Saturday, 5 January 2008

Alvin and the Chipmunks: Requiem For Class Consciousness

Yesterday I offered to take my son to the cinema. Asking Josh what he wanted to see, he informed me he would like to watch "Alvin and the Chipmunks" because, apparently, I did something to offend God in one of my previous lives.

Or so I thought. But what I had worried would be a turgid, banal experience chronicling the unlikely escapades of squeaky voiced vermin was, in fact, a polemic about the disenfranchisement of the workers and their alienation from their fellow men at the hands of the ruling class. I left the cinema richer in knowledge about myself and the world I live in. While I want to spend most of this article discussing the themes and subtexts of the film in a literary sense, where appropriate, for example where I feel a particular insight doesn't fit into the overarching narrative, I will report it alongside the text in a bullet point

  • like this one

But on to the main event. To understand the haunting Marxist subtext of this film it’s necessary to briefly outline the plot.

Alvin, Simon and Theodore are chipmunks who live in a tree. "Dave" (his last name is never given, I assume, so as to symbolise his ‘everyman’ status) is a struggling songwriter living in the suburbs. Their lives are thrown together when the chipmunks’ tree is chopped down and erected as decoration at the headquarters of the music label “Dave” is trying to get signed to. Dave is rejected brutally by the record label’s boss, Joe. Stealing a basket of muffins as he leaves, Dave unwittingly brings the hiding chipmunks into his home.

  • Crushing up popcorn in your hands can help relieve what would otherwise be fatal levels of stress

It would be easy to argue that the characters are no more than tired class stereotypes, the cardboard cutouts so beloved of modern agitprop cinema. Dave is the listless, disaffected suburban worker who dreams of escaping his day job for a more 'creative' career, but who is held back both by soulless corporations, and his own poverty of ambition. The Chipmunks are little better than serfs; their very home is wantonly destroyed by a capitalist machine they are incapable of understanding, let alone stopping. So far, so Brecht, you are probably thinking. Indeed, I was beginning to wonder if we were in for an unnecessary retelling of the familiar Dickensian (or even Orwellian) stories of class struggle. What I got was much closer to a narrative re-telling of Das Kapital .

Dave offers the rodents and his friends a place to stay in return for them agreeing to provide vocals for his songs. It is this level of understanding of the bourgeois middle class mindset which elevates 'Alvin' above mere
Brechtian fairytale - Dave is not merely a two dimensional victim of the system, but an active proponent of it! When given the opportunity he is happy to exploit the chipmunks' homelessness and talent, pimping their creativity to his social betters like some kind of slum landlord. In return, the chipmunks not only fail to see the nature of this exploitation but even start to see Dave as a paternalistic figure - a perhaps self conscious echo of the relationship between the Artful Dodger and Fagin in Oliver Twist. The Chipmunks' songs (that they are Christmas songs is just one of the numerous nodding asides given to the film's growing riff on the power of commercialism) are a huge hit.

  • Talking animals, if discovered, would not be endlessly studied by astonished scientists, but would in fact be given major record contracts on prominent music labels

During the course of the film, the chipmunks are forced to chose between two forms of societal oppression - the oppressive quasi-familial environment to which they have become accustomed in Dave's home, or a new, (perhaps fundamentally more honest) nakedly capitalistic relationship with their record label manager 'uncle Joe'. The themes explored here - the corrupting influence of wealth, the exploitative nature of the music industry - are perhaps over familiar, but are explored with such a light touch by director Alan Smithee that what would be considered lazy Neo-Marxism in other films is easily forgiven here. What really strikes home is the bold truth, not proposed but merely acknowledged here that the family at it's core functions first and foremost as an economic unit. While we may reject, or disagree with this assessment, we can but applaud Alvin And The Chipmunks for raising what is a difficult and oft ignored topic.

  • Biting the inside of your lip til it bleeds can provide a welcome distraction from events going on around you

The final pastiche - in which 'Uncle Al' discovers that 'his' Chipmunks have in fact escaped and been replaced by tasteless plush toys, the very toys he has been selling, tasteless, soulless, fundamentally empty representations of the 'Munks themselves - is a joy to behold. While the literal representation of a metpahorical idea - that the Chipmunks had become mere commodities in Joe's eyes, objects to be bought and sold - would seem heavy handed in other, less incisive films, here it is a delight.

Lest you think, however, that the ending is in any way simplistic, know that we are left pondering the ambiguous, almost mercenary nature of Dave and the Chipmunks' new 'family' - at once a haunting reference to the exploitative and damaging way in which so many child stars, from Michael Jackson to Donnie Osmond have been raised, and, simultaneously, a chilling critique of the way capitalism can turn all human relationships, however sacred, into mere economic transactions.

  • Pretending an astonishingly tedious film has in fact got a rich and challenging subtext may save your sanity, but it's no sure thing.
The film is not without it's faults. It suffers from a failure to have genetically engineered and then trained live chipmunks for the roles of Alvin, Simon and Theodore, forcing the viewers instead to suspend their belief over hideous C.G.I. monstrosities. While the alternative would have cost many hundreds of billions of pounds, it would surely have cemented this film's place as the only motion picture to entirely pinpoint and explain the human condition in all of it's splendour and complexity. Instead, while I remain confident that this will be the last film ever made, as no other director, writer, actor or producer will dare even attempt to use the medium of cinema again after such a final and all encompassing masterpiece, one cannot help but feel an opportunity has been missed.

A few explosions or a car chase would have been nice too

Finally, I cannot help the feel the film has been poorly marketed. Surveying the cinema I noticed that the vast majority of the audience were children, many of whom will have missed the finer points of the socialist dialectic expounded in the film. Josh, for example, seemed to enjoy the film itself, but then was totally bewildered during the four hour blow by blow recap of the narrative that I gave him - frequently crying with frustration at his inability to grasp the concepts the film had so eloquently explored.

These quibbles aside, however, it would be intellectually dishonest for me not to state that this was simply the best film that has ever been made - and indeed the only one anybody should ever bother watching, as all others seem disgustingly bad in comparison.


  • Whatever I did to so anger our Lord, it must have been very, very bad.

1 comment:

jackydeath said...

YOU should see Match point. i never had a film anger me so much.