Wednesday, 2 December 2015

If you ain't scared, you ain't alive

OK, bear with. I'm going to attempt a short review of the new Pixar film, the Good Dinosaur, onto which I will then try to shoehorn such topics as: Batman, Dylan Thomas, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Arya Stark and the quest for immortality. But mainly it's about death. Spoilers follow.

I liked the film. It's a fairly simple Western for kids with a few good gags, even if it leans little heavily on the sentimentality. But the story is great. Pixar didn't do a film last year - a traumatic absence - but they made up for it this year with two films that approach storytelling in what to me feels like an exciting new way. Like Inside Out, the Good Dinosaur sees our hero plunged against his will into a fantastical landscape through which he must make his way home, learning much about himself and growing as a character as a result of his experiences along the way.

This is the hero's journey structure, used in virtually every great Disney film since Chris Vogler famously introduced it to the studio in 1985. In its particular incarnation in children's animations, the hero's journey has developed certain moral overtones (not that these are unique to Disney of course), which can be simplified as: the character has a Defect, and over the course of the Journey, it is Rectified.

Simba is childish and burdened with guilt; at the end of the film he is wise and has Remembered who he Is. Pocahontas doesn't know which path to take; she finds it as a peace-maker. Mulan can't seem to be a proper woman; she learns that proper womanhood lies in saving the Empire, sorry, I mean bravery and doing the Right Thing. Aladdin hates his scavenging street-rat status; eventually he uses honesty to earn the love of a Princess. Quasimodo is jealous of the freedom of others; by the end he is, almost manically, pushing the love of his life into the arms of another.

In Inside Out, Joy's problem is that Riley is sad, and in the Good Dinosaur, Arlo is afraid. But here's where things are slightly novel: the solution isn't to extinguish sadness or fear, but to find these "negative" emotions' utility. Joy realises that Riley needs to be able to feel sadness to grow as a person, and Arlo realises, in the words of the daddy Rex, "If you ain't scared, you ain't alive". Inside Out definitely makes this point more clearly, because Arlo has to overcome his fear at key moments, but the idea is still there and it's a good one to explore.

It's difficult for most of us in life to attempt a proper hero's journey where we completely change ourselves and purge our defects - for most people, it's more realistic to come to terms with them, and often, they're important to hold on to, because they help us in ways we might forget about. It's a profound, difficult and exciting idea, and it speaks to Pixar's immense creative talent that they are willing to pioneer it.

The point about fear is actually something that I've thought quite a lot about in the past. It was best brought home to me in one particular line from the Good Dinosaur, crowbarred though it may have been. The crazed, murderous pterodactyl Thunderclap attacks his foes by proclaiming the source of his power: "I have seen the eye of the Storm and I forgot what fear is!"

Now, Thunderclap is an insane cargo cult leader in a movie for infants, but I think his character really gets to the nub of what's so damaging about fanatical belief in anything. Cults and religions (wherever you draw the line between the two) are pretty much targeted precisely at people's fear. They offer the ability to remove your fear (of death, of being alone, of whatever) and replace it with an unthinking - but shared, communal - dogma. Dogma is something which you can trust and defend, whatever happens. You never need to worry again. But it's when you lose the ability to fear that you gain the ability to become a fanatic. In other words, fear is necessary for our sanity, not something to be driven out or overcome.

This brings me onto my next point (although, let's be honest, when is it ever not my next point?) - my crippling fear of death. As often as possible, I like to rewatch my favourite scene from Midnight in Paris:

I don't want to dive into the thorny topic of Hemingway's sanity, but in my view you've got to be completely barmy not to fear death. By comparison to his passionate denial of fear, the archetypal New Yorker neuroticism looks positively well adjusted, but it is the former that is held up as virtuous and manly. Whenever a thing's primary recommendation is that mainstream masculinity approves of it, you know there's a strong chance it's nonsense.

Being as obsessed with the fear of death as Mr Allen, it's something that I've written about before in the context of Chris Nolan's final Batman movie, the Dark Knight Rises. In that film, Batman is completely willing to lay down his life to protect his city, but what is really required of him is something much more challenging: to find the will not to die, but to live. To regain a fear of death. Like the Good Dinosaur, what the Dark Knight Rises shows so well is that fear can be a strength; it's something that can make life so much more worth living.

That's why I find it so difficult to understand the (very common) position that immortality should be avoided. Medical science has hinted at the possibility that, at some point in the next century, perhaps, ageing can be slowed and stopped. Yet some of my earliest memories involve being taught, earnestly, that death is not something to fear, that you can only achieve peace and happiness in life if you come to terms with the inevitability of its end. Many "wise" and "zen" philosophies (and of course religions) are built on this principle. But for the person who is happy to die, what kind of value can be placed on living?!

That's why I'd like to end this exceptionally strange monologue with a call to arms in support of research towards longevity and, hopefully immortality. Like my other hero, Game of Thrones' Arya, the correct response to death ought to be "not today!" We have the radical potential - just maybe - to be the first generation to truly embrace fear, embrace life, and to finally rage with some effectiveness against the dying of the light. And that should be a cause for hope.

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