How Often Does Oscar Choose the Right "Best Picture" Winner?

How Often Does Oscar Choose the Right "Best Picture" Winner?

If history is any indication, it's unlikely that Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony will end with the most deserving nominee going home with the "best picture" Oscar. This is common sense for anyone who cares about cinema and has been paying attention in recent years. How did The Artist beat out The Tree of Life in 2011? How did Argo beat out Zero Dark Thirty in 2012? How did Birdman beat out Boyhood in 2014? When will Hollywood stop its self-congratulatory streak of crowning showy movies simply because they are meta commentaries about show business? (A trend that looks like it will continue with La La Land.)

Facts Are Horrid Things

Facts Are Horrid Things

One of the funniest lines in "Love & Friendship," Whit Stillman’s hilarious and endearing new film adaptation of Jane Austen's "Lady Susan," find the conniving Lady Susan (Kate Beckinsdale) lamenting that “facts are horrid things.” It’s a philosophy perfectly at home in 2016, a year in which more than one commentator has declared our world to be “post-truth,” courtesy of the impervious-to-facts success of Donald Trump’s campaign.

Knight of Cups

Knight of Cups

Never have I seen a movie so full of beautiful imagery and sound, yet so simultaneously empty, unsatisfying, and downright sleazy, as Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups. But this is precisely its point. The film’s 118-minute parade of bodies, beaches, and landscapes, accompanied by painfully brief snippets of Grieg, Debussy and Vaughan Williams, provides a glut of beauty that is also a deprivation.

99 Great Things About Kansas City

99 Great Things About Kansas City

The world’s spotlight has been on Kansas City in recent weeks due to the Royals’ thrilling post-season run and dominant victory over the New York Mets to win KC’s first World Series since 1985. But KC is about more than just baseball. There is a lot about this city that makes it a special place, an American gem of a metropolis in the midst of “flyover country.” Here are 99 of the best things about this wonderful city.

The Roman Road and The Tree of Life

The Roman Road and The Tree of Life

Yes, our individual stories matter, but mostly because they are subplots and microcosms of the BIG story God is telling. Each of our lives can be a reflection of the redemptive story God authors on a massive scale. Each is a compelling chapter in the epic of creation.A movie that I think illustrates this well is Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

8 Tips for Watching "Art Films"

8 Tips for Watching "Art Films"

For many moviegoers, watching a so-called “art film” can be an arduous task. But it doesn’t have to be. The following (taken from my new book, Gray Matters) are some tips for how to enjoy films that might at first glance seem difficult, esoteric, or painfully slow.

The Poetics of Late Summer

The Poetics of Late Summer

I've always loved this time of year. Late summer. For whatever reason, it is just incredibly poetic. The end of "vacation" season, an acute sense of both loss and hope, the onset of such wonderful things as Football season and apple picking. It's a great moment of transition, and some far more perceptive writers than I have captured it beautifully in verse.

Exit Through the Gift Shop

So much of Exit Through the Gift Shop is shrouded in mystery. The documentary film’s (purported) creator, Banksy, is an elusive British graffiti artist whose identity is unknown, even though he’s the darling of the international art world who routinely sells screen prints for six figure prices. In his first foray into film, Banksy presents us with a characteristically enigmatic but well-executed piece of pop art, billed as “the world’s first Street Art disaster movie."

Changing Culture: Through or in Spite of the Marketplace?

Here’s a question I’ve been pondering for a number of years: when you want to change culture, is it better to start from an analysis of what the culture/market wants, or is it better to start from a personal conviction or idea about what the culture should be like? That is: should we work within the interests of the culture—however misdirected or disordered they may be—or should we work to change the interests of the culture by offering something new?

It’s a dialectic that some people might reduce to elitism vs. populism; top-down vs. bottom-up change. But those binaries don’t really get at what I’m talking about… I’d consider myself neither an elitist nor a fan of top-down reform, but when it comes to culture, I’m increasingly skeptical about letting the audience be our guide. I don’t know… maybe that is elitist.

Ultimately, it’s about what you think about market sovereignty in the cultural industries.

The film industry, for example, has differing opinions about market sovereignty. On one hand, the big studios are totally responsive to the box office and the box office alone. If the people turn out to see Norbit in droves, Hollywood will make Norbit 2, no matter what they’d like to do. But on the other hand, there are loads of more artistic and independent-minded films being churned out every year with personal and political messages unconcerned with the approval of large swaths of the marketplace. There are companies like Plan B and Participant Productions that only make these “change people’s opinions” type films, to more or less tepid financial results.

Likewise in the music, television, and publishing industries. There are market-minded approaches (find the next Jonas Brothers, Lost, or Dan Brown before these interests wane!), but there are also personal/artistic approaches.

The question is this: can we change anything if we create some personal, challenging artistic product that only reaches a few hundred people of a certain niche? Or can we only ever effect change if we research and respond to the market trends, creating products that may not be our ideal but are nevertheless moving more units?

Ironically, this was a crucial question in my mind last weekend when I was at the GodBlog Convention in Las Vegas.

On my blog, I often find myself in conflict between what I really want to write about and what I think people want to read. To be quite frank, I find myself responding to the statistics detailing which types of posts post the highest numbers. But in the end, I wonder if I really want to be beholden to “the audience” in this way (especially since I’m doing this for free!).

The question remains unanswered in my mind, and it goes way beyond my own personal blog.

You see it in all aspects of society. In politics, for example. The two presidential candidates are almost completely defined by a response to what the populace is telling them they are concerned with. The media, on the other hand, is more oriented towards setting its own agenda; but even within media there is a wide discrepancy on this. On one hand there are people like Matt Drudge who determine “news” based on what is the most sensationalistic and scandalous (i.e. that which the public is most interested in); on the other there are things like C-SPAN’s BookNotes which hopes to improve the discourse around new literature and has little to no concern for what the audience wants.

Both are impacting culture, in different ways. But which will—at the end of the day—leave the culture better off?

There is Still Sand in My Suitcase

There is Still Sand in My Suitcase

Here in the last days of August, 2008, when hurricanes bear down, oil prices and inflation oppress the struggling among us, politics resign to divisiveness, economies falter, and hope is little more than a catch phrase, the inevitability of change is a small, but significant, consolation.

Abortion as Art? (Critical Theory Gone Berserk)

By now you’ve all probably heard about Yale Abortion Girl, right? Her name is Aliza Shvarts, and she’s a senior art student at the esteemed Ivy League school. She made international news last week when her outrageous senior art project was made public.

According to Shvarts, her project is a documentation of a nine-month process in which she artificially inseminated herself (from a number of sperm donors) “as often as possible” and then took herbal abortifacient drugs to induce miscarriages. The actual project was to be an installation of a large cube suspended from the ceiling of the exhibition hall, filled with the menstrual blood from her supposed litany of miscarriages. Recorded video of her experiencing the miscarriages in her bathtub was to be projected on each side of the cube.

Schvarts initially defended the project by saying, “I believe strongly that art should be a medium for politics and ideologies, not just a commodity… I think that I’m creating a project that lives up to the standard of what art is supposed to be… It was a private and personal endeavor, but also a transparent one for the most part… This isn’t something I’ve been hiding.”

But as news circulated beyond Yale and outraged criticism came pouring in, Yale put a kibosh on the project, which was supposed to be installed for the senior art show last week.

“I am appalled,” said Yale College Dean Peter Salovey. “This piece of performance art as reported in the press bears no relation to what I consider appropriate for an undergraduate senior project.”

School of Art Dean Robert Storr also denounced Schvarts’ project, saying that while Yale “has a profound commitment to freedom of expression,” the University “does not encourage or condone projects that would involve unknown health risks to the student.”

Soon after the initial hubbub, however, the University officials announced to the press that Shvarts had privately denied actually committing the acts in question, and that the whole project was nothing more than an elaborate hoax—a “creative fiction” meant to highlight the ambiguity of the relationship between art and the human body.

Shvarts responded by calling the University’s claims “ultimately inaccurate,” and refused to sign a written confession saying that the whole thing was a hoax. Instead, Shvarts began a “no one knows the truth except me” campaign of meta-meta-meta critique. And arguably, this is when her “project” kicked in to high gear.

Shvarts told the press that throughout the nine months she never knew if she was ever really pregnant or not (she never took a pregnancy test), and in a column for the Yale Daily News, Shvarts wrote that "The reality of the pregnancy, both for myself and for the audience, is a matter of reading."

Huh? Being pregnant is a matter of reading? This is where it becomes clear what Schvarts is really up to—an amped-up deconstructionist exercise in sexual semiotics.

“The part most meaningful in [the project’s] political agenda … is the impossibility of accurately identifying the resulting blood,” Shvarts wrote in the same column. “Because the miscarriages coincide with the expected date of menstruation (the 28th day of my cycle), it remains ambiguous whether there was ever a fertilized ovum or not.”

"This piece — in its textual and sculptural forms — is meant to call into question the relationship between form and function as they converge on the body," she wrote. "…To protect myself and others, only I know the number of fabricators who participated, the frequency and accuracy with which I inseminated and the specific abortifacient I used. Because of these measures of privacy, the piece exists only in its telling."

Ahh, the crux: the piece exists only in its telling. With no more metanarratives, no external “Truth,” we can only trust individual perceptions, personalized accounts of experiential contingencies. What a wonderful world.

There is a lot to be disturbed by in this little viral provocation. Of course, the cavalier treatment of pregnancy and abortion (as mere tools in an artistic creation—even if just on the conceptual level) is one thing; and the notion that anything so disgusting (a cube of menstrual blood from self-induced abortions?) could be considered art is another…

But the most frightening aspect of this whole thing, for me, is that it shows just how inaccessible (and out of fashion) truth is in the academy today. When someone like Shvarts can blatantly lie to the press and write it off as part an academic project, what does that say about our academic standards? Where would she get the idea that education (formerly known as the search for truth) can be founded on lies and the privileging of ambiguity?

Hmmm, well, she can get that idea from at least 20 years of critical theory, for starters. This is the strain of scholarly thought that puts truth on the backburner (if it doesn’t dispose of it entirely) in favor of a view of reality as a contested space in which nothing is certain, everything has to do with power imbalances, and ambiguity (re: “complicating, problematizing…”) is the end of all academic pursuit. She also gets this idea from radical feminism, which in saying “the personal is the political” situates the human body in a discursive battleground of contextual ideologies that laughs off the idea of transcendent morality or gender.

Shvarts’ project shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise, then, and Yale should look no further than their own professors if they want someone to blame. If we teach our students that all reality is perceptual, all morality personal, and all truth a narrativized fiction, “Abortion Girl” is the least we should expect.

"Life is a Journey" (of Art and Commerce)

So I was in at the local arthouse movie theater last week and was struck by one of the pre-show ads that presaged the ten minutes of indie film trailers. I really liked the ad, and felt almost moved by it at times… until the last few seconds, when it was revealed what the “ad” was actually for. Apparently the rest of the audience was caught off guard as well, because they all erupted in laughter upon the brand reveal.

When I was first watching it, I kept thinking: is this a trailer for some new Babel-esque film that takes place in multiple countries? Or maybe it’s just a small little short film of some kind? I never expected that it would be a Louis Vuitton ad… but perhaps I should have.

It got me thinking: should I respect Louis Vuitton for making such a lovely, aesthetically astute advertisement? Or do I loathe him for coopting “art” and exploiting my indie-film sensibilities? (just as he did in The Darjeeling Limited last fall, which prominently featured an array of Marc Jacobs-designed Louis Vuitton luggage pieces). I guess I can’t fault Louis Vuitton too much, because the ad (LV’s first television ad) is simply doing what advertising has always done: associating a product with a “life experience” or emotion and suggesting that one’s existential satisfaction is tied to overpriced consumer goods.

By using a theme that any self-respecting yuppie has a major weakness for (travel), and highlighting an assortment of poetic little questions (“Does the person create the journey? Or does the journey create the person?”) and proverb-sounding quips (“A journey brings us face to face… with ourselves”), the ad mimics an array of familiar cultural images, sounds, and feelings that all should appeal to the style-conscious upper classes (or wannabes).

The soft images of blue-tinted, misty explorations (that appear to be vaguely SE Asian) evoke an eco-friendly exoticism of the “I vacation in Thailand!” variety. Other images capture a sort of Lost in Translation aesthetic. Indeed, several shots in the ad (people looking out of highrise windows at a city skyline, a woman peering longingly out of a taxi window) are direct quotations of Sofia Coppola’s beautiful travelogue. What to make of this?

Perhaps the biggest question we should ask is this: are the people for whom “life is a journey” really going to spend thousands of dollars on LV handbags? If those who are existentially attracted to traveling (which is what the ad is appealing to: not the “jet-set” type of travel, but the “spiritual journey” type) have a few extra thousand to spend on consumer goods, will they spend it on designer luggage? Probably the money would go to various travel indulgences (airfare, nice hotel, ethnic souvenirs, etc) or something otherwise “experiential” rather than material/utilitarian. But then again, rich people who travel do need luggage… so why not Louis Vuitton?

The Deep/Wide Divide

I wrote an article two years ago this week for Relevant magazine entitled “Deep and/or Wide.” In the article I explored the tensions between depth and breadth that so characterize many of my chief frustrations in life. Reading it again recently I found that I resonate more than ever with the feelings I was exploring then. Now that I’m a graduate student, the tension between knowing a lot about everything and everything about one thing is never more pronounced. Sometimes I go crazy thinking about the sacrifices of knowledge that must be made in order to be an “academic.” We are encouraged to specialize, specialize, specialize… otherwise who will remember us? But even if it means I won’t “stand out” in the massive field of scholars, is it really worth forsaking a broad, multi-disciplinary approach to life? At some point I guess we all have to limit our selves and our interests to what is marketable… or at least what pays the bills. But that thought weighs heavy on my heart.

In any case, here are a few excerpts from what I wrote two years ago about deep and wide:

"Can we have both? Can the fountains of our lives flow both deep and wide? Perhaps someday, but the more I think about it the more I think it is a dream. Our world pulls us one way or the other. It’s almost impossible to be both deep and wide, and that leaves us with a decision.

The tension here is about methods of approaching the world. Do you aim to encounter things deeply, perhaps partaking of less in life but experiencing those few things for all they’re worth? Or do you go more for breadth and scope, searching and collecting as much of this enormous, wonderful world that you can, even if that means sacrificing depth for breadth?

My generation is a wide-seeking generation. The heavy-hearted weight and awareness of untouched beauty is extraordinarily strong in us. There are socio-economic reasons for our breadth-seeking as well: We feel lost or impotent if we don’t “keep up” with the trend-setting stamina of the merchants of cool. For these and other reasons, we’ve become the generation of accumulated triviality. We are pop-culture savvy, indie-music credible, aware of art, literature, global politics and history, but only to a superficial extent. We are the keepers of immense amounts of information … but all for what?

I’m beginning to rebel from this broad-minded accumulation mentality. I’m beginning to realize that it’s not a bad thing to not know “what’s hot now.” I’m beginning to relinquish my grasp on the reigns of pop culture. I don’t care that I’ve never heard half of the albums on Pitchfork’s Top 100 of 2005. I don’t want to be a frenzied, know-it-all, “one-step-ahead-of-you” hipster anymore. To the extent that I ever was one, it was a pretty annoying chore.

I want depth. I’ll still feign to be diverse and wide in my consumption of experience, but I’m fatigued and overwhelmed by too much of that. I want to pick a few things and dive in deeply. I want to wrestle with existence on the micro level—like Emily Dickinson, Vincent van Gogh or Yasujiro Ozu. It might not be easier—thinking deeply about something rarely is—but it will be more rewarding I think.

In any case, I’m pretty sure the whole deep vs. wide tension comes from the fact that we were created to live both ways. There will be fountains flowing deep and wide, someday, but for now there is not enough water to go around. If there’s rain in one place there’s a drought somewhere else. It’s the whole “divine discontent” thing, you know? We can only pick one direction, give it all we’ve got, and feel the lack of the roads untraversed."

Christian (Fill in the Blank)

Two summers ago, I heard Rick Warren speak at a conference. Pastor Warren (God bless him) uttered a line in his speech that gave me particular pause: “There is no such thing as Christian music, only Christian lyrics.” It’s a significant line in his theology, and it also appears throughout the Purpose-Driven book empire.

It’s a line that goes to the heart of the crisis in Christian identity.

Essentially, Warren is suggesting that something is made Christian when it is clearly labeled as such. Song lyrics (words) are easy to recognize as Christian: do they contain the words God, Jesus, praise? If so, wham! They’re Christian! Instrumental music cannot be “Christian,” in Warren’s view, because how could we ever tell what it is about? If the song itself doesn’t proclaim itself verbally as such, it is not Christian (even if its composer is Christian).

This way of thinking turns the essence of Christianity into a cheap adjective. Slap it onto anything, and voila! You have redeemed the regular and made it holy! But wait—isn’t Christianity more complicated than that?

Christians are way too slaphappy with the name “Christian.” We cavalierly attach it to the most trivial of things. Let’s consider just some of the “Christian” things that populate our culture: Christian bookstores, Christian music, movies, videogames, radio, magazines, publishing houses, Christian Youtube (“Godtube”), Christian MySpace (“MyPraize”), Christian clothes, shoes, socks, paintings, mousepads, cooking utensils, crockpots, you name it….

But what makes any of this “Christian”? What makes one crockpot more suitable for Christians than another? Do we really need “Christian” alternatives in cutlery?

Long ago, Christians decided that rather than trying to influence mass culture from within, they’d take the more passive route and define themselves as a “subculture.” One more subculture among many. There are many reasons why they did this: 1) it’s easier, 2) niche markets make more money faster, and 3) modernity gave rise to the combative, defensive posture of “us vs. them”—an attitude that has defined pop-Christianity ever since.

As a result, “Christian” seemed to become a word best defined by what it wasn’t (i.e. liberal, gay, postmodern, pro-choice, etc…). Somewhere in there we lost our sense of history and tradition and identity—we lost our idea of what “Christian” really means. And if we don’t know what it means, how will anyone else?

The problem is that our society has convinced us that “Christian” is merely an adjective—a descriptive word that usually connotes a conservative, prudish, bigoted fundamentalist diametrically opposed to everything fun under the sun.

But the truth is that “Christian” is much better fit as a noun, or even better—a verb. To be a Christian it to live in pursuit of Christ—to not be satisfied with who you are, but to strive for who you might be. It’s an action-oriented life; it’s a process.

We need to stop demeaning Christianity by treating it like a just another attribute. “Christian” is not like “red” or “tall.” It’s not just a word to describe. It’s a living, breathing way of being.