Buber and Pixar: Going to the Movies with Martin Buber

(Written June, 2009)

What does Martin Buber have to do with Pixar films? A lot, actually. Cars, The Incredibles, WallE, and the latest, Up are rife with dialogic moments and extensively promote I-Thou encounters. Martin Buber describes genuine dialogue as a silent or spoken exchange in which each of the participants turns to the other with the intention of establishing a living, reciprocal relationship between them. Although we tend not to take children’s animated films too seriously, the subtleties and complexity of Pixar’s animation actually provide an ideal vehicle for conveying genuine dialogue.

In dialogue, participants achieve connection through communication. This connection allows for each party to potentially change the other, or be changed by the other.

In Cars – a film in which all the characters are, what else? cars – Lightning McQueen begins the movie as an arrogant, rookie race car whose greatest aspiration is to beat The King (the reigning race car champion soon to be retiring) and capture the lucrative and prestigious Dinoco sponsorship. Over the course of the film Lightning McQueen’s dialogic encounters with the denizens of the town of Radiator Springs transform him and the transformation leads him to make the correct ethical choice in the final race between the three top race cars.

In Buber’s thought, there are two types of relationships: the I-Thou and the I-it. In the I-Thou relationship we produce dialogue, engaging the other as a whole being. In the I-it relationship parties relate to and experience each other as objects or means to achieving goals. Dialogue cannot occur in the I-it relation.

In the beginning of Cars, the hotshot Lightning McQueen, on his way to race-car supestardom, is immersed solely in I-It relationships. He treats his pit crew with disdain calling them by the wrong names and when they quit in disgust over his lack of team spirit, he dismissively retorts “like it’s so hard to find someone to change my tires.” When his manager (a humorously Jewish character whom we never see) says that he has tickets for the race for him to give his closest friends, Lightning McQueen cannot name a single friend.

Mikhail Bakhtin, another philosopher of dialogue says: “I become myself only while revealing myself for another, through another and with another’s help…Cutting myself off, isolating myself, closing myself off, those are the basic reasons for loss of self (Bakhtin, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Politics, 1984)

Clearly Lightning McQueen is a soul in isolation. His life is closed off, lonely, empty of relationship and self. Yet, both Lightning McQueen and the movie progress as Lightning McQueen gets entangled – literally in barbed wire – in the one-traffic-light hick town of Radiator Springs. He is sentenced by the judge Doc Hudson to do community service to repair the damage he has wreaked. In the days he spends carrying out his sentence Lightning McQueen slowly emerges from his isolation and becomes an “I” through the I-Thou moments first with the rusted tow truck Tow Mater who befriends him, but later with each and every one of the residents of Radiator Springs.

“Man can become whole not in virtue of a relation to himself, but only in virtue of a relation to another self” (Buber, Between Man and Man,1965a, p. 168).

Real life is meeting, is relational connection and Lightning McQueen continues to learn this lesson during his stay in Radiator Springs. A significant turning point in Cars is in the I-Thou dialogue with Doc Hudson. Although Lightning McQueen and Doc Hudson do not like each other, their dialogue is real. Doc Hudson too is in isolation, seen by the Radiator Springs folk only as his function – the old judge – and no one knows or bothers to inquire into his illustrious but long forgotten past as race-car champion. Lightning McQueen is the first to see him, learn from him, to respond to him.

The responsibility to respond to the Other is the ultimate responsibility. According to Emanuel Levinas, another dialogue scholar, “only in response to the Other does the I find a sense of formation” The construction of the I emerges from the encounter with the Other.
Lightning McQueen becomes the “responsive I” in his meeting and relational connection with Doc Hudson. The responsiveness to Doc Hudson leads LM to do the ethical thing in the final race when he gives up winning the Piston Cup to make sure that – despite a devastating crash – the ruling champion, “the King,” finishes his last race. In engaging with the other Lightning McQueen becomes truly himself. Finally, only when his I is truly formed through his encounters with the others, is Lightning McQueen capable of making a love connection with the beautiful and intelligent Porsche, Sally.

In another Pixar film, The Incredibles, there is a dialectic between the two “superhero” characters – Mr. Incredible who is a family man first, superhero second, trying to lead an ordinary life and Syndrome the super-villain who would like to be perceived as superhero, though he has no superpowers of his own. Syndrome’s I-It relationship with his girlfriend, Mirage, is contrasted with Mr. Incredible’s evolving I–Thou relationship with his wife and family.

At one point in the movie, Mr. Incredible is held captive by Syndrome and has been told that his family has been killed. He threatens to harm Mirage if Syndrome does not release him, snarling: ‘Release me… or I’ll crush her … like breaking a toothpick. ’ Syndrome responds with an “aw go ahead” shrug and when Mr. Incredible cannot carry through with the threat, Syndrome taunts him saying “I knew you couldn’t do it. You’re weak…” Although she is hurt and angry, Mirage attempts a dialogue with Syndrome saying: “valuing human life is not weakness and disregarding it is not strength.” But he cannot relate, instead equivocatingly says “I had the situation under control… I called his bluff.” When this pseudo-apology does not – unsurprisingly – appease her, there is a priceless look of incomprehension in Syndrome’s eyes (the miracle of Pixar), denoting his complete inability to transcend the I-It even at such a moment of intense emotion.

Syndrome’s submersion in the I-It is set in stark contrast with Mr. Incredible’s growing awareness and evolving ability to achieve I-Thou with his wife, daughter and son who turn out to be very much still alive. A remarkable I-Thou moment occurs when – although captured again by Syndrome, this time with the whole family – Mr. Incredible apologizes and confesses: “I’m sorry, this is my fault…I’ve been blind to what I have, so obsessed with being undervalued that I undervalued all of you…you are my greatest adventure and I almost missed it…” Buber demands authenticity in our relationships with others and Mr Incredible’s moment of self realization and self revelation is – I would hazard – one of the most authentic moments in all of celluloid.

In the universe of Buber and Levinas we are our brother’s keepers. In Cars, Lightning McQueen takes care of the smashed up King. In The Incredibles, Dash literally becomes his sister’s keeper, going back to save her from Syndrome’s henchmen screaming “don’t touch my sister” and in WallE, the retro robot WallE and the sleek modern robot Eva take care of each other.

The delightful irony of WallE is that the robots are the ones who have the authentic I-Thou relationships while the humans on the space ship literally and figuratively do not see each other, do not look at each other and do not speak to each other except through screens and electronic devices. It is only when WallE and Eva – symbolically Adam and Eve characters who nurture the forbidden tree – lead John and Mary, two of the humans, to each other by knocking them off their moving chairs and away from their computer screens do they actually look at each other face to face. After this moment of meeting, John and Mary symbolically and with a sexual reference immerse themselves in the ship’s swimming pool saying “hey, I never noticed this pool was there.” The I-Thou encounter leads to more nuance, variety and complexity in relationships.

WallE asks the question: can we have an I-Thou relationship that is not reciprocated as WallE and Eva take care of each other when the other is unresponsive and shut down. Buber and Levinas give different answers. For Buber, reciprocity is important. You cannot be a Thou for me unless I am also a Thou for you; however, you also cannot demand reciprocity. It has to emerge organically between persons without insistence or demand. But WallE seems to accept Levinas’ construct. For Levinas, ““I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to die for it. Reciprocity is his affair.” Levinas says we have no choice, but to be in dialogue because there is no I without Thou. You must continue to dialogue, continue to attempt to “see” the Other, even if the Other does not see you.

The latest Pixar film, Up, also addresses the question of reciprocity. In Pixar’s world, Nature is anthropomorphized sending a clear and unequivocal message that we must dialogue with nature and that, if we listen carefully, Nature will reciprocate. Pixar puts it succinctly in the boy Russell’s wilderness explorer motto: An Explorer is a friend to all, be it plants or fish or tiny mole.” Or, to put it in Buberian terms: there are three levels for dialogue: between individual and nature, between individual and individual, and between individual and God (Buber, Ecstasy and Confession, 1909).

Up is about 78 year-old ex-balloon salesman, Carl Fredricksen, who ties thousands of balloons to his house to escape the retirement home and to fulfill a lifelong dream of adventure by flying away to Paradise Falls, a mythical South American waterfall. Along the way he meets first fatherless eight-year old Wildness Explorer Russell, who stows away on the front porch of the house when it takes off; then, when he lands his house near but not directly at Paradise Falls, they meet a gigantic, colorful flightless bird that Russell names Kevin and finally a talking dog named Dug.

When the movie opens, Carl is a grouch. At first, he refuses to let Russell into his house, and then deceives him by sending him off to find a made-up bird called a Snipe. When Carl first meets Dug the talking dog, Carl growls at him to learn how to bark like a real dog and dismisses his speech as just a “weird trick.” Kevin, the bird, he calls a “feathered freak” and tries to chase away. The deception and ill will toward the trio of boy, bird and dog are evidence of the inauthenticity of Carl’s relationship with the world.

However, as we have come to expect from Pixar, and proving that it’s never too late to begin to dialogue, Carl undergoes a transformation over the course of the film. At first, Carl blames Russell and Dug for involving him in an adventure with Kevin and getting him off track toward his goal of arriving at the Falls. By insisting on carrying his house to the Falls, Carl ignores the true ethical mission of helping Kevin (who turns out to be a female bird) return to her chicks. When Carl finally rids himself of the baggage of the house, which he is carrying on his back in oh so symbolic fashion, preventing him from truly being in dialogue with the world, that’s when he begins to be authentic with the boy, with the bird, with the dog. Getting rid of things to be in relationship with others seems to be the theme of this film. Fittingly, the first thing to go is Russell’s GPS, an electronic device that distances person and nature. The dialectic between things we own and the authentic encounter is powerful here. Sometimes it may take a lifetime to let go of possessions and realize the value of intangibles.

Just as The Incredibles offers a super-villain foil to the hero, in Up too there is a contrast between Carl who learns to dialogue and Charles Muntz the celebrated explorer and adventurer for whom the fame and prestige mean more than the adventure. And perhaps as a direct result of his I-It mentality, Muntz has never been able to find the 12-foot high, brightly colored, flightless bird that he has been seeking for so many years.

Up shows us that it’s never too late to begin to dialogue. All the Pixar films demonstrate that we are never too young or too old to learn to dialogue, to listen, to practice I-Thou. These films are powerful modern-day myths that teach us that by dialoguing we transform ourselves and by doing so, the world. All real living is meeting. And within that living, that encounter with the world, do we find the encounter with the Eternal Thou, with God.


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