Sunday, June 28, 2009

The Theatre of the Absurd

“There are enormous pressures in our world that seek to induce mankind to bear the loss of faith and moral certainties by being drugged into oblivion—by mass entertainment, shallow material satisfaction, pseudo-explanations of reality and cheap ideologies. At the end of the road lies Huxley’s Brave New World…”

—Martin Esslin, as quoted in Hans Rookmaaker’s Modern Art and the Death of a Culture, p218

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The Last Emperor

My wife and I re-watched this Best Picture Award winner (1987) together last night. For those unfamiliar, the film is a biopic about the last Chinese Emperor, Puyi, who assumed the throne in 1908 at just under three years of age, and lived (in deposed obscurity) well into the Communist era.

First, there are a few things I don’t like about this movie. Whether this reflects some personal bias on the part of the film’s director and/or producer or represents a sort of compromise which was necessary in order to secure and retain the good graces of the Chinese government (which made the astonishing allowance for the movie to be shot in the Forbidden City) I couldn’t say, but there is a subtle yet definite attempt to tug the viewer’s sympathies in the direction of the Communists. The manifold cruelties and atrocities perpetrated by the Reds are conveniently ignored or somehow painted quite benignly for the most part, while those of others (the Japanese) are not. Most notably, the warden of the Communist prison is portrayed sympathetically as a stern yet essentially kind-hearted individual interested in genuine “reform”. (Incidentally, my dad has travelled extensively in China and was actually in the train station in Harbin, which is featured in the opening scene, right around the time of the filming. I was discussing this with him today and he concurred with the above assessment, while offering further insight into some of the political intrigue alluded to in the film.) There are some scenes of decadence that, despite restrained handling, are a bit hard to watch and this fact, taken in light of the film’s 164 minute overall length, does create a bit of a drag in the latter half.

Be all that as it may, the movie certainly didn’t win nine Academy Awards for nothing. It is a very moving drama, full of very deep ironies which provide much meditative fodder on how much the world can change within just one lifespan. It is gorgeously shot and boasts perhaps the most stunningly beautiful opening credit sequence that I know of—a graphic designer’s garden of delights. (I have access only to an old VHS edition and am wondering if any of the recent DVD or BluRay releases include any special features which highlight this aspect of the production?) The score is delightful (some of it composed by David Byrne of Talking Heads fame), and, while the storyline is decidedly un-redemptive, there is nonetheless a very touching stroke of magic in the final scene which amply rewards the viewer’s willingness to endure the more tedious stretches of the film’s middle portion. All told, it exemplifies the cinematic medium in that it tells the story primarily by showing the story, in graphic images which leave an indelibly rich impression upon the audience’s psyche.

One final, personal tidbit. I have long admired the font (Carlton) which is used for the main title, and have employed it myself, both in the masthead for this blog and in my own company logo.

Monday, June 22, 2009

New Looks for 2 Old Brands

These overhauls to a couple of eminent brands have caught my eye recently—and produced similar reactions of ambivalence.

I have always been a fan of the (old) Jack in the Box logo. It is so tightly executed yet appropriately playful. The double tilting of both the box itself and text inside is pure genius, as is the delightful typography of the letterforms, which are so audaciously intermingled, yet with such subtle craftsmanship that the eye hardly even notices (e.g. the HE and OX). Frankly, I don’t see why this mark couldn’t have continued to serve the chain triumphantly for years or even decades to come. That said, I can’t exactly say that I hate the new logo either, though there are some peculiarities to it that may or may not grow on me. I can’t decide if the visual pun that drives the whole thing (Jack is literally in the box, get it?) is really clever or just oh-so-obviously trite. (On second thought, is Jack actually in the box or on it?) Anyhow, I think I might have been more willing to acknowledge the former if they (they being the corporate suits, no doubt and not the designers) hadn’t been such chickens and given in to the compulsion to spell it out anyway at the bottom. The overall look is certainly playful enough, but I’m not sure that the understated and quaint whimsy of the smile formed by the leg of the k conveys quite the spirit of wackiness that folks have come to associate with the brand, with its laugh-out-loud television commercials. Speaking of which, I’m rather astounded that Jack Box himself didn’t manage to insinuate his own image into the new identity somehow. Seems that would have been a no-brainer. At any rate, a professional hats off to Duffy & Partners for creating a new brand that definitely has some nice touches and conveys a spirit of creative fun, particularly in the few glimpses I’ve managed to get of the look as it has been extended into various other applications (packaging, etc.).

A stronger case could certainly made for updating the venerable Holiday Inn logo, though I’m not sure that even here I wouldn’t have opted for a more subtle reworking that would have retained more of what the former version had going for it. That left-leaning italic was just too distinctive to warrant complete liquidation. And maybe I’m just weird but I even kind of liked the orange, seven-fold flower/star/severed Tic-Tac thingy that graced latter manifestations of the old mark. The new mark is definitely eye-catching; I noticed it right away the first time I drove by one of the updated locations. It also definitely follows the established trend of logos in the digital age relying more upon gradations of color and "tricked-out" applications of highlight or shading (often rather illogically rendered, as here) to capture the eye than upon sturdy craftsmanship of the forms themselves. Used in one color only (for which the need these days is admittedly rather scarce, if not quite to be ruled out altogether) this mark would appear quite generic, perhaps even homely. The new typeface does have a certain appeal, though I again think I would have tried very hard to give an even stronger nod to the original, both in the name and in the H icon. Interbrand gets credit for this one.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Gold of Havilah

Now a river went out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it parted and became four riverheads. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one which skirts the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good. Bdellium and the onyx stone are there.
Genesis 2:10-12 (NKJV)

These seemingly parenthetical remarks in the midst of the creation narrative provide some fascinating insights with regard to the dominion mandate, or the cultural mandate as it is sometimes called. The very fact that it seemed worthwhile to the Holy Spirit, speaking through Moses, to note the presence of gold within the land, along with the added pronouncement of its goodness (an echo from Chapter One), is significant and a cause for meditation. Scripture, along with much uninspired human literature and poetry down through the ages, often casts a hue of disfavor upon the natural glimmer of gold. To be sure, the inordinate lust for gold is a sin which brings a great curse, but that is all a result of the Fall. The gold itself, and by extension man’s thoughtful appropriation and use of it, is proclaimed as an unqualified good here in the pre-Fall context.

The gold and precious jewels mentioned here can be taken as a synecdoche for all of the precious resources which God saw fit to embed within the earth at creation. The obvious expectation is that man would discover and seek them out, extract them from the soil and rock, study and analyze them, and subject them to various processes of molding and transformation, culminating in their glorified use for a variety of practical and aesthetic ends. This has man, as a sub-creator, mimicking God’s own actions as described in the previous chapter wherein God creates, then further transforms what has been created by a process of division, separation and refinement (light from darkness, waters above from waters below, dry land from water, one kind of light from another kind of light, etc.).

Gold and other valuable resources are only in exceptional cases found just lying around waiting to be picked up. Locating them and separating them out from the other, less valuable elements typically takes a lot of effort. (Again, we see that the principal of work is not a result of disobedience.) Proverbs 25:2 says that It is the glory of God to conceal a matter, but the glory of kings is to search out a matter. God did not lay out everything in easily accessible terms for Adam and Eve, the king and queen of his new creation, right from the beginning. It would seem that God’s original plan for mankind involved a process of maturation wherein man was to employ his faculties of thoughtful observation and creativity (recall what has already been noted with regard to tending and keeping) to guide the creation through a progression of glorification.

In many obvious ways, this stands in direct opposition to the radical environmentalism which is currently in vogue. It should be noted though, that traditionalist or reactionary conservatism is also just as much to blame in ignoring biblical principles of thoughtful stewardship as laid out in Genesis and elsewhere. (Deuteronomy has some poignant examples.) Practices such as clear cutting and strip mining naturally result in a curse rather than a blessing.

As a final observation, a glorious prefiguring of the cross can be seen operating on at least a couple of different levels as we consider these things. It is noteworthy that there are four rivers flowing out of Eden and into the lands beyond. Symbolically at least, if not literally, these four rivers would be regarded, particularly to the ancient mind, as stretching out to the “four corners of the world” in a cross-shaped pattern. Some scholars (e.g. James Jordan) have sought to do some informed speculation as to what the progress of history might have looked like had the Fall not interrupted. It seems likely that man, in fulfilling the commandment to multiply and fill the earth, would have spread outward from the garden and the land of Eden, most likely along the convenient routes of the four water courses mentioned above. This motion would likely not be in one direction only but would involve a sort of ebb and flow: initial forays into the outlying lands, followed by revisitations to the garden sanctuary, followed in turn by progressively longer, farther and more permanent journeyings to the hinterlands. As the gold, precious stones and other resources were discovered by man in these other regions, they would be carried back to the garden in order to enhance its own glory and, gradually over time, the borders of the garden itself would be expanded outward. Step by step, the whole of creation would be transformed from glory to magnificent glory until the whole earth were a vast horticultural temple.

But the Fall did interrupt, as we are painfully reminded after a few brief moments of such tantalizing reverie. However, an essential and often over-looked aspect of the Good News is that everything that was lost in the Fall has been regained in Christ – plus much more! This spectacular vision is no daydream; it is the inexorable reality toward which our world is being carried, suggestions to the contrary by the circumstances of any given moment notwithstanding. We can take great encouragement and inspiration, knowing that our faithful labors – in the arts or in any other lawful endeavor – are used by Christ as decisive means for manifesting His Kingdom in our midst with ever-increasing clarity and glory.