Tag Archives: film

Creating a Habsburg Comic Book

The careful student of history knows that so much of what we think makes us unique or special in contemporary society has far more ancient origins than most of us realize.  For example, human beings love a good story, particularly one about heroic deeds.  People have been telling triumphal tales in many different ways for many centuries, and one such way is through the creation of images.  Now, a newly restored masterpiece from 16th-century Austria gives us a chance to think about how these earlier efforts had a surprising, perhaps unexpected impact on our culture today.

In the past, among the most effective methods of describing adventures and victories was by the use of the tableaux or processional image, featuring an unfolding narrative told through a series of figures and scenes.  Sometimes these efforts were truly massive in scale.  Trajan’s Column in Rome, for example, depicts victories of the Emperor Trajan and his processing armies in a carved scroll rising nearly 100 feet high, while the Bayeux Tapestry in Normandy is a 230-foot long cloth depicting the Norman conquest of Britain.  Such was the case as well with the massive “Triumphal Procession of Emperor Maximilian I”, which has recently been restored and put on display at the Albertina Museum in Vienna.

Created for the powerful Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I between 1512-1519, the Triumphal Procession was originally more than 300 feet long, though today only a little more than half of it survives.  It is a series of hand-colored, woodblock prints on parchment, which depict a procession of people, events, and symbols associated with the reign of Maximilian.  The piece symbolized both the power of the crown and celebrated the triumphs of Maximilian’s momentous reign, but unfortunately the Emperor himself died before the project was fully completed.

The importance of Maximilian’s Triumphal Procession to our contemporary culture should not escape the reader’s notice, for in a sense it is both the first comic book, and possibly an early motion picture as well.  The piece  is composed of colored pictures which were bound together end to end, so that the story unfolds as one unrolls the parchments.  Scholars believe that, given its state of preservation, it may have been unrolled in sections, to be read and admired sequentially.  Interestingly, it may even have been attached to some sort of device which allowed it to turn onto a spool – which is the same basic, mechanical principle behind motion picture film projectors, for example.

Because these images were printed, rather than a one-off creation like a sculptural column or an embroidered tapestry, they could be re-produced again and again for as long as the original printing block lasted.  This is why several different printings of the Triumphal Procession are known to still exist, in portions, in other European museums.  Gradually, as printing technology improved and the cost of creating these images decreased, it became possible for a series of related images which tell a story to be created and bound together in sequence, and thereafter distributed relatively cheaply.  Eventually, this led to all sorts of developments, including picture books and illustrated how-to manuals.

Admittedly, I am compressing enormous amounts of time, but we can see how the idea of using multiple, cheaply produced images to tell a story eventually led to the creation of characters like Superman (let alone my experience attempting to adopt his persona/appearance), who have had a tremendous influence on our popular culture.  And with the creation of these popular figures, we later on get the work of artists fascinated by the stories told and the techniques used in the creation of these images, such as American Pop Art pioneer Roy Lichtenstein, and contemporary British portraitist and painter Julian Opie.  Meanwhile in a separate, parallel development, the idea of a connected strip of images eventually led to the creation of motion pictures, television, and the like.

As stated at the outset, often we do not take the time to appreciate how many contemporary things are conceptually very ancient.  Indeed, in one blog post I cannot touch on everything that led to that something which seems, at least at first glance, to be a modern idea.  Its antecedents can be spotted not just in this important piece of Western art, but also in the art of many other cultures, from Japanese paneled screens to Egyptian tomb paintings.

Yet this single object reminds us that simply because something does not, at first glance, seem very relevant to today, does not mean it should be ignored.  Take the time to be curious about the past, and ask yourself what such objects and concepts meant to people of their time.  By taking the time to learn and study, and to be curious about the world around you, the long-gone Emperor Maximilian’s efforts to memorialize himself may have more relevance to you today, than it did even to the contemporaries of his own time.

Detail from “The Triumphal Procession” by various artists (c. 1512-1519)
Albertina Museum, Vienna


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Review: “2016: Obama’s America”

Last evening I was invited to a private screening of “2016: Obama’s America”, which is based on two books by conservative author Dinesh D’Souza.  As a conservative myself and someone who appreciates a good story, well-told, I found there was much to appreciate about this film.  Unfortunately, I came away from it wondering who the intended audience of the film was, and whether the movie strayed into moral and logical paradoxes which make it impossible for me to recommend.  This review will probably not win me any friends on either side of the aisle, but there you are, so let’s dive in.

Despite its title, this film is not really about what America will be like 2016 if Mr. Obama wins a second term this November.  Instead, it is an exploration into the question of who our 44th President is, deep down.  While D’Souza does include some discussion about what might happen at the end of a second Obama Administration, the bulk of the film is spent establishing some of the possible motivating factors which brought Mr. Obama to where he is today, pointing to some of the aspects of his views that may have their roots in Mr. Obama’s family background. D’Souza then allows us to draw our own conclusions about what an Obama second term would be, based on these background observations.

For one thing Mr. Obama was lied to in the early part of his life about his father, as becomes very clear in this film, even though the imaginary father he created for himself was something he sought in his future relationships. His family and later he himself associated with people whose political views would horrify most of us, and these people left an indelible impact on how Mr. Obama sees the world around him. The portrait that emerges from D’Souza’s film is of someone who has a massive chip on his shoulder, with something to prove to himself and to others, i.e. that he was more than just the illegitimate son of a Kenyan leftist Lothario who never amounted to much of anything. If you are at all uncertain as to the question of whether Mr. Obama grew up surrounded by some very deeply disturbing political ideas, this film will put that question to rest.

Yet to what extent has that influence shaped Mr. Obama’s views on domestic and foreign policy? This never becomes entirely clear, since D’Souza understandably finds Mr. Obama’s family somewhat more interesting than Mr. Obama himself.  In one of the more fascinating parts of the film for example, D’Souza sits down for an interview with one of Mr. Obama’s half-brothers, George Obama, a man who somewhat eerily has many of the same expressions and gestures of the President.  Unlike Mr. Obama, his younger brother seems more of a practitioner of realpolitik, pointing out that Kenya was economically and politically more advanced than South Korea when it achieved independence, but had subsequently slipped into being a third world country.  George Obama, however, does not believe his older brother owes him anything, for since the President is off running the world, he sees himself as benefiting by extension, as a citizen of the world, from what Mr. Obama does.

Of course the problem is that Mr. Obama has not done very much to improve the world over the past four years, despite his by-default mandate to do so.  There must be something terribly difficult for Mr. Obama to have been fighting or looking down his nose at the establishment all his life, and to suddenly wake up one day and realize that now, he IS the establishment – for if we are talking about being at the top of the secular pecking order on this planet, POTUS is as high as you can go.  One of the problems faced by those who are both opportunists and idealists, as Mr. Obama unquestionably is, is that once you get to the position of power and influence that you hoped you would, people will expect you to actually do something.  The problem faced by this country is one of economic downturn and geo-political uncertainty, but the battles – or as D’Souza puts it, “the “dreams” – of Mr. Obama have more to do with righting perceived wrongs outside of the state he governs, for in his mind that state created or exacerbated these problems.

That being said, there are a number of problems with this film which, while they might be lost on a general audience, caused me some concern.  There is for example an oft-repeated scene of a youth – presumably meant to represent Mr. Obama himself – kneeling down in front of the actual tomb of Mr. Obama’s father.  The actor picks up a handful of dirt, and strews it across the top of Barack Senior’s grave, presumably recreating something Barack Junior did or might have done.  Whatever you think of Mr. Obama, I find it morally difficult to justify filming such a scene.  Imagine if the grave were that of your own father, and you can understand what I mean.

Another issue has to do something which D’Souza takes great pains to establish in his narrative: Mr. Obama comes from somewhere that is not America.  D’Souza is not a conspiracy theorist, so those who believe that Obama was not born in the United States, or hold that 9/11 was a plot by the Bush Administration, or run a tinfoil millinery business will be very disappointed.  Yet what D’Souza does in the film is to show Indonesia and Kenya, where Mr. Obama grew up and where his father’s family hails from, respectively, as places not unlike D’Souza’s native India, with scenes of people picking through gigantic mountains of garbage, and with filth, poverty, and anti-Western viewpoints everywhere.

And herein lies a problem with D’Souza’s argument, or at least his presentation of it.  The filmmaker points out how much he and Mr. Obama are alike, from the year of their birth, the childhood they experienced, their academic careers, and so on. However D’Souza later draws the conclusion that Mr. Obama’s America cannot be what most Americans think of as America, because Mr. Obama’s background is nothing like that of ordinary Americans.  Yet arguably by that logic, if Mr. Obama cannot understand America because, according to D’Souza, his experience and understanding is so foreign to the average American, then neither can D’Souza understand America, since he, too, grew up in an environment nothing like that which most Americans experience.

Finally, there is the question that one cannot help but ask oneself when leaving the cinema at the conclusion of this film. Who is the intended audience for this piece: is this meant for the masses, or is this a party piece for the elites? Whatever impression the posters and trailers for the film may give, “2016″ is not a populist propaganda documentary, a la Michael Moore, so there is little in the way of red meat.  For the average viewer who has made a limited study of history and political theory surrounding topics such as imperialism, distributism, and so on,  I wonder whether the film will come off as too elitist for mainstream consumption. This itself is a problematic conclusion, for leftist elites will not change their allegiance to Mr. Obama, and conservative elites already disdain him, thus leaving the film with nowhere to go.

Of course the reader will have to make up his own mind if and when he chooses to see the film. As a storyteller, D’Souza does a brilliant job of weaving together the threads of his narrative, in a way which anyone who appreciates a complex script or novel will appreciate: you have to stick with it until the end, but then everything gets wrapped up nice and neat, with a bow on top. There is no doubt that Mr. Obama’s background is a strange and, at times, rather disturbing tale indeed.  Yet at the same time I found this to be perhaps too specialist a film, with a few too many questionable judgments made by the filmmaker, for me to unreservedly recommend.


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A Little Sugar in My Bowl

This being Holy Week, as usual I am going to take the time over the next few days on this blog to share some reflections on this most sacred time of the year for Christians. However, I hope that my non-Christian readers will not wander off, to wait until after Easter for me to ruminate on more secular subjects. I believe that even non-Christian readers may find this week’s posts to be worth a read, because I intend to look at some cultural matters related to the events Christians are recalling this week, which I think may prove of interest to all.

The text I will be using as a touchstone for this week’s writing is the retelling of Jesus’ Passion and Death in St. Mark’s Gospel, which we heard at mass yesterday.  You can read St. Mark’s entire account on the USCCB website by following this link.  Today, I would like us to focus on a small detail from the early part of this passage, in which Jesus is anointed with oil by a woman who is traditionally identified as being St. Mary Magdalen.

Before we begin, let us all agree to take The Magdalen as herself, and not some twisted fantasy of diseased minds.  She was a disciple of Jesus – not a mistress, a wife, a female priest, a freemason, a space alien, or anything else you may have heard from those who, like Dan Brown, hate the Catholic Church in particular or Christianity in general, or who are simply ignorant and prone to accept the ridiculous as truth. If you are looking for anti-Catholic, heretical conspiracy theories with your morning coffee, then I suggest you look elsewhere.

Now, turning back to the matter at hand, St. Mark tells us that Jesus and His Disciples were in the town of Bethany, outside of Jerusalem, and He had been invited to dinner at the home of a friend:

When He was in Bethany reclining at table
in the house of Simon the leper,
a woman came with an alabaster jar of perfumed oil,
costly genuine spikenard.
She broke the alabaster jar and poured it on His head.

Rather than focus on the spiritual significance of this event as understood by Jesus, which becomes clear if you read the rest of the passage, I want to focus our attention on the jar, if the reader will indulge me. The connections that we make between everyday objects and more complex concepts when we are children, often have an impact on the perceptions we have and the choices we make as adults. In this case, The Magdalen’s jar of perfumed oil is something that I am reminded of almost every day, because of just such a connection I made when I was little.

When I was growing up – and indeed still now – my parents kept the household sugar in two places. A bulky, large sugar bag was kept in a canister in a high cabinet in the kitchen, along with the flour, salt, and so on. From this large container, a much smaller, lidded, sterling silver sugar bowl was filled for everyday use, and kept on a lower cabinet to reach easily. So for example, when I go home for Easter this coming weekend, I will get the sugar for my morning coffee out of this silver sugar bowl; if it is empty, I will have to fill it from the large canister in one of the high cabinets.

This particular sugar bowl has a very pleasing shape, looking very 18th century, yet it was also somehow vaguely exotic in my mind. As I grew older and I began to look more closely at the objects one could see depicted in paintings and sculpture, I noticed that St. Mary Magdalen was often shown with a jar that looked not unlike a taller version of our sugar bowl. Indeed, in the back of the church connected to my primary school, there was a life-sized, very Victorian-looking Crucifixion sculpture group, with Christ on the Cross flanked by the Virgin Mary and St. John, and with The Magdalen sitting at the foot of the Cross with her alabaster jar. When I was very small, I always wanted to go over and take off the cover of the jar, and see whether I might find some tasty sugar inside.

When I moved into my present house some years ago, I had to purchase a number of household items, including a coffee service. I did not really think about it until I got home, but of all of the different sugar bowl options available, I chose one that most closely resembled the one that my parents have. The ones with more squat lids, or with side handles, or with simpler lines simply did not appeal to me. My brain had made the connection between the sugar bowl it had known growing up, and the symbolic connection of that sugar bowl to the Passion and Death of Jesus, through the gift of St. Mary Magdalen, and so of course I wanted to have that iconographic reminder in my own home.

The point here is something which I think is worth all of our noting. Whether it is a sugar bowl that reminds me of The Magdalen, and thereby of Holy Week and the central matters of the Christian Faith, or a bald eagle that reminds me of the United States when I see it in a documentary film or carved onto the side of a building, human beings have a unique ability to express and to comprehend complex concepts by distilling them into simple objects. Even if I myself am not creating these objects, by “reading” them I am giving them meaning beyond the obvious. Finding sugar in the sugar bowl may be a pleasant discovery, but remembering Christ when I pick up that sugar bowl affords me an opportunity which is even sweeter.

The importance of our understanding and passing on the meaning of symbols in this way cannot be overestimated. Forming these connections may get a child to think about, understand, and retain mature concepts, and then be able to recall them as an adult. This is why our creative output in things such as art and architecture, literature, film, and music, are vital elements of culture, which we ought not to ignore. When they can be seen as something more than just intrinsically pleasant, they serve as powerful tools for reminding us of who and what we are.

“The Magdalen” by Bernardino Luini (c. 1525)
National Gallery of Art, Washington

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Review: New Territory

It is not often that I engage in a bit of nepotism on this blog, so I hope that the reader will indulge me in allowing me to say how much I enjoyed watching my youngest brother’s new short firm, “New Territory” this weekend. It was shown on the big screen at the historic Allen Theatre near my home town, and has been submitted for consideration to a number of film festivals around the country. If you have the opportunity to see it, I believe you will find as I did that its combination of nostalgic introspection and stark realism is compelling, beautiful to look at, and thought-provoking.

My brother’s film was based on a short story by our father, and features costume design by our sister, and thus is a real family affair. Shot in the pastoral Southern Pennsylvania countryside where we grew up, the film captures the experiences of three young children playing in the fields and woods of this bucolic part of the world. As part of their play, a violent event occurs which I will not describe in this review, but which has a dramatic impact on all three of the characters. The viewer comes away realizing that this is a watershed moment, in the type of coming-of-age experience which marks the beginning of the transition from childhood to adulthood, which will have an impact on each of them as individuals, and also in their relationships with one another.

It is always a bit difficult to look at the work of someone you love with a critical eye, for you cannot help but have a deeper understanding of and sympathy for what that person is trying to do. That being said, in all of his films my brother has exhibited a very palpable sense of both place and light that makes viewing his work an engrossing experience. For example, in one scene in “New Territory” he captures pools of light breaking through an overhead canopy of branches and creating illuminated patches on a forest floor, juxtaposing this with the flow of water over pebbles in a stream, which reflect and shine in much the same way. His attention to detail and craftsmanship succeeds in making the viewer feel the heat of the sun out in the pasture, or the coolness of dirt being dug under the trees.

As he mentioned before the movie was screened, my brother broke several of the cardinal rules of cinema in making this film. He worked with child actors for a start, who had a bit of acting experience in commercials or local theatre, and yet were still somewhat raw, unaffected performers; he also, as it happens, worked with animals. The use of the just-starting-out actors in particular, none of whom give off that cloyingly saccharine “show kids” vibe one gets on programs like “Toddlers and Tiaras” or “American Idol”, brings an authenticity to the film which more experienced actors would have been unable to evoke. It adds to the realism of the piece, even as the camera lingers over details of the landscape in a dreamy way.

Moreover because the speaking roles in the film are of the somewhat taciturn variety, the camera does much of the work in telling the story, as it captures the expressions on the faces of the children as events unfold. We are thereby allowed to read what our own thoughts would be, if we were placed in the same set of circumstances as they are. We may find ourselves identifying with each of the three characters in turn, as we remember moments when we behaved or reacted in the same way as they do.

Suffice to say, I am very proud of my brother’s achievement in this piece, and I will be sure to inform my followers if it will be showing at a location near you in the coming weeks and months.

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Film Review: “Page Eight” (2011)

I had been looking forward to seeing “Page Eight”, the BBC film which garnered some good reviews earlier this summer in the British press when it premiered at the Edinburgh Film Festival, and which aired last night on PBS’ “Masterpiece Contemporary”. With a cast of accomplished actors that includes Bill Nighy, Ralph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz, Michael Gambon, and Judy Davis, and a plot that promised to pit the different branches of British intelligence against each other, the package sounded too good to resist. Unfortunately, after unwrapping all of said package’s eye-catching trappings, one is left with something so utterly muted and boring, that one wonders how one is perceived in the eyes of the giver.

The somewhat complicated plot involves a memo in which we Yanks have been doing some rather bad things, and Downing Street is seeking to cover this up as it moves toward replacing MI-5 and MI-6 with something more akin to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The film then revolves around who is doing this, and why, and efforts to either release or stifle this information. Normally this would be a recipe for something at least marginally interesting. Unfortunately, from the get-go the film never really “goes”.

As is inevitably the case in these sorts of films, there is a great deal more talking than action, which is not necessarily a bad thing when it is handled well. The “House of Cards” series, for example, involved complicated political intrigue and lots of conversation, and never dragged in the way that “Page Eight” does. The languid pacing of people standing around, speaking sotto voce about how tired they are simply makes the viewer – or at least this one, at 9pm on a Sunday – rather tired himself.

When you have a cast of the quality of that assembled for a project like this, who are capable of some extraordinary feats of acting, creating this kind of group, it is hoped, will lead to fireworks on screen. Yet most of the actors here seem to be searching about for some sort of direction as to who exactly they are supposed to be. Michael Gambon is killed off fairly early on, regrettably, while Ralph Fiennes does what he usually does post-”Schindler’s List” which is to stand about trying to seem menacing – while looking more like he is about 5 foot 8 instead of his actual 6 feet tall.

Bill Nighy was more interesting as a vampire in “Underworld” than in this film, which he has to carry as the lead. The normally-adept Judy Davis can’t seem to decide which sort of British accent she wants to emulate from scene to scene, and sometimes from line to line. There is however, a beautifully shot sequence between the two of them which begins with Davis striding down a dark, London street in a scarlet coat, to meet Nighy in a restaurant for an incredibly tense conversation. Unfortunately there is not enough of that to keep either the actors or the viewers particularly interested in what happens next.

And then there is the dialogue, which is a mixed bag at best. Sometimes, the back-and-forth about politics and espionage starts to approach the level of crackle that you would hope for in a production of this quality, but just when you think they are about to pull something interesting into the film, it seems to fall back into soap opera writing.I quite literally winced at one point, when Rachel Weisz’ character turns to Bill Nighy’s and says, “I thought I’d never learn to feel again.” I had to double-check the clicker and make sure I was not watching an episode of “EastEnders”.

One of the more unappealing aspects of the plot was the film’s use of America as a kind of moral bogeyman.. On this side of the pond of course, particularly when filming a costume drama, we are not loathe to make the British the “bad guys”, as it were, thanks to that little unpleasantness after 1776. Yet generally speaking we do not make the British our enemies in our contemporary espionage films, but rather our allies – or at the very least our colleagues.

The fact that “Page Eight” paints Americans as being immoral, or at best amoral, and their influence as a corrupting one on the British government, is nothing new, for it has cropped up in a number of British films which I have seen in recent years. Indeed, even on my beloved television series “MI-5″, as the BBC’s “Spooks” is known in America, “The Cousins”, as the Americans are referred to, are more often treated as a potential threat rather than a helpful partner. Perhaps this is because Britain’s influence in the world is not what it was, and so certain British filmmakers feel that this is the only way they have to combat what they perceive as being America’s bad influence on their own country. And perhaps because this was a film made for a British audience, rather than an American one, it would hardly be right for me, as a non-Brit, to complain about this plot device: but there it is, all the same.

The tricky part of doing an ensemble cast of highly-skilled actors in any film, it seems to me, is to make sure that they all balance each other out so that everyone gets to shine, rather than one or two eclipsing the others, or everyone going at it in a free-for-all trying to out-do one another. Unfortunately in this film, whether because of the sluggish plotline or the sometimes chuckle-worthy dialogue, this brilliant group of players seems wasted, lost in a kind of gray funk on screen from which they can never emerge. And while there may be the occasional flicker of interest or intrigue, by the end one simply does not care what happens to any of these people, which is why the piece fails.

Rachel Weisz and Bill Nighy in “Page Eight”

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