Friday, May 29, 2009

Armond White and Pixar's Up

Armond White, NY Press film critic and constant source of debate, gave Pixar's Up a fairly negative review, and for the sake of debate, Tyler and Matthew decide to break down Armond's nitpicks on one of the year's most critically acclaimed films.

Note: Some spoilers for Up follow, so if you haven't already seen the movie, read at your own risk.

Matthew Lingo: Armond is f---ing horrible. He can't have a soul if he didn't like Up. At the very least, it’s possibly Pixar's funniest movie, which at least merits a recommendation.
Tyler Foster: Armond was pretty clear that he hated Pixar as a company, and wasn't limiting it to Up in any way, he thinks the studio is the death of animation and that their style is a horrible trend.
Matthew Lingo: ....why? Why does he think this?
Tyler Foster: Because he feels Pixar panders to moviegoers.
Matthew Lingo: What the f---, how can he say that, with the state of the rest of animated films right now? WALL-E's first half hour has no dialogue. That is not pandering. I think sometimes Armond just looks at what everyone else said and picks the opposite view.
Tyler Foster: Well, basically I think the gist of it is that he thinks Pixar takes an idea, and tricks the audience into thinking it's a much more elaborate idea than it is, so the audience sort of feels like they're dumb or lagging behind the idea, and then the movie gently brings the idea back around to its logical conclusion in a way that makes the audience feel like they've gotten smarter.
Matthew Lingo: Eh, that is a little silly to me. I don't think Pixar sets out to trick people.
Tyler Foster: Well, as a fan, of course you don’t think that.

Up’s uninteresting story of an old widower who attaches his home to helium balloons and floats off to Venezuela with an overeager kid in tow follows the same formula as the previous nine Pixar movies. This rote whimsy is as dispiriting as a production-line gas-guzzler. But artistic standards get trumped by a special feature: sentimentality.

Pixar’s price sticker includes enough saccharine emotion to distract some viewers from being more demanding; they don’t mind the blatant narrative manipulation of a sad old man and lonely little boy. They buy animation to extend their childhood like men who buy cars for phallic symbols.
Matthew Lingo: I see what he is saying, but I don't think it’s some bad thing. I mean, If I understand what he is saying correctly, my response would be it's more that Pixar’s movies occupy a weird middle place between conventional animated movies and what we as a culture associate with that style.
Tyler Foster: Or, actually, this might be the heart of Armond’s Pixar criticism right here:

Critics who forget that movies should be about people defend this reduction of human experience.
Matthew Lingo: It's not a reduction of the human experience.
Tyler Foster: When Up trivializes Carl and Russell’s loneliness —- treating it to the same Journey/Rescue/Return blueprint as Finding Nemo, Cars, WALL-E, .Monsters, Inc, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 1 and 2 -— the predictability becomes cloying. And the inevitable shift to anthropomorphism -— Carl and Russell float to South America, encountering a prehistoric bird and mysteriously “talking” dogs —- is very nearly depressing. Up drops its emotional elements for chase mechanics and precious comedy.This way, Pixar disgraces and delimits the animated film as a mushy, silly pop form.

After ripping-off Albert Lamorisse’s classic The Red Balloon, dispersing it into Carl’s thousands of colorful orbs, Pixar then literalizes the meaning of flight as a commercial icon: Up. Here, it’s simply the means to “adventures” and not an ecstatic elevation of individual identity.
Matthew Lingo: Ugh, he seems to presume that for flight to work as a metaphor it has to be a metaphor for what he specifically said it is.
Tyler Foster: Well, I mean, he's sort of right: the balloons themselves are almost like a MacGuffin, they don't mean anything to Carl. He used to sell them, which is why he has them, but the act of taking off is just Carl like escaping things coming down on him, like being labeled a public menace and the potential of being dragged to a nursing home. They aren't a personal statement about Carl in any way.
Matthew Lingo: So? At that point in the narrative, he's still an unhappy, bitter old man.
Tyler Foster: I'm just saying, that if that's what Armond needed, then he is theoretically correct that the movie does not offer what he wanted.

Pixarism defines the backward taste for animation. Refuting Chuck Jones’ insistence that he didn’t create his great Warner Bros. cartoon for children, Pixarism domesticates and homogenizes animation—as if to preserve family values. The only exceptions have been Brad Bird’s Pixar movies The Incredibles and Ratatouille — both sumptuously executed in Bird’s belief that animation should show “how things feel rather than are, indulging in the human aspect of being alive.”
Matthew Lingo: Well, Armond is being unfair if he brings in specific wants or demands.
Tyler Foster: Whoa, what kind of statement is that? I can’t go to a movie with expectations of what I’ll see? Armond didn't offer any specific meaning, he just wanted it to have meaning, and not just be means to an end. He just wanted it to mean something to Carl: something, anything. I'm not criticizing Up myself, I liked it, but I am trying to illustrate that even if Armond is crazy, at least he can articulate his stance in a way that makes sense, and may even occasionally be true. I guess you could say he's talking out of the smart end of his ass.
Matthew Lingo: Well, my reading of it from what you have sent is that Armond wanted Up to be something it isn’t, and he even compellingly explains why it wasn't that, but he seems to not acknowledge or consider the things that Up actually is, the ways it succeeds on its own terms.
Tyler Foster: What I see is Armond saying someone tying more than a thousand balloons to their house should be motivated by the character who does it and not by the plot, and I can see why he feels that Carl's escape from the city in his flying house is dictated by outside forces instead of something personal within Carl. Carl hitting that dude over the head and getting targeted as a public menace is an accident, not Carl deciding to bail on a world that doesn't want him and rigging the balloons in an act of specific defiance.
Matthew Lingo: Yes, but to me at least, one of the successes of the film is how it starts as just a way to escape going to the retirement home, but as the film goes on the escape and the house grow in meaning. I wonder if it was their intent to have the escape seem initially like a deus ex machina that wasn't motivated by character. I think perhaps at the end of the film he is the character that Armond wanted the movie to start with.

Tyler Foster: I agree, I guess. I was wondering if Armond would have had a different reaction if that late breaking discovery of what's in the Adventure Book had occurred at the beginning instead of the end.
Matthew Lingo: Perhaps. I mean I respect Armond and all, it’s just that I think Pixar has been on a steady path toward what Armond wants from a Pixar film.
Tyler Foster: Well, he seems to think Up is going in the wrong direction, that they have been closer before and this is not as good.
Matthew Lingo: Well, he seems to want...I don’t know, an art film with animation...
Tyler Foster: Yes, but right in there, though, that’s entirely his point. Why in the world would you hesitate at Armond wanting an animated art film?
Matthew Lingo: Well, art film isn't exactly what I meant. He seems to hold them to the standard of like, a Scorsese film or something.
Tyler Foster: Sure, but it doesn't matter. His point is that there should be no standard on what animation is and can be, and if people think Pixar is as clever as it's going to get, it sort of backhandedly hurts the art form. It’s sort of indirect. That’s where the flaw in his criticism lies, he's mad at Pixar for being popular, basically.
Matthew Lingo: Yeah. And I don't think Pixar is to blame, especially when they seem to be committed to increasing complexity and nuance as they go on. If anything, I would almost blame the other lazy studios, they are just letting Pixar monopolize everything as far as art and popularity go. If there were other studios giving Pixar a serious run for its money, then people might not just assume Pixar is the pinnacle and leave it at that. The frustration is none of the others really want to even try to do what Pixar does. Everyone else is still doing Monsters vs. Aliens and such, nothing that tries to advance what can be done in a popular animated film. That's the thing about Pixar that really sets them apart, they have always tried to convey that animation is a medium and not a genre, which is why it excites me that a Pixar movie has a miscarriage in it. They're showing that you can make an animated film and do these things. Yes, they still make concessions to younger viewers in ways but it doesn’t change that they’re making advances.
Tyler Foster: Of course, Armond also praises Teacher's Pet and Chicken Little which, regardless of their potential qualities, are likely not some magical reinvention of cinema.
Matthew Lingo: I suppose I would need to see Chicken Little but I just don't understand how it could be.
Do you think the world Armond envisions will ever happen? I mean, when it comes to, say, a Taxi Driver, there’s no real reason to spend the money and do it with computer animation.
Tyler Foster: Actually, i think it already has, I believe he mentions people's ignorance of films like Persepolis [although the Oscar nomination would suggest it’s less ignored than Armond implies].
Matthew Lingo: That's true. Waking Life is another good example. Waltz With Bashir.

Up is now playing in Disney Digital 3D and standard 2D theaters across the country. Forget what Roger Ebert says and see it in 3D, or at least forget what Armond White says, and see it at all.

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