On Toontown and Smashing Brick Walls

So, I just caught up with everybody else’s childhood by seeing ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit.’

It’s a film I find more fascinating than entertaining.   In large part my reaction is due to how incredibly grating it is — compared to the relative subtlety and restrained cleverness of Zemeckis’ ‘Back to the Future’ trilogy, ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ while brilliantly constructed and occasionally hilarious, practically pulverizes the audience with cartoon tropes.  The fact that the cartoon characters — and the title character in particular — are extremely obnoxious and insane is, interestingly, a diegetic element.  Oddly, the villainous Judge Doom (the best part of the movie, because Christopher Lloyd), a toon disguised as a human, is evil because his cartoon insanity has been turned toward the very human pursuit of power.  Other characters, Roger in particular, are batshit crazy, but they’re let off the hook because the only thing they care about is making people laugh.

That’s where it gets interesting.

The toons willingly break any rule of human society in the name of laughter — except murder, and presumably any other seriously harmful crime, and the idea of a toon committing such a crime is unthinkable to them.  The toons represent the collective creative imagination of their time (the film is set in 1947).  Toontown, their inexplicable mecca, exists somewhere inside Los Angeles, a bubble dimension that alters the humans that enter it to allow them to endure cartoon physics.  Toontown is dreamland, an idealized Hollywood of pure Keatonesque slapstick insanity whose only goal is joy, no matter how perverse.  It is the reckless playfulness of childhood incarnate.

Judge Doom, the quasi-toon, threatens to destroy Toontown and replace it with a modern freeway, cheap motels and restaurants, and billboards as far as the eye can see.  He threatens the town of unbridled creation — of a child’s obnoxious-but-carefree notion of play — with raw Capitalism, launching his attack on Toontown from a factory… which exists right next to Toontown, the two worlds separated only by a brick wall.  The image of reckless, generous creativity and calculated, greedy creativity being separated by such a thin line is just delicious.

The film’s chief thematic function, however, is to play to an adult audience that knows that Toontown was, in a metaphorical sense, already bulldozed to make way for the Freeway Future.  Judge Doom won in our world.  Hollywood was built as an industry, manufacturing products rather than simply sharing dreams; Toontown, with its fidelity to pure imagination, simply wouldn’t fit the business model.  For as obnoxious and grating and insane as the toons get in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit,’ they embody the creative act, the simple transaction of performance for joy.  And, like creativity, Toontown must be an end to itself.  The plot doesn’t resolve until ownership of Toontown is returned to the toons.

An alchemical theory of film sees cartoons as symbols capable of altering the real world in a magical way.  ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ agrees — the filmmakers portray toons as products of human imagination that take on a life of their own, even changing the course of history.  Through cinema, the images we create populate the collective unconscious, living just outside the rules and walls of society, capable of bursting through at any moment to bring insanity — or joy.

An Exorcism for The Conjuring

James Wan’s horror film ‘The Conjuring’ is a superbly crafted thrill-ride, packed to the gills with brilliant sequences of terror and populated by three-dimensional characters.

But the real horror comes from its claim to a basis in true historical events.

Not for the reasons you might think, however — not because this story of ghosts, demons and possession convinces us to believe in the terrifying reality of the same. Rather that the explanation provided for these events fits all too well with the dominant rhetoric supplied to us in American mythology; namely, that the Salem Witch Trials were somehow legitimate, and that the women murdered under Puritanism were actually Satan-worshipping witches.

The reason why you shouldn’t believe this ghost story is that it is, oddly enough, a comforting lie told to protect us from the real haunting truth, substituting a superstitious fear of demons (giving a strange amount of power to the Devil for a story purportedly siding with God) for the horrifying knowledge of our culture’s historical tendency to dominate women at any cost, including their lives.

What’s really demonic here is actually all-too human: we want to believe in sensational, scary stories of murder and darkness, but only insofar as they reinforce our beliefs. We ought to be haunted by what lies buried in our collective memories — that what we have as the descendants of European Christian colonists, we received at a terrible price, and while we don’t share the guilt of our ancestors, we do have a responsibility to let the sun in on their crimes.

The demons of ‘The Conjuring’ are fictional. They were fictional before they appeared onscreen. Once depicted, however, they take on the power of obfuscation, distracting us with the primal fear of the Other from the terrifying potential we all share to do unspeakable evil — even in the name of God.

Cinema has the alchemical power to let symbols alter our reality, but this power applies to our belief systems, and from thence our actions. The films we make and consume eventually create our future. If the mythology accepted and promoted by ‘The Conjuring’ goes unchallenged, we will allow history to repeat itself, with the tragedy of Salem repeated by a new generation. We have nothing to fear from fictional phantoms — except the mournful ghosts they hide.