Learning to Read Literature the Way Critics Watch Movies

When I’m trying to teach rhetorical analysis or any kind of analytical reading, I find this metaphor to be useful: we need to learn to read literature the way that critics watch movies. Everybody can picture that and relate to it immediately. All students have seen movies and have seen and heard others pick apart the various aspects of films.

The two processes–literary analysis and film criticism–are remarkably similar: they’re both exercises in identifying the basic building blocks of a work, and then scrutinizing them through lenses like comparison, connection, and evaluation. They’re both means of interpreting the content of messages while appreciating the modes of communication themselves.

I find that having students examine examples of great film criticism, such as essays found from Roger Ebert or the Criterion Collection, is a productive foundation for then extending the tools those writers used to their own approaches to literature in our classes.

And–bonus!–students also get exposed to quality films!

 

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Great Gravitas in Two Popcorn Flicks

We don’t exactly think of superheroes or science fiction when we think of Oscar bait, but two performances in mainstream pop movies of recent years have stuck with me. They both demonstrated a subdued gravitas which may have slipped past many people’s radar because the work was so naturally understated.

The first is Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War. One of the complaints about the Marvel Cinematic Universe is that it has so many dead ends, and despite the continuous storyline, so many of its films still feel like stand alone fresh starts. That’s largely true.

An exception is RDJ’s work in Civil War. His portrayal of Tony Stark has been uneven, partly as he has explored the character himself, and partly as the varying quality of scripts has left him more or less to work with, but not only did the plot of Civil War bring to fruition all the character growth earned and lost over the course of several films, RDJ brought his A game to it, and gave an impressively nuanced performance.

We can really feel the weight of all that has happened in recent years in the MCU in this film. We can see this movie as a depiction of the age-old political struggle between collectivism and individualism, but Tony Stark is no bureaucratic stooge here: RDJ makes it clear that this man is finally just crumpling under the burdens that life has kept stacking on him. He needs escape. He needs rest. This is a man in turmoil.

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Ten Favorite Paintings

The top 10-themed culture conversation continues between two old friends and I. This last week the category was simple: ten favorite paintings. I got to go back over my posts here on that subject, and I came up with this list:

10. Durand, The Morning of Life

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9. Van Gogh, Cafe Terrace at Night

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8. Church, Country Home

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7. Bocklin, Isle of the Dead

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The 10 Best Albums Of My High School Years?

Recently, a friend posed an interesting question for us to ponder: what were the best albums of our high school years? We decided to make our own lists to compare and discuss.

This is tricky right off the bat because we became freshmen in 1992, a year after music’s best calendar year ever. Still, the early 90s had a ton of amazing quality: our lists had to be from albums released between August 1992 and June 1996.

I decided my list would have to balance personal taste with importance and impact on the larger musical world. This is really just a first draft, but for now, here are my ten.

10. Rancid, …And Out Come The Wolves

9. Beck, Odelay

8. The Crow, Soundtrack

7. Smashing Pumpkins, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

6. Nirvana, In Utero

5. Live, Throwing Copper

4. Pearl Jam, Vs.

3. Nine Inch Nails, The Downward Spiral

2. REM, Automatic For The People

1. Nirvana, Unplugged in New York

 

Great Student Film From My School

I recently went to an evening awards show for the film department at the fantastic arts schools where I teach. Student films were shown on a big screen and awards were given, Oscar style.

All of them were at least good, and some were great–not just as “student films,” but as films, period. My favorite was this very impressive piece called “Only One.” Really, though, the whole catalog is worth checking out. Here’s their YouTube page:

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCAV42CYHo6Gd7KyYN6rod1w

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wonder Woman is Basically Eve

Wonder Woman is a great movie, but I couldn’t help noticing how much it fits a scriptural template for Latter-day Saints:

(wee bit spoiler-y folks; you’ve been warned)

This movie is about a demi-goddess who’s the only one to recognize her evil demi-god brother. He’s trying to force humanity into his vision of paradise, but she ultimately realizes that all individuals are both good and bad and must choose love on their own. There are a lot of speeches about what we “deserve” vs. what we “believe” (with object lessons in justice vs. mercy). She and the man she loves inspire each other and set an example for others. She is part of the confrontation where the power of the gods casts her evil brother out. Then, she stays in the world of mortals to serve them and show them the way to love.

I wonder if the screenwriter consulted the Pearl of Great Price, or if this is just a coincidence!

Batman vs. Superman Just Sucks, Doesn’t It?

Batman_v_Superman_posterThe world doesn’t need yet another review saying the obvious, but I finally just watched it today, and holy moly, this movie is awful.

It’s a tedious, leaden, pompous, plodding mess of a movie. The dour, somber tone isn’t even level–it bounces around in degree every few minutes. Ditto for the pacing–mostly too slow (especially at the beginning), it often veers into quick summaries of scenes with hardly any context or relevance.

This movie breaks every known rule of grammar in the language of film!

Director Zack Snyder wants so badly to be the love child of Terrence Malick and Stanley Kubrick, but he just doesn’t know how to consistently balance his work like them.

Jesse Eisenberg’s version of Lex Luthor is just garbage. Seriously, who decided every interesting Hollywood character had to be ADD-addled and awkward? Eisenberg’s not a  bad actor, so I blame this one on Snyder, too.

Why was Wonder Woman there? Her presence is never really explained. She was on Luthor’s trail because…plot?

Did the Cinema Sins video for this movie have a Scowling Eyebrows Bonus Round?

Like the Star Wars prequels, the most infuriating part is that there’s clearly the kernel of a much better movie in here. How sad this opportunity got wasted.

Ugh. Congratulations, Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. You’ve just entered the dubious pantheon of films that literally made me angry while watching them: Alien 3 and Batman and Robin are also members.

I have very little hope for Justice League.

U2’s Joshua Tree Tour 2017 Reviewed

I saw U2 play the Rose Bowl on May 20. It was the fifth tour of theirs that I’ve seen, and it was the best overall. Here is the setlist.

Highlights: “A Sort of Homecoming,” “Mothers of the Disappeared,” American optimism theme, set design and video.

“Homecoming.” We’re in the middle of a big 80s nostalgia kick in America, and this new arrangement of a 1984 track is loaded with clever throwback synth sounds. Great version.

“Mothers.” Rarely played live at all, the somber, sonorous last song on The Joshua Tree appropriately resonated that night, acoustically and narratively. Would have been great to see Eddie Vedder, though, like Seattle got to!

The Joshua Tree is about America, the country and the hemisphere. Like the original album, this tour focused on the good, the bad, and the absolutely heartbreakingly beautiful. At points in the show, Bono called for unity (“From the party of Lincoln to the party of Kennedy…”), thanked American taxpayers for helping improve the global AIDS crisis, and called himself a “guest” in this country who felt like he was “coming home.”

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Favorites From the NPR 100

I just found some notes I made from a bucket list item I checked off a few years ago–listening to NPR’s 100 essential American recordings of the 20th century. I thought I’d blogged about this before, but apparently not.

Some of the items were familiar, but many were new to me. Here are my favorites from the ones I was hearing for the first time.

“Adagio for Strings” This beautifully ethereal piece is just magical. It’s heart rending and haunting.

 

“Ain’t That a Shame” Fun, early rock track.

 

“Blue Moon of Kentucky” An early bluegrass track with a legacy in folk and country music. Feeling connected to roots here.

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New Listenings

Here’s some great stuff that I’ve heard recently:

This piece just reminded me that no matter how much classical music I listen to, there will always be more to discover that will simply dazzle me. It’s a great big wonderful world out there, and this lusciously moving track carries a feeling that doesn’t soon fade. I need to get more into Dvorak.

 

A student recommended this one, and it’s great, isn’t it? Lots to pick apart in here.

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Reviewed But Not Recommended: Facing the Giants

Facing_the_giantsI’m a big fan of the Christian movies Fireproof and War Room, so I was looking forward to Facing the Giants, which looked like basically the same thing, but with high school football.

The other two movies have actual struggles and hard change and some serious real world difficulties in them…but not Facing the Giants.

In the first act of this movie, we see all the things wrong in the life of a losing football coach at a private Christian school: a failing job, a broken down house and car, infertility. Then he decides to turn his life over to God more fully, and suddenly everything magically turns around. He gets a new car. His wife gets pregnant. His team wins the state championship.

No, I don’t have a problem with the concept of miracles, but I don’t like a story where it’s that easy, or that selfish.

This movie turns God into Santa Claus, just waiting for us to say the right words politely enough before showering us with all the toys we want.

The big change he makes as a coach is really just doing his job a little bit better than before. And merely for that, a player’s father buys him a new car. What a materialistic gospel this movie preaches! It’s the definition of cheap grace.

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Women in Science Fiction Movies

Movies where a woman’s adventures in space and/or with aliens is prompted by the death of a loved one: Contact, Interstellar, Arrival, Aliens, Gravity.

In the latter three, the death of a child is involved. In Contact, it’s her father; in Interstellar, it’s her lover.

I have to wonder why Hollywood has such a specific template. Girls can have science fiction adventures, too, but it has to be because someone they love died?

BONUS! Movies where Scarlett Johansson plays a woman whose abilities were enhanced without her consent, for nefarious purposes: Lucy, Ghost in the Shell, The Avengers series. (Summer Glau in Firefly fits the same mold.) Interesting contrast: In the film Her, Johansson plays a disembodied voice which consciously evolves itself. 

Notice that in all of these movies, Johansson’s character is overtly sexualized (with the possible exception of Lucy). Hollywood says that women can have superpowers, as long as it makes them more attractive?

So what’s the overall message here? The ultimate female sci-fi character would be a brainwashed, sexy ninja who kicks butt in memory of her dead family?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reviewed: Risen

5759_RISEN_dvd_lgI recently saw last year’s film, Risen, about a Roman officer tasked with finding the “stolen” dead body of Jesus Christ.

It was good, but not great. Here’s why:

I liked the unique take on a familiar story–turning the Resurrection into a detective case–and I loved the great production values.

But…but…but…

The macguffin here is always referred to as “Yeshua,” which is historically accurate (a plus), but which is clearly used here so the film can avoid saying “Jesus” all the time, so it won’t appear to be one of those movies–the kind that always get hammered on Rotten Tomatoes (a minus).

Such a love/hate relationship with its subject is typical of Hollywood’s approach to the Bible in the 21st century.

Still, the content of the film is strong enough to warrant giving it a try, I suppose. I especially appreciated the very realistic depiction of the Crucifixion (not nearly as romanticized as in The Passion of the Christ), and the fact that the film starts with that. Bold.

But Joseph Fiennes’ protagonist is too flat to care about–another sadly typical trait of such films, be they faith-promoting or secular. In the first half, he’s a grim stoic. In the second, he’s a wide-eyed convert, like the other hippie-apostles around him.

Finally, about an hour after watching it, I realized why I ultimately didn’t care about the film: it didn’t make me feel anything. This is a movie for the head, not for the heart. Maybe for some, that’s a feature, not a bug.

But for me, in a movie about the Savior’s greatest miracle, it’s an unforgivable sin.