Thursday, September 24, 2009

It All Began With Ponyo

Well, if we’re being technical about it, it all began with Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Spencer pointed out that the ink-on-paper work Big Fish Eat Little Fish reminded him of Ponyo, which I made him watch and which was actually pretty good. Didn’t see it? A one-sentence summary: fish and other oceanic things being bigger than you’re used to seeing, all through the lens of childlike fantasy. Plus Tina Fey, Betty White and Cloris Leachman are there. I don’t know why I doubt Miyazaki. Yes, it’s Japanese animation, but it’s not the robots-fighting-tentacle-monsters variety, and anyone I spend time with is smart enough to appreciate his movies for what they are and not what the uninitiated think they might be.

This is what looked like Ponyo:

Spencer’s right. Something about the literally visceral aspect of anything spilling from a slit in some dead thing’s belly — even if it’s whole, apparently undigested fish instead of entrails — coupled with the general cartoonishness and fantastic elements, like the strange airborne creatures and the bipedal fishman, add up to Miyazaki-esque. It’s totally a Ponyo.

This strange little scene ultimately led to another work by P.B. the E.: an oil-on-oak panel painting known variously as Netherlandish Proverbs, The Topsy Turvy World and The Blue Cloak. The work should be familiar to anyone who even remotely follows indie music, as a section of it served as the album art to the Fleet Foxes’ debut studio album.

This is what the painting looks like:

More than just a busy, well-populated Where’s Waldo? predecessor, Netherlandish Proverbs literalizes a whole host of old-timey sayings from viking country. (Really, it is more of a forerunner to that digital collage that literalized band names and challenged us all to see how many we can find.) Wikipedia lists all the proverbs and even offers a detail of the portion of the painting that refers to whichever proverb. And it’s in these bits of iterated and reiterated wisdom that I found most amusing along this Wikipedia garden path. The proverbs don’t make any less sense than the ones I grew up with — “To each his own, said the farmer’s wife upon kissing the cow” — but they make me laugh nonetheless by virtue of how inscrutable they are.

The top twelve:
  1. “The sow pulls the bung,” meaning “Negligence will be rewarded with disaster.”
  2. “To bell the cat,” meaning “to be indiscreet about plans that should be secret.”
  3. “To marry under the broomstick,” meaning “to live together without marrying.”
  4. “To have the roof tiled with tarts,” meaning “to be very wealthy.”
  5. “The herring hangs by its own gills,” meaning “You must accept responsibility for your own actions.”
  6. “The die is cast,” meaning, of course, “The decision is made” — apparently indicating that this one proverb either made the jump into English or that it’s common enough to exist in multiple languages.
  7. “To find the dog in the pot,” meaning “to arrive too late to prevent trouble.”
  8. “To shit on the world,” meaning “to despise everything.”
  9. “They both shit through the same hole,” meaning “They are in agreement.”
  10. “To shave the fool without lather,” meaning “to trick somebody.”
  11. “To be as patient as a lamb,” meaning “to be very patient” — for no apparent reason, I might add, as I’ve spent considerable time around lambs and know that there’s very little about them that would suggest they have more patients than any other dumb, four-legged animal.
  12. And “to be a pillar-biter,” which, despite what it sounds like, means “to be a religious hypocrite.”
One of the work’s alternate titles, by the way, is inspired by yet another proverb, “She puts the blue cloak on her husband,” which means “She deceives him.” Curiously, “Big fish eat little fish” is listed, but without any explanation. Perhaps because it’s self-explanatory?

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