Thursday, February 23, 2017

Movie Nerd Complaint

I've been watching the Oscar nominees this week and have come to a real, troubling conclusion: they're coming based on moments, perhaps moments used to submit a performance for nomination. Mahershala Ali is likely to win Best Supporting Actor for his role in Moonlight, which is very good. However, he's barely in the movie - like ten minutes of screen time, tops - and he gives a far better performance in Hidden Figures in an equally small (albeit, less important) role. However, he gives the best performance in one scene, when he has to tell an impoverished young black boy, to whom he's become a surrogate father, 1) that it's ok if he's gay, 2) that yes, his mom is on drugs, and 3) yes, he (Ali's character, Juan) is the drug dealer who's supplying her. His emotion is palpable, deep, and real. It's an incredible scene and, by far, the best three minutes of acting by any actor in any movie this year.

Is one scene enough to get an Oscar, though?

I hope not. But it's a trend. Viola Davis is going to win Best Supporting Actress (for a lead role, no less) - and she's fantastic. She's an American treasure and worthy of whatever awards she wins. However, she also has one fantastic scene in Fences, in which she stands outside telling her husband exactly what she thinks about her years of suffering under his imperfections and that while she's willing to raise the child of his dead mistress as her own, she is unwilling to continue being his wife. Again, tremendous, and likely the best single scene for any actress this entire year. I'm not sure the whole movie performance is better than the collective effort from Taraji P Henson, for example, who carries a ham-handedly directed Hidden Figures to incredible heights.

This can really be a problem, at some point. It's going to encourage more movies to go for the "Oscar moment," which is a Hollywood cliche, but one people generally understand. I feel that most of the Best Picture nominees are not necessarily great movies. They're good, for sure, excellent, for the most part, but when you look at every facet of moviemaking, they all have flaws. It could just be one of those years, but it feels more that these films are getting nominated because they're incredible in one area, with the overall quality overlooked.

Maybe I'm just wrong. Maybe this is like voting on MVP in baseball, where people endlessly disagree whether it should be the actual 'most valuable' or just the best player. I'm willing to just be on one side of a real divide. However, I'm hopeful other movie fans are concerned about this. It just feels like we're lowering the bar, in some sense.

I'd also like to find a way to recognize those moments - scenes of great brilliance where people stand up and take notice. If the Oscars are looking for a way to expand their audience a bit, maybe adding a couple non-traditional awards would be a way to do it. You could give out best scene and have men and women competing for Acting, Directing, Writing, and Cinematography in that category. Four new awards that could excite the masses and recognize great work. I don't want the Oscars to be the Grammys, where 100 people get trophies every year and the greatest industry shame is being introduced as "Grammy Nominee Brian McKnight (or whoever).

I don't want to give everyone a trophy, but I'd like to think we can recognize amazing scenes without having to sacrifice incredible performances, maintained over months, in some cases. That's important... and that's my movie nerd complaint.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Comfort is King

To say I grew up in the evangelical bubble would probably be an understatement. It helped that from second through eight grade I lived in rural Vermont where we only got three fuzzy TV stations and, of course, being a pastor's kid, my life revolved around church. Anyway, while my personality was such that I never felt quite at home in that context, it does feel like home - if that makes any sense. Even today, when I hear news or see something, usually my first instinct is shaped by how it would fit into that worldview.

Reactions are usually pretty predictable and if I have a strong reaction to the "evangelical" reaction, it's usually because some nerve has been touched - something I once believed and came to unbelieve bruised my ego or brought up painful memories. This sounds like I'm a "survivor" or something - I'm not - I still consider myself to be an evangelical; I'm just not really comfortable with the culture that surrounds it in US society.

Anyway, when some evangelical reaction pops up, typically my emotional response is a strong one and an active one - anger, resentment, shame, etc. So when it came out that evangelicals voted more strongly for Trump than any other Presidential candidate ever, what should've been shock was really more wonder, disbelief. His lack of morality and general human decency works completely against everything the evangelical bubble is built on; this is the same group that decided because Amy Grant cheated on her husband, her music wasn't "christian" anymore, at least for a while, anyway. I've written on this plenty, so I don't want to rehash the particulars, but it was surprising, but one that sent me somber and perplexed more than outraged. It was like being told your parents were really Russian spies or something.

All this to say, there's only been one other time when the evangelical response to something surprised me. It's usually oh, so predictable - especially for a native like myself. But in thinking about Trump I realized it gave me the same feeling as when evangelical culture decided to embrace rather than object to the leggings fashion craze.

That's going to seem super silly to a lot of people, but hear me out. Evangelical culture has a lot to do with modesty and generally avoids talking about sex like the plague - to the point where many, many evangelicals deal with serious issues when they get married, namely associating sex with sin or evil so deeply it's hard to enjoy it. As teenagers, there was a pretty clear message that boys are uncontrollable hormone monsters and girls need to make every effort to keep from triggering them. When women started wearing leggings around in public (especially those who do so in place of pants), I thought the modesty police would be all over it in condemnation.

It started that way, but it was pretty quickly shut down by women who stood up for themselves saying, "Men are responsible for their brains and their bodies, not women." Now, I agree with that completely and I think it's a far healthier message than anything I was taught growing up, but it was still a knock me over shock - at least as much as the Trump support.

I've been thinking about those two things in concert for a couple months now, trying to figure out how they might be connected and how I was so absolutely blindsided by what is typically a very predictable cultural block. The only conclusion I've come to is that, like for most every human being, comfort really is king.

Generally, people don't like ambiguity. We have to go out of our way, with great difficulty, to really and truly believe something has no real answer. Even if we keep an open mind theoretically, we usually have taken a side deep down. Evangelicals are no different; in fact they're largely openly hostile to ambiguity in the first place. They've embraced the comfort of definitive ideas and opinions so well, its not hard to take and defend them. That's how the subculture arose in the first place - a wall against godless society. Yes, of course morality and biblical interpretation has something to do with it, but there's a lot of comfort mixed in.

I suspect the same goes for Trump and for leggings. When it comes to clothes, actual comfort is very apparent. In fact, everywhere and every time the modesty "rules" have been relaxed, it's around comfort - wearing pantyhose all the time or skirts and dresses to church aren't really about modesty, but comfort. Modesty is defined by the society and what's acceptable ends up being what no one opposes.

When it comes to Trump, comfort is in the 1950's mythos he built his campaign upon. Evangelicals are nothing if not American; in many places it's difficult to tell the difference between the American dream and the gospel. Recalling the un-factual myth of a 1950's utopia is precisely the kind of thing that brings comfort - a society where evangelical values are closer in line with societal ones. Nevermind the fact that this was a period largely of cultural abandonment by evangelicals, when culture was considered just as scary and dangerous as it is now (not to mention violence and race relations, along with gender equity and overall health were all much poorer). It feels familiar and safe.

As I said, it's not as though evangelicals are the only ones who operate more on comfort; it's the human condition. I could easily have picked out any subculture of American life and found similar examples where the reaction differed from the expected response for reasons of comfort. This is just the one I know. I also know that sacrificing principles for comfort is something just about everyone would condemn and just about everyone would do... does.

I doubt there's really a lesson here - at least no one we don't already know - except maybe, it's ok to desire comfort, safety, familiarity, but perhaps, maybe, its healthier for everyone if we're just willing to admit that's why we do things. We're not perfect people - and the desire to be so is not just something that consumes the evangelical bubble, it's obvious everywhere. I know it's not ok, but, you know, it's really ok. I don't think admitting it is going to keep anyone from striving to be better. I just don't. If anything, refusing to admit we're imperfect is the quickest way to believing we're worthless - and that's a far more dangerous lie in which to live.

Comfort is king. That's ok. Maybe, let's just not let the King do whatever he wants. Sound good? Great.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan

Disclaimer: I was given a free copy of this book for the purpose of review. My integrity is not for sale. Those who know me well are aware a free book isn't enough to assuage my cutting honesty. If I've failed to write a bad review, it has nothing to do with the source of the material and only with the material itself.

It's pretty amazing to see a really high quality fiction writer attempts non-fiction. It can go one of two ways - either it's stilted and formal, like a baby learning to walk a la John Grisham's Innocent Man, or it's chock full of descriptive, inventive prose and non-traditional narrative arcs. The Great Good Thing is definitely the latter. It's almost jarring to see a "Christian" memoir that's also artistically written and engaging for its prose. For that reason alone, this is one of the better books I've reviewed under this program.

Andrew Klavan is a writer of mystery and suspense, as well as a screenwriter, and occasional essayist. This book is his telling of a lifelong journey to Christian faith - from a dysfunctional, nominally-Jewish upbringing through rebellion, atheism, and mysticism, to a baptism in middle age. It's not any sort of conventional conversion story, though, and that is refreshing. Klavan doesn't have any dramatic change of heart, nor does he particularly alter his personality or outlook on life - he simply lives and deals with the realities of life as best he can. If anything, this is a survival tale with a faith-based frame.

I find the uniqueness and honesty in the book fascinating, although without the stellar prose, it probably would not be as rewarding a read. Klavan doesn't provide the kind of detail one typically finds in such memoirs, which makes it difficult to connect to the story. I'd also argue that Klavan doesn't necessarily explain a story of conversion or faith, but a journey to accept and understand love in profound and healthy ways. There's no theology here, but a reckoning of common sense and life experience with an utter intellectual pragmatism. This is a story of one man staying sane and finding peace that just happens to intersect with Christian faith.

Like any relatively new believer, the faith Klavan describes is very personal and therapeutic; it doesn't necessarily resonate with a self-sacrificial, community-centered faith that's more aligned with the gospel - but the immaturity of this faith and the need for growth and development is something that Klavan recognizes and helps to frame the narrative.

Overall it's a book, a well-written one, with some interesting perspectives on life and faith, but it really is the novelty of the piece that makes it stand out. I suspect a book like this gets published because the author already has a built-in audience. Hopefully it will do well enough - and from a new crowd - that Christian publishers will look to non-traditional and alternative narratives to broaden the spectrum of faith journeys to which the reading public is exposed.

If you're a fan of his work or someone interested in Jesus, but not the trappings or dogma of the various Christian sub-cultures, this might be an interesting read. If you like beautiful prose; it's a good choice. If you're looking for some mirror of self-reflection or the typically inspirational story of conversion, you should probably look elsewhere. A good, not great book - but certainly something, I'm sure, that was important for him to tell.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the® book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Hatchets and Hardball

Disclaimer - this is one of my famous "hot take" posts that shows up weeks after the take has cooled off. I know it's much less likely to get read this way, but I feel like the distance shifts focus from the "hot" to the "take," which, I really believe, is better for everyone. Anyway, I'm trying to stay on schedule with these posts despite the looming D3hoops post-season, and this one was mostly formed already. Here you go:

I cannot bring to mind a policy position of Mike Pence's with which I agree. There may be some, but they're not prominent. I find his political philosophy to be odious, ill-conceived, and frankly, dangerous. Shoot, having run and now serving with Trump, there's a whole lot of reason to question his once potentially upstanding moral character. Needless to say, this is not a guy for whom I've ever had much sympathy.

However, I read the big attack piece from Rolling Stone that came out after the inauguration and I find myself deeply on Pence's side. This is entirely the fault of the author, whose practice here is pretty common, but really offends me as, I guess, a working journalist.

Rolling Stone is provocative and unconventional; they push the envelope in a lot of ways, but, in my experience, they have a long reputation for really good work. The place might have its eccentricities when it comes to style and approach, but I've always found their standards to be above those of perhaps similar publications.

This is a long piece. It details a whole bunch of things Pence has done or said that are probably offensive to the general readership of Rolling Stone. As I said before, I'd likely agree that a lot of his past is not something for which I'd be proud. What irks me the most, though, is that when you've got such a plethora of topics to cover - legitimate topics that Pence himself wouldn't quabble* with on a factual basis - there is absolutely no need to delve into the sketchier issues that could easily be framed in multiple ways.

I get it if you need to pad the story - either it's not long enough or the angle you're going for isn't as well supported by the juicy stuff as the periphery and you need cover. That makes sense. It's less than ideal, but sometimes, with deadlines, you have to make do with what you've got and not with what you'd want. But this piece is long and full of substance, yet they still have to pile on with claims and issues that are more likely to distract from the overall strength of the piece than help it.

It reads like a hatchet job. It reeks of angst and bitterness. It's the kind of thing you write solely for people who agree with you. Maybe that's what Rolling Stone has become, but this would upset even if it were self-published on an angelfire blog (which, apparently still exist).

Again, I'm not objecting because I'm a fan of Mike Pence or believe that the tone and message of the piece are necessarily wrong. I don't. I'm offended because it's an example of shooting yourself in the foot, argumentatively. It's bad logic; it's bad case-building; and it's mean. I don't like meanness - and it certainly has no place in reporting.

The biggest issue I took was with the narrative surrounding his campaign spending early on. They do make sure to say that what Pence did wasn't and isn't illegal - he used campaign funds to pay personal expenses, bills and the like. Yeah, it's bad optics, sure, but it's a terrible argument that the guy is somehow hypocritical or crooked. More likely, he was a young guy who couldn't afford to both run for public office and also support his family. That happens. Campaigning, even for small, low-level positions, can be a full time job. As someone who's never made much and occasionally contemplated public service, money is the number one concern. You can't win without it and I don't have it.

Why would we want to make this fact of Pence's past some giant bogeyman just because we don't like the guy? This scenario could and does literally happen to anyone, of any party or no party at all. It's an economic issue that pales, pales, pales in comparison to the giant, clear-cut case you've already made in the same piece. It's like you're saying poor people shouldn't run for office when I'm guessing our government would be far better off if our elected representatives included more people who couldn't afford to be there on their own dime.

This article doesn't bother me on a political level - I have no inclination to really side with either the author or the subject (although, as I've said, I'm no fan of the subject - and I've never heard of the author). It's just bad, inefficient, poorly constructed argument and that offends me as a person with a brain. Why, when there are so, so many legitimate critiques of a public figure, would a writer feel the need to shoehorn manipulated narrative into an already incredibly long piece?

It's not like the article hasn't proven its point well before this point. People are either going to agree or disagree, but that will have nothing to do with the persuasiveness of these last few paragraphs. It just makes you look petty and vindictive and hurts your credibility.

Maybe it's a lesson for all of us. Think, people. Let's not let our emotions or our subjectivities cloud our reason, judgement, or kindness. People are far more divided right now by the way in which we talk to and about each other than any actual policy or ideological difference. Let's not feed the beast. You can be serious and assertive without being mean - in fact, it'll only help your standing and reputation, at least among other people who can see through the junk.

Rant over.

Aren't you glad I waited almost three weeks to put this up. Imagine what the post would've looked like if I'd done it right away! You're welcome.

*No, I meant quabble. I really and truly did. Quibble doesn't cut it here.

Thursday, February 09, 2017

Fake News and the Bible

I know a lot of people, myself included, are a bit perturbed by the way in which many prominent evangelical Christian have approached Donald Trump and this election. Since the Moral Majority of the 70's, the GOP has teased conservative Christians with aspirations to power and it's been an easy sell. We had thought, at some point, that the "moral" part of Moral Majority might've meant something, but alas, this election cycle has proven it does not.

However, as I've been thinking about the ways in which people approach politics these days, particularly in the area of news coverage, I've come to what should've been a very obvious realization: evangelicals understand the world the same way they understand the Bible. It should not have been a surprise.

When you reject interpretive tools for studying scripture, relying on a "plain sense" reading that amounts to, "what makes sense to me," there's a very small leap - really more of a shuffle - over to viewing the world the same way. No need to research or investigate factual representations, just decide for yourself whether they make sense or not.

This doesn't just apply to Christians or conservatives, of course, we all, as humans, are prone to confirmation bias. We have to work hard to question those things with which we agree. As much as I try to research the sources of anything I read, I'm much quicker to check those conclusions I like over the ones I don't.

I hadn't thought much about the connection to scripture until recently, though. I believe I am more prone to question a news report, because I've had a lot of training in Biblical Studies, where one is challenged to ask about context, perspective, purpose, and meaning. In practice, I have to work hard to make sure that my biases aren't filtering my interpretation of scripture and that I have some evidence to back up the ways I present it to others. It's a learned skepticism - not necessarily of the material in front of me, but of my ability to interpret it correctly.

Life, like scripture, does not provide the easy answers and black/white thinking in which the human mind finds comfort. Forcing ourselves to examine reality, context, and actual evidence usually creates more tension and less clarity. No wonder we shy away from it.

With news or with scripture, the giveaway is a refusal to deal in substance. We might say the media outlet is biased or fake or irresponsible; we might say someone has been brainwashed by education or led astray by the world. In both instances, we fail to address the argument, evidence, or issue on its own terms. This is an ad hominem* attack and it serves as more of a distraction than anything else. It puts the opponent on the defensive and changes the subject of debate.

When it comes to scripture, people are genuinely afraid to get away from that "plain reading," because it moves us from firm ground to shaky. I'd argue that scripture was never intended to be firm ground, but to point us towards a relationship with God, something that is always changing and adapting (the relationship, not necessarily God), because we are changing and adapting. You can't ever have a firm relationship with someone, because none of us are static.

In the same way, I'd argue all our idealism is ever intended to do is form a pathway to dealing with other people. The relationships we have with friends (and enemies) and neighbors necessarily involves us negotiating the chasm of reality. Relationships cannot be static, because we're always changing.

As I said, there is a wider world out there, but, for me at least, this realization, that people are actually being consistent, even if I disagree with their approach, has helped me better deal with those friends and neighbors who've been virtual enigmas the past few months. It may be a gap too difficult to bridge, but at least I believe we have the tools to try.

*The fact that my spell checker suggested "Eminem" might be the word I wanted here probably says more to prove my point than anything in this whole post.