Monday, July 23, 2007

the curiosity of a personal what-if apologetic

I sometimes have heard over the years Christians talk about "What kind of person I would be if I wasn't a Christian." It can be curious and sometimes amusing to consider but on the whole the more I think about it the less useful I find it as a point for personal testimonies. Not that it has no value but as a form of apologia for where one would be now without Christ I find it to be essentially misleading.

The reason I say this is because while in some cases a Christian will describe sins that he or she no longer struggles with this is not really the "what if" formulation of the idea. Rather it is instead a witness to how Christ HAS changed a person's life, or how a person has changed as he or she has followed Christ.

Conversely, what people can often say they "would" be like if they were not Christians may more often than not be what they are, at some level, already struggling with. Evelyn Waugh may have understood this when he once replied that he'd be a bigger jerk if he wasn't a Christian. He wasn't denying being a jerk, just saying that as a Christian he had a reason, at least, to try not being a jerk. And so it goes.

Perhaps the reason personal testimonies that incorporate an apologetic of "this is what I would be like if I weren't a believer" founder because unbelievers can so clearly see that the stuff we claim we'd be apart from Christ is the stuff we already are as Christians.

I promise I will blog again

I had to write a bunch about Ratatouille because it's such an amazing movie. I HAVE seen other movies which I may blog about later.

Since I have another work-required business trip blogging will take a yet another break. I do, however, plan to blog a bit on a few CDs by Duo Guitarinet, a great clarinet and guitar duo I've just discovered in the last couple of months. Clarinet and guitar repertoire is relatively rare or at least terribly under-represented in commercially recorded music so I will try to plug for their discs. Yes, for those with immensely long memories I've yet to get to those theoretical treatises on Koshkin or the fuller review of the Tamulionis CD I mentioned when I started the blog. If some of my pending plans for a return to undergraduate academia come to fruition we may yet see something approximating a musical analysis of Koshkin or Tamulionis on this blog. Who knows? I might even manage to dig into the thematic/structural underpinnings of the Credo from Frank Martin's Mass for double choir. Of course since all this stuff is copyright protected I'm not going to actually quote scores or anything like that, just refer carefully to scores so that those of you in blogger land who already HAVE those scores can compare notes with me. All three of you!

Since I did my analysis of the dorian mode as a structural device in Dark Side of the Moon and posted that essay about counterpoint in Stevie Wonder maybe I should get around to writing about stuff in pop music again. The last pop album of any kind I picked up was Vespertine ... and American V by Johnny Cash. But lately I have been digging through other things, like I've found a guitarist who has recorded every last study composed by Fernando Sor. The three disc set is mainly of academic value, which is hardly to knock the value of the set! For all the praise heaped upon Sor by guitarists virtually no guitarist I know of (except one guy I learned about through the Delcamp discussion forums) has actually recorded ALL of Sor's studies. You'd think that even NAXOS would have underwritten such a project but this is, alas, not quite finished yet. Hard to review recordings of the studies, though, since there's no big chance you'll find the box set in the United States. I had to have it shipped to me from Europe ... which is, come to think of it, what I'm having to do with a LOT of CDs of guitar music I've gotten into lately.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

self-discovery and social identity in Pixar films and the nature of art, musings on Ratatouille

Saw the newest Pixar film and, as I have liked pretty much all of them to varying degrees I liked this one. What impresses me about the film is that in the hands of any other writer and director the film would be completely different. This is a comedy that is one of the best of the genre in that you can sit back and enjoy it but it opens itself up to room for a lot of genuinely profound thought.

There are a couple of levels you can work on in interpreting a film like Ratatouille. At the surface there's the story itself of the fish out of water trying to discover his or her true identity in a society or set of societies that do not really appreciate him. This is a standard Disney trope employed to varying degrees of effectiveness. In Bird's film the story works remarkably well because we are not given a portrait that depicts the hero as a good guy without qualification. For instance, in movies like Alladin or Beauty and the Beast (not even bad exponents of the genre) we get protagonists who are misunderstood and unappreciated and bemoan their plight but Bird gives us Remy, who bemoans his plight in the same way.

Except that, as Charles Mudede in The Stranger put it so aptly (and here I betray my location, reading habits where papers go), Remy is a snob. Not just a little bit of a snob, a spectacular snob I might add. He not only looks down on the crassness of the rat-world he lives in he also insists on only partaking of the best culture humans have to offer. He is literally a snob across species!

The idea of identity and how one should either discover it or live in light of it is a theme running throughout Pixar films. For the sake of convenience I'll take Mudede's statement at face value, that the two greatest films by Pixar are Toy Story and The Incredibles. Both movies hinge upon the necessity of characters understanding what their real identity and place in the world actually is and in both movies central conflicts arise when the characters do not accept their role within society either because society will not accept them (The Incredibles) or because they cannot accept their own identity (both Woody and Buzz have this conflict in Toy Story because Woody cannot accept the possibility that his station could be challenged by another toy and because Buzz refuses to accept the reality that he is a toy). The restoration of true identity comes only through the discovery and admission of the identity the characters had all along. The Incredibles employs a similar theme by having the Parr family discover that their real identity is as supers and not simply as suburbanites.

Paraodixically one Pixar film has its central theme that we must recognize who we really are in relationship to others by means of acknowledge the previously assigned roles and that they may change; while the other film makes the case that recognizing that society's designated role is wrong is necessary. This makes sense, both artistically, and in terms of entertainment. No one would really want to see a film about superheroes who gave up using their powers and completely assimilated into society. What makes both films classics (yes, I'm confident saying that) is that both understandings of the nature of identity can be true.

Ratatouille introduces an interesting fusion of the two themes. Remy builds his understanding of himself, in the end, not on his being a rat or being a human but in a third identity, through what he does. He defines himself through his actions in a way that he believes transcends his identity as a rat or even his aspirations to assimilate into human society. Of course this is a total fantasy and in the real world we wouldn't buy food from a rat, thus (per Mudede) the reason the movie is so funny.

One of my favorite little touches is how the ghost of Gusteau is not even really a ghost, but a self-acknowledged figment of Remy's imagination. In a great little scene of discovery Remy asks Gusteau's phantom why he didn't tell Remy something. The reply? "I am a figment of your imagination. If you didn't know why would I?" Remy's hero is someone Remy knows through what we might call "constructed mediated reality". There's a cute academic euphemism and hyperbole all in one phrase right there.

But at another level Bird's film can be seen as a story about the creative process and what attitude a person should have toward art and one's vocation. And in this sense it is critical to note that Gusteau, as Remy's muse, really is a figment of his imagination. Remy never meets Gusteau (who is dead before the movie's story even begins) and only knows his hero through a book written about him and from that imagines what the man is like. Even if we set aside the explanation that Remy invents an imaginary version of his hero because he is lonely we still get an interesting depiction of how any artist interacts with the artists of the past. We are not necessarily ever interacting with our heroes so much as our construction of them. I don't interact with the likes of Bach or Ellington or Hindemith, or in a sense even interact with their music so much as with my understanding and interpretations of their works.

Remy is no different. This is why it's so funny that Gusteau's phantom says "If you didn't know how would I?" We can attempt to ascribe to old master's powers of comprehension or insight they simply never had. This is the way in which a form of self-idolization is rampant in the arts. We ascribe profundities to artists that may have simply been accidents of interpretation. This hardly makes the artists or their works the lesser for it.

Self-definition through action is a common trope in the West, and possibly literature in general. Now if Toy Story posited that Woody and Buzz denied who they were out of fear of lost station or denial about one's identity; and if The Incredibles revealed that society could suppress one's identity and one could abdicated identity in an attempt to fit in; Ratatouille introduces a third obstacle to truly understanding one's self--that one doesn't really know. As Gusteau's phantom tells Remy before vanishing for the rest of the film, Remy has never known who he was. He wasn't a rat and he wasn't human but what was he? Remy decides that he is a cook. This is the identity which finally allows himi to find a place within the society of rats and, with a few provisos, the society of humans. Being true to himself ( a notorious and over-used Disney trope) does not mean rejecting either aspect of his identity but finding, as it were, the golden mean.

Or, perhaps to put it another way, do not be overly righteous and do nor be overly wicked. Why die before your time? It is good to hold on to one without letting go of the other and the man who fears God will avoid all extremes. Toy Story and The Incredibles both offer tales of people who find themselves by avoiding extremes but that discovery is the central struggle of the film. Ratatouille presents a protagonist who goes toward both extremes in an attempt to discover his place in the world.

Now despite Remy's obvious snobbery he shows what I think is a pretty honest and insightful understanding of art, not through what he articulates but through what Bird does with Remy's story. Art involves a combination of technical and practical mastery with a philosophical understanding and a persistent passion for one's art.

How does Bird depict this? Well, that's where there's a lot of room to swim in the speeches, which are wonderfully concise. We KNOW we're getting preached at but the story itself as a film lives up to the ideals preached in the film.

Brad Bird isn't merely presuming to teach us at a didactic level what good art should be he demonstrates it through his own mastery of craft. The scenes where Remy is floating through the underground are beautifully framed close and tight, as though Remy is confined to the underworld in which rats thrive. As he climbs further up to explore where he is we get a slowly widening perspective of him as he scurries through his surroundings. When he finally reaches the roof and discovers he is in Paris we get an expansive pan across the city that has been slowly and steadily set up step by step as Remy moves higher and higher above his previous life. We are literally witnessing the expanding of Remy's conceptual world in the way Bird frames the shot, and we are literally witnessing Remy's journey from rat to human culture to discover what his future is.

Not many other directors could have made a rat's journey of perhaps forty feet upwards seem so epic. Quite a few other directors would have moved straight from the close-up reaction shot of the protagonists slack-jawed face to whatever the big reveal was. Bird doesn't do that. He builds tension and momentum by having us follow Remy, literally, with our eyes, and our perspective does not expand except as his does throughout this remarkably beautiful travelling sequence. It's also a nice touch that we are behind Remy and don't really get to see much of his reaction except through his words which does two things. The first thing this does is that it simply avoids the cinematic cliche Spielberg is so well know for by having the character face away from us, which creates distance between us and the character. But the second thing is that Bird closes that distance between us as an audience and Remy by having slowly expanding our field of view to fit Remy's gradually expanding awareness of his surroundings. We don't discover that he's really in Paris until he does.

As for the more direct statements about the nature and purpose of art, it goes without saying that Anton Ego's speeches are not meant to be taken as the words of a critic who doesn't understand what he's doing or saying. Ego is presented as one of the antagonists throughout the film but in the end we are revealed that he and Remy do not have different views at all. Remy only wants to eat the good stuff and Ego won't swallow any food he does not love. Both are snobs, naturally, but Ego reveals an aspect of Remy that Remy's cooking reveals in others.

I am, of course, talking about the simultaneously hilarious and sublime little flashback Ego has when he takes the first bite of Remy's ratatouille. It is crucial for the point of the film that the dish is a peasant dish, and that despite the daunting figure Ego cuts as a critic that Remy is willing to go with the peasant dish. It is equally telling that Ego is perfectly willing to try it, which is one of the first cues that Ego is not necessarily who we have thought him to be or who he has revealed to us.

Then we get the reaction and the flashback itself, now that the set-up is out of the way. We're presented with Ego as a child getting food cooked for him by a maid or a mother (more likely Bird's intent). Ego is shown waiting for the food impatiently but with a certain patience (we know Ego is nothing if not patient, as tough as he comes across in his opinions he is literally willing to wait all day for someone to make him food, which is (again) another clue given plainly in the film that Ego is never really the bad guy we may want to hink he is). What we get in the flashback is a summation of Ego's experience, that it's like he's a child again getting food cooked for him by his mother. The food is the best food in the world because it is the best effort of someone he loves who loves him in return. And the greatest of art in any medium is like that for us. It is what Remy reveals in having Gustaeu's ghost appear to him as a figment of imagination.

And Gustaeu's figment form reveals to Remy an observation that Remy does not recognize until very late in the story. This comment is as direct as it is also sly. Remy sees Linguini and says "He's nobody" to which the figment replies "He is not nobody. He is in the kitchen." Not everyone can be a great artist but a great artist can come from anywhere. But no great artist gets anywhere without grasping the need to work with those who may at first glance seem to be "nobody".

In fact people must trust in the good will of people who may at first glance seem to be "nobody". Both the rat and the young man strike a deal because neither by themselves have the capacity to find their place in the world with their own abilities and resources. Linguini has a parallel journey to Remy--both must discover what they are not in order to first come to terms with what they are. And Remy and Linguini must not only come to this point of discovery about themselves but also about each other, which is another level at which the story continues a progressively expanding beauty. The journey of self-discovery is not a goal unto itself but a path to discover others.

This is also a theme that Pixar's directors and writers have introduced in every film. We do not discover ourselves in isolation and the purpose of the self is not in isolation. Nor is it in community but in the synergy of discovering one's individual and collective place in the world.

And if all this seems to be a bit much to see in a cartoon that's part of the point of the film. If any director in American animation can make this point so plainly it's Bird. It is curious that cartoons have so often been considered kid stuff not because of the history of childrens' movies but also because "adult" themes are often taken more seriously even though in many cases this hardly needs to be the case.

One of the beauties of animation as a medium is that there is nothing in the frame that someone didn't put there by hand. Live action as a whole will have elements that are not literally under the complete control of the director or creative or production teams. That's not the case in animation of any kind, where every last detail is included for some purpose and must be, or else the details simply won't be there. Perhaps this is why truly great animated films may seem rarer to many than great live-action films, because a paucity of vision in live-action can be literally easier to cover up. An artist who does not have an eye for significant detail will not think to have those details drawn into the frame of an animated film.

Because of technical limitations any alert viewer (even one with a visual handicap) can tell by slight variations in the color pallete what elements of the frame are about to move even before the movement starts. And in cartoons that have lower production budgets it is a simple matter to notice in a show like Eureka Seven (which I really do enjoy, by the way) that every time Eureka manuevers her vehicle it's always the exact same bodily movements that yield different results. But animation is a curious medium where even this can be given and received with a certain amount of good will. And the terms on which this good will can be negotiated come down to the integrity of character designs and the visual coherence of the animated world.

And where Pixar and Brad Bird are concerned the beauty of their films, and particularly Ratatouille, is we can see that no expense has been spared. The water rushing throughout is a marvel to behold. The world Brad Bird reveals to us, as a cartoony as it obviously is, is far more realistic and engaging than the more figuratively cartoony world we get from Michael Bay or Sam Raimi in this year's films (now don't get me wrong, I really did enjoy Spiderman 3 but I'm also not going to put it anywhere near the level of artistry Bird is disaplaying as a film maker).

Which gets me back to the title dish and the nature of the medium. A cartoon is like the dish, in a sense any work of art is like that dish. As Ego put it so eloquently, even the most common piece of artistic junk has more thought and care put into it than the usual bad review that designates the art as junk. That is because in many senses the critics really risk nothing. They risk little more than angry letters if they write a bad review people find offensive and if they praise a movie they are praising the work of someone else.

It is ironic, really, that Ego says at the end of Ratatouille that the great difficulty a critic has is to recognize and defend the new, precisely because the flashback reveals the core of great art to be something else, that which through its careful construction from the materials of technical command and personal conviction produce in us the sensation that this was made by someone we love, who loves us, and put together the very best for us, that we are a child receiving this love from a parent. In fact this irony is so funny in itself I don't feel I can even really bother elaborating on it because it is both funny and profoundly true. And beyond that definition of art I suppose there is the simpler theme that we discover who we are through who loves us and those whom we love.