Friday, January 13, 2012

The Secret of Kells

I just watched The Secret of Kells tonight.  I've had it on my list for a long time, and thing after thing has thrown itself in the way of my watching, but tonight I had a time limit.  And that was when I said, "Hey, I've been meaning to watch this for a long time.  C'mon, I've heard it's good."

I managed to overcome much grumbling from the other members of my household and force them to watch this instead of an already-seen Dr Who episode.  We sat back and prepared to be entertained.  And that's when the color and complexity of Kells burst over our eyeballs and we sat, entranced, none of the usual trips to the bathroom or other interruptions for the full hour and a quarter of the movie.

The story is about a child named Brendan who is growing up in the Kells monastery in Ireland, run by his uncle, who is building a huge wall to keep the Northmen out.  They take in a refugee from Iona, a tiny island off the coast of Mull, in western Scotland, where the Northmen have attacked and left no one alive.  In his keeping is a book, the Book of Iona, whose pages are filled with the majesty of generations of work; but the book is unfinished.

The refugee, a monk with the gift of fine illumination, asks the boy to go into the forest to find some oak-berries (probably mistletoe) to make green ink with, so for the first time, Brendan leaves the safety of the monastery and goes among the trees.  There, he is saved from the wolves by a girl who tells him to get our of her forest.  He accuses her of being a fairy, and she does seem to have a magical quality, flitting through the trees and making flowers grow; she gives her name as Aisling, and she consents to help him find the berries if he will then leave the forest and not come back.

Of course, they end up becoming friends, and Brendan goes back to learn illumination, against his uncle's will.  His uncle is obsessed with building a wall strong enough to keep the Northmen out, and does not see as his nephew begins to learn to create incredible illuminations, with the help of a magical glass which he wins from Crom Cruach, a pagan god whom St. Patrick is said to have overcome.

The extraordinary thing about the animation is the way in which you emerge at the end, feeling that you've just swum through the most marvelous illuminated manuscript.  The attention to detail, and the careful attention paid to Irish art in its execution, is overwhelming.  Apparently, the animators took a leaf from Mulan (which uses Chinese art as an inspiration) in its conception, and it works; the film is lovely, and very Celtic.

Throughout the film, too, are side-references and little references which, like the endlessly complex illuminary graphics of the film, thicken it into layers of meaning.   For example, the cat, Pangur Bán (whose name means White Fuller in Gaelic) comes from an Old Irish poem, written in the 9th century  by an Irish monk at Reichenau Abbey, in southern Germany:

I and Pangur Bán, my cat
'Tis a like task we are at;
Hunting mice is his delight
Hunting words I sit all night.

Better far than praise of men
'Tis to sit with book and pen;
Pangur bears me no ill will,
He too plies his simple skill.

'Tis a merry thing to see
At our tasks how glad are we,
When at home we sit and find
Entertainment to our mind.

Oftentimes a mouse will stray
In the hero Pangur's way:
Oftentimes my keen thought set
Takes a meaning in its net.

'Gainst the wall he sets his eye
Full and fierce and sharp and sly;
'Gainst the wall of knowledge I
All my little wisdom try.

When a mouse darts from its den,
O how glad is Pangur then!
O what gladness do I prove
When I solve the doubts I love!

So in peace our tasks we ply,
Pangur Bán, my cat, and I;
In our arts we find our bliss,
I have mine and he has his.

Practice every day has made
Pangur perfect in his trade;
I get wisdom day and night
Turning darkness into light.

(Translated by Robin Flower)

Which is excellent, because the movie begins: "I have seen the book which turns darkness into light."  And, of course, a large part of the movie takes place in the Scriptorium, where the illuminations are created, and where, I suspect, our nameless Irish monk was when he wrote the poem.  It's also possible that the author was from Iona, which was repeatedly sacked: a lot of the people fled, many to Ireland, but many of them went to the Continent to set up Columban monasteries.  So you see the references are circular, like an Irish knot, or a snake swallowing its tail, or a fine illumination.

Interestingly, there was a Saint Brendan, but he lived many years before Iona was even founded, so not all trails lead back round to the beginning.  But then, though art is about truth, it's not always about having the facts straight.

And just to give you an idea what they're talking about when they go on about the wonder of their book, here are some images from the real Book of Kells (its final name), which lives in the British Museum at Trinity College in Dublin:

Here is the page called the Chi Rho page, meaning the first two letters of the word "Christ" in Greek.

A detail from that same page, near the top.

And just to drive you crazy, here are two cats and their kittens worked into the bottom, in the reddish bit by the lowest part of the P shape.  Look carefully (try clicking on the image to see it in more detail).  See all that insane detail inside all the other bits?  The interwoven curlicues under the cats' feet?  That is all miniscule work, which could not have been done without at magnifying glass (the crystal?  From the eye of Crom Cruach?); the Chi-Rho page in total is about the size of an 8 1/2 by 11 inch piece of paper.  Imagine trying to do that with 8th or 9th century technology, quill pens and such.

This page, by the way, shows up in the movie, so watch out for it.  And watch out for all the pieces and parts of the page to appear all through the movie as part of the storyline.  It's quite a work of art -- the movie as well as the book.  

Good luck -- you're in for a treat.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Misfit Zeitgeist

This fall, my older daughter entered middle school, and I was scared stiff.  This is a child who runs around in the woods with a cloak on, who has always had her own (sometimes very odd) sense of style, a person who has done conceptual art -- without any prompting -- from the time she was perhaps three years old.  She is intelligent, sweet, and totally unlike any of her peers.  I knew she was doomed: she'd get eaten alive.  I certainly had, at that age -- and she was like me, but more so.  (This is the same daughter who took those endlessly popular pictures of tourists at the Tower of Pisa when she was nine).

She was aware of my anxiety, despite my attempts to be calm.  "Mama," she announced to me in August, after coming back from the be-who-you-are heaven of Camp Winnarainbow, which she says is like a second home for her,  "I've decided on a strategy.  I'm going to wear clothes that are totally me, and then see who wants to hang out with me.  If they don't like it, we'll both know we shouldn't be friends.  If they do like it, then I'll have found people like me to hang out with."

I was secretly skeptical of this idea, because I felt she had really no conception of how cruel people can be in junior high, but I stifled that part of me long enough to praise her for coming up with a plan.  And then the rest of the month she hit the thrift stores, and went through her clothes, throwing out anything that didn't fit in with the "real" her, with the exception of some comfy old clothes for around the house.

Then school came, and she wore... well, all of it.  Even the cloak.  And she got no grief for it.  Sure, she got a couple of annoying boys buzzing around, saying, "why are you wearing a cape?"  To which she answered, with admirable aplomb, "It's not a cape, it's a cloak.  Capes don't have hoods."  And they nodded!  And went away!  And the girls didn't even whisper about her!  Except for one couple of (potentially interesting) girls who said to each other "Wow!  That girl is wearing a cloak!  How cool is that?"

So either she's totally insensitive to the giggles and whispers, or middle school has changed inordinately since I was there.  True, that was a long time ago, and true, this is an unusual American town, being an easygoing surf town in California; but I don't think children that age have changed that much.  Instead, I honestly think the culture has morphed a little.  I think the geeks, by hook or by crook, have begun to inherit the earth.

This is what I arrange as my evidence:  Mulan, the girl who was not supposed to dress like a boy and go to war.  Harry Potter, who went against all that he was told to do, and endured whispers and self-doubt while hanging out with a girlgeek that we all loved.  The Incredibles, where a family of unwanted misfits save the world and learn to let their oddness hang out. Percy Jackson. How to Train Your Dragon.  The Sorcerer's Apprentice movie, which took a whole show you can see live at Maker Fair as a centerpiece of geek creativity.  Neil Gaiman's Graveyard Book, which turns the whole misfit thing wonderfully on its head.

Lesser known are things like the excellent young adult book Stargirl, and the incredibly inspiring graphic novel Page by Paige, as well as the fine novel A Mango-Shaped Space, and many, many others.  All about people who do things differently than the norm, and who are worthy role models.

Face it, this isn't the 80's anymore.  This isn't Pretty in Pink, where they changed the ending so Andie gets together with the boring jerk guy, simply because the sample audience didn't like it otherwise.  In this incarnation, Ducky not only wins, but the audience applauds because the misfits are happy being themselves.

In the adult world, we have the Maker movement.  Burning Man.  XKCD.  Steve Jobs (okay, that was obvious).  In other words, the geeks of the last generation got creative jobs, started companies like Pixar, and began to influence culture.  Or they took time off from their dayjobs to go out into the desert and build huge sculptures and hang out with people in an alternate city, where the whole local cultural system is based on the idea of giving, of creativity, of being eccentric.

And what about the Steampunk movement?  Before it was boiled down to gears and Victorian garb, it was a bunch of people making things, creating their own alternate aesthetic, revamping computers and rebooting scooters.  And all the other things people did before you just bought your stuff on etsy from people who still do make things.

My point is, even in the mainstream, it's all trickling in.  Children are being raised on a diet of misfit heroes, because the people writing the stories and making the films and producing the media were often misfits themselves.  And who doesn't create stories that are, to some extent, about themselves -- or at least about people they identify with?  And, when they get older, if they're lucky, they'll discover that a lot of misfits are now having a lot of fun doing weird, fun things they made up out of thin air -- and everyone's welcome.

There are a number of interesting factors here, besides the obvious "geeks growing up and taking over" model.  For one thing, the whole Web 2.0 model of users creating content means that people are taking control over their own creative production.  Communism, if you will, of the culture, where the most outrageously weird person can get seen for their creative genius.  For another, there is the way the Internet has allowed subcultures to flourish: geeks and eccentrics and anyone else can now band together with people of like minds to create a subculture, instead of sitting at home thinking they are the only one in the world who thinks the 17th and 18th centuries were the coolest ever.

And the more this happens, the more the people who learn the technology are the ones who will be producing the creative stuff that influences culture... and on and on.

Interestingly, it has been pointed out that clothes fashions haven't changed much recently.  Car styles haven't changed much either, and nor has music.  No one is coming up with the new Punk Rock, or the bouffant hairdo.  Back in the last century, clothes and cars and other things were always very distinct from each other from decade to decade, but we haven't seen much of a shift in fashion or industrial design, other than fractional differences, for about twenty years.  Why is this?  Some people say it's because there is too much change: our technology changes so fast and so often that we have had to drop something.  But I think you could phrase it another way -- you could say: our attention is elsewhere.  Cars, clothes, songs, these things are parts of our lives that we live with but don't look at so much.  Many of us are busy with other things, things less everyday.

I am finding, suddenly, that my odd tastes, my weird interests, are becoming the rage.  Everywhere you look, now, references to Wunderkammern and Cabinets of Wonder are popping up, used in every possible way.  Martin Scorcese's wonderful film, Hugo, based on Brian Selznik's even more wonderful book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, is full of things which I've been talking about for years.  It's weird.  I'm finding ideas I already wrote into novels suddenly cropping up in novels I'm reading (for example, there is the fabulous Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, which I have just reviewed in the new book review blog Spec Fic Chicks -- where people are remade with machine-parts as part of their anatomies, and ultimately, part of their souls -- is disturbingly close to something I'm trying to sell in a children's book right now).

So this is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, something I hold very dear is suddenly seeing a surge in interest -- yay!  But on the other, it means that the cool things I am interested in are suddenly under public scrutiny, are being watered down as they enter the media and become part of the ad-cycle; and soon, Cabinets of Wonder will be passe, will -- oh horrors! -- show up at Costco.  Except... so little of the history will have been truly described, and thus will remain, mysterious and horrific and beautiful, and essentially untouched, the Platonic ideal of exploration and weird magical science.  I hope.

Despite the fact that I could be out of fashion next week, I find this spirit of the times to be incredibly exciting.  Watching my daughter go off to school in a tight leather vest over a cotton shirt, a Steamboy-style cap, and rainbow rubber boots, and knowing that she is doing it safe from severe criticism is honestly thrilling.  Knowing that my people, my kind, are out there remaking the culture from the ground up, even if I don't always like or believe in the things that they produce... just knowing that they're there, making stuff, questioning stuff, trying new cultural systems, makes my adrenaline pump as I think about all the doors that are opening.  Thinking about it, I get shifty in my seat.  I get excited, because you know what?

We're winning.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Lena Herzog's Lost Souls

I came across this by chance: another photographer, photographing Frederik Ruysch's amazing birth defect displays from the Kunstkammern of Peter the Great, as well as Vienna's Federal Museum of Pathology at the Narrenturm.  I have always admired Rosamond Purcell's photographs, but now there is Lena Herzog.

On Science and the Arts, she does a good job of talking about the true nature of the collectors of the old days, the ideals of morality and aesthetic considerations, the way that art and science were not so separate as they are now.  Check out her narrated slideshow here.

In the meantime, I recommend her book, Lost Souls, which sounds like an amazing meditation on the the abstract beauty of these items of study:

"The arrangements of the fetuses, the specimens, the anatomical skeletons, was highly artistic.  Ruysch was a true artist.  The images I have created, I took special care not to take advantage, not to speculate, on the macabre -- on the horrifying.  I wasn't interested in shocking anyone.  They are shocking by definition because it's such complicated territory.  They're dead, they're children, they were meant to live, they never lived -- so I truly wanted to follow in the footsteps of Frederick Ruysch, who took special care.  For example, he would hide the especially frightening parts with lace, revealing it only to his students of anatomy and to himself to study, in order to help humankind.  The morality of the cabinet makers was never in question.  They were highly conscious of the moral and human implications."

 The preserved fetuses are glimpses into the perils of health and science back when medicine was in its infancy, but she manages to capture some of their ephemeral beauty, and some of the qualities which Ruysch so carefully preserved: that of error and loss, of humanity and the need to understand.


More on Ms. Herzog and the book in the Paris Review,
A rather technique-heavy conversation with Ms. Herzog at the American Society of Cinematographers.