Toy Story 2, Wisconsin Death Trip, Beyond the Clouds, End of Days

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:22

    Every child is a bourgeois child?and every adult, too. No dream or ambition has gone un-commodified, thus all desire gets bizarrely validated. This is the damnable truth of late capitalism realized by Toy Story 2?the year's most sheerly delightful Hollywood film. I can come out and say that having registered my resistance to the first Toy Story (1995) as one long product-placement commercial. This time director John Lasseter has found a purpose for Pixar's astounding computer-graphic technology; he explores the emotion with which children invest toys (and adults, by extension, invest their fascination with modern technology).

    The plot has Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) and the menagerie of dolls and other mechanized toys unite to save Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) from greedy toy store owner-and-collector Al McWhiggin (Wayne Knight). The escapade forces each toy to examine its purpose; Woody realizes his fulfillment is bringing pleasure to his boy owner (who will certainly outgrow him) rather than gaining monetary value sitting in a collector's display. This reflects the type of utility typically accorded objects manufactured for pleasure (use). While the doctrinaire might find this too exculpatory of capitalist greed, Lasseter throws a curve by alluding to human virtues, suggesting self-sacrificing love as greater than any market value.

    If the culture takes one contemporary animated message to heart it should be this, not Pokemon: The First Movie?a phenomenal bore solely designed to hook kid-and-parent consumers. Pokemon's pitch-and-toss rules mix combat with wish-fulfillment ("It's a version of cockfighting" a friend surmised). That the repetitive plot goes no further makes it the obverse of Toy Story 2. Lasseter starts out inside a video game; he uses space and momentum for surprise and amusement like the greatest Spielberg live-action sequences. Imaginative excitement has rarely been conveyed onscreen so powerfully. Later, in a scene recalling early tv's black-and-white Kinescope children's broadcasts, the toys gain a sense of their own cultural history which also plays back how toy making and media converged a generation's subconscious.

    Continuity matters. Toy Story 2's brilliance wouldn't be possible without this, or Joe Dante's grievously underappreciated 1998 film Small Soldiers, where toys also came to life?not from manufacturer's whim but industry malevolence. Dante's battle between military dolls and alien Gorgonite dolls commented on various modern issues: Western dominance over the Third World was foremost but the satire of modern dependency on commodities was strongest?especially the nightmarish attack of the Gwindy fashion dolls which memorably combined Jonathan Swift with the pop savagery of Gremlins 2. A tree vs. satellite dish argument was settled with the term "techno-crap." If audiences had only paid attention to and learned from the wondrous critique Small Soldiers made of capitalist seduction through toys and media they might not have fallen for the "techno-crap" of The Blair Witch Project.

    There's no stretch from Todd Haynes' Barbie-doll art film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story to Small Soldiers; in fact Dante expanded upon and enhanced Haynes' notions of toys, transferred affection and commodified sentiments. And Toy Story 2 riffs on that. A new realization arrives in this family movie for adults. Bright-colored visual jokes and details (like the toy plane stuck in a roof gutter) give emotional fullness to simple delight. It is, admit it, the collective bourgeois memory of the affection with which we endowed otherwise inanimate objects and marked our own growing experience. This is not disposable technology like the interminable Pokemon and Princess Mononoke. Toy Story 2 shows how pop art can disarm your loftiest objections with unexpected wit and genuine insight. "Magical" describes it but not its aspects that are superlatively humane.

    Liberty Heights directed by Barry Levinson

    Surfed past C-SPAN's recent broadcast of David Horowitz's conspiratorial sniping with right-wing radio ranter Bob Grant only, the next day, to be subjected to Barry Levinson's appalling Liberty Heights. Both talk show and movie evinced a particular brand of ethnic paranoia?indicting black people as antagonistic to whites and Jews. "Henry Louis Gates has written about this," Horowitz cited, as though his personal apprehension had been proven by a past Times op-ed. While Horowitz and Levinson probably consider themselves political opposites, their egomania converges in rancid Americanism.

    Horowitz's tribal defensiveness is encouraged by the kind of self-flattering provincialism that Levinson has marketed in the Baltimore-set movies Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and now Liberty Heights. That series contrives an explanation of modern American disintegration by idealizing an already specious view of the past?telling oversimplified stories of social dilemmas from immigration (Avalon) to petit-bourgeois mercantilism (Tin Men) and youth culture (Diner). Liberty Heights combines those interests into Levinson's most aggravating tale yet. His dishonesty sentimentalizes the Kurtzman boys Ben (Ben Foster) and Van (Adrien Brody), sons of a Jewish numbers-runner and burlesque house manager Nate (Joe Mantegna), as the definitive intermixing 50s generation. Ben has a crush on Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black girl in his high school, while Van goes after the WASP country club set, particularly the blonde Dubbie (Carolyn Murphy). Nothing suggests an imminent civil rights movement; Levinson's hints at the culture of assimilation are as vaguely ambivalent as the essence of Horowitz's racism. It even seems to come from the same source?a resentful nostalgia for the days before social conflict and politically correctness.

    Strangely, Levinson has not yet contended with the complex of personal and public identity implicit in his characters' socializing with Others. This insufficiency is compounded by his baffling insistence on nontraditional casting?Mickey Rourke, Aidan Quinn, Armin Mueller-Stahl and now Mantegna as various Jewish mensches. It seems to suggest that ethnic differences don't matter, when he actually uses Hollywood deception to placate traditional (lingering?) forms of Jewish self-hatred. Yet the heart of Levinson's movies is contradictory?showing Jews as more emotionally grounded and egalitarian than others. The difference is hardly religious; Levinson seems casually, superficially reformist. A mere notion of liberalism impels his characters?Ben, Van and Nate act out the rebellion Philip Roth has described but they don't embody Roth's chagrin. It's hard to tell if Liberty Heights' dour imagery (shot by a misused Chris Doyle) and draggy 50s recreations come from Levinson's fatigue with overfamiliar material or shows?like Horowitz?a deep-seated disapproval of the era.

    Levinson never examines the conflicted social desire that once was Paul Mazursky's specialty, or makes Boaz Yakin's ethnocentric work in A Price Above Rubies and Seth Zvi Rosenfeld's in A Brother's Kiss so modern and compelling. He's a pious tribal zealot?a polite David Mamet. A kind of racist (and sexist) stench arises from Liberty Heights when its Jewish male adventurers seem to mainly represent white privileges?and class privileges. Ben appropriates Sylvia's R&B record collection (resulting in an anachronistic James Brown concert and an embarrassing scene of his out-of-control libido) while Van continues homoerotic infatuation with the monied set (despite pursuing Dubbie, his country club misadventures actually romanticize the reckless WASP male).

    John Waters showed an egalitarian sub-culture in his wittier, more humane Baltimore movies from Pink Flamingos to Hairspray and Pecker. Levinson cannot fathom diversity; like Horowitz, his incapacity seems rooted in some wounded-liberal sense of disdain?essentially a class snobbery, as in one of the film's more insipid comic scenes touring a WASP home with one of Van's Jewish friends making self-deprecating chatter about the antique furniture. Nate's lowlife business dealings are pushed to the background, a patriarchal shame unconvincingly glossed over by the mother (Bebe Neuwirth) defending it as an act of ethnic assertion against anti-Jewish attacks in his youth ("Nate takes care of himself!"). This might relate to the putatively biographical Bugsy?another defense of a Jewish criminal that showed Levinson pursuing ethnic pride while aping prestige film style. The Godfather is the obvious influence on his Italian-American envy (though he misconstrues Coppola's moral complexity); it also surfaces when Nate's shady partners praise Mafia ruthlessness and at a wasp party scene when the interrogation "Are you Jewish?" gives Levinson the chance to attempt Scorsesean distraction by intercutting the traumatic question with violent car driving and smashing pumpkins.

    You wouldn't know Liberty Heights was this problematic from reading its four-star reviews. The unanimity makes you wonder: At what point does Levinson's myopic nostalgia become everyone's? When Liberty Heights' 1954 high school scene rips off old Woody Allen jokes on thinking the whole world is Jewish? When "James Brown" plays a Baltimore concert looking as portly and middle aged as James Brown in the 90s? When black characters becomes moronic and menacing? When Jewish characters become moronic?but nice? "Morally acute" Time magazine called it. "An interracial romance and a romance across religious boundaries show[ing] things we haven't seen rendered this well before" Stanley Crouch kowtowed in the Daily News. But when a movie this dishonest and ignorant is praised so gratefully, you know it's only because it tells people the lies about society they want to believe. (It's like Horowitz touting his new book Hating Whitey?who but out-of-touch white supremacists use the term "whitey" anymore?) Critic Gregory Solman perceptively commented how Levinson's aberrations demonstrate the same kind of bigoted slants as in a Spike Lee movie. Liberty Heights uses cozy ethnic nostalgia to keep us divided.

    Levinson only hints at Jewish paranoia to frame his disdain for others. By pretending to glorify the Jewish struggle for American acceptance, Levinson actually works out a weird agenda of ethnic antagonism. This is the pseudo-sociological approach Spike Lee has codified. What else could explain the movie's slack approval by so many critics? They're accustomed to presentations of contemporary American life that flatter and comfort their distress. Critics hold on to the threadbare Diner as though it were an American classic?as if Philip Roth or Clifford Odets never existed. Somehow it has become the locus classicus of movies about Jewish assimilation ambition (and ambivalence), standing in for boomer nostalgia. But I only give Levinson one chance to play the ethnic-youth card; by now his faux-Baltimore franchise is best left to John Waters, who knows all was never white, heterosexual, Jewish.

    Nothing in Liberty Heights is more outrageous or obnoxious than the Little Melvin sequences, in which the actor Orlando Jones plays a Stepin Fetchit-type lazy black criminal, complete with conked hair, gold teeth and bug-eyes. This may appease columnists like Stanley Crouch who profit from acknowledging-then-cheerleading white mistrust of black scofflaws and freeloaders, and David Horowitz, whose recent Salon diatribe accosted blacks as inherently seditious and destructive, but it makes for heinous drama. "You tryin' to Jew me out of my money?" Little Melvin asks Nate about a numbers scam. Then we watch him get (comically) "Jewed" out of his money. (The term "Schwartze" is thrown out there, too.) A ridiculous plot development has Little Melvin unable to operate the numbers business, and so he resorts to kidnapping Ben in exchange for a Cadillac?a cartoon threat to white and Jewish family lines. That critics accept this situation (and a caricature as blatant as Little Melvin) shows their imperviousness to black experiences and their unquestioning preference for any white power position.

    It's atrocious. Twisted sociology. So many people have fallen for the fake "realism" and "raw truth" of Barry Levinson's tv productions Homicide and Oz that by now reality and truth are inconceivable except as high-concept political insensitivity. That also explains the insane hype for Summer of Sam?a David Horowitzian willingness to view society nihilistically, to imbibe the poison of America's ethnic antagonism, reading cultural history only in one's favor. Couldn't Little Melvin and Nate express their shared love for deluxe wheels? Couldn't Sylvia's father (an impervious doctor) reciprocate the social idea that keeps his daughter in the same integrated school as Nate's son? When Ben and the black doctor share a long car ride home, they say nothing to each other?a muteness that reveals Levinson's own 0inhospitality and social smugness. (DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri were much more honest and insightful about race, patrimony and romance in A Bronx Tale.) These distortions of American experience tip off Liberty Heights' inanity. Like Horowitz presuming once-liberal enlightenment, Levinson's ethnic biases are both blatant and confused. His white supremacist joyride could easily switch titles with another screwed-up nostalgic folly, Ang Lee's Ride with the Devil.