Monday, February 17, 2014

LEGO Update: What do the critics say?

Oi vey.

More libertarian delusions popped up today about The LEGO Movie, so I thought I'd look to see if I'm, in fact, right in my assumption that non-libertarians aren't seeing it through a libertarian lens. There are plenty of reviews out now - the film has an impressive 96% on Rotten Tomatoes - so I figured that a smattering of pull quotes from non-libertarian reviewers might be interesting.

Specifically, I wanted to grab anything that constituted a statement about themes & messages. There area few categories that these fall into. The most common seems to be related to my first-place noted theme "Play with LEGOs, they're super fun!!" plus several observations of the irony of a movie that is, itself, epic product placement with an overt anti-corporate message.

"Is it a touch off-message that—in connection with this giddy paean to individual imagination and not following instructions—Lego is releasing a series of complex movie-themed construction sets (The Getaway Glider, Cloud Cuckoo Palace, etc.)? Well, yes it is. But what can you do? It’s strictly business. Lord Business."
     -Christopher Orr, The Atlantic
"It certainly works as a feature-length Lego commercial, but it also doubles as a feature-length reminder of how toys can serve as catalysts for creativity, letting kids get lost in worlds the toymakers never imagined."
     -Keith Phipps, The Dissolve
"...the picture celebrates the product while sending it up and subverting corporate and consumer culture of which the The Lego Movie itself is a part."
     -Henry Fitzherbert, Express
"Mostly the film does the madness for you and it isn’t just a product-placing madness. A certain Danish toy giant will benefit – no one can doubt – from the flocking through turnstiles of the entire world filmgoing population (judging from box office returns so far). But in a 100-minute fit of colour, comedy and surreal invention, the good craziness overpowers the greedy kind."
     -Nigel Andrews, The Financial Times
Another thing a lot of reviewers talk about is simply the childhood nostalgia of it all.
"Most of all, the film reminds us that no matter how old we are, we can still tap into our childhood curiosity."
     -Rich Cline,
"It's possibly one of the most entertaining films about nostalgia to emerge from the studio system since Disney decided to crank the The Muppets back into bittersweet action in 2012."
     -Chris Blohm,
"The film functions as a massive homage to a shared childhood experience, amplified and projected on the bigscreen. So, while the result is undoubtedly the single most product-centric film of all time, it’s also just hip and irreverent enough to leave audiences feeling as though its makers managed to pull one over on the business guys. They’ve gotten away with something, upholding and expanding the worldwide Cult of Lego — the plot literally serves to cement the right and wrong way to play with the product — while good-naturedly skewering consumer culture at large."
     -Peter Debruge, Variety
Note here that the Variety reviewer (again, this is Variety!) sees 1) nostalgic fun of children playing LEGOs in a film that is built around LEGO product-placement; and 2) a moderately ironic anti-corporate/anti-consumer message. It's there... Though it is certainly not a terribly heavy or awful one.

That's not to say no one saw a free-play & creativity vs. control & fascism message. A few of them certainly recognized that:
"The movie also delivers a nice message about balancing creativity with a follow-the-rules approach to life."
     - Bill Zwecker, Chicago Sun-Times
"They must outsmart and outrun the evil President Business, better known as Lord Business, who wants the piece for himself to maintain order and separation between all the Lego realms. So yeah, he’s kind of a fascist tyrant. But in the hands of Will Ferrell, he’s also hilariously self-serious.
'The Lego Movie' message of thinking for yourself and trying new things may sound a lot like theme of “The Croods” last year, but it presents this notion in a much more lively and clever manner."
     -Christy Lemire,
But again, since President/Lord Business is the avatar of Fascism, what exactly is that saying to kids? "Think for yourself, try new things... Don't be a fascist, like those evil businessmen."

There's also a whole subset of reviewers who see the film - as I did - as certainly a lot of fun, but otherwise essentially mindless with a stock bad guy businessman.
"Serving as the idealistic heart of the picture is Emmet (endearingly voiced by Pratt) a sweet but generic regular guy of a LEGO minifigure with a prodigiously empty mind, blissfully content to let instruction manuals be his guide.

And that’s just the way President Business (Ferrell) wants it. A control freak of a CEO with world domination on his mind, his obsessive disdain for creative expression has turned him into the maniacal Lord Business, whose bidding his carried out by the swivel-headed Bad Cop/Good Cop (Liam Neeson)."
     -Michael Rechtshaffen, Hollywood Reporter
So............ I say again. I do not see an obviously libertarian message here. It doesn't appear that very many reviewers - certainly not the mainstream ones - see it either. The little bit of free-society jive in the movie is overshadowed by several far more important themes, and the lesson for little kids are basically what I said in my first post.

I'm not saying it's not a fun movie, or that you shouldn't go see it. By all means... Go! Have fun. Apparently, you should see the 3D, because I'm told it's great. But good lord, libertarian friends... Quit reading hidden messages into anything and everything.

At least, don't assume that anybody else is seeing what you see.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Sorry, Guys...The LEGO Movie is NOT a "Libertarian" Film.

What is happening here..?
It blows my mind that I have to write this. It really does... But guys, seriously. Stop with the posting about how awesome the LEGO Movie is from an anarchist/libertarian perspective.

It isn't.

You are the only ones who are seeing it that way, and I'm betting that the only reason you see it that way is because your deep involvement in this niche set of philosophical principles is compelling you to see messages in the film that are explicitly not in the script.

There are several messages in this film, and not a single one of them is actually libertarian in any meaningful way.

(By the way... There will be SPOILERS. Do not read this if you aren't ok with that.)

On my reading, here are the messages present in this movie from most to least significant:
  1. Play with LEGOs, they're super fun!!
  2. Everybody is special!
  3. The only thing you need to be great is just to BELIEVE in yourself!
  4. Creativity & dynamism is awesome, following the instructions and stasis sucks.
  5. Business is for totalitarians and other evil people who just want to tell you what to do.
Obviously (I hope!), the first three messages have nothing to do with libertarianism.

Message number four does... tangentially...  if you squint your eyes...... but unfortunately, it is completely overshadowed by number five, which serves only to confuse the issue.

With so many prominent folks taking up my social media news feeds extolling the glory of the movie, perhaps you don't believe me and would like some supporting arguments & evidence. Please allow me to explain.

Wait... You can buy whole scenes from the movie!?
"Play with LEGOs, they're super fun!!"

The first one is so easy, I'm not even sure it warrants any discussion. A movie made by LEGO, which is about LEGO characters, and prominently features the primary play aspect of LEGO toys??

Yeah. It's a big, 100 minute advertisement that parents paid for their kids to see.

And if most little kids walk out of the theater excited to create and build things out of LEGOs and use their imaginations to do some fun things... I'm pretty cool with that. I'll let the anti-consumerism folks freak out about that.

But note... Not about libertarian or anarchist thought.

"Everybody is Special!"

This theme comes up over, and over, and over again throughout the film. In fact, it's the whole point of the main character's arc.

Emmet Brickowoski is officially a nobody.

He's a generic construction worker, and has no friends at the beginning of the film. After work, all the other construction workers pair up and go do fun things, but they leave Emmet out. Eventually, there's a montage sequence with all of his co-workers providing testimonials about his character, and they can barely remember who he is.

But... Upon meeting the blatant Joseph Campbell archetype, Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), a "Wise Old Man", Emmet learns that he is "The Most Important Person of All Time".

Emmet has no special skills. No talents. No real hobbies. Few friends and interests. He is such a blank slate that he'll say he likes anything at any moment just to get people to like him. He's lonely, and a little sad,, but the tone of the film and his character are light enough that it's funny and not pitiable.

He is the consummate "everyman", but somehow... He's special. This is basically the opposite of the lesson in The Incredibles:

This teaches kids that being special has no meaning.

Everybody gets a trophy. Everybody gets a medal. Just show up and not necessarily even do your best, and you get rewarded. Not to be all curmudgeonly here, but this is yet another arrow in the back of the idea that greatness means something beyond the ordinary.

I think this is a horrible lesson to teach kids.

Although... It, too, has nothing to do with libertarian or anarchist thought.

"You Just Gotta Believe!"

This one is closely tied to the "Everyone is Special" theme. The way to be great, according to The LEGO Movie, is to just believe in yourself.

Somewhere inside Emmet - he is told repeatedly - is a "Master Builder". There is a fountain of creativity, talent, and skill welling up beneath the surface waiting to be unlocked by a superficial dash of self-esteem.

Obi-Wan Kenobe... I mean... Vitruvius.
Major spoiler here, but Emmet's role in the plot largely revolves around a prophecy (of course!) which came to the wizard Vitruvius in a vision. The one to find the Pièce de Résistance would be The Chosen One. A great Master Builder who could reshape the world as he wished. When Emmet stumbles upon the special LEGO piece, he is assumed to already be that Master Builder.

But... Alas... He is not a master of anything.

He has so few ideas and skills at innovating and creating new things that he's made fun of by everyone initially. Yet somehow, his lame ideas turn out to save the day, and when he finally - and mostly randomly - finds the fortitude to "believe" in himself as he's told he should, he suddenly acquires reality-warping skills that rival Neo in The Matrix.

This is about the millionth kid's movie to have this message, so it's nothing new, but the older I get and the more I get to see the damage done by this rather pernicious idea, the more I dislike seeing it.

In the real world, "believing" in yourself just isn't enough. You don't just come ready-made with talent, skill, and experience. You have to earn all of that. There's an old apocryphal fable that I think about from time to time about this.

It goes...
"A man enters a restaurant and sees Pablo Picasso sitting at the bar. So he walks over to Picasso and says, 'Sir, you're an amazing artist. I'm an enormous fan of your work. I would be so honored if you would draw something for me on this napkin... I would pay you whatever you want for it. Please, would you do this?'

Picasso looks up from his drink and thanks the man for his kind words. He then whips out a pencil and scribbles a drawing on the napkin. He then hands it to his fan, and says, 'That will be $1 Million.'

The fan, shocked at the price, splutters, 'But... That only took you 30 seconds to draw!'

'Ah yes,' says Picasso, 'But it took me a lifetime to learn to draw that in 30 seconds.'"
The truth is, to become a Master Builder, or a Master of anything else, it usually takes years of careful study, practice, and training. You can't just will yourself into being a great artist, a great performer, a great thinker, a great engineer or architect... "Believing in yourself" just doesn't cut it.

And we now have a problem in America. Our young people seem to be pretty mediocre at math, science, chemistry, literature, and most other academic subjects... Yet conspicuously filled with self-esteem.

This isn't giving kids a boost of confidence. It's giving them a boost of false confidence, and that's not healthy at all.

"Creativity & dynamism is awesome, following the instructions and stasis sucks."

NOTE: Epic spoilers ahead

This is the only one where a lot of my friends have a point. Much of the film's plot and the ultimate climax revolves around the bad guy, "Lord Business" (who I'll get to in a minute), wanting to force everyone in his perfectly segregated LEGO world to form themselves into designs that follow all of his instructions, so that he can use the "Kragle" to freeze them in place for eternity and preserve his utopia.

Stefan Molyneux did a fantastic job of breaking down why rulers and people at the top of the socio-economic ladder prefer stasis over dynamism. Hint: They're at the top and want desperately to stay there!

Stefan's video basically mirrors what I'm saying here, as well, so definitely check it out if you like what I'm talking about.

So, the main struggle in the film really does come down to people who want to explore their imagination and innovate on their own terms, vs. the authoritarian ruler who wishes to freeze everything in place and retain absolute power.

This is a great theme, and something that makes as close to a "libertarian" point as you're going to find in the film. It's central planning vs. spontaneous order, and spontaneous order wins!

But... There are some cracks in this message right away.

Some of the cracks are subtle, like how the place with "no government" is chaotic and inconsistent. It's fun, but doesn't make any sense and ends up being ridiculed. Other cracks are a little more overt, like how in spite of the fact that there's this message of exploring your own unique preferences and building what you want to build in the LEGO world, the ultimate success comes when the individuals follow Emmet's plan as a team. So that's a little contradictory.

All in, I suspect that kids are likely to just see it as part of the "Playing with LEGOs is super fun and we should go buy more!" message instead. So I mean, sure... It might be a great way to get kids excited about imagination and toys, but I am skeptical that anyone outside of the hardcore libertarian crew is going to see it as something beyond that.

And why would they?

The concepts of spontaneous order and comparative advantage from an economics standpoint are a bit abstract and whoosh right over many adults' heads, so to expect kids to get it on a brief glance - when so much else is more important in the story - is a bit unrealistic.

And for kids to see or even subconsciously get nudged on how it applies to politics? C'mon. No.

The worst of it though, and really the straw on the camel's back for why this can never be considered a "libertarian" movie, is because of "Lord Business" himself, and what he represents. And that brings me to our final message:

"Business is for totalitarians and other evil people who just want to tell you what to do."

Note the stilts, so he can tower over everyone.
With the villain being named "Lord Business", or alternatively - it turns out - "President Business", the idea of business gets a pretty rough shake in this movie. You should have seen this one coming a mile away. I'm sure most people did.

The really frustrating part about this is that it completely squashes the spontaneous order point and that message about dynamism vs. stasis. Why? Because "Lord Business" - representative of business people, and by extension, markets at large - is the one literally trying glue everybody into place and never let anything change.

This would be a great send up of cronyism and corporatism, if anybody knew the difference between that
and a free economy. Alas, since no one does - especially not kids - the allegory is much more simply that business is the bad guy. Business is the enemy. It's controlling, static, and devoid of fun. It's suits, ties, nonsensical boardroom meetings, and domination of other people's lives.

But this is the opposite of what business is - even in a corporatist economy, most businesses are innovating and competing, trying new things, and experimenting with new products and new models in the hopes that they can unseat the behemoths at the top. Business is dynamic and spontaneous, and entrepreneurship is nothing but the vibrant use of an individual's skills and vision to create something no one else can create.

Not in this movie. Business is bad, m'kay?

This lesson is repeated over, and over, and over again throughout the film. It's so ridiculous that Lord Business at one point even says, and I quote:
"It's not personal, it's just business."
...when he does something blatantly evil to one of his henchmen. It's a cliche of a cliche. But it works, and it drops The LEGO Movie firmly into an enormous and storied list of films that reject business.

To date, Larry Ribstein's wonderful paper, "Wallstreet and Vine: Hollywood's View of Business" captures the best arguments for why and how this message can persist in an environment run by mega-corporations. In short, the executives don't care what the messages are as long as the film makes money - and The LEGO Movie is already raking it in - and meanwhile, the writers and producers are often at odds with corporate management, thanks to the fact that it controls the purse strings. Artists resent business people having a say in their art, while simultaneously needing their capital to produce art in a medium as time and labor intensive as film-making.

So we get all kinds of anti-business themes in popular media, in spite of the glaring irony that film-making is, itself, big business.

But to the point of this movie, the anti-business theme and the villainy of "Lord Business", pitted against our small-time hero Emmet, completely overshadows everything positive said about dynamism and distorts the relationship between business and creativity - turning it on its head. "Business", in this film, is for old boring people who never want anything to change and are capable of destroying homes and families to make sure they get what they want.

Again, if they'd bothered to explain cronyism, maybe this message wouldn't be what it is... But the reality is that the Hollywood treatment of business as evil is in full force here. It's true that Lord Business is also "President" Business, but that doesn't end up being a critique of the state, it just serves to further show how powerful and evil he really is.

It's like WALL-E's "Buy-n-Large" and Fred Willard's "Global CEO". Nobody is supposed to think that this is what happens when government gets too big and too powerful, they're supposed to get that it's what happens when business becomes too powerful. The global monopoly on the production of literally everything in the world is just what happens when "business" runs amok and is unchecked by a "good government".

No connection is made to the idea that an expanding state creates opportunities for this kind of thing to even happen and restrictions on state power keep corporatism - and ultimately fascism - in check. Again, this is a complex subject and also wooshes right over most adults' heads, so why would we expect children to see this aspect of the film as a libertarian critique of the state, explicitly or otherwise?

We shouldn't.

But... A lot of people I know are doing exactly that. And I think it's because they are able to pull this idea out of the film and see Lord Business as a great critique of corporatism, they're making the excited pronouncements that the film is super libertarian.

The reality, though, is that no audience is going to walk away getting a libertarian message. If they think about political philosophy at all (already unlikely), they're going to walk away with the opposite message. Any lessons of dynamism in markets is completely crushed by the sense that business (and thus, "markets") are places where evil totalitarians try to control what you do.

Is that really the lesson you want kids to get?

Playtime and imagination are good. Business is evil and hates imagination. You're special just for showing up. If you believe in yourself you will be great at whatever you think you can do, even if you don't put in any practice time or learn anything.

Oh... And, buy more LEGOs!!!

I don't see why this should be exciting for fans of individual liberty. I really don't. Maybe I'm being curmudgeonly here, but I wouldn't want my hypothetical kids taking a moral lesson from this film. I don't want adults taking a moral lesson from this film, unless I could use it as a teaching aid for why markets and individual autonomy are amazing - while also explaining that totalitarian fascism isn't a product of "business" and that the villain is completely inaccurately named.

Libertarians have this habit of reading into art and media the messages *they* want to see, and often struggle to see the way non-libertarian audiences see the same material. I think this tendency goes a long way to explaining why so many things libertarians produce themselves are so heavy-handed and tone-deaf.

If you can't understand what audiences without your philosophical training and insight are getting out of a film, how can you understand what is going to work to reach those audiences when you're trying to make something culturally relevant yourself?

And if you can't do that, how are you ever going to talk to anyone outside your pre-existing fan-base?

I'm tired of preaching to the choir. I've been tired of it for years and it's really hard to escape because it seems that that's basically the only thing libertarians ever really want to do. I know this is true for anybody who has a dominating philosophy, but it's not really helpful to see what you desperately want to see in every piece of art to the expense of understanding what the author intended, or what the rest of the world is seeing.

The movie is cute. It's pretty fun. I'm told I should have seen it in 3D and I'd be tempted to go back and do that to see what I've been missing. But... The LEGO Movie is not a story about spontaneous order or living in a free society. It's a story about a nobody becoming a hero through the power of believing in himself really hard, and to a lesser extent, a story about a kid working out issues with his dad.

To the extent anyone's walking away with a political message, it's that business sucks and business people are dictators.

Is that really what you want?