Some have suggested that the zany, breakneck animated short “Presto” which precedes Wall·E is worth the price of admission itself. It charmed me half to death, but Wall·E‘s outro is where the real action is — a mindblowing pictorial retelling of human history with a most telling stopping-point. Spoilers below.
So here’s what happens. The actual film ends with the recolonization of Earth by humans and their robot friends. The credit sequence begins with a series of animated paintings that depict the rebooting and rebuilding of civilization, humans and robots working hand in hand. These paintings themselves change and develop with the pace of civilization; so humans and robots reinvent the plow in a little story portrayed by moving cave-drawings, rebuild structures together in a sequence that looks like a cartoon flipbook from 4000 BC, and so on. The process brings us quickly — but not too quickly — up to a recognizably modern but very bucolic world, where hero and heroine gaze happily on the seemingly eternal tree that’s grown from what was once the world’s last seedling.
Now, the latest thing to blow my mind about this sequence was the realization that these moving paintings could represent more than cool metaphors, and actually represent the paintings of the recolonizing humans themselves, for whom the relearning of art was just as integral to their recovery of their humanity (in the image of God, if you’d like to go there) as was the relearning of technology. Maybe, just maybe, this balance was, and is, integral to the stability and flourishing of human civilization, especially one that found itself with robots in its original position.
But this set of musings was an elaboration that loops back on the first thing to blow my mind about Wall·E‘s outro: in the narrative they chart out, history — and with it, art history — ends, more or less, with impressionism. The final image is performed in the style of Van Gogh, the culmination of a modern series of images that includes pointillism and such. Now, the chronology doesn’t have to be perfect for the glaring point to be valid: post-World War I styles, most notably Cubism, were absented from rebooted human history.
Wall·E is an exceptionally nonviolent movie. Eve is the only character with a gun. Humanity is almost destroyed by its self-inflicted pleasures, not its self-inflicted pains. The memory of war seems to have vanished. But the replaying of human history that Pixar offers us is striking in its elimination of the art (and anti-art) that emerged in the wake of European civilization’s destruction during the first decade of the 20th century. (Cf. Thomas Pynchon’s rumination that after World War I all history properly belongs to the history of hell.) That art and anti-art — I’m thinking Cubism, Dada, Futurism, and Surrealism, for just a handful of examples — revolved around the rape and death of organic forms by geometric and technological forms. (For more on this, see Philip Rieff’s My Life among the Deathworks, especially on Picasso and Duchamp. But see id. on Arcimboldo). In another act of having their cake and eating it too, the filmmakers have managed to present us a dystopian, sub-human future overrun by robots that isn’t the result of war — only to leave us walking out of the theater with an almost subliminal recollection that our real technological dehumanization, which has penetrated deep into our modern ‘sense of self’, was precisely the consequence of our thrall to destructive power.