No, they caaaaan’t take that awayyyy from me….

I’m loving the raves for WALL-E.

The first and the second time I saw the film, I came away saying, “I can’t review this movie. Not yet. Because I can’t explain the power it has over me. I honestly don’t know how Andrew Stanton or his collaborators do it.”

I hate the cliche… but it is, indeed, movie magic at its best.

A few of my friends and colleagues don’t get it on this one. That’s fine. No movie is perfect. I’m not spirited away by some of their favorites either. No matter how much I admire, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they don’t move me the way it might someone else. And no amount of my nit-picking about the reasons *why* it doesn’t enthrall me would change it for them.

Heck, I wouldn’t want to steal their joy.

In the same way, pointing out the fact that there *might* be an implausibility or two in this SCI-FI FAIRY TALE ABOUT A ROBOT WHO FALLS IN LOVE is unlikely to leave even a scratch on my admiration.

So I’m trying to avoid getting bogged down into back-and-forth debates about this one because, frankly, experiences like this are very rare for me. I think back to The Black Stallion. The Iron Giant. My Neighbor Totoro. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Finding Nemo. These are timeless movies that deliver so many occasions of enchantment, surprise, beauty, and meaning that I feel rejuvenated every time I see them.

So I find myself nodding and cheering when I read further observations about the film’s triumphs. Like these:

Nick Shager:

[T]his animated marvel is most epic when operating on a small, personal scale, ultimately earning its esteemed place in the Pixar canon not only through top-notch CG, expertly orchestrated chase sequences, and provocative pro-green viewpoints, but also through its depiction of love’s capacity for making us more than what we might otherwise be.

Brendon Bouzard in Reverse Shot:

WALL-E “is an immaculately executed character, a necessarily endearing emcee to what is at times the grimmest American comedy in years. As much as I would love to equivocate about the film’s reification of gender (yes, the robots have genders, even though the closest they desire to sexual contact is hand-holding) or its satirical barbs at the overstimulated, grotesquely obese humans who lazily populate the spaceship Axiom, a Guy Debord hell of flashing screens and corporate fascism, I find it hard to do so. Its successes are simply too overwhelming.”

Robert Davis at Paste:

The film’s original premise is fascinating because the “world out there” that the little robot dreams of is not a faraway place on another planet but a faraway place that used to exist right here, on Earth. He can hear recordings of Louis Armstrong, but plants and companions are as unreachable as Pluto. For exploring that idea at length, with brevity and grace, WALL-E is a noble experiment, and even with an action climax and an abbreviated ending, it’s likely to be lingering in the mind when Cars has long since faded.

Moriarty at Ain’t It Cool:

I’ll be honest with you… at this point, I wouldn’t have the balls to work for Pixar. It’s the greatest work environment I’ve ever visited, Shangri-f*%$#-la, an artist’s dream job, but god… imagine being the dude who ends the streak. How can this dream machine go forever? Somebody, sometime, is making THE BLACK CAULDRON, and you’re just gonna have to deal with it when it happens.

Disney stumbled. Disney arguably fell for a while. There was a point where the brand didn’t mean anything anymore. Pre-Katzenberg/Eisner, Disney Feature Animation was pretty much on its last legs, getting ready to sell off the drawing tables. So it can happen. It’s possible for a streak to end and things can change. Can Pixar really avoid it forever? Can they really keep this sytem of theirs, this community, alive and thriving and productive?

Can you imagine? “Here’s my movie. I’m very proud of it. … Oh. Wow. You’ve made… uh… ROCK-A-DOODLE.” Seriously. That’s my worst nightmare. To be the guy who made Pixar’s ROCK-A-DOODLE. Talk about Nixonian flopsweat. Dear god. I mean, I’m just enough of a hack to do it. And I’d never realize I’d done it until after the fact.

The good part of the system is that they would catch it. Pixar isn’t afraid to kill movies that aren’t working, and that’s important.

WALL-E has generated a fair amount of controversy and conversation and opinion pieces already, and it’s being discussed in a way that would indicate it’s being taken seriously. People love the love story, but when it comes to the fate of humanity onboard the Axiom, people seem divided in how they react, or even in what they think it “means.” Some viewers want the first half of the film, but at feature length, with nothing involving other characters. I think if anything, that must make Andrew Stanton proud. People engage with the characters of WALL-E and EVE so completely that they’d rather just spend the entire time in the theater just watching them. Gotta respect that.

For a film like WALL-E to tackle themes like that and still somehow entertain and move you with grace and elegance is a real master’s class in pop entertainment. The closing credits to the film were unexpectedly moving, telling additional story while also detailing the development of human art from cave drawings to computer animation. It’s a big idea, and it works perfectly, accompanied by a great new Peter Gabriel song.

Overall, having seen WALL-E three times now, I get the feeling I’m just starting to appreciate just how nuanced and rich a picture it is. Pixar remains stumble-free, but more than that, they appear determined to expand our notion of what “mainstream entertainment” is, and I’m just glad that I get to live and work at the moment they’re producing these classics so I can enjoy them as vital, current films and not just ossified classics. I’m sure I’ll be discussing this one more at the end of the year, but for now, I just look forward to seeing it again soon.

Hurts so good

Here’s Roger Ebert talking about the extraordinary Mike Nichols movie Wit, and why it was too painful for him to watch.

Are there any movies that you find too painful to watch?

For me, there’s The Passion of the Christ.

I endured it once all the way to the end, but only because I had to. Christ means too much to me, and his suffering is on my mind a great deal. Watching him bear each blow — and Gibson goes to extremes to ensure that we understand the damage done by each variety of whip and weapon — is just too excruciating. No, it’s not that I’m unwilling to meditate on the sufferings of Christ. But the movie is so preoccupied with the physical intricacies of flogging and flaying that after about twenty minutes I find it difficult to think at all, or to take anything to heart. The art of the gospels gives me what I need, and the traditions of sacred art have given me myriad interpretations to consider. I don’t believe Christ wants his sufferings to burden me so greatly that I lose all touch with the joy of his resurrection, or that I lose my zeal to serve him for what he’s done. That’s why I doubt that I will ever watch Gibson’s film again.

(And then there’s the fact that the musical score steals so severely from my favorite film score, Peter Gabriel’s brilliant soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, that I felt distracted and annoyed throughout the film.)

But far be it from me to condemn the film. It is a work of art, and one that has moved and changed and challenged many viewers in rewarding ways. My reaction is personal, and my avoidance of the film does not have much to do with anything being wrong with the film. It’s just that the emotional and spiritual turmoil it causes for me does more harm than good.

Films about infidelity often turn my stomach, and I usually avoid them. I know too many people whose lives have been ruined by such destructive behavior, and it’s hard for me to watch characters devastated by such choices onscreen. But I appreciate and defend the filmmakers’ freedom to make these films and tell these stories, because audiences need them. It’s a subject that should be explored in art.

And if the filmmakers treat the subject of infidelity lightly, I’m likely to write a rant instead of a review. (This is what keeps me from loving Shakespeare in Love. The film wants us to ignore the fact that, beneath this inspiring romance, Shakespeare is already married, and he’s abandoned his wife and child.) But far be it from me to condemn the film, which is rich in wonderful moments and cleverly phrased insights.

There are other films I won’t watch because I am pained by the artist’s indulgence or carelessness or lack of concern for beauty and meaning. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was too cavalier with human cruelty. I saw it several times when it opened, partly because I was fascinated with Tarantino’s talent for snappy dialogue. But now I avoid it. It leaves me feeling battered and bruised. Sure, it exhibits remarkable style and excellent performances, but I’m not entertained by artists who seem to enjoy seeing how far he can torture an audience before they cry ‘Uncle.’ (On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Pulp Fiction, which is similarly intense, but the storytelling is compelling and thought-provoking.) Heck, most movies these days fail to interest me because they’re so cheaply made… they insult the senses and the mind.

But I appreciate Ebert’s reminder that each moviegoer is different, and sometimes an excellent work of art may hit too close to home. That’s why I try to avoid saying “This movie is great for everybody” or “This movie is utterly worthless.”

You? Is there anything besides bad moviemaking that will make you turn off a movie?

 

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