Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Case Against Cute

29 November – 5 December 2009 [preview draft]

I’m feeling distracted over the last day or so – even more so than usual (I must say the kick-off to the national holidays of greed and gluttony really did me in) – blowing past a couple deadlines, dropping a couple of books in favor of the Sunday Times and some fashion magazines, ignoring the toxic disaster of my apartment and skipping off into the autumn afternoon. And ya know what? – I’m just going to go with it. So I’ll talk about the beautiful mini-retrospective of Dora de Larios’s ceramic sculpture I just saw at the Los Angeles Craft and Folk Art Museum another time. And of course, after shlepping off to Regen II to have a second look (my first was about 3 minutes long) at the Marilyn Minter show, I found the gallery shuttered for the holiday week-end – so that has to wait anyway. So – here’s my problem….

Except it’s not even really a problem. Cute. C-U-T-E. I live in L.A. – a city that might have been founded on cute – except it wasn’t; Anaheim, an hour or two south of here – home of Disneyland, at whose doorstep much of the blame, I think, can be placed, is that city. James Wolcott (I think it was James Wolcott – who, by the way, I think is pretty cute) already wrote something about this in his Vanity Fair column a month or so ago, so I’m going to avoid re-treading that turf. I’m a sucker for Nara and Murakami (though it’s the stuff beyond the kaikai-kiki thing that pull me back into it) and all sorts of Japanese – for that matter Eurasian – novelties; have acquired libraries of children’s books for my nephews, nieces and kids of friends (and saved a few for myself); am utterly a child of Oz and Neverland (the Barrie one, not the Jackson – though I’ll always love some of Michael’s music); love babies and almost all children under 10 and pretty much all quadruped animals. And greater than quadruped (I LOVE spiders). And no – there is absolutely NO truth to the rumor that I was the model for Eloise. I’m Madeline.

I’m still a child. But I’m not exactly innocent – if children ever are entirely. And like any other child, I’m voracious, insatiable. The cute and cozy is all well and good – but tell me MORE. And more and more and more. I have to see more, visit the dark places, look at what’s on the other side(s)… and then things change; stuff happens. ‘Cute’ suddenly seems stillborn, frozen in a moment for which we can’t even summon up a nostalgia – because there wasn’t enough there in the first place. Do you remember your first trip to Disneyland? Or (assuming you might live in some proximity to one of the parks) your second? (Was there a third?) I think I remember each of my three visits to the original Anaheim park – the first (naturally) and third being the most memorable. The park has changed significantly over the years; but I have never had any desire to return to it. There was nothing regrettable about the experience. I wouldn’t say there were any particular thrills – even the faster, more rollicking rides seemed relatively tame; but the park’s amusements were fun and entertaining – variously novel, charming, clever, creative, sensational, mystifying and, well, amusing. In retrospect, some of the hokiest, most dated amusements (e.g., from “Frontierland” and “Futureland”) bring the most delight – experiences and specimens pulled from a time capsule that recall not only the shows or amusement rides themselves, but the way we saw the world then – framed within a moment of time, now seen with historic perspective, from a child’s (not necessarily unthoughtful and sometimes surprisingly sophisticated) viewpoint.

But that’s half the point – or maybe the whole point. Once outside the park gates and past its initial charms, what the child inevitably realized (sooner rather than later) was how much was left out of the experience, how diluted (to say nothing of deluded) it all felt in retrospect, how much richer, more enthralling it might have been, rather than the sort of ice-cream-parlor-with-sideshows stroll it turned out to be. And then on the other side, when you recall that some of the hokiest things turn out to be the most memorable, you recognize what was most authentic, committed, among the entertainments – where the Disney Company gave itself over most completely and committedly to its slightly looney “Imagineers” vision.

Even Walt Disney and Co. weren’t always just about the ‘cute’. The earliest incarnations of Mickey Mouse have a much wider (and darker) expressive and affective range. Even in some of Disney’s consistently saccharine animated vehicles, the most interesting characters are frequently the villains or – proto-feminist touch here – villainesses: the Wicked Queen of Snow White, Maleficent of Sleeping Beauty, Cruella de Vil. (A girl could practically make role models out of these.)

Why did it have to stop there? Why should it ever stop there? What the child – selfish, greedy, curious (and yes, by degrees, innocent, even cute) – wants is nothing less than the world, or at least some world – drawn from the physical world, or invented whole-cloth out of the imagination. These are worlds of conflict and contention, competing social order and disorder, searching, striving, evolving ethics and nascent corruption, reason and chaos, logic and absurdity, wit and arabesque, delight and enchantment, magic and mortality. Corruption, chaos, absurdity, and finally death – yes, welcome to kiddieland. It’s a place I’m always happy to re-visit – through the mythos of certain fairy tales, the absurd, surreal Wonderland of Alice, James Barrie’s Neverland, Narnia, the mad, mad, mad, mad world(s) of Oz. (And sure – I like Paris and the Plaza Hotel, too.)

I’m not sure what triggered this particular blow-out on the subject: something uncharacteristically (and sooooo inauthentically, untruthfully) cheaply sentimental trod out by one of my siblings (made even more dishonest by his protest); the unrelenting and oppressive parade of ‘stupid pet tricks’ in one form or another that are a constant of the background chatter in the office where I work – from the ‘cute’ to the merely witless; the latest e-mail ‘cute’ cat video from a relatively intellectual pal who nevertheless gives me grief for my political vigilance (and, yes, occasionally the vitriol that ensues); the sort of oppressively cheerful, American greeting card viewpoint of far too many people (especially in this economy – what? it takes another Depression to bring them back down to earth?); or maybe the flood of good (and fairly superficial) reviews for a film (gee, that’s a shock) that, however charming (in the most superficial way), however clever (by very small and mostly technical degrees), whatever the merits of the story on which it was based, was really not much of a film.

The film I’m referring to is The Fantastic Mr. Fox, Wes Anderson’s animated film based on the story by Roald Dahl – several of whose stories have been successfully translated to the screen (e.g., Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and its earlier musical incarnation, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; James and the Giant Peach; The Witches; and more). Though not far from the story (which is frankly not one of my favorites from Dahl), the film seems to alter its sly spirit, becoming slightly overbearing where the story remains quite light, yet if anything minimizing the real danger to Fox and his family. (There is never any doubt that Fox will somehow prevail, no matter what the dangers, how the odds are stacked against him, or how grimly determined and vigilant his enemies. (Perhaps a problem with the story: Fox’s enemies are never particularly clever, merely dogged and in fact quite stupid. Fox is by far the most clever of any of the characters – and knows it.) Wes Anderson knows he’s clever, too – and dogged – you’d have to be to pull off such a feat of animation; and that’s not the worst of it. It’s as if what he really wanted was to graft The Royal Tenenbaums onto the Dahl story, while re-making Fox into his avatar – really a kind of narcissistic homage – right down to his half-size-too-small bespoke corduroy suit. And voicing the characters? Forget about the predictable Bill Murray or Owen Wilson – Fox and his wife must be voiced by George Clooney and Meryl Streep (a pity the script should be so pallid with talent like that).

It was actually self-professed comedy-hater Opera Buddy who was initially eager to see the film. Why not? I thought, fan of Charlie, Willy Wonka, et al. that I am. For a screening audience, I thought the reaction was pretty enthusiastic. People seemed to laugh (a little too heartily) at all the jokes in all the “right” places, be touched by the picture of Fox and his family, and cheer them on. I could tell Opera Buddy was trying to muster some appreciation for the film – certainly it coaxed a few yuks, a smile or two out of us. But by the movie’s end, we were ready to dash for the exit, eager to be as far away from it as possible; and we each turned to the other to ask the question we always ask in situations like this: “Whose idea was it to see this???”

What was it the audience found so laugh-out-loud funny, so worthy of engagement with these characters (gee and I thought I was the sucker for furry friends both real and manufactured), so worthy of cheering? Forgive me, but I have to be just a bit suspicious of that kind of enthusiasm – I mean that as well in the 17th century Restoration sense, as in the sway of an almost religious fervor, rapture, a kind of blind faith; in other words, setting aside critical judgment. I can hear the other side of this argument: ‘well, for chrissakes it’s just a children’s animated film, right?’ Yes, but (speaking only for myself) the children’s stories, plays, films and animated cartoons that sustain my engagement take us to something and through something, ultimately showing us something in a way we may not have seen it before. (The story, cartoon, whatever doesn’t necessarily have to be that serious or sustained: I can think of many Warner Bros. cartoons that, in a few minutes duration, are completely satisfying. To say nothing of classic fairy tales.) As far as the end-point here, I can’t blame that entirely on Anderson – I think that’s straight from Dahl’s story. But it’s taken for granted that an original film will take some liberties with the underlying text – maybe a great many. And perhaps that’s the ultimate frustration here – the constraints we feel, not simply from the painstaking animation of the three-dimensional characters, but parallel to this, the scope of the characters’ actions and behavior: you want them to take more liberties.

This is what nags at me as I smile through the ‘cute.’ Is there a ‘flip-side’ to ‘cute’ – both the response or impression and the overall aesthetic? And why does that ‘flip-side’ seem to partake of something akin to fear and repression? Why does ‘cute’ ultimately seem like an obstacle or ditch along the steeple-chase to something more fully realized; something much more expansive or phantasmagorical? Over the last 30 or so years since the political right wing – here and elsewhere – largely hijacked the political dialogue and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the cultural dialogue (they will NEVER be able to constrain it entirely) – have people become more fearful of liberty?

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