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.