Things left Unseen

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This is something I’ve mentioned before a few times in conversation: I saw The Passion of the Christ before it got overworked.

One of the missteps that is easy to make as an artist is not knowing where to stop. By working too much detail into a drawing or painting, you can end up losing focus even as you draw more clarity into the work. Many current realist painters do this, ending up with stiff, staged-looking images that would benefit from a lighter touch on the elements that aren’t essential.

I saw Mel Gibson’s flawed masterpiece at an advance screening before he had completed the movie. The music wasn’t all in place and special effects were incomplete. It was unlike any other movie on Jesus that I had seen: Christ was depicted as the ideal man rather than being given the usual cinematic treatment which either makes him look as otherworldly as an alien or as stiff as a pious holy card. It was bracing and exciting.

When I saw the movie again, it was in the theater. CGI blood and gore were thrown in during the scourging scene. Ineffectively animated demons jumped from the shadows at Judas. It all distracted from the story and veered into lurid territory. Gibson overworked it.

The Passion of the Christ is still a very powerful movie that is well worth watching. But it would have been better if it had left a few things unseen, if Mel Gibson had restrained himself a little, so as to draw people into the essential center of the story.

Roger Scruton and Beauty: Where Do We Go from Here?

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Over the past week I watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters”. It is a refreshing look at objective standards of artistic beauty, why beauty is important to humanity, the corrosive societal effects that occur when we reject the beautiful in favor of the purely functional, and how making art into a subjective experience that relies on the conceptual rather than the perceptual devalues artistic talent.

You should watch it. It’s very good.

But here’s a bit of a “however”. When Scruton does get around to showing some current art that he does like (sculpture and architecture), it’s all of the sort that is consciously attempting to recreate an earlier era. Sure—that kind of art is objectively better than whatever Damien Hirst has decided to show up with, and requires a great deal of skill and training. But much of that sort of thing ends up coming off as a recreation of a specific time, and thereby appearing artificial. For sculpture and painting, many of the new artistic traditionalists being promoted by organizations like the Art Renewal Center tend to produce work that looks like it came from the 19th century academic school of painting, a very specific and rather rigid system that Impressionism was largely a reaction to. In architecture, many of the new traditionalists are also more interested in designing buildings that are in a pretty static mode.

This isn’t to knock the traditional methods and the learning of them. I’m just asking what we’re doing with those skills. I’ve benefited greatly from learning traditional artistic anatomy, figure drawing, and composition—from a school I found through the Art Renewal Center. Yet, I remember having a conversation with one of my (very traditional) art teachers where he lamented that many of the new traditional painters were content with producing what he called “warm-up studies” (academic nudes mostly) without going further to use that talent to tell stories or interpret the world around them.

Maybe this is part of a new tradition taking traditional art and rebooting it to the standards of a hundred and fifty years ago. But if that’s the case, I hope it starts developing into something more interesting, organic, and fresh than it is at present.

 

Great Films for Kids: Song of the Sea

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Animator Tomm Moore’s vision is the vision of old Irish folktales, where saints and heroes, fairies and angels, monsters and missionaries comingle in stories and legend. His first film, The Secret of Kells, is a fanciful and wondrous imagining of the creation of the Book of Kells. His second, Song of the Sea, is inspired by legends of the selkies: mythological creatures who can change from seal to human and back again by slipping in and out of a seal skin.

While on the surface Song of the Sea is about Irish mythology, the themes are deeper and more universal. Like the Japanese master Hayao Miyazaki, Moore is interested in using traditional folklore as the palette with which to draw a portrait of distinctly human struggles. Though it contains echoes of The Wizard of Oz, The Secret of Roan Inish, and Ponyo, Song of the Sea is something truly different.

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Using the same type of flat (but lush) storybook character design and background painting as Kells, Song of the Sea tells the story of young Ben and his little sister Saoirse (pronounced Seer-sheh). When Ben was a toddler, his mother disappeared into the sea beyond the lighthouse his father keeps on their island home, leaving behind a baby wrapped in a seal skin. Ben’s father, Conor, has refused to talk much about the event, saving his grief for the times he is alone. Saoirse is now six and is still unable to talk, much to Ben’s irritation.

When Granny comes to visit, she’s appalled at what she considers to be dangerous conditions the children are living in. Matters are made worse that night when Saoirse finds the seal skin hidden in a box, puts it on, and makes her way down to the sea. Granny’s mind is made up: the children must come live with her in the city, leaving behind their beloved lighthouse and sheepdog, Cú.

The adventure really starts once the children reach the city. An encounter with fairy folk sets off a race against time as Ben reluctantly has to shoulder responsibilities that could have life or death consequences for his little sister—and wider implications for everyone.

As in The Secret of Kells, the mythology and Catholic faith of Ireland serve as a framework for a story with large themes. Is grief something to leave unaddressed? Can we ignore our past and traditions without causing harm to the future? Can healing come to those who avoid confronting pain?

A pivotal moment in the film sums up the richness of Irish folk traditions, when brother and sister take shelter in a holy well—a place that has both folkloric and Christian overtones. Surrounded by candles and statues of the Virgin Mary, the children make a decisive step toward resolving the crisis they face.

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In an interview, the director said that the inspiration for the film came from a holiday trip to the beach with his family. While walking near the water they came upon dead seals. When he asked a local woman about it, she told him that fifty years ago the seals would never have been killed, since the people would still have half-believed the Selkie legends. But having left these beliefs behind fishermen were now killing the seals, blaming the animals for the poor fishing yields.

The anecdote brings to mind a passage from Joseph Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI): “The West… no longer loves itself; from now on it sees in its own history only what is blameworthy and destructive, whereas it is no longer capable of perceiving what is great and pure. In order to survive, Europe needs a new—and certainly a critical and humble—acceptance of itself, that is, if it wants to survive.” The emphasis upon what is blameworthy in the history of Western culture has led to an indifference to faith and folklore alike. But there can be antidotes found—even in an animated film for children. In the two movies that Tomm Moore has made we find a powerful yet subtle celebration of the greatness of the Western culture, an appeal based upon beauty and storytelling that compels the viewer through artistic mastery, and a humble acceptance of what we have been bequeathed by those who came before us.

Song of the Sea will be released on DVD and BluRay on March 17, the feast of St. Patrick. You should be able to find it from most online retailers. Parents may want to preview before watching with sensitive younger children; includes some intense/frightening scenes.

 

Soul Gardening

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Note: I originally wrote this last year ago but didn’t have a place to put it. Now I have this blog, so here it goes. With a picture of some of the hops we grew last year!

This weekend I found a number of apples on our tree had become infested with codling moth larvae. I picked them all and discarded them—if left on the tree, the moths will reproduce and increase the infestation next year.

When we first moved into our house a few years ago, the old. neglected apple tree had sparse foliage and was covered with small, wormy fruit. The following year I began fertilizing the tree and culling apples, setting moth traps, spraying it with neem oil, and watering it regularly. We had enough apples to make cider at the end of the year. The next year the apples were bigger, and we made a large batch of apple butter.

In the front yard, we initially placed a few vegetable beds. They were overshadowed by the hedge and pollinators didn’t arrive in large enough numbers to do much of anything. The next year my wife planted wild-flowers alongside the vegetables, drawing in more pollinators. Last year I cut down the old shrubbery and uprooted it, and we had a tree removal service rip out the hedge. A fence was installed and I built three more beds where we planted corn, beans, peppers, and squash.

This year there’s more life in the yard than ever before. A pair of thrushes have made a nest in the eaves. Songbirds of varying kinds arrive to eat seeds and catch bugs. The useful insects like ladybugs have proliferated. But the work continues: almost every weekend we spend a couple of hours tending the trees, weeding, planting, fertilizing. And we can’t control catastrophes like the winter hard freeze that killed most of our winter harvest. Setbacks show up without warning.

All this has made me much more appreciative of the agricultural metaphors that are so often used in scripture. Jesus uses these terms talking about vine and branch, seed and harvest, the preparation of soil… it was easy for me to see this as more of a static image of the Church before. We have the right disposition, the faith grows. Problem solved. But as Christ’s audience no doubt knew at the time, the metaphors he’s giving imply years of hard work, setbacks and disasters, and constant work before real fruitfulness is in evidence. Cultivating faith can never come with a “quick fix”. And even a well-tended garden can be damaged overnight in ways that take a long time to recover from.

It’s tempting to be impatient and demand results right away. Oftentimes this is what happens within parishes by gung-ho volunteers or among people involved in other Catholic endeavors. But that’s not how it happens. Like the garden, you’re going to see a bud here, a flower there—along with not a few plants that wither and die. People will offer you supposed miracle products to speed up the process. But slow diligence will be the only way of making things pay off, and of creating a healthy, diverse ecosystem.

 

Great Films for Kids: The Secret of Kells

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If the world is going to ruin, what is the purpose of creating beautiful things? That’s a question you might find interwoven in the plot of an art film aimed at adults. But here it is in a movie for kids. And it’s better expressed here than in many other works, precisely because the simplicity and purity of the story allows the art to speak for itself.

The Secret of Kells is one of the most beautifully animated films of the past decade. Directed by Irish animator Tomm Moore, it’s a retelling of the origins of the Book of Kells.

The plot: Brendan is a twelve-year-old boy being brought up in the walled Abbey of Kells by his uncle, the stern abbot. The threat of invasion by Norsemen hangs heavily over the community. The abbot leads the way as monks and laymen work feverishly to build a wall to keep invaders out. Outside the abbey there are hints that the dark side of Irish paganism may not be altogether banished from the land.

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And then Brother Aidan arrives with his book and cat.

Brother Aidan is an illuminator who escaped from the community of Iona after it was sacked by the Vikings. He brings tales of St. Columcille as well as the unfinished Book of Iona, an elaborate and beautiful book of the gospels. Brendan is fascinated by the work of illumination and is soon assisting Aidan despite opposition from his uncle.

The Abbot cannot see the worth in creating art while the threat of invasion is urgently at hand. He discourages work on the book, deeming it a distraction. But Brendan and Brother Aidan persist, even getting assistance from a forest spirit, Aisling.

In traditional Irish and English folklore, spirits and fairies are beings that fall somewhere between humans and demons. They certainly aren’t Christian, but some of them are benevolent to a degree. Aisling is a benevolent spirit. She doesn’t quite understand what the humans are doing, but she’s willing to help. She’s also willing to put herself in danger to protect Brendan from evil spirits and Viking marauders.

Hand-drawn animation has all-but disappeared from the American movie world. Tomm Moore seems determined to show the unique possibilities of the genre. The perspective of the world in The Secret of Kells is flattened, as if all of the action were playing out upon a literal page. The character design and backgrounds are inspired by Celtic illuminations and art; the motion suggested by the intricate knotted and scrolling artwork in the Book of Kells is here interpreted on screen in animated form unlike any other movie I’ve seen. Moore knows just how to subvert expectations and break the conventions of traditional animation in order to give freshness and newness to 2D animation. Despite being discarded in favor of 3D computer animation by most studios, traditional hand-drawn still has the ability to make you gasp in wonder, especially when handled by such a masterful director.

It’s only at the very end of the film when, along with the now aged Abbot, we are allowed a glimpse of the full beauty of the Book. The magnificent Chi-Rho page fills the screen and comes alive, a bridge across the centuries demonstrating that artistic beauty has the ability to transcend time and place.

(Note: this movie does include a few intense scenes of implied violence. My kids did okay with these, but if you have sensitive little ones, maybe watch it first to check if they can handle it.)

Tomm Moore’s second film, The Song of the Sea, is now in theaters for a limited run and will be released on DVD/BluRay this month. I’ll be giving that movie a little write-up next week. If you want a child’s perspective on it: for quite a while The Secret of Kells was my six-year-old daughter’s favorite movie, but The Song of the Sea has now been awarded that honor.

Homeschool art idea: After watching this movie the first time I went online and found a number of coloring pages based on the Book of Kells. The book itself is also digitized and can be viewed here. We looked at the images of the actual book and then printed and colored the pages. These stayed up as decoration for St. Patrick’s Day and beyond.