So one of the in-theater previews that seems to be accompanying G-rated movies at the moment is for “Bolt,” a Disney film coming out around Thanksgiving. The next paragraph is my best effort to explain its dizzying layers, but the easiest way to understand the discussion that follows is to watch the trailer, here.
The central character is Bolt, a heroic talking dog who protects a little girl from evil villains. Except, he’s not really heroic because he’s actually an actor, in a TV show inside the movie. The TV show is about a heroic dog who protects a little girl from evil villains. What Bolt doesn’t recognize is that he is an actor-dog, playing a hero-dog on a TV show, inside a movie. Only his costars (like the actress-character who plays the little girl in the TV show within the movie) know that he’s an actor.
The amount of wising up required, in order to appreciate the Bolt idea, is staggering. As a viewer, you are expected to understand that you’re watching an actor, playing a dog who “really” is an actor-dog playing a hero-dog, not that he knows it. Since the central action of the film revolves around the actor-dog’s false belief in the authenticity of his hero-dog role, you have to suspend your disbelief of the actor-dog’s implausible ignorance. Can anyone capable of that also be capable of genuine childlike wonder? I’m not sure.
If you’ve read The Tipping Point (and you have… c’mon…. admit it), you may recall a related vignette about a certain episode of Sesame Street, in which Big Bird searches for a new name. The plot of the episode was fun for adults—-Big Bird, in a moment of existential ennui, concludes that his name is oddly functional and lacking in character, and spends the rest of the episode looking for a new one. But the story was confusing to young children, who speed up their learning about the world by assuming (usually correctly) that the things they encounter have one consistent name apiece. The layering was overkill. It makes for an interesting vignette because most of us have long since forgotten what it would be like to lack layers, to view the world as a simple place where the distance between things-as-they-are and things-as-described doesn’t hold a lot of inherent interest.
From Big Bird to Bolt, it seems, we’ve come a long way. But I’m not sure I like the progression. I’m tempted to say that if a typical five-year-old is Bolt-ready, we are doing way, way too much wising up of young kids, way, way too early. My favorite book on this subject is Thomas de Zengotita’s Mediated. De Zengotita writes as if he were speaking, and the book diagnoses this layering as a serious problem—-we aren’t able to experience reality because we’re too darn busy experiencing unreality, and judging things as being unreal in particular ways. It’s as though the only conversation we can have is about layering; everything is unreal and we are constantly tied up diagnosing its unreality.
And now a confession. When I’m writing or reading about mediation, I go back and forth between thinking it’s really profound—-maybe the central observation possible about the world we live in—-and thinking that it’s a bunch of self-referential, naval-gazing nonsense. Either way, there’s a simple truth at the bottom: Exposing young kids to the vertigo of a film like Bolt is, on some level, totally nuts.