Where to even begin? There’s a moment at the end of C.S. Lewis’ Prince Caspian where Peter and Susan tell Edmund and Lucy that they won’t be returning to Narnia. Their time was up. And yet, the elder Pevensies knew they had had their fill and their fun and that it was time to move on. There were more trips to Narnia in store for the younger two, but all the same, Edmund and Lucy, too, were ready to go home—for a while. My time in Oxford began with an immediate immersion in a world I’d long dreamt of but hadn’t dared to imagine actually existed. As an English major and a lover of stories and fantasy, checking into the Stanford House in Oxford last September was a dream come true. I have spent the past five months living mere yards away from where C.S. Lewis returned to his Christian faith and was inspired to write The Narnia Chronicles, a stone’s throw from where Alice in Wonderland was written, and a few blocks away from where the Inklings met and J.R.R. Tolkien studied and taught. The veil between fact and fiction is thin in Oxford and the overlap of worlds both real and imaginary is palpable. There’s something in the air here, something to do with Oxford’s thousands of years of history, tradition of cutting-edge scholarship, scientific discovery, and literary masterpieces. One can’t help but feel that if its’ ancient walls could talk, the stories they’d tell would keep us intrigued for many lifetimes to come. It’s real, and yet, it’s mythical at the same time. One moment, Oxford is Hogwarts, and the next, it’s The Shire. Moments later you feel as if you’ve stumbled down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, or that the picture of Dorian Grey might be lurking behind one of the heavy, stone walls at the end of the corridor. You glance at the lamp post in the mist and feel like Mr. Tumnus might scurry down the street beside you, or as you peer at the vines creeping over the lofty wall, imagine a secret garden just on the other side. Oxford is a place that inspires the mind and stirs the soul, and it’s a place I’ll miss dearly. But like Lucy and Edmund preparing to leave Narnia for their second time, my time is up—for now—but, I have a hunch it won’t be the last time I’ll see this magical city.
A year ago, I was scared and confused as my volleyball career officially ended. It was a long decline, but I found myself one spring day hit with the reality that it was over, that my Olympic dreams would not come to be, and that there would be no professional volleyball contract waiting for me upon graduation. So, on a whim, I decided to apply to Stanford’s study abroad program in Oxford, even though the deadline had passed. I figured it was worth a shot. Studying abroad hadn’t been an option as a D1 athlete and so, when days later I found out I’d been accepted to the program and was going to Oxford in the fall, I was struck by God’s graciousness. He provided me with an opportunity I barely even knew existed. In September, I flew to England and embarked on a journey, one that from the beginning felt a bit like a second chance, a chance to make new memories, have different experiences, and explore other interests. In Michaelmas term (Oxford’s fall term) I studied C.S. Lewis with Dr. Michael Ward. If I didn’t already feel like I was in Narnia, reading almost every C.S. Lewis book was an educational experience that fed my soul as much as it did my mind. Just today, I visited his home, called The Kilns, with my parents and was amazed that I probably could have given the tour. Towards the end of November, I sort of accidentally found myself in the chorus of an Oxford production of Twelfth Night, my first time back on a stage since the end of my childhood theatre endeavors that culminated when I hit 6’0” and volleyball took off in 8th grade. Performing was my first love, and a passion I channeled on the volleyball court. To return to the stage was medicine in a way, reminding me of who I was all those years ago before volleyball got intense and before I had a clue what I even wanted to study. It’s amazing to look back at one’s life and see just how much has changed, but also recognize the things that have stayed exactly the same.
While in Oxford, I had the chance to explore my interest in film, too. I got to produce a short mini-series about sexual assault with a group of Oxford students. While the film is still in post-production, it was incredible to get to be a part of such an important project while abroad. This Hilary Term (Oxford’s winter term) I had two tutorials—one in Old English and one in Screenwriting. Both tutorials were extremely challenging and rewarding. In Old English, I spent the first four weeks of the eight week term taking a crash course in the Old English language while simultaneously translating hundreds of lines of Old English poetry. I wrote essays, too, beginning the second week and came away a bit brain-fried but intrigued by the language and further amazed by Anglo-Saxon literature. In my screenwriting tutorial, I spent the first few weeks writing short scripts. However, in the final three weeks of the term, I began and completed a feature-length screenplay. As my first feature-length screenplay, and as it was written in an insanely short period of time, I’ll be filing this one away as a reminder that it can be done despite the fact that the script is a long way from great. I lived this term a bit like a hermit, locked in my room writing furiously in what I lovingly (sometimes loathsomely) referred to as my writer’s lair. However, after basically learning Old English in a week and churning out 120 pages of a screenplay in the course of eight weeks, I’m headed back to the US a bit exhausted but also ready to take on whatever God has in store for me next. Post-brain injury, it is often scary to think about my future. There are days I can’t get out of bed and weeks where migraines seem omnipresent. There are still days where I can’t stop crying and moments where it seems impossible to carry on. But, God is walking me through this new chapter of my life, allowing me to suffer, and also helping me flourish and grow. As I prepare to leave Oxford in the morning, I am counting my blessings and feel totally overwhelmed by how lucky I am that what felt like an impossible obstacle and major loss was the very thing that allowed me to come to Oxford. Oxford has stretched me and challenged me in many ways, and soothed and healed me in others.
So, my time is up. I can’t help but feel a sense of loss that after tomorrow, I’ll no longer be waking up and walking out the door onto High Street. And yet, I can’t help but look forward to a giant kale salad and acai bowl when I get home. I’m going to miss the friends I’ve made here so much it hurts, but I’m looking forward to seeing my friends back in California. Oxford will forever be a part of my story, a part I’ll look back on fondly for years to come. Stanford, I’m coming for ya! Goodbye, Oxford. Don’t forget me.
“I have passed through fire and deep water, since we parted. I have forgotten much that I thought I knew, and learned again much that I had forgotten.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings
As most of you know, I love cinema. No one calls it that any more, especially with the ease of access we have to digital media on our private televisions, computers, smartphones, tablets. But every time I walk into a cinema—and I’m proud to say I go pretty much once a week—I come back out a little bit different. Movies change how we see and understand the world. Film is an art form made up of images and infused with emotion. It is story-telling in its ideal form, in my opinion, mimicking real life and yet, it is anything but real. Films are finely crafted dreamscapes, manifestations of what we hope and fear and feel. And, it is for this reason that I have been unable, despite my best efforts, to not constantly watch films, study them, and try my best to make them.
I was raised by parents who work in entertainment. They were not glamorous Hollywood stars or executives, but hard-working, passionate people. They both took measures to protect me from Hollywood’s dark side and debunk the mythic of allure of the silver screen. And yet, they accidentally guided me right into the very state of ambition they’d hoped I might avoid. They taught me to watch films with a critical eye, to not take things at face value, to guard my heart and mind and to walk out of a theatre when the film was sleazy, offensive, or unedifying. They raised me to treasure stories and to appreciate their artistry. When we went to the cinema as a family, we always stayed until we had watched the very last credit. Every boom guy, every location scout, every catering company—we stayed and watch your credit roll by.
In high school, movies became my thing. My dad would receive Screen Actors Guild screeners each year, and over time, I was the one watching most of the films and telling him how to vote. I was an elite volleyball player in high school, and for me, that was a job I took very seriously. I didn’t go to parties and I protected my sleep and my muscles. As a result, movies were what I did for fun in the few hours I had to spare each week between studying for copious AP classes and recovering from dozens of hours of training.
One of my friends in high school was a movie addict. I say addict because he’d skimp on sleep to watch a full movie every single night. He would send me lists of classic films to see. Fortunately for me, this was right when Netflix was becoming ubiquitous and prestigious. I would download films from iTunes or watch them on Netflix and I quickly began my crash-course in film history. At some point, I decided that I would use the Oscars as a way to structure my DIY film school. It started with just trying to watch some of the Oscar nominated films each year. Then it became a mandate to watch all the Best Picture nominees. Now, I hold myself to watching all the Best Picture nominees, plus any film with a Best Actor or Actress nomination, all the films by Best Director nominees, and all the Best Screenplay nominated films for both writing categories. Beyond that, I try to watch as many nominated films as I can depending on my access to them and availability in my schedule, of course.
This year, my Oscar watching endeavour kicked off at the Telluride Film Festival where I sat with my mom in the front row of a fully packed theatre up in the Colorado Rockies as we laughed and cried at Greta Gerwig’s delightfully raw Lady Bird. We walked out of that screening and knew we’d just seen something special. I cheered (along with most cinephile females) when she received her screenwriting and directing nominations. The other nominated film we saw in Telluride was Loving Vincent, a hand-painted animated film telling the story of Vincent Van Gogh’s life. Fun fact: Saoirse Ronan is in that one, too. We met the director of Loving Vincent and making that film was a very ambitious labor of love, so I’m glad they got their Oscar nomination.
In November, Oscar speculation began to buzz and highly anticipated films hit the theatres. I have spent the last three months strategically going from theatre to theatre watching what I suspected, and then knew, to be Oscar-nominated films. This year, while there were some highlights especially in regards to history being made and diversity at last beginning to appear in the list of nominations, I was a bit disappointed by the Best Picture category. I feel that there is no one film that quite had the full package for me like La La Land and Moonlight both did last year. However, I prefer to focus on the positive. So much hard work goes into every film made, and each film touches different hearts and inspires different minds, and so, without further ado, I bring to you my must-sees, predictions, and excitements about the rapidly approaching 90th Academy Awards.
And the nominees for Best Picture are: “Call Me by Your Name”, “Darkest Hour”, “Dunkirk”, “Get Out”, “Lady Bird”, “Phantom Thread”, “The Post”, “The Shape of Water”, and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”. In this category, I am refusing to make a prediction mainly because my favourite is not likely to prevail. I’ve already expressed my like for “Lady Bird” and highly suggest you go see it. “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” was my favourite (I saw it twice), and I would be thrilled to see Martin McDonagh et al. take home the Oscar for this darkly comedic, whistle-blowing, small-town story about injustice and community. As for the others, “Shape of Water” was beautifully made and creatively ambitious and “Phantom Thread” is oddly riveting, especially if you tend to like stories about narcissistic and controlling powerful white men. “Get Out” is extremely original and disturbing with great acting, but is also just a bit bizarre. “The Post”, “Dunkirk”, and “Darkest Hour” are all historical stories with acclaimed casts.
The nominees for Best Actor are: Timothée Chalamet for “Call Me by Your Name”, Daniel Day-Lewis in “Phantom Thread”, Daniel Kaluuya in “Get Out”, Gary Oldman in “Darkest Hour”, and Denzel Washington in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” It is my opinion that this is 2018’s strongest category. While Gary Oldman is likely to take home the Oscar for his portrayal of Winston Churchill, the other four actor’s performances are much more emotionally compelling. If the Academy diverges from its tendency to honour big names and big stories, I’d like to see Timothée Chalamet take home the Oscar. Not only is his performance in “Call Me by Your Name” top notch, the emotional range of his performance is truly sensational….plus, he is twenty-two years old and easily of the same caliber as the legends in his category (for real, though, how cool is it that this twenty-year old, hard-working talent is nominated along side Day-Lewis, Oldman, and Washington?). Daniel Day-Lewis in Phantom Thread is captivating, but perhaps the most underrated performance this year was Denzel Washington’s in “Roman J. Israel, Esq.” Washington plays a quirky LA lawyer and his performance is spot-on. Great film, too.
The nominees for best actress are Sally Hawkins in “The Shape of Water”, Frances McDormand in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, in Margot Robbie in “I, Tonya”, Saoirse Ronan in “Lady Bird”, and Meryl Streep in “The Post”. All I’m going to say is that if Frances McDormand doesn’t win tonight I will cry. I watched this film twice and her performance as a fierce, imperfect mother is one of the most memorable performances I’ve ever seen. Go see it, please. Just do it. Otherwise, Saorise Ronan and Sally Hawkins give standout performances this year.
Moving on, the one film in the Supporting Actor category I didn’t get to see was “The Florida Project” which I have heard is very good. Sam Rockwell likely will and should take home the Oscar for Supporting Actor tonight for his performance in “Three Billboards”. In the Supporting Actress category, Allison Janney is the most memorable part of “I, Tonya”, and Laurie Metcalf gives a moving and honest perforce as Lady Bird’s mother in “Lady Bird.” Octavia Spencer is the best part of “The Shape of Water” and both Mary J. Bilge and Lesley Manville are compelling in “Mudbound” and “Phantom Thread” respectively.
Best Director will probably go to Guillermo del Toro. He takes risks and pulls them off in the soggy fantasy “The Shape of Water.” It would be cool, though, if we had a woman take home the Best Director award. Jordan Peele is a frontrunner for “Get Out”, as well. I’m rooting for Greta but have a strong feeling the father of one of my fifth grade classmates will be winning an Oscar for his cinematic and creative “The Shape of Water.”
Screenplays… I’ve been reading and writing screenplays like crazy lately. I think this year had a lot of good ones. I’d like to see “Call Me by Your Name” and “Three Billboards” win tonight. “Lady Bird” is another favourite of mine, as is “Molly’s Game.” “Molly’s Game” received its sole nomination for Aaron Sorkin’s screenplay, but it’s a film you need to go see if you haven’t yet. I was quite happy to see a couple of women in the mix for the screenplay categories this year.
And now for miscellaneous thoughts and notes. Watch “Blade Runner 2049” if you haven’t. I was surprised to find that it is actually really good. Look for it to take home cinematography and sound awards tonight, and possible a Production Design Oscar. A big note is that a female cinematographer was nominated for her work in “Mudbound” which is the first time a woman has ever been nominated in that category. Her work is vivid, poignant, stunning. I am praying that “This is Me” from “The Greatest Showman” wins for best song. That song has inspired me though a very challenging academic term these past few months. Lastly, “Baby Driver” received a few nominations and rightly so. It’s precise editing and sound mixing far overpower the presence of a certain unsavoury actor starring in the film.
This year I watched 24 Oscar nominated films, and would have liked to have seen more. It has been a tumultuous year in Hollywood, however, it has been one of revolution, too. Stories matter and films have the power to change the current of our culture. My hope is that the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns will continue to make Hollywood a better safer place and that artists of all colours, genders, shapes, and sizes will be given a fair shot in an industry that has long been dominated by an insular circle of powerful white men. If you’re a powerful white man, I support you, and my hope is that you do not squander the power you've been given, but use it to make a difference.