Friday, July 20, 2012

On spectacle

This is my favorite painting in all the world:
Giacomo Balla, Street Light, 1909


I could stare into it and stare into it, and when I'm in New York in two weeks, I just might.

Do you have a favorite painting? (What is it?) There are people who have a favorite painting, and people who don't, and it says a lot about how you think. I'm a visual cataloger. I save these images inside me and they fill me up. When I see something that arrests me visually I feel a quietude, maybe a holiness, and I'm satiated. It's not just painting. It could be ballet, or a sunrise, or the way my son's curls lay against his daddy's  shoulder. There are sights and I save them.

But look at that image of that painting. Mere plants and rocks crushed into a little linseed oil, but could you make brushstrokes envisage a streetlight more real than real? I instagrammed this cherry tree in March, and the effect is similar but all I did was push a button:

Still, I love this shot and could instantly recall it and know where to find it because I'm a visual cataloger. The evening of that walk, who I was with (my sweet second girl), which shoes she wore and which I had, how that tree blossomed across the light -- it all stays with me.

So tonight we had the opportunity to go to the media preview of the How to Train Your Dragon Live Spectacular (that's a mouthful, no?), which I think opens to the public tomorrow. It was fascinating. It's a live re-creation of the movie of the same title from a few years ago, with people actors and people-in-dragon-costume actors and humongous animatronic dragons that fly and blow smoke rings and circle around the ceiling of the Verizon Center. And all their movements are synchronized to the background imagery playing across a screen that's nine movie-theater-screens wide, so it lends this visual plausibility to the dragons' movements. It was like nothing I've ever seen. The lovely husband and I were simply astounded. Speechless, practically. And the kids loved it -- all three of them -- but you know? They weren't all that impressed.

And maybe that's because they're not visual catalogers (although I suspect the oldest one is, even if I can't sense it yet about the younger two), but I'm pretty sure it's because they've grown up with a digital fluency that makes a flying dinosaur completely plausible. It was a great show for them, certainly, but for us it was more; it was spectacle.

As I drove home, my cargo long asleep, I thought about what would it take to arrest them visually, and I don't know. I'd love to find out, to shock them with beauty, but even as we explore those ideas at least we can talk about influence. It was natural to them that this live show was built on a movie they know. My instagram stands on the shoulders of an Italian Futurist. But it doesn't matter, so long as we remember what we see.

As we walked to the car, which we had conveniently left at the lovely husband's office, E shrieked and stepped back. What's that? she whispered.

"That, my love, is a cockroach." The flying dinosaurs the size of tanker trucks didn't phase her but this critter the size of my big toe made her hold her breath. He ambled in front of a pizza shop (note: don't get pizza at 4th and H) and she asked how I knew what it was.

"Oh, love, they're everywhere in cities. When I lived in New York City they were in the walls of my building. And the landlord would have chemicals sprayed every 30 days. But it wasn't ever quite enough and on the 29th day, they always came out. Once I woke up to one crawling across the top of my foot."

She turned pale, and swore that if she ever lived in New York she'd sleep with socks on for the rest of her life.

And in replaying that conversation as I steered us out of the city toward our quiet suburb, I realized that she had found spectacle tonight, after all.

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