Competing Spectacles by Tony Reinke, Free for CAPC Members
Reinke wants to help readers not be manipulated and enthralled by the spectacles of our media age. Instead, he shows that we see the greatest spectacle of all in the Cross.
As the calendar winds down and eases from one year to the next, many of us turn nostalgic. We wonder where the time went and reflect over the ways we spent the past 365 days. Maybe it’s a matter of clicking through the photos we snapped or reviewing our goals or taking note of what we’ve read or listened to or watched or laughed at. Remembering is a way of marking time and seeing how various ideas and experiences have made us who we are now.
Here in 2019, we have an additional opportunity to review and reminiscence, because it’s the end of a decade. The Christ and Pop Culture team is highlighting some of their personal favorite pop culture artifacts of the past 10 years in a week-long series called Faves of the Decade. We hope you enjoy the entries they share!
Studio Ghibli’s final project before shuttering in 2014 was a 26-episode adaptation of Astrid Lindgren’s 1981 children’s fantasy novel Ronja Rövardotter. Directed by Goro Miyazaki (son of Hayao Miyazaki), it is probably the best children’s television program I’ve seen.
Counter to the common American Sensibility when approaching entertainment, the show breathes and leaves room for the contemplative. It doesn’t feel the need to bash you in the face with plot development after plot development in quick-cut succession. In faithfully adapting the story of the book, Ronja tells a single story over nearly seven hours—instead of 26 smaller stories, each with their own distinct moral (common in American programming for children). In an episode for instance, Ronja may take three minutes to simply wander in her forest, taking the time to exult in its wonder.
The characters don’t speak in a rush. They aren’t walking all over each other to bust out their snappy lines and their witty repartee. Instead, characters often speak with careful deliberation. Even their movement is deliberate, packed with intent and meaning.
Despite being one story, Ronja isn’t about just one thing—unless you just give up and say it’s about life and therefore about all the wonder and terror and everything else that life comprises. The show navigates from lighthearted meditation on why the world is so neat and fun to Holy Cats Things Just Got So Real and back again and back again and all around in between. It’s about birth and family, and seeing infant Ronja nursing while her father and the whole robber clan watch thoroughly smitten is one of the most warming moments of television I’ve seen. We see Ronja’s utter trust in her father, Mattis, and then we see her gradual disillusionment as she comes to understand more of her world. We see the value of familial bonds. We see fear and bravery and courage and despair in the face of dangers and trials. We see honest sacrifice for the welfare of others. We see strength of character and pettiness of character, and sometimes we get to see the reason for the pettiness and our judgment softens. We see conflict, and we see resolution. We see both the terrors and joys of the changing seasons. We see estrangement and reunion. We see death and passion and rage and life and whimsy and joy. We see what it means, broadly, to grow up. Ronja The Robber’s Daughter is available to stream in the United States on Amazon Prime Video.
—Seth T. Hahne
When The King’s Speech and The Social Network were both in the running for Best Picture back in 2011, I sometimes felt like the only person in the world rooting for the former. (As it turned out, though, so were the Oscar voters!) The Social Network was critically acclaimed because it captured its moment so perfectly, but for me that was just the problem—its concerns, its style and pacing, its whole jittery aesthetic were so completely of the moment. The King’s Speech, on the other hand, felt quietly timeless. It too was a story rooted in a particular moment—the period leading up to World War II—yet its story of a man forced to do a crushing duty for his country, all the while feeling desperately inadequate, would resonate in any time. Supported by the love of family and the power of friendship, George VI (Colin Firth) is able to summon up the raw courage to rule a nation on the brink of war. The film unabashedly embraced old-fashioned beliefs about heroism while debunking any lingering notions that heroism requires a lone (and lonely) wolf. The climactic sequence in which the stuttering king has to reassure his people over the radio distills all his burdens and anxieties into a single breathless point in time. And when his doggedly loyal speech therapist, Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), says gently, “Just say it to me. Say it to me, as a friend,” it makes that moment transcendent.
From its sunny opening to its bittersweet ending, La La Land was not quite like anything I’d seen before—perhaps because it brought together, in its own bright and buoyant style, so much that I’d seen before. Damien Chazelle’s film had the lush musical feel of the old Broadway songs I love, the colorful costumes and lavish sets and can-do spirit of classic MGM musicals, and combined them all with a contemporary love story between two down-on-their-luck but determined souls trying to make it in two very tough industries. As much as any of the gorgeous sights and sounds of the film, it was Mia’s (Emma Stone) and Seb’s (Ryan Gosling) love for their chosen professions, for movies and music respectively, that caught and held me. To this day I’m not quite over what eventually happened to their love for each other, and yet there’s still something to celebrate in the sacrificial quality of that love while it lasted—the way one person can summon up the will to push another toward her dream and the life that’s right for her, even if it ultimately means a life without him. It was that rare film that made the case for both romantic love and the goodness of work, even as it achingly acknowledged that sometimes the two just don’t fit together.
A young, modern, sociopathic Sherlock Holmes? The idea was jarring—yet the execution was brilliant. Sherlock creators Steven Moffatt and Mark Gatiss found a magic formula by taking the best of Arthur Conan Doyle’s brooding, brilliant hero and giving him 21st-century trappings. Brought to unforgettably quirky life by Benedict Cumberbatch, Sherlock’s insights pierce modern preoccupations and foibles like a rapier, often showing us not just what’s foolish in the life of crime, but also in the everyday life we take for granted. He was rarely polite or considerate about it (“What is it like in your funny little brains? It must be so boring”), his single-minded coldness giving the series some of its biggest laughs as well as some of its greatest moments of tension. But as he moved confidently through the grit and grime of contemporary London, dealing with the modern-day iterations of Watson (Martin Freeman), Moriarty (Andrew Scott), Irene Adler (Lara Pulver), and all the rest, his commitment to the greater good held strong even when the moral vision of others flagged or faltered.
At first blush, the mid-level bureaucracy of a midwestern city smack dab in the middle of “flyover country” seems like an odd setting for a sitcom. But as we watch the plans and foibles of Pawnee, Indiana’s various bureaucrats—always-positive Leslie Knope, who believes in the government’s power for good; staunch libertarian Ron Swanson, who considers government an evil to be subverted and overthrown; and Tom Haverford, who’s constantly pursuing his own entrepreneurial efforts (to name but a few of the series’ colorful characters)—we also see people from diverse backgrounds and philosophies coming together to work for the common good of their city and their neighbors.
Parks and Recreation reminds us that although political ideologies are not unimportant, they need not get in the way of friendship, loyalty, civility, and even love. Of course, it certainly doesn’t hurt that the series is often hilarious, from Swanson’s gruff machismo and Haverford’s inept business ventures to Andy Dwyer’s brainless hijinks. Given the hyper-partisan nature of the current political environment, I have often found myself thinking that our real life politicians could learn a thing or two from the good folks of Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks Department—and so could the rest of us.
Created by the Duffer brothers and first debuting in 2016, Stranger Things is a Netflix original show that captured the ultimate zeitgeist of the decade. Taking place in 1983, it tells the story of the disappearance of a boy in small-town Hawkins, Indiana, and the supernatural events surrounding not only the search for him, but the appearance at the same time of a girl with strange abilities. With episodic contextual homages to favorite pop culture icons, shows, and movies of the 1980s, Stranger Things encapsulated the nostalgic spirit of the target audience in our current decade. It also capitalized on—and no doubt contributed to—this decade’s emergence of “geek chic.” Geeks were decidedly uncool in the 1980s, but thanks to changing culture, the mainstream popularization of tabletop gaming like Dungeons and Dragons, and the massive commercial successes of superhero franchises, geek culture is now cool. This allows the kid protagonists of Stranger Things, in this decade, to be heroes with whom we can all empathize—which further makes the plights they face in their 1980’s setting that much more harrowing to watch. In the supernatural aspects of the show, Stranger Things captures and highlights the looming existential dread of life in the 2010s, spiritual undertones and themes, and powerful moments of love, friendship, familial affection, and sacrifice.
Stranger Things does all these things in form and function, utilizing Dungeons and Dragons as not only a key plot point but also the format around which the structure of the show itself is built. It incorporates double meaning in layers into all elements of the story, carefully laying metaphors such that story elements like the “Upside Down” have entered pop culture vernacular as much as one might talk about the Dark and Light side of the Force from Star Wars, or discuss what house one belongs to in Harry Potter.
For the late 2010s, Stranger Things was the right show for the right time, made by people of the right generation who not only know and respect their audience, but who love and respect the material they are working with and the era in which the story is set. There is no other way to describe it other than to say that it is fully a 2010’s show, and only in the 2010s could a supernatural show about geeks in the 1980s have been so successful. It is no wonder Stranger Things was the highest viewed original streaming show on the planet up until this fall, 2019, with Disney+’s debut of The Mandalorian.
—K. B. Hoyle
Releasing to Netflix in 2015, Daredevil was one of the first original series to drop to the streaming giant back when original streaming shows were still a bit of a novelty. Nobody really knew what to expect from the MCU’s Daredevil, who is more of a B-list, street-level hero and a member of the Defenders, as opposed to the A-list superhero Avengers that had been sweeping the box office for several years already. Would Daredevil tie in to the rest of the MCU, and how would the streaming format serve the story? Especially when word came out that the show about the blind lawyer who served up justice on the streets as the Devil of Hell’s Kitchen would not be kid-friendly.
Off the big screen, Netflix offered the MCU writers the ability to flex their muscles a bit by taking advantage of the TV-MA rating. They could step outside the bounds of the narrative and style established by the movies, and they were able to do it in a deeply effective manner. With Geek culture on the rise, the creators of Daredevil dared to go darkly serious and theological with their TV-MA rating. The first and third seasons, in particular, and specific episodes of the second season, play out like sermons (or, perhaps I should say homilies, to do service to the Catholicism of the show), with the audience invited into theological contemplation of material that often seems far too weighty for spandex and tights. It is a rare example of TV-MA done well—where the writers use the elevated rating to take the viewer deeper into the psyche of the hero and the villains he faces without going overly gratuitous on any of the content. In Daredevil, theology meets superhero narrative in form, function, and content, and it all somehow seamlessly works. The show gives us the best of what Marvel could be—the very best of what they have to offer.
The creators of Daredevil took their art seriously, and it was always apparent on the screen. The quality of streaming TV has, since its inception, been much better than anything we had on television when I was a kid, but some shows take the quality up another notch, and Daredevil is one of those shows. It could be watched on the big screen and hold up to any movie. From art direction in the use of lighting and some of the best single-camera, single-take long tracking shots I have ever seen, to writing, to acting, nearly every scene is perfectly written, shot, acted, and plotted. And if you know a thing or two about traditional story structures and medieval, Catholic color symbolism, there is even more to enjoy as each season progresses and takes Matt Murdock on a journey of sanctification. Daredevil is not just a television show about a superhero fighting villains, it’s a show that invites the viewer in through all their senses to experience a vicarious battle of the self against demons both inside and out—a battle that results in glorification at the end. It’s a rare piece of visual art, and a shame we only got three seasons of it.
—K. B. Hoyle
When Baz Lurhmann decided to resurrect F. Scott Fitzgerald’s literary masterpiece, he probably wasn’t wearing sackcloth and ashes. But it is the message, not the garb, that qualifies a prophet, and Lurhmann’s 2013 version of The Great Gatsby is, perhaps, the most prescient film of our decade. Lurhmann employed his signature style with the film, retaining the plot and setting of the original story, but updating particular elements of the story. Viewers watched the 1920’s morality tale unfold while listening to the jazz-infused score, comprised of everything from hip hop by Jay-Z to ballads from Florence + The Machine. The result is a somewhat jarring experience—every time we’re lulled into distancing ourselves from the time, the characters, their choices, we are shoved back into today by the familiar voice of Beyonce or a panoramic shot of the CGI Long Island sound.
Lurhamann’s point is clear—this is a story for right now. But even with all of his careful intention, Lurhmann could not possibly have known the crucial revelation he was offering to viewers. The American Dream is not just money and social status—it’s total autonomy, and that’s what Gatsby’s characters are after. At its core, Gatsby is a story about freedom, a story about delivering ourselves from the shackles of work, of relationships, of love, of social convention, of moral restraint. Gatsby, Daisy, Tom, Jordan, and Nick all participate in a grand experiment of loosening themselves from every possible limitation, working their way up the ladder of success until they are beholden to no one. The result, of course, is disaster, demonstrated by the hollow plunder of multiple affairs, the violent deaths of those who lack the audacity to be careless, and the unblinking willingness of the victors to take their spoils and vanish.
When the film was released in 2013, we did not know that we would be facing one of the most divisive times in our country’s history, with a vitriolic election cycle and tumultuous political discourse. We did not know that power would be distributed to those bold enough to ignore its weight, willing reinvent themselves into magnates who cover their tracks with carelessness and money. We did not know that we would look to those unrestrained by principle, and cheer, and beg them to lead. But Baz knew. And he told us.
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