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Coco, Dia de los Muertos, letting go, etc... - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Coco, Dia de los Muertos, letting go, etc...
My current obsession (of about two days duration) is Coco, the Pixar Day of the Dead movie. I don't know if I'm going to review it, though suffice it to say that I think it was beautiful. But I decided to go to YT and look for reactions from Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, to see what the kind of... authenticity rating? was. I know that, living in a heavily Mexican-influence area, I thought it was pretty accurate, but then again, I'm the working definition of a gringa, so...

But one of the reactors (alas, I've now watched about a dozen, and I can't remember which she was), who had been following the development of the movie, made an interesting comment about something that's been very much on my mind for a long time, and I do want to talk about that. What she said was, essentially, that initially, Disney had planned to have a movie about a recently bereaved boy learning to let go of his dead mother, but at some point, they realized that Dia de los Muertos has the EXACT OPPOSITE message. That it's about not letting go. "It's almost like learning about another culture was mutually beneficial to both, or something!" she said.

First, brava to the mutually beneficial comment, and to Disney for changing its movie rather than imposing some desired meaning on the holiday.

Second, this is something I've been grappling with for a while. In the early 2000s, Star Wars was obsessed with telling Anakin to "accept death" and let go. Buffy had many episodes on the theme. The whole final Harry Potter novel was beating us over the head with it, talking about how dangerous it was to be close to the dead. But, along comes Coco, and we get what I always wished for in those other things: A take on death that is human and real, and loving. An understanding that being alive means being in a constant dance with death, and that sometimes it's a joyous dance. That death is not an erasure, that love for the dead is normal and genuine. It's a big relief after years and years of the culture drumming in this message that we have to dump the dead as soon as possible and let go and turn our eyes away from the embarrassing spectacle of mortality.

I want to make something clear: This is not the traditional American, European, or ANY OTHER way of dealing with death that I've heard of. It's not only Mexicans who honor their dead, though they do have this uniquely wonderful way of doing it on this holiday. This "let go, don't mourn overmuch, move on" thing... this is new and there's something profoundly wrong with it. (Why, Fern, I do believe you're being judgmental! Yes. Yes, I am.)

I'm not talking about people's beliefs about what happens after death. Those run the gamut from eternal reincarnations to being snuffed out like a candle. I don't pretend to know what's true, and I won't speculate on the subject. Whatever happens after death is beyond the scope of what we can learn while living, and I am willing to wait -- hopefully for a very long time -- to find out for sure. I'm talking purely about the impact on the living.

I don't think it's accidental that movies like Black Panther, Coco, or even Moana, where there is a constant connection to the past and the dead, are vibrant and colorful, while movies like The Dark Knight, where a death may be fixated on but is never really remembered, are gray and dreary. Or Half-Blood Prince, during which Harry basically does no real mourning for his only father figure, is so visually dark that there are places you can't even see the extras without turning up the lighting. The problem isn't merely disconnection from the past, but a kind of horrifying break away from time and history itself, which seems to literally cause a hemorrhagic loss of color from the world. Hardly surprising after an amputation of that magnitude. (Brings to mind the lyric from Anastasia: "But since the revolution, our lives have been so gray... thank goodness for the gossip that gets us through the day!") Why we should be separated from time and history, I don't know.

Somehow, this is being associated with my own culture, and I resent the crap out of it. It's not true. My childhood, spent with three older generations of family women, was full of stories of even older ones. My grandmother would sleep on a lower bunk while I was in an upper, and I would drop my hand down, and she would reach up to hold it, and tell me stories about visiting her grandmother's farm. (She once tried to ride a pig. It didn't end well.) My great-grandmother would tell stories about her mother, who tended to a sick couple, who died of cholera, when no one else would go near them. We played with the spoons their family gave her in gratitude, now in the possession of my cousin's daughter, who is in medical school. I know about my grandmother's other grandmother, who owned a tavern along the Niagara, as well as several houses to rent. I know my great-grandfather loved to dance the softshoe, and roomed with Eddie Cantor in New York when they were both struggling young actors. My father has never been part of my life, but my mother went to heroic lengths to find out all the stories she could, and bought me a history of the church my grandmother's grandfather led for decades. In my life as a genealogist, I've dug up as many stories as I can, including people who'd slipped away and been forgotten. (I just found my great-grandfather's Uncle Joseph, of blessed memory, who died in a poorhouse in Indiana in 1942. I'd been trying to find out what happened to him for twenty years.)

The point is not "Oo, look at Fern's weird family." It's just the opposite. This is, or was, a more or less standard part of the culture that for some reason disappeared very rapidly in the post-WWII era. (The part where my family might have been a little unusual is that I lived with my great-grandmother, who was very much a creature of an earlier time, and in fact, my mother was raised largely by her two grandmothers, because her mother worked full time, so she also never got much of the alienation from history that seems so common now.)

So how did we get to this place where, as I had Teddy put it in Daedalus Maze, the world is "Just one big foggy Forbidden Forest where you can't see anything ahead of you or behind you?" And how do we clear the fog? It's clearly toxic!
11 comments or Leave a comment
shiiki From: shiiki Date: March 12th, 2018 09:18 am (UTC) (Link)
Very deep ... but very interesting! I haven't seen Coco, so I don't know how they've played on that cultural theme, but you raised an interesting contrast.

This "let go, don't mourn overmuch, move on" thing... this is new and there's something profoundly wrong with it.

Am I right that you're saying this isn't so much a one culture vs. another point of view, but a present society vs. past one? As in, a shift from embracing death as a part of life and keeping it with us to viewing it as something to fear, and to keep separate and not dwell on?

I wonder how much of it has to do with what we call the 'modernisation' of the world--global movement, the expansion of choice, and basically lots of 'freedom' to do whatever you want, go wherever you want ... it also means a disconnection from where you came from and 'looking back'. It's the idea that only forward movement is 'good', while stops, going backwards, detours are unproductive and should be avoided. And the aversion to hanging on is at the core of this perspective.

I ... don't really know if this idea is entirely wrong/bad; I think with everything there's times when it works and times when it is, as you put it, toxic. Perhaps the problem is that there seems to be this black-or-white view of it. Like, it either has to be about letting go or the opposite. Maybe if we were more comfortable with the grey, it wouldn't seem quite like a big foggy Forbidden Forest, but because we've blinded ourselves to a happy medium so we can't see out way because life essentially exists in the grey.
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 12th, 2018 10:06 am (UTC) (Link)
So glad to hear from you. So much to think about in this post! -Karen
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 12th, 2018 06:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think you're right about it coming down to modernization more than any particular culture, and about the happy medium. No one should be Miss Havisham, still wearing the old wedding dress and stopping the clocks at the moment she was hurt, either.

I do think it's always bad to simply cut off or revile the past. Among other things, I think it makes it much harder to move forward if you're just adrift somewhere, and I think that sense of being adrift is one of the existential problems we have right now. In America, our mortality rates actually went up for the first time in years, largely because of deliberate and accidental self-harm (suicides, addiction issues, etc). I feel like that's very much related to this idea that we're not at all responsible to the past or the future. That's why this weird trend of ripping down statues and renaming old buildings is deeply troubling to me. X was not perfect, so we will destroy his memory. Destroying memories (I think the Romans called it damnatio memoriae) is NOT A GOOD.

Coco actually does go for the medium here. The basic plot is about a boy lost in the land of the dead and needing to get back to the land of the living by getting the blessing of an ancestor, but it also points out that his family has been perhaps too focused on an event in the past, so much so that it's making him unable to move forward on his own path. But it's remembering, not forgetting, that finally allows them to move on.

Edited at 2018-03-12 06:13 pm (UTC)
matril From: matril Date: March 12th, 2018 11:29 am (UTC) (Link)
This is interesting. There have been studies that find young people tend to be much more resilient if they know something about their family history, because then they feel like they're part of of a bigger story. So we're definitely losing something if we let a discomfort with death separate us from our ancestors.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 12th, 2018 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
I believe that. I started out learning my father's family history in a kind of furtive, secretive way (I'm supposed to not acknowledge them publicly). But the more I learned, the more at home I started to feel in my skin.
asher63 From: asher63 Date: March 12th, 2018 12:47 pm (UTC) (Link)
Very interesting. Coco seems like a must-see.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 12th, 2018 06:11 pm (UTC) (Link)
Definitely a must-see. (Among other things, the movie is plain gorgeous.)
From: (Anonymous) Date: March 13th, 2018 07:43 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh I keep saying it's easy for them to say "let go". And yet, I doubt people actually manage that. After reading your comment, a scene from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone came to mind. I bet I don't even need to say which one. Rowling admited she would see in the mirror what Harry saw. Does that mean letting go? That's why I loved your Teddy Lupin fics. You show it's impossible to let go, especially when you even didn't have a chance to properly have it. That's why I cried like a little child when I read the scene where he brings his parents back with the resorection stone.
From: queen_bellatrix Date: March 16th, 2018 01:09 am (UTC) (Link)
I've been screaming over how brilliant Coco's narrative is for days, and then I log on only to find you as delighted by it as I am. And there're so many things!: I think you raise an excellent point re the letting go/being connected to your past thing, but also: competent adults! who search for Miguel and freaking rescue him while remaining just far enough behind that he's the centerpiece of his own tale. I know we've both talked a lot about competent adults, and how to write them in kid-centric narrative, and Lord I wish HP had gone more the route of Coco sometimes, because it struck the balance wonderfully.

That it bucked the whole trend of coming of age being a phenomenon wherein you had to shake difficult family relationships also delighted me. I dunno if you've noticed as much of an uptick in that particular trend as I have in ya, but it's deeply worrisome. Of course some families are toxic and need to be shaken, and I don't want to discount that. But as someone who simultaneously has very fraught relationships and desperately wants to keep those people in my life, I worry that the glut of "abandon the people holding you back" tales aren't equipping the next generation very well to deal competently with the...complicated, deeply flawed humanness of the people around them. That the entire heart of the film was yes, Miguel's family softening about music, but also Miguel *showing* them that he could be a different sort of person, a person who would stay rooted in the tight-woven love and history he'd been given was so powerful.

And that the whole point was that he had to go back, to live, that it wasn't just oh I can remember people while being in an in-between state and save them, but rather no, I have to *bring* them back into the world with me through story and memory!!

The really interesting thing about HP, and DH in particular is that much of the series *tried* and succeeded imho in striking that perfect happy medium. Harry was deeply enriched by having the photo album; he was able to cast a Patronus after learning about his father. Even Sirius's death held the balance marvelously, I think: Sirius could not be unfairly confined to the world in a sort of in-between state for Harry, but Harry's grief etc. was a powerful force that needed to be acknowledged. And there were moments! even within DH where Sirius and Sirius's memory were such powerful forces for good with Harry e.g. the mirror shard. So I wonder if the moments wherein the last two novels failed--not giving Sirius enough weight in HBP, having the needless death of Tonks *and* Remus etc.--were as much JKR grappling with the modern view of death vs. the historical one. After all it is Harry's connection with his parents that gives him the strength to walk into the forest, and then that's horribly juxtaposed with heavy-handed nonsense like the Tonks death or the fact that Dumbledore was punished for wanting to apologize for his misdeeds to his beloved by getting the curse. And I just have to wonder how much of those missteps reflect authorial subconscious grappling with the larger tension between this very primal wish we have as humans to be connected to our past and how fiercely the 'don't mourn overmuch' cliché is being forced on us, and how much she may not've even realized how much modernization was undermining her tale. (I keep wanting you to write the AU so. so badly where Tonks survives and needs to raise Teddy with the help of Harry and Co. and all her friends/Auror colleagues. Just those first few years, with Remus still being a vital part of her life and Teddy's while she's still allowed to be there for Teddy damn it; that she's the mother who needs to live for her boy and find a way to integrate her beloved into his life.)

Btw a rec in this vein: I think that tension is represented beautifully in the audio drama podcast Life After. It's only ten eps, and I suspect you would enjoy it tremendously: all about virtual reality and human loneliness, the ways we're encouraged to disconnect from our pasts and the dangers it poses; the narrative fiercely. joyously encourages connection with the people who're gone and have shaped us; the writing is taught and gorgeous, and there're some truly exceptional performances.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 16th, 2018 02:31 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yes, yes! I felt like there was some other voice struggling in TDH, something that wasn't even native to the story, but forced on it!

Coco is a beautiful movie, and bucking that "ditch the family" trend is a big reason why. The whole family was broken, and Miguel's adventure saved it... and brought it together, so it could support him, and he could support them. A few commenters have noted that, in the end, Hector has a lovely pair of Rivera shoes as well, and one theory is that he also learned to make them in the land of the dead, becoming a part of his ongoing family.

On an unrelated to this post note (but I noticed and loved it), in the final scene, Hector reaches out and takes the ghost guitar from Miguel in the same way that people take the food offerings from the grave... meaning the song Miguel is singing (my favorite, "My Proud Corazon") is his offering to his Papa Hector.
From: queen_bellatrix Date: March 17th, 2018 01:44 am (UTC) (Link)
Ooo, I hadn't picked up on either of those tidbits, and they're both just incredible!! This film's also just exceptional for the tiny little easter eggs they've put in, so many details that will reward re-watching. It's a film that's meant to be treasured and thumbed over, like a beloved children's book, which's rare for film.

And y'know, I don't think I'd really put together how much Miguel rescues *the whole* family until you brought it up. Coco, certainly, but looking at his grandmother: her sharpness with him at the beginning compared to her open weeping at the end really is looking at a woman relieved of a burden, and that's an immensely cool realization.
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