The Other Columbus: Broken souls do broken things

Scott Woods

It's official: Pixar’s animated film “Soul” has broken me.

Well, technically, not the movie. I was fine with liking or not liking the movie on its own merits. My problem is with all of the interpretations. The debates about what Pixar’s newest animated morality play is doing and not doing; about how it is both refreshingly Black while swimming in anti-Blackness; about how the first Black lead character to feature in a Pixar film (as if Pixar were a genre, which is somehow ridiculously true and truly ridiculous at the same time) was not a Black lead character long enough in either sense, and that being both true and not true at once. It’s a jaw-dropping display of the power and perils of the town square debate.

The back and forth is overwhelming not just for its comprehensive list of dichotomies, but the sheer magnitude of responses. I am sure more people have a public take on “Soul” than filled out a census form this year. The film is one of those things that everyone has an opinion on whether they’ve engaged with it or not, cementing that we all truly live in the age of the influencer. 

This, too, puzzled me for a while. I don’t remember the last time I’ve seen this much divisive cultural commentary on a cartoon. And then I remembered that I spend a lot of time these days thinking about what I could be doing, pondering what I haven’t done. I was reminded that we are all bored, all cooped up, all seeking entertainment and distraction and light. We have all mainlined social media directly into our veins. Digital displays have become our work and our respite, and, in many nights, our dreams. Society is bored out of its mind. 

Holidays make it all worse. For the past 10 months we have all been forced to navigate a world that feels made from the rock and bramble of disease. We have all weathered that reality differently, some better than others. Some of us dive into ourselves into loneliness and self-pity and depression. Some of us have embraced the distance. Some of us have opted to pretend none of this is really happening, or at least not to us in the specific. We live in a “Twilight Zone” of dichotomies. 

In response, when something comes along that we can grasp  something that would be small and mundane or irrelevant to most  we are drawn to it. We engage in it, even if it were something that in the Before Time we would have ignored almost entirely. 

Lord knows we have to fill the time with something. We aren’t all doing puzzles now because they are complex, but because they allow us not to think, a reprieve from focusing on what is happening all around us. 

In a world that has proven to be inarguably unfair in the most concrete terms, we can’t just let a thing be; we must interrogate it. We must figure out what’s wrong with it, because something must be wrong with everything these days. We live at a point in history when Donald Trump was president for four years. That one act alone has proven America to be a false idol of functioning democracy. We will be scarred for the rest of our lives as a nation behind the actions of his party. It makes sense that we would pivot to cultural dissection.  

And so here comes this Pixar film with its flaws and its historic heft and its easy access. “Soul” arrives with its platter of possible interpretations and missed opportunities and the flaws of nearly every other Pixar film (which is its true crime). And it doesn’t matter if you point out that its primary audience is almost exclusively children. And that of course its primary audience remains white people regardless of its skin. And that many of the people who criticize this fare in the name of saving children from its foibles spend almost no time doing so any other time on issues far more pressing than the screen time of a cartoon character. “Soul” must either be beloved or cast out, wailing through a mist of bath water on the way down. 

Generally speaking, I don’t care what someone else thinks about a movie that I have already seen. I may consider their review for its intellectual merits or political enjambment or, if it is especially well written, its dance. But I do not emotionally reconsider myself upon contact with another person’s feelings about a movie. But since we share these interpretations over social media, not intellectual media, here we are. 

But with every click and scroll I see people who have gone in the paint on this film with the same energy they were giving the election, and I’d be lying if I said it didn’t have an effect. I do not believe it was the intended one this is officially the last thing I will offer publicly on this film  but I must concede that the machine of the internet has won this round with me. I’m so nauseated by the degree of analysis on this film this paint-by-numbers, blase Pixar film that at any other time would have probably slid under the radar that I don’t want to talk to actual people right now. There are degrees to this thing we call life, and this moment is exposing just how many of us are struggling with balance and context right now. 

That’s scary to me. I live for context in all things. Without it, history has no effect and politics remains a circle. If we cannot sit the energy we expend on something like this in our darkest hours next to other things of immensely greater importance, what does that mean? And to give myself the same homework, what does it mean that I could not just walk away and spend these words on something else that I’m actually invested in?

Watching people rip apart a historic if flawed cartoon none of us have paid to see is a perfect distillation of a year like no other in my lifetime. 2020 has been an enormous L a deflating and numb fetal curl cry into a pillow of razors. It is a year that will not end just because my calendar which has proven utterly useless and surely makes the staff behind the curtains of Passion Planner Inc., The Calendar Company and the rest of Big Gregorian consider jumping off the tops of buildingssays so. Things on the frontlines of the pandemic and social suffering will get worse before they get better. Even the lights we have been seeing at the end of certain tunnels have turned out to be reflectors showing us which direction to head and not full-on Samaritans.

Happy New Year, I guess.

"Soul"