A Resonating Film
When you see a great movie, it can stop you in your tracks. It makes your day suddenly brighter. When you see a great movie that also happens to be a huge success — I also tend to wonder, why? What about it works for so many people?
This happened when I saw ‘Wall-E” this weekend. Frank Rich wrote about “Wall-E” Sunday and, as usual, he did a masterful job in connecting popular culture to the tenor of the times.
I want to add to this discussion about the wonder, the sheer joy of this movie. The title character is a Chaplain-esqe little robot — and the children in my audience in downtown Washington seemed enraptured. I would bet double or nothing that they have never seen a Little Tramp movie. Probably many of their parents and most of the teenagers who filled the theater haven’t either. Yet, there was something beguilingly familiar in the robot’s actions. Every member of the audience seemed equally enchanted.
There is so much about “Wall-E” that grabs you. The tropes the story is built around — chases, rescues, finding love — are somehow built into our hard wiring. There is also something very American here — the notion of the promise of a better tomorrow. Which is what all the immigrants who came to America, and all those who journeyed West, were seeking. Their dream was that life can be better, more fulfilling, grander. They could reinvent themselves, re-envision themselves for the better. As the movie says, with the requisite hard work, we can pull off anything — including making the planet green and healthy again.
In addition, America is unique in being a nation built by “the wretched refuse of the teeming shore.” The cast-offs, the detritus, the junk of foreign lands, the “homeless tempest-tost,” come here to build a better life. In this brave new world, the old world’s dispossessed, its strays, could become citizens, could be equals.
Some astute critics, including A.O. Scott at The New York Times, have commented that this a movie that takes junk — which is what Wall-E spends his days gathering and compacting — and makes it into art. Which you could also say about America.
This is true even of the inner workings of this movie. “Wall-E” is based on cinematic detritus — bits and pieces of famous sci-fi movies like “2001: a Space Odyssey” and “Alien” and “E.T.” are jumbled together to make something valuable. But the most improbable thing — and something the sophisticated Pixar filmmakers surely know — is that the pivot of “Wall-E” is a decidedly junky musical comedy.
“Hello Dolly” is considered less than first-rate by musical theater cognoscenti. It is, of course, based on a lovely Thornton Wilder play, “The Matchmaker,” but the musical iteration is regarded as middling at best. And the movie version of this musical, excerpted throughout “WALL-E” as a key plot point, is notorious for being uniquely terrible. The ultimate junk.
“Hello Dolly,” the film, is regularly cited as the death knoll for the movie musical. Yet it is part of the legacy of one of the two greatest movie dancers — Gene Kelly. (The other, if you are wondering, is Fred Astaire.) Kelly directed this lumbering behemoth and tried every trick he could to breath life into it. But the film was reviled when it opened. It not only drove a stake into the heart of movie musicals, it helped to almost destroy 20th Century Fox, the studio that produced it. Fox sold off its back lot — now Century City in Los Angeles — and the studio’s executive suite paid a price as well.
Yet this is the movie that inspires Wall-E, that shows him a magical life — with a companion and music — that the little robot can only dream of. And like the garbage that Wall-E combs through, the viewer sees not the unsavory whole of “Hello Dolly,” but charming bits and pieces. In fact, the real plot of “Hello Dolly” has been ruthlessly discarded in favor of a small patch of the subplot — two store clerks in search of the promise of a better life, of love.
So the seemingly banal words of a simpering musical comedy emerge here as impossibly moving. Which is what art is all about. And, I guess, America as well.