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.

kells

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.

“…we Christians do combat, not against, but in favor of laughter.”

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mardigras

It seems incongruous to speak of Mardi gras in a theological meditation, because it is at best only indirectly a time in the Church year. But are we not somewhat schizophrenic in this regard? On the one hand, we are only too ready to say that it is precisely in Catholic countries that Mardi gras is most at home; on the other hand, we nevertheless ignore it both spiritually and theologically. Is it, then, one of those things that as Christians we cannot condone, but as humans we cannot deny? In that case we should ask: just how human is Christianity? Granted, Mardi gras is heathen in origin: fertility cult and exorcism merge in it. But it was the Church that had to step in and speak the exorcism that banned the demons who do violence to men and destroy their happiness. Then, after the exorcism, something unexpected, something new appeared—a merrymaking that it wholly exorcises. Mardi gras is to Ash Wednesday a time of laughter before the time of penance, a time of lighthearted self-irony, whose laughter speaks a truth that may well be closely akin to that of the Lenten preacher. Thus Mardi gras, when it has been exorcised, reminds us of the words of the Old Testament preacher: “…a time to weep, and a time to laugh”. For Christians, too, it is not always a time for penance. There is likewise a time for laughter. Yes, Christian exorcism has routed the masked demons and replaced them by the laughter that has been exorcised. All of us know how far removed from this ideal our present Mardi gras often is; how frequently it is mammon and its henchmen that reign there. That is why we Christians do combat, not against, but in favor of laughter. To struggle against demons and to laugh with those who laugh—these are inseparably united. The Christian has no need to be schizophrenic: Christian Faith is truly human.

—Joseph Ratzinger, from the book Co-Workers of the Truth

Method Addiction

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If you’ve ever been part of any subset of society that shares similar end goals, you often find that for some people—maybe even yourself at times—the method that gets you to the end goal can become an end in itself if you let it. As a designer and artist, I see it among people who swear upon certain specific grid systems or interpretations of the golden ratio. As a Catholic, you find it among people to adhere to specific spiritual practices: charismatics or traditionalists or advocates for Divine Mercy, etc. Adhering to a particular method is of paramount importance, and anyone who doesn’t see the brilliance of that method is doing it all wrong.

Why is this? I think it’s because we all trust personal experience more than anything else. Our personal experience tells us that this method works for us, hence it is valid. The other methods—many of which we may have tried, many other which remain abstract in our minds—do not work as well. But leaning too hard on our own personal experience can lead us to forget that other people don’t necessarily have the same minds, personalities, work habits, or spirituality that we do. What works as a method for us might not for someone else. They have their own personal experiences.

That’s when we should remember the end goal. Is it beautiful design or artwork? Is it sanctity? Is it healthy habits? If someone’s method is working toward that end goal, that’s all that should matter. In fact, trying to get someone to embrace a method they aren’t suited to may end up damaging their ability to achieve the end goal.

Another thing that can happen if you’ve become a method purist is to elevate that method to actually represent your end goal. Then if you end up failing to follow the method to the letter, you’ve failed in your faith, or gotten sloppy in your work, or fallen off the wagon health-wise. Not so—reexamine your actual goals.

This doesn’t mean that methods should be downplayed or abandoned. I’ve found many great methods for working, praying, drawing, designing by reading books or articles by people who are enthusiastic evangelizers for their favored method. But at the same time I think it’s important not to feel hurt when a method that works for you ends up not working for someone you’re trying to help, or if you hear someone saying that one of your favorite methods didn’t work for them.

Here’s to achieving goals!

Well, well, well

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Here is a picture of a cool dog.

Here is a picture of a cool dog.

Here goes, I guess. This is my new “base” on the internet, complete with state-of-the-art slow hosting. I’m assuming this is because quality hosting requires the bytes to be hand-delivered by mustachioed hipsters dedicated to recreating the artisanal spirit of web surfing circa 1995.

I plan to keep this site updated at least once a week with new writing, drawing, and such. Check back in for regular updates. I’ve got some ideas in the hopper.

I leave you with this:

An insanitary nuisance

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“Nothing is a masterpiece—a real masterpiece—till it’s about two hundred years old… Look at Christianity. Just a lot of floating seeds to start with, all sorts of seeds. It was a long time before one of them grew into a tree big enough to kill the rest and keep the rain off. And it’s only when the tree has been cut into planks and built into a house and the house has got pretty old and about fifty generations of ordinary lumpheads who don’t know a work of art from a public convenience, have been knocking nails in the kitchen beams to hang hams on, and screwing hooks in the walls for whips and guns and photographs and calendars and measuring the children on the window frames and chopping out a new cupboard under the stairs to keep the cheese and murdering their wives in the back room and burying them under the cellar flags, that it begins even to feel like a religion. And when the whole place is full of dry rot and ghosts and old bones and the shelves are breaking down with old wormy books that no one could read if they tried, and the attic floors are bulging through the servants’ ceilings with old trunks and top-boots and gasoliers and dressmaker’s dummies and ball frocks and dolls-houses and pony saddles and blunderbusses and parrot cages and uniforms and love letters and jugs without handles and bridal pots decorated with forget-me-nots and a piece out at the bottom, that it grows into a real old faith, a masterpiece which people can really get something out of, each for himself. And then, of course, everybody keeps on saying that it ought to be pulled down at once, because it’s an insanitary nuisance.”

— Gulley Jimson in The Horse’s Mouth by Joyce Cary.