Saturday, April 30, 2011

Moulin Rouge on its 10th Anniversary: Film Platypus

The visually stunning film "Moulin Rouge" was released at the turn of this past century and was set exactly one-hundred years prior.  I was in college at the time of its release and I remember "Moulin Rouge" taking the film majors by storm.  Like the oily Ziedler, it had them all exclaiming "Spectacular! Spectacular!"  Ten years  and a decade of advance in visual effects later, I was curious to see how the film has held up.  Upon viewing it again, "Moulin Rouge" is still the singular sensational cinematic event it was when it first hit the screen.

After being visually blown away and rather embarrassed by all the pseudo-Victorian naughtiness I had forgotten about (PG-13?  Really?  PG 13?!?) I had to sit down and ask what made this eclectic musical and cinematic collage work?  After all, all the costumes are period perfect, but the music is a hodge-podge of contemporary rock songs with a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein and a few shots at Walt Disney (I've always thought Tinker Bell fit better into the world of absinthe and show girls than in a kids movie).  Well the cliched answer would be that it had a great story.  That's true.  It had a good story: the myth of Orpheus retold (see the nod to the Opera in the song "Spectacular!  Spectacular!").  What really makes the film work is that it finds a way to merge its story perfectly with its eclectic visual and musical style in a way that strikes a deep cord with the modern mind.

In his revolutionary poem "The Wasteland," T.S. Eliot correctly identifies the key component of the modern mind: Fragmentation.  The old world of Europe's Enlightenment Liberalism was blown to pieces on the battlefields of World War I and we've been struggling ever since to pick those bits up and arrange them again into a coherent worldview.  Tennyson foresaw this fragmentation coming in the mid-eighteen century when he hoped that Victorian zeal would help "mind and soul according well make one music as before".  Later, W.B. Yates would prognosticate the failure of that hope claiming "the center cannot hold, mere anarchy is loosed upon the world".  Still, the poets and authors tried to hold our world together with their dreams of "Truth, Beauty, Freedom, and most of all Love."  "Moulin Rouge" is a retrospect on a century of Bohemian effort to put Humpty-Dumpty together again.  The sheer weight of the catastrophe has ground up countless young idealists like the film's focal character, Christian, but we keep trying.  Why?  Why not give in to despair and accept the hollow and vicious pornified world of Ziedler's entertainment empire?  As the diminutive Henri tells Christian in the film:  "Christian, you may see me only as a drunken, vice-ridden gnome whose friends are just pimps and girls from the brothels. But I know about art and love, if only because I long for it with every fiber of my being."  That is the cry of the modern world; we may be broken and empty, but we keep striving because we know that Beauty and Love are out there if only because our need for them.  This follows one of C.S. Lewis' arguments: if there is hunger, there must be food, if there is thirst, there must be drink, if their is a craving in us for something which the world cannot satisfy, there must be something beyond the world which can satisfy it.

"Moulin Rouge" is a film of pieces, little colored bits of glass all patched together, but the picture they form is the soul of Western Man.      

Monday, April 25, 2011

Traveling Platypus Show: Platypus Nostalgia

We spent the weekend in Arkansas with friends one of whom is an old sage in the matter of video games and pen and paper RPGs.  Like Gandalf and Bombadill, much of the weekend (when not attending religious services or playing Dominion) was spent in having a good long talk about the state of the field.  I don't get to do this often, and it was a real treat.

During the course of our long jaw, my friend introduced me to two games that have made a splash over the last few years: Dragon Age and BioShock.  Though one takes place in a Tolkienesque lost age and the other in a 1950s dystopia, there was a common thread that impressed me: the emphasis on the power of choice in determining who we are.  The oft repeated refrain of Bioshock is "we make our choices but, in the end, they make us."  Dragon Age offers multiple choices to the player at various points in the game which dramatically affect the path the story takes and its eventual outcome.  Furthermore, these choices can be rolled over into expansions and the sequel.  It may merely be a dressing up of the "choose your own adventure" novels of the 80s, but I think there is something more.

Seeing these games brought to mind something Umberto Eco says in the postscript to his "The Name of the Rose."  In explaining why he decided to write a detective novel, something so middle-class and beneath him, Eco mentions that the irony of the detective story is that the reader is made complicit in the murder: it only takes place because the reader wills it to take place; we want the murder to happen so we may be entertained by it.  By offering players choices that matter, Dragon Age and BioShock draw player's attention to their own complicity in the story.  The characters they end the game with (good, bad, and ugly) are the characters their choices have created; the changes to the game world are exactly those that they have brought about.  A player may choose to demur that it is only a game, but the opportunity for self-examination is presented nonetheless.

Why do I mention this?  I believe that this emphasis on moral culpability is a sign that video games are beginning to come of age (or at least some of their players and creators are).  Sure, they're not high art, but in trying to wrestle with real-world issues (BioShock is an attack on Objectivism), video games are coming to rest firmly in the middlebrow.     

The Platypus Glosses Tennyson

For those interested in my idiosyncratic gloss of Tennyson's "The Passing of Arthur," here are all the links in their proper order:

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI
Part VII

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

99 Potions, 99 Elixers, and a Platypus of Truth: Platypus Nostalgia

I think I played my first D&D game when I was twelve.  The first Final Fantasy must have come out when I was about that age as well.  Safe to say, I've done a lot of dungeon crawls in my time.  College brought new experiences including the wonderful world of White Wolf's Exalted.  Once you've tried free-wheeling through the almost limitless world of the Realm, it's hard to go back into the narrow confines of the dungeon even if there is a dragon at the end.

The point of all this is that I stumbled across an announcement that Blizzard is going to be releasing Diablo III sometime in the near future (with Blizzard this could mean next decade.  They are the southern Italians of the video game world.).  Now I've seen a lot of Diablo, never played it, and it's always intrigued me.  As far as I understand it, it's just a series of really artful dungeon crawls.  Yeah, there's some bit of an above-ground world, but most of that seems to be a prelude or mood-setter to get you to the real point: the dungeon.  Now my experience has been that free-wheeling game worlds in the pen-and-paper domain, such as Exalted, are way  more fun than more than the standard subterranean adventures of classic D&D.  I figure that this would also extend to the digital world.  This leads me back then to the question of why so many people, myself included, find the dungeon-filled world of Diablo so fascinating.  Sure, we could talk different strokes for different folks, but what is it, specifically, about the dungeon crawl that captures our imagination?  Why, after game world have gotten so much more expansive, do we keep returning to this time-worn trope?

I usually try to answer my own questions or at least point out in which direction I think the answer might lie.  This time, however, I think I'm going to let the question stand.  There's still a couple more missions of Starcraft II for me to work through, but maybe after that's done I can break out some old dungeon crawls and see if I can come to grips with this hallowed pillar of fantasy gaming.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

From Comsumer to Creator: Platypus Nostalgia

I love Starcraft.  Not Diablo.  Not Warcraft.  Starcraft.

One of the things I liked most about the original Starcraft was the map editor.  Not only could you enjoy the imagined world of the Korprulu sector, you could actually take a hand in expanding it yourself!  Fifteen years (or so) later, the first installment of Starcraft II is finally here with a vastly expanded editor.

The vastly expanded Starcraft II editor can be a bear for an old dinosaur like me with little to no experience in the strange world of modding (did I even spell it right?).  The maze of buttons and menus is enough to make you give up after 14 or 15 hours of wrangling with the thing.  Sure, there are walk-throughs online, but they all presuppose some basic knowledge and facility with this sort of thing.  Creaking joints and cramped mental worlds aside, however, there is a compelling reason for an old fossil to be excited.

Like so much of our modern world, the video games of yesteryear were products created by experts and consumed by the masses.  This lent even the most active of them a high amount of passivity; a sad ending to a century that began with artist-theologians like G.K. Chesterton and Dorothy L. Sayers asserting that the imago deo was to be found in human creativity.  However, the rise of modding is reversing that trend.  Video games, those most stereo-typically passive of late modern entertainments are now centers of creativity.  Players no longer merely receive the game as envisioned by its creators, but are actually empowered to take part in the creation and expansion of game worlds.  Quite simply, gamers are moving from consumers to creators.

Why am I still struggling with the Starcraft II editor?  As Remy learns in Pixar's "Ratatouille," animals can consume but it takes a human being to create. 

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Glossing Tennyson: The Platypus Reads Part XCVII

   Then loudly cried the bold Sir Bedivere:
'Ah! my Lord Arthur, whither shall I go?

As Arthur prepares to leave this world for Avilion, Bedivere rightly asks what his role will be now that his king is gone.  Though this is a moment of defeat and not one of triumph, we should still see parallels with the disciples and Christ.  In this case, Bedivere is asking the departing Christ figure for a commission.  We may see his question as equivalent with the disciples’ questions before Jesus’ ascension: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom” and “What about him (ie. what will John’s fate be?).”  If Bedivere is having doubts at this point, the apostolic witness records that some of them continued to doubt even as the gathered to watch the resurrected Christ ascend.

Where shall I hide my forehead and my eyes?
For now I see the true old times are dead,
When every morning brought a noble chance,
And every chance brought out a noble knight.
Such times have been not since the light that led
The holy Elders with the gift of myrrh.

Bedivere draws an explicit link between himself and the apostles by paralleling Arthur’s Camelot to the miraculous and world-changing period of Jesus’ life.  We can also hear, however, a genuine and familiar nostalgia for a vanished youth.  How many of us have found on going off to college, or graduating from college, or having to step down and retire that “the true old times are dead”?

But now the whole Round Table is dissolved
Which was an image of the mighty world,
And I, the last, go forth companionless,
And the days darken round me, and the years,
Among new men, strange faces, other minds.'

Bedivere’s real fear is not only of abandonment, but also of not being understood.  He is a man who has outlived his own times.  We may recognize in this the fear of the artist: that the day will come when he still wishes to create art but cannot be understood by the new generation and so passes into incoherence and futility.  This may have been a real fear for Tennyson as we get a sense throughout the “Idylls of the King” that the promising Victorian society that he grew up in was shifting and passing into the decadent and troubled world of the Edwardians and the final collapse in “that battle in the West,/Where all of high and holy dies away.”

   And slowly answered Arthur from the barge:
'The old order changeth, yielding place to new,
And God fulfils himself in many ways,
Lest one good custom should corrupt the world.

Arthur makes his farewell speech.  There is no “Great Commission” to carry the idea of Camelot out into the world as in latter versions of the legend.  Indeed, as Arthur, who has been the Christ-figure throughout the work, prepares to leave the world he must at last relinquish his role as Christ-figure as well.  Instead of imitating Christ in commissioning Bedivere to carry on Arthur’s work, the king explicitly forbids him to and tells the last knight instead to put his full confidence in the sovereignty of God.  We have here the fulfillment of the “Time” and “Seasonal” imagery that dominates so much of the “Idylls of the King.”  God is here revealed as the Lord of Times and Seasons directing history to its great and predestined end.  Because God has made change integral to his purpose for humanity, we are also warned against trying to preserve specific customs and eras past their appointed time.  In a world where sin is rampant, all the works of man are eventually eaten up by the flaws within them and God must remove them in judgment lest a “good custom” become an evil one.  It was a stern warning to the Victorian order and is a stern warning to our own as well.  An Arthur that does not recognize his mortality and relinquish his role as Christ-type in due season becomes an idol that must be smashed.

Comfort thyself: what comfort is in me?
I have lived my life, and that which I have done
May He within himself make pure! but thou,
If thou shouldst never see my face again,
Pray for my soul. More things are wrought by prayer
Than this world dreams of. Wherefore, let thy voice
Rise like a fountain for me night and day.

Arthur draws Bedivere and the reader’s attention to the fact that he is not Christ but a mere man and that God and not man is the ultimate judge of a person’s life.  Indeed, since no person’s life work is unmarred by sin and human weakness each human must place his trust in God to purify his work and give it any eternal meaning.  Arthur confesses his own weakness and inadequacy by asking Bedivere to pray for him while at the same time affirming his faith in God and the power of prayer.

For what are men better than sheep or goats
That nourish a blind life within the brain,
If, knowing God, they lift not hands of prayer
Both for themselves and those who call them friend?

Tennyson uses Evolution as a metaphor throughout the work.  Here, however, he makes a clear distinction between man and beast.  Man is the animal that can have a personal relationship with his creator and with his neighbor.  When we forget that, we “real back into the beast” and are no longer men.  This theme can be found in elsewhere in George MacDonald’s “The Princess and Curdie” and C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” and “The Last Battle.”

For so the whole round earth is every way
Bound by gold chains about the feet of God.

In an age of doubt, Tennyson gives us a radical picture of God’s commitment to the world he has made.  The preoccupation with God’s connectedness to history, and particularly to human suffering would become a driving force in Twentieth Century theology ultimately leading to the unorthodox ideas of process theology and pantheism.  What exactly Tennyson means by this image, beyond what is stated above, is unclear.  Given the context of the metaphor, the “golden chains” seem to be human prayers.  If so, are we to understand that human prayer somehow binds God to the world?  On the other hand, is Tennyson asserting that prayer binds the world to the God from which its own evil has estranged it?

But now farewell. I am going a long way
With these thou seest--if indeed I go
(For all my mind is clouded with a doubt)--
To the island-valley of Avilion;
Where falls not hail, or rain, or any snow,
Nor ever wind blows loudly; but it lies
Deep-meadowed, happy, fair with orchard lawns
And bowery hollows crowned with summer sea,
Where I will heal me of my grievous wound.'

Avilion is here pictured in a way that is reminiscent of Dante’s Purgatory and the Greek Hesperides.  The doubt that clouds Arthurs mind again reminds us that he is merely human and cannot with absolute certainty foretell what lies on the other side of death.

   So said he, and the barge with oar and sail
Moved from the brink, like some full-breasted swan
That, fluting a wild carol ere her death,
Ruffles her pure cold plume, and takes the flood
With swarthy webs. Long stood Sir Bedivere
Revolving many memories, till the hull
Looked one black dot against the verge of dawn,
And on the mere the wailing died away.

Tennyson links the funeral boat explicitly with a dying swan.  As noted earlier, this is an image that repeats itself in Tolkien.  Bedivere, in watching Arthur’s departure, mirrors the disciples watching Christ ascend into heaven.

   But when that moan had past for evermore,
The stillness of the dead world's winter dawn
Amazed him, and he groaned, 'The King is gone.'
And therewithal came on him the weird rhyme,
'From the great deep to the great deep he goes.'

The “weird rhyme” is that given by Merlin in answer to Queen Bellicent when she inquires into the truth of Arthur’s birth.  Bedivere hears it at King Leodogran’s court in “The Coming of Arthur.”  Whatever Arthur’s origins, the prophesies regarding him have been fulfilled.  Bedivere, like the apostles, will be left in the coming years to ponder the meaning of this and then attempt to articulate it to a new generation.

   Whereat he slowly turned and slowly clomb
The last hard footstep of that iron crag;
Thence marked the black hull moving yet, and cried,
'He passes to be King among the dead,
And after healing of his grievous wound
He comes again; but--if he come no more--
O me, be yon dark Queens in yon black boat,
Who shrieked and wailed, the three whereat we gazed
On that high day, when, clothed with living light,
They stood before his throne in silence, friends
Of Arthur, who should help him at his need?'

With Arthur removed, Bedivere is now called upon to place his own faith in the three queens; Faith, Hope, and Love.  This was the condition of the apostles after Jesus’ ascension and the condition of all Christians this side of Death or the Escaton.

   Then from the dawn it seemed there came, but faint
As from beyond the limit of the world,
Like the last echo born of a great cry,
Sounds, as if some fair city were one voice
Around a king returning from his wars.

Tennyson tells us that Arthur passes into “the East, whence have sprung all the great religions of the world.”  Using explicitly Biblical imagery Tennyson goes on to explain “A triumph of welcome is given to him who has proved himself “’more than a conqueror.’”

   Thereat once more he moved about, and clomb
Even to the highest he could climb, and saw,
Straining his eyes beneath an arch of hand,
Or thought he saw, the speck that bare the King,
Down that long water opening on the deep
Somewhere far off, pass on and on, and go
From less to less and vanish into light.
And the new sun rose bringing the new year.

Arthur’s vanishing into light symbolizes his acceptance into the presence of God.  As the apostle says: “God is light; in Him is no darkness.”  The new year symbolizes the new generation and the new era that has come.