Why is The Lego Movie pushing anti-capitalist propaganda?

The villain is named Lord Business, a man who hates “hippie-dippy stuff” and thunders over Bricktown, where the workers drink Over-Priced Coffee™. No wonder Fox News declared the film “anti-capitalist”.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

In his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Richard Hofstadter wrote that “paranoid” was the only word adequate to describe the “the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy” possessed by the extreme actors of the American Right. I had that in mind when I went to see The Lego Movie to investigate Fox Business’s claim that the film was “anti-capitalist” and “pushing its anti-business message to our kids,” expecting to roll my eyes over yet another witch-hunt. 

But I’ll concede this for once in my life: In a sense, Fox was right.

The Lego Movie follows the adventures of Emmet Brickowski, a construction-worker Lego figurine completely devoid of original thoughts or interests. Consequently, he’s the ideal citizen of Bricktown, a Huxleyesque city governed by explicit behavioral instructions issued by corporate oligarch Lord Business – or “President Business,” as he’s known to the sheeple. Everything changes when Emmet finds a bizarre, distinctly un-Lego-like red artifact that makes him “the special,” a savior destined by prophesy to thwart Lord Business’ plans to freeze the world with Krazy Glue. The second and third acts ensue, wherein Emmet joins a cast of Lego-ised pop culture characters on a journey to fulfill that prophesy – which, spoiler alert, is ultimately revealed to be a stand-in for a dispute playing out between a live-action child and the real “President Business,” his anal-retentive father who wants to glue his “adult models” into permanent perfection. 

It’s true: The Lego Movie is pointedly critical of late capitalism consumer culture. The villain is named Lord Business, after all; he hates “hippie-dippy stuff.” The inhabitants of Bricktown drink Over-Priced Coffee™. The film’s anthem is theBrave New World-ish “Everything Is Awesome.” The archetypical proletariat protagonist, the climactic class revolt, the laughable “relics” made from middle-class waste – The Lego Movie lays it on so heavy, even a five-year-old would get the drift. I suppose that’s the point, and explains how the folks at Fox picked up on it. But this is a film which, among other things, features Lego Abraham Lincoln piloting a jet-fueled rocket chair out of a meeting with Batman, Gandalf, and a robot pirate. Subtlety isn’t quite the point. But even more cartoonish is a world where full-grown adults devote ostensibly serious news time to decrying a children’s movie. And that, more than capitalism itself, is precisely what The Lego Movie is attacking. 

Furthermore, corrosive bourgeois sentiment isn’t alone among The Lego Movie’s“targets,” if we can even use so serious a term for objects of ridicule in a children’s film. In its trim hundred minutes, the movie manages to assault an impressive array of cultural bull’s eyes, from academic think tanks (literally manifest as the best and the brightest with tubes plugged in their heads, threatened with electroshock if they fail to produce whatever new ideas are demanded of them), to film tropes in general (“it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true”), and even Lego’s own legacy of long-forgotten trend products made embarrassing by time, like theShaquille O’Neal figurine. And the politics are hardly one-sided: “Cloud Coo-Coo Land,” an aptly named locale for perpetual-rainbow dance parties and an explicit ban on negative thoughts (which must be “pushed deep down, where you’ll never, ever find them”), makes a mockery of those all-too-familiar Facebook liberals whose politics seems best expressed by cat GIFs and conflict aversion. 

At the risk of stating the obvious, we should remember that this movie cannot possibly be anti-capitalist. Beneath the satire, after all, is a feature-length toy commercial for a ubiquitous plastic product valued at $14.6 billion. The film was produced by a major studio, banked $69 million in its opening weekend, and already has a video game tie-in available on Amazon. Even in the film itself, the profit motive isn’t seriously at risk. If it were, then perhaps The Lego Movie would end with the overthrow of President Business and the installation of a socialist utopia, or – in the “real world” where the Legos are revealed to exist – a moralising replacement of the Lego models with some environmentally friendly hemp dolls and an illustrated kids edition of Chairman Mao’s The Little Red Book.

But that isn’t what happens. Despite Fox’s claims, the function of capitalism in our society isn’t the target of The Lego Movie. Lord Business isn’t so-called or so-hated because he’s “the head of a corporation where they hire people” and “[people] feed their families” – he’s called that because he’s the projection of a young boy whose obsessive-compulsive father wears a tie and does some kind of business-y job that, being ten years old, the kid doesn’t have a more precise word for. He’s hated because he’s a boorish control freak spoiling his son’s attempt to have fun with Legos. The kid isn’t upset that his dad pays employees a wage for their labor, he’s upset that his father is so fixated on his paranoid need to make everything the way it’s “supposed to be” and so self-conscious about any questioning of his “adult” use of the toys that he’s going to literally glue them in place, preventing his child from using his imagination again. 

This movie isn’t revolutionary; at bottom, it’s more about empathy than politics. President Business is a villain because despite having everything, his overwrought sense of victimhood transforms him into a caricature of megalomania at even slightest hint of criticism. That sort of privilege-blind persecution complex is the real target of The Lego Movie’s scorn, and ironically, Fox’s full-scale meltdown over its “anti-capitalist” message is a pretty good case-in-point. 

Emmett Rensin is an author, essayist, and political activist in Chicago, Illinois. His previous work has appeared in USA Today, Salon, The Los Angeles Times opinion blog, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He can be found on Twitter at@revemmettrensin.

This piece originally appeared at newrepublic.com

 

Emmet Brickowski, The Lego Movie's proletariat protagonist. Image: Warner Bros.
SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The paintings designed to better sculpture

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour, as a new exhibition at the Courtauld Gallery shows.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle