Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Deus Ex Machina (also, Paperman)

In case it is possible to spoil the Disney animated short Paperman , I respectfully offer you this warning: Paperman spoilers ahead.  While we're here, let's spoil Toy Story a bit as well.

I don't like the ending of Paperman, and I think it's because the way it wields its deus ex machina.  The rest of Paperman is fine.  It's a charming story of a man's futile attempts to use paper airplanes to get a second chance with a missed connection.  Futile in that he's trying to get the woman's attention by throwing the airplanes from the open window of his office building into the open window of her building adjacent.  True to life, the airplanes are virtually impossible to aim, leaving one after the other to bop uselessly against the side of the building, sail into the wrong windows, helplessly flutter away and so on.

Eventually he has to admit that he has failed, accept that he may never see the woman again, and give up.  At that point, something special would have to happen to bring these two people together.  Instead of thinking of something special, the writers suddenly bring the airplanes to life so they can drag the two back together and go on a date.  Ultimately, that's what we wanted, but...not like this.

Pictured: Man and woman wishing they had the courage to speak to one another / Not Pictured: Motherfucking magic

Part of what frustrates me about this ending is that general sense of dissatisfaction that deus ex machina typically produces, i.e. it's hard to feel good when a convenient betrayal of the fictional reality's rules solves a problem that flowed logically from adherence to those same rules previously.  In the general sense, when we understand how the hero got into his predicament because we've been shown each relevant step that brought him there, we would like to see the relevant steps that will bring him back out again.

I'll admit that I don't fully understand why that is.  I suppose we're natural rule-followers who get invested in the stories we're told, and have certain expectations as to how they're going to play out.  Upending those expectations can be a lot of fun, as in a great plot twist, but that's not what deus ex machina is.  A plot twist doesn't necessarily undo the logic of the story, it follows it to a different conclusion than what the audience would have reached on their own.

Deus ex machina is the lazier version of that.  Like a kid rewriting the rules mid-game so he can win, it just crosses out the previous logic and writes in whatever it wants to reach its conclusion.  When that tactic fails, it's because it hasn't given the audience anything to replace the nice logical progression it destroyed by showing up.  But if it does give the audience something, then I don't see any reason why deus ex machina couldn't be successful.

It doesn't even have give all that much, so long as it has some sort of meaning.  People like us play this ridiculous game in which artists place meaning into their work and we take the time to pull it back out again so we can feel smart.  There is likely no single mechanical aspect of storytelling that can't be completely destroyed so long as a little nugget of meaning pops out of it.  In that sense, I'm tempted to look at Paperman's disappointing ending as a demonstration that there is a bittersweet joy in honest failure and that unearned success feels cheap and unsatisfying.  If the magic living planes at the end seem stupid, it's because easy solutions are, in actuality, stupid.

However, I'm much more tempted to look at the magic living planes as just regular, face value stupid.  I feel a bit justified in that because, matters of deus ex machina aside, I'm not sure the writers thought about the implications of magical living paper airplanes in an otherwise familiar reality.  Are the airplanes sentient?  Can they die?  Are they being controlled by someone?  Is the universe using some crazy wind patterns to make it look like the planes are alive?  Were they missing the window on purpose this whole time?  Are contracts alive?

While fun to do, I'm not entirely sure it's fair to criticize the story on this level, because understanding the lives of paper airplanes wouldn't add anything to the story the writers want to tell.  It wouldn't be relevant.  Really, it should be enough for us to know that they can come to life and affect things, because that's what serves the intended story of bringing two people together.  Nevertheless, living paper airplanes is kind of a big revelation, and it can distract from the ending if the audience is trying to process both at the same time.  Imagine Toy Story in which the toys are just regular, inanimate toys until they come to life to teach Sid a lesson towards the end of the movie.  Sid ran off screaming, frightened and confused when that happened, and the audience might well have felt the same way if not already introduced to that reality.

Paperman basically treats us like Sid, but expects us to melt and coo instead.  Between that little miscalculation and the meaningless use of deus ex machina, I just don't like the ending of Paperman.


_J_ said...

This is the one that uses 3D models to produce 2D animation, right?

MA17 said...

Yes, and not the movie with Ryan Reynolds.

Or the inevitable sequel to Paperboy.

slocik said...

Agree so much, what a lazy way to end an animation ;/
Also its really depressing to think about the plans coming to life and dying just so a guy can get a second try at hooking up with someone.