Toy Story 2, Wisconsin Death Trip, Beyond the Clouds, End of Days

Written by Armond White on . Posted in Arts & Film, Posts.

Every child is a bourgeois
child–and every adult, too. No dream or ambition has gone un-commodified,
thus all desire gets bizarrely validated. This is the damnable truth of late
capitalism realized by Toy Story 2–the year’s most sheerly
delightful Hollywood film. I can come out and say that having registered my
resistance to the first Toy Story (1995) as one long product-placement
commercial. This time director John Lasseter has found a purpose for Pixar’s
astounding computer-graphic technology; he explores the emotion with which children
invest toys (and adults, by extension, invest their fascination with modern

The plot has Buzz Lightyear
(Tim Allen) and the menagerie of dolls and other mechanized toys unite to save
Cowboy Woody (Tom Hanks) from greedy toy store owner-and-collector Al McWhiggin
(Wayne Knight). The escapade forces each toy to examine its purpose; Woody realizes
his fulfillment is bringing pleasure to his boy owner (who will certainly outgrow
him) rather than gaining monetary value sitting in a collector’s display.
This reflects the type of utility typically accorded objects manufactured for
pleasure (use). While the doctrinaire might find this too exculpatory of capitalist
greed, Lasseter throws a curve by alluding to human virtues, suggesting self-sacrificing
love as greater than any market value.

If the culture takes one
contemporary animated message to heart it should be this, not Pokemon: The
First Movie
–a phenomenal bore solely designed to hook kid-and-parent
consumers. Pokemon’s pitch-and-toss rules mix combat with wish-fulfillment
("It’s a version of cockfighting" a friend surmised). That the
repetitive plot goes no further makes it the obverse of Toy Story 2.
Lasseter starts out inside a video game; he uses space and momentum for surprise
and amusement like the greatest Spielberg live-action sequences. Imaginative
excitement has rarely been conveyed onscreen so powerfully. Later, in a scene
recalling early tv’s black-and-white Kinescope children’s broadcasts,
the toys gain a sense of their own cultural history which also plays back how
toy making and media converged a generation’s subconscious.

Continuity matters. Toy
Story 2
’s brilliance wouldn’t be possible without this, or Joe
Dante’s grievously underappreciated 1998 film Small Soldiers, where
toys also came to life–not from manufacturer’s whim but industry malevolence.
Dante’s battle between military dolls and alien Gorgonite dolls commented
on various modern issues: Western dominance over the Third World was foremost
but the satire of modern dependency on commodities was strongest–especially
the nightmarish attack of the Gwindy fashion dolls which memorably combined
Jonathan Swift with the pop savagery of Gremlins 2. A tree vs. satellite
dish argument was settled with the term "techno-crap." If audiences
had only paid attention to and learned from the wondrous critique Small Soldiers
made of capitalist seduction through toys and media they might not have fallen
for the "techno-crap" of The Blair Witch Project.

There’s no stretch
from Todd Haynes’ Barbie-doll art film Superstar: The Karen Carpenter
to Small Soldiers; in fact Dante expanded upon and enhanced
Haynes’ notions of toys, transferred affection and commodified sentiments.
And Toy Story 2 riffs on that. A new realization arrives in this family
movie for adults. Bright-colored visual jokes and details (like the toy plane
stuck in a roof gutter) give emotional fullness to simple delight. It is, admit
it, the collective bourgeois memory of the affection with which we endowed otherwise
inanimate objects and marked our own growing experience. This is not disposable
technology like the interminable Pokemon and Princess Mononoke.
Toy Story 2 shows how pop art can disarm your loftiest objections with
unexpected wit and genuine insight. "Magical" describes it but not
its aspects that are superlatively humane.

Liberty Heights directed
by Barry Levinson

Surfed past C-SPAN’s
recent broadcast of David Horowitz’s conspiratorial sniping with right-wing
radio ranter Bob Grant only, the next day, to be subjected to Barry Levinson’s
appalling Liberty Heights. Both talk show and movie evinced a particular
brand of ethnic paranoia–indicting black people as antagonistic to whites
and Jews. "Henry Louis Gates has written about this," Horowitz cited,
as though his personal apprehension had been proven by a past Times op-ed.
While Horowitz and Levinson probably consider themselves political opposites,
their egomania converges in rancid Americanism.

Horowitz’s tribal defensiveness
is encouraged by the kind of self-flattering provincialism that Levinson has
marketed in the Baltimore-set movies Diner, Tin Men, Avalon and now
Liberty Heights
. That series contrives an explanation of modern American
disintegration by idealizing an already specious view of the past–telling
oversimplified stories of social dilemmas from immigration (Avalon) to
petit-bourgeois mercantilism (Tin Men) and youth culture (Diner).
Liberty Heights combines those interests into Levinson’s most aggravating
tale yet. His dishonesty sentimentalizes the Kurtzman boys Ben (Ben Foster)
and Van (Adrien Brody), sons of a Jewish numbers-runner and burlesque house
manager Nate (Joe Mantegna), as the definitive intermixing 50s generation. Ben
has a crush on Sylvia (Rebekah Johnson), the only black girl in his high school,
while Van goes after the WASP country club set, particularly the blonde Dubbie
(Carolyn Murphy). Nothing suggests an imminent civil rights movement; Levinson’s
hints at the culture of assimilation are as vaguely ambivalent as the essence
of Horowitz’s racism. It even seems to come from the same source–a
resentful nostalgia for the days before social conflict and politically correctness.

Strangely, Levinson has
not yet contended with the complex of personal and public identity implicit
in his characters’ socializing with Others. This insufficiency is compounded
by his baffling insistence on nontraditional casting–Mickey Rourke, Aidan
Quinn, Armin Mueller-Stahl and now Mantegna as various Jewish mensches. It seems
to suggest that ethnic differences don’t matter, when he actually uses
Hollywood deception to placate traditional (lingering?) forms of Jewish self-hatred.
Yet the heart of Levinson’s movies is contradictory–showing Jews as
more emotionally grounded and egalitarian than others. The difference is hardly
religious; Levinson seems casually, superficially reformist. A mere notion of
liberalism impels his characters–Ben, Van and Nate act out the rebellion
Philip Roth has described but they don’t embody Roth’s chagrin. It’s
hard to tell if Liberty Heights’ dour imagery (shot by a misused
Chris Doyle) and draggy 50s recreations come from Levinson’s fatigue with
overfamiliar material or shows–like Horowitz–a deep-seated disapproval
of the era.

Levinson never examines
the conflicted social desire that once was Paul Mazursky’s specialty, or
makes Boaz Yakin’s ethnocentric work in A Price Above Rubies and
Seth Zvi Rosenfeld’s in A Brother’s Kiss so modern and compelling.
He’s a pious tribal zealot–a polite David Mamet. A kind of racist
(and sexist) stench arises from Liberty Heights when its Jewish male
adventurers seem to mainly represent white privileges–and class privileges.
Ben appropriates Sylvia’s R&B record collection (resulting in an anachronistic
James Brown concert and an embarrassing scene of his out-of-control libido)
while Van continues homoerotic infatuation with the monied set (despite pursuing
Dubbie, his country club misadventures actually romanticize the reckless WASP

John Waters showed an egalitarian
sub-culture in his wittier, more humane Baltimore movies from Pink Flamingos
to Hairspray and Pecker. Levinson cannot fathom diversity;
like Horowitz, his incapacity seems rooted in some wounded-liberal sense of
disdain–essentially a class snobbery, as in one of the film’s more
insipid comic scenes touring a WASP home with one of Van’s Jewish friends
making self-deprecating chatter about the antique furniture. Nate’s lowlife
business dealings are pushed to the background, a patriarchal shame unconvincingly
glossed over by the mother (Bebe Neuwirth) defending it as an act of ethnic
assertion against anti-Jewish attacks in his youth ("Nate takes care of
himself!"). This might relate to the putatively biographical Bugsy–another
defense of a Jewish criminal that showed Levinson pursuing ethnic pride while
aping prestige film style. The Godfather is the obvious influence on
his Italian-American envy (though he misconstrues Coppola’s moral complexity);
it also surfaces when Nate’s shady partners praise Mafia ruthlessness and
at a wasp party scene when the interrogation "Are you Jewish?" gives
Levinson the chance to attempt Scorsesean distraction by intercutting the traumatic
question with violent car driving and smashing pumpkins.

You wouldn’t know Liberty
was this problematic from reading its four-star reviews. The unanimity
makes you wonder: At what point does Levinson’s myopic nostalgia become
everyone’s? When Liberty Heights’ 1954 high school scene rips
off old Woody Allen jokes on thinking the whole world is Jewish? When "James
Brown" plays a Baltimore concert looking as portly and middle aged as James
Brown in the 90s? When black characters becomes moronic and menacing? When Jewish
characters become moronic–but nice? "Morally acute" Time
magazine called it. "An interracial romance and a romance across religious
boundaries show[ing] things we haven’t seen rendered this well before"
Stanley Crouch kowtowed in the Daily News. But when a movie this dishonest
and ignorant is praised so gratefully, you know it’s only because it tells
people the lies about society they want to believe. (It’s like Horowitz
touting his new book Hating Whitey–who but out-of-touch white supremacists
use the term "whitey" anymore?) Critic Gregory Solman perceptively
commented how Levinson’s aberrations demonstrate the same kind of bigoted
slants as in a Spike Lee movie. Liberty Heights uses cozy ethnic nostalgia
to keep us divided.

Levinson only hints at Jewish
paranoia to frame his disdain for others. By pretending to glorify the Jewish
struggle for American acceptance, Levinson actually works out a weird agenda
of ethnic antagonism. This is the pseudo-sociological approach Spike Lee has
codified. What else could explain the movie’s slack approval by so many
critics? They’re accustomed to presentations of contemporary American life
that flatter and comfort their distress. Critics hold on to the threadbare Diner
as though it were an American classic–as if Philip Roth or Clifford Odets
never existed. Somehow it has become the locus classicus of movies about Jewish
assimilation ambition (and ambivalence), standing in for boomer nostalgia. But
I only give Levinson one chance to play the ethnic-youth card; by now his faux-Baltimore
franchise is best left to John Waters, who knows all was never white, heterosexual,

Nothing in Liberty Heights
is more outrageous or obnoxious than the Little Melvin sequences, in which the
actor Orlando Jones plays a Stepin Fetchit-type lazy black criminal, complete
with conked hair, gold teeth and bug-eyes. This may appease columnists like
Stanley Crouch who profit from acknowledging-then-cheerleading white mistrust
of black scofflaws and freeloaders, and David Horowitz, whose recent Salon
diatribe accosted blacks as inherently seditious and destructive, but it makes
for heinous drama. "You tryin’ to Jew me out of my money?" Little
Melvin asks Nate about a numbers scam. Then we watch him get (comically) "Jewed"
out of his money. (The term "Schwartze" is thrown out there, too.)
A ridiculous plot development has Little Melvin unable to operate the numbers
business, and so he resorts to kidnapping Ben in exchange for a Cadillac–a
cartoon threat to white and Jewish family lines. That critics accept this situation
(and a caricature as blatant as Little Melvin) shows their imperviousness to
black experiences and their unquestioning preference for any white power

It’s atrocious. Twisted
sociology. So many people have fallen for the fake "realism" and "raw
truth" of Barry Levinson’s tv productions Homicide and Oz
that by now reality and truth are inconceivable except as high-concept political
insensitivity. That also explains the insane hype for Summer of Sam–a
David Horowitzian willingness to view society nihilistically, to imbibe the
poison of America’s ethnic antagonism, reading cultural history only in
one’s favor. Couldn’t Little Melvin and Nate express their shared
love for deluxe wheels? Couldn’t Sylvia’s father (an impervious doctor)
reciprocate the social idea that keeps his daughter in the same integrated school
as Nate’s son? When Ben and the black doctor share a long car ride home,
they say nothing to each other–a muteness that reveals Levinson’s
own 0inhospitality and social smugness. (DeNiro and Chazz Palminteri
were much more honest and insightful about race, patrimony and romance in A
Bronx Tale
.) These distortions of American experience tip off Liberty
’ inanity. Like Horowitz presuming once-liberal enlightenment,
Levinson’s ethnic biases are both blatant and confused. His white supremacist
joyride could easily switch titles with another screwed-up nostalgic folly,
Ang Lee’s Ride with the Devil.