Big Ideas in a Cute Package

JellyfishEyes_trailerVisual artist and master merchandiser Takashi Murakami is famous for hiding big, serious ideas in cute, shiny packages, so launching a feature film franchise is a natural. Jellyfish Eyes had its premiere at LACMA in Los Angeles April 9, and being in the audience was one of those “this is why I moved to L.A.” moments. Watch the trailer to get a taste. I’ll wait.

I didn’t know what to expect and am still not sure what to think, except that (1) it’s crazily entertaining, (2) it will probably have critics (film and art) scratching their heads and (3) if I were looking for a graduate thesis topic, I’d be off and running. What did seem odd was what felt like muted enthusiasm from the audience, as if those folk from the art world couldn’t bring themselves to have fun and could only lean back and go hmmmm.

JellyfishEyes_Kurage-boThere were plenty of awwwwwws for Kurage-bo, the jellyfish-inspired animated half of boy-hero Masashi. That marshmallow-soft, huggable friend wasn’t Murakami’s original plan. As he explained in a post-screening interview with Elvis Mitchell, the first idea for Masashi’s sidekick was closer to the archetype of the mysterious stranger – as Murakami described him: a tall, dirty stranger with a big penis.

That mythic archetype was a fit for the dark, intense story Murakami had in mind (indeed, he cited Joseph Campbell as an influence). His film production partners and advisers weren’t so sure about this radical departure from Murakami’s mainstream brand of clean cute (cuteness mainly a factor of small size and immaturity/helplessness). Wouldn’t audiences wonder, where’s the cute? What about the plush?

Kagure-bo works the crowd at the world premiere of Takashi Murakami's "Jellyfish Eyes" at LACMA April 9, 2013.
Kagure-bo works the crowd at the world premiere of Takashi Murakami’s “Jellyfish Eyes” at LACMA April 9, 2013.

So Mr. Murakami relented, and tall, dirty, mysterious and hung became small, white, cushy and decidedly sexless — with a catch. In Murakami’s world, cute has more than one face. As fans know, iconic Mr. DOB sometimes has teeth, and it turns out Kurage-bo is resourceful and karate-kicking tough. While the screen shimmers with color, four black-caped villains escape for the sequel (principal shooting just completed, says Murakami), and a third installment is planned. Murakami smiled when he said that in these next films, his original dark vision gets its canvas.

I saw Murakami interviewed in a very different setting in 2001. When asked by the interviewer (in painfully overwrought artspeak) about the difference between his early creative process as an unknown artist and his later factory-style process, Murakami deadpanned that when he was young he bought paint in small tubes, and now he buys it in big buckets.

For all its fun (and if you want to leave it at that, feel free to skip the rest of this) Jellyfish Eyes is a very big bucket for a serious thread he’s been exploring for decades in images and sculptures like mushroom families and death’s head clouds. Jellyfish Eyes had been in process for more than a decade when the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster hit. Just as Godzilla responded to nuclear-fueled realities for ’50s audiences, Murakami knew his story was a chance to address today’s fears — a very real problem for Japanese youth, he said.

And while America tends to go forward on the bold blindness that radiation fallout can’t hurt us and environmental catastrophes are fixable with paper towels and enough storm drains, seeing Jellyfish Eyes was a gentle space to consider potentially paralyzing questions: How is it possible to conceive the future when so much destructive potential is just over the horizon? How can we act when even best intentions — perhaps particularly best intentions — can go so wrong?** When — even acting in good faith (as does a key character) – a monster can be mistaken for a god?

If we can’t conceive, we can’t create. If we’re unable to “do it,” what we’ve got left is distractions: nostalgia and the toothless cute that Murakami’s version ironizes. Repetitions, symptoms, fetishes.*** Just Do It (trademark firmly in place).

And so the audience hooted when Murakami’s blonde, big-breasted maid came to life as a warrior, high kicking little boys’ green monsters into oblivion. There’s power inside those cute, shiny packages, waiting to be unleashed. What would happen if we saw Jellyfish Eyes as a crazy call to act in light of our best selves, instead of buying the merchandise while putting our own creativity on the back burner? As with all of Murakami’s work, both possibilities are there for us to choose.

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*In 2001, Murakami was interviewed at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts in conjunction with “Made in Japan” which exhibited his work alongside 18th-century Japanese scrolls from the MFA’s permanent collection. Read a nice write-up by the Boston Phoenix (R.I.P.)

**Robert Oppenheimer famously opposed developing the H bomb, after seeing what the A bomb had wrought (and Truman famously called him a sissy for it.) Today, I wonder if Monsanto scientists are so proud of their breakthroughs that they haven’t been able to appreciate the consequences of engineering seeds that are unable to reproduce?

***Slavoj Zizek defines a fetish as “the celebratory container for a last holdout against knowledge.”

Live Read: Catch and Release

LACMA_LiveRead_2012I remember my work, not word for word, to be sure, but in some more accurate, trustworthy way…  –Henry Miller

As film-fan events go, Reitman Live Reads are unusual. Actors read a screenplay live and unrehearsed, one time only for an adoring audience in a packed theater. It’s unrecorded and barely photographed. Tickets sell out fast. The standby line is long.

On the surface, that “one night only” has to do with performance rights – money and control. More to the point, it generates an immediacy rare in the movie-related world, where nearly everything is broadcast and/or captured to be replayed.

And so each Live Read begins with a stern warning to the audience: No audio or video recording. No photographs. Ushers will be watching. You will be removed. And still, waiting in line or settling in my seat, I overhear people discussing the quality and discreet size of their recording equipment or see someone casually press RECORD after the usher walks by.

I imagine some people like the thrill of a trophy to keep or sell (is there a market for Live Read bootlegs?). But I think most of these people are just fans, wide-eyed with admiration and motivated by the same urge that makes someone rush the stage to beg an autograph or try for a chat before security hustles an actor away. Some reflex need for tangibility: I was there, and I have evidence to prove it.

Years ago, a friend admired a small vase I made, and I offered to give it to him. He looked at it again closely – attentively – then put his hand on his heart and said, “I already have it here.” I think of that as I walk past the table with the limited-edition souvenir posters. They’re tastefully done, and I’m oddly unmoved to buy one. I think of it when I listen to people planning to split their attention between the stage and some technology in their lap.

I think of Henry Miller’s raw reminder that words are not language: “Words divorced from language are dead things, and yield no secrets.” Or – in tonight’s terms – bytes and frames are not the performance. The electricity is in the anticipation and accidents that, on endless replay, would become flaws. Excerpted out of context. Words – not language.

To be honest, I forget much of what I saw and heard. I can’t name the casts. It takes me a minute to recall which screenplays… But I’ve come to trust that I remember what I am meant to remember (what I allowed to land). I trust that the exercise of surrendering to the experience – with no expectation that I will ever own it as an artifact (except in my own cells of imperfect memory – is what the Live Read is, in the end, really about.

The Threshold

Branch chapbook in process
Working on my third chapbook. Reading, reordering, marking revisions – single poems that felt baked turn raw again in company of others. And then I lose all feeling for it. Who wrote those? What the hell was she trying to say? Two impulses battle:

One says, put down the pen and walk away before someone gets hurt.

The other says, this is shit. Burn it. It’s not anywhere close to what you really meant to say.

I’ve learned to walk away, knowing that a bubbling anger will bring me back. Anger at myself for declaring failure just because I don’t understand, can’t categorize, can’t decipher the damn things. (The Steve Martin/Bill Murray classic “What the hell is that?” comes to mind.)

Psycho, Blade Runner, It’s a Wonderful Life – failures on release. Beethoven’s late works earned him walkouts. Rite of Spring caused riots. Occupy was declared over by those who think it began and ended with Zuccotti Park. Even seat belts caused a ruckus when they first showed up in cars. Yes, all failures – the public’s failure to experience the new on its own terms and allow ourselves to be changed by it.

Last night, after seeing Baltasar Kornakur’s The Deep, a recognition slowly dawned and suddenly broke: How my own sense of failure is in inverse proportion to the unfamiliar I allow in my own life – how small I’ve kept that canvas and, thus, how great my sense of failure! I tell myself, if I had more courage to face the unknown, I could really write.

Driving home through the dark toward the Pacific (I love driving west, knowing the ocean is coming closer) I realized I’ve had it backwards: I don’t need more courage to write. I need to write to find more courage.

The Deep is the story of an Icelandic commercial fisherman who, in 1984, improbably survived a shipwreck in the 41-degree North Sea. He swam six hours to the outer island where he lived, then walked another two hours through blowing snow and sharp lava to his town. Doctors were fascinated by his extraordinary physiology and by his will to survive – both things that, to him, seemed ordinary. He felt he did what anyone would do.

More extraordinary: While in the water, he makes a deal with God to do several things if given one more day to live: Take care of a drowned shipmate’s old dog, comfort the sons and wife of another shipmate, drink milk from a glass as his mother always asked (instead of slugging it straight from the carton) and to finally approach the woman he’s longed for, exchanged glances with, but never spoken to.

He does all these things except the last. We leave him on a fishing boat heading out of the harbor – the prospect of being back at sea less terrifying for him than crossing her threshold.

To the person inside the act, it doesn’t feel brave to do something that’s not a choice. It’s allowing the unfamiliar that’s terrifying. And writing, I finally admit to myself, is not a choice. The way I live my life, however, is.

I’ve wasted years finding ways not to sit with what wants to be said. It’s time I got out of my own way, whether that means going to sea or – more terrifying – coming to land and crossing a new threshold.