American Snapshot: Five Movies and the ACM Awards Show

This will be a rambling post as many of mine are. However, it will seek a window into America and America’s place in the world through looking at the Academy of Country Music awards show held in Las Vegas and broadcast on CBS and through five films. The films are Twelve Years a Slave, Noah, Divergent, God is Not Dead, Son of God and Frozen. The films are admittedly different from one another. Nor will this offer five separate and fully satisfactory reviews of each and everyone of these films. I also will not explain why I picked these films and left out others that have caught my attention — such as Dallas Buyers Club, The Great Gatsby and The Hunger Games. in terms of award shows, the Oscars, the Grammys and American Music Awards could all make a case for having more to say about America than the one I chose. But this is the set of six media expressions I have chosen for this essay.

Let us knock out a few things that maybe unite these pieces of popular culture:

1, All got pretty good ratings compared to the vast majority of things made in the world of arts and media.

2. All were available to be viewed In Abbeville, Louisiana as soon as or shortly after being released (although that is not where I viewed all of them).

3. All spoke a visual and audio language which was creative and innovative in places and certainly very competent but not revolutionary  or entirely new in approach.

4. All made an attempt to cultivate and express a moral perspective in a t least part of their production.

5. All addressed some pressing issues for society directly or indirectly.

6. All were forms of commercial entertainment.

7. All were aired or exhibited primarily in English.

8. All were to a substantial degree American productions regardless of what other talent, money and leadership was involved.

9. All were geared in large part to an American first audience.

10. They all address educators and students more than many other products of entertainment. this does not apply as much to the ACM awards.

This blog is full of information about me but nonetheless I often choose to tie what I am writing about directly to the life experience from which I approached the subjects that have gained my attention.  I am going to do that again before we turn to the specifics of the films. That is in part because America is not some big generic homogeneity. America is made up of the experience of millions of individual Americans as well their families, communities and networks of associations.  Documenting my own community is in large part what this blog has always been about.

Let’s face it  — or let me face it — it is not easy to determine why exactly I blog. I have at times written for office memoranda, newsletters, newspapers and magazines where one could see some direct connection to income that does not exist with this blog. I have also written poetry, short stories and novels which were easy to understand in the context of all the things people have done for art or out of artistic expression and inclinations.  But this blog is not of either of those types of expression. I think it would be hard to argue that it is an entirely rational exercise for me to have written so much here. But I do write, am writing and have written.

One of the several areas of human activity which has engaged my interest here has been the work of some others who write, act, speak, sing and photograph. Some of that type of blogging has reported on the good work being done by relatives and friends. In addition, I have written more about those sorts of things on my Facebook timeline. A great deal of that has involved theater and video productions by family

One of those days with lots of medium sized tasks. This evening I am off to watch my nephew Eli perform in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at John Paul the great Academy. First I will hopefully be joining my sister (Eli’s mother) and the rest of her family for an early supper.

Here, in e-mail and on Facebook I try to keep track of and comment upon the lives and work of many talented associates. I do have many talented friends and acquaintances doing many things and I only manage to mention a few in my blog or on this Facebook timeline. However one example of someone I have known well for many years and had significant dealings with is John T. Landry. Our connections relate to roles we have both played in the University which is my undergraduate Alma Mater and is now the University of Louisiana. They relate to Jesuit retreats at Our Lady of the Oaks, to family friends, to buying cars, to political races  and to personal disagreements. They have not in the thirty busy years of his life I have seen related to arts directly. But this is one friend that comes to the fore because recently he has moved from someone I have known in many other contexts but only am just starting to know as an artist. John T. Landry is launched an art exhibit in April. I must admit that I was unaware of these expressions and impressions. I had looked forward to catching his exhibit in Kaplan but my grandfather’s death and funeral interfered. Although without such distractions I do not get everywhere I would like to arrive these days. It should be possible to find out more about the exhibit at this website and how much of it is open to the public.

I have family member’s who are engrossed in work that matters to them. I taught John Paul his first film class in a year of home school classes. My brother John Paul Summers has filmed this video. Dr, Kevin Roberts was the Headmaster (if that is the term) at John Paul the Great Academy where my nieces and nephews have been involved Alyse E. Spiehler graduated, Anika and Soren attended and where Eli and Elliot attend today. John Paul there this year and will be leaving but my sister Mary will be starting there next year and all her children will be there as well. John Paul also has a full service video business and taught video at JPG along with other subjects.

Among the better experiences of this Lent was  heading off to hear my sister Sarah give a Lenten oration and reflection in the Lenten Mission series at St. John’s Cathedral. Sarah has done wonderful work with drama in Home school and in various theaters. Her daughter Alyse founded the drama club at JPG with her influence and in her own day she was a wonder with two wonderful sisters in speech tournaments.  Alyse and Anika performed several times in her productions and elsewhere. Both have qualified to compete in National Speech tournaments. 

My niece Anika this qualified by  competing at the her mother’s old alma mater Saint Thomas More High School where her father was also a standout. Her wins and place awards in speech tournaments for my legal alma mater Abbeville High School have lightened several weekends. I am wishing her the best in this continuing journey.  My Christmas season this year was made worthwhile by seeing her twice perform  in a very nice piece at Abbeville High.

Frank Wynerth Summers III's photo.
Frank Wynerth Summers III's photo.


If you grade on the curve this play was very effective and did more to get me into the spirit than anything else has this year. I dressed up a little Friday, bought my niece some flowers and was delighted for a while by the performance. Flowers and dressing up are not required, just my tradition when Anika or some other relatives perform. I left the comical and heartwarming play feeling edified and merry although that single event cannot overcome all the reasons this is a rough time at best. I recommend the Abbeville High Christmas play to get into the Christmas spirit. I have never had a year when it was harder to get into the spirit of the holidays than this year and have had trouble even trying to wrap a few gifts. But her performance and the production as a whole were redeeming and precious to me.

I went to see my niece Anika perform and portray the role of Beth Bradley in the opening performance of the Abbeville High School production of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. She did an exceptionally good job and it was a very good production. I did what I could to promote the play by posting on my sizable list on Facebook after attending the first time when there was one Sunday performance remaining and tickets could be bought at the door. I paid for the first performance and my mother had already offered to pay for that last one which will be the final matinee on the following Sunday at 2:00.
My mother has written and published a play in a university press Miracle at Loreauville as well as seeing many productions of her play Emmanuel: God is With Us   in different versions. Further she has supported family work in the lively arts and  is involved in many forms of media.
My father competed in high school speech tournaments. He has argued cases in courts, preached many times and written and played songs.  He and I have collaborated in some of those attempts and productions.
I myself have done quite a bit in the performing arts, video and photography in quite a few places. Together with all those I care about who work in those venues these personal endeavors inform and shape my vision. I also know a lot of people who have been pretty successful in commercial terms. In my fairly immediate family  there is Tasso Smith  whose full name is  Carl Tasso Smith IV. He  is a vocalist and  guitarist for Youngblood Hawke which is a band developed in San Antonio, Texas which  in its first few years with a record  deal has appeared on all of the top four broadcast television networks, sold it themes to numerous commercial and entertainment entities and has generated a lot of buzz and attention for it crafted and somewhat artsy rock sound.  Tasso is my first cousin the son of Carl Tasso Smith III  who has been many things and has many skills but has long earned his keep in the family agribusiness concern which is a major producer of peas. Tasso’s  mothermy father’s youngest sister Beverly Summers Smith, who goes by the name Missi Smith and under that name has produced, shown and sold many works of art.  Tasso and I are different and share a birthday in different years but also a very rich and complex American identity.  Just recently I heard Youngblood Hawke on  the CW’s new tv show The 100. The list keeps getting longer. But this was clearer, more featured and more woven into the plot than most TV drama songs and score are — so kudos on that.
With the exception of Tasso it may seem like a lot of my artistic milieu is tied to education and such but I think the films I have chosen all relate to educational crises as well. They all have something to say to educators.

I don’t review many films in this blog anymore. At least I have not lately.  I suppose  there is more reason to review one film well than to skim over a bunch of them in one post. Nonetheless, I want to take a look at what a few expressions in th media may have to say about America. So let’s get started on this little adventure. There have been a lot of movies that I have found the time to watch in recent days and nights. Over the past year there have been even more. In fact my online comments about The Great Gatsby, Noah and some other films this year as well as Louisiana Story, Belizaire the Cajun, Father of the Bride, Passion of the Christ and Gone With the Wind  have been a significant part of my commentary about America and the world.

Pitre,is not a very common name in the United States nor in the Anglophone world really. But here in this blog it has a film connotation which one should think a reference one might pronounce like Amanda Peet’s  last name really   means Glen Pitre. One of my favorite movie-makers, Glen Pitre was born on November 10, 1955 and is from Cutoff Louisiana. He worked his way through Harvard by shrimping in the summers and became a well-respected American screenwriter and film director. His debut film Belizaire the Cajun was exhibited in the Un Certain Regard section at the Cannes Film Festival in 1986. Pitre films written and directed since 1986 include: Belizaire the Cajun (1986), Haunted Waters (1997), Good for What Ails You (1998), The Scoundrel’s Wife (2002), Top Speed (2003), Hurricane on the Bayou (2006), American Creole: New Orleans Reunion (2006), Journey Across India (2007),  The Man Who Came Back (2008),  Huit Piastres Et Demie!  (unk. date), La Fievre Jaune/Yellow Fever (unk. date) and Cigarettes and Nylons (2013?-2014?).

I have fallen out of some loops including some that watch the most Pitre films. But I am always a pitre viewer when I approach any film. I met Pitre at a writer’s conference in South Louisiana in the 2002-2004 time-frame and as of this writing he is my Facebook friend but we have never been close or anything approaching close. It is certainly not disrespect of any kind which has me commenting on other films than his in this list. Pitre, by reference to education worked his way through Harvard University by shrimping every summer while in school. That is a very physical occupation and Pitre has a localized but significant physical challenge.

So now let us turn again to my list of films.The films are Twelve Years a Slave, Noah, Divergent, God is Not Dead, Son of God and Frozen. We are also looking here at the ACM awards.

God is Not Dead! has some sequences shot in my graduate alma mater which is Louisiana State University. The addresses a fictional situation from a particular point of view rooted in American Evangelical Christianity. There clearly are professors and instructors who persecute Christians and others in any way they can conveniently do so. The fictional defense of theism in a philosophy class is a convenient way to lay out some of the debate about whether these issues are able to be addressed and to show one way of addressing both theism and Christianity.  The stories and characters are also pretty good and well crafted and the film is compelling enough.  It also comes from Pure Flix which has been a stable producing ever more competent films with the same perspective and some actors who have been involved in those productions or similar ones before. Nonetheless, one can legitimately wonder if the film will give comfort to neo-fascists and others I would not like to comfort who will disrupt education on the pretext of defending God.

It also has an appearance by Willie Robertson  and his wife Korie. This Robertson is the CEO of the Commander companies and the son of the more controversial Phil Robertson. I remembers the controversy over his comments about homosexuals and blacks. I have read the GQ article on the Robertsons and Duck Dynasty with my own eyes. It is perhaps true that it is severely edited in ways which must distort some of the context of the remarks attributed to Phil Robertson. In terms of reveling cultural fissures and reasons for conflict between various parts of America that does seem to be at the heart of the article. The writer seems eager to show that he also can shoot and is perhaps alluding to the possible desirability of another War between the States without stating it out right and up front. However, the overall tone on both sides is not entirely unattractive. In itself it would not make me despair for the future of our current United States.

The theological context for Robertson’s remarks is not really understood much less allowed for in the article but neither is it too viciously distorted. The nightmare of a society like ours trying to live under one set of “domestic regimes” is made a little clearer. In a federal union that should not even be considered an issue. I got my summary from WordPress on my blog which has come down a long way since last year. However, the most popular segment was the Model Constitution of the United States which may be because some people see real federalism is the only real hope for an American future worth living in at all. But this goes further than the film itself. Nonetheless, it is a marker in the discussion of the spiritual in America and does not exist in a vacuum.

 Noah is our next God-centered film. I saw the Darren Aronofsky film Noah and wrote about it on my Facebook timeline the same night on which I and my parents had viewed this evening. I enjoyed seeing Russel Crowe and Jennifer Connelly revisit a troubled marriage after doing it so well in A Beautiful Mind. I thought Emma Watson and Anthony Hopkins both delivered memorable performances and Winstone, Lerman, Booth, Carroll and Davenport all made varied roles worth watching. The film was better than I had expected in lots of different ways. It was morally thoughtful, visually spectacular and had careful elaborations of many Biblical themes from early Genesis that are often overlooked. It had the right kind of tone for such a dark and heavy story. Nonetheless, it was an extremely challenging story and I can imagine many honest people of goodwill choosing not to endorse it in any way and finding it unpalatable as well. Beyond all of that, it was very original in its efforts to depict what was not spelled out but was arguably suggested in Holy Writ. I definitely would have to give it a thumbs-up in the old Siskel and Ebert tradition. I think this film falls somewhere between the two sides portrayed in  God is Not Dead! It cannot be simply recommended for all purposes to all but it does make me hope for other serious films of creative merit in the world on religious topics.

That brings us to the Jesus story spun off from the very popular cable series The Bible under the leadership of power couple Mark Burnett and Roma Downey  I went to see Son of God during carnival season. I should  probably have saved Son of God for Lent which started the next Wednesday but I decided to see it sooner. This is one of the shapeless days that are not unusual in my life.  It was a pretty good film at least and like all films depicting the gospel story and the life of Christ it had its own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. For those who have no exposure to the life of Christ it is a lot more than nothing. It does some things quite well and makes some questionable choices as well. It is really weak on a handful of choices and portrayals. What the perspective behind the project may be as a whole is always debatable. Jesus of Nazareth by Zeferelli with big portions of the Passion of the Christ edited in and all sorts of other films including King of Kings and The Greatest Story Ever Told probably come together in my mind to form the depiction in my own mind. No film really captures it as I might wish but I am sure if I had the resources to have a film made it would have many weaknesses as well. The truth is that most filmmakers have a much smaller conception of Jesus Christ than the New Testament offers. I am still not saying Roma Downey and Mark Burnett have not done some good. I think they have and the idea of man with a presence beyond explanation is better captured than in most films. But over all it confirms people in where they are and edifies and educates little about Christ or the Bible. I think for me the positive value is increased familiarity with themes in the Bible and Christianity.

Divergent is very much a film about education and young people finding their way into the world. It is set in a future world which after an apocalypse has made different choices. There seems to be no obvious religion except a generic one embedded in the educational system itself. I think one could argue that it represents an effort of postmodern and relativist secular humanism to  deal with religious and educational questions it has failed miserably to address so far. But any Christian, Jew, Pagan, Buddhist or Muslim could watch it and see some things of interest tot heir own views of education.

Twelve Years A Slave raises issues of race, education, religion and struggle. It is more realistic than many portrayals and allows a clever viewer places to bring forth his or her won doubts an critiques about the story, the film and the subject. As we remember the fiftieth anniversary of the Civil Rights Act we can all stand to revisit the history this film portrays. it is not a sufficient source for all that history but it adds to the discussion.

Frozen is a beautiful film which portrays Scandinavian culture in a Disney Fairy Tale. It is a good film and has its moral voice. There is no Christianity in the Christian Era Scandinavia but no attack on it either. The pagan and secular trends of these societies are treated in reasonable House of Mouse fashion. The soundtrack is good.  It is solid children’s entertainment.

The ACM awards are a big show now with numerous venues in Vegas. I am not likely to be very happy or successful in my own estimation but  I am assertive and ambitious anyway. I think I have something to contribute to the national media discussion and the ACM awards show small town and rural southerners reaching an audience and forming a big part of a national audience.  I like the show and many of my friends do.

I think this blog is relevant to the big discussions and trends in our country. I hope it is relevant to the readers as well. But there are forces and choices we must deal with that are made manifest in our popular culture. That is better than there not being manifest at all.



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