“From Van Gogh’s Shoes to Pixar’s Umbrellas”
For almost 20 years, Pixar Animation Studios has led the charge in pushing the American animated feature film beyond even the dreams of its great master, Walt Disney. As Pinocchio aspired to become a real boy, Wall-e learns to love like a human being long after people have evacuated the dying Earth. Yet simultaneously, Pixar has almost single-handedly kept alive the seven-minute pre-feature short cartoon, once the purview of MGM’s Tom and Jerry and Warner Bros.’ stable of talking ducks and rabbits. So, today, instead of analyzing the underwhelming Pixar feature, Monsters University, a sequel to Monsters Inc. that merely animates the much better Animal House, I turn to the cartoon that preceded the feature at the theatrical release, and accompanies it on the DVD released earlier this week.
The Blue Umbrella is a philosopher’s dream. Consisting of no spoken dialogue, Saschka Unseld’s six-minute film tells the story of a blue umbrella who falls in love with a red umbrella in the rain on a crowded city street. As their owners walk in different directions, the city comes to life and channels wind and water to fling the blue umbrella into the air and return him to his beloved. The film accomplishes this visual feat by building upon an eclectic set of prior cinematic artworks. It is tiny droplets of rain that first animate the objects that constitute the city. Once watered, sidewalks and mailboxes open their eyes, smile, and engage in an urban reverie. This celebration of rain most directly invokes Joris Ivens’ 1929 Impressionist Dutch film, Regen, a live action cinematic celebration of the transforming effects a downpour has on the beautiful streets of Amsterdam.
When the downpour begins in The Blue Umbrella, it causes the throngs of humans to all open their identical black umbrellas. Our blue and red protagonists emerge out of this grim background, establishing their uniqueness. The camera tilts upward to bask in the descending droplets of rain. Like the camera, so too the blue umbrella: he smiles, reveling in the fulfillment of his special purpose, the protection of humans from the rain.
Here, the film takes a strange yet beautiful Heideggerian turn. In his masterpiece, Being and Time, Martin Heidegger suggests that the dasein—a special awareness of one’s being—transcends the mere sein (simply the German verb, to be). In Heidegger, dasein is a human awareness of our identity, our mortality, and all else that makes us special. This is the very material of The Blue Umbrella. When the rain brings the umbrellas to life, it has an even greater impact on our blue one: he is the only one we see who drinks in his purpose, the deflection of water to keep dry the head of his holder.
With his concept of dasein, Heidegger calls attention to a social paradox: we are ultimately alone, yet can only live in relationship with our fellow humans. This is also a dilemma interrogated by The Blue Umbrella. When the destined lovers, blue and red, are separated by the unawareness of their humans, the city itself jumps into action to reunite them. In a most un-Heideggerian way, we are drawn into the dasein, not of humans, but of the objects that surround them. The Heideggerian question of mortality becomes the drama of the film: while blowing around the city, the blue umbrella is almost destroyed by the unaware human drivers of cars on the city streets. However, the drainage grates, waterspouts and construction signs—acting beyond the control of humans—come to his aid, sparing him, enabling him to fulfill his destiny.
That destiny is uniquely cinematic. As a children’s film, The Blue Umbrella is at first glance merely a pastiche of the great ur-text of children’s cinema, The Red Balloon. In Albert Lamorisse’s 1956 French live-action fantasy, a red and blue balloon have similar adventures interacting with humans on the streets of Paris. The film ends with a glorious celebration of flight, as the red balloon leaves the ground where humans live, to join a clutch of multi-colored balloons who take our hero across the skyline of Paris.
The Blue Umbrella takes a completely different cinematic turn. Once the red and blue umbrellas are reunited, they sit at a café with their human counterparts, who hold hands as the film’s climactic moment of action. In long shot, we see them sitting across an intimate curbside table for two. However, this is not just any café. On the window, we see that its name is, Le Parapluie Café. In this way, the cartoon short ends with reference to the great musical feature about umbrellas, Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg [The Umbrellas of Cherbourg], a 1964 radical French musical in which the performers sing every line of dialogue. That film is one of the cinema’s greatest achievements, shifting the apolitical nature of the Hollywood musical toward the devastating effects the French colonial war in Algeria has on the impossibility of human love.
Through Heidegger, The Blue Umbrella lives up to its ending’s namesake. In a startling reading of Heidegger’s only essay on visual culture, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” film scholar Jean-Pierre Geuens argues that Roman Polanski’s student short, Two Men and a Wardrobe is a quintessentially Heideggerian film. In the 1958 live-action short, two Polish men inexplicably drag a giant wooden hutch out of the Baltic Sea, and proceed to drag it around the city. Geuens argues that the film expresses in cinema the shift from what Heidegger calls the “Earth” (the natural materials which surround us: the colors of paint and the texture of wood) to what the German philosopher calls, the “World” (the awareness of dasein to imagine both our human relationships and the other worlds of possibility which lie beyond them). For Polanski, the wardrobe is an allegory for the negation of the world by the earth represented by Soviet occupation and totalitarianism.
To develop his argument, Heidegger analyzes an 1885 Impressionist painting by Vincent van Gogh, “A Pair of Shoes.” A dilapidated pair of peasant boots is the entire representational field of the painting. And yet, argues Heidegger, the Earth of the painting (the shoes, the brushstrokes) lead toward an expression of the possibilities of the World (the lives of the unseen people who wore the shoes). So, too, with The Blue Umbrella. Without the Soviet tyranny which subtends Polanski’s film, Unseld’s cartoon uses the Earth of the computer generated animated image to open up the cinematic Worlds of possibilities which exist on our city streets. Gusts of wind, droplets of rain can lead to serendipitous events that allow not only two umbrellas, but two human beings, to find each other. It is the greatness of this sort of cinema that should emotionally animate us.