When looking beyond the surface into a story and its meaning, I’m often unsurprised that i encounter a story with a meaning that I really need just at that point in time. I’m unsurprised because I understand that although there are themes woven into a story by the storyteller, there is also an element of the story reflecting back to you something that you need.
Or more accurately, the reader/listener/audience brings as much of themselves to the story as the teller does. This is the weird almost inexplicable element of stories that comes out of them being a communal dream. Individual dreams and their meaning aren’t just born out of nothing, they are the jumbled and re-ordered thoughts and feelings of our current feelings and events happening to us. So of course it isn’t out of the ordinary for us to, in the same way, bring all of our current baggage to a story and try to find a way to make sense of our stuff via that story, via that communal dream. I honestly don’t think this is something we even do consciously, or most of us don’t, it’s simply a part of being human, a part of why we have stories in the first place… It’s Perspective playing its role in the recipient of the story as well as the teller. It’s the idea that just as you read a story, so the story reads you. And it’s the mechanism which drives the reality that a story can mean different things to different people and mean different things to you at different times of your life. It’s story as Rorschach test.
And so I came with all my baggage of exclusion and loss to the film Coco. It’s no surprise to me that coming off a period where I felt my core value of loyalty has been changed by the rejective behaviour of my former church that a story about balancing family obligations with fulfilling your own dreams would have affected me so much.
It’s yet another story about why stories are important. Within it I see a number of intertwined ideas.
There’s the idea that the generational stories we pass on can breed pain and harm as well as courage and inspiration. Such is the power of the repeated narrative of the father who abandoned his family that the anger and pain (and the rejection of the music that represents him) passes through four generations. That’s the power of story and its flaw. The family (both living and dead) remain adamantly opposed to Miguel’s musical expression until the power of music itself breakes the direction of the old narrative of abandonment.
A very powerful idea within this story – that expresses something behind the nature of stories is Immortality and Remembrance. That the human drive for immortality is achieved not through the Alchemical or Biological, but through the Mythical. It’s through those we leave behind remembering us by the stories they tell. Story is the True Philospher’s Stone. (The Philospher’s Stone being the legendary item that bestowed long life or immortality that Alchemists spent their whole lives attempting to create.)
The drive to ensure others remember us twines its way through the film. The centrality of the “Remember Me” song, which was Ernesto De La Cruz’s gateway to the limelight and also the connection between Ector and Coco continually recalls the importance of memory to both survival and connection. It is Ernesto’s rewriting of his own narrative in acquiring the song that ensures his immortality – and seals his fate when the truth comes out. And the song triggers the memory of Ector’s daughter Coco, saving Ector from eradication. Not only that, it facilitates his reinstatement as honoured family member to the living (the dead had already embraced him).
These two ideas, the passing on through generations of both pain and honour and also the immortalisation of those we remember through story, are layered throughout the film as is the use of cultural touchpoints from Latino culture – the concept of the Day of The Dead and the veneration and connection with ancestors.
But for me, the part of the story where I felt the story reading me and where my perspective at the time influenced my emotional reaction was the tension between what the family expected of Miguel and his own dreams and desires. It was Miguel facing the choice of loyalty to his people – who he loved and knew loved him – and his own identity. It was the demands of the family at the start of the story that their blessing come with conditions – and that condition being that Miguel deny an integral part of himself. The growth and change of the family, exposed to love, sacrifice, trught and found family to then explicitly give blessing with no conditions was a powerful catharsis as I experienced the story.
Miguel’s own journey, from individual relying and feeding on the community to integral component of the community brings the family full circle. His willingness to put aside himself and his desires to prevent the destruction of another, and to align himself with the family balances their realisation that blessing is not true blessing if it comes with conditions.
The acceptance by the family of Miguel’s true self and the music that drives him is but one strand of the DNA running through the story. The other is Miguel’s acceptance of his role in the family, of his part of being in the family – not necessarily in the role initially pegged for him but as son, grandson, defender, storyteller and guide – none of which exist for “individuals” but only become relevant when part of a community. The truths that touched me and where the story read me was that I have a place in community; I am made for community; I should bring my whole self to my community. And their responsibility in turn is to bless without condition and that it is okay to expect that unconditional blessing. I tried for years to change and be “a shoemaker” like the church expected – I tried so hard it almost killed me. My life was saved by those on the other side of the bridge who offered me a guitar and gave their blessing, friendship and love without condition.
That’s Love. That’s Family. That’s Oikos. And why I love spending time with guitar playing Miguel and his great, grandma Coco.