Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Movie Review: Blackhat

I know I know I know. What kind of movie critic is it who does not review (because he hasn’t seen) most of the Oscar-worthy December releases, and then when finally he starts going back to the theaters, reviews Blackhat? A darn poor one, you might say, and you’d be right. Blackhat got a 31% favorable rating on rottentomatoes. It cost 70 million to make, and has made back around 4 million since its release. Flop-eroni. Bomb-eroo. A bad movie that didn’t do business. Avert your eyes, young-uns.

Well, they’re all wrong, and I’m right: it’s great. Well, maybe not great, but really good. Blackhat isn’t Oscar-bait, and the screenplay has some structural flaws the film (however stylishly made) never quite manages to overcome. That said, it’s a beautifully acted, romantic and human thriller, compellingly watchable and engaging. It’s also a Michael Mann film, his first feature film in seven years, and quite possibly the last film of his great career (Mann is 71).

The film inside the cable and wires and circuits of a computer network. Then we cut to a keyboard, and a finger pushes an Enter key. And the next thing we see is a nuclear power plant’s cooling system fail, and its reactor core blow. It’s that easy. That’s the world we live in. One finger hits one key, and boom.

So Chinese authorities, tracing the virus that caused the meltdown, turn to MIT-educated military officer (cyber-division) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to figure it all out. He, in turn, contacts his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), likewise a computer nerd. And they figure out that the virus is built on a model Dawai had originally built with his best friend in college, Nick Holloway (Chris Hemsworth). And he’s in prison, for hacking into a bank and stealing a lot of money. This leads eventually to some very shaky and borderline hostile international cooperation between the FBI (represented by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and the Chinese military. Holloway is allowed out of prison, with all sorts of restrictions on what he’s allowed to do, and he and the Chens do all sorts of computer-y things, involving very fast and intense typing.

My guess is that people who are a lot more computer-literate than I am (which means everyone on earth age 20-35) found this part of the movie a bit cringe-worthy. I didn’t care about the computer-y stuff, though. It didn’t interest me, except as the stuff that had to happen to drive the plot forward. What did interest me, a lot, was the human element of this awkward multi-national cooperation. The stakes are very high–a madman is crashing stock market computers and blowing up nuclear power plants: why? Dawai and Holloway are old friends, but Dawai has divided loyalties, to his government, and also to his sister. Agent Barrett has to enforce the restrictions on the one guy who might solve the problem, and also doesn’t trust any of the Chinese authorities. Her partner, Jessup (Holt McCallany) is courageous and smart, but a rule-follower; they fight a lot. Nor is she trusted, much, by her FBI superiors.

Meanwhile Lien and Holloway are falling in love.

Wei Tang is tremendous in this film, as she was in Ang Lee’s brilliant (and controversial) Lust, Caution. And of course, that’s always what Michael Mann has done wonderfully well; work with actors: James Caan in Thief, Pacino/De Niro in Heat, not just Daniel Day-Lewis but also Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans. Wei Tang and Chris Hemsworth are both terrific in this, even when their characters are asked by the screenplay to do quite ludicrous things, as Hemsworth is in this. Again, I didn’t much care. I thought the acting was terrific, Hemsworth and Wei, but also McCallany and Davis and Leehom Wang. I know it’s just a thriller. But it’s a thriller about actual, believable human beings.

A good thing, too, because, from a plot standpoint, the last third of the film is a bit silly. Holloway, a hacker, becomes an action hero; goes after the bad guys, tries to overpower them physically. I think the film wants us to conclude that, while in prison, Holloway worked out a lot (we get a glimpse of it), and also became really really good at fighting, and also at making effective shivs out of regular hand tools. No more spoilers, but I didn’t believe it, and found the ending sadly preposterous.

But up to that point, we get one of the trademarks of Mann’s work; he isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and to show characters we’ve come to care about die in horrible, slow-motion tragic ways. I got caught up in it, honest I did.

Remember this?

My wife and I agreed: there’s a scene in Blackhat that we were much reminded of. Blackhat‘s not as good a movie overall. But it’s got some powerful moments, and was well worth watching, we thought.

So catch it on Redbox. It’ll be there soon enough. You won’t regret it.

The State of the Union

Before last night’s State of the Union address, Vox.com’s Ezra Klein published this piece: “What Obama would say at the State of the Union if he were being brutally honest.” If you don’t want to bother with the link above, let me summarize: our politics is sufficiently broken that nothing of consequence can be accomplished, even by intelligent, patriotic men and women of good will. Politics is not like a family and it’s not like a business, both of which have built-in incentives for people to get along and institutions in place for important decisions to get made. Politics is like football. For one side to win, the other must lose. If a pass is thrown, the receiver and the defensive back can’t agree to compromise regarding it; either the ball will be caught (good for the receiver) or it won’t be caught (good for the defender). If John Boehner–who I genuinely do believe to be an intelligent, patriotic and capable man–were to endorse and try to pass every piece of legislation President Obama proposes, the only thing he would accomplish would be to lose his job.

So the State of the Union becomes an exercise in futility, something to which the only really sensible response is that of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the 81 year-old Supreme Court Justice, who seems to have used it as an excuse for a nap.  Pretty much every time President Obama said anything even remotely consequential, the Democrats in the chamber gave him a standing ovation. And Republicans looked dour. The two guys I feel sorriest for are Boehner and Joe Biden, both of whom have massive acting challenges. I mean, they’re right there, right behind the President, on camera the whole speech. Biden has to look, alternately, seriously contemplative and utterly delighted. And Boehner has to look pensive and a bit incredulous. (Mostly he just looked dyspeptic.)

Of course, for the most part, the President gets to talk about how well the country is doing right now (quite well, actually, for a change), and propose lots of first-rate policies that could make things even better, none of which will ever get enacted. And of course, all the language has been carefully tested: the new phrase du jour seems to be ‘middle-class economics.’ But then the President shifted into a different gear for the last quarter of his speech:

You know, just over a decade ago, I gave a speech in Boston where I said there wasn’t a liberal America, or a conservative America; a black America or a white America, but a United States of America. . .  Over the past six years, the pundits have pointed out more than once that my presidency hasn’t delivered on this vision. How ironic, they say, that our politics seems more divided than ever. It’s held up as proof not just of my own flaws — of which there are many — but also as proof that the vision itself is misguided, and naïve, and that there are too many people in this town who actually benefit from partisanship and gridlock for us to ever do anything about it.

I know how tempting such cynicism may be. But I still think the cynics are wrong.

I still believe that we are one people. I still believe that together, we can do great things, even when the odds are long. I believe this because over and over in my six years in office, I have seen America at its best. I’ve seen the hopeful faces of young graduates from New York to California; and our newest officers at West Point, Annapolis, Colorado Springs, and New London. I’ve mourned with grieving families in Tucson and Newtown; in Boston, West, Texas, and West Virginia. I’ve watched Americans beat back adversity from the Gulf Coast to the Great Plains; from Midwest assembly lines to the Mid-Atlantic seaboard. I’ve seen something like gay marriage go from a wedge issue used to drive us apart to a story of freedom across our country, a civil right now legal in states that seven in ten Americans call home.

So the question for those of us here tonight is how we, all of us, can better reflect America’s hopes. I’ve served in Congress with many of you. I know many of you well. There are a lot of good people here, on both sides of the aisle. And many of you have told me that this isn’t what you signed up for — arguing past each other on cable shows, the constant fundraising, always looking over your shoulder at how the base will react to every decision.

Imagine if we broke out of these tired old patterns. Imagine if we did something different.

Understand — a better politics isn’t one where Democrats abandon their agenda or Republicans simply embrace mine.

A better politics is one where we appeal to each other’s basic decency instead of our basest fears.

That’s a longish chunk, and I’m sorry about that, but I think it deserves to be quoted at length. Because I go back to that Ezra Klein article on Vox, and I think he’s right in his cynicism, but I also think President Obama is right in his optimism. Because Klein is describing our nation right now. And the President is describing our nation as it can become.

One thing that I like about this President (and you all know that I have been very critical of him too), is that he has often taken a longer view than current political arguments would allow. Take, for example, Obamacare. The ACA is a flawed piece of legislation. It’s not as bad as some Republicans make it out to be, and it’s not as great as some Democrats seem to think it is in defending it. It’s flawed. But is that really important? Isn’t it more important to establish, as a principle, the idea that everyone in America, rich or poor, should have access to competent, affordable health care? I also watched Joni Ernst’s Republican response to Obama’s SOTU, and I noticed that when she talked about Obamacare, she talked about ‘repeal and replace.’ Now, in fact, I don’t think Republicans will be able to repeal it, and I don’t think they have a sensible program they could replace it with, but that doesn’t matter. ‘Repeal and replace’ is the language they’ve adopted. They have come to accept that expanding health care access is here to stay, that the American people won’t go along with efforts to take it away. Eventually, the ACA will be improved and expanded. It may take twenty years, but it’s inevitable. Long-term, Obama’s vision will prevail.

Right now, yes, our politics is hopelessly partisan and ineffective and inefficient and broken. But it’s not going to stay that way. President Obama talked about expanding access to higher education, proposing that the federal government pay community college tuition for Americans who meet certain criteria. That won’t happen in this term of Congress. But the idea is inevitable; eventually, we’ll figure out that asking young people to bankrupt themselves to attend college is bad public policy. The President talked about raising the minimum wage. Well, that’s happening state by state, and sooner or later, people are going to notice that states with higher minimum wages also have faster growing economies and hiring rates. The minimum wage is going up. The President talked about immigration reform. And right now, that’s a tremendously contentious issue, and it’s unlikely much will come of it legislatively. But long-term, a solution is inevitable. American nativism is a constant in our history, but history also tells us that it never wins.

When the President first talked about the ACA, the metaphor used by Republicans was that of a camel sticking his nose in the tent in a sandstorm. Obamacare was that camel’s nose, and if we’re not careful, that camel’s taking over the tent. (Conservatives love slippery slope (or camel-tent-takeover) imagery). And so I’m saying, well, yeah, that camel’s nose is in the tent, and also his mouth and ears. With, I suspect, more to come. But you can’t cross a desert without a camel.

Poor Joni Ernst’s response talk was Primary President sincere. She was battling bad optics, (what was behind her–flags, a shuttered window, bathroom tiles?) and she didn’t know what to do with her hands, but she did fine. But her talk seemed so . . . mundane. Puny. She talked about the Keystone XL pipeline, and the ‘thousands of new jobs’ it will create. Well, that’s a contentious partisan issue right now, so she weighed in, but it doesn’t matter; there are lots of pipelines between the US and Canada; it’s just that this one became politicized. The real issue is alternative fuel, the real fight is against greenhouse gasses, the real battle is over climate change. Accepting that is inevitable.

Liberals are right to want change; conservatives are right to resist it happening too rapidly. Liberals say ‘let’s try this!’ and conservatives respond, quite properly, ‘are we sure we know what we’re doing?’  Our ship of state needs both port and starboard crews, all hands on deck. Right now, America has a functioning economy that doesn’t serve all its citizens, and a completely non-functioning politics that doesn’t serve anyone at all.  President Obama, optimistic as always, thinks we can do better. I think so too.

 

Some thoughts about Charlie Hebdo

On January 7th, two heavily armed and masked gunmen broke into the Paris office of the weekly satirical newspaper, Charlie Hebdo, and murdered twelve people, including the paper’s editor, Stephane “Charb” Charbonnier, and four cartoonists. If you’ve been following the news, you know all that already. I just have a few random thoughts to add to the already excellent coverage. In no particular order:

1) Most folks had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before these attacks. I certainly hadn’t. And so a lot of people in the US have checked out their cartoons and humor, and have been appalled by what they’ve found. A lot of the commentary has been of the ‘I defend their right to speak out and to publish, but why do they publish such scurrilous and offensive stuff?’ school.

I was about to go on a long description of the multi-layered nature of French satire, the way it resists easy readings, but all the reasons why the Charlie Hebdo cartoons are nonetheless deeply troubling, and not maybe all that funny. But Vox.com beat me to it, and in a much clearer and sensible way. So check this out.

I also can’t really think of an American equivalent. South Park, maybe, with Parkman? Beavis and Butthead? Then I thought of Donald E. Westlake’s final, posthumous novel, The Comedy is Over. Set in the 1970s, it’s about a comedian named Koo Davis, who has built his popularity on making fun of the anti-war movement. As such, he’s become the favored comic of the rich and powerful. And so a ragtag group of anti-war activists (loosely based on the Weather Underground), kidnaps him, demanding, not money, but the release of other extremists. It clicked a little bit for me; Charlie Hebdo is a bit like Koo Davis, a little.

Anyway, I certainly do believe that there’s a place for this kind of satire, and denounce the thugs who attacked the newspaper. But I do also sort of regret posting Je Suis Charlie on my Facebook page. Charlie‘s voice needs to be heard–all voices need to be heard, including, I believe, actively offensive ones–but I also reserve the right to disagree. And I don’t find their brand of humor particularly funny.

2) Also on January 7th, members of the Islamic terror group Boko Haram continued a massacre in Baga, a Nigerian town on the border of Chad, killing at least two thousand people, most of them women and children. A horrible massacre, and one undertaken for no rational reason. I would merely point out that the disproportion in coverage of the two attacks, in Paris and Nigeria, speaks for itself.

3) On January 11th, a ‘unity rally’ in Paris honored the seventeen victims (including those subsequently killed in the manhunt for the initial killers). Forty world leaders attended. President Obama did not, citing security concerns. He ought to have gone, or at least asked Vice-President Biden to go. It’s not that big a deal, but yeah, the US should have sent someone.

4) It hardly seems necessary to reiterate the obvious point that Islam is a peaceful religion, and that the few extremists who commit these sorts of atrocities do not enjoy wide-spread support among Muslims. A favorite conservative line recently has been to ask why moderate Muslims haven’t spoken up against terrorist atrocities, whether practiced by Al Qaeda, Boko Haram, or Isis. Two responses: first, many many mainstream Muslims have denounced these attacks in the strongest possible terms. But, second, why should they? I am a Christian, but I don’t feel myself particularly called upon to denounce the Ku Klux Klan. A Klan affiliate just burned down a black church, and yes, I do denounce that, because that’s a despicable act. But I don’t consider the Klan part of my faith community, not in any sense whatsoever. The Klan may consider itself a Christian organization, but that identification means nothing. They don’t, in any meaningful way, reflect the values or attitudes or doctrines or example of the Savior, values and doctrines to which I have chosen to give my life. We have absolutely nothing in common, except sentience and opposable thumbs. And I have my doubts about their sentience.

Two funerals

Over the past week, I had the privilege of attending two remarkably similar funerals, both celebrating the lives of remarkable, strong women. The first funeral was that of Betty Ann Green Mason, my wife’s mother. The second was that of Grete Margaret Leed Johnson, the mother of my best friend. Although I don’t believe they ever met, Betty Mason and Grete Johnson had a great deal in common. Both worked as bookkeepers, supporting their husbands while they were in college. Both husbands were scientists. My mother-in-law had five children, and Sister Johnson had six. Both women were active members of the LDS church, and both held many important callings in the Church. And both would have listed their profession as ‘homemaker.’ That label carries with it certain less-than-positive cultural assumptions, which in both cases would have been entirely inaccurate; they were both intelligent, strong, forceful, well-read and well-educated women, who made the decision to dedicate their lives to their families, husbands, children. Both women loved music, both became fine musicians, and both were asked to learn how to play the piano (and eventually, the organ), in wards where no one of the requisite skill resided. Both women loved a good joke, and both were voracious readers. And they both loved chocolate. My mother-in-law, in fact, asked that Sees chocolates be available for anyone who attended the funeral. She said she thought it might increase the turnout.

But both funerals were very well attended, and in both cases, extraordinary sermons were delivered by the children of the deceased. And both funerals included quite extraordinary amounts of affectionate laughter. I laughed until it hurt at my mother-in-law’s funeral. A few days later, I laughed again at the loving family stories Grete Johnson’s children shared with us. In neither case, though, was the laughter mocking or cruel or off-putting. We laughed until it hurt, because we hurt. We laughed out of love, because of the human foibles of strong women we adored. We laughed, in addition to shedding tears.

Laughter can bring people together, or it can push people apart. Humor can express genuine affection, but it can also dismiss, cruelly, people on the margins of any culture. But what I find remarkable about Mormon funerals is the degree to which they’re characterized by healthy, inclusive, joyful laughter. We mourn, to be sure. But we also honor the deceased by remembering experiences we shared together. Grete’s youngest son, Richard, told a story about a time when he and his mother, on their way to a youth conference in Chicago, took a wrong turn, and found themselves in what seemed to him an exceedingly dangerous neighborhood. He was imagining their car’s location marked by yellow crime scene tape, and homicide detectives wondering about the identity of these two victims. Meanwhile, his Mom was busy looking at a city map. Then she looked over at him, grinned, and said ‘isn’t this fun?’ I remember that woman too. I spent many Sundays and vacation days at her home, growing up, as her son, Wayne, and I hung out. I remember how welcome I was always made to feel. I remember her strength and courage. I also remember dreading the times when she would join family games of Clue. She was the kind of woman who played board games to win. No ‘losing on purpose to the kids’ nonsense for her! I certainly never could beat her. At anything.

At my mother-in-law’s funeral, her son, Shawn, emptied her purse at the pulpit, and used the items therein to discuss different aspects of his Mom’s life. The first three were all chocolate. But then he read letters her children had written to her, and the sage advice she’d offered. The fact that the letters were quite bogus didn’t diminish their impact; it was a lovely, funny, loving talk. And Shawn insisted that he was her favorite child, admitting, however, that all his siblings thought they were the favorites. (And then the Bishop, presiding and not missing a beat, identified himself as her favorite bishop!)

I’ve attended many Mormon funerals in my day, and they always share certain similarities. One is humor; affectionate, kind, family stories with a funny twist. Another is an overall sense of faith. The idea that we’ll see our loved ones again, and that they’re going to see their own family members, long deceased and beyond the veil, is just assumed. We don’t have to really preach it much. Instead we just testify. But it’s not–how to say this?–defensive in any way. It can feel that way sometimes in some funerals, that scriptures are offered by the minister–who may not even know the deceased all that well– not to reassure or comfort, but to assert. But in Mormon funerals, the talks are often–usually–given by family members. There’s no sense of a possible angel-winged, psalm-singing heaven. It’s more personal. Betty went home to Maughan, her beloved husband. She’ll see him. Grete Johnson went home to the beach, in Denmark, where her husband proposed. To wait for him to join her.

We celebrate the love we shared, the family ties, the funny stories. And we do so in utmost confidence.  We’re not really saying goodbye. More like ‘see ya later.’  And there’s music and prayers, and then a really good luncheon.

Yes, after the funeral, the local ward serves a luncheon for the bereaved families, and the food served is pretty well de rigeur: ham, a salad, and funeral potatoes. Yes, funeral potatoes are always served at Mormon funerals, and though I’ve heard them mocked as one of the tackier manifestations of Mormon culture, I think they’re darned tasty. I mean, the main ingredients are potatoes, cheese and sour cream–what’s not to like? But no two funeral potato recipes are the same, and that’s also pretty Mormon; we do all serve the same food, but always with a uniquely personal twist. (I make mine with frozen hashbrowns, store-bought, and cream of chicken soup, and always add green onions). The potatoes are probably really unhealthy, but they’re comforting, and delicious, and that’s also a Mormon thing; we privilege yumminess over nutrition, and then count on us all not smoking to pull us through.

But the luncheon is also the time for sharing memories, a time for wonderful conversations. At Grete Johnson’s funeral, we remembered a time when she went with my Mom to see the bishop, walked into his office, and said ‘this ward does not have a Cub Scout program for the boys, and it needs one.’ The bishop (who was also Grete’s husband) promptly called the two of them to start one. They had no idea how to do that, but that never stopped them; it doesn’t usually stop strong Mormon women, who are championship quality improvisers. And I still remember how much fun our Cub Scout activities were. At Betty’s funeral, a number of people remembered her homemade lemon ice cream. (I know what you’re thinking, and you’re wrong; it’s amazing).  For years, while her husband was the High Priests’ Group Leader, they had an annual ice cream social at her home. Then he was released from his calling. But the ice cream socials continued for years. She hosted them because . . .  I guess basically because it was her recipe, and nothing else would do. (And while that story was being told, we all ate . . . lemon ice cream. As delicious as ever).

I love Mormon funerals, and am privileged to have been able to attend two remarkable ones over the past four days. Two strong Mormon women have returned home to their Father, and also to their Dads. Two mourning families shared laughter and tears and food and conversation. Two wonderful lives were celebrated. Even death can be a blessing.

Day after New Year resolutions

Happy day after New Year! How’s 2015 working out for you so far?

So. New Year’s Resolutions!  I mean, yes, New Year’s Day is kind of an arbitrary and silly holiday, limited as it is to those of us in cultures that use the Gregorian calendar, which is itself sort of random and weird, what with its Roman origins and all. Some months named after Roman gods (Mars, Janus), Etruscan gods (Apru, Maia), and Roman festivals (Februaris), while others are just Roman numbers; September (month seven), October (month eight), November (month nine) December (month ten). Which I love, the fact that our month nine is named ‘month seven’. But the Romans had to cram in two months named after ruthless murderous war-mongering dictators. Hey, for Nordic types, July and August are pretty brutal, especially if you live in a desert, which I do.

But I digress.

New Year’s Resolutions. And we do make them, do we not? Because it’s a ball-dropping-on-Times-Square, Dick Clark Ryan-Seacrest-celebrating, kiss-the-girl-and-pour-the-bubbly New Year, we feel prompted, if not actually compelled, to engage in some healthy self-improvement. And for years, I’ve had the same three New Year’s resolutions: To lose fifty pounds, exercise every day, and stop smoking. Since I don’t actually smoke and never have, I figure the worst I can to is 33%, and hey, .333 wins the batting title!

This year, though, I’ve decided to do something new. Instead of New Year’s Resolutions, I figure I’ll try Day After New Year resolutions, lower case. I’m not realistically going to lose a lot of weight. I mean, I’ll try, but nobody really ever loses weight. And I already didn’t exercise yesterday. And I still don’t smoke. But these, these I maybe could manage.

1) In 2015, I will blog four times a week.

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks now (family stuff, plus illness), and I’ve missed it. I like blogging, I like communicating with my readers (whoever you are, and bless you for reading!) And this way, I give myself a couple days off a week. I think this one’s attainable.

2) In 2015, I will read all four LDS standard works.

I’ve done this before, and I enjoyed it, and that was using the KJV, which has such serious limitations. This year, I’ll find another translation.

3) In 2015, I’m going to do something nice for someone, anyone, every day.

Just something. I’m going to look for opportunities to help someone, encourage someone, toss a bum a sawbuck or open a door for someone with packages, anything really. Just try to brighten someone’s day.

4) In 2015, I will finish, and send to a publisher, two books.

I’ve been working on a novel for years; time to finish it. I’ve been working on a book of essays about Mormonism: ditto. This is a year to finish things.

5) In 2015, I will exercise every day, and also lose twenty pounds.

Hey, it could happen!

On global warming

I just read a very good book, Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything. It’s exceptionally well researched, compelling in its argument and in the evidence it musters to support that argument. It’s passionately and persuasively written.  It’s also completely bonkers. Which is why I’m a really bad liberal.

Whenever my Dad comes to visit, he and my daughter engage in a debate over climate change. She is convinced, as am I, that climate change is a real phenomenon, caused by the behavior of human beings in an industrialized world, that the release of carbon gases into the atmosphere could have serious consequences for people and cultures all over the planet. My father does not trust those scientists who have reached those conclusions, nor is he troubled by the consensus most such scientists have reached, nor by the peer reviewed literature summarizing their research. He thinks they’re alarmists. I think he’s wrong. I would rather that he were right. Here’s why:

Okay, that clip is from The Newsroom, and its an odd segment in an excessively weird episode. It’s also pretty funny, especially all the reaction shots in the control room. I love the moment when Will (the anchor) lists various steps that might reduce the likelihood of continued climate devastation, and the scientist’s response is ‘that would have been great!’ Twenty years ago. It’s quite possible that Aaron Sorkin (the writer of this show) might be right. I would rather that he weren’t.

So, Naomi Klein. And her book argues that the science of climate change should be greeted as terrific news. It gives us the opportunity, she argues, to completely re-order our society. More mass transit; fewer (or no) automobiles. More apartments, fewer (or no) suburban homes. Greatly restricted air travel. We can develop a greater sense of community and interdependence, she argues. We can walk more, or bicycle. Stop burning coal (and destroying mountains looking for it). Stop fracking (and pumping dangerous chemicals into groundwater). Stop, above all, corporatization and neo-liberal economics. If you want a good summation of her arguments, read this excellent review.

Here’s why I call the book ‘bonkers,’ and also why I’m a terrible liberal: it’s never going to happen. Human beings are not capable of remaking society in the ways she describes. Human beings have created political institutions that will block any effort to institute these sorts of changes. We like our cars, we like air travel, we like crappy food and we like doing our Christmas shopping on-line, requiring UPS trucks to drive all day playing Santa.

I tend to think that future generations will come to regard Naomi Klein as prophetic, and that episode of Newsroom as prescient. I think it’s very likely that I, an old white guy, am leaving my children and grandchildren a much diminished planet. I think the early bits of Interstellar may well be regarded as hopelessly naive and optimistic, assuming there’s anyone around to watch movies in the future.

Or maybe climate scientists really are all wrong about this stuff and maybe the situation isn’t actually dire. I hope so. Gosh, that would be great.

The Rapture, and Left Behind: a sort of movie review

I do not believe in space aliens. I have, however, seen many many entertaining movies based on the premise that space aliens exist. I do not believe in vampires, or in werewolves, or in zombies. But I’m a big fan of movies about vampires, werewolves and zombies. And so, though I do not believe in the Rapture, I ought to be able to enjoy a movie based on that particular end-of-times premise. What gets tricky is seeing a movie that appears to take its own fictional premise really really seriously, a movie made from the perspective that a space alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse–or the Rapture–is something that’s going to happen, probably pretty soon, and that there are specific things we need to be doing about it. That’s when your movie viewing experience moves from ‘enjoyable’ to ‘trapped in an elevator with a Jehovah’s Witness and an Amway salesman’ levels of embarrassment and unpleasantness.

The first Left Behind movie, based on the Jerry Jenkins/Tim LeHaye novels, was made in 2000, and starred Kirk Cameron. It cost $4 million to make, and made its nut, barely, but my guess is sold a butt-load of DVDs. This one cost $16 million and stars Nicolas Cage. It’s made back its investment; who knows about ancillaries. But seen simply as a sci-fi mystery/adventure film, it’s not half bad, honestly. Cage’s performance is creditable, and the other two leads were quite good. I saw it in our local dollar theater, and felt like I got my money’s worth. But, of course, the point wasn’t just to make an entertaining movie, was it?

Okay, briefly, Nic Cage is Ray, an airline pilot, flying New York Kennedy to London Heathrow, and planning on some hanky-panky with a hot blonde flight attendant, Hattie (Nicky Whelan). His marriage has gone sour due to his wife (Lea Thompson, of Back to the Future fame) who has converted to evangelical Christianity. Their college age daughter, Chloe (Cassi Thomson), is similarly put off by Mom’s preachiness, but is aware of Hattie, and pretty ticked at dear-old-Dad as well. She meets at the airport (and rescues from a super preachy Christian woman) a TV reporter, Cameron “Buck” Williams (Chad Michael Murray), who is also on Dad’s flight.

So mid-flight, the Rapture hits. A bunch of passengers just disappear, leaving behind their neatly folded clothing, watches, jewelry (apparently, we’re all naked in heaven), and including all children everywhere. Ray’s co-pilot and one flight attendant also vanish. Understandably, everyone freaks out. Back in New York, people freak out even worse, and Chloe’s car is hit by an out-of-control, suddenly pilot-less Cessna, so she has to walk home from Kennedy, dodging looters all the way. Another pilot-less plane clips Ray’s plane, and now he’s got to try to land a crippled plane, out of fuel, with Kennedy airport in complete chaos and no air traffic control, apparently. But Chloe’s phone has a ‘find-abandoned-highway’ app, and her cell works just opportunely enough to get the plane down safely.

Okay, so that’s the plot. Meanwhile, of course, Ray and Chloe and Buck and Hattie are all trying separately to figure out what-the-heck, and are able to explain to the audience just what the Rapture’s about, without ever using the word Rapture. The world’s gone all wicked, and all that Matthew 24, Joel, Daniel, Revelation, Four Horseman of the Apocalypse scary stuff is about to go down. So 1 Thessalonians 4: 13-18: God will rapture his Elect the heck out of here to heaven, and also rapture all kids everywhere. So He can protect them all from the Last Days destruction and death.

And of course, the Rapture is mostly about airplanes. Pilot-less airplanes. Not sure why, but it does strike a chord–we’re all a little freaked out by airplanes, after all, the flying of which really does basically feel more like magic than physics.

But, here’s the thing. I have no problem encompassing in my theology the idea of a God that allows, for His own inscrutable purposes, crashing airplanes. I have a problem, however, with a God that crashes them Himself. I just don’t believe in it. And of course ‘Rapture’ is a contested term in contemporary Christian discourse. Some denominations believe that ‘rapture’ simply means the general resurrection of the dead, after the tribulations described in various scriptures. Others, though, think it’s going to happen before all those tribulations, as in this movie.

What do Mormons believe? I don’t have the faintest idea. We basically never talk about it. Certainly we never, and I mean never, use the word ‘rapture,’ not in either of its Christian senses.  Do we get caught up to heaven to meet Jesus? I’m pretty sure that no LDS General Authority has talked about anything like this in my lifetime. It maybe gets whispered about in Sunday School. There’s some ‘people caught up from fields’ iconography. I don’t know if this is a Mormon belief. I do know that I, a Mormon, do not believe in it.

Whenever I travel, if I have some time to kill, I go looking for bookstores. I remember with great fondness a Christian bookstore in Monroe Louisiana, where I went browsing once. It featured two very popular sections: Left Behind, with books and DVDs and posters. The only display equal in size was the Dale Earnhardt table. Best of all was a very popular poster combining both themes: Dale Earnhardt being Raptured out of his smashed up #3 car. So the Rapture’s a big deal in some parts of this great nation of ours, is my point. Almost as big a deal as NASCAR, it would seem. The Rapture is central, I think, to a lot of Christian preachifying.

But for evangelical Christians, it makes sense. Some Christian denominations do divide the world into two categories: Christians, who are saved, who have accepted Jesus as their personal savior, and people who are not saved, people who may well be decent, good people (Buck and Chloe are what we would call ‘good people’ in the movie), but who do not believe in Jesus, or at least not enough.  And nothing could point that up more starkly than a world-wide event in which all the Christians are instantly zapped away to heaven, leaving everyone else to cope with the aftermath. It fits a certain evangelical world-view.

And that’s a world-view that Mormons do not share, not really. Joseph Smith did away entirely with the Christian heresy of geographic salvation. We believe that everyone can be baptized, that even people who have died can posthumously accept Jesus, and gain eternal life. We do tend to divide the world into Mormons and non-Mormons (and even Mormons into ‘active’ and ‘less active’), but we really do believe that works matter. A good guy, like Buck in this movie, would be in line to be saved. There’s a Muslim character in the movie, one of the passengers on the plane, who is the one genuinely and consistently compassionate character in the film. The evangelical worldview is that he’s ‘left behind.’ Mormons wouldn’t agree.

So it makes sense to me that the Rapture would be central to evangelical preaching, and that it wouldn’t be something Mormons ever ever talk about, and is probably something at least some of us don’t believe in. Again, I certainly don’t believe in it. And I wish I could say that it made for an interesting movie.

But it didn’t. Ultimately, the movie falls apart, because we sympathize with the wrong people.  The fact is, we only meet two Christians in the early scenes of the movie, only two people who are established as real characters, and who get subsequenly Raptured. One is the annoying woman who pesters Buck in the airport about his (supposed) agnosticism in the face of a tsunami he’d covered. The other is Lea Thompson’s character, Chloe’s Mom, a woman, we’re told, who is such a fanatic that she’s systematically alienated her entire family. They’re our role models? That’s what we’re supposed to strive for, so we don’t get Left Behind? Sorry, but no. I’d rather stay behind and dodge falling airplanes. We come to genuinely care about the people in Ray’s plane, good, but freaked out folks who try their best to comfort each other and whose survival is what the movie is about.  We like Ray, we like Buck, we like Chloe. If they’re what gets Left Behind, count me in.

“I can’t breathe”

Jon Stewart wasn’t funny last night. He apparently got the news just before air-time that the grand jury on Staten Island had not indicted anyone for the death of Eric Garner.

Eventually, Jon gave the only response really possible. He stared upward, and shouted at the top of his lungs the F-word.

This wasn’t a Michael Brown/Ferguson type situation. As Jon pointed out, this wasn’t a case where the forensic evidence was ambiguous and the eyewitnesses contradicted each other and who knows exactly what happened. If Darren Wilson had been indicted for the death of Michael Brown–which is absolutely what should have happened–it’s entirely possible that enough ambiguity existed for reasonable doubt; he could well have been acquitted.

The deadly assault on Eric Garner is here, on camera. It’s horrific stuff.

Watch it. You’ll hear him say, over and over, over and over and over, “I can’t breathe.” But the video doesn’t tell the whole story. He was apparently sick of being harassed. The police thought he’d been selling ‘loosies,’ individual cigarettes, a misdemeanor offense. Apparently, they’d cited him for that before. No cigarettes were found on him after the incident, though.

Here are a few links, if you’re interested. Here’s a link to Fox News, to an interview Greta van Susteren had with a medical examiner. Here’s the Washington Post, a story about the protests taking place nationally.

There’s one thing that strikes me about this video, though, especially the earliest bits of it, before the police start choking him. It’s the physical stance of the two officers, the one with his back to the camera, and the one partly obscured by the first guy. Back to the camera guy is motionless, standing his ground. But then he looks down and we can see just a hint of uncertainty.  The other cop is more agitated, keeps looking over his shoulder for backup.

Here’s what I think: there was no reason for those two officers to be there confronting this guy. He wasn’t doing anything illegal. He was agitated, and upset with them for hassling him, but engaged in no other criminal enterprise. The situation escalates, but almost entirely because of the presence of the police. If they had simply said, ‘hey, sorry, we don’t mean to bother you, be on your way,’ there’s no reason to think that public safety would have been compromised.

But that would never happen, I think.

I would love for people who know more about it to correct me on this, but what I think is that police are trained never to back down from a confrontation. Never allow a civilian to disobey police instructions. Never, ever, let yourself be disrespected. Always maintain control of the situation, period.

We see maybe thirty seconds of their confrontation, and then there’s an edit to when they try to cuff him. And the police officers are talking too quietly to hear what they’re saying, but they sound calm and reasonable, and although Garner is respectful, he’s also clearly sick of it, sick of being hassled. But I wonder if there’s a kind of internal tension inside those cops. I think I can see it in their body language. A tension between doing the right thing–walking away–and following their training–maintaining ‘control’ of the situation.

The death of this man is a tragedy. The failure of a grand jury to indict is a travesty. An incomprehensible miscarriage of justice. And yet, from a police perspective, I do get it. To put this one officer on trial would be to indict the entire way in which police officers are trained in this country. It would be to indict the idea that police must always be obeyed. And given the very real dangers of their jobs, I can see police resisting that kind of scrutiny.

But that scrutiny has to happen. Watch the video again. I do not see these two officers as operating under a mandate ‘to serve and protect.’ No one was being served in this confrontation, and no one was being protected. A man objects to being interrogated on the street by two police officers. He was not engaged in any criminal activity. He could have, and should have, been left alone. And police training can and should emphasize discretion over confrontation, dialogue over control. But right now, I can see the relationship between police officers and the public (and especially the African-American public) spiraling further downwards, a cycle of mistrust, leading to confrontation, leading to tragedy, breeding greater hostility and mistrust.  We’re there already, are we not?

We know that change in emphasis and tactics is possible, because that’s the way police are trained in Europe, and in Europe, police essentially never kill civilians. It can happen here too. And it would be better for everyone, the police included. But it’s going to take a national effort, and a national consensus. I don’t think there’s any reason for Eric Garner to have died. But maybe it will be worth something if it leads to genuine, actual change. At least that’s something to work for, and to hope for.

Some thoughts on Ferguson

I haven’t wanted to comment on the recent events in Ferguson Missouri, where rioting followed the refusal of a grand jury to indict Officer Darren Wilson after he shot and illed unarmed teenager Michael Brown. I’m not African-American, not a police officer nor an expert on police procedure, not an attorney, nor any kind of expert on race relations. I’m just a middle-aged white playwright. Still, the commentators who have resonated with me were those who have called for a renewed ‘national conversation on race.’ So I thought I would offer a few thoughts, in no particular order.

1) I watched the press conference in which Ferguson DA Robert McCulloch presented the decision by the grand jury not to indict Officer Wilson. He stressed the even-handed way in which the evidence was presented, the careful cross-examination of contradictory witnesses, and he released all the relevant documentation (a decision for which he should be applauded). I thought it was a very strange press conference. I would love to be corrected if I’m wrong on this, but my understanding is that prosecutors aren’t supposed to be even-handed and objective. They’re supposed to aggressively push for an indictment. Even stranger, Officer Wilson’s testimony was not subjected to cross-examination, apparently. It’s as though the grand jury was being led to regard his account as the one definitive narrative about the event. Prosecutors are not supposed to represent the police; they’re supposed to represent the larger community.  Justice required an indictment; all testimony needed to be subjected to careful, thorough cross-examination, in the adversarial setting of a court of law.

2) As this article in Vox.com described, Officer Wilson’s testimony was literally unbelievable. That doesn’t mean that he lied, or that the events didn’t happen pretty much as he described them. Reality is often unbelievable, inconsistent with our usual standards for a plausible narrative. But that testimony cries out for rigorous cross-examination.

3) There are two specifics of his testimony that strike me as particularly strange. I don’t doubt that Officer Wilson was scared by the situation, and that his training then too over. But if he felt threatened, he doesn’t seem to me to have been actually threatened. Brown’s body lay 150 feet from Wilson’s car, and the shell casings that show where he was standing when he fired. Brown and Wilson are about the same size, and Wilson had a nightstick and a taser. Brown was unarmed. Even if Brown was charging him (something virtually none of the eyewitnesses saw), he couldn’t pull out the taser? Also, apparently Officer Wilson was allowed to retain his weapon for over an hour after the shooting, and was the officer that placed it in an evidence bag. This is significant, because Wilson claimed that Brown had hold of the gun in their initial skirmish in the car. No DNA or fingerprints were found on the gun, but its evidentiary value was essentially eliminated by this police mishandling of it.

4) Several news stories have detailed McCulloch’s close ties to the police department; he served on the board of a police charity, his father was an officer, ect. This is hardly surprising. Prosecutors work closely with the police; that’s their job. That’s why it was essential that McCulloch recuse himself from this case. In many communities, this is automatic; special prosecutors are routinely assigned to cases involving police shootings. Justice was ill-served by not having such a policy in St. Louis County.

5) The role of Dorian Johnson, the friend Brown was with, has not received as much attention as it deserves. By all accounts, Brown was a good kid, a bit of a goofball, but excited to start college in the fall. Johnson is a few years older than Brown, has a checkered past, but was getting his life together. He saw himself, apparently, as a kind of mentor to Brown. Brown’s initial robbery of the convenience store, though irrelevant to the question of his subsequent shooting, is a puzzling episode, inconsistent with his record or reputation. But Michael Brown was 18 years old. Was he trying to impress an older guy with a criminal past? Isn’t that exactly the kind of stupid thing a teenager might decide to do? (I know that there are certain inconsistencies in Johnson’s story, but the basic narrative seems pretty clear–he was hanging out with a younger kid because he wanted to encourage him to make something of his life).

6) Without question, the coverage of this event on Fox News has been, for the most part, disgraceful. Jon Stewart basically eviscerated it here:

7) There’s something sadly comical about older white guys lecturing the black community on the subject of race. As an older white guy myself, I will desist. I will simply say that something quite obvious: the everyday experience of life as an American is different for me than it is for people of color. When we say that racism is an omnipresent reality of the world today, we’re not saying that all white people wear Klan robes. Racism today is more liely to manifest itself as cluelessness than violence. I would simply point out this reality: minorities riot when their basic rights are routinely and systematically violated. White people riot when their favorite sports teams win a championship.