Monday, May 10, 2010

The flight of the dragons

Butterflies are such beautiful creatures, bits of dancing color against the green of foliage. From childhood to old age, we are attracted to them, snapping pictures of their brightly colored wings and gasping with delight if one lands on a hand, arm, or head. Entire concessions have opened – “butterfly gardens” or “butterfly encounters” – that rely in the draw of these tiny insects with their brilliant wings.

I always loved butterflies too – heck, a butterfly was one of the primary things to blame for that back flip off the swingset that broke my wrist when I was about four. But recently, in my decade here in Florida, I have found myself less in love with the butterfly than with its insect neighbor the dragonfly.

When I first arrived here in Florida, I failed to grasp one of the cardinal facts of the state. Things are bigger here. With the primal heritage of the young state and the lack of harsh winters to push things back to what Northerners would consider their normal size, things are bigger here. The first time I spotted one of those fake rubber flies dispensed from K-mart vending machines on the sidewalk…and it flew away, I began to get some idea of the difference in Florida fauna, but it wasn’t until my first real summer here that I fully understood.

The air of a Florida summer is like nothing else I’ve encountered. It is a tangible force, a part of the landscape. It lies thick, hot, a weight pressing the heat of the sun against your skin, resisting your efforts to draw it in to steal its oxygen. It blankets the landscape, magnifying the brightness, a shimmering blanket beneath the pale blue of a sky already faded by the merciless sun. I remember standing out under the awning of my workplace in that heat, unsure which was more desirable to escape – the air-conditioned drudgery of the workplace behind me or the suffocating heat of the outdoors – when I saw them.

Back in Pennsylvania, we had had dragonflies – snakefeeders my dad always called them. They were delicate bodied little creatures, wisps of metallic color and iridescent wings that lit on fishing rods and blades of grass. Here, in Florida, I discovered that those weren’t dragonflies. They may have been damselflies or something else, but dragonflies…no. I can still remember the stillness of that hot afternoon, standing outside my job when I heard a deep thrumming. Looking down over the second story balcony, I saw them, dark bodies hanging in the air, round barreled extensions on both sides of their bodies, assumedly to support the muscles controlling the massive, flickering wings that moved faster than the eye could see. The dragonflies hovered in the air, dozens strong. They moved through the weight of the heat with strange, slow dignity, dancing a gravity-defying ritual with aeons old dignity. I forgot the heat as I watched them, fascinated as they spiraled through the heat, moving past each other only to turn and change places.

I never fell out of love with those dragonflies. I stop to watch them whenever I glimpse their slow dance or hear the impossible thrum of their wings. But I could never quite put my finger on what it was about them that drew me to them, more so even than to the bright splash of butterfly wings. And then, one day, watching the magical dance of dragonfly on the still Florida air, I realized why they fascinate me.

It’s the way they move.

Watch a butterfly. It flutters, flits, its path a wavering field of color and movement. Even in landing, the butterfly is not still; it fans its lovely wings; it is uncertain, delicate. It calls out the wonder within the human heart, reminding us to treasure beauty, for it Is a delicate commodity.

Watch a dragonfly. It hovers. It darts. It makes smooth, impossible arcs in the air, dancing in some mysterious pattern which, although I may not see it, seems to have purpose. It is smooth. It is sure, the impossible drums of its wing muscles buoying it up with seemingly effortless power in the still air. A dragonfly does not have the beauty of a butterfly – it is awkward, narrow with massive barrels of muscle, impossibly insectoid. Yet it moves so beautifully. Dragonflies do not flutter; they do not reveal their delicacy. They are impossible, gravity defying messengers of a lost world, reminders of nature’s mystery and the inadequacy of our understanding.

I know butterflies are beautiful. Their color and variety is breathtaking, but I would rather skip the butterfly garden to watch the humble dragonflies circle free against the pale shimmer of the Florida air. The butterfly charms me, thrills me when it lights on me as though I have been granted a privilege. The dragonfly blesses me with the wonderful impossibility of its movement and the certainty of its flight.

It is not its appearance, its physical beauty that calls me – it is its freedom to move with impossible grace through the unseen. It speaks to something primal within me, something that wants to leave gravity behind and move with ancient confidence on the unseen air, dancing beauty that transcends my awkwardness.

Thursday, May 6, 2010


I always believed there was a world just to the left of ours. It was a place populated by all the characters of books and television, a place of heroes, villains, and wonders. I told myself stories about it as a child, dreaming that I would be one of the select group who could bring a character from there to here. I peered through the windows of books, consuming text and composing the vision in my mind's eye, always standing on intellectual tip-toe to catch a glimpse of that other world. Over the years, I stopped telling myself those stories, but I never stopped believing in that other place, glimpsed just out of the corner of your eye, never stopped standing on the tip toes of my imagination to peer through into a different world.

And sitting there, in the movie theatre, 3D glasses digging into my nose, catching a glimpse of the texture of the screen beneath the images of the film, I smile to myself. I know so many people who object to the modern rebirth of 3D, and while I too am painfully familiar with the ill fated fads of the 50s and 60s matinee, I am thoroughly enjoying this new variation of film in the illusion of the third dimension. It raises the blinds on a new frame around an old, familiar window.

The new spate of films presented in digital 3D fascinates me because, for those directors who understand their medium, the dimensionality of the media is treated far differently from earlier 3D. Gone are the cheap gags and the notion of objects hurtling into the audience's field of vision. Such images are reserved for theme park shows and remakes of unspeakable James Cameron films (I have still not recovered from the trailer for Piranha). In their place is a strange new artistic convention - a conscious framing of mise en scene in a way that gives the illusion that the movie screen has become a window - a view into another place populated with heroes, villains, and wonders. We, as the audience, are not thrust into that place; there is no attempt to create the illusion that the two worlds are invading one another's space; rationality tells us that the wonders of the world beyond the screen have little place in our reality, and, much as we may regret it, we have little place in theirs. Instead, these films create a breach between the worlds, a way of seeing what lies on the other side of the wall between story and reality. They are windows, and we are given the opportunity to peer through into a place newly given dimension and depth.

Certainly, not all these new films are created equal. Some are merely films rendered into 3D - a simple window into another time and place. Others are conscious of their role, framing their images within windows and clouds, creating a deliciously voyeuristic sense of peering through into another world, of stealing a story through reflected spaces and from unsuspected corners. In those films, there is a sense of the furtive wonder and belief in story that I held so fervently in the green and brown world of my childhood. There is a sense of opening a door and finding a place of wonder just beyond its sill.

Perhaps, once again, rendering film in three dimensions is no more than a fad, a desperate attempt by a film industry that is again feeling threatened - this time by digital media rather than the advent of television, but threatened nonetheless. Perhaps it is no more than a last ditch attempt to offer audiences something, anything, that they cannot find on personal screens. But I do not view it in quite that way. Regardless of its origins, I find myself enjoying the new interpretation of an old medium. I find myself again a child, face plastered to the glass of reality, peering into a place of dreams. And when I catch a glimpse of the screen, I cannot help but smile, because to me, it is just the light glinting off the glass of imagination, reminding me that the blinds are open, and I can see through that window into the world I have so long dreamed.