UFO, part two: My Fair Lady, the worst good musical ever

So we were there, in Logan, at the Utah Festival Opera, a beautiful theater watching first-rate productions of Kiss Me Kate, and My Fair Lady.  And so, now, I want to make this case: My Fair Lady is the worst good musical ever.  I think seeing a terrific production of it–which UFO gave us–makes the flaws of the material all the clearer. 

Look, there have been lots of horrible musicals in history.  I’ve heard stories about the musical based on Stephen King’s Carrie that would curl your back teeth. Most awful musicals, in fact, aren’t produced.  I saw one at BYU a few years ago, a musical based on Casey at the Bat that was lively and energetic and fun and completely terrible.  My Fair Lady came out the year I was born, and ran past my sixth birthday.  It was a huge, huge, massive popular hit.  It’s the definition of a great musical.

I also think it’s rotten to the core, that the book is an obscene profanation of a great artist’s work, that it only has one good song, that it took everything that was unique and smart and subversive in its source material and turned it into the most insipid of romantic comedies. 

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion in 1912.  We all know the story: Henry Higgins, a linguist, vows to teach the flower girl, Eliza Doolittle how to speak properly, promising that she can pass for a duchess under his direction.  Higgins is a bully and a misogynist–worse than that, he’s a rotten linguist.  Linguistics is about the study of language; a good linguist loves language, loves the differences between dialects, loves pidgins and coinages and slang. Higgins is the worst kind of class snob–someone who thinks lower-class dialects are just wrong.  He’s not actually a linguist at all–he’s an phonetician, an elocutionist, someone who wants to teach people who talk ‘wrong’ how to talk ‘right.’  Instead of recognizing that everyone is multi-lingual, that everyone tailors speech to various social circumstances, Higgins tells Eliza that she’s wrong, and that he’ll make her ‘right.’  And uses various approaches, including Pavlovian conditioning, to improve her.

It’s a smart, sophisticated critique of class and the link between social class and language.  Best of all, Shaw intentionally structures the play like a romantic comedy, to strengthen his critique of how language constructs class and gender.  Eliza is a child of poverty, a slum girl.  She clings to some kind of pride, some sense of self: “I’m a good girl, I am,” she says repeatedly.  A statement of personal integrity, given how many girls from her culture ended up, in 1912, in prostitution.  Henry turns her into a lady; language becomes, for her, the path to upward mobility.  And also limits her options.  An upper-class woman, in Shaw’s society, can really only marry.  That’s about the only career option open to her.  As Nora learns in A Doll House–a play Shaw loved and admired–women are in essence forced by their culture to trade sexual favors–marriage–for economic security.  Eliza, who managed to cling to her own sense of self-definition as a ‘good girl,’ has become a duchess, whose only career choice is prostitution.  And so she does marry, marries Freddy, a sweet, somewhat empty-headed young upper-class gentleman who she is rather fond of, but never in love with, knowing that marriage can only diminish her, but seeing it as the best of her poor options. 

The musical is by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe.  And here’s my problem with it–it turns Pygmalion into what Shaw never meant it to be, a romantic comedy, in which Eliza falls in love with and marries Henry.  Shaw structured the play as a romantic comedy on purpose, to critique the form, to attack gender stereotypes, as a platform for his assault on everything romantic comedy stood for.  And Eliza married Freddy, and it’s not a happy ending.  It’s bittersweet, emphasis on bitter–it’s Eliza surrendering her independence, giving up on her own best self and her own best ambitions.  It’s a tragic ending.  An Eliza ‘in love with’ Henry, is an Eliza succumbing to Stockholm Syndrome.  All that nuance, all that social commentary, disappear in the musical, are turned into cute songs and neat comic bits.  It takes an anti-romance and turns its heart to romance.  It mutes Eliza, it infantilizes her, it shuts her the hell up, by giving her pretty songs to sing.  It’s cute and fun and clever, instead of disturbing and transgressive and bold.  It dances a lively waltz on Shaw’s grave, with nimble choreography and lovely costumes. 

Precisely because the UFO production was so good, it depressed me more than ever.  And my back was killing me.  I couldn’t sit there and watch cute Eliza marry adorably rude Henry, a Henry that hides his basic decency with bluster, which she sees right through.  Blarg.  I left at the interval. 

Utah Festival Opera part one: Kiss Me Kate

This weekend, my wife and I went up to Logan to the Utah Festival Opera.  Michael Ballam runs the UFO, and he’s an old friend of our family, and was kind enough to arrange seats for us.  They lovingly restored a beautiful old theater, and every summer they perform a selection of operas and musicals.  I would have loved to have seen their Tosca or Faust, but couldn’t make the schedule work–instead, we saw Kiss Me Kate and My Fair Lady.  Both starred Michael’s daughter Vanessa, who we also know, and who is terrific, a wonderfully charismatic and engaging actress.  I plan to review My Fair Lady tomorrow. 

Kiss Me Kate is one of my wife’s favorite shows.  She knows the movie well–watched it all the time with her mom and sisters growing up.  I’ve seen it once before, but don’t know it well at all.  It’s a lot of fun.  The premise: a struggling theatre company is doing a musical version of The Taming of the Shrew, produced and directed by Fred Graham, who will also play Petruchio.  His ex-wife, Lili Vanessi is cast as Katherine–we know from the outset they’re going to end up together.  I mean, it’s a musical.  Also in the cast, Lois Lane/Bianca, and her boyfriend Bill/Lucentio. I don’t have my program with me, can’t give you their names, but I thought they were all great.

Okay, like I said, I don’t know this musical well, but it’s Cole Porter, and I love Cole Porter.  So clever, so wickedly subversive.  Couple of points: my wife and I are old enough to have a son who turns thirty this year.  We were also about the youngest people in the theater, by twenty years.  Second point: There was a repeated joke in the production regarding the word ‘bastard.’  Someone would start to say it– ‘bast . . ‘ — and a sound effect–a horn, a buzzer– would interrupt the second half of the word. I don’t know if this is written in the script, or a directing choice for this production.

In the world of Critical Theory, one important tenet is the decentered author.  Texts are not produced by an ‘author,’ but by impersonal forces within a culture.  This is, of course, silly.  Most High Theory is amazingly silly.  (I’m not a scholar anymore, I’m retired, I can say that).  Basically, it’s just a preposterously hyperbolic way of saying ‘writers are influenced by the culture they came from.’  But Kiss Me Kate in Logan could serve as exhibit A for anyone arguing for Barthes and the absent author.  For Theory. 

Because Kiss Me Kate–the show, the script, the text, not necessarily the production in Logan, which was exceptionally well done–is sexist in a way that I found quite amazing.  It’s not just that The Taming of the Shrew is about physically ‘taming’ a tough and independent young woman, and that Kiss Me Kate is about The Taming of the Shrew.  It’s not just the sight gag built on the idea that Lili/Kate has been spanked on stage hard enough that she can’t sit down without a pillow–which Fred pulls out before she can sit on it, leading to the ‘excruciating butt pain’ bit–quite the rib-tickler, that one.  You could (barely) make the case that she hits him as often as he hits her.  But she’s infantilized in every scene.  Lili’s a proven actress, a professional, an intelligent and charming woman who, we’re told, mixes easily in Washington D.C. society.  But Fred has no difficulty convincing her Senator beau that when she says “I’m being held captive against my will,” she’s just overreacting, you know, the way dumb broads tend to do. 

So who ‘wrote’ this text?  Cole Porter?  Or the gender expectations of the late 1940’s?  (It opened in 1948, which makes sense–five years earlier, and I rather think Rosie the Riveter and  her sisters wouldn’t have sat still for it.) 

But what I found truly, truly astounding, are how wicked, how naughty it is.

Remember, this is a production in which they wouldn’t say ‘bastard.’  Too offensive, that word.  And I think it’s quite possible that some members of that audience, in Logan, probably would have found ‘bastard’ troubling.  But. . . take this song: “Too darn hot.”  Okay, it starts off the second act, it’s sung by one minor character, joined by the chorus. Point of the song: it’s very hot outside.  Too hot, in fact, to have sex.  Sings the character: “I’d like to sup with my baby tonight, and play the pup with my baby tonight” but it’s too hot.  “I’d like to stop for my baby tonight, and blow my top with my baby tonight, but I’d be a flop with my baby tonight” because of the excessive amount of heat.  Over and over again, that sentiment is expressed: the character would love to indulge in wildly tantric, Kama sutric, acrobatic sexual relations, but, alas, for the temperature. Don’t take my word for it. See for yourself.

That’s one of the things Cole Porter does. He writes songs that establish a premise, which he then repeats over and over, our pleasure deriving from the cleverness of his lyrics.  So the song “Always True to you in my fashion”, sung by Lois/Bianca.  The entire song involves her saying that she’d like to stay faithful to her boyfriend, but there are a number of categories of men she’d like to have sex with first, in part because of the presents they give her.  I’m not kidding.  That’s the entire song.  And don’t get me started on “Brush Up Your Shakespeare”; a series of double-entendres on every Shakespeare title that can be made to sound dirty.

Was I offended by any of this?  Not remotely.  Of course not. I loved it.  I enjoy salacious wit, I love double-entendres, I love subversive jokes and naughty humor.  I especially love it all when it’s performed with the kind of energetic gusto the Logan company brought to bear.  I love Cole Porter’s music, all those delicious half-steps.  I think “So in Love” is one of the great love songs.   

I just think it’s kind of weird.  All that Victorian old maid reticence over ‘bastard,’ followed by wink wink nod nod jab to the ribs sexual humor. All that brutal swaggering sexism, followed by Bianca’s frank sexual liberation–at least, she’s as liberated as any ‘ho.  I found the entire experience very strange.  I laughed a lot, too, and then went home and listened to a lot of Cole Porter, and enjoyed his open sophistication very much.  How sexist is the show; how seriously should we take it; how much does Porter undercut it, how much did this production deconstruct it? A lot, some, some, and I’m not sure.  And then the next day we went back and saw a show twenty times worse.

On Chick-Fil-A

I intend to join the boycott of Chick-Fil-A, because of the recent comments by Dan Cathy, the company’s CEO, opposing gay marriage.  I will never eat Chick-Fil-A.

This won’t be hard for me.  I haven’t ever eaten Chick-Fil-A up to now, not ever.  I don’t even know what they serve.  I gather it’s some kind of chicken sandwich.  If I was going out to lunch with friends, and asked where they wanted to go, and they said “I feel like Chick-Fil-A!” I would be at a complete loss.  I don’t even know where any local Chick-Fil-A restaurants are located.  I could ask Siri, I suppose, if I had a Smartphone, except I don’t, I just have my old dumb phone.  My friends would have to ask Siri on their Smartphones.

I sort of want to try Chick-Fil-A, and I want their sandwiches to be awesome. I really like chicken sandwiches, and I would love it if they made the best ones anywhere.  I want them to be the Five Guys of chicken sandwiches.  Then my boycott would mean something, would require that I actually give up something important to me.  As it is now, my boycott doesn’t mean a thing.  It’s pretty stupid, really.  I am giving up something I’ve never even tried, and that I wouldn’t know where to go for if I wanted some. 

Yay for me.  

So, ironically, deciding to boycott Chick-Fil-A makes me want to eat their product, something I have never had any interest in up to now. 

I do know that there is a Chick-Fil-A somewhere in Provo, because they have a billboard ad on I-15.  I’ve seen it driving down from Salt Lake.  It has a cow, and she’s written “eat mor chikin” on the billboard.  I think the humor for the ad is supposed to come from two incongruities–one, that a cow, in a nasty display of intra-species competitiveness, urges us to eat chicken sandwiches instead of hamburgers, and second, that the cow spells poorly.  But considering that it’s a cow, I think she’s doing really well.  I’m impressed with a cow with sufficient self-awareness and instinct for self-preservation to know that people eat hamburgers, that hamburgers are made from ground-up cows, that they could eat chicken instead, that doing so would be good for cows, (or cowz, yo) and that it’s possible to convey that thought in written form, in English.  Plus, how did she manage to write?  Cows have hooves, not fingers; how did she manipulate a paint brush.  I think it’s weird that Chick-Fil-A would build an ad campaign around how badly those dumb cows spell, when what’s really remarkable is a cow that can spell at all. 

The whole thing makes me think that it’s not the cow that’s dumb, but Dan Cathy, CEO of the company.  I have no idea if he can spell.  His official statement opposing gay marriage was very well spelled.  It just seems to me idiotic.  First of all, I’m suspicious of anyone who talks about ‘biblical marriage,’ what with the widows being forced to marry their brothers-in-law and the rape victims having to marry their rapists and all.  I’ll grant you that Mr. Cathy probably didn’t mean by ‘biblical marriage’ the requirement that prospective sons-in-law deliver large numbers of Philistine foreskins to their girlfriends’ Dads to prove their bona fides.  I think he understands ‘biblical marriage’ to mean a guy marrying a woman and then never cheating on her.  I’m actually in favor of that too.  I just don’t see how it has anything to do with my gay friends who have also gotten married and who also don’t intend to cheat. 

No, I think Dan Cathy is an idiot for this reason; he runs a company that sells chicken sandwiches. What does talking publically about gay marriage have to do with selling chicken sandwiches?  Why give people a reason to not buy your sandwiches?  What about gay people who like chicken sandwiches? 

I’m also doubt these kinds of boycotts do much good, or that they make a difference.  The only reason to do it is to feel better about yourself.  When the Supreme Court decides the issue, they won’t even take Chick-Fil-A into account.  It will have no part in their deliberations.  In fact, I can imagine Justice Kennedy or Justice Roberts eating Chick-Fil-A while they work on their decision.  That’s a pretty funny thought, actually.

Right now, Chick-Fil-A has come to mean ‘against gay marriage.’  That makes me not to want to eat their food.  And so I never will again.  Not that I ever have. 

Congress

My folks are in town, and the three of us went out to lunch yesterday.  Conversation turned to politics, as it often does, and my Dad and I got into it a bit.  All very friendly, of course, we get along fine.  But we do disagree on politics. One of the things I got from my Dad is a life-long habit of reading a daily newspaper, staying informed.  Another is an occasional tendency to write letters to the editor.  Plus, he’s Norwegian; I inherited that too. Which means, we’re both a bit stubborn.  A much nicer word than the one my wife uses for it: pigheaded.  So there we were, in a Wendy’s, arguing politics, and we discovered we had one issue about which we agreed.  We both think Congress is hopeless.

The 112th Congress may well be the worst Congress in American history.  It’s certainly the worst in recent history.  Some of the pre-Civil War Congresses were pretty uniquely terrible, what with the arguing about slavery and beating each other half to death with canes and all.  But they had an excuse–they represented regions of the country that hated each other.  One region thought it was immoral to enslave human beings; another region thought it was just swell. You can see how they all got a mite testy.

But the 112th Congress is terrible without much cause for it.  The country is both prosperous and militarily unchallenged.  Disagreements on policy shouldn’t be anywhere near as divisive as in previous eras.  But boy, are they. 

Some facts: the 112th Congress has passed fewer laws than any since the Second World War.  The 80th Congress?  The Congress Harry Truman called the “Do-Nothing Congress?” A Congress so terrible that Truman won re-election by campaigning against it?  They passed 908 laws.  The 112th has passed. . . 112.  That’s right, the 112th Congress has passed 112 bills so far–there are still a few months left, so they have time to get it up to, say, 120. 

The 112th Congress is also widely loathed. Their approval rating is at 9%.  That’s lower than the IRS, lower than the airline industry, lower than the banks that caused the financial crisis, lower than Nixon during Watergate, lower than Paris Hilton.  That’s right–more people admire Paris Hilton than admire the 112th Congress. 

They haven’t passed a budget in three years.  They fought like Ali-Frazier over something as completely routine as raising the debt ceiling.  They have never passed an appropriations bill on time. They couldn’t agree, last week, on a motion to correct a spelling error in a bill.  

The Founders created a government of checks and balances.  They wanted it to be difficult to pass legislation, they wanted the House and Senate to have to agree (to have to compromise), they wanted the President to have veto power, but for Congress to have the ability to over-ride a veto.  But I’m sorry; there’s no way they envisioned this. 

Congress is broken. 

So Ezra Klein was going through all this the other night (guesting for Rachel Maddow), and he talked to Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein, fellows from the Brookings Institute, and they have a new book out on this Congress.  And they say the problem is political extremism.  The Republican Party has gone crazy, essentially, the Tea Party has driven the national discourse so far to the right that compromise has become anathema.  And I agree, in part, with that argument.  I mean, when Mitch McConnell (Senate minority leader) says his goal is to make Barack Obama a one-term President, and when he then uses the filibuster more than ever before in history, it’s not hard to assign blame. The debt ceiling debacle was clearly Tea Party-driven.  John Boehner clearly lost control of his caucus, and their refusal to compromise drove the whole debate. 

But I’m a liberal.  So’s Ezra Klein.  He’s my kind of liberal, very policy driven, very focused on research and results, but we’re on the same side.  The Brookings Institute is a liberal think-tank. 

And yet and yet.  What’s driving this debate is a sense that ‘business as usual’, that the governing consensus that has mostly driven policy since WWII, that the world of compromise and finely tuned legislative solutions to problems has failed.  That our debt isn’t ‘a concern,’ but freaking terrifying.  And thus the Tea Party: valuing ideological purity, valuing principle over compromise.  It’s actually a problem for Mitt Romney too–he’s not really trusted by the hard-core Right, and so he has to lock in to policy positions that can’t really be what he actually believes. 

The financial crisis was not just fiscally destabilizing, but it was demoralizing, it left us all shaken and afraid.  If President Obama had proposed a stimulus that had worked, I think Congress might have come around.  But the stimulus he proposed was much too small, and it’s hard to argue that it was actually needed. 

The 112th Congress reflects a deeply divided, economically troubled, terrified America.  They can’t function, because nobody can agree on what function they should serve.  We’re not unified as a nation–perhaps we shouldn’t be.  But the level of vitriol right now, floating around the internet, is impressive. 

We could, say, change the rules of the Senate.  Make it harder to filibuster, for example, make it harder for the minority to stop bills from coming to a vote.  But they could function under the current rules, if they really wanted to.  

We need to get over it. We need to talk policy, share ideas, find places to compromise, not accuse political opponents of treason.  But it’s not going to happen quickly.  We need a couple of elections first.  And it would help if the winners of those elections weren’t crazy.  On either side. 

Actors’ courage

I am in awe of my sister-in-law.  She’s a wonderful person, kind and thoughtful and we love her dearly.  Her kids are all performers–they all had leads in various high school shows, and her family has been very involved in their local community theatre.  My brother has build sets for that theatre for years, and has gradually become more and more involved, to the point where he runs the organization now, and has acted in a few of their shows.  And my sister-in-law finally decided to audition for a show too–their upcoming production of the Sound of Music. It opens this next week.  And she got cast, as did he.  He’s playing Max.  She’s playing the Mother Abbess.  Which means she gets to sing “Climb Every Mountain.”  This song, in other words.  One of the most memorable songs in the history of American musical theatre.

It will be the first time in her life she sings a solo in public.

I talked to my brother today.  He says she’s doing great with it. Great part for her, and he says everyone’s rooting for her, and she’s a little nervous, but she’s excited too.

Here’s my prediction:

She won’t sleep the night before the show opens.  She won’t be able to think about anything else all day.  She’ll be terrified and excited in equal measure, all day.  She’ll arrive at the theater early, get into costume and makeup, and she’ll be her usual affable self to the other cast members, but they’ll remember her as preoccupied.  She’ll sit off-stage, awaiting her entrance, and her knees will feel weak.  You always feel it in the knees. And she’ll go over her lines over and over again, and especially the lyrics to That Song.  And then she’ll hear her cue and just for a moment, for an indescribably brief moment, she’ll freeze, she’ll nearly panic, she’ll doubt herself, she’ll wonder if she can do it.  And then her legs will move, almost unbidden, and she’ll step out on stage, into the light, and she’ll find it momentarily disorienting, the light, and behind it, the sounds, the presence of all those people.  The audience.  Friends and neighbors no more, just a thing, a single frightening creature, this monstrous audience-beast.  And then she’ll hear her cue, and she’ll say her first line, just as she’s rehearsed it.  And she’ll forget, for just a second, the audience-beast, and she’ll connect with her fellow actors, the Maria, the other nuns.  And then the music will begin, her cue to start singing.  And she’ll begin.

And she’ll rock the house.

We use violent imagery in the theatre.  “We slayed ‘em,” we say.  “We killed out there.”  Because what we killed, what we had to kill, is the audience-beast, creature of our own imaginings, that amorphous animal that threatens to consume us.

Unless we tame it.

By doing what we do.

1972, I was on my way home from school, when a cute girl I had a crush on stopped me on my way to the parking lot and said, “hey, auditions are tonight.  Why don’t you come with me?”  And I followed her into the theater, and auditioned for Bloomington High School South’s production of Barefoot in the Park, by Neil Simon.  And I was called back for the character role of Victor Velasco, and I went to that callback with two thoughts in my mind. I was more frightened than I’d ever been before, of anything, ever.  Also, more than anything, I wanted that part.  Two months later, I stood backstage, and just before my first entrance, turned to the actor playing the telephone repairman, and said to him, “I quit.” He literally shoved me onto the stage.  And I said my first line.  And the audience-beast . . . laughed. 

And I thought: Oh, man. Wow.  I could get used to this.

I love actors.  I love their courage, their tenacity in clinging to a profession that will never love them as much as they love it.  I love, above all, the magic that takes place when they step out on-stage, stark bare-naked except for a costume.  And transform.  Even in bad plays, even in awful nights where the playwright was an idiot and the director’s an idiot, and the show sucks and everyone knows it, even then (and it doesn’t happen often), maybe even especially then, the courage of actors is inspirational.  They dare. And when the show’s good?  It’s the Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel and Bjorling singing ‘Nessun dorma” and Hendrix doing “Bold as Love” all rolled into one.  Nothing, nothing, is better, than actors moving us, changing us, with their talent, their hard work, their sheer audacity.  It’s the greatest art form God ever created–its existence stands as witness that He loves His children. And that we are brothers and sisters together. 

And next week, my sister-in-law will join that unbroken line of heroes and heroines that stretches from Thespis through Roscius through Burbage through Duse through Olivier through Dame Maggie, to us, here, today. 

We love you, Dawn. Break a leg. 

Downton Abbey

Yeah, it’s a soap. I get that it’s a soap.  It even used amnesia (amnesia!) as a plot point.  I’ve heard all the criticism.  It’s conservative in its politics–seems to think the class system was fine, and that Lords and Ladies were just swell.  It’s conventional in its morality; the one gay character is also the most loathsome.  Plus, it’s a soap.  I don’t care.  I’m going to sound like the gushingest fan-boy on the planet here, and I don’t care–I flat love Downtown Abbey

My wife and I watched Season One, and were totally hooked, and then put Season Two at the top of our Netflix queue, where it stayed not budging for six months.  Finally, Netflix informed us that Season Two disc one was on its way–that’s the one that got lost in the mail, first time ever.  It got funny, after awhile–we had many friends who offered to lend us their copies, but it got to the point where we were just stubborn about it.  We were going to watch it, by crikey, and via a Netflix DVD, and that was all there was to it!  Then Season Two finally showed up, and was as good as promised.

So, in case you’ve been lost in the Australian outback the last two years, here’s Downton Abbey: it’s a British TV series that reads like a Waugh novel, but is in fact a new creation.  Julian Fellowes is the talented fellowe who wrote every episode, created the more or less twenty main characters, living in a British country estate in the first decades of the twentieth century.  Downton Abbey is home to Robert Crawley, Earl of Grantham, his American wife, Cora, and their three daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil.  The show follows their loves and losses, but spends as much or more time with their servants, especially Carson, the butler, Mrs. Hughes, the housekeeper, two footman, Thomas and William, and various maids, particularly Miss O’Brien, Lady Crawley’s personal maid, and Anna, who serves the daughters, most especially Mary.  And Anna is in love with Bates, Lord Grantham’s crippled and honorable valet.

A lot of the plot involves the tangled love story between Mary, an independent, beautiful, bored and not entirely nice young woman, and Matthew Crawley, Lord Grantham’s heir, a thoroughly nice young barrister who thinks the Downton lifestyle is rather absurd.  Which it is.

And that’s one of the reasons we love the show.  It shows a lifestyle that is absurd, with its regimented routines of dressing, dinners, hunts and balls, with wealthy and bored aristocrats desperately holding on to their rapidly vanishing culture.  But they’re also good folks.  Lord Grantham, for all his failings, is a basically kind-hearted and decent man, genuinely trying to do his best for his people, while Carson, the butler, is the most benevolent of downstairs dictators.  That’s a lot of the fun of the show; the rich and multi-layered characters.  Thomas the footman is a rotter, to be sure, but also has moments of generosity, and the fact that he’s gay adds, to my mind, poignancy to his nastiness.  Miss O’Brien, his accomplice, is a nasty old gossip, but also a woman who nearly kills herself caring for Cora when she becomes ill.  Mary and Edith are generally at each other’s throats, but come together to prevent Sybil–generous, idealistic, hopelessly naive–from destroying her life.  We care a lot about Mary’s love for Matthew, but we care a whole lot more for Anna and Mr. Bates.  (Joanne Froggatt is tremendous as Anna–plays her as an intelligent, independent, deeply compassionate young woman–I want Anna’s life to be good far more than anyone in the Crawley family.)

Plus, it’s got Maggie Smith.  And I take it as given that any movie or show with Maggie Smith in it has a leg up on any one without her.  She’s wonderful in this, plays the Dowager Countess–Lord Grantham’s mother.  Her role is essentially to comment waspishly on the goings-on around her, which means she gets all the good lines, each of which she delivers with the snap and wit of a great comedienne. 

And here’s what’s interesting.  Maggie Smith’s character is the ultimate conservative–she wants to preserve as much as possible of the privileged life she’s always known, and she’s not about to give quarter.  Her bete noire is Mrs. Crawley, Matthew Crawley’s mother, a fascinating character in her own right.  Mrs. Crawley is a nurse, and a smart and effective one.  She wants to be useful–she thinks the Downton Abbey lifestyle is ridiculous, and during the war (WWI, on-going during most of the second season), she succeeds in turning the home into a convalescent center for wounded officers.  She’s a proto-feminist, a champion for women’s rights and a trained, seasoned professional. She’s also a busy-body and a scold, and we don’t like her.  She and Maggie Smith’s character are at loggerheads throughout, and frankly, my wife and I are entirely on Maggie’s side.  

And that’s been some of the criticism I’ve read about the show.  Mrs. Crawley is a feminist heroine, and the Countess, an anachronism–the show urges us to root for the wrong side. 

But I think good drama should transcend what strike me as petty political considerations.  I’m on the side of well-written, interesting characters, characters who change and grow–or don’t, and pay the price.  I love the fact that we can find Mrs. Crawley admirable, but also annoying.  I love the fact that we can be amused by the Dowager Countess, like her energy and wit, but also recognize–as she does, grudgingly–that she’s fast becoming a relic. 

I love politics, and I’m a liberal and a committed feminist.  Good drama’s more important to me than that.  And that’s why I love Downton Abbey

Some uncomfortable facts about Pioneers

It’s July 24, time to honor our Pioneer heritage, and the extraordinary men and women who looked at an arid desert where the largest water supply was a huge salt lake, and said “yep, looks good to me.” What made Salt Lake Valley attractive was precisely the fact that nobody else wanted it; Brigham Young was determined to put a mountain range between Mormons and the people who were trying to kill us.  I have a Famous Pioneer Ancestor: Stephen Markham, who was in the ’47 company.  He was married at the time, to Hannah Hogeboom Markham, who arrived the next year, took one look around, got back in her wagon with her three oldest sons, and kept on going, ending up in California.  We’re from Stephen’s third wife, Mary Curtis Markham; I grew up with my grandmother telling me Mary Markham stories.  He eventually was one of the founders of Spanish Fork, Utah.  My wife’s family also has a Famous Pioneer Ancestor, Peter Maughan, who settled Cache Valley.

I absolutely honor their sacrifice, and when I sing “Blessed, honored Pioneer,” I can’t help but get a bit choked up.  But, talking about the Pioneers, I’m amused to think about who they were and what they did, and what Utah has become.

I. The Pioneers were illegal immigrants. 

When the Pioneers entered Salt Lake Valley, it was part of Mexico.  Granted, Mexico hadn’t settled it, England also had a claim, and within a year, it would be ceded to the United States in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.  But it’s not like Brigham asked permission.  Plus, a good case could be made that the land we settled was ‘owned’ by the Indian tribes who were living here.  Again, Brigham Young made some effort to get along with the Indian tribes–but we never paid for the land we settled.  (That’s before we even get into the questionable legality of President Polk’s war with Mexico; let that go.) 

II. The Pioneers were hippie theatre geeks.

Hippies?  Just look at ‘em.  Theatre geeks?  More than almost any other religious group of the nineteenth century. Our Theatre Geek In Chief, Brigham Young loved theatre–thought it a ‘civilizing influence’, though he did cast a gimlet eye on such innovations as theatrical realism and skimpy costumes. Still, our Mormon ancestors set up traveling theatre companies, they had theaters in nearly every town (sometimes called, more palatably, ‘opera houses’) and shortly after arriving in Salt Lake, a guy named H. E. Bowring threw up a playhouse, in addition to another public building called the Social Hall.  The Pioneers may not have had any standing churches at first, but they had two theaters.  By 1861, they’d built one of their first, biggest structures, the Salt Lake Theater, which became an important road house, as well as home to a local theatre company.  Big big names performed there, from Sarah Bernhardt to Edwin Booth to Enrico Caruso, to no fewer than four Barrymores, including Drew Barrymore.  (No, not her, her famous actor ancestor).  The Pioneers were trying to carve a living out of poor soil and little water, but evenings, it was pull out the fiddle and dance time.  Or go see the latest traveling show. Of course we’re totally different today–we attend our semi-annual General Conference in the Conference Center.  Which has a state-of-the-art theater attached.  Even a little burg like Cedar City is home to a Tony-winning Shakespeare Festival.  And I grew up with Road Shows.  So, theatre geeks?  You bet. 

III.  The Pioneers radically re-defined marriage, and their sexual mores were considered shocking, especially by Republicans.

I’m not sure if you’re aware of this–like maybe you’ve just arrived from Mars–but it’s possible that some of our Pioneer ancestors married more than one woman.  This was called “polygamy.”

Okay, we all know this.  My Famous Pioneer Ancestor had six wives–my line traces back to wife number three.  It’s quite true that many early Church leaders, when they heard of polygamy, were appalled by it.  Still, it happened.  A lot.  It was one of the defining features of Mormonism.  Still is: it’s often the one thing people know about us.

And yes, it’s awful, and it’s incomprehensible, and it’s a blot on our history, and today, I’m not alone in wishing it never happened.  Am I alone in also finding it funny?  I mean, a lot of our General Authorities said some kind of hilariously anti-monogamous things in our history, stuff that reads oddly today, and it’s not surprising that they did.  They were under attack, and they knew full well the manifest hypocrisies of Victorian marriage–the sexual double standard, the astonishing prevalence of prostitution.  And so they defended marriage, their marriage, the version of marriage they were obliged to practice and defend.  As for Republicans–their platform from 1856 on included strong language attacking the ‘twin relics of barbarism': slavery and polygamy.  Yep, the Party of Lincoln hated Mormon marriage customs. 

Did polygamy mistreat women?  Not sure that’s the right question.  Did polygamy mistreat women any worse than every other institution of the nineteenth century did?  Certainly a great many Mormon women found comfort, sisterhood, and the possibility of equality within polygamy that, in their view, would have been denied them outside it.  Can we say that, while also finding contemporary vestiges of polygamy appalling? 

IV.  The Pioneers were a buncha Commies.

Communists, in other words.  More Karl Marx than Adam Smith.  Not exactly free market champions. 

Well, they actually based it on the New Testament. Call it communalism, or collectivism, or the United Order, our Pioneers shared all things in common, had no poor among them, believed in cooperative stores instead of for-profit stores.  The Godbeites, one of the more prominent Utah splinter groups, rejected Brigham’s economic program–they wanted laissez-faire economics.  (They were also into spiritualism, and also wanted to start literary magazines–imagine them as a cross between Ayn Rand, oijue boards, and the Association for Mormon Letters).

I suppose you could argue that Brigham Young got his economics from the likes of Robert Owen more than Marx and Engels.  Brigham founded some 200 United Order-ish communities in small towns in Utah; they don’t seem all that different from what Owen was doing in New Harmony Indiana.  But Brigham’s mission to England showed him laissez-faire economics in its most completely libertarian incarnation–it’s safe to say that he was not a fan.   

Anyway, that’s our Pioneer heritage.  Pinko theatre geek sexual adventurers. I’m proud that they’re my people.  

Brave

Brave is Pixar’s first Disney Princess movie.  Put another way, Brave is what results when the incredibly bright people at Pixar apply their collective cool intelligence to the idea of a Disney Princess movie. 

We all know the Disney template.  Beautiful young princess–usually mother-less–meets her Prince Charming, but first has to defeat a Wicked Old Crone, before living happily ever after.  It’s a template suited for gender relations ca. 1955, mock-worthy sexist nonsense masquerading as romantic fantasy, and yet, because of the extraordinary beauty of the animation and the music and the voice talents employed, seduously seductive.

This is not to say I don’t like those films.  I love those films, especially all the Alan Menken musicals following The Little Mermaid, and continuing onward: Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Hercules, Tangled.   Yes, I even liked Pocahontas, despite the frankly atrocious way it distorted that particular, essentially tragic,  American origin story.  “Colors of the wind” may have been reassuring New Age silliness–the noble savage myth writ large–but it’s a gorgeously animated scene, in a lovely movie.

But it’s time we moved beyond Disney Princesses. And Disney knew it too; hence, the movie Enchanted, which delightfully deconstructed Disney Princess movies, mocking the idea that love at first sight could, in one day, lead to happiness ever after.  In a movie in which the heroine meets her True Love and, in one day, falls in love, leading to happily ever after.  They baked a charmingly irreverent cake.  And then ate it too.  (Thanks to wickedly spot-on performances by Amy Adams and James Marsden, whose delightfully empty-headed Prince Charming steals every scene in which he appears.)  It’s the Disney Princess icon subverted, but that subversion is also contained, even reified. 

But now, Pixar does a Princess movie.  And here’s what they did: they took princesses seriously.  They rooted the movie in the reality of actual medieval princesses.  And it’s brilliant. 

The fact is, an actual princess had one main job; dynastic marriage. Her job was not to find Troo Luv, and it wasn’t to live happily ever after.  It was to prevent war.  What an actual princess needed was training in the arts of persuasion, diplomacy, in the political utility of traditional femininity.  And the person providing that training pretty much had to be her mother. 

So the entire movie, all of it, centers on the relationship between Princess Merida, and her mother, Queen Elinor.  And Merida’s a difficult pupil.  She doesn’t want to be charmingly, sweetly, feminine.  She wants to ride her horse really fast while shooting at targets with her bow and arrows.  She likes climbing sheer cliff faces.  She’s a physical, active, athletic young woman, impetuous and fool-hardily brave.  She is also, of course, a wonderfully appealing character, especially as voiced by the brilliant Scottish actress Kelly McDonald.  She’s also driving her mother (superbly voiced by Emma Thompson) crazy. 

Our sympathies are with Merida.  But Elinor’s right.  What this strong, loving, queenly mother is trying so desperately to teach her daughter are basic concepts of adulthood: responsibility, duty, the sense of some larger obligations than her own pleasures and preferences.

King Fergus (the wonderful Billy Connolly), is a great Dad, bluff, strong, a man of immense appetites, who finds humor in everything, a big overgrown kid.  Elinor admits having had reservations when she had to marry, but there’s no question of the bond she shares with her lovably buffoonish husband. She has found true love, and she is living happily ever after.  But to accomplish that required patience and sacrifice and hard work.  And Merida doesn’t want any part of any of it.

And the stakes are high.  We’re told that Fergus is king over four clans, his, plus three other clan chieftains who aren’t terribly interested in being ruled.  Each has an oldest son, and Fergus, an oldest daughter.  She must marry one of those sons, or civil war beckons.  Granted, the rival chieftains are presented comically, as half-savage dunces.  And the three potential suitors are pretty funny, a comically unprepossessing lot. 

You know the formula: we’ll meet the three suitors, and they’ll all be doofuses, and then Merida will meet Her One True Love, but someone unsuitable, and that’ll be the obstacle, which will work itself out in the end.  But that never happens.  There is no good suitor.  True love does not beckon.

Instead Merida turns her mother into a bear.

Sorry.  Oops. Spoiler alert, guys. My bad. . . .

But it’s really brilliant.  Because isn’t that what children think of their parents’ demands?  My Mom’s such a bear!  She’s such a beast to me!  Elinor the bear embodies all her daughter’s worst imaginings, the unfairness of making her demands of me, of making me wear a dress and brush my hair, and . . . be a Princess, the person I have to become, for reasons of state, to prevent war and violence.

Of course, Merida does come to realize how much her mother loves her, and she does become the diplomat we’ve already seen, so superbly, in her mother.  And her mother lightens up too.  Things do all work out.  But not before the movie has explored, in tenderness and with great insight and intelligence, one of the best mother and daughter relationships I’ve ever seen in a film.  No romantic ending here–it would simply get in the way.

Of course, the movie’s gorgeous.  Merida’s marvelous shock of long curly red hair is a triumph of state of the art animation–my wife and I wondered how many animators were responsible for just that hair.  The movie includes three musical montage scenes, and the music–contemporary Celtic, of course–is stunningly beautiful.  Not a Pixar thing, really, those montages, but it’s a Disney Princess movie, of course it has to have wonderful music.  Merida has three little brothers, triplets, who steal the show, along with all their castle’s cookies–they introduced an impish humor to a movie rich in comedy anyway.  (I especially loved this detail–one of the suitors, who speaks in so thick a Scottish accent that his every line is unintelligible; props to voice actor Kevin McKidd).

Back in the early nineties, Disney animation went on a roll; all those glorious Menken musicals. Pixar’s roll is greater, and has lasted much longer.  It’s gotten to the point where the one movie I most long for, every movie season, is the new Pixar.  And now, with Brave, they’ve raised the bar higher than ever.  It’s not just gloriously beautiful, it’s smart and human and real.  Its the best Princess movie ever, because it’s the first to take the job of Princess as seriously as it deserves.

Incomprehensible

Shock.  Horror.  Fear.  Incredulity.  Switching channels back and forth, CNN to MSNBC and back again.  The images: kids queuing up to see a midnight show of a popular movie.  An awesome movie, a movie we’ve all been waiting to see.  A normal thing, a happy thing, a teenaged fun thing, hang out with your friends, wait in line, chattering with anticipation.  My daughter and her friends did it just the other night, went to a midnight showing of Katy Perry’s concert movie.  We teased her about it: ‘ooo, Katy Perry, well!’  She stood up for herself.  They went, they had a great time.  It’s what kids do.

Yesterday morning, I woke up, and my daughter told me and we spent the morning watching.  CNN.  MSNBC.  Looking for some bewilderment slightly more enlightening than what we felt. 

From now on, when we think of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight Rises, that film, that massive artistic achievement, will carry with it an unwanted association with actual mass murder, not artistically rendered violence, but actual murder,  like the Beatles’ Helter Skelter does for those of us who remember Charles Manson. 

It’s incomprehensible.  Theologically–God clearly does allow this, this is clearly something God could prevent and doesn’t. This is in His plan, like earthquakes and tsunamis.  And Dr. King and Gandhi and the letter from Birmingham.  Psychological–lots of people with serious mental illness do not go on shooting sprees.  Political–we want to make sense of it, and so we fall back on old hardened positions.  ‘Gun control!’  ‘No, no, don’t you dare: Second Amendment!’ 

Holmes purchased his weapons legally, he quite possibly seemed sane enough to pass a background check, had one been required.  He purchased two handguns, a semi-automatic rifle and a shotgun within a few weeks, purchases that would have been illegal in states other than Colorado, but which would have been legal, say, in Utah, where I live. But the idea of exploiting this event for political purposes seems sickeningly cynical right now, and the pressure to change gun laws will dissipate each day that passes, and be gone in a week. We want to talk about gun control so we don’t have to talk about far more unanswerable questions.  We want to cling to the illusion that we’re Doing Something.

Right now, we don’t know anything, we don’t know why a med student with good grades and no criminal record would go nuts like this. If he went nuts.  The language we use is the language of mental illness.  He ‘went nuts.’  He’s a ‘nutbag.’  He would have to be crazy, we think.  That’s the language of our day, our way of distancing ourselves from the unfathomable depths of evil.  It’s an aberration, a guy flipping out, a guy losing it. 

But we know how carefully he plotted it.  He calls himself ‘The Joker,’ and he seems to have planned the event around a lethal punch line to a murderous joke–the booby-trapped apartment.  He intended to take cops with him.  As though he wanted to make Heath Ledger’s Joker proud.

In Downfall, Bruno Ganz plays Hitler in his last days, and in one scene talks about the human cost of ordering the Holocaust.  It’s difficult, he says, to set aside one’s human feelings.  It’s hard.  It’s certainly necessary, or you wouldn’t be able to bring yourself to do it.  But it’s never easy.  You have to decide to do it.  When I was in high school, I went to New York with some friends, and we climbed to the top of our hotel room, and stood on the 74th floor ledge. Stood there, looking down.  And I remember how it felt.  Part of me wanting to jump.  Feeling sick at my stomach, because part of me wanted to jump.

At the grocery store yesterday, I saw a family shopping, Mom, Dad, four little boys.  The two oldest boys were running around, hiding behind food displays, shooting at each other with finger-pistols.  “Pyooo pyooo,” they’d go. “Pyooo pyooo pyooo!”  And then one of them died dramatically, flinging back his arms and sprawling on the floor, his brother giggling, him giggling, his poor exhausted Mom looking up: “Jeremy, come on.  Cut it out.”  Jeremy laughing on the floor.  “But I’m dead,” he said.  Mom looked exasperated.  “If you guys will cool it, I’ll buy some ice cream.”  Kids, kidding around.  “Pyooo pyooo pyooo.”

And the movie industry is about the creation of fantasies, primarily fantasies for audiences of young men, fantasies of consequence-less violence, endlessly exciting athletic prowess at violence, followed by the promise of astonishing sexuality.  Awesome fight scenes, hot girls. And they’ve been constructing such fantasies, filling summers with them, since the phenomenal success of the first ‘summer action movie,’ Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Thirty years ago. 

And, fact, instances of violence in our society has been on a long and steady decline, our society measurably less violent today than ever before in our history, and that decline can be said to have begun more or less thirty years ago. 

And Dark Knight Rises has a scene in which the crowd at a football game is randomly and viciously slaughtered. 

Kids went to a movie, and terrible things happened, and we saw the best in human nature, first responders putting their lives at risk, people shielding other people as the shooter mowed ‘em down, and we saw the worst in human nature.  And its an event that elides judgment, too horrific for answers, an event too awful for facile moralizing right or left.  

So we pray.  Why?  What do we do?  Where can we be safe?  We do not know.  We search for love, even here.  We find it; it simultaneously escapes us. This helps. I wish I could offer you something.  Comfort food: banana bread with cream cheese. Tea, maybe, or French hot chocolate.  Strawberries and cream and a slice of cake. 

I wish I had cake for multitudes. 

 

Shakespeare on film

Two different friends, in very different settings, recently asked me the same question: how do I get into Shakespeare?  We know Shakespeare’s supposed to be great, and we’ve probably had to read him in high school, often in a setting that pretty much guarantees he won’t seem cool.  Still, people I trust tell me Shakespeare’s awesome.  How do I get into him?  What do you recommend?

My first reaction is to point out that Shakespeare was a playwright, a theatre guy, writing plays for dramatic production.  So the best way into him should be by seeing really good productions of his work.  The problem with that is finding those productions.  Shakespeare’s performed a lot, and often rather badly.  If you go to a production and are bored out of your mind, my guess is, you won’t be in any hurry to repeat the experience.  And there are no guarantees.  I’ve seen Shakespeare done in major productions by important, famous actors which sucked, and I’ve seen Shakespeare done in tiny fifty-seat theaters by actors no one had ever heard of and it was brilliant.  (Including the best Twelfth Night I’ve ever seen.) 

You could read the plays.  I’ve read them all, and I’ve read some of them many times over, and I think reading Shakespeare can be a rich and rewarding experience, but for people just discovering Shakespeare, he can be difficult.  He was writing poetry in 16th century English.  Make sure you have a good edition–the Riverside or the Arden or something–with lots of footnotes, or you’re going to spend a lot of time just trying to figure out what the heck he’s talking about.  If you’re lucky enough to take a Shakespeare class from an enthusiastic, knowledgeable and patient teacher, you’ll have a tremendous experience.  But Shakespeare is taught poorly about as often as he’s performed poorly.

But you can watch movies.  And here’s the secret: Shakespeare works brilliantly on film. I can think of three reasons for this.  First, the stage Shakespeare was writing for was very fluid–just a bare platform, with maybe a chair or two in some scenes.  The plays were meant to flow, meant to really move.  Film does that: a jump cut in film isn’t far off from a Shakespearean exuant.  Second, at the heart of any Shakespeare play is the soliloquy, those amazing moments when a character addresses the audience, tells ‘em what s/he’s thinking.  It actually works better in a film closeup than in some theaters, especially big proscenium houses, where the audience is way . . . over. . . . there.  Third, Shakespeare’s language is poetic, built on imagery, on verbal equivalents to visual beauty.  Elaborate stage sets don’t serve Shakespeare well–they take too long to move on and off.  But scenery is great in film.

Ron Rosenbaum has four films he recommends for starters.  One is the 1953 Peter Brook King Lear film, with Orson Welles.  It’s available on Netflix, which has, I’m not kidding, like ten Lears available.  I prefer Ian McKellen’s.  Rosenbaum also loves Olivier’s Richard III. It’s good, but McKellen, again, also has a good one.

This happens a lot. Henry V? Olivier’s is great, but I prefer Branaghs.  Much Ado About Nothing?  Again, I love Branagh’s, but can’t wait for Joss Whedon’s.  Do you prefer Baz Luhrman’s Romeo + 
Juliet, or Franco Zeffirelli’s more classically romantic Romeo and Juliet

I’ve previously blogged about Ralph Fiennes’ new Coriolanus film.  A few friends responded by asking if I’d seen the David Tennant Hamlet.  I hadn’t but checked it out, and was astonished by Patrick Stewart’s superb Claudius.  Some people, including Rosenbaum, rave the Richard Burton Hamlet, which is indeed very good, but I’m still a fan of Derek Jacobi’s, and think there’s a lot to be said for Branagh’s (just fast-forward his ‘to be or not to be,’ which he punts), and Ethan Hawke’s (which has Bill Murray as a wonderful Polonius). 

Here’s a starter kit of ten films I really like a lot, all of them available on Netflix:

Hamlet: Branagh’s is uneven, but some scenes are terrific, and it’s close to the entire play, uncut.  If you want to see a theatre-on-film version that’s very good, try Kevin Kline’s. 

King Lear:  Ian McKellen.

Macbeth: The one with Patrick Stewart.

Othello: I really love Laurence Fishburn’s.  Very non-Matrix-y.

Much Ado About Nothing:  Branagh’s version is so charming and lovely, this might be the one film I’d urge you to start with.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream:  I really like Peter Hall’s 1964 one, but there’s a movie star version that’s pretty good too, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Calista Flockhart and Dominic West and Christian Bale and Stanley Tucci, and . . . .


Romeo + Juliet. High school English teachers hate the Baz Luhrman film, which is as good a reason as I can think of to see it. 

As you Like It: Branagh again, this time with Bryce Dallas Howard as Rosalind. 

Coriolanus: with Ralph Fiennes.

Titus Andronicus, directed by Julie Taymor.  As close as we’re ever going to get to Quentin Tarantino’s Shakespeare.

This is only a few.  Shakespeare, it turns out, really is the best screenwriter in Hollywood right now.