Survival of the Fittest (Or, Five Lessons Learned from the 2016 BPS)

It's that time of the year again.

Wake up at 7 AM and prepare four Tupperware containers of healthy snack foods (cashews - check, sunflower seeds - check, ancient grain cereal with quinoa - check). Do a round of meditative yoga to ensure that you're mentally prepared for the challenge ahead. Mobility stretches are your key to success, so make sure that you do them before you step onto the subway. Dress in layers because you don't know what the temperature will be like when you arrive or after the first twelve hours. Make sure that you pack a water bottle that can sustain you, but at the same time, remember your threshold (how much can you drink without having to run to the bathroom?). There's so much to remember in order to ensure that you are one of the few, the proud, who survive.

It's time for AMC's Best Picture Showcase.

I refuse to go to movie theaters. I cannot stand audiences that chit-chat with their friends, text on their cell phones, or actively yell at the screen. So unless it's playing at a venue like BAM or Film Forum, I'm not interested. My one exception is AMC's annual Best Picture Showcase where they screen all of the Academy Award Best Picture nominees back-to-back in one day of sleep-deprived cinematic bingeing. I watched all of the nominees this year and, oh my goodness, are we talking slim pickings or what? I learned a lot of lessons from this year's BPS -- mostly about teaching -- and I'm going to take a few moments to share them with you today (before The Revenant wins Best Picture and convinces me that no one in the Academy knows what they're doing):

1. The Myth of the A-Student
Oh, Alejandro Iñárritu. Let's start with you. I did enjoy Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) last year, but not as much as I expected. As a theater practitioner who wrote her undergraduate thesis on comic books, this film seemed tailor-made for my approval. And I really wanted Birdman to be my front-runner for the Academy Award -- but then I saw Whiplash and forgot that every other film existed. Because I am, first and foremost, a teacher, and Whiplash is the best film that I've ever seen about the trauma and ecstasy of teaching. So, while I wasn't disappointed to see Birdman win last year, it was only an "also-ran" nominee for me.

However, I was excited to see Iñárritu's follow-up this year -- his gritty survivalist period drama, The Revenant. I'd been impressed with Iñàrritu's work in the past, so I figured that I was guaranteed at least a solid showing from him. But, despite being primed to root for this film, I can honestly say that The Revenant is one of the worst Best Picture nominees ever. (I would say THE worst nominee ever, but then I remembered last year's miserably chauvinistic and xenophobic American Sniper.) It was just so damned silly, and not in a good way. When the protagonist drove his horse off a cliff, I just about dissolved into giggles. It was full of ridiculous macho posturing and hackneyed dream imagery. None of the characters evoked more than a vague sense of curiosity about what they'd be forced to survive next. I know that the cast endured grueling stunt work, harsh weather conditions, and perpetual discomfort on-set -- but I can't imagine that making The Revenant was any more painful than being forced to sit through it.

This reminded me of when I first started my teaching career. I had a few high performers where even if they'd submitted substandard work, I still ended up giving them a decent score because I had it locked in my mind that they were "A-students." It took a long time for me to realize that students can change a lot throughout the course of a year, and you need to make sure that you're giving them valid feedback at all times. If a student's starting to slip for whatever reason, he needs to know that. If Iñàrritu's most recent film looks like a missing reel from America's Funniest Home Videos, please give him the feedback that he needs instead of an Academy Award.

2. The Curse of the Genre Film
Genre films have never done well at the Academy Awards. Every season, the best representatives of specific genres (action, horror, and sci-fi) have found themselves locked out of the nominee bracket. And when the Academy finally upped the number of nominees a few years ago (notably to include Neill Blomkamp's sensational District 9), it was universally acknowledged that while these films could now be nominated, they could never actually win.

Enter a film that should be a strong contender for Best Picture this year but isn't: George Miller's visual masterpiece Mad Max: Fury Road. Fury Road is both deceptively intelligent and politically progressive. Its narrative structure is iron-clad, never missing a single character-fueled beat. It doesn't condescend to the audience by spelling out the backstory in scads of forced exposition. And the visual design is some of the best that you'll ever find in a film. (I WANT A FLAME-THROWING GUITAR BIG RIG.) Add in the fact that the chase sequences are choreographed, shot, and edited to perfection, and you have a clear genre winner.

But Fury Road won't win. And let that be a lesson to all the teachers of the world. Don't overlook the genre film. I'm talking about the student who doesn't neatly fit into the exemplar response boxes. The one who refuses to follow the directions or ignores the rubric. Will this student ever win an Academy Award? Unlikely. (Best Picture is basically the gold star teacher-store sticker of the film world, after all.) But will this student someday create mind-blowing car chases fueled by potent feminist rage? HOPEFULLY, MY FRIENDS. HOPEFULLY.

3. Process vs. Product
I'm now going to say something complimentary about The Revenant. (Screenshots or it didn't happen.) The Revenant is a film that deeply values process. You've probably read countless articles about how the cast suffered to create this film -- and, as audience members, we should respect that. Leonardo DiCaprio probably does deserve the Best Actor award because the process that he went through to create that character was epic in its own right. (We're going to ignore the fact that, as written, the character was one-dimensional at best.) When you're willing to throw up chunks of blood-soaked bison meat and wrap yourself up in gutted animal carcasses, then you have officially gone the extra mile.

Lesson learned? Sometimes, teachers need to respect a student's process just as much as the finished product. If I have a student who really struggles with performance anxiety, then it's not unusual for me to look at their written work (the beats and actions, the moment before, etc.) and use that to guide my grading on their monologue projects. For other students (especially ones who plan on applying to selective performing arts high schools), they need to know that, while their written work will help develop their character, they ultimately need to let all of that work be seen onstage. So let Leonardo DiCaprio have the Academy Award for Best Actor, recognizing the process that went into creating his character in The Revenant. And also because he definitely should have won for What's Eating Gilbert Grape? back in 1993. Way overdue.

4. Playing It Safe
I had an interesting debate about who the true Worst Picture winner should be -- The Revenant or Bridge of Spies. The Revenant was an absolute mess, but the cinematography was visually striking and the plot was absurd enough to at least keep you awake. Bridge of Spies was so blandly mediocre that it literally put half of the audience to sleep. (Admittedly, it was playing in the uncoveted 2:30 AM slot, but the two films that it was flanked by [Mad Max: Fury Road and The Martian] managed to keep us all awake so #noexcuses.) The moment the Thomas Newman score swelled during the final shots, evoking the simpler period dramas of the late 1990s/early 2000s, it became clear that this film did nothing to earn its entry into the nominee list. Did it check all of the boxes that the Academy was looking for? Certainly. Was it any good? Not at all.

Let this point be an addition to #2. Mad Max: Fury Road checked none of those rubric boxes, but it was amazingly good. Bridge of Spies checked all of those rubric boxes, but it was pitifully bad. They both ended up being Academy Award nominees. What lesson can teachers take away? Don't let your students play it safe. It can be really tempting, as a student, to write a passable thesis that's has the interest level of a bowl of plain white rice. It can also be tempting, as a teacher, to check off the boxes and give the student an A because, well, there's nothing really WRONG with the essay now, is there? But that would be doing a disservice to our students because there IS something wrong with that essay. It's boring, and no one wants to read it. So make one completely subjective rubric row if you must. Call that rubric row INTEREST LEVEL and grade the student solely based on this one question: Did I want to read your essay? Because it's not enough to be able to write well, you also have to be able to write something that folks will actually want to read. Which brings us to our final lesson learned . . .

5. If It Doesn't Matter, It Didn't Matter
I am tired of films that don't matter. Sure, I like a good narrative as much as the next audience member. But I also want a film that's trying to change the world in some way. That's the reason why my pick for Best Picture wouldn't be Mad Max: Fury Road even though that film blew my mind. If I was allowed to cast a vote, I'd mark my ballot for The Big Short. More than any other nominee, The Big Short was clearly trying to rectify a political problem. I walked out of the cinema with a feeling of frustration deep in my gut. I wanted to go to the bank and withdraw all of my funds. TAKE THAT, WELLS FARGO. I wish that there'd been some kind of call to action at the end, although that seems to be more the purview of documentaries, but I appreciate the fact that Adam McKay was trying to get the issues out there and stir up popular opinion.

The Revenant ended with Leonardo DiCaprio staring blankly into the camera lens. The Big Short ended by telling us that taxpayers had bailed out these avaricious bankers (and even provided them with massive bonuses for going bankrupt), and that Wall Street was once again dealing in CDOs under a different nomenclature. Yes, The Big Short didn't get everything right in their explanation of the Subprime Mortgage Crisis -- but they definitely left me and all of my friends with the clear message that banking reform is necessary in the United States. The Revenant left me with the thought: "Leonardo DiCaprio sure has pretty eyes."

You tell me who the winner should be.

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