Friday, 7 January 2011

Toy Story 3

contains spoilers!

Upfront, let me say this: I love Pixar's films, and have done since Toy Story came out in 1995. I cried in the silent montage sequence at the beginning of Up; wondered at the dazzling beauty of Finding Nemo; even, belatedly, enjoyed Cars (which is about Route 66 Americana rather than NASCAR) and in fact got my biggest Pixar belly-laugh from that film. My favourite Pixar film, though, is Toy Story 2, a work of absolute genius: smart, very funny, self-conscious, beautifully designed and engineered, and with a marvellously circular script that gives a very satisfying sense of completion. And it's utterly postmodern, in that it's a sleek, shiny object of desire that complicitly critiques consumerism and spectacle.

Therefore, I was in two minds about Toy Story 3. If you can make a sequel that is better than the original (as I think Toy Story 2 does with Toy Story), could even Pixar make lightning strike twice (or catch lightning in a bottle twice, more like)? I was very happy to see the reviews lauding the film, relieved too; but when I saw the film at the cinema, I must confess, I was a little disappointed. It isn't better than Toy Story 2, though having just watched the film again on dvd, it is probably as good as the original. It is very good, but the yardstick I measure it against is so high that it inevitably doesn't quite reach.

One of the things I really liked about Toy Story 2 was its playfulness with regard to genre and genre history. In my book Masculinities in Fiction and Film, I wrote about films such as Clint Eastwood's Space Cowboys which married a sense of the heroic superannuation of the old-time cowboy with images of Kennedy's New Frontier, the Space Race. I began this chapter with Woody and Buzz, and Toy Story 2:

"Woody discovers his origins or history when Jessie plays him the last episode of Woody’s Round-Up. Woody mis-recognises the ‘real’ on-screen puppet Woody as himself, and identifies the cancellation of the show with the end of his utility (his ‘owner’, the human boy Andy, will not play with him any more) and the end of the 1950s (in the rhetoric of the film, the Age of Innocence and the Age of the Western). Stinky Pete’s revelation that there was no more Woody’s Round-Up is delivered in the fateful shorthand: ‘Two words: Sput Nik. After that, children only wanted to play with space toys.’

"Of course, the fear of replacement (by space toys) had haunted Woody in the first Toy Story film (1995). Stinky Pete’s own superannuation is pointedly compared with Woody’s threatened (and impending) ‘retirement’; the promised Japanese toy museum becomes a kind of old folks’ home, where the toys can be admired at a safe distance. Although Woody buys this argument for a short time – until Buzz himself reminds Woody of his own rhetoric, that ‘you are a child’s plaything’, and toy existence gains meaning only in moments of play with the ‘owner’ – the film reasserts the group or team ethic which had provoked the rescue mission in the first place, incorporating Jessie and Bullseye into a reconstituted ‘Round-Up Gang’ in Andy’s bedroom. (Stinky Pete is excluded from the new consensus.) Toy Story 2 validates the importance of the team over the individual while providing plenty of space for quasi-heroic escapades. Though it starts as a science fiction film, the end of Toy Story 2 completes the ‘missing’ final episode of Woody’s Round-Up and casts the whole narrative as a kind of captivity Western manqué. Centrally, Woody and Buzz ‘wouldn’t miss for the world’ Andy’s growing up, even though it will result in their own abandonment. Woody and Buzz sacrifice themselves for the greater good (Andy’s happiness), consoling each other that at least they will have a friend to rely on in their (or Andy’s) old age.

"Woody and Buzz seem to represent different times, values and conceptions of masculine heroism, organised around the generic imagery of the two toys: the Cowboy and the Space Ranger. Woody’s masculinity is ‘soft’; his leadership of the toys is consensual, open to challenge, and reaffirms the importance of group cohesion rather than individual heroism. Initially at least, in Toy Story (then replayed through the ‘other’ Buzz in the sequel), Buzz Lightyear is the individual Hero, the Action Toy, whose single-minded heroic world-view is at first attractive to the other toys, then irritatingly at odds with reality. In the course of the two films, which negotiate their initial antagonism into friendship, Buzz is acculturated into Woody’s values, while Woody learns to accept this potential male rival (who produces ‘laser envy’ in him) into the toy community. Generically, of course, the opposition between the two is also between the Western and Science Fiction. They are initially seen to be in conflict, their associations with the past/tradition (the Western) and the future/change (Science Fiction) rendering them incompatible. Toy Story 2 works to achieve the resolution of this generic conflict through the male ‘buddy’ system of contemporary action cinema."

Toy Story 2 begins as science fiction (Buzz Lightyear's attempt to penetrate Zurg's lair, soon to be revealed as, in fact, a computer game played by Rex) and ends as a Western (where Woody and Jessie 'find out' what happens in the cancelled episode of Woody's Round-Up); Toy Story 3 begins as a Western (Woody, Jessie and Buzz chase One Eyed Bart and One Eyed Betty - Mr and Mrs Potato Head) and develops into science fiction, or, more precisely, a dystopia.

For this is what Sunnyside day-care centre is for the toys that have been donated. Lotso the bear is a dictator who uses force, threats and (most notably dystopian) surveillance to keep the toys in his 'pyramid' of power; the nursery, at night, becomes a prison. The generic hybridisation in Toy Story 3 comes when Woody breaks back in to Sunnyside to rescue his friends, whereupon it becomes a kind Great Escape. (One of the great moments in the film is where Mr Potato Head, sent to The Box (the sandpit in the yard outside, aka 'the Cooler' or solitary confinement in The Great Escape), escapes through a knothole in the wood, which is two small to allow his plastic-potato torso to pass through. Jessie spins him a tortilla under a door, with which he transforms himself into a monstrous/hilarious wobbling Mr Tortilla Head, who eventually falls to pieces.) When Woody engineers the toys' escape, they come to 'the only way out' of Sunnyside: the trash chute. On the point of deliverance, Lotso appears, threatening to throw the gang into the garbage bin if they do not return to their alloted positions ('disposable' fodder for the toddlers room). When Woody reveals Lotso's duplicity to Big Baby, Sunnyside's uncanny chief enforcer, Big Baby lifts Lotso above hie head, in a clear echo of Darth Vader's terminal rebellion against the Emperor in The Return of the Jedi, and throws the bear into the trash, slamming the lid shut (and blowing a raspberry).

When watching the film for the first time, I was expecting it to work to a quick conclusion at this point, and would have been satisfied with this denouement: the tyrant overthrown by one of his soldiers, with a nice generic reference thrown in - equivalent to the justice meted out to the violent boy Sid in the first film ('PLAY NICE!') or Stinky Pete in the sequel (who 'learns the meaning of playtime'). However, the film does not end there: Lotso reaches out to grab Woody's leg, and in trying to save him, all the toys are transported to the dump.

Sunnyside itself is first thought, by the 'donated' toys, to be a kind of utopia. Playtime is eternal: when children grow up they are replaced by other cohorts of children (in a neat inversion of the horror of 'replacement' that haunts Woody and, as it is revealed later in Toy Story 3, Lotso himself). However, when the toys are sent to the toddler's room, the physical battering they take (they are not 'age appropriate') starts to reveal the dystopian reality of their new home. Buzz overhears Lotso's lieutenants say that they do not expect the new toys to last a week: none of them are 'keepers'.

However, when the toys find themselves at the city dump, the generic register switches from utopia/dystopia to inferno. The dump is a wasteland of wreckage, and the toys barely escape being splintered into the same milled detritus they stumble around on. Finally, they are cast into a literal pit, a vast silo where the rubbish is incinerated. I cried in the cinema, and did so again just now, as the toys are sucked down the scree-slope of shreds towards the flames: silently, they take each others' hands, and face the furnace, in a terribly ironic and hellish consummation of their wish to go into the future 'together'.

The logic of the film, in fact the logic of all three films and their anxieties about superannuation, about loss, about neglect and being 'thrown away', insists that it ends there. The toys face the flames bravely, together - because this is the fate of most toys. (In fact, if one wants to see the films as a kind of parable about old age, then cremation is an end that many of us humans will face too.) What follows is the most literal of deus ex machinas, so obvious, in fact, that I think the film-makers tip their hand at this point: this is where the film really ends. But it can't end there, it's a Pixar film, it's about the beloved Woody and Buzz and Jessie and all the gang, and it would say something rather unpleasant about us and our willingness to slough off the unnecessary, the outmoded, the unwanted, if they go down into the pit. (We'd be worse than Lotso.)

So the gang are saved by a machine from the sky, and they reach not utopia, but Elysium: Andy takes the toys to the young girl Bonnie, who has as active an imagination as Andy once had, and where playtime is a joy, not a punishment. It's a reward for the gang, and takes place in an idealised garden, filled with sunshine. It's a leavetaking too, for the films and their audiences as well as for Andy and Woody.

So far, so good, and so sentimental. (Yes, I cry at the end, too.) Having seen the film again, though, it's also clear that Toy Story 3 is intent on ironising, or at least complicating, some of the emphases of the films as a whole. As in Toy Story, playtime can be a horror, as well as a joy; though it contrasts the different modes of authority and leadership of Woody and Lotso, it is anxious about power: Barbie is given an arch line about power not deriving from force, but from the consent of the governed (as a good daughter of the Republic); and then there is what happens to Buzz.

After being 'reset' by Lotso, and then by his friends, Buzz transforms into 'Spanish Buzz', a gallant, flamenco-dancing and impassioned admirer of Jessie. In Toy Story 2, of course, there is some nice play with the idea that Buzz Lightyears are mass-produced plastic figures when the toys mis-recognise another Buzz as their own - the 'original' status of their friend attested to, somewhat ironically, only when Buzz reveals the name 'Andy' scrawled on the sole of his boot. For a while, though, the gang think the doppelganger is their Buzz, only acting somewhat strangely. Buzz's identity in the three films is unstable, subject to change (and even, in Toy Story, subject to a kind of collapse or breakdown when he is taken into Sid's house and forced to take his place in Sid's sister's toy tea-party). Woody, by contrast, never undergoes such crises of identity.

In the third film, the 'return of the astro-nut' (Hamm's phrase) suggests that not only can Buzz 'revert' to the 'deluded' Space Ranger he was when emerging from his packaging, this originary subjectivity is deeply problematic: Buzz is dragooned into being one of Lotso's enforcers, and becomes the guard of his friends' prison. Although, in the end credit sequence, Jessie is able to part-revive 'Spanish Buzz', setting his hips a-spinning when she plays him flamenco, this only in part defrays the first image of Buzz's 'reversion' to a prior subjectivity: as fascist cop. What is within?, this film asks. It is the romancer, and the tyrant.

And so the friends are put out to grass (literally), Andy drives off into the future, but playtime goes on: the final (virtual) helicopter-shot shows a receding Woody at the centre of his new, extended family of toys, starting to organise them as he once did in Andy's room. Playtime to infinity, and beyond? Maybe. Freshened up with the hose, the toys look as good as new in this beautifully-rendered Elysium; all those years playing with Andy has left on them nary a scratch nor a scuff. For these aren't 'real' toys in a 'real' world, of course, not subject to wear and tear, old age and tiredness: Woody doesn't even lose his hat (permanently). It is in the computer animation itself, in the beautifully fashioned films Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3, where the toys can 'live forever'. Well, sort of.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

Afrofuturism

Almost exactly a year ago, the blogosphere proclaimed 'the death of science fiction' (see, for instance, here or here). In a reaction to what was perceived as the institutional biases within sf as unreconstructedly patriarchal, white, ideologically conservative/reactionary and incapable of properly dealing with (a) science and (b) the changing nature of contemporary technology and its impact upon everyday life, several writers lamented the state of contemporary sf, suggesting that it must change or die. This, of course, is an old story: Ursula LeGuin, in putting together the Norton Book of Science Fiction in the late-1990s, inveighed against such biases and attempted, in her selection, to tell another story about sf. We cannot undo the history of sf, however, while admitting those biases; the consternation among some (male) sf writers about LeGuin's revisionist project (and the way she handled the selection of some stories by white male writers) was not only a sense of aggrieved pride, but that LeGuin had thrown the baby out with the bathwater.

Is sf incapable of 'representing the Other' without falling into a Derridean binary, a hierarchy of value which places 'us' above 'them'? Is sf determined to repeat the representational imperatives of (post-)imperialism? Is it racist, strictly Anglophone, culturally irrelevant? I think the answer to this is no, but even if it were, in the phrase of Fredric Jameson, it is the 'failure to imagine the other of what is' which is the true locus of critique and the diagnostic focus of sf.

Several times, I have seen sf characterized as 'the literature of change' in these blogs, by writers who see science fiction as having failed in a progressive political project. Contemporary sf from the 'West' (Anglo-American sf) falls into facile post-apocalypticism or the adventure-narrative structures of 'cowboys in space', it is alleged. What we have here, I think, is a confusion of discourse, and my reference to Jameson is key here. It is not 'science fiction' that has 'failed', but utopianism. However, as Jameson has long argued (see 'Of Islands and Trenches'), the imagination of utopia succeeds by failure, because the dialectical relationship between utopia and contemporary ideological formations means that utopia is never achieved, but the struggle to imagine it goes on.

Of course, sf is not only written by white, heterosexual, Anglo-American men. While Mark Dery, in his famous article ‘Black to the Future: Afro-Futurism 1.0’ writes:

‘Why do so few African-Americans write science fiction, a genre whose close encounters with the Other -- the stranger in a strange land -- would seem uniquely suited to the concerns of African-American novelists? Yet, to this writer's knowledge, only Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Steve Barnes, and Charles Saunders have chosen to write within the genre conventions of SF.’

Jetse de Vries, who wrote the blog asking whether sf should die, noted:

‘throughout its history novels and short stories by people of colour have been — and continue to be — published: Samuel R. Delany, Octavia Butler, Ted Chiang, Vandana Singh, Steven Barnes, Nalo Hopkinson, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Nnedi Okorafor and David Anthony Durham immediately come to mind, and then I realise I am overlooking many, many others.'

There is racism in sf, certainly, but sf is not a racist genre. In fact, as Mark Dery and others have argued, sf provides a crucial formal vehicle for the African-American literary imagination. This finds its most important manifestation in the form of ‘afrofuturism’. Although a recent Guardian commenter revealed their ignorance in assuming that afrofuturism was a critical neologism essayed by a reviewer (of a hip-hop album), the term has a history as far back as Dery’s article (published in 1995) and its cultural manifestations go back much further. What is it? Dery’s definition runs thus:

‘Speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of 20th century technoculture -- and, more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future -- might, for want of a better term, be called Afrofuturism.’

On Gary Dauphin’s ebogjonson.com website, where he hosts a page called ‘Afrofuturism archives', in an article commemorating the African-American sf writer Octavia Butler, he offered this definition:

‘Afrofuturists believe (and it is a form of belief) that only the specific formal interventions of the speculative narrative genres can accurately capture the shifting states and conditions and, yes, powers of blackness.’

Afrofuturism is essentially bound up with 20th century developments in the political self-consciousness of Africans and African-Americans: from Marcus Garvey, to Pan-Africanism, to anti-colonialism, to Black Power, lensed through sf and, markedly, through music. One of the first Afrofuturist artists is Sun Ra, the jazz bandleader and visionary, who David Toop, in Ocean of Sound suggests ‘may be contextualised in a mystic-political undercurrent of black American thought alongside Marcus Garvey and the turbaned founder of the Moorish Science Temple, prophet Noble Ali Drew’ (p.27). The connections to Garvey, Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism are crucial here, but so is science fiction, for it is that which enables the visionary nature of Sun Ra’s music, its attempt to ‘imagine the other of what is’. Toop goes on to describe Sun Ra’s performances with his Arkestra like this:

'With sound, light, words, colour and costume, Ra concocted a moving, glittering hallucination of Ancient Egypt, deep space, the kingdoms of Africa [...] a history of the future with which he battled for the souls of his people against the legacy of slavery, segregation, drugs, alcohol, apathy and the corrupting powers of capitalism.' (pp.28-9)

Sun Ra, acknowledged as a musical innovator, is also crucial to the development of another Afrofuturist musical innovator, George Clinton. Releasing albums under the names Parliament and Funkadelic, Clinton constructed an Afrofuturist sf mythology to articulate similar concerns to Sun Ra: the deliverance of people from slavery (in ‘Funky Dollar Bill’ from Funkadelic’s 1971 album Free Your Mind... And Your Ass Will Follow, servitude to the imperatives of materialism and consumerism) through the ‘holy Funk’. Clinton’s funk cosmology takes sf as a means by which to narrate an alternate history and consciousness, an alternate and enabling mythology of human consciousness based on spiritual enlightenment and sexual awakening, which is clearly utopian in character. Funk may lead to the kingdom of heaven within, but it also leads to the reconstruction of human consciousness.

All this leads me to Janelle Monae.

Mark Bould, in his article ‘The Ships Landed Long Ago: Afrofuturism and Black SF’, published in issue 104 of Science Fiction Studies (34:2, 2007), wrote:

‘Taking in contemporary music and sf, Sinker positions hip-hop in “the grand syncretic tradition of bebop, not ashamed to acknowledge that technological means and initial building material are always simply what falls to hand: but that meaning is nonetheless a matter of energetic and visionary redeployment, not who first owned or made this or that fragment” (“Loving the Alien”). Although cyberpunk has typically been discussed in terms of European avant-garde detournement or Burroughsian cut-up, its parallels and affinities with bebop and hip-hop have generally gone unacknowledged.’

For Bould, sf (particularly cyberpunk) and African-American cultural production (particularly bebop and hip-hop) have close affinities, especially in the light of appropriation, collage and what the Situationists called ‘detournement’, the turning of a cultural practice or technology away from its intended use and to more resistant or radical possibilities. Mark Dery, in ‘Black to the Future’, argues in a very similar vein:

'African-American culture is Afrofuturist at its heart, literalizing Gibson's cyberpunk axiom, "The street finds its own uses for things." With trickster elan, it retrofits, refunctions, and willfully misuses the technocommodities and science fictions generated by a dominant culture that has always been not only white but a wielder, as well, of instrumental technologies. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. reminds us
that:
"Black people have always been masters of the figurative: saying one thing to mean something quite other has been basic to black survival in oppressive Western cultures..."Reading," in this sense, was not play; it was an essential aspect of the "literacy" training of a child. This sort of metaphorical literacy, the learning to decipher complex codes, is just about the blackest aspect of the black tradition."
Here at the end of the 20th century, there's another name for the survival skill Gates argues is quintessentially black. What he describes as a deconstructionist ability to crack complex cultural codes goes by a better-known name, these days. They call it hacking.'

Janelle Monae’s two releases, Metropolis Suites I (The Chase) (2007) and The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III) (2010) have found wide critical acclaim.
Monae’s music mixes hip-hop, funk, pop and soul and marries it to an overarching sf narrative which draws upon Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) and Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner (1982). Monae’s alter ego is the messianic rebel figure Cindy Mayweather, whose story is told in the two albums. In an interview with MTV UK, Monae said:

‘Cindy is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new “other”. People are afraid of the other and I believe we’re going to live in a world with androids because of technology and the way it advances. [...]The first album she was running because she had fallen in love with a human and she was being disassembled for that. This time around we’re talking about The Arch Android the chosen one, the Neo of The Matrix or the Archangel from the Bible. She (Cindy) finds out that she is indeed the one and is the mediator between the haves and have-nots. She’s the one who can get rid of all the discrimination within the android community. It deals with self realisation as she realises that she is that.’

Explicitly, then, Monae, in her own Afrofuturist music, attempts to ‘represent the Other’. Her music attempts to imagine a politically better world. It does not fall prey to apocalypticism or ‘cowboys in space.’ It uses science fiction as a means by which to create a concept-driven musical collage which narrates the experience of otherness. Like Sun Ra and George Clinton’s music and mythologies, it wants to liberate the slaves.

So science fiction is dying? Fantasy fiction is the future? (One of the blog entries was written by Mark Charan Newton who is, perhaps unsurprisingly, a fantasy writer. His most facile argument was that in bookshops, more space is dedicated to fantasy titles than science fiction titles. The crude commercialism of this is breathtaking, let alone its seeming ignorance of the economics of the contemporary bookstore, i.e very little of anything appears in them.) Science fiction, like utopia (with which it has, in the words of Darko Suvin, ‘degrees of kinship’), is a resource, which is always available to writers who want to imaginatively critique contemporaneous cultural and social formations in an estranged form, and represent alternatives.

Lavie Tidhar, one of those cited by Jetse de Vries as criticizing sf for its Anglophone bias, in fact criticizes award panels and shortlists, not sf itself (and Tidhar does not spare fantasy from criticism, either), and paints a rather more positive picture of the health of global sf: ‘I take international speculative fiction – that whole wide and exciting world of Malaysian horror and Japanese manga, of Israeli fantasy and French steampunk, of African magic realism and Chinese science fiction – seriously, because it’s seriously cool’. If we think of sf as the broad church of speculative fiction – and I do – then there’s plenty of reasons to think of sf as a still-vibrant world literature.