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