Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Space to Breathe: The Secret World of Arrietty (Hiromasa Yonebayashi, 2010)

Based on Mary Norton’s classic children’s book The Borrowers and adapted for the screen by the great Hayao Miyazaki, the latest film from Studio Ghibli*, The Secret World of Arrietty, is a delight, offering its viewers a gentle sweetness tinged with the slight ache of melancholy.   

After sitting through the energetic trailers for coming children’s films, all advertised as being in 3D and all featuring glossy, computer-generated characters aping for the camera and up to all kinds of hilarity-inducing shenanigans, the first frames of the 2D, beautifully drawn Arrietty came with such a mildness and such a tender, self-effacing beauty that those initial moments were something like stepping out of a car full of excited, screaming children, closing the door on the riot, and walking out onto the grass of a cool-warm spring day – the raucous sounds shut off, and the hum of the bumblebee going about his business and the rustle of leaf on tree enveloping me instead.  Except in this case, in stepping out of the noisy car, my children are quietly with me.  We don’t have to speak to each other – we can be in the stillness together, perhaps stooping to look at a flower or pausing mid-step to let the breeze tickle our faces. 

Of course, all of my family members do laugh at many of the broad jokes and shenanigans of a Kung Fu Panda or a Megamind, but we also love what Arrietty gives us and perhaps we need it more these days.

A Studio Ghibli film always provides something of an alternative pace and a new perspective, and Arrietty gives no less nourishing a provision.  Those familiar with the source material will know that Arrietty is the only daughter of Pod and Homily and that the three are “borrowers,” little people who live secretly near or in the houses of the big people, the human “beans,” as the borrowers call them.  These borrowers take, or, rather, borrow with dignity, only what they need from the humans and do everything they can to remain unknown, aware that even kindly humans can be terribly dangerous.  The film opens as Arrietty is allowed to go with her father on her first borrowing mission—for tissue and a bit of sugar—and we are introduced to the borrowers’ secretly carried out life business and to Arrietty’s keen curiosity and zest for adventure. 

The main tension of the film is, of course, not difficult to predict: the borrowers need to remain hidden, but an eager young borrower resists that need, and the question becomes not “Will the borrowers be discovered?” but “What will happen when they are?”  While this tension carries the story ably along, we are, throughout, nonetheless allowed to rest and to breathe deeply in this world; we are given the time to be fully immersed in its beauty and gentle pathos, without being hustled along by a barrage of gags.
And my children loved Arrietty’s small adventures: her first trip to the vast kitchen; her practice in scaling a cupboard with fishhook and line; her ginger, then confident, steps across the line of high nails, her encounter with a hungry crow.

And my older daughter was particularly taken by the film’s use of sound.  She turned to me at one point, with delighted eyes, saying, “Listen! The clock – it’s how Arrietty hears it.”  And it was.  Small sounds like the soft tick-tocking that the humans hear – or do not hear at all – registered as loud bangs, bongs, rattles, rustles, gurgles, and rushes to the borrowers and by extension to us, viewers and hearers on their journeys with them. 

The central tension, the small adventures, the wonderful sounds – all of these things entranced me as much as they did my children, but it was other small but rich elements of the film that have made it even more lastingly resonant for me: 

Arrietty’s father, a taciturn but clearly kind and loving man, who bears the burden of a sorrow, of a history, or perhaps of an uneasy future, a burden that is never fully told;

 the human boy of the house, who labors too much for breath when he runs and who yearns, but never explicitly so, for his absent parents;

 and the last moments of the film that aren’t quite a happily ever after.  

These things, so full of quiet pathos, flow as an undercurrent to the gentle rhythm of the story and leave me in thoughtfulness.

There is not in this film the neat tidiness, where loose ends are tucked away, where all sadness is banished forever.  The borrowers’ lives will not be substantially different; they are borrowers, and they will always have to scrabble in some way for their subsistence, their little, precious existence, never quite free from fear of the big people.

The film, to be sure, did not make my children sad in the least; their lighted faces and happy skips out of the cinema would deny that, but its story, while a magical fiction about little people, strikes a true chord like the best fairy tales do, reflecting back to me a something that is the real beauty, real vibrancy, and real pain of life. 

*Studio Ghibli is the Japanese studio of such marvelous films as My Neighbor Totoro, Castle in the Sky, Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, Princess Mononoke, and Ponyo, and others.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A Place "spacious and strange": Abbas Kiarostami's Certified Copy

(Note: My essay on Kiarostami's follow-up companion film, Like Someone in Love, may be found here: http://ajournaloffilm.blogspot.com/2013/03/lonely-as-this-finger-abbas-kiarostamis.html )

In the puzzlement and bewilderment of mind in which I found myself after watching Abbas Kiarostami's 2010 film, Certified Copy, I began thinking of essayist and novelist Pico Iyer’s recent piece in the LA Times, “The Writing Life: The point of the long and winding sentence.”  In it, Iyer considers our position “in the privileged world” where we “have access to more information than we know what to do with” and where we manage that information by reducing it to “a sound bite or a bumper sticker,” bits and pieces that are easily categorized, easily managed.  As much as Iyer admires the short pithiness of Hemingway sentence, he offers for our consideration the complexity of a long sentence, that complexity as a protest and counter to our reductionist tendencies.  The long sentence, that --

“collection of clauses that is so many chambered and lavish and abundant in tones and suggestions, that has so much room for near-contradiction and ambiguity and those places in memory and imagination that can’t be simplified, or put into easy words, that it allows the reader to keep many things in her head and heart at the same time, and to descend, as by a spiral staircase, deeper into herself and those things that won’t be squeezed into an either/or.  With each clause, we’re taken further and further from trite conclusions . . . and away from reductionism, as if the writer were a dentist, saying 'Open wider' so that he can probe the tender, neglected spaces in the reader (though in this case it’s not the mouth that he’s attending to but the mind).”

As Iyer imagines this “long and winding sentence” as a sort of antidote for these times when “we’ve got speed and shortness up the wazoo” and where we manage information rather than reflect on the nuanced significances of it, I think Kiarostami’s worlds –as I’ve experienced them so far in Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us, and now, Certified Copy—worlds created on the screen rather than on the page, offer a similar antidote.  All of these films resist “trite conclusions,” easy “reductionism,” and “either/or” ideas. None of these films offer a traditional plot; they feel long, wending their ways as meandering streams with no decisive signs to tell us whether we are wending—as we go with them—north, south, east, or west.  We are left to ourselves in a way to fill in the gaps as we can or as we will, to look for small signs or subtle patterns, to puzzle over contradictions or ambiguity. 

Certified Copy is not without signs and patterns, and we are invited, even, to see in the contradictions a particular sign and a particular pattern though I think, in the end, I cannot say for sure if I’ve delineated the pattern, correctly read the sign.  The title—the most obvious sign in the text—first tempts us to say, “this is what the film is about.”  But what does it mean and to what does it refer?  Within that title is contradiction, a contradiction the film explores, overturns, and further complicates on its winding way.  A “certified copy” is a reproduction, duplicate, or imitation of an original thing – perhaps a document, perhaps a piece of art, perhaps something else—a reproduction that has been declared authentic and complete, saying, “this thing is exactly like the original.”   The question is, how can a copy of anything be certified?  How can it be authentic and complete if it isn’t the thing itself?  But we might also ask, if a copy looks exactly like its original, why do we need the original?  What value does the original hold?  What value does the copy hold? How can we tell? Who decides?

While these questions might seem to be best suited for a philosophical and ontological or art-related treatise or lecture, Kiarostami playfully explores in his film these questions by way of duplicated and duplicating images and characters, unresolved conversations, and a key relationship, a relationship that within itself is a mystery, a contradiction, something that parallels the central contradiction of the film.  

The films opens with what perhaps may seem to be the very lecture suited to the subject: a British writer, James Miller (William Shimell), who has just published a book entitled Certified Copy, has come to Italy to promote its Italian translation, and he speaks to a gathered group about his book’s subject, a subject centering on the claim that a copy of a work of art has the value of its original.  
Several things distract us from attending to his lecture, however, and the distractions, the invasions, invite us into the subject by way of other, less direct, avenues:  during the lecture a woman—whom we come to know as Elle, a Frenchwoman (Juliet Binoche) —and her sullen pre-teen son come late to the lecture, disrupting our concentration.  While at first, we feel annoyed, trying to listen to the lecture but being drawn into watching the woman, we must stop to consider that Kiarostami wants that concentration to be disrupted; the camera focuses not on Miller, but on the woman and her son, the woman whispering to her son and trying to appease his clear distaste for being there and the woman whispering for unknown reasons to the man next to her and to the woman behind her.  She and her son leave before the lecture is finished, and, in a further distraction, Miller’s own phone rings; he briefly apologizes but makes no hesitation to answer the call and talk for a moment –he himself has interrupted his lecture. 

What we are to make of the distractions exactly, I can’t say, but we are clearly led away from the lecture – the straightforward point by point presentation – and forced to look in another direction, and not just one other direction, but many other directions, as if to say, we cannot really get at this thing this way; we’re going to have to try to come at it elliptically, perhaps more slyly and playfully. A lecture won’t do it, not for us.  

A similar scene, centering on an explanation and a distraction from that explanation, is repeated later when Elle, who becomes companion to James for the majority of the film, takes James to see a piece of art thought to be an original for many years but discovered to be a copy.  As a copy it nonetheless resides in the art museum and when Elle and James stand before it, a tour guide comes along to explain the painting’s origins to his group.   Elle and James listen, the multi-lingual Elle translating the Italian into English for James.  But her translation is no translation for us; it merely distracts us from the content of the tour guide’s description as we watch James and Elle themselves.  And James, himself, wanders away midway through, uninterested; “I’ve seen others like it,” he says.  And so while we have had another chance here at a sort of straightforward discourse about a copy, a certified copy, if you will, Kiarostami keeps us from engaging in that explanation; we remain with James and Elle, a pair whose relationship, from its beginning stages, confuses and intrigues us and leads us, perhaps, into a more elusive and more human reflection on the meanings and contradictions present within the notion of a “certified copy.”

Throughout the film, their relationship, its exact nature, constantly elides our grasp.  As the film opens, it seems clear that Elle and James are strangers; she’s come to buy books and listen to writers. James interests her particularly, and she buys several of his books so that she may give signed copies as gifts—and her son teases her about her interest.    Elle offers to spend the day with James, and when he accepts, their initial interactions play like those of two strangers.  But later, a shift occurs, and their relationship is reinterpreted for us as something with a long and intimate history, a marriage, in fact.  Later yet, when we seem to have settled on an identify for them as a married couple, James acts as if he has no memory of certain key moments and places in their married history, moments and places anyone would remember.  Befuddlement sets in when we try to reconcile these varying versions of their relationship; are they strangers or are they husband and wife?  Is their relationship real, or is it only a play at something real?  The film teases us; we long to know which is which; we yearn to reconcile what we have seen with something coherent, something of one piece. 

But in that longing to know, our desire to discover if the relationship is authentic, we must ask, why does the answer matter?  Why must we know?  After all, this is only a film; these are actors playing parts, and Kiarostami, I believe, repeatedly draws our attention to this fact, with camera angles that give us artificial or awkward views, or at least, angles that are uncommon, not the sort we are used to.  I am reminded, for example, of several moments in which Elle, looks directly into the camera, breaking the fourth wall.  At one point, she is alone, gazing in a mirror, applying lipstick and choosing earrings; in another moment, she is speaking directly to James, but looking directly at us.  It’s uncomfortable; we are aware of the artificiality of the situation, of the fact that “we are watching a film.” 

But somehow, we still want to know.  We still want to know the mystery of James and  Elle’s relationship.  Elle herself, played so beautifully and naturally as she is by Binoche, we want to receive at face value.  How can we do anything else in the moment, for example, when James, relating a story of a woman and her son, brings Elle to tears?  Throughout his narrative, she becomes more and more rigid, her eyes speak their vulnerability, and we know that she is moved by some deep and painful emotion.  But even as we are moved by her emotion, we are checked again moments later by some subtle element that belies the reality of the situation.  James himself seems throughout to be playing at a part, rather than inhabiting a person.  His role is perhaps intentionally played as such, that is, not quite naturally, by William Shimell, but intentional or not, his character brings us again to our questions about authenticity, to our discomfort with a suspected artificiality, to our desire to know what is real and what isn’t. 

The film repeatedly and throughout plays with our sense of the real and the artificial, the genuine and the copy.  We see our characters time and again in mirrors or in and through reflections.  
Even the very multiplicity of languages in the film – English, French, Italian – switching from one to another, often mid-conversation –reminds us that a translation of a thing is only an estimate of the original thing.  Language gets at something but does not equal the thing itself.  In one scene, Elle engages in conversation with a French couple visiting Italy, asking them to describe their feelings about a fountain’s statue in the village center; she leads them to James and asks the woman to repeat what she’d said.  The woman offers an answer, but Elle is dissatisfied, reminding her, “no, that isn’t what you said before.”  In the end, we are not sure what the woman said; Elle heard her say one thing, the woman says she misheard her – and we never discover the original thought, for Elle and the woman wander off, talking out of our ear shot.  Again, we long to know—though this stranger’s thought can’t really matter to our story—what is authentic: what was it she said at first? 

Early on in the film, as James and Elle drive to their day’s destination, Elle describes her sister Marie, to James, admiring her sister’s capacity for loving costume jewelry; to Marie, Elle says, “fake jewelry is just as good as the real thing . . . She’s a simple person . . . there’s no difference between copy and original.”  James responds, “She’s lucky; I wish I could be more like her.. . . I wrote my book partly to convince myself of my own idea. [But] she seems to believe in the idea simply and naturally.”  He cannot do what she does, he says, because “there’s nothing simple about being simple.”   If we, as viewers, were like Marie, I suppose, discovering the exact nature of James and Elle’s relationship, discovering the difference between the copy and the original throughout the film, wouldn’t matter; we could simply embrace what we see in the moment, taking it for itself, not worrying about the difference between seeming and being.  But we are revealed as more like James, discovering that being simple is not so simple.  We want to know because we want to know how to assign value; we want to know how to feel about one thing over another.

Can anyone, really, be as simple as Marie?  Is Marie, even, as simple as Elle describes her?  Throughout the film, our perceptions of a thing or a person or a sentence are constantly overturned or turned inside out until we are left with irreconcilable complexity.  And the film invites us to respond, to ask, How do I respond to a complexity like this, to this sort of conundrum?

Iyer says, that the long and winding sentence can give us “depth, the nuances – ‘the gaps.’” He writes that a sentence that resists our either/or tendencies and that “has room for certainty and doubt at once” both remedies the soundbites of our age and gives us something we long for, perhaps without knowing it: mystery and a place that feels as “spacious and strange as life itself.”  

I encourage my English 101 students, when they approach dense texts and when they need to say something in response to those dense text, to embrace what John Keats described as “negative capability,” that is, the capacity or ability “of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”  Keats, of course, wasn’t promoting throwing aside facts or reason, and I certainly do not wish my students to do so, but he was implying that when we have the ability to resist panic in the face of uncertainty, to remain calm when confronted by mystery, we then have the ability to dive into the complexity, to see a thing from delightfully multiple angles.  When we can embrace complexity without panic, I think it is then that we can relish the “gaps” and the “nuance” that Iyer describes. 

Kiarostami’s film, which draws me into a place "spacious and strange" and which challenges me to the same negative capability I urge my students to practice, still evades me.  I cannot here comprehend its spiraling multiplicities.  I cannot reduce it to a simple thing.  But in the end, I want to embrace its thorniness, its resistance to neat categories, and to let it offer unexpected resonances, as it continues to sit in my mind.