METAMERICANA: THE LEGO MOVIE: Metamodernism for Kids

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by Seth Abramson
February 14, 2014 1:44 PM
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This biweekly column looks at instances of American film, television, drama, and comedy that are in some way self-referential—"art about art." Also discussed is American metamodernism, a cultural paradigm that uses both fragmentary and contradictory data to produce new forms of coherence.

Note: This piece contains spoilers.

Unlike modernism and postmodernism, the first principles of metamodernism are fairly easy to understand. The basic premise is that we’re constantly caught between opposing concepts like “knowledge” and “doubt,” “reality” and “unreality,” and “Art” and “Life”; learning to move quickly between these concepts may be our best hope yet of regaining a sense of self in the Internet Age. The core message here is simple enough, in fact so simple that not only could a child pick it up quickly, it’s arguably children who understand the metamodern “cultural paradigm” better than anyone. Children, unlike their parents, move more or less seamlessly from the realm of fantasy to the aggressive insistence of reality. In fact, they daily face the prospect of having the things they think they know undermined by their elders. And while we don’t often associate childhood with High Art, certainly the most popular child’s toy in human history—Lego building blocks—is designed to let children forget their often restrictive lives for a while and bask, instead, in their own limitless ingenuity. Legos may or may not constitute building blocks for art, but if you’ve ever seen a child (or even an “AFOL,” an Adult Fan of Lego) mucking about with them, it’s hard to tell the difference between transient play and committed artistry. Which is exactly the point The Lego Movie wants to make to kids and adults alike: It’s okay not to know where to put things, or to put things in a place they don’t seem to belong, or to let your imagination outstrip your common sense. It’s equal parts a simple message of empowerment for kids and one sophisticated enough to deserve the adjective “metamodern,” making The Lego Movie the first unabashedly metamodern children’s film in Hollywood history.

In The Lego Movie—a film that combines actual Lego models, stop-motion animation, and (to a much greater extent) high-quality CG animation—an ordinary Lego minifigure of no great distinction, Emmet, learns that he alone has the means to stop the evil Lord Business from gluing together all the building blocks that comprise his universe. The metaphor is, at first blush, a pretty obvious one: Lord Business (Will Ferrell) wants to end dynamism of all kinds, including creativity, in order to better control all aspects of Lego (and, metaphorically, human) existence. As instruments for his nefarious scheme, Lord Business uses “micromanagers,” giant robotic Lego constructions whose literal purpose mirrors the emotional work so many human adults engage in every day: meticulously arranging existential elements whose native state is wild, unruly, and wonderful. Certainly, it’s no secret that much of what makes living worthwhile—the many forms of love; the many forms of courage; the boundlessness of creativity—makes little sense when we subject it to the petty prescriptions of micromanagement.

What’s most striking about The Lego Movie, however, putting aside the colorfulness and frenetic whirl of the film’s terrific action sequences, is how often one spots strange “glitches” in this superlative but otherwise predictable children’s film. Certain lines of dialogue seem oddly childish; certain Lego constructions in the film seem peculiarly inept (perhaps because Lego ran contests permitting fans to submit designs for the movie); on occasion the sound effects seem to be produced by a child, rather than a computer; and certain elements of Emmet’s world are clearly non-Lego (e.g., a battery, a band-aid, an X-ACTO knife, and the mega-weapon Lord Business plans to usher in the Apocalypse with, Krazy Glue). In fact, much of the humor of The Lego Movie—and there’s quite a lot of it—can be described as a persistent “badness” children are likely to miss because it matches their sensibilities, and adults are incapable of missing because it so offends theirs. At one point, Batman (Will Arnett) sings for the assembled team of anti-Business “Master Builders” a theme song that he’s written for himself. These are those lyrics (verbatim):

Yes, this is real music. Dark. Brooding. Important. Ground-breaking. Check out the lyrics: ‘Darkness! No parents! Continued darkness!’ (More darkness, get it!) ‘The opposite of light! Black hole! Curtains drawn! In the basement, middle of the night, blacked-out windows! Other places that are dark! Black suit! Black coffee!’ (You get it; that’s just the first verse.) ‘Darkness! No parents! Super-rich! Kind of makes it better...’

Not only is this song “meta” in the conventional sense—it’s a theme song that foregrounds its own writing process—it’s also just the sort of stream-of-consciousness semi-nonsense that a child might make up, so hearing it from the mouth of the self-serious Batman is more or less instant comedy. But this self-referentiality is hardly limited to Arnett’s Batman; in fact, it is a trait of many of the film’s characters and scenarios. Emmet gives uncomfortably detailed descriptions of his own personal qualities; lead female Lego “Wyldstyle” (Elizabeth Banks) has a name so preposterously self-conscious that its irksome fakeness is constantly being remarked upon by other characters; Morgan Freeman’s Gandalf-like Vitruvius veers wildly from Morgan Freeman in Glory to a ten year-old version of Morgan Freeman to a wise-cracking take on Morgan Freeman playing God (literally) in Bruce Almighty

Freeman’s Vitruvius is perhaps the best example of the film’s revealing peculiarities. Early on, the character’s eyes begin glowing as he recites a prophecy that purportedly heralds Emmet’s heroism. However, this physical manifestation of authenticity is undercut by the fact that the Prophecy’s language contains a unambiguous concession that it’s all made-up nonsense. According to the language of the Prophecy itself, the Prophecy must be true “because it rhymes”—a line Vitruvius recites as though he’s just made it up. So what should we believe, our eyes or our ears? Later, Vitruvius is the subject of one of those cinematic shots in which a character leans into the frame from off-screen to address a comedic quip to the camera; the oddity here is that as soon as Freeman’s bearded sage begins leaning, the camera shifts to a different perspective, from which perspective the character’s posture  looks artificial and unnecessary. Later still, when Vitruvius “dies,” he appears—for the first time—with a string wrapped around his waist to help him “fly,” even though he’d previously done more or less the equivalent without such an aid. In other words, one never feels entirely certain what Vitruvius is supposed to be, even in moments of dramatic tension that normally would call for stability of character.

The divide between sincerity and irony is also critical to metamodernism, and oscillation between those two poles is everywhere in The Lego Movie. The film’s main theme, “Everything Is Awesome” (performed by sister duo Tegan & Sara), concludes with a lengthy rap by The Lonely Island (Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone, and Akiva Schaffer) that features the following lyrics (video here):

Life is good, ‘cause everything’s awesome!

Lost my job, it’s a new opportunity—

more free time for my awesome community!

Stepped in mud, got new brown shoes:

It’s awesome to win, it’s awesome to lose!

Blue skies, bouncy springs, we just named

two awesome things!

A Nobel Prize, a piece of string,

you know what’s awesome? Everything!

Everything you see, think, or say is awesome!

In the pre-metamodern world, these lyrics would be immediately (and rightly) received as ironic. These days, not so much. In fact, it’s impossible to tell whether the exuberance behind the song above is real or feigned, as it’s simultaneously the anthem for a repressive totalitarian state run by Lord Business and an unbearably catchy, optimistic tune the high-spirited Emmet continues to enjoy even after its sinister intentions are revealed.

All in all, the film’s inconsistencies feel like those a child would impose on his own play—which, we soon discover, is exactly what they are. The Lego Movie is, it turns out, a movie within a movie within a movie, inasmuch as the “frame” for the film is a live-action sequence whose lead character (“Finn,” played by Jadon Sand) is purportedly creating all the scenarios that comprise the film. This tidy bit of metanarrative is complicated by the fact that the characters of the film-within-a-film repeatedly act in ways Finn clearly does not control. For instance, once Emmet has been tossed out of his carefully constructed Lego world and into our “real” world, we still see him acting in an animated fashion that’s undoubtedly not the product of Finn’s imagination. In one devilishly creepy moment, Emmet—at this point supposedly an inert, “actual” Lego minifigure—flops about on a table in order to escape the machinations of Will Ferrell (now playing, as himself, The Man Upstairs, Finn’s father). It’s all pretty heady stuff for a kids’ flick.

The Lego Movie treats knowledge, reality, and creativity as being so interchangeable with ignorance, fantasy, and autobiography that the entire film exists in a metamodern space that’s simultaneously all and none of these things. The fact that, for perhaps the first time in movie history, children who see a film can go out after the final credits roll and purchase the exact objects that appeared in the movie (not recreations, but the same Lego sets that were used on screen) makes this a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie. That is, given that the movie implicitly urges children to purchase toys that emphasize the movie’s own artificiality and reproducibility—the script, as noted, is really just audio from a child’s play session—means that any child who sees The Lego Movie can become the director of his or her own similar (or even identical) film.

But The Lego Movie—arguably, as we’re seeing, the most cerebral children’s film yet produced—doesn’t stop there. Superimposed over many of the shots in the film are the identification numbers for individual Lego pieces, data few children are likely to know or understand but which are common currency in the world of AFOLs and real-life “Master Builders” (the term for those Lego employees who design and build the Danish company’s intricate sets). What this suggests is that, even as the film instructs children and adults alike on how important it is to deviate from life’s many implicit and explicit “instructions,” the people who make Legos are also using the film as a paean to their own love of the ubiquitous building blocks. This is a paradox of sorts, as Lego’s Master Builders are tasked with putting together the very instruction manuals the movie hints are a source of evil—including, in a vicious twist, the instruction manuals that tell children how to make the sets from the movie that were (in movie terms) explicitly made without instructions. So we see in the thematic strokes of The Lego Movie a yearning for freedom that the film’s developers might well have been directing not merely at themselves but also their employers. Does that make this a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie within a movie? I don’t know. But certainly, the fact that the very same Lego folks who are spoken to directly by the film’s thematic through-lines had to later design the allegedly hodge-podge Lego constructions that appeared in the movie means that the ending of The Lego Movie is finally an unhappy one: it seems there’s no escape from Art when you choose (as Lego Master Builders do) to make Art your Life.

In the years to come, devoted metamodernists will surely come to regard The Lego Movie as one of the most intricate renderings of metamodernism ever brought to the silver screen. I just came from seeing the film, and find myself very much enmeshed in a metamodern state: I don’t know what in this movie is “real” (that is, depending upon how you look at it, created with deliberation by Lego Master Builders, or created on the spot by Finn’s play session, another child’s play session, or the childlike improvisation of clever adults like Will Arnett) and what is “unreal” (that is, depending upon how you look at it, the product of some “magic” inherent in the Lego characters depicted by the film, or the product of a screenwriting creativity that’s adult enough to include information neither Finn nor any child could possibly be expected to know). In other words, I find myself, post-Lego Movie, in exactly the same position as the young moviegoers to whom this movie is presumptively targeted. And isn’t feeling like a kid again exactly the sort of sentiment children’s films are supposed to invoke?

{NB: On February 3rd, it was announced that a sequel to The Lego Movie is already in development.}

Seth Abramson is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Thievery (University of Akron Press, 2013). He has published work in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Best New Poets, American Poetry Review, Boston Review, New American Writing, Colorado Review, Denver Quarterly, and The Southern Review. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Harvard Law School, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he was a public defender from 2001 to 2007 and is presently a doctoral candidate in English Literature at University of Wisconsin-Madison. He runs a contemporary poetry review series for The Huffington Post and has covered graduate creative writing programs for Poets & Writers magazine since 2008.

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