Friday, June 15, 2012

Trapeze Americano: the Capitalist Circus & Madagascar 3

Don't do what I did, please, and expect from Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted a show reflecting the trailer; it does have moments of being slightly annoying, however, the film demonstrates the ups and downs of capitalism over the last couple of years in sophisticated array and why it is imperative not to abandon the system. Madagascar 3 does four things extremely well: one, it reminds us what has happened to capitalism the last several years; two, it draws differences between the American and French Revolutions; three, it makes a surprising judgment on what happens in a capitalist system when faith in God is abandoned which leads us into the fourth point, the reasons why the Soviet Union collapsed and how Russia is vital to America today. Yes, this is all in Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted.
This film is very much like a group of immigrants making their way to America, and if they aren't enough for you, then the European Circus they join with should convince you that the American dream is still alive and well in Europe, and that's probably what's meant by Europe's "most wanted": what does Europe most want? A high-standard of living, security, and personal freedom.
The film starts in Africa, and Alex the lion is worried that the penguins, who took off to Monte Carlo, aren't going to come back to Africa to return the gang to their home in New York City. It's Alex's birthday, so the gang formed a mud model of New York City for him: Gloria the hippo becomes the Statue of Liberty, saying, "Give me your huddled masses," (line from the plaque on the statue), there is 5th Avenue and Times Square and the Zoo, their home; what's the point of this? The animals made this from memory, and the exile of the animals is the same as the exile of capitalists; the longing they have for New York City is the longing we have for the traditional American monetary system (please recall, if you will, The Avengers, and how a warhead had been fired at Wall Street but billionaire Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) diverted it and saved Wall Street, i.e., American capitalism).
The penguins, cleaver creatures, made an airplane and flew to Monte Carlo for a "gambling spree." What gambling spree would that be? The Wall Street Crash of 2008, the subject of Margin Call, as well as the greed of corrupt investors such as Bernie Madoff, which prompted films such as The Descendants to call for the end of American capitalism and start socialism (please see Hollywood's Political Scorecard: the Capitalists & Socialists for more). The animals being marooned in the barren grass land of Africa is because New York City is mud, it's not just a model for Alex's birthday, but a sign that--like Alex's nightmare of growing old--capitalism, too, has grown old and is exiled, never to return. Alex decides, however, that it's best to go to Monte Carlo, find the penguins, and force them to return them to NYC.
The penguins in their torn up room in Monte Carlo. They have a pillow fight, one of them ripping open the pillow, feathers flying everywhere and Skipper crying, they are full of baby birds! What does that mean? The humble pillow-stuffing and the guests in the luxury room are the same, birds (i,.e., the upper class) and it's self-destructive to take advantage of the lower-class and think it won't have repercussions on the upper-class, contrariwise is also true.
This is where everything gets really interesting.
The penguins and monkeys have wrecked their room but when we go down to the gambling floor, the monkeys, Phil and Mason, have dressed up like "the King of Versailles" (much more on this below) and are winning all their bets. When Alex sees the Penguins, Skipper asks, "What's New Pussycat?" punning off Alex being a cat (a lion) and the 1965 Peter O'Toole/Woody Allen film of the same name. Why is that important? Peter O'Toole's character plays a womanizer who can't be faithful, even incapable of taking responsibility for his actions at times. Without a doubt, this innuendo and the penguins behavior in wrecking their room demonstrates one of the well-known problems of capitalism: just like Bernie Madoff and Lehman Brothers' unethical actions (to say the least) when greed escalates, capitalism becomes unruly and ugly; that's why there is a need for faith (more on that below).
Alex has a four part plan for Operation: Penguin Extraction: first, get the penguins, then really chew them out for not coming back to get them sooner; then apologize for chewing them out, then get back to New York City. When Alex and Marty the Zebra finally get the penguins to a good spot, Alex asks Marty, where are we in the plan? Marty answers, part three! So Alex immediately apologizes to the penguins, skipping over the beating they deserve. What does this reflect? The Wall Street bailout enacted by the Obama Administration to save those who had brought America into a financial crisis instead of punishing them for poor oversight and a lack of regulation.
Now we can begin the surprising lesson of the film: the differences between the American and French Revolutions. Chantal DuBois is the head of animal control in Monte Carlo and is called in to take care of the threat the gang poses. DuBois, the "crazy" as the penguins call her, is crazy. What do we first see about her? All the "heads" mounted on her wall. What are the French best known for? The French Revolution.  What is the French Revolution best known for? Beheadings. Thousands and thousands were decapitated during the political upheaval, including the "King of Versailles." What DuBois
At times moving like a spider, and other times like a blood-hound, the animal tendencies of DuBois are meant to remind viewers that the Republic of France is officially of no religion, hence, officially, it subscribes to the evolutionary model of the creation of the universe (Darwinism, simply stated but not wholly accurate). Later, when DuBois tries to awaken her injured force, she sings,  Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, (I Have No Regrets)  made famous by Edith Piaf who was portrayed by Marion Cotillard in La Vie En Rose; in turn, Cotillard also starred in Christopher Nolan's 2010 hit Inception which incorporated the song when the extraction agents have to be woken up. Why is all this important? It counters the evolutionary universe with the chaotic universe. Again, a chaotic universe understands the development of the world in very different terms from evolution which excludes the role/being of God. While chaos does not include God, it does not rule God out in creation. In Madagascar 3, having the French woman DuBois at the inner-most circle of a spiraling set of references based on the song she sings, suggests that the film--along with numerous action sequences--supports a chaotic universe, not the evolutionary one.
While films such as Dark Shadows, The Descendants and The Hunger Games are calling for a French Revolution in the United States to burn down the upper-class and the religious orders, Madagascar 3, however, calls for us to remember why our ancestors and founding fathers chose capitalism as the economic model for America: the freedom to invent. While the intelligent but irresponsible penguins (rather like billionaire Tony Stark of Iron Man fame) are the vehicle (the plane) for the return to New York (the plane crashes and the monkeys working the plane run off because in France, "The labor laws are more lenient and they only work 2 weeks out of the year") it's the re-inventing of the circus from the regular animals (the "middle class") that allows them to fulfill their own dreams and get to America (like the immigrants flocking to Ellis Island). It's the penguins, though, who had the cash to buy (read: invest) the circus so the gang had the chance to get back to America (read: proving that capitalism is still a good working system and needs to be given another chance).
Alex rallying the circus animals to re-invent themselves and helping everyone, like in Moneyball, to understand what their real talent is and use that, not only for greater personal happiness, but for the greater good, as well.
Something quite interesting happens, which brings us to our third point of discussion. King Julien, the lemur, falls in love with Sonya the bear who rides a tricycle. Sonya breaks the tricycle and Julien promises to buy her "something better,"; we see them in Vatican City and Julien kisses the ring of the Pope, stealing the ring off the Pope's hand in his mouth, then Julien and Sonya are on a motorcycle, riding out of a bike shop. Later, the Italian seal lion Stefano tries to pray as Vitaly the Russian tiger is going to do his act and Stefano tries to pray the Hail Mary (uttering Santa Maria, over and over until he can't remember the words and doesn't know what to say) as a prayer to help Vitaly. What does this mean? The "trade in" of faith (the Pope's ring) for material goods (the motorcycle) means that later, when we need God's help, we won't remember how to ask for it (Stefano trying to pray).
Three questions need to be asked about Vitaly the Russian Tiger: first, why does he jump through such small hoops, why does he use olive oil and why don't we see him jump through the hoops? The conditioner which Alex gives to Vitaly helps Vitaly to have a "healthy" coat, that is, the leadership in Russia isn't "greasy" like the olive oil, or going to "burn" the people because of corruption, but the coat has become more natural with the right "cleansing agent" that will help to strengthen it and make it strong.
Catholics will know that Our Lady of Fatima appeared in 1917 asking for prayers for the conversion of Russia. As Stefano is praying, it's at the same moment that Vitaly is trying to "be converted" from not jumping through his hoops anymore to jumping through them again. While Stefano messes up his prayers, he still wants to be able to pray, and Vitaly needs the prayers. Madagascar 3 is suggesting that we need to continue our prayers and that leads us to understanding who Vitaly is and his importance to "the circus."
Vitaly's original act was to jump through super small hoops after dumping olive oil on himself so he could get through, however, we the audience never saw it, just saw him on the other side. The hoops the Russian jumps through symbolizes the "tight squeezes" throughout Russian history that, somehow, they always managed to get through (consider the reign of Ivan the Terrible, the Napoleonic Wars, the October Revolution, World War I and World War II, the reign of Stalin, Chernobyl and then the transfer to a market economy); somehow, Russia always "squeezes by"; why don't we see it? The Iron Curtain hid most of Russia's activities, and they still aren't very trustful today, and that helps to explain why Vitaly dumps flammable olive oil over himself.
Where does olive oil originate? Greece. What is Greece known for? It's debt crisis caused by corrupt government officials hiding the real nature of their spending. Russia has the second most corrupt government in Europe (after Ukraine) and that is reflects part of the reason the country's GDP hasn't grown faster because other countries are simply afraid of the corruption of doing business with Russian officials, hence, when Vitaly pours olive oil (Greece's "greasy political practices") over himself he gets "burned" (the Russian economy lags behind and the people are hurt by the very practice they thought would protect them, the oil). This point is "vital" to make because it reminds us that it's not capitalism that is the cause of Russian economic woes, but their own corrupt leaders.
Why "can only people and penguins drive?" People because we invented cars and we have the necessary intellectual and physical means to do so; penguins because they work together as a team in unison while taking directions, which is why the penguins are so successful. Skipper is a "skipper" of the ship of state (the state of the penguins, at least) and his strong leadership allows each of them to be employed in what their strengths and talents are, as in Moneyball.
But Vitaly is also "vital" to the circus for another reason: the circus symbolizes capitalism in general, and the "trapeze Americano" is the "balancing act" America can do between the upper-classes and the middle-class self-realization (the circus re-inventing itself and getting to America)  and the turn-around in difference between the Soviet Union to Russia is vital to the international community in remembering the successes of what the market economy can do:
Since the turn of the 21st century, higher domestic consumption and greater political stability have bolstered economic growth in Russia. The country ended 2008 with its ninth straight year of growth, averaging 7% annually between 2000 and 2008. Real GDP per capita, PPP (current international $) was 19,840 in 2010. Growth was primarily driven by non-traded services and goods for the domestic market, as opposed to oil or mineral extraction and exports. The average nominal salary in Russia was $640 per month in early 2008, up from $80 in 2000. In the end of 2010 the average nominal monthly wages reached 21,192 RUR (or $750 USD), while tax on the income of individuals is payable at the rate of 13% on most incomes. Approximately 13.7% of Russians lived below the national poverty line in 2010 significantly down from 40% in 1998 at the worst point of the post-Soviet collapse. Unemployment in Russia was at 6% in 2007, down from about 12.4% in 1999. The middle class has grown from just 8 million persons in 2000 to 55 million persons in 2006 (Wikipedia).
Towards the end, the gang goes back to the zoo and Alex, the lion and "king" that DuBois wants beheaded (read: French Revolution), is about to get sawed in two. The circus animals that the gang has parted ways with have the choice of going to help Alex and the others or seeing to their own circus. The motto throughout the film is, "Circus sticks together," and when one of the animals suggests that Alex and the others were never really circus, Vitaly the Russian Tiger responds, "That's Bolshevik!" (as a play on the phrase "That's bullsh**!") and he's right: the circus, again, is a symbol for how capitalism works globally, and Vitaly saying that for him to not come to the aid of his capitalist friends is Bolshevik is Bolshevik. Skipper the penguin says, "I never thought I would say this on American soil, but the Russkie's right!" and that's because, by virtue of re-inventing himself, Vitaly can make the call that capitalists look out for each other, and that brings the penguins in line, too.
What got the gang and the circus to America, besides the clever re-inventing of themselves to be opposite the Cirque du Soleil (an all-human circus) to be an all animal circus, is the American investor looking to offer the circus a contract-tour through America if they can impress him. It's a great shot when Phil and Mason, dressed as the King of Versailles, stands beside the American investor with the deed between them in an obvious statement that America won't do to our upper-classes what the French Revolution did to theirs; but there's another reason for that as well.
Whether it's Gloria the hippo on the tightrope or Marty the Zebra being launched through the air, or Alex the lion on the trapeze, these animals are flying in a clear indication of "upward mobility," i.e., they are not bound by social structures the way a solid gold airplane is bound by the laws of physics to be unable to fly (the penguins want to be a solid gold airplane, not only revealing frivolity, but that there is a law of physics which contradicts capitalism's law of social and class mobility). The animals flying not only demonstrates how all of us in America can "reach for the stars," but also actually attain it.
In conclusion, Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted steps up to the plate to bat for capitalism. Every aspect of the film contributes to a anti-socialist agenda by showing honestly showing us the faults with capitalism and how it got in the state it's in (the penguins gambling spree) but how it can not only still work, but is the desirable state for America. I know I laughed more than the kids did, but just because it's an animated work, it's definitely one for adults, imparting a valuable lesson for us all.