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Pure magic: The Secret of Kells.

Medieval Wonders

By Ann Morrow

The Secret of Kells

Directed by Tomm Moore and Nora Twomey

The Secret of Kells is a work of art about a work of art. Though it’s an animated film, the world it creates is so lush, colorful, and dreamy that the usual accolades for a beautifully rendered, (mostly) hand-drawn motion picture just aren’t adequate. This 2D throwback does not hark to animated classics of yesteryear (except maybe for one character with more than a passing resemblance to Mr. Magoo), but to the Book of Kells, an illuminated manuscript from the Dark Ages considered to be the most important and gorgeous artwork to survive those terrible times. An Academy Award nominee for Best Animated Feature, The Secret of Kells not only uses the true story of the 9th-century Kells manuscript for inspiration, it also adapts its colors and shapes and incredible detailing to create a fantastical realm populated by regimental wolves, cloud-storms of butterflies, and stone monoliths that may or may not contain ancient spirits.

Within this pagan landscape is the abbey of Kells, an isolated monastery that is home to 12-year-old Brendan (voice by Evan McGuire). The forbiddingly austere abbot (Brendan Gleeson) is Brendan’s uncle, and he has forbidden the boy from venturing outside the abbey’s fortified walls. The monks live in fear of invading Norsemen, and the abbot spends most of his time engineering a wall for protection. When not working on the wall or farming, the monks paint manuscripts and regale each other with tales of the legendary Brother Aidan, a great illuminator who created the Book of Iona under the auspices of none other than St. Columba. The monks conjecture about Aidan’s third eye—for how else could he have painted the masterpieces of his pictures?—and as they do, Aidan appears onscreen in amusing, medieval-style flashbacks. Later, the death of St. Columba is reenacted in delightfully childish drawings.

The film opens with a wild goose chase, a gently comic escapade in which Brendan tackles a goose to pluck quills for pens. Brendan wants to be an illustrator, and he wonders about the world outside the abbey. And then one day Aidan (Mick Lally) himself arrives, with the uncompleted Book of Iona. Aidan encourages Brendan’s artistry, and sends him on a quest to gather inkberries. In the forest, Brendan is rescued from wolves by Aisling, a fairy girl with long white hair that trails behind her like a cape.

The forest itself is like a living entity, with layers of watercolors for foliage that swirl in interlacing circles and spirals, like Celtic iconography come to life. Brendan has the distinctive comma-shaped eyebrows of an icon, and as in early medieval art, the film’s human figures are deliberately less sophisticated than the trees and animals and structures. The abbot, however, has square hands with fingers that splay like a fan, and though this stylistic touch conveys his rigidity, it’s also a bit distracting, at least compared to the mesmerizing effects of the vertical angularity of the monastery settings, the geometric motifs of the backgrounds, and the anime stylization of the Norsemen that abstracts them to their most terrifying elements.

The Norsemen have burning embers for eyes, and horns, like beasts or like Baal, and their invasion comes during a snowstorm—a snowstorm made of snowflakes in the shape of Celtic knots (which is appropriate since knots are actually Germanic). Some of the knots look like compasses that mystically guided the raiders to the shores of the Emerald Isle. The Secret of Kells is filled with such artistic flourishes, and the more one knows about Celtic myth and history, and insular art, and early Christianity, and Gaelic language (“aisling” means dream or vision), the more rewarding the film is. Or you could know nothing at all about these subjects, and still be entranced by the film’s rapturous artistry and the uniqueness of most of its sequences, especially those centered on Aisling, who is by turns fierce and magical and waifish.

Accompanied by Aidan’s charming cat Pandur, Brendan and Aisling have many adventures together, eventually braving a haunted, Druidical stone temple in search of the titular secret. The characters range from silly (some of the monks) to poignant, such as the abbot, a strict disciplinarian given a rueful tenderness by Gleeson’s indelible voicing. It’s astounding to think that this is the work of first-time feature filmmakers (animator Tomm Moore with co-director Nora Twomey).

What prevents The Secret of Kells from being a true classic is the seemingly truncated conclusion. At 75 minutes, time couldn’t have been the reason for an abrupt and clunky ending that prevents the film from coming full circle. But that shouldn’t deter anyone from enjoying this visual feast, and a story that is for all ages, and for the ages.

Friend or Faux?

Exit Through the Gift Shop

Directed by Banksy

If you watch Exit Through the Gift Shop without skepticism, it is an amusing documentary about an obsessive fan of street art who—through enthusiasm, luck and an almost mystical naiveté—becomes a celebrity artist himself. The story of Thierry Guetta, a French expat living in Los Angeles, can be viewed superficially, and credulously, as a kind of Joe Gould’s Secret meets Being There.

Guetta, a successful thrift-store owner, compulsively films every aspect of his life. When his cousin, the street artist Space Invader, visits from France, Guetta is turned on to L.A’s burgeoning graffiti scene and develops a kind of partnership with the now-famous Shepard Fairey: He is accomplice, lookout and documentarian.

Fairey, naturally enough, assumes that there is some point to the filming. But Guetta is more voyeur than filmmaker. He accumulates hours upon hours upon hours of film, to no particular end. (Much like the frantic, pointless chronicling of 1940s Greenwich Village that Joe Gould performed in Joseph Mitchell’s aforementioned profile.) Still, the pair have something like a friendship, and Fairey seems uninterested in questioning Guetta’s eventual contention that he needs access to street art’s most prominent figure, the British artist Banksy, to wrap up his project.

And then, very fortuitously, via a mutual acquaintance, Banksy calls, looking for a guide to L.A’s most promising graffiti sites.

Despite Banksy’s famous, near-impenetrable anonymity, some aspect of Guetta’s childlike zeal wins him over. They, too, develop a working friendship. The artist even looks forward to seeing Guetta’s film, pressuring him to complete it.

Of course, Guetta proves absolutely incapable of producing a coherent product. Banksy, viewing the result, wonders if Guetta is mentally ill. He conspires to commandeer all the footage, turn the tables and make a movie himself.

His ploy is to suggest that Guetta throw over filmmaking for street art, which Guetta does with the same unself-conscious, undisciplined, totally pointless passion he applied behind the camera. He plans a gigantic show, on the scale of Banksy’s controversial blockbuster Barely Legal, rents an enormous multi-room space, hires a crew of assistants, and starts cranking out the most highly derivative stuff you can imagine. Faux Warhols, faux Banksys, faux Faireys.

And the fans and collectors go nuts. The show is a giant success, and Guetta is hailed as the new genius of street/pop art, to the bemusement and irritation of his former mentors. And some lesson is learned about the gullibility of the art-purchasing world, critics, the manufactured nature of celebrity, the manipulable aspect of “objective” artistic merit and the relative importance of authenticity in creative work.

Maybe.

But what if it’s all bullshit? That is, what if Guetta is a hoax? What if his entire career is a prank orchestrated, documented and unleashed by Banksy himself? What if, in fact, “Guetta” is the unknown, unseen Banksy? All these theories are currently being debated.

But the fun thing is, it doesn’t really matter. Banksy, a sophisticated and witty artist, works personally with celebrity as a kind of negative space; with Guetta—as dupe, accomplice or creation, it’s all the same—he has inverted that technique to provocative effect. The lesson—a reminder, really—is that celebrity itself is the medium.

—John Rodat


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