Media Diet: 2017

Because I am a broken person, I track every book I read and movie I watch. Astonishingly, despite finishing my second graduate degree this year, raising an infant who has become a toddler, and the usual 60-hour work weeks, I managed to read more books and watch more movies than I have in a long time. Since I have so much less time available to me, I value the time I do have differently. As my friend Paul Cumbo wrote on this topic:

The most striking discovery I’ve made since becoming a dad is the shifting economics of time and productivity... A sneaky little irony about parenthood is that you suddenly have less time but you get more done than ever before. Since becoming a dad, I’ve become a lot more productive. And the irony here is that I have far less time to myself.

For me, that means that when I'm finally done for the night, I tend not to stare mindlessly at my phone, reading whatever new horrors Twitter presents. Instead, I more consciously choose to read or watch a movie.

So below are some of my favorites from 2017 (whether or not they were released then):


According to Letterboxd, I watched 46 movies this year (which doesn't count all those times I'd sit down and see The Dark Knight or A Few Good Men on TV and watch until the end). Some of the highlights:

  • John Wick and John Wick 2: I watched the first movie when I was home with a fever. What a fun, classic action movie–and the sequel is just as good.
  • Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2, Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, and Thor: Ragnarok: The annual slate of comic book movies had some pleasant surprises (Logan, Thor, and Wonder Woman), as well as some reliable, if unremarkable, hits (Guardians and Spider-Man). While I think Wonder Woman was overrated by most, anything new is good.
  • Children of Men: I'd seen this movie before, but not in ten years. Watching it again in 2017, with everything going on in the world and being a new parent, it felt like a brand new experience (though the cinematography was just as gorgeous as I remembered).
  • Dunkirk: Christopher Nolan's movies had become a bit overstuffed lately, at least in terms of plot. The simplicity of this story really let the craftsmanship of the film shine through.
  • The Vietnam War: This Ken Burns documentary is just as good as everybody has said.
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi: I could write a whole post about this, but the world doesn't need that right now. I'll just say that this is a Star Wars movie that really tries to be about something–and I think it succeeds marvelously.
  • Get Out: Another movie that tells a taut story well. Deserving of its inclusion on all the end-of-year lists.
  • Lady Bird: Set in an all-girls Catholic high school in 2003 (I graduated from a Catholic high school in 2001 and now work at an all-girls school), this movie got just about everything right.
  • Honorable mention movies I saw either again or for the first time in 2017 that I enjoyed or made me think: Silence, Pulp Fiction, No Country for Old Men, Baby Driver, Logan Lucky


I somehow managed to read almost 12,000 pages in 2017. That's a lot, even for me. The ones that stuck with me:

Fiction and comics

  • Irredeemable, Mark Waid: I devoured this series from Mark Waid. A fun subversion of the usual tropes: what if Superman turned evil?
  • Saga, Book 2, Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples: Still the best comic series out there, and one of few that I still look forward to monthly.
  • The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett: I'd been scared away by the sheer size of the book, but I was looking for something long I could really sink my teeth into, and this didn't disappoint. For such an expansive work, it actually focuses on relatively few characters, so by the end I felt very invested in them.
  • The Song of Achilles, Madeline Miller: I loved everything about this novel, and can't wait to read Circe. Rare is the writer in this genre of historical fiction who has a grasp of the history/mythology and is also a strong writer.


Whither Scarcity?

I was born in 1983, so for my childhood there existed only three Star Wars movies. From as early as I can remember, there were no movies I loved more. But I didn't actually own them; there were no cheap copies to go buy, so I had to rely on the local video stores to rent them whenever I wanted. At least a couple times a month, I'd head to the video rental section at Schnuck's or Doy TV Repair. God forbid they were rented out when I wanted them–I'd have to wait days to watch them.

I wore out these copies from the video stores. They had to be repaired a couple times, if I recall.

I wore out these copies from the video stores. They had to be repaired a couple times, if I recall.

So like most kids my age there was nothing except those three movies to foster my obsession with all things Star Wars. That changed in 1997 when filming started on Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Entirely new Star Wars movies? That was unfathomable. The still-new-to-me Internet connection at home meant I spent hours (and it did take hours over dialup) downloading that first trailer.

Of course, The Phantom Menace and the rest of the prequel trilogy was mostly disappointing. The anticipation for each movie was in many ways better than the movies themselves. When the first trailers came out for Episode II and then Episode III, I was excited each time. Because no matter what happened, these were Star Wars movies. This wasn't James Bond, with dozens of movies, some good, some not. Once this prequel trilogy was over, who knew if there'd ever be any more? It had been 16 years between Return of the Jedi and Phantom Menace, and there was every indication that Revenge of the Sith would be the last Star Wars movie for a long time.

Of course, in October 2012, The Walt Disney Company purchased Lucasfilm, and announced there would be a brand new trilogy. Like so many others of my generation, that anticipation I felt as a kid returned the moment I saw the first trailer for The Force Awakens.

And yet, there's something very different this time (in addition to me being a grown adult). That scarcity that made the original trilogy, and to a lesser extent the prequels, so special is nonexistent. Already they've announced that there will be "Anthology" movies in the midst of the new trilogy, with two announced so far, meaning there will be at least one new Star Wars movie released every year for the next few years.

Of course I'm going to see all of them, and many of them will be good and some will be really excellent. But knowing that Star Wars is now just another Disney franchise makes it harder to get excited about any individual movie. The Marvel Cinematic Universe is facing the same dilemma. When there's such saturation, it's difficult for any single movie to stand out. If you didn't like Age of Ultron, that's OK, because Ant-Man will be out soon, and then Captain America: Civil War with most of those same characters. There have been some great Marvel movies, and some surprises, but there's a predictability and a sameness to them that will almost certainly seep into these new Star Wars movies as well.

I remember being genuinely excited about moving away from home so I could eat an entire package of Oreos without my parents telling me no. Of course, I quickly learned in college that sometimes it's best to not eat all the Oreos (I learned that lesson with many different foods and beverages, really). Point is, I'm glad there will be more movies set in the Star Wars universe that I've loved since I was a kid, but I will miss having the opportunity to really miss them.

→ "The 11 Defining Features of the Summer Blockbuster"

FiveThirtyEight took my "Summer Movies" post and added actual data. Interesting read, full of pretty charts (though some charts are more enlightening than others).

On a related note, I am again running two Summer Movie Drafts, and the consensus among all involved is that this summer will be a terrible one for movies, both critically and (potentially) financially. It will be interesting to see if that ends up being true or if there are a number of surprise hits. Early returns for Amazing Spider-Man 2 aren't particularly promising...

Towards a Unified Field Theory of Summer Movies

I'm a big fan of summer movie season. I've always enjoyed movies in general, but I've never been a capital-F "Film-lover" type. Sure, I appreciate a good arty or independent movie, but I've never taken a film class, nor have I seen Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia. As such, I tend to see more movies in theaters in the summer than during the winter awards season (not to mention the difference in free time I have in the summer vs. December and January). I also, having stolen the idea from a friend, run a Summer Movie Draft, where five of us draft a "team" of summer movies. We then give each movie a score, based on how well it does at the box office, as well as its Rotten Tomatoes score. Below are two screenshots, one of last year's results, and one for this summer's contest.

All this to say that I spend a lot of time thinking about summer movies, especially the blockbuster types that tend to dominate the box office all summer. What surprised me this summer was the extent to which Man of Steel under-performed, despite its massive marketing push and pre-release buzz. Yes, it made a lot of money, and there's already a sequel planned, but the critical response was tepid, with only a 56% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Superman is clearly a well-known and beloved property, more so than the Avengers or Iron Man. So why did Man of Steel fail where those others did so well?

Most of the complaints about Man of Steel are with the film's third act, in which (spoiler) the entire city of Metropolis is leveled, mostly because of Superman. Geeks complained because this was out of character for Superman, who is known for defending as many civilians as he can, no matter what the cost to him. While there are legitimate concerns about what this means for Superman's character, the biggest problem is that this was simply a bad choice for the story. There was certainly plenty of action in the last 40 minutes of Man of Steel, and ostensibly that's what summer moviegoers are looking for. Yet for all the punching and flying and explosions and destruction, the finale of Man of Steel was undeniably boring, in a way that other explosion-packed finales are not.

We know Superman is essentially invincible, so any story featuring him must have stakes other than simply his survival. Superman and Superman II accomplished this by having Superman saving Lois Lane and other civilians, or by taking his powers away temporarily. In Man of Steel, director Zack Snyder and screenwriter David S. Goyer instead place the survival of the entire planet, and especially Metropolis, at stake. The problem is, we viewers cannot really comprehend or relate to planetary stakes. A good story can make us care about whether certain characters live or die, but an entire city or planet? That's more difficult.

The Avengers faced similar difficulties in last summer's blockbuster. Again, the entire planet was at stake, with the battle for its survival taking place in New York City. I think there are a couple reasons why the final act of The Avengers (mostly) works, where Man of Steel does not. One, the characters are more vulnerable. While we know intellectually that none of our heroes will die, they are all (except Thor) mostly human. Sure, there's a high-tech suit of armor and a giant green rage monster, but their basic humanity gives them a vulnerability that Superman lacks, at least in this most recent version. The team dynamic of the Avengers also keeps the action from getting stale. It's not a question of whether the superheroes will defeat the supervillain, but how they will do it. They even spend some time figuring out how to keep civilians safe, something Superman does not seem to consider. The stakes are still too high to be comprehensible, but the script keeps things interesting. Man of Steel is relying on the action sequences of one super-strong alien flying and punching another super-strong alien to be entertaining enough, but without any connective tissue, it feels rote.

There was a tweet from @FilmCritHulk the other day with an excerpt from Raymond Chandler that covers this ground much better than I could:

Action is not a substitute for the emotional response that moviegoers crave. With modern CGI, the action is easy. But relying on it at the expense of plot or characters isn't going to work, no matter how popular the superhero. And while my wonderful assistant principal may disagree, I don't think that Superman is being held to a different standard than the Avengers. The problems in Man of Steel are problems of execution. The best summer movies, the ones that appease both the hoi poloi and the critics, are the ones that understand Raymond Chandler's advice: the action has to be a means, not the end.

Backward Design

On episode 76 of Back to Work, Merlin talked a bit about the idea of backward design. Of course, he wasn’t talking about education, but it was the same principles that all teachers learn in their first education class. I was thinking about this today when I saw The Dark Knight Rises. I haven’t read all of the reviews I’ve saved in my Instapaper queue, but the consensus seems to be that it’s a good film, though not as strong as the first two in the trilogy, and a fitting end to the series.

I’m not sure precisely how this film stacks up against the others, but viewed as a trilogy it’s hard not to be awed by Christopher Nolan’s achievement. Watching them all, it seems clear that Nolan had a clear idea of where he wanted the story to go from the very beginning, his own version of “backward design.” It is of course entirely possible that I’m wrong, but I think it’s difficult to fake this level of completeness in a story. Breaking Bad is another prime example of this. While the details of the story have evolved over the seasons, the basic premise of Walter White turning from Mr. Chips to Scarface has driven the show successfully. I haven’t read enough interviews with Christopher Nolan to know the arc he had in mind for his Dark Knight triogy, but I can give it no higher praise than to say it compares favorably with Breaking Bad.

It’s that time of summer where I am beginning to think about my classes for the upcoming year. I’m no Vince Gilligan or Christopher Nolan, but I’d really like to be able to have just as strong a vision for what I want to happen from August to May. What is my ultimate goal for this course? In the AP course in particular, which I am teaching for the first time, that’s not an easy question to answer. Possibilities include:

  • High participation rate on the AP Latin test in May
  • High average scores on the AP Latin test in May
  • For the students to have an appreciation of the literature of Classical Rome
  • For the students to be experts on Latin grammar and syntax
  • For the students to be able to translate Classical Latin fluently

Of course, I do not have to choose just one of those goals, but the order in which I prioritize them will have an impact on the day-to-day planning of the class. Since this is my first time with this particular course, I’m not really hoping for Gilligan or Nolan level of execution (sorry, students), but at least the first season of Heroes would be nice.