Tuesday, December 18, 2012

There and Not Quite Back Again: Thoughts on An Unexpected Journey

I remember when I first watched The Fellowship of the Ring with my mom at my grandparents' house and what a thrilling moment that was.  It was the beginning of a love affair with a film trilogy that I believe aptly captures the heart of Tolkien's story, even if Peter Jackson did take some significant liberties from the plot line.  In the film adaptions, I believe that the characters came to life on screen as if they had walked off of the pages of The Lord of the Rings (with the exception, perhaps, of Faramir, but that's a discussion for another day). And the filmmakers did justice to Tolkien in portraying the scarred albeit beautiful world of Middle-earth.

When Peter Jackson announced that he would be continuing his work of bringing Tolkien's world to the silver screen, I was elated. When he later announced that he was going to split the story into three films instead of two while also including a great deal of material from the appendices of The Return of the King, I was a bit surprised and not surprised at the same time: surprised because I was still unsure how they were going to draw out the story of The Hobbit into three movies, even with filler from the appendices, and not surprised because Peter Jackson doesn't know how to make a small film project. "Go big or go home." I suspected that the story might suffer from this extension.

I went to see the film last Saturday with my roommate and I confess that I was disappointed. However, some things were nailed right on the head. First of all, I don't think anyone could have done a better job portraying Bilbo Baggins (besides Ian Holm) than Martin Freeman, who is well known for his role as the faithful, level-headed John Watson in the modern BBC adaption of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. Steven D. Greydanus, film critic and creator of Decent Films Guide, describes Freeman's portrayal of Bilbo Baggins as "less interesting" than Ian Holm's in his review of the film. I would disagree here. Freeman's Bilbo was quaint, timid, and charming -- perhaps too timid, and here I would agree with Greydanus that Freeman's Bilbo seems more willing to be seen as a coward than Tolkien's Bilbo, who defends his honor thusly:

"I don't pretend to understand what you are talking about, or your reference to burglars, but I think I am right in believing" (this is what he called being on his dignity) "that you think I am no good. I will show you.  ... I am quite sure you have come to the wrong house. ... But treat it as the right one. Tell me what you want, and I will try it, if I have to walk from here to the East of East and fight the wild Were-worms in the Last Desert." (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit)

I also thought it was out of line with Bilbo's character for him to attempt to leave the company, especially after he had signed the contract (which was NOT in the original story). Bilbo seems to be the sort of fellow who would honor a contract regardless of ill feelings from his leader. These are my only complaints about Bilbo. His annoyance with Gandalf and his bewilderment when the dwarves first arrive at his home is hilarious and his humor and simple courage is heart warming. This is what we love about our hobbits.

It was nice to see some of the dwarves besides Thorin receive some individuality as well. Tolkien doesn't provide much of this for his readers, which is understandable when you have thirteen to keep track of, but I still appreciated this perk.

The film had some magical moments, for certain. One of my favorites (and I think a favorite for most movie goers) was the scene "Riddles in the Dark," the signature scene of The Hobbit where Gollum and Bilbo first meet. This scene still contained liberties: 1) the omission of the "birthday present" reference which is included in The Return of the King prologue but was somehow forgotten here, and 2) the interpolation of Gollum's schizophrenic personality into a scene where it was not originally emphasized. However, it was believable and masterfully acted! Another favorite moment was a moment referenced in The Fellowship of the Ring. At one point in Moria, Gandalf admonishes Frodo that it was pity that prevented Bilbo from killing Gollum. "Do not be too eager to deal out death and judgement. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of men." We see this moment played out before us in An Unexpected Journey. We see Bilbo's temptation to kill Gollum and the pity that stays his hand.

Three other great scenes:  1) when Bilbo defends himself against Thorin: "I know you doubt me. You always have. ... You don't have a home. It was taken from you, but I will help you take it back if I can." Well said, Bilbo. You've done your people proud. 2) When Thorin begins to respect Bilbo at the end of the film. 3) When Gandalf explains his reason for choosing Bilbo, "Saruman believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I've found. I find it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keep the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I am afraid and he gives me courage." This seemed very much in character with Gandalf, which brings me to my complaints with Jackson's adaption.

Gandalf did not seem as authoritative as he is in The Lord of the Rings or The Hobbit for that matter. He is usually the one with the answers, working behind the scenes.  But when Radagast comes to Gandalf and the dwarves (which was added) and later at the council at Rivendell, Gandalf seems unfamiliar with the activities of the Necromancer (a.k.a. Sauron), which is definitely contrary to the book and, I thought, Gandalf's character.  In the very first chapters of The Hobbit, Gandalf mentions the awakening of the Necromancer to Thorin. In Unfinished Tales, Tolkien further explains that this was part of the reason why Gandalf sought out Thorin and Bilbo Baggins.

While Radagast was charming as a character, I also felt his added role of distracting wargs and orcs and  such was anywhere from unnecessary to a little over the top.

The White Council (the council among Gandalf, Elrond, Saruman, and Galadriel) seemed unconvincing.  There were moments like this in Harry Potter that played out far better.  Here I felt like I was watching something out of the second Star Wars trilogy... ugh... painful. And speaking of cheap, Azog was also a major disappointment. Granted, Azog did exist in Tolkien's head, but was beheaded by Thorin's cousin, Dain. I can see why Peter Jackson would include him. The story needs a villain since Smaug is absent for the length of story covered in the first part.  But if that is the case, than perhaps it was a poor decision to extend the story into three films.  Better that than bring back supposedly dead villains that come off as the product of a cheap fantasy novel.

"From the Dragon's Hoard" by Shaylynn Anne
from Deviantart
But that brings me to the subject of The Hobbit compared to The Lord of the Rings as novels. The Hobbit is much whimsical than The Lord of the Rings. Jackson seems to be making The Hobbit into an epic when it's nature is more akin to a fairy tale with its light hearted, simplistic touches.  There are some more child-suited moments, to be sure, with the slapstick humor of the dwarves. But the battle scenes are just as grotesque and grand-scale as its more mature counterpart. And even then, it seems like there is something lacking. The battles came off as a little ridiculous at parts -- I'm thinking specifically of the Goblin Town escape, which seemed almost laughable compared to the Moria sequence, which was described by Jeff Overstreet as akin to the best action scenes in Indiana Jones' Riders of the Lost Ark. Greydanus says if this is true, "the Goblin-town fight plays like the silliest stunts from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom."

Greydanus describes The Lord of the Rings films as "full of bombast, but also brilliance, and moments of quiet grace, subtlety, and joy." There was sweeping grandeur, but there was also an abundance of simple beauty and sensible substance to back it up. For example, the exchange between Aragorn and Boromir in Lothlorien, or Sam's longing for the Shire on the slopes of the Mount Doom. Although Bilbo expresses his longing for home at the end of the movie, it would have been nice to see have seen or heard more of this as the story progressed, little moments of greatness.

That being said, it is a good action-adventure fantasy film and I will probably see it and enjoy it more than once.  Nevertheless, I think I am beginning to understand my purist friends and how they feel about Jackson's The Lord of the Rings. I felt the same with the Narnia films, particularly The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There were moments where the filmmakers were able to capture the magic of the story, but this time around the magic seemed much more illusive than it was in Jackson's prior adaptions of Tolkien literature. I'll finish by saying that while I am more reluctant to see other adaptions of The Lord of the Rings, I'm looking forward to a second try at The Hobbit, at least part I.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

ABC's Once Upon a Time Season II: A Review

It seems a long time ago since Emma came to the town of Storybrooke and befriended the sweet school teacher, Mary Margaret, and came head to head with Mayor Regina a.k.a. the Evil Queen.  A lot has changed since then!

First of all, there's a new villain in town: Captain Hook. Or is he a villain? He certainly seemed to fool us in the "Jack and the Beanstalk" episode where he and Emma forged an interesting relationship in their pursuit of the magic compass to help them find a portal back to Storybrooke. Captain Hook was definitely a charmer in true pirate fashion. I found it amusing that he was chained to face a giant "beast" and abandoned by a dame by the name of Swann -- sound familiar, Pirates of the Caribbean fans?  But I missed the fabulous red coat and the captain's hat, and I was disappointed that they toyed with the very heart of Hook's essence: his rivalry with Peter Pan! In the original story, Pan cut off Hook's hand and fed it to the crocodile, whereupon Hook swore vengeance upon Pan. The writers supplanted Pan with Rumplestiltskin. I would have preferred if the writers could have incorporated Hook without distorting J. M. Barrie's plot line so much. :-(

We definitely got to see a different side of Regina for the first half of this season.  While I do miss the fabulous evil Regina, I'm also enjoying seeing her attempt to redeem herself for Henry.  We also got to see a more vulnerable side of her in the fairy tale world, as well as her fall from grace through her tutelage under Rumplestiltskin. I'm curious if this path towards redemption is going to be a permanent one or if Regina is going to relapse to her evil self?  Either way, I do appreciate the complexity of her character. (Side note: why can't Regina use her magic for good instead of a total magic abstinence? Food for thought.)
Josh Dallas as David/Prince Charming
and Jared Gilmore as Henry

Perhaps Cora is going to play the new fabulous evil queen.  She certainly plays the evil part awfully well, but I still think Regina does a better job at making evil look great. Speaking of Cora, I'm sure I wasn't the only one that that called her being the Queen of Hearts. I thought that was fun.  It was interesting to see the history between her and Hook, as well as the history between Hook and Regina.

A particular character that really grew on me this season was David a.k.a. Prince Charming. I detested his character in the real world in Season #1, this weakling who couldn't be faithful to either Catherine or Mary Margaret/Snow White.  At the beginning of Season #2, he was still rather annoying -- especially with his threat to destroy Regina. Of course she deserves it, but a noble prince possesses mercy as well as justice. But we saw him become the leader he was in the fairy tale world, a leader worthy of respect! He knows his weaknesses and uses them to help him become a better person ("We Are Both"). It was great seeing him be a dad to Henry as well!

I'm hoping that the characters of Mulan and Aurora will be fleshed out a bit more in the second half of the season. I was not impressed with them for the majority of the first season. Mulan was a royal stick in the mud, even if she's a good fighter, and Aurora was just rather plain in character. She finally showed some spunk in the last episode. However, the two girls make an interesting duo if they follow through this plan to attempt to save Prince Philip. I have hopes that both characters will become more likeable as the season progresses.

Ginnifer Goodwin and Meghan Ory
as Snow White and Rose Red

It was amusing to hear Mary Margaret ask for some quality time with Emma in the first episode of the second season, and *boom* wish granted -- they both were landed back in fairyland. Plenty of time for mother-daughter bonding while trying to get back to their loved ones. It was definitely a teary moment for me when Snow White and company returned to the room where Emma was born: the queen's curse destroyed so many lives and dreams. On the other end, it was refreshing to see the charming school teacher return to the capable fighter. Also, I found it amusing that Snow and Emma almost reversed roles for a while. Emma is the one usually protecting the sweet and naive Mary Margaret, but in the fairy tale world Emma is the inexperienced one whom Snow has to protect.

Speaking of Snow, that brings me to the sisterhood forged between Snow and Red. I find it funny that the skanky Ruby is a bit more conservative in her dress this season.  Perhaps they are trying to make the show a bit more family friendly? :-/ Not that I'm complaining! I wish Gus hadn't died, he was precious. I liked the inclusion of Lancelot, even for one episode.  I wish I could have seen more of him -- he quoted Tennyson's "Lady of Shalott"!

Learning more about Emma's past was insightful, and even seeing August for a few minutes was fantastic.  It was nice to know that Emma's boyfriend wasn't a terrible person, even if he appeared to be one.  That will certainly be an interesting reunion, if I may predict the reunion of Emma and ex-boyfriend.  I miss August's character though and I hope he receives more screen time for the second half of the season.

I was pleased to see more of Belle this season. She's such a plucky dame, and she doesn't put up with nonsense. I appreciated the reference to the traditional Disney Beauty and the Beast when Mr. Gold gave her the library.

I'm not sure what I think about how many literary worlds the writers are incorporating into the tv series.  It's one thing to mix Alice and Wonderland and Grimm Fairy Tales: they're both magic. It's another thing to add in science fiction worlds, namely Frankenstein through Dr. Whale.  The writers have expressed the desire to branch into even more worlds with reference to shoes that serve as a portal (Oz!).  While a fun idea, I'm not sure if it'll work. There's so much to cover and I think it would be very easy for things to get out of hand.

To conclude, I'd say that I was definitely happier with the first half of the second season, mainly b/c there's no more strange "affairs" between Charming and Snow White. I still think that Rumplestiltskin and Regina are the best actors in the series. I hope to see more August in the second season, and I'm really looking forward to seeing the confrontation between Hook and Mr. Gold. Will Mr. Gold finally show some courage? Will he ever have the chance to find his son? Will Prince Charming and Snow White finally be able to spend some time together?  Will Regina continue on the path to redemption? We'll find out soon enough!

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Stefano Maderno, St. Cecilia, and St. Therese

On November 22nd, the feast day of St. Cecilia, I bring you the combination of two of the Catholic Church's beautiful saints: St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, and St. Cecilia, the patroness of musicians, artists, and poets.

Detail of Stefano Maderno's sculpture of St. Cecilia
"Cecilia, lend to me thy melody most sweet: How many souls would I convert to Jesus now. I fain would die, like thee, to win them to His feet; For him give all my tears, my blood. Oh, help me thou! Pray for me that I gain, on this our pilgrim way perfect abandonment that sweetest fruit of love. Saint of my heart! Oh, soon, bring me to endless day; obtain that I may fly, with thee, to heaven above!

 -- St. Therese of Lisieux

St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower

The young Therese Martin was inspired by Stefano Maderno's sculpture of St. Cecilia to write this prayer when she visited St. Cecilia's basilica with her father while on pilgrimage to Rome in 1887. 

Pope Clement VIII had St. Cecilia's body disinterred in 1599. When she was found to be incorrupt, Maderno was enlisted to carve a sculpture of the saint as she was discovered in her tomb. Maderno inscribed on the statue's base, "Behold the body of the most holy virgin Cecilia whom I myself saw lying incorrupt in her tomb. I have in this marble expressed for thee the same saint in the very same posture of body." 

Happy Feast day to my fellow artists, poets, and musicians! 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Why Singing Sacred Music is Like A Magical Wardrobe

The transition from studying sacred music at a solid Catholic university to studying music at a secular conservatory has certainly been an interesting one. One of the keenest differences is obviously the change from a predominantly Christian atmosphere to one where there is seldom any outward expression of religious belief of any kind. Although my fellow organ students and I are certainly exposed to many religious compositions through our internships at various Christian denominations -- presbyterian, episcopalian, catholic, etc. -- I would say the vibes of the studio overall are also largely secular.

By now you're probably thinking, "Well, of course, it's going to be secular! It's a school full of liberal musicians!" 

Haha, yes, I was aware of that even before Day #1. So why am I bringing this up? 

St. Mark's Basilica, Venice, Italy
I was recently placed in an interesting scenario that struck me as particularly disjunct from my previous musical experiences in undergrad. This semester I have been working with an ensemble of early music singers who are performing a great deal of music by Italian composer Giovanni Gabrieli. Gabrieli was the principal organist at Saint Mark's Basilica in Venice and wrote a great deal of sacred choral works as well as secular instrumental works. Many of the pieces which this ensemble is singing are sacred works, such as his setting of "Miserere Mei Deus," which is also known as Psalm 51.

What is Psalm 51? It is a prayer, a cry to God which King David wrote when he was at one of the lowest moments of his life. He committed adultery with Bethsheba, he murdered her husband, and he had lost a son because of his sins. In this particular psalm he is asking God to forgive him.

"Have mercy on me, O God, according to your great mercy. ... For I know my iniquity, and my sin is always before me. Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and have done evil in your sight ... You shall sprinkle me with hyssop, and I shall be cleansed: you shall wash me, and I shall be made whiter than snow. ... Create in me a clean heart, O God: and renew a right spirit within me. Cast me not away from your face; and take not your Holy Spirit from me." 

Sitting in on the rehearsals behind my little continuo organ watching these students and fellow musicians sing this piece, it struck me as odd that for a significant number of these singers, it was quite possible that the words made little difference to them. Yes, they cared about the inflection and the strong-weak syllables, the pronunciation, the musical notation, etc. in short *how* the text was set.  But I wonder how much consideration they put into the meaning of the words: that what they are singing is also a timeless prayer, a cry of love, remorse. It's not just music, singing, it can be an expression of something so much deeper! 

Lucy and Mr. Tumnus from
The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe
By C.S. Lewis
This scenario seemed ironic to me.  When one is singing sacred music, there is certainly a level of beauty that is readily apparent, in this case the music which Gabrieli composed to adorn the text. This music, this type of beauty, could be said to be a universal language -- most human beings, even atheists, will admit that they are moved by such beautiful music. It speaks to them in a way that is more easily understood.

But there is another type of beauty that was already there, that of an honest plea to God, which the Holy Spirit inspired King David to utter in his hour of darkness. It is a sacred text, timeless, inspired by God. And even though the musical setting is indeed wonderful, the words are what inspired the composer. The text and its Author are what make the music sacred in the first place. They transcend the musical adornment. This kind of beauty is not readily apparent to the casual listener/singer.  There is a level of religious devotion -- shall I call it love? -- a disposition of the heart which the singer needs in order to appreciate this level of beauty. 

It so happens that while I was mulling this all over in my head, I was in the middle of a Chronicles of Narnia kick (I go through these from time to time, now I'm on Harry Potter)-- listening to the music, reading quotes, posting C.S. Lewis and the like all over my tumblr, etc. And somehow, these two came together in what I though was a fascinating analogy. 

Lucy Pevensie, played by Georgie Henley in
Disney's The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Do you remember the scene in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Lucy Pevensie encounters the wardrobe and she first walks through to the land of Narnia, full of magical landscapes, fauns, and tea parties?  Later in the story, she tries to show this world to her older siblings, but all they see is the back of a wardrobe.  I would pose that singing sacred music is like encountering this magical wardrobe. Some musicians sing Psalm 51, Mass texts, chant, Palestrina, etc. and find themselves in Narnia -- not literally, of course, but because their hearts and minds are disposed through love to prayer, they experience the musical settings of these sacred texts on a far more intimate level. Other musicians sing these pieces and, while they admire the manner in which the piece has been composed, all they see is the wooden back of a wardrobe.

So is it better to be a Christian and sing sacred choral music? I would venture that, while it may not always be the case, it most definitely can be!

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Classical Music: The Ultimate Rebel

Some words from concert violinist Hilary Hahn on classical music 
and its ability to transcend time and culture.

I have realized something recently about classical music, something that both surprises and delights me. As a player, I have a constant backdrop of classical music in my thoughts and in my inner soundtrack, and there is unlimited potential for discovery within this music’s history and ongoing offerings. Like most people who are reading these words, I fell for the works, the emotions, the directness, and the nebulousness within classical music long ago.
"Afternoon Memories' by darkmello from Deviantart

But this thing that I realized about classical music has little to do with any of that. It is rather that classical music is the ultimate rebel. This overarching body of work kicks butt so much, and has such seniority over us, that it does not care whether any one person likes it or not. It will be what it will be. Its composers will write what they will write. It does not need to cater to us any more. By now, it is greater than the sum of our human contributions, and that is terrific! Despite this, it humors us. It lets us practice and theorize; it enriches our commutes and our evenings in and our evenings out; it runs through our heads taunting us; it brings infamy to its creators and challenges to its interpreters; it teases us, amuses us, makes statements, and generally does its own thing while allowing listeners and performers to see themselves in it. All the while, classical music — this messy, brilliant, ever-evolving giant of a genre — encompasses a uniqueness that we hope to retain. It is beautiful, and it is unpredictable."

-- Hilary Hahn, “Celebrate Classical Music: I Love Classical Music.” September 6, 2012 at 3:51 pm.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

My New Tumblr!

Greetings, readers! I recently started my graduate studies, so between moving, orientation, and adjusting to city-life, posting on my blog has been temporarily put on hold, though I hope to post again very soon. In the meantime, I wanted to let you know that I recently started a Tumblr titled "The Gleaner," which you can access here: http://cecilia37.tumblr.com. Please tune in for your daily dose of beauty varying from art, music, and architecture to landscapes and literature! The name of my Tumblr comes from the famous Realist painting "The Gleaners" by Jean-Francois Millet, pictured at the top, and is meant to reflect my desire to be a gleaner of truth and beauty in all of its forms, via the written word, the chisel, the paint brush, or God's creation. Happy tumblr-ing!

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Da Vinci's Madonna & Child with St. Anne, and Bach's St. Anne Prelude & Fugue

Today is the feast day of St. Anne, and what better way to celebrate than through art!  To commemorate the day, I am posting the masterpieces of two of the most prominent names in both the art world and at large: Leonardo da Vinci and Johann Sebastian Bach!

Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci presents portrays in the sketch below the Blessed Mother and the Infant Christ Child alongside St. Anne, the mother of the Blessed Virgin. This detail is part of a larger sketch which also portrays the infant St. John the Baptist. For this reason, I find it rather odd that the other woman is designated as St. Anne rather than St. Elizabeth, the mother of St. John. But perhaps there is a significant detail I am missing that reveals her to be St. Anne, or perhaps da Vinci himself designated her as St. Anne to avoid the confusion of future generations.

Detail of Madonna and Child with St. Anne and the Young St. John by Leonardo da Vinci
This second piece of art is Bach's Prelude and Fugue in E-flat Major, also known as the St. Anne Prelude and Fugue. The title of St. Anne comes from the melody of the same name, which appears as the fugue subject -- the principal melody upon which the piece is built -- in the second movement of this baroque masterpiece. The first movement consists of three parts and is meant to reflect the three persons of the Holy Trinity. Of course, in my opinion, listening to "Our Holy Father Bach" (in the words of French Romantic organist Charles-Marie Widor) is a perfect way to celebrate any occasion, but today especially he seems appropriate!

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Quotes from Brideshead Revisited

I just finished Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and thought I would celebrate by sharing a few quotes. Each quote describes something about one of the characters in the story. If you haven't read it, I highly recommend it! I've put the quotes in italics. Below each quote are some reflections I've had while reading, which you can skip if you don't like spoilers.

Sebastian Flyte:
...its a rather pleasant change when all your life you've had people looking after you, to have someone to look after yourself. Only of course it has to be someone pretty hopeless to need looking after by me.” 

I found it rather intriguing to find these words coming from Sebastian: Sebastian, the Oxford student who drinks too much and used to carry around a teddy-bear; Sebastian who despises his mother and his family. Yet, it may be an instance of the masculine tendency towards providing. Men like to have the answers. They want able to provide for their wives, girlfriends, and/or families. Sebastian didn't have the opportunity to really experience this until he'd fled his family and met Kurt.
Another interesting point I found was where Sebastian finally settles down: living half-in, half-out of an abbey. When I first read the title of Book II, "A Twitch Upon the Thread," I had a difficult time wrapping my head around it. However, as the story progressed, I realized that it was just as fitting as the first title. The title comes from one of G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories. Cordelia speaks of it at the end of Book I. Fr. Brown says that he has his subject on a hook so that the man might go to the farthest corner of the earth, yet Fr. Brown can bring him back with "a twitch upon the thread." The same can be said of the fallen away members of the Flyte family, such as Sebastian. Sebastian remarked in Book I about how difficult it was to be Catholic. Charles dismisses it as nonsense, to which Sebastian responds, "Is it? I wish it it were." After Sebastian has disappeared, Cordelia confides to Charles,"I used to think Sebastian had [a vocation] and hated it--but I don't know now." He may have been running away from a vocation, and has finally stopped. This is all speculation on my part. But whether or not he actually had a vocation, he couldn't run away from his faith, either. He had his wild days, but eventually he came back.

Diana Quick as Julia Flyte
and Charles Keating as Rex Mottram in BBC's adaption
Julia about Rex Mottram:
He wasn't a complete human being at all. He was a tiny bit of one, unnaturally developed; something in a bottle, an organ kept alive in a laboratory. I thought he was a sort of primitive savage, but he was something absolutely modern and up-to-date that only this ghastly age could produce. A tiny bit of a man pretending to be whole.

Rex Mottram is quite a character, albeit an unattractive one. Julia met and married Rex in the hopes of finding happiness and prestige with him. At first, Rex intended to become Catholic in order that their marriage might be recognized by the Church. However, once the Flyte family discovers that he was previously divorced and his ex-wife is still living, marriage within the Catholic Church becomes impossible. Once he realizes that becoming Catholic isn't going to bring him a life with Julia, he drops it completely. Against the wishes of her Catholic family, Julia decides to reject her faith for life with Rex.  However, life with him doesn't turn out the way she thought it would. Soon after their marriage, Julia finds out that Rex has been continuing an affair with another woman, whom he had been seeing during their courtship. (This sent up warning flags for me, but apparently it didn't for Julia). When Julia confronts him about it, he is unable to see why she is so upset. I'm not sure how on earth a man could become practically devoid of feeling, but it certainly seems to have happened in the case of Rex Mottram. I believe he has a very small soul locked away in an iron safe located in his big toe.

Julia Flyte:
I've always been bad. Probably I shall be bad again, punished again. But the worse I am, the more I need God. I can't shut myself out from His mercy. ... Or it may be a private bargain between me and God, that if I give up this one thing I want so much, however bad I am, He won't quite despair of me in the end.”

Jeremy Irons as Charles Ryder
Julia is rather similar to Sebastian in that she, also has had her wild days. Both she and Sebastian know that they are living in sin. Julia rejected her faith in pursuit of happiness when she married Rex in spite of his previous divorce. When life with Rex doesn't turn out the way she had hoped, she runs away to America. When she takes up with Charles, both have been disillusioned by their first love and by their ambition. Julia wants to marry Charles, but something is holding her back.  In her lifestyle she denies her faith, but in her heart she can't. At one point she undergoes a bout of hysterics over her sinful lifestyle. As I read her monologue, she seems to have an excessive focus on sin. It appears that she doesn't believe that God will forgive her, so there is no use asking for His mercy. There seems to be no turning back. However, both her faith and Charles' faith are tested when Lord Marchmain comes home to Brideshead to die. It is at the moment of death that the real drama is acted. It all comes down to what one believes.  Life. Death. The fall from grace. The possibility of redemption. Julia realizes through the example of her father, another fallen away Catholic, that redemption is possible. If so, Julia realizes that there may be hope even for her. A twitch upon the thread... The final quote is from my favorite scene in the book. I won't say any more, lest I spoil the ending for you.

Charles Ryder:
Then I knew that the sign I had asked for was not a little thing, not a passing nod of recognition, and a phrase came back to me from my childhood of the veil of the temple being rent from top to bottom.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Brideshead Revisited: Catholic with a Universal Appeal

This summer a group of friends and I have been reading British author Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Each week we have a new reading assignment and then we'll discuss it amongst ourselves on a blog we set up just for the occasion. 

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire
served as the location for filming Brideshead
 in both the miniseries and the 2009 adaption.

In case you are unfamiliar with the story, Brideshead Revisited consists of a series of memories of British commander Charles Ryder, which are triggered by his battalion's encampment at a large abandoned estate known as Brideshead. These memories revolve around Ryder's relationship with a Roman Catholic aristocratic family in England in the 1920's. Evelyn Waugh also described this work as semi-autobiographical, recounting memories from his own years at Oxford. Waugh converted to Catholicism in the year 1930 after the failure of his first marriage.
Though Catholicism serves as one of the central themes of the story, it appeals to people of all beliefs (as evidenced by the fact that it is in top 100 lists of secular publications). For example, Waugh is one of the favorite authors of Fr. Robert Barron, a Catholic priest well known for his work in the "Catholicism" series, as well as the recently deceased British atheist, Christopher Hitchens. Why does a universal audience appreciate this novel when many non-Christians reject so many Christian stories? First of all, it is a well-crafted piece of literature! The writing style and the descriptions are beautiful, elegant, and poetic. Good art -- in this case, good writing -- appeals to a universal audience, regardless of background and belief. You can be a Budhist, an atheist, or a Catholic and still find the Sistine Chapel inspiring! In this case, we are dealing with literature not painting, but the truth still stands. As a quick example, I'm including a passage from the beginning of Book II:

"The human soul enjoys these rare, classic periods, but, apart from them, we are seldom single or unique; we keep company in this world with a hoard of abstractions and reflections and counterfeits of ourselves -- the sensual man, the economic man, the man of reason, the beast, the machine, and the sleep-walker, and heaven knows what besides, all in our own image, indistinguishable from ourselves to the outward eye. We get borne along, out of sight in the press, unresisting, till we get the chance to drop behind unnoticed, or dodge down a side street, pause, breathe freely and take our bearings, or to push ahead, outdistance our shadows, lead them a dance, so when at length they catch up with us, they look at one another askance, knowing we have a secret we shall never share."
Charles Ryder, played by Jeremy Irons, and Sebastian Flyte,
played by Anthony Andrews

Secondly the story itself is appealing to a broad audience with its high stakes and universal themes of love, friendship, betrayal, and spirituality. Thirdly, the view of Catholicism is coming from an outsider's perspective: Ryder is an agnostic raised without any religion. I think perhaps this may make the story more approachable for non-Christians. In addition, the portrayal of Catholicism is both enigmatic and controversial. I would hardly call it a favorable portrayal of Catholicism. Most of the characters who identify themselves as Catholic are seriously flawed. 
And yet, it is called one of the most Catholic novels of the 20th century. I have yet to understand why, but I am hoping it will become apparent by the novel's conclusion. 
We are currently nearly into Book II. I have also been watching BBC's miniseries adaption of the novel as I read. Though there have been a few unnecessary butt shots and there may be a sex scene in need of skipping (though I haven't gotten that far yet), the series is a commendable adaption of Waugh's masterpiece thus far! One of its greatest strengths is its faithfulness to Waugh's beautiful words. It also contains some excellent acting from Anthony Andrews and Jeremy Irons. If you are looking for some quality entertainment and food for thought before summer's end, I highly recommend Brideshead Revisited
And for all you soundtrack buffs, I've read reviews of the newer film that came out in 2008 and, while it's not as accurate and probably not as good, it does have a beautiful soundtrack! It's a similar style to the recent adaption of Pride and Prejudice and Finding Neverland.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

ABC's Once Upon a Time Season 1: A Review

I figured it was about time I posted something about one of my latest entertainment discoveries: ABC's television series, Once Upon a Time.
Ginnifer Goodwin and Joshua Dallas star as
Snow White and Prince Charming, respectively,
in the ABC tv drama series Once Upon a Time
  First, a little background on my experience with TV series:  I was actually never one for watching television series.  The most dedicated I have ever been to watching a tv series was in the case of HGTV's Design Star and The Next Foodnetwork Star. Since these shows aired during the summer when I have a little bit more down time, I gave myself excuse to watch them, but the school year was absolutely off limits. I didn't need another distraction from my studies! However, when I heard the premise of ABC's new TV series Once Upon a Time, I decided to give this one a chance. The premise I speak of is the idea of a "parallel universe" between the fantasy world and reality.
I first came across this idea when I first read  The Shadow of the Bear, a modern retelling of the Grimm fairy tale Snow White and Rose Red by Regina Doman. Towards the beginning of the novel, heroine Rose Brier asks,
"Have you ever felt that there was something going on in life that not everyone was aware of? ... As though there's a story going on that everyone is a part of, but not everybody knows about -- a sort of drama, a battle between what's peripheral and what's really important. As though the people you meet aren't just their plain, prosaic selves, but are actually princes and princesses, gods and goddesses, fairies, gypsies, shepherds, all sorts of fantastic creatures who've chosen to hide their real shape... Or have forgotten who they really are."
This idea fascinated me and since that day I have made it a type of hobby to identify the fairy tale character and/or species of friends and acquaintances. But to see this idea developed not just in a movie but in a TV series seemed like a fantastic idea filled with promise and entertainment.
I didn't start into the series until December 2011, so I had a few episodes to catch up on. I was hooked by the first episode, and while I have not been pleased with everything that the series has to offer, I definitely thought its faults were overshadowed by its virtues, making it a worthwhile pastime.

I am not an expert in regards to television series but I am sure that, just like any form of storytelling, elements such as relatable characters, their development, dialogue, and plot are the keys to a successful story. I thought that while the writers did an excellent job in presenting multi-faceted, relatable characters, the show fell a little short in regards to dialogue at times.
Another complaint among fellow viewers was how slow the plot seemed to progress. I did not take issue with this factor.  The plot progression may have dragged at times, but the funny thing about it was that I wasn't bored in the least! I think this was mainly because of two factors: 1) the constant switching back and forth between the real world and the fantasy world (I say "fantasy" because Wonderland comes into the show for one episode); and 2) character exposition.  These two factors are very much related, for while you are learning about the character's place and occupation in Storybrooke, in the fairy tale world you are receiving a lot of the character's backstory: past events that affect the present and that may even reveal a new perspective. So, while there may not be a lot going on in an episode, you did receive a lot of valuable information about the character.
Which brings me to one of the show's strengths: characters! The characters come across as REAL. This may have been the show's greatest strength. Many of us have grown up with these fairy tale characters: Pinocchio, Snow White, the Mad Hatter, Grumpy the Dwarf.  We know them (or at least we think we do) and love them.  This presents a challenge for the screenwriters because everyone has a preconceived image of who they are and what they are about, and no one wants to be disappointed! Fortunately, screen writers Adam Horowitz and Edward Kitsis had character development as one of their primary focuses: "As people, you've got to see what the void in their heart or in their lives is to care about them... For us, this was as much about the character journeys and seeing what was ripped from them in coming to Storybrooke -- going at it that way as opposed to making it the 'break the curse show.'" Producer Adam Horowitz adds, "The idea is to take these characters that we all know collectively and try to find things about them that we haven't explored before. Sometimes it's a story point, sometimes it's a thematic connection, sometimes it's a dilemma they face in both worlds that is similar." One of my favorite examples of this is found in the Mad Hatter/ Jefferson and his separation from his little girl, Grace.

The Mad Hatter a.k.a. Jefferson, played by Sebastian Stan
Speaking of learning about aspects of characters that we haven't explored before, the show did have some surprises both good and bad. The show took a lot of liberties with the portrayal of the stories and characters, such as the one I mentioned above where the Mad Hatter has a daughter. I am going to be upfront here and say that, as an artist, I like creative license. I think artists do have a right to take liberties with stories : they don't have to follow the original Grimm fairy tales or the Disney adaptions. Dometimes this led to the discovery of a darker side to some of our beloved heroes and heroines, or a sympathetic side in the case of the finely acted villains, Regina a.k.a. the evil queen and Mr. Gold/Rumplestiltskin.
An example of the darker twists of the story was the affair between Mary Margaret and David in the real world.  This drove me nuts. I came very close to giving up the show, it was getting so bad. What bothered me the most about it was the inconsistency between David and James. There was a conflict between the Prince Charming/James of the fairy tale world and the David of the real world. James was courageous, honest, a person of integrity, while David was weak-willed. Then it occurred to me that David's behavior was also a result of the curse. Similar to Adam's fall from grace in the story of Christianity, David has fallen victim to the power of the Queen's curse. What also reconciled me with this aspect of the story was that the affair was hardly painted in a positive light. The audience sympathized with Catherine, and they certainly weren't painted as victims to the disdain of the Storybrooke community.
Hansel and Gretel alongside the evil queen a.k.a. Regina, played by Lana Parilla
We also received some sympathetic moments with Rumplestiltskin/Mr. Gold and the Queen/Regina. Regina is not completely evil. Her love for her adopted son, Henry, is genuine (at least it seems to be, thus far) and she is devoted to him and his safety. Though she does have her moments when you utterly despise her, and one of my favorite parts of a story are villains that you just love to hate! Rumplestiltskin,in spite of his decrepit, slimy appearance and his devious personality, had me and several other girls "aww"ing as we watched him (as a stand-in for the Beast) develop a relationship with the courageous Princess Belle. The multi-faceted portrayals of both the good and evil sides of the spectrum I think is a major part of what has made the show a success, and I am looking forward to the next season, rumored to start sometime next fall!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Neil Gaiman: Make Good Art

I am posting the commencement address given by English author Neil Gaiman at the University of the Arts on 17 May 2012. His address is directed specifically to artists of all sorts, from dancers to musicians to writers. I confess I have never actually read any of his books, and the movie based on his book titled Coraline looked a little creepy.  His photos on the internet are all rather odd or sinister looking, which was surprising to me because he has a pleasant demeanor and a cute smile if you watch live footage of the address here. So I tried to find a photo where he was at least smiling a little. I'm told that he loves Tolkien, Chesterton, and C.S. Lewis but his views on religion and morals are rather screwy. But in my experience good advice comes from all sorts of places and backgrounds, and I plan to remember this address for as long as I live.

134th Commencement
University of the Arts
May 17, 2012
Neil Gaiman is an English author of short fiction,
novels, comic books, graphic novels, audio theatre,
and films. His notable works include the comic book
series The Sandman and novels Stardust,
American Gods, Coraline, and The Graveyard Book. 

I never really expected to find myself giving advice to people graduating from an establishment of higher education.  I never graduated from any such establishment. I never even started at one. I escaped from school as soon as I could, when the prospect of four more years of enforced learning before I'd become the writer I wanted to be was stifling.
I got out into the world, I wrote, and I became a better writer the more I wrote, and I wrote some more, and nobody ever seemed to mind that I was making it up as I went along, they just read what I wrote and they paid for it, or they didn't, and often they commissioned me to write something else for them.
Which has left me with a healthy respect and fondness for higher education that those of my friends and family, who attended Universities, were cured of long ago.
Looking back, I've had a remarkable ride. I'm not sure I can call it a career, because a career implies that I had some kind of career plan, and I never did. The nearest thing I had was a list I made when I was 15 of everything I wanted to do: to write an adult novel, a children's book, a comic, a movie, record an audiobook, write an episode of Doctor Who... and so on. I didn't have a career. I just did the next thing on the list.
So I thought I'd tell you everything I wish I'd known starting out, and a few things that, looking back on it, I suppose that I did know. And that I would also give you the best piece of advice I'd ever got, which I completely failed to follow.

First of all: When you start out on a career in the arts you have no idea what you are doing.
This is great. People who know what they are doing know the rules, and know what is possible and impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can.
If you don't know it's impossible it's easier to do. And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that again, yet.

Secondly, If you have an idea of what you want to make, what you were put here to do, then just go and do that.
And that's much harder than it sounds and, sometimes in the end, so much easier than you might imagine. Because normally, there are things you have to do before you can get to the place you want to be. I wanted to write comics and novels and stories and films, so I became a journalist, because journalists are allowed to ask questions, and to simply go and find out how the world works, and besides, to do those things I needed to write and to write well, and I was being paid to learn how to write economically,  crisply, sometimes under adverse conditions, and on time.
Sometimes the way to do what you hope to do will be clear cut, and sometimes  it will be almost impossible to decide whether or not you are doing the correct thing, because you'll have to balance your goals and hopes with feeding yourself, paying debts, finding work, settling for what you can get.
Something that worked for me was imagining that where I wanted to be – an author, primarily of fiction, making good books, making good comics and supporting myself through my words – was a mountain. A distant mountain. My goal.
And I knew that as long as I kept walking towards the mountain I would be all right. And when I truly was not sure what to do, I could stop, and think about whether it was taking me towards or away from the mountain. I said no to editorial jobs on magazines, proper jobs that would have paid proper money because I knew that, attractive though they were, for me they would have been walking away from the mountain. And if those job offers had come along earlier I might have taken them, because they still would have been closer to the mountain than I was at the time.
I learned to write by writing. I tended to do anything as long as it felt like an adventure, and to stop when it felt like work, which meant that life did not feel like work.

Thirdly, When you start off, you have to deal with the problems of failure. You need to be thickskinned, to learn that not every project will survive. A freelance life, a life in the arts, is sometimes like putting messages in bottles, on a desert island, and hoping that someone will find one of your bottles and open it and read it, and put something in a bottle that will wash its way back to you: appreciation, or a commission, or money, or love. And you have to accept that you may put out a hundred things for every bottle that winds up coming back.
The problems of failure are problems of discouragement, of hopelessness, of hunger. You want everything to happen and you want it now, and things go wrong. My first book – a piece of journalism I had done for the money, and which had already bought me an electric typewriter  from the advance – should have been a bestseller. It should have paid me a lot of money. If the publisher hadn't gone into involuntary liquidation between the first print run selling out and the second printing, and before any royalties could be paid, it would have done.
And I shrugged, and I still had my electric typewriter and enough money to pay the rent for a couple of months, and I decided that I would do my best in future not to write books just for the money. If you didn't get the money, then you didn't have anything. If I did work I was proud of, and I didn't get the money, at least I'd have the work.
Every now and again, I forget that rule, and whenever I do, the universe kicks me hard and reminds me. I don't know that it's an issue for anybody but me, but it's true that nothing I did where the only reason for doing it was the money was ever worth it, except as bitter experience. Usually I didn't wind up getting the money, either.  The things I did because I was excited, and wanted to see them exist in reality have never let me down, and I've never regretted the time I spent on any of them.
The problems of failure are hard.
The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.
The first problem of any kind of even limited success is the unshakable conviction that you are getting away with something, and that any moment now they will discover you. It's Imposter Syndrome, something my wife Amanda christened the Fraud Police.
In my case, I was convinced that there would be a knock on the door, and a man with a clipboard (I don't know why he carried a clipboard, in my head, but he did) would be there, to tell me it was all over, and they had caught up with me, and now I would have to go and get a real job, one that didn't consist of making things up and writing them down, and reading books I wanted to read. And then I would go away quietly and get the kind of job where you don't have to make things up any more.
The problems of success. They're real, and with luck you'll experience them. The point where you stop saying yes to everything, because now the bottles you threw in the ocean are all coming back, and have to learn to say no.
I watched my peers, and my friends, and the ones who were older than me and watch how miserable some of them were: I'd listen to them telling me that they couldn't envisage a world where they did what they had always wanted to do any more, because now they had to earn a certain amount every month just to keep where they were. They couldn't go and do the things that mattered, and that they had really wanted to do; and that seemed as a big a tragedy as any problem of failure.
And after that, the biggest problem of success is that the world conspires to stop you doing the thing that you do, because you are successful. There was a day when I looked up and realised that I had become someone who professionally replied to email, and who wrote as a hobby.  I started answering fewer emails, and was relieved to find I was writing much more.

Fourthly, I hope you'll make mistakes. If you're making mistakes, it means you're out there doing something. And the mistakes in themselves can be useful. I once misspelled Caroline, in a letter, transposing the A and the O, and I thought, “Coraline looks like a real name...”
And remember that whatever discipline you are in, whether you are a musician or a photographer, a fine artist or a cartoonist, a writer, a dancer, a designer, whatever you do you have one thing that's unique. You have the ability to make art.
And for me, and for so many of the people I have known, that's been a lifesaver. The ultimate lifesaver. It gets you through good times and it gets you through the other ones.
Life is sometimes hard. Things go wrong, in life and in love and in business and in friendship and in health and in all the other ways that life can go wrong. And when things get tough, this is what you should do.
Make good art.
I'm serious. Husband runs off with a politician? Make good art. Leg crushed and then eaten by mutated boa constrictor? Make good art. IRS on your trail? Make good art. Cat exploded? Make good art. Somebody on the Internet thinks what you do is stupid or evil or it's all been done before? Make good art. Probably things will work out somehow, and eventually time will take the sting away, but that doesn't matter. Do what only you do best. Make good art.
Make it on the good days too.

And Fifthly, while you are at it, make your art. Do the stuff that only you can do.
The urge, starting out, is to copy. And that's not a bad thing. Most of us only find our own voices after we've sounded like a lot of other people. But the one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.
The moment that you feel that, just possibly, you're walking down the street naked, exposing too much of your heart and your mind and what exists on the inside, showing too much of yourself. That's the moment you may be starting to get it right.
The things I've done that worked the best were the things I was the least certain about, the stories where I was sure they would either work, or more likely be the kinds of embarrassing failures people would gather together and talk about  until the end of time. They always had that in common: looking back at them, people explain why they were inevitable successes. While I was doing them, I had no idea.
I still don't. And where would be the fun in making something you knew was going to work?
And sometimes the things I did really didn't work. There are stories of mine that have never been reprinted. Some of them never even left the house. But I learned as much from them as I did from the things that worked.

Sixthly. I will pass on some secret freelancer knowledge. Secret knowledge is always good. And it is useful for anyone who ever plans to create art for other people, to enter a freelance world of any kind. I learned it in comics, but it applies to other fields too. And it's this:
People get hired because, somehow, they get hired. In my case I did something which these days would be easy to check, and would get me into trouble, and when I started out, in those pre-internet days, seemed like a sensible career strategy: when I was asked by editors who I'd worked for, I lied. I listed a handful of magazines that sounded likely, and I sounded confident, and I got jobs. I then made it a point of honour to have written something for each of the magazines I'd listed to get that first job, so that I hadn't actually lied, I'd just been chronologically challenged... You get work however you get work.
People keep working, in a freelance world, and more and more of today's world is freelance, because their work is good, and because they are easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time. And you don't even need all three. Two out of three is fine. People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time. They'll forgive the lateness of the work if it's good, and if they like you. And you don't have to be as good as the others if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
When I agreed to give this address, I started trying to think what the best advice I'd been given over the years was.
And it came from Stephen King twenty years ago, at the height of the success of Sandman. I was writing a comic that people loved and were taking seriously. King had liked Sandman and my novel with Terry Pratchett, Good Omens, and he saw the madness, the long signing lines, all that, and his advice was this:
This is really great. You should enjoy it.
And I didn't. Best advice I got that I ignored.Instead I worried about it. I worried about the next deadline, the next idea, the next story. There wasn't a moment for the next fourteen or fifteen years that I wasn't writing something in my head, or wondering about it. And I didn't stop and look around and go, this is really fun. I wish I'd enjoyed it more. It's been an amazing ride. But there were parts of the ride I missed, because I was too worried about things going wrong, about what came next, to enjoy the bit I was on.
That was the hardest lesson for me, I think: to let go and enjoy the ride, because the ride takes you to some remarkable and unexpected places.
And here, on this platform, today, is one of those places. (I am enjoying myself immensely.)

To all today's graduates: I wish you luck. Luck is useful. Often you will discover that the harder you work, and the more wisely you work, the luckier you get. But there is luck, and it helps.
We're in a transitional world right now, if you're in any kind of artistic field, because the nature of distribution is changing, the models by which creators got their work out into the world, and got to keep a roof over their heads and buy sandwiches while they did that, are all changing. I've talked to people at the top of the food chain in publishing, in bookselling, in all those areas, and nobody knows what the landscape will look like two years from now, let alone a decade away. The distribution channels that people had built over the last century or so are in flux for print, for visual artists, for musicians, for creative people of all kinds.
Which is, on the one hand, intimidating, and on the other, immensely liberating. The rules, the assumptions, the now-we're supposed to's of how you get your work seen, and what you do then, are breaking down. The gatekeepers are leaving their gates. You can be as creative as you need to be to get your work seen. YouTube and the web (and whatever comes after YouTube and the web) can give you more people watching than television ever did. The old rules are crumbling and nobody knows what the new rules are.
So make up your own rules.
Someone asked me recently how to do something she thought was going to be difficult, in this case recording an audio book, and I suggested she pretend that she was someone who could do it. Not pretend to do it, but pretend she was someone who could. She put up a notice to this effect on the studio wall, and she said it helped.
So be wise, because the world needs more wisdom, and if you cannot be wise, pretend to be someone who is wise, and then just behave like they would.
And now go, and make interesting mistakes, make amazing mistakes, make glorious and fantastic mistakes. Break rules. Leave the world more interesting for your being here. Make good art.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Barbara Nicolosi: Evangelization through Art

Barbara Nicolosi, Founder of Act One, Inc.
and executive director of the Galileo Studio
at Azusa Pacific University.
Barbara Nicolosi is the founder of the Christian writer and executive training program Act One, Inc. and the executive director of the Galileo Studio at Azusa Pacific University. She recently came to Franciscan University where she gave a lecture on beauty and story telling. The lecture has been posted on the Franciscan University youtube Channel and is here for your perusal. She makes many excellent points regarding the need for beautiful art for the purpose of evangelization. I hope you will watch the whole thing at some point as your daily dose of edification on beauty. But just to give you a hint of what she is talking about, I am posting a snippet of the opening of her lecture for your perusal. 

I want to start here. Once the church was the patron of the arts. I use this expression with my students at Los Angeles film studies center. I just threw off the words “patron of the arts” and one girl in the front row raised her hand and she said, “Who is that?” 
And I said, “Well what do you mean?” 
“Who is the patron of the arts?”
“Well, who do you think it is?”
And they kind of shrugged and one of the kids said, “The Bravo Channel?”
Somebody else said, “The Sun Dance Institute?”
That’s pathetic. Pathetic that we could no longer make the claim that the Church is the patron of the arts with any credibility at all. And even if we say it to ourselves in a kind of smug way, the world would laugh at us. The Catholic Church is no longer the place where people go to see work like this: the most brilliant, beautiful art that is being produced. The question is was it a good thing or a bad thing that the Church was the patron of the arts? Let me cut right to the quick: Does anybody want to say that it was a bad thing? Okay. Where are we today? Pope Benedict says the two greatest signs that the Church is true are the lives of the saints and the works of art that the people of God produce. Where are we today? How did we get here? ... This is the first page of Handel’s Messiah and this is “Our God is an Awesome God,” all evidence to the contrary."   

I think she makes some great points within her introduction, especially the point that the Church used to be the patron of the arts and it is no longer recognized as such. I am hoping and praying that I will live long enough to see the Church reclaim this status within the next hundred years. 
As you watch the video, she shows a series of slides comparing the art of yesteryear and the art of today. The comparisons are rather striking, to put it mildly. Here are some examples:


St. Eustache Church, Paris, France
Los Angeles Cathedral, California
Agnus Dei from the Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina

Suzanne Toolan's "I am the Bread of Life"

Nicolosi continues:

"But just look at the difference. One of the measures of beauty is complexity, that something can be beautiful and simple, but something can be more beautiful if it becomes more complex and as it grows in complexity it becomes more beautiful. So just look at the complexity. And there’s nothing wrong with simplicity. It’s perfect for the Barney Show. 
The truth is that the art made by Christians today is not only not beautiful but tends to be among the ugliest art that mankind is producing." 

She proceeds to turn to her specific field, the field of writing and story telling.

Depiction of Dante's The Divine Comedy
"What is our legacy as Catholic story tellers? The Divine Comedy, Crime and Punishment, Brideshead Revisited, The Lord of the Rings, The Man Who Was Thursday, Flannery O’Conner, Till We have Faces, etc. ... These are the kinds of stories that Catholics or Christians put out there in the literary sphere in the past. This is our legacy. Where are we today in stories? These have lasted. And in 500 years people will still be reading them." 

Nicolosi then points out several characteristics of the great books she has just listed:

1. Great books were generally written for the mainstream; they speak to everyone (on different levels). 
2. Great books have high craft in writing and storytelling. They actually show talent.
3. Great books deal with high stakes evil and sin; they are generally upsetting (i.e. Prophetic). ... Great art should strike you as if you have been awakened -- not violated, but awakened. And if you encounter art and it doesn't shake you up, then it is bad art. 
4. Great books would never be confused with propaganda.

5. Great books are not embarrassing when you are with pagans.

6. Great books are profound but often not pious.

She points out that while films like "Facing the Giants," "Courageous," and "October Baby," are well and good, they speak only to a specific audience: a Christian one. These films are not likely to reach to a broader audience which is more in need of evangelization than the Christian one. These films are catechetical, not evangelical. There is a need for great art and great stories that speak to atheists as well as Catholics. This can happen in music, art, architecture, literature, and film. There is good Catholic music out there, such as Palestrina's Missa Papae Marcelli, which moves an atheist just as much if not more so than a Christian. The Sistine Chapel is awe inspiring for both the casual tourist as well as the pious pilgrim, though in different ways. These are examples of good Catholic art reaching to a broader audience, that display the characteristics Nicolosi mentions above though in a different genre of art.

Nicolosi later qualifies what she has just said by saying that sub-par art and media may be subsidized in beginning efforts and according to cultural norms.  Beginner efforts, such as young children attempting to draw the Nativity, are important and necessary and ought to be encouraged. However, she further qualifies this statement: 

"But let me put to you another case: Supposing I, a forty-five year old woman, brought my mother a picture that looked like it had been drawn by a four year old, my mother would say, 'What the heck is this?' and not put it on the refrigerator. And I think that is the situation in the Church today. If I really believed that what we are doing to ourselves in the arts in the Church was the best we could do - hey. But I don't."

I hope that you will hear Nicolosi's case, as I think she has an important message for Catholic artists of all kinds, whether you are an aspiring writer, artist, filmmaker, or musician. Peace and blessings!

Barbara Nicolosi @ FUS: "Beyond Just Beautiful Movies"