Sunday, February 22, 2009

Coraline (Henry Selick, 2009)

This must be one of the most non-message-laden children's film I've seen; perhaps one of the most non-message-laden films, period, I've seen. Coraline is practically anomalous in the annals of above-ground cinema in its quizzical non-preachiness. The imaginative anarchy that is supposedly liberated in the animated film and alleged to be achieved in the likes of the South Park and Aqua Teen Hunger Force movies have always never been able to shake off a certain transparency in their existence as responses to the current fixtures of mainstream culture, whether doing this with explicit satire (as in South Park: Bigger Longer and Uncut) or utterly vulgarized inanity (Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon The Movie). Coraline, on the other hand, reaches back to those strange fascinations humans had in their childhood, when things could be utterly meaningless and not be an acquisition from the grab bag that is popular culture's sense of irony (or from, of course, the opposite: the grab bag - or fish-in-a-barrel - of culture's stead beliefs, like moral values, religion, psychoanalysis, etc.). Coraline, with Dada-like imperceptibility, succeeds in being the first film about nothing, without a socialized, righteous bone in its body. No morals, no Christian values, no Freudian shockers, no politics, and no cultural subversion like South Park or Un Chien Andalou (although I'm told I must see Freddie Got Fingered). It's not about any traditionally boasted life values - heck, it's not even about imagination! The closest one could get is saying the film's actually not a film... it's a "moving picture." Because yessiree, that is right, these pictures move nowadays! So if you want to see bustier-clad tightroping dames, all's ya gotta do is just look through this 'ere peep'ole and turn the crank. Why are they tightroping in lingerie? Because you like it, that's why! Why else?

And that is what Coraline is about. Not all that "appreciating your family" blah blah. It's about spectacle without explanation. I suppose one could elaborate that into practically equaling "psychoanalysis," since that - the labyrinthine mind - is where all sensations are in essence from, and spectacle is by definition whatever the hell makes us sensate. What it implies about the human condition is the field of psychology, but Coraline, strikingly, doesn't seem to give a fuck.

So the Aqua Teen Hunger Force movie is out there in the multiplexes waving its arms about telling viewers, "If you don't enjoy this, then you've become a closed-minded busybody!" But it's purposefully crude drawings emphasizes its irony and so betrays its status desires, its counter-cultural pandering, its riffing on video game nostalgia, and its general catering to modern pop culture's post-modernity-developed sense of meaninglessness. Coraline, on the other hand, starts from square zero. It tells the viewer: "If you don't enjoy this... were you ever unsullied by this social world?" Were you ever a child, those little beings who could be dazzled by the purely meaningless without feeling the need to respond to some intellectual registration of the object in question within themselves?

Now, which you find more appealingly "X-treeeme!" I'll gladly leave to each person's personal taste, but while ATHF calls you out for "changing, man!", Coraline is, well, aghast at your very existential being, as someone who was never born an untouched child. You didn't "used to be cool" - you just never were; you must have popped out your mom's womb the prick, moron, knucklehead, hipster, whatever, that you are now.

Okay, so maybe the film does have a story and a message. The whole film is centered around imagery and archetypal renderings of the family unit, mother-daughter dynamics, and gothic imagery, which, one can suppose, gives it message enough. The sequence of Coraline's complete immersion into the Other world, in which she sits in on the grand shows performed by her neighbors, is a visual tour de force and makes me want to give the film a 9 for its unabashed indulgence in the joys and the morbid traps of empty magic and spectacle (equated in the film to the "perfect family" ideal). Watching in such impossible close-up those creepy, beady-eyed mice doing runway acrobatics made me recall other antiquary curiosities as Edison Co.'s 1903 elephant electrocution film and this thing.
This film harkens back to the good ol' days of the Cinema of Attractions, where concerns to be narratively engaging, explicably PC and rational, and logically appeasing were not to be so stringently applied to the magic of the movies.

The 3-D is amazing. I cannot imagine watching the movie without it, although I am not sure if that fact makes me very happy. It just confuses me more about the seeming resistance to "message" behind this picture. Any themes or emotional through-points Selick might be trying to communicate through his screenplay are at least equaled, but likely surpassed, by his motivation to create a 3-D extravaganza. Coraline is an very special film in that, from pretty much every angle - that is, thematically and otherwise - it is pretty much about spectacle and empty spectacle, and the 3-D just plays so nicely into that. I am sure Coraline is almost as fine and evocative in 2-D, but I imagine the film is pretty much built around creating 3-D imagery. It's 2 hours of the Paddle Ball man from House of Wax - only thematically integrated, and dazzling, and not idiotic.

So is it Selick being texturally perceptive in that he has made a 3-D spectacle of a film, about the perils of empty spectacle, communicated in the way of complete spectacle, and with a shocking lack in conventional movie preachiness, which would have undermined the spectacle? That would be some fine subtext, if it be the case. Assuming so, what does it say about a film that makes it its anti-moralistic prerogative not to undermine its devious motives to beguile and seduce its audience with egregious spectacle, without taking the audience to task at the end?

The film's spectacle targets a special, weird place in its susceptible viewers' hearts and minds, which is the same sensibility that in other cases causes us to be so strongly pulled in by the sheer strange, and so bemused by the non-sequitur. The non-sequitur, as in those funny things that have a way of revealing the meaning behind meaninglessness. Is that not what symbology and dream psychology essentially is? The meaning behind the meaningless (or the meaning given to the meaningless...?). Take for example, the Other Father, cultivating a garden in the form of her likeness - is the concept just "cool" or was it culled from some Jungian notion of something-or-other, who knows what, about seeds being sown or the blossoming of fruit? Does the distinction really exist? Most likely it is both, and thus we get to the idea that Coraline is a synthesis of cinema and dreams - dreams being spectacles, but an intrinstic part of the real world, the real world being that place where it is, after all, all 3-D, all the time.

And one's dreams don't exactly assault you with cloyingly pat messages after sitting with them for an hour and a half, do they?

I wonder about Neil Gaiman's book and what "morals" or messages it is most inured to impart to its readers... and how this film adapts and accentuates (or, I suspect, de-accentuates) them.

Coraline - 7/10