Monday, July 19, 2010

Useful Life

(The first in a series of posts about Toy Story 3. I’ve kept the spoilers to a review-standard minimum for this one.)

There is a dream sequence in the second Toy Story in which Sheriff Woody is tossed aside by Andy, the boy who owns him, and plunges through the floor and a vast expanse of darkness into a garbage bin. It is one of the rare moments in the first two instalments of the Pixar trilogy when a toy expresses the fear not of being lost, or sold into another family, or stolen to be displayed in a museum, but of actual annihilation. Except there is the issue of what death would even look like for these creatures. You could imagine Woody slowly rotting and moulding in a trash pile, but what of his all-plastic companions? For how much longer would they survive amongst the garbage, and at what point would consciousness finally seep out of their non-biodegradable shells?

This may all seem rather morbid, but Toy Story 3 steps up the existential questions posed in the first two chapters and gives them that much urgency, that much brooding poignancy. The theme of death by garbage disposal makes another appearance, too, and in an extended sequence of pure high cinema the filmmakers even show us the resignation and terror of a group of toys about to meet their unmaking. Things get that serious, and invite us to give equally serious consideration to those recurring dilemmas: what is the proper life of an object of play? If they did have desires, aspirations and fears, what would those be?

Of course the toys aren’t really toys, they are allegorical figurines that we are supposed to read human meanings into, but I want to try to be literal for a moment. There is one irrefutable truth that we learn through the films about the toys’ psychology, one trait that all of them except a pair of scarred deviants – Stinky Pete and Lotso – have in common: what they like best is to be played with by children. But it so happens that at those times they are limp and inanimate; as is the case whenever they are in the presence of people, their spark abandons them, their eyes become vacant – a point that is further underscored in Toy Story 3 by the otherwise extraordinary capacity for expression of those eyes. So what the toys derive the most pleasure from is also what flicks their off switch, reverting them to the base status of mass produced consumer objects: every Sheriff Woody, every Buzz Lightyear totally identical to any other, therefore totally interchangeable, Andy’s marker-pen branding notwithstanding.

There are shades here of Thomas’ oft-repeated wish to become a ‘very useful engine’, or the ghastly compliance of Collodi’s Pinocchio as reinvented by Walt Disney (on which more in a future instalment). But there also shades of the happy worker who – as you might recall – also cultivated elaborate illusions of individuality and irreplaceability, whilst appearing, or wishing to appear, to take pleasure in the performance of its stated function.

What the Toy Story trilogy is about, then, alongside more overt themes like the end of childhood, is instrumentality, or the human use of human beings: so not only labour and property relations and various notions regarding the role and duties of the individual within society, but also who is allowed to be happy, and how, and for how long. Mediated as it is by the most emotionally charged of commodity fetishes, our childhood toys – at least until somebody comes up with a visually and narratively satisfactory way to anthropomorphise Apple-branded gadgets – it's a treatment that could hardly fail to brood over the alienation and the inexorable churn of it all, whereby things and people are declared outdated before they are ready to move on, outmoded whilst they still have the energy, the capacity and the desire to contribute.

This core theme, which was presented very forcefully from the trilogy’s outset, has become progressively darker, and so whilst in earlier films being made redundant meant having to leave the community of Andy’s toys by the relatively benign route of a yard sale, in the third Toy Story when you cease to be useful, you die.

All the reviews that you’ve read weren’t wrong to describe Sunnyside Daycare as a prison, but some might not have mentioned that it is also a concentration camp, however much the screenplay chooses to understate the analogy. Yet even if you take your mind off that particular association, you’ll be struck by the cruel twist: it is precisely being played with, that most pleasurable of things, that becomes deadly if carried out outside the toys’ specifications, age-inappropriately. Thus work, a source of libidinal fulfilment in the quasi-utopian workplace that was Andy’s room – barring its lay offs in the form of chilling selections – becomes truly inhuman, a thing to be survived.

(And here, thinking of those eyes, and possibly taking things too far, I am reminded of my mother’s description of her best friend when, as a teenager, she would return from a full-day shift in the rice fields, her stare made vacant by sheer exhaustion.)

I must at this point clarify one thing: I loved Toy Story 3. It is immensely entertaining and clever, genuinely moving (as a friend put it, it got very dusty in that theatre towards the end) and made with unerring dedication to the story and its characters. Yet it is impossible not to balk at the extent in which virtually every aspect of its production undercuts its message. This of course has always been true: the runaway success of the Buzz Lightyear merchandising was as much an ironic fulfilment of Woody’s fears in the original Toy Story as the depletion of clownfish following its release made a tragic mockery of Finding Nemo. But just as Toy Story 3 is the most staggeringly ambitious film in the trilogy, so too is the merchandising effort at its most soul-crushing, culminating in the creation by Thinkway of a brand new line of replica toys. Here’s Pixar supremo John Lasseter, from a promotional video on Disney Living:

As we started approaching Toy Story 3, […] I kept thinking of the Toy Story toys that are out there, and said: ‘We can do better’. The idea that we had was: ‘We need to make the exact, authentic toys that Andy always played with.’ Nobody had ever done that before, until now. And so in front of me here are the exact toys and they’re beautifully made. Thinkway Toys has done an incredible job, and what is really cool is the packaging. Now you’re going to have to do what I do: not buy one, but buy two, one to keep in the package and one to open up and play with. Anyway if you look at the packaging, it’s exactly how Andy would have bought it at the store – it is just fantastic. But the other cool thing about these toys is that they have kind of two modes: there’s the toy mode and then the toys come alive. And when the toys come alive, it’s something to see… They really feel like they have a life of their own. And so I think you have to get the whole collection. That’s what I would do – that’s what I’m going to do.

It’s hard to know where to start recoiling here: if at the notion that we should buy two of each toy – is Lasseter here channelling the collector villain from Toy Story 2? – or the creepy fetishism concerning the packaging, or the idea of the second mode, in which the toys come alive, which swiftly and brutally undoes the magic and the mystery of the toys having a separate existence when you’re not in the room. But I’ll settle for the exactness of the replicas. In the case of Woody, for instance, Lasseter explains that the toy’s face was modelled based on the ‘exact data’ from the original 3D models. (Data which, ironically enough, had degraded to the point of not being available for reuse on the film itself.) And what is this obsessive precision, this faithfulness to the real thing – which was never real in the first place – at the service of, if not doing all the work of the imagination on behalf of the child?

It’s as if the filmmakers were serving us here with a legal notice: the only authorised fantasies concerning these characters are theirs and theirs alone. And indeed the troubled genesis of the film hinged on the ownership of the idea: when Disney and Pixar were negotiating the renewal of their relationship and Pixar seemed ready to break off, Disney made known their intention to produce Toy Story 3 themselves, and even created a studio for it called Circle 7. It was the most extraordinary of negotiating strategies, the threat of ruining a good yarn. But it worked: as writer Jim Herzfeld put it: ‘It was essentially [then Disney CEO] Michael Eisner putting a gun to the head of Pixar's children’. And it brought Pixar back to the negotiating table.

All this information is not any more extraneous to Toy Story 3 than the replica toys are, for it defines its conditions of possibility – including the $200 million budget – along thematic fissures that are explored by the film itself. And I’ll finish for today with a concrete example of what I mean. The real Woody toy, as Lasseter himself has clarified, is supposed to be a hand-me-down bought for Andy’s father in the 1950s, when it would almost certainly have been manufactured in the United States. But apparently they couldn’t bring themselves to take exactness that far, and the Thinkway Toys replica, as we learn at the very end of its otherwise lyrical description, is 'imported'. In that one word, that doesn’t even dignify this country of origin with its proper name, we are forced to read so much against the grain of this extraordinary film: about the global entertainment industry, about work, about the undoubtedly less useful lives of others.

(Go to part 2)


Unknown said...

Weird scenes inside the goldmine.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Speaking of scenes, I am miffed that none of the reviews I've read seems to have picked up on the fact that the opening sequence of TS3 is a blockbuster film version of the script spoken by Andy at the beginning of the first. That was deliciously clever and so worth noting.

Unknown said...

Very worth noting because at the moment from LA the only really intelligent stuff is from Europe i just saw this and Gio it introduces some mind bending scenes on memory and perceived reality.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Ah, thank you for that - I had it on my festival wish list but the times just don't work out for me. I hope for some sort of regular release.

Unknown said...

From the dissatisfaction I saw among the audience as to it not fulfilling it's promise of Binoche being cute in Tuscany with a well preserved grey haired writer guy...really it is a very challenging film, see it for the Italian marriage wisdom scene alone.
Last night I saw this (still a memoir)... you will probably know why it terrified me, even 20 years on.
Oh and for twisted memory tale, see the Banksy film, Exit Through The Gift Shop Door, strong opinions arose within me...

Anonymous said...

Not forgetting of course the shade of the velveteen rabbit...

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh yes. Pretty much every reviewer mentions at some time or other The Brave Little Toaster, but where's the love for the rabbit?

Unknown said...

In Donnie Darko
Another film that treats with memory and time.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I haven't seen that yet, somehow (hangs head in shame).

Unknown said...

Then there's the rabbit in Matrix 1...
Mad world, Donie Darko

George D said...

I'm late to the conversation, as always, but I think there are some very useful parallels to be drawn here with Agamben's bare life and state of exception.

“The camp is the space that is opened when the state of exception begins to become the rule.”

I think that the 'unnaturalness' of their situation leaves them vulnerable to the type of radical exclusion seen in this film.

Their fault is being in an owner-toy love/control relationship, and instead in transient relationships with multiple children who are young and incapable of expressing the right set of emotions. It is only by returning to normality that they are withdrawn from their wrongful internment, with the real threat to toy society imprisoned in their place.

Since I haven't seen the film this is even more speculative than normal.

Giovanni Tiso said...

Oh, that's excellent. I'll see if I can explore that in time for the next instalment, in one week's time. In the meantime you should watch the film - it really is worth it.

George D said...

Edit: their fault is not being in an owner-toy love/control relationship.

Oh, and have you seen Inception yet? I've returned to blogging and have a few paragraphs down about the subject which I might polish or merely publish as they are.

Giovanni Tiso said...

I haven't seen it yet - look forward to reading your post about it though once I have, hopefully soon. Send details pls.

Stephen said...

Sorry for very late comment, just getting to these Toy Story 3 critiques now, and noticed Giovanni hadn't at the time seen DONNIE DARKO.

I recommend it, BUT, I always suggest that people watch the original theatrical release version first. Watch the 'director's cut' if you're curious but really, it's the original cinema release cut that is just right.
The DC version is a great example of how less often is more. (And also of why people should accept serendipity - Kelly had to change his soundtrack selection for extraneous reasons, and it was the better for it.)