Monday, April 11, 2011

The quest vs. the meander

I listen to a lot of nerd podcasts, including this one, which today included an interesting tangent about Pixar.  You know, the animated film company everyone loves.  The co-host, John Siracusa, had the previous week been comparing Pixar to Hayao Miyazaki, and finding the former inferior, for various reasons: all of them, in my view, very valid.  This week, though, he pointed out that almost all Pixar movies feature male protagonists, and most of Miyazaki's feature female ones.

This in and of itself doesn't really concern me--I think children are perfectly able to identify with the other gender in a narrative, should their parents adequately encourage them to.  But this got me thinking about what I do hate about Pixar: their storylines.

Don't get me wrong--I really quite enjoy these films, particularly The Incredibles and Ratatouille (which, if nothing else, provides the extraordinary spectacle of Patton Oswalt not swearing).  They are visually stunning and often quite funny.  But they depend, by and large, on the same dreary goal/motivation/conflict plotlines that Rhian criticized in this post.  There is always some quest, or some search for self-actualization or self-improvement.  There always has to be a moral, a life lesson.  There always has to be a danger that forces people to embrace their better selves.  The world must always prove, in the end, orderly and sensible.

I find myself thinking of this as a "masculine" storyline, though I'm not particularly eager to defend that characterization; I will say, though, that the primary way girls get to be the heroes of contemporary children's movies is by proving that they can do the same stupid shit boys can.  Miyazaki, on the other hand, makes movies about intense, often directionless exploration.  He is contemplative, and his films often remain movingly unresolved.  Pixar movies look great, but the visuals are illustrative.  In Miyazaki, the images are the movie.  They make the story.  I can't, for the life of me, remember the plot of Howl's Moving Castle--but I will never, never forget the sight of it.  Is this perhaps a feminine ideal--that it is sometimes enough simply to be?  In any event, it is a worthwhile ideal, gendered or not.

Is this "better"?  It is to me.  My middle career (and, I fear, accompanying slump in book sales) has been largely about an effort to abandon the kind of heavily directed plots I love to indulge in as a casual reader, and concentrate more on the enigmatic things that move me.  I certainly haven't abandoned plot, nor have I become remotely experimental.  But my forthcoming (late 2012 I suspect) novel is about a woman who gets horribly lost in an increasingly confusing spiral of impossible domestic events, against a backdrop of impossible sci-fi phenomena, and I had more fun writing it than anything I've done in ten years.  It's the result of an obsession not with story, but with motif, situation, and emotion.

I dunno--I think we're stuck in this country in a plotline that's so familiar we can't even see it.  We keep telling ourselves the same damned stories over and over, are comforted by them, and live our lives by them, when in fact they are bankrupt and getting us nowhere.  We are never going to win the big game, or make people love us at last, or find what we're looking for.  Friendship isn't going to conquer all, we are not going to find the treasure, and we aren't going to land the deal.  If the worst thing that's going to happen to us is that we're just going to keep living for a while, we are in luck.  There are a million ways to write about that experience, many of them profound and beautiful.  Maybe we can do that now.


Franklin Crawford said...

is there a happy ending to this sad post?

Unknown said...

Re: masculine vs. feminine, I would say it's more of a Western vs. Eastern thang.

Hugo Minor said...

Pixar needs to make THE UNCONSOLED into an animated movie. The action figure Number 9 could be voiced by Mel Gibson.

Anonymous said...


Matt said...

Very interesting post.

One could explore this infinitely further - how, for example, does Pixar consciously or unconsciously reflect traditional cultural norms of the U.S. vs. Miyazaki likewise of Japan. Simmer and stir, keeping in mind the vast amount of wildly f'ed-up misogynist anime that is also churned out in Japan vs. the comparatively tame/juvenile focus of animation in the States. The contrasts are fascinating.

Hope said...

I really love this post.

Anonymous said...

Matt and Mark, yes, this could be an east/west thing indeed. And of course different elements of these films could be channelling different things about each culture.

I certainly don't mean to suggest that America has the market cornered in crap culture and gender fuckedupedness.

thx hope!

Sung said...

I have to tell you, I am both greatly uplifted and horrendously depressed by this post. I actually like Pixar movies, mostly because they make me laugh. Like the talking dog in Up, and the crazy exotic bird. (By the way, I just realized something painfully obvious -- both Up and Howl's Moving Castle feature flying residences, to greatly different ends.)

A life without treasures or panacean friendships? Dang, man -- where's the hope? I know life is a drag, and there is absolutely stupendously awesome stuff worth writing about in that draggedness, but...but...isn't it sometimes okay to revel in fantasy? (Because reality, as we all know too well, is hideous.)

- Sung

Anonymous said...

Uplifting and depressing, that's what I'm all about!

In all honesty, I really enjoy Pixar movies when it comes to the whimsical detail and clever jokes--it's just the storylines that disappoint. Cars, for instance, is just a terrible, terrible movie. But when they're good, they really are terrific.

I wish they would fail more interestingly though--as a result of excessive ambition rather than caution.

Anonymous said...

I love this post. The only scenes I remember from Pixar movies have to do with memory/time/loss: the food critic tasting the ratatouille and flashing back to his childhood; and in Up, the montage of the old man's life with his wife, lasting no more than a few minutes. Sentimental, sure, but in the best possible way. There's absolutely nothing sentimental about Miyazaki; his work feels elemental. And to my mind, that's why his movies reach the level of art, while Pixar at best offers finely honed digital craft.

(Cars, btw, is one of their most profitable movies. It's all about the merchandising: lots of kids convince their parents to buy plastic car crap. That's why we'll be getting a Cars 2. Yeepers.)

Ginger said...

Off topic (sort of, since commercial culture is what's really at stake here), but what do you think of the new ad-supported Kindle?

Amanda C. Davis said...

Have you ever seen the Virgin's Promise? It's presented as a possible feminine alternative to the Hero's Journey, a way to describe an archetypal plot seen more often in stories with a female protagonist.

I wonder if that structure fits Miyazaki while the Hero's Journey fits Pixar. Like you, I'm not eager to gender storylines, but I'd be interested to see how they fall out between the two.

Jenny Shank said...

A recent novel that I loved that has the meandering qualities you mention is David Bajo's "Panopticon." I didn't always know exactly where it was going, but the characters were fascinating, as was this semi-science fictional world that Bajo created. It was set along the California/Mexico border, there were cameras everywhere, and these young men called "mandros" who created movies out of the captured video footage from other people's lives. Somehow, taking a few steps away from reality conveyed the bizarre nature of the border violence even more effectively. But there wasn't any message to the novel, not really--it was lovely and brilliant, I thought.