Tuesday, June 10, 2014

The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet (2013) directed by Jean-Pierre Jeunet

 Can you feel nostalgic for an myth? Jean-Pierre Jeunet seems to think so.  The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is an amusement park ride through a dreamland Americana – a fantasy of gleaming silver trucks speeding down desert roads, friendly bums dispensing advice from railroad cars and steaming hotdogs so utterly delicious you’d risk it all for just one bite.

T.S. Spivet (Kyle Catlett) is a boy genius living on an idyllic Montana ranch on with his entomologist, beetle obsessed mother (Helena Bonham-Carter), cowboy throwback dad (Callum Keith Rennie) and Miss America hopeful older sister (Niamh Wilson).  T.S. is a young Einstein, able to turn his hand to any branch of science, from cartography, to geology, to acoustics instinctively.  Encouraged by a lecture he crept into he’s inspired to invent a perpetual motion machine. This wins him the Baird prize in science, which will be presented at the Smithsonian in a couple of days. Running away from home he engages in a wistfully bold cross-country journey to collect his prize, hitch-hiking, riding the rails to Washington – and learning about America on the way.

Jeunet’s idealised America is viewed from an outsider’s perspective; a collage of old movies, imported TV shows and advertising imagery that coagulates into a hyper-real, super-saturated USA+.  Everything is filtered through a European, continental prism, less a recreation of some lost Golden Age and more a dramatisation of the American subconscious. 

The film abounds with visuals, objects and ideas depicted so lovingly they take on a totemic significance.  For example, a juggernaut speeding down a desert highway is rendered in almost psychedelically colourful detail, a creature of glistening chrome, bristling with lights and colour.  A hotdog stand becomes a pool of light within the darkness, staffed by a friendly maternal lady – the hotdog itself the platonic ideal of what a hotdog should be.

There’s a dark side to all this though.  Most obvious are some rather pointed observations on masculinity all wrapped up in gun control.  The dangers of gun culture come briefly under the microscope in the guise of what it means to be an American man.  Similarly, media culture is lightly satirised – the film presenting various shallow modes of love springing from fame which compare unfavourably against familial love.

All this takes place in a highly artificial hyper-reality.  3D is largely an anti-piracy measure more than an aesthetic choice in modern cinema, desultory, effort-free post conversions that add nothing the norm in multiplexes.  Not so in T.S. Spivet: it’s a crucial component of the film.  There’s the odd showboating ‘jab things at the screen’ effect, but most of the time 3D is used for floating split screens into other worlds, or CG trips through the imagination of the characters.  In pure technical terms it’s a joy to watch, and at minimum it’s refreshing to see a director treating 3D as a medium rather than as an effect.

Sadly, being technically excellent is probably the best thing about the film.  This isn’t a film with any stinker performances, massive directorial missteps or scripting woes – it’s all largely competent professional stuff with the occasional glimmer of excellence.  The real problem lies in Jeunet’s sympathies and their political implications.

Hankering for some long-lost Disneyland past where children had rosy cheeks, the sunsets were always beautiful and everything was picturesque, sedate and white (there are no non-white cast members) is conservatism (and when it comes to T.S. Spivet’s Americana fetish, a particularly Republican conservatism).  Also of note is the complete lack of any non-white characters in the movie.  Similarly, the narrative of a young boy genius striking out on his own against public schools and publically owned scientific institutes has more than a whiff of Rand to it.  

This rather unpleasant strand reaches its zenith when the film tackles gun control.    By this point a child has died from being allowed to play, unsupervised, with a small calibre rifle.  It’s a moment where you expect the film to finally take a stand on an issue, showing us some of the unpleasant consequences of wallowing in frontier masculinity.  Instead the film essentially says “who are we to say what is right or wrong?” A lily-livered conclusion to say the least.  The final nail in the coffin is when the remaining few problems in the film are solved by a gruff cowboy punching a helpless man repeatedly in the face.

The irony of a Frenchman making a film that deifies American mythology to this extent is not lost on me.  This is precisely the kind of film that those who’d bark “cheese eating surrender monkeys” or coin the phrase “freedom fries” will absolutely adore.  It’s this kind of America that’s probably wistfully dreamt about by slumbering Fox News viewers, aching for a lost cowboy utopia that never really existed in the first place.

Perhaps this isn’t what Jeunet set out to accomplish, but accomplish it he has.  It’s a shame the film is so ideologically rotten because there are moments of genuine beauty nestled within it – even if it is a somewhat chintzy beauty.  If you do see it, it’s worth checking out in a cinema if only to enjoy the 3D aspects, but on the whole I’d stay away unless you have an unusually passionate aesthetic interest in American nostalgia.


The Young and Prodigious T.S. Spivet is out June 13th

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