04 January 2016

Imagination, memory and personhood: a belated look at Inside Out

I watched Pixar’s recent movie Inside Out when it first came out in cinema (largely on account of the voice talent of Lewis Black), and thought it was an excellent film and a worthy addition to their corpus. However, the depth of its psychological, anthropological and even theological engagements hadn’t really managed to strike me on that first watch; the more fool me, I suppose! It took Matthew Tan’s brief but excellent treatment of the film over at The Divine Wedgie to clue me in that the movie might be saying something deeper than that it’s healthy for children to feel sad sometimes. In a film whose story takes place on two different levels the way this one does, it is probably not surprising that there’s actually a lot more going on than we might think at first!

Riley Andersen, a 12-year-old Midwestern homegirl from Minnesota, is actually a fairly happy kid, as we learn from hearing the emotion Joy inside her head essentially narrate her life from an ‘insider’ perspective. Joy essentially runs the show from ‘Headquarters’, alongside the emotions of Fear, Disgust, Anger and Sadness; at first Joy doesn’t really know what to do with Sadness or how to get her on-board, despite her being the second-oldest emotion on the scene. It’s clear, however, that Riley is fairly well-adjusted, to start with, in any case. We learn that she’s kind of a ‘goofball’, she plays hockey well, she has at least one very close friend, she’s very honest and that – most importantly as far as the film is concerned – she loves her family. But her mother and father decide, apparently without telling her, to uproot themselves and move to San Francisco; which is the precipitating event of the film’s main story.

It becomes clear at once that Joy is out of her depth. No matter how she tries to keep Riley happy, the realities of San Francisco (the filthy house, her parents being busy, broccoli-covered pizza, a new school where she feels isolated and alone, being removed from her old friends and hockey team) quickly overwhelm Joy, and Joy is too busy fighting with Sadness over Riley’s memories that Riley finds herself at the mercy of Fear, Anger and Disgust. When Sadness almost touches one of Riley’s Core Memories (defining memories which shape her personality), the fight between her and Joy gets them both sucked out of Headquarters and into Long-Term Memory; the rest of the film concerns the internal struggle by Joy and Sadness to get back to Headquarters, and the external story of Riley’s running away from home.

There are a number of excellent sight-gags and puns throughout the film, but also a number of very astute and subtly-made observations about how each of us persons operates essentially as our own full world, with its own vast geography and hidden treasure. (It would be difficult to imagine, for example, that the internal structure of Riley’s brain isn’t influenced at least indirectly by the labyrinthine and often dangerous warren of shelves and trap-filled secure rooms in Warehouse 13, that ‘world of endless wonder’. They even have Joy and Sadness reuse Warehouse 13’s running ‘read-the-manual’ gag!) The entire perspective of this movie, in fact, is deeply and inescapably personalistic; everything is seen through the eyes of one individual pre-teen girl (Riley), but at the same time we understand that Riley can’t be Riley unless she has the right relationship with her family and with her friends – in short, with her social context. As far as the story itself goes, the film has a particularly important poetic ‘point’ to make about the roles of imagination, memory and emotion in producing a fully-functional, socially-adept and responsible (in short, virtuous) person.

When Joy and Sadness get lost in Riley’s Long-Term Memory along with all of her Core Memories from Minnesota, they find themselves completely lost without having a guide. That guide, in fact, turns out to be the film’s personification of imagination – Riley’s imaginary friend Bing-Bong, who (at least as far as Joy and Sadness are concerned) is still ‘real’ enough to help them save her. Bing-Bong helps them store all of Riley’s Core Memories safely inside his Bag of Holding +2 (‘What? It’s imaginary!’). It is actually Bing-Bong who helps Joy start to realise the correct role Sadness has to play in Riley’s personality, when Sadness successfully comforts a distraught and despondent Bing-Bong over the loss of his imaginary rocket, by sitting down and remembering with him all of the adventures he and Riley had together. However, Bing-Bong does have a knack for trouble, even if well-intentioned. He leads Joy and Sadness (over Sadness’s protestations) through the Abstract Thought machine, which almost successfully gets them fragmented, deconstructed, flattened, denatured and nearly abstracted out of existence. Even though the entire scene is an extended sight gag that plays with concepts from modern art, it also manages to make a serious point about the dangers of subjecting reality, and especially those realities pertaining to personality, to needless abstraction.

In the meanwhile, without Joy or Sadness to balance them out, Riley’s Fear, Disgust and Anger begin to alienate her from her friends and family, and even begin to rationalise her into running away, back to Minnesota. Unwittingly, they derail her Train of Thought and cause Joy and Bing-Bong to fall into the Memory Dump.

This is one of the most existentially-poignant parts of the entire film: Joy sitting forlorn among the forgotten memories of a past that is literally fading, dying and blowing away in the wind, remembering the parts of Riley’s personality that made her who she is, and weeping over the doomed memories she had been protecting. As it turns out, it is only imagination that can save Riley from forgetting joy. The imagery of Hades and Heaven, and the immeasurable gulf between the darkness of the Memory Dump and the brightness and colour of the Personality (‘We may as well be on another planet!’), lends itself at once to a theological reading. In short, though Christ is never mentioned explicitly, we get to see Him partially, in type. It takes two acts of self-sacrifice to ‘save’ Riley from running away and becoming emotionally-numb: one by Bing-Bong to get Joy back up to where she needs to be in the Personality; and one by Joy to relinquish her control over Headquarters, and to let Sadness restore Riley’s Core Memories, so that she can help to remember with her parents a past that she felt in danger of forgetting altogether.

There are likely more than a few problems with taking Inside Out’s ‘internalised’, psychologised view of salvation (which other authors have tackled with greater acuity than I could), but these are balanced out by what they manage to get right. The entire dramatic and emotional weight of the film rests on the conceit of the person as an entire world contained in herself, of immeasurable complexity and value. We get invested in Riley Andersen’s life by seeing things not only through her eyes, but from inside her head; by being awed at the depth of even a 12-year-old girl’s personhood, and by investing ourselves even in what little fragments of her memory and imagination that we get to see.

This is a point that we might do well to dwell on. It is entirely possible that the abnormal and unhealthy outworkings of disgust, fear and anger in our own society, of the sort that result in poisoned political discourse and mass shootings, reflect our own inability to process memory correctly. Sadness is not something foreign to us, but it does not always find welcome in a New World psyche that is eternally focussed on technological progress and liberation from a poorly-imagined past, and that unbalances us. The idea that we can and should grieve over a past that is gone, that we can and should (as Sadness does) ‘listen for the intimations of deprival’, and that we can and should engage our moral imaginations to ‘live critically in the dynamo’ and reconstruct in the right way a place for remembering – is actually a pretty radical one for an American audience to consider. For that alone, Inside Out is not only worth watching twice or more, but also worth deeply reflecting on.

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