— Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb, the third film in the series is, by any sane critical standards, a bad movie. The lead, Larry, played by Ben Stiller, is lifeless, and his character without motivation. Meanwhile, the CGI effects are bland and familiar. And yet, as I sat in an audience of parents and children, both groups laughed and had a wonderful time. I wouldn’t say I had a good time, but as much as any other piece of art, the film presents unusual things that demand I think about them.
One of the big laugh moments in the film is when Dexter, a capuchin monkey stands above two miniature historical figures come to life (a cowboy played by Owen Wilson and a Roman centurion played by Steve Coogan), urinating on them. The moment is of course scatological and absurd, but critical theory points us in a particular direction, the grotesque. In his epic 16th century French novel, Gargantua and Pantagruel, Francois Rabelais has his comic giants pee on Paris, flooding the entire city. In the 1920s, Russian formalist critic, Mikhail Bakhtin suggested that the novel offered a process of taming what he termed the carnivalesque. In Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin studied medieval European carnival, in which it was common for bodily fluids of all sorts to flow freely. People drank and ate and vomited and had sex. For Bakhtin, the unruliness of carnival was tamed by having the events disappear from lived social experience, and jailed within the safe confines of novels.
And so, while it is funny that the monkey pees on Owen Wilson, it is certainly not new, nor is it all that remarkable. But what is activated is the central conceit of the cinema: it is a machine that brings the past to life. It animates history, but not in the way professional historians would like to see. Instead, the popular cinema converts historical experience into direct emotional contact. Sometimes, this can have a profound effect on us. The Night at the Museum films use big stars (Ben Kingsley, Ben Stiller himself, and Robin Williams) and lesser-known actors (Mizuo Peck and Patrick Gallagher) to play famous and generic historical figures (an Egyptian Pharaoh, a primitive cave man, Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea, and Attila the Hun).
Night at the Museum III uses the conceit of animating history for purposes that range the cultural gamut. In my favorite moments of the film, high art objects, an M.C. Escher lithograph, “Relativity” (1953) and a play, Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author (1921), serve as the backdrop for the film’s shenanigans. Amidst chase sequences around the British museum, the characters run up and down the steps of Escher’s impossible staircases. A similar animation of Escher’s “Relativity” occurred in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010), as the architect folded city blocks in upon one another.
These returns, both within the image, and contextually, are best understood via Sigmund Freud’s essay, “Mourning and Melancholia” (1917). Freud is trying to treat neurotics by noticing that the trauma of the loss of a loved one is either accepted healthily, via a process of mourning, or unhealthily via melancholia. Freud argues that the melancholic refuses to acknowledge that the lost loved one is dead, instead incorporating him or her into his or her own consciousness.
The cinema is a machine that redeems melancholia as a completely healthy and vibrant activity. It refuses to accept that anything is in the past because it can summon as much as it likes without consequence. In Night at the Museum III, Sir Lancelot finds himself on the London stage, interacting with Hugh Jackman. Lancelot slaughters his name, calling him “Huge Ackman.” The modernist play between the illusion and the real in Pirandello’s masterwork, Six Characters in Search of an Author becomes a melancholic joke convergence of an Arthurian hero, and an actor used to playing such heroes (a fully costumed Jackman remarks that his Wolverine pose works better without his shirt on).
Of course, these are arcane moments in the midst of an otherwise far more mundane film. However, even at the level of popular entertainment, Night at the Museum III invokes the past melancholically. The film once again re-visits Dick Van Dyke, who played the elderly caretaker in the original film. The very title of the film, Night at the Museum, invokes a lost episode of the Marx Brothers’ series of classical Hollywood films, such as A Night at the Opera (1935) and A Night in Casablanca (1946).
But it is during the film’s final moments, with Robin Williams, when the animation of our emotions pays off most fully. As has happened in the two previous movies as well, all of the museum pieces who come to life at night return to their display stands as the day breaks. Teddy Roosevelt says good-bye to his friend, Larry, another night-time adventure behind them. However, as Robin Williams hanged himself between finishing filming the movie and its release in December 2014, the comic actor is also saying good-bye to us. The great time machine that is the cinema allows for such dislocations in our emotional and mental states.
F. Scott Fitzgerald captures the pathos of this sentiment in the final page of The Great Gatsby (1925). In melancholically remembering his friend, Nick Carraway describes the recently shot Gatsby thusly: “[H]is dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him.” The cinema, of course, knows that everything is behind us. Unlike television, which can simultaneously deploy images in the present, the cinema as we see it in a movie theater requires images attached melancholically to a prior pro-filmic event. Like a legendary comic performer who brightened many of our nights, but could not keep his own soul illuminated, Night at the Museum III shows us clearly that our cinematic dreams are always already behind us. This seemingly silly Hollywood film reminds us that we will miss Robin Williams perhaps more than we do Teddy Roosevelt, but the laughter he gave to us will be bound, appropriately and joyously, melancholically inside us.
– Walter Metz