Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Neo-Platonism and The Legend of Zelda: Platypus Nostalgia

I mentioned reading a passage from J.R.R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle" several days ago and immediately thinking of "The Legend of Zelda."  Now "Leaf by Niggle" is heavily platonic in its conception of the afterlife; advancing toward the divine through an ever more real series of images.  We see this also in C.S. Lewis' Narnia where at the end of the ages the cast are invited "further up and further in."  Now there's something in this idea of advancing through stages or levels towards a fulfillment or consummation that put me in mind of video games.  The player works his way through a series of worlds, or as Miyamoto calls them "gardens," toward some desired object, the goal of the quest and the end of the game.  In the Legend of Zelda series, this goal is often the mystic Triforce, a tripartite object representing the balance between wisdom, courage, and power.  To master this object, the one who seeks to win it must bring all three forces into balance within himself.  If you know your Zelda mythology, the events of the Zelda series are set in motion by Ganondorf's attempt to posses the Triforce when his own soul is disordered.  The mystic object responds by shattering and leaving the thief with the third that represents power: Ganondorf's mastering passion.  In effect, Ganondorf cannot achieve the blessedness the Triforce offers because he is Plato's tyrannical man, mastered by his passions.  To win the Triforce requires a platonic equilibrium within the tripartite soul bringing wisdom (rational), courage (emotional), and power (appetative) together.  Thus, Link's quest is really the platonic ascent of the ordered soul allegorized into a quest and commodified as a video game.    

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Christmas Culture Platypus

This Christmas, we've taken advantage of being at home to sample a bit of what Houston has to offer on the cultural scene.  This meant a trip to the MFAH to see their King Tut exhibit and to the Worthen Center for the Houston Ballet's production of The Nutcracker.

The cost of seeing the King Tut exhibit was bankrolled by my grandmother this year.  For what it cost, however, the exhibit was absolutely worth it.  It think we spent three to three and a half hours carefully working our way through the cases.  The core of the gallery was a stylized recreation of King Tutankhamen's tomb with key pieces from each of the chambers.  This was contextualized by several rooms worth of Egyptian art that included everything from megalithic statues, to a death mask, to a toilet seat from Amarna.  There was an audio guide that went with the exhibit as well narrated by Harrison Ford that was worth the extra price.  Included for free were a series of videos that explained in further depth the importance, or the discovery, or the fabrication of different objects.

Scratch that off the bucket list.    

The Nutcracker seems to me a fantasy in the old sense of the word.  It is an excuse to create things that don't exist in our world.  As is typical of most pre-Tolkien fantasy, the imagined world of the ballet exists/is reached in a dream.  Like all fantasy, however, The Nutcracker re-enchants our our own world by refreshing things that have become mundane: Christmas, midnight, sweets, and dreams.

I appreciated this particular production of The Nutcracker for the literalness of its interpretation.  I know next to nothing about ballet, and the concreteness of the performance made it much easier to understand the story and general project of the piece.  The ballerina who played Clara did a good job of helping to connect the audience with the wonder of the different plot elements. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Haul:The Platypus Reads Part CXXXVI

Thanks to a generous family at our school, this year's Christmas haul has a decidedly Greek twist to it.  New titles added to the "independent study" list:

The Best of the Achaeans by Gregory Nagy
The Cambridge Companion to Homer ed. Robert Fowler
Epic Bards and Oral Singers by A.B. Lord
Blackwell's Companion to Ancient Epic ed. Miles Foley

Now I can go back and re-write my Master's Thesis.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Remember, Remember Buy Scrooge and Santa this December

There's a nice little interview here about THE BEST HOLIDAY COMIC EVER.  Seriously, if you haven't picked up a copy of Scrooge and Santa yet you need to now.

Back to the Books: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXV

There's something about turning 30 that seems to send people back to the books.  It's as if the 4+ year trauma of college wounds the intellect so deeply that it takes years to fully recover.  By about 30, though, it seems to be back in working order and ready to go.  I take as evidence of this the large number of friends that I have that are auditing courses, taking classes, considering going back for a masters, learning a new language, or just taking on a challenging course of study.  The bug hit me last summer and I spent a good portion of my bonus on amassing a small library of books on Ancient Greece.  Though I don't teach them, the Ancient Greeks are my first academic love and I thought it was high time I returned to them.  So...  Here's what I'm working on:

Alexander by Robin Lane Fox
Traveling Heroes in the Epic Age of Homer by Robin Lane Fox
Early Greece by Oswyn Murry
The Spartacus War by Barry Strauss
The War that Killed Achilles by Caroline Alexander
Early Cyprus by Vassos Karageorghis
Games and Sanctuaries In Ancient Greece by Panos Valavanis
Greek Tragedy and Political Theory ed. J. Peter Euben
Economic and Social History of Ancient Greece by Pierre Vidal-Naquet et al. 

and with Christmas here, more titles may be forthcoming.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Favorite Movies: Film Platypus

I roomed with film majors in college and in grad school and picked up a few things along the way.  That aside, however, I only have mild pretensions to being a film aesthete.  All comments about film on this blog should be taken in that spirit.  With that out of the way, we can move on.

I had a truly enjoyable evening last night with my wife and a couple of friends eating expensive cheese, drinking Martinelli's, discussing Charles Williams, and watching Terrence Malik's "Tree of Life."  Now I have loved Malik's work since I saw the "The Thin Red Line" between the end of high school and the beginning of college.  It was the first movie that really opened me up to the potential film has as a vehicle for discourse.  I don't think "The Thin Red Line" did that just for me either.  Many of the young aesthetes intellectuals Freshman year had had their cinematic awakening after watching Malik's masterpiece.  College is a time for affectations and fads (has Evelyn Waugh taught us nothing!) and not everything I thought was cool or important back then has worn well.  In that light, I'm glad to find that I'm still enjoying Terrence Malik's work after twelve years.

Where am I going with this?  Several years ago, I posted a list of my three favourite books.  I love reading and have no qualms about giving my opinion on almost any book under the sun.  In the matter of film, however, I'm far less of an expert and I've often, though certainly not always, hung back when it comes to commenting on that field of artistic endeavour.  Malik has inspired me now, and I think it's finally time I take a stab at listing my favourite films.  So, without further ado, here it goes:

  The Thin Red Line: Terrence Malik uses the battle of Guadalcanal as a backdrop for reflections on the nature of good and evil.  Malik often has his characters ask questions in the dialog that he then answers symbolically in the visuals.  One of the things I like about Malik is that he really has taken to heart that film is primarily about showing, not saying.  He lets the film speak for itself without using dialog to lead the audience by the nose.  The score by Hans Zimmer is absolutely haunting and I love the pieces done by the Melanesian Choir. I always find talking about Malik's films a bit difficult.  They remind me very much of George MacDonald's fantasies in that you can't really reason through them, you have to experience them and allow them to do their work in a way that transcends linear reasoning.

Princess Mononoke: If "The Thin Red Line" opened up to me the possibilities of film in general, then "Princess Mononoke" showed me what could be done with animated film.  "Princess Mononoke" feels like a Greek tragedy.  It has all the resonance and power of a modern myth.  Everything that Hayao Miyazaki does is filled with mythopoeic power; even the children's stories.  In a naturalist world, he seems like a man who still remembers the gods.  I've still never seen anything in film that can compare with his theophanes.  If someone was going to adapt C.S. Lewis' "Till We Have Faces," I'd want it to be Miyazaki.  Like Terrence Malik, I pretty much love everything this guy does.

I think I'll leave it there for now.  I might want to add "Labyrinth" or "The Dark Crystal."  "Gladiator" has been a favorite since college and I do think something ought to be said for the original Star Wars series and "Raiders of the Lost Ark."  Then again, what about "Band of Brothers" or "The Seven Samurai."  They're all worthy choices, but I think I'll still stick with the two above.  I may not watch these films very often, but they're the ones I keep returning to.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christmas Gaming (Cont.): Platypus Nostalgia

I was working my way through "J.R.R. Tolkien Artist and Illustrator" when I found this passage from "Leaf by Niggle":

You could go on and on, and have a whole country in a garden, or in a picture (if you preferred to call it that).  You could go on and on, but not perhaps for ever.  There were the Mountains in the background.  They did get nearer, very slowly.  They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture.

The first thing that popped into my head when I read this was what Shigeru Miyamoto said about creating the Legend of Zelda series.  He said that he envisioned the games as a set of gardens in which players could wander and explore.  Thinking a little further, the defining feature that encloses the world of Hyrule in the first four games is a mountain range.  There was something magical about reaching the top of Death Mountain in A Link to the Past and seeing on the other side the faint suggestion of a forest spreading out into the unexplored world beyond: a further stage: another picture. 

Christmas Gaming: Platypus Nostalgia

Long wintry afternoons and evenings aren't just for books.  If you grew up in the 80s (or more recently), it's also a time for gaming.  If you're old school, this can mean getting out the pen and paper.  If you're teh uber, then it means more time on WoW.  I, striving for To Meson in all things, tend to prefer the old snes.  Once old Bessie is out of the mothballs, that begs the question of what game to play.

Picking a game at Christmas is a lot like picking a book: the question of atmosphere is paramount.  As with Christmas reading, then, I like a game that has a more mellow pace and tone.  The bright and tinny world of Super Mario Brothers is out then.  Also out are the cartoonish creatures of Secret of ManaThe Legend of Zelda series is welcome any time of the year, but I think I like it best in Summer or fall.  Metroid comes nearer the mark.  What's left?  This year, I think the answer to that question is Final Fantasy III (Japan VI).  With its quiet, melancholy mood and often wintry atmosphere, it's the perfect game for a cold night.

Agree?  Disagree?  Question the question?  It is a bit of a silly question after all.  Should we really choose video games the way we choose wine to complement a meal?  Maybe.  There seems to be value in living life intentionally.  I grew up in a land of sharp and distinct seasons, and seasonal rhythms have always been important to me.  They provide a sense of order and balance in what is so often a disordered and unbalanced world.  By setting times and seasons for our own activities, we increase the order in our world; logos reclaiming chaos.  Still not convinced?  That's ok.  Now how about you; what are your holiday traditions?  

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Christmas Reading: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIV

The world is getting colder, the days are getting shorter, and work is winding down for the semester.  With the Christmas holiday coming, it's an ideal time for reading.  Now I always read, but Christmas seems to call for some change change in the line up to match the peculiar feel of the season.

Changing my reading list to fit the holiday mood does not mean Christmas books, though it can.  There's nothing wrong with curling up by the fire to read Dickens "A Christmas Carol" or work through Matthew and Luke's accounts of the Nativity.  However, I meant something beyond the obvious Christmas additions.  There are certain books that you plow through and there are certain books that you eat up.  Christmas, for me, calls for neither.  Instead, I prefer books with a narrow emotional register that absorb and enchant; the perfect companions for long, cold, quiet nights.

Last year's book of choice was the novella "The Dream Quest of Unknown Kadath" by H.P. Lovecraft.  This season, I've decided to try Scull and Hammond's "J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator."  It's a slow and engaging read, and Tolkien's odd style of painting lends a sense of quiet enchantment to the whole.  I've encountered Tolkien's art before and enjoyed it.  In past Christmases, my wife and I have made a habit of reading Tolkien's "Father Christmas Letters" together.  The odd world of the North Polar Bear and Father Nicholas Christmas that Tolkien weaves for his children is a real delight.  I'm looking forward, then, to continuing to explore the artistic side of Tolkien's worlds in a more complete fashion.

So how about you?  What constitutes your ideal holiday reading? 

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Platypi Against Death: The Platypus Reads Part CXXXIII

This post comments on Fritz Leiber's "Swords Against Death."  If you wish to remain spoiler free, do not read on.

As noted earlier, Fritz Leiber begins his tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser with a heroic foursome; the two male leads and their ladies fair.  By the third tale, however, the foursome is reduced to a duo with the death by art magical of Lady Ivrian and the intrepid Vlana.  The result seems to be that our heroes can now never be whole and are thus doomed to wander the world in search of adventure and forgetfulness. 

This equation almost changes in the second volume with The Price of Pain-Ease where the wizards Sheelba of the Eyeless Face and Ningauble of the Seven Eyes promise to restore a lost love to one of the two men provided he can steal the mask of Death.  Tormented, literally, by the ghosts of their lost beloveds, Fafhrd and Mouser accept the quest even if it means slaying each other to get to the mask.  Along the way, they continue to be haunted by Vlana and Ivrian and each hero comes to realize that his particular heroine wasn't exactly the picture of perfection he'd remembered.  Since Leiber is unwilling to kill off one or both of his leading men, the evil duke Danius gets to the mask first and cuts it in half.  Death shows up just in time to finish of Danius and Fafhrd and Mouser each make off with a piece of the mask.  Predictably, this satisfies neither of the wizards but, true to their word, they keep half their promise for half the mask: each man is able to let go of his misery and move on.

It's a wry and cynical ending in a wry and cynical series of books.  We are left wondering if things ever really could have worked out for the formidable foursome had the two women lived.  Of course, the question arises as to whether any breakdown would be the fault of the two beaus as much as the fault of the two femmes.  Vlana calls Fafhrd her "beloved booby," and her "man-boy-lover."  Given the stories thus far, that's an accurate assessment of Fafhrd's character.  The Mouser doesn't fair much better.  In each of them, there is far too much of an over-indulged boy and too little of a real man.  It makes one wonder if the inference that should be drawn is that Leiber believes masculine friendship rests on some principle of prolonged adolescence.  If true, this is rather sad.  The adventures go on, and adventures are fun, but they can't go on forever.  In the end, even Odysseus, that consummate adventurer must come home and be a man: husband, father, son.  "The Odyssey" works because the adventures come to an end.  For Fafhrd and Mouser it seems as if the only end is weariness.