What a Waste of Talking Dogs!
by Andrea Hairston
The first time I went to see UP, I sat in a dark movie theatre with a crowd of ancients, tweens, little kids, college students, and folks getting their first copy of AARP magazine in the mail. During the relentless ads and silly previews for junk kiddie-fare, my lower back was screaming at the once plush but now bedraggled space-age bucket seats. I wondered if I would make it to the movie. But after the coming attractions, a short started to play, and my back just shut up. I was utterly charmed out of pain and irritation.
In the short—a silent movie with no dialogue—a storm-cloud creator fashions prickly baby life forms that sting and chew and zap their delivery stork. Following several difficult deliveries, the much abused stork looks to be running from storm-cloud to another creator-cloud who makes cute and cuddly baby life forms. Storm-cloud, feeling unloved and rejected, weeps thunder, lightning, and driving rain.
The audience roared laughter and wept too!
But, ahh, on screen, there’s a lovely reversal of expectations. The stork is not abandoning the storm-cloud creator after all. The battered bird has just gone over to another creator-cloud to procure football tackle gear to survive the wild ones he/she has to take down into the world.
The audience cheered and laughed and wept again! This short was one of my favorite viewing experiences of 2009. I confess to sitting in audiences and frequently wondering (with grumpy righteousness) what story the people around me are enjoying. Not so this time.
UP was even more captivating and delightful than its companion short. UP and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button were my favorite films of the past year. Watching these films, I was swept into all the ages of my life all at once. Both films, but UP in particular, allowed me to remember the feeling in my body of being a young, passionate believer ever ready to head out on the great adventure that would be my life. As a child, I believed in glorious, deep, awe-inspiring change, change that would last forever and a day. I believed that recognizing evil, we would, every one of us, turn away from it and seek another path. We would change; we would do whatever was necessary so that evil would not prevail. So all I/we had to do was put evil on display, tell everybody what they maybe hadn’t noticed, couldn’t access, or hadn’t had the opportunity to discover, and poof, justice, truth, and beauty would follow. It is astounding to think that I was ever so sure of myself, of my heroes, ideals, and dreams. Many heroes and some ideals have turned to straw and dust or have been revealed as hollow and unworthy of the mythical stories that cloak them. The bitterness of this kind of revelation can be corrosive.
UP is a meditation on the ideals of youth and the bounty of age.
As I watched a young boy, Russell, and an old man, Carl Fredricksen, float off on their adventure to Paradise in a house lifted into the sky by balloons, I was reminded of painful revisions of my early exuberance and naïve hope.
In his youth, Carl and soul mate, wife-to-be, Ellie, idolized Charles Muntz, a scientific explorer who lived the adventurous life they longed to experience. Muntz, it would seem, got to indulge his voracious curiosity on distant exotic shores. Traversing uncharted Paradise, Muntz got to live only for his sense of wonder while Carl and Ellie missed the boat to wonderland again and again. After losing Ellie, Carl (with Boy Scout Russell clinging to the porch) takes the house to wonderland.
In many narratives, a journey to “uncivilized” jungle lands is a journey to the past, an unspoiled past. UP’s wrinkle on this master narrative is intriguing. It turns out that Muntz is a bitter old colonialist determined to rape Paradise for his glory. Finding beauty on exotic, “uncivilized” land, Muntz is convinced that he has discovered it, that naming and cataloging it his right and duty. Documenting his particular story of Paradise to others back in “civilization” is of paramount importance. Muntz feels entitled to destroy Paradise to achieve his goal. What Paradise might have to say about itself is irrelevant. Does Paradise even know that it is beautiful or special?
Since old Carl Fredricksen was a little boy, Muntz has been hunting down the bird of Paradise. He is not marooned in the jungle for fifty years or more—he just refuses to go home without the bird! He has wasted his genius on a wild goose chase and a canine military. Miraculous dog soldiers patrol his empire to claim precious booty and put down resistance or revolution or any intruder claims on Muntz’s empire.
What a waste of talking dogs!
Young Russell feels immediate kinship with the bird of Paradise who likes chocolate as much as he does. Russell tries to name the bird and gets the gender wrong. No matter. The bird knows who she is and what she wants and values. She helps to rescue Russell and Carl from the deranged colonialist explorer. Russell in turn wants to save her from Muntz’s acquisitive, cannibalistic science that would consume what it proposes to study. Russell risks all to do so as the bird risked herself for him.
Face to face with his childhood hero, Carl sees Muntz’s evil and turns away, but in apathy. He does not wish to engage in a struggle against the powerful Muntz. Face to face with a reincarnation of his (and Ellie’s) youthful adventurer self, Carl would like to shut the door and dwell in what he’s lost. He’d like to cling to a dusty old fantasy.
Luckily, youthful adventurers are tenacious. Carl is inspired to wrestle with his boyhood hero. He, Russell, and the bird are a dynamic team, improvising their way around Muntz’s mad genius. In the end Paradise remains intact, the past embraces the future and evil cuts its own throat. In the face of powerful nostalgia and remorse for what never was, bitterness proves unnecessary.
In Cheek by Jowl (one of my favorite books of the year), Ursula Le Guin writes:
Fantasy’s green country is one that most of us enter with ease and pleasure, and it seems to be perfectly familiar to most children even if they’ve never been out of the city streets. It partakes of the Golden Age, whether mythic or personal, though it may also partake of the darkness that ends the golden age.Below are the works that like UP took me to Fantasy’s green country, the Golden Age, and the Darkness in 2009.
Films (in addition to UP and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button):
Angelina Maccarone’s Fremde Haut (or in English, Unveiled)—the story of a woman, persecuted in Iran because of a lesbian relationship, who seeks asylum in Germany.
Til Schweiger’s Barfuss (Barefoot), a modern German fairy tale romance.
The Risen Empire and The Killing of Worlds by Scott Westerfeld—Space Opera!
Seen It All and Done the Rest by Pearl Cleage—an expatriate theatre artist, an African American diva defying all the conventions has her glamorous life shattered by war and political unrest. Back at home in America, she finds a new role to play.
The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie—he’s nailed what this young adult book is about in the title!
Plays (I reread these and was wowed for the nth time!):
A Number and Far Away by Caryl Churchill—two science fiction plays. In A Number, Caryl writes a devastating drama of human cloning – Her dramatic magic if is how might a man feel to discover that he is only one in a number of identical copies. And which one of him is the original. . . ? In Far Away, a terrifyingly elegant one-act, Caryl indicts our everyday complacency in the face of the brutal devastation we cause, profit from, and cease to feel.
I got hooked on True Blood—Season One on DVD. I don’t do cable so I have to wait for Season Two.
Oh yeah—Star Trek. They beamed me up.
Andrea Hairston was a math/physics major in college until she did special effects for a show, and then she ran off to the theatre and became an artist. As Artistic Director of Chrysalis Theatre, she has created original productions with music, dance, and masks for over thirty years. At Smith College, she is the L. Wolff Kahn 1931 Professor of Theatre and Afro-American Studies. She writes regularly on SF & F film and theatre. Her novel, Mindscape, published by Aqueduct Press in 2006, was shortlisted for the Phillip K Dick and Tiptree Awards. She has an essay on Pan's Labyrinth in Narrative Power: Encounters, Celebrations, Struggles, ed. L. Timmel Duchamp, forthcoming from Aqueduct in spring 2010.