FROM LENIN’S TOMB: Chattel Story

a commentary on Toy Story 3 posted by Lenin, August 8, 2010

People say the most unlikely things about films. They say Toy Story 3 is a miraculous film. They say it’s a Marxist parable about exploitation and authority. Or a treatise on Stalinism, or the Nazi holocaust. Neither Walt Disney nor its Pixar subsidiary will comment to make it clear which of the various interpretations is accurate. John Lasseter, whose long apprenticeship as a writer in the CGI end of the business has culminated in the Toy Story franchise, won’t speak up either. This is poor customer service. Someone, somewhere, has to break the silence and let us the consumers know what the commodity does, forchristsake. Well, here’s a thought.

Toy Story 3 is a story of how freedom is achieved through commodification, and how “the consent of the governed” roughly equals the willing embrace of bondage. You only have to bear in mind that the main characters are themselves commodities. It’s a jocular, mocking, morality story about toys, their particular role in pedagogy and socialization, the pseudo-history and televisual cliches they condense. Toys are a micro-cosm of the adult universe, produced so that the child doesn’t have to invent the mainsprings of her future life, but can instead go about constructing her ego-ideal around these always-already present objects. They come laden with meanings which naturalize the myths of adult life, meanings that the franchise knowingly smirks about but doesn’t really explore or problematise. They allow for the minimum of creative input and construction from the child.

In the franchise, the toys inexplicably have personalities, aspirations and purposiveness remarkably like those of their human masters. In fact, in the CGI universe, their level of reality is no different from that of their owners (who are, in their different ways, also commodities). But their ultimate fulfillment is in being owned, being put to work, “being there for” Andy. That this “being there for” involves being totally placid, pliable, silent and impersonal does not detract from their, er, humanity. That is the required performance. Everyone, and everything, has its place in the Toy Story scheme of things. That scheme is a hierarchy of commodities with toys near the bottom, subordinate and devoted to their owners. And ultimately, their devotion is reciprocated as, when the time comes for Andy to go to college, he emotes more about parting with his toys than he does about parting with his relatives.

Any attempt to break free of such mastery is illusory, merely a search for another master who will be even more tyrannical. When, after years of neglecting them, Andy appears to leave most of his toys out for garbage collection before heading off to college, the toys respond by sneaking into another box of toys destined for donation to the Sunnyside Day Centre. They refuse to heed Woody’s pleas that Andy didn’t mean for them to be sent to the incinerator, and instead revel in what appears to be a toy utopia, “without owners”. But utopia is soon revealed as a totalitarian nightmare run by an embittered big boss toy named Lotso. The toys are forced to stay in a room where they are smashed up by crazy, dysfunctional kids who don’t know how to play with toys. Buzz Lightyear, brainwashed (re-programmed to factory settings) by Lotso and his henchmen, is chosen to guard the prisoners. (Worth saying, this is the first scene in which any black characters appear at all. It is also the scene where the usual Toy Story ritual of sado-comical limb amputating, beheading and eye-gouging is repeated with maximum gusto.)

When the toys orchestrate the standard great escape from the prison camp, it is foiled by Lotso and his henchmen. There follows a cliched scene wherein the bad guy tries to break the defiance of the good guys with a demoralizing patter about how the world works, and how they’d best try to fit in. Among the toys, Barbie suddenly erupts with the indignant cri de coeur: “Government should be based on the consent of the governed, not the threat of force!” It is immediately ironised, because such earnest expostulations don’t really fit in with the tone of the film. But the writers will certainly have been aware of the long tradition of Disney films regurgitating tropes from liberal political theory, albeit slightly more subtly than this. Not only that, but they will be aware that the first CGI Barbie movie, adapted from the Nutcracker, was based around precisely this struggle between liberalism and tyranny. (I watched it with my nieces one day.) This is merely one example of the constant self-referential ironizing that regurgitates these tropes in a knowing way without really problematising them. And of course, the “consent of the governed” that is referred to here is the commodity’s enjoyment in bondage, her reveling in being used and owned by a master, her sense of freedom in such subjection.

The story is thus an ironic, potted re-telling of American mythologies, as related by commodities, especially through the medium of television. Woody and Buzz Lightyear, the main characters, are traditional models of upright American masculinity, Woody a fifties prototype of the overland frontiersman, Buzz Lightyear a sixties prototype of the space frontiersman. The female characters exist principally as helpmeets and romantic encounters for the toy boys, highlighting their natural heteronormativity, confirming their dominant status, reinforcing a gendered dichotomy that, as everyone knows, real toys themselves do a great deal to produce. The toys exist as a community of sorts, a community of heroes, living the strenuous life, their shared pain and sacrifice bonding them together, the mortal peril elevating them to new planes of existence – all of this struggle so that they can continue to be the willing bonded serfs of rich, white yanqui scum. The narrative confirms that commodities are the most important things in life, real friends, closer friends than anyone you’ll ever meet, and that to be a commodity is the most rewarding mode of existence. The latter claim is hardly unique to Hollywood films, but in drawing out and embracing the servitude implicit in commodification Toy Story takes it a step farther than others.

The extravagant praise for the Toy Story franchise therefore demands some sort of explanation. It is a crashingly dull series, manipulative and predatory toward child consumers, tedious in its little nudge-nudge gestures to adult consumers, punctuated with aesthetic cliches that don’t really qualify as ironic (oh the weather’s taken a bad turn, so there must be trouble afoot), etc. I suppose the terms “feel good” and “life-affirming” must apply here. The films leave a warm little glow in the heart, reminding you that your alienated, commodified relationships are perfectly normal, human, desirable and moreover actually protected as human rights in the advanced capitalist states – it’s in the constitution, dammit. There’s also, though, a calculated element of Rorschach, wherein elements and motifs from history and ideology are scavenged and re-deployed, so that you can retrospectively read into the movie – whose effects you have just involuntarily responded to at a basic physical level – whatever rationalization for so responding that makes you good with it. Indeed, there is Marxism in the film, and the American revolution, and Stalinism, and the Nazi holocaust, and freedom, and sacrifice, and family values, and so on… because the film proves that all such aspects of experience are susceptible to being broken up and rearticulated in the commodity form. It is capital’s highest tribute to itself, to its mode of production, distribution and exchange, its ability to convert all materials into some exchangeable, fungible base. In the furnace of capitalist culture, all of human existence is silly putty or play doh, malleable, protean, and saleable. That too is the basic message of the Toy Story franchise.

Guy Zimmerman comments:

So this is a classic description of how entertainment works and Pixar makes the most sophisticated entertainment. The intention is to put us to sleep to our self-commodification. If the intention were to wake us up, Pixar would be engaged in the very different activity we call art.

Rita Valencia comments:

This made me remember the last time I went to see a Pixar product, which was back during the Bush admin, a rather forgettable film called “The Incredibles”, which was not a franchise, but still did what Pixar does best, sell ideas…as per Lenin’s very smart piece.  But it was also a big step in the direction of the blending of merchandising and content as a marketing strategy.

Oh, by the way, and now that there’s a recession, one does not play hooky with office mates anymore. Progress!

Here are my notes on that show:
The Incredibles  10/2004   Whiz bang animation studio Pixar does it again.  My office mates and I played hooky and went to see it last week.  We oohed and aahed at the cool graphics.  Yes, there was architecture that looked like Neutra, Schindler, or  Lautner; there was even what looked an arcane visual quotation from Zabriskie Point.  There were pores and stubble in the close ups of the leading man. Incredible.
To take a look at the content of this moral fable is to  see how the facade of a left -leaning Hollywood establishment easily washes off. The back story tells of superheroes, Mr. Incredible among them, being sued–frivolously of course–after performing their daring rescues, by whiners and opportunists who feel they can make a case that being saved somehow screwed up their lives. There are so many frivolous lawsuits being filed that the superheroes are driven into retirement: the government can no longer pay for the legal fees. So here we are, with an—uh– compelling argument for tort reform, cleverly concealed as  apolitcal  entertainment.
Oh, and wait a minute, since when did the government employ superheroes?
But there is also a moral lesson here…and the Lord knows this pagan country could use one.  It goes, when everyone is special, no one is special.  Be the best, be the Super power–I mean–super HERO, if that’s what you are made to be, or rather, born to be. Once again, we are urged to look our best and to be better than the next guy, a pitiless and relentless individuation that drives us to egomaniacal highs, and creates giant losers. But so what–losers make really good consumers of superheroes, and hey, what’s wrong with that?
And thank you Pixar, for redefining the aesthetic of the animated cartoon. Now, instead of moving two dimensional figures across a painted backdrop, we have what look like 3-D toys made of petroleum products springing through scenes that look like cutified video games.  It is the height of efficiency and the cleverest of marketing strategies to create the prototype of a product which is put into a screen drama, and then sold in a store to the children, merging object, character, product, and merchandising plan.  But so what.  It was fun, and took our minds off politics.

One response to “FROM LENIN’S TOMB: Chattel Story

  1. Let me add here that Lenin’s Tomb is written by Richard Seymour, and his book, The Liberal Defense of Murder is very very good.

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