Good media discernment is about guarding our eyes and hearts before we watch or listen. And it's also about grappling with the entertainment we do see or hear. That's why the Plugged In Blog is devoted to guarding, discussing and grappling.
A few weeks ago, I spent a couple of days on the set of a faith-based movie being filmed in Waxahachie, Texas, called Hoovey. If you're not familiar with Hoovey's true story, don't feel bad. I wasn't either. But I got up to speed quickly. It involves a high schooler with a passion for basketball who has his dreams threatened by a near-fatal brain tumor, even as his medical bills push his family to the brink of ruin and challenge their faith.
One of the opportunities that being on a film set affords is the chance to rub shoulders with the cast. For instance, I had quite a chat with Rules of Engagement's Patrick Warburton at dinner one evening when I was seated across from him. I now know he really has a heart for St. Jude's Children Hospital and loves to golf. And when I sat in a press session with Hart of Dixie's Allie DeBerry, I heard her talk about her Christian faith. I was glad to know that.
Glenn Morshower is also in Hoovey, playing Dr. Kattner. If you don't know him by name, you might recognize him in the photo (I'm the good-looking guy to the left). In our conversation, he mentioned that he has played more military roles that any single person alive today. I believe him. Check out his IMDb page! Glenn has a role in the upcoming After Earth, and he's acted in a number of heavy hitters such as X-Men, Transformers and Moneyball. But Glenn is probably best known for his role as Secret Service Agent Aaron Pierce in 24.
I've been with Plugged In for 20 years. I've heard many, many accounts of how some type of entertainment has influenced culture and people's behavior. For example, I've documented dozens of murders related to media, heard of a young girl who saved her parents from a house fire because of something she learned on Barney and noted how The Lord of the Rings trilogy produced a marked increase in New Zealand's tourism industry.
But to date, outside of the fact that John F. Kennedy was considered a better debater in front of the cameras than Richard Nixon, I've never heard about any type of media that may have helped sway a presidential election—until last week. Here's what Glenn said about how President Obama believes the show may have helped him get elected:
When they hired me for the role,  was scheduled for two episodes—not seasons, episodes. … What happened was they saw chemistry between David Palmer and Aaron Pierce—and it was a southern white guy and a black president. So it was something—not something the country was used to seeing. And I want to tell you it was interesting that President Obama called us to thank us for our role in his being elected. Because he really believes—no truly—he believes that a change had been made and the road had been paved for people to at least accept [an African-American president] as a possibility. And he happens to be right even if it's only a couple of percentage points.
I'm a strong believer in the power of the media. After that conversation, I became an even greater believer.
As a culture, we're pretty big on moments of silence. We're not very good at being quiet, mind you, but we very much like to honor things/people/events with a moment of thought/prayer/silence. From tragedies to triumphs to transitions, these little moments become cairns along the way, reminding us of where we've been and where we want to go.
So it's not all that strange that such an impulse might ooze its way even into Hollywood's heart. And one of the ways it does so is in the way we sometimes see TV shows and movies preempted or delayed right after a national cataclysm.
Recent examples revolve around the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings and the Boston bombings. Immediately following the massacre in Connecticut, as we relayed in our Culture Clips at the time, cable channel Syfy replaced an episode of the show Haven because it depicted scenes of violence in a high school, and Paramount Pictures postponed the Pittsburgh red-carpet premier of Tom Cruise's new movie Jack Reacher. (Among other bits of fallout.) After the terrorism perpetrated upon Boston, NBC's Hannibal replaced a problematic episode as well. Executive producer Bryan Fuller said of his decision, "I didn't want to have anyone come to the show and have a negative experience."
Well, that raised some serious questions for not just me, but Entertainment Weekly's Jeff Jensen too. He wrote:
The example of Hannibal is worth further reflection because it reveals some interesting things about this business of being "sensitive," or rather, not being "insensitive." The move made me reasonably curious… and piqued my interest in a way that makes me ashamed. Just how relevant to the times was the pulled episode? How much more lurid could Hannibal be? Now I must know. Let me see! That line of thinking is certainly flattering to a show like Hannibal, which also got TV pundits talking last week by losing nearly 20% of its audience from week two in the overnight ratings. … So we could be cynical and suspicious, too. Why announce the move? And why not just bench Hannibal altogether for a week? Couldn't we all use a little breather from dreadful drama about man's inhumanity toward man? And while we're going down this wormhole: What's the expiration date on "sensitivity"? When is it okay to go back to being "insensitive"? The more you noodle this over, the more meaningless this seemingly thoughtful gesture becomes.
Noodle, indeed. Then, a few weeks later, I ran across this, from Mike Roorda, who was writing for Pajiba (republished by salon.com):
Either the content of your show should be acceptable for viewing, or it isn't. Proximity to actual violence shouldn't matter. Why is it OK to make entertainment out of violent acts and gore normally, but then the same is somehow inappropriate following real life examples that hit close to home? Shows like CSI and Law & Order regularly dive into the deep end of the horror pool and reliably contain imagery of violent acts rendered in glorious HD. Criminal Minds is a poor man's primer for the many deviant ways you can snuff out a life. Yet, when confronted with the reality of similar actions in a way that touches us personally, the artificial depictions make us uncomfortable and uneasy. If such content isn't acceptable viewing material during the moments following a crisis, should it be a part of our regular entertainment diet at all?
I guess I'm done thinking about this sooner than I thought I would be. Moments of silence are good. Great even. Artificially delaying one bit of hideous entertainment in the name of deference and sympathy, only to push that same piece out into the public space a few days or weeks later is just plain lame. And damaging.
Sequels: the final frontier.
These are the voyages of the Star Trek franchise. It's mulit-decade mission: to exploit new demographics, to seek out new fans and new markets, to boldly go once more to all the places Captain Kirk and Co. have gone before.
As Kirk knows as well anyone, however, sometimes missions just don't go as planned. And that seems to be the case with director J.J. Abrams second Trek effort in this rebooted franchise. Star Trek Into Darkness, blasted off to an estimated $70.6 million over the three-day weekend ($84.1 million total counting Wednesday night and Thursday screenings). Those numbers were strong enough to knock Iron Man 3 back to the No. 2 spot, with Tony Stark taking in another $35.2 million. But they weren't as strong as 2009's Star Trek, which made $86.7 million in its first five days. Nor were Into Darkness' numbers anywhere near the $100 million five-day open that many industry pundits had been predicting.
Which is to say, we haven't even gotten to the traditional opening of the summer movie season, Memorial Day weekend, and already one of the most anticipated tentpole popcorn munchers of the season is underperforming. And it's safe to say that Kirk, Spock and Scotty are likely to face stiff competition from Fast & Furious 6 and The Hangover Part III when the summer season starts in earnest next weekend.
Moving down the list, Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby added an estimated $23.4 million to its coffers, bringing its two-week cume to $90.2 million. After that, box office returns fell off sharply, with the No. 4 film, Pain & Gain only gaining $3.1 million more, while the No. 5 contender, The Croods, chased down another $2.8 million.
Check back next week to find out whether Vin Diesel, Paul Walker and the dreaded Wolfpack can conspire to keep Captain Kirk from warping into the top spot again.
Final figures update: 1. Strek Into Darkness, $70.2 million; 2. Iron Man 3, $35.8 million; 3. The Great Gatsby, $23.9 million; 4. Pain & Gain, $3.2 million; 5. The Croods, $3.0 million.
How much does someone's physical beauty influence the way we think about them? An unfolding storyline related to 19-year-old alleged Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev offers an interesting—not to mention disturbing—case study.
There's a mountain of evidence implicating Tsarnaev as one of the two bombers whose improvised explosives killed 3 and wounded nearly 300 during last month's Boston Marathon. From Tsarnaev's own confession to numerous surveillance videos placing the Russian immigrant (and his older brother, Tamerlan) at the scene, it would seemingly take a Herculean suspension of one's cognitive faculties to believe the teen wasn't involved.
Then again, maybe not.
A growing number of online supporters for Tsarnaev—who goes by the nickname Jahar—are voicing their support of him and even calling for his release from custody. The reason? As one teenage girl online put it, he's "too beautiful to be a terrorist."
You might think such a viewpoint would be an isolated one. But Twitter reports that the so-called #FreeJahar movement has enough supporters that it's actually been a trending term on the site since the April 15 attack. Fans (many of whom are teenage girls) have tweeted their support with messages such as this one from OMG Free Jahar!: "Yes i like Justin Bieber and i like Jahar but that has nothing to do with why i support him. I know hes innocent, he is far too beautiful." And Selam. tweeted, "i don't care if jahar is a terrorist he's cute and i don't won't him to die."
I'm not sure which of those statements is more problematic: the belief that someone couldn't have committed a crime because he's attractive, or the belief that because a person is attractive, he doesn't need to be held accountable for a crime. Arguably even more chilling are messages from admirers such as this one on Facebook, which mingles infatuation with a casual reference to the massacre: "I love you, you bomb my heart."
What I do know is that sentiments like these (and others like them from the 6,500 people who've joined a Facebook group dubbed Dzhokar Tsarnaev Free Jahar Movement) illustrate a couple of significant trends in our culture.
First, for some folks, physical beauty is all that matters. Admittedly, people voicing sentiments like the ones above are likely young and highly impressionable. They're easy to dismiss because their viewpoint is so ridiculously at odds with the reality that the rest of us live in.
And yet …
In a culture in which physical beauty is ubiquitously enshrined as the ideal—on billboards, at magazine checkout stands, on television, indeed in almost every form of news and entertainment—it's naïve to assume those societal values haven't affected us in more subtle ways as well.
Perhaps that influence shows up when we feel bad about ourselves or judge ourselves harshly in comparison to such images. Perhaps it's giving preferential treatment, even in small ways, to those who are more attractive. We may not be willing to let terrorists off the hook because they are so "beautiful." But in other, less dramatic ways, what someone looks like may very much influence the way that we relate to them (or to ourselves).
Second, I believe this story is a startling illustration of postmodern influence at work.
Postmodernism isn't interested in objective, verifiable truth. Instead, what matters is subjective, individual "truth," truth that's often undergirded by intense emotions and personal experiences.
If I don't "feel" that someone who's attractive could have committed such a heinous crime, well, then, in my mind he didn't. It doesn't matter what the evidence suggests. What matters is the intensity of my feeling and the reality I'm creating and living in myself.
Again, this particular example is an extreme one. It's easily dismissed by anyone who's even remotely reasonable. Despite postmodernism's cultural ascendency, most of us do still submit to some baseline of reality, of right and wrong.
Postmodernism's emphasis on experience, on emotion, on individual "truth" and the inviolable sovereignty of what I think and believe is at work all around us, all the time. Apart from extreme stories such as this one, our society's understanding of right and wrong, of good and bad, of healthy and unhealthy is increasingly squishy, increasingly dependent upon each individual's subjective viewpoint.
What matters, we're told constantly, is what we feel and believe in our hearts to be true, not what anyone else thinks. In the end, however, that mindset is an ingredient in the recipe for a dangerous and deluding brand of narcissism—a narcissism that seems normal because everyone else is busy indulging it too.
Hopefully, we haven't been as deluded as some of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev's fans would seem to be. But we'd be wise to recognize that the same cultural forces that have led some to idolize a violent terrorist may very well at work in our lives, too, shaping the way we see the world and what we perceive to be real and true.
Maybe you've heard by now that the Reader's Digest has put out its list of the 100 most trusted people in America. Yes, there still is such a thing as a Reader's Digest. Trust me.
Anyhoo, what you may not have done is actually looked closely at that list. I think there is an interesting subtext buried in this prioritized group of trustworthy guys and gals that might be worth mulling.
What does it mean, for instance, that some of the nation's most prominent, well-known leaders are eclipsed by celebrities, media moguls and TV hosts? I mean, our president is way down the trust pyramid at number 65, just beneath … Adam Sandler. And the Supreme Court? Well, the public would far sooner give credence to Judge Judy's word.
Now, it is worth noting that this "who do you trust" list is based on the polled opinions of only 1,000 Americans. And, well, who knows who those folks were. (Or if they were telling the truth, for that matter.) Their Top 10 played out like this: 1. Tom Hanks; 2.Sandra Bullock; 3. Denzel Washington; 4. Meryl Streep; 5. Maya Angelou; 6. Steven Spielberg; 7. Bill Gates; 8. Alex Trebek; 9. Melinda Gates;10. Julia Roberts.
If you just look at the top four slots—which are all well-known actors—you might think the poll only included agents who happened to be questioned while waiting for the crosswalk light to change in front of Universal Studios. But taking it for granted that those polled peoples were actually made up of heartland America's average citizens, their first four trusted choices of Tom Hanks, Sandra Bullock, Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep actually say quite a lot.
I mean, sure, those four may in truth be fabulous, über-trustworthy sorts, but the fact is we the public don't really know them at all. We only know them from their characters who smile and figuratively put their arms around us up on the big screen. Yep, Forrest Gump did seem to be an earnest trustable sort, but that's not Tom Hanks. He and the other three in the top four are actually people whose job it is to create make-believe characters all the time—and then lie so well that we believe that's who they are.
In fact, half the people on the list are either actors, TV hosts or folks otherwise connected to big media infotainment. And maybe that makes sense. We tend to like people who are like us and, well, these people can sure seem like us at times. They're people we've had positive experiences with. With that focus, then, it makes perfect sense that we might have a tendency to push political figures down the list (let's face it, sometimes they've got all the credibility of those guys who want to sell you your own bridge in Brooklyn) and lift those friendly actors up.
Actors and TV hosts make us laugh, after all. We've conquered worlds with them, discussed social wrongs with them, lived in run-down towns as their neighbors, and made it through teary happy endings by their side. All those experiences were shaped for us with well-crafted scripts and warmly lit sets, but they seemed real. They seemed good. And by extension, they made us feel like better people as we scarfed our popcorn and imprinted our seat cushions.
Isn't it interesting, though, that most all of those entertainment frontmen have their own bridges to sell? They're selling, well, an ideal. They're selling a story—and very often, selling their character, too. After all, we have to like these people for the story to work.
Is it any wonder, then, that we want to buy into the person behind the character, too? Is it any wonder we want to trust that sale?
I'll be seeing Star Trek Into Darkness tonight—attending the screening with who knows how many costumed Ferengis and Klingons and perhaps the occasional Horta. And of all the movies I've had an opportunity to review this year, this may be the one I'm most intrigued to see. These Star Trek films almost always have something interesting to say about something—and often that "something" centers at least partly on faith.
Which, when you think about it, is strangely counterintuitive.
See, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry was one of the entertainment world's most prominent humanists. Yes, his humanism was fueled by boundless optimism: The future, Roddenberry told us, doesn't have to be bleak and depressing, filled with alien overlords or bodysnatchers or zombie apocalypses. Human ingenuity and technology will help us solve the problems of tomorrow. Roddenberry's future was sunny and vibrant—but one made without the help (he believed) of God or gods. And it's telling that Enterprise captains spent an inordinate amount of time tossing down one false deity or another.
Though raised a Baptist, Roddenberry was already quite skeptical of religion by the time he was a teen. "I guess from that time it was clear to me that religion was largely nonsense, largely magical, superstitious things," he told The Humanist in 1991. "In my own teen life, I just couldn't see any point in adopting something based on magic, which was obviously phony and superstitious."
So clear were Roddenberry's messages of religion-free enlightenment that Brannon Braga, who wrote for and produced three Star Trek series, argued that atheists could and should use the franchise as a sort of secular mythology—Kirk and Spock and McCoy subbing in for Abraham and Moses and Jesus. In 2006 at the International Atheist Conference in Iceland, he said:
Every episode and movie of Star Trek is a morality tale in which human beings find solutions to conflict through enlightenment and reason. Through science. Through wit and intellect. Through a belief in our potential as animals that can supercede our baser instincts. In Gene Roddenberry's imagining of the future … Earth is a paradise where we have solved all of our problems with technology, ingenuity, and compassion. There is no more hunger, war, or disease. And most importantly to the context of our meeting here today, religion is completely gone. Not a single human being on Earth believes in any of the nonsense that has plagued our civilization for thousands of years. … On Roddenberry's future Earth, everyone is an atheist. And that world is the better for it.
But with all due respect to Braga, that doesn't seem altogether true. Not if you judge the show by the litany of Bible verses it quoted or faith-themed episode titles it used or biblical allusions the show made.
In "The Gamesters of Triskelion" from the original series, Dr. McCoy volunteers to follow Mr. Spock on a dangerous mission, saying, "If you're going into the lion's den, you'll need a medical officer."
"Daniel, as I recall, had only his faith," Spock says. "But I welcome your company, Doctor."
It would seem that Braga's atheists of the future knew far more about theology and the Bible than some Christians do today. And even if all that knowledge was academic—that folks at Starfleet studied the Bible as one might study works of Plato or Shakespeare, without any spiritual passion—why then, in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, is Spock's lifeless body jettisoned out into space while Scotty plays "Amazing Grace" on the bagpipes? Seems a strange choice to play in an apparently godless universe.
Star Trek II (which, admittedly, only involved Roddenberry as a sort of adviser) was just brimming with spiritual, even Christian themes and allusions, from the "Genesis Device" (that would create a living world from a dead one in the blink of an eye) to Spock's deeply Christ-like sacrifice at the end. For those who haven't seen the film, Spock braves a fatal dose of radiation in order to repair the Enterprise so it can warp to safety.
"The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few," Spock tells his captain behind a thick veil of Plexiglass, "… or the one." Moments later, he breathes his last—having sacrificed everything so that others might live long and prosper. Spock becomes, in that moment, a servant-king. And in his death new life is found.
Of course, it wasn't Spock's last breath, after all. The Vulcan is quite literally raised from the dead the very next movie. Sorta fitting, I suppose.
And here's another irony: The same tune that sent Spock's body into the great beyond was played during Gene Roddenberry's own memorial service. Go figure.
For all I hear, and for all we at Plugged In sometimes say, about a dearth of value and faith in entertainment, I think it's rather difficult to make a purely secular work of art. The very act of creating such art reflects, in a way, God's own creative nature: When Genesis tells us that we were made in His image, I wonder if it's possible that our instinct to tell stories, paint pictures and write songs are a big part of that image. He creates things—created us—out of love. And we create out of love, too. Neither love nor creation would be possible without God, and I wonder if there's an aspect—a hint—of God (even if it can be terribly misguided and go horribly awry) in those most sacred of impulses.
We can ignore God. We can blaspheme Him. We can deny He exists. But if we're wrong and He does exist, there's no way we can escape Him. We cannot sever our relationship with Him completely. We may close our eyes to Him, but God still knows us. After all, we are His creation. And our hearts long to beat with His, whether we know it or not, acknowledge it or not. We're like pots made for a purpose, and even broken we still bear our Master's prints. Gene Roddenberry had very little use for God when he was alive. But that doesn't mean that God didn't have use for him.
When we read through the Bible, we find scads of examples how God used those who didn't worship or honor Him for His own perfect plans. And I think it's the same today. Star Trek is covered in God's fingerprints—and every so often they're obvious enough for us to see. Will it be the case with Into Darkness? I don't know yet. But I'm looking forward to finding out.
When I first started writing for Plugged In, the publishing world had just begun transitioning away from lead-based movable type in hand-cranked printing presses.
OK. A colleague just reminded me that it was actually a few years after that, when computers were starting to move away from using those paper data cards.
Maybe those walk-uphill-both-ways-in-the-snow stories aren't exactly the truth. But back in the day (I joined the Plugged In team in early 1996) we were still taking day-trips to the library to do research by hunting through its (paper) collection of newspapers and university research publications.
The only computer with Internet access at our office was the department manager's. And she wouldn't share nearly as often as the rest of us needed her to. (Wanted her to.)
We published a single newsletter each month back then, containing two TV reviews, two movie reviews and six music reviews. Now we're cranking our way through bigger numbers than that every week. And you don't have to wait a month to read our review of, say, The Great Gatsby.
It's a blessing to be sure, this rapid flow of information. But it can be a curse, too. And certainly not just for Plugged In. Consider the world that is the modern 24/7 news cycle.
In her cnet.com article "Social Media as Breaking News Feed: Worse Information, Faster," Molly Wood writes:
If speed is the currency of the modern information era, misinformation is the increasingly high cost. Some, like Matthew Ingram at Paid Content, argue that journalism is made better by multiple sources. … It's not. We have more information, but it's a morass of truths, half-truths, and what we used to call libel. It's fast, but it's bad. And bad information is a cancer that just keeps growing. I'd argue the opposite of Ingram: that the hyperintense pressure of real-time reporting from Twitter, crowdsourcing from Reddit, and constant mockery from an online community that is empirically skewed toward negativity and criticism is actually hurting journalism. It's making all the news worse. When CNN makes a mistake, it matters more, but CNN can't afford to be slower than Twitter. Talk about a lose-lose.
I'm determined to keep working diligently to ensure that Plugged In continues to cross t's and dot i's with enough editorial acumen to skirt that morass of truths and half-truths Molly Wood mentions. Certainly well enough to avoid libel! But this is a reality we all face. The flood of information we live in can wash us away sometimes. The wave of need-it-now work can make us skip steps and stop sweating the small stuff that's not really small stuff. It can make us speak first and think later. If ever.
It was a glitzy, gaudy showdown between rich, somewhat shady tycoons at the multiplex this weekend. At one end we found Tony Stark—a flawed techno-genius with a penchant for spectacular houses, fast cars and rip-roaring parties. At the other was Jay Gatsby—a flawed socio-genius with a penchant for … well, spectacular houses, fast cars and rip-roaring parties.
The biggest difference between the two? Probably the suits. Gatsby has his custom made and sometimes favors a light shade of pink. Tony, meanwhile, stitches his own. Out of metal.
Now, what suit do you think would make a stronger impression at a spring barbecue?
For the second straight weekend, Tony's duds in Iron Man 3 made quite the impression at the box office—turning heads with an estimated $72.5 million haul. It was enough to give Tony and his titanic team their second straight box office win and make Iron Man 3 officially the biggest movie of the year thus far. The Marvel superhero flick has collected $284.9 million, meaning it should crest the $300 million mark in about, oh, seven seconds. Six, five, four …
But mourn not for The Great Gatsby, Daisy. Director Baz Luhrmann's update on the classic F. Scott Fitzgerald tale roared into second with a strong $51.1 million showing of its own. That's the fourth-strongest second-place opening ever. And while that might not be enough to buy all of West Egg outright, you can still order plenty of tailored shirts with that kind of cash.
Holdover Pain and Gain apparently staved off a strong challenge from newcomer Peeples to snag third place, earning an estimated $5 million en route. Peeples, a crass romantic comedy that borrowed some audience goodwill from Tyler Perry's good name, earned about $4.9 million for fourth.
The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 held onto a place in the top 5, catching another $4.7 million.
Will Iron Man 3 be able to three-peat? Tony's suit may be nifty and all, but I don't know whether it'll be able to withstand the phaser power coming to bear next week.
Final figures update: 1. Iron Man 3, $72.5 million; 2. The Great Gatsby, $50.1 million; 3. Pain and Gain, $5 million; 4. Peeples, $4.61 million; 5. 42, $4.59 million;.
Forget words. Pictures are where it's at in 2013.
In the always-evolving online and social media landscape, images, not text, are in the ascendant these days. And that trend is making picture-oriented sites such as Pinterest increasingly important to marketers.
"Social [media] is very rapidly shifting away from text," says Apu Gupta, whose company, Curalate, helps retail clients such as Gap and Saks try to maximize their impact on sites like Pinterest. "It's going to change shopping behavior both online and offline."
But the growing emphasis on images is bigger than just marketing and consumerism. Gupta again:
This is the direction the world is moving—everyone has a cameraphone in their pocket, and the whole web is becoming high def. In many ways we're circling back to the days of our ancestors. Back when we all lived in caves we painted on walls. Now we're pinning and reblogging and doing various other things to express our aspirations.
As a word guy, I aspire to crafting catchy sentences for a living. So stories like these make me wince. And yet, I have to admit that I see evidence of this trend all over the place, especially online. Pictures—bigger pictures, and more of 'em—are simply everywhere. Call it the Pinterest-ification of the Web, if you will.
If you're not familiar with Pinterest, it's a social media site where users can "pin" images of things they're "interested" in. Hence the name. It's not much more than a personal, digital bulletin board, really.
Some users augment their chosen images with text descriptions or comments. But words aren't the point. The point of Pinterest is visually capturing one's personal vision of the good life, using pictures to represent what such a life looks like. Pinterest reminds me of the personalized collages that junior high students the world over have made for decades, cutting and pasting images from magazines and catalogs that that represent them, their identity or, indeed, their hopes and dreams.
As Gupta noted, Pinterest's graphic-heavy approach to presenting content online seems to be spreading. I see it all over the place, actually. Lots of sites now offer big, tiled rows of images, à la Pinterest.
For instance, eBay (where, I'll admit, I spend a fair bit of time lurking), has introduced a new feature that includes a tiled, personalized page of listings for anything similar to what you've bought or searched for recently. At first, I found it kind of annoying. Recently, though, I've found myself scrolling through row upon row of pictures. And it's actually kind of scary how well eBay "knows" what other products I might find attractive.
And then there's website design in general. Go to billboard.com, usatoday.com, mtv.com or many other news and information outlets, and you'll find ever-bigger pictures (and, in some case, giant-sized text to go with it). The Pinterest aesthetic has clearly caught on. If we want to push it one step further, Microsoft's latest operating system, Windows 8, borrows from this tiled-image trend as well.
I think there are at least two potential—and significant—outcomes related to our culture's infatuation with images.
First, I wonder how much the increasing emphasis on pretty pictures makes wading through big blocks of text (like this one) more difficult. How might this influx of digital images be distracting or undermining our ability to read and think deeply, to exercise sustained attention to a written, textual argument?
Personally, I know that I struggle to pay attention more than I used to when reading long articles or books. I'm sure there are any number of reasons for that. But I do wonder how much the Internet has trained my brain to expect some sort of satisfying visual hit.
Perhaps more significantly, I wonder how this tsunami of aspirational imagery might be shaping and influencing us on a more spiritual level. The most alluring pictures, after all, can become focal points for our deepest longings. But if it's an image of something we may never actually acquire—like, say, in my case, a Lamborghini Aventador—what is the value of fixing my eyes upon it? It may be nothing more than a harmless fantasy. But make no mistake: it is a fantasy.
And if it's an image that we believe will bring fulfillment if only we can possess it, at what point does such a desire cross over from being a cry of our hearts to something that might be idolatrous?
God has created our hearts to be filled by Him. And yet humanity has, from its earliest days, excelled at finding idolatrous substitutes. In the garden of Eden, Eve was attracted to the forbidden fruit because it was, as Genesis 3:6 puts it, "a delight to the eyes." Fast-forward into the book of Exodus, and Aaron's golden calf represented a shiny-but-impotent stand-in for God.
In the New Testament, the Apostle John warns us against longing too deeply for the things of this world: "Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever" (1 John 2:15-17).
In his 1988 song "If I Stand," Rich Mullins put it this way: "The stuff of earth competes for the allegiance I owe only to the Giver of all good things." Quite honestly, I struggle at times to offer up my heart's allegiance to the right things. After all, "stuff of earth" can seem pretty alluring … and all the more so when so many places we set our eyes are trying to capture our attention with some sparkling version of "the good life."
The onslaught of images isn't likely to abate any time soon—on Pinterest or anywhere else, for that matter. Given that reality, our challenge is to set our eyes and hearts on what matters most, just as the Apostle Paul prayed in Ephesians that we might: "I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe."
One of the entries in my prayer journal is that God will raise up talented young (and older) people to help redeem the arts. By that I mean I'm asking our Creator to give us not more preachers and missionaries (although I ask for that, too), but strongly committed individuals who will use their writing, acting, singing, directing, coding, producing, designing, filming, lighting, animating, etc. talents for kingdom purposes. There are actually quite a few folks like that in Hollywood, Nashville and Silicon Valley. But judging by what often passes as suitable entertainment these days, we could use a whole lot more.
One person who agrees with that assessment is John David Ware, founder and director of an annual short film contest called the 168 Film Project. Launched in 2003, the competition gives teams a mere 168 hours (seven days) to write and produce a 10-minute short film on a Bible verse drawn randomly just before the contest begins. I spoke with John a few days ago and found out that 120 teams are expected to participate in this year's contest (you have until May 13 to sign up). That's huge growth in 10 years. Here's a brief historical snapshot from their website:
At the first 168 Film Festival, thirteen films screened in Evans Chapel at Bel Air Presbyterian Church to a standing room only crowd. "I am sure that some of those folks came to see how bad these short films based on Bible verses would be," said Ware, "But, they came and saw how good they were and it created a buzz in both churches and in the filmmaking community." There were fifty-three entries the second year and in the first ten years, over 600 films have been screened, launching careers and changing lives all over the USA and in over 20 countries. "168" films have touched people in places as diverse as Indonesia, Kyrgyzstan, Kenya, Russia, Azerbaijan, Japan, China and many others. We are excited to energize filmmakers to produce art that celebrates the truth of God's Word.
To get an idea of what can be accomplished in a mere 168 hours (plus 10 days to edit), check out the 2011 video winner.
This year, partner EcoLight Studios (a Christian soup to nuts filmmaking/distribution company) has sweetened the pot, offering up to $1 million to the winning team. Now, those big bucks aren't to be spent on a yacht stocked with caviar off the coast of Nassau, but will instead be given to the winners as seed money to write and produce a feature-length film. Talk about redeeming the arts!
If you're captivated by this idea, you'll want to check out a few more videos, such as this peek behind the scenes, and this humorous race to meet the strict 168 hour turn-in deadline.
Let's all be praying for these filmmakers. Some are new to the craft. Some are longtime veterans. But all share a common passion—using the art of filmmaking to share God's truth. And as a guy who reviews a lot of cruddy films each year, I'm excited about an American Idol-esque path for talented individuals to break into the difficult world of feature-film creation.
If you're like everybody else in the world, you've probably seen all types of movies—from good movies to not-so-good movies to bad movies to Adam Sandler movies. But chances are you haven't seen an atom movie. Check it out.
OK, it looks like some kind of throwback thing from the early days of Pong video games, I know. But as the movie says, you're actually watching a film casted and created from a bunch of carbon monoxide atoms. Yep, the basest of life's building blocks. And just in case you're wondering just how teeny tiny an atom really is, you can get an amusing idea from this clip.
So obviously IBMs movie is a pretty incredible feat. And it's made even more so by the fact that those crazy scientists had to do everything in a vacuum ('cause you don't want unwanted particles dropping into the middle of your shoot), had to film at an average temperature of -268° Celsius (because those feisty little atoms had to be slowed to a manageable frozen state) and they needed to stage everything by pushing and pulling atoms around with a needle sharpened to a single atom itself.
Phew. Talk about a lot of work for a 94-second commercial.
Of course, they didn't do all that just for the commercial. Or for the hope of creating a feature-length film full of amusing atom antics. It's for something much bigger, or as Chandrasekhar Narayan, director of science and technology at IBM Research, told Slate, "This project is about understanding how to guide materials at atomic levels into formations where they can exhibit interesting properties." Translation: We want to store all our junk on an atomic level. That may sound like rather ho-hum info. But if you think about it, it's pretty cool stuff. "Early work we did about a year ago indicated we need somewhere in the neighborhood of just 12 atoms in order to store data for hours or days," Narayan said.
I know we're talking about something so incredibly tiny that it's almost impossible to imagine. But think of it in these terms: Remember how neat it felt when you could save an armful of DVDs on your sizable computer hard drive? Well if they make this new atom tech stable, you'll be able to save all the movies ever made in the history of man—including all those lost celluloid masterpieces that are rotting away in some forgotten vault—on a storage device somewhere around the size of your fingernail. (Talk about scratching that movie itch!)
Here's to the future.
I'm writing this post because of a single word. It's not my word, I'm loathe to admit, because I love it. It's a word used by Noah Berlatsky, writing for The Atlantic about why we all love certain things in our culture so much.
Why we all love the same certain things.
The word is perspicacity, and it's defined by Webster as "the quality or state of being perspicacious; especially : acuteness of discernment."
Naturally, my ears perk up when I hear any word related to discernment, but doubly so when it relates to the acuteness of discernment. That's the lofty goal Plugged In has been aiming toward for a couple of decades now, so I wanted to know more about what Mr. Berlatsky wanted to say:
It's been a long while since a cultural arbiter of any standing has been willing to just flat-out dismiss pop culture, or to insist that massive popularity is inevitably linked to massive banality. Instead we seem to have reached the point—perhaps especially with the snootier television dramas—where popularity seems to confer critical bona fides, while critical bona fides feed into popularity, which in turn confers critical bona fides, in an ever-ascending spiral of adulation and hype.It's natural that people talk about popular things, of course; that's what it means to be popular. But the death of academic pop-culture snobbery and the scrabble for Internet readers seems to have created a particularly vociferous and endless chorus of group think. Orwell was wrong: It's not Big Brother controlling your thoughts. It's millions of pundits chanting Don Draper's name, sacrificing slivers of everyone's brain to the hungry god of their own much-touted perspicacity. Cultural studies and the academies' enthusiastic embrace of pop was supposed to release us all from the grinding heel of elitist snobbery, but in the end it just seems like it means that we have to kowtow even more abjectly to the flavor of the moment than we ever did to the canon.
Did you catch that word? How could you miss it, right? What he's driving at, it seems, is that he himself isn't buying into the way the media dictates what we should and shouldn't like when it comes to entertainment. HBO's Game of Thrones, for instance. And AMC's Mad Men and Breaking Bad. That we all need to exercise a bit more of our own acute discernment instead of merely relying on the "experts" to do all our thinking for us.
And that goes for Plugged In, too, I'll say right away. It's a biblical principle rooted in God's desire for His children to own their own salvation, their own relationship with Him, and not let the preacher or the church or the modern-day media own it for us. Or, worse, reject the message of the Good News altogether. We read in Acts 17:11, "Now the Berean Jews were of more noble character than those in Thessalonica, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true."
So I really do like the way Noah Berlatsky thinks about this issue. But not his personal entertainment choices, some of which he also reveals. And that's precisely the point, isn't it? That's what perspicacity is all about. And when perspicacity is linked to Scripture and God's so-much-higher-than-ours thinking, well, the English language can't even handle the wealth of insight that can bring.
It's too bad that Tony Stark's Malibu mansion was blown to smithereens. It was a pretty place. But here's a bit of good news: With the moolah Iron Man 3 collected this weekend, methinks Tony will be able to build a shiny new crib. In fact, he could probably build a spare—you know, just in case of another helicopter attack.
Iron Man 3 earned a truly (ahem) marvelous $175.3 million domestically this weekend (estimated, of course), winning the box office crown and forcing movie-biz statisticians to work overtime. It was the second-highest opening ever, trailing only fellow Marvel stablemate The Avengers (which opened last year to $207.4 million). So successful was its debut weekend that the Robert Downey Jr. flick is already the second-highest grossing of the year—trailing Oz the Great and Powerful by less than $50 million. Methinks that, this time next week, Iron Man will likely be first.
And as impressive as the titanium trickster has been domestically, it's arguably doing better overseas. Add in grosses from foreign markets, and Iron Man 3 has already cleared $680.1 million. Take that ARC Reactor to the bank, Jarvis.
Another bit of statistical trivial: Iron Man 3 earned 23 times that of Pain and Gain, its nearest competitor. It's hardly a surprise that Pain was dumped from its top slot: Mark Wahlberg et al could pump all the iron they wanted and still not match the iron-clad superhero. But the 62% drop the flick saw in its week-over-week gross was still a little startling. Last week's champ earned just $7.6 million this weekend en route to its second place finish.
The biopic 42 slid into third for the second straight week, collecting $6.2 million along the base path. Oblivion snagged a fourth-place finish and $5.8 million. And The Croods held onto a top five slot for the seventh straight week, grinding its way to $4.2 million.
Expect a steep slide from Iron Man come next week—but even if it experiences a Pain and Gain-level attrition rate, that'd still leave it with about an $80 million weekend, putting it in position to potentially claim a second straight box office crown. Or could The Great Gatsby—another ludicrously wealthy, well-meaning anti-hero—roar past Tony Stark and Co. in his cream-colored Rolls Royce? We'll know next week.
Final figures update: 1. Iron Man 3: $174.1 million; 2. Pain and Gain, $7.5 million; 3. 42, $6.1 million; 4. Oblivion, $5.6 million; 5. The Croods, $4.2 million.
TV networks better be perking up their ears, 'cause baby it looks like the times they are a-changing. And right quick, too.
For a while now, the big TV studios have been fretting about declining viewership. Morgan Stanley analyst Benjamin Swinburne and his team published a shocking set of numbers earlier this year, pointing out that old-school TV viewership has had a 50% collapse since 2002. And of course as viewers run to other sources for their entertainment, that means a whole lot of ad dollars are slipping away, too. Why do you think cable companies refuse to let you pick the TV channels that you want à la carte? It's because the studio contracts say "all or nothing" and force the cable guys to keep the bucks rolling in.
The studios may be digging in their heels and hoping that we, the viewing public, come to our senses and get back in line. But there are other forward-thinkers out there who are suggesting everybody do just the opposite.
Providers such as Hulu, Netflix and now Amazon are flirting with a system overhaul by putting their clout and bucks behind original TV programing. The goal, of course, is to be able to sell the public what it wants when it wants it. Just earlier this year, Plugged In cast an eye on Netflix's House of Cards, a well-reviewed original political thriller starring Kevin Spacey. And if merely creating an original series wasn't enough, Netflix also made every single episode available immediately upon release, much to the joy of binge viewers everywhere.
As I just mentioned, Amazon is getting into the act as well. They may not have as big a video subscription base as providers like Hulu and Netflix, but they've got the cash. And they just released a group of 14 scripted pilots (8 adult shows and 6 for kids) on their Amazon Prime streaming service, some featuring some pretty recognizable performers (John Goodman heads the cast of Alpha House, for instance; Bebe Neuwirth of Cheers and Frasier fame stars in Browsers). They're inviting the public in to check them out for free and opine on which ones they like.
Amazon reported that over this past weekend, 80% of its most-streamed videos were those 14 pilots. Viewers left thousands of reviews, giving feedback and then rating the shows on a scale of one to five stars (the implication being that public reactions will help guide the Amazon producers in their development choices). Of course, I'm sure Amazon is also hoping that when you drop by to check out the pilots, you'll want to stick around for the whole video-streaming enchilada. But no matter how you slice it, it looks like people are appreciating the potential of choice.
I stopped by Amazon to check out a handful of the shows myself. And I definitely walked away with some strong reactions to it all.
The first thing that hit me was the creativity of the ideas I saw. The shows were fresh. Some were pretty out-there and edgy. And none of them appeared to have been run through a focus group to make sure they hit all the proper PC buttons.
Neuwirth's show Browsers, for instance, is a comedy about four twentysomething interns who start working for a huge online Huffington Post-like newsmagazine. The characters are quirky and appealing. The script is funny and well-written. But here's the risky part: It's a musical. Out of the blue, the show's characters are apt to suddenly make their point or advance the storyline by leaping into original staged tunes. And for the most part the musical blending works pretty well.
On the other hand … the show can easily veer to the profanely foul. Neuwirth's Russian-accented news maven, for instance, sings a comedic romp, making it clear that she is "someone with whom not to f‑‑‑!" (I did mention it was edgy, right?)
And that's the flip side of all that non-network freedom and creativity. Between us, my editor and I watched five of the eight adult-themed comedies, and all were rife with obscenities, illegal drug use and sometimes very lewd sexual situations. Add in some gory special effects violence in one and even some bare-breasted nudity in another, and you've definitely crossed well afield of family room TV fare.
Will those latter elements be adjusted and/or dialed back if any of these pilots gets a green light for further episodes? Well, that's hard to say. But one thing's for sure: Like everything else, the world of entertainment is shifting and stretching in brand-new directions. Give it five years and the face of TV will be hard to recognize.
I read a funny story recently about an old farmer who, while visiting the local feed store, overheard one gentleman telling another that he'd discovered podcasting. A bit confused, the farmer asked, "Casting pods? Wouldn't it work better to take the seeds out before you throw 'em?"
Of course, these days everybody knows what a podcast is … right? Not necessarily. Coming up with a clear definition isn't as easy as you might think. The "podcast" label has been applied to a fairly broad range of online audio and video content. Some of those programs are little more than an archive of radio or television highlights. Other podcasts boast original content. But even then, production values vary wildly. They can sound professional and slickly packaged, or they can come from a single fan armed only with a microphone, a computer and a passion for Minecraft, marshmallow Peeps or the local lacrosse team. I've even listened to podcasts about podcasts. I guess that's part of their charm.
Personally, I love casting pods.
I was introduced to the concept back in 2006. That's when the team behind Focus on the Family's long-running radio drama Adventures in Odyssey invited me to co-host their new, biweekly podcast. What a blessing. We've escorted fans of that beloved series behind the scenes by interviewing the actors, writers, producers and sound designers. We also run contests, give away free episodes and share fan feedback. Yet as much as I enjoy my role on that podcast, another one is even closer to my heart.
I've been part of our Plugged In ministry since 1992, editing our print magazine for 16 years. Yet for all of that writing, we could never speak as directly and personally to parents as we can through The Official Plugged In Podcast. Each week for the past four years, I've sat down with our editors—a fraternity of Christian dads at various stages of life—to talk about entertainment and parenting. Our listeners hear more than just reviews. They hear the emotion behind the words, as well as personal reactions and stories. We disagree sometimes, which is fine. And we like to laugh, mostly at ourselves. Those are things people will never hear in our online reviews, no matter how detailed we make them.
If you're a regular listener to The Official Plugged In Podcast, thanks for making us a part of your week. We appreciate that. On the other hand, if you've never tuned in or haven't joined us in a while, click this link to hear a very special episode. We're actually celebrating a milestone. Our 200th podcast features highlights from more than a dozen interviews with all sorts of interesting people (and one muppet) who have unique perspectives on today's media culture. Once you've heard the clips, feel free to come back and post a comment about which ones stood out to you. I'd love to hear your thoughts.
Oh, and if you run into that old farmer, just smile and nod.
I've been re-reading F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby the last few nights, prepping for the release of the film version starring Leonardo DiCaprio (coming out May 10). It's my third time through the novel and each time, I like it more.
Look, I'm obviously a writer. I mess around with language every day, and I know how to string nouns and verbs together with a certain efficiency. But I'm astounded at the ability of writers like Fitzgerald: He and I use the very same words and follow the same rules of grammar, and yet his work is something outside my abilities on even my best day. For me, reading Fitzgerald's stuff is a little like playing a round of golf with Tiger Woods. You just have to marvel.
Take this snippet, when our narrator renews acquaintances with his relation Daisy, Gatsby's love interest:
I looked back at my cousin, who began to ask me questions in her low, thrilling voice. It was the kind of voice that the ear follows up and down, as if each speech is an arrangement of notes that will never be played again. Her face was sad and lovely with bright things in it, bright eyes and a bright passionate mouth, but there was an excitement in her voice that men who had cared for her found difficult to forget: a singing compulsion, a whispered "Listen," a promise that she had done gay, exciting things just a while since and that there were gay, exciting things hovering in the next hour.
The whole book is like that. How can someone write like that for 200 pages?
I'm not the only Gatsby fan, of course. Hollywood's been repeatedly charmed by Fitzgerald's classic tale, shoehorning it onto the big screen several times. The first was released in 1926, the year after the book was published. Fitzgerald allegedly received $13,000 for the film rights, but he wasn't pleased with the final results. "We saw 'The Great Gatsby' in the movies," Fitzgerald's wife, Zelda, wrote to their daughter. "It's ROTTEN and awful and terrible and we left."
They were one of the first moviegoers to give voice to a now time-worn cliché: "The book is better."
In an age in which our entertainments seem to cater to our every whim—our schedules, our sensibilities, our ever-dwindling attention spans—the old-fashioned book is still the most personal and malleable of them all. We're free to picture the characters exactly as we'd like. We embrace what's most compelling and skim the boring parts. Books offer a sense of intimacy with story that movies—in spite of all the sight and sound and special effects they bring to the table—just can't match.
I appreciated The Chronicles of Narnia movies, for instance, but none of them have the charm of the original C.S. Lewis stories. I've seen a couple of BBC versions of Charles Dickens' Bleak House, but it'd be impossible to bring the fullness of the book—with all of its pathos and humor and tragedy and languid beauty—to any screen. The Harry Potter movies have earned critical praise and a boatload of money, but none of the films are probably as beloved to fans as the original novels.
But is that always true? I thought The Lord of the Rings movies were far more stirring than the books: One can only swim through so many poems written in elvish before one's attention begins to wander.
And yet, as much as I loved the movies, it was reading the books in junior high that gave me nightmares of Ringwraiths skulking around in my bedroom.
I don't think that one form of storytelling is necessarily "better" than another. But I do think they engage different parts of our brains. Movies are more immediate and visceral. The sights and sounds impact us more, and it can make even familiar moments in the books come to life in a way that we never imagined. I expect part of the popularity of The Bible miniseries was in helping audiences see a very familiar book in a new, more tangible way: the dirt of Jerusalem, the blood on the battlefields.
But the story itself, I think, sinks deeper roots when we read. The feel of the language drills into our psyches. They become a part of us, I think, in ways that movies—or at least most movies—can't. I've watched some hard movies with difficult messages. But none of them have challenged me in the same way that, say, Heart of Darkness or All Quiet on the Western Front did. Those stories stuck with me, and still linger today.
I'm looking forward to seeing what the new Great Gatsby movie looks like. Perhaps it'll be a good movie. Maybe even great.
But I'm pretty sure it won't be as good as the book. Not for me, anyway.
[Note: Focus on the Family offers book reviews at thrivingfamily.com. You can find them here.]
Last week one of our Culture Clips blasted Barbie for her not-so-natural shape and the way that shape might influence young girls' perception of their own bodies. Read this before I go on:
Trying to counter what it calls "an epidemic of body hatred," rehabs.com is currently showing its users how impossible it would be to look like a Barbie doll, even with an eating disorder. According to the section of its site called Dying to Be Barbie, the ubiquitous doll is a physiological impossibility: Her neck's too thin to hold her head up. Her feet would force her to walk on all fours. Her waist is so thin that she'd only have room for half her liver and a "few inches of intestine."
This week it's Candy Land under the microscope. Yes, that most innocuous of children's games we have all played, Candy Land.
The classic board game Candy Land has gotten another makeover, and some aren't thrilled with the results this time around. Why? Because board stars Queen Frostine and Princess Lolly look distinctly more slinky than previous incarnations. "Candy Land isn't the only classic that has, without our notice, gotten a hot makeover. (And I'm not the only one who finds this evolution alarming.)," writes Peggy Orenstein in The Atlantic. "The Disney Princesses have grown gradually more skinny and coy over time. And, check out Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite, Trolls (now called 'Trollz'). Even Care Bears and My Little Pony have been put on a diet. When our kids play with toys that we played with, we assume that they are the same as they were when we were younger. But they aren't. Not at all. Our girls (and our boys) are now bombarded from the get-go with images of women whose bodies range from unattainable to implausible (Disney Princesses, anyone?)."
What's next? Chutes and Ladders? Hi Ho! Cherry-O?
Now, I don't actually disagree with any of the criticisms leveled against these kinds of toys and games. I really am not a big fan of sexualizing in any way the feminine forms that appear on merchandize targeting tots. But I'm also starting to get an inkling that collectively we've given up the fight against such things.
And by giving up the fight I mean we're complaining more about everything.
How can this be? Isn't the idea of complaining about things at the very core of fighting against them in our modern commercial marketplace? No. Not really. That would be not buying them. And we're all still buying this stuff in droves. So I'm starting to think that we're all talking out of both sides of our mouths. Or, more aptly, talking out of one side of our mouths while shoveling cash out of the other side of our wallets. Surrounding ourselves with complaining just makes us feel better about the spending somehow.
Lamenting the sorry state of our culture has indeed become almost a national pastime. From the criticisms that fly about the gross availability of guns in the aftermath of a tragedy, all the way to us here at Plugged In harping about how bad Hollywood has gotten lately.
Now, since I either write or edit most of Plugged In's harping, you can probably guess that I'm not actively advocating an end to all public discourse revolving around dissatisfaction over our culture and the products it creates. But I do think we need to be careful not to slip into the trap of letting the waves of retorts around us slowly become background noise.
There are things we can do about Barbie. There are things we can do about Candy Land. There are things we can do about R-rated movies. We can make discerning decisions about how and when and whether those things come into our homes. Into our hearts.
I know sometimes it seems inadequate to "merely" focus on ourselves. Lame, even. I feel that, acutely at times. Nothing's going to change if I'm the only one who refuses to go see Pain & Gain. HBO won't cancel Game of Thrones just because I get rid of my satellite service. Mattel certainly won't stop its production of Barbie the second they hear about how I kicked ours to the curb.
But the same sorts of things can be said about voting. And feeding the poor. And spreading Christ's Gospel.
So don't let the dull roar around you deaden your senses. Don't let complaints (our complaints, my complaints) about entertainment make you feel like something is already being done—and so you don't have to do quite as much yourself.
You could say that our pain was Paramount Pictures' gain this weekend.
Paramount's kinda-sorta truthy dark comedy Pain & Gain, starring Mark Wahlberg, muscled its way to the top of the box office, flexing its box office biceps with a $20 million gross and clean-and-jerking the weekend's crown over its steroid-addled head. Sure, Plugged In didn't like the thing. "Tell me again what's funny about torture, murder and barbecuing human remains?" wrote our intrepid reviewer Adam Holz. But the trailers didn't really mention the whole barbecuing thing, and audiences traipsed into the theaters en masse. Or, at least, what qualifies for en masse before the summer movie season launches in earnest.
If Oblivion had been able to replicate its first weekend gross, it would've bested Wahlberg and company and taken its second straight win. Alas, it lost about 53% of its audience and had to settle for a second place, $17.4 million finish.
The inspirational biopic 42 slid into third with a $10.7 million weekend, spoiling The Big Wedding on its opening weekend. The star-spangled, R-rated romantic comedy was jilted by audiences, making just $7.5 million. Its makers could well be crying in their own punchbowls right about now.
The Croods, now in its sixth week, still showed remarkable resiliency for a troupe of animated Cro-Magnons. Its $6.6 million take was enough for the film to snag fifth place and brought its 2013 total take to a nice, tidy $163 million.
Of course, that total could look a bit puny next week with the coming of Iron Man 3—the first big dog of the summer movie season. The superhero flick made the equivalent of $195.3 million overseas in its first weekend out of the gate, leading some to believe that its domestic opening could be truly titanic. As a number of armor-plated nemeses have learned over the years, you don't mess with Tony Stark when he straps on a metal suit.
Final figures update: 1. Pain & Gain, $20.4 million; 2. Oblivion, $17.8 million; 3. 42, $10.7 million; 4. The Big Wedding, $7.6 million; 5. The Croods, 6.7 million..
The list of celebrities known for their boorish, selfish, obnoxious behavior is notoriously long. I'm not going to name names, here, but you know who I'm talking about: the stars who believe the world revolves around them, who act as if the normal rules of morality and social propriety don't apply to them at all.
These folks end up on tabloid covers week in and week out. Their seemingly never-ending string of poor choices and narcissistic behaviors mean their pictures and shenanigans are never far from the top of the page on celeb gossip sites like TMZ or Radar Online.
To borrow from Santa Claus, we might call it the celebrity naughty list.
But there's another list, too. It might actually be longer, but you'd never know it because the celebrities who end up here are so, well, nice that you never hear much about them unless they're accepting an award. You know, folks like Tom Hanks or Jennifer Lawrence, among others.
Until last week, most of us probably would have agreed that actress Reese Witherspoon owned a very solid spot on the nice list. But when her husband, Jim Toth, got pulled over in Atlanta last week because a police officer thought he might be driving under the influence, Witherspoon made a pretty shocking play to join those on the dark side.
Toth was indeed arrested for drunk driving, but not before Witherspoon gave the officer a piece of her mind … and managed to get arrested for disorderly conduct herself.
"Do you know my name?" she demanded of officer James Pyland. A bit later she added, "You're about to find out who I am," as well as, "You are going to be on the national news."
Turns out, no one much cared that Trooper First Class James Pyland was doing his job. But the always-salivating industrial gossip complex tasted blood in the water. Soon the "Good Girl Gone Bad" meme was all over the Internet. And so it was Reese Witherspoon making the national news—and not in a good way—as she quickly shuffled her membership from the nice list to the naughty one.
Personally, I was surprised and perhaps a little disappointed in Witherspoon's seeming entitlement complex. "Just another self-centered celeb after all," I quickly judged.
But then Witherspoon did something that's a bit less common in these situations. She issued an apology three days later in which she took specific responsibility for her poor response to the situation:
I clearly had one drink too many and I am deeply embarrassed about the things I said. It was definitely a scary situation and I was frightened for my husband, but that is no excuse. I was disrespectful to the officer who was just doing his job. I have nothing but respect for the police and I'm very sorry for my behavior.
Now, a cynic—and I have to admit, I have a cynical side—could dismiss a statement like this as simply doing the necessary damage control. And that's likely true to some extent. That said, I was still impressed by Witherspoon's willingness to own her bad choices ("I clearly had one drink too many," and "I was disrespectful") and to apologize for those choices ("I'm very sorry for my behavior").
This template is actually not far from the way my wife and I try to help our children, who are 2, 4 and 6 years old, apologize to each other: naming the bad choice and saying that they're sorry for it. No matter how poor the choice may be, no matter how hard the consequences associated with that choice, we strive to distinguish between making a bad decision and being a bad person.
Too often, I wonder if we fail to extend the same courtesy to those in the celebrity world. We're shocked when someone on the "nice" list does something self-centered. And we tend to think, almost unconsciously, that those on the "naughty" list are beyond redemption, doomed to keep repeating their bad choices 'til the bitter end.
I think the value of Reese Witherspoon's run-in with the law is in reminding us that we're actually not so different from her after all. Even if we'd say we spend most of our time on the nice side of the ledger, given the right circumstances, we too might find ourselves acting out just like she did in an embarrassing, high-pressure moment.
Our meltdowns likely won't end up as front page news on TMZ. But when we have them, we, too, need to own our choices, accept the consequences and say sorry to those we've hurt. And by the grace of God, His gracious offer of forgiveness in Christ guarantees that the hope of real change and redemption from failure is always available to us—no matter how "naughty" our choices have been.
There was a time when parents waited eagerly to hear what their baby's first word might be. Was that an oddly muffled belch, or did she just say "daderooo?" I remember the day when my son first blatted out the word "ball" and I was suddenly having daydreams of a boy with an NBA career and backboard-breaking slam-dunks.
Of course, that sort of early wordplay was for yesteryear's kids. Today's tiny tots are sure to be saying things like "Bluetooth compatible" long before Mama gets a verbal nod.
I'm only half joking.
A recent article in Great Britain's The Telegraph suggests that not only are more and more kids being raised and weaned on the Apple iPad, a sizable number are potentially becoming addicted to the little techy things. That's right, I said addicted. The Telegraph reports that there's even a new version of therapy aimed at iPad-obsessed tykes who just can't do without their colorful mini-screen fix.
The youngest reported patient in the UK is a 4-year-old girl. She was reportedly spending about four hours a day on the device—which is quite a bit for someone who's only awake for 10 hours per. (In fact, the article says that she wasn't all that uncommon: One in seven parents in an online babiesco.uk survey said they allowed their kids on the iPad for four or more hours a day, too.) "Her parents enrolled her for compulsive behavior therapy after she became increasingly 'distressed and inconsolable' when the iPad was taken away from her," the article stated.
Now, before you go snorting, think about it. One of the big challenges of early child-rearing is figuring out how to best keep the little ones busy. Of course, being "busy" can sometimes translate to, "just shut them up so I can have a moment's peace." And what better tool do we have than the ever-handy iPad? Sure TV used to rule the roost in this department, but that colorful, game-filled, app-abundant, hand-held Apple wonder puts the old tube to shame.
A noted psychiatrist, Dr. Richard Graham who runs the Capio Nightingale Clinic in London, warns that the laptop kid-keeper could become a pretty big problem. "Children have access to the Internet almost from birth," Graham told The Mirror. "They see their parents playing on their mobile devices and they want to play too. It's difficult, because having a device can also be very useful in terms of having a reward, having a pacifier. But if you don't get the balance right it can be very dangerous."
Now, don't get me wrong: iPads can be tremendously educational and entertaining tools for the wee ones. But I do fret that spending too much time with these techy tablets could create an identity crisis of sorts, where kids won't feel quite like themselves unless they're clutching one of these gizmos in their tiny hands. As the (new) old saying goes: iPad, therefore I am!
I remember well the old saw, "Don't smoke, drink or chew, or go with girls who do." It was burned into my brain as a kid.
It spoke to not only bad behavior, but to the idea that the people you hang out with have quite a bit of influence over what you think about bad behavior. And over whether you yourself participate in bad behavior.
Now here's the modern equivalent. But it comes in the form of a study, so it's not nearly so pithy. And it's balanced by a generous nod to how valuable friends are in general, which is not something most of us adults of a certain age heard quite as much about in our formative years. It's also not nearly as direct.
Recent research published in the journal Child Development reflects data from scholars' efforts to keep tabs on 150 teens for 10 years beginning at age 13. As reported in scienceblog.com, it was discovered that teens who had difficulty connecting with peers were more apt to have troubled relationships later on. But it was also established that many teens who bonded well with friends sometimes were more apt to struggle with drinking or substance abuse problems when they became young adults.
The key, researchers said, was to make friends—but also establish a level of autonomy from them. In other words, teens who didn't go along with all their pals' crazy ideas were better equipped to deal with adulthood.
"Overall, we found that teens face a high-wire act with their peers," says Joseph P. Allen, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia. "They need to establish strong, positive connections with them, while at the same time establishing independence in resisting deviant peer influences. Those who don't manage this have significant problems as much as a decade later."
That seems to be more about willpower than selectiveness. But the aforementioned "straighten up and fly right" adage is still bouncing around in my head, so I'll add this thought to the mix: Wouldn't you say it's a whole lot easier to resist a pal's crazy ideas when that pal doesn't have quite so many crazy ideas?
Ah, commercials. They're interesting things, aren't they? In this media-saturated world, ads are a constant part of our lives. We see them glowing prettily at us from our TVs and computers. Or popping up on our tablets and movie screens. And whether it's a sunny detergent spot showing us just how colorful a shirt can be, or a handsome guy holding a product placement bottle that subconsciously promises more than just refreshment, we're constantly being sold something.
It's enough to make you downright cynical.
But every now and then, a commercial comes along that does more than just dangle a pretty something-or-other before our eyes and play upon our need-to-have-it desires. It still sells its stuff—hey, gotta sell the stuff—but it does something more. It takes a moment to breathe and be thoughtful. It gently nudges you to go beyond the spiel and think about what makes us do all that longing, grasping and buying to begin with. It asks us to think about who we are.
And this new Dove commercial does that so well.
Sure, you could still look at this ad and think it's all about tickling a listeners ears with a "you're so beautiful" come-on in order to sell a beauty product. And, well, yeah, it is. But the less cynical side… er, quarter … uh, sliver of me can't help but see a different kind of ad altogether.
"Hey, stop belittling yourself because you don't think you match up to all the 'gorgeous' people on the screens and pages of your lives," it seems to say. It stresses, in a subtle way, how all the other commercials we watch tend to drag us down, make us feel less than. And when I watch it, I can't help harkening to 1 Samuel 16:7, a scripture verse that assures us that there's far more to us than a strong chin or a fabulous button nose.
And isn't that more helpful than yet another promise of giddy happiness from perfect white teeth?
Some would say that banking on a superstar is risky business in these CGI-laden days: Big names aren't as bankable at the box office as they used to be, even ones that have all the right moves. But this week, Tom Cruise jumped into the fray with his eyes wide shut and proved that there are still a few good men who know all about the color of money. Yes, Cruise proved this weekend once again that he is a top gun—a veritable action-movie legend, as it were.
Granted, Cruise and company didn't have a lot of competition. The sci-fi diversion Oblivion, starring Cruise as a post-apocalyptic drone mechanic, was the only major movie to hit theaters this weekend. Even so, its $38.2 million estimated payday was a solid start, more than doubling the take of its nearest competitor.
The Jackie Robinson biopic 42 claimed the second slot in this week's derby, earning another $18 million in its second week in theaters. The Croods, meanwhile, continues to woo families. The durable animated romp collected another $9.5 million, bringing its total 2013 take to a whopping $154.9 million.
After a subpar opening last weekend, Scary Movie V had another frightening showing, logging just $6.3 million for fourth place. Still, it did manage to squeak past G.I. Joe: Retaliation and its $5.8 million. The Joes had to settle for fifth.
While Oblivion was the only wide release to debut this weekend, there were some indie flicks that drew some interest—and none were more interesting to the moviegoing public than Home Run. The Christian film opened in just 381 theaters across the country, but it still managed to earn $1.6 million—enough to finish 12th at the box office. Was it a veritable home run itself? Well, probably not. But a stand-up double? You betcha.
Final figures update: 1. Oblivion, $37.1 million; 2. 42, $17.7 million; 3. The Croods, $9.2 million; 4. Scary Movie V, $6.2 million; G.I. Joe: Retaliation, $5.8 million. Home Run was 12th with $1.6 million.
There's nothing good about a national tragedy—other than the good that we see in the midst of one.
When two shrapnel-laden bombs went off near the finish line of the Boston Marathon Monday, the nation grieved. Three people died. About 170 others were wounded, some seriously. We again were forced to ponder the safety of our streets and our ever-dangerous world.
And yet even as we grew sad and angry, we heard—we couldn't help but hear—about the disaster's heroes: bystanders who hopped fences and ran toward the chaos instead of away. No matter the potential danger—more bombs or shooters or who-knows-what. They ran toward trouble. They ran toward the people who needed help.
We see these people in the aftermath of almost every crisis—be it Aurora or Newtown or smaller events that never make the national news. In the aftermath, we call these folks "heroes," even though science might call 'em just plain crazy. Writes Time senior editor Jeffrey Kluger:
Ethicists, anthropologists and evolutionary biologists have tried for a long time to figure out why we do these things—why we put ourselves in mortal danger to save other people and, in so doing, defy our one great evolutionary imperative, which is to stay alive ourselves.
Kluger ticks off how scientists try to explain why we ordinary people sometimes become heroes in moments of crisis: We're more likely to help people who we know, say biologists (never mind that many heroes risk everything for complete strangers). Neurological arguments are made involving our status as social creatures or the physical patterns of our brains. "And yet," Kluger continues:
All these answers just smell wrong. You can deconstruct a painting by explaining the salts and sulfides and esters that make up its pigments; you can parse a symphony by measuring the frequency and wavelength of the final crashing chord, but you're missing the bigger picture.
Frank Farley, a professor of psychology at Temple University, admitted ignorance to ABC News. "We really don't know for sure why people put their lives on the line for other people," he said. "It is the most mysterious act, in my view. How does someone get close to giving up their life for someone else they may not even know? It's so profound."
Those of us who believe in divine design don't struggle with an explanation, of course: It's all about God. We may be fallen creatures, but we still are His creation—mirroring in some small way His nature, His image. So, just as Jesus sacrificed Himself on the cross for us, there seems to be a part of us that's willing to sacrifice ourselves for others. It might not make sense, scientifically speaking, but to paraphrase the Apostle Paul, God's foolishness runs circles around our own ideas of what makes sense.
But there's another angle to explore here. I can't help but wonder whether that intrinsic spark in us is augmented and preserved by the stories we tell. There's no shortage of heroes at the local theater or around the television dial. We Americans love our entertainment—and our entertainment is saturated with heroes.
It's so obvious that we take it for granted. In the reviews I write for Plugged In, there's very often a line or two about how someone shows "sacrificial courage" or "heroic derring-do," etc., etc. It's almost a given. When I think about the movies I've seen so far this year, all of them had heroes. In Oblivion it was Tom Cruise's Jack Harper, battling for nothing less than the human race. In The Croods it was an out-of-touch father named Grug who risked his own well-being to toss his whole family into a brighter tomorrow. Even Evil Dead—not a movie that'd ever get made into a Plugged In Movie Night—had a hero: a guy named David who sacrificed himself to save his rather disturbed sister.
Look at last year's biggest-grossing movies: The Avengers. The Dark Knight Rises. The Hunger Games. Skyfall. All of them movies predicated on heroes. Check out the year's Best Picture nominees: Lincoln. Argo. Les Misérables.
We at Plugged In talk all the time about how our entertainment impacts us in myriad ways—and often we're forced to focus on the bad stuff: how violence desensitizes us, how sexual content titillates us, how even seeing someone smoking a cigarette in a movie makes it more likely we'll light up ourselves.
But the reverse, we believe, can also be true. The stuff we watch and listen to and play can sometimes teach us good things.
I've written before—probably too much—about my fascination with superheroes growing up. Ask me back then what a hero looked like, and I'd probably point to Superman or Batman or Spider-Man. But even then, I knew they weren't heroes because they had superpowers or nifty gadgets. It was a part of who they were inside. Their character. Their willingness to sacrifice for others.
By extension, if you walked into any elementary school and asked the kids today what a hero looks like, most would pull someone from the world of entertainment: Captain America, perhaps. Merida from Brave. Harry Potter. The heroes they name might have flaws. Some of them we might not even want to call heroes. And yet, movies and television are the places where they—where we—are most likely to see our most resonant images of heroism.
I learned how to be a hero—or, at least, how to be a particular sort of dramatic hero—from Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark and the superhero cartoons I watched on Saturday mornings. I learned that heroes do not shy away from danger: They run toward it. My entertainment reinforced this message at every turn, it seems. And for all the weaknesses we may point to in modern entertainment, this core lesson is still hammered home with surprising frequency.
I saw a fantastic post on Focus on the Family's Dad Matters blog that I want to share with you. It deals with an inspiring movie, Home Run (out tomorrow) and the topic of fatherhood, one of the film's themes. (I'd love this post even if it wasn't written by Leon Wirth, my boss here at Focus.)
Incidentally, for those who love blogs (which is many of you), be sure to check out more at Dad Matters.
'Home Run' - How My Girl Inspired Me to be Better, by Leon Wirth
I. Love. Baseball.
The opening day-celebrations. The classic rivalries. The fact that every team in baseball starts the season tied for first place.
I remember coming home after seeing the movie The Natural as a teenager, and committing to someday be the second baseman for my hometown St. Louis Cardinals. (My dreams were quickly dashed by reality … especially the fact that at the age of 14, I had yet to play even one game of organized baseball!)
I love and respect the game so much, that when professional players seem to fritter away their talent and opportunities, especially for seemingly selfish reasons or through painful addictions, I'm inclined to be pretty hard on them.
If I had my chance at the bigs, I would never do anything stupid to blow it. Ha — right! I'm so much better than those sinners over there, Lord. That's what I may as well be saying.
In the new movie Home Run, in theaters Friday, April 19, a promising young major league player battling alcoholism is suspended and winds up back in his hometown, looking to save his career.
When I saw an advance screening of Home Run last summer, two fatherhood themes hit me hard:
First, the fatherhood wound that many men carry can affect us for years. This is a sobering reminder of the power we have as dads to devastate our children.
The second thing that struck me was the power of a child to motivate change in a man's life.
The film highlights the powerful impact of a real-life program called Celebrate Recovery, as well as a child's ability to inspire the central character ("Cory") to face his father wound, break the cycles of addiction and neglect, and to do something special with his life … something bigger than baseball.
Being a dad is like making it to the big leagues: It comes with great responsibility, influence and opportunity.
Sometimes I'm tempted, just like those talented ballplayers, to blow it all by acting selfish.
Sometimes, just like Cory, I need to find inspiration in my children.
A couple years ago, my oldest daughter, Hannah, and I attended a father-daughter summit hosted by our friends at the National Center for Fathering. It was a great time of bonding and memory-making.
There, I learned just how much Hannah craves my affection, encouragement and affirmation. Yet I had focused more on how well I was protecting and providing for her. I failed to see that I'd become an impatient, cranky problem-solver who devoted little attention to giving her affirming, fatherly affection. I didn't recognize this shortcoming, and it sometimes hurt her.
Hannah inspired me to make a change, and now I'm working to give all my girls what they crave from me — not just what I think they need. I'm still not perfect, but by God's grace …
How about you? How have your kids inspired you to make a change?
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