Brick by Brick

Brick building

The trendy thing to do in Southern New Hampshire at the moment is to renovate old mill buildings and re-purpose them for homes and offices. Mill buildings are turned into apartments in the town where Karen and I live, and the largest city in the state has a riverfront of old mill buildings that have become university campuses, sport bars, shops, and offices of various shapes and colors. My day job is in one of these buildings, a cool, creative loft-space that offers a really nice view of the city. Construction is still ongoing in the adjacent building, and my lunch conversation with a colleague this week centered around watching the workers one floor below and one building over. Bricks were being chiseled out and hauled away by the dumpster full, and mention was made of the worth of those bricks in monetary terms.

I think there’s more worth to them than that. Something that you notice quickly if you transplant to New England is the age of the buildings. Things have been around a lot longer up here. That initially brings some headaches if you’re not accustomed to the differences in architecture (getting a bed frame up a flight of the notoriously narrow staircases of many homes here is a challenge of occasionally epic proportions), but it’s a good thing overall. There’s more character here. When I watched those workers haul bricks away by the wheel-barrow load to place onto a front-loader, I thought of the hands that would have initially carried those bricks, and carefully placed them together to form the building in which we stood, so many years later.

Brick by brick.

I grew up with a father who worked in a technological field, but whose love was crafting things from wood. He kept a fully-equipped workshop in a detached building, and escaped to it whenever he could. He carved shapes and built small structures, many with surprising usefulness, others for simple aesthetics, but all with the best craftsmanship of which he was capable. There are other woodworkers out there of much more skill, certainly, but he was quite good himself, and with no formal instruction. My father loved handling the wood. He enjoyed the feel of it. Watching his creative synergy happen with the shapes that he carved was inspiring.

My grandmother created with needle and thread. Quilting is an art that borders on extinction, and she left a legacy behind her that has helped others to know her. My father will leave his creations behind, as well, one day. My mother was a ceramic potter of sorts, and has gifted things to me that she has made. I sincerely hope that the words I’ve penned will be left for our daughter, because that’s something that she will be able to hold onto, something tangible that I created, as my father’s wooden sculptures and my grandmother’s quilts are to me.

As I’ve watched the workers carry away those bricks this week, I think of the history left behind by the workers who originally built the structures. It’s important to do good work, because the work we do is a gift, a legacy, to the culture as a whole. I doubt that the workers who built the building that houses my office originally were all happy about their labor. I also doubt that they could foresee the future of their labor. And, so it is with all of us, because all of us create in some capacity.

Whatever your craft, know that it carries a legacy, that it will be something that you leave behind for others as you practice it. Respect that.

And do good work.

Photo Attribution: Ryan M under Creative Commons

A Review of “Maleficent”

I’m going to be honest: this was just not at all the sort of film that I would have gone to see on my own. Mostly because the genre just isn’t my taste. I had heard many of my friends talking about it, and knew that there was quite some buzz about it. I heard others discussing it, obviously purists, and thought that this must be what others feel like when I review a film from the superhero genre.

I’ll keep up the honesty. I went only because, on a Friday afternoon with an unexpected offer by the grandparents to watch our daughter, Karen announced that she had really been wanting to see it, and asked if I would get tickets. This really is her genre, so I was into going just because she wanted to go. She, after all, sits through many superhero movies with me. Initially, that was my sole motivator.

Continuing honesty: I’m not a fan of Angelina Jolie. Like, at all.

The final injection of honesty? I was absolutely astounded by this film.

You see, Disney did the literary landscape no favors by making fairy tales the stories that we’ve come to know. The tales originally penned by the Brothers Grimm and the like were more akin to horror stories than to “happily ever after” romances, and, honestly, the Sleeping Beauty story that I heard a child was quite…well, yawn-inducing. Maleficent, however, is no fairy tale. This film is a faerie tale, obvious from the first appearance of the protagonist on the screen. Even as a little girl, Maleficent’s appearance is striking, foreboding, her power obvious. Happy endings are not the goal of this film. The realism, rather, is gritty, the parallels to modern events too striking to avoid, not the least of which is the date rape metaphor. No flat characters exist in this story. One cannot neatly categorize them as the good or the bad. The character whom we expect to be the villain is the character with whom we find ourselves empathizing, understanding her emotions and motivations, if not her actions. The character that looks to be the heroic, upstanding and innocent victim of evil is the one who is wretched, twisted, and whom we find deserving of our disgust. This film is violent. This film is real. This film, like life, provides no easy answers, eschewing black and white and letting the audience wrestle through uncertain shades of grey. Perhaps because I’m more than a bit rusty on the tale as I knew it, and certainly on the story as it was originally written, I could see some liberties taken (most notably in the nature of the curse Maleficent casts on Aurora), but was far too busy being taken on the journey of the film to be put off by these. Either it was that beautifully written, or I’m not much a purist in the genre, or both. In either case, all of the pieces of the plot fit together perfectly at the end of my hour and a half in the theatre.

Jolie’s performance is stunning. Her pace never falters, her delivery is never less than perfect. The visual alterations in Maleficent as we walk through the gamut of her emotional experience are subtle enough to nearly miss at times, while jarring in their effect on the viewer’s psyche. This woman, innocent and lovely, becomes terrifying and dark, and the transformation is beautifully accomplished by Jolie’s acting, as well as the direction and design. I haven’t seen a movie put together this well in some time.

So many threads weave their way through this movie, driven by a complex, brilliant, and strong woman at the forefront. For what is perhaps the first time that I can recall, this genre has been taken seriously and placed on the screen unapologetically, wonderfully raw, real, and redemptive. The ending is not contrived, not stereotyped. That prince-rescuing-the-damsel-with-true-love nonsense? No, not here. There is something much, much more beautiful awaiting you at the end of this film.

This isn’t a movie to which you take your children. This is a movie, though, that you must go see. You will not look at the story of your childhood as you once did. You will ask important questions after you do. A terrific story, after all, enriches it’s audience, leaves you better than you went in.

Go see Maleficent. You will be enriched.

Acting In

Girl in theatrical makeup

One of my theatre professors in college talked a lot about how going out for coffee after seeing a show to discuss what you had just seen was an essential part of the experience. The audience is, after all, a part of the story, just as much as the actors on stage are, but are unique in the sense that they didn’t really know what to expect at all (it’s always in flux, but the actors have at least some idea). Talking after a show is really about de-briefing as much as anything else.

Part of the beauty of a theatrical performance is that it never really ends up the same way twice. That inconsistency is a beautiful thing, and a provocative thing. A huge part of the reason that it’s never the same performance two nights in a row is that the audience is completely different, and their reactions alter the performances of the actors on stage. Theatre isn’t so much a performing art as it is an interactive art, which is why it has become a lens for understanding communities, minorities, oppressed people groups, and theologies.

The understanding of interactivity, though, often stops with the question, what did the audience take away? The story being performed, after all, is ultimately being performed for the audience.

I’ve been involved in a lot of performances in a lot of different venues. I’ve done shows in huge auditoriums with state-of-the-art lighting equipment and elaborate sets, and I’ve done it on the street for community outreach projects with no sets or even costumes. What’s consistent is that the audience is always impacted.

What’s also consistent, though, is that the cast and crew are just as deeply impacted. And it’s not always through the performance.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself through the performances with which I’ve been involved. I’ve learned a great deal about others. I’ve learned a great deal about my faith. Theatre, in it’s capacity as a performing art, is a uniquely collaborative art. Many artists from different disciplines come together to form a production. Especially when you’ve been involved in several productions with the same group of people, you find that you’ve had a “foxhole” experience of sorts.

So, the experience for the audience is a huge part of theatre. Audience members going for coffee and discussing the show is a huge part of realizing what new things you know and appreciate about what it is to be human after a show. The cast and crew going for drinks after the curtain call is much the same. Theatre, being uniquely collaborative, is uniquely geared to delve into the experience of being human. So, whether you’re in the show or seeing the show, you’re having a deep experience with the person or people with whom you’re experiencing the show.

I just wish that the two sides…the actors and the audience…would connect and talk about what they’ve experienced more.

Have you seen a show lately? You should go do that…

Image credit: Alastair Barnsley  under Creative Commons

A Review of “X-Men: Days of Future Past”

In the past, there were films based on the favorite comic book characters of my youth. The first X-Men film left me positively giddy. I still have collectible figures floating around from the second. X-Men: The Last Stand left me angry, frustrated that such careless writing could have wreaked so much havoc on the story and characters. I thought the franchise had died at that point, until the Wolverine origins film. I prefer to just not talk about that one.

Then we were treated to X-Men First Class. I did talk about that one. Then there was the latest Wolverine film, which, while not exactly memorable, held a bit more promise. So, all that to say, when I saw the first trailer for X-Men: Days of Future Past, I held out hope. Days of Future Past is such a classic X-Men story arc, acclaimed by fans to be one of the best X-Men story arcs ever, in fact, that, if anything were going to save this cinematic canon, it would be this. I took a deep breath. I pounded down my cynicism. I made plans to go. I even saw it in 3D. I was hoping against hope that this film would repair the damaged history of the X-Men film canon.

History is, after all, what is at stake in the story. The X-Men must find a way to travel back in time to prevent an event from occurring that has led to a dystopian future in which mutants are hunted and killed by lethal and unbeatable robot Sentinels. This is an apocalyptic war that has destroyed most of the world, leaving it in Sentinels’ hands. So dark is this future, that, as Wolverine claims, “I’ve seen a lot of wars. But I’ve never seen anything like this.”

And Wolverine, of course, must be at the forefront of the story, because this is the only way that Fox has held on to any momentum with these movies. Historically the fan favorite of all the X-Men, Wolverine is reprised by Jackman, the same as all of our recurring characters are reprised by their original actors. This is good, and Jackman manages to breathe some life into this script, which speaks to his acting ability a great deal. Since, as Kitty Pryde must project someone’s consciousness back into the past to alter the course of the moment in history when everything changed, but the journey would destroy anyone else, Wolverine must make the journey because his healing factor will keep him alive. So, into the past he is projected…

Except, wait. Remember your (canonical) Marvel history here? It was Kitty who was projected into the past, not Wolverine, and since when can Kitty Pryde project anyone’s consciousness across temporal barriers? Oh, that’s right…since never!  Adaptations are one thing, but completely re-building characters…especially characters that have already been established on film…well, that’s just bad form.

And, speaking of bad form: The discrepancy in period settings and technology is serious enough as to completely break my suspension of disbelief on several occasions in the film (Cerebro is housed in the Xavier estates’ hi-tech sub-basement as always, while upstairs, Hank McCoy’s communication scanning setup feels decidedly steampunk in nature). Quicksilver, another long-time fan-favorite character, is introduced in this movie (somehow, Wolverine knows him?). Whenever we see a new character introduced in these movies, with the possible exception of Nightcrawler, we’ve been disappointed, and Quicksilver is no exception. The scene in which he is outrunning bullets is so campy, so implausible within the rest of the story as to not fit at all, and left me shaking my head wondering if the writers had any idea what they were doing. Primary characters reprised in Days of Future Past are relegated to fast-paced action scenes, with nearly no characterization work at all except for Wolverine, Xavier and Magneto. How a character as strong and important to the mythology as Bishop can be introduced, be visually impeccable, and experience no character development at all, leaves my jaw agape.

For Magneto and Xavier, at least, there is a moment in which Magneto recognizes the wasted years spent fighting each other, but even the insight into Magneto’s character we gained during X-Men First Class is left behind, and Xavier’s development, while a solid attempt, is ultimately shallow and without solid foundation.

In fairness, the film is redemptive in the end. While none of our heroes actually act as heroes, the emphasis on humanity’s ability to choose to do what is right at any time is the overarching theme. Unfortunately, this is overshadowed. Our heroes, fighting for their own survival, are decidedly un-heroic here. Our villains are bad for the sake of being bad (what, exactly, is Trask’s motivation, again?), and the potential for the themes with which the X-Men deal so profoundly…the danger of a police state, acceptance instead of fear, oppression of minorities…never really come to the surface. Perhaps the glimpse of redemption is a drop on a parched tongue in the end, and seemed more profound that it actually was.

In summary, X-Men: Days of Future Past plays off of the revisionist history established in X-Men: First Class while attempting to reconcile the disaster made by X-Men: Last Stand. The result is a scattershot and un-researched adaptation of a story arc permitted to run amok, explained away by history being changed, while also explaining away a contradictory history in the events of X-Men: Last Stand while attempting to tie up the decidedly atrocious ending of the latter in a neat bow. It’s too disorganized, too flippant, and ultimately too simple. This is shallow scripting and un-motivated character development, no more than a fleeting glimpse at what this story has, and should have, been.

Of course, there is a hidden ending (people amazingly continued to leave during the credits, although I can’t blame them after sitting through that), a hidden ending so visually awkward that I had to ask my friend who the character was in the end. It was a villain that I knew well from X-Men history. I didn’t even recognize him.


In the interest of cleaning up history…if we could project our consciousness backward to change history for the better…then X-Men: Days of Future Past would never have been made. We can’t do that. So I suppose we’ll just have to hope that history won’t repeat itself.