Watching Malcolm X

Spike Lee’s Malcolm X came out in 1992, much too long ago to write a relevant review.  Think of this not as a review, then, but an interpretation out of context.  I saw the film for the first time a few days ago.  Afterwards, slightly teary and numb, I realized three things.  First, I realized I had made it to over 50 years knowing next to nothing about Malcolm X.  Second, I realized that Spike Lee must have been born with the ability to punch his audience in the gut.  Third, I realized that when you watch a film outside the box created by its immediate cultural construction, it can signify other, more universal truths.

I knew that Malcolm X was a controversial figure; the opposite bookend to Martin Luther King.  I knew that he converted to Islam and said things that scared white people.  I knew when the movie came out that there was controversy over whether it was too black or not black enough. But that’s about all I knew.

When you go to the theater to see a film, you usually have read reviews or heard things about it so that you go to the theater with certain expectations.  In a sense, you’ve already been told how to “read” or see the film.  In 1992, I would have gone to see Malcolm X at a theater expecting to decide for myself if he was a scary, militant black figure, or a misunderstood one, portrayed too harshly or too softly.   But, through the magic of passing years, I had no such expectations this time, allowing me to experience a different reading of the film.

To me, Malcolm X was about a man searching for who he was and what he believed in (shiny suits, booze and drugs, white girlfriends and money).  That didn’t work so well for him, and he landed in prison where he continued his search (converting to Islam, taking pride in being a black man, finding a mentor/idol, becoming an advocate and speech-maker).  Perhaps to Malcolm X, at this point in his life, he felt he had arrived; his search over and his life dedicated to advocating and helping others in their search.  But, that’s not the way it happened.  Malcolm X found out that his mentors were hypocrites not heroes.  Suddenly, everything Malcolm believed in was on shaky ground.

What Malcolm X did next is what made the film so powerful to me.

He admitted that he’d been mistaken to trust his mentors.  He admitted that some of the positions he’d taken before, he could no longer support.  He said, essentially, “I was wrong.”  The triumph for Malcolm X was that he was able to throw out the bath water without pitching out the baby, too.  He continued to be a fierce advocate for black people, but had the courage to reject the hypocrisy of the leaders in whom he’d invested so much time and devotion, and the skill to determine which pieces of his belief system were corrupt and which still rang true.

Take all the racial and religious and civil rights issues aside, (just aside, not away) and the film has a different, more universal story.   Who hasn’t struggled to define themselves and the beliefs they hold?  Who hasn’t been disillusioned by those in whom we place our trust?  But, how many of us would have, afterwards, turned bitter, become jaded, fed up with the whole lousy thing?   The real lesson here is that the story of a black man is the story of us all.  Malcolm X stood for many things.  His life is something all of us should know more about.  But, his story, as told by Spike Lee, is a mythic tale of a hero.  Like a true hero, Malcolm X searched, failed, searched again and failed, then searched some more.  May we all have such stamina.

Mural Stories

Recently I picked up several rectangular shaped canvases – wider than they were tall.  The format feels like a mural, one that invites the viewer to “read” the finished piece from left to right.  Sure, it’s smaller than what we think of as a mural, it is fun for me to try to tell a story on these canvases.

Murals have been around for thousands of years.  Think cave paintings.  Our early ancestors tell us about how they lived in the paintings they left behind.

Chauvet Cave Paintings

Fresco of bull jumping in Knossos

Many murals throughout history were frescos.  Fresco comes from the latin affresco which means “fresh.”  In frescos, the paint is applied on plaster on walls or ceilings.  The frescos of the Middle Ages and Renaissance periods told biblical stories and mythic tales.  They were stories about the way people viewed their relationship with the world and its cosmic forces.

Giotto, Kiss of Judas from the Scenes from the Life of Christ fresco, Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel), Padova.

The Triumph of Bacchus and Ariadne, Annibale Carracc, 1597

In the 1930s, the Mexican muralism movement gave us stories of social issues by artists like Diego Rivera and Jorge Gonzalez Camarena.

Precencia de America Latina by Jorge Golzales Camarena

These artists drew on stories from their ancient past to reflect on social and political ideas.  In Diego Rivera’s mural of the Market in Tlatelolco, you can lose yourself in the ancient streets.

Diego Riveres’ Murales Rivera Market in Tlatelolco
Murals bring art to the public.  They are costly and outsized projects that generally require financing from a sponsor, like a local government or business as in Chemainus.  Throughout history, murals were financed by wealthy patrons of the arts.  Murals reflect a symbiotic relationship between artist, public, and our collective “story of the world.”   A mural brings exposure for an artist.  They bring exposure to the arts for the public.  Murals are a way of expressing the beauty and the heartache of world in which we live.
The west side of the Berlin Wall was poignant outcry against living in a world without freedom.
1986 view of the West side of the Berlin Wall
The Bardia Mural in Lybia by John Frederick Brill.
The Bardia Mural, created during World War II in Libya by artist John Frederick Brill shows images of war mixed in with beautiful images of the culture of his home.  Unfortunately, though the mural still exists, it has been defaced.  In 2009, Italian artists began renovating the mural.

Last year, Colquitt, Georgia was proclaimed Georgia’s First Mural City by its state legislature.  It will be the host of the 2010 Global Mural Conference.

Poster for the 2010 Global Mural Conference

The goal of the organization that sponsors the Global Mural Conference is to promote the wealth of artistic and creative talent available world-wide.  The Global Mural Conference was born in the Vancouver Island town of Chemainus.  Chemainus was a dying town, with closed factories and a sagging economy.  Then, in 1983, backed by the Ottawan government and local businesspeople, Chemainus commissioned 7 murals, plus 20 more over the next nine years.  The themes for the murals were mostly based on old photos from a book about the history of Chemainus.  Artists faced the challenge of painting directly on buildings, working around roof overhangs, windows, and door.  The tallest mural was 33 feet.  The longest was 120 feet.  The changed Chemainus into a cultural attraction.

Mural by Carl Marcano of Hong Hing's old store

One wonders sometimes how a person can remain committed to a project that is too big, too expansive, too unwieldy.  I believe the commitment comes from the deep need to tell our stories.

In Character: Exploring Character in Ken Follett’s World Without End

 

Moon Wishes by ruthsartsandletters on Etsy.com

Last night I said farewell to old friends. I left them where they were and walked down the dirt road that led through town. I passed through the heavy gates that protected the city. I walked over the bridge, the centerpiece of my friends’ lives, and out of the Middle Ages, back into 2010 and the busy paved street that led to my house with indoor plumbing, central heat and air, and a great big comfy reading chair. I closed my book, placed it on the table beside me and sat silently for a few minutes, grieving. I had just finished Ken Follett’s historical fiction novel World Without End.

After nine hundred and twenty-seven pages, I had become attached to a cast of fascinating people. In the best novels, we are deliciously tricked into believing that when we close the cover, life between the pages goes on without us. How can characters so vivid just disappear into thin air when the book is closed? Therein likes the writer’s craft. Character Basics

Unlocking the character code can be a tool for critiquing literature. A character is born where speech, appearance, and action come together around a name. A characterization is the process by which the writer makes the character seem real to the reader. The protagonist, a hero or heroine, is the character with whom we become most deeply involved. The antagonist is the character that parallels or opposes the protagonist, providing the conflict in the story. A character that does not change through the text is a static character. A dynamic character does go through change as a result of the action in the plot. A flat character is one that has one or two simple qualities or traits and is not psychologically complex. Sometimes flat characters are called “stock characters.” These can be easily summarized, and are more a “type” than an individual.

Characters that are more complex and fully developed are round characters or dramatized characters. Round characters generally are consistent in action and reaction, and plausibly motivated. Writers may use direct presentation to tell the reader by exposition or analysis about the character. Writers also use indirect presentation, showing the character in action and letting the reader infer the character’s qualities. Traditionally, readers explore characters on a personal level. In other words, a reader asks, “What kind of person is this character? Is she a person I’d like to know?”

A reader might also try to figure out why the character behaves as she does, or compare the character’s action with what we would do in a similar situation. In order for a reader to become involved with a character on a personal level, we make a few assumptions about literary characters •• The character is motivated from within to act •• The character is responsible for their own actions •• The character is unique and responds in personal ways •• The character is can be judged by comparing thoughts with actions.

A personal approach to reading characters implies that the character is morally accountable for her actions in the same way a real person is judged accountable. As with contextual readings based on social customs, character readings based on social customs may reinforce the prevailing set of values and discount new, different, or novel beliefs and practices.

Characters as Signs

Another way to interpret characters is to see them as signs or devices that represent values in the text. In fiction, characters can be used to open up or explore aspects of human experience, or to illustrate a trait of human behavior. A symbol is something that stands not only for itself, but also for an abstract idea, belief, or quality. Conventional symbols are ones that are widely accepted and used by writers. Some symbolic characters are consistent throughout the text, but others gather new meaning throughout the text.

An archetype is a universal symbol or prototype that evokes response in a reader, sometimes unconsciously. An archetype symbolizes basic human experiences, regardless of time and place. Conventional archetypes include •• the “great mother” •• the “wise old man” •• the “trickster” •• the “scarlet woman” •• the “faceless man.” •• the “artist-scientist”

Example: The Symbolism of the “Artist-Scientist

One archetype is that of the “artist-scientist.” The artist-scientist is a builder, an inventor, a seeker or dreamer, and a thinker. They may be so caught up in their own thoughts, they often must be reminded to eat or sleep, or come in out of the rain. They are both highly knowledgeable and innocent. They represent the wonder and the danger of curiosity.

The artist-scientist is an agent of change. This archetype character might spend hours concocting elaborate plans to reach the tower of the castle to rescue the princess, while the hero simply walks in the front door and up the stairs, scoops up the damsel and rides off into the sunset. The artist-scientist has an idealized view of reality. As a failure, the artist-scientists may symbolize the futility of trying to control one’s own fate. If successful, the artist-scientists can symbolize the idea that you can’t stop a dreamer from trying to change the world. Frequently naïve, the artist-scientist can also symbolize a gap between knowledge and fact.

Application:   The Artist-Scientist in World Without End

In Follett’s historical novel World Without End, the characters were vivid and detailed. His research was thorough, and he effectively used indirect presentation to flesh out the characters, which behaved, thought, and spoke in keeping with the historical period. The character Murthin is an example of the artist-scientist archetype. He’s of noble birth, but forced by poverty to become a builder. Since little science and engineering was known in those days, Murthin had to excel as an engineer, an architect, and a physicist.

When faced with a problem, Murthin never failed to invent or create something that solves it. In particular, Murthin designed a bridge to replace one that failed. Murthin studied the problems with the old bridge, and came up with new technologies to solve them. Superstition and religion are at cross purposes with Murthin’s science and Murthin mirrors the medieval trend from church rule to secular rule.

 To the townspeople, Murthin’s methods are strange and untried, and Murthin is faced with constant efforts to thwart his plan. Murthin represents the science side of the science-religion debate. He is determined, logical, and tolerant of new ideas. He is so persistent, that the changes he wants to bring to the town seem inevitable, like the proverbial progress that is said to be unstoppable.

By refusing to work with mindless adherence to the past, Murthin represents the idea that knowledge isn’t finite, that all there is to know is not already known. For Murthin, knowledge as dynamic rather than static, and mere mortals are capable of moving knowledge forward. Murthin literally and figuratively builds, stone by stone, the foundation for the village’s inevitable crossing into an uncertain future.

Bibliography

Schema (psychology); http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Schema_(psychology)

Glossary of Literary Terms, Mayer Literature

http://www.bedfordstmartins.com/literature/bedlit/glossary_p.htm#top

 PAL: Perspectives in American Literature – A Research and Reference Guide – An Ongoing Project, Paul P. Reuben http://web.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/append/AXG.HTML

Literary Archetypes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Literary_archetypes

Schema Theory: An Introduction, Sharon Alayne Widmayer, George Mason University, http://www2.yk.psu.edu/~jlg18/506/SchemaTheory.pdf

A Glossary of Literary Criticism http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/gloss.htm Anatomy of Literary Criticism, Frye, Northrop 1957.

http://www.sil.org/~radneyr/humanities/litcrit/anacrit.htm

Follett, Ken, World Without End

 New York, Penguin Group. Moon, Brian, Literary Terms,

The NCTE Chalkface Series, 1999 Segal, Robert Alan; Jung, C. G. (1998). On mythology, Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-01736-0  

Artists and Myth Makers

If you ever waver in your belief in the importance of the work of the artist, read what Joseph Campbell said in The Power of Myths:

“Myths must be kept alive.  The people who can keep them alive are artists of one kind or another.  The function of the artist is the mythologization of the environment and the world.”

Symbols in Art

I’ve been reading Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, so I’ve been thinking lately of symbols.  I’ve also been reading Joseph Campbell on myths.  In the past, I’ve always thought verbally – analogies, parables, myths – all these are written symbols.  Words were the tools I tried to use to express myself. 

Never before did I realize how powerful visual symbols can be and how rewarding it can be to express oneself visually.  I found it to be a much different and profound expression.

That said, I don’t think I’ve quite got the hand of it yet.  Two nights ago, as I was immersed in The Lost Symbol, I decided to delve into my own experiment with symbology.  I found an image of a vintage-looking woman superimposed on the shadowy profile of a man.  You don’t have to be Isaac Newton to get that.  I glued that image in the center spot on my panel.  Then, I found a few more image of stereotypical damsels looking longingly for something they could not possess and affixed those around the central image.  I found an image of an audience and cut it into tiny pieces and scattered them around the whole piece — aren’t we always playing a role, us girls?

I added a few frilly images, and then affixed an image of Father Time.  It was a short leap from this to the brass clock charms for which I’d never figured out a place and glued three of them about the piece.  Who knew those little charms were biological clickers! 

The final piece was of chaos.  Perhaps I overdid.  My first festival is in a couple of days and I think I may have drained my creative well for the moment.  Still, I am reminded of an 8th grade English Class.  Mrs. Benningfield was teaching us about symbolism.  I wrote a story about a dog who had a special bone that he believed gave him special powers.  He carefully buried the bone so that he wouldn’t lose it.  He went about his life courageously, knowing that his powerful bone was in a safe place.  One day he went to dig the bone up, but it wasn’t there.  He had been courageous all on his own.  He didn’t need special powers.

Heavyhanded, yes.  But still a basically good message.  Hopefully I will develop more finesse with my visual images just as I gained a certain degree with my verbal symbology.  

May the force be with you.