WALL-E magic. Also: “Wit” and “Passion” and Painful Movies

No, they caaaaan’t take that awayyyy from me….

I’m loving the raves for WALL-E.

The first and the second time I saw the film, I came away saying, “I can’t review this movie. Not yet. Because I can’t explain the power it has over me. I honestly don’t know how Andrew Stanton or his collaborators do it.”

I hate the cliche… but it is, indeed, movie magic at its best.

A few of my friends and colleagues don’t get it on this one. That’s fine. No movie is perfect. I’m not spirited away by some of their favorites either. No matter how much I admire, say, Lawrence of Arabia or Citizen Kane or Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, they don’t move me the way it might someone else. And no amount of my nit-picking about the reasons *why* it doesn’t enthrall me would change it for them.

Heck, I wouldn’t want to steal their joy.

In the same way, pointing out the fact that there *might* be an implausibility or two in this SCI-FI FAIRY TALE ABOUT A ROBOT WHO FALLS IN LOVE is unlikely to leave even a scratch on my admiration.

So I’m trying to avoid getting bogged down into back-and-forth debates about this one because, frankly, experiences like this are very rare for me. I think back to The Black Stallion. The Iron Giant. My Neighbor Totoro. E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Finding Nemo. These are timeless movies that deliver so many occasions of enchantment, surprise, beauty, and meaning that I feel rejuvenated every time I see them.

So I find myself nodding and cheering when I read further observations about the film’s triumphs. Like these:

Nick Shager:

[T]his animated marvel is most epic when operating on a small, personal scale, ultimately earning its esteemed place in the Pixar canon not only through top-notch CG, expertly orchestrated chase sequences, and provocative pro-green viewpoints, but also through its depiction of love’s capacity for making us more than what we might otherwise be.

Brendon Bouzard in Reverse Shot:

WALL-E “is an immaculately executed character, a necessarily endearing emcee to what is at times the grimmest American comedy in years. As much as I would love to equivocate about the film’s reification of gender (yes, the robots have genders, even though the closest they desire to sexual contact is hand-holding) or its satirical barbs at the overstimulated, grotesquely obese humans who lazily populate the spaceship Axiom, a Guy Debord hell of flashing screens and corporate fascism, I find it hard to do so. Its successes are simply too overwhelming.”

Robert Davis at Paste:

The film’s original premise is fascinating because the “world out there” that the little robot dreams of is not a faraway place on another planet but a faraway place that used to exist right here, on Earth. He can hear recordings of Louis Armstrong, but plants and companions are as unreachable as Pluto. For exploring that idea at length, with brevity and grace, WALL-E is a noble experiment, and even with an action climax and an abbreviated ending, it’s likely to be lingering in the mind when Cars has long since faded.

Moriarty at Ain’t It Cool:

I’ll be honest with you… at this point, I wouldn’t have the balls to work for Pixar. It’s the greatest work environment I’ve ever visited, Shangri-f*%$#-la, an artist’s dream job, but god… imagine being the dude who ends the streak. How can this dream machine go forever? Somebody, sometime, is making THE BLACK CAULDRON, and you’re just gonna have to deal with it when it happens.

Disney stumbled. Disney arguably fell for a while. There was a point where the brand didn’t mean anything anymore. Pre-Katzenberg/Eisner, Disney Feature Animation was pretty much on its last legs, getting ready to sell off the drawing tables. So it can happen. It’s possible for a streak to end and things can change. Can Pixar really avoid it forever? Can they really keep this sytem of theirs, this community, alive and thriving and productive?

Can you imagine? “Here’s my movie. I’m very proud of it. … Oh. Wow. You’ve made… uh… ROCK-A-DOODLE.” Seriously. That’s my worst nightmare. To be the guy who made Pixar’s ROCK-A-DOODLE. Talk about Nixonian flopsweat. Dear god. I mean, I’m just enough of a hack to do it. And I’d never realize I’d done it until after the fact.

The good part of the system is that they would catch it. Pixar isn’t afraid to kill movies that aren’t working, and that’s important.

WALL-E has generated a fair amount of controversy and conversation and opinion pieces already, and it’s being discussed in a way that would indicate it’s being taken seriously. People love the love story, but when it comes to the fate of humanity onboard the Axiom, people seem divided in how they react, or even in what they think it “means.” Some viewers want the first half of the film, but at feature length, with nothing involving other characters. I think if anything, that must make Andrew Stanton proud. People engage with the characters of WALL-E and EVE so completely that they’d rather just spend the entire time in the theater just watching them. Gotta respect that.

For a film like WALL-E to tackle themes like that and still somehow entertain and move you with grace and elegance is a real master’s class in pop entertainment. The closing credits to the film were unexpectedly moving, telling additional story while also detailing the development of human art from cave drawings to computer animation. It’s a big idea, and it works perfectly, accompanied by a great new Peter Gabriel song.

Overall, having seen WALL-E three times now, I get the feeling I’m just starting to appreciate just how nuanced and rich a picture it is. Pixar remains stumble-free, but more than that, they appear determined to expand our notion of what “mainstream entertainment” is, and I’m just glad that I get to live and work at the moment they’re producing these classics so I can enjoy them as vital, current films and not just ossified classics. I’m sure I’ll be discussing this one more at the end of the year, but for now, I just look forward to seeing it again soon.

Hurts so good

Here’s Roger Ebert talking about the extraordinary Mike Nichols movie Wit, and why it was too painful for him to watch.

Are there any movies that you find too painful to watch?

For me, there’s The Passion of the Christ.

I endured it once all the way to the end, but only because I had to. Christ means too much to me, and his suffering is on my mind a great deal. Watching him bear each blow — and Gibson goes to extremes to ensure that we understand the damage done by each variety of whip and weapon — is just too excruciating. No, it’s not that I’m unwilling to meditate on the sufferings of Christ. But the movie is so preoccupied with the physical intricacies of flogging and flaying that after about twenty minutes I find it difficult to think at all, or to take anything to heart. The art of the gospels gives me what I need, and the traditions of sacred art have given me myriad interpretations to consider. I don’t believe Christ wants his sufferings to burden me so greatly that I lose all touch with the joy of his resurrection, or that I lose my zeal to serve him for what he’s done. That’s why I doubt that I will ever watch Gibson’s film again.

(And then there’s the fact that the musical score steals so severely from my favorite film score, Peter Gabriel’s brilliant soundtrack to The Last Temptation of Christ, that I felt distracted and annoyed throughout the film.)

But far be it from me to condemn the film. It is a work of art, and one that has moved and changed and challenged many viewers in rewarding ways. My reaction is personal, and my avoidance of the film does not have much to do with anything being wrong with the film. It’s just that the emotional and spiritual turmoil it causes for me does more harm than good.

Films about infidelity often turn my stomach, and I usually avoid them. I know too many people whose lives have been ruined by such destructive behavior, and it’s hard for me to watch characters devastated by such choices onscreen. But I appreciate and defend the filmmakers’ freedom to make these films and tell these stories, because audiences need them. It’s a subject that should be explored in art.

And if the filmmakers treat the subject of infidelity lightly, I’m likely to write a rant instead of a review. (This is what keeps me from loving Shakespeare in Love. The film wants us to ignore the fact that, beneath this inspiring romance, Shakespeare is already married, and he’s abandoned his wife and child.) But far be it from me to condemn the film, which is rich in wonderful moments and cleverly phrased insights.

There are other films I won’t watch because I am pained by the artist’s indulgence or carelessness or lack of concern for beauty and meaning. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino was too cavalier with human cruelty. I saw it several times when it opened, partly because I was fascinated with Tarantino’s talent for snappy dialogue. But now I avoid it. It leaves me feeling battered and bruised. Sure, it exhibits remarkable style and excellent performances, but I’m not entertained by artists who seem to enjoy seeing how far he can torture an audience before they cry ‘Uncle.’ (On the other hand, I’m a big fan of Pulp Fiction, which is similarly intense, but the storytelling is compelling and thought-provoking.) Heck, most movies these days fail to interest me because they’re so cheaply made… they insult the senses and the mind.

But I appreciate Ebert’s reminder that each moviegoer is different, and sometimes an excellent work of art may hit too close to home. That’s why I try to avoid saying “This movie is great for everybody” or “This movie is utterly worthless.”

You? Is there anything besides bad moviemaking that will make you turn off a movie?


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  • I’m more-or-less never bothered by violence or subject matter per se. There are movies that I find emotionally devastating for specific biography-related reasons I can point to, but I’m enough of a solipsist to think that appealing to me personally and specifically makes a movie great and enough of a masochist not to thereby dislike them. In fact, the five or so I can think of off the top of my head are all all-time favorites which I have seen a half-dozen or more times.

    The thing is, though, that I cannot write easily about any of them. Partly because writing would be a painful process, and partly because such writing would have to touch on subjects and events I consider private and/or sacred.

  • emillikan

    I can usually handle most kinds of violence in movies, as long as they’re otherwise high quality/redeeming. But I have a really hard time with anything distorting the human face or figure. The first experience I had with vampires in film was Tarantino’s From Dusk Till Dawn, and it took me till dawn to fall asleep; I was haunted by the scenes of humans transforming into vampires. That’s one movie I’ll never watch again. Another: The Forgotten, which I thought was okay as psychological thrillers go; but there’s a scene at the end when the Bad Guy’s face stretches out as he screams, and I didn’t turn away in time. Ugh.

    It took me a long time to watch I am Legend, and it was less difficult than I’d expected. (PS–Find the alternate ending online and watch it!)

    gordonhackman–I know exactly what you mean! This isn’t a movie, but I watched a couple episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm recently and experienced the same thing. Cringing. Don’t want to watch anymore. Too painful.

  • jeremylandes

    For some reason, I’ve never been able to make it through “While You Were Sleeping.” Some movies are just too sugary-sweet and cute that I go into shock. I used to think it was anything with the name “Turtletaub” attached to it, but I just saw “The Kid” and was able to endure a good amount of it. I think Bruce Willis saved that one for me.

    I don’t think I could ever sit down in front of a screen showing “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” ever again. I have a real problem with beheading also, so “Sophie Scholl” would be really tough for me to sit through–even though I think its overall themes are excellent.

    Finally, I have a real problem with “Minority Report”–so much suffering packed into 145 minutes.

  • grdthepoint

    I’m just the opposite of wngl; I have an extremely low pain threshold. There are quite a few movies and shows I can’t bear to watch. Usually the issue is cruelty — not the physical version, but the emotional version.

    What I really need is a way to harden myself. Sensitivity to art is all very well, but it’s hard to function when you’re constantly getting emotionally wrecked by a stinkin’ movie. Not to mention embarrassing.

  • I have a high pain threshold when it comes to cinema; after all, it’s just a movie, it isn’t really happening. In the best cases of art, I forget entirely that I’m watching and not actually experiencing what is onscreen. In the cases of Andrei Rublev or Children of Men, this is a welcome and instructive experience. A movie too painful to watch is too painful to experience, and it required less than a second to remember which film fits this category for me: Irreversible. There is nothing more heinous than rape and to have to endure that scene again would be for me the very worst torture. So effective is Gaspar Noe’s presentation that I am forever scarred by what he created. Never again.

  • shadowofmyself

    Violence usually doesn’t bother me, nor does language . . . but I can’t watch “It’s a Wonderful Life.” My father died almost seven years ago, when my siblings and I were fairly young; and the part at the end, when Jimmy Stewart’s character comes back home, is just too painful. I barely made it through “Life is Beautiful” for similar reasons, and will never rewatch it.

  • Timothy Grant

    The most recent “too painful to watch” experience for me was a small part of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings. The relationship between Denethor, Boromir, and Faramir hits far too close to home for me to be able to watch without shedding many tears, or leaving the room.

  • My too-painful-to-watch list is simply echoing what others have said. I’m with you, Jeffrey, on the infidelity-as-entertainment issue. It’s just not pleasant. Too many lives, including my own, have been torn apart by it.
    And my other one would be excessive f-bomb usage. It just feels like someone is standing in front of me, slapping my face over and over again.

  • aravis7276

    Most Todd Solondz’ movies are almost unbearable for me to watch. While I believe he is a skilled filmmaker, the content of his movies is so disturbing and difficult to deal with, I am left feeling dirty and weird at the end.

    I am also including the Solodndzesque film Me and You and Everyone We Know.

  • alexburdine

    “Intolerable Cruelty” is probably the worst movie ever made. It was nearly impossible to watch because the acting was so unbelievable and uninspired.

    It also led to the first fight I ever had with my wife.

    For me, “poor acting” is something that is difficult to get through…especially Catherine Zeta Jones.

    Ironically, the Coen brothers provide “painful to watch” part duex in “The Lady Killers.” It’s as though they tried to fit in the “F” word as many times as possible in spite of sentence structure. Marlon Wayans is to blame for providing the poor acting AND deluge of language.

    I’m not turned off by offensive language, but the blatant misuse of that language in an unintelligible manner.

    Those two things make some movies completely unwatchable.

  • Seth H.

    I’ve never had a movie hit so close to home that I couldn’t watch it. Usually that kind of personal resonance spurs me to keep watching the film, no matter how painful it may be. I’ve seen The Passion several times now, even once with the theological commentary track. It broadens my appreciation of the film as a work of art that is more layered than it seems at first.

    To be quite honest, the only thing that will get me to turn off a movie without finishing is boredom. And boredom can be the result of a hundred different factors. I’m not really into movies that practice what I call excessive subtlety (or indulgent subtlety, whichever you like). Films like Tokyo Story and The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant really try my patience. They achieve their goals quite admirably in that they truly capture the rhythm of real life (in all its meandering splendor), but that’s just not something I get into when it comes to film. I have plenty of real life already, and it comes with plenty of long silences and mundane conversations.

    Not that a movie has to have gunfights and explosions to keep my attention. But I at least need some sort of heightened drama or something else only a movie can provide. I’m a romantic and a bit of a sensationalist at heart…and it is something for which I make no apologies.

  • gordonhackman

    I’d say there are two kinds of movies that are painful for me to watch.

    The first are certain films that feature scenes of graphic violence. Sometimes the violence is not even shown directly but suggested. In particular what bothers me are instances in which an individual is incapacitated and rendered helpless, and then has violence commited against them (two examples that come to mind are American History X and Silent Hill. Both of these movies screwed me up for a while after seeing them). In a similar vein, I’m also bothered by some movies that glorify revenge killing (again Silent Hill, also The Brave One to a lesser degree).

    The second are films in which the main character repeatedly makes a fool of him or herself or repeatedly ends up in awkward situations. The most recent example that comes to mind is Dan in Real Life with Steve Carrell, where he just keeps doing dumb stuff and suffering from bad luck over and over. I cringed inside for most of the movie.

  • taj

    SCHINDLER’S LIST is one that’s too painful for me. I’ve watched it twice, the second time only in fulfillment of a promise I made to my wife to watch it with her, for she had yet to see it when we first married.

    The film had already affected me by that unforgettable moment when Schindler laments at the number of Jews he might’ve been able to save, if only…

    That moment brought me to the end of myself, an experience comparable only to viewing THE PASSION OF THE CHRIST, (about which my feelings are very similar to yours, Jeffrey).

    I may only watch SCHINDLER’S LIST again with my kids, and thankfully, that day is far in the future. It’s a terrific film; my reluctance to go back to it is purely because of the effect it has on me. To me, it isn’t really a film one can measure by the same rubric as, say, PEARL HARBOR, or TITANIC. Spielberg captured something I have difficulty putting into words. Those other two films merely dramatized history. Spielberg made history breathe.

  • petertchattaway

    I can’t think of any films that have been too painful to watch, but I can certainly think of one or two films that I have been unable to write about — even, to the irritation of my editors, when they were assigned to me — because they hit too close to home and I didn’t know how to separate the films from whatever was going on in my personal life at the time.

    Hmmm. Actually, I remember cringing when I saw The Godfather Part III, just a few weeks before I went to the hospital for my second jaw surgery. There is a shot in there of Al Pacino in a hospital bed, with an IV attached to his arm, and having had my first jaw surgery less than a year before that, I knew exactly what that felt like and what I was in for (again). It was nowhere near as intensive as anything Roger Ebert has had to go through in recent years, though, and I was certainly able to watch that particular film, so I don’t mean to imply that there is any comparison between my reaction to that film and Ebert’s reaction to Wit. At any rate, FWIW, I wrote a blog post about that a couple years ago: