Based on Real Life
If art is meant to elicit an involuntary reaction in us that comes from a place that the mind cannot touch, then con artists are the truest to that vision!
They are the incidental inheritors of the philosophies of happiness that have been steadily passed down from the times of Lao Tzu and Socrates to our present day. They apply them on their marks like an art form; by offering them confidence and pleasure, in exchange for cultivating their hopes and desires. And when they have manufactured enough of what they want, they suck out every bit of the outcome, and along with it, all self-worth, until their marks are reduced to nothing but the scars of this terrible violation, and the helpless realization that their rational mind was blindsided with emotions and impalpable offerings, just so that they may be stripped naked forever. Then, the artists move onto their next mark. They spare only those who can destroy them, or who can provide them with more marks to feed off!
There is no doubt art involved in the eduction of happiness through connivery, and in delivering the dementor’s kiss without suspicion. It is a systematized art (like the practice of game theory or behavioral economics), where the ultimate goal is not some sort of creative or existential nurturing, but something more elemental. But, when it is presented as a cinematic story, that engages in artistry with the former nurturing goal in mind, the two combined bring about ultimate happiness of the kind prescribed by the early monks, whose philosophies ought to be passed on for all time.
... And then there is that lovable, exasperating, conniving little master manipulator of them all! Who is the real artist? Rosalyn Rosenfeld or J-Law!
The Dementor's Kiss:
"What's under a Dementor's hood?"
"Hmmm . . . well, the only people who really know are in no condition to tell us. You see, the Dementor lowers its hood only to use its last and worst weapon."
“What’s that?” asked Harry.
“They call it the Dementor’s Kiss,” said Lupin, with a slightly twisted smile. “It’s what dementors do to those they wish to destroy utterly. I suppose there must be some kind of mouth under there, because they clamp their jaws upon the mouth of the victim and -- and suck out his soul.”
Harry accidentally spat out a bit of butterbeer.
“What -- they kill -- ?”
“Oh no,” said Lupin. “Much worse than that. You can exist without your soul, you know, as long as your brain and heart are still working. But you’ll have no sense of self anymore, no memory, no . . . anything. There’s no chance at all of recovery. You’ll just -- exist. As an empty shell. And your soul is gone forever . . . lost.”
The animated video above served as a backdrop for Karen Eve Johnson's play about Maria Sibylla Merian, a European naturalist explorer; and Jacoba, an African slave woman in Suriname who is deeply knowledgeable about the jungles of Suriname. I haven't seen the play, and I am not even sure if it is touring, but the trailer was enough to make me giddy, and imagine all of Merian's splendid botanical artwork in movement.
Today is Maria Sibylla Merian's 366th birthday. A few days ago, I wrote about how her art and scientific explorations changed how we see nature. Getty Museum has a beautiful write-up and slideshow (with commentary) about her work. I particularly like the slideshow because it reveals how a young teenager scooped out insects from the mud and observed where they lived and what they ate, and then rendered the whole choreography of the ecosystem for us to see in delightful and visually articulate paintings.
I mentioned in my earlier post that women at that time were banned from pursuing both art and science; science primarily because it required working with nude bodies and corpses. Moreover, working with insects and reptiles was associated with witchcraft; and Merian was born during the peak years of witch-hunt. But, what I also forgot to mention as far as art is concerned is that, this was also a time when women were categorically forbidden from working with oil paints in most of Europe; and were restricted to watercolors because it was a limiting medium, and was associated with amateur work. Materials were therefore gendered, and informed what each work of art meant from a sociological point of view. Employing it the way Merian did however requires a great deal of mastery and virtuosity, which was clearly a skill she honed over many years of training from a real master, her stepfather, Jacob Marrel, a still-life painter of the Dutch Golden Age, who encouraged her to pursue art.
Merian broke every rule in the book when she became an artist and a scientist, and travelled to places farther than most men did to study insects (e.g.: she learnt from tribal people in the jungles of Surniname, which you can imagine wasn't a place many were familiar with at that time); that too as a middle-aged divorced woman with two young daughters. In spite of having no access to formal scientific education, she brought into being the whole study of ecology that deals with the relationship of organisms with their physical surroundings, and transformed science (especially botany and zoology, and within it entymology, or the study of insects) into the structured and disciplined field that it is today. She elevated the quality of botanical illustrations with her exquisite and accurate three-dimensional artwork. What is also fascinating is that she literally changed the language of science, from Latin to vernacular. The result of this was that she wasn't taken seriously by the scientific community during her time, but unconsciously transformed the rules of scientific writing for later decades.
She inspired her own daughters to become artists, publishers and business women. Although, she was married, she later separated from her husband and lived with her mother and two daughters in Amsterdam, and the four women together set up a botanical art studio, and published several artworks, and art and science books. Unfortunately, many of the books that survive today are heavily-used or damaged copies. What is particularly interesting is that she also took interest in teaching silk embroiderers and cabinet makers how to limn flowers. She exquisitely combined fine art with natural philosophy, scientific knowledge, and commerce.
I have lost count of all her exploits; but what is clear is that she had rule-breaking down to a fine art.
I recommend Kim's Todd's Chrysalis: Maria Sibylla Merian and the Secrets of Metamorphosis, about Merian's life, and her contribution to the metamorphosis of science, an age, and a society.
Here's another slideshow describing her artwork as part of the Royal Collection's Amazing Rare Things. The exhibition was collaborated with David Attenborough, and showcases artists who portrayed natural work with scientific interest from the 15th century onwards. There is also a beautiful coffee table book by the same name.
Here's a youtube video of a lot of her works set to Georg Friedrich Händel's music.
Scheherazade! How many back-to-back narrow escapes does it take before the audience faints from an overdose of suspense? Luckily, so far, I haven't had to find out, even though Argo came close. The story is based on real life, so I went into it knowing how it was going to end; and in spite of that, the narrative tension in the movie was so intense in the sequences leading up to the end that I was forced to suspend my knowledge of what is to come, and entertain the possibility of the 'other' unpleasant outcome while things were still playing out!
Argo has two things going for it. It is factual as far as the big picture story is concerned, and fictive as far as the plot details are concerned. The details are where the holes in our memory and the window of opportunity for narrative tension reside. And together, the fact (the real story) and the fiction (the movie) share a common 'essence', and trigger the same sentiments and streams of thought.
Since the 2000s, there have been more films based on real events than in all the ninety years of cinema prior to that. I have wondered why this is the case, especially since most of the recent stories are based on incidents that happened prior to the 2000s. This may be because retelling of past stories require big-ticket resources to accurately recreate those ambiences, without which we can't fully immerse ourselves in that world; and given that film budgets too have increased manyfold within this same timeframe, this is now more possible than before. Also, stories of the past naturally permit fictional embellishments because they require us to put ourselves in a world that we don't belong in. And retelling of stories that happened in the past can take advantage of the paradox of suspense, because when we seek a fictional version of the real story over a factual one, we are seeking "half-truths" over "the truth", and depend on them to create the narrative tension. That's how Argo delivers. Ironically, a dialogue in the film says "If I'm doing a fake movie, it's going to be a fake hit". I am of opinion that Ben Affleck made a real movie, and it was a real hit.
For a fuller experience, I suggest watching the film and reading the real story, and interviews of the filmmakers and people involved in this hostage crisis. Here's a start, for those who've watched the film, and those who love spoilers:
Of course, Wiki to Argo and Wiki to the Iran Hostage Crisis
Interview with Argo's screenwriter
Interview with Ben Affleck
Joshua Bearman's Wired write-up on Argo
The real story about the Airport Sequence
Tony Mendez on the True Story
Argo as seen by the hostage survivors
Iran's plans on making it's own Argo
Argo vs. Zero Dark Thirty
The Argo (Lord of Light) Storyboards
February 2013 Filed in: Films
"I use the Pensieve. One simply siphons the excess thoughts from one's mind, pours them into the basin, and examines them at one's leisure. It becomes easier to spot patterns and links, you understand, when they are in this form." - Dumbledore
Few movies make me feel uneasy. While I was watching Zero Dark Thirty, the torture and the raid had me in cold sweat; and when I came out of the theatre the narrative of Zero Dark Thirty left me in an ethical quagmire; each of these alone would have been enough to discomfit me, but what got me most is that I associated this movie with reality, and it didn't feel right.
Kathryn Bigelow is good at appealing to our raw and visceral impulses. She has a way of making the fictional aspect of the film virtually transparent. It is as if the story always existed (as presented); her film testifies to its existence (as presented), and it is now available for us to see and understand (as presented).
Her fiction feigns the innocent arrogance of objective fact that is indifferent to our response. And in this way, she entices us to view the film; and because of the way it is presented, where in you are a third-person with access to unfolding 'real' events, you see your reactions and judgments as being either instinctive or filtered through your prejudices. In this way, the film exercises authority over reality, and becomes a reality in its own right, whose verity need not be questioned.
It becomes less important if Bigelow drew the vase or the space around the vase, because only a part of it need be filled for us to complete the whole. But, we can never unsee the whole, and see only the part, and therein lies the dilemma of reality based fiction, and fiction based reality. Whose truth or fiction is the vase, whose is the space around it, and who is to take credit for the whole?
“You may break, you may shatter the vase, if you will, but the scent of the roses will hang round it still.” - Thomas More
Months after watching War Horse on Stage, I was still turning over in my mind how a horse made of sticks galloping in front of a ripped piece of paper with surrealist artwork on a bare stage can reveal so much of our world to us, and extend our empathy to an animal, and through it to the million men and horses who lost their lives in a war fought almost 100 years ago!
Humans empathize with everything. If one were to hold a pencil in his hand and call it his sweetheart and break it into two, we would wince like he just broke his sweetheart! So, it isn't very hard to imagine that we are capable of seeing real horses in horse puppets, empathising with them and reflecting on our choices through them. And, in War Horse, we extend our empathy to the most silent character in the story. We see war through this neutral trooper - a horse that finds itself in situations, endures the shafts of human battle as part of British, German, and French militaries, but makes no judgments of anyone.
I was hoping the Making of War Horse would show me what went into making those beautiful life-size horse puppets that looked and behaved just like real horses. This was after I had watched a Ted talk demonstration of the same by the Handstring Puppet Company, followed by the play itself. I just couldn't get enough.
What I saw instead of the making of puppets was the rehearsal of the men who worked inconspicuously from inside the puppet to project a real animal onto it. I also saw them rehearsing wearing just horse hats made of paper, holding a rod that served as a whole horse puppet; and they synchronised their gallops and neighs, the movements of a ear or the tail. They weren't just letting the horses be horses, but were being horses themselves, and reacting not to dialogue, but the emotional temperatures of the scenes. It was like watching kids transform empty boxes into vehicles and themselves into beasts! Only, here, each puppeteer operated one bit of the horse, and together they determined how we saw the whole animal and reacted to it; so the audience was also engaging in their game!
Without going into the contents of the documentary itself, but continuing from where it left off, here is some of what the stage play captures beyond what meets the eye.
The first world war marked the beginning of the end of the old order in Europe. Technology was radicalized and warfare changed beyond recognition. Even as armies were learning to cope with the new changes and adapting their tactics, they were active at war and becoming casualties. Everything from aircrafts, machine guns, automatic rifles, tanks, poison gas, barbed wire and trenches were used for the first time, and what ensued was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen! You see the war in the play, and you see the stage turn into a dark war zone, as troops line up for battle, and huge tanks and machine guns come rolling out, overwhelming the British army. It is men on horses against machines!
The art movements of the time too were bloody but unbowed. The futurists saw war as cleansing the old orders, and the anvil upon which the 'new man' would be forged. Their aesthetic of art celebrated machinery and violence. Marinetti, in his Futurist Manifesto declared that "Art can be nothing but violence, cruelty and injustice". He saw war as inherent to life itself, and wanted art to "glorify war - the world's only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman". Britain too had its own Vorticists who wanted to wipe out all traces of the Victorian age and place the machine age at the very centre of their art work. You see these two cubist "offshoot" movements represented on the stage, in the backdrops and through the harsh lighting. Every scene was like Paul Nash's surrealist paintings, with stark landscapes, spaces full of darkness defined through light.
But none of this describes how bad the violence really was, and that's where Michael Morpugo's novel and the inspiration behind it comes in. He saw FW Reed's frightening painting of horses during the First World War, in which, Germans were shooting at the British cavalry charging up a hill into german lines. And as men were being shot at, a mass of horses had already become entangled in barbed wire. Later in the documentary, it is revealed that 8 million horses were killed during the first world war, and one to two million were from Britain alone!
With all the improved technology, the horses were still used for cavalry charges, because of the quick mobility they provided, and they remained the best means for moving scouts, supply wagons, ambulances, and artillery to the battlefield. But in spite of all that, the staggering loss of horses meant rural life throughout Europe would never be the same again. Some breeds were so reduced in number that they were in danger of disappearing. It changed the color and culture of the continent and also the ways in which things were done, including farming, mining and transport!
In a way the play captured and represented the fractured environments and inhuman landscapes of the early 20th century through a personal story, not of a soldier, or an animal, but of a collective people. It was a community going to war and returning to what little remained of home.
I enjoy that the whole story can be understood only by allowing ourselves to take in fragments of accounts through various mediums. It is a children's novel set in a historic context of World War I, with a central animal character, that came about as a result of the author's interactions with war veterans, his observations of a young boy's relationship with a horse, some old paintings and photographs of world war, and the poetry of Edward Thomas; It then got transformed into a stage play with puppets that introduced us to the aesthetic of various art movements at the time, and the folk songs that gave us a sense of the community… and together they wove something of a human narrative!
Slightly off-topic, but on the subject of human empathy, here is an interesting TED talk where Jeremy Rifkin explains how we are rethinking the human narrative.
It has been nearly 150 years since Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was written, and hundreds of creatives have taken a stab at it and made it their own; the depth and beauty of each interpretation rivalling the other, and exalting the original. I find myself delighting in at least one adaptation of Alice a year.
The story is a very physical one that is both literal and fantastical, and therefore lends itself well to being communicated through any medium! But, no previous adaptation saw audiences line up at the box office at 3:30 AM to get rush tickets like Christopher Wheeldon's contemporary ballet when it first premiered in 2011! Even when we saw it last week at the Kennedy Center, two years since its premiere, and a year after our own Washington Ballet performed its interpretation of Alice in April 2012, it was sold out! The day also coincided with Lewis Carroll's 181st birthday!
I could feel his spirit in the dance and music, even though they were the two elements missing in the book; Likewise, the book had wordplay and logical puzzles locked into every page and the ballet had no words! And still, Wheeldon managed to replace the literary strengths of the book with physical and subversive humor, ballet wit, and an astounding visual and melodic vocabulary. It was enthralling to see all the scenes rising from the pages and translating into movement. The music, characterization, dance and decor, all had a cinematic and colorful feel that played on the physicality of the written word and catered to our non-literal perception of the world.
But, what I liked the most about the ballet is that it drew on the life of Lewis Carroll himself; especially his controversial connection with children. He played a pivotal character in the ballet, wherein he appeared as a family friend and photographer at the garden party hosted by the Liddell family; He entertained the young Liddell daughters (including Alice), and eventually transformed into the White Rabbit and lured Alice into the rabbit hole! This is much like in Carroll's real life, where he spent a lot of time with a real Liddell family, and is said to have originally narrated the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to the young Liddells! He was also considered one of the best amateur photographers of his time, back when photography was still in its infancy. He particularly enjoyed photographing close family, friends and children… but eventually gave up the hobby when the art got easier with technological advancements, and it ceased to excite him in the same way.
He played a vital role in bringing up his eleven siblings, entertaining them with funny stories, puzzles, magic and puppetry, and you see all these elements in the ballet. The ballet was narrated in an episodic manner, where each story took place in a new exotic setting: some grotesque, some orchidaceous, and some eye-catchingly foreign-looking; all multi-dimensional and enhanced with hi-tech video projectors that magically flowed in and out of the same space! There were several whimsical characters in flamboyant costumes, displaying talent, drama and humor all at once. It was a visual wonder that exceeded my wildest imagination. It was as if every scene was an elaborate visual panegyric celebrating Carroll's love for magic!
To describe some of the scenes, there was a typical English garden party attended by an Indian maharaja in a palatial Victorian manor; Alice went down the rabbit hole and found herself in the curious hall with many locked doors that seemed to get bigger and smaller as she got tinier and taller; At one point, Alice was trapped inside a tiny tilted room that appeared out of no where; She swam in between waves in a pool of her own tears with several exotic animals; This was the same pool that she later sailed on in a paper boat with the White Rabbit (This scene was inspired by Lewis Carroll's love for folding paper and setting them off to sail in the water); She found herself outside the Duchess' pretty cottage that later revealed itself as a grotesque Sweeney Todd-esque pig butchery; She encountered a nutty tap-dancing Mad Hatter in his bizarre tea party, followed by an exotic middle eastern caterpillar in a shimmering mushroom; She joined the Queen of Hearts and the Duchess in the Victorian maze garden for a game of croquet (a game Lewis Carroll is known to love) using flamingoes and hedgehogs; and finally found herself in a courtroom made of a deck of cards (another game he is known to love) and implored the Queen to release the Knave!
The music gave the ballet its textural bulk and worked with the other visual elements to both enhance the humor and drive the narrative forward. It was always in the foreground, communicating the emotions and dialogues for the actors, and creating atmospheric underscores. Every character that Alice met, was on his own musical journey with a different musical instrument associated with him, that she then painted over with the aural colour of her own mood! It was wonderful to see how the same musical elements of a character transformed as they got filtered through another character's emotions! Or how the composer used a violin for the Queen of Hearts, a celesta for the White Rabbit, a oboe d’amore for the middle eastern caterpillar and so on, and layered each in a way that they worked together in perfect melodic and rhythmic harmony. And my favourite part was when the music and dance came together more rhythmically in the Mad Hatter's frenzy-filled tap dance, and the caterpillar's undulating moves!
There were some dance elements that were both hilarious and unbelievably athletic. For instance, the Queen of Hearts paid tribute to the Rose Adagio in the Sleeping Beauty ballet, which is a difficult sequence in which she had to keep steady on one foot for over a minute, while pirouetting and performing various moves. In Sleeping Beauty, the ballerina is aided by four princes who take turns as she takes off from each of them and proceeds to dance with the next. But, since the cavalry is fearful of dancing with the Queen, should they accidentally make the wrong move and have their heads cut off, the resulting dance was particularly comical, and portrayed the queen as being graceful, fierce, and uncoordinated all at once!
Sometimes, even though the live orchestra was visibly prominent, in between the stage and the audience, I got so involved in the drama that I forget that there were real people playing the music that these dancers were performing to!
As much as Alice in Wonderland has transformed over the years, the creative leaps in Performing Arts too have been getting curiouser and curiouser throughout this time! There was as much choreography off stage as there was on stage, and you could tell that from how swiftly the sets appeared and disappeared, and actors changed costumes in no time and looked dramatically different every time they entered the stage.
The divide between the stage and the audience was sometimes momentarily bridged, when the audience was in Wonderland, and the flower dancers danced among us, and confetti rained from above, while Alice was in the curious hall with the many locked doors, trying to get to where we were! She was first too tiny and then too tall, and tried very hard to squeeze through a peewee door and set foot in our Wonderland, but to no avail!
Then, there were hi-tech video projectors, large and small, that created perspective as Alice spiralled down the rabbit-hole and had many out-of-the-way things happen to her.
When technology was not used, there were invisible men puppeteering a giant-sized Cheshire cat whose limbs disengaged from the body and floated about freely all over the stage and around Alice. He was my most favorite character in the ballet!
When you have $2 million dollars, oodles of talent, and a whimsical Lewis Carroll story at your disposal, there is no limit to what Alice can dream up; Unlike the book, where she played an observer, here she was the architect of her journey, so she could stay in Wonderland for as long as she wanted, but, unfortunately for me, she did ultimately wake up, and there ended my dream.
Here are some articles on Lewis Carroll, a man of many personalities, and the real Alice:
Lewis Carroll: An Unconventional Character
Lewis Carroll's magic
Years Beyond The Rabbit Hole, 'Alice' Looks Back
Review of "The Mystery of Lewis Carroll"
The Lewis Carroll Society of North America
(Mary Blair is the artist who did the concept art for Disney's Alice in Wonderland!)