The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Wanted: Wall-E

Saw Angelina Jolie's "Wanted" Friday, and was disappointed. I mean, I love an ultra-violent movie more than most. But this was only slightly better than "Shoot 'em Up", with no theme, and dozens of totally innocent people killed (mostly off-screen, but still...)

The plot revolves around a dweebish, extraordinarily gullible young man recruited by an ancient league of assassins. After a month of intense training, he becomes insanely lethal, including psi-powers and advanced martial skills. Yeah, O.K.--I've seen this in many movies, but they're rarely stupid enough to actually tell you the time frame involved. On the mere word of Spiritual Guide Morgan Freeman, he starts killing whoever he's told to kill, supposedly because "Fate" demands it. Yeah, right.

Once the thread of morality or even logic is so severed, you're forced to sit back and just enjoy the visuals, many of which are really quite nice. Angelina Jolie is frighteningly thin, but oddly erotic as always. I'm sure she'd be great fun for a fortnight, but I'll bet Brad sometimes wonders what the hell he's gotten himself into. Anyway, even though I was in the mood for some R-Rated slaughter, this one felt kinda...offensive. I'll give it a "C".


Someone said that I was dismayed that some whites voted against Obama on the basis of race. Nonsense. Such voting patterns are exactly what I would have expected. What does dismay me is that so many people seem surprised, or that they don't seem to factor that, and it's implications, in when they talk about how his race has been an advantage.

What I am incredibly proud of, regardless of what happens in November, is that, so far as I know, this is the first time in history when an oppressed ethnic minority has come so close to being elected leader of a country. Has that happened anywhere? America is an extraordinary country. We really, actually do try to live up to our ideals. "America a racist nation"? Really? As opposed to what country, where? It is human beings who have the tribalism meme (if not gene). The American egalitarianism meme is in conflict with it, and causes cognitive dissonance on a massive social scale. We're working through this stuff. I frankly didn't think we'd get this far in my lifetime. Just need another decade or so for more older white folks to die, that sounds brutal. Truth hurts.


Do I care about humanity despite its ultimate insignificance? Sure. Not because we have some ultimate importance, but because I choose to. Why is my son any different from a half-billion other kids? In one sense, he isn't. But I choose to care. He is mine. It is pleasing to me to accept that responsibility. My attitude toward humanity is the same. Ultimately, nothing matters, and everything matters the same--the life of an ant, and the death of a galaxy. That's nice. Within that rather cosmic perspective, I play the game of being human, male, a father, an American...because it pleases me.


Biased against Conservatives? When did I ever say Conservatives are worse than Liberals? Never. I think they have DIFFERENT negatives, not MORE of them. Included in that is a greater amount of racism. On the Liberal side, I see an excessive egalitarianism that says "nothing is better or worse than anything else" and tries to run a society that way. I DO think that we have had excessive Conservative influence over the last decades, an attempt to put the 60's genie back in the bottle. I admit that this is fueled by countless negative comments about the Civil Rights movement, The Bell Curve, Martin Luther King, people who proved to have Conservative politics. I had no opinion about this stuff at all until I started adding up those comments, and came to the conclusion that my butter wasn't on that side of the bread. I have never suggested, and do not believe, that Conservatives are in any way shape or form less moral or intelligent than Liberals.


Do I think that there are ultimate values? Not that we can grasp with our ego-minds or put into words, no. But I think that, from the perspective of human life, certain things come damned close--close enough for "Government Work" as they say. Anything that decreases the net amount of pain and increases the net amount of love, is good. Deliberate cruelty is bad. Harming children is bad. But dammit, I can think of situations where even those things don't apply.

Humanity has searched for permanent, universal truths for thousands of years. Except in very specific frameworks, like mathematics, you just don't get "absolutes"--you get "so close it doesn't make much sense to argue about it." I think you can go crazy trying to find absolutes in life. Will I kill or die to protect my Country, my family, my sense of honor? Yes. Is that because my Country is better than others? By my values, yes. But are my values some kind of absolute? Hell, no. Is my family "better" than others? Well, I love them more, and they're my responsibility. Yeah, I can say anything I want to about "biological imperatives" or "social norms" or "childhood imprintation" or whatever, but ultimately the responsibility is mine. I CHOOSE to act as I do, to care about the things I care about. I could strip away as much of that as I want to (not quite selectively, though--to not care about Race, for instance, would distance me from some of my other human emotions. A lot of this stuff is tightly interlaced).

This is why the paths to enlightenment are generally textured with moral laws and strictures. By the time you have melted away the absolutes, all you have left is residual behavior patterns. Fear of outside authority, or even "God" is replaced by a sense that the "I-thou" or even the "human-divine" dichotomy are illusions. And fuck me Freddie, if you don't have the basic behaviors that sustain body and mind, let alone relationships and society, deeply encoded at the unconscious level, you will spiral into...well, what most people call madness.

So it's better not to chase after enlightenment, and settle for being an aware, awake adult. That is so far above what most people aspire to, or experience, that it is often mistaken for the enlightened state. Genuinely enlightened people are dangerous as hell to society or those who believe in consensus reality and absolutes. The best thing to do is nail them to a cross. Seriously.


I'll see "Hancock", but I can guess that since the filmmakers have to avoid sexuality (even as much as you saw in "Iron Man") they will substitute flash and spectacle, and their dramatic arcs just won't work--I'm ahead of them. I know where they WON'T go, even if I don't know exactly where they WILL. And that, regardless of what they do, will lay their plot machinations bare, diminishing a dramatic experience to a series of scenes and special effects designed to entertain without actually touching the genuine human experience. And that is such a waste.


WALL-E on the other hand, is part of the ongoing miracle that is Pixar. How they manage to create excellence on such a sustained basis is comparable to nothing other than the Golden age of Disney...and frankly, I think they're operating at a higher moral level. As much as I love Disney, we've discussed what I consider to be their failings in the past.

Pixar is winding deeply into the warp and woof of what it is to be human, and WALL-E, the story of a romantic trash compactor dreaming of love amid the detritus of human society is a marvel. In the WALL-E's future, the only sign of life on earth is a cockroach--who happens to be a true friend to the eponymous robot, a little tractor with binocular eyes and R2-D2's anthropomorphic qualities. When a "female" robot EVE arrives seeking signs of life, the movie swings into gear. The first twenty minutes or so are pure visual poetry. The plot doesn't really arrive for almost an hour in. Children might grow a bit restless. But whereas I place this, over all, in the top third of Pixar's work, there are moments I felt I was watching a great piece of popular art. It touches on the question of disassociation: from our world, our emotions, our bodies, each other. It is heart-breaking and important. When you find out what happened to humanity, (I'm not spoiling anything to say that we DO find out--and that human beings have become insanely obese creatures unable to walk or care for themselves) you realize just how serious this film's intent is.

Dare I suggest that the bond between mind and body is the same stuff as the bond between humanity and earth? Between mother and child? Between one human being and another? That these are all intertwined inextricably?

There was a woman sitting in our movie row, almost as fat as the people on the screen. I wonder how she felt about what she was seeing. Reading about the health/obesity problem in Japan and China, I am convinced that this is the pale side of industrialization, of the information age, of a time when we've stopped using our bodies to earn our bread.

It's killing us. And maybe that's appropriate. I don't know. Did you know that "It's a Small World" at Disneyland had to be shut down, so that it could be dredged deeper because Americans have gotten so fat they're sinking the boats?

Dear God in heaven. Those of us who believe Global Warming is real, human-generated and dangerous, who believe overpopulation is reaching a tipping point, listen to those who believe the world can healthfully sustain more billions and feel real fear for the future of the world. It's not hard to understand that attitude: most of the length and breadth of human history has been about surviving, eating as much as we can, making as many babies as we can. It just didn't matter 99% of the time. And the core message encoded in so many cultural norms and philosophies is one of consumption, because that actually increased the chance of the next generation's survival.

That has changed, but it takes time to turn the Titanic around. On this issue, my opinion is that the wacko wing of the Left says "We're destroying the earth!" and the wacko wing of the Right says "It's impossible for humans to change this planet." The truth, I think, is that we are perfectly capable of damaging this planet enough to cause a crash in our civilization. We can poison the air and water enough to kill most of us--that's really all the Far Left environmentalists are saying, even if they say it poorly. And the Right? All they're saying is what has (from one perspective) been true for most of our history: that nature will kill us if we don't dominate it.

Because I think that the basic human perceptual filters are set in childhood and only altered with great effort thereafter, everything else you learn is seen through that. Every event you see, every philosophical speculation you hear is more readily believed if it agrees with what we already think.

This one, I honestly believe, is baked in the cake: the Earth cannot sustain our current population AND the American lifestyle. And because we have been beaming our lifestyle to the rest of the planet, telling them that they should all live like this, we have been instrumental in popularizing some of the very best and very worst ideas imaginable.

Movies like WALL-E are somewhere beyond political. Politics is a level beneath what Pixar is doing here. They are speaking to a human yearning for connection. Doubtless many of the creators have political points of view, but it is tragic that this issue has become mired in politics when the issue is the survival of everything 99% of humanity holds dear. True--if the doomsayers are wrong, industry will be penalized, economies will suffer, governments increase their power--all for naught. If the other side is right, we're talking functional extermination of our species.

Sorry, but that isn't "six of one, half a dozen of the other." If there was EVER a debate that needed to happen outside the poisoned domain of politics, this is it. And perhaps the best venue is art. If Art is Self-Expression, then a piece of popular entertainment that suggests we are losing what made us human in the first place, losing our sense of X amount of sweat equals Y amount of security...then WALL-E is so much more than mere "commercial art." It is a statement of position on the most important issue facing mankind--not "Global Warming" but the root of all human evil: treating ourselves, our fellow human beings, and the earth itself as an object, a means to an end rather than an end in itself.

If investigating the role of the human heart in the creation of the world our children will inherit is not the proper role of art, I don't know what is. If we lose touch with ourselves--as I see us doing--to the point that only the trash compactors and cockroaches remember what love is, we have lost our way. And our children's way. And our children's children.

Whatever Pixar chooses to do next, I'll be there. I give WALL-E an A+. Instant classic.

I don't know who they sold their souls to to achieve this level of mastery, but I suspect they got the better end of the deal.



Pagan Topologist said...

Wow, Steve! Yet another example of why I continue reading here, sometimes even when I have work I need to do. Thank you!

Anonymous said...

"... if the doomsayers are wrong, industry will be penalized, economies will suffer, governments increase their power -- all for naught. If the other side is right, we're talking functional extermination of our species.

"ᅠSorry, but that isn't 'six of one, half a dozen of the other.'"

I'm sorry too, but massively sinking our free-enterprise economy while giving governments vast new powers of coercion that Dick Cheney could only dream of ... is not exactly a great prospect for the survival of our species either. Let alone for the continued expansion of human liberty, which I consider to only be likely in societies that allow free human action. In a society where the State controls economics, dissent means starvation. And innovation halts. If you want an example, think of Ukraine in the 1930s.

Fortunately, I don't think we need Kyoto or world government to substantively address global warming. We can pretty much do it through the sorts of rational, freely chosen efforts that Bjorn Lomborg's written and talked about.

The choice between keeping our liberties and keeping our lives is a false dichotomy, and one that I hope people of good will choose to see through.

--Erich Schwarz

Tor Hershman said...

Howz 'bout a violent video?


Dan Moran said...

It seems unlikely to me that global warming is going to kill off the human race, though I think we're already past the point where it won't kill off a lot of people.

When money's not involved, liberals tend to win in the long run. Gay marriage is coming, for example, and in fifty years conservatives will solemnly assert that no, the Bible never said that gays couldn't marry, and that thing about slavery, that was another misinterpretation....

Where money's involved, the liberal track record is fairly pathetic. This is such a case, and the outcome is going to be grim ... and in 50 years, conservatives will solemnly assert that the tens or hundreds of millions who died as a result ... should be blaming liberals. Those of you still about, wait on it -- sometime soon even the most deranged conservatives will stop trying to peddle the line about global warming not occurring. Ten minutes later, they'll be explaining why liberals caused it.

Dan Gambiera said...

The first time an oppressed ethnic minority came close to becoming President?

Not really.

Not that long ago the Irish weren't White. Yeah, their skin was pale. But they were discirmminated against big time. And several reputable books have been written about how they were eventually accepted as Europeans.

Jack Kennedy was elected President some time before I was born. He was also Catholic. While Catholicism isn't genetic it wasn't White according to the racists of the time. And there was very strong anti-Catholic prejudice not that long ago.

Thirty years earlier, when Irish and Catholics had it harder, Al Smith lost to Herbert Hoover. Democratic Party nominee counts as "close". When he ran the Irish were much less accepted and Catholics often considered a menace to national security.

Go back further, and there's some credible evidence that Andrew *spit* Jackson was at least partly Native. Does it count if he was passing? You have said that Jefferson's children by his slaves were Black even though they passed for White, so you'd probably have to count him.

But as far as it goes, I don't expect shit from Obama. He had his first chance to take a stand and show some leadership at the national level. He followed the failed 2000, 2002, and 2004 DLC (not the successful 2006 DNC) strategy by caving into fascism while his proxies spun at top speed.

He's had his test. He failed. It will take some convincing for me to believe that he actually stands for anything.

Until then, fuck him and the horse he rode in on. I won't vote for McCain, and I'll work hard to elect Democrats at the State level. But I'll be damned if I'll vote for someone with no principles and no respect for the rule of law.

Josh Jasper said...

I'm still a huge fan of "Shoot 'Em Up" of over the top violence, social satire, and just plan amazing gun play scenes. "Wanted" seems to not accept that it's a silly movie.

What I am incredibly proud of, regardless of what happens in November, is that, so far as I know, this is the first time in history when an oppressed ethnic minority has come so close to being elected leader of a country. Has that happened anywhere?

Juan Evo Morales Ayma was recently elected President of Bolivia. As with the history of the rest of Latin America, people of European descent dominated. He's the first elected fully indigenous head of state in Bolivia (according to Wikipedia, at least).

There's no way that the entire world could engage in the sheer magnitude of waste and consumption that Americans take for granted. Even America has had to put on the breaks in terms of pollution. Can you imagine what LA would be like if it had the same sort of cats it had in the 70s? You'd have to go out wearing an oxygen mask.

Anyone who thinks you feel that conservatives are "in any way shape or form less moral or intelligent than Liberals." has not read much of your blog. You bend over backwards to be fair and polite to conservatves. Even ones who slyly suggest the black voters (including yourself) are somehow racist for supporting Obama in such large numbers because if white people show similar behavior they get criticized.

This is of course in some fantasy world where whites had been enslaved, abused, denied rights, and continually demeaned. But no one making veiled accusations of reverse racism says that :-/

You've been more tolerant of this situation than anyone gives you credit for.

Marty S said...

Steve: Excellent post I agree with a large percent of what you said. My biggest disagreement is with the old people dieing off remark. The senior part of my family(ages 56 thru 83) got together Saturday and there were five Obama supporters versus four McCain supporters. At least with old folk I associate with this isn't atypical.
More importantly I agree with you that there are a lot of intelligent people in both the liberal and conservative camp. This implies there are a lot of good ideas in both camps. Both the U.S. and the world in general face a number of problems related to there being just too many people. I think that if this country is going to contribute solving these problems the two sides are going to have to stop throwing brickbats at each other and take the best ideas from both sides.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Where have you heard that there's an increase in obesity in Japan? The only related thing I've heard is that there's now a law that men with waistlines over 33.5 inches and women with waistlines over 35.4 inches (no adjustment for height) will be encouraged to lose weight. If the overweight population hasn't shrunk by 10% in four years and 25% in 7 years, financial penalties will be imposed on companies and regions.

However, none of this means that there are many fat people or that the number of fat people is increasing.

Steven Barnes said...

I would buy the Irish as an oppressed ethnic minority--in England. Not in America, where they were part of a range of European ethnic types, without one dominating with anything like the way it happened to blacks here.
As for Ayma--Europeans may have dominated, but THEY were actually the minority, right? Not the same thing--one might as well point to Mandela, except that blacks, like Indians, were actually the majority.
I doubt I said Jefferson's children were black "even though they passed for white." Please point me to that post. While America has the "one drop" rule, I myself do not. If you aren't visually identifiable as a member of the group, then the social definition of race doesn't apply. Genetically? If you're 1/2 one and 1/2 the other, the only thing it makes sense to say is that you're "mixed", not black--genetically. Which makes me mixed genetically, and black socially. It's the visual identification that does it. If you can have a touch of a particular blood strain, and be elected because people have no idea, that's not at all the same thing as those people electing you even though they know.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

An actual fat person's review of Wall-E.

Dan Moran said...

Boy, that review's both sad and offensive. Obesity isn't a moral failing, but it's still a failing, and no, I won't accept it. My wife went to work this last year at the beginning of the school year -- and two of my five kids, home unsupervised for a couple hours each day, started raiding the cupboard. Both of them put on 10 or so pounds of fat in 9 months. I've given them the summer to work it off -- if it's still a problem come September, we're locking the cupboards and the refrigerator when the adults aren't home.

Converted my office into a weight/yoga room this weekend, and moved my computer into the bedroom. I can't make them exercise, but I can sure make it easier for them to exercise, and harder for them to pig out. And, "fat prejudice" aside, I'd be remiss in my responsibilities as a parent if I "accepted" this. Be damned if I will.

Dan Gambiera said...

Steve, when Al Smith was running "Man Wanted, No Irish Need Apply" signs were still up in parts of the US. There were still places where "Up a long ladder and down a short rope. Hurray for King Billy, and go fuck the Pope. Down Croppy, lie down" was a common drinking song. "No Dogs or Irishmen" was within living memory. The fact that he was of Irish descent was a campaign issue.

As always you equate "oppressed in America" with Black men and pretty much Black men only. It isn't true, and it hasn't been true. The fact that things change in no way erases the past.

Dan Gambiera said...

The issue of Jefferson's children was a private conversation we had some years back. I may be misremembering slightly but really don't think so. The subject of their exclusion from the Jefferson family society was in the news. You allowed as how their legitimacy wasn't the real issue. It was the fact that they were Black.

Ethiopian Infidel said...

I view the destruction of the ozone layer as more dangerous to life in general than global warming. At worst, global warming will deluge some islands and coastlines and massively change agriculture. Humans adapted and triumphed over dramatic change before. Witness a principal result of Europe's adaptation to the global cooling of the Little Ice Age of 6 centuries past: Northern Europeans and their American cultural descendants drink beer at bars instead of wine. When the climate grew too cold to sustain much of the Roman agricultural legacy, Nordics readily adapted. And of course humanity survived the elevated sea levels that the melting Pleistocene glaciers produced. In fact, agriculture and urbanization took off in the wake of the Global Glacial Meltdown.

Ozone depletion, by contrast, raises the spectre of the Earth's surface flooded by dangerous intensities of UV radiation, which probably last occurred in the wake of the TK asteroid impact that produced the global mass extinction that ended Mesozoic Era and helped to drive up the dinosaur death toll. Oceanic plankton, the base of the marine food pyramid and possibly the earth's primary oxygen producers, are particularly vulnerable to UV elevations. Whereas Global Warming posses the potential to disrupt various economic and agricultural activities and may in fact doom some species, ozone depletion poses a dire threat to the very basis of life on Earth.

"What I am incredibly proud of, regardless of what happens in November, is that, so far as I know, this is the first time in history when an oppressed ethnic minority has come so close to being elected leader of a country. Has that happened anywhere?"

Mexico beat the rest of the hemisphere to it with the election of Indio Benito Juarez to its presidency in the 1860's. Mexico also achieved another exceptional distinction: the near-complete absorption of its once considerable distinct Black population into the general Mestizo masses.

Marty S said...

Some people are heavy because they overeat and some people are heavy because that's the way nature made them. When all the adult siblings of a family have the same obese build, even the one who became a vegetarian, and you eat with these people and they don't eat anymore than the normal weight people at the table you have to conclude they have a genetic problem.

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Here's a series about fat as a symptom rather than a disease: So far it covers hypothyroidism, malabsorption diseases (especially celiac), drug side effects, and ovarian cysts. I recommend reading the comments, too.

The articles cover the common difficulty of getting appropriate medical care because fat (and a large belly, which may or may not be fat) is commonly viewed as a moral issue.

Steve, you've mentioned being intuitive about people, but there are many reasons for being fat or thin. How well do you distinguish between someone who is fat because it's their default weight (and are they an athlete or not?), or because they're ill, because they're bingeing (and is that because of sexual abuse or for other reasons?), or because they've gained an extra 25 pounds every time they diet? How about between people who are thin because it's their default weight, because they're dieting/exercising in a reasonable way, an anorexic on the way down, or because they're ill?

Nancy Lebovitz said...

Steve, one more category for race: there are some people who look white and identify as black because their families are black. I don't know how common this is but I don't think it's extremely rare.

Lynn Gazis-Sax said...

The subject of their exclusion from the Jefferson family society was in the news. You allowed as how their legitimacy wasn't the real issue. It was the fact that they were Black.

In that case, though, the relevant question would not be whether Sally Hemmings had mostly white ancestry (as I gather she did), or whether her children and descendants passed as white (as I gather some did and some didn't), but whether the people running the Jefferson family society saw her and her descendants as black. And, FWIW, some of those descendants are socially black; both the descendants of her son Eston, who have lived as white, and the descendants of Madison, who have lived as black, preserved a family history of being descended from Jefferson.

Michelle said...

We saw would have been better if they actually did the DC spoof comic book...that story line looked interesting...

What they did in the movie...ick. Not necessarily the violence...but you cared about no one.

Pagan Topologist said...

Ethiopian Infidel, I think that global warming is extremely serious and ozone depletion is really overblown. The ultimate consequence of global warming could be that Antarctica will eventually be the only habitable land on Earth, or worse, since we know from the planet Venus what can happen if the greenhouse effect gets really going.

Lots of ultraviolet hits Earth's upper atmosphere. This UV creates ozone from whatever oxygen is there. The ozone layer will at worst move a tiny bit lower, where there is a lot more oxygen. The only ozone holes have been where there is no sunlight

David Bellamy

Josh Jasper said...

Antidepressants are a major contributor to weight gain. So some people have a choice between gaining weight, or being suicidally depressed.

Of course, if you're prone to depression, some one telling you you're a failure (moral or otherwise) because you're overweight is not going to help.

Steven Barnes said...

Dan Gambiera_-
I don't equate being oppressed in America with being black male only, and never have, and you can find no evidence of that. Women have been oppressed, both black and white. Gays have been oppressed. Japanese during WW2 And the group most oppressed have probably been native Americans. I DO draw a line between oppression within groups (European sub-groups) and between groups. If you can pretend to be of the other group (Jews pretending to be Christians, Gays pretending to be straight) it doesn't hit on the same level as it does when you are visually distinguished. So light-skinned blacks who can "pass" haven't the same level of oppression as darker-skinned blacks.
If I'm Irish, and I don't like the signs, and can lose my accent and change my name, while there was definitely pressure, I was able to bend with it--and thousands did. If the pressure isn't enough to make you want to change, it isn't the same as being trapped, with nowhere to go and nothing to do.

Kukulkan said...


"Thus far, in every interview I've seen, every Hillary Clinton supporter who has sworn to vote for McCain has been white. That tugs at the back of my mind. Let's see: what is it that they might find comforting about McCain. His politics? No...his gender? No...his experience? That's a possibility, of course, although if they had wanted experience, they might have gone there in the first place: Hillary's elected experience is less than Barack's. Age? Maybe. Wisdom/Intelligence? Well, I would suspect they haven't any reason to rank either McCain or Clinton above Obama on that, but I could certainly respect an alternative opinion. When people shift allegiances, I would think that they are moving where they feel more...comfortable. Yes, that's the polite word I'm looking for. Is it my imagination that a disproportionate number of these folks are white, and if so, is it unfair to wonder if that has something to do with it?"

If "dismay" is the wrong word for the tone of the above post, what is the right word? Anger? Disappointement? Resentment? You don't write a phrase like "that's the polite word I'm looking for" unless you want to indicate that the impolite words are the ones that came to your mind first. Whether it was conscious or unconscious, you were signalling that you resent White people who refuse to vote for Sen. Obama because he has Black ancestry. At the same time, you have consistently offered excuses for why you have no anger/resentment/dismay/disappointement that some Blacks are voting for Sen. Obama because he has Black ancestry.

Steven Barnes said...


You missed it again. I have NEVER felt dismay or resentment that whites don't vote for Obama either because of his race, or anything else. I resent white people who don't acknowledge that this is happening, and suggest that his race has been an ADVANTAGE. That's all. Period.

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