Month: January 2011

What’s Up? Doc! Or, why Pixar’s UP is a Doctor Who adventure

Pixar’s 2008 near-masterpiece Up can be viewed as a sweet coming-of-old-age story that exists in a sort of magical realist world carved with a good degree more attention to detail than you might expect from either magical realism or computer-animated blockbusters. There’s something unavoidably realist about the first bit of the movie, with its heartbreaking, now-famous “Married Life” sequence, probably the greatest few minutes Pixar has ever put together. So that’s what makes the second half, with its talking fighter-pilot dogs and elderly men (who earlier in the film, couldn’t get by without walkers) dueling on top of an aloft zeppelin, so jarring.

The internets have given us a few “sneezing trees” explanations. Maybe the bad guy, Charles Muntz built his secret South American headquarters on top of a fountain of youth, some geeks have speculated. That would explain why he looks younger than protagonist Carl Fredrickson – and why Carl starts gaining shocking agility once he shows up. The fact is, Pixar knew that its mostly young audience can’t and won’t complain about realism in a film where balloons lifting a house off its foundations and halfway across the world is the basic plot device. But as a semi-professional plot rationalizer, I’d like to offer my own alternative reading. One that resolves all Up‘s flights of fantasy.

It’s a Doctor Who story.

Yep. Carl Fredrickson is a Time Lord.

First off, and most obviously, the clothing is a dead giveaway.

Carl Fredrickson.

I use a walker now. Walkers are cool.

That’s the eleventh doctor. There’s no denying it. Those are his clothes. That’s the Doctor wearing big thick glasses, yes, but Superman wears big thick glasses when he’s pretending to be human, too.

So why doesn’t he know he’s the Doctor? I’m assuming you’ve seen Human Nature / The Family of Blood, where David Tennant’s Doctor had to go incognito, even forgetting he himself was a human. Somewhere, hidden among the many, many knick-knacks of Carl’s house, I’m willing to bet there’s a fob watch. It doesn’t even have to be a watch, according to Doctor Who canon. Who knows – maybe it’s that bottle cap he’s been wearing “all this time?”

In my reading, Eleven has been forced to hide his own identity with a lifetime of implanted memories. Everything up until Carl hits his alarm clock in the morning – that beautiful, dreamlike 11-minute “prologue” of childhood, growing up and growing old – was produced to convince him he was really human.

And a flying house? Don’t we know that a TARDIS can be masked with a chameleon circuit? And haven’t we seen one just recently masked as a house? (In last season’s The Lodger.) Carl’s house sure seems to get from his nondescript American city to South America really quickly – after going through that mysterious “storm.” Could a house towed by balloons do that – or could a TARDIS?

As you reread Up as a Doctor Who story, all the inconsistencies start to fall away. It all seems to make sense a little more. For instance, the talking, semi-robotic dogs. Where have we seen that before?

K9.

Robo-SQUIRREL!

So why was he forced to hide his own identity (and the identity of his vessel) from himself? Well, he’s going up against a clever, suave, charismatic villain who has a “flying machine” of his own. Are there any famous clever, suave, charismatic villains in Doctor Who?

The Master.

Although I'm glad that UP didn't have any foe yay moments between Carl Fredrickson and Charles Muntz.

The Doctor had to confront the Master, but he had to do it while hiding his own identity. So he arranged with a co-conspirator (possibly the eleventh doctor’s favorite co-conspirator, River Song, posing as Ellie in his memories), to find some way to encourage him to get to South America. The solution? Carl and Ellie “had always dreamed of going there.” That gave him all the impetus he needed to fly his “house” (TARDIS) to confront his “childhood hero” and save the world from the Master’s plan.

Which, doubtless, involved that mysterious bird of paradise, “Kevin.”

The whole thing was arranged ahead of time. The whole reason the Doctor and his companion, Russell, had to travel to South America was to capture Kevin and save him from the Master, who had been trying to find the bird for nearly a century. Wait, did I say bird?

They tell us right there in Up – there’s no record of any other bird like this. Most people don’t believe it exists. Could it be that “Kevin” isn’t a bird after all, but a stranded alien who holds the key to saving the world, or even the universe, from the Master’s evil plans?

“Now, wait a minute, Davis,” you’re saying. “You’re a complete, babbling loon. I mean, seriously, a dribbling idiot. Carl and Muntz, they’re well, old. Visibly old. Not visibly 27, which is how old our current doctor is. Granted, the Doctor is technically old, but he doesn’t look it.”

Exactly. He doesn’t look it – in live action. This is an animated movie. Where his appearance could be a little more impressionistic, and tooled toward his actual age, rather than how we perceive him.

And look – that explains that zeppelin fight! See, those aren’t elderly, frail men fighting – they’re virile, physically fit Time Lords at the peak of their powers, even if one or both of them don’t realize it. (And I’m not discounting the possibility that the Master has been fob-watched, too.)

By the way, “Charles Muntz,” eh? Hey, isn’t the Master known for using fake names with deceptive wordplay and anagrams to reveal who he really is? Okay. Well, let’s break his name down. What anagrams can we make from “Charles Muntz?”

MASTER LUNCHZ

Now, “Lunchz” isn’t very good spelling, it’s true. But the Master is known for being a pretty hungry guy, especially in “The End of Time.” And what’s the first thing Muntz did when Carl and Russell showed up at his secret lair? Fed them lunch.

But this is all just idle speculation. There’s only one person who knows if Up is really an eleventh doctor adventure, and that’s the film’s writer/director.

Pete Docter.

A beautiful speech about imagination and a good philosophy, from Haruki Murakami

This is how I try to live. I’m not great at it, but this is my philosophy.

In Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, translated by Philip Gabriel, the teenage runaway protagonist has ended up in a library in southern Japan, where he meets the library’s owner, Miss Saeki, and her young assistant, the cerebral, angelic Oshima. Miss Saeki and Oshima are two of the most perfectly, exquisitely, heartbreakingly human creations I’ve ever read in fiction. After a particularly epic win scene shooting down two hateful “feminists” who called him a typical patriarchal male, Oshima tells Kafka this:

“I’ve experienced all kinds of discrimination,” Oshima says. “Only people who’ve been discriminated against can really know how much it hurts. Each person feels the pain in his own way, each has his own scars. So I think I’m as concerned about fairness and justice as anybody. But what disgusts me even more are people who have no imagination. The kind T.S. Eliot calls hollow men. People who fill up that lack of imagination with heartless bits of straw, not even aware of what they’re doing. Callous people who throw a lot of empty words at you, trying to force you to do what you don’t want to do. Like that lovely pair we just met.” He sighs and twirls the long slender pencil in his hand.

“Gays, lesbians, straights, feminists, fascist pigs, communists, Hare Krishnas — none of them bother me. I don’t care what banner they raise. But what I can’t stand are hollow people. When I’m with them I just can’t bear it, and wind up saying things I shouldn’t. With those women — I should’ve just let it slide, or else called Miss Saeki and let her handle it. She would have given them a smile an smoothed things over. But I just can’t do that. I say things I shouldn’t, do things I shouldn’t do. I can’t control myself. That’s one of my weak points. Do you know why that’s a weak point of mine?”

“‘Cause if you take every single person who lacks much imagination seriously, there’s no end to it,” I say.

“That’s it,” Oshima says. He taps his temple lightly with the eraser end of the pencil. “But there’s one thing I want you to remember, Kafka. These are the kind of people who (spoiler) murdered Miss Saeki’s childhood sweetheart. Narrow minds devoid of imagination. Intolerance, theories cut off from reality, empty terminology, usurped ideals, inflexible systems. Those are the things that really frighten me. What I absolutely fear and loathe. Of course it’s important to know what’s right and what’s wrong. Individual errors in judgment can usually be corrected. As long as you have the courage to admit mistakes, things can be turned around. But intolerant, narrow minds with no imagination are like parasites that transform the host, change form, and continue to thrive. They’re a lost cause, and I don’t want anyone like that coming in here.”

Oshima points at the stacks with the tip of his pencil. What he means, of course, is the entire library.

“I wish I could just laugh off people like that, but I can’t.”

Dunavin on Film: Really Good Directors of the 2000s, Part I

Because I try not to be completely negative, here are some of my favorite directors of the past decade. None of them are particularly obscure; in fact, a couple of them verge on household names, and one is Pixar, so take that for what you will. What makes them worth following is that all of them make movies about people (well, Pixar also makes movies about fish, toys, robots and cars) rather than making a movie to try to impress you with flashy editing or “mind-blowing” plot twists. For example:

Alexander Payne (About Schmidt, Sideways)

Alexander Payne was one of two great directors to only make two films in the entire decade – and he’s been silent since 2004, which is really, really annoying. About Schmidt and Sideways were amazing road trip films, but Payne’s real love is looking at how the dynamic between men and women changes as we grow old. His first two movies, Citizen Ruth and Election, were sexual satires on the level of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, but masquerading as ’90s comedies. With About Schmidt, he made Jack Nicholson a totally three-dimensional elderly widower – lonely, socially awkward and naïve – and put him on the road, where we cringed with him until he ran headfirst into Kathy Bates’s explosion of trashy Midwestern joy. Similarly, he took Sideways‘s two middle-aged wine snobs, with all their neuroses and hangups, and expanded their characters until the overlap with the women they courted and tried not to love turned ugly and beautiful. He’s been silent since then, although rumors of projects keep popping up.

Dunavin on Film: The Most Overrated Directors of the 2000s, Part I

Critics and armchair movie viewers alike fawned over three directors in the 2000s whose films showed very little understanding of how people actually work, interact and live – and tons of flashy plot-twisty nonsense and inappropriate overstylization. Their films emphasize did-I-just-blow-your-mind narminess over any actual cinematic grace. You probably like them. You are wrong. Firstly:

Darren Aronofsky

There was a good movie to be had somewhere in The Fountain: a potentially winning romance that would be something like The Notebook meeting David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas. But the shocking lack of soul Darren Aronofsky has displayed in his other dour, murky, overly stylized messes suggest it was stumbled upon accidentally. Like Nolan, Aronofsky’s movies are, for the most part, designed to elicit cries of “That’s soooo deep” from frat boys and people who listen to a lot of prog rock. For those of us who aren’t impressed by such cinematic self-gratification, films like Requiem for a Dream come across as hideously pompous. (Aronofsky’s two worst works, the unbelievably pretentious, embarrassingly bad low-budget Pi and the unbelievably pretentious, embarrassingly bad high-budget Black Swan, came on either side of the decade.)

Darren Aronofsky is the worst director of the decade to not get roasted on a regular basis. He has a lot in common with the much-despised M. Night Shyamalan – a bloated sense of self-importance, a tendency to rely heavily on pretty visuals when the storytelling gets weak – but even Shyamalan is capable of decent pacing and doesn’t cynically splatter the screen with tacky, clumsy gratuitous audience-gratification scenes that belong in soft-core porn.