Friday, June 22, 2007

Monet to Dali avec Paprika

The Cleveland Museum of Art's renovation brings its great collections of Impressionists to Vancouver for a few months. The show is called Monet to Dali and as I've seen more Monet I've loved than any other artist, or group of artists, I buy my ticket with great anticipation.
A tv show on Monday night which I taped and watched Tuesday, Simon Schama's Power of Art filled the tube with Picassos and Van Goghs, not two of my top thousand favourite artists but it was good prep for this show, with several of the paintings shown and discussed so sagely by Mr. Schama now gracing our walls.
I start taking notes on my micro cassette. Tissot's Specimen of a Portrait. The feminization of light. The tenderness of Renoir's Apple Seller. You leap with the dog. From some distance, Madame Monet's red cape catches my eye. Not surprisingly, it was one painting he wouldn't sell, and kept with him all his life. My first impression of seeing it closer: it hit's a home run. In the sense that a baseball looks like a grapefruit to a hitter about to hit it out. It captures the eye, and sends it aloft. Madelaine and her daughter Yvonne. The woman's face is between 3 dimensional and Picassoesque. The Gardener's House looks like a pallette, a green roof of its era. "reveals Bonard's delight in light in colour" from the wall explanation, but if you don't delight in light in colour, why are you a painter?
Another great Monet. The deconstruction of a cliff as reflections in the water reminds me of the scene in the Firesign album Don't Crush That Dwarf where the kids' high school is "taken apart, stacked up and labelled." And then back to Monet's red hooded wife in the window. You don't want to turn away, for fear she'll stop watching you. Seurat's bather's structural relationship to his shadow, the water in front of him. They seen parts of him, but now adrift, with lives of their own like the grass he sits upon. The naked woman in the green wave by Gaughin, she is trying to reject it as her back is stained, so perhaps it's dyed water. Paint? Van Gogh's large plane tree looks like it's about to be consumed by bubbles, a washing machine film gag gone overboard. Matisse's Etruscan vase more cartoon than painting. And not a good cartoon. Modigliani's paintings are all basically one painting. Thankfully, a good painting. A woman with an elaborately feathered hat turns out to be by Picasso and does not suffer from that fact. Seeing his Life in real life is less impressive than on Schama's TV show, though the nipple's nice. The cubist melon picture and the glass and fork work for me, his attempt to see like an imaginary insect drawn to the seductive light reflected on his bald head. Magritte's Secret Life is intellectually exhausting to look at. There's something so comfortable about Ernst's coffee grinder, though I don't drink coffee. Dali's Dream warrants close attention. Ernst's Dejeuner Sur Herbe looks herby. The fish looks like it's about to eat me rather than be eaten. The surrealists doing their job.
A most impressive exhibition. Three surreal cheers for Cleveland.
I discover there's a bar below my favourite building in the city, Vancouver Central Library. I have a cidre, and after all that walking around, lament the bar doesn't seem to have any chairs with backs. Then a short, pleasant walk to Vancouver's white elephantine Tinseltown to see Paprika, a new Japanese flick I'd just read about in last week's Straight.
As it's animated, I'm momentarily amazed that it's in Japanese, and then happily adjust to reading subtitles which had never been available in the decades of anime I've seen. From my first night in the Hamamatsu Grand Hotel in August, 1971, to several months with my boss's family and the numerous families I visited thereafter, anime was everywhere in my Japan. Cute is everywhere. Dolls play a much large part in Japanese life than would be considered sane in North America. The panda effect, as cultural staple. I came to view this quite differently bringing up my daughter in Japan in the 80s. The TV cartoons and flicks I watched with her had a new meaning for me, participating in her involvement with them. As a child, I was fascinated by the Peanuts comic strip, to the point of writing a book and a TV script on Peanuts in the mid 60s. Doonesberry, or Zippie, or one of the cartoonists in Salon is often the highlight of my day. I like cartoons in general, and have been since I've had eyes.
That said, the Miyazaki flicks I've seen, first Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke and Tottoro all vastly dissapointed. The New Yorker article about him was much better. I enjoyed the Japaneseness of Away, and some of the superb visual imagery, the sky in particular, but gradually the story grew too Disnefied for me. Princess Mononoke begins with some exquisite imagery, mottled light through leaves on passing charcters, but goes downhill from there. For even longer than I've been into cartoons, I've been into fairy tales, folk tales and that milieu. That's what one was exposed to as a kid, at least in the pre-TV era I'm from. As an ESL teacher I often used them as teaching material. My daughter delighted in all the imaginary creatures of Japanese folklore, who continue to sell products and stoke the local economy. I just thought Miyazaki didn't have anything interesting to say with this lush cast of characters and endlessly exploitable cultural resonance. Some nice graphics, but so what? A few days ago I rented my neighbour totoro which i found totally unwatchable. Where was the invention, the mirth, the satisfaction that came from watching Doraemon and so many other cartoons that used to dominate Japanese TV in the days of Bit's youth? Miyazaki came close to ruining the genre for me. I hadn't seen Japanese TV in years and didn't know what else was out there until I read the review of Paprika last week. The fact that the story was akin to The Lathe of Heaven, one of my favourite novels and the subject of two flicks of its own made me want to see Paprika, and the fact that it was supposed to be so visually stunning made me want to see it in a theatre. Although the TV show has no visual pretentions, the Southpark film more than lived up to its theatre ticket price in the scenes of hell. That's why you go to the movies. You want to see vast vistas of eye candy. Your own private Saskatchewan.
And as soon as it started, that's what Paprika was. It was never not riveting. The characters would have been considered cliches when I first became aware of manga in 71, but the cliches worked. The great river of unconsciousness or whatever what rolls through this flick, although led by appliances escaped from Magritte via Zabriskie Point, was filled with Japanese dolls, just like the Japanese environment is. It's a riff. Paprika, who may or may not be real, is also continually riffing on herself as a spice. The noir detective's obsession seems to come out of the very non-anime The Shining. The doll guy's dolls welcoming home seems right out of equally visually visionary Blade Runner. There are so many things to see, and yet the characters are endlessly in motion. I laughed and I felt emotionally drawn in to these drawings, for all their clever imagery they resonate. The world of the flick is the dream world, and though the heroine Paprika may spice her way out of danger, the moral choice is whether to allow a device, the (hopefully fictional) DC Mini to allow people to enter our dreams or to continue to keep them private. Just as in The Lathe of Heaven, the man in charge of the device goes for control of everybody's dreams, with the expected results. Paprika reminds me of Sophia, the female aspect of the deity in Philip K Dick's novel The Divine Invasion. Just as graphically and emotionally involving as the flick is, with characters gone mad by their controlled dreams wandering throughout the flick babbling nonsense, the dialogue strives to overcome the obvious jargon of the SF technology and its accompanying future world, the ideas remain challenging. Where as I felt intellectually exhausted looking at the Magritte image, Paprika made my brain delight in its challenges, I think because there's so much more going on in a film than in a painting. Usually. The more you know of Japanese folklore and Tokyo architecture, the more you may enjoy Paprika's ebullient immersion in them, but perhaps the greatest feast is offered to someone who knows nothing of these things. What a wonderful vista is opened up here. I left the theatre enthralled. All the way home, Vancouver has never looked more beautiful. That's what art is for.

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