Friday, December 18, 2009

Landscape & Myth

Musing, it comes to me that the stories we know - the stories we live by - otherwise known as myth - are radically different based on where we live. The urban city is utterly different than any small town or farm, and the differences only begin there.

Last Friday morning, I was witness to an incredibly large sandhill crane southward migration, directly over the heart of the city of Chicago. In fact, they flew directly over where I live. Large flocks, by the hundreds, flew over for at least an hour. I understand now that this was only the tail end; even larger numbers flew over the same route last Thursday.

It came to me that this was a story I did not know, one that was not known deep inside me. If we don't experience something like this, we don't actually feel it. Bird migration was something that happened, elsewhere, high up in the sky; amazing in many ways, but a mental construct for me, not a living, honking sight. These large flocks of noisy cranes really have to be seen to understand the power in the action.

The city engages us with a completely different type of story, one of construct, man-made materials, neighborhoods, commerce. We can't get away from these in other places, but levels and space and materials are all different. City stories are not really nature stories. "Getting away" to nature for a while is not the same as day-to-day living in a place where, say, the sandhill cranes usually migrate over.

(An aside - I just read a research study that it is hugely more likely for those involved in serious hiking and backpacking to support conservation efforts than for those involved in nature tours - seems length of experience must be the tipping factor). The power of the natural world has to be lived in to be fully felt, just as the power of the urban must be lived in to be understood. I know of people who have been afraid to drive into Chicago, even living only an hour away in a suburb.

Where we are is a powerful indicator of the stories, the myths, we feel or know. These stories are neither wrong nor right, on a personal level. As a child, the fabric of the myths surrounding you creates your world. They make up what you know and how you know it.

But we do grow up, and have the opportunity to learn new stories, to experience ways we are not familiar with. Experiencing the sandhill cranes flying over my house can change me by allowing me to understand a powerful force that I thought I knew, but just didn't know deep enough.

Knowing possibilities allows us to question other stories being lived. I think of wolf hunts in Alaska from helicopters, one of many examples, and I question how that could possibly be a useful story to live in. But unless I am there, seeing and feeling the particulars, I cannot know, for sure, whether it is a story that needs to be told. It is a different story than those I am familiar with. I guess that I might end that story a different way. But can I make that call?

In the world today, and certainly in the United States, there really are no myths that everyone lives by. If different landscapes provide different myths, and so many other factors affect our stories as well, how could one story effect every person the same way? A colleague of mine suggests televison as one possible common denominator, and it works, but I don't think it works one hundred percent. Perhaps the medium works in similar ways for varied people, but the exact story told has its own way of working on us.

The same colleague also suggests The Wasteland as a common denominator, which also works to some degree. The degradation of land and responsibility and ability to care are all factors of The Wasteland, and it is not so hard to find evidence of this myth in reality. But again, it is not one hundred percent - there are those still hopeful, still happy, still building and able to keep themselves from being bogged down in the garbage. So I find it difficult to think of a widespread myths for all of us. Religions try, but "religions try" proves that is not the answer.

Perhaps this is why Joseph Campbell called out for each of us to find the personal myths we live by. This caused an explosion of interest in individuals seeking to recognize the mythic stories with true resonance for them.This happened because it is hard to find any connective story lines with others living their storioes.

Although ultimately it is our own stories that matter, it is obvious we need to understand that everyone's story is part of the same mythology. I want to listen and understand your story, as long as you don't tell me your story is the only one there is.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Peter and the Wolf

The 2008 Oscar for Best animated short went to Suzie Templeton for "Peter and the Wolf". Somehow this 32 minute gem slipped under my radar, but I found it by chance and am very glad I did.

It uses stop motion animation to tell a simple story of a lonely boy whose only friends are animals. These include a heartbreakingly ill-fated duck, an amazingly expressive crow and, eventually, the titled wolf. An Oscar well-deserved. It's on Netflix. Queue it up.

What I want to focus on is animation. Once again, the power of the imaginal is more expressive than reality. Jean Paul Sartre writes of the imagination, the story being told as more powerful than the actual events that occurred. Hearing a story, everyone can live the events in their own head, the power of revelations and experiences multiplying and exploding as if the events were taking place all over again. When a story is told, power is unleashed. That's a paraphrase of Sartre - he might be appalled! But this is how animation, and stop-motion animation in particular, works - we instantly know we are in a story and don't need to navigate the trappings of reality. We go with it, allowing it more freedom because of its form, and perhaps that allows us to feel on a different level. The events and the power behind them become more real. There is an intensity of feeling - perhaps the animated characters and places become archetypal, stand-ins for all the real characters and animals that might be in a story like that. When we fill that archetype with substance, that power is unleashed.

Often the events depicted through animation are somewhat impossible. Through the medium, though - and always through story telling - we feel them as if they were real. Disney's "A Christmas Carol" (see last post) did this with 3-D animation. But I must admit I rushed that post after lingering on it too long. I wanted to get to "Peter and the Wolf".

Stop-motion has always fascinated me, with Ray Harryhausen's multiple mergings of monsters and men and Willis O'Brien's King Kong still being the standard bearers for the form. I am confident we can add Tim Burton's work to the honor roll, "Nightmare Before Christmas" being a classic. But "Peter and the Wolf" really belongs in the same conversation.
The power of the film itself is evident enough, but also watch the documentary "Making of" feature. We understand why this film has such power when we see the sets for this film. They are huge, with amazing detail. There is a scene showing Peter in the city in which the buildings look so real, I really wondered how the effect was done. Well, the crew built rather large buildings. An archetypal city, it has more power than if the filmmakers had used "real" buildings.

On a personal note, seeing those sets pulled me back to thoughts from film school. If you have ever tried to make a real film, you realize that it is difficult. You need a group of people working in harmony. Right there is a problem often too big to overcome. You need a huge amount of money, in proportion, for even the smallest and most modest film. Then there is equipment - technology is bringing prices down and quality up, but the costs are still very large. What really surprised me though is the fact that there is also an extreme aversion by filmmakers to taking bold risks. You would think young filmmakers would try anything, but the rigors of school almost always force them to go real and to go straightforward. After forty years or so in business, my film school was just beginning a Production Design department.
While in school, I had tried to get a small film made based on a Japanese myth. It would have required one set that was elaborately created to show the Dry Bed of the River of Souls. It was to be live action, but the design was crucial. If anyone showed any interest in tackling that project, they suggested animation instead. So, when I see a project as big and bold and ultimately successful as this version of "Peter and the Wolf", I can only exult with joy. Really.
My film would have shot in one or two days. "Peter and the Wolf" took five years to make.

Christmas Ghosts

I have always been intrigued by the English tradition of ghost stories on Christmas. I understand that the day is not complete without the family settling in for a few tales of the lingering dead. There are some good guesses I could make about why this would be so, and why this is one tradition we don't normally associate with Christmas here in the U.S.A. I could probably google up the history of this, but I've always enjoyed just knowing this and left it that.

The famous ghost story of the season is one we actually do treasure here, Dickens' "A Christmas Carol". He wrote it to be a traditional Christmas ghost story. While we know the ghostly part of the story, the emphasis is usually on the conversion of Scrooge's heart from coal to love.

Disney's new 3-D version brings the ghosts back, and they are welcome. I have touted the latest 3-D process here before, and must do it again. The depth in the screen makes these movies like nothing else. The word "amazing" really fits.