Monday, June 13, 2005

Made For Use, But Not Yours

The most charming moments in Brad Bird's lovely childhood fable, The Iron Giant, come when the Giant behaves like a pet or a toy. When he peers through the dark forest at Hogarth's retreating car, or sits patiently in the barn, we get a warm fuzzy feeling in our bellies, like everything's going to be okay.

But Brad Bird is too clever to relax with that sort of feeling. And part of what makes The Iron Giant so compelling is the graceful way in which he transforms the Giant from an innocent plaything to a steadily more powerful, and at last terrifyingly so, being.

Hogarth's words, upon learning what he has stumbled upon are: "My own giant robot! I am the luckiest kid in America!"

And in a way he is the luckiest kid, but the Giant doesn't belong to him. And Hogarth's journey, rendered almost effortless, is to travel from owner to friend, from one who commands to one who shares. The Giant gains more and more independence as the film goes on. His fateful cannonball is an announcement of his ability to simultaneously fulfill both Hogarth's desires and his own sense of humour and whimsy, and Hogarth responds with joy at seeing his "toy" begin to transform into the friend he doesn't seem to have.

Hogarth is fundamentally wrong about the nature of the Giant. It isn't a toy put in place for him to make use of. What exactly it is is never made very clear, but that doesn't matter: what matters is that it isn't what Hogarth thinks it is.

We like to imagine that the world was made to supply us with assorted things, and we're often very very good at(and very sneaky about) basing many of our feelings and decisions on that imagination. Something bad happens and we feel slighted. Something good happens and we feel vindicated. Neither, most likely, had anything to do with our actual worth, and yet it's very difficult for us to remember that. It's a scary world that doesn't pay ANY attention to our "deservingness", that doesn't reward or punish according to any code or standard.

Hogarth learns that, however. He learns that despite what he wishes were so, the Giant wasn't put here for his entertainment, nor even to cure his loneliness. That learning is painful and scary (as learning always is), but here comes the magic ingredient once again: love. It is Hogarth's unselfish love for his gigantic friend that makes it possible not only for him to recognize that the Giant's purpose isn't contained within his own needs, but also allows the Giant to discover that its purpose is not contained within the limits of its design. What it was made to be is not what it must be.

That which is alive bursts through the boundaries placed upon it. In a discussion this morning with Blake and Barbara and Jill on education, the idea came up that you cannot come up with a set of categories that you could coherently describe all people completely with, because what's important about people is precisely the sort of thing that doesn't fit into anyone's categories.

A robot ought to fit into categories; it's constructed. Designed with a purpose. It OUGHT to be more straightjacketed, more restricted, more oppressed and trapped and unable to change than any human ever could be. But by beginning to value not what it was made for but what it has to give, and what others have to give it, the Giant resists all those forces dragging it into darkness and becomes a hero.

And in that final, shattering moment, the Giant smiles and whispers to itself what it at last understands it has become: "Superman."