Wednesday, February 17, 2016

'O the mind, mind has mountains': Pixar, the Poets and the Teenager

This post has somehow ballooned into a 2,000-word tract.  Nevertheless, I don't think I have said anything that will spoil the film for those who have not seen it, nor given away the plot beyond about the film's half-way mark, though I let slip clues to the mood of its resolution.  Put simply, two hours spent watching the film is recommended over two hours trying to read my review of it. 

Film fare at the university Cathsoc on Shrove Tuesday was Pixar studios' Inside Out.  I suppose I had been expecting something fairly light after all those pancakes.  Yet here I am a week afterwards still puzzling out this unusual film.

Inside Out has been selling itself on the point of its being set mainly inside the main character's own head.  Riley is an ordinary American girl, with a strong and steady mother and father, who has been steered through her eleven years (and counting) by five characters who are her emotions personified: Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear and Disgust.  They oversee her mind, react to all she meets, influence her actions, send off a daily consignment of memories to the archives and engage themselves perpetually in a well-intentioned squabble for the upper hand.  The apparently whimsical premise is rather like the Numbskulls series in the Beano comic, except that, for all its bright colours, for all its lashings of humour and for all its characteristically American warm-heartedness, this is a not a trivial film.  It has something serious to say to adults and children alike.  In other words, it does not reach over the heads of the young audience but has two rare qualities: firstly, it is a children's film which takes itself seriously because it takes its young audience seriously, and secondly it remembers most of the time, as it also speaks seriously to an older audience, that both old and young are in the same room.

Inside Out's first triumph, in my view, is its astonishing animation.  It is slick without quite being too rushed and lavishes detail on the viewer.  No stone is left unturned in recreating wan sunlight on concrete or the cold yellow sweep of street lamps through a moving car.  Most impressive of all is that, out of nothing but pixels under a computer's bonnet, it is now possible to breathe the very subtleties and shadows of emotions into a character's face: the face falling, the collapse into laughter, the dawning of disappointment, the hesitant brightening of hope, the dance of dozens of movements or half-smiles or twitches or blinks in conversation, and (crucially, as it turns out) the zero of numb expressionlessness.  Even in this age of commonplace technological wonder it is amazing to watch.  The personified emotions may be very clever on their own, but they are, after all, (deliberately) undisguised stock characters.  The really remarkable achievement is their way of mingling and moderating each other in the heroine's expressions.  The whole film has surely been designed to show off this animation; at any rate, it certainly depends upon its success.  I think the ambitious gamble has paid off.  

I am hoping that it is all right to link to this short extract from the beginning of the film,  which gives a better impression of its cleverness than the trailer does.

Then there is the film's setting, the landscape of the mind.  They have the most important thing right: its scale is enormous.  The five emotions sit dizzyingly high up in a sort of control tower, from which they and the viewer can see miles of shelves of long-term memory in the distance.  There is also an archipelago of 'islands of personality', great floating citadels to Riley's particular strengths and talents, which are (if I remember properly) 'Family', 'Friendship', 'Hockey', 'Honesty' and something like high spirits.  Between these and the control-tower yawns a dark void, a hopeless pit of forgotten memories.  They have depicted Gerard Manley Hopkins' lines exactly:

O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Hold them cheap
May who ne'er hung there.

The mind is not a mere safe or chamber.  It is its own country.  Yes, this scale is completely right: yes, this setting is entirely fitting, as the film's audience will have known, in fact.

Having built up this mountainous mythology of the mind, the directors have kept the narrative simple.  All that is made to happen to Riley is that her family moves from the Mid-West of the U.S. to San Francisco in California.  Yet the setting's palette means that this realistic uprooting and her understandable struggle to settle in her new home can be depicted in scrupulous, meditative detail.  In Riley's mind its effect is literally upheaving, even seismic.  Setbacks and threats, real or imagined but all of an unfamiliar potency, suddenly come thick and fast at home and at school.  The five emotion characters struggle to maintain control over the mind.  There is a panicked tussle over the memory-mechanism, and then there is catastrophe: the Joy character — the sole optimist — and the Sadness character — a combination of Eeyore and King Midas, who cannot help tainting anything she touches with a contagious blue gloom — manage to catapult themselves out of the control tower, across the mind's chasm and into the archives of memory, hopelessly far away from any influence over their charge and leaving to hold sway over the mind only Fear, Disgust and Anger who, as might be expected in spite of their efforts, cannot sustain Riley's character by themselves.  One by one, her 'islands of personality' begin to founder and topple; a tectonic catastrophe threatens and weakens her whole person.  (How puny and trivial San Francisco's immense Golden Gate bridge, seen in opening shots, is made to seem now).  That is the plot seen from the inside.  From the outside, and from the perspective of her parents, she withdraws into herself, turns her back on her surroundings and slumps into disillusion.  Come to that, the narrative can be stated more simply still.  The move to California jolts Riley's mind into a new age: her growing up enters a painful phase.

This linearity and simplicity of narrative leaves plenty of room for a remarkable richness and dignity in the portrayal of her character which, it is also worth noticing, also provides the film's setting.  This richness of character is its fourth and crowning triumph in my book, and the reason why I think so many people have found it so powerful.  Just as the animation shows the emotions mingling in Riley's face, so their overall effect is to mingle in her character.  Inside Out's heroine is at intervals joyful, sorrowful, disgusted, angry, fearful, or somewhere in between, but remains always plainly the same person.  She is exalted and deepened where, in many modern children's books and films, characterisation often suffers from being crowded out by over-complicated narratives.  Even though I had trouble keeping up with the frenetic dialogue (once a line is missed it is gone), I can see that such slickness is justified here.  It makes sense for these emotions, being the voices in Riley's head, to chatter away at the speed of thought: their speech, perhaps along with the musical score, is the very sound of her thinking.  (The film's dialogue outside the mind is very well paced and particularly cleverly delivered).  The distinction between first person and third person is gloriously vague. The result, then, is a meticulous and self-unconscious chronicle not only of a character's actions and words but also of her every thought.  It might even be possible to treat this film as a moving portrait instead of as a story, and to be content with studying and contemplating a single character, painted as richly as  any in literature, for its two hours' length.  

I have longed for a work of literature for children (for I think this is literature) that is brave and serious enough to do something like this.  I have often thought that the most moving stories work on this sort of scale, painting the apparently prosaic or normal in monumental colours without taking leave of a realistic world, and by making characters deep enough to let their young audiences almost befriend them.  Such literature triumphs because it upholds human dignity — as I persist in believing all literature ought to, one way or another — by portraying its majesty.   For majesty is the cornerstone of Inside Out, in spite of its psychedelic appearance.  Riley's loss of heart, manifested on the outside only in despondency and flouncing (which I thought her parents indulged too much!), is actually the interior landscape's very ruin. The doomed realm of childhood imagination is depicted as a sprawling rubble-strewn demolition site, leered over by lofty cranes; the collapse of an 'island of personality' is always slow, grave and noble, more terrible than the foundering of a battleship, or the schism of an iceberg or indeed a San Franciscan earthquake.  'O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed,' and, come to that, O it carries enough quests and perils for a trillion trilogies, even at eleven. 

For all that I praise the film, I must also admit to being unsettled by it.  This is not really the directors' fault but the fault of the culture that engulfs Pixar Studios and audience alike.  I have two criticisms to make of the film's powerful depiction of growing up, which I think is what most moves its older audience.  Firstly, curmudgeon that I am, I find myself deprived of the film's cathartic relief because I do not see much hope in the culture into which Riley is about to graduate.   The end of the film shows that the screen-writers are uncritical of the principles, and the implications, of modern Western teenager- and adulthood.  When Riley is more than once given the line 'I've got to go'  just before some setback, always 'I've got to go', words delivered casually but which become profoundly haunting once they are recognised as a refrain — it really feels like a permanent farewell.  This is why I find myself hoping that they do not attempt a sequel and instead leave Inside Out alone atop a plinth of its own.  My second regret is that this growing up produces in her mind nothing short of revolution, rather than a less traumatic formation — or, in other, broader words, I lament that she must be delivered up to teenagerhood without comment or criticism.

I am compelled to wonder why the growth from child to adult must now, since the invention of the teenager, necessarily involve more ruin and revolution than mellowing and deepening.   Why a campaign of levelling and rebuilding, rather than a programme of refurbishment and extension?  Why must the teenage attitude be one of self-repudiation, a developer's instead of a gardener's?  We have all surely seen it happen: young people, feeling compelled to rebel against themselves, vandalise any part of their character they perceive as childlike and re-engineer themselves aggressively into almost a different person.  In fact, one of Inside Out's finest strokes is to look briefly into the mind of a worldly, eye-shadowed-up 'in-crowd' girl from school during the credits.  Underneath the façade her emotional characters are wailing, 'We're a complete fraud; do you think they can see through us?', 'It's so tiring being cool', and so on.  Teenagers will go to such lengths because they are now even more afraid of being thought childish than of being thought stuffy.  Of course we must all in the end put aside childish things; of course we squirm at some of the things we have said and done in childhood; of course the teenager plumbs depths unknown by the child; of course we must arm ourselves for the adult world.  But why is that adult world so unforgiving of childhood at present?  What is the attitude, I wonder, of the ordinary modern man to his boyhood, or the ordinary modern woman's to her girlhood?   What does the adult do with the child's spirit and ambitions?  Do we remain loyal to the principles, if not the practice, of youth?  (Shouldn't we?).  What do old and young versions of the same person have in common?  Were such a thing possible, could they any longer have a sincere conversation with each other?  What would the child think of the teenager's later policy of disinterest, scoffery and sullenness adopted precisely in order to spite the old earnestness, enthusiasm and high spirits?  

In response to Wordsworth, who was able to sing

My heart leaps up when I behold 
  A rainbow in the sky: 
So was it when my life began, 
  So is it now I am a man, 
So be it when I shall grow old
    Or let me die! 
The child is father of the man: 
And I could wish my days to be 
Bound each to each by natural piety,

Gerard Manley Hopkins, who might have been joking, went to the trouble of cementing into a triolet his view that 'the words are wild', scoffing 'Suck any sense from that who can'.  Supposing Wordsworth was certainly not joking, though?  If the child is indeed father of the man, then the parental authority against which the teenager actually rebels is not, in the first instance, that wielded by the real mother and father.  The struggle is more against the authority of the childhood self.  This is why, in Inside Out, Riley's personality must be torn down and demolished rather than refurbished from within; why there must take place not merely a broadening and deepening of the mind but its wholesale razing and rebuilding.  Watching the film, I thought this dramatic, even violent depiction of the end of her interior childhood was unwarranted except, of course, by cinematic purposes.  Surely we ought to grow up more steadily, more slowly, more gently, than that?


There is, of course, a sorrow about the necessary fading of childhood that is sewn into us irrevocably.  I do not take these lines, also by Wordsworth (from his Intimations of Immortality, set vividly to music by Gerald Finzi) altogether as the whole truth, but they are very moving, and perhaps we all know what he means:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:
The Soul that rises with us, our life's Star,
        Hath had elsewhere its setting,
          And cometh from afar:
        Not in entire forgetfulness,
        And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
        From God, who is our home:
Heaven lies about us in our infancy!
Shades of the prison-house begin to close
        Upon the growing Boy,
But he beholds the light, and whence it flows,
        He sees it in his joy;
The Youth, who daily farther from the east
    Must travel, still is Nature's priest,
      And by the vision splendid
      Is on his way attended;
At length the Man perceives it die away,
And fade into the light of common day.

And how about the note struck here (by Cecil Day-Lewis, in his poem Walking Away), also sounded in  Inside Out's 'I've got to go' refrain:

                                                              ... I can see

You walking away from me towards the school
With the pathos of a half-fledged thing set free
Into a wilderness, the gait of one
Who finds no path where the path should be.

For all its pain, felt by the self and by others, the farewell to childhood is necessary.  Why, though, must our culture insist on so high a price, paid in full and not in instalments, as ransom for the passage into modern adulthood?  Why must it harden children so swiftly into so hollow a cynicism; why must its economics compel parents to leave their children for days on end in nurseries and child-care; why must even its entertainment exclude the young for the sake of adults' freedom to snigger?  Why should we not revere childhood to the point of costing ourselves and society something?  We might even keep in mind Herbert Howells' titanic Hymnus Paradisi, which, as I have written about here, he saw fit to consecrate to his  small son, lost suddenly to polio at the age of nine?  Why should we not say of the child, with Eliot, 

Let him continue in the spirit of wonder...

...So that the reverence and the gaiety
May not be forgotten in later experience,
In the bored habituation, the fatigue, the tedium,
The awareness of death, the consciousness of failure...  ?

I ask all these questions, but see no good answers.

Comparison of Inside Out to the age that has produced it also makes me restless because it throws light on all the good things that Western culture  not simply American culture, though this is an American film through and through  is capable of if only it tried.  Why do we not make more films like this instead of the catastrophic waste of money and time and talent there is, I am tempted to fume, on idiotic, violent or lurid films that trample human dignity in a stampede for fame and wealth?  Pixar has produced a justly popular film (and incidentally made a great deal of money) without graphic violence, almost entirely wholesome humour and, apart from three rather surreal scenes that might alarm very young children, no gratuitously upsetting scenes.  (I should say that there are upsetting scenes, but they are not gratuitous!).  Why can we not have more films with fine actors and symphonic musical scores, dispensing with the low and the sordid but confronting the great questions of the spirit and soul, elevating the detail of ordinary life, depicting the fortress of a traditional family deepening and strengthening in love even in crisis, and underlain by an uplifting vision of human life and dignity?  Whole swathes of this film resound in a majestic minor key that, astonishingly for a children's film, never quite resolves wholly to major.  If I had seen it at the age of its intended audience — as the reviewers interviewed here on BBC Radio 5 have done  I suspect that I would impulsively have declared it film of the century.  It is tempting to do so even now.

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Further viewing / listening:
Readers who have seen the film might appreciate this.

Sunday, February 07, 2016

Poem for National Libraries Day

Here — a little too late! —  is a short poem to mark National Libraries Day, celebrated in the United Kingdom on the 6th of February, 2016.

Library

It is a wayside house for passers-by;
It offers shoppers wares they need not buy:
It is already theirs.  Outside they pause
And glance between a wrist-watch and the doors,
And peer inside, and then surprise themselves
Ten minutes later deep among the shelves.

It is a sitting-room; it is a street;
It has been set aside for minds to meet
Across an arm-chair, or beyond a page.
It squashes miles and bends the gulfs of age.
It holds the civic treasure; how much gold
Would buy the joy it sows cannot be told.

It is a match for any shade of mood:
For here is company or solitude;
A laden heart of aches and sorrow will
Discover that it wakes and wonders still.
And anyone can nestle in a nook
And bury all their cares beneath a book.

It is the shelter of the thoughtful child
From boredom or the tediously wild
And raucous playground.  It is a reward
That parents more than earn and can afford.
The wisest, who should know, call it the crown
That quietly lends the life to any town.

The Central Library, Sutton, Surrey.