Monday, January 28, 2013

30 going on '13

Three weeks ago, I celebrated my thirtieth birthday - hence, the title of this post, as I am now a thirty-year-old facing the oncoming year. I had also toyed with making a reference to Zero Dark Thirty (topical, but doesn't really make any sense) and 30 Rock (just not as strong of a connection) before settling on this title for my annual "new year/birthday goals/intentions" post. Despite all of the jokes about now being old, I actually really enjoyed turning thirty; besides, forty is the new thirty. It was kind of surreal, however, when I realized that I remember my dad's thirtieth birthday party: a lot of family and friends crammed into our little house. I, however, hope to have kids who could remember my fortieth birthday. It was also surreal to remember that when my dad turned thirty, he was physically healthy; it was only just over a year later that he injured his back and his life completely changed. I'm not worried about that happening to me - it was just a stark reminder of how life can change very quickly. I'm actually happy with where I'm at in life (mostly), despite December being one of the most challenging months for me emotionally in years, and it has been valuable to have had some time to reflect and to look forward to what lies ahead in my thirties. Part of that process, of course, has been thinking about goals for this year, as well as beyond, but I have decided for now to focus on the next twelve (eleven) months. To do that well, I needed to start by thinking about my recent history.
Last year was the first time I thought about having intentions rather than resolutions. I thought it might reduce some of the stress of having to accomplish goals, and it seemed like a good way to diffuse the societal expectations on making resolutions. Well, it's not entirely surprising that it didn't entirely work. Of my 12 intentions for 2012, I fully accomplished three, almost completely accomplished one, finished three partially, and left five untouched. Looking back on them, I realize that they were kind of a mishmash of ideas: some were deep, meaningful goals; some were silly ideas; and some were things that I had no agency in being able to accomplish. So I thought about how to revise my intentions for this year, and I realized that part of the problem last year was that I still had some resolutions mixed in with my intentions. Furthermore, I had aspirations that were mostly unattainable, or that were at least on the edge of believability, also as part of the equation. So I have decided that for this year, I would list resolutions, intentions, and aspirations as different goals with varying levels of intensity and agency in achievability. Resolutions are the things I can resolve to do, the specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, tangible goals of life. My intentions are changes in attitude or orientation; they might become resolutions in time, but for now they are things I want to change. Aspirations are my dreams, the things that I would love to see happen but that I will hold loosely if they do not, either through internal or external changes in circumstances. To further make this discussion accessible not only for myself, but for others, I settled on categorizing these resolutions, intentions, and aspirations into thirteen domains (see what I did there?), each of which represents a portion of my life right now.

1. Health/Physical
Resolution: I need to get on track with the following professionals and services: doctor, dentist, optometrist, chiropractor, orthopedist. (I've been putting these things off for too long.)
Intention: Be more careful with the food that I eat, particularly in portion size and amount of junk food. Also, to exercise more.
Aspiration: I would love to get back to the gym and start losing weight. I realize this is a resolution for most people, but I feel that it will take me (us) some time to figure out how this is a part of our current life, so I'm putting it here instead.

2. Marriage/Family
Resolution: Celebrate our fifth anniversary in a special way.
Intention: Spend more quality time talking with my wife.
Aspiration: Be ready to have kids. (That doesn't mean I want kids yet - I just want to be ready.)

3. House, home, and everyday life
Resolution: I want to add an average of two new dishes to my cooking (or baking) repertoire each month. In the past few months, I've learned how to make pulled pork and beef stew, thanks to America's Test Kitchen, so I want to keep adding more dishes I can make with some of my extra time.
Intention: De-clutter and simplify, refine and reduce. I have a few things I've been keeping for later and a few tasks that have been on the to-do list for years that I would like to do, and I would like to generally refine our collections. That will mean, unfortunately, that I will probably have to cut down on the thrifting, which I probably should anyway.
Aspiration: I would love to have all but my big student loan debt paid off. It's a bit far off with work as it is, but I'm dreaming of what it would be like to have less debt.

4. Faith
Resolution: Spend 15 minutes each day with Jesus: praying, reading Bible, meditating.
Intention: Read more books that encourage me in my faith.
Aspiration: This one's hard to quantify. I guess I'd like to be more at peace with who I am and what God is doing in my life.

5. Professional (job/work)
Resolution: My resolution is to treat each day, whether I'm teaching or not, as a work day, with goals and outcomes, whether that's doing work related to job searching, improving skills, or personal development.
Intention: Get further training of some sort. I've looked at Montessori, IB, and Special Ed, but I'm open to a wide variety of options.
Aspiration: Get a full-time permanent teaching job in my subject areas. (I can dream, right?)

6. Interpersonal
Resolution: Call or meaningfully connect with one person outside my regular circumstances each week.
Intention: Continue to improve my communication with friends and family who live far away, including responding to messages and e-mails more promptly.
Aspiration: Take another extended summer visit to Saskatchewan to reconnect with friends and family there.

7. The Forge (church leadership)
Resolution: Finish revising our bylaws and governance documents.
Intention: I look forward to continuing to speak on Sundays; I spoke three times this past year, so I'd like to try to speak five or six times this year.
Aspiration: Though I know I don't necessarily have any say in the matter, I would love to see our church's finances stabilize this year.

8. Living in Victoria
Resolution: Visit friends who live on the island at least once.
Intention: Explore new areas on the island (Tofino, Sooke)
Aspiration: I would love to take a trip to the Northwestern states and spend time in Seattle and Portland.

9. Writing and blogging
Resolution: I want to write 100 posts this year. This is only my fifth, so I have a few more to write.
Intention: I want to finally get my wordpress site up and running the way I want it to.
Aspiration: I still have that book that I'm trying to write, and I'd love to finish it this year.

10. Reading and learning
Resolution: I would like to hit my goal of reading fifty books in a year, including finally reading Moby Dick.
Intention: Finish the dozen or so books I've started reading in the past couple of years, as well as reading books that have been given to me as gifts.
Aspiration: Spend time (re-)learning Greek and Latin.

11. Art and creativity
Resolution: I want to finally have my old university newspaper articles scrapbooked and bound.
Intention: More Perler beads!
Aspiration: Maybe starting a small business selling Perler bead characters?

12. Media and entertainment
Resolution: I want to finish at least three of my TV projects, in addition to my regular watching. The three I have my sights on are Star Trek (I'm already 11 episodes in), Battlestar Galactica, and The Wire, but those might change.
Intention: I want to have watched all of my movies at least once (whether that happens in this calendar year or if it has already taken place).
Aspiration: I'm hoping to resume my project in watching through the AFI's Top 100 films, as well as to knock off at least one of my "I should do that sometime" goals (like watching The Pacific in a day).

13. Gaming
Resolution: I want to play all of my board games at least once this year. (And if I don't, it's probably time to get rid of them.)
Intention: Finish the video games I've started in the past few years, including Majora's Mask.
Aspiration: Buy a WiiU.

So, there they are: my resolutions, intentions, and aspirations for the rest of 2013. I know that some areas are more "serious" than others, but I'm looking forward to seeing what happens over the next eleven months in all of these areas, as well as whether my new construct actually makes a difference to how I process each of these things. I know that if this year is like the last twelve that it won't start the way it finishes, and I won't know how it will change until it's happening, but I'm still glad to have some goals in my sights. I just have to trust that the things that should happen will happen, whether they are in my control or not, and that I can only take one step at a time toward making these things reality. I have already had a good start to thirty, and I'm looking forward to seeing how things look by the time I'm thirty-one.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Searching for the grails

One of the joys of thrifting is searching for "grails" - the rare, elusive items that would anchor or complete a collection. Very few of these are items that I need to go out and buy immediately - if they were, I would probably own them by now - but it's the hunt that propels me to keep hope alive. Shopping for these grails has changed with online retailers, but even with eBay, Amazon, and the like peddling their wares through the series of tubes, there are still some items that remain elusive. All grails are personal - why would I invest my time and effort if they weren't? - but some are a bit closer to home than others. Some are more universally acknowledged - items that are rare or scarce across the board and thus have higher value - whereas others are contextual, based on rarity in my context. It is harder to achieve true scarcity now, so some of my grails are based on me wanting to find them "in the wild", not in an online store. I know I've done some of this before, but I thought it might be time to revisit some of my grails in different forms of media.
There are five factors that I believe affect whether something is a grail or not. Some of the answers are relative while others are absolute, but they all matter to some degree.
1. Relative scarcity and/or unavailability - The item has to be hard to find. If you can buy it on Amazon or go into Wal-Mart and find it, it's not rare. It might be on eBay or in used stores, but because those contexts are so fluid, an item can still be considered scarce.
2. Cost - Some finds involve price as a determining factor. For example, I wanted CDs by the White Stripes, but I didn't want to pay full price, so they were a price-determined grail that involved finding them at a particular price.
3. Time elapsed - The longer the search, the more significant the grail. I would suggest 2-3 years as a minimum for most grails, but that depends on the type of item.
4. Nostalgia/personal connection - How does the item connect to your past? Does it bring back part of your childhood? How much do you want to stay connected to your past?
5. The intangible "need to own" - Let's face it: we don't need to own any of these things. They are not essential for life, and I can lead a full and meaningful life without them. But still, there's that intangible consideration of a collector that helps determine just how meaningful it is to own an item.
With those factors in mind, I present a consideration of my grails in five major media.

Books: Books, as grails, are often determined by price, since many of them are readily available on Amazon. Take for example, J.R.R. Tolkien's Roverandom, a short novel that retails for $10. It's easy to find or order online, but I was unwilling to pay $10. As a grail, it was determined by availability in thrift stores - not by overall availability - and by price. I had never seen a used copy until July, when I was able to buy it for $1. There were a number of C.S. Lewis books I had not owned until this year because I found them for the right price. I find it hard to justify spending a lot on an individual book, especially since I have so many in my collection to read, and and also because books are so often reprinted or reissued that it is irrelevant to have to have it right then, especially because I know I'll often find it again. I searched for several years for A Canticle for Liebowitz, finally found a copy, and then I have seen almost a dozen copies since. The few grails I do have are determined by scarcity and nostalgia, as many of them are books that I wish I had kept from my childhood. The two books that I will buy whenever I see them, regardless of price, are the two collections of poetry from Andrew Schwab, the lead singer of Project 86: We Caught You Plotting Murder and Do Not Disturb. I neglected to order them when they were available, and they have not been reprinted. My other grails are from my childhood, such as the Starfleet Academy series, Nintendo Adventure series, or Choose Your Own Adventures - but I can wait to find them in thrift stores.

TV and movies: I honestly cannot think of any movies that are on my list of grails, as they generally have high availability, low price points, and low need to own. In fact, I can think of only one that has ever been on my list: the special edition of Walk the Line, which I found several years ago. I am sure there are some other limited editions that might be cool to have, but none that I would consider that highly. Television series are a similar lot, since they are rarely unavailable, though price is a determining factor. I found Sports Night for for $8 in March (rather than $50), and I found another grail in September - Joe Schmo 2 - that I didn't even know existed until I saw it. As such, I have only three TV grails: Season 1 of The Joe Schmo Show (which I once saw in a pawn shop for $15), the History Bites first collection, and Captain N: The Game Master.

Board games: I don't have many board game grails because I have only been really gaming as a hobby for a few years. The main ways to have board gaming grails are in searching for out of print expansions or games. For example, I found a copy of first edition of The Settlers of Catan Card Game Expansions last year, which probably would have become a grail eventually had I not found it. There are some games that I would like to buy sometime, but they're not grails, as I know I could buy them at any time online, or the drive to own them is not very strong; for example, it would be cool to own earlier editions of Cosmic Encounter, and I would buy them for the right price at a thrift store, but I would not consider them grails. My primary hunt right now is for the Carcassonne mini-expansion "Cult, Siege, and Creativity", which is now out of print. I could have bought it many times over the past four years, but I didn't, and now I'm still trying to find it. I managed to find copies of the other mini-expansions when I went looking in the past month, but not that one. (If you ever find a copy, buy it for me, and I'll reimburse you for the cost and shipping). There are a couple of other small expansions I can order from Ebay, but no other grails for now.

Video games: I have almost 200 items on my wish list on VGCollect.com, but they are not all grails (obviously). Some are games that I have wanted since I was a kid, and some are games that I owned at one time but sold inexplicably. Some are personal grails that I know I could order for $10 on Ebay at any time (a disincentive for buying them), whereas others have increased significantly in value and are far truer grails. Some are titles that I just cannot fathom how I have not seen them in my many years of buying games, but remain out of my collection nevertheless. For any given system for which I collect, I could probably create a list of ten titles in either category, and they may not necessarily match up with my top ten titles I would buy. I actually started to do this, but then I had to stop myself before (well, after) I got carried away, so I settled on two lists: a list of ten personal grails that are easily available for cheap online but that I'm still waiting to buy; and a list of ten elusive grails that are rare, expensive, and that I will likely never own unless I find them randomly in a thrift store. So here are my top 10 personal grails: Contra (NES); Earthworm Jim (Sega Genesis); Golden Axe (Sega Genesis); The Legend of Zelda: Oracle of Ages and Oracle of Seasons (Game Boy Color); Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission (Game Boy Advance); Super Mario All-Stars (SNES); Yoshi's Story (Nintendo 64); and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link (NES). And my top 10 real grails (you may notice a pattern here): The Legend of Zelda Collection (Gamecube); The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time Master's Quest (Gamecube); Mega Man and Mega Man 4, 5, and 6 (NES); Mega Man Soccer (SNES); Mega Man X2 and X3 (SNES); and Mega Man X Collection (Gamecube).

Music: This is an interesting category, since the nature of the medium has changed so much in the past decade. In hunting these grails, I refer to physical copies, since I could easily download most of these one way or another. This list, more than any others, I think, is about being in the right place at the right time. Time is more of a factor here than in perhaps any other category, as most of these albums were released over a decade ago, and I have waited to find them for that long. Some I just never got around to buying, and by the time I was going to, it was too late to find them readily. Of the 125 or so albums on my wish list, only seven are not available on Amazon - most of which are on this list. I would not even necessarily listen to some of them that often; I would just love to have them for those times when I do. Several of these are regularly available on eBay, but I'll still include them here since they are still relatively scarce online. I have a few personal grails that are easily accessible, so they just missed the list: Copeland's Beneath Medicine Tree; Moby's 18 B-Sides and DVD; Stavesacre's How To Live With A Curse; Sufjan Stevens' Michigan; and Thrice's If We Could Only See Us Now). The ten that really stand out as grails are: AP2 - Suspension of Disbelief; Circle of Dust - Brainchild, Circle of Dust, and Disengage; Collective Soul's Music in High Places DVD; Ed-E Roland's self-titled debut; Five Iron Frenzy's Upbeats and Beatdowns and Electric Boogaloo; U2's Popheart EP (along with a number of other singles); and, as I found out when researching this post, Johnny Cash's Unearthed, a 5 CD set of outtakes from the American Recordings sessions.

There are a few other grails I have on my radar, such as any Star Trek: The Next Generation action figures I find, but that pretty much sums it up. Believe me, I recognize the superfluousness of this entire concept, and I even understand how silly it might seem to many of you, but this is part of how I work: I have a ridiculous recollection of my collections, and I actually enjoy being able to think through a topic like this. Maybe I spend too much time on this stuff, and maybe it's a distraction from real life sometimes, but it's also fun. (You should know that I am continually working through whether these things are good for me and my marriage, and that I would give any and all of them up if needed at any time.) I also know that at any point I could just start spending money on eBay and shrink these lists, but where's the fun in that? I get to keep thrifting, and garage sale season is fast approaching, so I'm excited to see what grails come my way in the next few months. Maybe I'll even make this an annual update. But I think another fun part of sharing this (as well as my Thrift Scores album on Facebook) is the social part of it. Many of you share one or more of these interests with me, and this is a way to connect. Some of you may even find some of these grails, remember this post, and help me in my continuing quest. Just remember: I would (and will, if you give me some ideas) do the same for you, and we're in this together. Feel free to share some of your grails, and why they are meaningful to you.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The 2%: Giftedness and exceptionality

After two decades of wondering, I finally have my answer: I qualify for MENSA, the high IQ society. I took the test in October after years of procrastinating, and I finally got my results yesterday. I scored a 37 on the Wonderlic test, which placed me at the 98th percentile and officially allows me to be considered "gifted". It's not a surprise - after all, I spent my entire career in school in programs for gifted students, but I had never actually had it confirmed until now. My score places my IQ somewhere in the mid-130s, which is at least what I expected; of course, one of the fallacies of the test is that IQ can fluctuate depending on a number of factors (including training for the test), so it is possible that my IQ is slightly different than what I tested at. I recognize the fallacy inherent in measuring IQ (or any other measure of intelligence): it's an arbitrary, limited, culturally-dependent test that measures only certain types of traditionally valued areas of intelligence (verbal-linguistic and logico-mathematical). IQ tests do not account for disabilities, nor do they allow for multiple intelligences. Every discussion of IQ needs to recognize that it is inherently flawed, and not worthwhile as a measurement in and of itself, much like any assessment - and yes, I recognize the irony in an educator making this observation.
I've been trying to figure out why this is significant for me, and why I'm so happy about it, in spite of my recognition of the flaws in measurement and the misconceptions of giftedness. In light of those, I know that my excitement about this "achievement" is irrational, particularly considering how little I have actually had to do to reach it. I suppose that I have continued to train my brain through activities like mindfully watching movies and television that encourage me to think, reading books to push my boundaries, playing board games, and doing word puzzles in Games Magazine, but it's not something that I have been working toward. There is some value in having an external confirmation of what I knew about myself, but it's not as if I am any different than I was before. My circumstances have not changed, my character is no different, and I did not accomplish anything, yet I was strangely heartened for my parents to tell me that they were proud of me. I think that there is some kind of accomplishment there, but that I'm also excited about the new opportunities that may come as a result, particularly the possibility of community. Sure, it's essentially an entirely synthetic (in the truest sense of the word) construction, but I hope that there may be something that I can further in myself as a result of these new connections. I realize that many of my friendships already sharpen me that way, as I do have a remarkable contingent of intellectually advantaged or gifted friends (including an extraordinary number on their way to a PhD), but I think it's actually the idea of connection, rather than exclusion (the stereotypical view of Mensans) that has made me value this new step.
This entire development has made me consider the idea of exceptionality, and the nature of the term "gifted". I began to rethink the use of the term and treatment of "gifted" students when I was in university. When I was on my pre-internship, my co-operating teacher instructed me that students in the "gifted" class were just "modified" in a different way, by which he meant that students who are in classes outside of the neurotypical average need to be treated in the same manner: they need changes to the average to make the material work. At the same time, I took a class on exceptional learners that included studies of all kinds of emotional, intellectual, and social aberrations, including - you guessed it - "gifted" students. The term "gifted" implies some kind of inherent bonus from nature that makes life easier, and we often as a society give an unearned status to those of us who legitimately identify ourselves in that category (unlike many who are above average but not necessarily "gifted"). I think we need to be careful how we use language about gifted students so that it does not reflect unearned (and unnecessary) privilege or entitlement, or preclude a sense of responsibility on the part of the student. On one end of the spectrum, it can become easy for "giftedness" to become part of a child's identity and for that identity to be oriented toward exclusion and superiority, as it did for me when I was younger. On the other end, it happens often that students who are gifted (or even above average) learn to take their abilities for granted and coast through their schooling, while others have to scratch and claw for every point they can get on their grade - all because of the whimsy of a system that favours the kinds of intelligences for which most gifted students are recognized. It's a harsh reality, and one that I wish to be able to help change someday from the inside of the system. In fact, "giftedness" is one of the areas in which I have considered pursuing further studies, particularly in regard to the adaptation and delivery of curriculum.
I was one of those students for whom high school (particularly) was easy. I took every math and science course, easily scoring in the mid to high 90s consistently; I had to be diligent in doing the work well, but it was not challenging for me to complete. But I remember realizing this fact and resolving to use my skills to help others by tutoring them or helping them through; I also remember how odd people thought it was that I would take the time to help others study, but I just thought it made sense. The only courses in high school in which I scored below 90 were English and Social Studies/History, a fact which ironically attracted me to those disciplines; I could do math and science easily, but these other areas presented challenges and hard questions without easy answers, so I gravitated toward them in my university years. Perhaps if I had really wanted to challenge and stretch myself, I would have taken the subject I hated the most - Art - but I was thinking about university, and I needed all of those maths and sciences (or so I reasoned at the time). At any rate, I would say that there were few times even throughout my high school and undergraduate years in which I felt legitimately challenged intellectually or academically - emotionally and socially, yes, but in terms of grasping theory or content, no. And I had to learn not to take it for granted along the way. One moment stands out for me in particular the beginning of Grade 12, when I was awarded for having had the highest grade percentage in my class (of 200) in the previous year. Ironically, I realized that it was not the grade that I valued - in fact, I had not set out with achieving the top grade as a goal - but everything else I was able to do as part of the community: being a part of classes and helping others and running the Christian club and editing the newspaper and doing drama productions and just being me. So I made a conscious decision for that Grade 12 year not to sacrifice other opportunities for my grades, and I was glad I did. I think I ended up third in the class in grades, but I had a great year, and I was rewarded with great opportunities along the way, as well as the major award for males for school spirit and participation at graduation. Now, I could still take it for granted that I would be a top student - my university entrance average was 94% - but I had to work for it and keep things in perspective with all of my other commitments. I knew, even then, that to sequester myself and not challenge myself socially was for me to stagnate intellectually, and that to not engage my community would have been to squander some part of my "giftedness." (By the way, if some of this sounds familiar, it's because I've foreshadowed some of these thoughts and stories in this post from two years ago and this post from four years ago - an echo I realized as I was writing this post.)
So here I am, twenty years later, finally a member of MENSA. I'm irrationally happy about it (considering all of this discussion), but the fact is that I'm still happy. I get to engage in a new way with a new community, and I get to keep firing up those brain cells in a fresh and exciting way as I do it. But there's one more piece of this puzzle that I find interesting, which I discovered when I looked up Mensa's motto: "Mens sana in corpore sano", which translates to "a sound mind in a healthy body". I don't get to ride my brain's coattails through this one - I need to work on the healthy body part too. And so the adventure begins.

Friday, January 11, 2013

2012 Oscar nominations

There's something in the seemingly arbitrary nature of the Academy Awards that makes it so interesting each year. The Oscars have their own system of logic that is both predictable and surprising at times, and it intrigues me every year to see how the system presents itself. There is a temptation to label some movies "Oscar movies", as if there is a monolithic definition of what constitutes that kind of a movie. What we often forget is that each branch nominates its films separately, and that it's often as much of a surprise to the filmmakers when they receive several nominations. Each branch has its own idiosyncracies, and each film stands on its own merits within each field of expertise. Of course, there is a fairly limited pool of films from which many of these nominations are derived, as in any given year, there are around twenty films that are part of the discussion in the final quarter of the year to qualify for the main awards (excluding the documentary, foreign language, and animated categories save for the very few films that exceed those limitations). There are always a few other films that qualify for one or two of the technical categories (ie. make up, costume design, visual effects), but they really are not part of the "conversation" as it stands. A brief count of this year's reveals seventeen films that are in contention, though some are significantly less widely nominated than might have been expected at one time (Moonrise Kingdom, for example). While it's true that there are "Oscar movies", the kind of movies that have wide enough appeal and high enough quality to be considered for the awards, this relatively limited number is more indicative of a parallel to critical success. In the past twenty years, there has been an increasing number of movies that are nominated without having commercial success, though popular acceptance is still an effective tool for determining which movies could be considered. Each year, there are a few determined proponents of films with a narrower appeal or audience that are advocated as possibilities - take 2011's Shame, Melancholia, Margaret, or Martha Marcy May Marlene - though even the critics who discuss those films claim them as longshots. These are often considered "snubs", even though these films did not garner the kind of momentum necessary to be nominated. As a result, there are arguably very few "snubs" - movies that could or should have been nominated but were not; the main example in 2011 was Drive. In any year, there are always a few films that don't make it, but that's part of the fun of the whole enterprise. This year's conversation struck up anew yesterday with the announcement of this year's nominees, which were particularly interesting given the strong quality of films in 2012 (as opposed to the wasteland of 2011). With all of these thoughts about the awards in mind, here is my initial breakdown of the major categories for 2012.

Best Picture: It is interesting that of the twenty or so films that now fully ten or twelve of them are considered for Best Picture, rather than being limited to a range of five to seven. In the past three years, it has seemed that this category has been too inclusive, allowing films that seemed to have little "right" to be there. There has also been a relatively clear distinction between the top five films (ie the movies that would have been nominated even before the expansion of nominations in 2009) and the "other films". That distinction began to erode last year, though it still seemed like the overall system was still in place. It feels like this year was the first time that the Academy has really started to figure out nominating more than five movies, and it is also the first year since expanding the category that there have been "legimate" snubs - in this case, The Master and Moonrise Kingdom, both of which I was hoping would be nominated despite the swing in critical attitude toward them in recent months. For the first time, the distinction between the five "have" movies and the "other nominees" is not nearly as clear as determined by other nominations. The nine nominees can be categorized in four ways: there are the little movies that should be happy just to be there (Amour and Beasts of the Southern Wild.) There is the token comedic nominee that rarely wins but is often present (Silver Linings Playbook). Then there are the more typical "Oscar favourites", which can be broken into two categories according to yesterday's nominations: the now-deposed previous favourites, including Argo, Django Unchained, Les Misérables, and Zero Dark Thirty; and the two remaining clear front-runners: Life of Pi and the current favourite Lincoln. The reason for the change? Each of the four deposed films were not nominated for Best Director; only one movie in the past eighty years has won Best Picture without at least a nomination for its director. That movie was 1989's Driving Miss Daisy, which is widely regarded as one of the worst selections in modern history. At this point, Lincoln is the clear favourite: it is a non-threatening movie with wide appeal commercially, critically, and technically. Life of Pi has an outside chance, but I think it would need a significant shift to pull ahead of Spielberg's opus.

Best Director: The list of non-nominees is as impressive as the list of nominees: Ben Affleck, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow, and Tom Hooper were the significant omissions (though I would argue that P.T. Anderson and Wes Anderson might have also been considered). Bigelow and Hooper - winners in 2009 and 2010, respectively - are particularly puzzling, as both of their films have been lauded for their direction. QT has been nominated twice as a director without winning (though he has won as a screenwriter), and his omission seems strange considering how much his movie(s) reflect his direction. Affleck seemed destined to have made it as a director this year, but it seems his recognition will have to wait. So with those four out of the picture, the five actual nominees seem almost pedestrian. Zeitlin's inclusion is his victory, though it is still deserved. Haneke should win for foreign language picture and Lee has won relatively recently (2005). That leaves two nominees of very different films: David O. Russell was a surprise nominee, and it is more rare that intimate personal films can win for directing; Steven Spielberg is the clear favourite here to win his third award, though it would be his first in fifteen years.

Best Actor: The list consists of two first-time nominees (Cooper and Jackman) and three veterans (Washington, Day-Lewis, and Phoenix). The clear leader here is Lincoln's Daniel Day-Lewis to win an unprecedented third Best Actor award; it seems that the power of such an iconic performance is hard to deny. The only possible competition would be Phoenix, whose performance was riveting, though it seems more likely that his hour will come later.

Best Actress: The competition here seems to be between the two young leading ladies, Lawrence and Chastain. Either could win, depending on the next few weeks. I haven't seen either film yet, so I think I have to reserve some judgement, but if I had to pick one right now, I'd say Chastain will win. Then again, Lawrence's performance could be honoured as a way to award something to Silver Linings Playbook...

Best Supporting Actor: Each nominee has won an Academy Award before (which I think is an Oscar first), which makes this a veteran's category. Hoffman, Waltz, and Arkin have all won in recent history, so it would be surprising for any of them to win. De Niro hasn't been nominated since 1991, and it seems possible that this nomination could be seen as a way of giving him a lifetime award. Then again, Jones won twenty years ago, and his performance, like Day-Lewis', seems so iconic that it would be hard to see him losing.

Best Supporting Actress: All the contenders have been nominated before, but this category comes down to one question: do actors resent Anne Hathaway as much as some of the public does? If they do, then she doesn't win; if they recognize what she was able to do with Fantine, then she wins. I think her main competition is Sally Field, but it would be a shock if Hathaway did not win.

Best Original Screenplay: It seems entirely possible that there could be an upset here and that Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola might win against three scripts from Best Picture nominated films. Anderson has been nominated for two other films, and I could easily see the writers giving him his due. I think his main competition is Quentin Tarantino, but I think Anderson just might do it.

Best Adapted Screenplay: All five nominees were nominated for Best Picture, and Les Misérables was the only Best Pic nominees not given its due in writing. Lincoln again seems like the front-runner, particularly considering the general agreement of the difficulty present in adapting it for the screen, though it seems possible that David O. Russell will get his acknowledgement for Silver Linings Playbook. I think it will probably be Tony Kushner for Lincoln, though.

Best Animated Feature: I think this is the first time I have not seen any of the five nominated movies, so it makes it hard to discuss the nominees. Usually, I wouldn't bet against Pixar, but I don't think Brave will do it this year. Other than that, this category is wide open; my early hunch is that Frankenweenie might pull into the lead so that Tim Burton can get an Oscar, but I'll see what I think after viewing other movies.

Song and Score: The competition for Song would seem to be between Adele's "Skyfall" and the new song from Les Mis. It could go either way. The only thought I have on the Score category is that I wish they had nominated Benh Zeitlin to make a historic triad of nominations (Director, Writer, and Composer).

Technical categories: It seems that Argo, Life of Pi, and Lincoln will likely each get a couple of statues here, and I wouldn't be surprised to see Skyfall pick up a couple of awards too.

Overall, I think we're headed for Lincoln to win six or seven awards, with a relatively even distribution among the other major players. Although there seems like there is some inevitability to Lincoln's domination, there are still more awards in question than last year's snoozefest. It's interesting that no Best Picture nominee received fewer than four nominations, so there will be a few that will be shut out; my best guesses are that Beasts of the Southern Wild and Django Unchained might not win any awards, and that Argo and Life of Pi may only manage a couple of technical trophies. Before the ceremonies air, I really want to see Lincoln, Silver Linings Playbook, and Zero Dark Thirty (in that order), with Amour, Flight, and all five of the animated feature nominees also on my radar to see eventually. It should be a fun year!

Thursday, January 03, 2013

The Hobbit: An Unimaginable Travesty

Consider the following list of movies and your reaction upon reflecting on the titles: Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace; Spider-Man 3; Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull; Prometheus. I imagine that it's some combination of disgust, frustration, anger, dismissal, wistfulness, and disbelief. Each of those movies had a certain level of expectation that they failed to meet in an unbelievably dismal way. They are different from plain "bad movies" because the possibility of greatness and the hope of what might be make the let down that much worse; for example, any of the Pirates of Caribbean sequels were just as bad (if not worse) than any of those four movies were, but the general lack of expectation for the sequels to be good means that they are not part of that list. (By the way, my list of "bad movies" would include such lowlights as: Green Lantern; Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End and On Stranger Tides; and The Happening. Movies such as X-Men: The Last Stand; Watchmen; and X-Men Origins: Wolverine would round out some of the rest of the top ten of the initial list.) Unfortunately, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey has well earned its way into that disteemed company as one of the worst movies I have ever experienced; I use the word "experienced" as different from "seen" for the very reason that the totality of the let down of Peter Jackson's movie makes it far more crushing than many of the "bad movies" I've seen. As you might imagine, my review will not be particularly sympathetic toward Jackson's vision, but I think that it's worthwhile to look at why I am still experiencing paroxysms of apoplectic indignation at this turd of a movie.
If there was ever a movie that I wish I had been able to live-tweet, it was The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Here are actual thoughts I had throughout the movie (condensed into a paragraph for simplicity). Is this a BBC mini-series? I don't like the high frame rate. I don't like where this is going... (upon seeing the interaction between Bilbo and Frodo and the framing of the story within the events of the beginning of the Lord of the Rings). This dialogue feels like Star Wars - and that's not a compliment. Why is this taking so long? What the **** is this? (upon seeing Radagast's rabbit sled) It's like Peter Jackson read the summary of the plot on Wikipedia and said "I've got this". There are still two hours left?! This reminds me of King Kong fighting two T-rexes (during the chase scene). The dwarves have no home - are they now a metaphor for Jews? Is this a holocaust movie now? All that was missing was Jack Black overacting - "twas beauty that killed the beast". This is the worst movie I've seen this year - and I watched Prometheus. Peter Jackson seems determined to ruin my childhood.
I recognize that those thirteen sentences alone give a fairly clear impression of my thoughts on the movie, but I'm going to dig a little deeper. I'll try to avoid major spoilers, but I'll give an obligatory SPOILER ALERT! here anyway. (Not that I think that there's much to spoil.)
Considering my leeriness going into the movie, the first half hour did not provide much reason for hope; on the contrary, within the first half hour of the movie, I realized three reasons (several of which I expressed before the movie's release) that my concerns were justified. In beginning his tale with the tale of the dwarves of Erebor, Jackson cues the vigilant observer to his first mistake: Jackson's version of The Hobbit is about the dwarves. Tolkien's Hobbit is about Bilbo, not the dwarves; the fumbling, bumbling characters are there almost incidentally, not as a focus of the story. Jackson recasts the tale as a story of dwarvish nobility and redemption, particularly of Thorin Oakenshield, and in starting the tale thusly, he establishes a storyline that already contradicts the entire point of Tolkien's story. The second reason is that Jackson's vision of The Hobbit exists entirely to serve his - not Tolkien's - vision of The Lord of the Rings. I realized this as old Bilbo and Frodo had an extended interchange that placed the story in the first few minutes in the Shire in Jackson's LOTR trilogy. His entire purpose is to meet the needs of his construction, not Tolkien's, which is even evident in his making the story into a trilogy. Jackson is determined to make the changes necessary to justify his vision of Tolkien's world; I have no doubt that he is a devoted fan of the material, but his fandom did not show in his adaptation. The third reason I had to be concerned was that it seems as if Jackson completely missed the character of Gandalf. I realized this to a small extent in the first exchange between Bilbo and Gandalf, but it was much more clear upon Gandalf's admission of removing the sign from the door (an admission that did not happen in the book). What I did not expect was that Jackson also did not understand the character of Bilbo (more on that later). As the movie progressed, each of these concerns manifested themselves more and more clearly, and each of them contributed to the three ways in which The Hobbit does not work: as a translation of the book; as a movie; and as a spectacle.
Perhaps most clearly, particularly for fans of Tolkien, Jackson's vision does not work as a translation of the book. Lest you think that I'm merely grumpy that Jackson changed the story, I feel that I need to say that I am fundamentally okay with the idea that movie directors often need to make adaptations to source material to make it work. I just watched Les Misérables (more on that in a later post), and there were certainly changes required for the play to translate to film. Directors need a certain leeway to adapt material for the cinematic medium, and Jackson had (mostly) earned that grace from the LOTR trilogy, a grace that was restored after the travesties of The Two Towers by the grandeur of The Return of the King (a dichotomy that seems to have demonstrated Jackson's true nature as a filmmaker). In this case, however, there were few changes that needed to be made to make the story workable. There were small changes that could be forgiven, were that the case here, but Jackson has made changes to every chapter and scene in the book, most of which were unnecessary and even offensive to fans of the source material. I do not think it's necessary to outline all of those changes here, as I'm certain that even a cursory Google search will reveal a host of lists of changes to the story, but suffice to say that even the little changes were inscrutable, especially as they made changes to the characters of Gandalf and Bilbo. Gandalf has become a grumpy angry old man who leaves and appears as he deems fit, rather than a wizened wizard with an understanding of the wider world. Bilbo, through no fault of Martin Freeman, has become confident when he shouldn't be, witty when he wasn't, and inappropriately aware of his surroundings. Take your pick of any number of other moments in which Jackson changed the text for examples of poor changes: my top three were the changes to Wargs and goblins (inexplicably changed to LOTR's orcs); the dwarves in the mountains and cave; and Bilbo's encounter with Gollum. The bottom line is that Jackson's inability to leave things as they were continually interferes with the success of the movie as a translation of the book.
It just doesn't fully work as a movie, either. Now, I recognize that my distaste with this effort as a movie is inextricable from my disgust at the changes that Jackson made, but I think that there is needs to be a level of evaluation of this movie as its own story. Again, if Jackson's changes had made for a better movie, they could be forgiven; since they do not, the egregious nature of these changes is further magnified. There is certainly an aspect of magnificence and wonder in the journey, but the pacing is awkward throughout much of the movie's too-long running time - unnecessarily drawn out at times and forced into rushing at others. There are too many characters clogging up the screen, especially with the added development of additional villains such as Azog the goblin and the goblin king and the inclusion of extra-textual characters from LOTR or Tolkien's Unfinished Tales (Radagast?!). The resulting mess leaves too many characters underdeveloped or unfinished and takes away from the central character, Bilbo. There is also an element of Jackson's intent to make the story into a trilogy that interferes with its success as a movie, as there are several scenes inserted to justify scenes from the upcoming two movies. I understand that what Jackson is trying to do is to place The Hobbit within the larger scope of events, but that should not mean that this movie cannot exist as a self-contained entity. The dialogue (mostly Jackson's) is occasionally awkward and stunted, and the entire effort seems uneven and muddled.
I find it a problem that Jackson was trying to make The Hobbit be the same kind of spectacle as The Lord of the Rings, since The Hobbit is a more intimate story about childlike wonder and exploration. Jackson's attempt to insert spectacle into a story of this nature falls flat; I am reminded particularly of the scene with the rock giants, which was reminiscent of the droid battle in Star Wars: Episode I - a bland CG scene that adds nothing to the movie but some effects. But even if I were willing to concede that Jackson's choice to make The Hobbit into a spectacle were valid, it does not work.
I know that part of that failure was the feeling of this movie featuring recycled material from The Fellowship of the Ring, particularly in escaping the goblins' kingdom. Several scenes seem to have been lifted almost shot for shot from his previous effort, and they were much less impressive as a result. The overall pacing, dialogue, and character development contribute to its failure, but any one of those might be forgivable (as they were on occasion in LOTR) in the wider scope of the story. No, the most significant reason that the spectacle fails is the high frame rate. I had heard that the 48 FPS rate made the movie feel less fantastic, but I felt the need to see the movie as Jackson intended it to be seen. It was not too long before I wondered why he wanted it to be seen that way, as I felt that the higher frame rate interfered with the fantasy of the movie, making it feel like a BBC mini-series. I understand that Jackson was taking a risk and pioneering a new technology, for which he should be commended; it's just this was not the forum in which to do it, since it removed the sense of spectacle for the audience.
If I were to sum up my review using a metaphor from the movie, it would be the (SPOILER ALERT!) goiter of the goblin king, a character that is added for the purposes of the movie. As Gandalf and the dwarves talk with him, a disgustingly huge goiter hangs from his chin. It is abrasive, crass, and unnecessary, and moreover it doesn't look possible or "real"; it looks like it is CG, and it does not serve a purpose in developing the character or the story. I see why Jackson put it in, but it still does not make much sense for it to be there. It provides one of the lasting visuals of the movie as one of the final scenes, but there is no reason for it to be memorable other than as a piece of the constructed world of Jackson's Middle-Earth. It is a signal that this is not Tolkien's world, but it is Jackson's; unfortunately, many of the viewers (including me) cannot share Jackson's flawed vision. I am heartened to see that many critics feel the same way, and that the mixed reviews seem to have removed The Hobbit from much of the consideration for awards; even the Golden Globes omitted it. And perhaps that is the final word on The Hobbit: even the Golden Globes ignored it. I'm not suggesting that The Hobbit can necessarily be ignored - it is, after all, a box office hit with two more to follow - but that at the very least that Peter Jackson should be ashamed of what he has done to one of the most beloved books ever written. If nothing else, the fact that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey cannot be in any way considered a movie for children is proof enough that Peter Jackson has ruined it beyond repair, and taken the childhood of many Hobbit lovers with him. This is not how I wanted to remember The Hobbit, and I refuse to let Jackson's vision taint my fond memories of Bilbo's journey through Middle-Earth. If you want to keep your memories pure, I suggest keeping a wide berth from Jackson's abomination. I just can't say it enough: this is, and will always be, one of the worst movie experiences of my life.

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