Tuesday, September 29, 2009

A 9th of Henry Adams

An unexpected encounter at the movies yesterday

An American History Now extra, in observance of the 100th post of this blog.

I took my boys and a friend to see 9, the latest animated feature to be released under the imprimatur of Tim Burton, which, though I knew little about it, was enough of a recommendation for me, as I’m a big fan of work like Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. Like WALL-E, 9 is a post-apocalyptic story (what does it say that this is the second such big-budget movie to be pitched to children in the last couple years?) in which human beings destroy life earth through their addiction to wasteful and dangerous technology. In this particular case, a scientist, remorseful over his role in enabling a fascist regime, hand-crafts a series of small, hand-crafed doll-like objects, dressed in burlap into which he literally pours his soul before he dies. The last in this series, who gives the title to the movie, becomes aware of his compatriots, who are immersed in trying to navigate hostile technological machines that seek to destroy them.

The heart of the plot concerns a small object which, when plugged in, can bring confer tremendous power on that which it is inserted. In the course of rescuing another of the series in a cathedral clearly modeled on Notre Dame, the object ends up in a huge devouring machine that must be destroyed. Given the genre here, I don’t think I’m giving much away to say that while this band of survivors will suffer casualties, they ultimately triumph and open the way for the resurrection of the spirit (though not necessarily the flesh) of humanity.

What I found striking about this is how aptly it evoked the classic image of “The Virgin and the Dynamo,” a famous chapter in Henry Adams’s 1918 autobiography The Education of Henry Adams. Adams discerned two great powers operating in the world of his long lifetime. The first were the spiritual longings embodied in monuments to Mary, the mother of Christ, in medieval French cathedrals. The other great force was technology, embodied in the dynamo, or machine, of the kind he would see at international expositions. Adams had intimations of global catastrophe himself (he lived to see the First World War), which are echoed in 9. The difference here is here is that the dynamo is in the virgin, a striking intensification of the tension, and a suggestion of their fatal union. I don’t know to what degree the allusion is conscious or explicit; the screenplay was written by Pam Pettler, who also wrote the fine 2006 Burton film Monster House (9 was directed by Shane Acker). But the historical resonances contained in what is, in effect, a post-punk, sci-fi, kiddie picture made it that much more enriching to watch. Kept me awake (for most of the time, anyway ;) )