Monday, July 27, 2015

Inside/Out and the Dis-Integrated Soul

I finally went and watched Inside/Out this weekend with my wife and my sons.

It's been one of the hits of the summer, a film that landed to essentially universal critical acclaim, and as I sat there watching, I began to wonder what might be wrong with me.

Well, honestly, I know what's wrong with me.  I'm a Presbyterian, and I think too darned much.

It wasn't that I wasn't appreciative of the creative effort, or of the talent that went into it.  It's just that, well, here's a smart movie about emotions, and what I'm feeling is basically nothing.  There was the occasional snicker at a bit of humor, but the pathos just wasn't there.

I did not particularly care about what happened, one way or another.  Oh, sure, it was conceptually interesting, and made for some great conversation amongst the family on the drive home.

But as intelligent as it was, it didn't get to me.  And that impacted my viewing experience, because if you're not deeply emotionally vested, lines like "I'll try, Bing Bong" don't quite carry the same gravitas.  I know I was supposed to be weeping, but I was desperately trying to suppress my inappropriate laughter at that point.  "I'll try, Bing Bong?"  Mon Dieu!  C'est absurde!  I'd missed the emo-bus everyone else in the theatre was riding, clearly.

Here, Pixar, which has been so good at hooking me in...sniffles at the opening of Up, brimming eyes every time I watch the conclusion of Monsters Inc...and I'm not feeling anything at all.

Honestly, I felt about as moved watching Inside/Out as I did watching Monsters University.  This surprised me, particularly given the radiantly positive reviews and the huge box office.

Why, I thought, might that be?

Reflecting on it, I think I realized it was this:  I didn't really connect to Riley.  Here, the putative protagonist, the 11 year old girl whose inner life is the stage for everything we encounter, and I'm not feeling her struggles.

Why is this?  Because she seemed to me to be, well, not really part of most of the film.

Oh, she was animated and voice-acted well enough.  But when we were "inside her head," Riley just disappeared amidst the complex whimsical machinations of her imagined inner life.  Once you got into the mind of Riley, she was no more a part of that process than Jeff Bezos is part of the process on the floor of an Amazon distribution center.

As I reflected on it, I realized that this disappearance was because as the film presented it, her emotions were not her.

She did not suffuse them.  They were not integrated into her.  They were, instead, distinct personalities.  What we saw was not "Riley's Joy."  Not "Riley's Sadness."  Instead, we saw Joy and Sadness, Anger and Disgust and Fear, cast as archetypes, and completely removed from her. An understandable choice, if you want comedy A-Listers doing the voiceovers, but it had an impact on my viewing experience.

This distance was part of her character design and realization.  Unlike every other character in the film whose inner life we encounter--the mom, the dad, other kids, her teacher, animals, you name it--Riley's personified emotions were abstracted from the core of her eleven-year-old personality.

The dad's emotions looked and acted like versions of him.  The mom's?  The same.  The cat's?  Brilliantly, hysterically so.

But for the character who provides our core narrative, her emotions were only part of her in the way that employees are part of a corporation, which meant it did not feel like she was a realized person.

It didn't seem, well, like Riley had a...cough...soul.

Which, when you conceptualize the inner workings of human beings too intently as independent processes, tends to be how things feel.

 And that, I think, is why Inside/Out just didn't quite work for my overthinking Presbyterian self.