Paper Me

photo © Walt Disney Pictures

I first saw Paperman at my desk at work. I watched it in a small window, hunched over a monitor, listening through my earbuds. People had been writing about it on the internet as if it were the most amazing thing – this happens all the time, but in this case the words “short film“ and ”produced by John Lasseter” were enough to catch my attention.

About seven minutes later, it was over. I didn’t tell any of my colleagues about it. I closed the window and pretended I had something in my eye and I got back to work. There’s a deep pleasure in encountering something amazing and forbidden in the workplace and keeping it to yourself.

We fit little movies into our lives in odd spaces, and they frame our days in unexpected and curious ways. Through online distribution, Paperman has been incredibly successful. More people have seen it now than if it had been strictly confined to cinemas. Simply scrolling through the “Paperman” tag on Tumblr is enough to clue you in on its success: it’s become a geek phenomenon, inspiring fanfic, art and cosplay everywhere.

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I saw Paperman for a second time when I went to see Wreck-it Ralph. This time I enjoyed it more in admiration than rapture. Back in my office, there was an element of escapism, as if I were peeping through a little portal in my screen into another world. But in the darkened room of the cinema, the film seemed more like a hyper-sophisticated delivery vehicle for a gentle, conservative, and thoroughly Disney storyline.

Boy meets girl; boy longs for girl to notice boy; girl notices boy – and the rest is history. He’s gawky, long of limb and large of nose, and incapable of emotional restraint. She’s a princess in the making, with the wide eyes of a Bambi and the flowing hair of a Belle, and the cute and oddly squishy face of a modern, fallible heroine. They meet on the platform of a train station. He helps her with her papers and then they part, and it seems like they’ll never meet again. Apparently she has forgotten him. But he becomes obsessed. He sees her working in the building across the street. He will not be forgotten.

When you break it down like that, it’s kind of a creepy story. It’s easy to imagine a parody emerging on YouTube set to the score from a Hitchcock movie. This guy really has no idea whether this woman is into him or not – he doesn’t even know her name! they’ve never talked! – and yet here he is, actively harassing her? Not only that, he is actively wasting company resources in pursuit of this woman; he’s inconveniencing his colleagues, and costing both his employer and their clients time and money in lost paper. And this paper represents something more than just paper – it’s paperwork that he is exerting on her. The flow of paper represents his attention and imagination brought to life.

But the tropes at work here are bigger than Disney. It’s the old story of the dreaming fool who comes out well in the end. It’s a tale still that appeals to dreamers and fools alike. It appeals to those who enjoy the thought of being thought about. To all the lonely princes and princesses, pawing endlessly at their little glass portals into other worlds. It’s appropriate, then, that even while this film invokes some of the oldest of cinematic conventions, every frame is carefully calculated and hyper-modern in its delivery. It’s a good example of a perfect harmony of form and meaning: just as the animation of Paperman is rendered in a synthesis of digital and analog techniques, its themes attempt to reconcile an old-fashioned love of print media with a twenty-first century approach to communications technology.

While the style evokes a generation gone by, the themes at work are thoroughly contemporary. It’s not a nostalgic film pining for the days of typewriters, hand-written love letters and spilled ink – the actual paper in this movie only exists as a kind of abstraction. Just like the streams of digital data we exchange every day, we know it’s there, but we only experience it in the superficial sense; we feel it most when it moves us in waves. Much as the hero of the movie hurls his paper planes towards the object of his affection, so we write our little emails and blogs and tweets and we cast them out into the world. Perhaps we don’t always admit to having such a specific goal as his doe-eyed love, but the basic end is the same: we all crave a sense of recognition.

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I’ve had a blog in one form or another for a very long time now. As a teenager, I kept a Livejournal as a way of keeping up with friends, but in recent years I switched to a more-or-less anonymous Tumblr as a way of putting my writing on the internet. I told myself that I had no particular interest in writing about my personal life, and that I wanted solely to post things about my hobbies and short pieces of fiction. I had the rather noble idea that my writing ought to speak for itself; it would be a sort of secret retreat, a better endeavour than the life I was living at the time.

And so I’ve stumbled along, lacking in direction compared to many writers online. I’ve made a few friends. But I prefer not to think about what I’ve achieved (or haven’t) because for me it is far too similar to that painful image in Paperman of all those paper planes lying unread in a forgotten space between two buildings. All that time, and all those words. Who was I really writing for? And was it worth it?

It was worth it for the hero of the movie. His work stirs itself into life, and it goes after the girl for him. It’s a neat inversion of that moment in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil when Robert De Niro’s rogue plumber is brought down by a flood of paperwork; now that the flow of information is back in the hands of the individual, with sufficient momentum it will push us towards our dreams whether we like it or not. If only real life were quite so simple.

But perhaps I am forgetting the other side of the equation. After all, the hero’s goal in Paperman is not only self-actualization; it’s the attention and companionship of one other very specific individual. This is a very different thing than pursuing an abstract notion of success. And as much as I might want to scoff at this film for portraying an idealized version of modern romance, the essential dynamics of those flows of paper are not so unfamiliar to me.

All the relationships I’ve ever had have involved a complex exchange of messages over a variety of media — and it’s this body of private writing, exchanged in countless fragments over days and months and years, which has really come to define my own life in ways that my literary ambitions could never match. Perhaps the most radical thing about Paperman is the way in which it reconsiders this trail of digital “paper” not as an opportunity for oppression, but as a way for individuals to define a space in the world in which they might pursue their own desires.