Wall-E was conceived in 1994 and born fourteen years later. That’s a long gestation! One could argue that Wall-E was born “whole” – completely developed, a finished product, an artistic, aesthetic entirety in and unto itself. Notwithstanding the creative genius, technical sophistication, and pure brilliance of the hundreds of people who co-constructed the film, to deem it done would be a disservice to its communicative potential. Sure, the story is told with such self-deprecating humor one can readily overlook its grim source material. Heterosexual gender stereotypes persist, and the future appears predominately white – but these representations are mere gloss to the base commentary of global capitalism’s devastating effect on the planet’s ecology as it remains predicated on the twin engines of advertising and consumership.
I mused yesterday (on Facebook), about what A.O. Scott describes as the essential genius of all of Pixar’s films:
“…this idea of an identity crisis – of a main character who is torn between the demands of his group identity and his own aspirations, ambitions and dreams.” (Pixar’s 4th Dimension)
My question, based on communication theory that privileges the ritual nature of communication as the primary shaper of our social (economic, intellectual, political) worlds, asked if Pixar is “determining the human condition for a generation or three?” To be precise, they are not doing this alone, but their reflection of our current situation (as illustrated in the consciousness concerning what makes us laugh at ourselves and each other) both acknowledges and reinforces other social trends. For instance, to what extent does Wall-E’s clumsy and determined adoration for Eva, and Eva’s haughty disdain turned affection, foreground the relational needs of people to belong and be cared for over the group needs of humanity to suck up and deal with the costs of conceding the direction of our future to impersonal institutions, such as war, law, finance, war, the profit imperative…
The interpersonal overlays the intrapersonal dilemma Scott argues is central to Pixar’s successful main characters, whether they are natural rebels or reluctant heros, which is the necessity of
“finding a synthesis, or a compromise, a way of acknowledging who you are as a matter of where you come from, but also being able to express who you are as a matter of who you want to be.”
In the background, unquestioned yet foundational to the story – and to our era – is the competitive quest to be a) Bigger n Larger than everyone else, bolstered by belief in a technological utopianism: we will design the machines that will save us. Unfortunately, rescue exceeds the human lifespan by several generations. Wall-E (with many more lives than a cat) displays a peculiar mix of curiosity and lonliness; not only is his directive to remove centuries of accumulated industrial garbage, his iconicity as a janitor is deliberately deployed to display an optimistic strand of pure dumb luck as the ultimate savior. He also lives out – tolerantly – the risks of examining objects closely: they tend to stick – often unfashionably so. This is how and why I suspect a pop cultural effect from Wall-E could be marshalled along with the many other contemporary strategies (overt and incidental) of innumerous people to alter some of the predictable trajectories of history.
Because here’s the thing – despite everything Wall-E loves to dance! (Cute: hula-hoop and headphone vignettes.) (Dancing features prominently in friends’ recent gmail status messages: “Where the Hell is Matt?” and “Chocquibtown – Somos Pacífico“.) And he never takes himself too seriously – or at least, in seriously fulfilling his directive and embracing his nature, he copes with the inevitable fallout of various experimental attempts (balls, firehydrant). Pixar provides a personality template based on a way of being that has become popular, enshrining a cultural coping strategy we can turn toward the problems we face or use to mock them.
The thing is, whichever we choose, it’s gonna take some time before we can measure the results.