Monday, December 29, 2008

The Cure of Misanthropy: On Wall-E, Kubrick, and Mike White’s The Year of the Dog

by Daniel Coffeen

rully barkin

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.

rully sad

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.


  1. Thanks, DC, for this. Even though, hmn, aren't we supposed to find the best thing possible? Oh hai, right, that's hard sometimes. (And redundant?)

    I had my misgivings about _Wall-E_ when I saw it with my sister for the first time. I don't quite buy all the sympathy we're supposed to have for these blobs of trained/decayed idiocy, and I sure as shit shivered in a bad way when it nodded at _2001_. But, then again, I totally dug all the Chaplin. And Chaplin's idea of humanity sure isn't simple.

    And now I gotta see those dogs pilin in the car! Q'n it up RITE NOW! Then I'm'a hit the sleeps.

  2. Sometimes, a boy needs to vent. And, well, for some reason, has been sanctioned an OK film for other than lunatic 5 year olds. It is NOT an OK film; it's cloying and offensive. What made me feel like I had to vent is precisely its efforts to slip past the radar of decency. As Nietzsche tells us, sometimes saying "No" is saying Yes—yes to oneself, yes to life, no the life draining forces.

    Or something.

  3. Daniel,

    I love reading completely new takes on films like your article above. But I have to say, I disagree completely.

    I can't help but read a black/white there-are-only-two-ends-of-the-spectrum viewpoint in your discussion of WALL-E. Though the film does indeed celebrate "some" aspects of humanity (the personal touches we give to some objects, the creation of art, companionship, etc.), it also does indeed turn a critical eye to other aspects of we humans - our laziness, our consumption, etc. So this is not an "unabashed" celebration - it's a reminder that there's a great deal of good to humanity, but we keep tripping ourselves up with the bad.

    And WALL-E is not at all simply looking for a wife. He desires companionship. And since he's a robot, he doesn't know about typical human feelings, but he has developed the "familiar, monogamous, bathetic bullshit" from "Hello Dolly". If the single video he had found was, say, "9 1/2 Weeks", we would have had a completely different film.

    The end credits tell the story for me...The robots re-educating humanity step by step through the important things, winding up with those beautiful images reminiscent of artists like Turner, Seurat and Van Gogh.

    Hey, I'm all for a bit of misanthropy myself occasionally. But I guess I just don't see it as being at all helpful. I agree that we have to evolve, but evolution takes time - lots of time - and moves in tiny incremental steps (with the occasional large one).

    And I think "Year Of The Dog" certainly is misanthropic. Peggy essentially gives up on humanity so she doesn't have to interact with those that don't see the world as she does (avoiding all those painful things, but missing all the good ones). She decides to live with others who feel exactly as she does. Exactly. How does that help?

  4. Bob,

    I love your response. And I agree on many fronts—especially the closing animation which was, indeed, beautiful. But it just made me wish the whole film had been that way.

    I found the critique of humanity all too familiar and, as I write, fundamentally Christian—which has its sort of misanthropy: bad, bad things lurk in man, even if he dwells in God's image.

    Now, I sure wish it had been 9 1/2 Weeks instead of Hello Dolly. Now THAT might have been a great film.

    What got under my skin in that film is its waste of opportunity. A robot reckoning human failure should be able to produce more interesting results than wanting to hold hands with an egg. I believe there is an opportunity to explore possibilities of humanity that are not, properly speaking, humanist per se. There is in fact a great human tradition of non-human, or better, post-human exploration—Nietzsche being perhaps the most articulate and engaging in that line.

    Nietzsche, as great anti-humanist, gives us opportunities, dangles possibilities, of other modes of being in this world. And that is what I appreciate about Mike White's film. Peggy doesn't have to follow the same old bourgeois party line of work, marry, breed, die (what William Burroughs, the other great anti-humanist, calls the Orgasm Death Gimmick and the grammar of heterosexuality). Peggy finds joy in another life, shedding her guilt about it. And THAT is not easy.

    For those who want another path, one not tethered to The Gap and Starbucks and work-soul-death and marriage and breeding, such sentiments and portrayals are important.

    So what's the point? To proffer different possibilities of being—which, to me, is the promise of art.

  5. Bob, thanks for stopping by with your thoughts. All I can offer right now is, well, _9 1/2 Weeks_ woulda been great. And, yes, those end credits did make me smile the first time. That said, I'm with DC for the most part when he says Wall-E coulda given the humans a _real_ education. The best thing about two robots falling in love is that it's an opportunity to abandon gender. But, of course, we wouldn't want the kids to get too slap happy in their sleep now would we?

  6. "a dangerous film"

    Wow, hilarious and missing the point at the same time. Kudos. WALL-E is a very important film, and perhaps one that offers messages that are the least dangerous in a long time.

  7. Thanks for stopping by, Midgard. I hope you have a happy new year! May we all feel the world just a lil bit more in 2009. And, of course, that includes the garbage as much as the shiny objects of affection. Therefore, the only rejoinder I find possible: Did you see the Mike White film? Maybe we could direct the conversation there?

  8. I enjoyed your rant, DC, because I found WALL-E painful to endure for its cliches and lies. But your core fallacy is this: "the humanity of the late 20th century white, middle-class bourgeoisie" and then you go on to refer to "humanity" thereafter without variation or nuance of definition. I was intrigued by your critique of the Christian self-loathing mythos. Gimme more on that!

  9. Yes yes: I made what I thought was a tricky conflation—humanity with humanism. That's because humanism defines humanity as itself; to wit, Wall-E. The pretense is that the shmata-bot carries the last ember of humanity which he eventually rekindles in the hearts of men. But what, alas, is this humanity? Two discrete genders that seek heterosexual monogamy, a wholly modern, humanist pretense (ok, I'm not an historian, but it sure sounds good!).

    So when I speak of misanthropy, I'm in fact speaking of anti-humanism, not anti-humanity. Humanity, in its most general sense, includes non-humanity—our vegetal, arborial, animal selves, our impossibly complex networks of different strands of this great teeming. Humanism would rid humans of this complexity.

    And so my version of misanthropy is not nihilistic. On the contrary, it is joyful. I see Year of the Dog as a joyful film—harsh and brutal but joyful nonetheless for finding a way out. And, as a film, for never selling its soul and settling with romance or violence (the only things Wall-E, the film, seems to understand: what is its climax? A battle and a lover's reconciliation).

    Wall-E shows that great humanist need for tight borders, for resolve. The will of Wall-E, the robot, to clean up the mess is the will of the film to clean up the messiness of humanity. But sometimes—nay, often—a mess is good, especially when it comes to human beings. Cassavetes understood this. He gives us films brimming with humanity and devoid of humanism. His films are truly inspiring. I miss the messiness of _Faces_.

  10. HAvent seen Wall-E, but in strict defense of a friend and mentor, I say Fernando, your blog is a piece of shit. its boring and exaclty what id expect from someone like you. go filter yourself you miserable jerk. sorry ry

  11. Fernando, thanks for reading. I let your comment slide through because, well, it was so petty and small I thought it truly funny. KK: you still got the fight in you, huh? I'm'a let these stand, and trust we don't need to wrangle any more messy feelings. Cuz, really, we just bloggin, riiiiiigh?

  12. Daniel / Ryan,

    Thanks for the responses! I appreciate the thoughtful words even though we disagree.

    I'm still fundamentally opposed to calling WALL-E anything even remotely close to "dangerous", but I like chewing on your thoughts. Particularly about "Year Of The Dog". I have to say that I didn't have a positive reaction to it when I saw it - I found it anything but hopeful and kinda depressing. I haven't been quite turned around on that, but I like the idea of viewing it from the misanthropic side of things. It puts a different spin on her character.

    "To proffer different possibilities of being—which, to me, is the promise of art."

    I like that - and it puts "Year Of The Dog" into a different perspective for me. But I think it's unfair to criticize WALL-E in your terms just because it didn't end up being what you wanted it to be (having said that, I'm not exactly 100% consistent on that point - I'm sure I've criticized other films before because of them being missed opportunities). If you want to pull back the reins a bit on the huge praise the film is receiving (particularly regarding its message), I'm fine with that. But I don't feel the film is all about that - there's so much joy in its humour and its moments of gentleness.

    As well, I think it plays in the grey areas. I just don't see this film getting tied to The Gap and Starbucks - I think the robots do try to re-educate humans by choosing to remind them of their better qualities.

    I guess the message isn't entirely original nor is it the perfect way to rebuild humanity - the humans in question could likely slide back to many of their old ways - but I think it does remind one of the amazing things humanity CAN do. And that gives hope.

    One last point about the love between the robots - though the names of the bots certainly indicate their genders, I didn't see any specific attributes or behaviours that really layed out the male/female roles. If anything, Eve was the stronger of the two.

    Of course, I'd still like to see totally different versions of the film as well...A full 90 wordless minutes of WALL-E by himself? Cool. Genderless robots pondering post-human possibilities? Great! The actual movie we got? I love that too...

  13. Bob, thanks for the continued comments. It's always fun to play around and think of what could have been, but, well, what we got here is what we got. It's rather simple, and that pretty much defines my anxiety with the across-the-board praise because, let's face it, Andrew Staton's simplicity is not Bresson's simplicity, to say nothing of Eastwood's or, hell, Fuller's. (Brad Bird, the real visionary of the Pixar stable, is hardly simple, in terms of style and story.) And, just to remind you, though: I'm pretty attached to the letters L and D. (Jerkface over here!) Happy new year. May we all evolve.

  14. Bob,

    May I say what a pleasure it is to swap comments with a thoughtful, smart person I don't know here in virtual land? Oh yes and thank you.

    I knew it might be a bit, uh, surprising to some to see the film described as dangerous. That, alas, is part of the pleasure for me. I really do enjoy trying my darndest to spin things in ways few can anticipate. And that -- that pleasure and art and practice of looking at things differently -- is, to me, the delight of life.

    And, when it comes to films and other arts, I like them a tad messier than Wall-E was willing to be. I am, along with RK, a great fan of Malick for precisely this (and other) reasons: things don't resolve, they move and drift and linger.So, I agree, a 90 minute Wall-E sans dialogue and human beings would have been better.

    And is this the most egregious of the child and Pixar fare? Probably not. And, obviously, it was much more ambitious than its brethren and for that I'll give them kudos. (However, I'll take Kung Fu Panda over this.)

    Still, I miss and long for the dementia that kids' films can deliver if only the makers would. I suppose I long for and miss the dementia of films in general--the complexity of flow and life, the willingness to let the images just go (I just watched Harmony Korine's Mister Lonely and was so thrilled to see a film that loves and indulges images, that doesn't feel it has to return to character or narrative integrity, a film that actually loves film and what it can do....but that's for another time).

    yes yes, happy happy, all,

  15. "And that -- that pleasure and art and practice of looking at things differently -- is, to me, the delight of life."

    Looks like we aren't too far apart when it comes down to it! B-) I certainly like trying to look at films differently as well - though I'm not always successful at tying things up nicely...For "Let The Right One In", I wrote about how it really looked at the differences between boys and girls - until someone pointed out to me that in the book the young girl vampire used to be a boy. Kinda messed up my hypothesis. B-)

  16. For good reason, children's animated films are held to a different standard than action films, which are held to a different standard than foreign films released in the United States. So while I like the criticism and I feel like there's some level of criticism just to be contrarian - I found your blog searching for "we burned the forest down" from The Dark Knight and really enjoyed the back-and-forth between you and Ms. Stewart - I think you're being unnecessarily harsh on a film that, after all, is supposed to be kid-friendly and, ultimately, make lots of money for Pixar/Disney. I think when you take into account that it's supposed to be a family-friendly movie, it's quite amazing, in its relative lack of dialogue, its critique of overconsumption (I especially liked how all forms of energy - even windmills, which are supposed to be one of our energy crisis saviors - are buried under trash) and a vision of a future where people have completely given up on direct human interaction (though that brings up the question of procreation...). Now, granted, it's not even my favorite Pixar film - The Incredibles takes that place, hands down - but it still got to me emotionally and I enjoyed it immensely.