Book review: Against Everything

Against Everything: On Dishonest Times (Verso) by Mark Greif

Mark Greif is a founding editor of N+1, a New York magazine founded in 2004 which, in retaliation against a prevailing culture of irony and indifference, declared in its first issue that it was “time to say what you mean”. Greif and his co-founders appeared to be answering the call of David Foster Wallace a decade earlier, when he had written in the Review of Contemporary Fiction that “the next real literary ‘rebels’ in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of ‘anti-rebels’, born oglers who dare to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse single-entendre values.”

Twelve years on from the magazine’s launch, Greif has amassed a collection of sober and enquiring essays on topics as diverse as gym culture, hipsters, the function of police and learning to rap. The author has described Against Everything as “a cultural argument in linked essays”, building up a picture of a society moulded, often unconsciously, by the logic of consumer capitalism. It is not a far cry, in its concerns, from another book Verso has published in the same month, by Stuart Jeffries, arguing for the importance of the Frankfurt School. But although informed by theory, Greif’s argument is mercifully light on jargon, opting for philosophy in plain English and careful deliberation over the everyday.

The first section of the book reflects on “the rules of food, of sex, of exercise, of health, [which] give us ways of avoiding facing up to a freedom from care that we may already have within reach.” These are areas of our lives which, he argues, are no longer governed by necessity but by fetishisation, private needs turned into public, monetised performances: deferring the convenience of food by seeking out arcane ingredients, sexualising youth as a way of commoditising the body, turning exercise into a public pursuit of something other than health. Since we no longer struggle for survival, we create artificial obstacles, impose new rules of struggle, to lend our lives meaning.

These essays are an earnest attempt to examine the points of friction between capitalism and our daily lives, as well as an attempt to discover their resolution. Greif has always been a remarkably prescient and insightful essayist – in 2006, he had already begun to write about issues, such as Universal Basic Income, that would reach the mainstream only after the financial crisis and the resulting Occupy movement – but his elegance has grown with time, leaving behind his earlier flirtation with portentousness (“Let the future, at least, know that we were fools… Record our testament[!]”). Some of the most rewarding passages in the collection are, therefore, the most recent, such as his essay on policing, or his editorial update to the essay on reality television, which brilliantly dissects the bland horror of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.

And yet his anti-capitalist heroes are not necessarily those of the 20th or 21st century. In a series exploring the “Meaning of Life”, Greif rejects the accrual of hedonistic experience or mere objects, and harks back to the first Greek philosophers, the aestheticism of Gustave Flaubert and, particularly, the perfectionism of Henry David Thoreau. For a writer ostensibly against everything, Greif finds an unexpected solace in the lives of others as an antithesis to one’s own life, synthesising a new self and continuing the search. As he points out, “the instant for philosophy is always now, and every day, because some of us need a lifetime for it. We are slow learners.”

First published in New Humanist, Winter 2016. You can subscribe to the magazine here.

The Pixar Guide to Wellbeing

On its release in America, Inside Out had the biggest opening weekend for any original film in box office history, sailing easily past Avatar’s $77m to an incredible $91m. It’s already Pixar’s eighth consecutive film to have taken over $500m worldwide, and we’ve only just had the opening weekend here in the UK, where it took £7.35m. If some were beginning to worry that the studio had gone the way of Disney, following five years of prequels, sequels and the critically mixed reception to their fairy tale, Brave, this new film has proven that Pixar is still capable of the funny, surprising and layered storytelling that made its name. But the secret ingredient of this film’s success? Sadness.

Inside Out follows 11-year-old Riley and the five emotions – joy, fear, anger, disgust and sadness – that live in the control room of her head. When Riley’s family moves away from her childhood home in Minnesota to San Francisco, she loses sight of the core memories that tell her who she is, prompting Joy and Sadness to go on a journey deep into her mind to get them back. The topography grates: having to catch the Train of Thought home because Honesty Island has crumbled sounds like the worst allegory since Pilgrim’s Progress, if you think about it too hard. But as Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder and president, wrote in his book Creativity Inc., ‘If you give a good idea to a mediocre team, they will screw it up. If you give a mediocre idea to a brilliant team, they will either fix it or throw it away and come up with something better,’ and in the hands of Pixar’s story artists, the landscape of Riley’s mind becomes the battleground for a new way of looking at wellbeing.

It’s one of Pixar’s funniest films, the jokes coming thick and fast throughout the film (‘There’s inductive reasoning, there’s déjà vu, there’s language processing, there’s déjà vu, there’s critical thinking, there’s déjà vu…’). Perhaps the best gag is watching the maintenance workers hoover up long term memories like phone numbers (‘We don’t need these! They’re in her phone’), leaving only the names of a couple of US presidents and the ditty to a chewing gum advert.

Riley’s main problems – growing up, and moving away from her childhood home – are identical to those of Pixar’s first feature film, Toy Story. In the latter, Andy’s fear and distress is played out by the toys, the whole story enacting the kind of imaginary play we might expect to see in a child’s psychological evaluation, with Woody and Buzz vying as male role models (the implication being that the family is downsizing following a divorce). When Inside Out treats the same topic, the adventure is the emotional journey itself: will Joy reign over Riley’s head once again?

Up to now, Joy has called the shots in Riley’s mental HQ, and she keeps life on track by being relentlessly positive, looking for the bright side in everything and telling the others to ‘think positive’. When Sadness starts to intrude on the controls, Joy’s response is to draw a chalk circle on the ground and tell her to stand inside it. But when things go really wrong for Riley, it’s not because Sadness has taken the helm and won’t let go. Instead, the colour drains out of the console, and it stops responding to any of the emotions. As sufferers of depression attest, the problem is not overwhelming feeling but the inability to feel.

Inside Out SadnessThis is where Sadness comes in. When we get a glimpse into Riley’s mother’s head at the dinner table, we can see her own Sadness is in charge of operations, and that’s why, even though yellow Joy is generally in charge of Riley’s HQ, she has Sadness’s blue hair and aura. Perhaps worried that Riley might take after her, Riley’s mother wants her to be a ‘happy girl’, but as things go from bad to worse, the pressure to be happy begins to seem like the real problem. Indeed, recent studies by social psychologist Dr Brock Bastian and others confirm that negativity is often our most useful companion when times are tough – it helps us anticipate problems, find solutions and empathise with others when things are going badly. It’s not negative emotions that are bad for us, but the suppression of them, especially when they are healthy, functional responses to difficult situations.

Pixar have never shied away from presenting everything that life can throw at you. Perhaps the most famous example is in the montage of Carl and Ellie’s life together at the start of Up, which, taken alone, stands as perhaps the greatest short film of all time, not just for its miracle of condensation, but for the emotional impact of their childlessness, which has reduced audiences of all ages to tears. (Careful viewers may even spot scenes from this sequence in the great bowling-ball alleys of Riley’s long term memory.) Equally, on the death of Riley’s imaginary friend, who sacrifices himself to save Joy, the cinema erupted with the sound of children crying, which is just as well because I think a number of the adults were sniffing too. The whole audience left the cinema elated.

In this latest film, Pixar are not just putting us through the mill. They’re showing us that, somewhat paradoxically, the way to be really happy is to experience a whole range of emotions. When Riley is born, there is only Joy, standing in front of a laughter button, but as Riley grows older, she is joined by Anger, Disgust, Fear and Sadness. When life gets really tough, Sadness is not the antagonist she first appears, but the unsung hero. That’s the real lesson: Joy might be fun to hang around, but wellbeing is a team effort.

Article first published by Prospect Magazine

Miyazaki’s final vision

The animator-auteur Hayao Miyazaki has announced his retirement many times before, most famously after the success of Princess Mononoke (1997). Unlike most retired people, he has continued to make films, winning an Oscar for Spirited Away (2001) and receiving a nomination for Howl’s Moving Castle (2004). He has claimed that his latest, The Wind Rises (out in the UK on 9th May), really will be his last. “This time I am quite serious,” Miyazaki told theAssociated Press last year. By some counts, this is his seventh retirement.

Since that interview, his friend and co-founder of Studio Ghibli, Isao Takahata, has hinted that Miyazaki may find another project. He will be forgiven if he does decide to break his promise again—Miyazaki is no self-promoting cynic. His films are about people who are trying to do the right thing: to prevent disaster or to save a loved one. His female characters, young and old, are more human than almost anything Hollywood serves up. Even his villains are not as bad as they seem—they often end up getting on pretty well with the other characters.

This sounds worthy, and a recipe for commercial disaster. Yet Miyazaki’s animations are not only hugely popular, they are regarded as some of the greatest films ever made. Part of the appeal is the observational detail that he brings to every scene. The critic Roger Ebert once noted the “gratuitous motion” in his films, which Miyazaki likens to the Japanese concept of ma or emptiness—those little reflective pauses in which we notice an animal shaking itself free of water, or a colleague straightening his waistcoat. These moments create a kind of visual poetry, a celebration of the beauty in the everyday, like the graphic novellas of John McNaught. Miyazaki is a master of these moments. His films would rather make each moment beautiful than cut to the chase, and Miyazaki has no one to curtail his vision: he writes the scripts, designs the storyboards and draws thousands of key frames himself.

The Wind Rises is ostensibly the biography of Jiro Horikoshi, a pioneering aeronautical engineer who was responsible for designing the Mitsubishi A6M Zero Fighter used by the Japanese Navy throughout the Second World War. Although a real historical figure, Miyazaki presents Jiro as a Harry Potterish everyman and tweaks his life story to accommodate his own preoccupations.

When Miyazaki was a child in the 1940s, his father and uncle owned an aviation company that made parts for the Zeros, ensuring that no one in the family was conscripted to fight. Planes appear everywhere in Miyazaki’s work: the ominous shadows passing over the city in Howl’s Moving Castle before an air raid; the possessed paper planes inSpirited Away; the young neighbour’s toy plane in My Neighbour Totoro. And then there’s Porco Rosso, which is about a pig who is a bounty hunter and pilot. There are almost as many planes in that film as there are people.

The Wind Rises begins with a plane. We first meet Jiro as a sleeping child. In his dream, he climbs up onto the roof of his house and gets into a plane with feather-tipped wings, rising up vertically with perfect dream logic. But up there, in the sky, are monsters, loitering on bombs like the shadowy pilots in Howl’s Moving Castle. Jiro falls and lands… in reality.

He has woken up. The mosquito netting around him is blurred. He puts on his glasses and the room comes into focus. Here we are introduced to one of the most surprising elements of Miyazaki’s final film: it is set in the real world. His final challenge to himself has been to create a film without strange creatures or transformative curses. This world is governed by normal physics, so much so that the (animated, fictitious) camera has a depth of field and is susceptible to lens flare. Many of Jiro’s conversations concern the precise aerodynamics of the plane he’s designing. We see drawing board diagrams and designs in other Miyazaki films such as Porco Rosso and Totoro, yet in The Wind Risesthere is a new attention to physical reality. We watch over Jiro’s shoulder, like a supervisor, as he notes down the calculations on his slide-rule.

Jiro is an underdog, determined to make a plane to rival the industrial powerhouses to the West, despite Japan’s poor resources. Through his nightly dreams, and days of hard work at his desk, he renders a whole new reality. It couldn’t be a more literal analogy for Miyazaki’s work. Later, the engineer marries a painter—another fitting metaphor. The film is full of painterly skies and sunlit fields, sea and mountains. We see a cherry tree blossoming, moths gathering around lamps, the smoke from a cigarette or a cold breath curling into the air. We watch dappled light move over Jiro’s body on a woodland walk, and even see the shadows of objects offscreen, the silhouette of an unseen tree running across the floor and up the side of a building.

There are no serious antagonists in The Wind Rises. The most important relationship in the film is the love affair between Jiro and Naoko. When she was a child, Jiro saved her and her nanny from the chaos of an earthquake, carrying them from a railroad as burning detritus blew overhead from the city. Now she is a beautiful woman, Claude Monet’s Woman with a Parasol come to life, and she has found him—but, like the mother in My Neighbour Totoro, she has tuberculosis. Jiro and Naoko love each other devotedly, and decide to marry despite her being almost bed-bound, and his being wanted by the interior ministry. It would be hard not to smile at their courtship, watching them throw paper planes onto each other’s balcony, or make youthful declarations to one another.

The central conflict in the film comes from the plane itself. It is the perfect meeting point of the opposing forces that shape Miyazaki’s attitude towards technology: freedom and destruction, one sometimes necessitating the other. In Princess Mononoke, which echoes the earlier film Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind, Ashitaka fights against a human society obsessed with building ever more efficient guns. Miyazaki is always careful to show how technology consumes. The candle that powers the steam boat in Ponyo runs outand there is a constant stream of coal in Kamaji’s boiler room in Spirited Away. Technology can also, sometimes, provide us with a seemingly limitless freedom, captured so well by his vehicles: the magic Cheshire Cat bus in My Neighbour Totoro, which bounds across landscapes in an instant, or the famous moving castle whose doors open onto different cities. In The Wind Rises, the plane embodies all of these qualities at once, belching exhaust fumes, describing perfect ellipses in the sky. It can kill even as it fulfils one of humanity’s great dreams, to fly among the clouds.

Some critics, both in Japan and in America, have criticised the film for supposedly glorifying Horikoshi’s contribution to the war. In fact, Jiro suggests during a design briefing that they remove the guns and, at one point, even finds himself strolling through the wreckages of crashed Zero fighters. If the film had come on any stronger with its anti-war message, it would have been patronising. Perhaps the criticism stems from the claim by Jiro’s role model, Caproni, that “aeroplanes are beautiful dreams.” The criticism is presumably that we mustn’t gloss over the brutal devastation of war; that every film set during a war should strive to imitate Schindler’s List. But in Miyazaki’s work, no one sets out to do evil, even if the result creates conflict. In Princess Mononoke, the humans are not making guns because they are malicious, but to protect the vulnerable and their livelihood. Every character is simply trying to further their own cause, or to perfect what they already do well. If only Jiro would play the villain, we could all condemn him, refuse to understand why he lived the way he did, and learn nothing.

Jiro is certainly not perfect, and his dogged quest to produce something beautiful puts a strain on his relationships with those around him. Caproni understands this impulse perfectly. He has been a kind of spirit guide through the film for Jiro, and ends by reassuring him that his work is over, and that “artists are only creative for ten years.” All that remains is to be grateful for the time that he had.

Miyazaki has been making films for far longer, of course, and his most recent have been among his best. It seems hard to believe that he will retire now. He is getting older, of course, and his artistic process is immensely demanding. But the real clue as to why Miyazaki has declared The Wind Rises his last film may lie in his childhood.

In 1945, when Miyazaki was four, the city where he lived with his father the aeroplane engineer, was bombed. The family was evacuated to a railway bridge. The sky was pink with flame. They got hold of a truck and, as they escaped the city, a woman and a child asked for a lift. But Miyazaki’s family drove on without stopping. It was an apparent failure of kindness, and he wondered later if it could have happened differently. Soon after the war ended, his mother contracted spinal tuberculosis, and underwent treatment for the next eight years.

Watching The Wind Rises, it feels as though this is the story Miyazaki has been coming round to all these years—the final, realist vision to resolve all those recurring images of planes, burning skies, the woman and child in need, the debilitating tuberculosis of a loved one. Over three decades, this raw material has provided fuel for his gorgeous fantasy. Now, at last, it has been transformed back into reality.