Up, Up, and Okay

by Alex Chrisope

Upposter

The brilliant run of films produced by the Pixar-Disney partnership has proven to be quite the double-edged sword. The computer animation studio has yet to release a truly bad movie; it’s just that when they don’t have one that immediately qualifies for the short-list for Best Animated Feature Ever (Toy Story, Finding Nemo, WALL-E) or that is similarly innovative (a talky drama about a French rat chef – for kids!), there’s a disappointment that can besmirch an otherwise fine work. So it is with Pixar’s tenth feature, Up.

Up opens strongly, displaying the same trust in the viewer’s intelligence seen throughout WALL-E, with a hilarious newsreel about dashing explorer Charles Muntz (voiced by a well-disguised Christopher Plummer). Muntz has discovered Paradise Falls, an idyllic canyon in South America, and Muntz’s adventure captivates a shy boy named Carl. Subbing his own blue balloon for Muntz’s gargantuan dirigible, Carl has his own made-up adventures when he stumbles on someone just as obsessed as he is – an aggressively precocious redhead named Ellie. The yin to Carl’s cautious yang, the two become fast friends, promising to each other that one day they both will make it to Paradise Falls. In a beautiful montage without dialogue, Carl and audience alike fall for her; but as Carl and Ellie get married and grow old together, they never quite make it to South America. When Ellie passes, it doesn’t have the same stomach-turning shock as Bambi’s or Nemo’s respective mothers, but it still leaves one near tears.

With city developers closing in on Carl’s lifelong abode, the old man (now voiced by Ed Asner) decides to engage in one last act of defiance, fitting his little house with a shitload of helium balloons and flying away before the bastards can kick him out. This liftoff sequence is the most sublimely ridiculous moment in Pixar’s modest history, especially paired with the brutal emotional realism of the preceding minutes (which featuring, disturbingly, Pixar’s first instance of blood*, when Carl bashes a construction worker with his walker); but it’s just so spectacularly staged that I wasn’t too bothered. Carl sets out for Paradise Falls – but he has a stowaway, a pudgy Japanese-American Wilderness Scout named Russell (Jordan Nagai) who’s main character trait is constantly seeking approval from Carl.

Director Pete Docter (Monsters, Inc.) unfortunately can’t sustain the power of the first act, and the story gets pretty dodgy in South America before hurtling towards a climax of well-staged but sturdy cliches. Luckily the second half of Up has the greatest portrayal of dogs in the history of cinema. Paradise Falls is apparently populated with highly-trained canines wearing translators, which not only finally provide a satisfying explanation for the phenomenon of the cartoon talking dog but also deliver the funniest gags in the whole film. The most important dog is a golden retriever named Dug, who has the boundless energy and earnestness of his breed; but like all the other dogs, his translating collar’s speech has the awkward literalness of plugging a giant chunk of English into a free online translator – think Liz Lemon’s “I want to go to there” from 30 Rock. The writers clearly had a ball tweaking all of the canine dialogue and must be dog lovers themselves, since they absolutely nail the limited emotional spectrum of the average pet dog.

It seems redundant at this point to praise the visual mastery of a Pixar film, but there are shots and images in Up that have the arresting quality of a great painting. One of these moments neatly sums up the theme of the film: it’s the boring, routine moments in life that should be cherished, not the long-deferred dream that is often shallow and deceptive when brought to life. Another, in which a ominous storm front dwarfs Carl’s little house, had me making a mental note to one day, when I have grandchildren, schedule a double-feature of The Wizard of Oz and Up. Young children likely won’t grasp all the emotions with which Carl grapples, but the message won’t be lost on them. And if they don’t already have one, they’ll be begging to get a dog. A talking one, hopefully.

*Edit: Supposedly Mr. Incredible bleeds a tad in The Incredibles, but that film is so firmly established in the comic-book superhero milieu that it didn’t register. So Up is the first Pixar film to show a real person bleeding, I guess.

The Hard Drive Project Day Two: !@#$% and Numbers

Cribbing a brilliant feature from The Onion A.V. Club called Popless, and spurred by a recent clean-up of my computer and external hard drive, I am setting out to listen to every song and every artist on said hard drive. This hopefully will incorporate new releases over the course of the journey as well. Mostly I’ll be running quickly through artists for whom I only have a track or two, but for more major artists, I will try to go a bit more in depth. Today I’ll try to run through artists whose names start with symbols or numbers.

(+44)When Your Heart Stops Beating, the first and perhaps only album by blink-182 survivors Mark Hoppus and Travis Barker; the purpose of the band is in doubt now that blink is reunited for lucrative touring and recording. The album is kinda interesting for one reason: all the songs were originally written and programmed electronically by Hoppus and Barker, as a sort of pop-punk twist on The Postal Service trademark style; but by the time of the album’s release the tracks had been overlaid with traditional blink-style arrangements. The contrast between the writing in one paradigm and the production in another is as often awkward as it is compelling. (+44) doesn’t suffer from the earnest overkill of their former and current bandmant Tom DeLonge (more on him soon), but only the title track captures the heady spark of blink-182 at their best; there’s also a bromantic emo break-up song aimed at DeLonge that hits home, knowing the dudes had been friends for like 15 years prior.
The (International) Noise Conspiracy, “My Star
.38 Special, “Hold On Loosely
2 Pistols feat. T-Pain & Tay Dizm, “She Got It” – A typical T-Pain guest spot – in other words, a ridiculously catchy piece of hip-hop fluff.
2Pac, “All Eyez on Me” & “California Love” – There’s a lot of great artists for whom I have like two obligatory tracks; Tupac Shakur is one of them. These two are pretty unimpeachable rap classics, especially “California Love,” likely the first real rap video I ever saw. Funny how big a deal Kanye’s AutoTune is these days, when the chorus of “California Love” is all fucking AutoTune.

30 Seconds to Mars, “The Kill” – Generic modern rock by Jared Leto.
50 Cent – To me, there’s always been off-putting about 50 Cent’s lack of nuance: he’s all swagger, all the time. That’s not to say he’s not very skilled or charismatic, but I just can’t see myself listening to a whole album’s worth of his braggadocio-on-steroids act. I’m much more drawn to the cringe-inducing honesty of Kanye and the newly-humbled T.I. I mean, Christ, even Young Jeezy can modulate. So I have five choice 50 Cent singles, If I Can’t the best of them.
311, “Amber” – Mediocre band, awesome song. A recurring theme in my library, to be sure.
999, “Homicide
The 5th Dimension, “Aquarius/Let The Sunshine In” – Hippiedom tamed for the mainstream. Classic. I played this, half-joking and half-not, about eight times after Obama was sworn in. Also, the basis for possibly the funniest scene in movie history, at the end of The Forty-Year-Old Virgin.

The Hard Drive Project Day One: Weird Al Yankovic

Cribbing a brilliant feature from The Onion A.V. Club called Popless, and spurred by a recent clean-up of my computer and external hard drive, I am setting out to listen to every song and every artist on said hard drive. This hopefully will incorporate new releases over the course of the journey as well. Mostly I’ll be running quickly through artists for whom I only have a track or two, but for more major artists, I will try to go a bit more in depth. The inaugural artist: Weird Al Yankovic.

Weird Al is a strange choice to start this endeavour, perhaps, but the parenthesis that begins his artist name in iTunes puts him at the top of the list. My first experience with Weird Al was a VHS tape my dad had, showcasing Yankovic’s greatest video hits. Through the parodist’s wacky (and often food-related) appropriation of whatever was in the contemporary zeitgeist (or at least the Top 40), I also had my first experience with Madonna, Nirvana, James Brown, Green Day, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, rap music, and the delightful musical form and style that is polka.

Most of the time, Yankovic simply appropriates the music and arrangement of a popular song and writes his own lyrics about one of his many preoccupations (food and TV, mostly). He really doesn’t go after an artist directly except for a rare instance – “Smells Like Nirvana,” obviously spoofing Nirvana’s signature song, amplifies Cobain’s mumbly-shouty singing to ridiculous heights (“Its hard to bargle nawdle zouss(? )/ With all these marbles in my mouth”), and in hindsight it reads also as a dead-on satire of the calcified, mainstream “rebellion” that arose in Nirvana’s wake. Otherwise, any overt mockery of an artist comes in more subtle, idiosyncratic moments. “Trapped in the Drive-Thru“, taken from R. Kelly’s immortal “Trapped in the Closet”, hilariously pushes to its annoying limit the song’s penchant for rhyming the same exact word, over and over. “You’re Pitiful,” Yankovic’s otherwise pedestrian take on James Blunt’s noxious “You’re Beautiful,” features my favorite such moment. In the opening of the original, Blunt sings a clipped “My life is brilliant” several measures before the verse actually starts. Weird Al tweaks it, singing the line as Blunt does, then awkwardly asking, “W-was I too early? … Should I …?”

For the vast majority of people, Weird Al is defined by his goofy but sharp parodies of the videos that accompany the songs he, um, modifies, and rightly so. Far from an Al cultist, I have followed Yankovic’s post-peak career from a distance; he gets a lifetime pass for his involvement in “Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job.”

Strengths: You have to be a savvy guy to maintain a decades-long career as a novelty artist in an era when everything is already supposed to be sort-of ironic. Digging a little deeper, the “style parodies,” or originals in a style of a particular genre or artist without referencing a specific song, reveal the dude to be a pretty good songwriter in his own right.

Weaknesses: The nature of his act means often parodying a song that is a hit at the time but will ultimately be a dated relic … or forgotten entirely. (cough *Crash Test Dummies* cough)

The big hit: I actually don’t even have this one in digital form, but “Amish Paradise” might be his defining song for music fans my age.

Best song: “White & Nerdy“, a spoof of Chamillionaire’s “Ridin”, sounds just like the original but may have Yankovic’s funniest lyrics, riffing on his common trope of the nerd who is enamored of mainstream pop culture but can never partake (“Only question I/ Ever thought was hard/ Is ‘Do I like Kirk/ Or do I like Picard?”).

Other best song: “Dare to Be Stupid“, an actually fairly scathing spoof of Devo’s absurd synthy wankery. Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh has admitted he hated Yankovic after hearing the song, not because he was being mocked but because Yankovic had found a synthesizer sound even better than Devo’s.

Stab at pretension: Every Weird Al album features a polka-fied medley of pop hits from when the album was made; the mash-up of styles and artists, albeit pumped through an accordian, anticipates the iPod paradigm. “Polkarama” from 2006 is the apotheosis.

Most overrated: “Eat It.” Yankovic’s spoofs are usually technically dead-on, but the arrangement here sounds rushed and cheap compared to the industrial crunch of the original.

Most personal for me: I went to a preppy elementary school whose main purpose was siphoning the preppy kids into preppier high schools. I didn’t fit in at all. It kind of sucked. In sixth grade, our class took a week-long field trip to Chicago; on the drive through Illinois, I must have listened to “Alternative Polka” about thirty times on my Walkman.

Music Review: “Working on a Dream,” Though Apparently Not Too Hard

It’s no coincidence that the release of Bruce Springsteen’s new album, Working on a Dream, comes a week after the joyous inauguration of President Obama. Bruce came out in support of Obama during the primary, and he stumped for his man just as he had for John Kerry.

The venture into politics is paying off huge: besides the obvious benefits of having a competent President, the Obama campaign appearances were clearly the launching pad for a whirlwind of publicity: a Golden Globe win here, an inauguration gig there, a Wal-Mart exclusive compilation for casual fans who should know all those songs already, a performance at the Oscars (that one didn’t pan out), and the pinnacle of American consumer culture, the Super Bowl half-time show.
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Hiatus

Hi internet peoples,

I’ve suspended my blogging at Scribblerist while I focus on my fiction writing practice. You can read my weekly posts about Buddhism, culture, and (occasionally) psychology & neuroscience at the One City Blog.

Best,

The Scrib.

Fortnight of Fright #1 – Some Kind of Monster

In anticipation of Halloween, Keesup is watching 20 notable horror movies in two weeks. This survey of the genre will include several themed double features and some entries that may not be conventionally understood as “horror” but are nonetheless relevant. Tonight’s entry: Matt Reeves’ Cloverfield (2008)

It’s the epitome of the “teaser” – an alluring clip that begs two questions: “What is going on here?” (no idea) and “When does this movie come out?” (1.18.08, apparently). Months of esoteric internet promotion continued to pick up heat for the project by 21st century media master J.J. Abrams. A letdown was almost inevitable from the intense hype – it could even share the fate of the similarly marketed Snakes on a Plane, which was immediately forgotten upon its theatrical release. But unlike SoaP, Abrams and director Matt Reeves were actually trying to make a good movie.
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Insight, Meditation, and The Usefulness of Strip Clubs

The July 28 issue of the New Yorker (still the finest magazine in the world, despite the ill-advised, un-satirical Obama cover) had an article about the scientific inquiry into insight that got me all hot n’ bothered. In “The Eureka Hunt,” Jonah Lehrer writes about kick-ass neuroscientists who are tracing the hidden pathways of ‘the insight experience,’ and finding that although we can’t feel it, our minds can subconsciously prep an “ah-ha!” moment when confronted with a difficult problem (The article isn’t available online, but you can find an illicit copy here.)

This sets the context nicely:

There is something inherently mysterious about moments of insight … like Archimedes shouting “Eureka” when he saw his bathwater rise, or Isaac Newton watching an apple fall from a tree and then formulating his theory of gravity. Such tales all share a few essential features, which psychologists and neuroscientists use to define “the insight experience.” The first of these is the impasse: before there can be a breakthrough, there has to be a mental block.

Then, the insight arrives, instantaneously, in a flash of connected threads…

This is another key feature of insight: the feeling of certainty that accompanies the idea.

So, a few very smart and hardworking researchers started running simple, phrase-based experiments to tease out exactly how the insight experience works. If you were looking reason #248 to sit your ass down and practice, I give you this, the money quote for meditators:

Kounios [a researcher] tells a story about an expert Zen meditator who took part in one of the C.R.A. insight experiments. At first, the meditator couldn’t solve any of the insight problems. “This Zen guy went through thirty or so of the verbal puzzles and just drew a blank,” Kounios said. “He was used to being very focussed, but you can’t solve these problems if you’re too focussed.” Then, just as he was about to give up, he started solving one puzzle after another, until, by the end of the experiment, he was getting the all right. It was an unprecedented streak. “Normally, people don’t get better as the task goes along,” Kounios said. “If anything, they get a little bored.” Kounios believes that the dramatic improvement of the Zen meditator came from his paradoxical ability to focus on not being focussed, so that he could pay attention to those remote associations in the right hemisphere. “He had the cognitive control to let go,” Kounios said, “He became an insight machine.”

Ok – mega-cool!

As a recovering hyper-rationalist, I simply adore it when science and my spiritual practice intersect, and this anecdote suggests that the razor-thin line between Too Focused and Daydreaming that meditators cultivate can lead to a heightened ability to tap insight. The insight experience itself cannot be learned, but dwelling in the conditions leading to it might be teachable.

In other words, insight seems to happen at the intersection of relaxed concentration and non-attention – closely related to, but not quite what scientists call “flow.”

I’ve written about the benefits of daydreaming-enabled living for the One City blog before, and another passage from Lehrer’s article speaks to the helpfulness of Just Not Forcing It:

Although we often complain that the brain is too easily distracted, Schooler believes that letting the mind wander is essential. “Just look at the history of science,” he said. “The big ideas seem to always come when people are sidetracked, when they’re doing something that has nothing to do with their research.”

And the utility of strip clubs:

RIchard Feynman, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, preferred the relaxed atmosphere of a topless bar, where he would sip 7 UP, “watch the entertainment,” and, if inspiration struck, scribble equations on cocktail napkins.

Pole-dancers aside, the thing I find so exciting about this article is the same thing that I find so inspiring about a vivid dream: my subconscious mind is often more flexible, creative, and able to form unexpected connections than I am. It just might be that, paradoxically, the best way to solve a difficult problem is to simply ignore it and go sit in your bath or under an apple tree. Who knows, you might get lucky.