Quentin Tarantino, America’s Competition Addiction, and Movies That the Oscars Overlooked

Strange territory. That’s where I found myself this week.

In four new articles, I wrote things that made me feel a little lonely. I was writing from a foreign country, far away from the preferences of the general moviegoing audience. And yet, I wasn’t feeling much kinship with other film critics either.

Art will do that to you. If you’re paying attention, it’ll lead you to new ways of thinking that make your friends look at you with concern.

This story stars a gunslinging hero, some Trappist monks, a French chef, and a little golden statue called Oscar…

First, there’s the mission that I chose to accept for Christianity Today.

I was asked to do what seemed impossible: Write about Django Unchained, the popularity of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, the enduring appeal of movies that glorify vigilante justice and revenge, and a Christian perspective on violence at the movies… in 700 words. A daunting challenge, to say the least. Really, I’m tempted to write a whole book on the subject.

The result?

“Blaze of Gory: Django Unchained and the Quest for Revenge.” You’ll find it on page 58 of the March 2013 issue of Christianity Today. (When it becomes available online, I’ll post a link here.)

In it, I address these questions and more:

  • Why do so many people love Tarantino’s films? Are people really so bloodthirsty?
  • If the scriptures tell us to “let our minds dwell on” things that are “excellent and worthy of praise,” why bother with these bloody revenge movies?
  • Do the scriptures give us guidance in how to respond to such stuff?

This article may aggravate Tarantino’s admirers, but it will probably also trouble those who prefer to brand him as reckless and indulgent. I question his storytelling even as I praise his craftsmanship.

It would probably be more exciting for readers if I was an extremist. But extremists usually make more noise than sense, if you ask me.

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Second, third, and fourth — I accepted three missions for Seattle Pacific University’s Response magazine.

In “Heroes Vs. Saints: The Power of Storytelling in a Combative World,” I appeal to storytellers: Can we alter the tone of American storytelling by glorifying something more than “us-versus-them” dualism?

It begins like this:

Have you noticed that almost every human activity has become a televised competition?

Yesterday’s musical variety shows are now contests that invite us to vote for American idols. Yesterday’s cooking program is now a contentious sport, as cooks are crowned winners or berated as losers. Entrepreneurs are exalted or disgraced. Resourcefulness is second to cutthroat, self-serving tactics on Survivor. Need I mention The Bachelor?

No wonder elections bring out the basest behavior in politicians and pundits. No wonder the networks present prime-time sports (which are competitive by nature) as if they’re something fiercer — actual battles driven by grudges and rivalries instead of athleticism.

The AvengersSkyfallSpider-Man — salvation comes when armed heroes vanquish monstrous villains in seven of the top 10 box office hits in the past year. Due to concerns about cultural sensitivity, America’s enthusiasm for “cowboys versus Indians” stories (and, more recently, stories of Americans versus Middle Eastern bad guys) has declined. It’s perceived as inappropriate to affirm demeaning cultural generalizations. But instead of questioning that “showdown impulse,” Hollywood now invents enemies so we can destroy them with impunity — thus, the proliferation of movies about vampires, alien invaders, and zombie hordes.

After I turned that article in, my editor asked me if I would write a follow-up piece that gives examples of movies that take the road less traveled, movies that tell us stories about humble servants rather than vainglorious heroes.

The result?

Babette and Beyond: Saints on the Big Screen.”

Those who thinks that Hollywood could be “cleaned up” by a new wave of “Christian movies” need to know that the movies they’re hoping for already exist. We have all the inspiration we need just waiting to be discovered and enjoyed. No, they’re not about soldiers, football teams, firemen, or people getting “left behind.” They probably aren’t even made by Christian filmmakers. But they quietly point toward hope and redemption, embodying the truth rather than shouting about it.

It begins like this:

As noted in “Heroes and Saints” … Xavier Beauvois’ 2011 film Of Gods and Men is a rarity. It’s a film about faithful Christians who serve their community with Christ-like humility and courage, and it has won worldwide acclaim and film-festival awards.

We can find many examples of big-screen characters who give credit to God as they march bravely into war or heroics. We can find “Christian films” about people who, facing hardship, give their lives to God and end up getting their prayers answered or watching their dreams come true.

But films about saints — characters who serve in humility, without glory or wish-fulfillment rewards — are harder to come by. They’re out there, though, and some of them are worth seeking out.

And finally, in the fourth article, I point out five movies that, unlike Django Unchained, were overlooked at the Oscars.

Why were they overlooked? Maybe it had something to do with the fact that they’re unconventional, they don’t glorify heroes, and they aren’t about how to “fix the culture” by force.

That one begins like this:

Every year, from October to February, the Academy Awards dominate media coverage of the movies. And yet, like soda pop, it’s mostly fizz and sugar — a frivolous rush of razzle-dazzle and celebrity.

Great movies, on the other hand, reward those who watch them closely, reflect on them, discuss them, and revisit them. Occasionally, those movies are acknowledged with awards during Hollywood’s main event. But in glamour-happy Hollywood, important films are as likely to be overlooked as they are to be celebrated.

Of the hundreds of movies that played on America’s big screens in 2012, only nine were nominated as Best Picture-worthy. The two films that meant most to this moviegoer — Moonrise Kingdom andThe Master — had to settle for acting and screenplay honors.

Here are five films that the Academy completely overlooked, even though they were celebrated around the world and exalted by critics and film enthusiasts. They may not be suitable for everyone, but each one of these titles is inspiring deep discussion, and will probably have a lasting influence on audiences for many years to come.

 

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