And so it begins

Donald J. Trump was inaugurated today. I couldn’t bring myself to watch, but I did read his inaugural address on-line. A peaceful and orderly transfer of power is always something to be celebrated, I suppose. So while it may not be time for actual optimism, we can, perhaps, muster a certain grim hope. Let’s start by ignoring such events as the Deplora-ball, last night’s preening alt-Right celebration, complete with Nazi salutes, and also the prayer service, and the invocation by Pastor Robert Jeffress (who once said that “Mormonism is a cult dragged from the depths of hell”) and the other alarming signs and wonders of this moment. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, “in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump . . . we shall be changed.” For the better?

And while I’m being all sunny, let’s admit that some of his cabinet picks have been fairly reasonable: Nikki Haley, James Mattis, David Shulkin, Sonny Perdue. There’s a long American tradition of cutting new Presidents some slack. I wouldn’t go that far with this guy, but I don’t wish him ill. He’s going to try to do dumb and terrible things. Let’s hope he doesn’t succeed all that often.

Reading his Inauguration speech, though, I was struck by what seem to be Trump’s governing priorities. It seems to me that the first step to solving problems is identifying them. It’s not just that I think Trump’s approach to problem solving is likely to prove ineffective. It’s that the specific issues he wants to address are all things that aren’t really problems at all.

For too long, [those in politics] have reaped the rewards of government while people have borne the cost. Washington flourished, but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered, but the jobs left and the factories closed.

His first point–that money, in politics, tends to corrupt people, seems inarguable. (Though his solution seems to be to appoint corrupt people to begin with). But are people struggling so terribly? People do feel like they are, but evidence suggests it’s not true. More Americans are employed right now, in good paying jobs, than ever before in history. More people are working in manufacturing than ever before. This dark vision of a dystopic America where no one can find work and factories are shut down and regular folks live lives of quiet despair is, frankly, a fantasy. It’s likely to become true–Trump’s policies (tax cuts, trade wars, cutting safety net spending) will certainly hammer lower class and lower middle class Americans. It’s just not true yet. He inherits a very strong economy from Obama; he’ll turn over an economy in recession to President Warren.

An education system flush with cash but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of all knowledge. . .

We do spend a lot of money on education, but our schools are hardly ‘flush with cash.’ Teachers are badly underpaid, and basic school supplies generally come out of their pockets. And while we can certainly improve student achievement (starting by banning all unnecessary testing), our students aren’t ‘deprived of all knowledge.’ For one thing, there’s this resource called the Internet. Which kids are better at using than their parents.

We’ve made other countries rich while the wealth . . . of our country has dissipated over the horizon. One by one, the factories shuttered and left our shores with not even a thought about the millions and millions of American workers that were left behind. The wealth of our middle class has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed all across the world. We assembled here today are issuing a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power. From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first .

Trump hates international trade deals. He consistently spoke out against, specifically, NAFTA and the TPP, and has talked of pulling out of both. And that’s nuts. Both NAFTA and the TPP, though flawed, were net positives, both for the US and internationally. I know this is kind of an unpopular view, but it’s the only opinion actually supported by, you know, evidence.

Donald Trump comes from the zero-sum-game world of Manhattan real estate. He seems to have difficulty in conceiving of a deal in which both sides prosper. But those are the best kinds of deals imaginable. He says our policies should be driven by national self-interest. Sure, fine; every country on earth does that. Making a deal between nations requires balance. We all know how to weigh costs and benefits. By that standard, NAFTA was a success. NAFTA was a trade agreement between the US, Canada, and Mexico–the three nations of North America. Since it passed in ’93, trade between those three countries quadrupled, from 297 billion dollars to 1.14 trillion. It boosted economic growth, created millions of jobs, and lowered consumer costs in all three nations. And yes, also a few American factories moved to Mexico.

In 1999, my wife and I bought our house. It provided a safe shelter for ourselves and our kids, and also, a great neighborhood for the kids to grow up in. But we also had to make a mortgage payment every month. Trump’s view of NAFTA is the equivalent of focusing entirely on that payment. ‘What a terrible deal! Look at all the money you spent!’

We will reinforce old alliances and form new ones and reform the world against radical Islamic terrorism , which we will eradicate from the face of the Earth.

Let’s be honest: absolutely nobody thinks it’s going to be possible to eradicate ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ Ask any military or intelligence expert in the world; it cannot be done. That’s the bad news; the good news is that ISIS, or Al Qaeda, or any other group you want to lump into the definition ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ cannot succeed in their stated aims and intentions. ISIS wants to establish a multi-national pan-Islamic caliphate. There is zero chance of that ever happening. ISIS is not an ‘existential threat’ to the American way of life, or to Western society.

What we actually have is a humanitarian crisis in Syria. That’s bad enough. And while we’re doing that, yes, we want to reduce the ability for terrorist groups to mount attacks on US soil or in Europe. Those are lofty and difficult goals. But let’s be honest; those attacks, when they do occur, are at worst, minor annoyances. I’ll grant you that they don’t feel so minor–our hearts go out to the victims of terrorist attacks. But such attacks really only achieve one thing; they affect us emotionally. They spread terror. They terrify us. They make us afraid. And when people are afraid, they tend to overreact. The kinds of violations of civil liberties that Trump has talked about are counterproductive. Terrorist groups can only disrupt us, and that can only happen if we allow it to happen. Which, believe it or not, we don’t have to do.

Trump, blessedly, said very little about the signature issue of his campaign; illegal immigration. He made passing mention to America’s ‘refusal to defend our own’ borders. That’s also nonsense, of course. The US does maintain a border patrol. But the larger point is this: immigration is good. Immigrants are a great blessing to our society and nation. And it’s doesn’t particularly matter whether they arrive here illegally. Of course, we should be accepting more Syrian and Middle-Eastern immigrants, and of course, we should be welcoming more immigrants from Mexico and South and Central America. They are, by every possible measure, an economic plus.

What’s needed is amnesty. What’s needed is a sensible immigration policy, that makes it easier, not harder, for folks to enter our country and work here and marry and raise families here. And create jobs here. Instead, Trump wants to waste time and money building a wall. At least, he didn’t include that particular piece of idiocy in his Inauguration address.

Meanwhile, of course, he said nothing about, you know, actual problems. Like world-wide climate change. Or universal health care. Or the rise in racial intolerance and bigotry. But that would have been asking for too much.

We have four years to get through. They’re going to be tough. We will survive, though. And starting in 2020, we can get back to making America great again.

La La Land: Movie Review

La La Land purports to be a good-natured, charming and delightful throwback musical. It begins with one of the most dazzling production numbers ever filmed, and tells what appears to be a sweet love story. Remember the big “Gotta Dance” from Singin’ in the Rain? Young hoofer tries to break in to the Broadway scene, has some success, faces temptation, nearly falls, finally breaks through and becomes a big star? Replace Broadway with Hollywood, replace the dancer with either an actress or a jazz pianist, and you’ve got the story of La La Land. Or A Star is Born, or any of the fifty other movies telling the same story. Set in LA, of course, where dreams come true. It’s a feel-good movie, a success story. Who doesn’t like to see nice kids realize their dreams?

I really don’t want to join the anti-La La Land backlash. There is one, of course, ever since La La Land won Best Picture at the Golden Globes, leading to all kinds of Oscar buzz. The opening deserves an Oscar all by itself, a spectacularly choreographed bit with people singing and dancing around and on top of cars stalled on a freeway. I take my hat off to the director who can find joy in the most joyless experience on earth–a California traffic jam. Well done, sir! And Damien Chazelle, the film’s writer/director, deserves all the accolades Hollywood can bestow. Fine.

I have a few quibbles with the rest of the movie. Mia (Emma Stone) is an actress, doing the LA audition scene, working at a coffee shop and hoping for a break. Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) is a jazz pianist, something of a music purist, hoping and scrimping and saving towards the day that he’s able to open his own jazz club. They meet cute, sing and dance together, hope and work together, support each other. It’s a romance, kind of. Except it also isn’t. What keeps them together is the power of their dreams. They’re together, they seem to be in love, and are, but not with each other, it turns out. Instead, they’re in love with their dreams, and with each other’s dreams. They’re in love with the goal of making it come true. It’s a more complicated relationship than most A Star is Born musicals can sustain.

Stone and Gosling are terrific in the movie, giving smart, painful, intelligent performances that capture the nuances of their sort-of-in-love-but-not-really relationship. They’re so good, in fact, that they almost got me to ignore the fact that they can’t actually sing and dance all that brilliantly. I hate saying that, but it’s kind of true; they worked hard, they do fine, but they wouldn’t make call-backs for an off-Broadway show, based on their singing and dancing chops. I didn’t care, actually, because I liked the characters, but it leads to the other big problem in the movie–one my wife picked up on way before I did–the sound mixing. Emma Stone has a sweet voice, but it’s tiny, and much of the music is jazz. Brass. And you can’t always hear her, and you miss a lot of lyrics. Gosling’s voice is a bit more robust, but still; I couldn’t understand the words pretty consistently.

So it’s a musical where we . . . make allowances. And I’m willing to, in part because they’re not singer/dancers in the movie; that’s not what their characters do. And Gosling’s piano chops look sensational. (In fact, he essentially learned how to play the piano for the movie). They have a nice little moonlight number, just the two of them, which is delightful.

But the movie isn’t just a love story. It’s about success, and the sacrifices success requires, and what it means to ‘sell out.’ There’s one number in particular that captures both the movie’s strengths and (I don’t want to say weaknesses), and the complexities of its argument. Sebastian has an old friend, Keith (brilliantly played by John Legend), who he knows from school and who has a successful band. And needs a keyboard player. And Sebastian joins this band, the Echoes. And Mia goes to see them in concert, loyal girlfriend that she is. And it’s a very funny scene. The song begins with a big showy piano solo by Sebastian, and then the rest of the band joins him, and it’s great. And then, oh my gosh, the synth and the electronic dance vibe and the sexy backup dancers, and the song jumps the shark, goes off the rails, choose your own metaphor. And the crowd goes wild. All except for an appalled Mia.

Here’s what I think: John Legend’s character is the devil, representing the artistic compromises needed to achieve commercial success. And Sebastian is the purist-turned-self-loathing-cynic. The definition of tortured artist.

That’s a clichéd trope and I don’t think it’s true. The greatest musical successes in history were, as far as I can tell, universally interested in   popular and commercial success, and yes, that absolutely includes Louis Armstrong and Thelonious Monk. You want to be good and you want to be successful. Both/and. And if Sebastian’s a jazz fanatic, he has to know that jazz music is a dialogue, not a monologue. And yes, creative tension can lead to personal tension; that’s why bands eventually break up. In the meantime, find your sound together.

As for Mia, here’s what I don’t buy; she’s doing the LA audition circuit, and getting nowhere. For six years. But we see her audition; she’s a good actress. I mean, of course Emma Stone is a good actress, but so is Mia, the character; we see no suggestion that she stinks. And she gets nothing? Not a call-back, nothing?

One of the big myths about the acting profession is that wanting to be an actor leaves you with two possible outcomes. Movie star or bum on the streets. That myth is the reason parents tend to discourage their kids from majoring in theatre. But I taught theatre at the college level for twenty kids, and I’ve known a lot of talented young people. And lots of them have gone to LA, and tried to break into the profession, and guess what? A lot of them have done just fine. If you’re willing to work hard, you can absolutely carve out a career. You may not become, well, Emma Stone. But you can get consistent work, and earn a living. I’ve known dozens of people who have done just that. I don’t believe that someone as talented as Mia, in the movie, would work that hard auditioning for six years and get absolutely nothing. It isn’t plausible to me; it doesn’t ring true.

La La Land has two endings, a fantasy ending and a reality ending. I much preferred the real one. And my quibbles with the movie are just that; quibbles. It’s a romantic, sweet-tempered movie. You absolutely must see it, but I also sort of hope it doesn’t win Best Picture. Though it certainly could. The opening really is that spectacular.

News and Fake news

Donald Trump held his first press conference in months yesterday; I watched it, and thought it did not go well. (I acknowledge that others may have thought he did just fine). Trump’s stock-in-trade is, I think, a combination of belligerence, braggadocio, prevarication and ignorance; all were on full display. One exchange particularly got my attention. CNN Senior White House Correspondent Jim Acosta stood to ask, well, essentially, if he would be allowed to ask a question, and the President-elect shouted him down, bellowing “No! Not you! Your organization is terrible!” Then, as Acosta persisted, Trump shouted “don’t be rude. You don’t get a question. You’re fake news.”

This was the election of ‘fake news,’ which is to say, the creation and dissemination of highly partisan clickbait nonsense on social media. There are guys, apparently, who do this for fun and profit; make up ludicrous stories, inventing a legit-sounding ‘news source’ for them, and clogging up your Facebook page. All human beings are susceptible to confirmation bias, which is why this stuff is so insidious. I’m a liberal. If I see some story that says that, say, Sarah Palin said something preposterous, I am likely to believe it, even if it isn’t true.

Each advance in human evolution must always first involve overcoming confirmation bias. To that end, I must begin by believing in the essential fairmindedness and objectivity of people I disagree with. It is my impression that conservatives are far more likely to believe in fake news stories than liberals are. That impression, that tendency, is simply confirmation bias at its most basic level. Hillary Clinton did not order the murder of multiple political opponents. George W. Bush did not order bombs to be planted in the World Trade Center. Both are conspiracy theories, one favored by conservatives and one favored by liberals. Both are silly. Can we at least agree on that much?

I like facts. But all facts are not news. It is a fact that the sun rose this morning, but it’s not news, which is, by definition, about things that are remarkable. News is noteworthy and consequential. As I write this, snow is falling outside, with more expected. That’s news, because people have to drive in it.

So if we want to be thoughtful consumers of news, it seems to me that we should insist that the stories the media present to us be truthful, remarkable and consequential. Ideally, the divorce of Mr. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie wouldn’t make the cut. Their business; not ours.

CNN’s misdeed, in the opinion of the President-Elect, was to run a story about alleged connections between Mr. Trump and Russia. According to a dossier prepared by a British intelligence operative, Russia may be in a position to blackmail Mr. Trump. According to this source, not only did Russian hackers deliberately work to defeat Hillary Clinton, they coordinated their efforts with the Trump campaign. Not only that, they had evidence of kinky sexual practices Mr. Trump engaged in in a Moscow hotel. Not only that, but Russia may have evidence of Trumpian financial shenanigans.

So here we have a thinly sourced, unconfirmed story that could be highly damaging to Mr. Trump. And the information in that story has been known by American intelligence sources for months. We also don’t know if any of it is true. That’s not fake news. The fact of these allegations is the part that’s true; this British spy, Christopher Steele, does exist, and has written them down. What we don’t know is if the allegations themselves are factually based. It’s certainly consequential; Trump may have committed high treason. And yes, the story exploded yesterday; it’s absolutely remarkable. So Buzzfeed published a two page summation of this British guy’s accusations, and CNN ran a story on it. Did they show good news judgment? Is this real news?

Of course, comedians had a field day with the sexual allegations; the details in Buzzfeed’s story are just specific enough, and just salacious and disgusting enough to make for some dirty-minded comedy. Stephen Colbert had a lot of fun with it; so did Trevor Noah, so did Samantha Bee. My daughter and I watched ’em all, going ‘ewwwww!’ all the while. I don’t blame Trump for being angry.

It’s inevitable that the kinky stuff would, initially, dominate the news cycle. But that won’t last, and doesn’t really need much investigation. The real story has to do with possible collusion between Putin and Trump. So what we have is an important news story, and also one that may be false. We don’t know. The story may be untrue, which both Buzzfeed and CNN acknowledged. But if it’s true (and it will certainly be investigated), Donald Trump is a traitor.

What it isn’t, is fake news. It doesn’t seem to be something someone made up. This British spy is real. His name is Christopher Steele; he spent years working for MI6. He now runs a private research firm, Orbis Business Intelligence. He’s a Russian expert, specializing in the intricacies of the Kremlin’s business dealings. He prepared a dossier, and it’s been circulating for months. And now, Mr. Steele has gone to ground; is in hiding. Doesn’t this all seem like the plot of a new John LeCarre novel? But John LeCarre’s novels are, after all, pretty much all fiction.

This is not fake news, in other words. It’s a genuine news story, but one in its earliest stages. It might be false, in which case that falseness will become the story. It behooves us all not to come to any conclusions about it yet. We don’t have enough information to conclude anything.

Does it seem plausible, though? How we answer that question probably depends on where we stand politically and ideologically. If we voted for Trump, we probably think it’s all partisan nonsense. If we opposed Trump, we probably think there’s something to it. Because that’s how confirmation bias works.

 

The Mormon Tabernacle Choir at the Trump Inaugural

For any of you who follow this, this will be my first post in weeks, a lapse for which I apologize, necessitated though it was by health difficulties. I actually began a post, back before Christmas, about the decision by the The Mormon Tabernacle Choir to accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. That decision was controversial; it has become less so, inevitably, with time. I mean, here we are, a third of the way through January, nine days from the events itself. Nonetheless, even now, I do have some thoughts about the issue, which seems to lend itself to an ongoing dialectic unique to this impending Presidency.

Let’s start with the pros. Of course the Tabernacle Choir should accept an invitation to perform at the Trump inauguration. Obviously, they should. An inauguration is a celebration of the American political system, and specifically, of the peaceable transfer of power which is one of the glories of our republic. To be invited to sing at such an event is a great honor. The Choir has performed at previous inaugurations, celebrating Presidents of both parties. This is not a partisan issue. The office of the President is one of the great creations of the Framers. Whatever concerns individual choir members may have about the policies or character of any individual elected President, they’re irrelevant to this decision. Americans held an election, as we do every four years. Incumbent Presidents stand down; the new President assumes power, which he (only ‘he’, so far) will relinquish in due time. That fact is worth celebrating and worth honoring.

Cons. Of course, the Tabernacle Choir should turn down this invitation. Obviously they should say no. Donald Trump is not like previous Presidential candidates or Presidential winners. He is unique, and his victory presents a unique challenge. He began his campaign for President by insulting Mexican/American immigrants, calling them criminals and rapists. He has proposed a ban on Muslim immigrants, and has peppered his campaign rhetoric with Islamophobic stereotypes. He has been caught on tape boasting of sexual exploits, including criminal assaults on women. He openly mocked a disabled reporter. And he continually and repeatedly lies about all of it. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir represents the Church, my Church, the restored Church of Jesus Christ. The values of the Church are, in every specific, incompatible with the character of the man, Donald Trump, as revealed by his own words, his own actions. The BYU football team is not allowed to play games on Sundays, because keeping the Sabbath holy is a central tenet of our faith. By the same token, the Choir cannot be part of a ceremonial meant to honor a man of such demonstrated vileness.

Precedent says the Choir should sing. Tradition makes the same case. It’s become normal for the Choir to be invited to sing at important events–an Olympic Opening Ceremony, for example. Well, an Inaugural is like that; a big public event. It’s normal to be invited, and normal to sing.

But that’s precisely why the Choir should have refused this invitation. It normalizes Trump. It makes his electoral victory seem like an ordinary part of American civil society. Every four years, we have an election, someone wins, and is inaugurated President. That’s part of what’s admirable about America. And that’s why we should suspend what’s normal this time, just this once. The guy who won this time is uniquely unadmirable.

That’s the key word, isn’t it? Normal. Donald Trump’s entire campaign was a repudiation of normal. In fact, that’s probably why he won. There’s nothing wrong with a candidate pursuing an unorthodox strategy; that’s fine. In fact, every candidate running (especially in a wacky year like 2016) is trying to distinguish him/herself from the crowd. Trump’s appeal was based on how  unnormal he was as a candidate. He self-financed. (He didn’t really, but he said he did, and some voters found that attractive). He took positions on issues at odds with normative Republican positions. Above all, he based his campaign on a full-out assault on what he called ‘political correctness.’

Which, frankly, I’m not a great fan of: political correctness. I’m disabled, not ‘differently abled.’ I certainly think we should be careful in our use of language. We shouldn’t set out deliberately to offend. But I find some examples of academic language comically punctilious.

That’s not what Trump meant by political correctness, though. Not at all. And for some of his voters, Trump’s language was a major selling point. Why pussyfoot around, they probably thought. Illegal immigrants are criminals, and probably most of them are rapists too; why not say so? Because Trump was the anti-PC candidate, he survived gaffes and misstatements that would have sunk most candidacies. By saying “I hate political correctness,” he essentially wrapped himself in Teflon. It allowed his alt-Right followers to say whatever they wanted to. And somehow, discovering that Trump supporters included borderline Klan members didn’t hurt him with the general electorate. He was opposed to political correctness, after all.

And that’s how Trump survived a scandal that would have destroyed nearly every other candidacy in the history of American politics; the discovery of the Billy Bush tape. For Trump to speak in such disgusting and disrespectful terms about women didn’t kill him. It was ‘locker room talk,’ guys being guys. Sure it was gross, but whaddya gonna do? That’s how men talk sometimes. Don’t overreact. It’s no big deal.

By attacking political correctness, Trump normalized what essentially amounts to bragging about criminal sexual assault. By electing him anyway, the good citizens of the United States normalized, at least, talking that way. We strained at the gnat of Hillary’s emails, and swallowed the camel of Trump-being-Trump.

And nothing has changed. Most Presidential candidates are very careful to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If their business holdings could, in any sense, be seen as ethically questionable, they divest.  Trump has more extensive investments than any President-elect in history. He has done nothing to distance himself from the interests of his own corporations. He is already normalizing corruption. What’s the big deal? He’s a rich guy; he owns lots of stuff. So what if foreign diplomats already curry favor by staying at his Washington hotel? Who cares?

Donald Trump is not a normal President-elect. This was not a normal election, and this won’t be a normal inauguration. The Tabernacle Choir disgraces itself by normalizing his election in this way. His values are not our values; we should not pretend that everything’s okay, that all’s well in Zion. One choir member, Jan Chamberlin, has resigned over this. She’s the one genuine heroine of this narrative. The Trump Presidency is a unique phenomenon, and requires an unusual response. We have to do this; oppose everything Trump, all the time, always. A good place to start is by refusing to sing at his party.

Movie Review: Rogue One, A Star Wars Story

We saw Rogue One last night, and enjoyed it very much. It’s fast paced, exciting, and exceptionally well acted. I found parts of it very moving. I found it a morally serious, thoughtful movie about war and revolution and the cost of standing up against fascism. I really, basically, liked everything about it. I just didn’t think it was a Star Wars movie. It’s not the right kind of good movie for that.

Let me clarify. I love Star Wars (which I will not now, or ever, call A New Hope). 1977, I came home from my mission, and on the plane read a magazine article about the Star Wars phenomenon. I decided that it would be the first movie I saw post-mission, and it was. I saw it nine times before I saw anything else. I kept thinking ‘where has this movie been all my life?’ It filled a void for me, reminded me how absolutely blasted much fun it could be, going into a movie theater and seeing something that audacious. I still think it’s one of the greatest movies ever made.

What it wasn’t was good. Great, yes. Groundbreaking, addicting, yes. It is, in fact, a well nigh perfect movie. It accomplishes what it’s trying to accomplish. It’s flawlessly entertaining. But it’s not a good movie, and it’s not trying to be one. No new insights into the human condition, no rounded, human characters, no depth, no philosophy. It’s just a hoot, a riot. It’s a pastiche, an intentionally artificial joyride through bad movie history. It’s the greatest B-movie ever made, until Lucas and Spielberg managed to make an even better one with Raiders of the Lost Ark. It’s high camp, massively, insanely entertaining. That’s all it’s trying to be, and it succeeds marvelously on those terms.

But movies are also imaginative explorations of the human condition. And on that level, Star Wars pretty much fails. There’s one scene in Star Wars that I illustrates this, I think. It’s just after Luke and Han and Chewie rescue Princess Leia. The four of them are trotting along in the interior of the Death Star, and as they come around a corner, a bunch of Imperial Stormtroopers show up. And Han goes berserk, shouting like a madman and running right at the Stormtroopers, and they’re spooked, and run off, and Chewie follows Han, and there they are, Han yelling and the Troopers retreating (for no earthly reason), and Luke and Leia are left alone. I suppose that Lucas wanted them alone, and had to figure out how to separate the four of them, and that’s what he came up with. But it’s still a genuine head scratcher. We don’t ordinarily notice it, though, and just how silly it is, because dumb stuff like that happens all the time. It’s Star Wars; it’s supposed to be campy and fun.

But Rogue One isn’t really like that, not at all. From time to time, the movie threw in Star Wars-y stuff to remind us where we were; a brief glimpse of R2D2 and C3PO, or a quick shot of the obstreperous customer from the bar scene. Those scenes were more jarring than reassuring, though. They brought back Peter Cushing for this movie, twenty years after the man was laid in his grave, and his face was the one special effect that really looked CGI-ed, and kind of creepy.

No, Rogue One is a serious movie. Its protagonist, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a semi-orphaned child; her mother shot in front of her, her father a traitor, her protector, a terrorist. She becomes a revolutionary more or less by accident, scratching and clawing for a place of autonomy and purpose in a universe where several factions want to claim her because of the legacy of her last name. You could argue that she’s not a very volitional protagonist (her choices don’t really drive the action of the film), but I found her tremendously compelling. She’s fighting to define her own purpose, her own destiny. And in the process, is both ground down by history, while also remaking it.

That’s kind of the theme of the entire movie. It’s a movie about pawns who queen themselves. Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), is a pilot and a spy, tasked with finding and killing Jyn’s father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). But the discoveries he makes along the way force him to expand his purpose, to look for a way to destroy the Empire’s fearsome new superweapon, the Death Star. Along the way, Jyn and Cassian meet more stateless vagabonds, Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a blind Jedi ninja monk, who became, for me, the most magnetic and fascinating character in the movie, and his friend, Baze Malbus.  And they just kind of tag along, before finding their own sense of mission and purpose.

And then we meet the Rebel Alliance, and discover them to be a much less formidable opposing force than we might have supposed from Star Wars. The Alliance isn’t all that unified. It seems to be mostly a loose collection of movements, from different places and planets and ideologies, who have come together in opposition to the increasingly brutal and fascistic Empire. They don’t seem to be able to agree on any strategy or tactics, and they are pretty much paralyzed until they do agree. Cassian and Jyn finally force their hand, and seem astonished at how easy it was.

In short, it feels like the way real politics actually works. It feels like what an actual Alliance opposing a fascistic state might look like, and how it might function. It’s grubby and dark. A lot of Storm Troopers’ white plastic uniforms are badly stained and filthy. And characters we’ve come to care about a lot end up dying, sometimes pretty pointlessly. It’s about war, and death is central to war-waging. There’s a bleakness to this movie that I loved, and wish there were more of. Because the ending struck me as sort of grotesquely chirpy. Not to give it away, but this movie doesn’t so much arrive at Star Wars as collide with it. It left a bad taste, sadly, because so much else in Rogue One works.

I think it’s the second best movie in the Star Wars canon, after Star Wars. I grade them as follows: Movie 4 (Star Wars) A plus. Movie 3.5 (Rogue One) A. Movie 5 (Empire Strikes Back) A minus. Movie 6 (Return of the Jedi) B minus. Movie 7 (The Force Awakens) C minus. Movie 3 (Revenge of the Sith) D minus. Movies 1 and 2 (Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones) F.

Rogue One‘s not really a Star Wars movie. (No opening scroll! Different musical themes!). But whatever it is, it’s very good. I’m encouraged by this direction for the franchise, and will look forward to Episode 8 with great anticipation.

 

 

Moana: Movie Review

Moana is astonishing. It’s been out three weeks, and here I am, finally getting around to seeing it and reviewing it. But I was wrong to resist it so strongly. Numerous friends told me how good the movie was; they were right.

I know a lot about Disney animated musical feature films, not because it’s a subject that particularly interests me, but by virtue of being a 21st century American with kids. I know all the princesses, I’ve seen all the movies, and can probably sing the biggest songs from each. I know correspondingly much much less about the culture and worldview and achievements and mythology of Pacific Islanders. I know that Samoans and Fijiians and Hawaiians have rich and astonishing histories and traditions, but I am almost completely ignorant of those cultures. So here we have a Disney animated musical about a Pacific Island girl. And I would say that I am approximately 1000 times more interested in the mythological underpinnings of this story than I am in the Disney musical parts. That said, I didn’t particularly want to see it. And there’s a reason why: it’s called Pocahontas.

In 1995, Disney released their latest Big Animated Movie, based on the story of Pocahontas. I took my kids to see it, as mandated by federal law. And it was awful. I found it a misguided, ahistorical, grotesquely insensitive exercise in cultural appropriation. And the songs weren’t even very good. ‘Ah,’ I thought, Color of the Wind is a beautiful song. I’m being too harsh.’ But no, I just listened to that song again. Could those lyrics have been more condescending? Pocahontas was a disaster. Well-intentioned, sure. But bad.

So I figured Moana would be bad too, and in the same way. And again, I’m coming at this from a position of utter ignorance. But I thought it was terrific. I thought it genuinely honored its cultural sources. The animation was astonishing, and the story couldn’t have been more compelling.

Most of the movie is set on a small boat in the middle of the Pacific ocean, with just two characters. Moana (voiced by the sensational Auli’i Cavalho) is young; she’s not really a princess, and she’s not a target for romance. She’s smart and brave and incredibly self-confident. She knows who she is and what she needs to do, and she’s about the most volitional protagonist I know. Her pure driving energy keeps the movie afloat, which is a good thing, because there do need to be longish scenes of exposition, while dumb American audiences (like me), get caught up on the cultural tropes the film’s exploring.

But the other main character is Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson, and who knew The Rock could sing?). And if Moana is the irresistible force, Maui is the immovable object. Maui is a demigod, plus he can sail a boat (which is, for Moana, his most immediate value to her). He has a magic fishhook, and anthropomorphic tattoos that admonish and encourage him and also tell his backstory. He’s a tremendous character–blustery, comedic, whiny, tough, charismatic, immature.

Their task: to replace a magic jewel stolen by Maui from another divine creature, thus removing a curse on her people. My guess is that this Maui is a pastiche; that there are different Maui legends among Hawaiians than you’ll find on Fiji, or Samoa, or on Tahiti or on Tonga. Again, I don’t know a darn thing about Polynesian history and culture, except that they were the world’s great sea-faring people, more adventurous even than my Viking forebears. The film honors that too; shows us the history of those great seagoing catamarans.

If there were moments in this film that didn’t 100% make sense to me, I figure it’s just because of my own cultural ignorance. In the meantime, I loved it, and wish there were more films like it. I couldn’t help notice, in the closing credits, how many cultural advisors the film employed. Good for them! Get the details right; hire experts, and listen to them. Disney has learned a lot since Pocahontas.

One last note; I couldn’t help notice that several of the songs in this movie were written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, including the two best songs in the show: “How Far I’ll go,” sung by Moana, and “You’re Welcome,” sung by Maui. So, here we have a musical about Pacific Island culture, and two of its best songs are written by a Puerto Rican kid from Washington Heights. Isn’t that great? By golly, that’s America!

My Rudolf fiasco

We had our ward Christmas party last Friday, and I was part of the featured entertainment. I have this thing I do; a kind of fractured fairy tales thing, only for Christmas. I gather the kids up on stage, and sit in a comfy chair, and tell them a Christmas story. Only I mess it up. I’ve learned over the years that little kids love correcting a grown-up, so I pretend to be wholly incompetent. I’ll start by telling the story of the Grinch, say, only I’ll drag in everything from Goldilocks to Sleeping Beauty to Lord of the Rings. And every time the story goes off the rails, the kids are outraged. “No!” they cry. “That’s not how it goes!” And I course-correct, and a great time is had by all.

I’ve done this for years. I did it with my children when they were young, and their friends, and other kid relatives. I am, it seems, fairly good at feigning befuddlement.

I did it in our ward last year, and it went well. The kids were appropriately incensed by my, to them, astonishing inability to tell a simple Christmas story. One kid–maybe 5 or 6–came up to me in Church the next Sunday. “Boy,” he said, shaking his head. “You are the worst story-teller ever.” “I know,” I responded sadly. “I’m sorry. I’m just bad at it.” And he walked away, astonished, no doubt, that someone was fool enough to ask this poor sad sack to tell a Christmas story when it was clearly beyond him.

A couple of years ago, I was on the organizing committee for the Christmas party, and we decided to hire Santa to entertain the kids. Someone knew a professional Santa, a guy in the stake, and we brought him in, despite no one knowing his act. And I’m sorry to say it, but he was a big disappointment. He struck me as the kind of adult who thinks that what kids want is a strong moral lesson. Little kids do not want a strong moral lesson. Little kids want goofiness. And what’s wonderful about children is their exuberance, their energy, their imagination, their love for the truly silly. This Santa couldn’t even be bothered to plop kids on his lap and ask ’em what they wanted for Christmas. If I were Santa–and I’ve got the body type for it–I’d love that; treating each kid as special. But not this guy. I think it got in the way of his preachifying.

Anyway, I was looking forward to this year’s Christmas party. I decided beforehand that I would tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer. That way, they’d catch on immediately to the nature of the game. “No!” they’d shout. “Red-nosed reindeer! Rudolf has a red nose! Not a green one.” And we’d be off running.

I do very little preparation for this thing. I can generally keep track in my head of where we are in the story, and which other extraneous tales I’ve already dragged in. I have various stalling tactics I can use when I need to buy time. “Are you sure?” I’ll ask. “I thought Rudolf had a green nose. Green means go; red means stop. Rudolf is what makes Santa’s sleigh go.” And meantime, I’m trying to figure out how to work Little Red Riding Hood into it.

This year, though, the kids were prepped. They were loaded for bear. They’d clearly remembered the goofy Christmas story guy from last year. And they had no interest in playing. In particular, I blame a cabal of older kids, 8 or 9 years old, deeply cynical little post-modernists, who showed up to the Christmas party with a plan. “You want to deconstruct Christmas stories,” I imagine them saying. “Well, deconstruct this, sucka!”

So I go “I’m going to tell the story of Rudolf the green-nosed reindeer.” And a few younger kids were suitably aggravated. “No!” they shouted on cue. But these older kids had the situation in hand. “Yeah,” they said, smirking. “Green-nosed reindeer. Sure. Let’s go with green.”

It didn’t matter where I went with it. They were ready for me. So I said “Let’s see. Santa’s reindeer were Dasher and Prancer, Donner and Blitzen, Comet and Cupid and Harry and Hermione.” And the kids went “Sure! Harry Potter’s a reindeer. Why not?” Yikes.

By the end of the story, Gandolf and Dumbledore were also on Santa’s sleigh, casting spells so Santa could get down particularly narrow chimneys. Cindy Lou Who and the Big Bad Wolf were working together to save Christmas, and Cinderella and the Three Little Pigs were huffing and puffing to get Santa’s sleigh some tailwind. I was tap dancing like Savion Glover, and the story was like Kafka channeling Tristan Tzara. Those kids! Those rotten kids! Derailing my story like that.

Who am I kidding? I had a ball. I had to work a lot harder than usual, but it was a ball. In the end, I brought things home, Santa’s sleigh made it through the fog, Rudolf was a hero, and Harry and Hermione, reindeer, got extra hay at the end of the night. I build an event on mis-told Christmas stories, and the kids did me one better, and turned the night into a pure story adventure. It was kind of a fiasco, but it was also fun, and the kids seemed to enjoy it, making this grown-up sweat. Darn ’em. I fully admit it; I met my match in this particular group of kids. And I couldn’t be prouder.

 

Book Review: Seveneves

Neil Stephenson’s Seveneves is one of those science fiction novels that invades your dreams and your subconscious. Days after you finish it, you find yourself thinking about it, and the implications of this scene or character or situation. Even finishing the book can be difficult; I found myself reading the last 100 pages at a snail’s pace, because finishing it meant I would have to stop reading. (Rereading, of course, is a possibility, but lacks the same sense of discovery).

It’s a somber book, appropriately, tragically heartbreaking. It’s also a book in love with technology. Stephenson has imagined his world so perfectly, you can sense his excitement over having created it. He’s not just interested in how stuff works, but also in what it looks like. A scene where a young woman waits for public transit to pick her up and deposit her somewhere else, that simple a scene, can be exhilarating. It’s also a book where, for the first two thirds, the title, Seveneves, makes no sense whatsoever, and thereafter makes perfect sense–is, in fact, the perfect title. And that moment of discovery comes at the moment of greatest despair, which also becomes the moment of greatest possibility.

And it’s a science fiction novel (or is speculative fiction the preferred label these days?), set entirely on Earth or in our planet’s general vicinity. It has space travel–a lot of space travel–but all of it close to home.

The basic premise couldn’t be more terrifying. Something, some Agent, splits the Moon. Shatters it. (The characters briefly speculate about the nature of the Agent, but without reaching any conclusions). The Moon, as it disintegrates, starts throwing off meteorites, which Earth’s gravity captures. Scientists (including one science expert character clearly modeled on Neil DeGrasse Tyson), calculate that it’s just a matter of a couple of years before all of the Moon comes crashing down, leading to catastrophe. In other words, the Moon’s destruction will wipe out all life on the planet Earth. If humanity is to be saved, it will have to be in space.

And so plans are made to build a large expansion onto the International Space Station. And to create smaller craft, which they end up calling ‘arklets’ for a group of young people, carefully selected from every culture on earth, representing earth’s diversity, with the ability to ‘swarm’ in order to dodge space rocks.

And in the meantime, we’re given time and space to imagine it; the ultimate Armageddon. The near-complete extinction of, not just the human race, but all life on Earth. It’s a staggering thought, shattering. Wisely, Stephenson allows us to experience it as we would–by showing the connections between a few characters and their immediate families. A woman and her fiancee; a man and his new wife; a young woman and her father and brothers. That’s how we would feel about it; that’s what the novel does.

I mean, we all come to this earth knowing that we’re going to die. But we do count on that three-score and ten. We want to make plans, excel at something, achieve, leave a legacy, if only a legacy of family and love and marriage. We are pretty well inured to dying. But life doesn’t strike us as hopeless. We do set goals, and take pleasure in achieving them. What if we were robbed of all that? What if we knew it was all going to end, for all of us. Strangely enough, as I read, I thought of Tom Lehrer, the great comic pianist/singer, and his cheerful, upbeat song about thermonuclear holocaust: “We’ll all go together when we go.” What if that were our reality? Still could be, obviously.

Could this work? Stephenson estimates that, after the initial bombardment, it would take Earth approximately 5000 years to cool down enough to sustain life again. Well, could humanity survive 5000 years in space? Could we work out some kind of artificial gravity, enough to keep bone density compatible with homo sapiens survival? Could we find shelter, from cosmic rays if not honking big pieces of moon rock? More to the point–and this is the saddest part of the novel–could we get along? Could we keep from killing each other? Could we survive mentally?

I don’t want to give away much in the way of spoilers. Suffice it to say that the novel seems both implausible and, just barely, possible. And it’s ultimately extraordinarily optimistic, even in the midst of terrible tragedy. That may be among it’s most remarkable achievements; that it’s ultimately kind of upbeat in tone.

I like science fiction. I also don’t keep up with the genre, and it may well be that there are ten other sci-fi novels out there as good as this one that y’all are going to tell me about. Still, this one is extraordinary. Just a superb read. Treat yourself.

Losing my sense of humor

Here’s what angers me most about the election of Donald Trump. It’s not the ridiculous policies. It’s not the corruption. It’s not the close association with the alt-right. It’s not the thin-skinned tweets. It’s not any of those things.

It’s that I don’t find all of that funny. And I should. Because it is.

I’m losing my sense of humor. This cannot be allowed.

Imagine that someone wrote a satire about a newly elected US President, a businessman with zero political experience. Let’s imagine that the screenplay or play or novel included a montage scene of congratulatory phone calls, from heads of state to the new President-elect. So the Scottish political leader calls, and the new President accepts his good wishes, then mentions how annoying wind farms are. Especially when they block the view at his/my/the President’s Scottish golf course. “Of course,” says the Scottish leader. “We’ll get right on it.” That scene would be funny, right? And then the Argentinian President calls, and the P-E mentions permitting problems the business is having for a skyscraper they want to build in Buenos Aires. Of course, in on those phone calls would be the P-E’s former supermodel daughter, now officially running the various Presidential businesses. Seriously; funny stuff, amiright?

The days after the election, I moped around the house, all depressed. I tried to find solace with my friends–John Oliver, Samantha Bee, Trevor Noah–only they seemed as discombobulated as I felt. It’s like we all forgot how to be funny, or how to laugh. I was heartsick for my country, depressed, close to despair in fact, that somehow America had voted for this orange-face, small-handed, thin-skinned buffoon. And I was angry. I was furious. At everyone and anything. Those losers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida; especially them.

If Mitt Romney had won in 2012, or John McCain in 2008, I would have been fine with it. Not my preferred candidate, but an honorable man, capable, and a patriot–we could certainly do worse. That’s how I would have felt. Not now. Not this semi-Klan walking dumpster fire. Not this incoherent demagogue.

And that’s funny. My misplaced anger and sorrow and frustration. It’s funny; if I (we) lose my (our) ability to laugh at my (our) selves, then what else do we have?

And so we see Trump’s appointments, the people he’s going to hire to help run his government. And it just gets funnier. Someone who hates public education as Secretary of Education. A more-or-less open racist as Attorney General. Someone who hates Obamacare for Health and Human Services. My favorite is his choice for White House Attorney, the guy who is supposed to be the ethical conscience of the White House. He announced Don McGahn for the role. McGahn was Tom DeLay’s attorney. You remember Trump’s ‘drain the swamp’ campaign pledge? McGahn’s the swamp. Probably the most corrupt attorney in Washington will be the Trump White House’s ethical watchdog.

Elaine Chao was named Transportation Secretary. The headline in Slate’s story pointed out, in tones of shock and surprise, that she’s actually qualified for the job.

All this stuff is funny. I mean, it’s kind of a grim kind of humor. How else do you report the fact that Donald Trump’s closest advisor, Steve Bannon, worked previously as CEO of a website beloved by white supremacists and, you know, the Klan? It’s one of those jokes without a punch line; you just report the facts and you get the laugh.

And it’s hard to laugh sometimes. I get it; it’s hard to find this stuff funny. Our country is falling from the sky, like Slim Pickens at the end of Dr. Strangelove, and there’s nothing we can do to prevent it. Gravity has taken over. But Dr. Strangelove is an amazingly funny movie.

It’s the end of the world as we know it. And I don’t feel fine. But we still have to laugh. We still have to make jokes. Trump may destroy our country. But he cannot destroy our humanity.

 

Rebuilding the Democratic party

I have a candidate for the new chair of the Democratic National Committee.

There are a couple of problems. Potential problems. Well, okay: problems. For one thing, my candidate has never worked in politics. For another, I don’t know if my candidate is a Democrat. (JK: he is). And I get that that could be a deal-breaker. If he’s a Republican, he might not be completely committed to, you know, do what the DNC chair is supposed to be do: elect Democrats.

Though he could hardly be worse at it than Deborah Wasserman Schultz was.

Still, I’m making a serious proposal here. I’m suggesting a genuine, thinking-outside-of-the-box pick, fresh thinking. I mean, we’d need to ask if he’s interested, and if he’s a Democrat. But if the answer to both questions is yes, this guy has a track record. 

I nominate Theo Epstein for DNC chair.

Theo Epstein. Team President of the Chicago Cubs. The guy who built the World Series champs. The Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908. They were a bad team, a team of losers. Then they hired Theo Epstein, in 2011. Took him five years to build a winner. Course, he’d done it before. His first gig was as General Manager of the Boston Red Sox, another sad sack franchise, another team that hadn’t won, a team on an 86 year losing streak. He was hired by the Sox in 2002, at the age of 29, the youngest General Manager in baseball at the time, and one of the youngest in baseball history. They won the World Series in 2004. To repeat: the two most storied losers in baseball history hired this brilliant young guy, and in two years and five years, respectively, he’d built them into winners.

He’s 42 years old. He’s never not succeeded, spectacularly. He has no more professional mountains to climb. And he may well be looking for a different kind of challenge.

Here’s the Epstein method. He identifies and acquires underutilized talent. That’s it. He loves data and he loves computer geeks. He puts together a team of really smart guys, and they comb through player personnel records and they find talented guys who aren’t being valued by their teams, guys who, in Epstein’s words ‘are just about to break.’ Look at this year’s World Champion Cubs. Their best player (and team leader) Anthony Rizzo, batted .141 in his rookie year with the San Diego Padres. Epstein traded an okay pitcher, Andrew Cashner, for him, and Rizzo’s now a star. Likewise their best pitcher, Jake Arrieta. Struggled with the Orioles; Epstein traded a back-up catcher for him. Epstein does this all the time. Identify talent; develop it; motivate it; reap the benefits.

Okay, imagine that skill set in the DNC. Because, let’s face it, the number one task of the Democratic party has to be to rebuild the party from the ground up. State legislators, city council members, school board members. In the last election, it was depressing to see all the races in which the Republican was running unopposed. Granted, I live in Utah. Still, the Democratic party needs to compete; we need to compete everywhere. In the last election, the Democratic candidate for the US Senate from Utah was a woman who worked as a clerk at a grocery store. Nice lady, but she had no credentials. Shouldn’t the DNC have discouraged that? Encouraged her to run instead for the state legislature? Build a resume, get experience, start modestly. Wouldn’t that have been better than just running someone who was going to get clobbered?

That’s what Theo Epstein is great at. Find and identify talented people, put them in a position to succeed, motivate them, coach them up, and give them the resources to succeed. Oh, and one more thing: nobody outworks Theo Epstein. There’s a reason a 29 year old was given the reins of the Boston Red Sox.

He’s also personable, an excellent interview. He’s very comfortable hanging out with rich guys–has to be, to succeed in baseball. And there’s also this; he’s every bit as great at understanding and responding to the needs of ordinary folks. Both in Boston and Chicago, he’s made ‘improving the fan experience’ a high priority. He listens, in other words. He makes sure all the seats are comfortable, all the bathrooms clean, all the refreshments tasty.  He’d be an outsider, if he ran for DNC chair. That’s a good thing. He’s the best possible guy for the job. You know, if he’s a Democrat.

(Which, by the way, he is. He strongly supported Hillary Clinton’s campaign, with a big donation). When one of his players (Arrieta, in fact), came out for Trump, Epstein responded: “Tolerance is important, especially in a democracy. The ability to have honest conversations, even if you come from a different place, is fundamentally important.” He didn’t reprimand the player, nor did he reprimand Curt Schilling, the famously conservative former Red Sox player, when he spoke out. In both instances, Epstein found an opportunity to have a conversation with the guy. And, with both guys, cordially agree to disagree.

We probably can’t afford him. Epstein makes ten million a year to run the Cubs. But he’s the perfect choice.

In the real world, the DNC chair will probably be Keith Ellison. He’s the only Muslim in Congress, a strong Bernie Sanders supporter, a great choice in most ways. And there are other fine candidates. But really, it should be Theo Epstein. Right man for a tough and important job. Let’s see if we can make it happen.