Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘My Neighbor Totoro

Flowers of evil

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Note: Spoilers follow for Mary and the Witch’s Flower.

The best way to start talking about Mary and the Witch’s Flower, which is a movie that I liked a lot, is to quote from one of its few negative reviews. It’s the debut animated feature from Studio Ponoc, a new production company founded by veterans of the legendary Studio Ghibli, and it’s impossible to watch it without being reminded of its predecessors, as the critic David Ehrlich notes on IndieWire:

Mary and the Witch’s Flower may not be a great film—it occasionally struggles just to be a good one—but it’s a convincing proof-of-concept, and that might be more important in the long run…Studio Ponoc’s first effort feels like a high-end knockoff that’s been made with the best of intentions. It has the taste and texture of a vegan hot dog, and ultimately the same effect—a lie that satisfies those who can’t shake their craving for the truth…There’s a thin line between homage and theft, and [director Hiromasa] Yonebayashi doesn’t seem to care where it is…Borrowing liberally from [Studio] Ghibli’s signature iconography, Mary and the Witch’s Flower is less of a new creation than it does a Miyazaki Mad-Lib…There’s a bootlegged vibe to it, and even the best moments feel like they’ve been photocopied from a true original.

Ehrlich concludes with a note of paradoxical praise: “There’s something indivisibly pure about the fact that Yonebayashi and his team have refused to let something beautiful die just because the rest of the world were willing to lower their standards. It’s thrilling that Studio Ponoc even exists, and that they’ve come so close to cloning the movies we once feared that people would no longer make.” I enjoyed Mary and the Witch’s Flower a lot more than Ehrlich did, and I don’t agree with everything that he says here. (For instance: “The chintzier the storytelling becomes, the cheaper the animation begins to seem.” Yet when it comes to the Ghibli style, cheapness is in the eye of the beholder. When My Neighbor Totoro was first released in this country, Leonard Klady of Variety wrote dismissively of its “adequate television technical craft,” and it isn’t hard to see how he reached that conclusion about one of the most beautiful movies ever made.) But Ehrlich’s argument is also fundamentally sound. Watching Mary awakened me to the extent to which the qualities of the films of Hayao Miyazaki are vulnerable to imitation, or even parody. It isn’t just their nostalgic settings or young female protagonists, but their pacing, which inserts extra beats of quiet into scenes that most movies tend to skip entirely. The characters in a Miyazaki movie are always pausing to absorb or react to what they hear and see, and they always wait until the others are done talking before they speak for themselves. Mary and the Witch’s Flower is full of such moments, and in a medium that is acutely conscious of timing, this can’t be accidental.

This may seem like a minor point, but every movie is the sum of countless small touches, and Mary and the Witch’s Flower gets so many subtle things just right that it’s easy to underestimate the degree of craft and technique involved. It’s about an ordinary girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a school of magic, but unlike certain other stories in the same vein, it doesn’t conclude with her embracing this new world. Instead, after realizing that its inhabitants are borderline sociopaths, she rejects it and returns gratefully to her old life. (At the end, when she tosses aside the flower of the title, it reminded me of Dirty Harry throwing away his badge.) This is a startling choice, but the movie earns it, mostly through some surprisingly understated design work. Mary’s home village is every bit as enticing as the ones in Totoro or Kiki’s Delivery Service—you can’t help but want to live there. The magical Endor College is grotesque by comparison, as Ehrlich writes:

It’s FAO Schwarz on an impossibly grand scale…The colors are garish, the Ghibli touches call attention to themselves, and the action is so confined to a few simple locations that Endor eventually comes to resemble an abandoned playground, a spectacular palace of unrealized potential.

Yet he also complains: “There’s no other credible explanation for why Mary develops such a quick distaste for this sky-high fantasy world…We don’t get a clear sense of why she might not want to be there.” But if I had to decide between her village and Endor College, I know which one I’d choose.

And what I liked the most about Mary and the Witch’s Flower was how it quietly repurposes the tools of Studio Ghibli as a statement against a certain kind of storytelling. Miyazaki often draws inspiration from other works of art—Ponyo is essentially a retelling of The Little Mermaid, and Spirited Away has touches of Lewis Carroll—but the result usually seems to refer to nothing but itself. Mary isn’t just a refutation of Harry Potter, but of all the children’s movies that offer the consoling fantasy that we’d be able to solve our problems if only we had access to magic, and that the answer to heartbreak in this world lies in escaping from it entirely. The best of the Studio Ghibli movies end with a return to everyday life, but it’s weirdly encouraging to see a studio of younger animators applying this lesson in defiance of all the forces that might encourage them to make other forms of entertainment. Miyazaki is old enough at this point to do whatever he likes, and Studio Ponoc is willing to follow his example in ways that aren’t obvious. The great temptation with Mary and the Witch’s Flower must have been to imitate only the attributes of its models that lend themselves to marketing and merchandising. What it really achieves is something richer and more subversive, and in positioning Miyazaki’s values so directly against those of its rivals, it amounts to a declaration of purpose. Mary may be a knockoff, but its heart is in the right place, and we need it now more than ever.

Red shoe diaries

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Moira Shearer in The Red Shoes

Earlier this week, my daughter, who is three years old, watched her first live-action movie. It was The Red Shoes. And although it might seem like I planned it this way—The Red Shoes, as I’ve said here on multiple occasions, is my favorite movie of all time—I can only protest, unconvincingly, that it was a total accident. Beatrix has been watching animated features for a while now, including a record number of viewings of My Neighbor Totoro, but she had never seen a live-action film from start to finish, and I’d already been thinking about which one to try to show her first. If you’d asked me, I’d have guessed that it would probably be Mary Poppins. But over the weekend, Beatrix started asking me about my own favorite films, and The Red Shoes naturally came up, along with a few others. (The first movie we discussed, for some reason, was The Shining, which led to an awkward plot summary: “Well, it’s about a family, sort of like ours, and the daddy is a writer, like me…”) I said that it was about dance, which piqued her interest, and I suggested that she might like to see the self-contained ballet sequence from the middle of the movie. She did, so we watched together it that night. When it was over, she turned to me and said: “I want to watch the rest.” I agreed, expecting that she would tune out and lose interest within the first twenty minutes. But she didn’t, and we ended up watching the whole thing over two evenings.

At first, I was understandably thrilled, but the overnight intermission gave me time to start worrying. The Red Shoes is a great movie, but its climax is undeniably bleak, and I spent a restless night wondering how Beatrix would handle the scene in which the ballerina Victoria Page falls to her death before an oncoming train. (It didn’t help that during the first half, Beatrix had said cheerfully to me: “I’m Vicky!”) The next morning, when she asked to watch the rest, I sat her down on my knee and explained what happened at the end. She told me that she would be okay with it, and that if it bothered her, she wouldn’t look at the screen, as long as I warned her in time. That’s more or less how it went: when we got to the ending, I told her what was coming, and she turned her head toward the back of the couch until I said the coast was clear. When the movie was over, I asked her what she thought. She said that she liked it a lot—but I also noticed that her eyes were glistening. It’s the first film of any kind she’s ever seen, in fact, that didn’t have a happy ending, and when she’s asked me why grownups enjoy watching sad movies, I’ve struggled with the response. I say that sometimes it’s good to feel emotions that you don’t experience in your everyday life, or that a sad movie can make you appreciate your own happiness, or that you can take pleasure in how well a sad story is told. But she didn’t seem all that convinced, and to be honest, neither am I.

The Red Shoes

It was especially enlightening to watch The Red Shoes through her eyes. It’s a movie with a strikingly fatalistic view of life and art: Lermontov tells Vicky that she can’t be married to Julian and be a great dancer at the same time, and the film implicitly confirms his judgment. “You cannot have it both ways,” Lermontov says grimly. “A dancer who relies upon the doubtful comforts of human love can never be a great dancer. Never.” It doesn’t seem to leave Vicky with much in the way of a middle ground. Yet although I’ve watched this movie endlessly over the last twenty years, I realized, seeing it again with my daughter, that I’m not sure if this reflects Powell and Pressburger’s true opinion or if it’s simply a narrative convention that they needed to enable the story’s tragic ending. For that matter, it doesn’t need to be one or the other: it feels a lot like a conclusion into which they were forced by the material, which is as valid a way as any for an artist to discover what he or she really thinks. And you don’t need to accept the movie’s bleaker aspects—I mostly don’t—to appreciate its merits as entertainment. Still, this isn’t a distinction that you’re likely to understand at the age of three, so I found myself telling Beatrix that the movie’s apparent message wasn’t necessarily true. It’s possible, I think, to have a satisfying creative career and a happy personal life: it’s certainly hard, but less than an order of magnitude harder than succeeding as an artist in the first place.

I don’t know how much of this Beatrix understood, but then again, I’m never entirely sure about what’s going on in her head. (On the night before we finished The Red Shoes, I passed by her bedroom and noticed that she was lying in bed with her eyes open. Looking straight at me, she said: “I’m thinking about the movie.”) And I wouldn’t be surprised if we quickly moved on to the next thing: Beatrix still says that her favorite movie is Ponyo, which makes me very happy. But hey, you never know. The Red Shoes has been responsible for more careers in dance than any other movie, and I know from firsthand experience how much impact a passing encounter with a piece of pop culture can have on your inner life. I’m not sure I want Beatrix to be a ballerina, which, if anything, is the one career that offers even less of a prospect of success than the one I’ve chosen for myself. But I want her to care about art, and to appreciate, as Lermontov tells Vicky, that a great impression of simplicity can only be achieved by great agony of body and spirit. On a more modest level, I want her to understand that we watch sad movies for a reason, even if it’s hard to explain, and that it’s both normal and good for the emotions they evoke to be as intense as the ones we feel in real life. Of course, she’ll probably come to that conclusion on her own. The other day, Beatrix looked at me and said: “I want to watch the movie about the girl at the restaurant.” It took me a while to realize that she was talking about Chungking Express. I replied: “You will soon.” And I meant it.

Written by nevalalee

June 3, 2016 at 8:32 am

Beyond good and evil

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Ponyo

First, a toddler movie update. After a stretch in which my daughter watched My Neighbor Totoro close to a hundred times, she’s finally moved on to a few other titles: now she’s more into Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki’s other great masterpiece for children, and, somewhat to my surprise, the original Disney release of The Many Adventures of Winnie the Pooh. All, thankfully, are movies that I’m happy to watch on a daily basis, and seeing them juxtaposed together so often has allowed me to draw a few comparisons. Totoro still strikes me as a perfect movie, with a entire world of loveliness, strangeness, and fine observation unfolding from a few basic premises. Ponyo is a little messier, with a glorious central hour surrounded on both sides with material that doesn’t seem as fully developed, although it’s not without its charms. And Winnie the Pooh impresses me now mostly as an anthology of good tricks, gags, and bits of business, as perfected over the decades by the best animators in the world. It’s sweet and funny, but more calculated in its appeal than its source, and although it captures many of the pleasures of the original books, it misses something essential in their tone. (Really, the only animator who could give us a faithful version of Milne’s stories is Miyazaki himself.)

And none of them, tellingly, has any villains. Beatrix hasn’t been left entirely innocent of fictional villainy, and she already knows that—spoiler alert—Hans is “the bad guy” and Kristof is “the good guy” based on her limited exposure to Frozen. Yet I’ve always suspected that the best children’s movies are the ones that hold the viewer’s attention, regardless of age, without resorting to manufactured conflicts. You could divide the Pixar films into two categories based on which ones lean the heaviest on scripted villains, and you often find that the best of them avoid creating characters whom we’re only supposed to hate. The human antagonists in the Toy Story films and Finding Nemo are more like impersonal forces of nature than deliberate enemies, and I’ve always been a little uneasy about The Incredibles, as fantastic as so much of it is, simply because its villain is so irredeemably loathsome. There are always exceptions, of course: Toy Story 3 features one of the most memorable bad guys in any recent movie, animated or otherwise. But if children’s films that avoid the easy labels of good guys and bad guys tend to be better than average, that’s less a moral judgment than a practical one: in order to tell an interesting story without an obvious foil, you have to think a little harder. And it shows.

Rapunzel by Paul O. Zelinsky

That said, there’s an obvious contradiction here. As I’ve stated elsewhere, when I tell my daughter fairy tales, I tend to go for the bloodiest, least sanitized versions I can find. There’s no shortage of evil in the Brothers Grimm, and the original stories go far beyond what most children’s movies are willing to show us. The witch in “Hansel and Gretel” is as frightening a monster as any I know, and I still feel a chill when I read her first line aloud. The wolf gobbles up Little Red Riding Hood and her grandmother whole, and as his punishment, he gets killed with an axe and sliced open with sewing shears. (At least, that’s what happens in the version I’ve been reading: in the original, Little Red Riding Hood herself proposes that the wolf’s belly be filled with heavy stones.) The queen in “Snow White” attempts to kill the title character no fewer than three times, first by strangling her with a lace bodice, then with a poisoned comb, before finally resorting to the apple to finish the job. And when you sanitize these stories, you rob them of most of their meaning. As I noted in my original post on the subject:  “A version of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ in which the wolf doesn’t eat the grandmother doesn’t just trivialize the wolf, but everybody else involved, and it’s liable to strike both child and parent as equally pointless.”

So why do I value fairy tales for their unflinching depictions of evil, while equally treasuring children’s films in which nothing bad happens at all? I could justify this in all kinds of ways, but I keep returning to a point that I’ve made here before, which is that the only moral value I feel like inculcating in my daughter—at least for now—is a refusal to accept shoddy or dishonest storytelling. Miyazaki and the Brothers Grimm lie on opposite ends of a spectrum, but they’re unified by their utter lack of cynicism. One might be light, the other dark, but they’re both telling the stories they have in the most honest way they can, and they don’t feel obliged to drum up our interest using artificial means. In Miyazaki, it’s because the world is too magical for us to need a bad guy in order to care about it; in the Brothers Grimm, it’s because the world is already so sinister, down to its deepest roots, and the story is less about giving us a disposable antagonist than in confronting us with our most fundamental fears. When you compare it to the children’s movies that include a bully or a bad guy who exists solely to drive the plot along, you see that Totoro and “Hansel and Gretel” have more in common with each other than with their lesser counterparts. There’s good in the world as well as evil, and I don’t plan on sheltering my daughter from either one. But I’m going to shelter her from bad storytelling for as long as I can.

Totoro and I

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My Neighbor Totoro

A few months ago, in a post about the movies I’ve watched the most often, I made the following prediction about my daughter:

Once Beatrix is old enough, she’ll start watching movies, too, and if she’s anything like most kids I know, she’ll want to watch the same videos over and over. I fully expect to see My Neighbor Totoro or the Toy Story films several hundred times over the next few years—at least if all goes according to plan.

As it turns out, I was half right. Extrapolating from recent trends, I’ll definitely end up watching Totoro a hundred times or more—but it will only take a few months. I broke it out for the first time this week, as Beatrix and I were both getting over a cold, which, combined with a chilly week in Oak Park, kept both of us mostly inside. When I hit the play button, I wasn’t sure how she’d respond. But she sat transfixed for eighty minutes. Since then, she’s watched it at least ten times all the way through, to the point where I’ve had to negotiate a limit of one viewing per day. And although I couldn’t be happier, and I can’t imagine another movie I’d be more willing to watch over and over again, I occasionally stop to wonder what I’ve awakened.

Screen time for children can be a touchy subject, but after holding out for more than two years, we’re finally allowing Beatrix to watch videos on a regular basis. Along with her daily Totoro fix, she’ll spend half an hour on her mommy’s phone in the morning, usually taking in Sesame Street or Frozen clips on YouTube. (As a parenting tip, I’d also recommend investing in an inexpensive portable DVD player, like the sturdy one I recently picked up by Sylvania. It’s better than a phone, since it allows for a degree of parental control and resists restless skipping from one video to the next, and unlike a television, it can be tucked out of sight when you’re done, which cuts down on the number of demands.) Whenever possible, I like to sit with her while we’re watching, asking her to comment on the action or to tell me what she sees. And Totoro, in particular, has awakened her imagination: she’s already pretending to gather acorns around the house, and she identifies strongly with the two little girls. For my part, I feel the same way about the father, who may be the best parent in any animated film, and whenever I find myself at a loss, I’ve started to ask myself: “What would the dad in Totoro do?”

Totoro in Toy Story 3

And while it’s possible that Beatrix would have latched onto whatever I decided to show her, I’d like to think that there’s something about Totoro that makes it the right movie at the right time. As I’ve noted before, its appeal can be hard to explain. Pixar’s brand of storytelling can be distilled into a set of rules—I’ve said elsewhere that its movies, as wonderful as they can be, feel like the work of a corporation willing itself into the mind of a child—and we’ve seen fine facsimiles in recent years from DreamWorks and Disney Animation. But Miyazaki remains indefinable. The wonder of Totoro is that Totoro himself only appears for maybe five minutes: the rest is a gentle, fundamentally realistic look at the lives of two small children, and up until the last act, whatever magic we see could easily be a daydream or fantasy. Yet it’s riveting all the way through, and its attention to detail rewards multiple viewings. Every aspect of life in the satoyama, or the Japanese countryside, is lovingly rendered, and there are tiny touches in every frame to tickle a child’s curiosity, or an adult’s. It’s a vision of the world that I want to believe, and it feels like a gift to my daughter, who I can only hope will grow up to be as brave as Mei and as kind as Satsuki.

Best of all, at a time when most children’s movies are insistently busy, it provides plenty of room for the imagination to breathe. In fact, its plot is so minimal—there are maybe six story beats, generously spaced—that I’m tempted to define the totoro as the basic unit of meaningful narrative for children. A movie like Ponyo is about 1.5 totoros; Spirited Away is 2; and Frozen or most of the recent Pixar films push it all the way up to 3. There’s nothing wrong with telling a complicated plot for kids, and one of the pleasures of the Toy Story films is how expertly they handle their dense storylines and enormous cast. But movement and color can also be used to cover up something hollow at the heart, until a film like Brave leaves you feeling as if you’ve been the victim of an elaborate confidence game. Totoro’s simplicity leaves no room for error, and even Miyazaki, who is as great a filmmaker as ever lived, was only able to do it once. (I still think that his masterpiece is Spirited Away, but its logic is more visible, a riot of invention and incident that provides a counterpoint to Totoro‘s sublime serenity.) If other films entice you with their surfaces, Totoro is an invitation to come out and play. And its spell lingers long after you’ve put away the movie itself.

Written by nevalalee

April 24, 2015 at 9:06 am

An unfinished decade

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Joaquin Phoenix in The Master

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s topic: “What movie from our best films of the decade so far list doesn’t deserve to be on there?”

Toward the end of the eighties, Premiere Magazine conducted a poll of critics, directors, writers, and industry insiders to select the best films of the previous decade. The winners, in order of the number of votes received, were Raging Bull, Wings of Desire, E.T., Blue Velvet, Hannah and Her Sisters, Platoon, Fanny and Alexander, Shoah, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and Do the Right Thing, with The Road Warrior, Local Hero, and Terms of Endearment falling just outside the top ten. I had to look up the list to retype it here, but I also could have reconstructed much of it from memory: a battered copy of Premiere’s paperback home video guide—which seems to have vanished from existence, along with its parent magazine, based on my inability, after five minutes of futile searching, to even locate the title online—was one of my constant companions as I started exploring movies more seriously in high school. And if the list contains a few headscratchers, that shouldn’t be surprising: the poll was held a few months before the eighties were technically even over, which isn’t close to enough time for a canon to settle into a consensus.

So how would an updated ranking look? The closest thing we have to a more recent evaluation is the latest Sight & Sound critics’ poll of the best films ever made. Pulling out only the movies from the eighties, the top films are Shoah, Raging Bull, Blade Runner, Blue Velvet, Fanny and Alexander, A City of Sadness, Do the Right Thing, L’Argent, The Shining, and My Neighbor Totoro, followed closely by Come and See, Distant Voices Still Lives, and Once Upon a Time in America. There’s a degree of overlap here, and Raging Bull was already all but canonized when the earlier survey took place, but Wings of Desire, which once came in second, is nowhere in sight, its position taken by a movie—Blade Runner—that didn’t even factor into the earlier conversation. The Shining received the vote of just a single critic in the Premiere poll, and at the time it was held, My Neighbor Totoro wouldn’t be widely seen outside Japan for another three years. Still, if there’s a consistent pattern, it’s hard to see, aside from the obvious point that it takes a while for collective opinion to stabilize. Time is the most remorseless, and accurate, critic of them all.

Inception

And carving up movies by decade is an especially haphazard undertaking. A decade is an arbitrary division, much more so than a single year, in which the movies naturally engage in a kind of accidental dialogue. It’s hard to see the release date of Raging Bull as anything more than a quirk of the calendar: it’s undeniably the last great movie of the seventies. You could say much the same of The Shining. And there’s pressure to make any such list conform to our idea of what a given decade was about. The eighties, at least at the time, were seen as a moment in which the auteurism of the prior decade was supplanted by a blockbuster mentality, encouraged, as Tony Kushner would have it, by an atmosphere of reactionary politics, but of course the truth is more complicated. Blue Velvet harks back to the fifties, but the division at its heart feels like a product of Reaganism, and the belated ascent of Blade Runner is an acknowledgment of the possibilities of art in the era of Star Wars. (As an offhand observation, I’d say that we find it easier to characterize decades if their first years happen to coincide with a presidential election. As a culture, we know what the sixties, eighties, and aughts were “like” far more than the seventies or nineties.)

So we should be skeptical of the surprising number of recent attempts to rank works of art when the decade in question is barely halfway over. This week alone, The A.V. Club did it for movies, while The Oyster Review did it for books, and even if we discount the fact that we have five more years of art to anticipate, such lists are interesting mostly in the possibilities they suggest for later reconsideration. (The top choices at The A.V. Club were The Master, A Separation, The Tree of Life, Frances Ha, and The Act of Killing, and looking over the rest of the list, about half of which I’ve seen, I’d have to say that the only selection that really puzzled me was Haywire.) As a culture, we may be past the point where a consensus favorite is even possible: I’m not sure if any one movie occupies the same position for the aughts that Raging Bull did for the eighties. If I can venture one modest prediction, though, it’s that Inception will look increasingly impressive as time goes on, for much the same reason as Blade Runner does: it’s our best recent example of an intensely personal version thriving within the commercial constraints of the era in which it was made. Great movies are timeless, but also of their time, in ways that can be hard to sort out until much later. And that’s true of critics and viewers, too.

The challenge of honest optimism

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Sheila Sim and Eric Portman in A Canterbury Tale

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “What’s your favorite entertainment based on people making the world a better place?”

When I was in my twenties, I had a theory that most novelists my age—including myself—were more or less faking it. Until you turned thirty, I thought, even a spectacular literary debut was usually just a pastiche of similar works the author had read and internalized, rather than a reflection of real experience. You had to have lived a little longer, and done something besides spend all your time writing, to express something meaningful about the world; until then, you were left with technically clever imitations, some admittedly more graceful or ingenious than others, of the books you’d loved yourself. Now that I’m in my thirties, I’ve modified my opinion: I suspect that we’re all faking it. (This isn’t confined to writing either: it’s a terrifying realization about being a grownup in general. As the father says in Calvin and Hobbes, “I don’t think I’d have been in such a hurry to reach adulthood if I’d known the whole thing was going to be ad-libbed.”) In their first drafts, at least, most writers don’t really know what the story is about, so they end up writing a kind of extended simulation of the novel they want to see, a patchwork of good guesses and impersonations that they hope to revise into the real thing.

And it strikes me that a lot of what we call “insight” in fiction is really a verbal strategy, a reflection of a basically neutral ability with words, just as an invalid argument seems more convincing if the author knows how to write. A strong prose style is no guarantee of truth, and at its worst, it can hide weaknesses and gaps in logic that would be more obvious if less artfully concealed—which may be why serious philosophy is such a chore to read. And while we’d all like to hope that we’ll come up with real insights in the process of putting together our thoughts, in the meantime, we have to find new ways of faking it. That’s why so many young writers can seem so cynical. Cynicism feels more mature, at first glance, than idealism; a dark, pessimistic perspective presents itself as a hard realization at which the writer has arrived after passing through many intermediate stages. Of course, that doesn’t need to be the case at all. Reflexive cynicism is as much of an intellectual retreat as unthinking optimism, but it hides itself a little better, which may be why it’s so attractive to writers who want to seem more worldly than they really are. As Zapp Brannigan says on Futurama, when trying to convince Kiff to smoke for the first time: “Teenagers all smoke, and they seem pretty on the ball.”

Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

That’s why I’ve come to treasure works of art, regardless of their ethical or philosophical point of view, that seem like the product of earned experience. I’m aware, obviously, that I may just be responding to a particularly convincing act of sleight of hand, but it doesn’t feel that way: there’s something in really great works of art or literature that takes us by the hand to show us that we’re in the presence of a genuinely alert intelligence. That’s true of books as different as The Magic Mountain and Catch-22, or movies with as little in common as Last Tango in Paris and My Neighbor Totoro. Sometimes a really honest exploration of the world can end up in a place of despair, but it’s easy to tell the difference between a work of art that ends up in the darkness because it has no other choice, like Caché, and one that takes it as a fashionable starting point, like Fight Club. And I’ll take wisdom wherever I can find it, even if it ends up staking out the position, which may not be wrong, that existence is fundamentally meaningless. But such works are all the more precious, at least when it comes to getting through this life in one piece, when they express a basically optimistic view of the world.

Take, for instance, A Canterbury Tale. The films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are wonderful for a lot of reasons—their wit, their inventiveness, their curiosity, their enormous visual energy—but what I’ve come to value in them most is their air of a wisdom that isn’t confined to the movie studio. Powell and Pressburger lived crowded, eventful lives, and their films are crammed with tiny moments of anecdote and observation, side by side with spectacular artifice, that speak to deep experience. When necessary, they don’t shy away from darkness or tragedy: The Red Shoes ends the way it does for a reason. Throughout it all, though, they remain sympathetic, humane, and attuned to a vision of what makes life worth living. A Canterbury Tale is both their gentlest and most radical work, a leisurely, nearly plotless slice of life that remains endlessly watchable because it’s so intensely observed. It was shot during World War II, which affects the lives of all the characters involved, and although it was clearly designed as a boost to morale, it winds up being much more. It’s propaganda, if you like, for the values of humor, simplicity, and forgiveness, and it ends so happily that I can’t help hoping that it’s true. But I wouldn’t believe in it at all if Powell and Pressburger hadn’t given me good reason to trust them in the first place.

The elusive magic of Hayao Miyazaki

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Earlier this month, the Siskel Center in Chicago began presenting a loving retrospective of the work of Studio Ghibli and Hayao Miyazaki, the Japanese animator who, as I’ve argued before, may be our greatest living director in any medium. Of all the contemporary directors whose work I revisit on a regular basis, Miyazaki may be the one who fills me with the most awe, and he’s also the one whose mastery I find hardest to explain. His best films are totally accessible to viewers of all ages, and some, like My Neighbor Totoro, stand out for their apparent simplicity. But while the Pixar style of storytelling can be taken apart and analyzed—at their best, Pixar’s films are beautiful machines of narrative—the work of Miyazaki resists easy explanation. A set of narrative rules tweeted by Pixar storyboard artist Emma Coats recently made the rounds online, and they’re full of good advice: “What are the stakes?” “Give your characters opinions.” “Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it.” But what would the rules look like for Miyazaki?

As one possible way in, I’ll start by noting that Miyazaki’s work falls into two different categories, one of which is significantly greater than the other—although I know that a lot of fans would take issue with this. His best work, to my mind, has always been about children: My Neighbor Totoro, Spirited Away, and Ponyo are among the best animated movies ever made, and they’re all significantly different in tone, style, and mood. Totoro is a perfect tone poem about a child’s life in the satoyama, or Japanese countryside, with the gentle rhythms of a bedtime story; Spirited Away is a dense, superbly organized epic of fantasy seen through a child’s eyes; and Ponyo is sort of a hybrid of the two, with scenes of intense joy, humor, and lyricism paired with strange, goofy fantasy. Compared to these three, I find his work centering on older characters—such as Nausicaa, Princess Mononoke, and Howl’s Moving Castle—to be rather less interesting. These movies are often brilliant and visually distinctive, but Miyazaki has many rivals here, while there’s no one who matches him at capturing the inner lives of children.

Spirited Away is my favorite Miyazaki movie, but after watching Totoro again last night, I wonder if it might not be the greater accomplishment. I’ve spoken before about the American need to make movies centered on restless movement—on action that breaks out, to use David Thomson’s words. Spirited Away is almost like a Pixar film in this respect, although infinitely weirder and more graceful: it’s packed with incident, action, and spectacular images. Totoro, by contrast, takes its time. It contains only the tiniest sliver of plot or conflict. For most of the film, its magical creatures are offstage: Totoro himself appears for only a few minutes, and most of the movie is devoted to an idyllic but comparatively realistic depiction of the lives of two little girls. And yet the entire movie is riveting and magical. I can understand how Spirited Away works, but Totoro is beyond words. Ponyo lacks Totoro‘s clean lines, but it, too, is full of gorgeous moments that are impossible to explain but indisputably right.

And the childlike perspective here is crucial, because it allows the film to slow down and take in the world with the eyes of a child to whom everything is interesting. What impresses me the most about Miyazaki these days aren’t his flights of fancy but his attention to the small details of everyday life. In Totoro, he notices how an old door or window sticks slightly before you open it for the first time, or how a girl of ten sleeps more or less like an adult while a girl of four sleeps in a tangle of blankets. Ponyo, in turn, mines poetry out of making ramen or starting a generator after a storm. That kind of perspective, when channeled through years of artistic experience, is truly precious, and I watch Miyazaki’s films again and again just for the chance to relive those moments. The craft on display here isn’t the kind that can be easily taught: it requires a good eye and steady hand as well as a generous heart. It can’t be reduced to a set of rules. But if it could, it wouldn’t be magical, would it?

Written by nevalalee

June 21, 2012 at 10:02 am

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