Does the film really suggest that Ellie has always imposed on Carl’s true wishes? Does the house really just symbolize Ellie herself, as the filmmakers suggest? If so, we could certainly appeal to Freudian psychoanalysis for an explanation. Freud tells us that it is quite natural to harbor a hostility toward the people we love the most, and in their death we project that hostility onto ghosts of the deceased, claiming that they want to harm us. In our case, the house may stand in for a ghost enacting hostility by emasculating Carl, weighing him down when he could be enjoying his adventure.
As enticing as this analysis may be, this house can’t merely symbolize a person, or even a marriage, not after that montage depicting their struggles with money. If we want to understand the house as a symbol it will be more useful to extend the analysis to encompass the domestic in general, because the relationships that go on under a roof are just one strand in a web woven out of multiple social and economic realities.
America’s historical arc is unique when it comes to capitalism’s long-game strategy and how we have ended up with the type of domestic life we live now. Karl Marx notes in Capital Vol. 1 that early American capitalists had a hard time paying laborers a low wage because the demand for labor in such a rapidly expanding economy was so high. As a result, many workers in the early republic were able to save enough of their wages to embark on to the frontier and live free of wage labor. But even in America this could only last for so long. Capitalism has since bound the worker to her job. A blown-out tire here, a new roof there, the ebb and flow of savings – all of these unexpected, uncontrollable realities pull Carl and Ellie back into the orbit of struggling domestic life. An adventure deferred.
When we add this financial struggle to the concept of the “domestic,” it reveals an inner tension, a dialectic of the home. On the one hand the home is a space where relationships are nurtured, flourish, expand, and grow. On the other hand, the home is a confined space, a money pit, an enormous responsibility that makes us reliant on our paltry paychecks, binds us to our jobs. The domestic sphere is the site of all the joys in life, but it is also a symbol of life’s biggest stresses.
Yet even from the beginning, Ellie seems poised to weather this struggle better than Carl. Ellie realizes that the best way to deal with life under capitalism is to consider domestic life an ersatz adventure. Instead of evil villains and treacherous landscapes, the domestic adventure’s more prosaic obstacles mold us into self-sacrificing, mild-mannered, and compliant people. The montage would also have us think that these obstacles and struggles strengthen marriages just like adventures strengthen heroes.
So, if the house, as a symbol, weighs Carl down, we can’t just chalk it up to his expressing a hostility toward a person in a dream. Carl may resent her devotion to the domestic life, or the responsibility that defers his adventure, but Ellie is not the only thing keeping him in that house, away from South America. Domestic life and all the economic impositions that come with it constitute the weight of the house.
It is finally Ellie who sets Carl free to do the adventure the right way. When Carl opens her Adventure Book and sees that Ellie thought of the domestic as adventure enough, he begins his recovery and stops letting the house hold him back. At the end of the grieving process, the ghost stops being hostile. In Carl’s dream world, the house is emptied of all the items that weigh him down to the domestic, and he finally comes to terms with the death of his wife. Relieved of one source of tension, he is free to enact his deeper hostility toward the real target – neoliberal capitalism.
There is something of a nod to the opening stage directions of Death of a Salesman when we see Carl’s house surrounded by imposing construction of new buildings, skyscrapers, towering next door to his puny house. Wealthy, prim-suited developers are eyeing Carl’s property for commercial use and apparently enlisting their uncommonly polite and considerate construction workers to mediate. Carl’s rancor is in full grumpy force. Yet this aggression toward the developers is not merely a reaction to being squeezed in by urban development. Carl’s grief over his wife (and whatever hostility, resentment and guilt that go along with being a recent widower), and the realization that he has nothing to show for his long life, both give fuel to his spite.
And as comical as it is to see Carl letting his leaf-blower do the talking, the film makes it seem irrational. The grumpy old man trope is humorous enough to take the edge off for a time, but the film crosses into a very serious tone when Carl assaults an earnest and helpful construction worker for trying to help him fix the mailbox he accidentally knocked over. This act exposes the roots of his animosity: Carl clearly needs to work some of his own stuff out. His grief is wrapped up together with anger, bitterness, guilt, vulnerability, and all these entwined emotions stand in the way of, not just emotional progress but economic progress.
Another way of putting it is that Carl’s unconscious tensions surface in an ugly and disruptive way when he assaults the worker – too disruptive for a Pixar film not to take us into the fantasy world. And what finally makes the movie yet another neoliberal accomplice is the fact that it suggests that the proper place for violence is not in the real world but in the fantasy world, or, like psychoanalysis, the dream work. Our unconscious is a collection of energy and desire that we cannot unleash on the world without severe consequences. When we keep repressing and repressing as a way to avoid those consequences, our mind can’t handle it anymore and it lashes out, just like Carl. However, if dreams function the way they’re designed – according to psychoanalysis – they enable our mind to release this unconscious energy in the dream world so that we don’t have to suffer the consequences of lashing out in the real world.
As we already noted, Carl’s adventure in Paradise Falls is a dream work where he works out his unconscious tension. He pursues the adventure that domestic life prevented; he comes to terms with his wife’s death. And let’s not leave out our nonagenarian villain, Charles Muntz. We said earlier that Muntz is an “other” that Carl defines himself against. But taken in the context of his struggle against the developers, we can see that he is a distillation of the self-interested, single-minded, profit-motivated capitalist. He is Carl’s dream version of the developers. Muntz pursues, rationalizes, and uses force to get what he wants. He is relentless, unscrupulous, and rich. Carl’s victory over Muntz is cathartic and satisfying. The dream has done what real life couldn’t: brought defeat to the oppressor.
But let’s look a little closer at just how the dream does its work. In other words, how does it release the tension, untangle the contradictions of domesticity and injustices of capitalist development? Carl resolves everything in the dream that he is incapable of resolving in the real world. He gets over his wife’s death, he goes on an adventure, he gains a surrogate son, and he enacts the hostility toward capitalist forces that he’s built up all along. However, in real life, these things are all wrapped up together and cannot be untangled. In the dream, however, he is able to succeed in all these things by separating out the conflicts. In the dream Carl’s grief over his wife is completely separate from his conflict with Muntz, whereas capitalism and relationships are entwined in the real world of the domestic. In the dream when Carl sheds all the consumer items that weigh his house down, he is separating these two aspects of the domestic; i.e., he untangles another contradiction. Freed of the financial burden of domesticity (or its symbols) he pursues the the villain, our ersatz capitalist, in yet another untangled contradiction.
In the dream, having your cake and eating it too is required to resolve contradictions. Whether or not this works in the dreams of real people is something for the real psychoanalysts to deal with. For our purposes, the dream, as it is represented in the film, is really the function of ideology. The ideolo-dream prevents the film and the audience from having to face the real contradictions of capitalist society.
Were we to ignore the fact that this film is a product of a neoliberal-friendly film industry, we might say that the film deserves credit for revealing the coldness of the beshaded developer’s eagerness to profit off of his worker’s injury and take advantage of Carl’s vulnerable financial position. We might even say that the film represents the injustice of neoliberalism’s full capability of expropriating your property one way or another, even if it means using the courts to do so. The law is always on the side of the neoliberal. When you play chess with neoliberalism, your opponent has all queens. In this sense Up exposes neoliberalism as accurately as a cartoon can expect to. We ultimately see just how powerless the world of neoliberalism renders a man like Carl. But the job of the movie industry is to spirit us away from those problems into a land of resolved contradictions. The satisfying catharsis let’s us breathe a sigh of relief and face the world like Ellie, more compliant, better behaved, and content with the lemons life has given us. Let us not fail to note, that when Carl finally lets go of Ellie as that house rises through the clouds, he is also letting go of his house, just what the developer wanted. Our sigh of relief comes when the process of accumulation can resume unhindered.
It’s not to say that adventure films are merely an “escape” in the way that we talk about people going to see movies during the Great Depression. “Up” is not trying to give us temporary relief from our everyday mundanity. The film is giving us a chance to enact our own hostility; it’s just that the proper place to work out your hostility is at the movies. The adventure here is both an escape and an enactment of hostility. In “Up,” the violence is enacted on the right people – the greedy capitalists! But this is the work of Dreamworks. While acknowledging the contradictions of neoliberal capitalism, it provides the site for us to enact our hostility and act out our catharsis: in the imagination, far away from the real world. This is the flexibility of neoliberal capitalism. It can allow a critique; it can allow an attack. It can weather exposure because it knows that subjects can find an outlet (Disney) for that hostility that not only won’t harm it, but will generate more profit. In its relentless pursuit to privatize everything, it also privatizes our imaginations.