Bad songs

My wife got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and for my birthday, a Kindle gift card.  So I went on a search for authors I like who might have reasonably priced books available on Kindle. I’ve made all sorts of fun finds (lots of P.G. Wodehouse hilarity, for example, often for less than a dollar each).  I also found some Dave Barry.  He has a new book, a collection of longer essays than we’re used to from him, but also an old fave; Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.  And I’ve been reading it aloud to my wife and my daughter.

Back in the 90s, when Barry was still writing his nationally syndicated humor column, he did a piece about popular songs one hears on the radio quite a bit, which suck. In other words, yes, they’re popular, yes they’re on the radio quite a bit, and usually the tune is quite catchy–often REALLY catchy–but the songs themselves are really terrible, in the sense that he, Dave Barry, hated them, and so, it turned out, did a lot of other people.  And so he wrote a column about it, and tons of people responded with their least favorite songs, and that led to a second column, and a survey, and finally, a book.  Which I just read aloud to my wife, and which we both thought was hilarious.  As he points out, when Neil Diamond sings:

I am, I said

To no one there,

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair.

I mean, why should the chair be listening?  It’s a chair.  Or when Richard Harris wrote (and Donna Summer covered):

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

Because it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again

Oh Noooooooooo!

We can either contemplate the profundity of that metaphor, and the anguish we’ve all felt when we left a favorite cake out in the rain, or . . . . we can laugh.  In fact, MacArthur Park was selected the worst song in the history of pop music in Barry’s (completely unscientific survey).  And yes, it’s a dumb song. I personally, would have voted for Honey, by Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m not sure if anything can match Honey’s amazing mix of rank sexism and crass sentimentality.  But MacArthur Park is plenty bad too.

But Dave Barry did his survey in 1992.  There have been a whole lot of songs on the radio since then.  So I thought I’d weigh in.  What are some recent very popular songs that (and I mean this scientifically), really suck?  What really awful terrible songs have become popular recently?  Because bad taste is a constant, is it not?  And bubble gum lasts forever?

I’m going to jump right in here: I think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the worst song I’ve heard in the last ten years, a song that makes Baby, It’s Cold Outside or Only the Good Die Young (both of which it rather resembles) seem enlightened.  Just a few sample lyrics:

Okay now he was close

Tried to domesticate ya

But you’re an animal

Baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate ya

You don’t need no takers

That man is not your maker

That’s why I’mma take a good girl

I know you want it

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it.

He’s doing her a favor, see. What a good guy.

And those are all from early in the song.  Later in the song, he’s much more explicit:

Nothing like that last guy, he too square for you

He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.

What a charmer.

Now, my link above is not to the seriously R-rated video, which I have not seen, but which, I’ve heard, takes the essentially rapey Neaderthal sexism of the song and Playboy-izes it to a considerable degree.  The lyrics do suggest that the girl to which he’s directing his smarmy attentions either isn’t aware of them, or, more likely, has just decided to ignore the dirtbag. Still, this song is not just the moral but also the tactical equivalent of construction workers wolf-whistling passing female executives on nearby sidewalks; you’re just being annoying, guys.

Really, seriously, why was this repugnant song a hit?  I really, genuinely don’t get it. This song has nothing going for it. At all. Nothing.

So Blurred Lines is sort of uniquely bad. But there are other songs out there nearly as bad.  Which brings us to the Beebs.

I shouldn’t pick on Justin Bieber. Cute little massively marketed/modestly talented boys with high pitched singing voices have been fluttering the hearts of fourteen year old girls ever since David Cassidy, and indeed much much earlier.  I’m going to argue for Bieber’s Boyfriend for my bad song list, not because there’s anything remarkable about it, but because it’s so generic.  Insipid lyrics, a nice dance groove, a video showing JB being (preposterously) good at bowling, and a completely unnecessary and intrusive rap verse (by Ludacris, in this case), make this a standard variety 20-tween pop hit, undistinguished by melodic or lyrical interest of any kind. Also, it’s annoying.  And ubiquitous.  So it makes my list.

Turning my attention from modestly talented/massively marketed cute boys to MT/MM cute girls brings us straight to Miss Taylor Swift, and so I’m putting We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together Forever on the list.  Anymore, it’s difficult to distinguish between songs and the videos for songs, and Taylor’s video for this song combines cuteness with incomprehensibility.  It’s Taylor, in a ‘sexy librarian wearing pajamas’ outfit, joined by large numbers of her friends, who, for some reason, have chosen to dress up like animals, as though they were already in the What Does the Fox Say video shoot and decided to drift over to the Taylor Swift shoot next door. I don’t know what to make of this song.  Is it a ‘breakup anthem,’ Taylor Swift channeling her inner Alanis?  But the extra two ‘evers’ in the title suggests that she’s not so entirely sure about this break-up thing; that she’s protesting over-much.  So is it a ‘you’re bad for me, but you’re also super cute’ kind of ‘break-up wuss-out’ song?  I think the end of the video sort of suggests that, yes.  But the musical mood is strident.  So it’s a strident wuss-out song?  Boy, do we need more of those. Blarg.

I really don’t want to pick on Carly Rae Jepson, or on Call Me Maybe.  If men can objectify women based entirely on physical appearance, why shouldn’t women do the same, or write songs about how fun objectification can be, when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Or when the attractively ripped jeans are on the other set of legs).  If you take my meaning. And the tune is so maddeningly catchy, we’re pretty well all of us stuck with it for the rest of our lives.  That’s what you’ll hear every day if, fifty years from now, you find a job in a nursing home.  Room after room playing Call Me Maybe.

Hard and fast rule; do not, in your song, reference people more talented than you. I’m serious; it just invites unflattering comparisons. I’m looking at you, Maroon Five.  Adam Levine; Moves like Jagger? No. Right Said Fred was not too sexy for his shirt, and you do not move like Mick Jagger.  You probably sing a little better than he did.  Mick Jagger never could sing.  It didn’t matter.  He was (and is) the greatest front man for any rock band ever, and the band he fronted one of the three best in the history of popular music.  And all you front is Maroon Five.  And lyrics like these:

Take me by the tongue

And I’ll know you

Kiss me ’til you’re drunk

And I’ll show you

don’t help.

Maybe one more?  But who?  I loathe Wrecking Ball, but have I already picked on too many female songstresses?  And isn’t Miley Cyrus an easy target? I know some people are going to vote for Pharrell (Skinny Smokey the Bear) Williams and Happy, but I actually sort of like Happy.  One Direction has Best Song Ever, in which the video is, quite possibly, more annoying than the Baba O’Reilly rip-off of a song, but once you pick on the Beebs, it seems redundant to pick on One Direction.  Then I found this: Alison Gold’s Chinese Food. For one thing, Alison Gold looks maybe thirteen.  And the entire song is . . . about how much she likes Chinese Food?  Seriously, that’s the song.  So, yeah, we have a winner. Even though I darkly suspect the song was done by the same people who gave us Friday and Rebecca Black.

I asked my daughter what she thought, and she responded “anything by Kendrick Lamar.”  But I wasn’t about to listen to a whole bunch of Kendrick Lamar songs to figure out which one was the worst.  (Poetic Justice?) So I asked her boyfriend, and he said “anything by Kendrick Lamar or Ke$ha.”  I sort of like Ke$ha, though I find the mid-name dollar sign affectation unnecessary.  But, then, she’s built her career on affectation. She was a straight A student, aced her SAT’s, and is a math nerd par excellence.  But she’s from a dirt-poor family, and by playing the musical role of ‘hard-drinking party girl’ has become a millionaire. Power to her, I guess.  So here’s TiK ToK; enjoy.

So what are your choices?  I don’t mean to suggest that any songs today are quite as idiotic as MacArthur Park. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ sets a standard it will be hard to beat.  But there’s still a great deal of drivel being written, and recorded.  So what songs drive you bananas?

 

 

The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

An Open Letter to kids

I’m writing this to American kids currently in school, in grade school or maybe junior high.  I’m a former college professor; you probably don’t know me.  And I’m not important.  I just wanted to tell you that there’s something you can do to improve your school and your school experience.  It would make school more fun for everyone.  It would also stop a bunch of really mean bullies.  But it won’t work unless everyone does it.  So you need to tell all the other kids in your school, and all the other kids in every other school in the country, and you all have to do it together.

The end of this year, like the end of every year, you will have to take a test.  This isn’t the usual kind of test, like a math test, where your teacher is trying to see how well you understand long division or something.  It’s a test the government makes you take.  You know the one I’m talking about, right?  The one your teacher has been preparing you for, because, she says, it’s really really important for you to do well on it?  Not for your sake, but for hers. It’s a test that doesn’t have anything to do with your grades in any classes; it’s really kind of a test of how good your teacher is, and how good your school is.

I want to suggest that you fail this test.  I think it could be fun, actually.  Miss every question on purpose.  Do as bad on this test as you possibly can.  Don’t even try to do well on it.  Fail it.

I know that your teacher won’t like this.  It will make her look like a bad teacher.  And that’s why it’s important that everyone else in the country does this too; every kid in the country.  Because the point of doing this, failing the test on purpose, isn’t to say to everyone “I have a bad teacher, and I go to a bad school.”  You probably have a lot of school pride.  You probably go to a very good school. You probably have a very good teacher.  You don’t want to make her look bad.

No, you should fail this test on purpose, because it’s a stupid test.  And it’s stupid of the government to make you take it.  And if everyone fails the stupid test, then maybe all the grown-ups who are in charge of education in America will realize it’s a stupid test, and stop making you take it.

Here’s why this would be good.  I bet your school is kind of boring.  Here’s why it’s boring.  A lot of people who want to be in charge of schools in America are bullies. Grown-up bullies. They think that most teachers are bad at their jobs.  They want teachers to only teach in bad, boring ways. They want to spend all the time on boring subjects, so that when you finish school, you can work at a boring job and they think you won’t notice how boring it is, ’cause you’ll be used to it. They don’t trust teachers to teach stuff that’s really interesting, or to teach in ways that kids would find interesting. And they certainly don’t want to pay teachers enough money to live on.  Or pay a little more money so that classes don’t have so many kids crammed in there that it’s really hard for anyone to learn anything.  That’s why they came up with the idea of making every kid in America take a stupid test.  So they could beat up on the schools that they think are doing a bad job.

Those tests make everything worse, for everyone.  Teachers have to teach what’s on the test, regardless of whether it’s interesting or important. Teachers aren’t free to do what they do best: teach.

There’s an important principle of science here.  It’s this: when you measure something, you change it.  Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself. Like, if you wanted to know how long your cat’s tail was, so you got a ruler and measured it, but you had to hold the cat still, and now she won’t climb up on your lap anymore, because you might be trying to measure her tail again.  Well, it’s the same thing with the stupid test.  Making you take it makes school stupider.

There are some countries in the world that told the bullies to go away and stop bothering schools.  Finland is one of those countries.  In Finland, kids have lots more time for PE, or for music, or art, or science classes where you do real experiments.  In Finland, teachers decide what to teach, without bullies telling them what to do.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a problem with bullies. Two bullies: Charles and Terry.  My Mom made my lunch every day; a sandwich, only the bullies took it from me and I went hungry.  So I told my Mom that I was really really hungry, and could she make three sandwiches instead.  She thought I was going through a ‘growing spurt,’ and made me extra sandwiches, and so I gave them to the bullies instead, and still had one left over for me.  Then one day, I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’  And I told Charles and Terry that they couldn’t have my sandwiches anymore.  And they beat me up, and it hurt for a day or two.  But they stopped bothering me after that.

That’s the way to deal with bullies. Ignore them.

So let’s send the bullies a message.  You don’t have to do good on that stupid test.  If you fail it, it won’t hurt your grade.  And if everyone fails it on purpose, soon they’ll go away. And everyone will be much happier. And schools really will improve.

So do it.  Skype and tweet and text everyone you know.  Everyone fail the test together.  Every kid in America.

The Bundy standoff

Big news in the Old West recently.  Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had not paid grazing fees for twenty years, and who has lost in court regarding those fees repeatedly, resisted the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to seize his assets, several hundred head of cattle.  He was supported in that resistance by a self described armed local militia.  This CBS news story strikes me as a good starting point, if you’re interested in reading more about it.

As the situation started to escalate, and as tempers grew ever more heated, the BLM backed down.  The Clark County sheriff Doug Gillespie helped negotiate a settlement, but one to which the BLM was not party.  400 head of cattle, seized from Bundy, were returned to him.  Negotiations are on-going, and the situation remains unresolved.

For some on the right, this whole situation is more about states’ rights than it is about one elderly scofflaw tax cheat.  The National Review offered their usual overheated and preposterous analysis.  Apparently, this is part and parcel with the Obama administration’s (legendary, and entirely fictitious) lawlessness and tyranny.  Blarg.

Obviously, nobody wanted for shots to be fired; nobody wanted that kind of escalation.  And yet, as I’ve been reading about this case, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’ rhetorical question, much beloved on the Right.  In fact, this specific situation is one in which we know exactly, precisely, unequivocally what the Founders would have done.  It’s almost an exact historical parallel to the Whiskey rebellion.  In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania forcibly resisted the collection of a tax on whiskey.  President Washington not only sent troops to deal with it, he personally commanded them (in the last military adventure of his career).  The Founding Fathers (or at least Washington, Adams, Hamilton–those Founders in the Washington administration), had little patience with armed insurrectionists.  One option in Nevada would have been to call out the National Guard, disperse those ‘local militias,’ disarm, arrest, and try them.  Probably just as well we didn’t go that route, but it remains an option.

And yet, as I read about this on the intertubes, I did feel some sense of poignancy.  One commentator pointed out that Clark County once had many rancher families.  Now Bundy’s the only one.  Clark County is home to Mesquite, quite possibly the tackiest gambling-oriented resort town in a state inundated with them. This protest is in part over the loss of a lifestyle.  Possibly it’s in part about images of the Old West, over nostalgia over a cowboy lifestyle now vanished, or vanishing.  Relegated to cultural obscurity, to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, replaced by the most sordid examples of pop culture tackiness (read Las Vegas).

And perhaps that goes a long way towards understanding at least some of contemporary conservatism.  Isn’t the Tea Party movement driven by white resentment, by specifically elderly white male resentment?  Isn’t it possible to see a successful Presidential campaign, by a black candidate with a suspiciously foreign name, based on a theme of ‘Hope and Change’ as threatening?  If you’re used to being in charge, being on top, seeing people who look like you running the world, wouldn’t you see a call for fundamental change as sinister, as threatening?

So it’s not surprising that this ridiculous ‘protest’ by a rancher who doesn’t recognize the existence of the federal government as a legal entity, who believes that ‘federal land’ actually properly belongs to the state of Nevada, his state, his western state, his place in the world, his home, could be so embraced by conservatives.

And let’s face it.  There was a time when you could graduate from high school, get a good job at a good wage at a local factory, work there all your life, retire with reasonable benefits, and meanwhile coach Little League or work with 4H, or volunteer as a Scoutmaster, and enjoy a good life.  Support your family, have a presence in the community, go fishing or hunting on the weekends.  Or a time when open range ranching was an economically viable occupation.  And those times are gone, probably forever.  And that world has been replaced by a world of uncertainty, and what must seem like moral relativism, and what must seem as the triumph of obnoxious young furriners, dang it.

So Clive Bundy’s in trouble again over his ranch.  So you pick up your rifle and show your support for a friend and neighbor, and the heck with his fruitier political views.  It does all make sense.

The BLM, the Obama administration showed remarkable restraint, and good for them.  But this will need to be resolved, and Cliven Bundy cannot win. Nor should he.

 

Grand Budapest Hotel: Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title.  Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.

But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines.  When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’  But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.

That’s the key to the film, I think.  M. Gustav represents civilized values.  He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job.  He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste.  When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness.  Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne.  Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes.  All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there.  But first things first.  A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.

We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s.  But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there.  And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.

Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks.  A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author.  Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham).  Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30′s, when most of the film takes place.  In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge.  And there we go.  What survives, is literature.  The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read.  A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.

The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle.  But it’s not.  One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav.  Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way.  Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick).  Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.

But to what end?  To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically.  It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends.  I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes.  She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face.  She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him.  (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’  The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.)  So it’s a love story?  Well, yes and no.  It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.

In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig.  I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was.  There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England).  He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them.  They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful.  I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author.  Here’s his quotation from Zweig:

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe.  He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon.  But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing.  And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground.  And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.

We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.

We don’t see that, of course.  We don’t view such things in polite society.  We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive.  Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films.  It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from.  It’s what’s underneath.

The Founding Fathers, and Obamacare

A warning: this is a silly post on a silly subject.  A response to a Facebook meme; hard to get sillier than that.  Apparently Nancy Pelosi said that the Founding Fathers would be pleased with Obamacare.  And this led to all kinds of mockery from conservatives, who continue to double-down on their ‘Obamacare will destroy America’ obsession.  The Founders, it goes without saying, would never have agreed to a socialist takeover of American health care!  Never in a million years.  ‘The Founders,’ in this case, constructed entirely of freedom-loving Christian Republicans. Job creators, don’t you know.

Anyway, it tickled my funny bone, the idea of the Founders ‘opposing Obamacare.’  So I thought, I’d dialogue it.

Me: So. . . . do you oppose the Affordable Care Act?

FF: What’s an Affordable Care Act?

Me: Uh, well, let’s see.  It’s basically a reform of the health insurance industry.  Most people have health insurance, but there are around forty million who don’t.  So it’s an effort to provide them with coverage.

FF: The US has forty million people?  Where?

Me: Well, all over, really. The US stretches all the way to the Pacific.  Ever since Jefferson bought Louisiana.

FF: Jefferson did what?

Me: Look, just take my word for it.  There are about 300 million people in the country right now.  317 million, to be exact.  And it’s kind of a problem when 40 million don’t have health care.

FF: What’s health care?

Me: You know, medicine.  When doctors make sick people better.

FF: Doctors make sick people better?

Me: Yeah.  See, lots of people used to die of diseases that we can cure now.

FF: How?  Are you just better at bleeding people?

Me: No, we don’t do that anymore. See, diseases are caused by microbes.  Uh, little tiny bugs, uh, germs, uh, just call ‘em ‘creatures’, too small to be seen except by microscopes.

FF: What’s a microscope?

Me: Come on, guys.  You’ve heard of microscopes.  Galileo made one?  You’ve heard of van Leeuwenhoek?

FF: All right. But you tell me that you can see these tiny disease-causing creatures?  We can’t.

Me: Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that we, in the future, can build better microscopes?

FF:  All right.  We’re very scientific people, you know.  Franklin even figured out that lightning is made of electricity. So you’ve figured out how to cure diseases.  Like what diseases? Surely not cholera?

Me: No, we can cure cholera.

FF: Diptheria?  Yellow Fever?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Measles?  Mumps?  Dysentery?  Gout?

Me: Pretty much.  All curable.

FF: Smallpox?

Me: We’ve completely eradicated smallpox.  Gone.

FF: Colds?

Me: No, we still get colds.  Sorry.  Did I mention we’d cured smallpox?

FF: Well, you live in an age of miracles.

Me: We do.  Heart disease is still a problem; we’re working on it.  Huge progress on cancer, though it’s still a frightening and dangerous disease.  Those are the biggies.

FF: So what’s the problem?

Me: Well, it’s all very expensive.  Doctors have to train for years to become doctors, and they charge a lot for their expertise.  And diagnosing all those diseases is expensive.  We have all kinds of amazing diagnostic equipment, but those machines are costly, and we have to train people how to use the devices properly.  We also have lots of drugs that can affect amazing cures, but they’re also really expensive.  There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry constantly coming up with new medications, but their research is also expensive.  Anyway, most people can’t afford the more expensive procedures; in fact, hardly anyone can.  So we created insurance for medical care.

FF: That makes sense.  In fact, Ben Franklin created the first fire insurance company in the Americas.

Me: Right!  Only, Mr. Franklin, you wouldn’t insure some houses, if you thought they were a fire hazard.

FF: Of course not.  Insurance spreads risk around. But an insurance company can’t survive if people only buy it right before their house is going to burn down.

Me: Exactly.  What we do is require everyone in the country, if they own a home, to buy fire insurance for it.  And we also won’t let them build a house that doesn’t meet certain safety standards.  That way, only a few houses burn down annually, and they are able to rebuild with the insurance money.  And insurance companies can make a profit, because everyone with a house also has to buy a policy.

FF: Most sensible.  That’s another way to do it.  We had people who built foolishly, and their wooden houses burned all the time. So we just wouldn’t insure them. Insurance has to limit risk for the insurer and the insured. Same basic principle.

Me: Well, we applied the same principle to health insurance.  If you have insurance, you can afford to pay for medical care for yourself and your family.  But we had a problem.  Really sick people would go to hospitals and get treatment, but couldn’t afford it.

FF: We have hospitals.  Real nice one in Philadelphia.

Me: Right.  Except that the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t very good at making sick people better.  Mostly folks just died there.

FF: You can’t have everything.

Me: No.  Well, our hospitals are better than yours were; in fact, they’re kind of miraculous.  And we didn’t want people to die just because they were poor.  But when people couldn’t pay for their care, it was a problem.  Mostly, costs just went up for everyone.

FF: Why didn’t you just throw people into debtor’s prison?

Me: We don’t really do that anymore.  What we have instead is collection agencies.

FF: Sounds horrible!

Me: Yeah.  But we thought; wouldn’t it be better if everyone had health insurance?  And if we allowed all health insurance companies to compete in an open market for clients?  With some minimum requirements their policies had to meet?

FF: So, what’s the problem?

Me: Well, you don’t approve of it.

FF: We don’t approve of it?  George Washington died of a simple throat infection.  Mostly, he died of being bled and given a powerful purgative at a time when his body was fighting off an infection.  Our health care was a joke.  If you know how to make sick people better, and have figured out a way to share the cost of it nation-wide, why on earth would we oppose that?

Me: I don’t know.  Some people think you would have.

FF: They’re crazy. Wait, is craziness curable?  Do you still have madmen?

Me: We do.

FF: Well, ignore them.  We’re entirely in favor of this ‘universal health care’ thing.  Whatever it is.

Me: Okay!

FF: Universal, though?  Everyone gets good care? Even slaves?

Me: Yeah.  About that. . . .

 

The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–’look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

’1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”

 

So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.