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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
June 25, 2015

First appeared in print in The Rhino Times, Greensboro, NC.


Inside Out, Lawndale Place

If there was one movie this summer that I knew I wasn't going to see, ever, it was the new Pixar movie Inside Out.

The promos made it look tedious in the extreme. There were five characters representing basic emotions, jockeying for control of the mind and actions of an eleven-year-old girl. It looked like their interactions were going to be funny and cute. I gagged.

Even as a kid, I was always bored by those moments in cartoons (and sometimes live-action shows) when a devil perched on one shoulder and an angel on the other, each arguing for one or another course of action.

The choice was always between an obvious, stupid, mean-spirited, selfish mistake, and the noble, self-sacrificing, brave and good choice. The decisions were all black and white, and not just because we didn't yet have color TV.

There was also a TV series which I dutifully never watched. Can't remember the name now, but it had the same premise -- we'd see inside a person's mind, watching the decision-making process, which would consist of "funny" arguments among cretinous comedians. Or so my vague memory tells me. (I would apologize for not remembering better, except I would be more ashamed if I did remember.)

Here's how I expected Inside Out to go. The girl, Riley, would be put into difficult positions, and then the action would stop completely while we had some meaningless, dull, bad-joke banter or struggle among the five emotions. Finally, when the bad writers' bad writing was exhausted, we would return to the story.

At some point, we would stop caring and sink into an expensive nap. I figured I'd save myself the money and just take a nap for free at home.

And, at a superficial level, that's exactly how the movie went -- except the writing wasn't bad.

With my wife off doing grandma duty in California, my job at home was to finish a novel. But I have to take breaks, and there were a couple of films that looked tolerable. Inside Out was not on that list.

Till my film-savvy younger daughter called me for Father's Day and told me that she loved Inside Out. And I found out that a good friend of my other (also film-savvy) daughter had worked for Pixar on Inside Out's story development -- and she regarded it as some of the finest work Pixar had ever done.

So Inside Out not only moved onto my list, it moved to the top. I attended without children, without spouse, without any companion. I got an isolated seat where if I hated the movie, I could easily get up and leave without climbing over anybody. I was going to be a tough sell.

Within a few minutes, I was sold.

Riley had an idyllic life growing up as a hockey-playing only child in Minnesota. Her parents were supportive of and involved in her activities. They had a lot of fun. But now they were leaving Minnesota and moving to San Francisco for her dad to work for a startup company that was having some complications in their financing.

From a house with a yard, in a place with four seasons, Riley was going to live in a narrow townhouse, in a place with two seasons: foggy and not-foggy. To make matters worse, the moving van had been side-tracked to Texas and it was going to be a few days late. Then a week. Then an indefinite amount of time.

So Riley was sleeping on a mattress on the floor, had almost none of her stuff, and was starting a new school. Yet through it all, the emotion of Joy (Amy Poehler) was keeping her perky, putting on a cheerful front to help support her parents through this worrisome time.

We quickly learn the mechanics of how Riley's brain works. Everything that happens gets stored in a grapefruit-sized glass ball, which, at the end of the day, gets processed and stored as long-term memory. A few really important ones become core memories, which can never be lost.

We later see that the long-term memories gets culled from time to time, with unused memories being discarded and permanently lost in a deep abyss, where they eventually disappear in a tiny puff of smoke. Dangerous place.

The writers did a pretty good job of dramatizing some of the current theories about mental function and memory manipulation. They literalize some expressions, like "train of thought," which is great fun. And they show that Riley depends on five main islands -- mini-theme parks that float above the abyss: family, friendship, honesty, hockey, and goofball.

Goofball is silly playfulness, mostly with her family but sometimes with friends. Honesty is never explained until she steals a credit card from her mother's purse in order to run away -- and that's as close as we come to traditional morality.

In fact, one of the huge holes in this mental construct is one that every parent recognizes as we watch it form in our children: morality. What does the child internalize as right and wrong, so that they act according to that moral code whether they expect to be caught or not?

You know -- the thing that keeps them from playing with knives or matches, or running into the street or hitting their siblings, even when parents aren't watching. The skills that enable them to get along well in a civilized society.

The children who don't develop some version of this are what we call "sociopaths" -- but most children do. In fact, with our kids the rule-forming function was so strong that we sometimes had to spend more time telling them that something wasn't a matter of right vs. wrong, and they were free to choose.

Instead, Inside Out depicts the human mind as if it consisted only of emotions: Joy, Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Anger (Lewis Black), and Disgust (Mindy Kaling). (Don't bother looking for ambition, aggression, competitiveness, introversion, trust, show-offery, vanity, self-hatred, or ... you know, the whole range of motivations and emotions.)

Now, it's true that emotions often pop up for reasons of their own, and we invent causes for them after the fact. But even within this story, they don't actually cause Riley's decisions, though they influence them.

Whatever it is in Riley that decides what she's going to do is never dealt with. We only know that when things get discombobulated, and both Joy and Sadness are accidentally sucked out of the control room and lost in the recesses of memory, Riley gets a deadpan expression and rejects any kind of communication with her parents.

Then Anger (for some reason) picks up a screw-in lightbulb that represents "running away," and that's when Riley makes up her mind to go back to Minnesota.

Why Anger? Isn't running away a fear response (as in "fight or flight")? It made no sense, but what the heck. The kid is smart, and she's apparently in the safest part of the city, so she can walk to the bus station without problems, and they accept the credit card and let an unaccompanied child on the bus without any question. Maybe that's a thing that can really happen.

This depiction of the mind is based on the latest scientific speculation, but please keep in mind that the "science" here is, and probably always will be, a useful fiction. We don't know what mind, will, and reason are; there are scientists who believe that "mind" doesn't even exist, though of course we all know it does because we live in it every waking moment.

Saying it doesn't exist is just a confession of ignorance.

Remember that for a century we took the made-up stories of Freud seriously enough that id, ego, and superego, along with asinine ideas like oedipus complex and anal-retentive, entered our language and cultures as if they described something real. Jung gave us the equally silly collective unconscious, and we got other mostly-false and wholly-inadequate stories from Skinner and Maslow and ...

You get the idea. Each new religion within the overarching priesthood of psychology comes in with a roar -- the new male baboon entering the troop -- disrupting everything and struggling to reach the top of the heap. But if there's anything of value it's almost an accident, and as for what is true about the human mind ... well, the actual, verifiable science is creeping along, so we know more than we used to. But the science always lags many leagues behind the claims of the newly converted enthusiasts.

So what Inside Out does not offer is any kind of accurate representation of how human decision-making works. But it does give us a metaphorical way of experiencing the internal chaos of a child undergoing an emotional crisis.

Some reviewers have pooh-poohed Riley's woes as "rich white-girl problems" -- which is taken to mean "no problems at all." But this is a bigoted, ignorant response. Everyone's problems are real problems to them, because they're the ones they have to deal with.

Besides, I can tell you for a fact that moving from one city to another and changing schools is a real problem, even if you're going from one safe, high-quality school to another. Your network of friends is gone, and anybody who has studied primatology knows that without a sense of belonging to the tribe, humans wither.

My big moves were between seventh and eighth grades, and between tenth and eleventh grades, and let me tell you, those were terrifying experiences. I pretended not to care (fooling even myself), but somehow I managed to be "sick" the first couple of days of school, both times. This made it worse -- I was the highly visible new kid when everybody else had already had two days.

But it also made it better, because now there was a preexisting social structure into which I could insert myself at my chosen spot. That is, the kids would already be sorted into the "smart kids" and everybody else, and it was easy enough to pick them out (or be recognized and recruited by them). A workable strategy, obviously, because it worked for me both times.

For Riley, it wasn't so easy. She was dumb enough to notice the "popular girls" -- which at age eleven means the most selfish, malicious, destructive pack -- and decide she belonged with them. But then, as she's introducing herself to the class (at the teacher's request), sadness gets the better of her and she cries.

Her humiliation in front of the popular girls is complete, but by the time she gets home she can't even tell her parents about it because by then Joy and Sadness have both gone AWOL. Why that means she can't talk is not explained, but there it is.

This movie should have failed. But it didn't. Why not? Because the writers -- and writer-director Pete Docter -- never forgot that if we don't care about and believe in Riley, we won't care about anything the emotion-characters are doing.

Whether they depicted the science of the mind accurately or not, they depict the actual behavior of an eleven-year-old girl (and flashbacks to her younger self) with compassion and wisdom.

In other words, if you're the parent of a child who ever went through that age (or the earlier ones), you will recognize that this is real.

There's one psychological insight that provides a turning point in the movie. Joy has always been not just dismissive but actually quite hostile (in a passive-aggressive-manipulative way) to Sadness. It is not until Joy learns that Sadness is essential for Riley to be happy that we can get her life back on track.

That's really what the long quest-adventure inside Riley's memory is about: Joy learning to accept the often-hard-to-bear Sadness. Both Amy Poehler and Phyllis Smith do a superb job of voicing these characters, and the animators are just as good. Their relationship matters ... but only because Riley herself is at stake.

While the emotion-characters are busy stealing the show, I have to say that Kaitlyn Dias (Riley), Diane Lane (Mom), and Kyle MacLachlan (Dad) are wonderful. If we don't like and believe them, we've got nothing -- the antics of the emotions won't matter. But because they (and the artists and animators) do a splendid job, the story works.

Here's how well it works: I remembered my own childhood. I remembered passages from my own children's lives. I saw my little girls at every stage. Both nostalgia and love brought tears to my eyes way more than the "three times" I was warned about.

I dread the sequels (there will be sequels) because the epilogue of this movie already covers the whole future better than any sequel ever could. Besides, they'll probably have a different team on the sequel, and they'll miss the point that it's not the antics of the emotions that drive the movie, it's the believability of the real-world characters.

Then again, Pixar is famous for having pulled off the impossible feat of making three Toy Story movies, of which the third is the best. Not George Lucas, not Steven Spielberg, not Francis Ford Coppola was able to bring that off. Maybe Pixar can do it again. I doubt it.

Meanwhile, what about the practicalities of attending this film? It has an eleven-year-old girl in the leading role. Maybe nine- and ten-year-olds will be able to empathize and care; but nobody younger will even come close to understanding what's going on in the quest-through-memory section.

Visible and audible restlessness among those seven and younger have been reported.

Boys of ten or eleven will be reluctant to engage in an emotional-girl story, but as manga and anime have long since proved, if cool enough stuff is going on, they'll overcome gender bias just fine. I think Inside Out has enough cool stuff to make the movie work for them. Just don't expect them to be enthusiastic right from the start.

Parents will love the movie, as will grandparents (like me). Teenagers and young singles? I can only report on what I hear from those I've talked to -- and it's a slam dunk for them as well. (But I don't hang around with the kind of young people who are turned off by domestic comedy and drama.)

I saw this movie alone, in an uncrowded Monday-night theater. Usually, that suppresses audience reaction -- but the audience laughed out loud, and so did I. The funny stuff works -- though the funniest stuff comes when we get inside the heads of the parents and other people, too.

Inside Out deserves to be a hit. And hey, you've been good -- you deserve to treat yourself to a genuinely funny, touching, feel-good movie.

*

I follow stories about the NIMBY (not-in-my-back-yard) squabbles over zoning and they mostly make me impatient.

The people who bought cheap homes near the landfill and then were outraged that the landfill continued to operate, "depressing" their property values.

The people near Friendly and Hobbs who always lived near a large employer, followed by an empty lot, followed by an extension of Friendly Center. They used to have endless lines waiting to turn from Northline onto Hobbs at closing time, but now suddenly it would be a hideous burden to have the traffic generated by a Trader Joe's?

I live in a neighborhood that has covenants about setback from the road, but when somebody built a garage that clearly violated that covenant, we learned that nothing could be done to stop it.

I heard about the outrage when a neighbor of a friend of mine painted his front door some vibrant, noticeable color, and how the neighborhood association was going to make them paint it something more harmonious. Apparently they couldn't simply say, "We're now a neighborhood that has an eccentric house with a bright-painted door," and take pride in it.

And I remember when a friend of mine told me about how his neighborhood association went after an Asian couple that was committing the neighborhood-wrecking sin of growing tomatoes in their front yard. My response was to make sure I always grew tomatoes in my front yard from then on, because I can plant what I want and tomato plants aren't ugly -- they're kind of thrilling in their spindly, viny, fruity growth patterns.

So sometimes my sympathy is with the property owner -- it's his property, darn it! -- and sometimes with the neighborhood -- the setback is part of what makes this neighborhood so graceful!

Now it's starting again in another neighborhood, and this time it's a full-on zoning issue. Two families that we've known for thirty years live on Lawndale Place. My children took swimming lessons in a small backyard pool at yet another house on that street. I know it well.

It's a tree-shaded neighborhood that backs onto Country Park. There's no traffic. It feels like they're practically living in the park, minus the joggers.

The street isn't wide enough for two cars to pass. Parking at all requires that you go off onto the shoulder -- where there is one. No sidewalks. You're really in the country -- half a block from Lawndale.

There are only a few houses, and they're not large mansions, most are modest family homes. They can't work up any large numbers to make an impressive showing at zoning commission hearings. Why should anybody else care what happens to them?

But now a developer, who owns an adjoining 3.5 acre property that could only be accessed from their street, wants to create a twenty-plus-home "pocket community" on that land. The two-bedroom houses would be about five feet apart, and all the land except what's under each house is common property.

There are only 1.5 parking places per house, but let's face it: How many people who need two-bedroom homes get along with only one car? Since there's no possible parking on Lawndale, this development will pack narrow Lawndale Place with parked cars every night, making it unsafe to drive and really unsafe to be a pedestrian there.

My normal tendency is close to laissez faire, partly because I think zoning regulations have gone a long way toward forcing Americans toward our widely dispersed, car-dependent "cities," where a quiet, pedestrian-based life is impossible.

But there are times when it's the job of government to say, Wait a minute. What do you think you're doing to these people? It's your land, but you can't do something that endangers and damages your neighbors.

This is a far cry from tomatoes in the front yard or a bright-painted door or even a setback from the street. Nor is it the addition of one more commercial plot to an already highly-commercialized area, or the continuation of a landfill that was there long before any of the houses.

Instead, it's almost an extension of Country Park, to have this quiet neighborhood remain uninvaded by extravagant over-development. In fact, it's all really part of the old Guilford Battleground area -- old artifacts crop up whenever you dig over an extended area.

The property owner could put up houses that go with the neighborhood -- maybe six or eight, with plenty of on-property parking for each one. He wouldn't go broke doing that. And by preserving the character of the neighborhood, such regular-size houses on regular-size lots would sell easily, because it's a lovely place to live.

Yes, I'm biased, because there are people I really care about who live on that street. They are not rich, not even close. But they do their work, pay their taxes, do much work to benefit the community, and cause no harm.

One house, for instance, is the home of a retired Greensboro schoolteacher and a retired convenience store owner. They've served Greensboro for many years in many ways -- their volunteer work has been, and still is, extraordinary. Can't the existing residential zoning stand, so they can live in the place they prepared for their old age?

This is a case where the power of government could be used to protect the little guy, without causing the property owner any serious damage or irrecoverable loss. What the developer proposes is the kind of zoning change that should be laughed out of the committee meeting. It'll be interesting to see what view of Greensboro -- and of the role of government -- gets enacted in this case.


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