Telecommuniculturey

High- and low-brow cultural goings-on in the Second City, brought to you by a roving microtechnoanthropologist

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Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Only Thing That Rhymes With Barnaby is Barnaby: WALL•E

There was a time when anyone entering my dwelling expected to encounter one of several movies: (1) Pride and Prejudice (Garson/Olivier); (2) Bedazzled (I'd clarify that this is the Cook/Moore version, but THERE IS NO OTHER, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?!?); (3) Some Like It Hot; (4) Hello, Dolly! I am being literal when I say that it's possible I have seen Hello, Dolly! close to 500 times. (The lovely A and I have a long-standing fantasy about a movie in which Michael Crawford plays an American and Dick Van Dyke plays a Brit.) So back when we saw the very first previews for WALL•E, I spotted the nanosecond-long clip of H,D!, and I was sold. (And his reasoning behind its use does tickle me, but of course, I have no resistance whatsoever vs. supercute robots, so H,D! was somewhat superfluous.)

M and I met for an early showing downtown, because we really wanted to see it. (Seriously, how we did not try to steal one of the giant three-dimensional WALL•Es from the theaters before it came out, I do not know. But we regret it.) Our dedication to seeing it, however, didn't mean that we wanted to brave the full force of the ravening hordes at a later showing. As it was, the theater was nearly completely full with kids big and little, but it was still a thoroughly pleasant, undisrupted experience.

We had families with kids on both sides of us. I didn't see those to M's right, but on my left, they were in about the 3-4 range, and at least one of them climbed into his dad's lap for at least a while. M reported that the parent on his side was leaning in to comfort and/or hand hold a few times. He wondered why, given that there's nothing particularly surprising or scary in it. I think it's because kids get loneliness and desolation to an extent that we don't often appreciate. (As I said to M, what's worse than Bambi's mother buying it in the first 5 minutes? Bambi not even having a mother.) And I think we don't often have the opportunity to appreciate it, at least partly because children don't have the vocabulary to express it. Of course, WALL•E doesn't either.

The very small number of negative reviews (including Salon's, which appears to have been written by a narcoleptic. At least that's the only explanation I can find for someone so thoroughly missing the boat) seem focus on the loneliness, melancholy, and desolation and see only pointlessness in WALL•E's routines and tchotchkes and fetishes.

But pointless or not, WALL•E's exactly the kind of being you want to survive any given end-of-the-world scenario (up to and including the robot holocaust): He's adaptable and practical. He keeps himself in good repair (I'll admit that his cannibalization of his brethren doesn't really bear thinking about), and he carries on with his work. He finds a spork, and after marveling a moment at its liminal state, shrugs and places it halfway between its utensilular ancestors.

But his practicality has no undercurrent of settling. Above all, he's hopeful. He aspires. He longs. He looks for beauty and fun in a discarded world. The most bizarre part of the Salon review, to me, was the idea that WALL•E is treating his treasured, battered copy of Hello, Dolly! as some kind of instructional video or decoder ring for interpersonal (interbeing, I suppose) interaction.

It doesn't at all strike me that WALL•E doesn't understand the tape, rather that it is the only thing that might understand him, and so to him it becomes talisman, artifact, and oral history. It reminded me of nothing so much as the story-telling scene in Beyond Thunderdome. (Laugh if you will, it's one hell of powerful story-telling device about the power of telling stories.) I suppose one could see the tape as WALL•E's theology, that dance and song and holding hands are the reward for a job well done, but to me, WALL•E seems much more about living than dying. He's spent some time learning how to dance; he only wants a partner.

When Eve shows up, she mirrors him. She's all business first, but she takes the first opportunity to dance like no one's watching. I will say that the trailers, complete with Etta James laying down "At Last," were tremendously misleading to the point of being every so slightly disturbing when you realize that they're depicting WALL•E dragging Eve's inert form around by a leash of Christmas lights. But other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, their romance is charming and quirky and eternal and unique and quintessential.

No doubt the paeans to how damned expressive these two little nonverbal things are will grow tiresome at some point, but we're not there yet. WALL•E's eyebrows and nervous little hand gestures imbue him with more personality than any star voice I can think of. Eve's eyes obviously give them more to work with, but she, too has evocative body language and individuality.

It's enough to make me wish that we'd gotten to see a few more of the characters in the Army of Misfit Robots. And speaking of them, how deliciously cracked is the idea that WALL•E liberates a bunch of "malfunctioning" (read "disturbed") kindred spirits to wreak havoc on the ship? It's exactly the kind of darkly humorous undercurrent that made me love (even as I feared) movies like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (hello? CHILD CATCHER!), the Gene Wilder Willy Wonka, and so on.

And for what it's worth, I found it charming and heartening that the movie chose to paint humans as pathetic and passive and unthinking, but also fascinated with and enamored of their surroundings, pleasures, and one another, once they'd been temporarily kicked in the head.As surely as WALL•E and Eve are meant to be both extraordinary versions at the same time as they are simple one of a long line of models, I like the idea that any given John or Mary or Captain might also rise to the occasion. I'm reading Neal Stephenson's Diamond Age: Or a Young Lady's Primer, which has a very similar thematic vein that I'm enjoying.

In case you're wondering if my brain has turned to mush and left me gushy optimist or something, let me assure you that my Hello, Dolly! love has not blinded me to the fact that "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" is, essentially, a hymn handed down from the Bourgeois overlords to the Proles, ordering them to consume.

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