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Good Letters

Have you ever seen The Book of Kells? I mean, really seen it with your own eyes?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a more breathtaking work of art. Photographs can’t capture the way light plays across the vibrant, reflective ink. Nineteen years ago I stood in Dublin’s Trinity College and leaned over a glass shield to study a couple of those exquisitely inked pages, and yet I remember it like it was an hour ago.

What would move Celtic monks to illustrate a Latin text so lavishly? I suspect the effort was inspired by something more than the desire to show off. It had something, I’m sure, to do with a sense of the sacred in that text. The Book of Kells is, after all, an illustrated version of the four gospels.

And now, more than a thousand years later, we have a lavishly illustrated movie about the making of that book.

At the 2010 Academy Awards, the Best Animated Feature nominees included the typical entries from Pixar and Dreamworks. But it also included a shocker. Where most moviegoers expected to see a nomination for Hayao Miyazaki’s extraordinary feature Ponyo, instead they were introduced to a title that most of them had not yet had an opportunity to see: The Secret of Kells.

After seeing it, I did what I often do when I come home from a thrilling motion picture—I wrote to my friend Steven D. Greydanus, film critic at Decent Films, The National Catholic Register, and Christianity Today. But I was interested in doing more than just singing the film’s praises. Something was bothering me: Had I just watched a film about The Book of Kells that never once acknowledged what is written on the book’s pages?

I organized my thoughts in numbered points, each of which ended with a question. And Steven responded.

In today’s Part One and tomorrow’s Part Two, you’re invited to peruse our exchanges, and then to share your own experience of The Secret of Kells and the book that inspired it.

(Please note: Our conversation does contain spoilers, so you might want to see the movie before you read this.)

Jeffrey to Steven, #1

I finally saw The Secret of Kells. Wow. I haven’t been so hypnotized and enthralled by animation in a very long time.

It’s remarkable how, in this era of increasingly lifelike digital animation and 3D, something that seems handmade can still work the most powerful magic.

What did you think of the film’s style? I’m having a hard time thinking of any other film that serves as a helpful reference point. Maybe Watership Down—especially its stylized, mythological prologue.

Steven replies:

Jeff, I’m delighted that you saw The Secret of Kells, and that you found it as compelling and memorable as I did!

“Handmade” is a good word for the look of The Secret of Kells, although some of the effects, like the lovely dappled sunlight in the forest and a lot of the design work, are so intricate that many viewers assume it’s computerized, and are amazed to learn that in fact the animators made virtually no use of computers. Like The Book of Kells itself, it’s a painstakingly hand-crafted labor of love that seems at times almost miraculous. Admirers of The Book of Kells sometimes attributed it to angels; admirers of the film attribute it to computers.

The stylized figures and simplified movements reminded me at times of “Samurai Jack” or the “Clone Wars” series. The Insular influence, reflecting the Celtic design tradition, is a really unique factor, though. Watership Down is a very creative point of comparison, one I’ve not seen elsewhere. Good call!

Jeffrey to Steven, #2

There is a trend in recent films—probably inspired by conversations about the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan—to emphasize the search for a common bond between cultures. Cultural respect and diplomacy are celebrated. The fight-or-flight mentality is shown as naïve at best, villainous at worst.

But The Secret of Kells portrays the approaching enemy as irredeemable—a brutal, ferocious, inhuman force. The invaders have no human eyes for eye contact. They’re like orcs, or Hellboy’s Golden Army. And so the vulnerable heroes see only two choices: To build a wall and hope to withstand the onslaught, or to flee.

Normally, I’m aggravated when “the enemy” is portrayed as something “other”—mere monsters, unworthy of curiosity or compassion. But here it didn’t bother me and I’m not sure why. What did you think of the film’s portrayal of the cultural conflict?

Steven replies:

I can think of two possible reasons why the faceless evil of the Northmen doesn’t aggravate you the way that the typical Hollywood demonization of the enemy does.

First, they’re so faceless and generic that there’s clearly no political axe to be ground here.

Second, there’s no triumphalism, no celebratory rout of the enemy. Does that make any sense?

Jeffrey to Steven, #3

All through the film, I was increasingly excited by the fact that The Book of Kells is reconciling all of these pagan mythologies and artistic motifs into a unified whole—at the center of which is The Gospel.

It’s a profound illustration of the Gospel’s function as what Lewis called “the true myth,” which fulfills the longings and questions and themes manifested in mythologies through the ages.

I think the filmmakers could have gone a lot further in allowing Christianity and paganism to exist in tension without tipping the narrative one way or the other. Here’s a film in which we meet supernatural representatives of the pagan world, both good and bad. If there were also angels and saintly miracles, wouldn’t that be equally reflective of the Irish patrimony?

How would that make the film “propaganda” for one side or the other? To say nothing of the monks merely expressing their faith in a positive way, as opposed to Abbot Cellach’s mere rejection of paganism.

For the rest of my conversation with Steven Greydanus on The Secret of Kells, click here

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