I took my children to see the new Pixar movie Cars yesterday.
I had been holding off on seeing it. Not because of any dislike for Pixar movies; on the contrary, Pixar is the only major animation studio active today with a sense of style and an infusion of wit and charm beyond mere marketing concerns. Somehow Pixar manages to make movies that don't insult either the child's or the adult's intelligence and that is much, much harder than it sounds.
No, it wasn't because I didn't want to see it. It was because of a review I had read.
The review was by John Podhoretz and appeared in the Weekly Standard
. I had read it during my morning commute into downtown Portland. The review was generally negative, but that wasn't what got to me (and let's face it, JPod is East-Coast anyway and I take them not liking something as a generally good sign). What got to me, and drew from me a shocked gasp that had my neighbors wondering what I had just read, was the news of Cars co-director Joe Ranft's death. I had not known that Joe, Pixar's chief storyteller, had died during the making of the film. I had not known that Joe had died and the news hit me like a lightning bolt. The absolute last thing I had on my mind when I cracked open that issue of the Weekly Standard
that morning was that I was about to learn about the tragic death of a man I knew and to feel what that death must have done to people and a family I care about.
You see, I grew up with the Ranfts. Joe was the oldest brother of three. The middle brother was my great friend, James. James is, in my circle, legendary: intelligent, piercingly funny, musical and the purveyor of the finest in home-brew, James Beer. He was also the only guy I ever knew who if you found out about some obscure band and told him about it, he would turn out to have an extensive collection of their recordings. ("Pere Ubu? Oh, sure...here...you have got to hear this...it's called Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo
"...or...."oh, yeah, I do have that Joy Division single...hang on...."). At a time when my life was all about music, James was my guide.
James lived at the Ranft home with his younger brother Jerome in a giant bedroom that I think was a converted garage. There was a time when James and I would hang out every day and I got to know Joe through James, though Joe wasn't living at home by then. They lived right down the street from me, though you had to cross Leffingwell to get to the Ranft house, which meant crossing over from La Mirada into Whittier. For that reason, we never went to school together, but we were all friends just the same.
From the outside, the Ranft home appeared no different than any other home in our lower-middle-class neighborhood, but once you stepped inside you knew there was something different about them. Mr. Ranft was an accountant (I believe) and a ham radio aficionado and his wife, Mrs. Ranft, worked at home. Both of them exuded intelligence and, most alarmingly, a sense of humor. The other kids' parents didn't act like them. They were always welcoming and didn't seem to mind over-much that we had turned James' room into the group clubhouse. There was a creativity in that house, a sense of artistic display, a pervasive sense of humor and wit that clearly came from the parents, who in turn treated their young men as young adults rather than children.
All three of the Ranft kids displayed that artistic sense. Joe went off to work for the Walt Disney Company. Well, we all did--that is what you do when you grow up in that area--but the rest of us were ride operators, sweepers or waiters while Joe was with the big boys in Animation. James' passion was music. And Jerome was the sculptor of the bunch. The house was crammed with drawings, busts, models, studies, and the sounds of the latest of the avant garde in music.
The talk in the Ranft house then was one of Joe's adventure. He had decided to give up his position at Walt Disney animation and go to Taiwan where he was to self-finance and self-produce his own animation short. It was a risky venture, and this future risk-adverse government employee distinctly remembers thinking about how unlikely it would be that I would ever leave a good job and take a stab at setting off on my own course. I admired Joe for his determination and for doing whatever it took to get his vision made.
The result was an award-winning animation short called "The Brave Little Toaster," which propelled Joe into the circles that were to become Pixar, which in turn became what it is today: the finest animation studio on the face of the Earth. A studio so good that the company Joe left, Disney, was forced to buy it to remain viable.
As I got older, James and I grew closer and his small house in Whittier and, later, his large house on Hadley Street in Uptown (the "Hadley House") became the new hangout. I took off for Europe, though, then San Francisco, then Berkeley and, through it all, as we are too wont to do, I lost touch with my old friend. At first we saw each other now and again, especially after Jerome enrolled in art school in Oakland, but I as got more and more into my new life in the Bay Area, my old friends receded from my consciousness. I regret this foolishness of youth very much. I had no idea then how precious true friends were or that one can make a new start without cutting oneself off from one's roots.
When I got to my office that morning, I did some research and found out how Joe had died. It's that goddamn PCH: too beautiful a drive and much too dangerous. God, how I hate traffic accidents. He was way too young. The news stories, especially those that appeared in the trade periodicals, all touched upon two main points: how central he had been to Pixar's success and, more importantly, how such a giant of a man had such a gentle way about him. It's funny, because that is what I remembered too: all the Ranft guys are big, but Joe was very big. I remember their football coach thinking he pretty much had his offensive line woes sewed up when he realized there were three Ranft boys, each about 3 years apart, coming through the system.
The end of Cars
has a tribute to Joe and it was a very sad feeling to sit there in a theatre crowded with children and their parents and cry. I tried not to show it, for my kids' sake, but I couldn't help it. It's the same with my own sister's death: it's just not right when a person dies at so young an age. The entire universe is offended by it. And the number of places Joe's name appears in the credits is astounding. The only bright spot for me during the credits was seeing Jerome in the credits as well, as the sculptor of course.
On the drive home, my thoughts again turned to the Ranft family and what this must have done to them. I'd like to think that Mr. Ranft didn't live to see the day but I have a bad feeling that Mrs. Ranft did. I don't know why I think that; it's just a feeling, but a strong one.
But I do know that James and Jerome are there and I know how devastating this must have been for them. I am so sorry.
I wish I hadn't have been a stupid kid (and I was more stupid than most) and lost touch with my old friends so I could have helped in some way.
On the way home, my kids were re-enacting their favorite parts of the movie and singing the praises of Lightning McQueen and how he gave up the Piston Cup to do the right thing. And I thought: what a wonderful thing Joe did to bring such creations to life and to touch people this way.
What a wonderful thing to leave behind.