Building my Own Threshold

Early on in the maintenance of this blog, I planned a series of posts centered around Joseph Campbell’s monomyth.

The monomyth (more popularly known as “the Hero’s Journey“) was supposed to guide my own endeavors as I sought to succeed in obtaining employment.

The problem with my original set of posts regarding the subject was that my presupposed outline for my life hinged on me being accepted into the Praxis program.

After being tossed off the metaphorical threshold steps (twice!), I sank into a period of aimlessness. I took whatever work I could, trying to make sense of everything.

In many respects, I was quite lucky. I had no debt and my friends and family supported me.

Looking back on this period in my life, trying to track my life-goals according to a mythological theory was quite foolish.

Life, quite obviously, is not a story. I believe it was in the recent film Their Finest that one character stated: “Stories have structure, purpose, and meaning… unlike life.”

I should really watch that movie.

So what am I doing now?

For one thing, I have recently enrolled in fall classes at a local community college.

I’m doing administrative, marketing, and sales work at my family’s business.

I’m researching possible careers to pursue and the best course of academic study to fit such a career.

I’m reading a lot of old books, working on several creative side projects, and am writing this blog.

In a word, I’m building my own threshold, where the only threshold guardian is me.

Don’t get me wrong, I love Joseph Campbell’s theory of the monomyth, as espoused in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.

As a guide for story structure and dramaturgy, it’s an excellent tool.

But regrettably, it’s a pretty suckish model to plan your life around.

Like and subscribe!

Why Read Old Books?

Note: This post is adapted from a speech I gave to my Toastmasters club.

Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov once said, “If you want new ideas, read old books. If you want old ideas, read new books.”

Following this observation, I have made a point to read old books.

Pavlov’s maxim applies to both fiction and non-fiction, from the epic poems of Homer to the stories of Washington Irving to Greek philosophy to the Bible.

Picking up a dusty copy of The Iliad will transport to you the world of raging Achilles and bold Hector in the carnage of the Trojan War.

Or you could make a trip to rural New York, circa 1790, and become acquainted with the fearful Ichabod Crane in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.

Either of these books would excellently reveal to the reader that the heroes and villains of the past weren’t so different from us.

Whether it’s the wearied prince Hector’s longing for peace, or the hapless Ichabod’s unrequited affections for Katrina, we can all see something of ourselves, both admirable and repellant, in these imaginary characters and the eras they inhabit.

Reading old books is beneficial because it allows the reader to glimpse into other worlds, in order to better understand the past and to apply it to the present.

When I say you should read “old books,” I generally mean you should read the classics. That said, what is a classic?

Orson Scott Card, the author of Ender’s Game (an excellent read, by the way), once defined a classic as stories that are so good you want to share them with your children.

When I was seven or eight years old, my mother gave me a new set of books to read: The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis.

I loved those books dearly, reading them and re-reading them, and being overjoyed to hear the audio drama versions of them, before being crushed when the films failed to meet my expectations.

I later read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien, eventually finding my way to Shakespeare’s plays Hamlet and Macbeth, and Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. By the time I was 18, I had read the entirety of the Bible ten times.

All of these aforementioned books, written across multiple continents in the span of dozens of hundreds of years, have been passed down through the centuries to us. We can read all of them at any time on our cell phones.

But why read them at all?

The first reason to read old books is that it provides a window to the past.

At some point in time, the author of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Washington Irving, sat down and thought up his story.

Irving was an American, influenced by stories of European folklore that he had picked up during his travels through the continent in the nineteenth century.

Reading his story allows us to get acquainted with his thought process and walk around in his mind a little.

Imagine what could have inspired passages such as this one, describing the town of Sleepy Hollow:

“However wide awake they may have been before they entered that sleepy region, they are sure, in a little time, to inhale the witching influence of the air, and begin to grow imaginative—to dream dreams, and see apparitions.”

You see that this is a time when the majority of people took the reality of the supernatural for granted— whether that idea lay in base superstition or religious faith.

To look back on such a concept with disdain would defeat the purpose of reading old books. Our ancestors were no more ignorant than we are, and in many ways were our intellectual betters.

Instead, our goal in reading old books is to look into the past, seeing a world that is very much like ours.

Take The Illiad for example. This epic poem is one of the foundational works of the western canon.

In Homer’s poem, the warriors on both sides of the war, the Achaeans and the Trojans, frequently blame the gods for their troubles, and the gods are shown meddling in human affairs quite frequently.

This human tendency to want to assign direct blame for misfortune and injustice to an ethereal, all-encompassing source is not new.

If there’s one thing that I took away from listening to The Iliad on audiobook, it’s that people have been saying, “It’s not fair!” since 800 B.C.

So whether you’d like to peruse the works of Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, or C. S. Lewis, or perhaps more ancient writers like Homer and the multitude of authors responsible for the Bible, I cannot recommend reading old books more than enough.

For there is no better way to enrich your mind, discipline your imagination, and open your eyes to another way of life than to turn the pages of a classic tome.

If any of you have children, grandchildren, or young nieces or nephews, your duty to pass on these great books is crucial.

The older generation must teach the younger generation of this important pastime. Otherwise, we face a new age of darkness, chained in the bonds of ignorance.

Like and subscribe!

To Catch a Thief: Better Days with Better Movies

In 1984 by George Orwell, the people of Oceania are tranquilized through an endless stream of mass-produced, low-quality entertainment, from pop music to pornography.

Winston attends a movie featuring the gruesome deaths of a ship full of refugees. Julia works as an operator of novel writing machines, all part of the sinister Party’s propaganda apparatus.

In our own world, things are little different.

The state may not directly control the American entertainment industry. But that does not change the fact there are few recent films which are both popular and good.

This was not always so. Case in point: To Catch a Thief, a thriller in which there is not a single gunfight, sex scene, or four-letter-word.

To Catch a Thief demonstrates that it is entirely possible to make a thrilling, high-caliber film without resorting to vulgarity and shock-value.

The film tells the story of a retired cat burglar living in France who must now clear his name after a new “cat” begins pinching the valuables of American tourists.

Released in 1955, the film was directed by Alfred Hitchcock and stars Cary Grant in the lead role. By today’s standards, it is rather tame for a thriller.

At the same time, it would probably bore young children who have spent too much time on the internet or watching television.

But for those with an appreciation for vintage cinema, it is a wonderful, beautiful film.

From the opening scene which abruptly cuts from a pleasant opening credits montage to a screaming woman, to the car chase along a narrow country road, to the final revelation of the thief’s identity, there is not a dull moment in it.

The plot is smart and airtight. Everything makes sense and every detail matters.

Even a dilettante such as myself can see that it is a technical masterpiece. From what little I know of cinematography, To Catch a Thief excels. It did after all win an Oscar for it.

Nor is there a shred of real indecency. No blood is shed, no skin is shown, not a single obscenity is uttered.

The action is focused on the events taking place, in keeping with the chief strength of film.

Where gravity is required, subtler means are in place to communicate the feeling, such as when an angry cook crushes a handful of carrots in his fist.

There is romance, and plenty of smooching, but not in the egregious, titillating way found in modern films. Where such displays today are meant to sell tickets, in To Catch a Thief they are meant to sell characterization.

Nor is there a trace of profanity. I have heard plenty of reports about how films such as Manchester by the Sea are fawned over by critics, despite their rejection by mainstream audiences.

The chief complaint of such films is that they are both inanely bleak and utterly polluted with swearing.

(I have not seen Manchester by the Sea, chiefly because I do not care to spend $13.00 to sit through that sort of thing.)

Andrew Klavan has noted that in the days of the Hayes Office, in which Hollywood self-regulated the content of its films, even the mediocre films were good by today’s standards.

Now, says he, filmmakers can show anything on screen, and now most films “kinda suck.”

I firmly believe that with the Hayes Office in place, filmmakers were forced to be creative with the limits they had to work with.

They knew that if they wanted to appeal to a mass audience, they had to make their films as decent as possible. To Catch a Thief was a product of this age, as are many classic films.

The system worked because the majority of moviegoers were average Joes living in middle America who just wanted to watch a good movie without having to endure an exercise in pointless vulgarity.

Things have changed.

In the words of Cal Thomas: “Many old films are watchable today. Some are considered classics. I doubt most of today’s films will be worth watching in 50 years. They aren’t now.”

Image from rubinmuseum.org

Like and subscribe!

Every Christian Movie I’ve Ever Seen Is Awful. But Why Do They Sell Tickets?

The last Christian movie I saw was a Pirates of the Caribbean-knock off called Beyond the Mask.

If the pretentious title wasn’t enough, the 2015 movie’s script followed all the standard beats of a Christian movie:

  • All Christians are perfect nice-guys (as in Fireproof and The Identical).
  • All non-Christians are jerks (as in Courageous and Flywheel).
  • Your youth pastor think it’s great (as in every Christian movie ever made).

The fact that the film was a technical and aesthetic monstrosity aside, I left the theater wondering why my fellow Christians continue to eat this garbage up.

Quite obviously, it’s not because the films are good.

Courageous was a clumsy grab-bag of sitcom humor, melodrama, and gunfights.

The Identical had an original concept, but everything but its logline caused me unintended laughter and cringing.

Fireproof is probably the Citizen Kane of Christian movies. (Some might opine that Facing the Giants, which I haven’t seen, deserves that title.)

Insofar as I can tell, its script, while minimally passable in terms of dramatic quality, was copied from a Christian marriage counseling book.

Titled The Love Dare, this totally real book was actually named and featured in the movie. I’ve heard of product placement, but this takes the cake.

Speaking of product placement, this leads me to the real reason that Christian movies continue to sell tickets at multiplexes.

Ready? Okay, say it with me:

Marketing!

Now it’s time for me to take off my film critic hat and put on the Marketing Guy hat.

Months in advance before the 2014 film God’s Not Dead was released in theaters, trailers and what-not found their way onto the computer screens of young, tech-savvy believers, their parents, and most importantly, pastors!

Okay, thought my teenage-self. This looks pretty cool.

Meanwhile, the filmmakers cut new trailers featuring big-name Christian media personalities such as that guy from Duck Dynasty and his wife and Christian rock band the Newsboys.

If my teenage-self kind of wanted to see that sucker then, I definitely wanted to now! It had the Newsboys in it, and I just loved their music!

That, my friends, is what we call a celebrity endorsement from an influencer to whom your target audience will pay attention.

As if all that wasn’t enough, as the time drew close for the film to be released, I heard rumblings from fellow churchgoers about the film, and how some were going to see it.

I’m fairly certain that at least some of my pastors mentioned it. I know for certain that one of them proclaimed his enthusiasm for the 2016 sequel, God’s Not Dead 2, from the pulpit.

But this wasn’t just positive word-of-mouth, though it was that too in retrospect.

It now wasn’t only an excuse to see a movie the Newsboys in it, it was a religious duty.

By paying twelve bucks to sit in a chair for two hours and watch that one kid from Good Luck Charlie literally debate philosophy with the guy who played Hercules, you were helping to propagate the Gospel.

In the end, I wound up not going to see any of the God’s Not Dead films. But I almost wish I did, just to see why everyone kept saying, “Oh, it was great.”

Nevertheless, God’s Not Dead had a box office of some $60 million, more than recouping its shoestring budget. Indeed, I recall 2014 being hailed as “The Year of the Faith-Based Film.”

Having not seen God’s Not Dead or its sequel, I cannot in good conscience comment here on its quality.

However, I can tell you that one of my more secular friends scandalously watched part of it on YouTube.

He is the sort of person whom I and my fellow Christians are told that we must help to evangelize to by supporting the film.

He thought it was boring and stupid.

Funny how that works out.

Don’t be a stranger! Comment and subscribe!

Like and subscribe!

Miracle on 34th Street: When Big-Wigs Had Big Hearts

This previous month, I watched Miracle on 34th Street as part of our tradition of watching Christmas movies during Christmastime.

When I watch old movies such as these, it always strikes me just how good they are.

There isn’t just a higher standard of cinematic craft in place, but the entire value system on which these old movies are built is drastically different from those of today.

In the film, a man named Kris Kringle (Edmund Gwenn), claiming to be the real Santa Claus, becomes the Macy’s department store Santa Claus. He promptly sets out on a one man mission to spread genuine Christmas cheer.

What makes Miracle different is that it doesn’t cast the businessmen running Macy’s as dastardly villains, as a modern film might do.

Rather, it goes with the typical Old Hollywood policy of making sure that everyone gets their just deserts, no matter who they are.

Miracle on 34th Street not only demonstrates that businessmen weren’t typically castigated as scumbags in 1947, but that being decent is good for business.

A major theme in the film is the primacy of kindness and charity over the crass and ruthless desire to “Make a buck, make a buck,” as Alfred (Alvin Greenman) puts it.

Kris’s strategy for fighting this mentality is to refer the parents of children he sees as the department store Santa to other stores where they can find items that aren’t available at Macy’s.

Though his bosses are at first alarmed, the head of the store, R. H. Macy (Harry Antrim), makes Kris’s unorthodox tactic official store policy following an avalanche of public support.

As a result, Macy’s not only skyrockets financially, but sets an example for their competitor, Gimbel’s, to adopt the same policy. This feeling of charity and helpfulness leads the two stores to mend fences.

As I’ve written before, Old Hollywood was made up of people whose sense of morality bled into their art.

This principle is evident in Miracle on 34th Street‘s depiction of commercialism as a problem. Unless I’m very much mistaken, it’s the first in a long line of films to decry this particular ism.

The difference between Miracle‘s take on commercialism and others is that it presents a realistic motivation for someone like R. H. Macy to not be a Grinch.

Macy sums it up nicely when he says that by being “known as the helpful store,” they’ll make more profits than ever before. Mr. Macy is hardly a villain.

In fact, there are practically no villains at all in this charming picture, aside from the sleazy pseudo-psychiatrist Sawyer (Porter Hall).

Speaking of Sawyer, this leads us to one of the hallmarks of Old Hollywood: Justice is always served. Miracle is no exception.

In the course of the film’s events, the vindictive Sawyer is fired after orchestrating Kris Kringle’s unjust insanity hearing.

Fred Gailey (John Payne), the lawyer who defended Kris at the hearing, gets together with the Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara), the leading lady who rediscovers faith in the good things in life.

Even Alfred gets a direct commendation from Mr. Macy himself, a fine reward for a kindhearted boy who enjoys dressing up as a street corner Santa Claus and giving kids presents.

Things have certainly changed since then. Businessmen are almost invariably portrayed as bad guys in the movies.

“Corporation” might as well be a portmanteau of “corrupt organization.”

The question isn’t whether change has occurred. (It has.)

The question isn’t even whether it’s a good thing or a bad thing. (It’s a bad thing, no doubt.)

The real question, the one I want to know the answer to, is why this change happened at all.

Image courtesy of hark.com.

Like and subscribe!

Popularity is Amoral

Many authorities seem to believe that if something is popular, it is therefore low quality. This is particularly true when it comes to works of fiction.

This is nonsense. There are plenty of popular works of fiction which are also good.

Inception. Star Wars. The Lord of the Rings. (Both the books and the films.)

Likewise, there is plenty of tripe out there which is enormously popular.

Twilight. (Both the books and the films.) Fifty Shades of Grey. (Ditto.) Most Adam Sandler movies.

The exact opposite of these two parallels are also true.

There are works of artistic genius mostly ignored by audiences (Twelve Years a SlaveLincolnHugo) and equally obscure works of utter hackwork (Dylan Dog: Dead of NightRepo Men).

In the end, popularity (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter. It’s amoral, like money. (See 1 Timothy 6:10).

The only thing that matters is why something is popular.

The Dark Knight was popular not just because it was good (that’s what made it memorable) but because it had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

Similarly, the Twilight movies were popular not because they were good (they weren’t), but because they had a kick-butt marketing campaign (see here).

The principle of popularity being amoral can be seen everywhere. The films put out by Marvel Studios are generally mediocre aesthetically, but people do go to see them.

The late Roger Ebert said as much in his review of the 2011 Thor movie:

“Thor” is failure as a movie, but a success as marketing, an illustration of the ancient carnival tactic of telling the rubes anything to get them into the tent.

On the other side of the coin, Marvel’s Netflix properties, such as Daredevil and Luke Cage, are both television masterpieces and smash hits with audiences.

As I discussed a few months ago, more genuinely good artistic endeavors would be financially successful if one or both of the following were true:

  • If people had more disposable income.
  • If more artists had an entrepreneurial mindset.

The political economy of the arts and entertainment industry, it is definitely more feasible at this moment for artists to hustle up and market the heck out of their art rather than to wait around for a more forgiving economy.

Until then, rest assured that popularity neither certifies a film as good nor condemns it as bad.

It just is.

Note: I realize that in a past postArt Needs More Entrepreneurs (Part 2/2)“, I stated that popularity “generally” denotes quality, in that there must be a good reason for many people to pay for something. I now realize, in keeping with the subject of this post,  that this reasoning is crude, if not without merit. I intend to expand on this point in a future post.

Like and subscribe!

Writers, Actors, and Singers: Please Stick to Writing, Acting, and Singing

I was watching a football game or something a few weeks ago, when I suddenly informed by an asinine commercial that Leonardo DiCaprio planned to release a new documentary on “climate change.”

Last time I checked, DiCaprio is not a meteorologist, or an ecologist, or a biologist, or a chemist, or a physicist, or an astronomer. He is an actor.

I also know that he has been making such documentaries and promoting such nonsense since at least 1998, when he established the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, which is when they were still referring to climate change as “global warming.”

(For the record, I’d be pretty scared if the climate wasn’t changing.)

I then reflected that this DiCaprio is probably a better actor than he is a scientist or policy analyst.

But his behavior falls in line with that of many other writers, artists, singers, and actors who attempt to play those roles yet have absolutely no business doing so.

Meanwhile, people like Lena Dunham and Jay Z are suddenly being treated like they’re the smartest people in the room because of their stances on hot-button issues.

In Dunham’s case, she wants “straight white men” to go “extinct.” As for Jay Z, he apparently likes Clinton enough to belt out obscene song lyrics at one of her campaign events.

The only reason people pay attention to the political statements of actresses and singers is because they’re already famous.

Whatever they say is going to sound like pure wisdom to their fans, and it will attract the attention of the media because it’s political, thus giving them even more unwarranted credibility.

In other words, it doesn’t matter what these people say so long as it’s them saying it.

Granted, some political views are more palatable to the blogosphere, tabloids, news aggregates, click-bait sites, and the mainstream media than others.

Chris Pratt’s enthusiasm for hunting hasn’t won him much attention from such parties. The same can be said for Adam Baldwin of Firefly fame, who endorsed Ted Cruz via Twitter last year according to Wikipedia.

The effect, however, remains the same. When some actor suddenly announces his stance on a feel-good cause like climate change, it grants him an aura of sophistication and charity.

Think about it like this: People are naturally suspicious of politicians, but they love it when celebrities make political statements because they already like them.

If they happen to agree with whatever vacuous tripe the celebrity is saying, they’ll love them even more and do whatever they say, which usually means voting for Democratic politicians.

The problem isn’t so much that people unqualified to give opinions regarding such topics continue to do so. It’s a free country. They’re free to say what they want.

The problem is that these people’s sincerity is, at best, questionable. DiCaprio is without a doubt mouthing whatever lines some intern is feeding him just so he can beef up his personal brand.

Ditto for Donald Trump, who’s taken this principle to the Nth degree by becoming a major contender for President of the United States of America. Heck, he’s been running for president since 2000.

The two-pronged point I’m trying to make is that when people who are famous for acting, singing, or writing begin talking about politics, science, or public policy, plug your ears. They have nothing to say worth listening to.

I highly doubt that any actors, singers, or writers of note are reading this blog post, but if you are, please stick to acting, singing, and writing.

If you must talk about politics, go and spend your free time reading good books on things like history or economics, like Ronald Reagan used to do. Please avoid major periodicals for a while.

Or if you’re more technically inclined, you could be like Hedy Lamarr, who invented a nifty anti-missile jamming system during World War II. If she could do something like that, you could easily bone up on mathematics or chemistry or engineering or something.

In a word, actually learn something about what you’re talking about before deciding to soapbox about it. That’s all I ask.

Image courtesy of dailymail.co.uk

Like and subscribe!