By Sheila O'Malley
(Part of Pixar Week)
"Talk about the movie," the little white-haired 3-year-old boy shouted up at me.
It was a command. He was my nephew. We had just finished watching A Bug's Life, his favorite movie. He had never had a favorite movie before. He could (and did) watch it every day. I babysat him quite a bit in those days, and so I got to know A Bug's Life by heart as well (One moth to another moth: "Larry! Larry! Don't look into the light!" Larry replies in a droning zombie voice, "Ican'thelpitit'ssobeeeeeautiful ...." ZAP!) Nothing pleases a child more than endless repetition of something he loves. But just watching it was not enough for my nephew. The second the movie finished, he needed to "talk" about it, which basically meant relive it, moment by moment, so he would shout at whoever was present, "TALK ABOUT THE MOVIE."
It was then my job to bring up different moments throughout the film, "How about when the grasshoppers show up?" and my nephew could then nod wisely in remembrance and say, "Yeah." That was basically what "talk about the movie" entailed. A rote listing of moments, with my nephew nodding.
"Talk about the movie" became a family catch-phrase. We still say it to each other. In a funny way, it is how I actually live my life. All I want to do is "talk about the movie", good or bad, scorn or indifference, what is more fun than spending the majority of your time "talking about the movie"?
My nephew is a great movie-lover, and his "way in", his first "a-ha" moment with movies and how transportive they can be, was A Bug's Life. Toy Story came out before he was born, and of course, his parents then back-tracked and rented it for him, but nothing could hold a candle to A Bug's Life. Because that was the first. I own that film. I bought it back then on VHS, because if my nephew ever came and stayed at my apartment, it was obviously REQUIRED that I have it on the premises.
It's a funny thing about repetition. When there is a child involved, and you love that child, it doesn't matter that you have read Goodnight Moon 5 times already in one day. You sit down, the child curls up against you, and you read it again, as though it is the first time. There's such a beauty in that. In a way, it is reflective of the creative process itself, and how so much of it has to do with repetition.
Watching A Bug's Life once or twice a week for an entire year gave me a level of appreciation for it that would not have existed if I had just seen it once. Not to mention the fact that, for the most part, when I saw it, a small child sat on my lap, drinking soy milk, and either laughing hysterically at the funny parts or going all silent and still at the more suspenseful parts. I lived it vicariously through him. I think it's a good movie, and having seen it recently, I can say that it works as a narrative, borrowing from great movie plots throughout film history. That merry band of misfit bugs has many ancestors. Flik, the ambitious yet misunderstood ant, narrated by Dave Foley, is the perfect hero. His plans to make the ant colony's harvesting more efficient are not seen as helpful, but as a nuisance.
Who is HE to change how things have been done for generations? He recruits a group of disgruntled circus-performer bugs to help save his colony from the evil grasshoppers. Flik is, however, not the brightest bulb; he is an innocent country ant, so he mistakes the circus bugs, with their costumes and stunts, as actual superhero bugs. He thinks they will know how to stage an inter-species war. He brings them back to his colony, hoping to cover himself in glory, to make up for ruining the colony's harvest with one of his hare-brained schemes. The circus bugs, trapped in a role they do not understand, try to flee. They're just carnies, they don't know how to wage war! But eventually, they all come together and hatch an ingenious scheme (similar to a circus act, involving illusion and trickery) to fool the grasshoppers. If you're a small three-year-old boy, trying to make your way through the adult world, trying to understand your role in it all, this is potent stuff.
It is not always the strongest who are called to do great things. Enduring narratives involve someone who may NOT be up to the task but who answers the call anyway (think of Hansel and Gretl, or Frodo).
The best part about A Bug's Life, and why I could tolerate the repetition of it (whereas something like Blue's Clues, another favorite of my nephew's, became intolerable after five minutes) is that the narrative has woven through it very subtle bits of humor and characterization, that work on quite an adult level. But, most importantly, it doesn't ever lose its innocent heart. This is one of Pixar's greatest strengths.
For example, Denis Leary is the voice of the ladybug. That in and of itself is an amusing choice. To hear a pretty little ladybug, seen as a delicate and inherently romantic (i.e. female) member of the insect world, talk in the wise-cracking tough-guy cadences of Denis Leary, is automatically hilarious. If you cast well, half of your job is done.
Bonnie Hunt (I wish she got more substantial work; she is so good) plays Rosie, the black widow spider, the only female surrounded by males. She is a perfect DAME, of the old-school Howard Hawks variety. A woman who can keep up with the guys, giving as good as she gets, trading wisecracks but with an overlay of tired impatience, which makes it a very comedic performance. Listen to her asides throughout the film, the things she murmurs to herself as events start to spin out of control. She is doing some very funny things back there. You wish that Rosie could have a spider girlfriend, a confidante, someone she could relax with, have a cocktail, give themselves 8-footed pedicures and commiserate about the multiple men in their lives.
My favorite scene is when Flik reaches the "big city" in his quest to find help for his colony. He has never left his own cozy ant-hill, so he strolls down the "streets" of this raging boom-town, agog, staring up and around him in awe. It's similar to the bar scene in Star Wars, where creatures of every species imaginable drink and talk and mingle and fight. The script here is so strong, you can feel how much fun they must have had brain-storming. Mosquitoes order bloody marys, of course. Dung flies shout out their order for a "poo poo platter". A slug orders a margarita, sucks it down, and suddenly his body puffs up, and he screams in agony at the bartender, "I SAID NO SALT." This is very sophisticated, funny stuff, geared at the adults who will recognize each bug, know its characteristics and get the joke. But it also works on the 3-year-old level, a portrait of an innocent country-boy trying to navigate the big cacophonous city.
My nephew is now in middle-school, a budding film-maker himself, who counts The Seven Samurai as one of his favorite movies. Once, on a family vacation, I walked into the living room, and he was sitting there watching a movie on his laptop, laughing so hard that I thought he might asphyxiate himself. I asked him what he was watching. It was Buster Keaton's The General. Boy has good taste.
It all started with A Bug's Life.
Almost 50 years ago, my parents met at a sock-hop. My father approached my mother and struck up a conversation. He made jokes. My mother told her sisters after the dance that she had met a really nice boy "who reminded me of Jerry Lewis!" That was the highest of compliments to my mother at that time, who loved all the Dean Martin/Jerry Lewis movies. At the end of the night, my father (who had actually ridden his bike to the sockhop) asked if my mother wanted a ride home. He had no idea how he would pull it off if she actually said Yes, but he had to make the offer. She was a pretty freckled Irish girl with bright blue eyes. He didn't want her to get away. My mother had driven to the sockhop, so she said, "No thanks. I have a car." There was a pause, and then my father said, "Then can I have a ride?"
Eight years later they were married. It was a love match, one of mutual regard, humor, and companionship. They had four children and two grandchildren. Last year was their 41st wedding anniversary.
My father passed away on January 2, 2009, after a long and terrible illness. His suffering was excruciating. His will to live, strong. Letting him go was not easy, and we are all still struggling in the aftermath of his death. There are times when I feel like I am underwater. The things that used to be easy are hard. It takes me five times longer to get simple tasks done. I miss him every second of every day. Much of what life is about now is hunkering down with family, circling the wagons, touching base with my siblings, my mother, as much as possible. It is our loss. We talk about him all the time. Nothing is normal.
One of the most disorienting byproducts of my grief has been the almost total cessation of interest in the things that used to comfort me. I haven't finished a book in five months. I watch ten minutes of my favorite movies and then have to turn them off. These were my escapes, and those doors are now closed to me. I have been forcing myself to still read, even though it takes me a week to get through eight pages.
In late May of this year, I read Roger Ebert's review of Up. For some reason, it called to me. I suppose to an outside observer, it would be obvious why I was drawn to the movie, but when you are staggering through your days, barely aware of which end is up, you are not always aware of your impulses. Survival instinct kicks in, and my survival instinct said to me, "Go see Up."
I talked my friend Allison into going with me. I looked forward to it all day. I hadn't been excited to see a movie in months.
With everything else going on this past spring, I had also had a disappointing experience with a man. It hit me hard. Much of my reaction was, of course, due to the fact that I was already weakened from the previous year and a half of dealing with illness and death and loss. I did not have many reserves available to me. It was a minor disappointment, in the grand scheme, but it blindsided me and took me completely unawares. I was in the first burning week of the aftermath when I went to see Up.
When I arrived at Allison's apartment that night for our date to see Up, I was on the verge of hysterics. She tried to get me to sit down. I couldn't. I paced around, clutching my blackberry (in case he emailed; I was in that crazy-making phase of it), ranting and crying. Finally, gently, she got me to calm down enough that I could actually be in the same room with her. We set out to see Up. I was fleeing from my problems, and that is so much of what I love about movies. Yes, I love the artistry, and I love the storytelling impulse and all the different forms it can take. But it's really more selfish than that: I love movies because they provide me with an escape, an entryway into other experiences, or they allow me to go deeper into my own.
Allison and I settled into our seats at the theatre, loaded down with snacks. Every time we looked at each other in our 3-D glasses, we burst out laughing. The innocent and simple pleasure of going to the movies ... there it was, still alive in me. A reminder. This will be here for you always, even if you're not ready for it yet at the same level that you once were.
The first 25 minutes of Up have been rightly praised. A montage of an entire marriage. A movie that begins with a montage? How on earth do they pull it off without making it seem like an outline, a cursory exposition: "Here is what you need to know before we REALLY get started"? It takes its time. We start out with mischievous youngsters, Ellie and Carl, who bond about their dreams to go to far-off places, untouched parts of the earth. We see their quirks, their essentially unconventional natures. They marry. We see them setting up their little household, lying in the grass looking at pictures in the clouds.
The montage is a masterpiece of how LITTLE you have to do to hook your audience in for the long haul. When we see the couple standing in a doctor's office, and we see their worried faces, listening to the doctor as he talks to them, we know what this means. There are various shots of her afterwards, the spunky redhead, bereft by grief, sitting in a chair, staring off into space. How does life go on when one of your dearest held dreams is denied you? The movie rightly does not have any dialogue on these sections. It is all suggested, shown, in one of the most moving sequences I have seen in a film in recent memory.
Tears poured down my face, fogging up my 3-D glasses. I thought of my hopeful-faced black-haired father at age 16, offering a ride to a girl he liked, even though he didn't have a car. I thought of their wedding day on a snowy February day, and the arrival of yours truly 9 months TO THE DAY later. They were by-the-book Irish Catholics. I thought of the story of my father driving me and my mother home from the hospital after I was born, and how he insisted on driving in the breakdown lane the entire way with his hazards on. He was 23 years old.
He was a wonderful father. I thought of my mother, and what it must mean to lose such a partner. I can't imagine. The opening of Up is one of the most wonderful evocations of a marriage I have ever seen. When Ellie passed away at the end of the montage, I felt Carl's loss. I understood why he closed his heart to life after that. Of course he did. And what had happened to that adventurous little girl he had fallen in love with? They actually HADN'T traveled to any far-off places, because, you know, life happened instead. They kept a scrapbook, empty, in the hopes that it would some day be filled with postcards and mementoes from all of their trips. His guilt is excruciating. He had denied her her dreams. That is how he sees it. Well, then, fine. He's done with life. Enough.
Until ... a fat eager little boy shows up at his door, insisting that he "help" him, because then he can get a merit badge for "aiding the elderly". It is the classic situation of someone being DRAGGED back to life by an unlikely source. He is not ready to succumb. He is too wrapped up in his loss. Life is a wilderness without his beloved. What good would travel do now, without her at his side? Why hadn't he taken her on any trips? Why had he missed his whole entire life?
This is all played with zero pathos. It is a deeply emotional and true film, but it keeps its eye on the ball, letting the characters slowly reveal themselves to us, letting us have whatever experience we want to have along the way. The little boy is annoying sometimes, and not cute or cuddly. That's okay. Little boys are often annoying, and not always cute. But he is a life-force, an insistent companion. He doesn't even understand what he is getting into. He does not see a sad little old man and try to bring a smile to his face. No. He is more intent on getting his badge.He is DETERMINED. It is his main objective. This soft-pedals any "sentimental" tarpits that Up could have fallen into. These are not particularly likable people, perhaps, neither one of them. But by the end, I loved them both with such an intensity that it surprised even me. I love them still.
There is much to say about the film, but this is not meant to be a review. My experience of Up was one of complete delight, mixed with coursing tears, literally pouring down onto my sweater. I laughed out loud at the dogs and how they verbalized their dog-emotions ("I hid under the porch BECAUSE I LOVE YOU") and ached for Carl, who could not accept love into his heart again. It was too painful for him. His face almost insisted on staying in a frown. The work done by the animators is world-class. The characters' eyes LIVED.
And by the final sequence, when Carl comes across the scrapbook, and finds that Ellie, all along, had been filling it with mementoes of her own, of the greatest adventure she could ever imagine, loving him and being his wife, I was thinking, "Someone put a fork in me, because I am DONE."
How do you accept love into your heart when you KNOW that it will end with the death of your partner (if you're lucky, that is)? With having to say goodbye to your partner-in-life, with letting that person go on in death? Or, conversely, with knowing that you are going to die, and it is "your time", and you're not ready for it, you don't want to go yet, there's still so much to do, so much to see, there are your children to glory in, what will they do next? There are your grandchildren ... how can you leave all of this? How can you ever leave all of this? At the very end, my siblings and I all stood over my dad's bed, with our hands on him, stroking him, and saying, "It's okay, Dad ... it's okay ... it's okay ... it's okay ..." We did not want him to go. He did not want to go. But he had to go.
I still have moments where I think I can hear his voice, where I wish I could tell him what is happening in my life, when I want to send him articles on John Banville like I used to, where all I feel is how wrong it is that he is not here anymore.
But I have to say, from time to time, I think of Ellie's scrapbook in Up, and how it revealed to grieving Carl how she saw her own life. She did not see it as an endless string of broken dreams, unfulfilled promise. She got the man she wanted. Living with him WAS her dream. It WAS her adventure. Life itself is the best adventure of all. How wonderful that she was the kind of person who could recognize that WHILE it was happening.
Up was an incredibly important film for me to see at that particular moment. It was the first film I saw after my dad's passing. It reached out a hand to me in the darkness. It said to me, "I know. I know this sucks. I know." It did not have pat answers, or too-easy Hallmark Card sentiments. Life is hard, no doubt about it. Loss burns. I know that the wound will lose its freshness. It will change and morph into other things, but in that moment in time, it burned. Up recognizes that. It honors that. It also shows that, whether you like it or not, life will pull you back. That's how it goes. It's awful. It's beautiful.
How I long to fill a scrapbook with pictures from my regular little everyday life, of dinners and parties and vacations with a beloved partner. That time has not come for me yet. I hadn't realized how disappointed I was about that until my father passed away and until the disappointment with the man I had this past spring. Because no matter what happens now, no matter which man I may find to walk through life with, he will not meet my father. I will not have the pleasure of taking him home to meet my Dad. I need to grieve that too. I will. I am.
In the meantime, I can only hope that, whatever happens, whatever other losses I withstand, whatever disappointments I may face, because life is long and you never know what is store for you, that I will never ever tire of "talking about the movie".
House contributor Sheila O'Malley blogs about film, literature, photography and life at The Sheila Variations.
Pixar Week will run October 4—10 at the House. For more information on the event, please see here.