Thursday, December 26, 2013

2013 in Shit: From Up On Poppy Hill

I have very little in the way of memories of From Up On Poppy Hill, Studio Ghibli's late 2012 film that I didn't see until the beginning of this year. I liked it better than last year's The Secret of Arrietty, towards which I was fairly ambivalent, but not excessively. I often find myself falling slightly short of loving Ghibli movies that I expect I ought to, especially given how crucial My Neighbor Totoro was to me as a kid (Spirited Away being maybe the premiere example of this), and it was strange to me that I couldn't internally absolve or ignore those aspects of Arrietty which got in the way of the bits about which I was totally enthusiastic. Much the same, in places at least, for From Up On Poppy Hill, although to a lesser degree.

It's a gorgeous movie, and looks more often than not like a particularly well-imagined walk through a gallery with a friend where the two of you narrativize the series of paintings, catching motifs and drawing them out into a broad, if not particularly well nuanced, set of ideas tied together loosely by a narrator. Unfortunately it is also a bit like being the radical paired with a liberal, whose narrative consistently undermines the positioning you are attempting to achieve, watering down the real antagonisms into a more superficially pleasant and toothless version of their initial positions as the tour proceeds. What starts with guerrilla theater and building occupations ends up in the administrators office being granted the right not to die, with a nice little montage of gender parity in reproductive labor as an acceptable concession. And then the ending, a suggestion of classic love on an unexplored frontier, because nothing can be concluded without reproductive futurism's foregrounding of unknown territories.

So yeah, I give representations of radical student movements (especially ones that caricature overeager high school philosobros) more credit than's probably necessary. Oh well.

It's not as bad as all that, though the narrative does very much proceed to close on many of the possibilities that the movie itself opens. One of the strengths of the film's aesthetics, that could also easily be interpreted as a weakness, is their suggestion of history; for me, in retrospect, this managed to be more in the vein of the fact that this is a film which takes place in history and wants to interrogate it, rather than being a cloying argument for nostalgic reimaginings or the essentialized absence of the past on the present, but I could definitely see it reading as the latter. It has to do, at least in part, for me, with how the clearly nostalgic-elegiac vibrancy of the landscapes and the ocean especially are translated into, rather than juxtaposed against, the living excitement of the occupied building; that the narrative then goes on to suggest that the sterilized, gallerized post-occupation/liberal affordance building is just as exciting is clearly a contrivance of the narrative, which, seeing as the narrative itself is so clearly a consequence of the aesthetics (instead of the other way around) feels, in betraying them, not so much disappointing as just easily dismissed.

Which is sort of why, I think, this movie works in ways that Arrietty maybe didn't; the absolute weakness of its narrative doesn't feel like a problem so much as a feature of the way in which the film was constructed, and because of that its awkward weight is significantly diminished. Always, to my mind at least, a good thing. The subordination of narrative, I mean.

It's the other main image, the ocean, and its function, ships, that left me more ambivalent about the movie. There's something to be said, I think, about the way it plays into the historicization; as far as I recall it was narratively motivated by the main character's having lost a father at sea. That itself makes it a site of ambivalence within the film, but also makes it, at least to a greater extent than the rest, a consequence of the narrative universe, which probably, based on my speculations so far, reduced its effectiveness for me. It probably also has to do with the way that the image of the sea is used as the ultimate consolidation of the various strands of the film which are intent on the reclamation of its own radical potentialities, integrating them finally into the emergence of the couple form in the Imaginary of the unexplored territory. Which is a sentence I could probably put more succinctly but fuck you, I'm blogging.

So, to recap: what's interesting about From Up On Poppy Hill, to a person who is interested in films which exceed their narrative rather than work in concert with it, are the parts where it exceeds its narrative; what's less interesting about it are the parts where it doesn't. Fascinating. Also it's pretty, and maybe that's important! Or maybe not.

There's a reading of the movie that argues the arch liberalism to be a consequence of the widely-perceived failure of Goro Miyazaki's debut adaptation of Le Guin's Earthsea, necessitating a conservative approach to both subject matter and form in order to not bomb again. I don't know if I just made up and fully articulated the extent of that reading or if it precedes me and goes on to make more specific points, or broader ones, or better ones or worse ones, and I also have no idea how I feel about it. It seems potentially useful to contextualize the way in which, despite being in most all respects a better movie than, say, Arrietty, it somehow comes off as even more slight in certain ways. And it is undoubtedly true that where a more confident film might have lingered, to explore its own contradictions or even just to let its fictional world breathe a little, Poppy Hill keeps pushing forward. For a movie with almost no plot and which doesn't at all need to keep its narrative at the absolute forefront, it felt, to me, a bit breathless, constantly seeking the approval of an imagined fickle audience of dubious existence. Which, again, returns to the ending, and its almost comically classical love story bullshit, a focus group oriented decision (whether or not there actually was one) if I've ever seen one. Is it weird to claim that a small film about 60s student radicals, notable primarily for its aesthetics, feels focus grouped? It's a weird movie.

On the other hand, though, that isn't a very interesting thing to talk about in and of itself; it suggests a broader critique that I kind of have no interest in pursuing. Not exclusively because it suggests discussing things like artist intention or a cod-universalized subject of reception, but probably most likely. It's a movie I am much happier to remember in its failures than to attempt to organize the causes of the same, personally, which is pretty bourgie of me. Ghibli brings out the bourgie best in all of us, though. Save the whales and all.

The movie's politics, I suppose, could be summed up in the phrase "Occupy & De-escalate."

Part of what is disappointing about the narrative overdetermination of the image of the ocean is that it is simultaneously incredibly clear from the beginning and so tantalizingly close to a more interesting absence of argument that it frustrates; the early scenes where the protagonist waves naval flags in semaphore is obviously going to be explained, but it would be so much more wonderful if it hadn't. That it would have been, almost certainly, categorized in the Trivia or Goofs section on IMDb would be a small price to pay for an image of the pedagogical metonym transformed into an act of pure absence of communication. And posed against the liberal interpellation, that could (and, importantly, does, for the moments where the narrative has yet to perform its justificatory function, which moments are real as fuck, given that film occurs over time, even if that claim is very complicated and should not under any circumstances be confused for a claim of absolute linearity or even the primacy of text presented in a certain form) leave a certain important abstraction at play within viewer of the film that would justify reading it in the way that I am past a sort of reconstructive mode. Maybe I would have liked it a lot less that way though; it's hard to tell.

But then, these aren't really what actually lingers about From Up On Poppy Hill; its the force of the images of the protagonist riding a bike down a steep dirt road, and the clustering intimacy of the boys clubhouse in its presumed final days becoming a site of political struggle. Those moments are what actually counts, and the narrative be damned.

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