Sandra McCracken and the Valley

Sandra McCracken and the Valley

“Life is suffering, and then you die.” I was convinced this was a real quote that I had heard somewhere before, but after some research, I think it’s an amalgam of a lot of different variations I’ve heard over the years: “life is hard, and then you die;” “life sucks, and then you die;” “life’s a bitch, and then you die.” My personal favorite, from Cary Elwes as Wesley in The Princess Bride: “Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something.”

This seems a pessimistic a view of the world, but it’s also hard to argue with. You could point to the many joys that life brings, but life also seems designed to take those joys away from you at some point, whether in a traumatic fashion or just in the slow, incessant passage of time. Even with all of our trappings of luxury here in America, we haven’t been able to keep suffering at bay. Everyone suffers, whether rich or poor.

I haven’t suffered, not really, not yet. But I know it’s coming someday. I seek comfort out constantly; much of my daily routine is built to avoid even the smallest amount of discomfort. But we live in a world of sin, so suffering is inevitable at some point, whether by my own hand or the world’s. Knowing this to be true, I’ve sought out several resources for how to process suffering. There are some good ones out there, but, by and large, the American church does a poor job not only of providing good teaching on suffering but also even acknowledging its existence.

Enter Sandra McCracken and her new album, Songs from the Valley. My first encounter with her music was in my last semester of grad school before I graduated and got married that June. She had just released Desire Like Dynamite, and it was one of those moments where you discover an artist that sounds like exactly what you had been looking for. Her pure voice combined with the simple images in her songwriting communicated something to me about walking in faith that I hadn’t found yet. I familiarized myself with the rest of her discography, from her solo work to her collaborations with the Indelible Grace collective, and she quickly became one of my favorite artists.

I knew of her as a person before I knew her music, because she was married to another Christian artist I liked, Derek Webb. He’s known as a kind of provocateur in Christian media, though I’ve found there’s a lot of hyperbole in Christian media when it comes to Webb. The truth is, most Christian artists are pretty staid and reserved when it comes to sharing details about their faith with the media, and Webb is very open about doubt. Also, he used the words “bastard” and “whore” in a song once, and people lost their shit- either in a bad way because those words were too worldly for them, or in a good way because they were starved for Christian artists who bucked the norms.

Webb collaborated with one of the Christian bands that influenced me the most, Caedmon’s Call. Their album, 40 Acres, gave me a language to express my faith during perhaps the one time in my life where I felt truly lost and in desperate need of my Savior. The same year that McCracken released Desire Like Dynamite, Webb released I Was Wrong, I’m Sorry & I Love You. By the time that record came out, I was married. I felt at the time that the title song was a poignant picture of reconciliation within the covenant of marriage, and I strove to learn how to say those words to my wife.

The next year, McCracken and Webb announced their divorce. In any world but the world of Christian media, two celebrities separating was obvious news. But a Christian ethic makes reporting on a divorce feel like gossip, so publications like Christianity Today and Relevant stayed away from the story. The best reporting I found on it came from the Washington Post’s religion blogger, Sarah Pulliam Bailey. McCracken and Webb are, of course, entitled to their privacy, and Webb did later confess to an affair. But in a sub-culture where the two of them function as celebrities, the lack of information at the time was strange.

Since then, McCracken has released several albums, but none that directly addressed her experience of the divorce. And the album she released this February, Songs from the Valley, continues that trend, though these songs are clearly and unapologetically written from a place of suffering. The reviews I’ve seen of the album eschew any mention of her divorce, which I suppose is an attempt to be respectful. Interviews are the same, void of any questions about the experience, and maybe that’s what she wanted. Or maybe it’s the result of policies from the various outlets that published those pieces.

But this is just a blog, and I’m nobody, so I want to say the obvious thing about this record: Sandra McCracken got divorced in 2014, this is her best music since then, and those two facts are linked.

This isn’t a breakup album, the way it’s traditionally understood. These songs are not about breaking up, but they are about the process of navigating through the pain therein. McCracken recorded these seven songs over the last three years, while most of her recent official releases have focused on corporate worship, from 2015’s collection, Psalms, through 2016’s more proper album, God’s Highway, to last year’s live album, Steadfast Live. These were the most vertically oriented albums of her career, adopting praise and worship of the living God as her focus rather than her usual introspective writing.

Those albums are all worthwhile in their own rights, but they definitely feel different from her output from 2014 and before. Songs from the Valley feels like a return to the personal for McCracken, a step just as necessary as the three worship albums that preceded it. After all, part of worshiping God is knowing yourself and your position as a beloved child before God. Introspection by itself can be debilitating; introspection with the aim of worship is life-giving.

It is up for debate whether or not McCracken is addressing her divorce directly on Songs from the Valley, but it would be a short debate. Album opener, “Fool’s Gold,” begins with the line, “Nobody needs another love song,” declares that her kids have “a life more complicated,” and described her heart as “worth more than dropping in the breaks.” The next song, “Reciprocate,” features an accusing chorus of “You could not reciprocate.” In the final song, “Letting Go,” she describes herself as “trampled by a tempest,” and laments that she has “been holding up the last of my defenses.”

But this album speaks to more than just McCracken’s experience of broken love. There is also stunning imagery surrounding the process of learning to keep living while suffering. “Oh Gracious Light” finds her “walking so long in darkness,” but her experience of God’s “refining holy fire” draws her into the light.  On “Lover of My Soul,” she describes forgiveness as “a pathway with a thousand bolted doors.” And on “Parrot in Portugal,” McCracken finds solace in God’s fastidious care for the birds in the trees mirroring his love for us.

I suppose this would still be a great album even without understanding McCracken’s personal history. But within the context of Christian music history, having an album so directly and intimately address divorce is huge. Sandi Patty and Amy Grant both faced a lot of ugly scrutiny in the 1990s after their divorces. The church often does a poor job of loving people going through divorce, choosing judgment rather than discipleship, and this has historically extended to its celebrities. Listening to Songs in the Valley provides a clear, nuanced picture of choosing divorce yet still running toward God.

More importantly though, McCracken confronts her suffering head-on in these songs. Christian music so rarely deals with suffering at such an intimate level. The mainstream of Christian music is concerned mostly with inspiration and encouragement: worship music that wants you to feel good, rather than help you to deal with feeling bad. Of course there are examples, but they are the exceptions that prove the rule. And an album that deals with loving God while suffering from front to back is almost unheard of.

It makes sense in retrospect that Sandra McCracken spent the three albums following 2014 diving into worship songs. I can only imagine it helped maintain a sense of perspective in a dark place. The truth is, life isn’t suffering. Sandra McCracken is remarried now, and good for her. For most people, life is a collection of seasons both joyful and painful, and a whole lot of mundane in between. I’m thankful for Songs from the Valley for the reminder that God enters into all of those seasons with the same love and power. He is the God of the valley too.

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Quick Take: Phantom Thread

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

I approach all Paul Thomas Anderson movies with a mix of excitement and trepidation. Every one I’ve seen (the only one I haven’t is his first, Hard Eight) has been great, but challenging, and I guess I’m always afraid it’s going to go over my head. Phantom Thread definitely went over my head, but I’m still convinced it’s great. I think there are certain movies that don’t make sense until you’ve reached a certain point in your life, and I’m not sure I’ve been married long enough to appreciate the nuances at work in a movie that has Daniel Day-Lewis’s character, Reynolds Woodcock, verbally abuse his wife (played by the sublime Vicky Krieps) who then poisons him (just a little) to make him sick and calm him down- and when Woodcock learns this, he kisses her! This is the most inexplicable scene in the movie, and it’s also the best. I don’t get it, but I love it.

Quicker take: What did I just watch, and why did I love it so much?

The Emotional Stakes of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

The Emotional Stakes of AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR

***SPOILERS AHEAD***

If the people at Marvel have accomplished anything with this 10-year experiment, they’ve at least made a movie that cannot be compared to any other movie. All those “most ambitious crossover event of all time” memes were funny and all, but the inescapable thought you have during Infinity War is, “this should not have worked.” All of these characters packed like sardines into one movie is not a recipe for a coherent, emotionally effective movie, let alone one directed by veterans of TV’s Community and Arrested Development, Anthony and Joe Russo. But the success of Infinity War is that the recipe worked: you can follow the plot, and it packs several emotional wallops, the best of which the Russo brothers save for the end.

Let’s not get too crazy with our praise though; Marvel doesn’t get points for creativity here. Combining the characters from the most popular movie franchise of the last decade is a no-brainer for a company that’s in the business of making money. I love these movies, but there’s no way I can’t be a little cynical about this. They figured out that investing in making the individual movies stand out on their own merits pays off big time when they get the band back together for the main event. But making money by making something good is still making something good, so I’m fine with being along for the ride.

My wife and I marathoned through all 18 movies preceding Infinity War in the month or two before its release. One of the undeniable conclusions (besides that 18 movies in one franchise is a lot to watch in a short time- we’ve set up a GoFundMe for all the work we missed*) is that the Marvel movies have been getting better. The movies from the first five years (with the exception of Iron Man and the first Captain America) are remarkably unfocused and even dull. The casting was everything; Chris Hemsworth’s charm carries the first two Thor movies, and Robert Downey Jr.’s carries the second two Iron Man movies.

Which makes the achievement of the first Avengers movie all the more impressive in retrospect. On a smaller scale than Infinity War, it shouldn’t have worked. The movies propping up that 2012 crossover event were not all that impressive, and yet director Joss Whedon presented us with a movie that was not only coherent in its visuals and its story, but also a hell of a lot of fun.

But since then, Marvel has flipped the script and invested heavily in making its individual movies stand out as much as or more than the Avengers movies. From Captain America: The Winter Soldier on, the studio has made it a priority to have the standalone movies tell singular stories that develop the characters. In other words, the standalone movies were legitimately standing alone. You weren’t just entertained, you actually began to care about the characters, because you watched them grow and learn and change. Steve Rogers, Thor, Peter Quill: they weren’t the same at the end of their movies as at the beginning.

However, the expectations for character development and emotional involvement are low for the Avengers movies. We know the difficulty level is high in a movie with 70+ characters, and we honestly just want to see the cool action sequences and hear some good one-liners. After Age of Ultron disappointed (I like it, but it’s the lesser Avengers of the first two by far), there was no way a movie could do what the original Avengers did, entertain at a high level while balancing way too many characters and plot points, and make us care.

And Infinity War does succeed in a lot of the same ways as the original Avengers. There are some awesome fight scenes. I’d even go so far as to say that action scenes are better, even though the original’s remain fun six years later. But the Russo’s have two action-packed Captain America movies under their belts, and they know how to build suspense and help the audience follow what is happening from punch to punch. They’ve also mastered finding stakes within each action sequence.

For example, the first big fight scene between two of Thanos’s henchman and the earth-protecting Doctor Strange, Iron Man, Wong, and Bruce Banner, along with an interloping Spider-Man, is clever and creative in its choreography, but also in how Banner discovers a rift between him and the Hulk in the midst of the battle. Iron Man is also occupied with more than just the fight: he has to protect Peter Parker as well. This gives meaning to the action, and furthers the plot without too much exposition.

When you have all these characters to juggle, there’s no way to grow them all unless you include some of that character development in the action sequences as well. In a fight between Thanos and Strange, Stark, and some of the Guardians, Quill learns something that inspires a response from him mid-fight, changing the entire course of the movie. Later, the Russos juxtapose shots of Thanos batting each Avenger away like insects with the Vision desperately trying to convince the Scarlet Witch to destroy the stone in his head, and we watch her agonize over the prospect of killing her love while Thanos deals with our heroes as if they were crumbs on his lap. I wouldn’t say that the movie as a whole sees a ton of concrete character development, because the ending is a cliffhanger. But individual scenes have stakes, and the combination of action and plot makes us care while being in awe of who’s overpowering who and how they’re doing it. It’s a tightrope act we’re unlikely to see ever again.

…until next year when the next Avengers movie comes out. Where does Marvel go from here? I’m not talking fan theories about plot or business realities, such as the fact that Marvel has dates already set for Spider-Man and Guardians of the Galaxy sequels, plus the reality that Black Panther is their highest-grossing movie and there is no way in Wakanda they would abandon that character to its Infinity War fate.

No, I’m more curious how the next Avengers movie carries this emotional weight going forward. For as much as Infinity War’s ending has to be undone in some way, it still felt real. And that’s not mentioning the other characters’ whose passing felt even more irreversible, like Loki, Heimdall, and Gamora. Zoe Saldana, in particular, gave such a moving performance for a superhero movie, it’s hard to imagine this wasn’t her curtain call.

But the balance between superb action and weighty emotion is a tough one to find. The Russo brothers have proven adept at it, but can they sustain it when the bar is this high? At this point, I wouldn’t bet against Marvel. Everything they touches turns into gold, and I’m not just talking about their profit margins. These movies are going to be beloved for a long time. Until the next Avengers comes out, let’s appreciate Infinity War for what it is: a singular achievement that never should have worked in the first place.

*In case my boss reads this, this is a joke. I swear I didn’t take any leave to watch Marvel movies.

Career Best: The Movies of Steven Spielberg, Ranked

Career Best: The Movies of Steven Spielberg, Ranked

There is a sublime center on the spectrum in between approaching a movie critically and shutting your brain off to enjoy one. Few directors are capable enough to make even just one movie that shines brightly at that center, holding up under scrutiny but also providing a visceral experience. Even fewer have made at least seven such movies. Steven Spielberg is one of them.

I don’t mean this to be a hagiography. There are better directors than Spielberg, directors with a lighter touch, directors that can craft a better shot, directors that fill their frames with more nuance. But there is no director that fills my heart with more wonder, no director that can excite me with just a reaction shot, no director that can make me sadder that his movie is over.

What follows is a ranking of every one of his movies (well, with the exception of 2016’s The BFG– sorry, I can’t watch everything). This needs no occasion, but Spielberg is set to release his 31st movie, Ready Player One, so now seems as good a time as any to celebrate his life’s work.

Tier 9: Nobody’s Perfect

29.  1941 (1979)
28. Always (1989)
27. The Terminal (2004)

Even Steven Spielberg has made bad movies. Of course, being Spielberg, there are a lot of moments that work in these films. 1941 has John Belushi, who made everything he did better. The image of him flying a WWII fighter plane over downtown Los Angeles is indelible, but it was not enough to save this early attempt at comedy from Spielberg, which is a mess from start to finish. In Always, the early romance between Richard Dreyfuss’s and Holly Hunter’s pilots is genuinely charming. The ghost story that follows is less so. And in The Terminal, there is a lot to like about the cast, but the movie is ultimately too slight to deserve much more praise.

There are a couple themes here. When Spielberg doubles down on the comedy or romance genre, the gamble has yet to pay off. Of course, there are elements of both that work in his better movies (see any of the Indiana Jones movies for both comedy and romance). But Spielberg serves those genres better in small portions. The other theme is that when Spielberg makes movies about planes, he falls apart. No more movies about planes, Steven.

Tier 8: Trifles

26. Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008)
25. The Adventures of Tintin (2011)

I am sure plenty of people would place one or both of these late-career movies in the above tier, but I honestly find them both fun. A lot of the unmet expectations of Crystal Skull are muted in hindsight, so it is a lot easier to enjoy. And Tintin, while clearly more of a technical achievement than anything else, is pure fun. Neither is a good movie, but neither is bad enough to be bad.

Tier 7: Well, He Meant Well

24. Amistad (1997)
23. The Color Purple (1985)
22. War Horse (2011)

The story of Spielberg’s early career is that he made blockbusters a thing but longed to be taken seriously by the film world, specifically the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This seems weird to us now, after years of Spielberg as the Academy’s golden boy and Oscar wins for Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan. But in 1985, Spielberg was Hollywood’s boy wonder, and 1985’s The Color Purple was a brazen attempt at more adult fare.

In retrospect, Spielberg clearly bit off more than he could chew. There were some great performances in Purple (Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah Winfrey, for starters), but the movie as a whole is tonally inconsistent, which is a shame, because it is Spielberg’s most diverse cast, and their yeoman’s work deserved better. Amistad and War Horse are post-Oscar Spielberg leaning too far into earnestness without much depth. Amistad is moving, but it suffers from white-savior syndrome, and its broad canvas does not leave much room for nuance. War Horse has some of the most painterly images of his career, but its best-served character is a horse.

Tier 6: Did Spielberg Really Make This Movie?

21. The Sugarland Express (1974)

Spielberg’s first theatrical release is far from a classic, but it has a certain ragamuffin charm. Goldie Hawn is great, and it’s worth seeing if only for considering what Spielberg might have been if he had kept trying to make Coen brother movies.

Tier 5: Even a Master Filmmaker Makes Sequels

20. The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997)
19. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)

Sequels get a bad rap, and neither of these movies changed that. They both have their charms though, specifically in superb, well-crafted action scenes, even if neither gets even close to the heights of their predecessors.

Tier 4: We’ve Come to the Middle of the Road

18. Empire of the Sun (1987)
17. Bridge of Spies (2015)

If an up-and-coming filmmaker made these two movies, we would expect big things from them in the future. They would have proven themselves competent, able to craft a compelling, historical story, and unlikely to ruin a movie. Neither movie is particularly memorable, except for some lovely performances: Christian Bale’s breakout role in the former and Mark Rylance’s Oscar-winning cypher of a performance in the latter.

I am probably going to forget about both of these movies immediately after I finish writing this sentence.

Tier 3: Likely Classics, but Not Quite Great

16. Hook (1991)
15. War of the Worlds (2005)
14. Catch Me If You Can (2002)

None of these movies were critical darlings in the slightest, but I expect all of them to last in the pop cultural consciousness, because all three are infectiously enjoyable. Hook, in particular, was critically reviled upon its release, even though people in my generation grew up loving it. Having recently re-watched it, I think it holds up even past my own nostalgia as an action-packed celebration of growing up. War of the Worlds is action-packed but in a non-stop, intense way. Its plot barely holds up and the characters are taped together only by solid casting, but as a disaster movie, it is breathtaking. And Catch Me If You Can, remembered most by critics now for its deliciously retro opening title sequence, is the most delightful of all, featuring an ascendant Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks just coming off his peak- if he ever did come off of it.

Tier 2: Indisputable Classics

13. The Post (2017)
12. Lincoln (2012)
11. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001)
10. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989)
9. Munich (2005)
8. Jurassic Park (1993)

Now we are getting to the truly great movies, the movies that will undeniably be remembered as classics, even if they are not universally beloved. I love all of these movies and could have easily put them into Tier 1, except I have enough problems with them that I am not quite prepared to put the “transcendent” label on them.

The Post has the luxury of timeliness, its release coming at a time where the press is about as under attack by the United States government as it ever was. But the story at the heart of The Post isn’t even about journalism, but rather that of a woman staking her claim to her place in the world. Steven Spielberg has always been known for his capacity for wonder, but the thing to wonder at here is Meryl Streep’s masterful performance, and that’s why The Post will last as a classic, even if it was completely overlooked at the Oscars.

Lincoln will mostly be remembered for Daniel Day-Lewis’s transformative performance, and rightly so. But Lincoln’s screenplay is a fascinating exploration of how the noble act of emancipation came about not through good will but through politicking. It is a little staid and stagnant, but Spielberg navigates the maze of politics delicately, and its overall impact is sealed in the final scene.

A.I.: Artificial Intelligence is a polarizing movie, inspiring adulation and frustration in equal amounts. Spielberg took Stanley Kubrick’s vision for a story of an android who feels as if he is real and turned it into a science fiction epic. The first time I saw it, I was confounded by the ending, but the movie has haunted me ever since.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is the only example of a successful Spielberg sequel. Maybe it is because the father-son relationship between Harrison Ford’s Indiana Jones and Sean Connery’s Henry Jones provided Spielberg the focus his Holy Grail story needed. Or maybe it is because Last Crusade is the funniest movie Spielberg has ever made.

Munich was a critical success, but it seems mostly overlooked in retrospective lists. I suppose this is one of Spielberg’s more generic films stylistically, conforming to the standards of most mid-2000s geopolitical thrillers. But it is at the top of that class of movies, delivering Hitchcockian scenes of suspense and capturing the contradictions inherent in spywork.

Jurassic Park has always been one of my go-to movies to rewatch, but, until recently, its anti-climactic ending brought it down in my mind’s eye. But Jurassic World made me appreciate how deftly Spielberg juggles the ideas behind Michael Crichton’s story of science’s hubris with edge-of-your-seat thrills. It is a landmark film in special effects, but it is also an old-fashioned adventure film of the highest order.

Tier 1: Absolutely Transcendant

7. Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977)

This is where Spielberg as we know him today began. Jaws came first, but this is where the wonder originated. Throughout his career, Spielberg became known for his exploration of the otherworldly and the effects it would produce in us. In Close Encounters, the effect it produces is obsession. When Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy sees an alien spaceship one night, he becomes fixated with heading to a specific location in the middle of nowhere. The story is kind of tragic- he leaves his wife and children due to his mania. But Spielberg’s reaction shots and commitment to the final scene make it seem…like the right decision? It’s not uncomplicated, but the audience is along for the ride with Roy, and all his decisions not only make sense but seem inevitable.

6. Schindler’s List (1993)

In 1993, the narrative around Spielberg was that he had been trying for about eight years to achieve credibility with the Hollywood elite, in between making crowd-pleasers like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Hook. If that seems like a cynical endeavor, the fact that it produced Schindler’s List makes it a worthy one. But I do not buy the idea that Spielberg made Schindler’s List to improve his reputation; it is too personal, too revealing, too devastating. Featuring two of the best performances in Spielberg’s filmography, the movie is the first time Spielberg fully depicted evil onscreen, in Ralph Fiennes’s Nazi Amon Goeth, and the first time Spielberg fully depicted the complicated goodness of which man is capable, in Liam Neeson’s iconic Oskar Schindler.

5. Saving Private Ryan (1998)

Saving Private Ryan is the less critically-appreciated of Spielberg’s ‘90s masterpieces, probably because it is less nuanced and more earnest. But Ryan is a work of masterful direction, Spielberg brilliantly choreographing the best battle scenes in the history of cinema. The opening D-Day scene is the most remembered, of course, but the whole movie is a testament to the human sacrifice implicit in any war, even a just one. Having already made Schindler’s List, Spielberg had nothing left to prove. As a result, Ryan is the best of Spielberg’s attempts to depict history onscreen, fully balancing his humanist respect with his skill for crafting the most exciting movies.

4. Jaws (1975)

This is the birth of the boy wonder, even if the real wonder came later that decade with Close Encounters. B-movies were popular, but never this popular. The plot of Jaws suggests that the movie should have been relegated at least to cult-movie status rather than great-movie status. But the cast is so completely committed to Spielberg’s vision of a prestige B-movie, and Spielberg’s scene construction is so flawless, that Jaws is justifiably seen as one of the best genre pictures in history. Even in this age of computer-generated effects, Jaws remains chilling and intense, a sure thing if you’re looking for a movie to keep you on the edge of your seat.

3. Minority Report (2002)

One of Spielberg’s underrated qualities is his meticulous attention to detail. While other directors are making action movies of ever-increasing size and scope, the awe in his setpieces has always rested in the little things. No movie displays this better than Minority Report, which gets a knock from critics for its supposedly tacked-on epilogue. But everything about Minority Report is finely tuned, from the thrilling action sequences like Tom Cruise’s character’s first escape to the high-wire tension of the scene where he is being pursued by vindictive spider robots. It’s also quite the science fiction movie, with perhaps the most realistic near-future world in cinema, in the guise of a mystery, with an end result you can see coming but to which you enjoy the ride. I nearly put Minority Report above Raiders, because it’s that perfectly constructed.

2. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)

If there’s anything I can thank my parents for (besides, you know, the entirety of my life), it’s that they introduced me to Raiders of the Lost Ark at a relatively early age. That meant that I grew up with an imagination, a concept of good and evil, and a joy for the movies. No movie Spielberg has made is more fun than Raiders of the Lost Ark, nor any more inventive. As a child, watching Raiders meant confronting the idea that evil existed in the world, but also that there was a God who cared enough to do something about it. And this idea was in one of the most imaginative and enjoyable movies of all time! Spielberg is a wizard, man.

1. E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982)

The predominant force in pop culture today is geek culture. A lot of its power resides in the nostalgia factor: we grew up enjoying these cultural artifacts, so they still mean something to us today. An armchair psychologist might presume that the fanboy lifestyle is a result of being unable to let go of one’s childhood. This presumption may very well be correct, for all we know.

If it is, Spielberg movies are my geek culture. I grew up on them, found my capacity for wonder grown by their phenomena, came of age to their stories of adventure. Like fanboys, I’m fiercely defensive of Spielberg. I came across a video essay a couple of years ago that attempted to discredit Spielberg’s bona fides as a director by criticizing the lack of awards attention that actors in his movies have received, and I was livid. I don’t even know who made that video, but it sticks with me to this day, which is silly.

My love of Spielberg movies is not silly though, and I don’t want it reduced to fanboy-ism. There’s nostalgia in that love, for sure; I can’t see the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, Tinker Bell’s light in Hook, or Indiana Jones’s hat in Raiders without feeling the joy I felt when those movies were introduced to me as a child. But I grew up, and discovered Jaws, and Minority Report, and Saving Private Ryan, none of which are related to my childhood at all, but which I love as much as or more than the movies I watched as a kid.

E.T. is the exception to all of this. I don’t remember the first time I saw E.T., but its images and story are burned into my DNA in the same way as Jurassic Park or Close Encounters or Raiders. I remember being bewildered by it: why was Elliott’s health connected to E.T.’s? What was going on with that frog scene? And how on earth did Elliott’s mom not know there was a friggin’ alien hanging out with her kids?

But underneath my bewilderment was fascination. Here was a story with a happy ending that didn’t leave me feeling happy. E.T. got to go home, but that meant he and Elliott couldn’t be together anymore. Even as a child, I was conflicted about this. The exhilaration of E.T.’s escape from the feds was caught up in the sadness of saying goodbye. I knew there was something universal about E.T. before I knew what the word “universal” meant.

My parents don’t drink coffee, but my grandparents did. I spent a week with them every year for most of my childhood into my adolescence. They’d take my sister and me off my parents’ hands while they went on a trip together for their anniversary. I tried coffee several times with them, and never liked it, but they had it every morning. I would wake up to the kettle whistling, and I’d know they were getting that gross drink prepared. They’d let me come get in bed with them and read books to them while they drank their smelly coffee. I’m drinking coffee right now while I write this, and I’ve had it every morning since grad school. The day feels wrong without it.

In the same way that coffee means something different to me now as a grown-up, so does E.T. I can see now that the mom didn’t notice there was an alien in her house because she was a single mother, grieving the loss of her marriage and her children’s father. I can see now that Elliott’s connection with E.T. is related to their shared sense of abandonment. I can see now that the one government character we get to know genuinely wants to help E.T., which I think was a little generous of Spielberg. I’m sure E.T. will mean something different to me after I have children.

But I don’t think I will love it any less. E.T. is such a perfectly made movie that understands so many different universal truths about family and growing up and the desire for a more abundant life. It doesn’t talk down to children, and it doesn’t ignore adults. The sense of loss at the end is just a palpable as the joy of the experience of knowing E.T. at all. I’ve experienced loss in my life, including the loss of those grandparents who loved me so well year after year. E.T. is the best Spielberg movie, because it doesn’t pretend loss doesn’t happen. But it doesn’t forget the joy and wonder of living either.

The 2018 Academy Awards

The 2018 Academy Awards

Every year is a good year for the movies. Even while certain segments of the blogosphere were declaring the death of cinema while television reached a fever pitch of popularity, there was always a plethora of great movies being made. If you know where to look and pay attention in any given year, you’ll find that the end of movies as a great art form has been greatly exaggerated.

However, sometimes the great movies within a year have a higher profile, and that year seems to be a better year for cinema as a result. 2017 was such a year, and you only have to look at the nominees for Best Picture as evidence. I still haven’t seen a lot of them, but, for my money, there are at least 3 masterpieces (DunkirkGet OutCall Me by Your Name) among the nominees I’ve seen, and, by reputation, 2 or 3 (Lady Bird and maybe The Shape of Water or Phantom Thread) among the ones I haven’t. That’s crazy. Last year, there were maybe 3 (MoonlightArrival, and La La Land and Manchester by the Sea are toss-ups). The year before that there was only 1 (Mad Max: Fury Road).

Your mileage will vary on these movies from mine, and that’s okay. But this was an extraordinary year for movies. You could replace all 7 of the Best Picture nominees with other movies from the top 25 grossers of the year to go with Dunkirk and Get Out, and you’d still have a worthy slate of Oscar contenders. Heck, let’s do it: Star Wars: The Last JediWonder WomanItThor: RagnarokLoganCoco, and Split. There. I mean, none of those would beat Dunkirk or Get Out, but they’re awesome.

Whatever happens Sunday night, 2017 was amazing. Even if both Get Out and Lady Bird get shut out and the internet goes bonkers, it won’t change the fact that 2017 was a particularly good year for movies that are going to be special to people for a long, long time.  Let’s not lost sight of that.

*Indicates a movie I have not seen yet.

Best Picture

Call Me by Your Name
Darkest Hour

Dunkirk
Get Out
Lady Bird*
Phantom Thread*
The Post
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboard Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: The Shape of WaterThree Billboards is right there with Guillermo del Toro’s watery fable, but the backlash against Billboards has been louder. Also, Three Billboards doesn’t have a directing nomination for Martin McDonagh, which would suggest that history is against it. The spoiler is Get Out, which would be awesome, but it only has 4 nominations. Its support is probably mostly from new membership, and it won’t be enough.

Should have been nominated: Star Wars: The Last Jedi. The only Star Wars movie to be nominated for Best Picture was 1977’s A New Hope, and Last Jedi is better. *ducks*

Best Directing

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan
Get Out, Jordan Peele
Lady Bird, Greta Gerwig*
Phantom Thread, Paul Thomas Anderson*
The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro*

Will win: The Shape of Water, Guillermo del Toro. I’m not entirely sure why the narrative here is that “it’s his time,” when this is first directing nomination in his career. But people in Hollywood do love him, and The Shape of Water is a celebration of movie history.

Should have been nominated: Logan, James Mangold. The screenplay is nominated (which is crazy!), but I think Mangold’s direction did the heavy lifting. He had to walk a tightrope of making a character study out of a superhero movie, and it was a huge success.

Best Actor in a Leading Role

Timothée Chalamet, Call Me by Your Name
Daniel Day-Lewis, Phantom Thread*
Daniel Kaluuya, Get Out*
Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour
Denzel Washington, Roman J. Israel, Esq.*

Will win: Gary Oldman, Darkest Hour. It truly is a great performance, though the Academy will give it to Oldman because it’s the biggest performance. This award should be Chalamet’s.

Should have been nominated: James McAvoy, SplitGet Out is probably the closest the Academy was going to come to embracing genre fare, but Split is a tension wire of a movie, and McAvoy’s performance is what keeps it from breaking.

Best Actress in a Leading Role

Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water*
Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Margot Robbie, I, Tonya*
Saoirse Ronan, Lady Bird*
Meryl Streep, The Post

Will win: Frances McDormand, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. This performance is as much of a shoo-in to win as Oldman’s.

Should have been nominated: Zoe Kazan, The Big Sick. The movie didn’t have quite enough support to garner any acting awards, but Kazan’s performance stuck with me more than almost any other I saw from 2017.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Willem Dafoe, The Florida Project*
Woody Harrelson, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*
Richard Jenkins, The Shape of Water*
Christopher Plummer, All the Money in the World*
Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: Sam Rockwell, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. The acting races just aren’t interesting this year. This is Rockwell’s award to lose.

Should have been nominated: Armie Hammer, Call Me by Your Name. Chalamet getting nominated is a win for the movie, but Hammer’s performance, while less devastating, is just as crucial to understanding the romance at the heart of the movie.

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Mary J. Blige, Mudbound*
Allison Janney, I, Tonya*
Lesley Manville, Phantom Thread*
Laurie Metcalf, Lady Bird*
Octavia Spencer, The Shape of Water*

Will win: Allison Janney, I, Tonya. Janney has the lowest odds of all the acting locks, probably because Laurie Metcalf’s performance is so beloved…but Janney’s still a lock.

Should have been nominated: Nicole Kidman, The Killing of a Sacred Deer. This is the second year in the row that a great Yorgos Lanthimos film gets overlooked, as well as its best performance.

Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)

Call Me by Your Name
The Disaster Artist*

Logan
Molly’s Game*
Mudbound*

Will win: Call Me by Your Name. It’s the lone Best Picture nominee here, so it’s the frontrunner. It’s also written by James Ivory, who has adapted classics recognized by the Academy for over 30 years. It’s also beautiful.

Should have been nominated: It. Again, the Academy is generally not about genre fare, but if we can get Logan nominated, why not one of the most popular movies of last year, adapted by a best-seller from one of the most popular authors of all time? It was a great horror movie, yes, but it was also a great coming-of-age movie, and making a great coming-of-age movie out of a thousand-page book is quite a feat.

Best Writing (Original Screenplay)

The Big Sick
Get Out

Lady Bird*
The Shape of Water*
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri*

Will win: Get Out. This is the one award Get Out will win. The “old white man” segment of the Academy is severely underrating this movie, but enough members will want the movie to win something, and this is the most logical place at which to make that happen.

Should have been nominated: After the Storm. Writing nominees tend to be pretty white. The Big Sick’s Kumail Nanjiani is only the 5th nominee of Asian descent in Oscar’s history, and the only Asian-language film to be nominated in this category was Letters from Iwo Jima, which is a Clint Eastwood movie. Suffice it to say, a Japanese drama like After the Storm never would have been nominated. But its unlikelihood doesn’t make it right. After the Storm writer Hirokazu Koreeda has a history of getting at the things families never communicate to each other, and this movie is no different.

Best Cinematography

Blade Runner 2049
Darkest Hour

Dunkirk
Mudbound*
The Shape of Water*

Will win: Blade Runner 2049. It’s a beautiful movie to look at. But more importantly, its cinematographer, Roger Deakins, has 14 nominations for The Shawshank RedemptionFargoKundunO Brother, Where Art Thou?The Man Who Wasn’t ThereNo Country for Old Men and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford in the same year (!), The ReaderTrue GritSkyfallPrisonersUnbrokenSicario, and now BR 2049, but he has never won. He’s…what’s the word…due.

Should have been nominated: War for the Planet of the Apes. For some reason, the Academy hasn’t recognized the extraordinary achievement that is this franchise. It really shouldn’t have worked- ask Tim Burton- but director Matt Reeves made it work. He made it look good in the process as well, with the help of cinematographer Michael Seresin, who also worked on Dawn.

Best Animated Feature

The Boss Baby*
The Breadwinner*

Coco
Ferdinand*
Loving Vincent*

Will win: Coco. It’s well-deserving, even though I haven’t seen the others, just for its visuals alone.

Should have been nominated: I didn’t see a ton of animated movies this year, but it baffles me that The Boss Baby is on this list over The LEGO Batman Movie.

Best Documentary (Feature)

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail*
Faces Places*

Icarus*
Last Men in Aleppo*
Strong Island*

Will win: IcarusFaces Places has the lowest odds, and it would be kismet with director Agnes Varda winning an honorary Oscar this year. But I find it hard to believe Academy members really get Varda. Icarus is the most accessible of this group, and its the most timely, since it’s about the Russian doping scandal.

Should have been nominated: City of Ghosts, a tense look at refugee activists reporting to the world on the heinous acts ISIS is perpetrating in Syria. Last Men in Aleppo probably siphoned attention away from it.

Foreign Language Film

A Fantastic Woman (Chile)*
The Insult
(Lebanon)*
Loveless (Russia)*
On Body and Soul (Hungary)*
The Square (Sweden)*

Will win: A Fantastic Woman, about a transgender woman struggling with the death of her partner, is the most zeitgeist-y. The Square, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year, might squeak by, but it’s pretty weird. A Fantastic Woman is more straightforward.

Should have been nominated: I haven’t even seen the nominees, let alone any foreign-language films that should have been nominated.

We Don’t Deserve BLACK PANTHER

We Don’t Deserve BLACK PANTHER

I don’t think I can write about Black Panther. I loved it and have a lot of thoughts about it. But why would you read my thoughts when there are dozens of well-written articles from black writers out there? It’s not that I don’t think I have the right to write about black culture. I’ve written about plenty of albums and movies from black artists before, and I’ll write more in the future. But the level of joy I want to communicate about this movie…that requires a writer of color. So I’m sitting this one out.

Below you’ll find some great content about Black Panther from African-American writers. They’re all well worth your time. Enjoy!

Zito Madu, GQBlack Panther and the Search for Home

Jelani Cobb, The New YorkerBlack Panther and the Invention of “Africa”

Carvell Wallace, The New York Times Magazine: Why Black Panther Is a Defining Moment for Black America

Waris Dualeh, Twitter: Thread on African tribes/cultures featured in Black Panther

Jenna Wortham & Wesley Morris, Still Processing: We Sink Our Claws into Black Panther with Ta-Nehisi Coates

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, and the Case of the Disappointing Album

It wasn’t supposed to go this way. These were supposed to be blockbuster albums, one more in a succession of successes. reputation was supposed to solidify Taylor Swift’s status as a full-on pop music superstar after 1989 . Man of the Woods was supposed to be another bid for Justin Timberlake to have shed his boy-band image after 20/20 Experience laid the foundation for a grown-up, mature JT. This should have been easy.

It would be hard to claim that neither reputation nor Man of the Woods has been successful. Swift’s new album is already 3 times platinum, and it spent several weeks at No. 1 on the charts. Timberlake’s debuted at No. 1, and it’s no shame that the Kendrick-curated Black Panther soundtrack unseated it, given the fact that Black Panther is a bona fide phenomenon. If sales or streams are your measuring stick, then you can pack up and go home, because these two albums are slam dunks, home runs, etc.

But if you care about quality, narrative, and legacy, the verdict is a little murkier. That doesn’t necessarily make them bad albums, but in the pop culture world we live in now, “not bad” isn’t really good enough. Before these albums were released, Swift and Timberlake were among the unquestioned elite in pop music, on equal footing reputation-wise with Beyoncé, Adele, or Kanye. Is that still the case now?

You could argue both are still in that upper echelon. After all, the quality, narrative, and legacy of a record are critics’ concerns, not a general audience’s. That’s largely true. Today, in the here and now, the, well, reputations of reputation and of Man of the Woods do not depend on a media consensus. But how a record is remembered is a matter of history, and the writers of history are writers. The fact that these albums are generally disliked by music writers matters. Will Swift’s and Timberlake’s places in the pop music elite survive long-term despite their album’s poor reception?

taylorswift02Critics didn’t actually hate reputation. Spin, Rolling Stone, and NME all gave the album positive reviews, after all. But most critics were mixed if not ambivalent about reputation, and some prominent outlets were outright negative, like Pitchfork, AllMusic, and Consequence of Sound. The preponderance of reviews were simply underwhelmed.

A lot of this can be chalked up to expectations. The four albums preceding reputation (Fearless, Speak Now, Red, and 1989) found themselves all over critics’ year-end lists. Her songwriting was endlessly praised, as well as her ability to master multiple genres and sounds as she transitioned away from country music and toward pop. If people grew tired of her tendency to depend on her dating life for lyrical material, she made up for it with hooks impeccably crafted to paint themselves onto your psyche. After 1989 made her biggest shift into pop music yet, it was reasonable for people to expect Swift to continue her run of greatness.

The first few singles tempered expectations a little. The first, “Look What You Made Me Do,” while boasting some of Swift’s most pointed satire, has a nearly atonal chorus that almost begs you not to like it. (Who is she talking to, anyway? What did I make her do?) This was a huge left-turn for the Taylor Swift that had leaned hard into sweeping synth melodies on 1989. “Ready for It?” was a more typical Swift hook, but not quite up to her standards. As in, it didn’t take over the world like any of the singles from 1989 did.

And there was bad press leading up to reputation’s release as well. A segment of the alt-right movement began to use her lyrics as a rallying cry while claiming that she is a closeted neo-Nazi. To be clear, these are claims with no basis in any sort of evidence whatsoever. But Swift never adequately addressed these claims, and so a blogger at PopFront claimed there were white supremacist dog-whistles in the “Look What You Made Me Do” video, while condemning her “political silence” during the volatile 2016 presidential election. Instead of simply denying these claims, Swift threatened the writer with a cease and desist letter.

The blog post is a pretty poorly reasoned argument. A simpler and more generous reading of Swift’s “political silence” (Swift did eventually endorse Clinton) would come to the conclusion that when she’s not supporting an album with a tour and interviews, she values her privacy over the attention that advocacy of any kind brings. This fits with what we know about Swift: her life is meticulously controlled, outsiders not allowed in without invitation, rumors leaked by her camp when she chooses.

But Swift could have solved all of this by simply condemning the alt-right movement. By remaining silent, she left the door open for enough people to question her motives that she lost control over her career’s narrative, control she held so preciously before.

And honestly, the themes of reputation don’t help her case much. A lot of the songs (“Look What You Made Me Do,” “End Game,” “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things”) deal with Swift embracing her dark side. A lot of the “bad girl” stuff on reputation is on the nose and overdone; I mean, there’s a song called “I Did Something Bad,” for goodness’ sake. It also comes across as cynical, which is the wrong tone to strike after accusations of bullying and associations with racism.

Despite the bad narrative surrounding the lead-up to the album, I love reputation. I’m turned off by a lot of the cynicism inherent in Swift’s attempts at a bad-girl image, but I think that’s less present in the music itself than in how she chose to promote it. Much of this album is Swift grappling with what romance looks like as a 28-year-old, and much of it is actually the opposite of cynical. “Dress,” “Gorgeous,” “King of My Heart,” and “Call It What You Want” are celebrations of committed love. Even “This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things,” which is a Kanye kiss-off, is overflowing with good humor and the joy of finally getting to speak her mind.

reputation is also chock full of Swift’s trademark vulnerability. She made her name on appealing to the insecurities she shared with all young people, and this continues on reputation. “Delicate” is a pitch-perfect examination of turning to short-term romance to fill the holes in your soul. And “New Year’s Day,” the album’s best song and closer, details the fleeting nature of your efforts to make memories in any relationship.

I enjoy reputation, even though it’s unfocused and messy, jumping from theme to theme without the level of cohesion I’m used to from a Taylor Swift album. It seems to be a reflection of Swift’s own current messiness, adding to a discography that perfectly mirrors the trajectory of a white, middle-class girl growing up. I don’t expect many other people to share that opinion, given all the bad faith surrounding the album’s release narrative, some of it contrived and some of it legitimate. Maybe ten years from now, there will be a flurry of blog posts that revisit reputation and call it an underrated classic, but I doubt it. It’s not as good from front to back as 1989, and I’m sure it will leave a bad taste in most people’s mouths.

justintimberlake01Speaking of bad taste: Man of the Woods. Even though Justin Timberlake has had an invincible career up to this point, and even though he had the lay-up opportunity that is the Super Bowl halftime show, no one took Man of the Woods seriously from the start. The album’s trailer could be an SNL digital short, with its misplaced attempts at sincerity paired with unnecessary amounts of flannel. The cognitive dissonance of watching Timberlake run around a pasture with horses while the R&B single “Supplies” plays in the background? That’s the whole album in a nutshell. Timberlake wanted to make music that reflected the place he’s from, and he ended up making…the same kind of music he’s always made.

Like reputation, bad narratives preceded Man of the Woods. To be fair to Timberlake, it was pretty poor timing for #MeToo to explode right before his album cycle began. While JT has never had a sexual harassment scandal, his career trajectory is inextricably linked to the career bombing of two former pop superstars who happened to be female.

Other people have pointed this out in more detail in recent weeks. In fact, as Timberlake’s Super Bowl halftime show drew closer, a lot of outlets began publishing reconsiderations of Timberlake’s success, given his (literal) hand in setting back Janet Jackson’s career during his last Super Bowl appearance. He’s always felt more like an unwitting product of a dick culture rather than an actual dick(in-the-box) himself. But even if he wasn’t directly responsible for ruining the careers of the women around him, he never was able to fully articulate a properly repentant or apologetic defense, and that’s been enough to cloud the hype of this album release.

Being reminded of his (surely unintentional) participation in the downfall of both Britney Spears and Janet Jackson did nothing to help my opinion of Man of the Woods. But neither did the album. If Timberlake wants to get serious about his love for his wife, his son, and his home, that’s great. I’d even go as far as to say that’s what his fans expect. After all, he did that really well on The 20/20 Experience, which has held up well in the last 5 years thanks to “Mirrors,” “Suit & Tie,” and an awesome concert tour, which I was lucky enough to see with my wife.

Man of the Woods takes its concept too seriously, shoehorning it in as often as possible, as evidenced by songs titled “Supplies,” “Flannel,” and “Livin’ off the Land,” all of which would be far better songs without being tied to a faux-rugged existence that is so clearly not Timberlake’s reality. In “Flannel,” Timberlake literally utters the words, “Here’s my flannel / The character’s in the way you wear it / It takes your shape while you keep it on,” which is something no one who actually wears flannel has ever thought. In “Supplies,” which is about how the apocalypse is sexy(?), Timberlake somehow thought it was a good idea to make the chorus “I got supplie-ie-ies,” and…yep, that’s it. That’s the whole chorus.

I might have been okay with the ridiculous lyrics and thematic gambles. I mean, this guy made an album called FutureSex/LoveSounds, and it worked. But the music isn’t really up to his standards. Having come off the biggest hit of his career, “Can’t Stop the Feeling,” which is one of the earworms of the decade, Timberlake thought it made sense to release “Filthy,” which barely has a repeatable melody.

Even the best songs on the album are dependent on contributions from other artists. “Morning Light” features Alicia Keys in one of the few times on the album where a song sounds effortlessly sexy. “Say Something,” if you can get past its vague message, benefits from the presence of Chris Stapleton, who makes the case with his harmonies that maybe Timberlake should have given the whole record to him. And “Breeze off the Pond” is the only instance where the back-to-his-roots idea works for JT, because it leans heavily on a killer guitar riff from Pharrell, and Timberlake keeps the heavy-handed metaphors to a minimum.

In case my snark isn’t coming through enough, I just want to go on the record: I really don’t like Man of the Woods. But Justin Timberlake still means a lot to me. “Mirrors” came out a few months before my wife and I tied the knot, and it shaped my hopes for our future together. I listened and danced to “Can’t Stop the Feeling!” as an effort to bond with one of my patients, and it ended up being the main way we connected. “Cry Me a River” and “My Love” are still two of my favorite songs from my adolescence.

However, when it comes to deciding who will maintain the goodwill that comes with being a superstar, I’m inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to Taylor and not Justin. More people like reputation, and Swift has built up enough goodwill over the course of her career as a champion of the bullied (“Mean,” “Fifteen”), that I believe she’s poised to survive her recent bad press. Also, she’s done a good job of cultivating the image of a songwriter over any other label. Swift’s success will always be perceived to be hers, rather than attributable to anyone else.

Every week I sit down with one of my patients and watch old Taylor Swift videos. This patient only likes older Taylor Swift, not the new stuff. We watch “Mean” and “Our Song” and “You Belong with Me,” and the patient lights up. It’s been hard to find anything else she likes as much as old-school Taylor Swift. But every time she asks for it on her eye-gaze device, and I pull “Love Story” up on an iPad, she begins smiling and laughing, without fail.

There’s enough on reputation that makes me light up for me to still hold Swift in high esteem. There are precious few moments on Man of the Woods that have a similar effect. They’ll both probably bounce back just fine, but it’s a little more plausible to imagine Swift coming out of this on top while Timberlake transitions into other roles, such as producing, or maybe just perpetually making funny videos with Jimmy Fallon. That wouldn’t be the worst thing. Jimmy Fallon is pretty funny.