I just re-watched Wall-E with my five year old (it is the first, and only, film he’s seen in the theater). Let me tell you why I think it’s a dangerous film and why I wish Stanley Kubrick, or even Mike White, had directed it.
Wall-E opens on a bleak landscape, an apocalypse of waste. The only life on this planet seems to be a robot, the eponymous Wall-E, whose sole job is to gather and compact the trash. The films seems to proffer a certain damning critique of humanity: we’ve destroyed the earth with our mindless, heedless consumption. But Wall-E is an unabashed celebration of humanity. Wall-E roams the waste gathering stuff he loves—lighters, light bulbs, various tchotchkes. And he watches the same maudlin scene from the same maudlin film over and over. All he wants, it seems, is a wife. In other words, the spirit of humanity that Wall-E embodies and resurrects is the humanity of the late 20th century white, middle-class bourgeoisie.
He’s a fucking robot! And the only mode of love he can muster is the familiar, monogamous, bathetic bullshit? He’s a machine! He’s capable of offering an education, a training, that can get humans past their humanity. And yet to the bozos at Pixar, all he can do is reproduce the very humanity that created this apocalypse in the first place.
Wall-E proffers the all-too-human Christian critique of humanity—we have to fight our bad ways. The play of sympathy in this movie is disgusting and so familiar I had to punch myself in the face, Esther Kahn style, while watching it.
A Clockwork Orange, too, gives us a certain apocalyptic vision. But, of course, that film shifts our sympathies in such a dramatic way that we find ourselves rooting for the ultra-violent Alex—as the last bastion of true humanity! Now that is a damning critique of humanity. That is misanthropy. Imagine Kubrick making Wall-E. The egregious thing about the Pixar film is that it thinks it’s tipping its hat to 2001, to the image of HAL. But HAL is cool, calm, and brutal as only a machine can be. HAL is an invitation to think past the bathos of humanity.
But why misanthropy? Because if we are to overcome our destructive ways, if we’re to cure the virus we’ve evolved into, then we have to overcome our humanist training, our humanist tradition. We have to continue to evolve. We have to shed our humanist skin and become other to ourselves. Or avoid misanthropy all together—but then don’t give me the guise of critique when all you do is repeat the illness, embed it deeper into our blood stream. The reason I loathe Wall-E is that it pretends to give us a cure while spoon feeding us the same old sickness.
Thank goodness for Mike White’s Year of the Dog, a truly misanthropic film. Molly Shannon plays Peggy, a woman who comes to realize her disgust for humanity and her preference for animals. What makes this movie so powerful, so damning, is that Mike White never gives us a caricature of humanity. Peggy’s boss is pretty cool—but he is her boss and that is enough. Her friends are all fine human beings—but they are human beings and are hence saddled with their all-too-human concerns. These concerns are not petty; they’re just, well, human. Her brother and his family are not bad—but they are a human family and that, alone, is ugly.
Filming Peggy’s interaction with these people, White just puts the camera square on them so we share her viewpoint. These people are not bad: they’re not assholes, they’re not cruel or stupid. The only problem with them is they’re people!
And yet this is not a depressing, negative film. On the contrary, it is hopeful, joyous. There is a way out of humanity. We don’t have to choose the same old shit. We can shed the sickness of our humanity. Mike White, in his understated sleeper of a film, offers us a curing dose of misanthropy.