Sunday, June 21, 2009

Symbolism in the Movie UP

People ask me a lot what it is literature majors do. One way of putting it is that we explain the feelings you have when you read a good book or see a good movie. I just saw UP for the second time today. It's the only animated movie I've seen where there's a miscarriage. There're some deep emotions, and some of them are difficult to verbalize. One of the most poignant shots is at the end when you see the house landed right next to the waterfall. You feel a sense of satisfaction, but it doesn't seem to fit in. Sure, they always wanted to go there, so it's nice that the house eventually landed there, but Carl goes back to America and Ellie's gone.

Many people distrust symbolism. The idea that one thing can mean more than one thing seems suspicious, they think. But everyone understands symbolism in daily life. Say there's a husband who says "I love you" every day to his wife. Through thick and thin, he always says it. Until one day he catches her cheating on him and they have a big fight. And that day he doesn't say "I love you," even when she prompts him. On one level, it is just him not saying something he usually does. But after all the years, his saying "I love you" has come to symbolize the continuity of their marriage. So when he doesn't say "I love you" this day, he is symbolically discontinuing their marriage. He hasn't divorced her yet, but it's coming.

See, when something symbolizes something else, the two follow each other like Carl follows his house. Most of the time Carl leads, but sometimes the house does. In the same way, if the man wasn't as persistent as he was, then it wouldn't mean anything special for him to change. But it's his constancy that establishes the symbol. It gives the symbol momentum the way Carl's pulling gives his house momentum, so that when the man doesn't say he loves her, that symbolic action indicates that personal action is coming.

Sometimes symbolism is easy to see in movies. For example, there's a nice article in the New York Times that explains some of the visual symbolism in UP. The friendly dog Dug isn't shaped harshly like the other dogs--and he isn't harsh. Russell, the Wilderness Explorer, is soft and round--and his emotions are soft and various, too.

But the real interest in symbolism in UP comes from the house. Because as the movie gets going, we see that Carl's house comes to symbolize an attitude. It's an attitude that thinks love has to accomplish. Here's what I mean. When Carl meets Ellie as a little kid, he's smitten. And bowled over. Ellie is pretty intimidating, and when she makes him swear that he will take her to Paradise Falls, he takes it more seriously than she intended. She runs off undisturbed as soon as he makes his vow, but he solemnly remembers his promise for the rest of his life. These early experiences contribute to Carl's understanding of love as something you have to accomplish. In order to love Ellie well, he thinks he has to do a bunch of things. He's always trying to accomplish: he brings up having kids, he starts the fund to go to the falls, he buys the tickets to go right before she dies. And once he's in South America, he goes to Paradise Falls even if he has to abandon a kid.

So that's the attitude. Carl thinks that love needs to accomplish. The symbol of that attitude is his house. Watch the house, and you're watching the attitude. As you can guess, by the end of the movie, the house is left behind just like the attitude is. But let's follow it through.

At first, the house just sits there, resisting everything that wants it gone. And considering how isolated Carl is, it's no wonder his attitude on love is safe. You can't find out you're wrong about love if you don't have anyone to love.

But then Carl uses his balloons to move the house. So we see that Carl's house goes with him through space and time. His attitude goes with him, too. Even though Russell tries to get him to open up, Carl refuses to let go of his grumpiness. Accomplishing-love has to mourn ostentatiously, you know, and if Carl was more friendly to Russell, it would be like saying he'd gotten over Ellie. She was the source of his happiness, and he'll be darned if anything else makes him happy.



For a while Carl and his house tug together effortlessly. Russell complains about having to walk all the way around the peninsula, but Carl walks contentedly. He pulls his attitude easily, too: he's accomplishing! He's finally showing his devotion to Ellie! It's hard work, of course, as they trek through the jungle, but Carl's task-oriented attitude has the situation under control.

Until Russell makes him promise to help the bird, Kevin, get home safely. Now Carl has pledged accomplishments to two people, and they don't mix. In the morning, he has to choose which way to take his house. Does he take it toward the bird, or toward the waterfall? His house, his attitude, can't go in two directions at once.

You have to give Carl credit for trying. All through his dinner with explorer Charles Mutz he tries to avoid the conflict between filling his promise to Russell and his promise to his wife. But Charles calls him on it and they have to flee. The house is roughed up quite a bit getting away, but Carl's house and attitude stay in tow.

They follow Kevin, but as the dilemma becomes more pronounced, you see that Carl isn't wholeheartedly into it. If he keeps helping Kevin, his house is going to go up in flames. Here the house as "house" and the house as "his attitude" are conjoined: if his house burns down, he won't have a house; and if his house burns down, he also won't be able to hold onto the idea that he should still earn his love for Ellie.

Carl chooses the house, chooses to cling to his old dreams. Russell, betrayed and dismayed at how he abandoned Kevin, trudges after Carl. Finally they get to the waterfall. Russell is angry. Carl is tired. But now he has time to evaluate his house. He tidies up the debris a little, then sits comfortably back in his chair. His attitude has been challenged quite a bit by the immediacy of being able to love Russell, who as a kid with no father, laps up any attention Carl gives.

We're pierced with the sense that Carl's attitude is heavy. His house has lost its lift, his friends are gone, and all he has is a heavy sense of a scorecard of life.

And that's when Carl finds the rest of the Adventure Book. In a heartbreaking moment, he sees that Ellie didn't need his accomplishments to savor their love. The whole scrapbook is filled with average, unstory-able joy. There is no accomplishment in the scrapbook, only love. And that finishes his attitude.

Follow the action, and you follow the symbol. As soon as Carl reaches this internal revelation, Russell flies away and the only way Carl can follow him is to practically destroy the house. He clears it of sofas, drawers, tables, chairs: everything of weight is evicted. This is a reenactment of Carl's attitude transformation. And once his heart changes, the house is incidental. Carl flies to save Russell, ends up saving Kevin and Dug, too, but in the process the house floats away. It's a difficult moment. Little kids in the theater saw the sadness of the house floating, but adults could see that Carl actually had everything that's truly important.

And so his incomplete view of love drifted off and all he was left with was love in its glory. He still honors Ellie, giving Russell her pin as a badge, but he doesn't feel driven to accomplish. They eat ice cream together and count cars. Meanwhile, he has a new house: Charles' dirigible, contrasting with his old house in its natural weightlessness. And his old house? Abandoned. It's a poignant scene when we see the house lodged right next to the waterfall because that had become a symbol, too, of perfect happiness. And so the symbols work together to show that even though Carl doesn't have perfect happiness--he's not living in the house--he still does.

That's how Carl's house is a symbol for his conception of love. I didn't conjure it up. There are little hints at the beginning to start the association. Carl being set in his ways corresponds nicely to the house set. Physical dwellings naturally correspond to mental states of mind, so it makes sense that a house represents, in a way, Carl himself. And when Russell comes inside for the first time, he remarks on how it was smart for Carl to bring his house along, because then he gets to take his "TV and clocks and stuff." The incongruity of grandfather clocks and adventures parallels the incongruity between Carl's attitude and his world.

Thinking about symbolism is useful because it lets you feel the movie in more ways. Sure, we could say that Carl has a difficult time adjusting to being with such loyal, lovable companions as Russell, Dug, and Kevin. But it's a picture for our minds to think that it's as difficult a burden as pulling your house everywhere you go. Sure, we could say that he learned something about love. But it's much clearer to see it as the difference between a blimp and a house with balloons attached. In the end, it's like watching the movie twice at the same time: once in words, and once in symbols.

4 comments:

Anonymous said...

At the beginning of the movie, why doesn't Carl talk until Ellie dies?

Will Penman said...

Hm, I think in large part it shows his reverence for her. I don't think him not talking affects his attitude of acting love.

Anonymous said...

This movie is under appreciated, but I think will become more appreciated in time. Especially, as the people who first viewed it become familiar with the emotions and change of life.

I disagree with your use of the word "attitude" as it takes on a neutral or almost negative tone. Replace "attitude" with "commitment". Part of completely loving your mate for life is helping them reach their dreams through whatever challenge that comes your way. Sound old fashioned? Maybe so, but both of these characters were children of the Depression. That in itself implies a lot regarding commitment and resolve.

Yes, the house was an allusion to Carl hanging onto old dreams and carrying this burden with him, but that was because he was committed to his wife, their dream and fulfilling a lifelong goal of bringing that dream to fruition FOR her. Commitment.

His moment of clarity comes when he reads his wife's last statement to him. She thanks him for their adventure, but asks him to begin a new one. MORE THAN THAT, she expects him to begin a new one. It's as if he realizes that he (or she has led him as part of the house) has given him a new adventure... and permission to commit himself to that now.

So he commits to literally cleaning house to pursue a new goal. The chairs are left looking out over the valley, set side by side carefully... and away goes Carl to pursue a new adventure.

To me the scene of the house sitting on the cliff feels perfectly right. His commitment brought that dream to resolution in memory of his wife, but it is an empty house in a beutiful, but isolated place where he would only be able to focus on memories. Instead, the film closes with new relationships and new commitments to make those around him happy and complete.

I really appreciate the opportunity to post on this. Happened to watch UP again tonight. After working with people professionally who have gone through this loss I've now been forced to watch a family member go through it. UP is unique not only because of how it tells the story, but who it speaks to. Funny how a "cartoon" can speak to you, but it did. Thanks, SC

Sharon Weatherford said...

What would you say the climax of the story is?