Ulysses

I have been blessed to travel to more places in my short years on earth than many people have traveled in their entire lives. I think the first major trip I have any recollection of was when I went to Austria with my family and my godparents a decade and a half ago. I saw the sites of the filming of The Sound of Music including the von Trapp family’s home. I also visited the Czech Republic and acquired a marionette (which I still have), and I visited Vatican City (which I remember virtually nothing about). I have also traveled extensively throughout the United States.

Most poignant of my early memories being the first time my Dad attended an event in Estes Park, and he took me along to Colorado. As our family grew (and I became the oldest kid of seven siblings) a jaunt to Austria became less of a monetary possibility, but we always traveled somewhere at least once a year – often to the same location in Colorado (my Dad loves mountains).

My Dad likes to volunteer his time as a doctor in different poor regions outside the US (to say nothing of the free clinic he runs back home in Wisconsin). This has led to me twice to Chunhuhub Mexico, assisting with triage (while I let the other volunteer doctors do the actual work). In addition to helping the poor, this let me experience new cultures, old Mayan architecture, history, and new foods (to my own chagrin).

Four years ago I raised money and traveled on a trip to the Rio World Youth Day with my friend Zech and his Dad in the Lacrosse Diocese. In addition to traveling to Brazil, the trip (which was three weeks in total) allowed my to travel to Mexico for the third time and see the Tilma of Juan Diego. The Lacrosse Diocese also runs an orphanage by Lima, Peru, which our group visited as our final destination after the closing mass in Rio.

As I finished high school, I decided to attend college studying filmmaking. I wanted a Catholic school, and I essentially had the choice of either DeSales University on the East Coast or the equidistant John Paul II in California. Deciding on DeSales University, I moved out of the Midwest for the first time.

Last Fall, DeSales University gave me the opportunity to live abroad in Rome. This was the longest I had ever spent in a foreign country. In Rome, I was able to see all the tourist spots as well as unconventional buildings and churches through my Roman Art and Architecture class. I traveled outside Rome on a few occasions, heading to Glasgow over the break, going skiing in the Italian Alps, visiting Turin and seeing the shroud, as well as staying a weekend in Assisi with my family who visited for a week part way through my semester.

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That brings me to today, and the reason I named this post “Ulysses”. Among the many classes I took in Rome was a class on Dante’s Commedia. One of the characters which struck the strongest chord with me was Ulysses, who is in Hell having neglected his life at home in his psychotic pursuit of the discovery of new lands and new experiences. Ulysses continued to have new experiences and new adventures, but he did not let those experiences positively impact him or make him a better person.

I think the fall of Ulysses is a great cautionary tale. Travel should elevate one’s perception or art or history, or of God’s movement throughout them. I think I find that I often return from a trip or experience without reflecting sufficiently upon the great opportunity I have undeservedly been given. I will never forget the small dark stone pavement of Rome or the view of the Vatican across the Tiber. Those experiences have value simply as positive memories, but they should ideally do more. As everything we participate in should, travel should elevate one’s conception of God’s goodness and place one in a position of humility.

I would obviously recommend travel to those who have the option presented to them, but I would simply encourage you to allow that opportunity to be transformative. Not in an arbitrary “expanding your horizons” type way, and certainly not by simply giving yourself an emotional high, but by opposing the example of Ulysses. By exposing yourself to the truth, goodness, and beauty of God and his creatures and allowing it to strengthen your desire to fulfill your obligations and Vocational path.

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Captain America: Civil War – A Review

    Spoilers galore for comics and films.        

I really liked Captain America: Civil War. The film’s adventure and its character pushed the story forward and provided some interesting moments. However, in watching the film twice I find myself unavoidably frustrated not so much with what the film is, but what it could have been. The film is adapted from one of the most popular comic stories in history (by the same name), but it fails to replicate a lot of the elements that made the story so compelling. I am going to provide a pseudo-list below to illustrate these differences.

Commitment to the Ideals

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            By far my largest gripe with this film is the utter lack of commitment to their ideals by the characters. In the comic books, Steve Rogers adamantly refuses to be a part of the superhuman registration act. But in the film, he casually suggests to Tony that he’s “not saying it’s impossible”. In the comics there’s more dramatic tension because SHIELD (which is still active in the comics) knows Rogers will not surrender and almost immediately try to arrest him so that he doesn’t sabotage the registration movement. Captain America should be an incorruptible symbol which people rally behind in opposition to the overstepping of government authority – not a whiny loner who just quietly sulks for a big chunk of the film.

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            Tony Stark also has problems with his dedication to his ideals. In the comic books, Tony Stark is not caught unaware that people are angry about superheroes. He – along with Mr. Fantastic and Hank Pym – had been planning for the day when the government would clamp down on superhero freedom and demand that they fall into line. Thus, the plan was to cooperate to the fullest extent possible to ensure that the legislation went well. Tony was absolutely committed to his goal – even going so far as to use the help of defeated villains. In the film, at the first mention of the fact that he might have been wrong about details – he abandons his entire system. And by the end of the film, it’s clear that Tony doesn’t really believe in the registration act and will continue to flout authority.

The Inciting Incident is Weak

            In the Civil War film the Avengers are on a mission and a bomb blows up – killing people. Obviously that’s a tragedy – but why is it a special tragedy? Other people have undoubtedly died from being around during other battles of the Avengers – why does this one matter so much? If anything, this tragedy is the most benign of the Avengers’ careers. Scarlet Witch is not even directly responsible for  the deaths of the innocents in the adjacent building. If anything – she saves lives by moving the bomb away from a crowded street.

            In the comics – again there is a far better beginning. The comic shows a young group of heroes (The New Warriors) who use their crimefighting and powers on a for profit reality show. This demonstrates the far end base spectrum of what superpowered people can be. It shows people who maybe want to help, just as long as fame and fortune come with it. Then everything goes horribly wrong when eight-hundred innocent children at a school are killed because of this “superhero” teams’ carelessness. In this version – the tragedy is really their fault. Therefore – the government and the public have more reason to implement their registration act. Even Captain America doesn’t try to condone the actions of The New Warriors, because unlike in the film the event was really their fault.

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Spider-man

            A lot of people said that Spider-man was the best part of the Civil War film – I would agree. Still, as with other elements of the film – I was frustrated at what Spider-man could have been and not what he was. The Spider-man of the Civil War film is really a great portrayal of the young Peter struggling with his powers. But the Civil War comics was more about the adult Peter. This Peter had been working for Tony Stark for a while, was married to Mary Jane, and really had a secret identity to lose when Tony Stark asked him to comply. Which leads me to my next problem –

The Focus Is Wrong

            Captain AmericaCivil War  focuses on the wrong things. The comic arc was about every character in the Marvel universe having to make public their idenitity. They had to tell the world who they were – not just give the government the ability to order them around. In the film this is not even addressed – and Peter Parker gets to retain his secret identity even though in the comics his reveal was the greatest moment of the story. In fact, the moment when J. Jonah Jameson waches Spider-man tell the world his identity is my favorite moment in all of comics. In the film – heroes are given the opportunity to step down and not become agents of the government or be something they don’t want to be, but in the comics they are not given the choice. They can’t retire and they can’t walk away. They can only fight or join.

Cap’s Death

            Most people who’ve been to the internet know that Captain America dies at the end of the Civil War comic. He is killed after surrendering when he realizes the public does not support his actions. I am not one of those people who think because comic characters come back to life so often, that therefore their death is meaningless. For me, the sadness of death (and even fictitious death) is in the fact that you lose time with that person or character. That would still be the case if Captain America had died in the film. He would have come back eventually, but we would have had a true loss because of the adventures we didn’t get to see him on even though we know he would eventually return.

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Ultimetly

           Every problem I had with this film could have been solved by doing it later. It’s clear the directors of this film wanted to tell a story which rapped up the Winter Soldier – they ought to have done that instead of letting that story invade Civil War and mess up what was already a perfectly fine comic. If Marvel had waited to make this film then they could have put more characters in (instead of the limited roster of the movie), made Spider-man a more central protagonist (and explored his change of sides which was so pivotal to the original), and given more time to the set-up and aftermath of the actual registration act. The film was good, but it could have been great.

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Shrek: A Review

I had never seen Shrek until yesterday, and I decided on a whim to rent the thing and watch it. I have to say, for a film that got three sequels, I expected more.

Firstly, I want to say I understand why my some parents hate this film.

There are, I think, two main reasons. Firstly, it twists fairytales. Fairytales always have specific dichotomy of good and evil which is expressed in very strong visual metaphors. In Jack and the Beanstalk it’s Jack vs. the Giant. Jack is the hero, and the giant is the villain. In the tale of Saint George and the Dragon: George is good and the Dragon is evil. These stories are universal – but they are especially effective with children because whether they learn auditorially or visually they can always understand the story and grasp its meaning with ease. Thus, fables especially are most effective when they make use of this representational storytelling.

Shrek destroys these metaphors. In Shrek every main character that is normal is evil or stupid; this is true of Farquaad and his entourage, and Robin Hood with his Merry Men. Contrarily every character that is ugly or terrifying is good or helpful; as in the case of Shrek himself or the Dragon.

Is this a problem? It depends. I think in a lot of cases, this twisting of the established order can result in confusion for children (who the film was supposedly made for). Maybe not by itself, maybe not with all children, and maybe not with parental guidance – but it just seems like there is an opportunity here to cause problems that don’t need to exist. If children watch the film and get the impression that  ultimately “everyone is just misunderstood” or that there are no villains, I think that impression can readily translate to losing the ability to recognize evil as such. Shrek seems to weaken the arguments of other fairytales, and undermine their lessons.

The second reason the film is disliked by parents is that it features excessively vulgar humor (and what’s worse, it’s not even very good vulgar humor). The film goes out of its way to be as in your face about its low-brow humor as it possibly can. It doesn’t stop at fart jokes though, pushing in some subtle sexual innuendos which really have no place in a family film.

Why don’t I like the film?

I don’t like Shrek for both of the reasons listed before –  but for a whole lot more than just those. Firstly, to expand the vulgarity argument – I think this film really wanted to be something other than it was. I got the impression as I watched this film that creators were a bunch of bored animators who wanted to make an adult satire in the vein of someone like Mel Brooks – but because the medium is animation they felt that pushing the film into the family friendly(ish) zone would be more profitable. The film stars Mike Myers and
Eddie Murphy for pity’s sake: clearly the filmmakers had adults in mind with the casting.

Secondly, I don’t think the message is very powerful or good. The film is ultimately trying to push a vague message that you shouldn’t judge a person based on their appearance. On the one hand, it’s easy to see an anti-racism element to the message.

Far more irritating is the character of Fiona who pushes the element of the message having to do with self-image.Fiona shows the audience that you’re beautiful even if you’re fat or ugly. That’s an OK message I guess, and maybe it makes some people feel better about themselves. However, it’s not really that accurate. If you become fat, or you’re born ugly…you are less attractive than a person who is fit and beautiful. Is that all a person of the opposite gender should be care about? No. And I do give the film credit for putting forth a personhood over body argument to an extent. However, when you look at what Shrek and Fiona actually have in common as persons it’s only two things: beating up people who are weaker than them, and fart jokes or potty humor. Really a stellar relationship base there. This sort of feeds back into the idea that we should accept people exactly as they are, but that’s not very true either. Even from a purely hygienic perspective, Shrek and Fiona’s characters are societally inept and frankly disgusting. Sure, lots of people sometimes wish they didn’t need to use table manners or that they could just fart in public – but why is that a theme that should be sent to kids (or even adults)?

Next, why on earth is the animation this bad in Shrek? Toy Story came out six years before this and had better animation. Everything from the character’s motion to the feeling of vacancy as regards the environment made getting into the film absurdly difficult. I felt like I was watching a really long experimental student film half the time.

Also, where the heck did Fiona learn Karate – and how could she overpower multiple men twice her weight? Unless she retains her Ogre strength when she is human? Really that’s the most unrealistic thing about this film (which is saying something).

Finallythis film felt rushed. Not in terms of production (though I suppose there could have been problems there). Rather, I don’t understand why the film had such a huge problem with pacing. each scene felt absurdly short – like there was a list of locations the filmmakers wanted to go to as fast as possible. Every conversation, in particular those which were supposed to involve character development, felt like they were rushed and not given time to develop. Shrek’s decision to go see Farquaad felt rushed and out of character from the person who got to know in the first few minutes of the film, and Fiona’s romance with Shrek felt really sudden if inevitable. In fact every scene in the film made me question why I was seeing this so early.I have to suspect that this goes back to the problem of

I have to suspect that this goes back to the problem of the writers’ inability to distinguish between family and adult audiences. They wanted to make a two hour movie, but the short runtime associated with children’s films made them push everything together.

Finally, this film had an interesting idea – but one which is ultimately unsavory and unhelpful for its audience. If this film had to be made, I think and adult live action adaption would have served this frenetic farting fallacious frolicking fable far better.

(Or maybe none of this matters and I spent too long analyzing a 90 minute flick that was made fifteen years ago.)

Kung Fu Panda 3: Review

Kung Fu Panda 3: Review

Americanized Buddhism with Anthropomorphic Animals

I really, really liked the new Kung Fu Panda. It expanded the mythology of Po’s world while grounding the story in everything that came before. I definitely liked this one more than the second Kung Fu Panda and to some extent more than the first.

As with always, the marketing of the film plays it off as a crude and poorly made Jack Black-led comedy flick. And once again, the film is so much more than it advertises itself as. This is not unlike The LEGO Movie or The Secret Life of Walter Mitty which featured great stories, but horrible trailers. Maybe this is intentional, (as it attracts kids to the films without boring them by deeper story arcs and characters) but I think this also turns away teenagers and older viewers.

So what exactly did I like about this film? Firstly, I love how self aware the film is. It always knows which rules to bend about physics or characters, and which things to keep consistent. I also really love how it never forgets about what came before in its own franchise. This is best exemplified in Po’s Wuxi Finger Hold, which I think lesser franchises would have ignored or written out of their stories because it makes their hero so powerful. Instead of ignoring it, the film embraces the idea and lets the Wuxi move become important to the plot and essential to the resolution.

Secondly, I continue to love the design and art style of the Kung Fu Panda. Every two minutes there’s a part of the film you just wish was your desktop wallpaper. The film looks amazing, and the composition of the film is more than worth checking out in its own right.

Thirdly, the characters seem to react in ways that make sense and never seem out-of-step with who they were established to be at the outset.

Fourthly – I really like the introduction of the “spirit realm” to Po’s world. I say this with some reservations however. The fact is that the film franchise is getting deeper and deeper into Eastern Religion – I would argue that it may even be getting to the point where it is dangerous to let kids see the film. The story has always toyed with Kung Fu in its name, but the film has always been Americanized and dumbed down enough to keep it from being a problem. This film felt like it was going full on Eastern-theology discussing Chi, the Yin-Yang duality, and full on magic stemming from this power.

The thing is, I really liked the way it was incorporated into the story. The mythology and background ideas were undoubtedly Eastern and just plain wrong in so many ways, but so was the weird Buddhist/Pantheism combo seen in Star Wars. There are a lot of parallels to be drawn between that series and Kung Fu Panda – although admittedly the actual content of Kung Fu Panda is much more immersed than Star Wars. Still I think (for a Christian) that with a proper distinction between authentic theology and creative license, Kung Fu Panda‘s Eastern shenanigans need not be any more harmful than the pagan mythology of Greece or Rome.

Ultimately however, some children may not be equipped to handle ontological distinctions and the difference between good and bad Ideas in the realm of theology. Thus, I would caution parents who don’t want to overexpose kids to foreign, alien, or outright contradictory concepts (to their Faith) to be careful of this film.

Or not. A lot of this stuff might just pass over some people’s heads.

In the end, the villain was villainous, the hero was heroic, and they looked pretty epic duking it out.

“Risen” Review

Just got back from seeing “Risen” in theaters. I was surprised at how good it was. No film about the life of Jesus has ever completely avoided being campy – but this one did it a lot better than most. It really brought the gospel to life in a new way, something that is really hard to do given the two thousand year head start. I really appreciated the flipped perspective of focusing on a Roman, and I loved that Jesus was barely in the film – which sounds really weird to say, but I think if you watch it you’ll understand. Because Jesus is not in the film very much, it broadens your interest and increases the impact he has when he finally does arrive. The film was very subtle and not overt or heavy-handed with its message, but was still kept from being too modern or wishy-washy. It doesn’t say a lot, but what it does say it says well.

The Joan of Arc Chapel

While Marquette University is not known as the most Catholic of places, it does boast one of the most interesting buildings in the United States. Originally known as Chapelle de St. Martin de Sayssuel, this structure was a chapel initially built in Chasse, France in the early fifteenth century. While it’s hard to confirm for sure, some traditions hold that the stone inside the chapel was prayed on by Saint Joan of Arc, making it a third class relic and a site of veneration for Catholic pilgrims.

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But, you might ask, how can this building be in the middle of the United States if it was built in France?

In brief, the story goes that architect Jacques Couëlle went through the town of Chasse in the early 1900s and upon discovering the chapel, fell in love with it and decided to restore the now disheveled building. Then, in 1926 a rich railroad owner’s daughter, Gertrude Hill Gavin, decided to buy the chapel, dissemble it, and have it shipped and reassembled all the way in Long Island New York. When the building was reconstructed, a Gothic altar was added along with the Joan of Arc Stone.

Later, in 1964, the ownership of the chapel fell to Mr. and Mrs. Marc B. Rojtman, who decided to donate the structure to the University of Marquette in Milwaukee. Which of course necessitated its being pulled apart and rebuilt again, this time in Wisconsin. By this time, the building was renamed the Saint Joan of Arc chapel, in honor of the saint who prayed there.

Marquette University describes the building as being (as far as they are aware), “the oldest building in the Western Hemisphere still used for its original purpose”. Which is an oddly specific, but poignant description. People still some to pray there, and mass is held Monday through Friday for those so inclined. I went there just this year with my family, and he would recommend stopping in if you ever pass through Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And if you want to learn more about the chapel’s history I would recommend the Marquette website, which has a more in depth exploration of the people involved in the various location changes of the chapel.

Sources:

http://www.marquette.edu/chapel/history/

http://www.bluffton.edu/~sullivanm/wisconsin/milwaukee/stjoan/stjoan.html

http://www.examiner.com/article/medieval-milwaukee-marquette-university-s-st-joan-of-arc-chapel

http://www.stjoan-center.com/novelapp/joaap06.html