The film Coco got best animated film at the Golden Globes yesterday. You should go.
Like all outstanding works for children, it works best as a way of getting adults into the theatre to make them understand some things as only their forgotten and frail child-self can.
In Coco, the thing it is trying to get our best child-self to understand is how passing on our memories of our ancestors is a fundamental building block to the identity formation of all who succeed us, and it’s really hard to function without that.
Coco does this with the time-honoured storytelling device of slipping from this prosaic world into a vast dreamy world of near-parables, one far more alluring, complex, and testing than our own. Then it brings you back with all the issues resolved and the dream-lessons slipping and interrupting slightly into this world. The best literary comparison to Coco, shifting from Mexico to Pakistan, is Salman Rushdie’s ‘Haroun and the Sea of Stories’ – it’s fun, and dense, and true.
Coco, set in Mexico, concentrates on the images of venerated uncles and aunties now dead, and figures how to keep them ‘alive’, so to speak. It circles this around the Day of the Dead.
About a century ago, philosophers noted how the energy of societal attention previously devoted to paintings seemed to be dissipating with the popularization of photography. Now in our age, we look on still photography portraits with an inattentive nostalgia we only barely register when seeing them on the walls of elderly relatives when we visit them on holiday. Our attitude to images of relatives has vastly altered in the course of a decade as our trillions of selfies are never viewed again, are held in ‘clouds’ of immateriality, and ensure that our memories of those who have gone and all they have done are as fleeting as a sleeping breath.
Coco reminds us that still photography portraits hold the same aura of a life as powerfully as religious icons do for many cultures. Walter Benjamin’s book of nearly a century ago, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Reproduction’ tells us that there are ages where the whole mode of human sense perception changes with our dominant mode of existence. The manner in which human sense perception is organized, the medium in which it is accomplished, is determined within a nexus of sensory activity, new available technology, and history. We are in one now.
If Walter Benjamin was worried about loss of aura from painting to photography and film, he’d understand what part of our old form of being human we lose when our minds are outsourced into a server. We fade faster, and we are forgotten faster, than ever before.
The message of Coco is clear: bind the living and the dead with memories retold and stabilized. In doing so, secure who you are. Then through that security define your own story as the wellspring of your imaginative self.
So take your kids, and take your parents. You will weep for all you are losing.