Up & Down: Up (2009) & Drag Me to Hell (2009)

Posted by Charles Reece, July 5, 2009 09:50pm | Post a Comment

The Plot. Two things struck me about the celebrated elliptical opening sequence of UP, where the young version of Carl, the protagonist, is shown to age and fall in love with Ellie, who remains dead for most the picture: (1) Despite Pixar's raison d'etre, overloaded digital spectacle, what the company excels at is character portraiture. This tends to be done in the first third of their stories, after which the plot kicks in, and I get bored. Unlike Wall-E, however, UP is mostly about Carl just hanging out in his floating house, talking to this chubby little cub scout stowaway, and befriending some linguistically enhanced canines. All of which makes it the best Pixar film to date. (2) Seijun Suzuki and Pixar know something about generic expectations that Steven Spielberg doesn't. Like all moviegoers, my emotions are mechanized, habituated responses to the levers, pulleys and cables of traditional storytelling. Thus, in abstracto, I'll feel elation on cue when the hero risks it all to save those more unfortunate than he, even if the particularities involve an Aryan saving some Jews (a lesson that can be had from Star Wars' appropriation of Triumph of The Will). These 2 and 1/2 hour-long movies of Spielberg's could be cut down to a few, brief sequences leading to the big crescendo, and we'd all still have the same reaction. Much like Suzuki tends to jump cut over the dramatic cliches in his films, Carl meets Ellie, they share similar interests, yadda yadda yadda, she's dead, now her absence structures our understanding of Carl for the rest of UP. Less flippantly worded: poetic resonance isn't based on word count, nor are genre pleasures.

Also, I loved the fact that the 3D was used to enhance the depth of field, rather than as an excuse to throw junk at the audience.

Across the street from where I grew up in a suburban cul-de-sac of Dallas, the long-time resident died, and his family turned the house into a rental. This did not make the the neighbors happy, including my father. The first tenant was a large family of Romani. Now, Dad had never spoken a racialist word in my entire existence, but, out of nowhere, he started going on about how gypsies will leave whatever property they briefly stay on in ruins. How the hell does a Texan get a bigoted view of gypsies, anyway? Hollywood?

The Plot. Antiziganism seems to have made its way to Michigan suburbs, too, if Sam and Ivan Raimi's Drag Me to Hell is any indication. Tellingly, not one professional review that I could find mentions the stereotypical portrayal of the Romani as a demonic people. Yet, to this day, you'd be hardpressed to find a discussion of Merchant of Venice without a reference to antisemitism. Imagine if the villain of the film were a hooknosed banker stealing the lead's money, or conspiring to take over the economic system for world domination. Would that still be just a particularlized fantasy, with no implications for the real world? On the other hand, implicit within the Raimis' story is something like a critique of the cariacature it perpetuates: even if a nomadic people wish to settle down under modern day capitalism, there are structures in place, a historico-economic treatment that helps to reinforce their place in society's shadows. 

The film is significantly less kind to bankers. Christine, a loan officer, gets a curse placed on her after refusing to give an extension on a mortgage to an old gypsy lady. Christine wants to give the extension, but doesn't in order to demonstrate that she's willing to do "what it takes" to get a promotion. This is a variation on Hannah Arendt's banality of evil. That is, evil isn't the result of some particularly demonic individual, but of people just working within a system that is itself immoral. Christine doesn't seem to be a particularly bad person, but just like with the Jerusalem conviction of Adolf Eichmann, the film holds her responsible for her actions by placing a retributive knee to her throat, and not letting up. It's a lot easier to get behind punishing an individual who worked under Nazi law than one working under American capitalism. But, by saying one is responsible for legal actions taken within an immoral system, the notion of "innocence" becomes a matter of power, or the winning side. Not an easy question (or a popular one to address) when discussing terrorism, or avenging demons.

There is a core meanness to Drag Me to Hell's cold, detached (i.e., anti-utilitarian) morality that I found refreshing. Highly recommended.

Relevant Tags

Retributivism (3), Drag Me To Hell (3), Pixar (2), Cinema Criticism (32), Sam Raimi (2), Up (2), Animation (11), Horror (215)