Friday, November 25, 2011
Memories can be hard things to deal with. I don't just mean the kind of emotional reactions they churn up within us but I mean, in the more literal sense, that I often don't know what to do with my memories.
Today I spent a few good hours scanning photographs of my childhood into my computer. I suppose my reasons for doing this lay in the modern mentality that nothing is real until it's been digitized. You may laugh at that, but really I think that with so many years of Facebook and Google, so many of us have been left with the irresistible urge to keep everything that documents our history in a place of quick-access, no matter how mundane. It took a lot of willpower to not scan some of these pictures.
But this is all prologue. What I'm trying to get to is the dilemma I found myself in when I came across a few particular photos that I wasn't expecting. I found one or two from a date with an old girlfriend, one with a friend that I've since fallen out with, and a few prom pictures with an old crush. When I found them, a rush of different things came up. Shame, memories of pain, nostalgia, but also an emotional distance that let me laugh and remember how crazy it all was, and see how far I've come since then.
Part of me says "wow, that was a really formative part of my life." The other part says, "wow, that was a really painful memory and you don't need that anymore." One says, "I want to keep that." The other, "You shouldn't keep that." I want to dwell on that last thought for a moment, focusing on that word: Should. What should we do with our memories? What do we do with the old teady bears, the T-shirts that don't fit anymore that we wouldn't be caught dead in, but loved to death in 1989. What about the photos and memories of past relationships that aren't anymore? (Most of you will latch onto the romantic implications of that word, but I also mean it more broadly.)
Going back to Facebook for a moment, think about the common mentality we have today. Share everything, display everything, keep everything. There are some great benefits elements to all that connectivity. When distance used to cut-off friendships all too soon, or stifle long-developed ones, we can now keep up with each other. We can track down old friends that we never thought we'd see again. Even the fact that I'm posting this on a social networking site is not lost on me. But part of me wonders against it. Is it true that we should remember everything? Are there things we really just should let go of? Should some friendships just grow then let die?
But none of this even answers the first question I asked. It's not so much the question "Should we keep friends forever?" as much as it is "What do we do with the memories of friendships that are gone?" I suppose this is something that people have struggled with far longer than there's been an internet. That's probably why we all have hoarders and pack-rats in our family, who refuse to throw out that dot-matrix computer, because gosh-darn-it, they paid $100 for it and used it for years. I don't think anyone is genuinely attached to the hardware, but more to the memories it holds and what it says about the owner.
I suppose it comes down to one set of questions, which I'll leave open-ended: Is it possible to keep the memories of everything, good and bad? Does that enrich us, or weigh us down?
Monday, January 10, 2011
I can't believe it's taken me this long to reconcile these ideas. I find it even more entertaining that the solution has come from the most basic Biblical-criticism terminology you learn in Intro to Biblical Studies 101. Those of you who are not religious, though let's be honest, I don't think there are any of you out there reading this right now... you'd also run into it in Philosophy 101.
Exegesis: Reading meaning out of a text. That is to say, the original meaning. When Constitutional scholars get going about "what the Founding Fathers intended," this is the mechanism they're going for. Likewise, a lot of Bible teachers will want to focus on this more, because they don't so much care about what they like in the Bible so much as they need to know what the Bible is trying to tell them. (At least, we hope so if they're a teacher worth listening to...)
Hermeneutics: What we read into a text. That is to say, the ways we look at it, apply it to our specific set of preconceptions, aesthetics, and circumstances to draw additional meaning.
Sounds easy right? And it is, if you can keep your cards straight. See, those of us who are periodically obsessed with the "right" meaning of something, are naturally far more interested in the exegesis of a piece, because if we admit that it teaches a lesson, and a lesson worth learning, we'd better learn what the author meant. With the Bible and Christian life, this is beyond essentially important. But what never occurred to me before, is that this is the same dynamic that I use when digging into meaning with Art, Music, Film, and Video Games.
When a person sees a movie and feel something deep stir inside them, they go looking for meaning, for the kernel of truth in it. Whether that be a thematic message, or moral of the story, or an essential experience like the final chord in music, or what the artist was really trying to depict on the canvas. It also has to do with whether or not the ends and means are worth it in the process...
I used to get so frustrated with scholars who would go on about these elaborate readings of texts that had nothing to do with the original authors intent. I found it arrogant and pretentious. But at the same time, I could never deny that when I looked at things, sometimes I saw interesting stuff too. What I was confusing was hermeneutics and exegesis. Maybe a lot of us do, I dunno.
It makes sense that when I was the movie Fight Club, I see the ultimate message that Tyler is not the good guy and that he has to be overcome from the inside if any actual life is to be lived. It also makes sense that a depressed nihilist would look at it and see Tyler as the hero. These are issues of what we bring to the table. The depressed nihilist isn't wrong to say this or that part resonated with him and he drew out his meaning, it's just what he brings to it in his hermeneutic. (Now, you could get into an interesting discussion which one of us is right regarding exegesis... but that's not my point right now.)
Here's another case in point. I went and saw Tron: Legacy over break, and loved it. I did enjoy the superficial action scenes. (Which I could argue weren't that superficial, just a little formulaic...but that's not the same thing.) But what really hit me was something much subtler. In the film, I saw that the character Flynn was very humble towards the digital world he helped create. That was it. Not the grand epic battle of good versus evil, not the poignant themes of sons and fathers striving to reconcile, not the techno music. This might be a case where the two approaches overlap a bit... I'm sure the film-makers meant for that attitude to come out, but I highly doubt they intended that to be the main theme of the film. However, when I saw it, I walked away very moved by that little thing. And for that, I will always love the film...
...ok, so maybe the techno music was also pretty big in my book... but back to my point.
My point is that (little known to my rather close-minded insistence in earlier days) you can in fact look at a piece of art, see a completely different conclusion or theme than what the artist intended, and it can be valid, without blowing open the doors of relativism. You really can. You just have to remember when you're saying "I see this, and it means something to me" as opposed to "this piece means this." You can talk about either, they're just completely different categories. Sometimes they intersect, but they don't have to.
And I feel like a moron for taking so long to realize that. Heh, oh well! Yay, learning.
-Hat tip to my friend C, who instigated this entire revelation in a three sentence conversation with me a week ago.
Sunday, December 26, 2010
On the Danger of Ideas and Good Movies: Or, How Hell Is Ourselves, and 'Inception' Helps Prove We Need a Savior
In the past week or two I've been on vacation, and by doing so, I've seen a lot of films in rapid succession. A surprising number of them have been really thought-provoking. With any luck, I'll post a handful of them here in the next little while. There's a common thread that I'm seeing in all of them. It all goes back to my old theory about "involuntary Art", or instances of Christian themes and truths emerging in secular stories.
Without further ado, here's my take on Christopher Nolan's Inception. I tried not to give too many spoilers, by only referring sideways to things, but if you're touchy about it, I highly recommend watching it first, then you won't have to worry.
Sometimes I hate it when I watch movies that actually touch me. One of the blessings of being artistic is that you're sensitive to the messages and ideas that a story is trying to tell you. That is, you're not ignorant of the fact that the medium has power. The curse of it is that sometimes you go in expecting superficial entertainment and you get hit in the head. You kinda feel like King Claudius in Hamlet when your court jesters end up driving to your room to repent. Actually, come to think of it... it's *exactly* that circumstance that I'm talking about.
There have been a handful of times in my life that I can remember where a film has really affected me. Now, I'm not talking about the times when I just really liked a character and felt inspired. I'm talking about how the film confronted something in me, or struck a chord to such an extent that it freaked me out. The first was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. The second was the PS2 video game Persona 3. The third was this evening, when I watched Inception.
I could go on explaining the personal circumstances of them, but that's not entirely my point here, and frankly I don't want to do it anyway. It's not comfortable and it isn't appropriate to do anyway. However, I do want to linger on Inception a bit and illustrate the bigger point that it shows.
The main character, through a truly vertiginous journey deeper and deeper into his subconscious, is shown his own fears. As it turns out, he's completely trapped by them. It takes another person to come and pull him out of it. That person in the film literally goes down into Hell with him and accompanies him while he confronts his own guilt so that he can come back to life. (Does this paradigm sound familiar to anyone? Hmm?)
I'd say this is another bright and shining example of Art showing up in art. Or maybe rephrasing it as Truth (with a capital T) showing up in fiction. Moreover, Truth showing up in a film that wasn't intended to be spiritual at all. Psychological? Sure; spiritual? No. This is a film where a simple and true theme was explored and as it came out, it resembled its prototype with stunning clarity. The movie has a gospel in it.
This gospel is illustrated by the main character's warning "A single thought has serious consequences. It can stick and grow, like a virus. It can settle and do all manner of damage once it's there." The story is all about what is real and what is illusion. It's about what ideas are our own, and what are suggested by external forces, and what do we do with them? It's about how we confront our own thoughts in the deepest recesses of our consciousness.
In the film, we get action and suspense and mystery, but we also see a truly tortured protagonist. We even see him, in both a literal and thematic sense, go to hell trapped there to live out a seeming eternity with only his subconsciousness. (Again, sound familiar?)
One of the other great parts of the movie is that it doesn't take the usual faux-artistic cop-out where they bring up questions but don't tell you answers. Inception demonstrates both ways to confront thoughts: The first is to avoid them in the first place... (the whole "don't go there" message.) The second is even more important. It's what we ought to do when we find ourselves trapped and weighed down by a single thought, which we may very well hate but we still harbor within us. The answer is, we can't do much of anything.
Wait, really? Yes. Really. Thoughts can be really harmful, destructive, and consuming. Even more, once they're let in, sometimes it's all but impossible to drive them out by yourself. But there's the answer, it's not by yourself at all.
It's through the help of another that we can be pulled back to sanity. In the movie, it's Ellen Page's character who helps DiCaprio's. In real life, it can be almost anyone who we let in, who we decide to trust. In spiritual terms, it's God Himself.
Thursday, December 16, 2010
Editorial note: Quite a lot has happened since my last post. I've moved cities, and with it gained a much more strenuous commuting schedule. As it turns out, this has all but eliminated my disposable free time, and with it all but wiped out my habit of carefree, philosophical musings due to the time crunch and stress of it all. However, there is a possible upswing. I've applied to two of the local conservatories and if all goes well I'll become a full-time discipulus once again! We shall see. In the meantime, I've been meaning to put this entry up for a while now. -D.A.
I find myself mumbling "Oh those Russians..." a lot these days.
There are some conductors, directors, etc. that just plain inspire you. Their skill and artistic vision are stunning to behold, and you hang on their every action to learn more and gain what wisdom you can. Meanwhile, you have a blast rehearsing and performing with them. Then there are the others. You know, the ones that do it all wrong, ask you to do stuff that you completely disagree with, and if they only sought your opinion you could tell them how their entire aesthetic is misguided and could be improved so much more if you showed them how it's done...
One of the hazards of being a artist who actually thinks and
At least, this has been my experience with a Rus
(Credits: Pablo Helguera)
In a word, the Russians are intense. After two rehearsals I've decided to coin the term "Russian Cadence," which is when the pace of a piece is slowed to 1/8th its original speed, the volume is twice as loud, and every singe note is dictated individually and freely by the conductor. (And by the way, this doesn't happen at the end, but at the end of the very first phrase. This continues to happen three or four more times throughout the piece. For the actual end, the singers will stop to breathe twice before landing, much like Wiley Coyote falling off an extra-long cliff.)
Also, Russians do not sing forte. They sing FFFORTE the likes of which will pin you to the back of your chair like mannequin in a wind-tunnel. Do not even get me started on how to follow a Russian conductor's hand signals, I've yet to figure it out...
Now, so far you've only gotten the brunt of my mockery. I'm sorry for that, but please stay with me because I do not want to end it there. You see, after a short while I realized that this wasn't just one conductor. I've come to sing under and with a handful of Russian groups lately, and it's universal. Every Russian musician I've ever encountered has this trait. I was tempted at first to write it off as weirdness. But then, ever so slowly, I saw what it really was. Something I thought I had, but turns out was sadly missing. Something very, very important for a real artist. It was passion.
The Russians really know how to make music. They don't just go through the motions. Ever.
This doesn't stop at pure music either. It's just as obvious in their worship practices. It's easy to look at Russians in church from TV or stereotypes and say they're a bunch of stodgy ritualists with no feeling. But let me tell you something: Go to an Orthodox cathedral sometime and try to tell me that after you've heard them. This August I sang at a church dedication in Albany, New York. (That's the service where they consecrate the altar with the relics of a saint and anoint the entire building.) There were 6 bishops, 25 priests, and 25 more deacons and altar servers in a domed-ceiling church gilded with gold, covered top to bottom in frescos and murals,
So back to my point, or perhaps, to conclude. I was wrong about the Russians. Oh sure, they still make me laugh a lot, and they sure are weird at times. But they know a lot more about doing things from the heart than I do. And I hope I can learn a thing or two more from them before I'm done. Maybe I can take up their example and sing with a bit more gusto when I get the chance.
Thursday, June 10, 2010
It all started, as it sometimes does, with The Atlantic's article "Is Google Making Us Stupid?" by Nicholas Carr.
It was pretty trendy a little while ago. The basic premise being that our recent obsession with digital media is changing our brains...bigtime. Especially our attention spans and our expectations for instant quality and quantity. I was reminded of it again when the other day he was on NPR for a great debate over the topic. On the one hand, you had him saying "unplug" we're losing out by being so digitized. His opponent kept saying "no way, this stuff is cool!!"
I have to straight-up agree with Carr in a lot of ways. (I'll go back and show how I also liked the other guy's view later...but first, Carr.) You can see his argument in a lot more than just the Internet, too. Just today, I was fiddling on my iPod a bit, absent-mindedly switching through song after song, looking for one that struck my fancy... and I stopped.
It occurred to me that 10 years ago the very idea of this was ludicrous. To jump from Beethoven, to Aerosmith, to the soundtrack to Fiddler on the Roof...so quickly in such rapid succession... you'd need a massively expensive CD-disc changer, and even then your level of control was much less. But now, it's considered completely "normal" to be bored because you can't find the exact song that fulfills your momentary whim. And once the song is halfway over and you've had your moment, you can skip to the next one and start the cycle all over again.
It just makes you stop and say "wait a minute." Especially when you catch yourself being bored or annoyed that you have a whole 15 minutes of time where you're not entertained or bombarded with distraction. While I think it's fair to say the modern world has been headed this way for a good while now, in the past decade or so we've really outdone ourselves.
This is where step two comes in. This evening I picked up my copy of Heretics by G. K. Chesterton. (The one I mentioned in a previous post with the really nice cover, hidden by the bad dust jacket.) In the chapter I happen to pick up, it mentioned a quote by Lord Byron, that there are two types of people in the world "bores" and "the bored." But Chesterton goes on to say that it's the "bores, "that is, the boring people, are the ones with virtue, and it's the "bored" who are the real fools to be pitied. In the following pages he goes on to explain that there is no such thing as a boring object, only an uninterested person observing it. His point was that everything has meaning and interest, it's our fault if we don't see it. That sent up red flags in my head, considering what had happened earlier with the Carr essay, then the iPod...
...but wait, there's more. I was also listening to an old favorite lecture by John Granger, talking about the Orthodox Christian view of education (and with it a very healthy dose of apt criticism against the contemporary public school system). In it, he says one of the most important things to do is "kill your TV," because it's a non-stop wave of commercials and superficiality. At this point, I'm starting to sense a pattern...
But... I love the Internet. (I like my TV a lot, too.) Because it has stories on it. I like how I can learn about the Ming dynasty, then the French Revolution, then the works of Lewis Carrol, then who knows what... I love being able to post these blog entries and have a venue to put these little essays down. So I'm left to wonder, what's the balance here? I also see the ways that I spend way too much time starring into this screen rather than doing something physical. I see ways which it can trap someone. Most recently, I've really felt how it's sapped my attention span.
I think I have an answer though. Much like what Chesterton brought up, it's not about bad things so much as it is about bad people (ok, it's a stretch, but follow me). The Internet in itself is a great tool, but it's when we feel entitled to it, when we're tied to it, that it starts to kill us. It's the difference between the prince and the pauper. The prince who was raised in luxury is a stuck-up and over-pampered louse, when he had to work in the real world, he was indignant. The pauper who is allowed one day in the palace experiences every wonder he'd ever imagined, and was enjoyed himself and responded in gratitude.
So. The Internet. The iPod. The TV. The Cell Phone. All great stuff, with great potential. But danger too. We have to remember that this technology is a blessing, not a right. It's a wonder, not the baseline of our existence. If you can see it that way, it will be a tool which can aid you to incredible heights. If you don't and just let your passions roam free, then you'll just be a tool.
Friday, May 14, 2010
It all started with this little posting on the Atlantic. If you have time I highly recommend you read it then follow the rabbit hole that it presents. But in short the commentator was arguing against Roger Ebert's criticism against video games being medium of Art. He was in turn responding to a TED presentation asserting that very fact.
Now some of you know I hold some pretty strong opinions on these matters. I was thinking of writing some responses to any number of these articles, but I can't. There's just too many points to jump off of. But just for the sake of getting them off my chest, I'm going to rattle off a few comments:
1. Both the Atlantic article and the TED presentation annoy me just a little bit. Although the authors have the right rationale to pursue the point, the examples picked are really pretty flimsy in my mind... I especially disagree with the Wikipedia definition of Art that was used as the backbone of the TED presentation. I almost yelled at my computer screen when I read it the first time...
2. Roger Ebert is completely off-base in his criticisms against video games... but his snarky tone doesn't make me even want to argue against it. So I'm just gonna shrug, say he's wrong, and walk away.
Alright, now I've directly addressed those entries, but I'm not quite done yet. It's left me with a little more to think about.
How do you argue whether something is good art or not? Even side-stepping the challenge of agreeing on a single definition... let's just take a step back. I'd say it all comes down to the same question you'd ask of anything. Did it work?
In other words, when you looked at this alleged work of art, did it work? Did it do what it was supposed to? Once you start asking that question, then I think you're not only on to a feasible definition, but you've saved yourself from meaningless banter and gotten down to the question of why.
Looping this back to what I started with: I argue, quite assertively, that video games are Art. (Or rather, can be.) Why? Because I'm playing one right now that works.
I'm in the middle of a game right now (Persona, the Sin Megami Tensei Japanese RPG series) which does everything art should be doing.
-It inspires me to want to do things differently in my own life, to improve, strive, etc.
-It makes me reflect on themes in my life that go unnoticed sometimes.
-It generates empathetic feelings in me for the protagonists, their struggles, and wanting to know if they succeed in the end.
-It generates an aesthetic sense of wonder or fascination at the world it describes/creates.
-It also makes me uncomfortable at times because of it's edgy-ness, either when it hits too close to home, or takes the right idea and goes the wrong way.
I'd challenge anybody to take that list of pre-requisites and say that's not Art doing art's thing.
With that I rest my case. Not by dismantling the essays above, though I still could if somebody wanted to get into it, but by appealing to experience. I find in this case, and in a lot of cases with Art and Stories, it's just better that way.
So how about next time you judge a book, don't judge it by it's front cover, whether it looks like a novel, or a comic book, but judge it by the last page, or better yet, the back cover. Once you close it, take a second to see what it did to you.
Judge by that.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
In the very first entry of The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis describes an incident where a person's mind was on the cusp of enlightenment, where really important ideas were coming up. This, of course, was met by resistance from Screwtape, his personal demon. I'll just go ahead and put the excerpt below:
"I struck instantly at the part of the man which I had best under my control, and suggested that it was just about time he had some lunch. The Enemy presumably made the countersuggestion ... that this was far more important than lunch. At least I think that must have been His line, for when I said, 'Quite. In fact much too important to tackle at the end of a morning,' the patient brightened up considerably; and by the time I had added 'Much better come back after lunch and go into it with a fresh mind,' he was already halfway to the door. Once he was in the street the battle was won. I showed him a news-boy shouting the midday paper, and a No. 73 bus going past, and before he reached the bottom of the steps I had got into him an unalterable conviction that, whatever odd ideas might come into a man's head when he was shut up alone with his books, a healthy dose of 'real life' (by which he meant the bus and the newsboy) was enough to show him that all 'that sort of thing' just couldn't be true."This little episode really tells the whole story of what I want to talk about in this entry. In fact, it can be summed up in an even simpler line a few paragraphs above that quote:
"...You don't realize how enslaved they are to the pressure of the ordinary..."
---My run with MetroWest in The Magic Flute is over, except for two abbreviated productions on Friday and a cast party. While I don't doubt I'll work with them again, this run is finished. A well-meaning friend at lunch today told me, "I bet your relieved now that it's done." My response was something along the lines of "not exactly, but yes, things are quieter now." But really, I have to confess that was out of politeness.
To be more direct and honest, I hate this part of the life-cycle of a show. Doing a staged production is not the same as finishing a painting or successfully writing a paper. Nor is it anything like surviving some kind of ordeal, though we certainly stress ourselves out in the process, that I'll admit. In theater and music, it's the process itself which brings the most fulfillment. Music and theater exist in the moment they're being performed. Afterward, they're gone and only memories. (Don't get me started on recordings. Those are downright painful for artists most of the time...)
I'll let you in on a secret. I have a theory about actors... we don't have cast parties to celebrate. We have cast parties to grieve. Oh sure, we revel in our accomplishments, but on a deep subliminal level, we get together one last time to look around and see those we worked with and it gives us a chance to say good-bye. If we're fortunate we'll work with them again. We usually hope for just that, but it's not a guarantee.
---The word "inspiration" comes from the Latin root "to breathe life into." We also have the word "spirit" from the same source. Good art, and especially good theater, inspires.
By now you're starting to wonder why I've gone off on this tangent so suddenly after just introducing C.S. Lewis... well, there's more to the end of a show than just the nostalgic realization that it's over. Both for the actor and for the audience.
If art were just a momentary thing, it wouldn't be worth putting the energy into. Come to think of it, you could probably draw the line right there in differentiating Art from Entertainment. No matter how expertly done, one is purely for a moment's pleasure. The other leaves you with something. Or, more accurately, it can.
Doing this past production has left me with a lot of inspirational thoughts and ideas. I'm happy to report that while doing this show I've had a number of my little intellectual prejudices challenged. I've also found that I don't know nearly as much about the art form as I thought I did. I also know that I want to make up for that by doing more. This is what leads me to C.S. Lewis.
The man in that little story had a moment of choice. He could take the inspirational idea that hit him, whatever it was, and run with it... or he could shrug it off and go on with his "real" life. I think it especially helps in this example to point out that a) his inspirational thought was Divinely encouraged and b) that the word life was in quotes for a reason.
In that incident, he chose the latter, and was far the worse for it.
I can even hear that voice in the back of my own head right now. It's saying "oh yes, but wouldn't that be something. Everyone always running off, following half-realized fantasies at their first appearance. Nothing would get done and we'd all just be mad fools." Which is a fair point, but I'm not advocating running-off at every suggestion.
I am advocating that we take a second look at those inspirational ideas we get at the end of good shows. I can't use the phrase "it's safe to say..." because it decidedly isn't a safe suggestion. But I think it's a good one.
So here's the choice: At the end of an artistic show. Is it an ending? Or is it an ending and a beginning?