Why We Need the ‘Elitism’ of the Oscars

Mathematically speaking, the odds are that if you A) purchased a ticket to a movie in 2015 and B) watch the upcoming Academy Awards telecast on Sunday night, you C) won’t see your favorite movies from last year win…well, anything. The New York Times observed last year that the Oscars still represent a startlingly large discontinuity between the films honored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and those honored with the almighty dollar by the American public. Case in point from last year: Whereas nominee American Sniper earned over $300 million domestically and only earned a technical award at the 2015 show,  Best Picture-winner Birdman grossed less than a tenth of that. Put those facts together and you get a sparsely-watched telecast and Oscar elitism:

“It’s sad, but most people have to finally accept that the Oscars have become, well, elitist and not in step with anything that is actually popular,” said Philip Hallman, a film studies librarian at the University of Michigan. “No one really believes anymore that the films they chose are the ones that are going to last over time…”

It wasn’t supposed to be this way: In 2009, Academy officials increased their field of best picture nominees, from five to a maximum of 10, in a bid to embrace large, world-spanning films — “The Dark Knight,” “Inception” — that are the pinnacle of populist art. The plan was to shift the Oscars back toward relevancy, “a history where most of the winning films were also popular with the audience,” as Mr. Hallman put it on Monday.

That strategy failed, of course, because it was perfunctory. If you see your job, as Academy voters do, as rewarding the year’s very best-made and most artistically compelling films, increasing the number of nominees you *must* have is merely spreading the vegetables around on your plate before ignoring them again. There was never any reason to believe that five slots in the Best Picture category were excluding movies that ought to win; as this article says, the purpose of the change was to tell the American public, “Hey, we’re watching the same movies as you–we promise!”

But is this reassurance even a good thing?

The Oscars are indeed “elitist” and have been for a very long time, if by “elitist” you mean “Consciously choosing to not see the film industry the way most Americans see it.” But such “elitism” is actually the heart of why the Oscars still matter. For the awards to not be elitist in a meaningful way would be for them to become utterly meaningless.

Unlike the Grammys and Emmys, the Academy Awards frequently honors work that isn’t “successful” by popular industry standards. Oscar-winning films can lack both the power of distribution and rich marketing funds that major pictures–the kind you’re likely to see a huge cardboard display for at your local mall theater–thrive on.

In other words, the Oscars don’t just reward studios with market research teams and lavish PR campaigns. They honor filmmakers and films. Call it elitism if you want, but that is exactly what every industry needs–incentive for innovation that goes beyond corporatism.

That’s not the only good thing about the Academy’s”elitism” either. A healthy dose of film snobbery is welcome if it even slightly punctures the asphyxiating creative stagnation that characterizes Hollywood right now. For more than a decade now, the American box office has become a practical altar to the franchise, the sequel and the recycled comic book story. It’s worse than you think; since 2002, only two non-franchise, non-sequel movies have topped the yearly box office. The two films? James Cameron’s highly derivative Avatar and Disney’s Frozen, both of which have sequels currently in development. Also since 2002, the Spider-Man, Superman, and Batman franchises have each been rebooted twice, and Pirates of the Caribbean and the intolerable Transformers series have each had *four* installments, all of them major hits (Transformers: Age of Extinction topped the entire box office in 2014 despite scoring a Rob Schneider-like 18% at Rotten Tomatoes). And of course, the box office will now continue to be dominated by the Star Wars franchise, after The Force Awakens obliterated records and proved to the film industry once again the financial wisdom of repackaging twice-told tales.

The American public simply isn’t very good at going to movies right now. New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, in one of 2014’s most important essays, contemplated the infantilizing of both our entertainment and our lifestyles. Scott characterized the current generation of pop culture as the “unassailable ascendency of the fan,” through which serious (=adult) consideration of meaning and symbolism are replaced with childlike loyalty to never-ending franchises that are essentially live-action cartoons. What’s lost in this phase is a realistic sense of what our world is like, and how to respond to it through art.

Even if you don’t pine for the years of “gritty,” existentially harsh films like Raging Bull and Midnight Cowboy, there’s something to be said for films that don’t need superhero paradigms in order to tell a rich story. This year’s list of Best Picture contenders is a particularly rich palate: Human perseverance against nature in The Martian and The Revenant, or the quest for truth and justice in Spotlight and Bridge of Spies. Most Americans would never think to dedicate a Saturday to a film like Brooklyn or Room if it weren’t for a healthy critical culture that highlights great storytelling in a dim commercial context.

The Oscars serve our culture by recognizing stories and storytellers. Film critics provide the public with a small yet often effective antidote to the monotony and meaninglessness of Memorial Day weekend openings. It is good for the everyday, working class moviegoer to know that there are alternatives to the blockbusters. Call it elitism if you want. It’s the good kind.

Kill the Comments Section

Once upon a time, open, anonymous commenting sections were a staple of online journalism. The vast majority of digital publications made allowance for readers to respond to content directly on-site. This had multiple benefits for the sites themselves; traffic increased as users engaged not only with the author but with each other, and authors developed “followings” of particular commenters who practically guaranteed that no piece would perform poorly.

One notable exception to this trend was Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan, who pioneered blogging in the early 2000s and has since retired from it, was well-known for his refusal to host comment threads directly on his site. Sullivan invited readers to contact him directly and would regularly publish the best emails. But he believed firmly in not making his own site a place for users to spar publicly.

In 2016, Sullivan’s thinking appears prescient. More and more publications, blogs and news sites are either scrapping commenting altogether or, in the recent case of Tablet magazine, charging readers a fee for the ability to leave comments on posts. Reasoning for each of this closures vary as much as the sites themselves, but one reason comes up in virtually every case: Trolls are killing online forums. Continue reading Kill the Comments Section

More Thoughts on Christians and Sex in Movies

Last week I jotted down some thoughts on why I’ve come to the conclusion that Christians are better off avoiding movies with sexual nudity. The majority of the feedback I’ve gotten from that article has been positive and affirming, and I’m grateful for any help its been able to give. But I’ve also gotten some thoughtful, friendly pushback and questions. Much of this has been helpful in clarifying my own thoughts, and I want to take a minute and address some of it.

The first thing I should clarify about my original blog is what I did, and did not, intend to communicate. My aim was to help Christians affirm their conscientious objections to watching simulated sexual acts by offering some substantive reasons why, in my opinion, violence and profanity are not similarly problematic. I was not trying to argue that all sexual content in movies demands the same response from everyone, nor was I making a case that all movies that contain it are equally problematic. There is, of course, a significant difference between talking about the sexuality of a James Bond film and that of 50 Shades of Grey, just like there’s a difference between the violence of The Exorcist and The Human Centipede. My conviction is not that all these films are equivalent or that Christians must treat them as such, but that a consistent ethic of avoiding explicit sexuality in any film is not hypocritical, unrealistic, or even particularly “legalistic.”

The reason I think this is a point worth making is that when most Christians ask about sex in movies, they’re not asking about whether they should walk out of the theater when it comes on, or if they should leave the party or close their eyes or only watch with their spouse and fast forward. Those might be important questions, but in the majority of cases that’s not what is being asked. What is being asked is, “Is it even worth trying to avoid?” And, “Don’t I have Christian freedom to watch if I’m resisting the temptation to lust?” My blog was specifically directed not toward the details but toward the larger point that, yes, for the Christian, avoiding a dramatic encounter with the erotic outside of the marriage covenant IS realistic and IS spiritually wise.

With that said, let me address some specific questions that I’ve received and that I think are helpful in clarifying some principles:

1-Aren’t you assuming, unreasonably, that everyone has the same struggles in this area?

No, I’m not assuming that at all. In fact, if you read through my original post, you may notice that I made absolutely zero references to “struggling” or pornography or addiction, etc. That was intentional. Of course, it’s not difficult to base my argument on those things, and many have done so. But there are two problems I see with doing that. First, my struggles with pornography do not inform how you should think about movies or TV in your own life. The New Testament is very friendly to the idea that some members of the body of Christ may be prohibited in their conscience from something that other members are allowed. That’s OK. Paul calls us to live together as one in understanding and in love but not necessarily in habit. An argument against Christian viewing of cinematic sexuality that is grounded in the besetting sins of some of the body is not really an argument based in biblical principles, but in special pleading, the same way a Christian argument for teetotalism based on alcoholic struggles of some would be.

The second problem with using pornography addiction as a reason that all Christians should avoid sexuality in film is more simple: It doesn’t really help anybody. You can argue all day that Christians who watch sexually explicit movies will eventually fall into pornography addiction or sexual dysfunction, but in the end, that simply won’t be true for much of the Body. It is better, I think, to base an argument for avoidance in transcendent principles about eroticism in art and a biblical theology of the body, and that is what I (briefly) tried to do.

2- Isn’t there a difference between how movies use sexual content, and doesn’t your argument ignore this difference through over-simplification?

A Christian friend of mine emailed me after I posted the blog and argued that his personal view was to avoid films in which explicit sexuality was essential to the film’s story. In other words, my friend differentiated between a movie that contained a scene of sexuality in an overall narrative that wasn’t sexual, and a movie whose essential nature was erotic.

This is of course a perfectly valid distinction. I completely agree that we can and must make distinctions based on the totality of the art that is presented to us. My only rebut to this point would be what I said in point #1 of my post: Even if a film’s overall narrative trajectory is not erotic in essence, sexual scenes unavoidably serve an erotic purpose within that trajectory. The question for the Christian is not, I think, whether we should watch 2 hours of sexual explicitness vs 2 minutes. The question is whether our epistemological proximity to the extramarital erotic puts us afoul of Christ’s command to not even gaze lustfully. The distinction that my friend brought up is valid and true. I’m just not convinced that it’s enough of a distinction.

3- Doesn’t this ethic unwittingly condemn Christian physicians who have to look at nude bodies?

I was surprised to see that this objection was actually raised against my post by a noted Christian blogger. I find it laughable. If anyone can read my blog and come away thinking that I’ve destroyed the distinction between the naked body in a medical context and the naked body in an erotic context, then I have some magic beans you may be interested in.

4- Wouldn’t it be more helpful to say, “If a particular movie causes you to sin, don’t watch it”?

The appeal to individual discernment almost always sounds more helpful than blanket statements. But in my experience, when it comes to matters of practical decision-making, telling Christians to use “discernment” is more or less an end-around of the actual issue. Again, I don’t think most people who ask about Christians watching sex in film are asking about whether a particular scene in a particular movie, and how they should specifically respond to it. Instead, most are asking, “Should I even bother making a fuss and risk being called a fundamentalist?”

I’ll put it this way: A Christian’s tolerance for sexuality in films should always be less than the spiritual parameters they’ve set in place for their consumption of entertainment. So if a single guy who lives alone, doesn’t have a church small group, and basically no one invading his life to watch and ask questions wants to know which movies he can and cannot watch, the wisest counsel to him will be quite strict. As more means of grace fall into place in a person’s life, more clarity may come as to what, specifically, should be avoided totally. But my feeling is that for many American Christians, this relationship is actually the opposite: The more plugged in a Christian is and the more liable to accountability, the stricter the media consumption is, and the less plugged in and less accountable, the looser. Speaking to that reality in the American evangelical church, then, I believe that it is perfectly biblical and responsible to encourage an ethic of total avoidance.

Some Thoughts on Christians, Movies, and Nudity

To be honest, I had no idea what (or who?) Deadpool was by the time everyone was watching the trailers for the new movie. I’d never heard of that character and had no special interest in learning more (I’m fatigued of superhero movies at this point anyway). But it turns out that Deadpool is a pretty interesting guy (thing?) and has a lot of fans. Box Office Mojo’s unofficial reports have the movie blowing away some meaningful records, several of which are in the “R-rated” category. R-rated superhero films are rare. Studios prefer PG-13 ratings for films they want to be blockbusters, for obvious reasons.

The MPAA states that Deadpool’s R-rating comes from “strong violence and language throughout, sexual content and graphic nudity.” Violence is, of course, very common in superhero films, though it’s almost always in a highly stylized, choreographed context (as opposed to the visceral realism of Saving Private Ryan). Strong language isn’t as common in the superhero genre, but it’s rare to see a film for grownups that doesn’t drop a few four letter epithets.

When it comes to the evangelicals that I know and talk to about movies, violence and language live on the low end of the Problematic Scale. Of course, cinematic violence can be nihilistic and inhumane, and coarse language can be over the top and abusive. But in general, violence and language are the least-weighted categories of movie vice. While an evangelical film critic may warn you about jarring violence or strong language, it’s unlikely, all other variables being equal, that those two things by themselves can actually warrant a spiritually-motivated abstention.

When it comes to sexuality and nudity, the opposite tends to be true. If language and violence are the least weighted content flags, sex and skin are the heaviest. It takes little sexual content–and virtually any nudity–to get most of my evangelical movie-buffs to refuse to see it, or refuse to give a recommendation. (I probably should clarify that nudity in the sense I am talking about is erotic and/or flippant, not the stomach-turning nudity of the Auschwitz prisoners in Schindler’s List)

This dynamic within much of evangelical cultural commentary is not uncontroversial. For example, some Christian film critics have accused this ethos of hypocrisy (and perhaps a little bit of sexism) for having a high tolerance for violence and such a low tolerance for sexuality. After all, isn’t violence, especially gun and war violence, more desensitizing to the soul–and more dangerous for younger, impressionable viewers– than a 2 minute love scene?

A case study here may be helpful. Alissa Wilkinson, a brilliant film critic and chief of Christianity Today’s movie review section, gave a 3.5 star (out of 4) review to the Martin Scorcese/ Leonardo DiCaprio flick The Wolf of Wall Street. The recommendation came accompanied with an entire section of the review that warned potential audiences of the graphic and non-stop nature of the movie’s sexual content. Wilkinson wrote that she admired the way the film demanded an emotional response from the audience, and that, as indulgent as the movie was, it would be “worth the risk” for some.

In response, Trevin Wax, an editor at The Gospel Coalition, linked to Wilkinson’s review and asked whether evangelical cultural engagement had left the door too open to the “unwatchable.” “At what point do we say,” Wax asked, “It is wrong to participate in certain forms of entertainment?” Wilkinson concluded that the movie’s depictions served its story’s harsh judgment of the characters, while Wax was skeptical that a parade of sexual images could be justified at all.

This is an important question for me personally. I love movies and I love writing about them. I’m a critic by instinct. I want to think deeply about movies, and my love of great film has motivated me to see many obscure pictures that my friends often have no idea exist. I love living and thinking and writing in that world.

At the same time, my aspirations to movie criticism have been tempered with an increasing unwillingness to watch sexual nudity. Even as I try to raise intellectual objections to John Piper’s 7 reasons for Christians to not watch movies like Deadpool, I find myself more and more in alignment with his plea. On the whole, I think Christians would be better served in their lives, marriages, and imaginations if they made a point of avoiding films that simulate sexual acts or show nude characters.

Here are a few, very brief reasons I’ve arrived at this position:

  • In virtually every imaginable case, cinematic sex and nudity are placed intentionally into a film in order to give the audience an erotic or titillating experience. In other words, nude love scenes do NOT further a film’s basic storyline more than would having the characters close the door behind them, and fade out. The purpose of simulating intimacy on-screen is to invite the audience to participate in the erotic storytelling, and, as such, I don’t believe that a Christian, male or female, can simultaneously watch it and fulfill Christ’s command to not look at another person lustfully.
  • Piper’s distinction between violence, which is always fake, and nudity, which is never fake, seems to me very compelling. A gunfight between characters is entirely staged. The blood is phony, the bullets are rubber, and the explosions are highly controlled. But a nude actor is really nude, and thus, the audience does not have the epistemological distance from the sexual that it does have from the violent. If a superhero film were produced with real guns that really shot real extras, nobody would find it praiseworthy.
  • The Scriptures teach that the naked human body is not a morally neutral thing. The nakedness of Adam and Eve is precisely the characteristic that the author of Genesis uses to sum up their perfect sexual union (Gen. 2:25). The biblical prophets used public nakedness as a metaphor for a life lived apart from God (Ez. 16). This is not, I believe, a failure of the biblical writers to be “sex positive,” but an affirmation of what we all know by instinct to be true: That our naked bodies are precious, that they have a purpose, and that outside of God’s dominion the naked self is only a sign of shame and despair, not joy.
  • Films have a special kind of potency to shape our moral imaginations. The combination of imagery, dialogue, lighting, and music are what James K. A. Smith refers to as a “pedagogy of desire.” I believe that art not only tells a story but shapes our desires in the images of the stories it tells. To that end, I don’t want my desires to be shaped by the ridiculously unreal, freewheeling depiction of sexuality that movies present. Movie sex is nothing remotely like married sex, and my suspicion is that many people are in deeply frustrated, wounded relationships because they thought it was.

So there you have it, just a few thoughts on the Christian, the movie, and sex. I would love to hear your thoughts on this too.

My Super Bowl Preview

On Sunday evening, the NFL will play its final game of the 2015-16 season to determine its league champion. Super Bowl 50 kicks off at 6:30PM ET. CBS has exclusive broadcast rights to the game, though NFL.com has said it will stream the halftime show (performances by Coldplay, Beyonce, and Bruno Mars) online.

Here’s what you need to know for the big game: Continue reading My Super Bowl Preview

Don’t Store Your Treasures on Twitter

I have an article up at The Gospel Coalition this morning, interacting with professor Alan Jacobs and an essay from The New Yorker about social media and the pitfalls (and advantages) of constantly being online.

Here’s an excerpt:

As Christians we believe that what happens in our minds is integral to what happens in our souls. That’s why the Scriptures command us to be transformed through the renewing of our minds, rather than conforming them to the image of this fallen world (Rom. 12:2). Because social media engages our minds and emotions, we have a Christian obligation to evaluate whether we engage to our benefit or to our stumbling.

To do this, we must begin by acknowledging that social media and mobile web technology may not be morally neutral. Often evangelicals talk of material things as inconsequential in and of themselves. “It’s how you use it that matters,” we say. But material things—like smartphones—can have intrinsic moral properties. As Neil Postman wrote of television in his classic book Amusing Ourselves to Death, “The medium is the message.” You don’t have to watch porn on your smartphone for the technology to be shaping your mind and heart in subtle, dangerous ways.

Read the whole piece here.