Ben-Hur: Movie Review

There are essentially two ways a movie could be called a success. First, it could be a popular success, as measured by box office receipts.  Or it can be a critical success, the kind of movie people like me love, but that have a hard time finding their market. Well, the new Ben-Hur, directed by Timur Bekmambetov and starring Jack Huston, is neither a financial nor a critical success. It cost a hundred million dollars to make, and so far, has made around twelve million in box office, a dismal enough figure that it’s closing all across the country. Critics haven’t liked it. It’s around 29% on Rottentomatoes.com. By those criteria, it’s not a successful film.

And you can’t help but wonder why it was even made. The 1959 William Wyler film, with Charlton Heston, won eleven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Actor (to Heston), and Best Director. I’m not sure how well it holds up anymore, but it’s certainly a classic, an important and memorable film. Why remake it? Why make a new version, directed by the guy who directed Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and starring John Huston’s grandson? Why greenlight it, why fund this production, why market and distribute it? It’s seems like a peculiarly unnecessary venture.

I’m also aware that I have this fault as a critic; I like pretty much everything. I like movies; I like the experience of seeing movies, and my son teases me by saying that my one superpower is finding something positive in even quite wretched movies. So my positive comments here are easy to discount. I get that. I do.

The fact is, though, the new Ben-Hur isn’t terrible, and at times, it’s quite gripping. My wife and I were pleasantly surprised by it. Jack Huston’s not Charlton Heston, but he’s a fine actor, and makes a creditable Ben-Hur. The acting is generally just fine, and the story unfolds at a brisk pace (which can’t really be said about the four-hour-long ’59 classic).  And I don’t have much hesitation recommending it.

I’m sure you remember the essential story. Judah Ben-Hur, a wealthy Jewish prince living in Jerusalem, has an adopted brother, Masala (Toby Kebbell), a Roman orphan his family took in.  The men grow up as brothers, and are inseparable. But Masala wants to advance in the Empire, and becomes a centurion. Eventually, he’s posted to Judea, working for the prefect, Pontius Pilate. When a Zealot assassin Ben-Hur has been protecting tries to kill Pilate, Masala has his brother arrested, and condemned to the slow, horrific death of a galley slave. But in a sea battle, Ben-Hur’s ship sinks, and he makes it safely to shore. He is rescued by Ildurim (Morgan Freeman), who trains horses and riders for chariot racing, a popular Roman sport. He trains Ben-Hur, setting up a big climactic chariot race between Masala and Ben-Hur.

In some respects, this new movie is kind of a Cliff Notes version of the ’59 classic. The movie is built around two big action set pieces–the sea battle between galley ships, and the chariot race. Both take up a lot of screen time, and both were well staged and filmed. I already knew perfectly well who was going to win the chariot race, but I still found it exciting and suspenseful.

The interstitial stuff between the big action scenes were less well handled. When Ben-Hur is arrested, his mother and sister are arrested too. He agonizes over that fact, assumes they’re dead, and wants, at least, to see them properly buried. Turns out they didn’t die, but the resolution of that plot point was perfunctory and unconvincing. Likewise, Ben-Hur’s marriage to Esther (Nazanin Boniadi) was rushed through, as were subsequent scenes showing their reunion, quarrel, and reconciliation.

But the film’s biggest failure, in my opinion, has to do with its handling of Jesus of Nazareth (Rodrigo Santoro). The Civil War General Lew Wallace, who wrote the novel all this is based on, titled it Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ. Ben-Hur meets Jesus periodically throughout the movie, but is unpersuaded by His message. But (SPOILER ALERT), not entirely. Esther becomes a Christian, and Ben-Hur himself eventually comes around. The point of the movie, I think, is this; both Ben-Hur and Masala are men who are consumed with hatred and pain and anger and an insensate desire for revenge. Christ’s message is that those emotions are false, are temptations of the Adversary, and that instead, we need to embrace love and forgiveness. After seeing his brother badly injured in the chariot race, Ben-Hur, touched by Jesus’ teachings, reconciles with his brother, and the men embrace and forgive. Yay for them; closing credits.

It doesn’t really work, though. The resolution is much too perfunctory, and the scenes with Jesus were hampered, in my opinion, by Santoro’s limitations as an actor. And by Huston’s limitations as well; his ‘consumed with anger’ looks very much like his ‘desperate to forgive.’

(And I’m hardly an expert on this historical period, and would love to be corrected if it turns out I’m wrong, but I do not believe that Pilate’s Jerusalem ever featured a big Cirkus for chariot races. Also, I don’t think a Roman Centurion would have been a big name chariot racer. Wrong social class. Also, I’m not sure what caste Ben-Hur belonged to. A ‘Jewish Prince’ who is really wealthy and nonetheless charitable and kind and beloved in Jerusalem? A Herodian? Not sure that guy could have existed. But if I’m wrong, let me know).

If you want to see an exceptionally well-made and well acted movie, set in Palestine during Jesus’ ministry, see Risen, with Joseph Fiennes, a much better movie on the same subject, only without chariot races. Meanwhile, Ben-Hur really can’t be said to have succeeded, exactly. But it’s not half bad, and parts of it are very well done indeed. So I recommend it. And you’ll have to hurry; it’s leaving town soon.

The Olympics

We’ve had Olympic fever big time here at chez Samuelsen. It’s really an extraordinary thing, watching all these young people leap and run and swim and compete. For awhile. Actually, it can get a bit tedious, to be honest. Every athlete is remarkable, every performance amazing, but they can’t all win, and the ones who don’t win outnumber the ones who do by a very large margin. And there are great human stories beyond Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky and Simone Biles and Usain Bolt and Ashton Eaton. (Favorite memory; Ledecky smoking the field in the 800 free).

So what we watch isn’t really the Olympics. What we watch is an artfully produced television program, with suits at NBC deciding which sports we really want to see and which athletes we really want to follow. It has to be this way of course. There was Olympic coverage on NBC and NBC Sports and Bravo and CNBC and MSNBC and USA and I think about five other networks. I set my DVR to record all of them, with the intention of watching, you know, the whole Olympics. It took me about half a day to realize how foolish that was. I may like track and field, but that doesn’t mean I want to watch every qualifying heat of every distance, or every throw of the discus, or jump by any high jumper. There aren’t enough hours in the day. And, not to knock men’s field hockey, or judo, or fencing, but I don’t know enough about them to follow them meaningfully. I am, after all, a comparative expert in women’s gymnastics, because I watched it for a couple of hours four years ago. I did get into team handball, which is wicked fun, and water polo, because how long can you tread water? Rhythmic gymnastics is beautiful–essentially modern dance, with sillier costumes. Kayaking looks awesome, as long as you didn’t think too hard about Rio’s water purification issues. And I became a huge fan of the Fiji rugby team. I know nothing about rugby, but I recognize domination when I see it. Seriously, NFL, start scouting Fiji.

Still. Even mentioning the sports I did watch points up the difficulties with which NBC has to contend. The Olympic Games consist of many many many events, and they all require a certain level of expertise to follow meaningfully. There are some sports that basically everyone has played at some point in their lives–table tennis, badminton, trampoline–which are amazing at Olympic levels because the athletes competing there are so much better than any of us will ever be at them. I’ve played ping pong a time or two, but I seriously wasn’t playing the same sport those guys played. I even fenced a little in college, but Olympic fencing is so fast, so quick, it was difficult to even tell what was going on. But can I tell which divers deserve higher scores than which other divers? (Big splashes=bad, I guess).

So NBC has to provide expert commentary so we know what we’re watching, and also provide some personal background into the athletes competing, so we can care who wins. For 316 events, in 28 different sports. And with 11, 544 athletes competing. Covering all that adequately is completely impossible. And NBC did their darndest. With basic cable and a good DVR I was able to watch at least a few minutes worth of 27 of those sports, exempting dressage, because horses.

And then, evenings, we got to see a highlights show (on tape delay), featuring what NBC thought American audiences mostly wanted to see: Americans winning, human interest stories involving athletes from other countries, and beach volleyball. And even a sports nut like me was pretty sated by the end.

Happiness, and Mormonism

My wife and I went out to dinner recently with some old friends. And we caught each other up on our lives and the lives of our children. And we talked about the Church lessons we remembered from MIA. Our teachers were good people, earnest and kind, and I know they wanted nothing for us but the best. And, because we’re Mormons, what they talked about were ideals. Serve a full-time mission, marry in the temple, raise your children with family prayer and family home evening and family scripture study. That was the way to achieve happiness.

Think of General Conference. Even the most cursory search through recent Conference talks shows how central ideals are to Mormonism. Richard G. Scott: “Do the best you can while on earth to have an ideal family” (achieved by studying and applying the Proclamation on the Family). David O. McKay: “I picture heaven as a continuation of the ideal family life.” Neil Anderson: “In this continuing spiritual commotion, the restored gospel will continue to carry the standard, the ideal.”

And we talked about that at dinner, my friends and I, how far actuality can stray from the ideal. My wife and I are happy together, and have been for 35 years, but our lives are hardly ideal. Though I’m still young enough that I should still be working, my health makes that impossible, vastly increasing the burden on her. There are surely people whose lives do fit a Church cultural ideal. But I don’t know very many. Mostly, I know people who are struggling. And I think of Sophocles, who had a favorite line that appears in many, if not most of his plays: “count no man happy until he dies, free of pain at last.” Pain, disappointment, heartache, sorrow are all constants of our lives here.

And they’re supposed to be. Our understanding of the plan of salvation–what we’re now supposed to call the ‘Plan of Happiness’–is that coming to earth would be difficult and painful and sorrowful. Listening to conference talks, it can seem as though we conceive of happiness with a paint-by-numbers literalism. Do these things, follow this path with exactness, and the result will be happiness. On the other hand, the story of Adam and Eve is, according to our own scripture, a metaphor for the necessity of agony and heartache and loss.

I don’t mean to suggest that Mormonism hasn’t come to grips with, for example, that horrific and lethal disease we call clinical depression. There have been many poignant talks on that grim subject in recent years. But too many friends and family members suffer from it for me to ignore it in any discussion of personal happiness. It doesn’t matter what gospel living boxes we check off. For some people, everyday life is agony. It’s not happy at all. And that doesn’t always end well. What depressed people need is help, lots of it, constant help and care and medical attention.

Mormonism is a religion of paradoxes. We believe in personal revelation; we also believe in revelation through prophets, operating within an organization. We believe in personal responsibility; we also have the strongest possible attachment to the importance of communities. We believe in salvation by grace; also the central importance of works. We believe in both sides of the justice/mercy paradox. But we still insist that there are rules to actual life, that doing certain things in a certain order will lead to earthly happiness. And that’s not always true.

And so when we hear sermons emphasizing ideals–ideal families, ideal commitments, ideal service, ideal lives–it can feel like we’re neglecting, you know, reality. I wish the advice we received were more practical, more rooted in reality. How do we keep from beating ourselves up when we don’t reach the ideal? How can we stop ourselves from spiraling downward into depression? How can we keep on keepin’ on, when times become difficult and burdens hard to bear? How can we forgive ourselves more, hold each other up, stop pretending everything’s great when its not?

Because, let’s face it, an insistence on ideals can be immensely damaging. We do get down on ourselves. We do feel inadequate, and inadequacy can depress. I have a relative, a wonderful young man, who recently suffered a professional setback. He’s absolutely distraught over it. He feels like a failure. He’s punishing himself, because he didn’t, he thinks, live up to the ideal of husband=provider.

I wish I could fold him in my arms and tell him that he doesn’t need to beat himself up, that he is loved and worthy of love, that we recognize the goodness of his heart, and his devotion to his children and his wife, that he isn’t a failure, or anything like it. But it doesn’t seem to help.

I’m a pretty happy person, I think. I love my family deeply, and we have a good time together, mostly. I’m happy because I met the right woman at the right time in my life. I’m happy because I figured out what I wanted to do with my life at an early age, and then got lucky professionally and was able to actually do it. I’m happy because the chemicals in my head are conducive to happiness. I do appreciate having a religious community I can call my own. That’s a lovely blessing. But I’m blessed in other ways too.

Rather than focus on ideals, shouldn’t we instead talk about getting by, muddling along, doing what we can? I wish our cultural conversation were more honest, more accurate, more forgiving. As a culture, we seem to be capable of navigating a whole map full of complicated terrains and ecosystems. We are a culture of contradictions; a religion of paradoxes. And some, we cope with nimbly, with grace and elegance. We’re all going to fall short of our ideals. But let’s keep trying. When we fall short, let’s not mourn having missed an ideal. But get up, brush ourselves off, keep trying. And know that there are many others in the same situation who can help.

Two lovely movies for families and children: Movie Reviews

I saw The BFG a few weeks ago, but did not review it–it happened at a time when I was without computer access. I saw Pete’s Dragon this morning. Narratively, the two movies are very similar. They’re both about orphans who become friends with very very large magical creatures. Both the Giant in The BFG and the Dragon in Pete’s Dragon are generous and kind, but both are badly mistreated by gangs of dolts, and both need help from grown-ups–either the Queen of England, or Robert Redford. And both films are beautiful. They’re both paced a little slowly for children’s movies, but only by the frenetic standard of so many noisy, busy ‘family’ films. They both take the time to appreciate loveliness. But they’re both playful when needs be, too. They’re both beautifully designed and lighted and shot. And both films feature terrific child actors.

BFG stands for Big Friendly Giant, played by Mark Rylance, who seems to have become Steven Spielberg’s new favorite actor. Sophie (Ruby Barnhill), lives in an orphanage, a lively place, but a desperately lonely one. The Giant sees her see him, and can’t bear it; Giants have to remain invisible. (Invisibility is a trait of Pete’s Dragon as well). He collects dreams, and that requires trips to the city, but only if he can stay unspotted. His home is absolutely splendid, with a Rube Goldberg ingenuity to it, and all sorts of odd pieces of equipment that enable his life’s work. He also has a wondrous way of talking, employing, not the right word, but its second cousin.

The Giant would never hurt little Sophie, and protects her as best he can. Because, you see, he’s a very big Giant by her standards, but an absolute runt by Giant standards. And his fellow Giants are loutish, stupid brutes. Ruby decides she needs to protect her big friend, and needs help to accomplish it. Well, where would an orphaned English girl turn for help? To the Queen of England (Penelope Wilton), of course. (When the Giant meets the Queen, he says “your madjester, I am your most humbug servant.” She’s charmed).

I think for some smaller children, The BFG might be a little hard to follow, not because the story’s all that complicated, but just because it’s an unfamiliar sort of tale. We’re used to wisecracking anthropomorphic animals–we expect to see chase scenes. This has neither. You have to pay attention. But it’s so eccentrically lovely, so lyrical and sweet-tempered, it’s worth the effort.

Pete’s Dragon did not interest me at all, until too many friends told me how good it was. I saw it today, and was entranced. Pete, as a precociously reading three-year-old, sits in back as his father navigates a narrow forest road. Pete reads his favorite book, Elliott Gets Lost, about a wayward puppy. He sees the word ‘brave,’ and asks his mother about it, and she tells him she thinks he’s the bravest boy in the world. And then, swerving to avoid a deer, their car overturns, and Pete’s Mom and Dad are killed. (That scene, so awful, was beautifully but heartbreakingly filmed–not violent, but lyrical, and all the more affecting for it). Pete wanders into the woods. Wolves gather. And then are frightened away. By a massive green dragon. Who befriends, and saves, and raises young Pete.

Six years later, Pete (Oakes Fegley), is a wild child, blissfully happy and well cared for by Elliot, the Dragon. (Of course, he named it Elliot). And we get the most beautiful montage, showing Pete running through the forest, leaping from trees, completely confident that Elliot will catch him. It was my favorite scene in the movie, and one that did not advance the plot in any way, but was just purely joyful. Then we cut to Robert Redford, playing a woodworking codger named Meacham, who entertains children with his stories about an encounter he had in the woods with a big green dragon. His daughter, Grace, it turns out, is a forest ranger. She’s played by Bryce Dallas Howard, and she’s in constant conflict with a company of loggers, who ignore her proscriptions over which parts of the forest can be clear-cut. And that gets tricky, because her fiancee, Jack (Wes Bentley), runs the logging firm, and his main foreman is his brother, Gavin (Karl Urban). Jack’s daughter, Natalie (Oona Laurence), is an adventurous nine-year old. And she’s the one who spots Pete.

So Pete is brought back to civilization, his history explored, and plans are made to turn him over to Social Services. And Pete’s miserable. He misses Elliot. He can’t figure out why he can’t just keep living in the forest with his dragon.

Gavin is the villain of the piece, I suppose, and his loggers serve as his gang. But there’s never a moment in the film when we don’t completely understand why he’s doing what he’s doing. He’s not malevolent, just a normal human–a little selfish, a little uncaring. Not a bad person, though, of course, Pete hates him.

The movie does turn, in its last twenty minutes or so, rather Disney. There’s a comic car chase. There are moments of sentimentality, not unearned, but a trifle saccharine. But most of the movie is exquisite. Elliot’s forest is just a normal Northwestern US forest (though in fact, it was filmed in New Zealand). But director David Lowery has an eye; he lets us see the forest the way Pete sees it. He takes the time, to linger on a forest stream, to let Elliot play with a butterfly.

I’m an old guy; my children are in their twenties and thirties, and we have no grandchildren. But I’m so grateful for movies like these two, for family-oriented movies with some lyricism and sense of magic. I know that The BFG is considered kind of a flop, but it’s a Spielberg film; it will be remembered, and reevaluated in time. Pete’s Dragon is in theaters now, and is doing well. I well remember how difficult it could be to find good, appropriate films for children. Here are two excellent ones.

 

Suicide Squad: Movie Review

Suicide Squad is one of those movies that audiences like a lot more than critics do. It’s gotten terrible reviews–its Rottentomatoes.com score is 26, and even the positive reviews have tended to be of the ‘ah, it’s not so terrible’ variety. I guess I’m in a critical minority; I rather liked it, and certainly thought it was an interestingly political movie, and not in some metaphorical sense.  It’s quite specifically and directly about the War on Terror, and about the American prison system, and the moral ambiguities of our age. It’s a zeitgeist movie, a movie that captures something about our age. Superhero movies often are.

It’s basically The Dirty Dozen. Remember that one? Lee Marvin, Jim Brown, Charles Bronson, John Cassavetes? The government recruits an army of bad guys to fight a particularly dangerous enemy? Well, that’s Suicide Squad, except the bad guys are superheroes.  Or, you know, people with enhanced powers.

We’re introduced to each of the characters’ backstories in a series of opening vignettes. Deadshot (Will Smith) is a professional assassin, deadly with any firearm. When we meet him, he’s got a bead on a target, but refuses to pull the trigger until his client ups the pay. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is a former psychiatrist who grows infatuated with The Joker (Jared Leto), who then tortures her out of love, leading to her Stockholm Syndrome-type reciprocal love for him. Diablo (Jay Hernandez) has the ability to set things on fire, which he doesn’t control very well–he accidentally killed his family, and now refuses to use his powers. Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Adbaje), appears to be half-human, half crocodile. Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is an expert with blades. Katana (Karen Fukuhara) has a sword that stores the souls of the people she kills. There were a few others, less well defined. They’re all deeply damaged, deeply troubled people, hostile to authority and with agendas of their own.

The US government is represented by a bureaucrat and a soldier. Viola Davis plays Amanda Waller, who brings the Suicide Squad together as an elite anti-terrorist unit because she’s afraid of what might happen if America’s enemies should find gifted/troubled superhero types of their own. She has recruited Colonel Rick Flagg (Joel Kinneman) to lead her motley force. He’s got his own demons. He is in love with an archeologist, June Moone (Cara Delevigne), who is possessed by an evil witch spirit. But no worries–Waller has her heart–literally, she found it in the cave–and therefore controls her.

A number of critics disliked the movie because, as several of them put it, its plot is incoherent. But it’s not. The plot is perfectly coherent, just a trifle busy. Ordinarily, in a superhero movie, you’ve got your good guys and your bad guys; it’s all pretty clear. It isn’t here. Col. Flagg is one of the good guys, but he’s also in love with the main bad guy–the witch who has possessed his girlfriend. And that character, that evil spirit witch thing, wants to conquer the world, and may have the power to accomplish it. Among her skills is the ability to capture people and turn them into mindless killing monsters. That ability forms the basis for the first army the Suicide Squad has to contend with. Meanwhile, The Joker has allied himself with the Witch, and keeps texting Harley Quinn to join him/them. And Waller is hardly on the side of the angels. Davis plays her as an amoral pragmatist, perfectly willing to murder innocent people if it will advance her interests. Granted, she’s trying to protect the United States, but she also has a career to look out for. And the only reason the Suicide Squadders agree to help her is because she has bombs implanted in their heads. And she controls the phone app that will set them off.

Well, doesn’t all that seem familiar? In order to defeat the forces of terrorism, the US uses unmanned drones, and can kill bad guys remotely–though we do try to keep collateral damage down. And one of the two major party Presidential candidates currently running thinks this isn’t close to enough. He wants to bring back torture. Viola Davis’s brutal amorality in this doesn’t seem remotely overstated.

All these characters are damaged goods. All are traumatized and violent. The most extraordinary among them is Harley Quinn. Margot Robbie’s performance dominates the movie. She’s constantly smiling, but we never trust it; this is a violent woman, not the sexpot cutie-pie she affects. And under that is abuse, horrific abuse. And under that, some kind of deep seated insecurity. Check out Robbie’s IMDB page, and you’ll see a series of extraordinary characterizations. She was the best thing in Tarzan, the best thing in Focus, the best thing about Whisky Tango Foxtrot, the best thing in The Wolf of Wall Street. She even pulls off a feat that seems quite impossible. She convinces us that her character is genuinely in love with Jared Leto’s Joker. Leto’s a fine actor, but he’s just unwatchably bad in this movie. (There’s a moment where we think The Joker has died, and I realized how much I hoped it was true).

But everyone else was excellent. Will Smith brought the film some gravity, and Jay Hernandez, a conscience and some heart. Even Delevigne is good, in an impossible part–the archeologist/Witch character never really does make a lick of sense. And Viola Davis scared the wee out of me. Superheroes don’t actually exist. Bureaucrats willing to murder in order to combat terrorism? I wish I didn’t think they do.

The Underground Railroad: Book Review

Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad is one of those novels that you don’t want to read too quickly, lest you deprive yourself of any of its pleasures, lest it break your heart. It’s beautiful, lyrical, as intellectually engaging as it is powerful emotionally. I don’t know anything else like it. The cliché here would be that I ‘couldn’t put it down.’ In fact, I frequently put it down, because it so often overwhelmed me.

Its subject, is, obviously, slavery and the Underground Railroad that conveyed escaped slaves north to freedom. It’s an historical novel, with the most resolute of protagonists–an escaped slave named Cora. But I can’t help myself from calling it a kind of science fiction, or at least speculative fiction. It’s built on two conceits; that the Underground Railroad really was a railroad, a subterreanean network of tunnels and tracks, with trains that take desperate fugitives from state to state. And second, that the experience of African-Americans differed radically from state to state, with each place exploring a different American possibility. It’s somehow a fabulist novel that doesn’t feel fabricated, an alternate history that feels like the most exacting and ruthlessly honest commentary on the actual history of America and race.

Cora begins in Georgia, living on a plantation owned by the Randalls, ferocious and brutal and corrupt, the worst plantation owners imaginable. Cora’s mother, Mabel, escaped, when Cora was just a child, and she resents it, being abandoned  like that. But what’s remarkable is that Mabel really did escape; she wasn’t brought back in chains by the ruthless and brilliant slave catcher, Ridgeway, to be tormented and brutalized and murdered like all other Randall escapees. (Eventually, we learn Mabel’s story, and it’s heart-breaking).

And so, Cora grows up a loner, a watcher, a fierce defender of her meagre belongings, but friendless and gossiped-about in slavery’s traumatized and treacherous culture. Then one night, Caesar, newly arrived at the Randall plantation, approaches Cora, the only slave he can trust, he says, and tells her he intends to escape, and wants her to come with him. He knows, you see, a station master. He can find his way to the Railroad.

And so, to South Carolina, a bastion of racial enlightenment, a place where blacks are allowed jobs and wages and an education, and even something resembling freedom. A real home. A paradise, pretty much. Until Cora learns the truth behind the benevolence and the real purpose behind the free medical exams she’s treated to.

The reality of slavery is, of course, economic. In King Cotton, the South had the perfect cash crop, the key to ever-increasing prosperity. Cotten needs tending and picking, and profit margins are greater if you don’t intend to pay your workers. But they came to understand that while African blacks make good workers–and can always be bred, increasing the labor market supply–they couldn’t really be trusted, could they? To remain placid and pliable. And in some areas, they had begun to increase in numbers; to outnumber whites. This wouldn’t do. Steps needed to be taken. South Carolina, priding itself in its sophistication and erudition, made the scientific choice. Forced sterilization. And other medical experimentation, to learn about infectious diseases and further deplete black numbers.

And as Cora contemplates her situation in oh-so-benevolent South Carolina, the implacable Ridgeway shows up, captures Caesar. Cora barely escapes alive. And she’s not expected on the train, and has to go wherever it’s heading. And that, it turns out, is North Carolina.

North Carolina is cruder, more direct. Reluctantly, its white citizenry has decided to bite the bullet, and pay its cotton pickers; not the black ones, of course, but impoverished European imports. That, again, leads to a superfluity of blacks, and a final solution. Cora barely survives, hidden, like Anne Frank, in an abolitionist’s attic.

And so on. Each state confronts the same demographic/economic problem, and each state deals with it differently. South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Indiana. Yes, even a Northern state like Indiana. And each solution, in each state, is horrifying. At one point, Cora discovers books, and sees her own situation as analogous to Gulliver, and I buy that; the places Gulliver visits are grotesque, but illustrative.

And Cora is extraordinary. She’s a practical young woman, a farmgirl, hard working and determined and strong. She loves to read, especially loving Farmer’s Almanacs, for their pragmatism. She’s not terrifically romantic, but does fall in love, twice, with both relationships ending in horror. She’s a survivor. She’s also completely unimpressed with white society, and its protestations of civilized sophistication. She learns the Declaration of Independence, and considers it vicious nonsense. She’s an astonishing creation, and when the book ended, I did cry out, vocally: ‘no!’ I so wanted to spend more time in her company.

And the book’s ferocious and philosophical villain, Ridgeway, the slave catcher, is an equally astonishing creation. He’s a murderer, of course, many times over. But he’s also, in his own way, a thoughtful man, a man who sees his society clearly, and sees as well the necessary function of someone like him. He holds the Randalls in utter contempt, but is content to work for them, because the pay is good, and the work essential. Slavery is the key to Southern society. Not allowing slaves their freedom is the key to making the peculiar institution work. He is the face of white slavery, with all its intellectual pretensions, and quite possibly the scariest character in any novel I’ve read, because he’s also rounded, nuanced, complex. Smart. Evil? Well, obviously, but then this book redefines evil. Slavery isn’t just one evil though. It’s manifestations are legion; it infests American history and promise like demons infesting the Gadarene swine.

I haven’t read Colson Whitehead before now, and now intend to buy all his books and read them straight through. What a remarkable talent. What a story! What a rich and powerful and strangely compelling novel.

 

Florence Foster Jenkins: Movie Review

The difficulty in writing a screenplay about any famous eccentric, is battling the temptation to make fun of them. You know, in a funny, but also kind of mean way. Florence Foster Jenkins’ life was eminently mockworthy–she’s mostly famous for being the most atrocious opera singer to ever perform in public. Which is why I was so delighted to see that Stephen Frears’ new film about her is so splendidly generous and open-hearted and kind.

It helps that Jenkins is played by Meryl Streep, who brings a remarkable combination of confidence and vulnerability to the role. And yes, when she sings, it’s incredibly funny–my wife, my daughter and I were doubled over. But there’s more to her than bad singing. Her husband, St Clair Bayfield, could well have been played as the smarmiest sort of git, especially since that’s a characterization easily in Hugh Grant’s wheelhouse. Instead, he gives the most sensitive and complex performance of his career. And Simon Helberg, from Big Bang Theory, could have made Jenkins’ accompanist, Cosme McMoon into a comic caricature. Instead, Helberg imbues McMoon with an undercurrent of loneliness that became deeply touching. (That name, Cosme McMoon, is, astonishingly, historical–that was the actual name of her actual accompanist).

The film is set in 1944, when Jenkins presided over The Verdi Club, a society of wealthy patrons of the musical arts, mostly all women. They enjoyed evenings of dramatic recitations (by Bayfield, who had been an actor), and tableaux vivants, in which Madame Florence would dress up as a muse or something and be lowered into a scene by ropes. This was what passed for entertainment back in the day before we invented fun.

St Clair and Florence had, um, an unusual relationship. Her house was where she socialized, featuring her collection of chairs-in-which-famous-people-had-died, which no guests were allowed to sit in. There was also a bathtub kept full of potato salad for parties. At night, they have a routine; he recites, to help her sleep, then replaces her wig with a turban, kisses her gently, then heads off to his apartment. Which she pays for. Which he shares with his girlfriend, Kathleen (Rebecca Ferguson).

But Miss Florence had a yen to sing again. So St Clair hires a voice teacher, the associate conductor of the Metropolitan Opera, Carlo Edwards (David Haig), whose job it is to keep reassuring Florence how splendidly she’s singing. And St Clair begins auditioning accompanists. Cosme gets the gig because he plays softly–Miss Florence abhors bombast.

And that’s one of the directions this film’s narrative could have chosen. It’s Florence as victim, and St Clair as a hustler. As long as he indulges her every whim, he has everything he could ask for–a pretty girlfriend, a nice apartment, plenty of money. But he has to keep scrambling. When Florence gives small subscription recitals for her club, St Clair has to keep unsympathetic newspaper critics at bay. He has to hand-pick every invitee. Nothing can be allowed to intrude on her serene self-confidence. Toscanini stops by–he wants to feature a young coloratura in a recital, but needs another thousand bucks, which Florence happily forks over. After all, she’s supporting the musical arts–nothing makes her happier. Cosme’s in on the hustle–he is being overpaid for his services and knows it, and if that means offering no criticism of Florence’s ambitions, so be it.

So that is a story the movie tells. But there’s more than that going on. St Clair is well-compensated, sure. But he also does genuinely love Florence. He protects her from bad reviews, because he has to–the con depends on her being happy. But he also wants to protect her out of affection, out of love and loyalty. Cosme doesn’t want to perform in public as her accompanist; he has a musical reputation to preserve. But when she comes over to his tiny, crummy apartment, scolds him for its untidiness, and sets about doing his dishes, and he’s touched by it. He likes her. He even admires her, for her persistence. And they play a Chopin prelude together. And it’s lovely.

So that’s another story; a story of love and friendship and mutual respect. And yes, Florence thinks she’s a marvelous singer, and she’s atrocious, and it’s really funny when she sings. The film is a comedy, and a richly humorous one. But she’s also worthy of our respect.

There’s one character, I think, who personally embodies the journey we go on with Florence. One of her Verdi Society acolytes is a wealthy older man named Phineas Stark. As has been known to happen with old rich bald guys, he has remarried, to Agnes (Nina Arianda), a cutie-patootie forty years his junior. Bad blonde dye job, gum-chewing, Brooklyn accent. (Arianda is spectacularly funny in the role). Anyway, her husband drags her to one of her subscription recitals. She’s reluctant, but goes, expecting to be bored. And when Florence begins singing, Agnes perks right up. She loves it. It’s the funniest thing ever! Overcome with laughter, she has to be physically hauled out of the recital hall.

Spoiler paragraph:  Florence’s life ambition is to sing at Carnegie Hall. She has enough money to make that happen, and does. And when a recording she’s made begins playing on local radio stations, her Carnegie appearance gets some buzz. She’s becoming famous, as the worst singer anyone’s ever heard. She decides, patriotically, to give a thousand tickets to the concert to Our Boys in Uniform; a thousand tough marines descend on Carnegie Hall, primed to laugh. And when they do laugh, it’s Agnes, converted by Florence’s courage and grit, who shouts them down, gets them applauding, and gives Florence, already faltering because of the laughter, to continue.

Is it admirable to pursue one’s dreams no matter how unrealistic they are? Is there power in perseverance, even when it’s preposterous? Is it better to have sung really badly, than to never sing at all? Florence Foster Jenkins, the movie, insists that the answer must be yes.

It’s a wonderful movie. Prediction time: Meryl Streep will receive her twentieth (20th!) Oscar nomination for this movie, and will win again for it. Hugh Grant will win his first, for Best Supporting Actor. (Although actually, St Clair is the movie’s protagonist, now that I think about it). And when you go see it–and you must–you will laugh a lot too, and be moved by the end. It’s a lovely movie.

Jason Bourne: movie review

It’s been nine years since The Bourne Ultimatum, nine years for Matt Damon to grow older and for the issues the original Bourne trilogy dealt with to die down a bit. In the meantime, Jeremy Renner played a Bourne-like Treadstone-project character in The Bourne Legacy, and is expected to return for another. So one might argue that the Jason Bourne character is played out. And Jason Bourne didn’t get great reviews–57% on Rottentomatoes.com, not great, not awful. It’s a simpler, more straightforward movie than the previous ones. I liked it. I liked its simplicity; I liked the stripped-down simplicity. It felt iconic, like an exercise in Ur-Bourne essentialism. It takes the Bourne template and just follows that, with nothing extraneous or unneeded. And the focus now is on a few simple moral choices. Here’s Jason Bourne. He knows who he is and what he can do, and he also can now remember what he’s done in the past. What does he do about it?

As the movie begins, Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) is a deeply troubled, haunted man, making a living as a bare-knuckle prize-fighter in the outer reaches of civilization. His old friend, Nicky Parsons (once his CIA handler), is on the run, in Iceland, hacking into government files and releasing them into the web, working with a Julian Assange-type character named Dassault (Vinzenz Kiefer). Aaron Kalloor (Riz Ahmed), CEO of a social media company (based on Mark Zuckerberg, maybe?) meets with Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), head of the CIA, who wants him to allow government access to everyone’s social media accounts, as part of the war on terror. Which Kalloor refuses. Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander), meanwhile, is a high official at the CIA, and is trying to stop a hack by Nicky. And Asset (Vincent Kassel), a Treadstone assassin, is waiting for the call to kill Jason Bourne.

Spoiler alert: Nicky’s hack leads her to a file from the early days of Treadstone, in which she learns that Bourne’s father was the guy who came up with Treadstone in the first place. Treadstone, you’ll recall, is an US government program in which a few elite assassins are genetically modified, become stronger/faster/quicker/tougher. Only Bourne’s Dad had second thoughts, and met with Jason to express those qualms. But before he could talk, he was killed, by Asset, on Dewey’s orders. Nicky meets with Jason in Athens, where they meet in the middle of an anti-government riot. As Asset tries to kill them, Jason and Nicky try to escape in the first of the movie’s two spectacular chase scenes. Asset manages to kill Nicky, but she gets the file to Bourne first.

Bourne, you’ll recall, suffered from amnesia in the previous movies. He has recovered–he now remembers everything, including multiple assassinations he carried out under government orders. He’s haunted by those memories. He’s a deeply troubled man. Nicky’s files send him in a direction; he wants to know what really happened, why his father died and who killed him, who knew what and when. He doesn’t have the faintest idea what to do about any of it.

And that’s why I found this film so compelling. The other characters all have quite specific ideas for what they thing Jason Bourne should do. Nicky wants him to join her crusade; to expose Treadstone, to go all Julian Assange/Dassault. He doesn’t want to; he doesn’t trust Dassault. Director Dewey has an agenda too; Jason Bourne is a loose end, and so he wants him killed. That’s also Asset’s agenda. Heather, though, doesn’t want that; she thinks Jason Bourne is still ‘a patriot’ and can be rehabilitated as a government assassin. And Kallour has an agenda too; to save his company, even it means destroying it. Oh, and Dewey wants Kallour dead too. He wants all social media to be accessible to the government, to aid in the war on terror. And he’s made a deal with Kallour’s second-in-command. And he figures he’ll kill Heather too. She’s just too much of a loose cannon.

So there are all these characters with very strong objectives, working at cross-purposes. Jason Bourne, meanwhile, acting on instinct, is trying to save human life, basically. He wants to stop Asset, because Asset is a killer. He wants to save Heather, who he doesn’t trust at all, because her life is in danger. And he wants to meet with Dewey, talk to him, get the answers to his questions. But he might have to kill Dewey, to survive.

What’s fascinating about this is the contrast between Asset and Jason Bourne. Asset just kills anyone who gets in his way. Cops, security guards, innocent bystanders? If they’re in his way, he’s going to shoot them. And I realized; he’s the ultimate product of Treadstone. He’s a Jason Bourne. Asset’s who Heather wants him, Bourne, to become. Absolutely cold-blooded. Meanwhile, Jason Bourne has inconvenient people in his way too, but he can’t bring himself to kill them. (He does knock them out, but this is movie-land, where concussions don’t come with serious health consequences).

I loved the straightforward simplicity of it. All these agendas, and Bourne in the middle of them all, trying to clear his head.

Your enjoyment of the movie will probably depend on how well you do with hand-held camera work. My wife can’t stand shaky-cam, and didn’t like this movie as much as I did. I don’t mind shaky-cam, and thought the film’s two chase scenes quite spectacular. Shaky-cam is a distinguishing characteristic of Paul Greengrass’ directing style. It’s a style I enjoy. You may not.

Still, this is an excellent movie, a much better movie than what we might expect from action movies. A lot of it is the acting. Matt Damon has never been better. Veteran French tough guy Cassel is a wonderful foil as Asset. Tommy Lee Jones’ wonderful face has never been cragier, Riz Ahmed (so terrific in HBO’s The Night Of), is self-assured but vulnerable as the CEO, and Julia Stiles is outstanding, in much too short a role. And Alicia Vikander is a completely untrustworthy snake. We always know she has some kind of agenda going on, but we’re never quite sure how to read her, until the movie’s very last moments. Good movie, exciting and smart. So glad Bourne’s back.

 

Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party. Movie review

I just watched Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America film, so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

It’s a documentary, of the agit-prop variety, a ferocious assault on the Democratic party, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy, and any semblance of civil political discourse. Essentially, it’s an assortment of anti-Hillary conspiracy theories, tied together by one overarching über false narrative of breathtakingly ludicrous audacity; that the Democratic party is not now and never has been a legitimate political organization, but is now and always has been a vast, all encompassing criminal conspiracy.

You think I’m exaggerating. I’m not. It’s that bad.

The film’s master narrative goes like this. Dinesh D’Souza goes to prison, ostensibly for violating campaign finance laws, actually because the Obama administration is out to get him.

Which I love, by the way. The totalitarian, tyrannical, anti-Democratic Obama administration is out to get him! So what do they do? Sentence him to . . .  8 months in prison, plus he had to do some community service. Obama’s got to be the wimpiest tyrant in history. (Dinesh, some advice: if you don’t like prison, don’t commit crimes).

So: prison. A scary place, filled with scary people (though as we see him wending his way through general population, with all these plug-uglies glaring menacingly, you think ‘he’s going to be okay; the cameraman shooting all this is his employee, and should be able to protect him.’ Anyway, while in prison, he learns about how con men work. He finishes his sentence, and goes to Democratic headquarters somewhere. He scouts around, goes places he shouldn’t, opens ‘no admittance doors,’ (kept conveniently unlocked), where they keep all the hidden portraits of Andrew Jackson and copies of Birth of a Nation, and ‘learns’ the whole sordid history of the Democrats–all of which I knew when I was ten–which he then recites in the most obvious and insultingly simple-minded way. To wit:

Andrew Jackson was the founder of the Democratic party. And he was the author of the Trail of Tears, a slave owner, and a strong supporter of slavery. All true, and not remotely secret–I don’t know a single Democrat who doesn’t know all about Andy Jackson. Also, of course, irrelevant to the Democratic party today.

The Republican party was anti-slavery, and Republicans voted for the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments, all opposed by Democrats. And Lincoln was a really good President, and (prepared to be shocked by this revelation), a Republican. The Ku Klux Klan was founded by Nathan Bedford Forrest, who was a southern general and a Democratic congressman. All absolutely true. No question; I’d have totally been a Republican back then.

Woodrow Wilson was a Democrat, a racist, and a big fan of the pro-Klan film, Birth of a Nation. Again, nothing new there. I’ve even showed Birth of a Nation in classes I taught. It’s a historically significant film, but D. W. Griffith was a Kentucky boy, and boy is it racist. Hard film to teach anymore; it’s just so comically racist.

The New Deal had racist provisions regarding some of the benefits it offered. Absolutely true. Southern Democrats generally opposed civil rights; the Civil Rights Bill of 1964 was passed by a majority of Republicans.

All this stuff is presented as a secret history, as the kind of thing Democrats are ashamed of and try to cover up. And maybe that happens; I don’t know. Some Democrats may not know much history, like some Republicans don’t. But it’s irrelevant. There’s since been a major party realignment. There was a time when Democrats went out of their way to prevent black voters from voting. That ended. Now, it’s Republicans who pass bills restricting African-American voting. ‘Republican’ doesn’t mean the same thing that it meant 50 years ago, and neither does ‘Democrat’.

In 1960, there were essentially four major political groupings. There were conservative Republicans (like Barry Goldwater), and liberal Republicans (like Nelson Rockefeller). There were conservative Dixiecrat Democrats (like Richard Russell), and there were liberal Democrats, like Hubert Humphrey. I remember when I first was hired at BYU, talking to one of my new faculty friends, who surprised me when he said he was a Republican. Not that that mattered, but he seemed really liberal. Then he said he leaned Republican because of civil rights. Made perfect sense. As we continued to talk, it turned out we didn’t disagree politically at all. About anything. He didn’t even like Reagan, much.

To me, as a Democrat, reading about Andrew Jackson or Woodrow Wilson is somewhat akin to doing my genealogy, and discovering I have a pirate ancestor. It’s disreputable and more than a little embarrassing, but it doesn’t matter–it doesn’t reflect on me at all. The political issues of the 1830s or 1870s or 1920s or 1960s are not the political issues of today. I’m a Democrat because I generally prefer Democratic policies today. I don’t give a crap about what John C. Calhoun thought politically, except as a matter of historical interest.

There’s a biggish chunk of D’Souza’s film where he talks about the journalist Ida B. Wells, who he clearly admires. As well he should–she was a remarkable woman, and a courageous one. I admire her too. The fact that she was a Republican doesn’t matter; in her day, it would have been remarkable if she weren’t. The Republicans were the party of civil rights back then. So would I have been, back then. So why put Ida Wells in the movie?

Okay. The last quarter of the film switches gears, from a ridiculous ahistorical assault on the Democratic party to an even more ridiculous attack on Hillary Clinton. It’s all there; Whitewater, Benghazi, the White House travel office thing, and, of course, the email scandal. Also, the Clinton Foundation. D’Souza insists that the Clinton Global Initiative is a massive money-laundering scheme, with very few of the funds raised used to do anything good at all. He particularly attacks the Clinton’s for their involvement with Haiti, and shows anti-Clinton protesters outside the CGI headquarters in the New York.

It’s all nonsense, of course. Hillary Clinton has been lied about more than any other public figure in US history; D’Souza just repackages those lies. Case in point: Bill and Hillary didn’t skim off donations intended for Haiti: the CGI raised and spent 4 billion dollars for Haitian relief. They provided housing for 300,000 people, built hundreds of schools, built and staffed medical clinics all across the country. They’ve been extensively audited, and can prove exactly what was done with donations intended for Haiti. It’s an impressive list. Money laundering? Get real.

For a lot of people I know, the thing that makes them most uncomfortable with Hillary is the way she’s attacked the various women Bill is alleged to have had affairs with. D’Souza spends a lot of time on that issue. The most serious charge is that of Juanita Broaddrick, who accused Bill Clinton of having raped her. There are good reasons to believe her accusation, and equally good reasons to not believe her. I wasn’t there; I don’t have any idea. Bill Clinton did have multiple affairs, but they were always consensual. I don’t think there’s much doubt that Hillary chose not to believe rumors of his infidelity, and yes, she did trash the women making those accusations. I’m not willing to judge her too harshly for it. An adulterous spouse would tend to bring out the worst in any of us.

So maybe those attacks are a little bit relevant. None of the others have any credibility, at all. So she met Saul Alinsky. Big deal. So she once said nice things about Margaret Sanger (a fascinating historical figure, who did much more good than evil, though she did have her blind spots). Big deal. So Hillary got lucky with an investment one time. Good for her, and big deal. And yes, people pay absurd amounts of money to hear people give speeches. She’s made a lot less than Mike Eruzione does.

Anyway, the real question this film raises for me is this: what did Hillary Clinton ever do to Dinesh D’Souza?  What would cause a man to expend this impressive amount of pure vitriol and bile and hatred towards someone? I don’t get it. Why does Hillary have to be some combination of Lady Macbeth, Lucrezia Borgia and Livia Drusilla Caesar? Why does she have to be this monster? Can’t you just say ‘I disagree with her on matters of policy. Here are some specifics.’ Make a sensible argument, for heaven’s sake. This vilifying of a fellow patriot is unseemly, unnecessary, and, frankly, nonsensical. Dinesh, you were wrong about Obama, and you’re wrong about Hillary. Get over it.

I do regret one thing. I saw an early matinee, with about twenty other people. When the film ended, they all applauded. I booed. Very loudly–I’m a big guy with a big voice, and I really shouted out my ‘boo.’ I projected, you know? And they stopped applauding, and glared at me balefully as they left the theater (I was sitting in the front row). So I’m sorry, folks, if I ruined your movie. And shame on you for liking it.

Trump’s economic speech

Donald Trump was in Detroit over the weekend, giving a major policy speech on the state of the economy. Here’s the speech transcript, and here’s the Washington Post’s fact-checking article. So here we go, finally; a substantive description of what Trump’s economic plans might be.

I say ‘might be’, because it’s not like Trump hasn’t been talking about the economy all along. But he’s been doing it in his own idiosyncratic Trumpian way–dropping hints, riffing off the top of his head, dropping little factoids (none of them even remotely accurate), and commenting on them. And, of course, bragging. And what he’s said up to now hasn’t added up to, you know, ‘policy.’ He’s going to cut taxes; no, he’s not either going to raise taxes. He’s going to spend money on infrastructure; no, he’s not either going to do that. He’s going to make America great again. We’re going to win again. It’s all slogans and taglines, well seasoned with braggadocio. He has put some details of something that looks like an economic program on his website, but it bears little resemblance to his big Detroit address. He has now appointed a council of economic advisors. I think it’s likely they had a hand in writing his speech. So let’s dig into it.

Of course, the national news media has described the Detroit speech as a ‘campaign reboot.’ His tendency to make things up as he goes along has led to a very weird couple of weeks, in which he has picked a fight with a Gold Star family, suggested that Russia will never invade Ukraine (despite having done so two years ago), and kicked a baby out of a rally. He keeps shooting himself in the foot. He needs to quit. He needs to ‘appear Presidential.’ Hence a big, serious speech on economic policy. Read from a teleprompter. He looks like a loon right now; he needs to cut it out. He needs to seem grounded, serious, thoughtful.

So the mainstream media response to the Detroit speech is essentially drama criticism. Did he make this reboot look plausible? Was his delivery sufficiently grave? Did he seem Presidential?

I’m a drama guy, a theatre guy, and I don’t care. I’m interested in policy. I want to read his speech, and look at the specific proposals he offers, and see if they make sense. Under President Obama, the US economy has enjoyed the longest sustained period of economic growth. On the other hand, it’s not very robust growth–2 percent, more or less. We’d like it to grow more. Hillary Clinton has, on her website, a detailed job plan. It’s specific and detailed, with actual numbers you can look at. Trump’s never had anything like that on his website. But now we have a speech to look at.

It’s very . . . Republican. All the problems in our economy are caused by high taxes and regulation. And the first step, says Trump, is tax reform.

My plan will reduce the current number of brackets from 7 to 3, and dramatically streamline the process. We will work with House Republicans on this plan, using the same brackets they have proposed: 12, 25 and 33 percent. For many American workers, their tax rate will be zero.

Hey, your taxes are going down! Isn’t that great?

No. It’s not.

For most working people, the federal income tax is a negligible part of their tax burden. The federal tax that affects them the most is FICA, which pays for Social Security and Medicare. That won’t be diminished under Trump. The most effective federal anti-poverty program is the Earned Income Credit, which enables working families to pay a big annual bill–a car repair, replacing an appliance, put money aside for education . . . or pay a medical bill. Trump doesn’t address the EIC. No, this is a major tax cut for rich people.

And he has no way to pay for it. This tax plan will drastically reduce federal tax revenues. That’s all there is to it. He does not propose any corresponding spending cuts. If you are the kind of person who sees deficit and debt reduction as centrally important political issues, then you cannot, cannot support Donald Trump. He’s going to blow the budget up.

The corporate tax cut (which I actually agree with) is a tax that is easily dodged; very few big corporations pay it. Still, I don’t mind that tax cut; we’re not particularly competitive. But I had a warm fuzzy feeling when I saw Trump call for the end of the ‘death tax.’ Republicans have been inveighing against estate taxes since Caesar conquered Gaul; nice to see the New Improved Trump actually act, for once, like a Republican.

But it’s a terrible idea. The estate tax, let’s remind ourselves, was first proposed by that wild-eyed radical socialist commie, John Adams, who thought it would prevent the growth of a parasitic aristocratic class. (They had their own Paris Hiltons even then). Right now, the estate tax wouldn’t affect poor people, poor farmers, small businessmen of modest means, or the middle class. It’s a tax that really does only affect rich people; trust fund kids. How about, for once, leaving the estate tax alone?

But none of these proposals will help working class people at all. None of Trump’s proposals will lift anyone out of poverty, or in any sense whatever help lower class, lower-middle class, or middle class people at all. It’s trickle-down economics all the way. Trump is the Republican candidate for President of the United States. He’s got an economic council of Republican advisors. He’s gone back to the economic proposals of Jeb Bush. It’s a massive sell-out to his followers.

I found it a depressing speech. I’m enough of a cock-eyed optimist that I have, in the past, harbored some hopes that the Trump candidacy might actually accomplish some good. This speech ended that possibility.

For forty years, close enough, the Republican establishment has run for office on a platform of tax cuts for rich people, deregulation of business, and increased military spending. The Trump candidacy had, up to now, revealed how fed-up Republican voters were with an economic plan that wouldn’t help them at all, that would do nothing but increase income inequality. Trump’s kind of unhinged, but he did, at least, at times, talk dismissively of that particular agenda. (Of course, what he replaced it with was know-nothing nativism). Now, he’s acting Presidential (emphasis on acting–who knows what he really believes). The result is depressing. There’s not a single academic macroeconomist on his council of advisors. They’re all hedge fund guys (‘six guys named Steve,’ in Hillary Clinton’s clever phrase). They want to keep getting richer. And screw everyone else. So that’s what they put in the speech they wrote for Trump.

It’s a lousy plan, and it won’t work. The good news is, it has little chance of ever being enacted.