Another work from Godard; this one comes after Passion, and clearly follows its style and themes. This time, however, narrative elements are stolen from Godard’s own Pierrot Le Fou, but Godard doesn’t bother to surprise the spectator with a fundamentally different conclusion. It would probably aid a viewing of this film to be familiar with the opera Carmen, on which it is at some level based. The choice of source material is fitting, based on Godard’s obsession with music at this point in his career. Always playing tricks on his audience by blurring the distinction between diegetic and non-diegetic music, in the 80s Godard was making films that were explicitly operatic and in some ways also paintings. (See Passion in particular.) For example, not every movie has an opening music credit going to “Ludwig v. Beethoven,” as we have in First Name: Carmen.
The string ensemble which gives First Name: Carmen its Beethovian soundtrack is depicted throughout the narrative failing at interpreting the music according to the ideals of its conductor. Fittingly, the musicians are shown variously decapitated and otherwise physically fractured. Musicians do tend to be reduced to the sum of their parts, while composers encapsulate a monolithic idea of genius or vision. Carmen’s violinist counterpart is played by the actress who will later play the main character in Godard’s Hail Mary, retroactively giving her a melancholic beauty that befits her tempered struggle to do justice to the sheet music in front of her. The musicians eventually break into the diegesis, only to end up on the sore end of a cinematic hoax within the film. The hoax combines Pierrot Le Fou with Bande à part, a bunch of bored youngsters with nothing better to do than try to swindle the better-off bourgeois. And how better to do it in a Godard film than for the would-be thieves to use film as the shroud disguising their heist plan. Appropriately, the rapscallions in First Name: Carmen have no political bent to their escapades, as they did in Bande à part. Has Godard outgrown his political naivete, or does this film simply reflect the (relatively) apolitical 80s versus the politically fiery 60s?
There is abstraction of an objectival and, for lack of a better term, a panoramic sort. Human characters are given no priority in the frame over things. At times the stationary frame implies a hidden camera, especially in the characters’ shared hotel room. This implies a spying, a voyeurism that corresponds to the self-reflexivity of Godard’s films. The camera is fixed in the hotel room somewhere between Ozu’s tatami level and a more conventional “Western” height. Hands-off is the idea; the camera is as apathetic as the characters are pathetic. Somehow, in this way the camera gives the frame itself an objectival status. As that which surrounds or encapsulates the mis-en-scene, the frame likewise becomes an object with little more priority than an abstracted or discarded item within or just outside the frame. The visual is liked to the aural; just as characters and objects move into and outside of the frame, so the soundtrack (musical and otherwise) is in and out of the audience’s experience. Further, objects within the frame are drained of visual uniqueness. Constantly in First Name: Carmen, human figures monochromatically fuse with their surroundings. Almost never does the human stand out from the non-human. Are the people non-human or do the things surrounding them have a human-like status?
The other, “panoramic,” abstraction at times looks positively like Tarkovsky, particularly when landscapes are being used, and especially those that combine the elements of earth and water. It gives the land a look of destruction, an unnatural condition, as if it has been pulverized by man and is now left simply to “be” in all its destroyed beauty and beautiful destruction as the object of a huge gaze. Godard’s consistent painting-style of filming (see not only Passion but scenes in Pierrot Le Fou with characters set against a blank backdrop) clashes with these depth shots. Juxtaposed with the sky (in all its two-dimensionality), these landscapes are distinctly three-dimensional, unlike any other shots in the film.
Godard plays a version of himself in the film, a slightly-nuts film director who fakes illness to extend his hospital stay. His character’s mental instability seems to find its referent both in Godard himself (the actual director of the film First Name: Carmen) as well as the proverbial “film director,” that meta-idea that Godard has as much a right to mock as anyone else ever has. Godard’s films throughout his career implicate film and filmmaking as something at least borderline criminal. So when he and the film crew are fooled while trying to film (within the film), the director’s obliviousness to what is happening indirectly implicates the act of filmmaking, putting it on the same level as armed robbery. It would also seem to imply the ignorance of intellectuals. Navel-gazing may help create thoughtful films, but it leads to an absent-mindedness that makes one unaware of the most obvious facts.
With recent stuff like Ratatouille and Wall-E, Pixar has set the bar so high for itself that no one bothers to hold others to its standard. (Like poor Dreamworks; did anyone see Shrek the Third?) The other side to this double-edged sword is that when Pixar releases a merely “good” movie instead of an amazing one, we are slightly let down. When the trailers came out for Up, the public reaction was bafflement over just what this movie could possibly be about. Something about the image of a house lifting up off its foundation by thousands of colorful balloons and a cranky senior citizen at the helm was bait enough for the hungry curiosity of the masses, and the prospect of seeing said image in 3-D didn’t hurt, either. The 3-D appeal was strong enough for us that when we arrived and were even seated in the theater before realizing that this was not a 3-D showing, we walked out, got rainchecks for a 3-D showing, and returned to the theater over an hour later. As for the 3-D, it was fun in parts, but one can see perhaps why 3-D movies died a quick death back in the 50s when Hollywood was experimenting with crowd-pleasing technology. At first a novelty, the law of diminishing returns sets in quickly, and most of the time the film seems overly dimmed from the glasses. With good enough animation (which Pixar has), it might not be necessary to go the 3-D route. Or maybe they just didn’t do a great job with the 3-D technology in this case.
As with previous Pixar efforts, Up employs shameless use of melodrama motifs. This is most powerfully and overtly evident in the long montage of the protagonist’s life (Carl, voiced by Ed Asner) together with his childhood flame and, eventually, wife Ellie. Ellie’s death at the end of the montage is reason enough for the filmmakers not to allow viewers to become too attached to the character. The target audience for this film is, in many ways, children. The early sequence’s end with Ellie’s death is so punctuated (with a slow fade-out) that one young viewer in our audience worriedly asked, “Mommy, is it over?” Truth be told, this sequence in the film is effective and well-composed. The sense of loss at its end may be too powerful for the rest of the film to recover the audience’s sense of urgency. The film negotiates the loss of Ellie by having Carl subsequently address both his house and his mailbox as “Ellie.” The destruction first of the mailbox and eventually also the house may be a lesson in the reality of death, despite attempts to deny it, but the film struggles to find ground on which to mourn; fitting, since Carl literally floats through much of the film.
Naturally, Carl needs human contact again, and his lack of social relationship since losing Ellie makes him ornery. Enter the character of Russell, whose lack of a father and love for exploring makes him the perfect candidate to whom Carl can reach out. Here is where Up struggled a bit, especially in comparison to previous Pixar films. The chemistry between Carl and Russell is not what we saw between Wall-E and Eva. A certain predictability slowed viewer interest in Up and caused the resolutions to seem rather inevitable. This is ironic, since the premise of Up defied predictability. The film’s embrace of overdone stereotypes, even in the confines of a really unique idea, robbed the big picture of its grandeur.
And not to get into gender issues again, but Up is remarkably phallocentric. The film kills off Ellie in its first act. All the main characters are males. One of the two friends that Carl and Russell make on their journey is a bird that Russell names “Kevin,” then finds out later that Kevin is a female. (For extra humor, they continue to call this female bird “Kevin.”) But Kevin only squawks – doesn’t speak at all. On the other hand, the other friend they make is a dog named “Doug,” who is equipped with a device that translates his thoughts into English. Doug, along with every other dog with this device, is a male. At the film’s very end, Russell’s mom makes a very brief appearance, clearly as the only source of stability in Russell’s life. But when Russell pours his heart out to Carl earlier, he says nothing of his mother; only that his father is never there for him. Are fathers that much more important than mothers? Even the bad guy in this movie (voiced by Christopher Plummer) is a guy…although that was probably a wise decision, considering. With few exceptions, this is a common theme in Pixar’s work. At least Toy Story, Monsters Inc., The Incredibles, and Ratatouille feature very traditional gender roles, and the others tend to do the same. This is simply an interesting side note. Undoubtedly, repeated viewings of this film will foster greater affection and appreciation for its subtleties. Canning the 3-D glasses will also help.