Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On the limits of anthropomorphic machines (Part 2)

(Image: Plan of the town of Radiator Springs from Pixar's Cars, taken from here)

The first half of this post wasn't intended as a rant against CGI, although it's true to say that the original Thomas drawings are for more subtle and beautiful than the current animations. The development of computer animation has created a renaissance in children's movies, particularly from the Pixar studio. It's interesting then that Pixar's own fantasy world creations are also most successful when operating in a similarly plausible but defined universe to that of the Railway Series.

Much of the humour and pathos of the Toy Story movies, for example, emanates from a tension between what the toys can and can't do, and from the fact that they are restricted to a series of plausible movements.  Their ability to stretch (Slinky Dog), disassemble themselves (Mr Potato Head) and organise military operations (Bucket O Soldiers) provides action sequences within precise physical limitations Equally important to the storyline is what the toys can't do, such as Buzz Lightyear's various heartbreaking attempts to fly. They may be 'alive' but they also only exist within a logical extension of their 'toyness'. As in Salvador Dali's Paranoiac Critical method, an absurd fantasy (of the toys being alive but still toys) is pursued with complete logic throughout.

The toys also clearly inhabit a human world although they fight for independence within it. This is in contrast to the recent Cars franchise which, interestingly, runs into many of the same problems as the new Thomas. Like Thomas, the Cars concept depends on the anthropomorphisation of machines. Unlike Thomas though the machines in Cars inhabit a people-less world, one where they have replaced the roles, characteristics and foibles of the absent humans. This conceit is wittily explored in the first film both visually (vans that look like Elvis, radiator grill moustaches that suggest redneck tendencies etc.) and structurally (a town designed by and for cars).

The action of the first film is confined to very limited spheres, essentially either the stadium in which the cars race or the isolated desert town of Radiator Springs. The choice of the town's location is important because it avoids all sorts of contradictions that would occur in a larger and more pedestrian - and thus human - orientated realm. The functions of the buildings in Radiator Springs have been altered so that the generic Italian restaurant has become a garage and the petrol station the local drive-in. This is a car-based universe and nothing breaks the logic or the suspension of disbelief required to follow their anthropomorphised autonomy.  

In the second Cars film the action has become global and follows the World Grand Prix, a series of races held in well-known cities. This creates a conceptual problem in that the cities (London, Paris, Tokyo etc) need to be rendered both plausibly recognisable and consistent with a people-less universe. Subtle scale changes are made to the sizes of doorways for instance and humour is found in car based versions of human spaces such as the rough local pub 'inhabited' by taxis and delivery trucks. And although famous landmarks have been rather fabulously 'motorised' (as detailed here) it remains impossible to imagine what they might actually be for. 

But the film still begs some fairly fundamental questions which threaten to derail it entirely. What happens in the mansard roofs of those Parisian apartments? Why have upper floors at all? Who are the double-decker buses for? Not only that but the cars themselves are thrown into a full-on spoof spy movie where they fly through the air, set off booby traps and engage in tyre-to-tyre combat Jason Bourne style. As the cars have become more human, moving beyond simply being machines with characters, the absence of humans becomes oddly more telling. 

Not only does the construction of an alternative car based society need precise rules to work but the humour depends on the careful substitution of one set of rules for another. The way that cars move, the things that they can and can't do is very important. When they can fly through the air firing machine guns and foiling international villains their car-ness becomes far less implausible (of course) but also less important. Similarly, when they inhabit an environment whose underlying logic is clearly man-made (stairs, attics, Georgian windows etc), the suspension of disbelief evaporates.

In a sense, the moral universe inhabited by the Cars is every bit as pervasive as the one in Thomas the Tank Engine. The world of duty, obedience and responsibility delineated in Thomas is no less insufferable than the homilies about friendship and staying true to oneself in Cars. There is a confused environmental narrative at the heart of the Cars storyline too, presumably as an attempt to ameliorate the obsession with motor racing to start with. But children's stories always have an explicitly moral message. The creation of alternative worlds be they miniature, anthropomorphic or whatever, allows for the creation of precise rules and limits. These serve not only to contain the fantasy but to communicate the ethical dilemmas the stories rehearse.

The 'system' which underpins the action is a kind of machine itself, a metaphor for a functioning moral universe where things have their place and people understand their role. Tests to the stability of  this universe form the narrative for individual stories, helping ultimately to reinforce the desirability of the system to start with. Character's that deviate from their roles are punished in the end and learn to accept certain limits to their freedom. This is why Thomas the Tank Engine is such a brilliant conception for children's stories. The Sodor


cabin rental luray va said...

The first part of the post was an awesome and thoughtfully written as to attract more readers. Animations are now part of every movie to give concept clearer. Do you have articles or photos or write-ups about Luray, Virginia? I have heard it is very interesting and nature friendly place.

How to Plan a Wedding said...

Great blog! Thanks for sharing.

Charles Holland said...

Sheeesh.Sometimes you have to ask yourself: what is the fucking point?