Sunday, August 3, 2008

WALL-E and the Politics of the Heavy Hand

Art and politics have been going steady now for centuries, and their relationship will likely continue. Personally, I usually don't mind their coziness together; some of my favorite movies, novels, and songs have political undertones to them. But what irritates me is when political art abandons all attempts at subtlety (a feature I value highly in art) and becomes stultifyingly heavy-handed and (worse) preachy. Such art is the high school hallway make-out couple of its kind.

I've been thinking about the value of heavy-handed political art for about a month now. It began when I took my three-year-old daughter to WALL-E, Pixar's second self-indulgent adventure (the first being Ratatouille). I admit, the CG animation was great, the sound design was ingenious, and the robot love story was cute. But halfway through the film, the producers decided they had to start taking cheap (and ever trendy) shots at obesity and Bush Republicans (the phrase "stay the course" was used in regards to an inadequate national policy). To top it off, they turned the movie into another vehicle for the current celebrity cause, environmental preservation. The whole thing made me gag.

Don't get me wrong: I watched (and enjoyed) Al Gore's slide-show, and I'm all for saving the planet. I just bought a bike, for crying out loud! I even admire a nicely done political allegory. But I hate getting clubbed over the head time and time again--and WALL-E seems to take pleasure in wielding the club. Pixar needs to return to the subtlety of its previous works Monsters, Inc. and Cars, both of which carry environmentalist messages without self-indulgent melodrama and transparent political posturing.

The sad reality of the entertainment industry's infatuation with the environmental movement is that if going Green did not currently mean getting green (as in the greenback), then the environmentalist movement would be up a polluted creek without a paddle. Call me pessimistic, but I predict that Hollywood will soon find a new cause and Green art will go the way of all the other dead celebrity causes. We're not going to be the cause of this planet's destruction--Hollywood's fickle thirst for money will be.

In 1941, Preston Sturges filmed a comedy called Sullivan's Travels that was a brilliant "SHUT UP!" to those who criticized his films for not being political enough. In the film, he tells the story of a director who wants to make a politically important film, but keeps getting stuck making comedies. In the film, Sturges sends America an important message about poverty and compassion--but he also sends an important message to Hollywood: life is tough, and sometimes people just want to laugh. It a masterfully subtle work--and its one of my favorites. I'd recommend it along with I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town--two other powerfully political films from the same era that value subtlety over the club.

A heavy-handed message--even if the message is an important one--rarely stands the test of time. In twenty years, WALL-E will be the dinosaurs that Ferngully: The Last Rain Forest has become. It'll never become great classic. Fortunately, though, the entertainment industry is not interested in making classics with enduring environmentally-conscious messages. The only green they care about is the kind that doesn't grow on trees.

1 comment:

  1. I haven't seen Wall-E but I agree - I don't like being hit over the head about something.