Features and Columns

Culture Warrior: ‘Up’ and Pixar’s Cinema of Attractions

Now that everyone and their talking dog has seen Up, it’s time to look at its context within film history and in the legacy of Pixar.
By  · Published on June 8th, 2009

While the origins of cinema history are still a complex and often mysterious area of study (as the great majority of early films have been lost), cinema’s origins are often posited within (and reduced to) the works of two very different sets of French filmmakers: the brothers Lumière (Auguste and Louis) and Georges Méliès. These filmmakers are often argued to have paved the way for cinema’s trajectory since.

The Lumière brothers made films with such exciting titles as Arrival of a Train at a Station and Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory (both 1895). These films were called actualities, which can be interpreted as a nascent form of the documentary, in which their cameras captured not a fabricated, orchestrated, previously constructed narrative vision, but instead simply captured and projected everyday events on the big screen. These films (often less than a minute long) may seem banal and unimpressive today, but in their time were groundbreaking displays of a new and never-before-seen technology that had the ability to “capture” moving life, and thus inferentially capture reality more effectively and convincingly than a photograph. The implementation of a narrative didn’t even come into consideration in their films, as cinema was not seen so much as a creative and artistic means of storytelling, but rather a fascinating new technology with the ability to capture life in the moving image. The importance of these films were not so much what was captured in the frame, but how it showed off the innovation of the technology itself.

Méliès, by contrast, is often viewed as cinema’s first pioneer of special effects, as he instituted and established some of the very first practices of trick photography used commonly in films for years after. Rather than making actualities, the films of Méliès explored the fantastic and the fictional, appropriating the utilities of the technology to manifest the imagination. His most famous work is probably A Trip to the Moon (1902), which features the iconic image of a rocket landing in the eye of a moon’s face (used as inspiration for the music video of “Tonight, Tonight” by The Smashing Pumpkins). Méliès explored the utilities unique to the medium to create illusion and fabrication, rather than capture reality.

While there are closer semblances of narrative in the films of Méliès than in the work of the brothers Lumière, Méliès’s films were, like the Lumières’, still far more concerned with showing off and continuing to explore and experiment with the technology’s endless potentialities than telling a story (A Trip to the Moon is, of course, “about” a trip to the moon, but there is hardly enough character development or narrative structure to constitute the film as a “story”). These films are categorized as part of the pre-narrative history of cinema, and have been coined by film historian/theorist Tom Gunning as part of the cinema of attractions: those early films which exhibited moving images primarily to display the spectacle of the technology itself rather than tell a story. Inferentially, this means early audiences attended these films for that same purpose: not to be enraptured in the suspended disbelief of a narrative, but to be wowed by (and thus, fully aware of) the technological means by which such images were ultimately projected onscreen.

The early cinema of attractions, then, lies in sharp contrast with the later cinema of narrative integration. With the establishment of longer reels (and, thus, longer running times), the possibilities of storytelling established by filmmakers like D.W. Griffith and Charlie Chaplin, and, perhaps most importantly, the use of dialogue as the major means of expression and plot progression with the advent of the sound film, the trajectory of a narrative became central to the filmmaking and filmgoing experience after the initial novelty of the technology itself had been established. Since then, cinema has been viewed primarily (at least in its most popular forms) as a storytelling medium, intending to enrapture viewers in an engaging narrative for a limited amount of time. The cinema of narrative integration displaced the technology itself as the main focus, and even intended to make audience awareness of cinematic technology and technique disappear altogether, as the given filmgoer is more able to “lose” themselves in the narrative if they feign awareness of the technology (a process otherwise known as “suspense of disbelief,” allowing the audience to “forget” they are watching a movie).

But in recent years, with the popularization of the summer event movie and the later prominence of digital special effects technology, scholars and critics have argued that the cinema of attractions has once again become a dominant means of expression in popular filmmaking. This argument certainly makes sense in recent years, where the advancement of digital effects technology have made such technology the focal point of a given film’s appeal, even sacrificing narrative integrity in the process (thus giving us expensive blockbuster films that seem to be “only” a collage of digital effects). Like the films of Méliès and the brothers Lumière, the technology itself is what is on full display throughout these films, and the appeal of this technology presumes an awareness of it on behalf of the filmgoer, which in turn implies a spectatorial process antithetical to the suspense of disbelief previously held as essential to immersing oneself in the narrative-driven film. Narrative, once again, has become secondary to cinematic spectacle.

This tendency towards spectacle took an interesting turn with the release of Pixar’s Toy Story in 1995. As the first wholly CG-animated feature film, Toy Story was initially seen as the embodiment of a cinematic technological breakthrough rather than simply an engaging story on its own (though the strength of the story, of course, has survived this initial appeal). More so than the child-fantasy narrative, the celebrity voices, or the inventive humor, it was the spectacular technology on full display that resulted in the film’s success, cementing Pixar as a force to be reckoned with.

By the early 2000s, however, every major studio had developed its own stamp on the fully CG-animated feature film, and in a more competitive marketplace the novelty of the now decades-old technology is no longer enough to draw children and adults to these movies. And while competitors like DreamWorks Animation have repeatedly relied on celebrity voices and talking animals/creatures to ensure the butts of both adults and kids in seats, Pixar seems to have focused instead on effective and original storytelling, turning their company not only into a space for technological innovation, but an extensive workshop pursuing narrative perfection. And with Pixar’s last three films—Ratatouille, WALL-E, and Up—we’ve seen a move away from comedic talking creature appeal to films characterized by imaginative spectacle only achievable in the animated form while staying grounded in the type of classical, relatable, human storytelling characteristic of the best narrative-driven films within any format. It is in this respect that Pixar delicately balances cinema’s simultaneous tendencies toward attraction and narrative integration more effectively than any current enterprise of popular filmmaking.

The appeal of Pixar’s technology lies in its means of simultaneously inventing the fantastic and recreating the real. Pixar is known for telling stories particular to the animation medium that arguably could not be convincingly executed in the realm of live-action, at least not to the same effect (imagine, for instance, a live-action version of Cars or The Incredibles), yet at the same time attempts to ground these animated characters in a landscape of identifiable, “realistic” recreations of the natural world—think, for instance, of the “realism” of Sully’s hair follicles in the imaginative world of Monsters Inc., or the savory-looking food being made by a talking rat in Ratatouille. But Pixar’s fantastic isn’t only grounded in the manufactured reality of certain characteristics of the image, but in its stories as well.

Animation is often thought of as a rare realm of filmmaking where imagination has no limits. But rather than create characters and stories with endless possibilities, Pixar grounds their fantastic narratives within a set of rules and limits that, while they may have no direct correlation to reality, are relatable to the limits of our own lived experience. Characters have weaknesses, doubts, faults, and limits. Nowhere is this better seen than Up, which takes into account the physical and emotional limits of old age with a seemingly impossible story. Pixar attracts on spectacle, but knows when to constrain this attraction in service of the story—which is why Up contains, in the same film, the exciting beauty of a flying house strapped with colorful balloons and a comedically mundane extended static take of an old man slowly descending a staircase in a mechanical chair. The flying house can be argued in service to the modes of attraction, while other moments in service of the story act within the mode of narrative integration. (In Up, even the talking dogs, such a repeated appeal in so many animated features, don’t actually “talk,” thus displaying the necessary limits of the imaginative utilities afforded to the animator.)

But even within this attraction of the fabricated spectacle (Méliès) is the attraction of the actuality (Lumière), or the spectacle of seeing the real and the mundane recreated convincingly through the technological potentialities of animation. From this perspective, the convincing animation of food in Ratatouille is analogous to the convincing projection of actual moments of reality in films like Arrival of a Train at a Station, using advancements in technology in service of the capturing or recreation of the real.

So in service is Pixar to their stories that many have argued they have alienated the presumed audience base for such films—children. Yet they are still the most financially successful of the competing animation franchises—so, as far as I’m concerned, kids can keep their Monsters vs. Aliens or Bolt, and I’ll continue to frequent the films of Pixar. So effective is their balance between spectacle and story, between the fantastic and the imitation of the real, that the first ten minutes of Up felt like the most heart-wrenchingly “real” experience I’ve had at a mainstream movie in a long time, a display of emotional complexity made all the more impressive (and, perhaps, effective, but never manipulative or simplified) by the fact that it’s animated. Up in particular, and Pixar in general, respects not only the medium of animation, but the potential of cinema at large, incorporating the best possibilities of both attraction and narrative integration into the cinematic experience. It’s no surprise, then, that the latest Pixar masterpiece opens with that sacred locale of imagination manifested on a grand scale: the movie theater.

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