I don’t think it was Radiator Springs, but perhaps you could see it from there.
But in the strangeness of things, I was watching that iconic scene in Pixar’s “Cars” when Lightning McQueen looks out on the old Route 66 and the great southwest– seeing the new I-40 running through straight-as-an-arrow, and James Taylor begins singing about the importance of little towns –when I saw this from the plane.
People who know me know that I love good stories, and even more than that, that I think good stories mean a lot, for both individuals and for societies. Several years ago I gave a lecture at the Beijing Film Academy that I titled, “Good Stories, Good Societies,” making that argument to the students and professors there, i.e. that there would be no way to become “the harmonious society” that the political leaders hope for, without good stories—which of course begs the good question, “What is good?” And so of course we talked about that too, quite a bit.
Pixar is brilliant at telling good stories. Sometimes they miss, but not often. And “Cars” is just about as a good a story as has been told. When I first saw it, flying across the country a few years ago on a flight much like today’s, I was on my way to convening a conversation with the Pixar story-tellers who had done “Cars,” and I was sure that I should see it first! But I was smitten, simply said.
Deeply true, wonderfully imagined, artfully offered, I could see why the three-year olds of my life loved it—wanting to wear Lightning McQueen underwear as often as possible. And why the six-year olds I knew could watch it day after day after day. But I smiled too, now loving it myself.
As Walker Percy never tires of saying, “Bad books always lie. They lie most of all about the human condition.” And that is as true of films as it is novels—or politics and sex, economics and psychotherapy. What we believe about human nature threads its way into everything.
To watch the slow pilgrimage of Lightning McQueen from myopic and self-absorbed, to having the eyes of his heart so attentive to those around him that he would sacrifice his own glory for the sake of others, well, that is amazing. The Pixar people have wrestled with the very same question that Alexis de Tocqueville did in his study of the relation of the individual to the common good in America in the early 1800s, and it is the same question that Wendell Berry has pursued with passion over the last generation in his novels, essays and poetry, especially embodied in his Port William membership.
So there I was. Squinting down onto the red hues of the Southwest, trying my hardest to see Radiator Springs, wanting my look into a community that time had forgotten, but where grace and goodness formed a common life. I think most of us would give up a lot to find our home in a place like that.