Starting a movie with nearly 40 dialogue-free minutes of a machine compacting trash on a humanless, garbage-covered Earth doesn’t sound like the recipe for an Oscar-winning hit.

So how did “WALL-E,” the 2008 Pixar film about a small robot with big, expressive eyes who methodically converts mountains of garbage into small cubes of trash, gross more than $500 million worldwide?

UCLA professor Maite Zubiaurre is challenging the students in her graduate seminar that examines how trash is portrayed in art and pop culture to figure that out. And, more importantly, she’s asking what it says about us and our culture that we have turned a movie set primarily in a world of trash into a blockbuster.

“In ‘WALL-E,’ you have an opportunity to enjoy a landscape that you would in reality never enjoy,” said Zubiaurre, a professor of Spanish & Portuguese and Germanic Languages in the College of Letters and Science. “It’s the hygienic experience of terror and dirt. It’s like the fun of playing with dirt without the danger.”

Zubiaurre uses artistic, documentary and pop-culture portrayals of and references to garbage to get the academic world talking about a topic many consider taboo and trivial.

“People don’t want to talk about trash,” Zubiaurre said. “As one of the documentaries I’ve watched said: ‘The only thing we care about with trash is that we leave trash on our curbside, and the next morning it is gone … ’”

Though trash talk is rare, trash itself is one of the most universal components of the human experience — everyone creates trash and has to figure out how to dispose of it. This means that, in Zubiaurre’s mind, trash should be a widely explored subject in academia.

So Zubiaurre’s graduate seminar, “Landscapes of Waste: Theories and Representations of the Discarded in Contemporary Urban Culture,” buries students in garbage, at least readings and media about it. One of the most provocative exercises she assigns her class is to search “children playing in rubble” on Google to contrast reality with the cute depiction of trash in “WALL-E.” The reaction when they see some of the graphic photos of children in slums? Silence.

“People start feeling uncomfortable,” Zubiaurre said. “We don’t smell trash in class, but we smell all the moral complications of it.”

In addition to analyzing pop culture for evidence of trash and hit video games like “Borderlands” and “Fallout New Vegas,” students take a field trip to a landfill, read books and watch documentaries about garbage, and hear from artists, like Daniel Canogar, who find value in other people’s garbage.

Students also compared four Brazilian documentary films about landfills with two American ones, including “The Fresh Kills Story: From World’s Largest Garbage Dump to a World-Class Park.” The class discussed the ideas of renowned visual artists Mierle Laderman Ukeles and Kathy Westwater, who are inspired by trash and the American system of trash storage and disposal, and have condemned the common practice of transforming landfills into parks or golf courses.

“Both artists emphasize the need to combat the ‘erasure of memory’ that comes from ‘re-greening’ and the importance of remembering,” the professor said. Fresh Kills, located in Staten Island, was not only a landfill, Zubiaurre noted, but a record of the patterns of consumption and the memories of millions of New Yorkers that spanned decades. It was also the final resting place for the remains of 9/11.

Studying trash from a humanities perspective has been valuable to Laila Elimam, who is getting a master’s in public policy at the Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“It offers an intellectual exploration and understanding of the objects of waste, which are so ubiquitous, yet we tend to take for granted,” Elimam said. “Our readings, film viewings and visit [to a landfill] are followed by rich discussions, in which we explore not only the dimensions of the literature, but also the cinematography and messages embedded in films.”

Zubiaurre has been fascinated by trash since she was a 6-year-old girl growing up in Madrid, Spain.

“I saw a guy throwing an apple into a trash can, and then I saw another guy just reach inside, take the apple out and finish eating it,” recalled the professor, who is writing a book, “Talking Trash: Cultural Notes on Rubbish.” “I asked myself, what is it that makes trash trash?”

Seeing someone find value in something another person had discarded as worthless sparked Zubiaurre to wrestle with the concept of relativism and fueled her lifelong curiosity with garbage.

Zubiaurre uses the duality of material objects — one person’s trash being another’s treasure — to provoke her students to ask big-picture questions that scholars have been grappling with for centuries.

How does defining something as “garbage” represent the different values people assign to objects? How does a landfill’s location correlate to class differences? When does one’s ownership of an object cease? And how is the willful ignorance of the trash-to-landfill process linked to fears of mortality?

There’s a relationship between graveyards and landfills, one that makes us uncomfortable, Zubiaurre explained. “What is happening to trash is what is going to happen to us. We’re all going to end up in a dump, and we’re going to decompose. That’s the ultimate destiny of humankind, and we don’t want to face that.”

Trash is also regarded differently, depending on where you live. Last year, an undergrad in Zubiaurre’s honors collegium seminar went to a poor neighborhood and scavenged through people’s trash; no one cared, Zubiaurre said. But when the same student went to Beverly Hills to go through trash, the police were nearly called. “Who decides what is public and what is private? How come trash becomes highly private in a rich neighborhood, but truly disposable in a poor neighborhood?” Zubiaurre said.

This kind of interdisciplinary exploration of important social questions through arts and media is essential for the advancement of the humanities in the 21st century, Zubiaurre said, and she’s thankful that UCLA fosters such scholarship as part of the Urban Humanities Initiative. Begun in 2012 with a $2 million grant, the initiative explores how the answers to problems of urban life lie at the intersections of environmental design, architecture and the humanities.

“The freedom you have here is absolutely wonderful,” said Zubiaurre, who plans to teach this class to graduates and undergraduates in alternate years.

Student feedback has been gratifying, particularly from those few undergrads last year who noted candidly in their evaluations that they only took the class because it fit into their schedules. “They said that, by the end, it was life-changing, and they will never ever look at trash the same way,” she said.