Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Fan: Microcosm and Macrocosm -- Human Woundedness from A(lienated) to Z(ootopia)


Alienated 2016. Writer/Director: Brian Ackley. Producer: Brian Ackley, Princeton Holt, and Cassandra Riddick. Actors: Taylor Negron, George Katt, and Jen Burry. Streaming on Amazon Prime  

First thing first. Let me say that yes, there is an alien invasion in this film and in the long run it probably doesn’t really matter. Yep, that’s a spoiler but I kinda doubt if anyone who watches this movie will care about that -- after he reads my review. It’s a good flick -- or at least it was liked by yours truly. But do not go into this movie thinking we have a scifi movie on your hands.

Meet Paige who is married to  Nate. Conspiracy theorist, visionary, isolationist, artist, possibly self-involved, Nate has seen what he thinks is a spacecraft. Trouble is: Nate is trying to get Paige to understand and Paige is having none of it. These two are in a communication and marriage meltdown. Whether it’s because Paige doesn’t understand Nate’s artistic spirit or feels just plain jealous and slighted, it’s hard to tell. At least in the beginning. Sure, Nate includes h himself in all his paintings. The artist part of me can kinda understand that. The characters in my novels pretty much resemble me in parts. And don’t all artists basically do art about themselves? So yeah, I understand Nate a bit. But there’s also the other side. And if there is one thing about this movie it’s that there is always the other side -- a side which the viewer sees, but which the active participants in this marital breakdown are reluctant to see. The other side is this: Well, why the heck is is putting himself in all his pictures? Can’t he vary his drawing style a bit? Why is he putting himself in a painting which he is giving to Denise, the widow of his best friend? Yes, yes, I get it: he is showing her he identifies with loss. Or he is showing loss itself. But dangnabbit, if you sense that your wife is jealous of the might want to rethink that whole art project.  And really why are the lights on the spacecraft like the lights on your painting to Denise? Is there something you don’t know about yourself, Nate?

Why continue willfully on your own way if you sense the discussion is really about something else? And “sense” is the operative word here. One gets the feeling as one listens to this long painfully grievous conversation --yep! This entire film is a conversation-- that one needs to be willing to sense the other person’s side and that these folks are fully capable of willing themselves to….but they just have reached the point where they don’t want to will themselves to understand any more.

I swear this movie would be good for a marriage counseling class. Again, I repeat, the whole alien invasion thing has very little to do with the plot. It doesn’t mean the film is bad. It’s a very good, very harrowing, very painful film. Just...well, if you see it on AmazonPrime, it’s best to know what you’re getting into. So back to our marriage problems:, Nate can decide to perceive Paige as jealous or as needing affirmation. Paige can decide to see Nate as an artist or as self-centered.

But let’s get to the third character: Griffin, this odd guy next door who -- for all we know may or may not exist. Griffin is the kind of neighbor who asks the kind of deep questions folks in indie films ask. Thing is: he kinda knows an awful lot about Nate, who seems to be the only one who sees him. Is Griffin an angel? Is he God? I don’t think he’s God or even an alien. Griffin is the kind of character who can either make or break an indie film because, heck, he gives us a sermony voiceover at the end.

The ending is an open-ending. We don’t see any human bodies so it’s possible our lovers still exist and are alive on another planet somewhere. Heck, they might have been raptured! Thing is though: the earth doesn’t seem destroyed, just kinda ya know… emptied. And if it is emptied, or --heck-- if our main characters are least they are together and committed to being willing to understand each other.

I remember the days when alien invasion movies ended with humans triumphing over their reptilian exo-skeletoned baddies. Heck, I remember the days when the earth survived all kinds of disasters. Not so, now. It has often been said that if we Earthers were to be challenged by a larger looming evil --heck, if we Americans were all challenged by some external evil-- we would all finally join together. Uhm, I’m not sure of that. Human willfulness and selfishness are both pretty strong. So in the end, our main characters come to terms with their lives and with the changes to their world. Is that a good thing? And if so, how? Is harmony between humans, come what may, all that matters?

Producers: Monica Lago-Kaytis, John Lasseter, Brad Simonson, Clark Spencer; Directors and Writers: Byron Howard, Jared Bush, Rich Moore; Walt Disney Studios, Walt Disney Animation 2016

Now, perhaps it’s me. But I find myself thinking there is something else to Zootopia other than the much-praised meta-animated discussion of racism. And don’t get me wrong! I do love the film’s insights into multiculturalism and racial dynamics in a cosmopolitan world. And hey! It’s a good mystery and great animation! Some of the racial subtexts were so good I actually had to google the writers to see if any of them were Black. Example: As a Black woman, I’ve had white folks --notably-- my white mother-in-law reach out to touch my afro. And the notion that a government official could make a drug from a flower and circulate it to the “predatory” classes was not lost on my ultra-conspiratorial Jamaican mind. And heck, I almost cried twice when watching Zootopia,  although I suspect that both racists and non-racists could feel the movie is speaking to them.

The first time I almost wept copious tears was of a scene uniquely connected to minorities; the other was a scene that a more generalized audience would understand. In the first scene, an incident is recounted of a little boy who was not allowed to belong because he was not the right uh…okay let’s call it ”race.” The second scene harkened to the kind of heartfelt sentimentality that is everywhere during the Christmas Season, Martin Luther King Day, or even the Special Olympics: belief in possibilities, hope in humanity and ourselves, and loving trust in our neighbors. So yes, I liked this movie a lot.

But yeah, that other thing. The other human element, a subtext which a more homogenous nation might more readily see. Forgetting racial matters, the movie is also an examination of the emotional equivalence of predatoriness and the emotional similitude of being a prey. In Alienated, the viewer is shown two equals involved in a subtle war against each other. Culturally, a marriage is an alliance and a balance of emotional power; there should be neither prey nor predator in the relationship. (Of course predation --or assumptions of predation-- happens a lot in some marriage...and Alienated is an examination of the battle humans engage in when they believe they are being preyed upon.)

But in the “real” world, there are no fast rules on how to discern predatory humans, preys, or wolves in sheep’s clothing. We humans often take on allies -- in religious systems, in social groups, in social status-- on the assumption that those who are like us are probably not going to destroy us. In addition to that, we learn to discern false flags, to intuit warning signals, to decipher behavioral patterns that hint at whether we are dealing with someone we can harm, someone who can harm us, someone who will defend herself if attacked, someone who will scurry away like a bunny. I remember reading about a psychological study which examined why certain types of people usually end up repeatedly abused. They send out signals that potential attackers hone in on: phermones, if you will. Other folks, with kinder or more enlightened or introspective hearts, might also sniff out the weaknesses of their fellow humans. But these kinder, enlightened, introspective hearts never attack. They are either able to spiritually check themselves, or identify with the possible prey.

In Zootopia, Judy Hops still has the instinct to fear those who may be destructive to her. From biological instinct and from past experiences, she is predisposed to distrusting Nick who is a fox. Heck, she carries around a spray just in case she meets an unevolved fox. Thus she is aware that she has been prey and might be prey but she is not willing to be ruled by her past experiences. Nick, on the other hand, has experienced being prey. One would not think a fox could be deceived but alas as a child he was. As a lover of the poet William Blake, I will just say that Nick too went from “Songs of Innocence” to “Songs of Experience” And now, he -- like Judy-- are on their way to singing “Songs of Regained Innocence.”  

In Zootopia, biology is believed to be the marker that signals the possibility of predation. A lion’s biology would make it a predator, a bunny’s or a sheep’s biology would make it a prey. But since the animals of Zootopia have evolved past mere biological urges, all desire for predation has changed. Oh there are still power structures, scheming, underhandedness, etc. But there is no predation. Let’s digress and consider that for a moment. Not from an animal perspective but from humanity’s. Will cruel humans ever evolve out of the need to be cruel to weaker humans?

There is a scene where Judy chases a criminal through Little Rodentia, a town populated by tiny rodents. Our bunny cop, who has been pretty much among the tiniest beings in Zootopia’s capital city now has power to harm. However, she does not harm. She is quite aware of her power to accidentally step on those who are weaker or smaller than she is. In fact, the viewer also sees that Nick -- a predator-- is also aware of the little folks below him. Later, when we meet a big gangster, Mr Big, we discover that predation has nothing to do with size at all. Small, puny, people can be predatory too.     

This leads the viewer to begin to understand that preys can go against their biological programming and suddenly behave like predators. (Not gonna get into the whole nurture versus nature debate here.) So, it is no surprise to us when we see that one prey has been put-upon for so long that patience becomes anger, the need to control, and the active desire for vengeance.  I found myself wondering about the human “real world” counterpart of this situation. Do weak, put-upon people suddenly lose it? Why yes, they do!

Considering how volatile the world has been about racial matters lately, I’m not sure how many reviewers will wish to examine this aspect of the film. After all, racism is of national import right now. Being kinder and gentler to each other is kinda on the back-burner. Besides, reviewers, as a group, tend to be like other humans: there are some who are so emotionally strong -- or who have been biologically, financially, and racially linked to power-- that they may not see this little corner of the box. But, I’m hoping in those reviewers out there who understand what being prey is. They might see this subtext quite easily. And maybe their pens will be their swords and they can root for a film that basically tells us all to be excellent to each other.

Happy Creativity, all.

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