Mimesis and Violence

July 27, 2008, 10:01 pm
Filed under: Film, Rants

Pulpy movies are one of life’s greatest guilty pleasures. Picked ripe, juiced, viewed alone in a darkened room in grainy glory from a full-screened YouTube-style flash player when the alternative of social exertion seems too exerting, or in a theater when you can muster the friends or the willpower to go alone… nothing better.

For serious: overtones of misanthropy notwithstanding, I love shitty action movies, cartoons, bottom-of-the-barrel comedy, and classless whirlwind dramas. I once watched the Hulk, Blade 3, and Dr. Dolittle 2 back to back on tv-links.co.uk; Put me on a plane or in a dorm room and I’ll happily watch the dregs of Hollywood for hours and then wax eloquent with friends about the mathematical relationship between the number of Eddies Murphy in a film and its greatness.

From the outset this summer seemed like a windfall of pulp that only Tropicana could best. We were going to get another Hulk film, another Indiana Jones film (which was awful), a girl with a pig’s nose, a Kung-Fu panda, Angelina Jolie killing people (again), Adam Sandler playing a mossad agent cum hairstylist, another Will Smith July 4th blockbuster, another Judd Apatow joint, and another Will Ferrell/John C. Reilly romp. Life was looking UP in May and June.

To my great chagrin I have seen none of this summer’s mind-numbers, bullet-benders, toilet-humorists, or feeble heart-string-tuggers, and no Eddies Murphy. None! Somehow I instead managed to see two flicks besotted with cultural criticism, movies of some depth, films that vie for the soul of modern man: Kung-Fu Panda, Wall-E.

What what what!? Yup yup yup. I’m serious. For realsies.

I was supposed to see Kung-Fu Panda with my sister and my college roommate, but the roomie somehow ended up in the wrong showing and we saw it separately at about the same time. After recapping the plot twists that led to us seeing the movie in different theaters, roommate and I get to talking about the film. So I’m loving the Panda, enamored with the use of food as motivation for Kung Fuing, ready to adopt ‘skidoosh’ into my vocab, when roomie says that he really liked the Kung-Fu tiger of doom more than panda, that his jail escape was really cool, that the tiger worked really hard to become the “Dragon Warrior” and the Panda basically did nothing other than idolize other Kung Fu-ers and over-eat, that it is absurd that the ‘secret ingredient’ should make up for years of hard training and general awesomeness.

At first blush it would seem like the point of Kung-Fu Panda is that practice and training are nothing in the face of well, a belly and blind luck, that the universe chooses (the Dragon Warrior in this case) and there’s nothing to be done to change that choice (“there are no accidents”). It seems rather abhorrent to panda suit Jack Black for the purpose of telling kids that they too can do whatever they want without significant training or practice, even be fat Kung-Fu champions.

Blush one more time and realize that the movie is not quite that simplistic (though still pretty simplistic). Though he trained for a comparatively short time, Po needed a trainer, a great trainer, a trainer who realized the unique way in which he could be trained effectively, in order to become great himself. Moreover, Po needed to come to the secret of the ‘Dragon Warrior’ himself (the fact that there is “no secret” is a secret in its own right).

Insight is the nub of greatness in the Pandaverse. The ability to see a situation in a new or counter-intuitive way, to train people with an appreciation of who they are rather than what you would like them to become, can brings about greater leverage than years of narrow training in a discipline. Like most morals this one has some truth to it, but it’s a very modern conceit, very Freakonomics logic that perhaps doesn’t apply in the realm of precise hand-to-hand combat (or even more broadly?).

Despite roomie’s great points, I think I’ve successfully justified enjoying Kung-Fu Panda. I certainly wouldn’t argue that it was a cinematic achievement of any sort, though. Kung-Fu Panda was a wholly enjoyable computer animated martial arts flick for kids and immature adults like myself. Wall-E, in it’s renewal of silent film for our times, was an impressive achievement. The range of emotion displayed by basically voiceless robots in the first forty minutes of the movie is absolutely breathtaking.

Not to denigrate the success of Wall-E, but an achievement of cinematography wrapped in a polemic wrapped in a wrapped in a cop-out ending needs to be considered for it’s content too.

Wall-E, for those of you who don’t know, is a tireless little robot of a model intended to clean up the Earth after we lazy humans laid waste to it and fled into space to live lives of slovenly luxury waited on hand and foot by robots. Over the years Wall-E developed personality in addition to diligence and now combs the land for memorabilia of humanity that he finds interesting in his extremely cute way.

Over those same years Humans have grown even more lazy and even more fat. In contradistinction to the Pandaverse, Wall-E portrays the obese remnant of humanity as incapable of fending for themselves, let alone fighting off Kung-Fu tigers, slurpy slurping babies in the form of atrophied adults, full-body pajamas and all. Only once they learn to act independently of their robot babysitters/overlords can humanity re-establish itself on a renewed Earth.

Laziness and apathy are the core evils of a film that doesn’t go light on the preaching, and as evils go these are pretty trite ones at that. The transparent preachiness of the tale and Pixar’s trade of a happy-ending for a G-rating are probably the greatest failures of Wall-E. It is interesting to notice, however, that it takes a robot of human construction endowed with a human personality by rummaging through human waste and uncovering the gems of human ingenuity and creativity to free humanity of its self-imposed bondage and sloth.

In Wall-E-Land, unlike Pandaverse, problems are not solvable by fate or chance or even particular insight. They are solved by the hard work, the development of a sense of duty and self over long period of exploration, and by the persistence of the few who labor to achieve something meaningful (Wall-E and EVE working to return humanity to Earth in this case).

OK, so from a philosophical perspective both movies are pretty weak. If they are at war over the soul of modernity it’s a pretty paltry war. What’s interesting, though, is that both films are ostensibly for kids and neither film shies from preaching. Makes me pine for the bikini clad Disney girls of yore, when at the least a young boy could be easily distracted from any moralizing in his media.