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

Feeling the Burn: Or, How the Russians Taught Me to Love Music...

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...

Or, at least that's how it feels inside when you're working with them at the moment.

One of the hazards of being a artist who actually thinks and
creates, is that you'll inevitably develop your own style, your own preferences, and most sacrosanct of all, your own opinions of how things should be. This means that frequently you'll find gigs or other artists who rub that the wrong way. The first reaction is usually that rant above. If you hang in there, however, often you'll be surprised what you learn once that first wave of "Hey, this is different and therefore bad!!" wears off.

At least, this has been my experience with a Rus
sian conductor I've been performing with lately. (Actually, it's felt more like the Russians have been stalking me lately... but more of that maybe later.) If you have no prior experiences with Russian musicians or performers, allow me to illustrate it in one little cartoon.

(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.
They (gasp) actually allow themselves to express their emotions in the moment of art. Whether it's a four-bar phrase or an entire oratorio. Whether its a folk song or an opera aria, they burn into it. Here in the Boston musical scene, especially the trained classical scene, we're taught to be precise and professional. So we're neat and tidy, and record well on CDs. But this comes with a bit of a price, that of detachment. Now it doesn't have to be this way, and I'd bet money the teachers aren't promoting this, but it's a serious risk. It's one I know I've fallen into often.

So when the time came to perform in front of an audience under this Russian director, contrary to my first impressions of "what have I gotten myself into!?", I was extremely humbled and found myself asking "how did I manage to get myself into such a great performance?" If I could muster half that excitement for the music I sing... well, I don't even know what would happen, but it sure as anything would be leaps and bounds in a better direction than I am now.

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,
singing at the top of their lungs for 3 hours straight, only to get up and sing another 5 hours the next morning. Now that was something.

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

To Plug or Un-plug: Or, Rediscovering the Wonder and Privilege of Our Technology

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 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

Going by What Works: Or, Judging a Book by Its Back Cover...

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

On Endings and Beginnings: Or, fighing the tyrrany of "real life"

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?

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Back to School: Or, rethinking restaging

I first have to come out and say I'm not usually a fan of "updating" performances. I have a decidedly conservative streak when it comes to reworking scripts.

I usually have two reasons behind this tendency. The first is that I'm not in favor of change for change's sake (which, I suppose, is a good enough definition of conservatism no matter what area you're talking about...). The second is that one often has to do some 'square peg, round hole' work to make it all fit when you mess with the setting. In my humble opinion, it doesn't always work and I think the impulse should be resisted unless you have a really good reason.

I especially dislike it when productions insert new or modern themes that weren't there originally... but that's a whole 'nother post.

All that introductory ranting aside, I've come to find my resolve on this issue getting much weaker. I've seen and performed in quite a few shows now that really pulled off the new setting well. A few years ago when I went to London for a theater study, I read a brilliant essay introducing light and scene design theory, which uses things like light, costuming and setting to reinforce the story's dominant themes and metaphors.

This may be obvious to some of you, but it sure was new to me when I first started. (By the way, if you really want to take this idea and run with it, pay close attention to film soundtracks the next time you go to one...but now I'm digressing) Back to the topic...

This production of the Magic Flute is definitely the best re-staging I've worked on thusfar. By putting it in a 1920s boarding school, all the weird abstract metaphors now have concrete meanings. Tamino's "trials of fire and water" are actual events where he has to face peer pressure and become a man of virtue. The three spirits are upperclassmen who know how to guide those under them in how it's done. Not to mention the fact that for about 20 years, the school building is the fundamental setting of all our "trials" in life. I especially like the fact that the "savage beasts" of the original storyline are portrayed by the Jocks. If that isn't the most apt metaphorical re-staging I've ever seen, I'll buy you a Coke.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

On Acting: Or, how you can't always fake it 'till you make it...

Holding off on the literary criticism for a bit, I wanted to share an interesting little experience I had in rehearsal last night...

Sarastro, my character, is in the same class as people like Dumbledore in Harry Potter, Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, or Nelson Mandela in Invictus. In other words, he has serious amounts of prestige, authority and power, but also expresses it gently and humanely. This is a pretty easy concept to grasp and very easy to spot on stage. It's also, as it turns out, very hard to produce... that is to say, hard to produce when you don't have it.

Authority is one of those tricky things. It's subtle. It's a subtext. It's when your posture, your tone of voice, and your very being project a blazing confidence that you are in control. As my staging coach mentioned in rehearsal, it's a lot different from exerting and posturing power over others. It's much more about the awareness that you could.

This is all well and good, and I could write pages explaining the concept. However, something else came up last night... see, I'm younger than most of the cast, new at this level of performance, and generally have been out of my element wandering around rehearsal spaces in the city after rushing there from work. All this put together, plus a few inner personal life issues, and it turns out Steve doesn't have a lot of that inner confidence that needs to be showcased. This makes acting the role rather hard.

Now, this is not going to turn into an emotive post. I'm not writing this to say "hey everyone look at me the emo kid who feels intimidated." Not at all. In fact, I found that very authority-reservoir within myself a bit more on my 10 minute walk back to my car that night, when I was listening to my iPod music and was more in my element...

...But it just served to illustrate pretty clearly to me that acting isn't all, well, acting. In a lot of cases, the only reason actors can pull of what they're doing on the stage is because they're not faking it. They're drawing on their own experiences, their own inner reserves, to go to that place (or show that emotion, or whatever) in the fake environment on the stage. It's the setting that's fictitious, not the actions.

If you think about that, there are huge connotations and implications on the nature of acting, or watching someone act, and the effect of it all on us as people.

For one thing, it raises the bar as to what you are messing with if the material is controversial or disturbing...
For another, it also holds more potential for the actor to discover things about himself or grow in the process of "taking on" a role. Indeed, more than that, it makes the euphemism "taking on a role" really mean something fairly concrete.

Often when coaching someone in public speaking or beginning any position of authority, it's often said "fake it 'till you make it". That points to the fact that we learn by doing more than we learn, then do it. But there's also a flip side to that little phrase... and I think that sometimes it may more true to say that you can't fake it until you've made it.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Introducing the Magic Flute: Or, here we go again, Steve is in a show...

Now that the production of The Magic Flute by MetroWest Opera is kicking into full gear, I've finally had the chance to dig into the story some more and I'm really surprised by how many things I've found in it that I like. (Particularly since the work when staged with its original text and setting is a rather bizarre surrealist Freemason allegory.)

Fortunately the directors of MetroWest are taking a few moves out of the modern theater playbook and are playing fast and loose with it to make it a bit more enjoyable. On most occasions, I'd balk at such things, but in this case, I think it works. We've gotten rid of a lot of the misogynistic and racists spots and with my own few subversive tweaks here and there, there's almost nothing objectionable to it now. In fact, since the plot is admittedly vague and uses a lot of generic symbols (light and darkness, vanity and virtue, "righteousness"...) I'm finding plenty to think and write about while working with it. I hope to share a few of those in the next couple of weeks.

Here's a quick run-down for those of you who don't know the story, so I don't lose anybody later in my musings...

Tamino, a noble and enthusiastic brave lad, is rescued by the servants of the Queen of the Night from a tight spot with a giant dragon... they in turn recruit him to rescue the Queen's daughter Pamina, who has been kidnapped by the ominous Sarastro. Tamino, seeing her picture, is all for it and marches off...along with the help of a goofy and cowardly man named Papageno, a bird catcher with a weird costume. Oh yes, and in order to help them accomplish their mission, they're given a Magic Flute and some Magic Bells.

Once they come to the gates of Sarastro's temple, they are blocked from entering by the guards. There the guards inform Tamino that he was deceived, that Sarastro is actually the paragon of goodness and the queen is evil.

After meeting Sarastro himself and being shown the error of his ways, Tamino agrees to undergo the Three Trials (cue thunder clap and rumble), become an initiate of the Temple of Wisdom (cue angelic choir and shiny lights), and generally rise to the status of brave and upright manly man... the process, the evil queen is vanquished, a sketchy servant is foiled, Tamino gets the girl, Pagageno gets a wife, and lots of pyrotechnics are used.

Next entry I'll talk a little about the big themes that get worked out in the story, and maybe the big ideas of each character... in other words, why we care about such an odd story.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Christ Is Risen!

Indeed He is Risen!

Thy Resurrection, O Christ our Savior, the angels in heaven sing. Enable us on earth to glorify Thee with purity of heart!

Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life!

This is the day of Resurrection! Let us be radiant, o ye people! Pascha, the sacred Pascha of the Lord! From death to life, and from earth to heaven Christ our God has raised us who sing this hymn of victory!

Come, let us drink not drawn from a barren stone but the Fountain of Life, springing forth from the tomb of Christ, in whom we are established!

Divinely speaking Habakuk, now stands with us in vigil, and brings to light an angel saying Christ is risen as all powerful.

Let us arise in the dawn and instead of myrrh offer a hymn to the Lord, and we shall behold Christ, the Sun of Righteousness, who causes life to dawn on all.

Thou didst descend into the nether regions of the earth, O Christ, and didst shatter the eternal bars which held the prisoners captive, and like Jonah from the sea-monster, after three days Thou didst arise from the grave.

He Who delivered the Children from the furnace, and became man and suffers as mortal, and through suffering clothes mortality with the beauty of incorruption, is the only blessed and most glorious God of our fathers.

This is the chosen and holy day, the first of Sabbaths, the Sovereign and Queen of Days. The Feast of Feasts, Holy day of Holy Days, on which let us bless Christ forevermore.

Magnify, O my soul, Christ the Lifegiver, Who rose form the grave of the third day!

-The Matins Canon of Pascha

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Methinks Thou Protest Too Much: or, how conservative critics often miss the point by being too detail-oriented

Normally I eschew apologizing for long lapses of absence, but in this case I'll make an exception, sorta. And while I'm at it, I apologize for using the word "eschew" in a sentence... I swear, my language gets 5x more hypocritically high-brow when I write these things... it just kinda comes out...

At any rate, in what little time I have these days (a few operas, Lent, and a job/housing search notwithstanding) I'm working on a project to collect, organize, and synthesize all my posts and essays on the Arts from the past few years. This has been taking me away from writing new posts (because I have the lingering feeling I'm cyclically repeating old arguments without meaning to) but it's also made me want to write more, too many more in one sitting actually... so I suppose it's a pro-and-con situation.

The comments I wanted to (maybe briefly?) make tonight just to get the ball back and rolling again has to do with moderation.

In the past few months I've heard a few really great talks and essays that in their own way have collected into a single theme for me. The paradox is a familiar one, if you think about it:

1. On the one hand, the little details really do matter.
You can have a fantastic story with exciting plot points and great techniques and moments, but as I've pointed out in previous posts, if it twists the final message just a little bit, it can honestly ruin the whole thing. (For an excellent example of this sometime, get me going on the move The Matrix...but I won't get into that now, the second point coming up is more important)

2. On the other hand, almost nothing annoys me more artistically than someone who is offering criticism that goes well beyond the original scope of the work's original intentions.
I was listening to a podcast this week talking about our environmental worldview, and the speaker usually has very good points to bring up, but he's also very often overly hyperbolic in his examples, which to me, very quickly undermines the whole adventure.

Here's a case example of what I mean: The speaker was talking about going too far in our "environmental conservation" mindset that we lapse into demoting humans and their place in the world. This is a really important point. He was denouncing the kind of generic spiritual "mother earth" language that wrongfully deifies Nature. But then he brought in the film Avatar. He then went on to say that the film, through it's Native American-style spiritual content, was promoting a dangerous pantheistic religious worldview which was also suggesting that the only real sollution to man's pollution of the planet is to evict humanity from it. Now I'm gonna stop right there and say, "no it doesn't."

For the record, the film was proposing an fictional alternate ending to the tragedy of the Native American conquest. Yes, it was environmentally based. But the world of Pandora was a direct metaphor for the New World, aka North America. It wasn't saying we ought to take Earth and ship out our people to space. That's just the kind of analysis that goes too far which I'm speaking against here.

From here I want to take one step back and address one more broader point, one that some of you have heard me say many times before... Sometimes for a story to be effective and true to itself, it has to contain elements which are in themselves ...not ideal. In this case, the film contained a Native American style spirituality. Obviously a Christian observer would not endorse converting to animism when (s)he extols the film's environmental message. Would the story even work if the Navi had a monotheistic religion that looked surprisingly like Christianity? This sound ludicrous, but I almost feel like I have to go this far to counteract the points I hear a lot. This is the essence of the whole anti-Harry Potter mania that came out of the Religious Right.

It comes down to misunderstanding a very important rule of Art: In fiction, not every element is a 1-to-1 parallel to the real world.

So a balance has to be made. And I'll admit, it's a tricky balance. The first half of the paradox still stands. Details do matter. If those little elements do manage to push the final message over an edge, then it has to be called out. But let's not go nuts here. Especially when we're talking about art which is made by non-Christians.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Life, Digital Life and Dangerous Art: Or, why I just might keep watching Caprica…

Today I came home and sat down to check online for episodes from a few of my regular shows. I don’t have cable, and so I’m at the mercy of channels that post “rewind” courtesy episodes on their websites. Fortunately, most of the shows I watch do so. In the process, I stumbled upon Caprica, the prequel spin-off to the recently finished Battlestar Galactica run. At first I told myself I wouldn’t get into that show, because I didn’t care for the way they were teasing it on the trailers. But since the pilot was still posted, I thought I’d give it a chance.

Without spoiling anything too drastically, the setting is a world basically like our own, though with some really interesting twists (classical Greek polytheism meets late 20th-century religious cynicism for one). The premise is still really vague and mysterious, but it seems to be that a teenage girl designed an artificial intelligence, which due to being misunderstood and abused by humankind, will eventually go “bad” and become the Cylon badguy of Battlestar.

Ok, forgive me for the dry Science Fiction, but I had to give some context. What sparked my attention was how aptly it addresses the idea of the Internet and technology in today's world (as any good sci-fi should). There’s a line where the intelligent program is defending herself as a real person and she lists-off how people leave lots more than just "footprints" online. Credit card purchases, photos, journal entries, newspaper archives, medical records… in short, biological and psychological profiles...

Here's where my attention really got caught...

While I was watching this show, I was also on something of a mission. My good friend is getting married soon, and she wanted a picture of my tuxedo. I didn’t have one, but I knew other people did. This led me to manually searching through the Facebook picture archives of a dozen of my old College Choir alumni friends, looking for candid and performance shots with our short-coats. That in itself led me to pause for a moment or two.

With only a little premise, I could easily dig through 6+ years of many, many people’s lives. Moreover, thanks to the friends-of-friends feature and people’s penchant for posting large amounts of personal information and photos online, I found that if I wanted to, I could probably reconstruct a decent outline of the last decade of the lives of complete strangers.

Without trying, and in a very real way, I’d proven the very point of the episode. Science fiction to social commentary, just like that. This also seems to resonate with my last post, where I reflected a little bit on the dominant metaphor of the film Avatar. (The movie audience vicariously lives the story by technology the same way the character lived in an avatar.)

Where am I going with this? I mostly wanted to bring up the situation anecdotally, share the moment of coincidence and just say “hey creepy.” I also wanted to plug Caprica, because despite how disturbing the show’s producers can get, they touch on some really apt themes and messages that are worth looking at.

But it also leaves me with something of an open-ended question too, which I might pursue in later posts. There are a lot of shows out there that are pretty powerful because they touch on real questions. But it’s also important to be really aware of what answers are being put forth.

For the past few years I’ve written and advocated that valuable artistic engagement is based not so much on aesthetics (whether it’s pretty) but more on the validity of its thematic content (whether it’s true). I’ve since come to learn the hard way that such a philosophy is a bit dangerously na├»ve. It’s not just whether the question is valid, you also have to see how they’re answering the questions.

These days I give my compliments to television producers. They’re asking better questions than they used to. It used to just be drama for emotion’s sake and comedy sit-coms for the masses. Now they’re delving into stuff. Bravo. But some of their solutions have been far from wholesome. I got caught in the middle of it for a while…still do sometimes. And I’m curious to see what Caprica brings up.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

The Fickle Avatar, or why a movie can be simple but still good

Editors note: I appologize for the rambling nature of this one, it's been a long while since I've written here, so I'm out of practice, and I have a lot of divergent thoughts spinning in my head at the moment. So please take the ideas as more underdeveloped than I'd wish...

So I have to admit two things up front:

1. I loved James Cameron's Avatar
2. I'm really really tired of people ragging on the movie.

I keep hearing the same complaints over and over again, the plot is too simplistic, the story is nieve...etc. Well, I'm going to try my best to avoid being snippy about all this, but I'll put out here right now my thoughts on those ideas. I'm reminded of Johannes Brahms' comments when a music critic remarked how his 1st Symphony was awfully similar to Beethoven's 9th. (For those of you who aren't music nerds, his response was "Any @#$( can see that.")

His point? The same as mine: Get over it.

Dear critics, you think you can do better, try yourself to make a movie that makes more money. (Oh yeah, and by the way, last time I checked, it's the highest grossing film ever, not counting inflation.)

Ok. My little hissyfit is over. Thanks for being patient with me. Now on to some real comments about it.

1. A simple plot, a simple message.
I don't have a problem with simple plots. The message was straightforward. It's a thinly veiled allegory or parable for how we did some serious damage to the Native Americans. And we really did. Sometimes I think this really gets lost on my generation. We hear about it so much we're really cynical. So instead we deride any depiction of "over-utopian" views of Indian life before the big bad colonists came along. That's a defense mechanism on our part. It doesn't change the fact that we still haven't come to grips with the fact that as a civilization we came in and erradicated another one. I'm not saying we can undo it, but I don't think we can ignore it either.

While on that note, I think it's also worth mentioning that other than the historical theme, the basic pro-environmental view is also worth looking at. This is where religious people start tweaking out and getting fidgety. "It's promoting pantheism!" They decry. I say no it's not, really. It's depicting a society that saw their connection with Nature as a whole. They gave it an theomorphic name. (And by the way, they hid it behind science quite directly too, noticing the rather high-caliber biological explanations for their religious attitudes.) It's not really my aim to get on a high-horse on that one, I just felt like mentioning it.

2. Bigger and deeper things

For those of you who still don't like my defense of the plot's simplicity, then here are two much deeper elements that nobody seems to notice or talk about. The avatars themselves... they present quite an interesting metaphor. The use of digital technology to lead a person to eventually come to a much deeper appreciation and harmony with nature? Critics seem to look at that as hypocracy. I see it as a very subtle and deep irony. Moreover, it's a metaphor for what we're doing as audience members.

The film is most famous for its "groundbreaking" 3D technology. In essence, we're emersing ourselves into the reality of the film as deeply as our technology can go, so much that our nervous systems are being tricked into thinking we're surrounded by the sensory experiences of the world on the screen... Hmmm, does that sound...familiar?

That's the whole point of films. In video games, we use that very word, avatar, to describe our virtual projections into the created worlds. Some are highly critical of this. To keep it in the movie, let's look even deeper. The main character, through his avatar, comes to a deeper understanding of nature, it's what brings him to his crisis moment. However, interestingly enough, in the "simplistic plot" the avatar isn't enough. Eventually, he has to go through a deeper change that more fundamentally transcends his false-interface. If he's going to internalize and live out the lessons his technology taught him, he eventually has to go beyond just using that technology as a tool... I'd say that's a fairly nuanced and profound way of saying we can use our media to teach us lessons, but it's not just escapism, we need to actually change ourselves. That doesn't seem too superficial to me.

The second thread I won't go too deeply into, I think I've already touched on a lot so far. But if you're curious, I'd say look at just how many blazingly Christian metaphors are within the story. Conversion and Baptism/Resurrection in particular. My point is just this...

The plot may have been "predictable," but it wasn't meant to be a mystery...
It didn't present any original story twists, because it was essentially relating a true (rather that original) story...
The storyline might have been "simple," but its very ontological metaphors and secondary meanings go much deeper than anyone is giving it credit for.

I, for one, am going to see it again.