Sunday, November 19, 2023

Invisible Essence: The Little Prince (2018).

I was an 80s kid to start with.  There's no doubt about that.  I was born in the middle of the year that George Orwell made famous.  In that sense, I guess you could say I lucked out.  As I got here just in time to enjoy what for now remains the last great artistic Renaissance.  I'm talking of course about all of the classic books, films, and TV shows that were released during that decade.  So to repeat, first of all, it was the 80s.  If you were a relative new born during that time period, say anywhere from about five to going on seven years of age, it was kind of like living in a playground.  At least that's how all that the best times of the 80s seems to me now.  I don't know, there was just something about the entertainment of that era.  Our Minds and Imaginations seem to have been more expansive way back when.  Like I've also said, for a kid, this was like being given an all-access key to some kind of pop-culture candy store.  It's there that I made the acquaintance childhood friends like Tom, Jerry, the residents of Sesame Street, Larry, Daffy, Moe, Bugs, Curly, Garfield, The Ninja Turtles.  It's amazing how times makes small things have epic proportions.  This is just a list of the most well known aspects of 80s kid life.  In addition to the now popular standbys, there were a host of other, lesser known entertainment that isn't talked about.

I can remember this one TV show, in particular.  It's not what I'm here to talk about today, in the strictest sense.  However, in retrospect, this little forgotten kid's series I'm thinking about is sort of where this whole story beings.  At least this is how it has worked out for me.  So here's the scenario.  I'm just this seven going on eight year old guy.  It's the 80s.  I'm bopping along to Glenn Frey's The Heat Is On, like everyone else, and I've begun to grow enamored of a TV station with the curious yet memorable name of Nickelodeon.  It likes to bill itself as "The First Network For Kids".  Now I'm a fresh young mind, so the dubious veracity of claims like that aren't going to make much or seem all that important.  All that mattered to me back then (and even today, if I'm being honest) is a question I didn't have the vocabulary for back then, yet I do now.  Can you tell an entertaining story?  In the case of Nickelodeon, my experience watching that channel during its glory years taught me that, on the whole, yeah, they were pretty good for the most part.  Some of their stuff I was always going to like better than others.  Though what else is new about that?  The point is that the channel could deliver the goods.

My own experience watching the 80s and early 90s incarnation of Nick is a combination hazy and crystal clear images.  I'm sure that's true for a lot of us, so now I'm curious to see how many of my own memory snapshots match the experiences I'm about to describe.  Some of the images I remember most from that time include: an orange tabby cat who wasn't Garfield, prowling around an anime style neighborhood; a live action show about a mannequin in a department store that would come to life when a magic hat was placed on his head; a show about that guy from Get Smart, except now he's an animated, cartoon cyborg; a comedy show whose opening looks a lot like Monty Python; also, there's Green Slime; a cartoon about a talking, vampire duck (yes, really); a show about a somehow scarily competent dog; a simple, yet somehow epic shot of a group kids in a souped up flying ship that looked kind of like this giant condor thing.  There was also this one image in particular.  It's the picture of a young boy.  He has to be no older than nine or ten years of age, standing all by himself on the surface of an alien world that is no bigger than a house.  The next memory snapshot I have of this same young boy flying through space, hanging on in the wake of a passing comet.  The child has somehow managed to cast a net over this comet, and is using it to propel him through the infinite gulfs of outer space. 

It's one those interesting images, I guess you'd call it.  Perhaps a better phrase for it is "somehow arresting".  In some ways, it's nothing more than the kind of thing you might expect to find in any sensibly well made children's story.  At the same time, there are a lot interesting reasons for why this image in particular can make you want to scratch your head.  It's easy to get the sense that this is also the kind of picture that grows out of some kind of ill-defined stoner fantasy.  This impression is sort of helped by the fact that trying to find any footage from the show itself can sometimes result in the type of visuals that can come off as slightly mind-bending.  The good news is this description is meant in the best way possible.  The show itself is called The Adventures of the Little Prince, and it's one of those notable examples of the particular imaginative capabilities that could only have come out of the 80s.  It's the sort of cartoon that is willing to resort to all kinds of interesting leaps in imaginative logic while still managing to keep the proceedings going within a grounded(ish) narrative.  It was the sort of TV show that you catch snippets of in between waiting for your personal favorites to come on the air.

In other words, that show belonged to the rare and elusive class of media that still manages to leave a strange, lingering impact on the mind, years later down the road.  This happens either despite, or perhaps because your initial contact with it was so fleeting at an otherwise impressionable young age.  It's the kind of thing you can't recall with perfect clarity.  What you do remember, however, seems just enough to spark your curiosity.  Maybe it can even get you to wonder if any of it was real, or just something out of a dream?  It planted enough questions in my mind to the point where I decided to see if it was possible to track down those old snippets of childhood memory, and try to get the whole story out of them.  In a way I've succeeded in this, and a good TV promo for the show can be found here.  However, it's one of those accomplishments that wound up being just the tip of the iceberg.  Far from being the end of the story, digging up information about a half-forgotten kids show wound up being one of those adventures where you think all you'll do is to recover a bit of your childhood.  While instead, what happens is you wind up unearthing a whole treasure of literary history you didn't know was there.

So, as I said, I'm not here to take a look at the TV series itself.  If you want someone to walk you through all of that, the best review/retrospective I've been able to find online is here.  Instead, this article is going to cover the history of the show's source material.  Not only is it a lot more interesting than its syndicated spinoff.  It also reveals a story of the ideals that can sometimes lie behind even a simple children's book, and how it was all represented in the life of its creator.  All of which is to say that this review will be a close look at a documentary known as Invisible Essence: The Little Prince.

The Story.  

"Once when I was six years old I saw a magnificent picture in a book, called True Stories from Nature, about the primeval forest.  It was a picture of a boa constrictor in the act of swallowing and animal...In the book it said: "Boa constrictors swallow their prey whole without chewing it.  After that they are not able to move, and they sleep through the six months they need for digestion."  I pondered deeply, then, over the adventures of the jungle.  And after some work with a colored pencil I succeeded in making my very first drawing.  My drawing number one...I showed my masterpiece to the grown-ups and asked them whether the drawing frightened them.  But they answered: "Frightened?  Why would any one be frightened by a hat?"  My drawing wasn't a picture of a hat.  It was a picture of a boa constrictor digesting an elephant.  But since the grown-ups weren't able to understand it, I made another drawing; I drew the inside of the boa constrictor, so that the grown-ups could see it very clearly.  They always need to have things explained...The grown-ups response this time was to advise me to lay aside my drawing of boa constrictors, whether from the inside or the outside, and devote myself instead to geography, history, arithmetic, and grammar.  That is why, at the age of six, I gave up what might have been a magnificent career as a painter.

"I had been disheartened by the failure of my Drawing Number One and my Drawing Number Two.  Grown-ups never understand anything by themselves, and it is tiresome for children to be always and forever explaining things to them.  So then I chose another profession, and learned to pilot airplanes.  I have flown a little over all parts of the world; and it is true that geography has been very useful to me.  At a glance I can distinguish China from Arizona.  If one gets lost in the night, such knowledge is valuable.  In the course of this life I have had a great many encounters with a great many people who have been concerned with matters of consequence.  I have lived a great deal among grown-ups.  I have seen them intimately, close at hand.  And that hasn't improved my opinion of them.  Whenever I met one them who seemed to me at all clear-sighted, I tried the experiment of showing him my Drawing Number One., which I have always kept.  I would try to find out, so, if this was a person of true understanding.  But, whoever it was, he, or she, would always says: "That is a hat."

"The I would never talk to that person about boa constrictors, or primeval forests, or stars.  I would bring myself down to his level.  I would talk to him about bridge, and golf, and politics, and neckties.  And the grown-up would be greatly pleased to have met such a sensible man.  So I lived my life alone, without anyone that I could really talk to, until I had an accident with my plane in the Desert of Sahara, six years ago.  Something was wrong in my engine.  And as I had with me neither mechanic nor any passengers, I set myself to attempt the difficult repairs all alone.  It was a question of life or death for me: I had scarcely enough drinking water to last me a week.  The first night, then, I went to sleep on the sand, a thousand miles from any human habitation.  I was more isolated than a shipwrecked sailor on a raft in the middle of the ocean.  Thus you can imagine my amazement, at sunrise, when I was awakened by an odd little voice.  It said: "If you please - draw me a sheep!"  "What!"  "Draw me a sheep (7-9)".

The Life of the Author.

The story of The Little Prince really begins with the birth of its creator.  Antoine De Saint-Exupery is the kind of name that almost sounds made up.  Like it belongs more to an imaginary character in a book, rather than a flesh and blood human being.  Nevertheless, Saint-Ex, as he was known by his friends (32), was a real life author, though he's not exactly a household name in the same vein as someone like Charles Dickens or the Brothers Grimm.  Yet as Prof. Thomas De Koninck notes in the documentary under discussion today, Exupery's most famous work has been "translated in over 200 languages.  The numbers are staggering.  Apart from the Bible, there's no other example of a book that has been read by so many people from different languages, cultures.  There are so many book, so many tales, and so many myths, and it seems to transcend them all.  Why?  Why is it?  Why this huge success"?  These are all question's that filmmaker Charles Officer attempts to answer in his 2018 documentary, Invisible Essence: The Little Prince.  Part of the reason this real life film portrait exists is because of the irony at the heart of Exupery's achievement.  As Koninck notes, almost everyone seems to be aware of the children's book in some fashion.  Almost no one has any clue about the author.

Officer's documentary seeks to correct this omission of an increasingly unreliable pop-culture memory by dedicating an entire full-length feature to not only giving Saint-Ex his day in the spotlight, but also in helping to bring The Little Prince, its meaning, values, and artistic legacy to a wider audience.  In order to do that, the director begins at the most logical starting place, the birth and growth of the artist's mind.  As the documentary notes, "(The) reason why a story becomes universal and timeless is when the story is also personal.  (It's) the story of (the writer's) own life".  In his case, Antoine Exupery was "born in 1900, and grows up in a chateau outside Lyon".  Further digging outside of the documentary reveals that Saint Ex's family technically counted as what might be called an example of the defrocked nobility.  It's lineage can be traced all the way back to the Middle Ages, yet it faced a democratization during and in the aftermath of the French Enlightenment.  The family doesn't seem to have been bothered by this at all, and so things went more or less as you would expect of a normal middle class household situated within the confines of the French countryside.  Unfortunately for Saint-Exupery, this picture-postcard child's idyll conforms to a fairy tale pattern familiar to the lives of children's authors.

According to Prof. Stacy Schiff, "His father dies young, so he's brought up, really, by a single mother in a family of siblings where he seems to think himself, in a way, the favorite child.  And he is an inventor child.  He's someone who does experiments in the bathtub, or attaching wings to the bicycle.  He writes poetry at a very early age, and he pretty much romanticizes the house, the family.  He says, 'I will always be the child of that house'.  So it's a very tight family, in which he is clearly a little bit of the eccentric, and very much tolerated by his equally creative siblings.  But it's marked in some ways by early loss".  Biography Alain Vircondelet singles out the early death of the boy's father as leading Saint-Ex towards this searching wanderer sort of life.  There may be some elements of truth to this, however, I think it's more a case of the author conforming to a specific type of artistic upbringing.  Exupery's home culture was the Parisian world of the early Symbolist Movement and the French Avant-Garde.

These were all intertwined developments in the Arts during the opening act of the 20th century, and a lot of that seems to have filtered down from the garrets, retreats, flats, cafes and salons of Paris all the way out into the countryside of the Exupery household.  Part of the reason for this might have been because in previous ages, the author's family might have acted as one of those old, established patrons of the arts.  We're talking back to a time during eras like the Renaissance, when nobles like the Medici family would act as sponsors for painters like Michelangelo and Leonardo Da Vinci.  It is possible that Exupery's clan were a part of this early modern network of patronage.  If there's any truth to this surmise, then it would mean that the effects of this past engagement with the worlds of painting, sculpture, poetry, and literature would all have been able to filter down through the ages to the point where this entire aesthetic milieu was capable of leaving one of the first major impacts, or influential impressions on the author in childhood.  Writers like Marcel Proust would also have been affected in the same way.  And so it all marks out Saint-Exupery as something of a willing artistic inheritor.

In other words, at some point while growing up, the young Antoine seems to have wound up making one of those half-conscious decisions that wind up having a greater impact as time goes on.  In his case, it seems that a simple childhood enjoyment of the Arts led him inexorably towards dedicating his life and efforts to the pursuit of the poetical, whether in verse or prose.  Another influence that seems to have helped Saint-Ex along in his goals was a simple matter of being born in the right place and time.  Two years after the writer was born, the Wright Brothers rearranged the scope of humanity's technical capabilities with the debut of their successful Flyer tests up at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina.  By the time Antoine was eight years old, the invention of the airplane had taken the world by storm.  Nowhere was this impact felt with greater imaginative force than in France.  It's like Officer's documentary says:

"There was a huge Romance of aviation in France between 1900 and 1940.  Much more than in the United States.  Aviation isn't simply a triumph of material engineering, but it's a triumph of the Romantic Imagination.  That's very much part of the background of The Little Prince".  I think this insight is valid, yet there's also a lot more about it to be unpacked.  For instance, one of the reasons both Exupery and France as a whole were able to create what amounts to a sort of Cult of Aviation might have something to do with an influence from the writings of Jules Verne.  The author of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days is often cited now as one of the pioneers of Science Fiction.  That description remains sound, yet as scholar David Meakin points out, it also is true that Verne can just as easily be described as a kind of modern age mythologist, or writer of fantasies, just as much as he was a chronicler of technology on the cutting edge of the 20th century.  Verne's fairy tales describe a world in which creatures out of Gulliver's Travels or medieval bestiaries can sometimes find a strange uneasy co-existence with the latest model flying machine or submersible iron boat.  It's there we tend to find the same fantastic, magical realist atmosphere that populates Saint-Exupery's writings.

It makes for this aesthetic stance that is always balanced on the precarious tipping point between idealism and caution in the face of man's technical abilities.  There's this desire to celebrate our new scientific breakthroughs, and yet it's always coupled with this lingering concern, or question.  Does this mean we can still get to keep all of the fancies of childhood?  This thematic ambivalence can also be found in the writings of Saint-Exupery, who can extoll the virtues of air travel while scoffing at anyone who would urge caution in the use of technology in a non-fiction work like Wind, Sand, and Stars, to lamenting how grown-ups always need things explained to them, and how the author fears that he's becoming too much like one himself in the Prince text.  In that sense, Vircondelet seems to be onto something when he argues, "One could say that Saint-Exupery's life, symbolically, is a permanent quest to return to childhood".  This doubled-edged approach to technology is also a defining trait of his work.

Beyond this, the other ingredients that wound up being poured into Saint-Ex's cauldron of story are his decision to join in with this Romance of Aviation by finding himself in the employ of the French Aeropostale as a flying mail courier.  That was where he met his future wife, Consuelo, and where he exhibited what can only be described as an admirable display of Liberal Humanism towards he African and Islamic cultures with which his job brought him into frequent contact.  It's remarked in Officer's film that Exupery's own personal interactions with non-European cultures displays what can only be referred to as an Open Society policy.  He not only lived amicably among the locals, he even wound up adopting some of their dress.  It was there in the Sahara that the story of a strange boy from the Comet B-612 began to take on a steady outline.  It also brings us to the documentary's thoughts on the book.

The Meaning of the Story.

At it's core, The Little Prince is the account of what happens to a nameless narrator (one of many throughout literary history) when his plane breaks down in the middle of the Sahara Desert.  Sometime during the second day of his mechanically enforced exile, the Pilot is startled to meet a peculiar little boy who seems to have arrived or emerged from nowhere.  And so now he'd like the narrator to make a drawing for him.  This is the Prince of the book's title.  The story has a bit of fun with the usual setup of a fictional representative of normal life being first confronted with, and then having to acclimate himself to an occurrence of the miraculous and the marvelous in his existence.  I almost wonder if this conceit hasn't become something like the de facto narrative trope of modern literature.  Because it seems like every other notable story out there reads as every possible kind of variation on this idea.

Whatever the case, what matters is that Exupery's writing in these opening moments is able to walk that fine line of balance between amusing whimsy and genuine mystery.  A lot of it is helped by all of the setup that has come beforehand.  Before we get to meet the title character, we learn something of the narrator himself.  As recounted in his own backstory, the Pilot is yet another familiar face in an equally perennial landscape.  We learn that he grew as one of those children with an active Imagination, one that could have found its most natural expression in painting and illustration.  However, this seemingly inherent, or natural born artistic temperament and its attendant creative potential is soon squashed by his parents insistence that he focus on a more down to Earth job.  The implication here being that the narrator's choice of becoming a plane flyer is a combination of compromise and insult.  On the one hand, it's practical enough to get the folks off his back.  At the same time, there's also the not so implied sense that the narrator has used flying as the closest substitute for his creative sensibilities that he could get his hands on.  In other words, he's thumbing his nose at his parents while obeying their wishes.

As the Pilot relates, however, none of this has ever improved his view of "grown-ups" very much.  At least that's how he chooses to refer to his fellow human beings.  So, in other words, right from the very start Exupery presents his readers with a focal character who fits well into the mold of the Romantic Outsider.  This particular figure came into his own as a recognizable type right around the same time that gave us works like The Prelude, though I do wonder if the figure might be older than that.  Whatever the case, its clear that the Pilot has more than a few Wordsworthian echoes or elements in his make up.  Much like the subject of a classic Romantic poem, the narrator feels himself disconnected from the common experiences of humanity, and part of it seems down to an acute perception of the world that he struggles to make others understand.  When no one can, this figure often retreats into himself until someone or something comes along and turns reality more on its head than even the Romantic Outsider could have guessed.  In this case, it's the appearance of a boy who may not be at all human.  After much patient coaxing, the little boy reveals that he hails from an asteroid B-612.

To make a complex story sound simple, the little boy turns out to be the sole inhabitant and ruler of this little piece of the cosmos.  Hence his title of Prince.  The reason he's still not ruling on B-612 now is because one day he discovered what it was like to fall in love.  The relationship got off to such a rocky start, however, that the Prince kind of felt the need to get away for a bit, and maybe get a better grip on what the terms love and life both mean by exploring the universe for a bit.  From there, the story recounts the Prince's own exploits through a series of encounters that read like a cross between Gulliver's Travels and The Pilgrim's Progress.  We follow the Prince as he winds up hopping from one micro-planet to another.  Each of them contains just one inhabitant like himself.  These suggestively allegorical cast members include: A king with no subjects, who only issues orders that will be followed, such as commanding the sun to set at sunset; A conceited man who only wants the praise which comes from admiration and being the most admirable person on his otherwise uninhabited planet; a drunkard who drinks to forget the shame of drinking; A businessman who is blind to the beauty of the stars and instead endlessly counts and catalogues them in order to "own" them all (critiquing materialism).
A lamplighter on a planet so small, a full day lasts a minute. He wastes his life blindly following orders to extinguish and relight the lamppost every 30 seconds to correspond with his planet's day and night; An elderly geographer who has never been anywhere, or seen any of the things he records, providing a caricature of specialization in the contemporary world (web).  It's clear enough that Exupery has managed to uncover a series of useful emblems or ciphers that are able to act as an effective enough series of critiques about a number of less than helpful aspects of modern life.  It's this sequence of mini-vignettes, plus a dangerous encounter with a snake, and a meaningful one with a fox that take up the majority of the book.  This gives the narrative an episodic, almost travelogue feel.  However, the important thing to note is that not only does the story's pacing never flag.  Exupery is also able to wind an easily digestible thematic thread line which is deftly able to interweave and unite all these encounters together.  Much like Jon Swift or Mark Twain before him, there are a lot of aspects of modern life that Saint-Ex feels the need to critique and point out all of the inherent flaws.

If there's anything like a major difference between the French Magic Realist author and the earlier two satirists, it's that there's a greater sense of consolation and reconciliation to be had in the story of the Prince and his travels.  Exupery tends to see modern life as something that has gone wrong on some fundamental level, yet unlike Swift these collective problems don't lead the author to end in despair.  Instead, he becomes one of the few literary satirists I know of to offer clues to a tentative solution to maybe at least some if not all of modernity's ills.  It's when we get to the message at the heart of this little children's book that the nature of the story archetype that the author has dug up out of the soil of the Imagination becomes clear.  My own takeaway from the book may sound strange, yet I can't shake the idea that I'm reading a familiar archetype in the hands of a different author.  Saint-Exupery seems to be working with nothing less than the same story idea as the one that undergirded James Barrie's original Peter Pan.  This does not mean that each author is telling the exact same story, however.

Instead, what's happened is that Exupery was merely able to unearth the same story fossil that gave Neverland and its unreal estates to Barrie.  All we're seeing with The Little Prince is what happens when this same creative concept gets funneled through the Imagination of another artist.  In this case, Saint-Ex has no need for an island, or even all that large a cast of characters.  Instead, the situation presented to the reader almost amounts to a kind of minimalist stage setting.  It's as if the author has managed to conjure up the same kind of existentialist blank space as that dreamed playwrights such as Samuel Beckett.  Into this sand filled light box are placed the two main leads, their dialogues, and the narrative threads and themes that spin out from all of it.  Exupery doesn't seem to need to waste all that much time and effort in getting the creative idea set down on paper.  He's willing, able, and eager to get right to the point.  I think part of the reason for this is because of something else that sets him apart from Barrie.  The initial Peter Pan author represents a case of the artist as a neurotic, highly reluctant storyteller.  Barrie was always more interested in sustaining a hostile outlook on life, and everything in it.  And as a result, this kept tending to get in the way of the more important task of telling a story.

Exupery, by contrast, has no such mental hang-ups.  Instead, his is the more straight-forward story of the writer as Romantic prodigy.  He was allowed a relatively happy and normal home life that also encouraged his precocious artistic streak.  This allowed him to expand on his abilities to tap into the Imagination, and as a result was given the opportunity to use his talents to grow outward toward the world, instead of drawing inward to himself, and away from any meaningful contact with others, like Barrie.  A natural corollary of this nurtured upbringing is that Saint-Ex was able to maintain a sense of the kind of idealism that can sometimes be the product of a well lived childhood.  This gave him a certain optimism and/or psychological resilience in the face of adversity during his adult years.  Another and more important consequence of Exupery's Romantic development is that perhaps it was able to allow him a kind of insight into the goals and nature of the adult world.  The Little Prince is very much a book concerned with all of the ways in which growing up can go wrong.

This is not the hostile neuroticism of J.M. Barrie, however.  Instead, it seems to be very much as Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt says in Officer's film.  He describes it as "(A) meeting of the adult and the child.  (Exupery) tries to create the ideal of man's life, which means the child that he was and the man he is now hold hands.  The story begins when these two lost souls find each other".  This is pretty much the exact opposite trajectory that the first author of Peter Pan was aiming for.  However, Saint-Exupery was no J.M. Barrie.  These words flow from the pen of a mind that has learned, like Wordsworth or Coleridge before, of the potential Romance of childhood.  The story is therefore in part the author's desire to share that wisdom with others.  In order to do this in an effective manner, part of the book's strategy is to contrast the simplicity of it's title character with those of all or most of the major adult figures that the Prince meets on his travels.  Each of the other planet dwellers represents aspects of modern life that Exupery seems to feel has contributed to a stunting of what we call growing-up.

As Schmitt further explains in the documentary, the author "spends his time denouncing the jobs that have devoured individuals.  The King acting like a king, the Vain Man being vain.  People believe they are consistent, but in fact they are inconsistent.  Because they have forgotten their humanity".  Teacher Christine Nelson provides a good elaboration of Schmitt's line of reasoning as she describes the satirical layout of the Prince's secondary world.  "The way Saint-Exupery draws these planets really emphasizes the solitude (of the other adult characters, sic).  He makes a pretty small orb for the planet, and then the human on top is enormous".  It is perhaps nothing less than Swift's iconic and scathing imagery of Big and Little Men somehow conjoined and rolled together into one meaningful picture of a big ego bestride a small globe.  "What makes the grown-ups (the Prince, sic) encounters along the way foolish is that their monomaniacal", explains none other than Adam Gopnik.  "They only can see the world through one prism, through one obsession.  The drunkard is the one who sort of comes closest to having some actual insight into the world.  Though he just gets drunk over and over again".  Then, of course, there's the planet of the Business Man, whose main addiction is filling up his account book numbers.

Philosopher Olivier d'Gay (who was also a possible real life model for Saint-Ex's planet hopping child protagonist) notes of the book's treatment of the cosmic accountant that he personifies that kind of selfish, One Percent demographic attitude which is very good at keeping track of where the money goes, and then never thinking that it might always be needed elsewhere to help keep the world running, or its people healthy.  In that sense, this character is the most straightforward target in Saint-Exupery's sights.  Journalist and writer Daniel Laferriere gives the benediction that appears to sum up most of the figures or targets that the Prince meets on his travels.  "It's only once we multiply all these ridiculous behaviors that we then ask ourselves what world do we live in"?  The documentary is able to present a lot of interesting commentary on what each of the satirical figures the Prince meets in the book could mean.  All of what the interview subject have to say on the matter sounds convincing enough, for the most part.  However, if I had to summarize what they all suggest as a whole, then I'd say they amount to Exupery's condemnation of what the author takes to be a fundamentally flawed idea, or set of ideas that have conditioned or poisoned what it means to be an adult.  It's an attack on defective ways of thought.

The key thing to keep in mind, here, is that unlike Swift, Saint-Ex doesn't leave his child's version of Gulliver alone and stranded in a sea of fools.  Instead, he takes things a step further, and in the process is able to find a kind of olive branch that he extends to the readers of his text.  While the author may start out enumerating all the ways in which its possible for a potential adult to grow up wrong, he also holds out the idea that it's never to late to do an about face.  That the modern individual is capable of turning things around, and retracing his steps in order to correct whatever mistakes have been made along the way.  This is where it's possible to begin to understand the purpose of the final grown-up that the Prince meets on his journey: the Pilot.  The Narrator spends a great deal of the text as a passive observer, acting in effect as an audience surrogate.  As fictional events start coming to a head, however, he finds himself getting more drawn into the meaning of the Prince's experiences, and this in turn begins to have an effect on his own character and actions.  The documentary gets interesting here.

At one point, Laferriere and choreographer Guillaume Cote make two intriguing (and, to me, convincing) observations about both the story's Narrator, and the events that transpire in the novel.  "I always saw the aviator as someone in despair who arranged his accident in the desert in search of meditation.  At that moment, a flower of his spirit appeared, and that's the little prince".  Then here's how Cote follows up on that.  "The Aviator and the Little Prince, the way that they interact, I always thought that they were the same person.  This man who is dangerously close to death in the desert, and he's having this weird hallucination/dream".  This line of thinking would then place Exupery's book on the same sub-genre shelf as that occupied by Lewis Carrol's Alice books.  Each tale could be described as dream narratives that their respective main characters undergo.  Saint-Ex's iteration of this setup is a lot more dire than just a little girl lounging by the river Thames, or falling asleep in her living room chair.  The implication is that the heat of the desert combined with a growing thirst and malnourishment slowly begin to dull and mix the Pilot's mind, until some younger part of him wakes up,  From there, much like Alice, the narrator's mind begins to remind him of a lot of wisdom that he has forgot.

In her dreams, Alice begins to acknowledge and to bring forth the slow growing realization that the adults and society in her life are full of meaningless nonsense, and that it is therefore best if she learns how to make her own way in the world, on terms that are more commonsensical.  This seems to be the shared over-arching theme between Carroll's books and Exupery's own.  The idea that whenever some of the goals and mores of a community no longer start to work, or else just serve to hold you back from bigger and better things.  That's when it becomes time to see if it's possible to make a change for the better; both for yourself and for others.  It's not the most original of concepts.  Nor does it seem likely that it ever originated with either Carroll or Saint-Ex.  It's just one of those really useful notions to have.

Conclusion: A Very Creative Shuffling of a Familiar Archetype.

If I had to find the right way to summarize the achievement of Officer's documentary, then it would have to be described as a very good gateway introduction.  The novice viewer, in other words, could almost treat this as a preface to one of the most influential yet overlooked pieces of children's literature.  Nor is there any concern that the subject matter is too esoteric, or that the viewer won't be able to follow along.  Instead, Officer makes the wise creative decision to to carefully guide the viewer through the history, narrative, and thematic meaning of Exupery's text.  He's managed to pull off that one creative headache that all directors have to tackle at some point or another.  The filmmaker seems to have decided to see if the narrative of his documentary can go from start to finish walking that delicate, tightrope balance of finding a way to speak to both children and adults at once without ever talking down to either party.  In this endeavor, Officer manages to cross the chasm without ever dropping so much as a single spinning plate.  Instead, his documentary manages to draw in both young and old.

The film's pace keeps things moving at a brisk clip that is able to hold your interest.  The commentators interviewed are lively and never let the momentum of the film bog down.  And a lot of the insights they bring to the table can sometimes offer a lot of food for thought.  Perhaps what's most impressive about all this from a stylistic vantage point is that Officer somehow managed to pull all of this off while still finding a way to convey the quiet, contemplative tone of Saint-Ex's novel.  It's one of those creative feats that are able to impress you with their combination of confident dexterity married to a welcome sense of humility.  It allows the director to find the right method of getting out of the way and letting the story of the author and the book tell itself.   The result is a film that matches the excitement of a child's adventure storybook with an easygoing atmosphere that pulls you inexorably along with it.

The subject at the heart of Officer's film is one that I'll have to confess I'm sort of late to the party on.  Like I said at the start, my first encounter with Saint-Exupery's 20th century fairy tale came to me at a second hand remove.  The TV channel Nickelodeon would occasionally air reruns of The Adventures of the Little Prince during the mid to late 80s, and that was where it first got to my attention.  I had pretty much no way of knowing the stuff I was watching was ever based however loosely off an actual book.  All of this awareness came a hell of long time, and what is now practically a whole other world later.  It was from seeing a retrospective on the TV show by YouTuber Greg Stevens.  It was his video that brought the documentary Invisible Essence and its twin subjects to my attention.  I suppose the results of this accidental discovery do amount to something of an eye-opener, of sorts.  Wading into the story of the Little Prince and the world of its author is something I'd best describe as a pleasant surprise of familiarity.  What the author has written comes across as a mixture of old and new all intertwined together in a very entertaining package.  It doesn't break new ground, or anything like that.  The good news is that Exupery seems to know he doesn't have to re-invent the wheel in order to tell a good story.
Instead, it's as I've said above.  What the reader is treated to with the story of the nameless Pilot and his encounter with a planet hopping child from nowhere seems to be very the case of the author uncovering a familiar literary archetype, one that was haphazardly used elsewhere by J.M. Barrie.  It goes without saying that Exupery's attempt at handling this idea comes off as a lot smoother and more engaging than Barrie's initial rough draft.  However, that's also a judgment call that needs both tempering and explaining.  I just said that Saint-Ex's book is better than Barrie's play, and all of that is true.  I'm willing to swear on however many stacks of binding legal texts you may want on that score.  What I didn't say, or mean to imply was that the tale of the singular monarch of asteroid B-612 was necessarily better than what I consider to be the definitive, finished and best canonical candidate versions of Peter and Neverland.  In fact, since I'm convinced what we're dealing with here is two different riffs on the basic story idea, then if asked, I'm afraid I'd have to place Exupery's story in a reluctant second place.  Please bear in mind, however, that this is not the same as me saying the book is bad.  Merely that the same idea has resulted in two different stories in varying imaginations across the flow and line of time itself.

Perhaps a better way to say it is that maybe it does make sense to claim that Peter and the Prince are kind of the same character as viewed through different imaginative lenses.  Exupery was able to take this child archetype and put his own spin on it while still leaving its creative integrity intact.  Barrie was never that lucky, however the good news is that at least two other artists reworked his material, and were able to avoid all the previous mistakes.  I just happen to like these other two tellings of the archetype more than Exupery's.  This is still not the same as calling the novel a bad one, however.  On the contrary, it deserves to be remembered as perhaps one of the great Magical Realist tales, as Officer's documentary suggests.  Indeed, it is just possible to see how a story like this contains elements of material as that of Latin American writers like Borges, Cortazar, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  The Little Prince might even be described as the kind of book you'd get if any of the authors just mentioned ever decided to give full vent to the fantastical elements of their imagination.  Or perhaps what Jules Verne and Carlos Fuentes might have conjured up if they ever decided to collaborate on a novel.

The entire book is of enough of a quality that I'm able to say we were probably robbed of a burgeoning talent all too soon.  All the historical evidence points to Antoine De Saint-Exupery meeting his end by being shot down out of the sky, in one of his beloved airplanes, during a reconnaissance mission over Nazi occupied France during World War II.  He wound up, in other words, as one of that nation's fallen heroes.  It's a real shame, too.  Because it is possible to conjure up an image of Saint-Ex surviving the War, and going on to one literary feat after another from there.  Indeed, if given enough time, it could or might have been possible for him to become one of the literary voices that helped bring Magical Realism into French letters.  As things stand, all we have is this one bright star of a book, and the promise of things left unfulfilled.  The closest thing to compare it to is the glimpses of certain passages of recovered notebooks of soldiers fallen during the First World War.  The whole thing is enough to add a certain amount of poignancy to the entire finished fable as Saint-Exupery has given it to us.

All of these elements combine to create a book that is well worth hunting down and making a part of your life.  Officer's documentary is also a worthy effort in its own right.  It's the type of exploration of a work of art that is able to do a necessary amount of justice to its subject and source material.  It gets a very easy recommendation for me.  Though I think also have to admit this is the kind of documentary that is going to appeal to a very circumspect number of the audience.  This is a film for people who don't just like the Fantasy genre, but also enjoy talking about it, discussing what it all means.  Anyone who doesn't just enjoy Fantasy but is also aware that the vistas of the genres expand well beyond the boundaries of Middle Earth will also find plenty to like here.  Those readers who know that Fantasy can still be exciting in a calm, meditative travelogue style narrative will get a kick out of it.  Anyone who understands that a story doesn't have to always have to be wall-to-wall action oriented will find this a calming, and welcome tonic after having to watch something like the downfall of Marvel Comics.  There's even something in the text that will appeal to those rare fans of obscure philosophic dialogue.

These are all examples of the kind of things to be found in Antoine Exupery's children's book, as well as Charles Officer's Invisible Essence.  The best summation I can give it is that it's kind of like a Walden Pond for children.  It's the kind of book that will take the reader away to a quiet place where they can perhaps have a chance to re-collect their thoughts (if that's what you want), and then send them back out into the world with hopefully a better, or at least a clearer outlook on the nature of things.  There's one line, in particular, out of all the rest of the text that seems to sum up Exupery's point.  It is spoken by a Fox that befriends the Prince at one point on his journey.  In one of the film adaptations of the book, this character is played by none other than the original Candy Man himself, Gene Wilder.  The adaptation I'm thinking of isn't all that great, yet that just allows Wilder to steal the whole show.  Anyway, I bring it up because it is Wilder's Fox who gets the chance to deliver the idea at the heart of The Little Prince, and there's just something fitting about seeing Wilder in full Willy Wonka mode delivering this kind of message to children everywhere.  “And now here is my secret, a very simple secret: It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye (web)".  All of which is to say that Charles Officer's Invisible Essence: The Little Prince is well worth digging up, and enjoying  

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