Orwell, Wall-E and me
This Fourth of July, you can have your parades and political speeches.
My patriotic fervor’s already been cranked up by a play and a movie in which the words “United States of America” are never uttered -- and don’t need to be.
The two are about as different as, oh, George Orwell and Walt Disney. But between them, I was energized, terrified and inspired, and I came away thinking that we can still reach “the better angels of our nature.”
The play is Orwell’s “1984" at the Redcat at the Disney Concert Hall, and it’s a relentless, effective piece of political theater, directed by Tim Robbins for his Actors’ Gang ensemble. It’s a political terror tale about a man whose heroic impulses have been used by his totalitarian government to destroy him. It’s about as subtle as an electric chair -- which is one of the props. It’s been putting bodies into the 200-seat Redcat since mid-June.
Disney/Pixar’s “Wall-E,” on the other hand, is about a plucky robot and a fat lump of a fellow whose inner heroes save them both, and maybe the rest of us too. It’s also an endearing G-rated Valentine to love and the human (and anthro-robotic) spirit. “Wall-E” sold $62 million worth of tickets in its first three days, which says something about the power of soft sell.
What is it about these two shows that roused the patriotic in me? With “1984,” it’s pretty obvious: a warning klaxon about government that isn’t content to command the body but has to control the brain too. This production has toured the world; Robbins told me that it’s been received from Hong Kong to Salt Lake City not as “a left-right thing” but “a universal thing, concern on both sides of the equation for a government that oversteps its boundaries regarding civil liberties.”
“Wall-E” takes us on a more roundabout route to asserting our better American angels. The Earth has been turned into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Buy N Large, an uber-corporation that has trashed the planet. Earth is nothing more than a global landfill tidied by a lonely robot named Wall-E. Humans have abandoned it for a space cruise ship where, fat, dumb and happy, their creature comforts are so replete they need not -- and pretty much cannot -- lift a limb to feed themselves, and certainly don’t have to think for themselves.
Which of these controlled worlds is a more unsettling prospect, the one run by numbing terror or by numbing gratification? “1984" frightens us with soul-shriveling tyranny that turns us into something less than fully human, with the ruthless vigilance of an East Germany. “Wall-E” cautions about being seduced and reduced by comfort and convenience into something less than fully human, like a caricatured China that is capitalistic but not democratic: Relax in your new condo, watch all the pirated DVDs you want, just don’t try to Google “Tiananmen Square and tanks.”
“1984" pays us the compliment that, deep down, we don’t want to believe that war is peace, that ignorance is strength and that two and two are five, no matter what the government tells us. “Wall-E” credits us with the gumption to know that real freedom means a lot more than having 31 flavors to choose from -- unlike our leaders after 9/11, who didn’t ask us for the help and sacrifice we were eager to give. They told us to go shopping.
On this American holiday, “1984’s” Winston Smith fighting to free his mind is as inspiring as the captain of “Wall-E’s” space cruise ship struggling to transform from slug to thinker, to override the Big Brother autopilot computer, take charge of his ship and his species and return to what is clearly the United States. He’s sort of the Patrick Henry of an animated movie, declaring: “I don’t want to survive -- I want to live!” (Can’t we get this printed on the quarter?)
Millions more people will wind up seeing “Wall-E” than “1984.” Millions more will probably wind up seeing it than voted in the last election. Some number of them might come out of the theater, look at that jumbo drink in their hands and, like the captain, think, “Is this all there is?”
That’s all the parade I need. Fly the flag. Whistle “The Stars and Stripes Forever.” Happy Fourth.