Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Doctor Who Review - "The Magician's Apprentice"

The premiere episode of Doctor Who this year, despite ending on a sharp cliffhanger, was better than any of its series finales in recent memory. This is a very good sign.

I've been more excited for series 9 than any other Doctor Who series I've lived through, and last weekend's episode only confirmed my hopes. We may be looking at the best-written, best-conceived set of episodes since the show's revival over ten years ago.

I'd like to start reviewing episodes of this show as they come out, but I'm afraid I can't do that without MAXIMUM SPOILERS. So beware. Also, if you haven't yet, take advantage of the BBC's (perhaps only temporary) generosity and watch the episode online legally for free. No joke.

The tone that this first episode sets for the series is lighter than that of last year's, with strong emphasis on the brilliant chemistry between the three leads: The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), and Missy (Michelle Gomez). At the same time, it has a realism and melancholia about it that makes it more effective than most of last year's "dark" series. The episode also does something that characterizes the best Doctor Who stories in that it gracefully balances character, plot, and environment, with spectacular results.

When I was trying to figure out what made this episode seem so fresh and different, I realized that we never see the Doctor inside of the Tardis; in fact, we only get a fleeting glimpse of the Tardis interior at all. For that matter, aside from the cold open, we don't see the titular character until half way through the episode.

These choices do not detract from the episode, rather they are carefully calculated to bring the focus to where it matters: the absence of the Doctor from the lives of his friends (Clara and Missy) who are genuinely worried for his safety.

Clara, who has been promised to live out her golden years this season, is in rare form, managing to remain cold and confident while still being warm and cuddly when necessary. In another departure from last season, we see very little of her life at school—this episode doesn't have time for B stories.

And then there's Missy. She arguably stole the show in series 8, and it looks like she might do the same again. Besides being an absolute pleasure to watch, she gets some of the funniest lines (one of my favorites is when she exasperatedly repeats the word "anachronisms" after hearing an electric guitar in 1138 A.D. Essex). But she isn't just comic relief; she delivers as a positively despicable villain as well. When she and Clara come face-to-face, there is a delightfully Mission: Impossible vibe to the music and mise-en-scène, and an unexpected bit of cruel menace will remind you why Missy is feared across the universe.

Now about that guitar. That particular anachronism comes in during what may be Capaldi's most iconic shot as the Doctor, so far at least, if not for the rest of his run. The reveal is set up so perfectly that I remember having my breath slightly taken away, and thinking: "is that a tank?" Capaldi's performance of his metal rendition of the Doctor Who theme is a nice nod to his own punk-rocker status, and you can't help but smile when he begins to play Oh, Pretty Woman when he spots Missy and Clara from afar (I don't know what I like better about this moment: Clara's reaction, or the fact that you don't know which woman the reference is meant for, if not both).

All this, and I've barely said a word about the plot. I guess it's hard to analyze when I've only seen the first of two parts. At its simplest, the plot has to do with the Doctor's death, or at least what he foresees as his own death, and what it has to do with another one of his oldest enemies.

"The Doctor is dying" has become an all-too-familiar trope (and that's not even counting regeneration drama), and one which I dislike because it never truly delivers. This time, however, the use of it isn't insufferable, because the story never relies on it for its tension.

The focus of the death conceit is meant to reveal how the Doctor would respond to his upcoming demise. Missy describes the way a Time Lord is supposed to die as full of "meditation, repentance, and acceptance ... contemplation of the absolute." This, of course, is exactly what the Doctor cannot achieve. We see his hyper-intelligent ADHD on display in the prequel shorts "Prologue" and "The Doctor's Meditation," in which his constant worrying and procrastination leads him to abandon repentance, and throw an explosive three-week party (Clara aptly references Dylan Thomas' Do not go gentle into that good night). This party is comparable to the two-hundred year "farewell tour" of series 6, but, despite being on a much smaller scale, I find the former much more effective. The Doctor's eccentricity ("it's my party, and all of me is invited") doesn't alienate us him, it only brings us closer to his humanity, if such a term could be applied to him. When Clara and the Doctor are reunited, it feels real. There's a great shot during their hug of the Doctor's tortured eyes glancing over his sunglasses—if you watch it enough times, it will start to haunt you. When he meets Missy, she too seems like an old friend, despite the fact that he's supposed to think she's dead. The ease into which they slide into buddy banter is perfectly captured.

But the plot must be pushed forward, here by a new monster called Colony Sarff (Jami Reid-Quarrell), who more evokes Star Wars Sith Lords and Harry Potter Death Eaters than a Doctor Who alien. He leads our trio to his employer, who, as I'm sure you know, is Davros. The events of the cold open, the Doctor's assumed death, and the words of the Fourth Doctor in "Genesis of the Daleks" that we hear again in "The Magician's Apprentice," all of these things are connected, though only implicitly. This ambiguity, this refusal to face the elephant in the room is what creates the tension of the episode. This is what makes the Doctor's shame compelling. We really don't know how bad his "bad thing" was.

Bringing back the Tom Baker-era reference to the question of whether or not the means justifies the end and giving it immediate relevance is a bit of thematic brilliance, even if the coincidence of the cold open is hard to swallow. It's actually rather interesting when you consider the implication that, even if the Doctor avoided such opportunities (killing evil dictators before they become powerful), he would eventually stumble across one, if only by accident, where he would be forced to make a decision. We don't get to find out his decision in this episode, but it will inevitably be the focus of the next.

The second half of the episode has some great nostalgia triggers. Besides the Doctor interacting with Davros (Julian Bleach), and several references to their past dialogues, we get multiple Dalek models, and we revisit their home planet, Skaro (the reveal of the planet involves one of my new favorite bits of technobabble: "syncing with the spectrum"). We get a great idea of the iconic good versus evil relationship of the Doctor and Davros, of the conflict that "survived the time war." Davros gets some deliciously evil, yet still character-rich lines ("Hunter and prey, held in the ecstasy of crisis. Is this not life at its purest?" "Let this be my final victory, let me hear you say it, just once: compassion is wrong.")

I should admit that Missy and Clara's "deaths" had no emotional effect on me, nor, while being emotionally effective, did the Doctor's begging for Clara's life convince me she was actually about to die. No one questions (or so I thought) that these characters will be back for the next episode. I understand that, again, the episode doesn't rely on this tension, but this fake-out trope, similar to the one I mentioned earlier, is tiresome, manipulative, and, honestly, not necessary, given the other great sources of drama in the show. While this is the biggest flaw of "The Magician's Apprentice," I thought the episode was a fantastic start to the series ... though perhaps I'll need to see part two before I can judge it truly.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

On Pilgrimage

Nowadays, it is rare to hear the word “pilgrimage.” Even more rare is when someone should invite you to participate in a pilgrimage. Somehow, though, when this very thing happened to me a few months ago, it didn’t come as a surprise to me. My time with Gioventù Studentesca hasn’t been long, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned it isn’t, it’s predictable.

It wasn’t until well after the pilgrimage that I realized what a senseless thing to do it would seem to someone not led by my motivations. To walk ten miles from one church to another, across an unfriendly landscape, carrying a statue on a litter on my shoulders, no less. Many would call this absurd.

This realization has caused me to question myself: Why should I want to go on a pilgrimage? Perhaps suffer discomfort and inconvenience? And most importantly, does this pilgrimage change anything in any substantial and meaningful way? I certainly was far from a fully realized person before this pilgrimage, so if it didn’t get me closer, was it worth it?

One reason to go on a pilgrimage is one that made itself present to me more than I expected, indeed, more than had ever even crossed my mind. We go on pilgrimage to bear witness to others. How strange it must be to see ordinary people walking along a trail where no one was meant to walk (seriously, I don’t remember crossing someone else’s path a single time). There was something definitely joyful about jarring people who seemed to have no business being jarred during their daily routine. But miraculously, people looked at us, people smiled, they honked their horns in approval. Some even asked "what on earth are you doing, and what’s that you’re carrying?" I almost wouldn’t know how to answer them, I’m just now figuring it out myself.

I, like many, have a very distracting life. And as most young people are, I’m exceedingly preoccupied with my future. I’m always trying to avoid the bad outcomes of life, and working to make the best one possible happen. But this whirlwind can make it hard to think about anything else. Now, I don’t think you should give up on your life plans, just consider why you have them.

While going on a ten-mile pilgrimage may seem like a pointless trip to nowhere, I think it was just what was needed. All my plans for what I want to be in the future mean nothing if I can’t find worth in what I am now. I was able to slow down and just walk, not for the sake of getting somewhere, but for the sake of being someone. And not just being someone, but encountering someone. I believe that God loves to meet us during events that are paradoxically both everyday, and bizarre. It’s His way of saying "Look! This could happen all the time, if you let it."

This pilgrimage opened up a new way of looking at the relationship between God and reality precisely because it took me somewhere I didn’t know I wanted to go. I saw with fresh eyes the nature of grace in the same way that a long absence from a familiar place brings back memories you forgot you had. It was a way of bringing my life back to the origin, finding a meaning to my plans that I couldn’t find while looking at them from the inside. Sometimes you just need that one crazy person to bring you outside of yourself. It’s better out there.

This article was originally written in response to the August 15th, 2014 Youngstown Marian Pilgrimage. All editing and formatting liberties are taken to reproduce this article.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Musicians in the Orchestra

This oil painting by Edgar Degas was made in 1872, and gives us a worm’s eye view of a stage on which ballerinas dance, and places us directly behind three musicians in the orchestra pit.

The musicians that have their backs to us play, from left to right,  a violin, a cello, and an oboe, respectively. Along with their instruments, their differing hair colors (brown, black, and white) give these men character: they aren’t just standard extras in the performance, they are humans contributing their passion to it.

Beyond layers of sheet music and violin bow tips, we see the edge of the stage. A line of flowery-dressed dancers trails off into the background, while one stands apart from them, gazing forward open-armed. Though she smiles toward the audience, the position that we are in makes it seem that she is looking towards the pit, and by extension, at us.

The backdrop that the ballerinas are set against is abstract and impenetrable. Wide brush strokes of silver, blue, and green only just define a tree and sky. The crude and scattered markings become smoother around the figures of the ballerinas. It is obvious that Degas wants us to be paying attention to the musicians in the foreground—the little people whom he has made big.

The image is split down the middle horizontally by the stage, defining two separate worlds. The ballerinas are adored by the audience, floating beatifically across the stage, while the musicians below them often go unnoticed. The top of the image is also somewhat divided, but vertically, subtly pointing out the greater admiration given to the leading role than to the background characters. Upon close inspection, one can see contempt on each one of the secondary ballerinas faces. It’s hard to believe that this is an accident, given the expression of the lead dancer.

It’s likely that Degas was inspired to paint this image after witnessing a performance similar to it, and realizing the important roles the musicians and minor dancers play. In creating Musicians in the Orchestra, he lets us into his mind; we enter into a realization of the profound within the forgotten details.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

The Stoning of Saint Stephen

This oil painting from 1625 is the first work of the Dutch Golden Age master, Rembrandt van Rijn. It tells the biblical story of the martyrdom of St. Stephen, who was stoned until dead by the Jewish citizens for his Christian faith.

The image strongly uses light and dark, or chiaroscuro, in its layout. We see a rear view of a man on the back of a horse, as well as one of Stephen’s executioners, both in relative darkness. In contrast, Stephen, surrounded by a group of men holding stones, is in direct, almost heavenly light. You can even make out the very line that separates the light from the darkness, as if it were a spotlight on the action.

Strangely, Stephen wears a bright red robe with tassels and intricate design, while the men around him wear simple white or dull colored tunics. Though this may be historically unlikely, it certainly draws the eye towards the Saint, who is the focal point of the painting. The man on the horse is also in scarlet, though, and wears a feathered turban. Behind him and to the left, even deeper into the darkness, is a similarly dressed man, and in the background, on a hill, stand a huddle of officials watching the stoning, and talking among themselves. All of their clothing seems to be inspired by Southern European Renaissance garb.

Even farther into the background stands an aged castle, beautifully designed and overgrown with foliage. It stands against a foreboding grey sky, one that looks like it may at any time open up to witness the tragic and transcendent event below.

We find Stephen himself on his knees, one hand stretched up towards the heavens, the other opening up towards the ground. The line of motion of his arms gives his figure a sense of urgency and dynamism. In his face we see fear, but also acceptance of his fate. His eyes squint in anticipation, his lips purse.

Directly above him, a bearded man stands ready to crush his head with a stone. His arms are raised above his head dramatically, forming that familiar triangle shape. The other men’s faces generally display either hatred or agony, but this man is collected, exhibiting only a stern pity. Next to him, we see a man who has just released his stone. Catching Stephen in the small of the back, the stone is shown in midair just beyond the edge of his side.

This painting uses prominent contrast of light and color to illustrate religious persecution, and the humanity of the players, which often gets muddled up in the process. Though our sympathy lies with Stephen, the design of his murderers leads us to think about their emotions and motivations, as if made clear by the same divine light that illuminates their bodies.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Resurrection of Jesus

This 1424 image is by Master Francke, a German Gothic painter. It shows Christ emerging from His stone tomb, surrounded by drowsy guardsmen.

The style of the painting is idealistic, but with a sense of caricature, especially of the guards around the tomb. Heads are made large for their bodies, and the faces are grotesque and distorted.

In the center of the painting, we see a tomb that looks more like a standard coffin than the traditional cave-like structure we’re familiar with. Christ has His back to the viewers, one leg over the edge of the tomb. He’s draped in a triumphant red cloak, and holds a scepter bearing a red banner and capped with a gold cross. His halo is nothing but a thin circle around His head; it uses the golden morning light in the background as its coloring. Though we can only see the top half of Christ’s face, His eye and eyebrow convey a sense of strength and determination.

Against the horizon stand brown rocky cliffs and evergreen trees. They are simply crafted, and are designed to lead the eye back to the main action.

In the foreground we see about ten of the grotesque guards, all dressed in bright and diverse clothing, and completely surrounding the tomb. Many of them carry spears or swords. While some of their faces are hidden in their sleep, others seem just about to open their eyes and catch sight of the escaping figure of Christ.

The image lacks realistic perspective, and seems to crawl up rather than back into space. The general composition of the image presses flat against the viewing plane, and uses the triangular shape of the guards, the tomb, and Christ Himself to point directly to Christ’s face.

What is the artist trying to show us with this image? Jesus isn’t here to just stare back at us: He has places to go. Whether it’s over the hills we see in the background, or past the edge of the painting, He is headed out to complete His mission. His stare also seems to fall on the sleeping and inattentive men around Him, too distracted to notice the glorious event they might have been a part of. Whatever we do, we certainly should not be like the passive soldiers in this painting. I think they are representative of, not those who are purely evil, but those who simply take no notice of the Christian life, like in the parable when the seed falls upon the path.

This painting can be seen as a call to action: to get behind Christ and follow Him into eternity. We’ve witnessed His triumph over death, and now we can walk away from those who are spiritually asleep, and wake up to new life.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Carrying of the Cross

The Carrying of the Cross by Jacquemart de Hesdin, a French Renaissance painter, depicts Christ on His way to Calvary amid a large group of people. I would call the style idealistic, with a focus on the characters depicted and their role in the overall narrative that connects the separate parts of the painting.

The use of color in the painting involves bold contrast. The entire image seems to burn with a golden glow, with large patches of red and deep blue scattered across it. Christ and Mary are linked together with striking blue robes, as she follows Him, weeping. Christ is turned to face a cluster of women, who reach out to Him mournfully. We think of Jesus meeting the women of Jerusalem, as well as meeting his mother, a juxtaposition of the fourth and eighth stations of the cross.

The cross that Christ carries is T-shaped, and hanging impossibly far back behind and over His shoulder. A man with some semblance of a halo around his head, similar to one around Mary’s, reaches out in wonder as if to support the end of the cross. Perhaps this is meant to be Simon of Cyrene, or perhaps Simon is the older man whose face is sharply inserted between Christ’s and Mary’s.

The painting has a busy background, though it gives the impression of moving straight up rather than back into the distance. Soldiers, clerics, and warriors armed with shields and spears crowd behind Christ. One of the thieves who is to be crucified alongside of Christ carries an identical cross behind Him. The shapes of the two crosses intersect, and provide a strong geometric framework that bisects the painting. Just behind him, you can just see the second thief.

Behind this sprawl of people, a rocky cliff crawls up on the right, and a castle is placed opposite it on the left. Between the two is a brilliant night blue sky with a morbid scene against it. We see Judas hanging himself from a tree, one hand grasping the noose symbolically. A ladder leans against the tree beneath him, as what looks like a winged demon flies around his head. A small figure, half hidden by the horizon, looks up at Judas in horror. This whole scene is greatly out of scale: while logically, it must be farther away than the castle, it’s painted big enough to be much closer.

Christ Himself doesn’t seem to be the main figure in this image, or at least not the only one. He almost seems to be lost among the action that’s going on. When you consider this along with the relative size of Judas, it’s clear that the artist wants much of the attention to be on the recent suicide in the background. The story is clear: the man above is responsible for the events below, and the event below is in turn responsible for the choice Judas finally made. The man now dead will soon be joined by the man he betrayed, but will most likely have a less glorious epilogue.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.

Monday, August 10, 2015

What I Know and Don't Know About Art

Because I’ve grown up in an artistic family, I feel like I have had more positive experiences with art than usual. For as long as I can remember, I’ve not only been surrounded by books about and prints of fine art, but been encouraged to create my own art as well. As far as visual art goes, I mostly have experience drawing in pencil and marker.

Creating art has always been my primary mode of self-expression in my everyday life, even if most of my art is kept to myself. I think art can be used to show an audience otherwise inexpressible things about oneself, and also about what the artist believes about the world and what lies beyond it. While art can be meaningful when kept between the artist and God, the primary direction of art should from the artist to humanity.

I think there is an inherent mystique about art that makes it hard to ever know everything about it, whether in general as a concept, or in reference to any specific work. This tension can be frustrating, but also very liberating. It opens up a new way of looking at things for both artists and those who merely observe.

Because of the mysterious nature of art, and the fact that it is a term spread across such a disparate group of mediums, it is hard to come up with a satisfying definition of art. Anything you try to come up with seems to exclude one thing or another that could be considered art.

The best definition I can think of is “a work of human production that in some way can bring us closer to Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.” Now a huge amount of things can fall into this category. Not all of them might be considered ‘good art.’ One thing I don’t know about art is any particular way of deciding whether it is good, or whether such a thing even can be done. Perhaps if it falls under my definition at all, it automatically has some worth. But surely some art is better than others?

The theme of paradox that is prevalent in this course seems to fit well with my experience with art. I know that art is often found in unexpected and unexplainable places, and can change your life in seemingly impossible ways. There is something beautiful about the fact that a thing that may seem so small and unimportant (as many people may see art, especially amateur art) can be the seed of the greatest existential conversions.

Art is often described as something which is used to produce an emotion, whether positive or negative. While this is indeed a function of art, it is important to allow the artwork to carry that emotion to its natural conclusion, which should be some sort of greater realization of the previously mentioned Transcendentals. Finding out exactly how this next step, the resolution to an experience, will play out is one of the most exciting parts of art for me.

This paper was written for my Visual Art and the Catholic Imagination college course. All necessary editing and formatting liberties were taken to present this text.