Sunday, March 8, 2009

Regaining Perspective

So there's this short film that my four year old son, Ronan, and I love to watch together on my laptop. (Ronan's picture appears below -- he's holding the new kid in the family. A still appears at left.)

The short film is called "Fetch," and it is an animated piece by Nina Paley. (If you've heard of Sita Sings the Blues -- often described as the best film of 2008 that no one saw -- this is the same woman who made that film, which I've not yet seen, sadly.)

In "Fetch," Paley toys delightfully with artistic perspective. The story is simply animated, 2-D, with a single black line in the background at the beginning. It looks at first like it's probably the place where the floor meets the wall, but as the story unfolds, that simple line becomes a zillion other things, including a ceiling, a ledge, a floor, a wall, and more. Then the man in the piece moves to the right, and more lines appear. She then plays similar games, but with a richer canvas.

I like this film because it illustrates a point I make frequently in composition and argumentation classes. I sometimes talk to students sometimes about "framing" -- the ability to make one thing appear dramatically different, just by shifting the vantage point. I generally apply "framing" to things like evidence: For instance, someone criticizing a tobacco company might point out it had $1.2 billion in profits last year, while someone more sympathetic might note that profits have declined 50% over the past three years. Although these seem contradictory, both can be correct, if the company had profits of $2.4 billion three years earlier. The part of the statistic you choose to focus on says something about your perspective on the issue, and can control the perspective of others.

The film illustrates the same principle, but with artwork. It's a truly visual illustration.

However, I come up with a completely different reason for liking the film when it draws close to final exams and the end of a term. The tagline of the film is something like, "A man, his dog, and a ball lose perspective." And they do (mostly, the man does). But by the end, he regains perspective, and it's at this point that you realize Paley's been making a point all this time. It's a familiar point, and in most hands, it would be trite. But Paley somehow transforms the trite into something profound here, and I find it particularly relevant (and relaxing) to watch this film during week 10 of a quarter for that reason.

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