This piece by Nate Hood originally appeared in the newsletter for the First Presbyterian Church of Delray Beach.
One of the most beautiful passages in the entire Bible is the twenty-sixth verse of the second chapter of Genesis. It happens immediately after God reaches into Adam, plucks a rib, and makes the first woman, Eve, with it. In this wonderful verse, all is well in God’s creation. Man and Woman live together with God in perfect harmony in the Garden, naked, unashamed, innocent. The very next verse introduces the Serpent, and with it a disruption of the Garden’s peace. From there all things rush inevitably towards the Fall. But here in the twenty-sixth verse everything is As It Should Be.
There is, of course, no twenty-sixth verse.
If there was a time of perfect contentment between God and God’s Creation, when all of our needs were met and satisfied, the Bible’s writers thought them irrelevant to the story they sought to tell. I suspect a certain pragmatism on their part, a need to jump straight to the roots of humanity’s current misery and loneliness, our lingering sense of misdirection which so often seems distant from the hand of a loving God. There’s too much sorrow and too little sense in these lives of ours to dwell on a pre-historic time when everything was new and fresh and perfect.
The rest of Genesis—the rest of the entire Bible, even—is the search for this twenty-sixth verse. Humanity has many names for it: the meaning of life, one’s raison d’être, our “purpose.” But whatever we call it, it’s the intangible something we hope will fill the meaning-sized hole in our lives. Some are lucky enough to find it. Some find their life’s purpose in ministry or helping others. Some teach. Some heal. Some build. Some parent. But Joe Gardner? His twenty-sixth verse is music. Ever since the day his dad dragged him into a murky Manhattan jazz club, he knew the sole reason he was put on this earth was to play the piano. It’s what makes him feel complete, like he’s found his center in this universe, his Peace in the Garden. So he toils away at a thankless job teaching middle school band, gigging and auditioning, hoping he can make it as a musician and finally feel whole.
And then, on the day he gets his dream gig at the legendary Half-Note Club, he falls down an open manhole and dies. This is how Pete Docter’s Soul, the latest film from Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios, opens. From there we watch as Joe’s disembodied spirit struggles to get back to his body in time for his performance. After ducking the line to the Great Beyond, he finds himself stuck in the Great Before, a strange land where pre-born souls are molded and readied for life. Through a series of very odd circumstances, he finds himself back on earth trapped in the body of a cat while his actual body is possessed by 22, a rebellious unborn soul he met in the Great Before who has spent literal millennia trying to avoid being born. All you need to know about 22—who is voiced by Tina Fey—is that she chooses to sound like a middle aged white lady because she believes it’s the most annoying voice a person can have and she loves tormenting others with it.
Joe and 22’s odyssey is one of the stranger ones in recent Pixar movies, due in no small part to the involvement of Docter who’s been responsible for some of the studio’s riskiest and most introspective films. He was the filmmaker who gave us Up (2009) with its opening montage which somehow crammed the entire lives of a married couple from their meeting as children to the man’s lonely widowerhood in five heartbreaking minutes. He also directed Inside Out (2015) which dived into the landscape of a young girl’s emotions for a story which argued that negative feelings are just as important as positive ones as they’re all part of what makes a person a person. Docter’s protagonists seldom seek a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow or a princess to rescue from a tower. Instead they find themselves on journeys of self-discovery. They all seek their twenty-sixth verse.
Soul is one of the best Pixar movies in recent years, barely missing the herculean heights of the studio’s golden age in the 00s. There are a couple reasons for this, from its overcomplicated mythos of extra-dimensional zones and intra-dimensional beings to a reliance on slapstick humor that feels like a loss of nerve on the filmmakers’ part, almost like they were afraid their high-concept material would fly over their audience’s head if they didn’t jangle keys in front of them every now and then. And, as many black critics have pointed out, it’s the latest in a depressingly long line of children’s animated films where a black protagonist spends the majority of the film in an animal’s body.
But when Soul is good it’s not just good, it’s great. I won’t give away what happens in the film, but I will linger for a moment on a scene near the end after Joe returns to his apartment after getting his body back. He’s ostensibly gotten his life back in order, attaining the one thing he thought he wanted more than anything else. And yet he still feels unsatisfied. So he puts all the knickknacks and mementos of his whirlwind day on his piano and just…plays. Slowly memories start to wash over him. Good ones. Bad ones. Memories shared with loved ones. Memories spent alone. Memories of boredom and emptiness, of simple contentment in simple things. Light through tree branches. New York City’s skyline. A bite of warm pie. All the things that make Joe a very small part in a very big universe, but one nonetheless so important, so necessary, so loved that his absence caused it to grind to a halt to find him. In that moment Joe realizes that life isn’t our hopes and dreams. Life isn’t our failures or successes. Life is all the moments in-between, no matter how insignificant. The meaning of life is found in its living, and this living is in itself sacred and holy.
I like to think Joe discovered that there is no twenty-sixth verse. We’re all too busy living it.
The Sundance Film Festival starts this week, A curtain raiser will run tomorrow.
There will be no Nightcap next weekend because I will be covering the fest.
Slamdance, which runs February 12th to the 25th is only $10 for everything.
Yes you can see every film playing the festival for only 10 bucks. Considering it always has some of the best films of the year and certainly many of the most interesting you really need to get a pass and binge.
Trust me its such a good deal that it kind of is pointless for me to review anything because you don't have to pick and choose and you won't feel bad if you don't like something you can just move on to something else with no loss.
Details can be found here.
The great streaming platform Fandor has been purchased by Cinedigm. It's going to be run by Phil Hopkins who runs the excellent The Film Detective.
This bodes well for the future
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