Thanksgiving Dinner Reminds Us of What Food Can Mean

You cause the grass to grow for the livestock and plants for man to cultivate, that he may bring forth food from the earth and wine to gladden the heart of man, oil to make his face shine and bread to strengthen man’s heart. 

Psalm 104:14-15

We’re in the run up to Thanksgiving, a week or so which allows us a brief respite from the irrepressible Christmas season. It’s a time to consider what we’re thankful for and to whom we are thankful. It’s also a time, before we gather with family and friends around a dinner table, to gather around the newsfeed with strangers and learn what it is everyone else is eating. This year, the internet rediscovered that the Western half of the country is big into salads as a side dish, which has the rest of us wondering if everyone out there is okay.

On the day itself, the online exchange of food happenings will continue. Food defines most holidays, but perhaps no more than Thanksgiving, and the internet will be appropriately resplendent with beautiful pics for the Gram, interspersed with tweets lamenting how long the dinner has been delayed.

It isn’t a very long run up, and the holiday’s true extended influence might be the leftovers that we continue to consume to the brink of December, just as Christmas scythes through whatever precious memories of autumn remain.

It’s a great holiday (my personal favorite) defined by the things we do with food – share it, discover it, talk about it, argue about it, make it, photograph it, eat it. It’s a pretty neat thing we’ve done in making a holiday which is about general thankfulness an excuse to immerse ourselves in the joys of conspicuous consumption.

There is, of course, a dark side, or at least a dark subtext to the way we celebrate Thanksgiving. Primarily, this relates to reveling in plenty while so many of our neighbors go without. It is, after all, a choice we make every day in this country to let people live in poverty. But it is also a reflection of a moment in our history when food is the dominating factor in our daily life. There’s a clip in the very underrated Over the Hedge which delivers some blazing social commentary as the raccoon explains to the other animals that “We eat to live, [humans] live to eat.” American culture is dominated by food, food apps, food science, diets, cookbooks, cooking shows, restauranteuring, foodies, and the politics of food. It is, more or less, what we do and the thing that we all have in common.

Food’s preeminence is not inherently bad, but I believe food-in-general holds a precarious position, both at a societal and individual level, between being an obsession and being taken for granted. Its omnipresence brings it to our table both as an opportunity to make choices – choices based on personal preference, the chance to customize, and life-altering health consequences – and as an afterthought, a satiation of base desires, a mechanical part of a routine. As individuals and as a collective, the way we do food is always at risk of being too much or not enough.

And so it is with Thanksgiving, when our great collective celebration of food, our exercise in excess, risks being not enough. Gatherings will lack certain friends or family, and lonely people will go without an invite. People with food-related illness will make requests for menu alterations or may have to pass a few plates or prepare themselves for digestive regrets. Meal planners might trade in their apron for a jacket as they pick up the dinner from someone else’s kitchen. Others will work hard all day to see their efforts either nibbled with apathy or consumed with ingratitude. Thank yous will go unthought and unsaid. And before the leftovers are in the fridge Christmas consumerism will sweep over the land in a wave of red and green.

I’m well-acquainted with some of these shortcomings. I was away from my family the last two Thanksgivings and didn’t even have a Friendsgiving to compensate. It was awful. I have a chronic food-related illness which drives me to think twice about every single thing I eat and sometimes forego foods I love. I wouldn’t say I have an eating disorder, but I’m clinically underweight and I obsess over what and how much I eat. I spend an unfathomable amount of mental energy thinking about what I am going to eat as part of a vain self-image project. When I let myself eat, I have a habit of eating too much and sometimes too quickly. And, being between jobs with an advanced degree, I find myself doing too much wishing and too little thanking.

However, my point in writing this is not so much to direct attention to the potential shortcomings of this food-focused holiday, but rather to highlight the grand opportunity it presents in spite of these various pitfalls. Rather than warn against excess and the value we place on the table next to the turkey and the pies, I would see us double down. Thanksgiving is not, like St. Patrick’s Day and Cinco de Mayo, a culturally-appropriated excuse to eat, drink, and be merry. Thanksgiving is an observance and ritual of the things that deserve culinary celebration; it is a most excellent manifestation of a culture’s infatuation with food.

Thanksgiving incorporates the best parts of food culture into the holiday meal in authentic, meaningful ways.

The holiday is defined by gathering together. Food is key to Independence Day, but it just so happens that there are other people around you while you do it. At Thanksgiving, the gathering of family and friends around a table is a pillar of the dinner ritual, and this reminds us that family and community is not just a fact of proximity, but a life-giving, life-sustaining, joyful part of our existence. Families and friends and neighbors feed and support one another, and it is best when this happens through a gathering in a particular physical space like a dinner table.

Coming in the wake of harvests and in the midst of hunting seasons, Thanksgiving is visibly connected to the work and processes which go into providing food. I have no idea how that hotdog on the Fourth of July ended up being something I am supposedly able to eat, but I can understand, with some accuracy and appreciation, how the Thanksgiving meal ended up on the table. The image of the cornucopia refers to the direct motion of field to plate, of the wild to the civilized, and the mythology of the first Thanksgiving is bound up in the miracle of growing corn with fish fertilizer. Whether or not what we eat on the day is actually ethically cultivated or free from wonky chemicals, the food itself is still symbolic of our dependence on the cultivation and harvesting of plants and animals.

Before eating, always take time to thank the food.

Arapaho Proverb

Our shared anxiety as the dinner’s start time continues to be pushed back is valid (for how is one supposed to exhibit patience in the face of cheesy broccoli?), but it calls to mind how much the significance of the meal itself is tied to its preparation. Halloween and Valentine’s Day are defined by treats we get in packages; no one gets a bag of candy or a box of chocolates and then expresses appreciation for the work that went into its preparation. But Thanksgiving dinner is, for those who prepare it, the Kentucky Derby of cooking. It involves hours of work to get multiple courses ready, potentially for more people than they will cook for at any other time of the year. It is the grand event of food preparation in this country because it demands to be really and truly prepared. If you want to go out to eat on Mother’s/Father’s Day or for Easter Sunday brunch, that’s well and good. Thanksgiving puts paramount importance on the preparation of food within the home. And it’s with good reason that “home-cooked” and “home-style” are still selling points. Thanksgiving celebrates the home-cooked meal and the people who prepare them.

The Thanksgiving dinner is also an opportunity to express heritage and tradition. There are common staples, of course, but each meal is just a little different. It’s one of the few holidays which allows – even encourages – diverse contributions to a common observance. Thanksgiving is an inclusive holiday, but also one that celebrates traditions and highlights regional pride. Food should be like this; it should be something shared and something to have in common, but also an expression of what makes us unique and diverse.

Each strength of Thanksgiving, each way in which this meal is an ideal expression of food culture, presents us with great opportunities for Thanksgiving Day and beyond. And this is where this essay becomes an exhortation.

Gather together. Revel in the company of others. Rejoice in the gifts of family and friendship. Extend your hospitality to someone who might be alone. Share your table.

If more of us valued food and cheer above hoarded gold, it would be a much merrier world.

Thorin to Bilbo
The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien

Contemplate the earth and its bounty. Engage in its preservation and stewardship. Understand how it sustains you, and how you can love and protect it. Pray for the harvest and the harvester. Consider what you put in your body and where it comes from. Observe the change in seasons and the cycle of time.

Appreciate the preparation. Say thank you to the cooks. Share your recipes. Show your children how it’s done. Ask your parents how to do it. Engage in the process. Savor the results.

Take pride in your heritage. Keep your traditions alive. Find out how others do it and try something new.

As my generation grows older, as we begin to feed ourselves and buy our groceries and make our own food, we have the means to shape what food culture looks like in America. We have the chance to change (hopefully for the better) what and how we eat, and how that affects our bodies and the world around us. We’re already doing some of these things better than our parents and grandparents, but there are so many things to learn from them too. How we do Thanksgiving, how we live and work together as families and friends and communities, can be a nexus for greater changes in the dominating fact of our daily lives.

It burned in his spirit
To urge his folk to found a great building,
A mead-hall grander than men of the era
Ever had heard of, and in it to share
With young and old all of the blessings
The Lord had allowed him, save life and retainers.

Beowulf, Lines 79-84

Lastly, I don’t want us to forget that Thanksgiving is a feast. In today’s usage, feast seems to just refer to the amount of food served, but in bygone eras a feast was a big celebration in a big room with food and drink and merriment, and I think everyone – not just fans of fantasy stories like me – recognizes something wonderful about this. It’s like a wedding reception, only you actually get to eat as much as you want. So maybe a Thanksgiving dinner doesn’t feature live music and dancing, and maybe you won’t slosh around horns of ale and fill in bread trenchers with venison stews. There might not be a bard filling the mead hall with cries of Hwæt! But Thanksgiving recreates, to some degree, those things that make the feast something which captures our imagination. It’s a time for joy and a time to give thanks, to eat and drink freely, to laugh and tell stories. And maybe it’s a time to bring up politics, too. And if that’s the case remember that the Red Wedding was also a feast.

I love Thanksgiving, if you couldn’t tell. I’m thankful to be home for the holiday again, and I’m looking forward to setting aside my anxieties (food-related and otherwise) for a day and focusing on the many things I am grateful for. By focusing on what Thanksgiving compels us to see, I am able to work towards being free of the ways in which food burdens me. And what a great gift that is, especially when I can share it with my family. It’s a holiday unlike any other, and one I believe represents the best of food and food culture. For one day, we have the chance to celebrate the ways in which food brings us together and sustains us in this life.

Thinking about that for any amount of time must make one thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving, everybody.

And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. 


Colossians 3:15-17

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

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Genre Conflation and the Uncertain Future of Fantasy

As Outlaw King reminds us of the effects of Game of Thrones on modern entertainment, we must ask questions about what artful fantasy will look like going forward.

Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce in Outlaw King

Netflix looks ready to make an Awards season splash with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs (a Coen Brothers Western) and Roma (from Alfonso Cuarón) due for release in the next few weeks. But first, the streaming giant released David McKenzie’s Outlaw King, similarly positioned by the company as serious prestige content. The film was released last Friday to a response summed up well by Vann Newkirk II on Twitter:

Outlaw King is not a great film – though it isn’t exactly bad either. British character actors, Scottish vistas, and some passable action set pieces can go a long way, and – as many have noted – the film works as a casual action epic for a weekend night, even if that is not how Netflix promoted it (more on that later).

Outlaw King is bland, but not for lack of effort. Rather, it is bland because it tries to hit an impossible range of notes, and fails to convince on all fronts. It touts its historicity, but but the briefest Wikipedia excursion undermines these claims. It weaves in palace intrigue and political drama, but lacks the time to make the players significant. Its reliance on a titular character suggests a biopic, but we never learn much at all about the Bruce’s life and character. The film also seems to know the certain beats and conventions expected from a medieval mud and blood film, but after two hours of feasts and castles and peasants and plenty of mud and blood, these moves seem arbitrary and dull. And then there’s the echoes of Braveheart, for better and worse: sequences of war which are almost distractingly violent; a gratuitous but still restrained though ultimately awkward sex scene; a surprise penis; a battle speech that is kinda badass but also kinda cheesy; James Cosmo; lots of yelling men; and, of course, a depiction of being hung, drawn, and quartered that I hope the kids are not around to see.

When Braveheart did it, it was wired. Outlaw King is tired. And thus, this film is the latest in what has been a line of disappointing medieval war epics which have all been inspired by Braveheart in the way all World War II films changed after Saving Private Ryan. Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven and Robin Hood come to mind, and in each the lack of historicity is notable, and Outlaw King is the latest reminder that “we” have a piss-poor understanding of the medieval world. I’d go so far to say that no era of history has such a disparity between its hold on the Western imagination and the accuracy of that imagination. Well, that and anything undergirding American exceptionalism.

However, as much as Outlaw King fits in this tradition of history-illiterate entertainment, the Braveheart comparison has been matched by the inevitable reference to Game of Thrones. Just as every tall European who can shoot 3’s is compared to Dirk Nowitzki – despite there never being anyone else who has ever really played like Dirk – every show or movie featuring swords and horses and castles and political intrigue in the last 6 years has been in some way linked to Thrones, even though the series’ excellence has proven to be inimitable. The influence is obvious, of course, as one cannot watch a minute of Vikings or Knightfall or, indeed, Outlaw King without noticing glaring similarities.

But herein lies one of the faultlines in the tectonic plates of genre: the most recent medieval epics are related to Game of Thrones both by creators and consumers despite the fact that Game of Thrones is fantasy, not historical fiction. There are dragons and magic in Thrones, and Westeros is not medieval Europe despite the obvious congruence. Thrones has helped to cast a light on one of the most bizarre conflations in our collective imagination, which is the blurring of lines between medievalism and fantasy. In our imagination, knights are for slaying dragons as much as they are for scheming their way to lands and lordships, and the mysterious puppet masters are wizards as often as bishops. There are reasons for this conflation, some of them good. But the fact remains that, while Thrones has many of the elements which should, in theory, make for a compelling medieval tale of war and politics, and while, as many have noted, the showrunners are much more adept at handling political intrigue than the fantasy elements of the story, the show belongs to a different genre.

Now what remains to be seen is what Thrones, which is perched on this faultline, means for future works of fantasy. Projects like Outlaw King have made Thrones’ effects on medieval epics clear (backstabbing, shocking violence, nudity, grime, etc.), but will these elements find their way into works of high fantasy as well? Will the conflation between these genres mean audiences will expect works of fantasy to look like Game of Thrones (and thus Outlaw King), and will creators try to capitalize on those expectations?

This is especially relevant as Amazon’s play at creating the “next Game of Thrones” (remember now what I said about Dirk Nowitzki) is a billion dollar Lord of the Rings series. Perhaps the similarities to Thrones will only be superficial, but it’s a safe bet whatever Amazon comes up with will feel more like Thrones than the original trilogy (and certainly the Hobbit films) ever did. The Amazon Rings series (focusing on young Aragorn) is also one of a bevy of fantasy shows due for release in the next few years, including Wheel of Time on Amazon and The Witcher on Netflix. Attempts to replicate Thrones make sense based on the series’ commercial and critical success. This success is staggering by any standard, but especially so set against fantasy projects in general. For, like their medieval epic counterparts, almost every work of high fantasy in the last 20 years has been a critical and commercial failure (with the notable exceptions of Rings and Hobbit).

I’m not wringing my hands over a more violent battle scene in Middle-Earth or even a gratuitous Aragorn and Arwen sex scene, but I am keen to discover how the Thrones effect will impact the fundamental aspects of different fantasy worlds. By that I mean it might be obvious what will be added to fantasy worlds (violence, scheming, sex, grit), but it is uncertain whether or not these additions will be at the expense of the elements which make each work its own fascinating story and world. After all, works of fantasy literature are already rife with complex plots, graphic violence, and explicit sex and nudity. Thrones is actually less violent and sexual than the books, if you’d believe it. Moving from PG-13 to R is not necessarily out of step with the source material, but there is the risk that the move will coincide with a departure from the stories’ critical themes.

While the integrity of fantasy source material rests in the creative capabilities of the people who end up as showrunners, it is also subject to the vision of studio heads. Outlaw King works as a violent, good-looking action movie rather than serious prestige film-making, and yet that is what Netflix envisioned it as. Why? Presumably because it looks and feels a bit like Braveheart, Gladiator, and – yes – Thrones. There is still a sense that such content demands the seriousness which usually accompanies any costume or period drama. Once we go back in time, once we lean on British character actors and stunning vistas, once we delve into topics of war and power, we must do so with careful craft and a serious attitude. Conversely, fantasy is often cast as unserious or as “merely” a work for children. In the popular imagination, fantasy is for kids and then for nerdy boys and men living in their parents’ basement. Thrones is, I think, the first series to really and truly bridge the gap between nerdy subculture and popular entertainment (even Lord of the Rings maintains a stigma). If studio execs are faced with a choice between prestige awards-fare and niche Ren-fair, what do you think they’re going to do? It is, of course, a false dichotomy, but it is doubtful if the people making decisions can adroitly maneuver these nuances. Many modern fantasy adaptations have exhibited choices which show either an ignorance of or apathy towards the source material, and often to devastating effect. Some of the Harry Potter films are offensive in their lack of fidelity, and while I understand why it isn’t there, how can Lord of the Rings be Lord of the Rings without the scouring of the Shire?

Outlaw King is not worth much consideration on its own, but, as this blog shows, it prompts some important questions about the future of the fantasy genre. As a lover of that genre, I look forward with guarded eagerness to seeing what Amazon, Netflix, and others come up with. And, as it turns out, we won’t have to wait long, as we will see in April how the final season of Thrones looks in response to its own legacy and the unfinished work of its source material.

In the meantime, Bud Light is dilly-dillying around with that idiotic Bud Knight ad campaign and even that idiocy is incorporating medieval backstabbing with the old invite-your-enemies-to-a-feast-and-attack-their-castle move.

Which, now that I think of it, is a depressing mix of gritty medievalism and silly fantasy, and maybe another reason to be just a little anxious about what’s in store.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Spirituality, Sitting, and Stillness

Sometimes I find everything and nothing in the same place.

As I sit on the porch of my coffee shop, on a cool and overcast morning, sipping a pistachio latte earned by ten coffees[1], I’m thinking about how I sort of fit the stereotype of the “Reformed” “Calvinist” Guy. I have tattoos and a beard (sort of), wear skinny jeans and big glasses, read Puritans and watch R-rated films, use strong language and brew stronger coffee, and of course I drink (yes often craft beer) and smoke (yes usually a tobacco pipe). I’m not really an RCG though, because, for one, I’m lowkey Arminian[2], and two, I don’t think anyone wants to date a real RCG.

This is where I curtail discussion of Calvinism vs. Arminianism. You’re welcome.

And so here I sit, watching the cars go by and listening to the shop’s very nice playlist and greeting the friendly baristas and reassuring myself I’m not an RCG, and I’m thinking about how overwhelmed I’ve been by the kind words I’ve received from so many people since my post about the beauty of walking around received a second life when a local artist painted his interpretation of a picture I took for that piece. And as I think on these things, I’ve decided to undertake writing something similar. Which, of course, is not about walking, but about sitting. Because I really like walking. And I really like sitting.

Sitting. Like I do so often. But do better some times than others.

I am sitting – or was sitting – on the patio in the back yard of the house I grew up in, doing those very RCG activites of drinking a craft beer and smoking pipe tobacco. Alone in the evening, the house empty besides my parent’s yappy dogs, who are – mercifully – being quiet. The air is warm and still, birds continue singing but it’s late enough that crickets are too. It’s an evening for cool sips of ale and the languid unfurling of smoke. It’s an evening to let the mud settle and see myself in the clear water, to find that water reflecting whatever passes overhead, untroubled by anything I brought with me to the edge.

I’m in the balance – the balance between a long journey and a new beginning, between anxiety and apathy, between mastery and monotony. This space is unstable, and the deck pitches and sways as I lash the helm into the teeth of a nor’easter and rush to let down more sail, only to find I’ve entered the doldrums. Still, balance is what I need. I need to see it, to feel it, to find it no matter where I am. But some places make it easier to perceive this delicate energy which courses through the universe. Places like the patio in the back yard. And, so sitting here, in the midst of flitting birds and racing rabbits and climbing squirrels and sacred trees and open sky and sleeping dogs, I pursue balance sitting still.

Breathe in. Flame. Heat.

This is Yin.

Breathe out. Spirit. Smoke.

This is Yang.

I’m tired. More and more, these days, I reach the end of the day emptied of the energy which used to course through me like electricity. Living can be really heavy. The obstacle is the path, which is reassuring but also exhausting. I will eat something soon to feel restored, but not just yet. There is a space for wisdom as well as weakness in an empty stomach.

Sip. Swallow.

Om.

Bitter. Smooth.

Om.

Light. Heavy.

Sometimes when I sit in prayer, my thoughts suddenly veer off or crash through some soundproof barrier which threatens to drown out a holy conversation. Some force within or without acts to block this connection, the opening of chakras and Trinitarian communion. I feel this same threat of haste, this same incursion of worry, when I sit on the patio. Sitting can be hard work. It’s hard to sit with proper posture to save the back and neck and hips, harder still to sit and resist the temptation to be somewhere else, racing after tomorrow’s possibilities, backtracking to today’s failures, or shooting up a rechargeable mobile drug. I’m in an unhurried space, where the birds and beasts and the sky and trees move in a delicate balance. Even beyond this sanctuary, the cars roaring across the distant highway bridge and the hum of an evening lawnmower and the percussive bark of a neighbor dog fit into the greater mosaic, and when I reach out I can see the thousands of people so nearby coming and going melt into the flowing stream which goes on and on. Of course, some of these animals are endangered, some of these cars will crash, some of these people weep, and yet the chaos is still knit together with some unspoken order.

But even as this balance plays out around me, even as I can feel myself grow into it, something – something – threatens to shatter me.

Is this why we can’t sit still? Is this the impetus for distraction, for altered states, for virtual spaces? Is this why we can grow bored of the sacred and blind to the spiritual? Is this why we clock in and clock out for the sake of profit margins and call it freedom? Is falling the only alternative to climbing?

It’s a something that could be anything. I might reassure myself of a hundred different things, and then something so small and insignificant lodges itself and festers. It threatens to upset the balance, to chase me into flight, to make me hurry to some false promise of safety. Telling me to walk faster, even though the rain is everywhere.

I strike a match.

Spark. Flame. Heat. Life unbounded.

Breathe in.

This is Yin.

Breathe out.

This is Yang.

Deep breath. Sigh. Sip. Swallow. Blink. Blink. Eyes closed. Eyes open.

And then I see it. Passing from over my left shoulder across the patio and away. A monarch butterfly. Floating and gliding, everywhere and nowhere at once, a living canvas, an orange ocean with black and white flickered songs[3]. And it takes my breath away. My eyes glow and the knot in my chest is undone and the river runs clear. The monarch alights on the limb of a lilac for a moment, a moment that might as well last a lifetime, and then embraces the air once more and is gone.

It is gone, but the moment remains. And moments like this extend forever because they are nowhere in the course of time. Time is no longer of the essence, it’s free of commodification and divested of its authority. And creation speaks in this language not so concerned with reaching punctuation.

This evening eventually ends. I did eat a dinner[4]. And, actually, the peace did not last. The dogs started barking again. I remembered the things I had to be stressed about. I began to strive after wind and grew fearful of the lion in the street. Such is the struggle for balance, the imperative to continue to preach to oneself. The temptation is to meet this failure with a redoubled effort, to chase after some antidote, to close my eyes tighter when I pray, to insist on artificial solitude, to grasp at some sort of salve. True, sometimes the answer is to live, to live with all our might, to run in such a way that we might win, but this is, again, the balance. To know how to fight and how to surrender, to run and to rest, to speak and to listen.

God moves through the unexpected and unlikely, through mind-blowing coincidences and against-all-odds moments of shock and awe, but for as much as we might feel God speak in the gusts of a sea-change, I believe God speaks to us still more in the gentle breeze in the leaves and the hum of a bumblebee in overgrown Russian sage. God was not in the strong wind which broke rocks, or the earthquake and fire which followed, but rather in the still small voice which reached Elijah outside the cave on Mount Horeb.

My life is changing again. It does that every few months these days. And as I worry about food, drink, and clothing, I have to continue to go down to the water to sit and be still and consider the lilies and the ravens. I must take action through inaction and find wisdom in not knowing.

When I wrote about walking, I was talking about walking, and I was also talking about awareness. I was writing about me and my world and my own personal pain, and I was talking about you, too. I’m doing the same thing now. You should literally sit and listen and be meditative, but this is about more than how to spend your evenings. I’m working through my own anxiety and uncertainty, but I hope it makes you look inward, too.

And then maybe someday we will sit together in the flooded ruins of Isengard and share smoke and stories in the stillness of the evening. Sometimes the sacred is found in silence and whispers; it’s found in the voice of companionship, too.

Until then –

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

– Peter[5]

 

Notes

1 It’s a damn good latte. 10/10 would recommend.
2 Arminian, like the Dutch theologian, not Armenian, like the Kardashians.
3 That last part is straight from a Zach Winters song called “Monarch.” I will reference him again later when I write about going down to the water to sit and be still.
4 Leftover rice and ham and it was one of the best-tasting meals I have eaten in my entire life. This is part of the wisdom in drinking and smoking (in moderation) on an empty stomach. Don’t say you don’t learn anything reading this blog.
5 I’m not still sitting on the porch at my coffee shop, if you were wondering. That was days ago. I can’t spit these things one take like Jay-Z and Mozart.

Look What You Made the Academy Do

We demanded the Oscars try to be more relevant. I don’t know that we’ve earned that right.

The-Oscars

If you hadn’t heard, a few changes have been approved for the 2019 Academy Awards and the Oscars awards show. The show will be shorter, some of the tech awards will not be aired live, and – most significantly – the Oscars “will create a new category for outstanding achievement in popular film.”

Some excellent pieces have already been written about the Academy’s struggle with relevancy and ratings, and this ongoing dilemma joins recent controversies about fair representation of the work of minorities in film. The Academy is, without a doubt, flawed, and while at times popular opinion and critical consensus have smelted a little golden man which is apparently much heavier than some recipients were expecting, the Oscars has the age old problem of not being able to say no to artistic renderings of fish sex.

But it’s worth considering what part we play in this. Because, as out of touch as the Academy appears to be at times, this push for relevancy and popularity is just as much an indictment of the viewing public at large. Perhaps the Oscars is disconnected from its audience, but so too is the audience failing to connect with the Oscars.

I know this because the Oscars is that special night where everyone roots for the two films they’ve seen, scoffs at the ones they haven’t, and rolls their eyes at the Hollywood elite and artsy liberals.

And then the next week they have family movie night and no one knows what to watch as they scroll through Netflix’s confusing and poorly-curated menus. If they all agree, it’s probably on a Marvel movie or another blockbuster. If they don’t, either someone proposes a comedy which ends up being too raunchy for either the eldest or the youngest, or someone suggests a film on the recommendation of “someone” who wrote “something” “somewhere” and it turns out to be a trash film that just happens to champion a certain religious or political worldview. Anything “sad” will be vetoed. Perhaps most likely, they forego a film to watch a few more episodes of a series they know they can rely on.

It’s little wonder that younger people are drawn to TV over movies, older people will say they don’t make movies like they used to, and Hollywood will continue its land grab for bankable intellectual property (IP).

And so the public goes on to mock the indie films and awards season darlings that get Oscar noms and nods while also being dissatisfied with what qualifies as popular film outside of a select few franchises. Do you see where this might not be the Academy’s fault? Perhaps the problem with the Oscars is not that the awards show fails to cater to popular opinion, but that popular opinion is so porous and predictable that any show awarding excellence in film would implode if based in earnings over excellence or even buzz over beauty.

The perception that the Academy is out of touch with the viewing public perpetuates a lethargy when it comes to seeking out new films to watch, and this new award recognizing excellence in popular film will only make this false dichotomy worse. There are, it seems, two kinds of films in the culture’s imagination: artsy Oscars films with billboards and fish dicks and popular blockbusters with starships and superheroes (that the people complaining probably never went to go see either). Viewers become frustrated either because they don’t “get” the one kind or because they aren’t interested in the other.

But these are not the only options when it comes to movie viewing. There are dozens of truly fantastic films released every year. Only ten can get nominated for Best Picture, and only a handful of those really get much buzz, and often (though not always) they are not among the highest-earners. The zombie hordes of moviegoers who only come out to feed during Oscar season and are attracted to the smell of box office reports are bound to miss out on these, either because they spit upon their status as arty films or because they flat out don’t ever hear about them. But these movies are still there to be seen. Even if they don’t take home a trophy. Or make a splash at the box office. Or fight their way through witty comedies, cooking shows, and stand-ups to appear on the hallowed “Trending Now” of Netflix. There are quality films released all the time that we can watch, quality films that can deepen our appreciation of film and move us to seek out other films like them. But people are too lazy, it seems.

I’m not. I don’t want to give myself too much credit, but I’m really, really good at suggesting movies for family movie night, and I’ve made an absolute killing on these films that go largely unnoticed while occasionally leaning right into the arty award-winner which no one watched: Paterson, Lady Bird, The Big Sick, Moonlight, Manchester By The Sea, A Man Called Ove, Goodbye Christopher Robin – all recent films which my family thoroughly enjoyed, but might not have ever heard of, let alone sought out, if I hadn’t made the suggestion. I absolutely love that they continue to trust me, but it says something about the movie-watching culture that these movies were more or less not on their radar.

We can already see how this is going to work out in 2019: a film like First Reformed is going to be the award-season darling, and for one reason or another the masses will scoff at this little movie that no one went to see getting so much attention; Black Panther will be recognized for its excellence as a “popular” film, and many will be unmoved by another superhero movie, especially one that doesn’t speak to their….economic anxiety. But, among those ten nominated films, there will be Annihilation, a film which *nobody* watched, which will be given some credit by way of a nomination, but which will still go unwatched because the same people who reject elitist award-season films will assume it’s not worth seeing because no one has seen it. The Academy makes its mistakes, but it’s a tough crowd.

It’s no secret, of course, that the best of anything rarely gets its due credit. Comedians, authors, musicians, athletes – often times the best are not the most popular or the most awarded. Yet, if the Grammys has shown us anything, it’s that an awards show cannot be taken seriously if it completely ignores popular opinion (it’s a bad joke at this point). But, in the case of the Oscars, it’s damned if you do damned if you don’t: The Academy can’t keep nominating Room over Straight Outta Compton, but pandering to the opinion of an ill-informed viewing public will rot the institution entirely. The point of the awards will be lost, and probably without any gains in ratings.

The Oscars may be the film awards show, but it’s important to remember that it is only that: an awards show. It means something, but our film opinions and Netflix selections should not be dominated by one institution. At the same time, we should not let our opinions demand what that definitive awards show must look like.

The Oscars needs to change, for its own sake, but these proposed changes make it seem like it’s changing for our sake.

And I don’t think we’ve earned that.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

Peter