A Dreamer Walking

Pete Docter – An Observation – The Relationship

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on August 22, 2011

The relationship is what really counts for Pete Docter. The movies he makes are all about exploring different aspects of what it means to have a relationship with someone. He goes from exploring what it means to become friends in the original Toy Story, to what it means to be committed in a relationship in the movie Monsters Inc, to what it means to move on from a relationship after it ends in the movie UP.

Docter knows relationship is a key longing for all of us. We all want to have friends and most of us want to fall in love some day. Docter knows how relationships can strengthen us and give us fulfillment. However, Docter also knows relationship can be a hard, frustrating, and painful thing at times. His films ask the question to whether or not relationship is worth the struggles. Docter’s movies all have relationships we see unfold in everyday life and he brilliantly uses the fantasy part of his films to dig farther into the very real and relevant question of, “what does it mean to be in a relationship?”.

The first feature length film for Pete Docter was Toy Story. He was a co-writer and one of the lead animators for the movie. Toy Story deals with mainly two characters, Woody and Buzz. These guys are exact opposites of each other.  The main point of the film was to bring two opposites together. Visually the toys are shown to be opposites through Woody being a old cowboy doll and Buzz being a state of the art space toy. At first the characters hate each other. Woody lets his selfish relationship with his owner Andy get in the way of being open to anyone else. Only when Woody is willing to let go of his jealousy for Andy is he able to start to understand Buzz and build a relationship with him. Docter was in the middle of making this relationship work on screen. He actually helped animate the pivotal scene where Woody lets go of his ego and expresses how good Buzz actually is for someone like Andy. Through talking to Buzz, Woody realizes his greed and and is able to let go of it allowing him and Buzz to open up to each other. If this scene did not express Woody’s change well enough the whole story would have been ruined. Yet Docter allowed us into Woody’s soul and found a way to redeem him so not only Buzz but the whole audience could relate to him.

In Monster Inc, a movie Pete Docter helped write and made his debut directing, Docter goes even farther into what it means to have a relationship with someone. In this movie we are introduced to the characters Sully and Mike. Both are monsters whose profession is scaring little kids. They are best buddies at the beginning of the film, seemingly in a relationship that can’t be broken. So what does Docter do? He throws in something that begins to tear the relationship apart. A human child Sully calls  Boo somehow gets into the monster world. Children are considered by most monsters to be extremely dangerous but Sully begins to warm up to Boo. Mike can’t understand it, for most of the film he wants to do anything in order to get rid of the child. The tension between Mike and Sully rises to the point of them fighting and seemingly breaking up.

Pete Docter deals with a lot of issues that come with relationship in Monsters Inc. We can easily feel jealous when a good friend of ours begins to hang out with someone we are not friends with. What if my best friend is a conservative Christian and he sees me begin to hang out with a Muslim, someone he has been taught his whole life was dangerous? The same kind of idea applies to Monsters Inc. Sully choose to care for someone who everyone, including Mike, has been taught is dangerous. Mike could have let the relationship Sully had with Boo break up his relationship with Sully. Instead however Docter gives us another lesson to what being in a true relationship means. Relationship requires trust and Mike expresses this trust by going back to Sully. Mike explains the reasons he got angry at him, yet tells Sully that he is more important then his frustrations and fears. After trusting Sully and letting go of his fears Mike begins to understand Sully’ change of heart on who children really are. Eventually Mike begins to embrace Boo. This creates a even stronger relationship between the two monsters. We as the audience are also able to see more value in Sully’ and Mike’s relationship because we have seen it get tested and still hold strong.

In Docter’s latest film UP, we go deeper into the joys and pains of relationship. We are shown a beautiful relationship between the main protagonist Carl and his wife Ellie. The two grow old together in a wonderful montage at the beginning of the film. And then Ellie dies. The relationship we all began to care about is broken. Ellie becomes only a memory, a memory that at the beginning of the film brings Carl Down. After Ellie’s death Carl becomes a hermit who is stuck in the past. We see a old cranky man who is open to no one. Then Pete Docter throws in another element that will change Carl’s life forever. A boy named Russell knocks Carl’s door. He is a boy scout who needs to help the elderly in order to earn his last wilderness badge.

Pete Docter shows us the pain that can come with a relationship. The hurt we see Carl go through after his wife dies is hard to bear. However, through the fantastical elements of the story Docter slowly brings “relationship” back into Carl’s life. Carl wants to leave society and go on the adventure to Paradise Falls he always promised his wife they would go on. So Carl ties a few thousand balloons to his house and flies away. The only problem is Russell accidentally comes along with him.  Carl rebukes any relationship with Russell because he is still holding onto his past relationship with Ellie. Carl’s remembrance of Ellie is expressed visually through the house and all it’s possessions. Through half of the film Carl needs to pull the house with a hose line through out the South American jungle. Visually the house (Carl’s past) becomes this burden that Carl can’t let go of. His only goal is to bring himself and his house to Paradise Falls. However Russell along with a few friends they meet on their adventure begin to slowly connect with Carl. In very subtle ways Carl begins to let go of his burden and concentrate on the characters around him.

At the end Carl is faced with two choices, keep the items that connect him to the relationship he had with Ellie or go save Russell from the villain of the movie Charles F. Muntz. Charles chooses to let go of his past and save Russell. One of the brilliant things about UP is Docter forces Carl to get rid of his past in a visual way. Carl needs the house to fly again so he gets rid of all the houses possesions to make the house lighter and free it up. The scene represents exactly what is happening inside Carl. He is no longer letting his past stop him from being open to the present. Carl ends up watching his whole house fly away through the clouds. At the end he relizes Ellie will always be with him and she does not need to stop him from connecting to Russell or any other relationship. Both Russell and Carl represent broken relationships that come together to create a fulfilling one.

In a Spline Cast interview Pete Docter talked about relationship being the thing that really matters for the Pixar movies. This especially is true about Docter’s films. He is dedicated to searching out all aspects of what makes a relationship work. Docter truly believes in the power of relationship and because of the strength of his conviction his characters can convincingly break through any obstacle that get in their way. For Pete Docter filmmaking is not about creating a complex story line, it is about simple stories where we are able to see the relationship unfold. Docter keeps finding new ways to explore relationship on screen. He uses the magic of animation to further his exploration. The fantasy parts of his films are used as tools to further his points. I do not even think Docter cares too much about narrative. His films are not the most polished movies. Everything does not make complete sense in his films. However he connects us to his stories because he connects us to his characters. We like Pete Docter’s movies because we believe and relate to the relationships we see unfold on screen.

Martin Scorsese – An Observation – Tragedy

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on February 16, 2011

Martin Scorsese seems to addicted to tragedy. In both the films Scorsese highlights as his favorite and in the films he has made himself tragedy plays a key role. We can see it all the way back in Mean Streets, where Robert De Niro plays the self destructive thug Johnny Boy. From the very beginning of the movie Johnny owes several people money. Through out the film Johnny digs a deeper and deeper hole for himself by avoiding to pay anyone off. Johnny digs such a big hole that he and his closest friends pay dearly for it at the end.

The movie Raging Bull has another great example of one of Scorsese’s tragic figures. The boxer Jake La Motta goes from being the champion of the world to a cheap bar performer barely making a living through retelling his story to a bunch of drunks every night. Look at Scorsese’s Goodfellas, Gangs of New York, Aviator, and The Departed and you will see a resounding tragic end.

I have been trying to figure out what makes the “tragedy” so interesting to Martin Scorsese. I think it partially has to do with Scorsese believing tragedy is more in tune with reality. Scorsese was one of the first filmmakers to bring Hollywood the “antihero”. We are not supposed to love most of Scorsese’s characters. In fact, most of Scorsese’s characters are full of problems and unlikable qualities. Most of his characters have a quite tragic existence. In Raging Bull we go on a personal journey with a fighter who doesn’t know how to connect with people in a personal way. In Goodfellas we see a con man who has money but nobody to really love and nobody to really be loved by. And, in Aviator we see a great innovator who is trapped by his own demons. All these main characters go against the typical Hollywood tradition.

So why do we keep on going back? If the movies are full of tragedy and the characters aren’t too likable, what is there to keep us stimulated? I think it has to do with an essence of truth in all Scorsese’s tragic characters. We are in a way attracted to the characters he displays because his characters explore freely the things we as society try to keep secret. If we really evaluated ourselves personally we would all find we have some of the same flaws the characters in Scorsese’s movies have. We have demons we fight with, we have a hard time connecting with others, and we have a hard time finding or feeling love.

Movies are not about the happy ending. Movies are about opening our eyes to new things. Tragedy is often something we have a hard time looking at. Scorsese is able to bring us tragedy in a interesting and insightful way. This is one of the reasons Scorsese is a great filmmaker. I personally think Scorsese is trapped by the tragic figure at times. He does not quite know how to express anyone else in a clear light. It might very well be he does not believe there is a such thing as a character who does not eventually end in tragedy. However, no matter whether Scorsese concentrates on tragedy because he feels like he can’t do anything else or he does it because he wants to bring us a new perspective on the tragic figure, we can learn from his movies. Often having a story not end where we expect or even where we want it to end makes us think more then when we as the audience get our way.