Crystal Downing

Yolking With Postmodernism

Where is postmodern culture headed? Two recent films, Chicken Run and The X-Men, suggest a neo-Romantic turn.

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In 1794 Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote a sonnet entitled "Pantisocracy," which really has nothing to do with women's underwear. The poem refers to a scheme the 21–year–old Coleridge developed with the even younger Robert Southey: to gather a group of twelve men (notice the symbolic number) who would set up a utopian community along the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania (my backyard!), tilling the soil in the morning and writing poetry in the afternoon. Coleridge was so committed to the idea that he married a woman he barely knew, Southey's sister–in–law, in order to ensure that the Pantisocratic commune harvested babies as well as barley. In the event, like so many of Coleridge's flights of fancy, the project never got off the ground, but such utopian schemes continued to seduce his Romantic contemporaries.

Neo–Romantic utopias link two films that were a grade above most of this past summer's paltry fare. Poultry, in fact, escape the paltry—as well as a degrading prison–like farm—in Chicken Run, where the production of "Grade A" eggs is, indeed, degrading. I laughed the whole way through this ultimate "chick flick," relishing the fact that all the intelligence, strength, and resourcefulness it displays reside in female characters (albeit hens). Yet I probably would not have reflected a great deal about the film if it weren't so much like another bit of summer fantasy fare, The X–Men.

While the one movie stars claymation hens and the other comic book mutants, both exhibit a neo–Romantic theme: that utopia can be achieved through the efforts of determined individuals who favor greenery over machinery, the natural over the technological. Both feature Coleridge–like visionaries who operate as the first among equals, inspiring their cohorts to work for freedom.

In The X–Men, Xavier, played by Patrick Stewart (did you notice that "Xavier" rhymes with "savior"?), is literally a visionary, his mutation giving him telepathic powers, and in Chicken Run, the hen Ginger continues to believe that escape from a barbed–wire–enclosed compound is possible, despite all her failed attempts. Her stamina is fueled by a longing for something she has "never felt, grass under my feet"—a place where she and her hen cohorts can establish what we might call, with apologies to Coleridge, a Poultrisocracy. In The X–Men, Xavier has already set up a sort of utopia: a school where children are trained to use their mutations for good. The school's Gothic architecture in the midst of verdant lawns and abundant foliage, a paradigmatically Romantic environment, contrasts radically with the modernistic cement and metal geometry of the enemy's habitation.

In both films, the malevolent antagonists seek to establish dominance over their worlds through new technologies. The Tweedies, who own the chicken farm, set up a Rube–Goldberg type machine for turning hens into pot pies, and Magneto (Ian McKellen) employs a high–tech gyrating device for turning "normal" people into mutants. Both machines are so dehumanizing (or at least de–henifying), that they negatively affect their owners: Mrs. Tweedy gets hoisted in her own gravy–making petard, and Magneto depletes his powers every time he uses his (literal) magnetism to set his machine into motion.

Chicken Run makes the contrast between machinery and greenery explicit when Mrs. Tweedy rubs her brand–new machine in dreamy circular strokes exactly like those Ginger employs as she strokes a wooden crate bearing the picture of rainbow–framed trees underneath the word "Paradise." Mrs. Tweedy, of course, is fantasizing about all the money she'll make from killing her chickens, while Ginger is dreamily stating "grass, cool green grass."

Like Coleridge seeking to escape the Industrial Revolution, the protagonists of Chicken Run and The X–Men seek to escape the mind–forged manacles of impersonal machinery. In contrast, they employ devices that enhance the personal rather than dominating it. Xavier enters an egg–shaped structure which enables him to surmount the limits of his own telephathic abilities (in order to help others, of course), and the chickens turn an egg–laying hut into a hen–pedalled airplane that enables them to surmount the limits of their prison. As the aging Rooster in the "cockpit" of the primitive aircraft intones to the hens, "You can't see Paradise if you don't pedal." Romantic utopias are driven by the imaginative efforts of talented individuals, not by piston–pounding, gyrating mechanisms. While Coleridge, seeking to raise money for Pantisocracy, performed poetry all around England, Ginger, seeking to raise her Poultrisocracy to get it over the fence of Tweedy's farm, performed "poultry in motion," as one wise–cracking mouse puts it.

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