Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Art is Propaganda is Art

Correction: Confronted by an alert Disney defender, I have corrections aplenty: Disney did not make Shrek; the musical Wall-E watches in the film is Hello Dolly (not by Disney); I further must concede that there is in fact no evidence of a flatulence mandate–I was rather carelessly extrapolating from one running gag in The Lion King. And here I thought that saying “propaganda is okay” was the mildly provocative part of this post. Just goes to show you never can tell.

Intrigued by the controversy, for lack of a better word, dogging the recent Pixar release Wall-E, I did something I rarely do anymore. I paid to see a movie in a theatre. My only complaint about ticket prices concerns the arbitrary circumstance imposed by the single price standard. For those few great films I've had the good sense to see in a theatre before they migrated to the home format (for most nowadays that means never to return--unless they achieve cult or classic status, and then in a strictly limited run years on) the nominal ticket price is an occasion to thank one's lucky stars to live in and benefit from modern America's combination of a remarkable economy and a film industry that occasionally produces high art ("as of this writing" should qualify the former, which may soon prove as illusory as, if less lasting than, the latter).
But for those far more common experiences, well, I'm still smarting a dozen years later over that twenty five dollars spent to see a movie about a talking pig while eating popcorn that was almost as disagreeable gastronomically as the film was intellectually. Parents of young or recently young children may empathize. One welcome byproduct of the onset of adolescence is the release from Disney's sinister embrace--and for me it came just in time to avoid the abominable Shrek series, the success of which is a mystery I will gladly carry to my grave, along with the inscrutable appeal of Robin Williams and the indecipherable workings of Deal or No Deal. Maybe someone else can inform me: does Disney still observe a mandated minimum one fart joke per film?

But I'm not sure the greater part of the price is printed on the ticket. I can't help resenting the interminable "previews of coming attractions" as an opportunistic advantage taken of my temporary state of immobility. The reaction of my fellow audience members suggests that I should view them as a sort of bonus. They are the supposed good bits after all, and even I feel a twinge of sympathy for the doomed production that can't even manage enough of these to float a five minute highlight reel. But I don't go to the movie theatre to see commercials.

Arriving ten minutes late expressly to avoid them was no use; I still counted five that I had to endure, literally groaning at points. Wall-E being a children's film meant that these previews would be especially excruciating. There seems to be a logic to them, too, in that they grow progressively more obnoxious; of course this may more reflect an internal psychological expenditure. I'm a tad brittle about some things. The last was a film about a chihuahua that may or may not have the power of speech; you will no doubt be delighted and surprised to learn he's a lively little guy with a Mexican accent and a heart as grand as his stature is diminutive! This part is absolutely true: the preview's exit line was the dog exclaiming, "let it begin!", to which I found myself wailing plaintively, "let it end!" before slumping down in my seat in embarrassment--but end it did.

The line promulgated from corporate-line blogs is that Wall-E is "environmentalist propaganda." This is a critique that suggests the critic doesn't understand, or care for, the nature of art. "Propaganda" is a phrase that seems destined to follow "fascist" into the void of meaninglessness, and unfortunately so, seeing as we live in a time and place where propaganda from government, political factions and corporations has never been so widely or skillfully employed--and is more inextricable from the media whole than ever. Any work of art that isn't completely escapist (even this is arguable) is by nature propagandistic, in that it is an assertion biased by a particular worldview and inflexibly held--often diametrically contrary to convention. Just as it should be.

To criticize a work of fictional art as "propaganda" is, by inference, to argue art must be factually comprehensive and unbiased (and how utterly hypocritical of our corporatist right-wing media-sphere to level this charge while seizing upon dissent and reporting they disagree with, often with veiled threats leveling accusations of our time's equivalent of apostasy--insufficient patriotism); it is no less than denying the artist his point of view. They're engaged in an attack the very idea of artistic freedom and thus art itself, replacing it with, ironically, propaganda--that is, their propaganda. None of this is to say that a deliberate misrepresentation of reality isn't one valid criticism of a work of art, more so the more it aspires to realism and social commentary, just that it isn't the only one and it doesn't in itself preclude a work's value. Many valuable works of art are essentially lies or deliberate distortions. For instance, irony, essentially dishonest as it is, can be said to be the antidote to the inevitable effect of repetition and cliche rendering a distorted view of reality or devolving into kitsch--but that's for another time.

Oh yeah, the film. Wall-E is definitely, and somewhat clumsily, an environmentalist dystopian fantasy. I say clumsily because its chosen nemesis destroying a recalcitrant humanity's world--excess garbage--is probably the least worrisome in reality. Nonetheless the first act of the film that envisions this lifeless earth, from which humanity has had to flee in a mammoth interstellar spacecraft (why they launch themselves into deep space and not their garbage is not explained), is woefully beautiful and worth the price of admission in itself. The film's title character is a self-propelled automatic trash compactor, left behind on earth and toiling away obliviously in his function, collecting garbage, compressing it into neat blocks and piling those blocks up in great sky-scraping towers of trash. The machine has taken on human qualities, however, pining for love learned about by watching an old Disney musical and rummaging through the great mounds of garbage for odd interesting objects of no particular value that it saves.

Here I perhaps I indulged myself, reading into the work an aspect I found more compelling than the simple misanthropic morality tale, touched by the idea of a world of human artifacts that represent mankind's inexhaustible capacity for creation, yet artifacts we've become so good at producing--literally mass producing--that they are somehow rendered valueless. I wanted the film to be about this unavoidable loss of the human element in handicraft, this entropying of craftsmanship as an aspect of civilization, lost to the efficiency and inevitability of economic pressures--and still, even these useless plastic remnants are products of that most amazing and magical of human impulses, creativity. That's what I drew from this image of a machine imbued with human qualities engaged in a hopeless salvage operation preserving the history of human industry.

Eventually Wall-E finds his way onto a massive spacecraft that operates as an interstellar cruise ship, housing the wandering remnant of humanity generations removed from any memory of earth and running on autopilot. Pixar still hasn't perfected animation of the human face, and the film suffers in its rendering of people and dialogue. Unfortunately the film becomes thematically as crude as it is visually here, presenting the remaining humans as obese and muscularly atrophied as a result of generations of sloth, intellectually indolent as well, moving about on hovercraft lawn chairs slurping all sustenance through straws (the image of humans losing mobility due to automation and leisure is an idea introduced in a story-within-a-story some thirty years ago by Kurt Vonnegut, and seems to have travelled from interesting idea to morbid cliche with no intervening interval of valuable interpretation). This detracts from the film more for its lack of imagination than its dismissive view of human potential. A more severe and talented misanthrope could have done much better after all. One can think of a great many more interesting ways that vanity and human sensuality might distort the species in such a novel environment.
Nonetheless this is a worthy film, delivering a few moments of undeniable beauty, sentimental without being saccharine and triumphant over its flaws. That puts it in far better, and rarer, company than the particular type of propaganda I presume our keyboard commandos ("Spaaar-taaans!") find so much more appropriate.

Is Wall-E propaganda? Yes, to its enduring credit.

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