Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Busy Platypus and Das Rheingold (In Brief)

April is the cruelest month around here -but May brings graduation.  In the meantime, we've had school plays and parent education nights.  Banquets, theses, and recitals are all on their way.

In the midst of this hustle and bustle, we did find time last weekend to see Houston Grand Opera's production of Wagner's Das Rheingold.  It was the first Wagner piece I've seen and I have never experienced anything like it.  The Spanish company that put together the production pulled out all the stops and made a show that ran two-and-a-half-hours without intermission seem short.  The avant-guard staging with strong elements of cyber-punk left me with the feel that all the best parts of Final Fantasy VI and VII had suddenly been apotheosed.  And while we're on the topic of pop-entertainment, I'll add that like Jackson's ring cycle, I have to wait a whole year for the next installment.  Pop-culture aside, I was particularly impressed how the costumes, staging, and set design were able to underscore the themes of class, exploitation, environmentalism, and technology that dominate Wagner's story.  The disturbing images of factories destroying golden babies and fortresses made of human beings spoke loud and clear in a way that horned-helmets don't these days.  That's good, because given Houston's history with race, class, Big Oil, and human trafficking, Wagner's got some things the city needs to hear.   

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Calvin and Hobbes Revisited: The Platypus Reads Part CCLVIII

I think it's been four or five years since I last read any of Bill Watterson's amazing comic, Calvin and Hobbes.  Looking for some lighter fair to wedge into small moments of open time as the semester winds up, I decided it was time to remedy that situation.  I began with the first comic a few weeks ago (the one where Calvin catches Hobbes) and have been pushing forward as time allows.

The first spate of comics are more sparse and simple than their sumptuous descendants.  The world is still being sketched out.  Even in this opening phase, Calvin and Hobbes sparkles with a light that I've never seen anywhere else.  I have pages and pages yet to read, but I know that the strip will come to an end and that peculiar light will be extinguished.  It's the way things are in the world.  ...and I think that's a clue to where the sparkle comes from.  Watterson caught something in that web of pen and watercolors.  It's a little piece of reality no one else has ever been quite able to get at.  It flashes for a minute, and then it's gone.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Falling into Memory: Strange Platypus(es)

I cannot trade, my hands are empty.
All I have are these,
Broken memories,
Little fragments red and gold and the scent of maple smoke
Rising from forgotten chimneys in the valley of the soul
Who will take them?
Who will take these wampum beads? 
This blog is a house of memory.  Like the Sybil, I write down my thoughts on leaves and store them away for safe keeping.  As the Sybil found out, memories left unattended scatter, become disordered, and are lost.  This was Augustine's problem as he constructed his Confessions: how can a being distended in time hope to draw all his members together and make his confession before Almighty God?  The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci wrote a whole book on memory in order to convince the Confucian scholars that Western learning had something to offer them.  Things are always slipping away from us, both as individuals and as a community.  Humans die and forget, and thus the ability to remember is precious.  So Krishna, as when he admonished Arjuna on the field of battle...

*The final quote is taken from The Dry Salvages by T.S. Eliot.  The initial poem and photo (Huntington Cemetery) are by the author of the post.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Neverending Story: Film Platypus

Following our successful viewing of Labyrinth, my wife and I moved on to another fantasy film classic, The Neverending Story.  Once again, this is a film that I grew up with but that my wife did not.  Since she doesn't bring a wealth of nostalgia to the viewing, her insights are fresh and astute.  Speaking for myself, they help me see far more about the film than I would otherwise.  This is to tell you that this blog post owes its best features to my spouse even though I'm the one who roomed with film majors for six years.

The Neverending Story isn't as complex a film as Labyrinth in its plot, art direction, or moral.  This isn't a defect, merely an artistic choice.  The plot especially is quite thin and serves merely as an excuse for creating a series of highly evocative tableaux.  These set pieces are masterfully crafted with all the rich glory of pre-CGI special effects.  The recurring motif of slowly unfolding clouds and music is worthy of Disney's Fantasia.

Now think.  When I say The Neverending Story, what images come to mind?  For me, it's Bastion reading in the attic of the school, the Gmork waiting for the Nothing in the ruined city, and the reveal of the Child Empress.  Each of these scenes could be removed from its original context and reworked into a new story all its own.  I don't think this is accidental -I think its form following function.  Just as the characters in the story, through a series of vivid images, inspire Bastion to courage and hope, so the vignettes of Bastion's responses to the story are meant to inspire the audience to courage and hope.  The movie as a whole is meant to encourage further tales: a never-ending story.

There's a larger goal in attempting to set up this imaginative chain-reaction.  The message of The Neverending Story seems to be that humans are at their most human when they are allowed to dream.  In the world of the film (1984 West Germany/United States), however, dreams are presented as on the wane.  My wife sees this as a requiem for the cultural revolution of the '60s.  Bastion's mom, after all, is named Moonchild.  How much more hippie can you get?  At the beginning of the film, we find that she has recently died and her husband is in the process of burying his grief in the corporate grind; what he calls "keeping your feet on the ground."  He urges Bastion( short for Sebastien, but a fortuitous nickname implying a refuge or a fortress) to do the same.  One can hear the confusion of a generation: "I thought we did something at Woodstock, where did it all go; how did we become our parents? -I guess this is all there is."  The problem, as the Gmork so articulately puts it, is that people without dreams of a better world are easy to control.  When hippies became yuppies the Man won.  The last hope, or bastion, of the Revolution becomes the rising generation of Xers and Millennials.  It is these children that the film seeks to reach with its series of inspiring images.  If the young people can be taught to dream, to give the eternal child-empress a new name, then the Man hasn't won and there is hope for the Revolution and ultimate human flourishing.       

Monday, March 10, 2014

Civic Space: Strange Platypus(es)

Have I always had an appreciation for civic space?  I don't know.  What I do know is that I've been thinking about it recently.  The sudden changes in Houston's weather have made it an ideal time for visiting the botanical gardens near my home.  Sudden hot spells bring out all the flowers in a riot of colors.  Sudden cold spells drive most of the people away so that the wife and I can enjoy a quiet and lingering stroll.  If I had my druthers, I'd spend a fair part of every week in the botanical gardens and the arboretum with quick jaunts over to the library and Starbucks.  Well, so much for my selfish little fantasies....

I grew up in a town where fifteen percent of the land was set aside as open space.  Much of the geographic center was taken up by ancestral farms.  In addition to all this wonderful, rural space, it was (and still is) common practice to let the forest grow up where it will.  There were also the wonderful cemeteries, the old railway bridge, and the beautiful Victorian library.  Our life there was vastly enriched by regular access to all these places.

When we moved to the Los Angeles area, the civic resources were immense.  High-quality free Shakespeare performances could be found just about anywhere in the summer months.  Then there were the museums and parks: The Getty (both of them), The Huntington Gardens, The Norton Simon, The Gene Autry, and up the coast was Hearst Castle.  Then there were the miles of coastline along the PCH and the national parks.  Redlands, where I spent some time, had been built by East Coast money and had all the wonderful Victorian civic culture of a Connecticut small town.

So now I live in Houston and take regular advantage of the Museum District, the Botanical Gardens and Arboretum, and private institutions open to the public like Mr. Lanier's wonderful library.  This is what has gotten me thinking about civic space.  My thoughts aren't all in order yet, but with millennials' general habits being toward seeking experiences, I think America's civic culture is about to get a sudden boost.  What will that mean?  I don't know.  If millennials focus on experiences and not creating wealth it will be a challenge for them to maintain civic spaces in an economy that continues to stagnate.  Companies may fill the gap by providing psuedo-civic space along with the sale of goods (think Starbucks and Panera Bread).  Houston, with its lack of zoning laws, takes this to the extreme in mass planned communities like The Woodlands (think about a committee of architects from Greenwich and Orange County getting together to build a town in Texas).  Of course, such solutions are reliant on a thriving economy.  There will always be people like the Laniers who provide civic or quasi-civic space out of a sense of noblesse oblige, but their generosity is also subject to the vagueries of the economy and inheritance laws.  We might look to the States or the Federal Government, but, as California shows, their ability to create and maintain civic space is dependent on the economy and the willingness of citizens to endure higher taxes.  In the end, the future of American civic space, as in the past, will rely on some combination of all these entities.  And that's about as far as my thinking has gotten right now...  Any thoughts of your own?

Saturday, March 01, 2014

That Which the Bold Sir Bedivere: Platypus Nostalgia

The other night, I had dinner with a friend I haven't seen in fourteen years.  He's the still the same guy he always was -just wiser and with a few rough edges ground off.  The main thing in his life was always Jesus and Jesus is still the main thing now -but deeper, more truly so.  We spent a little time reminiscing about times past and a little time catching up, but mostly we talked about what mattered to us now.

There are friends you lose along the way and then they're gone.  You meet them again and realize that the distance is too great.  Others come back after years and the connection is still there.

We had our own Round Table when we were young -swords flashing in the sunlight.  We dared, we dreamed, and then we were broken.  Since then, I've wandered far and wide; always new faces, always other minds.  Poor Sir Bedivere trying to tell his story.  But the old order changes and keeps us from becoming corrupt.  Aeschylus was right.  Time does refine all things that age with it.  God smashes our idols for our own good.

My Round Table is gone, but I'm glad to hear the knights are doing well.

Qui Transtulit Sustinet 

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Labyrinth: Film Platypus

Do you remember Jim Henson's Labyrinth?  It was that odd little early 90s fantasy written by George Lucas and staring David Bowie and the girl from The Rocketer (Jennifer Connely).  Computer animation had come in about ten years earlier with Tron, but we were still at the point when no one had quite figured out its potential to revolutionize movie making.  Muppets could still be muppets, no matter how complex they got, and the things achieved with them were wonderful.

So maybe I'm just getting old and nostalgic (my crow's feet are just starting to come in), but I like this movie.  My wife and I watched it again recently and with her help I spotted a few things I had never noticed before:

1.)  Did you notice that Sara's parents are divorced?  The evidence is shown to us, rather than explained in dialogue.  We see it in the initial pan of her room where we catch a glimpse of her scrapbook.  The pan of the room also reveals to us all the key images that will appear in the other-world of the Labyrinth.  In fact, the Labyrinth is, with its brain-like twists and turns, is a symbol of Sara's mind.  The creatures that people it are reflections of her room which has been kept in stasis since the divorce as the one thing Sara can control in her life.  Like Tennyson's Elaine, Sara "lives in fantasy."  This is why she gets so mad at her half-brother Tobby when she finds that he's taken one of her teddy bears -here refuge has been violated by the world she's trying to keep at bay.  Another clue comes in the opening of the film where Sara attempts to imitate her actress mother by running lines in the park.  It establishes her connection with her mother, but it also alerts us that Sara has cast herself as the wronged heroine in her own drama.  Her step mother isn't being hyperbolic when she says "no matter what I do, I'm always the wicked step-mother" -that's the part Sara has assigned her.  Jareth's part in this drama is that of the tempter: with his spinning crystal balls, he offers Sara a chance to live forever in her own little bubble.  The price is something she thinks she wants to be rid of any-way, the symbol of her father's remarriage, Tobby.  It's significant that Jareth's crystals appear as bubbles twice in the movie: once when Sara eats the peach, and once again when she denies his power at the end.  In both instances, it is Sara who must pop her own bubble and choose to love her very real step-brother.  The interesting twist is that when Sara has finally dethroned her own fantasies in favor of loving her new family, they come back to comfort her -only Jareth is left out in the cold.  There seems to be a valuable lesson here in the role of the imagination.  It wasn't a bad one for many of us growing up at the time.

2.) Jareth combines two unlikely idols: the pop rockstar and the fantasy anti-hero.  For some people, this is where the movie breaks down (David Bowie doing music videos with muppets, really?!?).  On a first viewing, my wife was completely thrown out of the movie every time Captain-Tight-Purple-Pants-Ziggy Stardust showed up.  This time, however, she said that she got it.  Think about growing up before fantasy and geek-dom became mainstream.  You had the "normal" girls who were supposed to dream of pop-idols and the "geek" girls who were supposed to fantasize about renaissance dresses and mysterious, magical strangers at balls, and both were supposed to find the other contemptible and stupid.  And now everybody's mad at me....  Good, get mad, because the stereotypes were ridiculous.  In combining both, the character of Jareth reminds us that our fantasies aren't really as dissimilar as we'd like to pretend.  We all flirt with unreality in our lives and get very good at defending our own pet day dreams while heaping scorn on those of others. The problem is that no matter what the day dream, if it masters us we become its slaves and end up hurting the people around us.  The final confrontation between Jareth and Sara is saturated with echoes of Jesus' temptation in the wilderness: a created being proposes to satisfy the needs of its creator and distract him from serving others.  Jareth promises Sara her dreams if she will continue to make him her idol.  But what does he have to offer?  Ultimately, the Goblin King's power lies in smoke and mirrors -that's why he can never really stop Sara in her journey through the Labyrinth.  When Sara realizes the hollowness of his offer, she states the obvious, "you have no power over me," and Jareth is defeated.  Fantasy is just that: fantasy.  It's a wonderful servant, but a cruel and empty master since it has no existence but what we give it.  It's a timely message for all of us in a culture that manufactures cheep idols by the dozen.

So that's what I saw in my latest viewing of Labyrinth.  Not great art, but wonderful and homely in the way that good fairy tales are -with a little twist for the modern era.