Friday, May 29, 2009

Cabin in the Sky -- "Up" (2009, Pete Docter)

Saluting the noble tradition established in Citizen Kane (1941), the new Pixar-Disney movie, Up (2009), opens with a fake newsreel. We learn about a daredevil traveler Charles Muntz, out on a mission to South America, desperate to prove that the skeletons he was showing off came from a real bird, and weren’t faked. Travelling on an airship appropriately named “The Spirit of Adventure”, Muntz indeed has the Lindberghian power to inspire.

As we soon discover, the newsreel is being watched (devoured, rather) by a small boy called Carl Fredricksen. From now on, his life will try to mirror the bravery and romance of Muntz’s. Very soon he meets a girl named Ellie, and they take to each other so much, they end up spending a lifetime together. Though Ellie cannot have kids, the marriage thrives on the mutual sense of romance, and on a dream of going together to the wilds of South America. Decades later, Ellie dies. The movie is only 10 minutes in. The adventure proper begins.

As Carl, now 78, finds his old house surrounded by a wasteland of construction sites (very much like the elderly crowd from *batteries not included [1987]), he decides – literally – to take off. Thanks to a lift of thousands and thousands of colorful balloons, he flies to South America, with Ellie both on his mind and in his heart. There is an accidental tourist, too – a plump boy named Russell, a “Wilderness Explorer” with a dozen of badges to flaunt, but still trying to earn the ultimate one: “Assisting the Elderly Badge”. During his travels with Carl, he will earn it big time (in his own words: “By the time we get there, you’re gonna feel soo assisted!”)

With Russell’s scout organization bearing the name of “W-E”, it’s hard not to think of Wall•E (2008), yet another recent Pixar-wonder – and similarities go in fact much deeper. The romantic couple of Carl and Ellie are remarkably like Wall•E and Eva: him all rough edges with eyes in huge rectangular-framed glasses (and all but mute when he’s with her); and her bursting with activity and movement. Also, just like Wall•E and Eva, they cannot have kids of their own (in Andrew Stanton’s movie, that was the reason to make the couple parents to the whole human race, as it were).

Carl and Ellie don’t have kids; Russell doesn’t have parents any more. He’s the kid of the post-sexual-revolution world, with all family joints loosened to the point of disintegration. And while Carl resents his imposed role as a father at first (Russell needs to pee, Russell wants a pet, etc.), he ends up embracing it. It’s almost as if he was the bearer of the good old American values here (he shouts at a developer, rather inappropriately: “Take a bath, hippie!”). The finale sees him reunited with Russell – the man finally a father, the boy finally a son.

But that’s not your Republican Party-sponsored movie of the year. Just like Wall•E, the film has more up its sleeve than it displays on the first look. Take the bird itself – the one Muntz is after and one over which he goes into an Ahabian fit for a few times. The bird is female, and yet it’s called Kevin; its feathers are a happy variation on the LGBT flag; and it seems to be breeding by itself (when it is finally reunited with its chicks, there is no mighty father to take them under his wing). What Up suggests, and what I personally welcome, is that even in a world in which gender roles are being redefined by the minute, what matters most is the generational bonds between the kids and the parents, however gendered either of them might be, and whether the true blood ties are there or not. What matters is care and responsibility – there’s a noble Disney moral for you.

The movie has so much to offer, it’s almost an embarrassment of riches. The instability of the flying house provides both Gold Rush (1925)-like gags and Titanic (1997)-like thrills. The writing is very clever, too. There is some fine mimicry going on here, especially when the dialogue is supposed to mirror the cognitive patterns of small kids (“It’s South America! It’s like America, but South!”), or dogs (“My name is Dug. I have just met you and I love you!”; or: “A ball! I will get it and then bring it back!”).

Ultimately, the lesson learned by small Carl from Muntz in the first scene has to be at least partially unlearned towards the end. It’s important to stick to one’s adventure, but it’s even more wise to let go of it – and embrace the people who happen to be near you. According to Up, the art of living consists of pledging new allegiances and letting go of those already fulfilled. No Ahab is capable of that.

Monday, May 25, 2009

"Summer Hours" (2008, Assayas)

Summer Hours (2008), Olivier Assayas’ masterpiece of clever structuring, is about objects, space, planning, and death. In short, it’s the closest I ever saw a movie to adapting Henry James’ The Spoils of Poynton (1897). What Assayas has thrown into the mix – and what James couldn’t even dream of – is globalization. It becomes the main destructive force operating upon a family, whose various branches end up on different continents in search of opportunities, so that there’s no need to keep the family house after the mother’s death.

The fate of the house is the main concern of everyone in Summer Hours, and so is the fate of beautiful objects gathered within its walls over the years. Since Eric Rohmer’s masterful The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque (1993), I haven’t seen a movie that would make discussions about tax rates and selling options as human and as suspenseful. Assayas is preoccupied with property and the role of commodity in constructing one’s own sense of self – and that’s why we keep listening. At the end of the day, the market value of an object can go unnoticed, as long as it remains alive and in use.

The final sequence is a stunning piece of filmmaking. The wandering steadicam becomes almost a ghostly presence in its own right (think Elephant [2004]). As a group of youngsters – all friends of the dead woman’s granddaughter – is about to have “one last party” in the sold house, a sudden blast of rap music they play literally packs a punch to your gut. But it’s not The Barbarian Invasions (2003). Assayas is almost happy to see this beautiful space, “out of another era”, as it was called earlier in the dialogue – brought back to life by youth. It’s inhabited again, even if no one gives a damn about its furniture or paintings. What Assayas managed to do in this extraordinary coda, is to fuse together sacrilege and resurrection. The granddaughter is about to have a part of her heritage amputated forever, like a healthy limb; but she at least used that limb, and she will know she misses it.

Who knows, maybe one day she will build a house of her own and a part of her that was taken away by money will grow to be even more beautiful.