Sunday, February 22, 2009

_Wall-E's_ Debt to D.W. Griffith

To describe the gentle movements of Wall-E’s eponymous, robot hero, critics have regularly invoked the poetic physicality of Charlie Chaplin and, occasionally, Buster Keaton. This seems particularly apt in the film’s opening thirty minutes, when the robot’s trash compacting movements around a desolate Earth is synchronized with music and proves expressive to the point that dialogue is unnecessary. The parallel continues to be relevant as Wall-E leaves Earth in romantic pursuit of Eve, a vegetation-seeking robot, calling to mind Chaplin’s City Lights, in which the Little Tramp falls for a blind matchgirl. That masterwork, despite appearing in 1931 after the movie sound era begin, was a silent production dependent on character’s visual expression of emotion.

If the comparisons to silent film virtuosi resonate in celebrating the gestural subtleties of Pixar’s animation, they lack historical depth. No critics I have read have pursued the parallels they draw with Chaplin or Keaton in contemporary reviews. To a certain degree, that’s fine: the point of mentioning these past giants is to celebrate a technological updating of the timeless capacity of cinema to convey characters’ feeling and emotion through their visual movement alone.

History is important to Wall-E, though. This is true not only when considering the film’s comments, offered from seven hundred years in the future, about our present destruction of the environment. The past also operates more complexly in the ways the film itself tells its story. But neither Chaplin nor Keaton is the key to understanding this history. The key figure here is David Wark Griffith.

D.W. Griffith is best known for having directed The Birth of a Nation, the seminal 1915 film that was at once a momentous step forward for narrative filmmaking and a vile racist account of the Civil War and Reconstruction whose heroes were the Ku Klux Klan. Yet despite this unpardonable offense in visualizing invidious racial politics, Griffith was also a father, indeed a founder, of narrative filmmaking as we have inherited it. A master at consolidating the advances wrought by others and creating his own innovations in visualizing more an more complex stories on screen. The use of parallel editing to build suspense while simultaneously tracking separate dramatic developments and the visual development of complex psychological characters are but two of the legacies of the hundreds of films, mostly shorts, made by Griffith.

While shaping film narrative in the early, formative years of the twentieth century, Griffith was nevertheless an unalterably nineteenth-century man. He had been born in Kentucky in 1875, the son of a former Confederate army officer who had been a hero in the Civil War. Another way to conceive of this connection is to recall that fewer years separated the appearance of The Birth of a Nation and the events it recounted than we in 2009 are separated from the end of World War II. While much else has changed in renderings of the past and shaping of collective memory, of course, the point is that such a defining event still held great sway in the popular imagination. Perhaps more generally important was the sentimental cast on which he relied for constructing coherent stories about the world and especially the historical past.

Returning to Wall-E, the film appears to contain a direct if fleeting nod to Griffith. Midway through, after discovering soil left by our intrepid robotic hero on the Axiom spaceship, the previously inactive human captain requests a computer lecture about the soil and planting. Various images flash before his eyes, and ours, but the very first is recognizable from its place in film history. It shows a single man, bag slung over one shoulder, walking slowly and spreading seeds through a field. The image is drawn from A Corner in Wheat, a 1909 short film made by Griffith.

The short was adapted from Frank Norris’s 1902 novel, The Pit. The titular “corner” is the control that one mogul seeks over the world’s wheat market and the film dwells on the contrast, developed through skillful editing, between the profligate lives of financial speculators and the sufferings of the poor who cannot afford bread when wheat prices are artificially increased. A cautionary tale for the turn-of-the-century progressive era, modern urban excess is critiqued in favor of a more equitable agrarian past. Pictorially, the closing pastoral image of the film that appears in Wall-E is itself a reproduction of Millet’s 1850 painting, The Sower, which idealized a peasant farmer.

Griffith was nostalgic here in the truest sense of that word: he yearned for an imagined past, particularly a past home, that never was. Nostalgia is a timeless impulse, of course, and it is fair to observe that stories tinged with nostalgia are, if not universal, largely unbound by historical era or place. Cinema has always been about nostalgia – some film philosophers claim that the medium’s defining condition is the celebration of the continuity of the world through viewing actors and experiences captured on celluloid (or, now, disk) that we know existed in the past. As a late nineteenth and early twentieth-century invention, however, cinema has most consistently trafficked in nostalgia for a pre-modern, pre-urban, pre-mechanical past that can be juxtaposed with the viewer’s present.

Besides the happy ending to Wall-E and Eve’s romance, the story in the Pixar production concludes with the hopeful return to Earth – to “home,” as the captain repeatedly says – of the previously inactive human occupants of the Axiom. The planet has become habitable again, they believe, based on the successful growth of a single green plant. They excitedly elect to pursue their future by returning hopefully to their past, seeking to re-create home in a world that they can now only imagine, or have imaged for them by technology.

If Wall-E is primarily a sentimental romance in the tradition of City Lights, its background story of societal change extends the tradition of A Corner in Wheat to address the collective need of humans to get back in touch – here, literally – with the physicality of their surroundings, notably the Earth itself. That latter story, also told a century ago by Griffith, remains a quintessentially modern one: our ongoing quest for newer and better technologies must be balanced by an uncertain fascination with the consequences of their use that drives us to embrace the imagined visions and values of the past. With its combination of breathtaking animation and adroit storytelling, Pixar offers, to many, the best of a new generation of technological filmmaking. Yet even as the medium continues to evolve into the twentieth-first century, and even to tell stories about the twenty-eighth, their latest production suggests that cinema remains squarely rooted in its own imagined past of nostalgic returns and hopeful new beginnings.

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