Stephanie Mills is a connoisseur of what she calls, “the subversive moment.” She nurtures, observes, collects and records such moments the way some people hunt for weird mushrooms. Her numerous books (In Praise of Nature; In Service to the Wild; Turning Away from Technology), while standing as radical manifestos against the rampant over-consumption of natural resources, can also be viewed as important historical compilations—little snapshots, if you will—of the modern age’s most subversive moments, actions, and ideas. Among them is a widely-reported, now-legendary moment in 1969, when a young Stephanie Mills gave an attention-grabbing commencement speech at Oakland, California’s Mills College, denouncing the overpopulation of the planet and vowing to remain childless for the rest of her life.
To put it mildly, Stephanie Mills knows subversion when she sees it. Even when it shows up in a G-rated movie with animated horses.
“This movie is a cinematic questioning of the very idea of conquest,” says Mills, taking a seat in a bustling coffeehouse, minutes after catching Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron. A product of Dreamworks Pictures—whose last animated effort, Shrek, boasted a big steaming pile of “subversive moments”—Spirit harnesses the breathtaking beauty of “traditional” animation in its tale of a wild Mustang stallion in the mid-1800’s, fighting to remain unbroken and free after being captured by U.S Calvary soldiers. “It’s a very subversive story,” says Mills, “because it’s always a subversive act, in this culture, to question the conquest of the West. At its core, I think, the film is a captivity-narrative. It’s really a slave revolt story, in some respects, and a tale of the domestication of wild animals, and a study of the compatibility of Wildness and Empire.”
“That’s an awfully big load for a movie — especially a kids movie — to have to haul around,” I remark.
“Maybe,” she replies. “And it may not have been done perfectly here, But it’s obviously time to ask those questions again—and why not do it in a children’s movie?”
In her new book, Epicurean Simplicity (Island Press, $22.00), Mills takes subversion to a meditative level in a funny and mesmerizing memoir, a poetic chronicle of Mills’ own recent efforts to embrace, in daily practice, the “simple-pleasure” philosophies of the third-century teacher Epicurus, who advocated a life of good food, good art, good friends, good conversation—and nothing more. Fortunately, movies fall into the category of Good Art.
And as Spirit demonstrates, good art can sometimes set the stage for challenging confrontations.
“I remember seeing ‘Little Big Man’ in a theater in Oakland, when it had just come out and there was a war going on,” she recalls, raising her voice to be heard above the screech of the espresso machine across the restaurant. As brings up that 1970 Dustin Hoffman classic — describing the scene in which calvary troops launch a devastating raid on the Indian village — her voice drops so low I have to lean forward to hear her. “I remember watching that scene,” she says, “and right in the midst of it, someone in the theater stood up and shouted, ‘We’re doing this in Vietnam!’ It had a big, big impact on me. That was a subversive moment.”
As Mills sees it, the Calvary soldiers in Spirit — as they did in ‘LBM’ — more-or-less represent the forceful domination of the West, but it is the railroad — specifically one enormous steam engine, hauled “Fitzcaraldo”-style over the plains by a team of straining horses — that is Spirit’s most powerful metaphor, a symbol of the high-speed onset of technological expansion.
“The story of the American railroad, and the story of the conquest of the plains, are really chapters in the great textbook of how economic growth was fostered and expanded,” she interprets. “Since indigenous people — since the wild itself — stood in the path of Empire, it all needed to be done away with, or ghettoized, or domesticated.”
“So, isn’t it kind of ironic,’ I ask, “that an anti-technology message is being conveyed in a movie that, according to its makers, is the most technologically-advanced animated film in history?”
Mills nods, thinking it over before proposing, “Earth is an ecological planet. No matter how brilliantly we can manipulate technology, it seems unlikely that we’ll ever be able to cut the umbilical cord from Mother Nature. As a species, we are tied to the planet.
“That said,” she smiles, “in this case, I think they wielded the technology well.”
Then again, the more Mills thinks about Spirit, the more she sees a kind of “dark side” to the film, a subtle subversion of its own pro-Wilderness intentions. The problem, she says, lies within the visceral, pulse-pounding intensity in the film’s gorgeous depiction of the American wilderness.
No, really. It might be bad.
“I’m on the razor’s edge about the imagery,” she admits. “The coloration is so heightened and intense and sensational, in part because the imagery is sailing past so quickly. It was very artful and dramatic, but part of me is watching it saying, ‘Hey, this is not true to reality!’” After a movie like this, she posits, the slow pace of real nature might begin to seem intolerable to children. “The wilderness is not a theater,” she says. “The wilderness is hours and hours of slowness, interrupted now and then by brief blurs of action before settling back into slowness again. A true appreciation of nature takes patience. And patience is not something we tend to learn from the movies.”
Mills glances out the window, watching the wind push a crumpled donut bag along the sidewalk, as I ask whether—when all is said and done — Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, is helpful kind of subversive, or the dangerous kind? “All subversion is dangerous,” Mills says. “Still, I can see some young person, some budding-environmentalist, being stirred enough by this movie to begin thinking about what really matters, to think about what’s worth saving, and to be generous with their lives.
“I’d like to think,’ she adds, “that that’s exactly what’s going to happen.”
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to the movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This is not a review; rather, it’s a freewheeling, tangential discussion of art, alternative ideas, and popular culture.