Rowling In the Deep

I have plans to see Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them later today. Before I do, though, I want to reiterate a version of something I’ve said several times before in this space: Regardless of how good Fantastic Beasts is, and how much I enjoy it (which, based on reviews from people I trust, may be quite a lot), I think its existence is, for the most part, a mistake, and something that sincere fans of J.K. Rowling’s work will regret in years to come.

Right now, American pop culture is absolutely trapped in a hyper-nostalgia. There are plenty of reasons to be concerned that this isn’t just a fad or a phase. Rather, it looks more like a philosophical shift in how culture makers produce stories, and how we as an audience consume them. As A.O. Scott has written, so much of our film, TV, and literature appeals to childlikeness–not childlike wonder, mind you, but childlike sense of identity. Critical conversations about meaning and narrative are being thrown aside in what Scott has called the “ascendancy of the fan,” the transformation of mainstream pop culture into a mere collection of constantly rebooted brands: Marvel vs DC, Star Wars vs Star Trek, Bourne vs Bond, etc etc, ad infinitum.

I’ve said all this before, and I’m not going to restate my many comments here. But I want to very briefly apply these concerns to Rowling and to the Harry Potter universe. I have two reasons. First, I love the Potter series and have an especial affection and admiration for it. Second, I think what Rowling is doing with her legacy is the most glaring example we have of the danger of the reboot nostalgia culture.

The Harry Potter series (books 1-7) will, I’m convinced, be read widely with delight centuries from now. A few days ago I drew the wrath of Twitter when I declared that the Potter books were, taken as a whole, better than Lewis’s Narnia series. I stand by that. That’s not a dig at Narnia, either; I just believe that the Potter series is that good, and that its genius will only be greater appreciated in the years to come.

Part of that genius is in the story’s ending. I won’t spoil it (if you haven’t read the series, I envy the joy you will take in reading it for the first time), but the best way I can put it is that Rowling ended her tale with a beautiful and poetic symmetry that brought her characters a genuinely satisfying closure. At the last turn of the page in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, there is an eschatological joy in seeing good triumph over evil in a final, authoritative way.

What Rowling has done in the years since Deathly Hallows is more than marketing. She has sought to open up her mythology in a way that keeps the story going eternally. This was the point of Pottermore, a website that put users into the wizarding world through interactive content–content written by Rowling (as the ads for Pottermore made a point of repeating over and over again). Rowling’s involvement in Pottermore was clearly a pitch to fans that the story hadn’t ended, that the world was still being written and that by signing up for the service, they could be part of the new stories.

Rowling’s intentions became even more clearer with the publication of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Officially, the hardback copy that was sold in Barnes and Noble was simply the published script of a stage play, based on the Potter series. *Unofficially* (and again, in marketing), it was quite obviously the 8th book of the series. I never read the book, but my wife excitedly did. She was extremely disappointed, telling me that the characters of Cursed Child spoke and acted like fan fiction creations, not the heroes of books 1-7. Several reviews I saw echoed this sentiment.

The reviews for Fantastic Beasts have been much more positive, and I fully expect to enjoy it. But the pattern that Rowling has established thus far seems clear. The world of Harry Potter has been reopened, and its mythology has broken out of its original fate and is being written, and rewritten, and written again. It is, for all practical purposes, now a piece of fan fiction.

Fan fiction exists to let fans live inside their favorite stories. But one of the defining marks of all great stories is the way they live inside of us. What I fear is happening to Harry Potter is that a wonderful, beautiful piece of literature is becoming a cultural artifact to our inability to let stories teach us about this world and this life. The lessons we can draw from Harry, Ron, and Hermione are in danger of becoming lost in the constant reinvention of their world. By not letting our favorite stories end, we turn them into tools rather than teachers–objects that authenticate our childlike desire to not let go, to not courageously follow Harry outside the safety and comfort of our magical world, and into a dangerous, wild place where we have a job to do.

I want very much for succeeding generations to know the Harry Potter series as a brilliantly told, biblically haunted epic, not as another resource for Dungeons and Dragons devotees. My fear is that even in well-made films and interesting books, Harry’s lessons are lost, and we will be entertained and distracted at the cost of something precious.

You Get What You Pay For

I didn’t grow up wealthy. My dad was a minister and we were firmly in the “working class” category that economists overuse. When it came to using money, we weren’t free spenders. But I’m thankful that neither did we squelch when a little extra was called for.

This principle came from my dad, who instilled in me a sense that you get what you pay for. If you want something–if you really want it, not just if you want other people to know you have it or want to spend–then that something is worth paying for. So, for example, if you want an MP3 player, and you want one that will actually last for years and is good quality, then it’s worth paying a little extra for the iPod. If you need a new jacket, and you want it to keep you warm for many winters, then it’s worth paying a little extra for one with better and more durable materials. Once you decide that something is worth buying, my Dad thought, then it’s worth buying well, because you get what you pay for. Paying less money for something that isn’t quite as good and won’t last quite as long or won’t do exactly what you’re wanting it to do makes less sense–and is a poorer use of money–than simply waiting.

It seems to me that we live in an era of American culture that is awash in the cheap and unsatisfying. I’m thinking now of entertainment. Think of how streaming services like Netflix and iTunes now dominate the entertainment economy, when just a decade ago most people still frequented brick-and-mortar retailers like Blockbuster. The appeal of Netflix is its cheapness; for $10/month, you can stream hundreds of movies and TV shows at will, without ever leaving your home. You don’t have to be a math major to see how Netflix was successful at this.

But there’s a sense I think in which Netflix (and its musical counterpart, Spotify) is actually the cheaper, less satisfying product. After all, a subscriber to Netflix doesn’t actually own anything. The Netflix collection that he treasures can disappear at any point, for any reason (and often does). Netflix determines what’s watchable and what’s not, and there’s no other Netflix “location” you can visit to see if it has what you’re looking for. What Netflix offers is cheapness and convenience, and in exchange it squelches on availability, selection, and, if we’re being honest, often quality. This relationship isn’t incidental. The ease of Netflix exists because of its flaws, not in spite of it. You get what you pay for.

I’m not just thinking of entertainment here either. We’re only weeks away from a presidential election in the US, and can you imagine an election cycle that more exemplifies the tradeoff between easy and good than this one? Our national politics seems to have fallen squarely in the Netflix trap. We are often drawn to candidates, on either side, who embody identity politics and confirm our worst suspicions about the “other side.” As long as a politician can make us feel correct and victimized, we somehow find ways to ignore serious faults in character, honesty, and personal morality. We want the politics of the easy and the convenient, and are willing to get less quality leadership in return.

This is why it’s important to remember that wanting a better national politic entails a better electorate.  Last week I was sad to hear that a great publication, Books and Culture, was closing. I immediately thought how difficult it is right now to produce high quality writing by high quality writers, when the internet is page after page after page of third-tier, amusing, often trivial content. The concept of writing itself is being defined down by Buzzfeed and social media. What’s the appeal here? It’s all free! It’s all easy! But so little of it is good. You get what you pay for.

Ours is a culture of cheap, low-quality entertainment; cheap, low-quality politics; cheap, low-quality religion; cheap, low-quality education. We are so adapted to the tradeoff between inexpensive and mediocre that we hardly notice it anymore–until, of course, we have nothing else to choose from except the vulgar, the dishonest, and the middlebrow. And at that point, often a point of no obvious return, we lament, “How on earth did we get here?”

I’m not sure what the answer is. But I have a feeling it starts with taking Philippians 4:8 seriously. What if obedience to Christ and the renewal of our minds means that we submit even our money to the pursuit of that which is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and praiseworthy? Faithfulness to this command may not be as convenient as we might think. It may look less like an instant streaming service or a listicle, and more like a trip to the video store and a well-edited magazine. Want the good, the true, and the honorable? You get what you pay for.

 

 

Review: “Sully” (2016)

“Sully” is a film about how two kinds of people respond to immense pressure and impending doom. The heroes—a copilot, stewardesses, the coast guard, and of course, an elderly captain—all respond with calm, clear headed thinking, decisiveness, and courage. The villains, by contrast, respond with paranoia and panic. We don’t normally think of these competing characteristic as what “heroes” do as opposed to “villains”; but perhaps Clint Eastwood’s accomplishment here is to show us just how much can depend on how average, everyday people choose to react. Sometimes, it’s even the difference between heroism and manslaughter.

You know the story. In the stinging frost of a January day in 2009, Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger (played by Tom Hanks) landed his U.S. Air commercial jet on the Hudson river. All 155 passengers survived, the day was called “the miracle on the Hudson,” and Sully was deemed a hero of impossible skill and supernatural intuition. In the doldrums of the economic meltdown, Sully’s story was more than a miracle; it was a cultural moment, a reminder (especially in New York) that airplanes don’t always explode when they fall, and that hope could still be rewarded.

In “Sully,” the only one to miss this memo is Sully himself. The film opens with Sully’s plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline and erupting in a fireball that evokes memories of 15 years ago. This is, of course, a dream; we learn quickly that Sully’s nightmare comes from his sense of self-doubt and anxiety over his action on that day. Though he saved lives, the National Transportation Safety Board believes he could have landed at a nearby airport instead of in the river (or as one character later clarifies, “on” the river). Thus, an insurance company and an airline now have a financial stake in whether Sully unnecessarily endangered the passengers he somehow rescued.

It defies logic that a pilot who saved lives on an airliner without either engine could be forced to retire as a result. Throughout “Sully” I kept thinking how easily Eastwood could have made this film into an infuriating jeremiad against bureaucrats and insurance corporations. Wisely, he did not, but still.

The film’s drama centers on the investigation that the NTSB carries out, and whether they will determine that Sully was indeed at fault. For his part, Sully resents his new celebrity, and hallucinates reporters who decry him and more exploding planes. It’s obvious that this is an honorable man of duty. His copilot (Aaron Eckhart) showers praise on him, his wife (Laura Linney) believes in him, but Sully cannot rest if he doesn’t know for sure that he did the right thing. The election cycle of 2016 is desperately short of people like this, and we need to be reminded often that they’re out there.

“Sully” has an undeniably authentic feel. The crash sequence isn’t as technically masterful as, say, the one Robert Zemeckis achieved in Flight, but it is staged and photographed well. One thing Eastwood captures is the crucial knowledge and decisiveness of the flight crew during the chaos of the un-boarding. There’s no doubt in my mind that a lesser prepared team would have lost some lives during the frigid wait for rescue. These weren’t
marines or professional disaster handlers. They were flight attendants and copilots and stewardesses, with the same fear for themselves that everyone onboard had. Yet they preserved life.

Hanks is a good choice as Sullenberger. The role demands little of him, but that’s OK, because we are not meant to marvel at how great a human being Sullenberger is but at how ordinary. Laura Linney gives the film’s best performance as Sullenberger’s wife; the two never appear in the same shot, but their affection is evident.

Sully is a flawed movie. The script seems unsure if it wants to delve into Sullenberger’s past and psychology. There are a couple flashback sequences that show his love of flying and his remarkable instincts, but these scenes feel like they would be better in a different cut of the movie. There’s also a tactical mistake in editing that gives us what is essentially the exact same sequence twice. Given the scene’s relative lack of mystery, this is a test of patience rather than a tension builder.

Quibbles aside, “Sully” is a worthy documentation of a day that will be long remembered, if not by American culture, then certainly by 155 living, thankful passengers. The film reminded me of the greatness people are capable of when they refuse to panic, and simply do their job. We need more of that, especially now.

The Politics of Never Growing Up

Consider for a moment the portrait that is currently emerging of the young American adult.

Let’s begin with college. Despite its many dysfunctions and uncertain economic future, higher education is still considered to be the crucial pivot into adulthood for most American youth. Crippling college debt exists not so much because teens and parents are willing to spend so much on an education, but because they are willing to spend on an education experience. Come for the tuition, stay for the dorm and student life fees.

And what is the college experience nowadays? For insight, we might turn to Nathan Heller’s essay in the latest issue of The New Yorker. He writes from Oberlin University, whose culture and institutional stability is systematically being ripped apart by a student body of 19 year old “activists” who demand instantaneous, sweeping, and authoritarian intervention on a daily basis. Heller is clearly sympathetic to Oberlin’s progressive ethos, and his observations do not incriminate the students as much as they contextualize them. Nevertheless, his essay’s depiction of life at Oberlin—in classrooms to the common areas alike—is terrifying. At one point Heller recounts an incident that epitomizes the school’s culture of ruthless value enforcement:

For years, a campus café and performance space called the Cat in the Cream had a music-themed mural, painted by an alumnus, that celebrated multiculturalism: it featured a turbanned snake charmer, a black man playing a saxophone, and so on. Students recently raised concerns that the mural was exoticizing. “We ended up putting drywall over it, and painting over that,” Robert Bonfiglio, who had been the chair of the Student Union Board, told me. “They were saying, ‘Students are being harmed. Just do something now.’ ” But if individuals’ feelings were grounds to efface art work, he reasoned, every piece of art at Oberlin would be in constant danger of being covered up, or worse—a practice with uncomfortable antecedents. “The fear in class isn’t getting something wrong but having your voice rejected,” he said. “People are so amazed that other people could have a different opinion from them that they don’t want to hear it.”

Heller’s essay is vivid, but the culture he describes at Oberlin is by no means exceptional. As Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have written, the “coddling of the American mind” is not isolated to a selective slew of elite universities. It is a phenomenon embedded into American higher education at large. There was a time not long ago when college was considered an intellectual sanctuary for coming of age. But for these universities that submit their entire existence to the experiences and felt needs of undergraduates, it is not the students who are expected to grow up, but the institutions themselves. The students are In The Know; it’s the educators that must protect what is already there, not grow it. College has become Never-Never Land.

What about life outside the ivory tower? For this, we might consult some new data from the Pew Center. The headline is self-analyzing: “For First Time in Modern Era, Living With Parents Edges Out Other Living Arrangements for 18-34 Year Olds.” Men in particular have become startlingly immobile: More than a third of men aged 18-34 live with parents rather than alone or with a romantic partner.

This kind of existential paralysis isn’t just a matter of changing economic contexts (though that certainly is part of the problem). For men especially, the prolonged delay of marriage and relational commitment often means a perpetual adolescence in other areas of life. Love and sex are arguably the best incentives for men to assert their adulthood and achieve in  life. But in the safety and comfort of mom and dad’s basement, young men get to live out their fantasies without the friction of real life, often turning to porn and video games to give their static lives the imitation of thrill. Growing up is optional.

The basement is Never Land. The university is Never Land. Even dating is Never Land, thanks to Tinder and a hook up culture that eschews commitment with the safety of online anonymity. Pop culture, with its endless fixation on comic books, child fantasy adventures, and nostalgia, is Never Land. Our American landscape is a monument to the heedless pleasures of knowing it all, playing it all, and sexing it all.

C.S. Lewis rebuked the cowardice of secularized modernity. “We make men without chests and expect from them virtue and enterprise,” he wrote. “We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst.” With apologies to J.M. Barrie, we could say it another way: We tell our Lost Boys to flee to Never Land, and are shocked when they vote for the pirate.

Movie Review: “Captain America: Civil War” (2016)

The best superhero film of the millennium (thus far) is Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight. It’s a brooding masterpiece, drenched in noir and teeming with the questions of life that we face every day. That its hero is a comic book warrior is almost irrelevant; it is a film rooted firmly in the moral battles of real life.

Captain America: Civil War is not as good as The Dark Knight, but it is closer than anything we’ve seen since 2008. It’s Marvel’s masterpiece and one of the best films of the year.

Surprised? Me too.

As some of you will know, I am one of those who believe that the superhero genre’s (especially the superhero sequel genre) dominance right now is a weakness and not a strength of the film industry. I’ve said before that the way franchises have consumed the movie market tends toward lower quality from studios and less risk tasking from filmmakers. I still believe that. I still believe that on any given day a 6th installment of a film series—especially a comic book one—is probably designed to help its audience expect less from a film.

But the great thing about movies is that sometimes, it all just falls into place. Sometimes your expectations and carefully thought out analyses get broadsided by a great story, compelling characters and bold, smart filmmakers. What’s great about movies is that sometimes you get one like Captain America: Civil War.

Civil War builds extensively on the events of Captain America: Winter Soldier. A few years ago it was probably easy for someone who had never seen an Avengers movie to jump right into the latest installment. Not anymore. If you don’t know at least the basic universe and events of the previous movies there’s practically nothing to grab onto here. None of the characters are “introduced” (save for two new superheroes, a familiar web-slinger and a prowling prince) and most of the action is thematically anchored in the past. This makes for an unusually intelligent and perceptive script, but a pre-movie refresher is mandatory.

Do I need to describe the plot? A quick glance of the trailer would at least explain the film’s title to you. The most important thing to know is that at the heart of Civil War is a question that haunts not just the Avengers but every superhero story I’ve ever heard: What about the humans who are in those buildings that always blow up? What about the faceless, nameless average folks who are not hero, villain, or rescued? Most movies in this genre either seem to pretend that these people don’t exist (the amount of vacant real estate in New York City is astonishing) or pretend that they can somehow withstand being caught in the middle of supernatural apocalypse. Civil War drops both these illusions. Like Nolan’s Dark Knight, Civil War uses the mythology of the superhero to ask moral questions of its characters, and its audience.

Should those trying to save life care about “collateral damage”? Is the power to intervene for good always tempered by the potential to do harm? Who and what determines innocence? This is normally the stuff of Oliver Stone war pictures, not comic book adventures. Here is that rarity: a superhero film willing to question itself, to not drown out thought in a torrent of CGI destruction.

As Civil War opens, the powers that be believe that the Avengers, heretofore an independent, apolitical group of an “enhanced” warriors, need governmental oversight. The debate amongst the heroes centers on whether their power to defend life is helped or hindered by submission to political bureaucracy. Some of the Avengers agree with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) that the lost lives of innocents demands that the heroes surrender some of their autonomy; others side with Captain America (Chris Evans) that such submission will only handcuff their abilities.

This may sound like another edition of the “Hero or vigilante” trope so common in this genre. But where this theme is often treated with either glib humor (think Sam Rami’s Spider-Man trilogy) or a kind of meandering sanctimony (think Man of Steel), Civil War takes it seriously and asks the audience to as well. An early encounter between Tony Stark and the mother of a young man killed in one of the Avengers’ battles is a deeply affecting and uncomfortably realistic sequence. There’s a maturity and confidence in this writing that elevates Civil War far above the level of live action cartoon. Children will still delight in these heroes, but adults will leave thinking more seriously about a superhero’s world than perhaps they have in a while.

One thing I noticed about Civil War is that its action sequences seem more grounded and physical. I’ve seen a lot of Marvel films where the heroes defy the laws of physics in a way that doesn’t feel thrilling. Here the visual effects seem to have more humanity; the biff-bam-pow spirit of the comics is more evident than the flawlessly pixelated violence of video games. This too was true of Nolan’s Batman films (a very different sort of comic book film, of course). Except for some inexplicably jittery photography in the movie’s very first battle, Civil War features some of the best superhero battling I’ve seen in years.

Though the title says this should be Captain America’s film, it’s really another volume for the Avengers as a whole. That’s good news because Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans together are far and away the best asset this franchise has. Their rivalry is the soul of Civil War. Marvel deserves credit for not turning its cast into human placeholders for green screen, which would rob us of the serious talent on display here. The two new heroes are particularly well picked, and Martin Freeman has a great (though short) time as a government agent.

Not just another episode of digital playtime, Civil War offers the superhero genre humanity, thoughtfulness, and a higher plane of excitement than it has seen in a while. It all works, from the intelligent and even surprising screenplay by Stephen McFeely and Chris Markus, to Joe and Anthony Russo’s confident direction. If future comic book films will learn the lessons in craft found in this movie, our death-by-nostalgia Hollywood may yet have a fighting chance.

 

It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage

With apologies to Dylan Thomas and Michael Caine: Sometimes you really do just need to go gently into that good night.

Disney announced this week that it has officially started production on a fifth Indiana Jones film, directed yet again by Steven Spielberg and starring yet again (almost unbelievably) Harrison Ford, who by now could probably pass for an ancient relic himself. Indeed, the internet is already working overtime on irreverent titles for this ecstatically unnecessary movie (“Indiana Jones and the Lost AARP”).

The problem is not, of course, Harrison Ford’s age. Ford has more talent and charisma onscreen right now than many actors would accumulate if given an extra decade in their 30s. No, the problem is not in the gray hairs, but in the gray matter. The idea of another Indiana Jones film is not one that offers expectations of delight, merely of nostalgia. This was proved definitively by jaw-droppingly awful Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, a movie so deeply flawed in basic concept that Disney felt obliged to mention in this week’s announcement that its writer, George Lucas, will have nothing to do with #5.

But removing Disney’s second largest shareholder from the project isn’t really a solution. Indeed, it was probably already inevitable that the new film will be better than Crystal Skull. Even so, it will still be a mistake.

For a little while now I’ve been critical of Hollywood’s creative stagnation. The sequel, the reboot, and the franchise dominate the box office every year, and the result is an industry that simply doesn’t seem able to produce new worlds, new stories, new characters. Audiences want to see what they’ve already seen 2 or 3 times, 20 or 30 years ago. If familiarity had been this profitable back when George Lucas was trying to get the original Star Wars financed, it’s almost certain the world would never have seen his movie.

That kind of critique makes lots of sense to me, but it doesn’t make much sense to a lot of my friends. When I posted some tomato-throwing thoughts about the Indy film on Facebook, I predicted, accurately, that certain folks would dismiss me as a snob and a crank. It seems that most people understand the idea that reboots and sequels really are an enormous proportion of the film industry right now; they’re just OK with that. I don’t know how to convince people to not be ok with that without sounding somewhat condescending, and risking what would ultimately be a lecture of “culturedness.” A lot of my friends simply have no category for a reasonable person who would think there was some sort of objective problem with more Star Wars, more Marvel, and more Indiana Jones.

The reality is that this kind of thinking requires a sort of inherent distance from entertainment. It requires seeing films as more than diversion but less than cultic ciphers of fandom. And I think, for a lot of my friends and a lot of Americans, the space between those two extremes just doesn’t exist. Movies are either meaningless or they are spiritual experiences. Star Wars is either a silly, inconsequential (if entertaining) celluloid or a deeply emotional piece of personal psyche that triggers a sense of identity and ownership. You either don’t care or wear the t-shirt.

This is what A.O. Scott meant when he talked about the “ascendency of the fan.” Fandom creates a “Critics Not Allowed” space. You can talk about a film’s flaws with audiences, and they will either agree or disagree. But try discussing those blemishes with a fan, and you’ll be labeled either ignorant or, worse, an enemy from a rival franchise.

There’s nothing wrong with some healthy doses of fan culture, but when it controls the market with the kind of ruthless monopoly that we’re seeing right now, you end up with things like Kingdom of Crystal Skull and Fuller House. You also end up, incidentally, with presidential candidates who can’t articulate coherent policy but win primaries by promising to, well, win. Once the fan experience is created, it is invulnerable, even to the most offensive sound bytes and the most poorly written screenplays. Fans aren’t objective; they wouldn’t be fans if they were.

So yes, I think 5 Indiana Jones films and 9 Star Wars movies and roughly 18492785 manifestations of Marvel characters are overall a disappointing thing for our culture. Ben-Hur doesn’t need to be remade, it just needs to be rewatched. A compulsive need to watch classic stories with contemporary upgrades is nothing more than what Lewis called “chronological snobbery.”

It’s not the years, honey. It’s the mileage.

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.

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.

The Legacy of “Schindler’s List”

Today, January 27, is known as International Holocaust Remembrance Day. For the vast majority of us, the Holocaust is only accessible via the historical record. Books, pictures, articles, and testimony are all that remain of the Third Reich’s “final solution” for millions of European Jews, gypsies, Poles, and other minorities. 

One of the most important moments of cultural remembrance of the Shoah is Steven Spielberg’s 1993 film Schindler’s List. The film, which won 7 Oscars including Best Picture, is not without its flaws or critics. But there is no question that, perhaps more so than any other popular work of art, Schindler’s List has illuminated one of the darkest corners of human history for multiple generations. 

Below is an essay I wrote about the film last year for Patheos. My hope is that this film, a cinematic masterpiece as well as an indispensable record, endures for as long as people watch movies. Christians especially should take an interest in the story of a man who sacrificed everything he had to rescue those who were despised in society.

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Oskar Schindler was the greatest con artist in history. Most conmen fail. The successful ones manage to swindle a few people and make a few dollars. The greatest cons swindle more people and make more dollars. Oskar Schindler didn’t con 10, 50, or even 100 people; he conned the entire Nazi Party. He made a fortune, and then spent it all–becoming destitute by the war’s end– to keep his con working. And at the end, there were 1,100 Polish Jews who escaped Auschwitz because of him.

All of the great films tell great stories, but a few of them have stories of their own. One day in 1980 the novelist Thomas Keneally entered, by pure chance, a Beverly Hills store owned by an old Jew named Leopold. Learning that his customer was a writer, Leopold told Keneally that his real name was Poldek Pffeferberg and that he survived World War II in Poland because a German named Schindler had hired Jews to work in his factories. After much pleading, Keneally agreed to write Pffeferberg’s story, and published Schindler’s Ark (it was retitled Schindler’s List in the States) in 1982.

Steven Spielberg read Keneally’s book and knew it had to be filmed, but didn’t want to do it himself. Only after Martin Scorsese and Roman Polanski both told Spielberg they couldn’t make it did he decide it had to be him (Polanski would make The Pianist ten years after Schindler’s List released). It proved to be one of the landmark decisions of his legendary career. No one could have made Schindler’s List the way Spielberg made it.

There are so many great scenes in Schindler’s List, so many moments of purity and transcendence and horror that it is tempting to merely dub it “great art” and esteem it the way we might a Renaissance painting or a Handel composition. But it is Spielberg’s great gift of storytelling that prevents us from doing so. We must confront the history, the events, the people, and the places. Schindler’s List is art, yes, but it is also fact, and must be received as such. It’s not easy.

Perhaps that explains then why Schindler’s List seems to be fading from cultural consciousness. It appears only very rarely on television, owing to Spielberg’s inflexible rule that it broadcast unedited. It comes up frequently on lists like the IMDB Top 10 films of all time, but I’m consistently surprised at how many people admit to not having seen it. It’s true that films like The Godfather and Gone With the Wind are such fixtures of culture that many feel like they have seen them even if they haven’t. Is that the case with Schindler’s List? I doubt it. More likely it is being slowly forgotten. It deserves better.

These days Liam Neeson has successfully styled himself as an action hero. His fans owe it to themselves to watch him carefully in this film. He plays Oskar Schindler like a man totally in control. The film’s second scene shows Schindler throwing money at waiters at an upscale SS dinner party like a soldier hands out cigarettes. We get the iconic moving close-up of Schindler as he identifies who among the Nazi guests should be schmoozed. Later on, in one Neeson’s best scenes, he rescues his accountant Izthak Stern (Ben Kingsley) from deportation by intimidating the officers in charge. We watch and might be tempted to dismiss Schindler’s persona as implausible, until we remember that Nazism won Germany in large part because of one man’s charisma. Those who believe they’re in charge often are.

Later, Schindler bribes the commander of Auschwitz after his workers are mistakenly taken there. Spielberg and his editor Michael Kahn, who won the Oscar, place this conversation immediately after the well-known “shower scene.” Our emotions reeling, we watch as Schindler seems to grow and the Nazi seems to shrink. “I’m not judging you, but in the coming months we all are going to need portable wealth,” Schindler says, unveiling a bag of diamonds. The commander threatens to have him arrested. “I’m protected by powerful friends,” Schindler replies, showing not the slightest bit of concern. A few minutes later, Spielberg gives us one of Schindler’s List’s most powerful shots: A shorn and terrified group of women leave the camp and enter safety with Schindler himself in their midst, towering over them like a protective shelter.

Schindler’s enemy is not Nazism but one of its manifestations, the work camp commandant Amon Goethe. It is said that some Jewish survivors on Spielberg’s set cried out in terror when they saw Ralph Fiennes in full costume. Just as Neeson gives Schindler a cocksure CEO persona, so Fiennes plays Goethe as a man with insatiable bloodlust and possible insanity. He falls in his love with his Jewish housemaid but beats her savagely to atone for it. From his villa overlooking the work camp he uses Jews for target practice. Spielberg makes no attempt to shield his audience from the psychotic randomness of the Holocaust’s evil.

In his essay on the film Roger Ebert asked whether it would have been better if Goethe had not been portrayed as a psychopath but as a man living out his ideals consistently and obediently. That’s a good question. My instinct says that it was precisely Goethe’s instability that gave Schindler an opportunity to master him. A sharper and more principled man might have called Schindler’s bluff or at least resisted all those bribes. In a way, Goethe’s madness draws comparisons to the Reich’s downfall; there is only so much pure evil you can imbibe without stumbling.

Spielberg contrasts these two men explicitly. Three important shots send the message: A scene early that cuts back and forth between the two men shaving; a confrontation over the ghetto massacre that puts both men on either side of the frame  and shadow between; and Schindler’s offer to purchase his workers from Goethe in exchange for their lives. Screenwriter Steve Zallian is flawless in that last scene:  “You want these people?” Goethe asks. “They’re MY people, I want my people. “Who are you, Moses?” It’s not the first or the last time Goethe speaks beyond his comprehension.

How did Goethe never catch on? As if to insult his intelligence, Schindler orders a hose to spray water into train cars filled with Jews right in front of him. Goethe cackles, “You’re giving them hope! That’s cruel, you shouldn’t do that!” I love the way Neeson smiles in response. He knows Goethe cannot stop him because he cannot fathom him.

Oh, how much more can be said! A little girl with a red coat, a typewriter creating salvation with every keystroke, and a candle burning quietly and fiercely against the night–so many timeless images that Spielberg created. There’s a tender hand in every relentless shot of terror. If it is true at all that art can reach into our souls, thenSchindler’s List does exactly that.

The Holocaust is unfilmable. No movie can capture what genocide of six million people actually means. Some have objected to Spielberg’s film because it has a happy ending. I’m not sure that survival is always the same as happy, and even if it is, so what? The memory of the six million lives in the testimony of the 1,100. It is their story that Spielberg tells, and tells with grace and truth. That is the test of a great filmmaker and a great film. Wherever Oskar Schindler’s name is remembered, Steven Spielberg’s movie will be remembered too.

“The Force Awakens” and Getting Trapped By Nostalgia

In conversations with friends about the new Star Wars movie, I’ve noticed two trends. The first is that most of the people I’ve talked to report enjoying the movie quite a bit (and that makes sense, seeing as how the film is scoring very well on the critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes). The second trend is that virtually no one has criticized The Force Awakens for being too much like the original Star Wars trilogy. Indeed, the opposite seems to be true: Most people who have told me how much they like Episode VII have mentioned its similarity, both in feel and in plot, to George Lucas’s first three Star Wars films as a reason why they like it so much.

For the record, I enjoyed The Force Awakens quite a bit, and J.J. Abrams’ homage to the golden moments of the original films was, I thought, well done. But many of my conversations about it have confirmed to me what I suspected when Episode VII was announced: We’re trapped in a cultural moment of nostalgia, and we can’t get out of it.

Of course, the nostalgia-entrapment begins with the existence of movies like The Force Awakens. As I’ve said before, as much as I love Star Wars, the fact that a 40 year old franchise is still dominating the box office, news cycle, and cultural attention is not something to be excited about. There comes a point when tradition becomes stagnation, and at least in American mainstream film culture, it seems like that line was crossed some time ago. Case in point: Included in my screening of Star Wars were trailers for a Harry Potter spinoff, another Captain America film, an inexplicable sequel to Independence Day, and yet *another* X-Men movie.  In other words, had an audience member in my theater just awoken from a 12 year coma, they would have seen virtually nothing that they hadn’t seen before.

Nostalgia, if unchecked, runs opposed to creativity, freshness, and imagination. Even worse, the dominance of nostalgia in American pop culture has a powerful influence in marketing, making it less likely every year that new storytellers with visions of new worlds, new characters and new adventures will get the financing they need to materialize their talents. That is a particularly disheartening fact when you consider that the storytellers whose work has spawned a generation’s worth of reboots and sequels were themselves at one point the “unknowns:” George Lucas couldn’t find a studio to finance Star Wars until an executive at 2oth Century Fox took a risk on a hunch; Steven Spielberg finished “Jaws” with much of Universal’s leadership wanting to dump both movie and director; and for much of the filming of “The Godfather,” executives of Paramount openly campaigned to fire writer/director Francis Ford Coppola. If formula and nostalgia had been such powerful cultural forces back then, there’s a good chance there’d be no Star Wars to make sequels for at all.

The trap of nostalgia is deceitful. It exaggerates the happiness of the past, then preys on our natural fear that the future will not be like that. But this illusion is easily dismantled, as anyone who has discovered the joys of a new story can attest.

There’s a freedom and a pleasure in letting stories end, in closing the book or rolling the final credits on our beloved tales. The need to resurrect our favorite characters and places through the sequel or the reboot isn’t a need based in the deepest imaginative joys. It is good that stories end rather than live on indefinitely so that we treasure them as we ought and lose ourselves in a finite universe rather than blur the lines in our mind between the truth in our stories and the truth in our lives. If we cannot allow myths to have definite beginnings and endings, it could be that we are idolatrously looking to them not for truth or grace but for a perpetual youthfulness.

Of course, there are dangers on the other side too. An insatiable craving for the new can be a sign of the weightless of our own souls. A disregard for tradition can indicate a ruthless self-centeredness. And, as C.S. Lewis reminded us, novelty is not a virtue and oldness is not a vice.

But we should be careful to distinguish between a healthy regard for those that come before us, and a nostalgia that (unwittingly) devalues tradition by ignoring how and why it exists. In the grand scheme of things, how many Star Wars films get made is probably not of paramount importance. But being trapped by nostalgia has its price. An irrational love of the past can signal a crippling fear of the future. Christians are called to lay aside the weight of fear and follow the gospel onward. If we’re not even willing to learn what life is like without a new Star Wars or Harry Potter, how can we do that?