Monday, January 25, 2010

Christians and the Movies

Like most Christians, I enjoy movies. Unlike most Christians, I have essentially no moral standards with respect to the movies I will watch, enjoy and recommend to friends. This is a statement of fact, not a call to imitation. If pressed, I will argue that to deny viewing the best works in the most accessible and popular art medium in American society because of some arbitrary regulations about how much pleasuring and dismemberment of flesh it is permissible to view. But really, I just watch whatever I feel like watching.

It is interesting to me that, in general, Christians are much more accepting of mainstream movies than they are of mainstream* music. I know Christians whose mp3 collections consist entirely of praise and worship music, but who boast considerable libraries of Hollywood films. Again, a statement of fact, not a moral judgment. Similarly, ministers and Christian authors seem almost obligated to include laudatory film allusions and illustrations in their sermons and books, but only to reference mainstream music in order to disparage it. But that's not really what interests me here. What I'm interested in are the handful of films that come up over and over again in books, sermon illustrations and Christians' lists of favorite movies, what they have in common and why they are so popular. I write, of course, from person experience, not scientific data collection.

Christians' favorite films seem to include: Braveheart, Gladiator, The Patriot, The Matrix, The Lord of the Rings, The Princess Bride, Star Wars, the new Chronicles of Narnia films, and many superhero films, especially Spiderman. A few common elements link these films: a fantastical or romanticized historical setting, a clearly defined conflict between good and evil, and a strong male protagonist who solves this conflict through violence. This last element is less pronounced in a couple of these films, and I will discuss these exceptions later.

I think that these elements point to a certain line of reasoning, probably unconscious, in the way that Christians view film in general, the starting point of which is the idea that a narrative is as moral as its most moral character. (A common corollary of this idea is that the most immoral narratives are those with the most immoral characters.) The most moral characters, the Christian filmgoer thinks, are those that champion the most important causes in the face of greatest opposition. The most important moral causes are one's own freedom and the freedom of others. The greatest opposition one can face is violent opposition. Usually, the best way to overcome violent opposition is through violence. Therefore, the most moral films are those that depict a protagonist who champions freedom in the face of evil, violent opposition, usually by being violent himself. The fantastical or historical settings allow these conflicts to be starkly drawn, and the protagonists tend to be male, because, well, females don't usually fight battles. In my experience, ministers and authors use these films for one of the following: to provide an illustration of courage, to depict the price of freedom, to show the scope of the conflict between God and Satan.

Of course, I take issue with multiple premises in this reasoning. The first is the idea that a movie or any kind of narrative is as moral as its most moral character. To begin with, I have no idea how to measure, even approximately, how moral a narrative is. I do know that a film may contain a very moral character and depict morality as the product of great foolishness or the producer of great unhappiness, and that I would not call such a film moral. Moreover, I know of films that contain only immoral characters, but that seem to me to teach profound moral lessons, and I would call such films moral. Most good films, I think, depict characters who are neither thoroughly good nor bad, and in these characters we see ourselves. So this reasoning is flawed from the start.

Still, one of the many functions narratives can serve is to provide examples of moral heroes, and I mentioned above, this is often what ministers and authors are after. Why, then, do they choose these heroes? In this regard, I think that Christian author John Eldredge has been very influential. Eldredge has garnered considerable fame claiming that the church's recent ideal of the docile, deferential, girly man is at odds with the true, God-given desire of a man's heart, to be a fearsome warrior with a full beard and an enormous penis. His two favorite examples of manhood come from film: Maximus from Gladiator, and William Wallace, who according to Eldredge, is a lot like Jesus. Like many blowhards, Eldredge makes some decent points in diagnosing the problem, and offers a solution that is even worse. But he's popular and I think that people are following his lead in setting up violent figures as Christian ideals.

I object to this idealization for several reasons. Jesus, whom Christians believe to be morally perfect, does not share the fundamental trait of these characters, their violence. This is not to say that it may never be a Christian's moral duty to carry out violence, only that it is at best inessential. Even then, we live in a time when even soldiers rarely see combat and violence is a duty for the very few. Moreover, characters like Maximus, The Matrix's Neo and comic book heroes are superhuman in their physical abilities and superhumanly stoic in responding to their situations and actions. We cannot empathize with them and so they make poor ideals.

It is worth drawing attention to two of the film franchises mentioned above, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings, which are adaptations of stories written by Christians. Both contain clashes between great armies and many other instances of violence, but neither has a protagonist defined by violence. The real victory in Narnia are won by the willing sacrifice of the Lion Aslan, and by humans when they obey him. For this reason, the battles in the recent adaptations of these stories are anticlimactic, and barely consume any space in Lewis' works. Peter and the Narnians go to war in obedience, but the outcome is known in advance. In Lord of the Rings, the protagonist Frodo is stout-hearted but useless in battle - it is only because the ring's corruption sets in slowly, and ultimately due to another character's fortunate malice that Middle Earth is saved. These characters, I think, present better moral examples than William Wallace or Spiderman.

But again, I see no inherent reason to avoid films full of morally bankrupt characters, even if these films make points that we disagree with, or make no point at all. It is my opinion that human experience is enriched by encountering and weighing foreign ideas, even if these ideas do not become our own, and so long as we do not unquestioningly accept what we are told, these encounters do not endanger us.

*Here and everywhere, I use the term "mainstream" broadly. If a movie is advertised on network TV or shows at a multiplex, it's mainstream. If an album has a metacritic rating, it's mainstream.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Worst Music of the 2000s

Originally I was going to compose a list ranking the ten or twenty worst songs of the 2000s, but I soon realized the futility of this exercise. "My Humps" is the worst hit of the decade and probably the worst of all time, Stacey Ferguson, with or without her Black Eyed cohorts is a serious contender for the worst successful recording artist of all time and I have a hard time imagining a compelling case being made for anything else. After that certainty, such a list becomes completely overwhelming and forces arbitrary choices among essentially identical candidates ("Which Nickelback song is really the worst?"). So I've instead decided to consolidate hundreds of bad songs and artists into a few broad categories that represent the worst musical trends of the decade.

The question inevitably arises of how this decade's bad music stacks up against its forerunners. A quick glance at the pop charts of decades past rather than at oldies station playlists shows that this decade's mainstream was, I think, pretty average. We had some consistently good hitmakers (Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, Beyonce), a mainstream rock scene that hasn't changed since 1995, a lot of awful chartbusters (see below), and a cornucopia of solid indie artists that every major music publication covers. It was easier than it had ever been to find good music, it required more discernment than ever before to avoid the garbage, and I couldn't make the case that our worst is worse than schmaltz, disco, hair metal, teen pop or post-grunge. That said, the decade still sucked because of:

5. Wimpy White Dudes: Jeff Buckley, probably the best white vocalist of the rock era, once said "Sensitivity isn't being wimpy, it's about being so painfully aware that a flea landing on a dog is like a sonic boom." His proclamation was entirely lost on the following: Coldplay, Snow Patrol, Jason Mraz, Jack Johnson, Keane, Hoobastank, James Blunt, Daniel Powter, The Fray. I've nothing against male sensitivity when it's expressed with some instrumental prowess, lyrical nuance or genuine passion. I do when its purveyors' only tactic is to jackhammer boneheaded hooks into my cranium in support of guileless wimpers of remorse and loneliness.
Low point: Hoobastank, "The Reason"

4. Female "Empowerment" - Beyonce isn't exactly a feminist, but she's gotten good mileage out of sticking up for herself and not taking crap from her men. Compare her moxie to the oversexed poutiness of Gwen Stefani, Fergie's crass come-ons or Natasha Bedingfield's insatiable avarice for inspirational cliche. It's hardly fair that she's also the best looking.
Low Point: Pussy Cat Dolls, "Don't Cha"

3. Rock and Roll Stagnation Nirvana's sudden popularization of grunge is probably the most repeated rock and roll story of the past two decades, and I think it probably represents the most dramatic shift in taste since rock's inception. And then all shifting ceased. Post-grunge bands were allowed to express at most two states of mind, alienation and ennui, and only in the vaguest terms possible. They played down-tuned guitars, they growled and they connected with a whole lot of male adolescents, to the extent that they have not needed to alter these elements in 15 years, except to add some sub-Spinal Tap sexuality. And while this is not quite the worst music on the list, it is the music enjoyed by the worst people.
Low Point: Nickelback, "Figured You Out" (yes, this really is their worst)

2. Auto-Tune A couple of months ago I accidentally heard my first Miley Cyrus song, "Party in the USA". What I found remarkable about it was that a song with a vocal range of, oh a perfect fifth, required the use of a pitch-correction program that gives an unmistakable processed whine. An entire subgenre of hip hop, not the most pitch-dependent music in world, has grown out of copious Auto-Tune deployment, giving us ubiquitous no-talents Akon and T-Pain among many many others whose names I haven't bothered to learn.
Low point, T-Pain, "Buy U A Drank"

1. Chant As Song My appreciation for hip hop has only grown in the past few years, particularly as I've recognized the richness of the arrangements - they're so much more than beats - that clothe the rhymes of the great MCs, and they themselves boast a deep sense of rhythm, cadence and melody. Of course, chart pop steals the shallowest aspect of hip hop and we get "Fergalicious," "Hollaback Girl" and Soulja Boy, tracks whose ad infinitum repetitions of short phrases sell massive quantities of ring tones and simultaneously destroy a generation's understanding of what music is.
Low Point, The Black Eyed Peas, "My Humps"

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Why I Hate Facebook

In large part, it's the faces themselves. You see, I hate ugly people and I have a lot of ugly friends. Most of the time, I keep my hatred in check by avoiding socializing and spend my time watching movies featuring gorgeous stars, then reading about these stars on the internet. This worked quite well until one day a stray click took me from Selma Hayek to Jane McFugly. Every time I log on to the site, I'm bombarded by the imperfect visages of regular everyday people. Now, some puritanical wiseacres are going to accuse me of pride here, but I'm eat their Calvinist hats and say that this total depravity of the countenance is universal. I'm not an especially good-looking dude, and thanks to limited facial atonement, I have no choice but to remain outside those elected to photogenicism. My own mug is as ugly as all the others.

Secondly, there's the updates. As Samuel Beckett once said, "As a display of human boredom, there is no measuring stick so accurate as Facebook." You had chicken for dinner? You better have forgotten to include the word "zombie" before "chicken". Your one-year-old needs a diaper changed? Tell me after you install that upgrade that allows olfactory enhancements. You've played "I Bleed Freely When I Love" by The Narcissist Brigade 2359 times since she left you? Have the hairdresser cut both sides of your hair to the same length and maybe your life will suddenly get a whole lot better.

Finally, there are the ridiculous expectations that Facebook gives people. You ask me point blank whether or not I'm willing to be your friend. You expect me to remember your birthday and post a greeting. You see me in person and expect me to know that you ate zombie chicken for dinner last night and to realize that you're just forgetful and not boring as all get out. And there are the major life decisions and heinous crimes you expect me to undertake with the click of a mouse button. Set up my farm next to yours? Join your mafia family? At least send me a personalized message and not the same generic two-sentence email that 50 other potential goons received. Perhaps worst of all are the relationship requests. I lost count somewhere, but I believe that over 40 different females have requested my consent to relational statuses ranging from "in an open relationship" to "married". There's only so much of me to go around, and right now, it's not going around at all, especially to ugly, hateful website using cretins like you.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Life Things

1. After a bit of limbo, I have a new job, still at the Big N, filling web orders. After one day, it's fun and it keeps me in motion, always a good thing. Better pay, better hours and all that jazz.

2. Got into Michigan's chemistry PhD program today. I received a voicemail that stated "We were incredibly impressed with your application." I thought very seriously about attending as an undergrad, while their program doesn't have the history of the some of others I applied to, they've got a reputation as a department on the rise. The stipend is good, and I could start this June. I now have two acceptances, hopefully with more to come. I will continue to think on this through March.

3. Just finished reading John Updike's short story "The Christian Roommates," which bore startling resemblance to my first year of college. Also contains the phrase that I think best summarizes Updike's approach to charcterization, "a kind of scar he carries without pain and without any clear memory of the amputation," because Updike never crafts characters through start dramatic junctures and moments of moral decision. An excellent story.