Monday, June 28, 2010

TOY STORY 3: INSTITUTIONAL SETTING



Toy Story 3's evil villain is a pink teddy-bear with a lavender nose who smells like strawberries and has the deep-pitched, soft-toned, hillbilly-kind voice of a patriotic country singer telling you how great the world is, just the way it is. This toy's name is Lots-O'-Huggin Bear, and he rules in a benevolent/malevolent manner, bullying the other toys in the Toy Story 3 menagerie into "getting with the program," once they are abandoned by their owner Andy, who is off to college and possibly too grown-up to care.

Toy Story 3's triumph is not just the technical 3-D slights of hand, or the even more important spinning-plates feat of maintaining nostalgia while also deepening the feeling for its initial characters (first unveiled in 1995) -- what truly makes this movie a classic for me is its sweetly satiric but deadeyed depiction of what it means to be institutionalized, and how the brutality and numbness of institutionalization gets sewn into the everyday fabric of just being a part of things.

The institution in this case is a daycare center where Woody, Buzz and the rest of the ragtag Toy cast are marooned after being accidentally donated. At first, all the toys are happy to be able to be "played with" by a new generation of kids, but soon they are confronted with reality: they are merely actual playthings at the hands of kids too young (and too sadistic) to be their "owners." The daycare center, you see, has its own hierarchy managed by that strawberry-smelling dictator Lots-O'-Huggin Bear and his hench-toys, chief among them a docile but eerie abandoned babydoll named Big Baby. The structure of the institution is administrated by Lots-O, and policed by Big Baby, Ken doll, and and other assorted misfit toys whose chief mission is to maintain the order of the place.

This is a candycolored retelling of One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest in many ways, but in the end Woody and the gang somehow survive by escaping the Lots-O'-ruled universe and persevering even beyond the Holocaust-tinged fiery oven of the local dump. Lots-O, in the end, is defeated, but there's a strange afterglow the movie leaves (at least with me) because it seems not to be just an entertainment, but a sort of comment on what it means to be someone cast aside by society and yet still very much alive and willing to be in the world, and to somehow be optimistic about that status. Toy Story 3's main message is don't listen to the pink teddybear voice inside your head, the one whispering Kenny-Chesney-sincere to go with the flow, to be happy with what you have to the point that you are being pulled apart and eventually thrown away.

That's institutionalization, right? Being assigned an identity and then having to live out that narrative in a small concise space until you either give up, die or escape. Lots-O's agenda is to keep the status-quo, and in order to do that he needs to know that he is right, so he maintains that story for himself by being "sweet" and "kind" and authoritative. He knows what's best because (as the movie so deftly dramatizes in a flashback sequence that seems to be directed by David Lynch) he himself was abandoned back in the day and replaced by a replica: the image of Lot-O standing outside the window of his once owner while she cuddles with another "Lots-O" allows us into the mindset of a dictator. He has lost everything and has to confront how worthless he is; instead of allowing that information to widen his scope Lots-O uses that energy to create a toy-prison and to incarcerate and indoctrinate.

In the movie, after Lots-O is defeated, Woody and the gang are rescued and given sanctuary in the home of a little girl named Bonnie. They escape the institution, but of course are still servants, still at the whim of an owner. But at this point it's understood somehow: you make what you can out of what life has given you. But within that process of acquiescence you must never forget you can escape to a better world if you have to. Toy Story 3's genius comes from a weird, sobering social realism merged with the shiny-clean comfort of its animation. Woody and Buzz and all the other toys don't let themselves get thrown away. And they never pledge allegiance to the pink teddybear.

Words to live by.

So what does this have to do with Thunder-Sky, Inc. or 2 + 2 = 5? Raymond never fell into the institutional narrative: he was always writing his own story, and didn't listen to or obey other voices. The logic of 2 + 2 = 5 is illogic: collaboration among all kinds of artists and people without anyone in charge eventually becomes a new way to organize.