Describing what a film does—how the camera moves, what kinds of cuts it employs and to what ends, who’s been placed in the frame and in what roles—is the film critic’s easiest job. Describing how a film works is a far more difficult matter. This is a seemingly subtle but expansive distinction: the does captures the nuts and bolts, the gears that grind each film forward from start to finish, while the works exists in that uneasy intersection between text and viewer where ephemeral, elusive meaning is created. Perhaps elementary, but when criticism is so often caught up merely with the descriptive rather than the interpretive it’s worth occasionally stepping back to delineate the rules of engagement. In the case of films actively poking at viewers’ emotional triggers (which could be said of “all films,” inasmuch as movies rely generally on some degree of empathetic feeling in their viewers to induce continued interest, however here I’m thinking more specifically about those emotions which produce tears) we’re venturing into the irrational, less explainable, arenas of criticism—what moves one to experience emotion is about as individual as it comes. But that doesn’t mean it’s enough for a critic to state that a film is moving and then, ahem, move on.
Up, the latest creation from Pixar, directed by Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.), left me incredibly touched, dewy-eyed, and inclined to ponder questions of mortality and lifetime partnership. Wait, wasn’t this supposed to be a movie for kids? Early on, as I searched my pockets for a tissue, a young girl, likely no more than six or seven years old, exclaimed from a few rows back, “Mommy, this is really sad!” This off-screen moment of cross-generational collusion encapsulates the unique charms of the Pixar world. Even though there is a specificity to elderly protagonist Carl Fredricksen’s quest—that it begins on the heels of the death of his wife and longtime companion, Ellie—the way Docter sketches their relationship from initial meeting to Ellie’s passing, skipping like a stone through wordless, warmly elegant vignettes from their lives which grow increasingly painful as they age (most devastatingly, the realization that the pair cannot bear children), and the end becomes certain, encompasses enough legible life experience that even a child barely familiar with death still understood the overwhelming sense of loss. “Universal” is kind of a bunk word for describing this kind of thing. I prefer “human”, and this sequence, almost a literal paging-through the photo album of Carl and Ellie’s time together instantly grounds Up in a very realistic world: of growing old as a couple, of living life after a partner is gone—the serious stuff that’s usually far from the realm of mainstream American filmmaking.