This post is EPIC.

Yesterday I watched the movie Troy for the first time, and while it could have done with some more editing (I feel asleep several times during the first hour and apparently didn’t miss anything important), I thought it generally had solid storytelling and performances, and it was nice to look at.  Yes, I’m talking about Brad Pitt in his prime, but I’m also talking about the lush colors and fabrics of the costumes and the beautiful art direction (not sure how much of that was on-location filming vs. sets vs. CG, but the effect was great).  During the movie, my friend and I got into a conversation about what constitutes an “epic” film.  I’m sure there’s an official definition somewhere, but our attempt to reach a consensus is more interesting to me right now.  (Of course, Troy is an epic because it’s based on an ancient Greek epic.  That’s obvious, but not that helpful to the present discussion.)

My friend cited Cecil B. DeMille’s statement that an epic must have “a cast of thousands.”  But is that to be taken literally–thousands of Hebrews crossing the Red Sea, thousands of Uruk-Hai marching on Helm’s Deep?  Or can we take it to mean that the story just has to have a lot of characters?  At one point in the conversation, I suggested that The Godfather movies–individually or as a trilogy–could be modern American epics, and I used the large cast of important characters as evidence (along with another possible factor that I proposed–an epic should be really long).  I later backed down and said that The Godfather is probably a “family saga” instead, but what the precise difference is, I’m not sure.  Other suggestions that came up during the conversation: an epic has battle scenes (I think that’s often, but not always, true); an epic has a complicated plot with multiple threads (but that would mean Charles Dickens’ novels are epics, which doesn’t seem right).  We didn’t mention this yesterday, but a classical scholar would probably say that an epic has a hero you can root for, someone who is both strong and (usually) morally good.  Well, that disqualifies The Godfather.

Our conclusion was, essentially, that we know an epic when we see one.  My friend prefers older epics like Ben Hur and a bunch of other movies with Charlton Heston in them.  I, on the other hand, look to the 1990s as my decade for epics.  This was the decade that gave us BraveheartTitanicLegends of the FallDances with Wolves, and The Last of the Mohicans.  All of these movies are long, lavish, sincere (with very little irony), and straightforward in their storytelling.  Three of them (the first three I listed) have scores by James Horner–the king of the epic soundtrack (which is why it bugs me that so many people know John Williams’s name but not James Horner’s)–and most of them have some sort of “love theme” played during the credits and sung by a popular vocalist.  Although Troy came out in 2004, it participates in that tradition, though it’s notably a bit more cynical than those earlier examples.  It has a Horner score, and Josh Groban sings the song during the credits.  Troy, I think, was one of the last of a dying breed of movies (dying until the next time the genre experiences a resurgence).

So those are all the thoughts currently in my head about epic movie-making.  If you haven’t seen the movies mentioned in this post, check them out, and if there are other titles you think of when you think of “epic,” let me know.

Mafia zombies at Downton Abbey

Every once in a while I like to write a post about the Godfather saga, even though I know that many of my readers have never seen the films, because I hope that, eventually, you’ll recognize that your life is sadly lacking and you’ll actually watch them.  (And you have a great opportunity coming up to watch the first movie!  Fathom Events is showing it in select theaters on June 4 and 7!)  In the past, I’ve told you what The Godfather has to do with Thor and with An American Tail, and today I’m going to tell you what it has to do with The Walking Dead and Downton Abbey.

I started thinking about writing another Godfather post this past weekend, even before I found out about the June screenings.  It was on my mind because I found a $5 used, good condition record album of Nino Rota’s iconic score to the first film, but also because I was thinking about a screenplay I want to write for a buddy road-trip tragicomedy set during the early days of the zombie apocalypse.  One of the themes of this screenplay (which currently exists only in my head) is that human beings are inherently valuable, regardless of what they can contribute.  This concept is sorely lacking in zombie lore, in which characters are so often rated based on the apparent usefulness of their skills.  Because of this value system, we end up with characters like Eugene in The Walking Dead, who is so afraid of being rejected by the braver and more skillful people whose group he wants to join that he concocts an elaborate lie to establish his usefulness to the world.  If you can’t prove your worth, the logic says, you’re the first to be thrown off the proverbial ship.

I started thinking about The Godfather because the world portrayed in those films has a similar value system.  Despite all the lip service paid to family and loyalty, you’re not valuable simply because you’re human; you’re rated based on the kind of man you are.  (And I use the word man very deliberately.)  If you want to survive, you have to be in charge, and if you want to be in charge, there are a couple of characteristics you need to have.  You have to be cold, which is why the hot-headed Santino would not have made a good Godfather.  (We see this clearly and tragically in the first movie.)  You have to be hard, which is why nobody ever even considered asking the soft-headed and -hearted Fredo to be the Godfather.  (Even in that patriarchal culture, I suspect they would have given that title to Connie before they gave it to Fredo!)  If you don’t have these qualities, you’re expendable.

I was also thinking about Robert Duvall’s character, the one who was sort of unofficially adopted by Don Vito and who grew up to be the family’s lawyer.  (I always forget his name.)  There’s a lot of talk about him being just like one of Vito’s sons, but the truth remains that he’s on the family’s payroll and therefore in that awkward (and ultimately dangerous) employee zone.  His position is roughly analogous to that of Tom Branson in the later seasons of Downton Abbey, who’s both the embarrassing Irish Catholic son-in-law (whose wife isn’t even alive to give him a blood connection to the family) and the family’s estate agent, and therefore still uncomfortably close to being a servant, even if he eats upstairs now.  Although I want to think well of the Crawleys, I suspect that if Downtown Abbey were set in a vendetta culture like that of The Godfather and things started going south, Tom would be the first to get…well, tommy-gunned.  That was a bit of a rabbit trail, but my point is that valuing people based on who they’re related to is just as flawed as valuing people based on a narrow set of culturally valued skills.

My point in this entire post (besides to suggest the most epic multi-world fanfic ever) is that when we stop believing that people are valuable just because they’re people–not for what they can contribute–that’s when we start beating people to death with barbed-wire-wrapped baseball bats and having our hitmen shoot our brother in the back while he’s defenselessly fishing (and those are just the things that happened on Downton Abbey! j/k).  Every one of us will encounter situations in which we feel like there’s absolutely nothing we can contribute.  And in those moments, we need to be able to know we’re safe just because we’re people.

It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

With apologies to the Christmas season (which I do love), the time of year when I typically experience the greatest and most consistent sense of well-being is the mid-to-late spring time period we are in right now.  Here are some reasons why:

  1. It’s warm, and the days are getting longer.  In case you care, here are my favorite seasons in order: spring, fall, summer, winter.  I like change as long as it’s regular, predictable change, so the seasons in which the weather, plant life, and day length are going through obvious transformation are my favorite.  Of those two, I prefer the spring for the obvious reason that everything is coming back to life.  It’s not just the symbolism; I actually feel physically and mentally healthier (aside from pollen allergies) when the world is waking and warming up after the seemingly interminable winter.
  2. It’s a time for celebration.  This is the most exciting time of year in my world of academia.  I’ve always loved graduations, probably because I’m secretly British and therefore really enjoy pomp and ceremony (also “Pomp and Circumstance,” the graduation song).  As a Harry Potter fan, I also appreciate long robes and funny hats.  So even though I’m not a fan of crowds or of wearing heavy black garments in the blazing May sun, I enjoy putting on my doctoral regalia (for which I paid a hefty price in both effort and actual money) and marching around as a symbol of intellectual weightiness.  Even more, I enjoy seeing graduates celebrate with their loved ones and anticipate the future with joy and hope.  (Crap, I’m starting to cry!)  I especially like the opportunities this time of year provides to see students share what they’ve learned and what they’re passionate about.  (See my post on this from a couple of weeks ago.)
  3. I’m about to be a lot less busy.  Another good thing about working in academia is that, for most of us, there’s not as much going on in the summer.  I don’t truly get the summers off because I’m also an administrator and therefore on a 12-month contract, but I don’t teach on campus in the summer (I’ll have one online class), and the cycle of department, committee, and student meetings slows way down.  So I’m looking forward to reading the backlog of books I’ve bought over the past few months, spending lots of time outdoors, going to bed early more often, and having adventures (or just passing time) with my favorite people, near and far (because I also have more time to travel in the summer). I got a little taste of that this past weekend when I had only a few children’s lit papers left to grade.  Friday night I read a little bit of Jurassic Park (the book I’m reading for fun right now) and then went to bed at 9:30, with my windows open and my Thomas Newman Pandora station playing.  Saturday morning I got up at 5:30, threw some clothes on, got an iced caramel mocha at McDonald’s, and headed to a local park, where I spent three hours.  I did some yoga on the lake pier, walked around the lake (it’s more of a large pond), read my Bible and another book, and did some journaling.  That may not sound like a fun morning to you, but I had a great time.  And I still had the whole day ahead of me when I was finished!  This is why I sometimes fantasize about being retired.  Anyway, although point #3 has been, strictly speaking, about summer, I still count this as a reason why I love spring, because right now I’m just beginning to enjoy–and still anticipating–all the delights of the coming season.

Do you enjoy this time of year, and if so, why?  (That feels like an essay prompt.  It’s also final exam time.)

Lynchstock: good music, better people-watching

This past Saturday marked the fifth anniversary of the Lynchstock music festival, named for our burgeoning city of Lynchburg, Virginia, as well as the event’s Woodstock-level aspirations (reflected in the bizzare costumes of some of the festival-goers).  This year, the festival moved from the small backyard of a restaurant in the neighboring town of Forest to a large-ish park in downtown Lynchburg proper, which accommodated more attendees, vendors, and food trucks, as well as two additional stages (the number increased from three to five) housed in two of the new venues that have recently sprung up along the formerly eerily empty, now trendy Jefferson Street.

I attended the festival along with my parents, who are in their late fifties and early sixties, and my two twenty-something siblings, all of whom came from out of town.  We were attracted to the event by the headline band, Dawes, who play rock that skews toward Americana and has sometimes funny, sometimes incredibly sad, and always memorable lyrics.  I warned my parents that the festival would probably be populated by hipster college students wearing their wannabe-Coachella best, but as it turned out, there was a diverse range of ages and styles at the event.  Yes, there was the shirtless guy in dreadlocks and the girls painting henna tattoos on each other’s backs, but there was also the average Joe-looking dad of one of the local band’s lead singers, as well as the little boy in a guitar t-shirt jumping through puddles in his Crocs.

And about those puddles.  We had all been casting a dire eye at the weather forecast all week, watching the rain likelihood percentages change slightly but never go away.  When  we arrived at the park Saturday morning, the ground was already wet and the sky overcast, but the rain held off long enough for us to enjoy several bands in the muggy air.  My sister enjoyed Strong Water, a Harrisonburg band with bluegrass instrumentation; my brother liked an angsty three-piece outfit called Quick on My Feet, and my mom favored the performance of a band called Fin, whom I don’t feel qualified to describe because I missed most of their set standing in line for an apple butter-slathered grilled cheese at Cheesy Rider (totally worth it).  My favorite performance of the morning/early afternoon was by the Will Overman Band–they didn’t really sound like Bruce Springsteen as claimed in their blurb in the app, but they had a fun sound.

Around 2:00, the floodgates of heaven were opened, and the fountains of the deep burst forth.  Well anyway, there was a thunderstorm, which led to the decision to shut down the festival until further notice.  When a few hours went by and nothing seemed to be changing, we had sadly resigned ourselves to missing the big performance of the day–until my mom saw on Facebook that Dawes would be playing a stripped-down, shortened set at 9:00 in the Glass House, one of the indoor venues along Jefferson Street.  Even though it was chilly outside by this time and nearly dark, my mom, my sister, and I decided we’d regret not going back to hear Dawes, so we headed downtown and joined the teeming mass of humanity packed into the Glass House.  I don’t like crowds, booze, or annoying people, so the situation was not ideal, but I’m glad I went.  There were a lot of tall people in front of me, but I could occasionally see various band members, and, more importantly, I could hear.  Dawes played a number of songs from their latest album, We’re All Gonna Die, including the party anthem “When the Tequila Runs Out” and the title track–which, as you might be able to guess, is not a party anthem.  One of the highlights of the night was hearing the entire audience sing along to the early hit “When My Time Comes.”  As I predicted, Dawes closed with their beautiful and nostalgic (yet just a little tongue-in-cheek) song “All Your Favorite Bands.”  Lead singer Taylor Goldsmith said he hoped we wouldn’t count this as their real performance and that we’d let them come back sometime to show us what they could really do.  I hope that promise comes to fruition.

my thoughts on the Oscar nominations

If you’ve been reading my blog long enough, you know that most years, I have at least a bit of commentary on the Oscar nominations.  I don’t predict the winners–it’s too early to do that anyway, and I don’t have the magic formula–but I like to throw in my two cents about whom and what I hope will win.

  1. Best Picture: This is an unusual year in that I had already seen three of the Best Picture contenders before the nominations were even released.  I’ve already shared my thoughts on Hacksaw Ridge in this post.  The other two I’ve seen are La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, two excellent films that are polar (or at least West Coast/East Coast) opposites in setting, aesthetic, and topic, but that both deal with the theme of rebuilding a life from the ruins of hardship and disappointment.  I’d be happy if either of those won the top prize.  Hacksaw Ridge won’t win it–because of its subject matter, its director, and its fairly conventional story trajectory.  Speaking of conventionality, I was surprised to see Hidden Figures on the list because the trailers made it look like a standard feel-good movie.  Trailers can be misleading, though.  As for the other nominees, Fences looks like the kind of emotionally raw family saga that the Academy loves, Arrival looks like one of those surprisingly deep space travel movies we’ve been seeing a lot of in recent years (Gravity, Interstellar, The Martian), and the other three I have nothing to say about because I know next to nothing about them.
  2. Best Original Score: This is typically one of my favorite categories, but this year, with the exception of La La Land, it’s a total snoozefest so far–I say “so far” because I’ve been listening to all of the scores on Spotify throughout the day, and I just (like 30 seconds ago) started the last one, Passengers.  (I have hope for this one because it’s by my favorite film score composer, Thomas Newman.)  La La Land, as we would expect from a movie about music, has a very good score–it’s peppy and poignant by turns in all the right places.  One film whose score I would have included, if I’d been asked, would have been Manchester by the Sea.  Maybe it was left out because some of the finest musical moments in the film were not original at all but from Handel’s Messiah and other classical works.  But the original portion of the soundtrack was beautiful and unexpected for this understated story (it’s mostly choral, which gives the film a sacred quality).
  3. Miscellaneous categories they sneak in near the beginning of the broadcast when I’m out in the kitchen getting snacks: Know what else had a really good score?  My favorite movie of the year, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  James Newton Howard didn’t get nominated in that category, but the film did get nods for Production Design (formerly known as Art Direction) and Costume Design.  I think it’s significant that it was nominated in these categories rather than in those where we often see fantasy/franchise films, such as Visual Effects and Sound Mixing.  This seems to be another indication that the Harry Potter franchise is growing up–the Academy sees Fantastic Beasts as a period piece, not a special effects blockbuster.  By the way, I was cherishing a secret hope that Eddie Redmayne would get nominated for Best Actor for his third year in a row.  Alas.
  4. Best Animated Feature: I’ll close with this: One of the best films I saw in 2016, categories be darned, was Zootopia.  It dealt with serious current issues in a complicated, far from heavy-handed way, and it was that rare animated movie that remained a kids’ movie even while appealing to adults.  It should have been nominated for Best Picture, but I hope it at least wins the animated feature category.

I’ll probably blog about my reactions to the winners on February 27.  Meanwhile, what are your thoughts on the nomination slate?

some random questions for Christmas

In which I interview myself.

If you could design a Christmas t-shirt, what would it say?  Bob Cratchit: Straight Outta Camden.

If you could spend Christmas with any fictional family, what family would you choose?  I borrowed this question from another blog I looked at over the weekend, but it’s something I’ve thought about before–not that I had to think very hard.  The only correct answer to this question (and a total no-brainer if you’ve been reading my blog over the years) is “the Weasleys.”  However, I did see Fantastic Beasts again today, and I have to say that if for some reason I couldn’t Apparate across the Atlantic for Christmas, it would also be fun to spend Christmas with Tina and Queenie Goldstein–if Newt and Jacob could also be there, and if we could have pie and strudel.

What holiday season song bothers you the most?  Please indulge me in a rant on this one.  I am deeply troubled by the song “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.”  It used to bother me because although it gets classified as a Christmas song, it’s merely a cold weather song.  People in Australia could sing it in August.  But then someone pointed out to me that this song appears to describe a man keeping a woman in his home against her will.  You can call it an attempt at date rape or a hostage situation–either way, there’s nothing cute or clever about it, and it really annoys me that singers who think they are cute and clever are still covering it.  You can try to explain the lyrics away as the product of a simpler time, but what are you going to do with the line, “Say, what’s in this drink?”?  Slipping drugs into a person’s beverage was never okay.

Let me contrast this song with another one that presents a similar scenario: “Let It Snow.”  In this song, the two characters appear to be mutually consenting adults who actually like each other, unlike in “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” and they face a far more challenging weather prognosis (cold is only dangerous if you have to spend the whole night outside, whereas snow can cause decreased visibility and hazardous road conditions).  Yet, after a nice evening enjoying popcorn in front of the fire, one of them is mature enough to say, “I’ve had a lovely time, but I am now going to get in my four-wheel drive vehicle and safely drive home before this snow gets worse.  How about you give me a big kiss and a hug to keep me warm on my way?”  Yes, the line “The fire is slowly dying, and my dear, we’re still goodbye-ing” may indicate a reluctance to part, but again, this reluctance seems to be mutual.  There is no coercion here, nor any guilt-tripping.  (Contrast this with the part in “Cold” when the man says, “Think of my lifelong sorrow.”  Gag me.)

(takes a deep breath) Okay, we can move on to the next question.

What charming Christmas comedy have you discovered in recent years?

How did you know I’d recently discovered a charming Christmas comedy?  Well, last year I came across Nativity! in which Martin Freeman plays a put-upon grade-school teacher directing a nativity play that gets way out of hand.  Martin Freeman is delightful as always (I think I’ve used that exact same adjective to describe him at least once before on this blog), and the kids, who seem to be “real” people rather than actors, are hilarious.  So is Mr. Poppy, the teacher’s aide who is basically a child himself.  Check this one out.

 

Advent week 4: What Christmas hymns teach us about Jesus

Something that always kind of shocks me is the number of straight-up hymns (multiple verses!) that get played on the radio during the Christmas season–and I’m talking on your average pop/soft rock “mix” station.  I’m happy that Jesus’ name is getting so broadly proclaimed during this time, even if it’s confusingly thrown in with a lot of really stupid songs (which I plan to post about next week), but I wonder how many people understand the sometimes complex theology they’re hearing.  Today I want to write about just a few of the things we learn about Jesus from some of the great Christmas hymns.

  1. Jesus is God, and he didn’t stop being God when he was born as a human.  Appropriately, Christmas hymns are packed with statements of the divinity of Christ.  Some go a little too far in asserting this, like “Away in a Manger” (“no crying he makes”?  He was a baby; pretty sure he was crying), but others hit the mark in beautiful statements like “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see / Hail the incarnate Deity” (from my favorite Christmas hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing”) or simply “the Word made flesh” (a direct quote from the gospel of John, found in a later verse of “What Child Is This”).
  2. Jesus knows what it’s like to be us.  Also appropriately, many Christmas hymns are about God the Son’s humbling himself to dwell with us (any song with “Emmanuel” in it counts here) and his sympathy with our pain and frailty.  “O Holy Night” says that Jesus was “born to be our friend” and then goes on to say that “he knows our need / to our weakness is no stranger.”  “Hark the Herald Angels Sing” is, again, a little more complex: “Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”  All the songs that talk about Jesus’ humble surroundings at his birth also fit in here; one of my favorite descriptions is from the beautiful Appalachian song “I Wonder As I Wander”: “When Mary birthed Jesus ’twas in a cow stall / With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.”  Farmers–that word choice brings the story close to home for a lot of people.  Jesus could have been born down the road from here.
  3. Jesus is coming back to rule the world.  As my pastor pointed out a couple of weeks ago, one of the best-loved hymns of Christmas, “Joy to the World,” is actually, for the most part, about Jesus’ future second coming.  We see this especially in the last verse, which begins, “He rules the world, with truth and grace.”  Of course, this is also what Handel’s famous “Hallelujah” chorus is about.  The other day, it occurred to me that when Handel’s Messiah was first performed, there probably were some lords and at least one king in the audience, which makes the repeated line “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” all the more impressive.  In fact, according to legend, it was a king who started the tradition of standing up during the chorus.  Wikipedia says this story probably isn’t true, but what’s not in doubt is that Jesus is superior to all “principalities and powers” as the New Testament says.

I hope that over the next few days, you hear some of these songs (maybe on one of those normally lightweight radio stations) and maybe even get to join a congregation in singing them.  As you sing, think about the words and what they tell us about Jesus, our God, friend, and king.