Thursday, February 26, 2015

Review: The Incredibles

By John O'Brien, S.J.

2004. Director: Brad Bird (animated). 115 min.
Music: Michael Giacchino

Bob Parr (a.k.a. Mr. Incredible), and his wife Helen (a.k.a. Elastigirl), are famous crime-fighting superheroes in Metroville, saving lives and battling evil on a daily basis. But after the civilian population begins to resent their overachieving antics, they have been forced to adopt civilian identities and retreat to the suburbs where, 15 years later, they live a "normal life" with their three children Violet, Dash and baby Jack-Jack. Itching to get back into action, Bob gets his chance when a mysterious message summons him to a remote island for a secret assignment. He soon discovers that it will take a super family effort to rescue the world from total destruction. 

In Film History 
The Incredibles is part of the Pixar juggernaut of uber-successful animated films that towered over Disney (until being bought by The Mouse in 2006), titles such as Finding Nemo, Toy Story, Ratatouille, and Up. It won two Oscars (Best Animated Film of the Year, Sound editing) and “Movie of the Year” at the American Film Institute (AFI) in 2005.

The Incredibles is one of those animated films that is enjoyable by adult and child alike. It is carried by delightful storytelling, enriched by a surprising density of plot, as well as vivid characterizations. It also takes its PG rating seriously (all other Pixar films are rated G), depicting family dysfunction and crisis unflinchingly, if sympathetically, and, in a Pixar first, has human villains attempting to kill human heroes, including their children. It’s cartoon violence, of course, but the film surprises by how it draws not only our excitement, but also the fibers of our heartstrings. It taps into personal territory with issues such as repressed talents and unfulfilled potential, soul-draining days jobs, midlife crisis, adolescent insecurity and nostalgia for real heroes. It packs in social commentary on issues such as the dangers of praising mediocrity, of the law-suit trigger-happy culture, and even the risks of marital infidelity. All of these critiques are in the service of a higher truth: the affirmation of the inherent dignity of human life. “Valuing life is not a weakness,” one character defiantly declares, “and disregarding it is not strength!” 

So what is the theme that makes this film a candidate for a series on "the hidden roots of love"? A clue may be found in one of its subtle story details. While a plane is whizzing towards a secret island, we can read on the control that the island’s name is “Nomanisan”. Blink and you miss the pun, but it gives us a major key to understanding what The Incredibles is about. Every character is grappling with the use and non-use and proper use of their talents; they go through the great, purifying tests that elevate the practice of their gifts, and help them mature past individualism.

Let’s take each character in turn. Mr. Incredible or “Bob Parr” starts the movie mugging for the “camera” like a celebrity, a man clearly in the prime of his life and at the height of his career. His opening exploits in the city confirm that his powers are being used for the civic good, but at the same time, his attitude is slightly off-key. He struts around with his chest puffed out, and violently rejects a young fan who wants to be his side-kick, an error that will sow his darkest challenges to come. Mr. Incredible is primarily incredible on the scale of muscle-power; but he is Superman without Superman’s humility (although he still has our sympathy, because he is fundamentally good, and very much like us). Later, his soul-destroying job as an insurance claims processor wonderfully illustrates the spiritual miasma of repressed talents and mismatched vocation. His office cubicle is a lonely island in an endless sea of isolated islands.

Elastigirl, or “Helen Parr” seems more content with the family’s hidden role in the suburbs. Her super-talent of stretching her body like a curvaceous Gumby remains restricted to breaking up acrobatic fights between her unruly children. If she is frustrated by the restriction of her special powers, she doesn’t show it. But there is a growing edge to her voice and in her demeanor towards her husband and family that increases as time goes by. While she remains the heart of the Parr family home, she, too, is feeling the effects of her family’s subdued life.

The eldest daughter Violet has the powers of projecting some kind of force-field and making herself invisible, which she does when it helps her avoid awkward social situations. She’s afflicted with angst over fitting in, once telling Helen: “Normal? ... What does anyone in this family know about normal?…We act normal, mother. I want to be normal.” A typical teenager, perhaps, as she struggles to discover and claim her emerging identity. She is also is pointing her finger at the truth of the family’s double-standard.

Dash, the younger brother, chafes under the orders he’s been given not to use his power of lightening-fast speed. He, too, just wants to fit in at school, and be able to compete athletically with his peers, even promising to hold back a little to make the races legit. Dash is acting out at school, pulling pranks on his teachers, getting sent to the principal’s office. He has been told his powers are not something to be ashamed of, but he is definitely not supposed to use them. He finds the contradiction unbearable. 

The Parr family is afflicted by a case of hiddentalentitis. They’ve had to bury their gifts, hide their “lights” under proverbial bushel baskets. They are denying the full flourishing and exercise of their abilities. It is frustrating for all of them, whether they are fully aware of it or not, with each unhappy in his or her own way. Perhaps they should never have gone underground, and resisted the government’s resettlement program for superheroes.

Or maybe it was all for the good. Perhaps the discipline of self-denial has, in a strange, roundabout way, been purifying these past 15 years, like a long Lenten journey in the desert. The risk for the powerful is not just that they might become villains (like “Syndrome”, the main baddie in this film, who is clearly abusing the powers he has seized for himself); rather, the risk is the subtle corruption of intentionality, in a way that keeps the exterior shiny-clean and commendable, while inner motives get corroded and tinged by the ego. As T.S. Eliot writes in Murder in the Cathedral: “The last act is the greatest treason. To do the right deed for the wrong reason.” 

According to Ignatius of Loyola, all the gifts we are given, even the ones we help cultivate ourselves, not ultimately for our well-being alone, but to be shared. Every grace given contains within it a mission. “Love,” he writes in the Spiritual Exercises, “gives of what it possesses”, even if the only thing I have is knowledge. Knowledge is redeemed, even elevated and expanded, when I share it with others. One might say that our talents don’t ever acquire their full function until they are deployed in altruistic (the inner attitude) gift to others (the outer action). Talent achieves its form only when it is given away in selflessly generosity.

It’s entirely appropriate that a family is the “theatre” in which the characters dramatically learn to mature their use of their talents. A family is the first school of love, where members discover how to serve and be served, to love and be loved. As John Paul II once wrote, “The family finds in the plan of God the Creator and Redeemer not only its identity, what it is, but also its mission, what it can and should do… Each family finds within itself a summons that cannot be ignored and that specifies both its dignity and responsibility: family, become what you are!”

The Incredibles are an indeed an “super” family, with a gross excess of talent. But it is their humanity and weakness that draw us to them in sympathy. There is no perfect family in the real world, but the Parrs model for us how every family, every community, that is built upon human relationship, can learn to orient its love both ad intra and ad extra. In the end, every family that is founded upon love is incredible.

Meditation Questions
1) What are some gifts or talents that I have been given?
2) When I exercise my talents, what are my main driving motives in using them?
3) How have my motives been examined in the past? How might they need to be purified in the present? How do I verify whether I am motivated authentically by love?

St. Ignatius suggests a prayer to begin one's meditation: 
“Lord, I ask for the grace that all of my intentions, actions, and operations might be purely ordered to the service and praise of your divine majesty.” 

Thursday, February 05, 2015

Groundhog Day: It's a Doozy

By John O'Brien, S.J.

1993. Director: Harold Ramis. 100 min.
Actors: Bill Murray, Andie MacDowell, Chris Elliott
Music: George Fenton

“Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn't one today.”
– Phil, Groundhog Day

Phil Connors (Murray) is a self-absorbed weatherman at a Pittsburgh television station, who feels he is destined for much greater things, and disdains his co-workers and, especially, the annual February 2 road-trip to Punxsutawney to cover the prognostications of its famous groundhog. This year, he goes with a new producer, Rita (MacDowell), and Larry (Elliott) the cameraman, making no bones about his unhappiness. They cover the event, and he goes to bed.

The next morning, he wakes to hear the same jingle and talk-show banter on his bedside radio he heard the morning before. Initially believing he is experiencing an acute case of déjà vu, Phil soon discovers he is actually reliving Groundhog Day. And it happens again and again, with the calendar resetting each time he goes to sleep. It doesn't take long for him to realize that his actions have no long-term consequences. He beings a series of selfish experiments, experiencing exhilarating highs and despairing lows. Mostly he has discovered that he can accumulate knowledge about other people, especially about the beautiful Rita, knowledge he can use to help others or to take advantage of them.

Groundhog Day won prizes at some second-tier festivals when it came out in 1993, but was not nominated for any major awards. Over time, it slowly gained recognition, and in 2006, the National Film Preservation Board selected it for special preservation status in the National Film Registry. It is now officially a cult favourite -- mostly, I argue, because of its underlying message of the meaning of happiness.

Phil: I'm a god.
Rita: You're God?
Phil: I'm a god. I'm not “the” God...  I don't think.

Groundhog Day is a comedy about what constitutes genuine human fulfillment. In its fantastical scenario, we get to explore a) what are the qualities of “the good life”, and b) what are the qualities of “a good person”. When Phil realizes he is living in a recurring loop, he goes through a number of phases: hedonistic, despondent, altruistic, and, finally, the discovery of his true self. These phases mirror trends in every human life, even those of us not experiencing a repeating Groundhog Day. Do some people live only constrained by the rule of law or social conventions? Many of us would never discover our innate selfishness unless, like the children in Lord of the Flies, we find ourselves in a situation without law. But most people do discover the freedom of genuinely living for others. What Groundhog Day excels at showing is how, if given enough chances, a person would eventually come to see that living according to the moral law is the best ticket to human happiness.

It's a lesson we tend to learn over and over. Most of our human follies are due to forgetfulness. We forget the costs of our heedless actions: the severity of the hangover, the bitter feelings left after angry words, the emptiness of impure relationships. We sin again mostly because of two things: our human tendency to “concupiscence” (the inordinate desire to possess) and the “irascible” (the passions). Eventually, if we lived long enough, we would figure out how to live the authentic “good life” by learning to regulate our passions with reason and right judgment. For most of us, it is the work of a lifetime.

The ancient Greek philosophers considered all this millennia ago, and today’s psychology (and much spirituality!) writers mainly just play variations on their insights. Aristotle argued that the man who possesses "excellent character" is a man who does the right thing at the right time and in the right way. The proper regulation of one’s bodily appetites is an example of character excellence or virtue. The highest goal for the Greeks was "living well" – or eudaimonia, a word often translated as well-being, happiness or human flourishing. Aristotle said that virtuous activity was enjoyable for the man of virtue. He believed that the person whose appetites are in right order actually takes pleasure in acting moderately.

How does one arrive at virtue? Aristotle considered the four “cardinal virtues”, which are concerned with the pursuit of right-ordered action: prudence, justice, temperance and courage. Prudence was the virtue that governs and guides all the others. All the moral virtues, however, require one other, like a well-functioning family. Aristotle also emphasized that the virtues all aim at what is truly beautiful (kalos), since right action, or “the good”, is always linked to love, “the beautiful”. And in the end, it is beauty that will save the life of Phil Connors.

“At the back of our brains, there is a forgotten blaze or burst of astonishment at our own existence,” wrote G.K. Chesterton in his Autobiography. “The object of the artistic and spiritual life is to dig for this submerged sense of wonder.” Perhaps Phil’s experience of repeating February 2 over and over again is an aesthetic experience designed by the Divine Artist. Perhaps it is a "spiritual exercise" (of the First Week, for those Ignatians out there!) that he must undergo in order to be purified of his selfish dross, to find his true identity in God, and discover authentic spiritual freedom.

Finally, it might not be too extreme to consider the events of Groundhog Day in light of the Catholic notion of purgatory. Purgatory, whether it be the refining experiences during our earthly lives, or the purifying experience before the gaze of God on the threshold of heaven, is ultimately an act of mercy. Phil must experience a purification in order to be capable of genuine, human love. Thus Groundhog Day comes as a gift. It was too unexpected to be anything other than grace.