October 6, 2012

The Incinerator

by Mike Yarsky

Toy Story 3 (2010) - dir. Lee Unkrich

In Toy Story 3, the abyss is not the absence of light, or a dark void of nothingness. It is a vibrant ball of energy, a virtually active participant in the horror that is, quite simply, the passage of time through life. If Pixar ever makes a Toy Story 4, I can imagine it only as the slow psychological unwinding of PTSD sufferers. Rather than a light-hearted romp, it seems the most reasonable way to further the arc of Woody and Buzz is to watch them panic at the sight of a fire, or cover their ears every morning as the garbage is collected.

Horror is granted an undue simplification when it is aphoristically championed as the domain of the unknown: there is nothing scarier than a closed door, as the old cliché states. But the unknown, precisely because it is unknown, allows the viewer some distance. As grisly as torture-porn movies are, oftentimes they instill a terror that is solely suppositional: suppose one is captured on a vacation, or suppose a vacation in the woods takes a turn for the paranormal. As unpleasant as those forays into the hypothetical can become, they never quite implicate the viewer, or instill the terror of the abjectly obvious. It's a difficult thing to achieve: to re-establish the terror in the mundane, or bring the white noise of suffering to a shrill crescendo by re-inventing the urgency of the human predicament. The predicament, being, that the trajectory of life is simply that of inching ever closer to the incinerator.

It takes so little for our heroes in Toy Story 3 to gaze into literal death, and it occurs in the most disheartening way: the deceit of one whom they trusted – out of necessity – with their lives. We believe that, in the face of abject death, grudges are trivialized, and quotidian anxieties wane. Or so one would hope. The lowest circle of hell in Dante's Inferno is saved for history's most infamous traitors, but the roles are reversed in Toy Story 3: the intensely bright, massive, fiery sphere of the incinerator – clearly modeled into a Dantean, monochromatic hell – is reserved for the benevolent and well-intentioned. It reminds viewers of the horror of trust: the distinct possibility of relinquishing absolute control of one's life to the spites and caprices of others, or worse, the obliviousness of the world at large. There is no meritocracy in annihilation. Despite their labors and woes, they end up where we all end up: dead.

The anonymity of their plight is further highlighted by a distant shot that naturally casts the characters as small, colored dots in a sea of grey, slow-moving detritus, which, intentioned or not, amplifies the insignificance of the individual in the greater narrative of humanity's inevitable destruction. The rest of the materials that inch toward the incinerator comprise a faceless blur, which can either be construed as merciful or cruel: merciful in that it alleviates the scope of the tragedy (one could imagine a garbage incinerator filled to the brim with like-minded toys desperate to escape) but cruel in how it minimizes our heroes' struggles.

The massive tide overwhelms them, but not without a pathetic battle. Their strenuous efforts to save themselves from the encroaching doom only makes them slide, like quicksand, further into involuntary cremation. Among the many things established here are the minimization of their plight, the precariousness of mortality insofar as it teeters on the rash decisions of others, and the laughable futility of their resistance to the inevitable. They succumb to embracing each other, and waiting.

While it is given as a rule that the heroes of our story will somehow, in some way, be rescued, their eventual escape with the aid of “the claw” is too little, too late. It flirts with deus ex machina, and feels unearned. Once the great joke at the crux of human existence is laid bare in an elegant metaphor, it is hastily negated by a convenient cinematic trope. This is only because within that elegance lies another horror: there is no “claw” to save us. We are all deceived by a Lotso in life, and we are in a great anonymous sea fighting against our inevitable descent into the incinerator. We will all die, crudely and absurdly, under the silly pretense that we have each other. And though many viewers interpret the uniting of hands among Woody, Buzz, and the Potato-Heads as a powerful affirmation of the meaning of relationships, the heat and sweat still brim within their palms. It hardly changes the outcome or lets them win the battle. It would take “the claw” to save us, and it is a claw that none of us have. And what is the horror of it? We know all of this. It is plain, G-rated knowledge that, once exposed, must hastily be swept back under the rug by a rag-tag team of aliens. Real Horror can easily be what we know we know.

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