Monsters, Inc. & Fossil Fuels

Slowly catching up on unwatched Pixar films and I’ve finally got round to Monsters, Inc. What an ace film – funny monsters, incredibly cute children, a brilliant premise for a world (scaring kids to harness energy – who comes up with this stuff!? Genius!), an extended cast of ace characters (the giant slug receptionist – haha), lots of heartfelt moments and a great, final message (big spoiler coming): that kids actually produce more energy when they laugh rather than when they scream and cry. Who’d’ve known!? Naturally, this is an apt metaphor for the fossil fuel industry.

The monster economy is predicated on traumatising children. This, ultimately, is horrible – how tragic that for the monsters to thrive they must instil fear and suffering into the hearts of endless children. So too for our energy industry – fossil fuel extraction has always been dangerous and is increasingly so. For example, the extraction of oil in the Niger Delta has led to huge amounts of pollution, high levels of corruption within the Nigerian government and many human deaths – due both to poisoning and murder. Of course, we can’t just blame other countries and their governments for the problem. Companies like BP and Shell are notorious for colluding in and profiting from corruption. In Monsters, Inc. a typical fossil fuel company CEO is represented by the five-eyed humanoid crab Henry J. Waternoose III.

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The company has been in Henry’s family for three generations and the pressure’s on for him to keep it running. Unfortunately, scream energy supplies are dwindling and Montropolis is experiencing frequent black outs. At first Henry appears harassed, proud but well-meaning until we discover he is colluding with one of his employees to use extreme-extraction techniques on children. So too for energy companies like BP as they’re forced to use more dangerous modes of extraction to get at lessening fossil fuel supplies. The Deepwater Horizon oil spillage of 2010 is a potent reminder of how dangerous this is – a BP owned rig exploded off the Gulf of Mexico killing 9 and causing untold levels of pollution. I was at a talk given by an ex-BP member of staff and they admitted that the reason it was a BP oil rig that exploded rather than one owned by another energy company was “bad luck” – yup, oil rigs are accidents waiting to happen because energy companies want energy fast to boost their profits now. They ride rough shod over health & safety and concerns for the environment and the results are tragic. Fortunately, Henry J. Waternoose III ends up in prison for his nefarious dealings (as should CEOs of dangerous energy companies, instead they get £14 million pay deals but at least the BP shareholders are making a fuss about Bob Dudley getting paid loads to trash the planet).

Meanwhile, James P. Sullivan is a big, blue, fury scarer. He’s the best scarer on the block having spent years terrifying children. However, when one kid gets into the monster world – an adorable little girl called Boo – James is forced to think twice. They become friends but there’s a moment when he accidentally scares her. Naturally, she cries. The moment is caught on camera and James has to come face to face with who he really is. He realises his whole life has been spent causing misery and harm, so he changes his mind and changes the company. He becomes the new boss of the company and sets it on a sustainable path – collecting laughs not screams. In rea life, the CEO Ray Anderson turned the textile company Interface around, from dirty to clean; John Browne once told us that BP would go Beyond Petroleum (although that all turned out to be spin and lies); and Charles Grant was a businessman who profited hugely from slavery but became a major advocate for its abolition. So, it’s possible, people can change and so can business.

So let Monsters, Inc. be a lesson to us, especially the heads of fossil fuel companies. Climate change is continuing unabated, the world is heating up and sinking. Weather is becoming increasingly unpredictable and extreme. And all the while societies are being picked apart at the seams and so much human misery is caused. We desperately need a few CEOs to step up and have some climate-based epiphanies. There are benign energy sources out there like that giant ball of molten fire in the sky for instance. If the monsters can do it, so can we, and here’s to a future of laughter, not screaming.

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Inside Out: The Highs And The Lows

I just watched Inside Out for the first time. It’s brilliant, easily my favourite Pixar film to date, up there with Toy Story 3 and WALL-E (although I’m yet to see Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo, I’m a bit slow on the uptake). What a fantastic way to represent the inner workings of the human mind and brain, inspired. And what a great way to remind us that our emotions are a crucial part of our identity and form who we are. However, because I like to over-analyse things there are a few bits about it that I find a little concerning. So what follows is a brief review of the highs and lows.

High: Our Emotions Matter! Have you ever met one of those uptight people who are convinced emotions are the enemy – the sort of person who worships economics and thinks feeling should be expunged from the human condition. The sort of person who tells us that we should be as rational as possible and act like cost-benefit maximising automatons, thinking always what’s best for us in an objective and compassionless manner. Well, despite a mountain load of scientific evidence to the contrary now Pixar is on the case, showing us quite how wrong economists can be. I’ll let one of the scientists who advised on the film hammer home this point: “…emotions organize — rather than disrupt — rational thinking. Traditionally, in the history of Western thought, the prevailing view has been that emotions are enemies of rationality and disruptive of cooperative social relations. But the truth is that emotions guide our perceptions of the world, our memories of the past and even our moral judgments of right and wrong, most typically in ways that enable effective responses to the current situation.”

Low: Memories Are Not Objects. The film depicts memories as little multi-sensory orbs that display the events of the memory like a film. Each orb is coloured with the predominant feeling of that memory, e.g. yellow for happy, blue for sad etc. However, one current theory is that memories are not equivalent to discrete objects stored in our head – e.g. a neuron per memory – but are actually engrams – unique and distributed series of neurons that correspond to multiple-facets of that memory (e.g. the visuals, the sounds, the feelings). So, rather than an orb, imagine that a memory isn’t a single item but a series of neuronal connections throughout the body. This will include the different sections and layers of the brain (of which there are many) and our internal/external organs (which are also connected via neurons to our brain/central nervous system). In other words, it takes the whole body and the world beyond to make a memory (but trying to represent this as a visually satisfying metaphor in a kid’s film was probably not Pixar’s aim).

High: Sadness Is Important. Spoiler alert. At the end of the film the emotion Joy (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the positive side of everything…everything) comes to realise that Sadness (one of those irritating types who tries to look on the negative side of everything…everything) is vital to a healthy, emotional lifestyle. Sadness is crucial in helping us deal with the difficulties of the world – the loss we may experience when moving home or, indeed, the loss we may feel when we lose a loved one. Whilst it’s seemingly easy to pretend everything is ‘fine’, the tougher thing might be to admit it’s not. But by being vulnerable and being sad we make it more likely that we will heal and be supported in the process.

Low: The Brain Is Actually Organic. It’s fascinating that the brains behind Inside Out chose to represent the brain as a hi-tech HQ full of fancy equipment and flashing buttons resting above an arid desert. Even Riley’s ‘memory islands’, places that represent core facets of her identity such as the Family Island and the Goofball Island, are just uninhabited theme parks full of statues and machines. Now, it’s a great metaphor and it’s brilliant when key emotions Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s mind but it’s worth stating that the brain is an organ in our body and like all other organs it’s organic. It’s full of blood, veins and gooey grey stuff, and forms a vital element of our body’s ecology. It is by no means artificial or ‘unnatural’. So perhaps a more true metaphor would be something more ecological – ‘memory forests’ instead of built-environment memory islands that can grow greater diversity but are also prone to fires and being cut down. My concern here is that Pixar’s representation of the brain as mechanical could only arise in a time when humans are rapidly trying to distance themselves from their biological nature. But, at heart and head, we are animals, just animals with a profound capacity for intelligence and stupidity.

So, highs and lows aside, Inside Out is a fantastic film that reminds us our emotions form a vital part of who we are and how we understand the world. But the vivid nature of these emotions should surely also remind us of our animal and biological nature, one prone to great highs and great lows, rather than imply we’re just walking, talking machines.

The Slightly Sexist Song Of The Sea

The Song of the Sea is a new animated film for children and adults. It tells the tale of Ben and his younger sister Saoirse. It’s beautifully animated and based on folkloric Irish tales of Selkies – mythological creatures that are seals in water and shed their skins to become humans on land. Unbeknownst to Ben his mother was a Selkie and so is his little sister. It is a stunning story about grief, growing up and family. However, the more I watched it the more I realised that I had seen this story many, many times before and it’s one that has been told over and over again – it’s the one all about men.

Song of the Sea

I’ll start with a brief plot synopsis (spoilers): Ben lives in a lighthouse with his pregnant mum and dad. The mum gives Ben a magic shell and then goes missing into the sea leaving behind Saoirse, his little sister. Six years later and the dad’s still pretty unhappy and Saoirse still hasn’t said a word. Meanwhile, Saoirse discovers a magic coat left behind by her mum which lets her transform into a seal. She goes swimming for a bit and that’s when we learn she’s a Selkie. Unfortunately, nasty granny arrives to take Ben and Saoirse back to the city. Ben doesn’t really like Saoirse and is annoyed when she follows him as he escapes from his granny’s house. Some magical fairies inform the siblings that Saoirse’s a Selkie and must sing the Song of the Sea to free all the trapped spirits – it’s a shame she doesn’t speak. Unfortunately she gets kidnapped by a witch, Macha, who bottles up people’s feelings (literally) thereby turning them to stone. Her reason is that she couldn’t handle her son (a giant) being so sad when his wife died so she bottled up his grief and turned him into a giant cliff (the dad is basically the giant and the gran is Macha). Ben rescues his sister who starts playing the magic shell which causes all the bottles to break. Macha, part stone, is overwhelmed by her feelings but relents and helps transport Ben and Saoirse back home. There, Saoirse finally speaks and she sings a magic Selkie song that frees all the ancient spirits so they can finally return to their magical land far away. The mum reappears to take Saoirse away with her but instead Saoirse relinquishes her Selkie abilities so she can stay with her dad and brother. Everyone lives happily ever after, even the nasty gran who shacks up with the old ferry driver.

It’s a nice story full of metaphors, folklore and fantasy but there are some all too familiar and all too sexist tropes. To start with there aren’t many female characters – there’s the mum who vanishes within minutes; the gran who is the typical crone character – old, haggard and someone no one would ever want to grow up to become and Macha – the evil villain who is basically an even worse version of the gran. The main female character is Saoirse.

Firstly, she is voiceless, she literally has no voice for most of the film, which means Ben gets to do all the talking. Whilst she is often portrayed as more intelligent than her wilful, older brother, who drags her around on a dog’s lead for quite a bit of the film, she is still forced to follow him, even when she knows he’s going in the wrong direction. He becomes less ambivalent towards her once he’s learnt she’s a Selkie. As the film progresses she becomes weaker and weaker and ends up getting kidnapped. This inspires Ben to take even more action and battle the film’s antagonist. It seems a little bit as if Saoirse only has worth as a character once her brother has realised she’s useful – i.e. has magic singing abilities.  He’s the one that puts the magic shell to her lips so she can play it and break all of Macha’s magic bottles. It’s almost as if little girls are being told to tolerate the whims and bullying behaviours of their elder brothers until their brothers realise they have voice and worth, and only then can they become somewhat empowered.

After her rescue Saoirse is even weaker meaning it is Ben  that must overcome his fear of swimming and dive deep to uncover Saoirse’s thrown away Selkie suit. So despite the fact that the sea is Saorise’s element and true home it still ends up being all about Ben and his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, Saoirse’s singing and shell playing skills appear somewhat arbitrary given that she just inherited them and they’re basically magical.  Saoirse’s voicelessness also means that apart from one brief chat with her mum right at the end the film categorically fails the Bechdel test. FInally, when Saoirse does eventually speak her first word isn’t hello or help or patriarchy, no, it’s Ben.

There are some nice messages in the film – namely that stories are very important, be they ones that run in the family or older more mythical stories that came long before the stories of the Bible. The film reminds us that our culture suffers when we lose our stories but it’s just a shame that the film’s own story tells us that men are the active ones whilst women sit around either trying to muck everything up (the gran and Macha) or are basically just there to sing at men’s command. The film also has something to say about men’s inability to emote, namely because the father remains confused and grief-stricken long after the disappearance of his wife but even this is implicitly traced back to his overprotective mother (the nasty gran) who constantly tells him she knows what’s best and lives a repressed, devout Christian life. This story is reflected in the mythical one with Macha literally turning her giant son to stone so he would no longer have to suffer the grief of the loss of his wife – if only women would stop meddling seems to be the point here. Other male characters include the comic ferry driver, the faeries (we see a few female faeries in the background at the end but none are given a voice) and the Great Seanachai – a mythical storyteller who remembers all the old stories and is thus a font of cultural knowledge and wisdom, oh, and he’s a man.

So, fifteen years into the 21st century and what do we get – another mythic adventure about boys and men saving the day. It’s nice that Saoirse sings her special song at the end and frees all the spirits but this is basically the same as Pepper Potts donning Iron Man’s suit at the end of Iron Man 3 in order to blast the main baddy to smithereens – it’s great a woman saves the day but it’s all a bit last-minute and tokenistic. Why not a whole film about an interesting and three-dimensional female character doing awesome and exciting things?

But that’s just it, it’s not that this film is a sexist travesty and should be banned, no, it’s just that this film follows in a long, long line of films and stories just like it – ones that portray men as the active and characterful heroes whilst women are painted as passive and regularly in need of rescue. The Song of the Sea slots so easily into this pervasive cultural narrative when it had so much scope to start rewriting it – why couldn’t it be Benjamina running off in search of her fey little Selkie brother? Why couldn’t the father have vanished right at the start? And why are there no characters of colour, or trans and queer characters partaking in the action, surely ancient Irish folklore isn’t just for white, heterosexual cisgendered people? The film has been described as a “timeless delight for all ages”- it’s only timeless because this masculinist and sexist narrative is so seemingly unkillable. It’s great to be inspired by old stories but it’s time we started telling some new ones, fit for the 21st century.