Sunday, August 08, 2010

Chattel story

People say the most unlikely things about films. They say Toy Story 3 is a miraculous film. They say it's a marxist parable about exploitation and authority. Or a treatise on Stalinism, or the Nazi holocaust. Neither Walt Disney nor its Pixar subsidiary will comment to make it clear which of the various interpretations is accurate. John Lasseter, whose long apprenticeship as a writer in the CGI end of the business has culminated in the Toy Story franchise, won't speak up either. This is poor customer service. Someone, somewhere, has to break the silence and let us the consumers know what the commodity does, forchristsake. Well, here's a thought.

Toy Story 3 is a story of how freedom is achieved through commodification, and how "the consent of the governed" roughly equals the willing embrace of bondage. You only have to bear in mind that the main characters are themselves commodities. It's a jocular, mocking, morality story about toys, their particular role in pedagogy and socialisation, the pseudo-history and televisual cliches they condense. Toys are a micro-cosm of the adult universe, produced so that the child doesn't have to invent the mainsprings of her future life, but can instead go about constructing her ego-ideal around these always-already present objects. They come laden with meanings which naturalise the myths of adult life, meanings that the franchise knowingly smirks about but doesn't really explore or problematise. They allow for the minimum of creative input and construction from the child.

In the franchise, the toys inexplicably have personalities, aspirations and purposiveness remarkably like those of their human masters. In fact, in the CGI universe, their level of reality is no different from that of their owners (who are, in their different ways, also commodities). But their ultimate fulfilment is in being owned, being put to work, "being there for" Andy. That this "being there for" involves being totally placid, pliable, silent and impersonal does not detract from their, er, humanity. That is the required performance. Everyone, and everything, has its place in the Toy Story scheme of things. That scheme is a hierarchy of commodities with toys near the bottom, subordinate and devoted to their owners. And ultimately, their devotion is reciprocated as, when the time comes for Andy to go to college, he emotes more about parting with his toys than he does about parting with his relatives.

Any attempt to break free of such mastery is illusory, merely a search for another master who will be even more tyrannical. When, after years of neglecting them, Andy appears to leave most of his toys out for garbage collection before heading off to college, the toys respond by sneaking into another box of toys destined for donation to the Sunnyside Day Centre. They refuse to heed Woody's pleas that Andy didn't mean for them to be sent to the incinerator, and instead revel in what appears to be a toy utopia, "without owners". But utopia is soon revealed as a totalitarian nightmare run by an embittered big boss toy named Lotso. The toys are forced to stay in a room where they are smashed up by crazy, dysfunctional kids who don't know how to play with toys. Buzz Lightyear, brainwashed (re-programmed to factory settings) by Lotso and his henchmen, is chosen to guard the prisoners. (Worth saying, this is the first scene in which any black characters appear at all. It is also the scene where the usual Toy Story ritual of sado-comical limb amputating, beheading and eye-gouging is repeated with maximum gusto.)

When the toys orchestrate the standard great escape from the prison camp, it is foiled by Lotso and his henchmen. There follows a cliched scene wherein the bad guy tries to break the defiance of the good guys with a demoralising patter about how the world works, and how they'd best try to fit in. Among the toys, Barbie suddenly erupts with the indignant cri de coeur: "Government should be based on the consent of the governed, not the threat of force!" It is immediately ironised, because such earnest expostulations don't really fit in with the tone of the film. But the writers will certainly have been aware of the long tradition of Disney films regurgitating tropes from liberal political theory, albeit slightly more subtly than this. Not only that, but they will be aware that the first CGI Barbie movie, adapted from the Nutcracker, was based around precisely this struggle between liberalism and tyranny. (I watched it with my nieces one day.) This is merely one example of the constant self-referential ironizing that regurgitates these tropes in a knowing way without really problematising them. And of course, the "consent of the governed" that is referred to here is the commodity's enjoyment in bondage, her revelling in being used and owned by a master, her sense of freedom in such subjection.

The story is thus an ironic, potted re-telling of American mythologies, as related by commodites, especially through the medium of television. Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the main characters, are traditional models of upright American masculinity, Woody a fifties prototype of the overland frontiersman, Buzz Lightyear a sixties prototype of the space frontiersman. The female characters exist principally as helpmeets and romantic encounters for the toy boys, highlighting their natural heteronormativity, confirming their dominant status, reinforcing a gendered dichotomy that, as everyone knows, real toys themselves do a great deal to produce. The toys exist as a community of sorts, a community of heroes, living the strenuous life, their shared pain and sacrifice bonding them together, the mortal peril elevating them to new planes of existence - all of this struggle so that they can continue to be the willing bonded serfs of rich, white yanqui scum. The narrative confirms that commodities are the most important things in life, real friends, closer friends than anyone you'll ever meet, and that to be a commodity is the most rewarding mode of existence. The latter claim is hardly unique to Hollywood films, but in drawing out and embracing the servitude implicit in commodification Toy Story takes it a step farther than others.

The extravagant praise for the Toy Story franchise therefore demands some sort of explanation. It is a crashingly dull series, manipulative and predatory toward child consumers, tedious in its little nudge-nudge gestures to adult consumers, punctuated with aesthetic cliches that don't really qualify as ironic (oh the weather's taken a bad turn, so there must be trouble afoot), etc. I suppose the terms "feel good" and "life-affirming" must apply here. The films leave a warm little glow in the heart, reminding you that your alienated, commodified relationships are perfectly normal, human, desirable and moreover actually protected as human rights in the advanced capitalist states - it's in the constitution, dammit. There's also, though, a calculated element of Rorschach, wherein elements and motifs from history and ideology are scavenged and re-deployed, so that you can retrospectively read into the movie - whose effects you have just involuntarily responded to at a basic physical level - whatever rationalisation for so responding that makes you good with it. Indeed, there is marxism in the film, and the American revolution, and Stalinism, and the Nazi holocaust, and freedom, and sacrifice, and family values, and so on... because the film proves that all such aspects of experience are susceptible to being broken up and rearticulated in the commodity form. It is capital's highest tribute to itself, to its mode of production, distribution and exchange, its ability to convert all materials into some exchangeable, fungible base. In the furnace of capitalist culture, all of human existence is silly putty or play doh, malleable, protean, and saleable. That too is the basic message of the Toy Story franchise.