The best things I’ve read lately (18/01/15)

Awful Christian movies, how Putin sees America and AOL’s answer to Nathan Barley.

I read a lot of stuff in a given week that’s worth sharing but for one reason or another I don’t write a post about. I’d previously tried telling people about them by tweeting links to them but I’m now convinced hardly anyone reads anything substantial because they saw it on twitter. So instead I’m taking inspiration from Jonathan Calder and Stephen Tall, and am going to experiment with a regular post rounding up the best things I’ve seen online.

A huge amount has been written about Fifty Shades of Grey. Rather less has been said about Old Fashioned an attempt at a Christian alternative in which a student is led by an older man into chastity rather than BDSM. Vox’s Brandon Ambrosino ponders why, despite a sizeable audience and significant financial resources, the evangelical film industry produces such uniformly terrible films:

Imagine a gorgeously wrapped gift sitting under a beautifully decorated Christmas tree. The presentation of the package, while pretty, is nowhere near as valuable as what’s inside.

Now, he says, extend that idea to Christian art. The artistic qualities of a work become the unnecessary wrapping paper. As such, it doesn’t really matter how good or bad they are.

That’s why it doesn’t matter that Old Fashioned is often very boring. It doesn’t matter that the script bursts at the seams with overwrought dialogue, or that the actors (outside of lead actress Elizabeth Roberts) offer phoned-in performances.

Director, writer, and lead actor Rik Swartzwelder might bear some of the blame here. After all, his resume, like many others in the Christian film industry, seems notably paltry. A good deal of what actors and directors know about their trade comes from on-the-job training, from working on set and in production studios under filmmakers with decades of experience. By isolating themselves from Hollywood, Christian filmmakers are passing up not only on “secular messages,” but on the mentoring that other budding talent are receiving.

As a result, Old Fashioned, rife with cliché, feels forced and unnatural at every turn. Even Amber — seemingly having read a screenwriting book or two — points out that Clay’s lofty discussions of love seem so “on the nose.” What critics might note as a flaw is seen, by much of the film’s core audience, as the whole point. The phrase “on the nose” usually connotes directly expository, even sermonizing dialogue, spoken unrealistically by the characters. But if you’re looking for a sermon in your art, as many Christian audiences are, “on the nose” becomes the reason the art exists.

In the Atlantic, Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy ponder how Vladimir Putin became so suspicious of the West. His actions are often attributed to his background as a KGB officer and the Cold War mentality that supposedly resulted. Hill and Gaddy convincingly argue that this is wrong because Putin appears to have come out of the Cold War favourably disposed towards America:

 Until he came back from [a posting as a KGB officer in the East German city of] Dresden in 1990 and began working for the mayor of St. Petersburg, Vladimir Putin may have never met an American in any personal context.

By contrast, his position as St. Petersburg’s deputy mayor in charge of external relations offered Putin many opportunities to interact with Americans, in a very different atmosphere from that of the 1980s. After 1991, the Soviet Union was gone, and Putin and the rest of the mayor’s team were trying to figure out how to run the city and make its economy competitive again. American and other Western politicians, as part of a U.S. effort to forge a new relationship with the Russian Federation, openly courted Putin’s boss Anatoly Sobchak, the first democratically elected mayor of St. Petersburg. Putin seemed to respond well to the overtures.

U.S. businesses that moved into St. Petersburg had to deal directly with Deputy Mayor Putin who, according to John Evans, the U.S. consul general in St. Petersburg at the time, was always helpful in resolving contract disputes between U.S. and Russian businesses. Within the city’s U.S. and Western business community, Putin was seen as “pro-business.” He gave no impression whatsoever of any anti-American or anti-Western views.

Rather Hill and Gaddy suggest that he’s formed his bleak assessment of the US based on its military interventions in Kosovo, Iraq and Libya.

If thinking about the bleak situation in Ukraine doesn’t depress you enough then let Andrew Marantz of the New Yorker introduce you to ‘Shingy’ AOL’s ‘digital prophet’:

Next, Shingy stopped by the office of Erika Nardini, the chief marketing officer of AOL Advertising, and handed her an iPad Mini. “Wanted to show you a little brain fart I had on the plane,” he said. It was a cartoon he had drawn of a bear wearing zebra-print pants and a shirt covered in ones and zeros.

“Love it, love it, love it,” Nardini said. “I’m thinking of the bears more as a metaphor.”

“A thousand per cent,” Shingy said.

And finally I absolutely had to include something from the return of John Oliver:


One thought on “The best things I’ve read lately (18/01/15)

  1. I can’t help feeling that so much Christian produced art is second rate because it’s so didactic, designed to proselytise or to advance one or other of the traditional Christian propositions. The heaviness of the message can overwhelm the medium.

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