The Untimely Lesson of Coco

(warning: spoilers follow)

The new Disney film Coco looks at a timeless dilemma in an untimely way. The dilemma is that between individual and community, between the free self and the claims of family and tradition. By having a living boy dwell among the dead in the spirit world, the film shows the full depths of our contradictory human experience. Our birth sets us on a biography that no one else can share or inhabit from the inside. Our death folds us back into the same cloth. We are at once unique and selfsame. We are, en masse, alone.

Each culture has its own response to this push and pull. The modern west is founded, naturally, on the celebration of the individual. Tradition is seen as irrational, family as arbitrary and stifling, and the community as burdensome. Coco, however, is set in a premodern villa. We know this, because, work life and home life have not yet been thoroughly divorced. There is scant electricity and industry and business have not displaced the master-apprentice economy of handcraft. The square, the market, and the church are the living heart of the town. There is a widely shared and substantive morality, one rooted in shared religious celebration, especially Dia de los Muertos.

In the world of Coco, community, family, and tradition indeed lay heavily on the young. The boy, Miguel Rivera, is born into a rigidly structured arrangement with an identity already fated for him. The Riveras are shoemakers. They have been so now for five generations. The movie takes place on the Day of the Dead, where the living must concentrate on the pictures of the deceased arranged on the altar. The living must visit the graveyard and leave offerings there. The main song of the film is titled “Remember Me,” and it is the task of the living to remember, to hold the past in the present, to become a vessel for the ancestors. It is, to say the least, suffocating for Miguel who desperately wants to follow the bent of his own spirit to strike out and play guitar.

coco

This much, of course, resonates with our modern mythology – the explorers, the pioneers, the self-made men. It is also classic Disney fare, and that portrayal of stifling and hidebound societal norms still painted a fairly accurate picture of the world Walt Disney knew. Main Street, USA, which although quaint and reassuring also left kids dreaming of some escape.

But this is no longer our world, and that is why Coco is untimely. Our children, who sit there gawking at the computer-generated phantasmagoria, are entirely free floating. Forget Main Street, how about Walmart Heights. According to the World Economic Forum, 65% of primary school-aged children will end up working in jobs that do not yet exist. An Oxford study estimated that 47% of current jobs are at risk of elimination by automation. Another report argued that roughly one third of American workers will have to switch jobs in the coming decade due to artificial intelligence.

Whereas Miguel’s future looked all too much like the past, our future has no resemblance whatsoever with what came before. We are approaching the singularity, the point beyond which we cannot see, because what lies ahead is so unfathomably different than what came before. Miguel was overcrowded with remembrance; we have no possible use for it. The week before seeing Coco, I took my kids to the new Star Wars film. It offers such a nostalgic vision of the future – one where skillful human engagement still plays center stage. Master pilots, shrewd generals, disciplined Jedi. Our future is not so human, not so virtuous or skilled. We hardly fly planes anymore. I doubt my kids will ever drive a car. Robots are taking over the operating room. Wall-E is a much more plausible rendition of our future – humans reduced to flabby appendages of the machine.

We live in liquid modernity, where life is fragmented, episodic, and discontinuous, and all relationships are fleeting and contingent. Miguel’s struggle is with the heavy hand of the past. My children’s struggle is with a nihilistic future. Miguel had to find a way to lift the anchor. My kids are adrift with no anchor aboard.

This is why that slogan, Make America Great Again, touched a chord. It is ironic, perhaps, that Trump supporters might find a film set in Mexico scratching such a deep existential itch. It’s that ‘again,’ the act of remembrance, the orienting genius of the past, that catches our attention. Maybe tradition, community, family, church – those enduring, given, and unchosen dimensions of a human life – form a necessary matrix for the equally necessary expression of personal will and choice. That, at any rate, is the moral of Coco. Family and individual can both give just a little and find a way to harmonize. Miguel sees the vicious and vacuous underbelly of individualism (even or especially a version bedecked with fame and fortune). And his family sees the cruelty behind their narrow definition of human possibilities. In the end, Miguel plays music as the others make shoes. It all fits together like, well, arts and crafts.

But whether such a harmony is possible in our modern, or postmodern, times is far more ambivalent. Miguel’s grandmother smashes his homemade guitar, mistaking it for a mortal enemy to her way of life. What the film doesn’t portray are the actual threats, which in her case would be global corporate capitalism, industrial automation, and trade deals – in short ‘development’ or ‘modernization.’ The guitar is an easy mark – what can she smash when something as nebulous as ‘la technique’ sticks its finger in her world and stirs it all up? As for Miguel, what will he do when Napster comes along, and then Amazon and the entire monopolized culture industry? In short, the film is set a century or two too soon to offer us much guidance.

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