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

 

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Legit Devorator

Read. More. Books.

reading books

twilightbeta on DeviantArt (Link)

The other day[1] I was walking from my coffee shop (it’s not mine but I’m very proud of it so I say “my” in the same way I call Everton “we”) to the library, and on the way I stopped by a recently-opened bookstore. I was curious to see what was there, and while I have plenty on my reading list, I had just finished Annihilation that morning and was looking for something new to start, and one never knows what someone might find on sale.

I didn’t find anything to purchase, but my ignorance of what I would find was well-met. The store is in a mall of sorts – a dimly lit building unit downtown that used to be home to offices for the town’s giant shipbuilding company, but which is now partitioned into a handful of spaces for a hodge-podge of businesses which rarely succeed. It’s like a really sad bazaar.

There were a few shelves of new and used books, magazines, and comic books, with plenty of room for more inventory. There were also some model train sets – which I had really, really not expected. Being one of just two customers in the store, I was soon accosted by the proprietor, who gave me a thorough sales pitch on the shop and its merits, one I must assume he gives to everyone who stumbles in. He informed invited strongly suggested I come to a card game event at the store later that night. As I browsed the sparse bookshelves, I understood why he had made such a point about their willingness to do special orders. And, while I browsed, he mentioned to me and to the other customer that – if we were thirsty – the store had soda on sale. Because of course it did.

I wanted to buy a book to support the store, but I couldn’t find one that fit the bill. Slightly embarrassed that I had spent so much time browsing every single shelf only to come up empty, I headed for the exit, but not before the proprietor gave me a business card and reminded me about the game night[2].

I tell this story not just because I think people should always recount tales of their journeys to strange places, but because it was a vivid nexus for the thoughts about reading that have been pinging around in my head for a few days. I had been doing a lot of reading, some writing, and a little reading about reading, and I was hoping to do some writing about reading[3]. I had actually been trying to wrangle some of those thoughts into writing at the coffee shop, but was not having much success, in part because each angle I took crumbled into a ruinous heap of generica echoing with cries of “reading is good you should do it” and I didn’t know if I started sorting through the wreckage if I would find something that was really worthwhile.

But my visit to the bookstore was another reminder – made potent by immediacy – that reading is good and you should do it. I don’t think I would be friends with the shop owner. I don’t think I would hang out with him (I didn’t go to the game night, for those of you holding your breath in suspense). I’m not about model trains and he wasn’t carrying anything I was particularly interested in buying. But we were both there, in that sad little mall, approximately a million miles from the rest of civilization, because reading means something to us – enough to enter into a dying industry or walk into a strange building. And if reading can mean that much and bring the two of us together in that space at that time, then it’s worth trying to articulate these erratic thoughts of mine.

While reading has always been important to me, that importance has increased over the last few months. Evenings alone during the school year tended to be anxious times, and I made a decision to spend the last hour or so before bed reading books rather than watching Netflix. And so I did it – I actually started reading for fun on top of all the reading I had to do as a graduate student. Now that school is over, I have re-entered the ranks of the voracious readers. It helps me fill the hours in a time of transition, a transition which includes a crossroads in my writing. I am writing regularly, but not as much as I would like, and hardly at all on this here website of mine. At times it is easier to just return to my book rather than search for words of my own. This transition is also a time of identity-building, which I alluded to in my last post, and reading is part of my attempt to make up for what feels like lost time. For, while I remained interested in books, I really didn’t read very much in high school or college besides what I had to do for class (which was a lot and often included novels, being an English Major).

This lamentable dearth of reading experience is coupled with my personal quest to increase my geek. For, while I am and have been a geek, there are some very underdeveloped aspects of my nerdiness, and during my formative years it never really defined me or my social interactions, and I often chose to keep it under wraps. My personality was so dominated by sports: playing sports, watching sports, playing sports video games, writing about sports, talking about sports. I’m still a big sports fan (albeit in a very different sort of way), but now I am putting serious effort into becoming the geek I was always meant to be. And geeks read.

As is often the case, this personal change has coincided with an increasing awareness and involvement with others who are also doing a lot of reading. I am a fan of the podcast Binge Mode, and I continue to listen even as they turn their deep-diving attention to the Harry Potter books, of which I’ve only read the first two. Mallory and Jason are a delight to listen to, and part of the reason for this is their infectious love of reading. Their defense of fantasy – while inspired by Game of Thrones – is clearly based in their love of books.

I notice with what seems like increased frequency people posting this or that about reading on social media, and right now on my feed there’s a book cover sharing thing going on. Sometimes it seems like “no one” reads anything besides online articles anymore, but these posts and conversations online remind me that people are reading, and they put my reading into a social context of discussions and recommendations.

Speaking of book recommendations: they are great. There is a moment in Game of Thrones where Samwell enters the library at the Citadel for the first time[4]. Faced with this unfathomable amount of books, Sam the bibliophile is clearly pleased, but also awed and daunted. Where is he to begin? Which books will he have to neglect? Choosing the next book to read can feel like this, but getting a personal recommendation can help us go forth and read without worrying about what we aren’t reading. It’s even better when someone gives or lends you a book, and so, looking for a new fantasy novel to read and overwhelmed by the choices, I was happy to take on the 1,000 pages of Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings when my friend handed me his copy after bringing it up in conversation the day before.

Now’s the part where I turn this on you. I beseech you to read. You’re reading this, and that’s great – thank you – but read some books when you are done. Please trust me and my reading friends when I tell you to do it. And, if you do read, read more. Talk to others about reading. Share recommendations. Share books.

Reading books is good for you, as this article from the New Yorker explains so well. It is not mere escapism, even if it can help relieve the stresses of our lives. It is not anti-social, even if it is something we usually do alone. I know you’re busy. Really, I do. But you can find the time. My unsolicited advice: start by reading books instead of – not in addition to – some social media posts and online articles. I’m not asking you to ignore the world’s problems or be uninformed or stop supporting any sneaky good bloggers out there – far from it – but consider the amount of manic whirling your brain does as you speed-read 1,000 tweets, scan a few comment sections, glance at headlines and first paragraphs of daily news, and skim a couple of articles (one from your echo chamber which makes you feel invincible and one from the other side which makes you hopping mad). Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you, but many of us (me included) spend way too much time looking at our phones. Slow down, focus your mind, be present, and immerse yourself in an extended text. This is Tao.

Sure, reading takes time and it’s possible to read too much and not all books are created equal. But I sincerely believe that more reading of books has the capacity to make us better people, and the benefits of reading are in many ways well-suited to the particular ailments of the contemporary moment.

We’re way into summer already, and maybe you haven’t made the desired dent in your summer reading list. That’s okay. Start now. And if you don’t get to it until the leaves change color, okay. Start then. Try it, please. Even if you didn’t grow up with Reading Rainbow and Between the Lions, even if your elementary school teachers didn’t instill an interest in you, even if your parents didn’t buy you books (thank you, Mom and Dad), it’s not too late to pick it up now. There are entire worlds out there, and in exploring them you may just come to understand this one a little better. You’ll develop yourself too. And, along the way, you will come into contact with others who are spending their time the same way.

And as you walk out of their strange little store into fresh air and natural light, you can smile knowing it’s for good reason that your paths crossed.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

1 As opposed to what? Why do we say “the other day?” Is this a colloquialism, or is it a useful distinction? And why don’t I just tell you which day it was? It was July 23, 2018.
2  If you’re in the area, please, please visit Other Worlds Books & More at Park Place Plaza on 3rd Avenue and see if you can find a way to support your local bookstore.
3 The one I haven’t done recently is reading about writing. I have done a fair amount of that though. Douglas Wilson has a lot of very trash opinions and he is kind of a jerk, but he wrote a good book about writing called Wordsmithy. Stephen King’s On Writing is worthwhile. But most of all I suggest Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.
4 There are a number of great moments about reading and stories in Game of Thrones. Of course there’s the famous “Why do you read so much?” exchange between Jon and Tyrion, but so much good stuff with Sam and I love Bran’s openness to the idea of the blue-eyed giant.

Home. Away. From Home.

Some thoughts on home as I bid farewell to the West Coast and return to the Midwest.

at_anchor_after_the_journey___by_sarah_bk-d7wr1id

Sarah-BK at DeviantArt (Link)

I’m not thinking of this as going to school in Oregon, I would say. I’m thinking of this like I’m moving to Oregon.

I’m going back h-…to Wisconsin for winter break, I would say. I’ll be spending most of the summer back at my parents’ house.

It had been my dream for years to move to the Pacific Northwest, preferably as close to Portland as possible. Going to grad school down the road at Oregon State University would be my excuse to transplant my life into a new environment. I was elated when everything came together perfectly as I was accepted to OSU and was offered a Graduate Teaching Assistantship.

Many Wisconsinites were skeptical of Oregon and weren’t sure why I would want to move there. I thought it couldn’t be more obvious – forests, rivers, mountains, and the ocean, a beautiful land occupied by people who actually care about preserving, using, and enjoying that land. Clean air. Liberal politics (whether you vote red or blue). Coffee, craft beer, fine wine. Friendly people. Flannels, beards, and tattoos. Music and writing and the freedom to express yourself and your creativity. The Trailblazers and the Timbers.

I wanted it all. I wanted that to be my home. I wanted to build my life there. I was ready to trade the snow for the rain and the heartland for the coast.

Less than two years after crossing the Oregon St. bridge in Sturgeon Bay and arriving at Oregon St. University in Corvallis, it’s over. I’m in Wisconsin again, and this time I brought back a Master’s diploma and everything else that would fit in a rented Suburban. Soon I will be moving to a suburb of Minneapolis.

My stay in Oregon was, in some ways, the worst time of my life. It was also a fun time of tremendous growth. I matured and accomplished much. And it almost broke me.

Let me stop you right there, smug Wisconsinite: the fact that I’ve returned to the Midwest has nothing to do with some sort of shortcoming on the part of Oregon. Oregon didn’t fail me; I failed it.

Oregon. Fucking. Rocks.

Even in my limited experience of the state, I found it to be a special place. The land itself has a mystical quality which I can only begin to describe. Flying into Oregon feels like entering into some sort of enchanted realm, and it stirs a sense of peace and freedom within me. It’s that freedom which I may end up missing most. The land and its people are imbued with this liberty and possibility which allows you to stay the way you are or become something different, to rest at home or venture out, to seek civilization and culture or the wild solitude of nature. It is for good reasons that Oregonians are notorious for rarely travelling outside their state.

Oregon is great, but I failed to fully enjoy it, let alone make it my home. Why exactly I failed is a long and complex story filled with social anxiety, regular anxiety, chronic illness, depression, and panic attacks. I lost 15 pounds, and I don’t think I was supposed to. As much as Oregon was and is and will be a place where I could see myself happily making my home and living my life, it didn’t happen. It never became home, and I didn’t become an Oregonian.

Confessing my great failure and hinting at my brokenness is cathartic as well as embarrassing[1].  It also underscores the challenging nature of my personal quest to find my temporary home in this world.

There are many platitudes and truisms that define home – it’s where the heart is, it’s wherever I’m with you, it’ll always be where you come from. I’ve found that, while these all hold some truth, they fail to describe my experience. Like so much in life, home is mutable, sometimes transient, and a site of labor and love which runs across time and space in unexpected ways. Like so many lessons learned in life, my long journey home has been a revelation in mystery and misconception.

Some people make their home in more or less the same place they were born and grew up. It’s quite common in Wisconsin, and makes for a provincialism which is in some ways a real bummer despite its charms. This is not the case for me; I don’t intend to ever live full-time in Wisconsin. But after being away, I love the place I grew up more than I have in many years. I have a renewed interest in the land and the culture, and I more readily embrace aspects of both whereas not long ago I was quick to distance myself. I intend to get back into hunting and some other outdoor activities[2], and every year I come closer to being a Packer fan[3]. Reconsidering my relationship to where I grew up has also engendered an ongoing personal project of exploring, recovering, and developing my Scandinavian heritage. Living on my own thousands of miles away redefined home for me as it relates to roots. And yet this will not be my home. I still feel myself searching for that elsewhere.

Being away also changed the way I view the relationship between home and family. I do not find the two to be synonymous, but they are symbiotic. Before moving, I was ready to be away from my family; college had given me that confidence. I carried on very well for long periods of time on my own, but eventually it became obvious to me that my family was an intense source of love, support, fun, and self-definition. They have never been more important to me, and my renewed investment in these relationships has given my extended family an increased importance in my life as well. Being closer to my family is restorative, and it will make Thanksgiving not a total bummer this year.

And yet, my sense of home is not tethered to the location of my family. Striking out on my own brought me back into the fold, but the same rebellious independence which drove me thousands of miles away remains. As I have found in almost every facet of life, some sense of balance is the most beautiful order of things. As much as I like spending extended time in the house I grew up in, I don’t feel I can become myself living there. Truth be told, I think living in the same city could be similarly restrictive.

In my search for home, I’ve come into full contact with one of the most ardent desires of the human soul. The briefest consideration of my favorite films, music, and books is saturated with the theme of seeking, protecting, and treasuring a sense of being at home. And I believe that this is part of our longing for a better country – that is, a heavenly one – and our glimpses of Eden within a sense of exile[4].

It feels, as I write this, that I have very little to add to this defining aspect of the human condition [airhorns for cliche], especially if “all” I’m saying [airhorns for scare quotes] is that the concept of home is a beautifully balanced mess of contradictions and relationships with yourself and others and I’m at a point where I don’t feel like I have a clear sense of it  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Do I need to say more than that to make this worthwhile? It depends on who you ask – maybe the personal aspects of this blog post don’t mean as much to the readers as they do to the writer.

But perhaps this insight into the hiddenness of home is revelatory for some. After all, it was not so long ago that my sense of home was dominated by wanderlust, an independent spirit, and the determination to build a home from scratch. I was certain about these things. Perhaps some of you, especially those who are in similarly transitional stages of life, are also just now finding out how elusive and variable a sense of home can be.

Fortunately, my failure in Oregon is not the end of my journey in seeking a home – it neither consigns me to containing my notions of home to the place from which I came nor does it prohibit me from trying a similar venture again. The experience fundamentally altered my perception of the world and my place in it. It caused me to rethink the importance of investing in a familiar place and familiar people while also reinforcing how vital it is for people who are able to go experience a new place for an extended period of time. I find provincialism more distasteful than ever, and yet I am now sure that there is something to be said for developing and expressing the features of your roots.

In passing I mentioned a move to Minnesota. I decided I wanted to move there and live with my brother when I realized that the next transition after graduate school would be easier for me if I could do it closer to home and to family. There have been moments after making this decision when it felt like an admission of defeat and an easy way out, but as I have prepared for this transition which is fast-approaching, I am learning how exciting – and unknown – this new opportunity is. It is also, I am realizing, in some ways the natural evolution of my personal journey of building a home. It’s a voyage into uncharted waters on a familiar vessel.

Minnesota is a Midwestern state with much in common with its eastern neighbor, but those who have spent time in both will tell you there are significant differences in the land, people, and culture. I will be living in what was Grandma’s House before she re-married and moved, but living somewhere as an adult is very different than visiting there as a child. I can make a half-day’s-journey home for a holiday or whatever, but this is still well beyond the reach of mother’s apron strings[5]. It will be easier to see most of my friends, but if I’m relying exclusively on weekend get-togethers I’ll have reached new depths of social ineptness[6]but moving to a new city gives me the opportunity to meet new people, and some of these meetings might blossom into lifelong friendships. I have visited big cities (including Minneapolis-St.Paul) many times, but I’ve never been able to develop a knowledge of and relationship with one through regular experience. If I am able to get a teaching job, it might be very similar to the teaching positions I have held before, but it will be in a new school with new curriculum, potentially with more responsibility. I will be able to go to church with my brother (going on your own is the worst), but it will be a new church and with that comes the chance to be grafted into a new community. And, of course, in addition to this theme and variation motif, much of what I will see and do will be altogether new.

I will journey into this new land with hard lessons and new dreams, carrying them less like a heavy pack and more like the small box of seeds Samwise receives from Galadriel. I continue on with the hopes of finding some of the things I hoped to find in Oregon, but supported by the base I have reestablished in the land and people from which I came.

Perhaps in ten years I will be living in Grandma’s House, or maybe I will have made the down payment on a cabin on one of Minnesota’s 10,000 lakes. Perhaps I will wend my way back to Packerland, or give Oregon another go. Maybe I will take a trip to Norway and never come back, or go to school in England and decide it suits me. It’s possible I’ll have found a physical place in this world which feels – really and truly – like home. But for now it is something I carry with me, searching out my unique voice in this world of oneness.

It’s uncertain. But that uncertainty is where I exist, and I’m beginning to make myself at home.

Shoes off, please.

Forth now, and fear no darkness.

Soli Deo Gloria

-Peter

Notes

1I suppose catharsis and embarrassment are meat and mead for writers, no?
2Not that these are distinctly Wisconsin things. My time in Oregon contributed to this as well.
3This may be just because I am in love with Aaron Rodgers. Also I lowkey wish we could abolish the sport of football but that’s for another time.
4Hebrews 11:16; J.R.R. Tolkien.
5Yes I just gender-neturalized that and you can deal with it.
6People who love me are telling me to not be so hard on myself so I decided to rewrite this but I thought I’d use a strikethrough because 1. I was on a roll using them 2. I’m playing with genre or getting meta or breaking the fourth wall or whatever it is that MFAs do (not that I’m jealous or anything) and 3. I still want you to be able to see what my original thoughts were.