Friday, July 23, 2010

Toying With Us

A couple days ago, I posed the question of why 3-D movies have become so popular of late. I don't plan to answer that question here. But writing that post made me start thinking more generally about the cultural function of children's fantasy films such as Toy Story 3, and so I thought I'd take a stab at addressing that question. As someone who finds that fantasy plays a vital role in expressing and exposing social beliefs, ideals, and anxieties, I think it's worth examining what the Toy Story series tells us about ourselves.

To tackle that question, I'm going to enlist the aid of film scholar Richard Dyer, whose 1977 essay "Entertainment and Utopia" is, in my opinion, one of the smartest investigations out there of the social role of fantasy. Dyer is particularly interested in a single form of film fantasy: namely, Depression-era film musicals. (That's how I first encountered his essay, when I was researching The Wizard of Oz for my 2005 book Framing Monsters.) But even though the Toy Story films don't fit those narrow parameters, I still think Dyer's analysis works for them (they are, after all, lineal descendants of Snow White and all the Disney animated musicals that followed). And really, as Dyer's title indicates, his true interests are broader than a single film genre; he's interested, instead, in the utopian--the fantasy or wish-fulfilling--quality of all mass, popular entertainment.

Dyer begins his analysis by insisting on the "cultural and historical specificity of entertainment"--the fact, that is, that particular forms of entertainment are related to the particular social contexts within which they are produced, and accordingly that entertainment gives us insight into those contexts. If, then, as he goes on to argue, entertainment possesses a utopian quality, offering its audiences or consumers "the image of 'something better' to escape into," the specific form that such escapism takes should give us clues to the specific problems and anxieties with which a society is wrestling. But it's not quite so simple as that, because entertainment--in this case, film--is not only a social practice but also an industry, and as such it has certain vested interests to protect--primarily, though not exclusively, the interest in having people patronize its products and thus generate profits. So it's not a free-for-all, where entertainment simply offers to fulfill whatever fantasies and satisfy whatever wishes its audience asks it to; at the same time, entertainment labors to control what counts as fulfillment and satisfaction--or even what counts as fantasies and wishes--in such a way as to serve the interests of its producers. As Dyer writes:

"[Entertainment] responds to real needs created by society. . . . [Yet] while entertainment is responding to needs that are real, at the same time it is also defining and delimiting what constitute the legitimate needs of people in this society. . . . The categories of the [utopian] sensibility point to gaps or inadequacies in capitalism, but only those gaps or inadequacies that capitalism proposes itself to deal with. At our worse sense of it, entertainment provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism."

This model applies perfectly to the Toy Story movies. All of them--and especially the second and third--are concerned with a "real need" that has become particularly prominent in contemporary U.S. society: the need to remain perpetually young, to deny or defeat the aging process. This need is almost certainly not a universal one, but rather a need that is historically and culturally specific to our own time and place; most traditional societies, for example, accord great respect to the elderly and accept aging as a natural and necessary part of life. But for the past generation or so, and with increasing hysteria as the years have gone by, U.S. society has represented the aging process as an absolute evil to be resisted at all costs, through drugs, cosmetics, surgery, diet and exercise regimens, and so on. The Toy Story movies mine this social anxiety via a typical fantasy displacement, as Cowboy Woody and his fellow ageless toys struggle not with their own aging but with their owner's, a process that, they fear, will eventually leave them unloved, useless, locked in attic storage at best, consigned to the dumpster at worst. In the climax of Toy Story 3, the group is very nearly incinerated at the local waste disposal plant, a too-intense-for-the-tykes scene that resolves happily only thanks to the last-minute intervention of a grappling hook that descends from on high and bears them to safety. The visual imagery--salvation from the fiery hell of junkyard obsolescence--perfectly captures the fear of aging, abandonment, and death that the film so powerfully taps.

But though this fear is certainly a real one, it is not, as I've already suggested, a "natural" or inevitable one. Rather, the cultural obsession with aging that films such as Toy Story 3 express has itself been created, in large part, by the very industries that promise release from its terrors: the cosmetics, diet, plastic surgery, and, not least, entertainment industries. As such, though Toy Story 3 ends with seeming acceptance of the aging process, as the toys' college-bound owner makes the mature decision to give up his fantasy of perpetual childhood and donate his toys to a neighbor's child, the utopian wish survives in two principal forms, one internal to the film and the other external: first, in the toys' chance at a second life with a new, youthful owner, and second, in the cavalcade of product tie-ins that promises, if not perpetual youth, at least the perpetual fulfillment of desire through consumer fantasy. We may not always be able to stay young, the Toy Story movies tell us, but at least we can always buy new products, shiny new toys that can instantly be replaced by yet shinier and newer toys should they ever threaten to decay or displease. In this fashion, through the surrogate timelessness of disposable merchandise, the consumer's needs--and the producer's--are both met. The aging process is defeated in fantasy, while in reality, the junkyard from which Woody and his pals were rescued grows and grows.

Which just goes to show how dangerous fantasy can be. And how we toy with reality at our own peril.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

3-D Versus Reali-D

I saw my first 3-D movie a few days ago: Toy Story 3. I'd missed the brief, late-70s 3-D craze; it didn't last long, it wasn't supposed to be very good, I wasn't very interested. But these days, it seems as if every kids' movie, action movie, or fantasy/sci-fi movie is coming out in 3-D as well as 2-D options, so I figured I'd give it a shot.

Perhaps not surprisingly, I didn't like it that much. It wasn't that it made me queasy or headachey (my main fears beforehand); it was that for me, it detracted from certain important elements of the viewing experience without adding enough compensatory benefits. First, the glasses darken the screen slightly, which I found bothersome. More important, the 3-D elements tend to deflect attention from the total composition of the shot; as a film guy, I like to see the whole screen, not just the single element that pops off the screen. And finally, to my thinking, those "eye-popping" elements (as they're always billed) didn't provide enough pop to justify their existence; they appeared moderately three-dimensional, but nowhere near as much as I'd been led to believe. And since only individual elements of any given shot possessed even that modest degree of three-dimensionality, the effect was ultimately counter-productive, emphasizing the flatness of everything else and in so doing destroying the illusion that was supposedly being achieved.

But even if they do figure out ways to improve or perfect the illusion, I wonder at a deeper level why we're so gung-ho about 3-D movies to begin with. Is this really something the culture needs, or even desires? Has there been a stampede or a crusade for movies that mimic reality? On the whole, I'm concerned that the lines we conventionally drew between the actual and the virtual, the real and the fantastic, the worthwhile and the frivolous or merely entertaining, are being assaulted: when people spend more time talking or texting on mobile devices than interacting with the people in front of them, when email supplants face-to-face communication and kids can name infinitely more brand logos than indigenous plants in their neighborhood, when our very bodies and the ground they inhabit take a back seat to immersive, but unreal, experiences, I worry about the profound consequences for our ability to live as a society, to engage in meaningful and intimate relationships, to care for the earth, to be truly creative, reflective, and wise. I addressed these worries a while ago in a short story, "Your Name Here," which concerns a society that has fashioned a virtual heaven, and in a creative nonfiction essay, "Positioning," which explores the implications of virtual technologies for our experience of space and place. I raise these worries again in light of the BP oil spill, the ongoing collapse of world markets and local neighborhoods, and the effects I've perceived in my own life of over-reliance on mediated reality.

Life has always been 3-D. Maybe movies shouldn't be. Maybe we need to keep stable and intact the lines between what is and what merely seems to be.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Prose in Print

Though I've spoken favorably in previous posts of the immediacy and accessibility of online publishing--and though I don't retreat from those sentiments--the fact is, I'm a child of print publication, and it's not so easy to overcome thirty-plus years of loving the printed word. (Plus, a few recent negative experiences with the internet, including a cousin's having his email account hacked into, have dampened my enthusiasm for the medium, at least for the moment.) So though I'm not ruling out online publishing--in fact, an essay and a short story of mine will appear in electronic form before the year is out--I've focused lately on placing my work in print venues.

And I've been fairly successful thus far. In the past few months, the following works have been accepted for print publication:
  • A short story having to do with the Holocaust, titled "Liberation." It should be out any day now in the journal Permafrost.
  • A horror story, referenced in an earlier blog entry, "The Burning of Sarah Post." It will appear, appropriately enough, around Halloween in the anthology Cover of Darkness.
  • A science-fiction tale set in deep space, titled "Frogsong." It was just accepted for publication in the anthology Farspace 2, and should appear around September.
  • A memoir, "Racist Like Me," having to do with my early experiences of integrated education. It'll come out in the inaugural issue of Smash Cake Magazine, publication date yet to be announced.

So there you have it. I know that print publishing makes one's work more difficult to find and more costly to procure, but if you've been following this blog and are eager for more--or if you've just happened upon it and like what you see--I hope you'll keep an eye out for these and other works in the future.