my take on the 2019 Best Picture nominees

I watch the Academy Awards every year and have blogged about them several times over the years, but this year I decided, for the first time, to see all the Best Picture nominees before Oscar night. Since there are only eight this year and I had already seen Black Panther (probably the only nominee that many people have seen), I was able to do this in one weekend. I did watch the rather inordinate number of five movies in my local cinema last weekend, which means that I saw the trailer for Isn’t It Romantic no fewer than three times. (It still looks pretty funny.) I rented one of the nominees from my local Family Video (yes, we still have rental stores around here) and finished up last night by watching one on Netflix.

Instead of writing a separate review of each film, I thought it would be more interesting–and less wordy–to make some lists of themes and motifs that appear in two or more of the films. Think of this as a textual Venn diagram that shows where the nominees overlap and thereby shows, perhaps, what was on Hollywood’s (and America’s and the world’s?) mind this year.

Let’s start with the obvious: Films that have the word “Black” in the title. Okay, maybe too obvious. Let’s move on.

Films about lonely musicians who abuse alcohol and/or drugsGreen Book, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star Is Born

Films about political intrigue and insiderism that have zero likable characters: The Favourite, Vice

Films that deliberately hark back to older styles of filmmaking: Vice, BlackkKlansman, Roma

Films that incorporate multiple genres: BlackkKlansman, Vice (editorial note: Vice takes the cake in this category, using Shakespearean blank verse, restaurant menus, a helpful narrator who’s also sort of a character, historical footage, and even a fake credit roll in the middle of the movie in order to explain concepts. Also, a side note: BlackkKlansman and Vice have another feature in common–really cool, sometimes funky, sometimes epic scores by composers I’m not familiar with but whom I hope to hear more from in the future.)

Films in genres that traditionally don’t get nominated for Best PictureBlack Panther, A Star Is Born (And remember, a monster movie won last year. And the year before that, a musical won. Oh wait, no, it didn’t. Never mind.) I almost put Bohemian Rhapsody here because I was thinking of it as a feel-good movie/sort-of musical, but the Oscars do tend to love musician biopics (c.f. Ray, Walk the Line). Green Book somewhat fits into all of the categories I just mentioned as well, except that the focus is not so much on the musician as on his driver/bodyguard/friend.

Films that address contemporary issues: Oh wait, that would be all of them.

Films that felt like they were trying to out-weird last year’s weird period costume drama, Phantom Thread: I guess The Favourite is the only one that belongs here.

But perhaps the average filmgoer who doesn’t want to spend the equivalent of a full-time job in the movie theater will be most interested in these three categories.

Films that made me feel good: Black Panther, Green Book, Bohemian Rhapsody

Films that made me feel sad but okay: BlackkKlansman, A Star Is Born, Roma

Films that made me want to become a cynical world-hating hermit: The Favourite, Vice

That’s all for now. If you’ve seen any of these, let me know what you think. And if you happen to know why Roma is called Roma, let me know that too, because I’m pretty sure I missed something.

 

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thoughts while watching The Return of the King

I’m watching The Return of the King right now, and I thought I’d blog about it. (Excuse me while I do a 20-second plank because I just saw the Eye of Sauron; I’m doing a LOTR workout I found on Pinterest.) I just heard the line that I blogged about a few months ago–“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you”–so I’m nearly at the end. Here are just a few observations.

First, zombies. A little while ago, I saw an orc who looked like a zombie. I think he’s only in the extended edition, in that scene where Sam and Frodo dress up like little orcs to blend in and then start a (rather unconvincing) fight to cause a distraction and get away. The orc in question had a missing nose (but not Voldemort-style; it looked like it had been burned off) and a generally ravaged face, his one working eye was a milky pale blue, and the first time he opened his mouth, he roared rather than spoke. He looked like he could have blended in just fine on The Walking Dead. But this was not the first time I had thought about zombies while watching the movie this afternoon. When Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli take the Paths of the Dead and meet those glowing, ectoplasmic ghosts, I was thinking of what an unfortunate special effects choice this was and how the army of the dead would be much cooler–and more threatening–if they looked like zombies. And it occurred to me that if this film had been made ten years later, this scene probably would have taken more inspiration from The Walking Dead and less from Pirates of the Caribbean; The Curse of the Black Pearl. (Not that the ghosts in Pirates were badly done at all. They fit better in that movie than in Return of the King.)

And now, a more serious observation. I’m far from being the first person to have noted this, but it really struck me this time. Okay, so in the tower on the edge of Mordor where Sam is reunited with Frodo (you know, the one with an orange light at the top but that isn’t the Tower of Barad-Dur–I wonder how many people thought it was and were totally disappointed when they found out that Frodo and Sam still had many more miles of stumbling dirty-faced through Mordor)–anyway, in the upper room of that tower, Frodo is in a panic because he thinks the orcs have taken the Ring. When Sam hands it back to him (with a slightly cocky little flourish that he totally earned by being absolutely kickass for the past fifteen minutes of the movie), you can see the instant relief in Frodo’s eyes and his whole demeanor. But when he puts the chain back around his neck, you can almost see a physical weight descending on his shoulders. The Ring is keeping him alive, and it’s killing him at the same time. That’s why, of all the symbolic meanings that have been suggested for the Ring (and I know, I know–die-hard Tolkien fans say it’s not a symbol at all), I think the most appropriate is that it represents the object of addiction, or perhaps addiction itself. Frodo needs the Ring at that moment, but in the long term, it’s the last thing he needs. Just like drugs, or lies, or whatever we keep going back to even though we hate it. Elijah Wood portrays this descent into psychological prison extremely well throughout the trilogy. And of course, Andy Serkis as Gollum masterfully shows what it looks like when you’re so deep in that prison you forget who you are.

Okay, now the hobbits are all cleaned up and looking adorable and giving bittersweet toasts in the Green Dragon. I’m going to go enjoy the last few (30?) minutes of this movie. Let me know your thoughts on The Return of the King.

planes, trains, and radical hospitality

This past weekend, my family watched the John Hughes comedy Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987) like we do every Thanksgiving. This movie works so well because the two main characters, played by Steve Martin and John Candy, subvert stereotypes that are often present in run-of-the-mill comedies. Martin’s character, Neal Page, is a twist on the workaholic dad character so common in 1980s and 90s family comedies. Unlike most of those characters, Neal desperately wants to get home to his family, but can’t because of a relentless series of logistical mishaps. He also embodies the tightly-wound neurotic character type, but whereas that type often appears as an antagonist or as merely the butt of unkind humor, Neal, as the point of view character of the film, is utterly sympathetic. Candy’s character, Del Griffith, (SPOILER ALERT–but seriously, you’ve had 31 years to see this movie) is a homeless widower, a character who might be a tiresomely pathetic victim in a lesser movie, but he’s also that annoying guy who sits next to you on an airplane and talks your ear off. But as we, through Neal, get to know Del, we are led into sympathy with him as well, and we come to understand that he talks because he’s lonely. He is vulnerable not only because he is a homeless widower but also because he is a traveling salesman–someone who, like Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, survives by the good will of others–but he is also incredibly savvy and resilient.

I realized this year, more than ever before, how much I relate to Neal Page, especially in his very physical and verbal displays of frustration. I really see myself in the scene where he throws an almost acrobatic tantrum–and literally throws his car rental agreement–in the remote parking lot where he gets stranded after he gets dropped off at the alleged parking space of a rental car that doesn’t exist. Co-workers probably think Neal is a calm, mild-mannered guy, but he has high standards for himself, other people, and the universe at large, and when those standards aren’t met, he doesn’t know what to do. So he explodes, and sometimes he hurts people. I can relate, so very much. (I gave a major character in the zombie apocalypse story I just finished writing, Adrian Fallon, this same flaw. I also realized after watching the movie on Friday how much the road trip elements of my story had been influenced by Planes, Trains, and Automobiles.)

I think nearly everyone can relate to Neal–who, again, is the character through whom we experience the story–in one respect. The whole way through the film, we’ve been imagining, along with Neal, these idyllic scenes of what his family must be doing at home. Through him, we’ve experienced the gradual stripping away of comforts he has always taken for granted–money, transportation, warmth, privacy, security. (These are things, by the way, that Del, a perpetual traveler, cannot take for granted. I think the heavy trunk he carries around represents the burden of the constant stress of the road.) By the end, we, along with Neal, want nothing more than to go home, take a shower, eat Thanksgiving dinner, and go to bed. Yet (spoiler again) Neal makes the radical decision to turn around and invite Del to share Thanksgiving, one of the most intimate holidays, with his family. There’s a lot of talk today in the blogosphere, the publishing industry, churches, etc. about “radical hospitality.” Planes, Trains, and Automobiles shows us, profoundly, that tired, frustrated, flawed people are the ones who can best show such hospitality.

 

 

getting psyched for NaNoWriMo

November is National Novel Writing Month, not an official holiday but the flagship event of the eponymous nonprofit organization. If you complete a 50,000-word novel during the month, you can claim to have “won” NaNoWriMo, though it’s not a competition. I did this once, almost 10 years ago. I wrote a novel, heavily inspired by The Dark Knight and Harry Potter, about a man who goes around taking the punishment for other people’s crimes. I had also been reading a lot of George Eliot at the time, so my prose in the novel is very dense, and my narrator often breaks out into philosophy. Unless you already know a lot about guns and police procedures, crime drama is not a good genre for NaNoWriMo because there’s little time for research. So my novel, which I self-published as A Man of No Reputation, has a lot of problems, but it inspired a number of themes that continue to appear in my writing, such as loneliness, self-sacrifice, and a protagonist with a perpetually sad-looking face (he can’t help it; it’s just what his face looks like!).

This year, I’ve decided to use NaNoWriMo as motivation to complete the zombie apocalypse narrative I have been working on, slowly, for over a year. I won’t be able to claim to have “won,” since I have no intention of writing 50,000 words; I am at roughly 26,000, and my story arc is nearing its end. (I’m not sure what the finished project will be properly called–a long short story? a novella? I’m mainly thinking of it as the source text for a movie.) Since November starts this Thursday, I want to take a few minutes to look back on the changes my story has gone through and forward to how it might end up. (I really do mean “might”; I have a general idea but no actual outline. I am what they call, in writers’ group lingo, a “pantser”–I plot by the seat of my pants.)

Originally, although I was and still am calling my story a (dark) comedy, my main character was going to die. It was going to be a beautiful, self-sacrificial death, kind of like in my 2009 NaNoWriMo project. I maintain that a comedy can end with the main character(s) dying, like in (spoiler alert) Thelma and Louise, a major inspiration for my story along with Zombieland and Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (yes, I’m writing a road trip story). But after getting a lot of feedback about how much people in my writing groups loved my main character, Sam Larson, I started to reconsider killing him off. Yes, I was partly trying to please my audience (not a bad thing), but it also occurred to me that perhaps I could better reinforce one of the themes of my story by allowing Sam to survive.

That theme is LIFE, and it’s a theme uniquely suited to a zombie narrative, which is permeated with a grotesque parody of life. Readers learn early in the story that Sam suffers from clinical depression and that about ten years ago, he attempted suicide. Although Sam has learned to live with depression and no longer wants to die, he constantly struggles to believe that his life has value, especially in this new world in which people tend to be judged by their physical prowess and survival skills. (I’ve written extensively on my blog about this issue in zombie apocalypse narratives.) I think I could still convey this theme with Sam dying a heroic death at the end, but I believe the theme will come through even more clearly if I show him living.

I’m also using a motif that is especially suited to the zombie subgenre: eating. People are constantly eating in my story, whether it’s oatmeal heated up over a fire on the side of the road or a full Italian meal in the safe house. Of course, zombies are always eating too, but they derive no joy or satisfaction from this meaningless activity. In contrast, I wanted to show my characters enjoying food as a gift of life and sharing it with each other. So the eating scenes are not throwaways but integral to the message of my story.

Are you doing NaNoWriMo? Are there any other themes and motifs you can think of that are particularly appropriate to zombie stories? Let me know in the comments!

“I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you.”

If my Lord of the Rings books were not in a moving box somewhere, I would check on this, but I’m pretty sure the line I quoted in my title is not in the novels. I think it’s part of the body of dialogue (also including much of the “when the sun comes out, it’ll shine out the clearer” speech at the end of The Two Towers) that was written especially for Samwise Gamgee in the Peter Jackson film adaptations because nobody but Sean “Rudy” Astin was convincingly sincere enough to deliver such sweet yet potentially saccharine lines. Even if it isn’t in Tolkien’s text (which isn’t the Bible, nerds), the line Sam speaks before he literally carries the weakened Frodo up the final yards of Mount Doom has become part of the LOTR canon for me. And I’ve been thinking about it a lot recently. Here’s why.

My life has been pretty stable, almost to the point of being boring. I’ve had some adventures and some challenges, but no major catastrophes. I don’t presume to bank on this state of equilibrium lasting forever, but for now, I thank God for having protected me from the extremes of grief and difficulty. Yet I’ve sometimes felt less thankful than guilty. Why have I been spared the physical pain, financial hardship, and emotional trauma (among other things) that I see knocking down people–including some of my students, colleagues, friends, and relatives–like breakers in a hurricane? I don’t really know the answer to this question, but I have a theory: Perhaps my role is to be a stable, solid, even boring rock of support and normalcy that people can cling onto and take a breather in the middle of their storm.

Notice that I didn’t compare myself to the rescue worker who’s pulling people out of danger. That’s ultimately God’s role, though I suppose some people–like counselors, clergy, and actual rescue workers–can also fit the analogy. No, I’m the friend–the sidekick, if you will–who is predictably available to give the sufferer a ride, a place to stay, a meal, or an opportunity to pretend that things are normal for a couple of hours. I admit that I don’t always have a gracious attitude toward providing these things, and sometimes I’m terribly obtuse about noticing that people need them. But I can look back over my adult life–actually, maybe even my childhood too–and identify a number of times when God used me as a strong and stable friend for people in need. And there are probably even more times that I don’t remember because I didn’t realize I was doing anything important–because I was clueless about the extent of the trouble or pain the person was in.

Sam carrying Frodo up the side of Mount Doom is pretty dramatic, I’ll give you that. But Sam trudging hundreds of miles at Frodo’s side, carrying all their stuff because Frodo was too weak for anything but the burden of the ring, making meals and pleading for Frodo to eat them, and making decisions when Frodo was in too much of a mental fog–those things are mundane, yet they’re what enabled Frodo to make it to the moment when dramatic heroism finally was necessary. Maybe I’ll get to have a Mount Doom moment someday, but for now, I’m content to be the sidekick.

how Harry Potter defeated Voldemort

Over the weekend, I responded to a Facebook post asking how the main character of the story I’m writing would respond if he were in the place of the main character of the last movie I watched. The last movie I watched happened to be Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 (the odds were pretty good), and the main character in my zombie apocalypse story is Sam Larson, whom you can read about here and here. I said that Sam wouldn’t be in Harry’s position at all; he’d be in Hufflepuff minding his own business. But, I wrote, if he did happen to find himself in such a critical situation, he’d probably do what Harry did: sacrifice himself for his friends and accomplish a quiet, understated defeat over evil.

That last part surprised me as I wrote it. My character, Sam, is certainly quiet and understated. But what’s quiet and understated about the most epic battle between good and evil of our time? With wands and spells and people flying through the air and Hogwarts castle burning to the ground? The answer is that Voldemort isn’t defeated in a battle. He’s defeated after a battle. In the final movie, which follows roughly the last one-third of the book Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the first half is loud and fast, with lots of cuts and lots of people on the screen at any given time. Then, when Harry, Ron, and Hermione slip away from the aftermath of the battle and witness the intensely private death of Severus Snape, things slow down. Harry watches Snape’s memories and learns his fate alone (and this is quite a long scene in the movie), and he walks into the woods to face Voldemort alone, except for the unseen presence of the spirits of his loved ones. When Voldemort finally faces Harry, there’s no music and no sound from the other characters, just Voldemort’s curse ripping through the silence.

A quiet, thoughtful conversation between Dumbledore and Harry ensues in Harry’s personal version of limbo, a whited-out King’s Cross Station (even the muted color creates a sense of hush in this scene). And when Harry returns to life, he stays silent, pretending to still be dead, until the right moment. Keeping quiet about his defeat of death is surely difficult for the ultimate Gryffindor, but Harry has learned wisdom to balance out his eagerness.

Once Harry reveals that he isn’t dead, chaos breaks out, and the battle resumes, but it isn’t the focus of the story. In the book, everyone eventually stops fighting and watches and listens while Harry and Voldemort face off and Harry gives a long, detailed explanation of the Horcruxes and why the Elder Wand doesn’t work for Voldemort–why, in fact, Tom Riddle is already defeated. In the movie, the conversation is much shorter, and the face-off has no audience; Harry and Voldemort fight alone on the ramparts of their mutually beloved school. Both portrayals, in different ways, value privacy over display and wisdom over physical force. Voldemort goes out, to quote T.S. Eliot, “not with a bang but a whimper.” And, in an anticlimactic but perfect move, Harry destroys the wand that brings about Voldemort’s defeat, knowing that it would come to defeat others.

Much has been written on how the valued qualities of all four Hogwarts houses are necessary in the defeat of Voldemort, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anyone explain how Harry comes to embody all four in the end. (I’m sure someone has written about this; I just haven’t seen it.) Obviously, Harry is most of all brave like the Gryffindor he is. He faces death, “the last enemy” as the Apostle Paul puts it. But he is also incredibly logical and thoughtful, like a Ravenclaw, figuring out the wand conundrum that still confuses me a little bit every time I read the book. He is wise in a different way, too–“wise as a serpent” (to use Jesus’ words), shrewd like a Slytherin, knowing when to hold back information and when to reveal it. And like a Hufflepuff, he gives credit to the others who participated in Voldemort’s defeat. Harry knows that although he is the Chosen One, his bravery, wisdom, and cunning would fall short if not for the friends he remains loyal to, even when (as he often is) he is tempted to strike out on his own. And not just friends, but surprising allies like Snape.

Well, shoot, I just made myself cry while blogging–AGAIN. Harry Potter fans, I’m interested to know what you think about all this. Let me know in the comments.

the dig list

It’s time for one of my periodic lists of stuff I dig right now.

  1. Music with close vocal harmonies. Throughout the past week, I have been listening to two bands whose music showcases the capabilities of the male voice in harmony with others. One is Queen. Have you ever noticed–well, I’m sure you have; I’m stating the obvious here–that if you stripped away the wailing guitars, many of their songs would make wonderful barbershop quartet numbers? The other band is Lord Huron, whose moody music conjures the lowering darkness of an overcast autumn day–specifically, of clouds gathering over a lake, probably Lake Huron. (Some of their songs reference lakes too.) Their harmonies are tiiiiiight (in two senses of the word).
  2. The Pickwick Papers. I decided that while I’m reading Michael Slater’s biography of Charles Dickens, I’m going to watch, in order of novel publication, my collection of BBC Dickens adaptations. Saturday and Sunday, I watched the 1985 Pickwick Papers miniseries. I can’t put my finger on what’s so delightful about watching rotund middle-aged men act like adult children and get into the same tight spots (figuratively and sometimes literally) over and over again, but maybe it’s that in this novel and only this novel within Dickens’ repertoire, everyone is so genuinely good-hearted. Even the blood-sucking lawyers Dodson and Fogg are ultimately harmless. Pickwick and his friends triumph because they choose to believe the best about everyone. Maybe that’s not the way the world really works, but it’s something to strive for. Watching this mini-series is kind of like watching Parks and Recreation, which manages to be hilarious even while being refreshingly un-cynical. All the duels, lawsuits, and other confrontations in Pickwick are funny in the same way that it’s funny when the other characters make fun of Jerry on Parks and Rec. They’re like little kids trying to be mean but succeeding only in being cute.
  3. Fazoli’s. Okay, look. It may not be “authentic Italian food,” though I’m not sure that phrase really means much in America, where we’ve adopted Italian cuisine as one of our own and enacted tons of bizarrely creative, often successful variations on it. (I mean, just look at pizza.) But I ordered a Caesar side salad, baked ziti, breadsticks, and a blood orange Italian ice online, picked it up, and was back home within half an hour. It was faster than flying to Sicily. And it was good.
  4. Peer review day. One of my favorite things to do as a teacher is to walk around the classroom and briefly engage with pairs of students as they read and constructively critique each other’s papers. My short attention span appreciates the short interactions, and instead of standing in front of a classroom babbling until my throat hurts, I get to swoop in, answer questions and sound very knowledgeable, and move on to the next group. All kidding aside (not kidding about that stuff, though), peer review can be a great instructional strategy, teaching students the important life skills of reflection and of giving feedback without being vague or unkind. Fortunately, I’m teaching two writing classes and have lots of peer review days to look forward to this semester.

What are you digging right now? Let me know if the comments.