Sunday, January 24, 2010

Imaginary Landscapes

The big build-up all day long had been for the film Kérity, la maison des contes, and it was well worth the building up. It was an exquisitely drawn and told story of a little boy who saves fairy tales. It had a beautiful conceit: fairy tales must be renewed by a protector who reads and utters the magic phrase "Ce n'est pas parce que c'est inventé que ça n'existe pas!" ("It's not because something is made up that it isn't true" or "Just because something is made up doesn't mean it doesn't exist"). 7-year old Nathaniel finds himself the unlikely protector of the books (he much preferred to be read to and consequently doesn't read), but teams up with plucky Alice from Alice in Wonderland to try to read the phrase in time. If they fail, "all the world's children will only be told stories that are true." They have all sorts of adventures and at the last second (our kids were on the edge of their seats) they make it, and the film ends with fairy tales being read at children's bedsides all over the world, in multiple languages. It was just marvelous - a celebration of the imagination. There's even a great humanitarian line about "the one thing that all people have in common are dreams." The graphic style was really interesting: flat drawings with rich textures, and the characters from the books in classic cartoon format. The music was haunting and beautiful (you start to look for that in French kids' films). Everything was possible in this film - a portrait of the imagination and the imaginary.

And Kérity, it turns out, is in Brittany! First the facts, then the musings. Kérity is an old town in Western Brittany (Côtes d'Armor) - it first appears in charters in the 12th century (as Keriti or Quérity) and continues on its own until 1960 when it is incorporated into nearby Paimpol. It has the Abbey of Beauport right nearby, which appears to be a beautiful ruin (first built in the early 13th century, then added on to, but now without a roof over the nave). Hmmm, idea for the winter vacation coming up in 3 weeks!

What I'm increasingly aware of is the role that Brittany plays in framing the concept of the imaginary in French culture. This is just one children's movies, yes, but I see this in other films, too (Un Long Dimance de Fiancailles (A Very Long Engagement), for example) - the landscapes of Brittany (especially those wind-tossed, sea-swept, rock-hewn ones of the northern coasts) are an instantly recognizable frame of "something wonderful and slightly unsettling is about to happen." It's a rich and well-known iconography (for we could speak of Gauguin's 19th-century yearning for the imaginary in Pont-Aven), and I marvel at how powerfully and instantly evocative it is of the imaginary, the fantastic, the possible. It's a very romantic view of the region, I realize, but I am just as interested in the lasting power of that view as in the ways that it is communicated (stories of impossible hope in war, adventures of fairy tales coming to life). Telling the kids the Breton Fairy Tale of the day every morning at breakfast has clearly had an impact, too - opened me up to this iconography and yearning of Brittany - the anthology I'm reading from now speaks of a massive oral tradition project in the late 19th-century, as anthropologists and folklorists went from town to town writing down the stories of the last little old ladies. I catch glimpses here and there of story-telling sessions. In fact, the web site of the Kérity film invites teachers to bring a story-teller to their classroom. Evocative landscapes are often coupled with oral traditions.

Which leads me to wonder about American landscapes of the imaginary. What are the landscapes in America in which anything could happen? In which rules and expectations are habitually suspended in order to learn about or be reminded of something magical and good about the human condition? Perhaps the west (Brokeback Mountain being the most recent tale of impossible love); I also think of stories set in Appalachia (Cold Mountain types of stories). Does every country, every culture have a part of "its" geography that it recognizes and returns to as a landscape of the imagination? Are there commonalities: vertiginous heights? rocky isolation? I think of the wonderful happenstance that brought us to Brittany in the first place: a lucky break on the internet, a warm welcome, a picture that moved our imagination (we didn't know anything about Brittany before coming here). Landscape of the imaginary.

We returned to our now familiar landscape of the imaginary: the Lists on the other side of the river. I asked Oliver where he wanted to go to run around a bit (he read gobs of Harry Potter today while Mac and Iris walked all around the town (and saw everything from geese and goats to families in motorcycles in sidecars - they also went into the church, as Iris wanted to pray for her grandfather and our across-the-street neighbor here - this piety on the part of my daughter is an entirely new thing and will need to be further explored!) (Eleanor and I played all sorts of silly games while Oliver read - she had my legs completely "bandaged" in pages we'd colored in from her princess coloring book - wonderful and weird!) - so, I asked Oliver where he might want to go and he mused a bit and said, "The Lists, of course." These little guys now find it a habit to play in the shadow of 14th century ruins and the proximity of a 1000 year old castle. I especially like this shot because the shadows of their stick swords cast a perfect "X" - a movie moment of the imagination!

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