Monthly Archives: October 2013

Captain Phillips: A Review

I finally saw Captain Phillips today, three weeks after it opened. I’m not going to apologize for finally reviewing it, though. When I started this blog, I knew I wanted to review movies and theatre and stuff, but I wanted my reviews to reflect the way people actual see really see movies.  Professional critics get their reviews out just before the opening weekend, which is important for the commercial success of failure of movies.  But I’m more interested in analysis than thumbs up/thumbs down movie reviewing.  That’s also why I don’t worry about spoilers.  Your friends don’t, when they tell you about a flick they liked.

So, at the end of Captain Phillips, the title character, played by Tom Hanks, is escorted by SEALS to a Navy ship, where he’s treated by a medical corpsman.  He’s survived a horrendous experience, his ship taken by pirates, then, when they escape in a life boat, taken hostage.  He’s been threatened, abused, shot at, and nearly executed.  Thanks to the efficient marksmanship of Navy SEALS, he’s now been rescued.  And he can barely talk.  He’s so deeply in shock, he can barely remember his name.  He can’t tell medical personnel where it hurts–has to gesture vaguely.  The camera lingers forever, it seems, on his traumatized face.  It’s a fantastic performance by Tom Hanks, of course, but it’s also perhaps the finest cinematic portrayals of the medical condition we call ‘shock’ ever filmed.

That moment should be triumphant.  US military might has defeated the bad guys, killed three of them and arrested the fourth.  Hanks has been saved, will be able to return to his family, will be able to resume his life and his career.  But director Paul Greengrass doesn’t treat it that way, as some kind of affirmation of American military power.  In fact, it feels oddly tragic.

The whole film does.  The title is Captain Phillips, but he’s neither the most important nor the most compelling character in the film. The heart of the film isn’t the hijacking of Phillips’ cargo ship, but the days Phillips spends in his ship’s lifeboat, held hostage by four Somali pirates.  And the key relationship in the film is between Hanks’ character, and the pirate captain, a skinny Somali pirate named Muse, superbly played by Barkhad Abdi.  Abdi’s from Somalia, by way of Yemen and Minnesota. Has a degree from Minnesota State. He was working as a chauffeur when Greengrass cast him; he has no previous acting experience.

And he’s tremendous. Muse is a skinny guy with huge, bad teeth.  As Abdi plays him, he’s intelligent and an effective, if soft-spoken natural leader. After he first hijacks the ship, he stands in the control room, looking at all the computer screens and electronic gizmos that run the ship. He stares at the machinery, caresses a monitor.  Then, in frustration, he begins striking at it with his hands.  He has no chance of running this ship, and he knows it.  He’s just captured the biggest thing he can imagine capturing, and it’s essentially useless to him.

Captain Phillips offers him a reasonable deal.  He has $30,000 in cash on board, in a safe (which I assume is normal for cargo ships in those waters), and he can give the pirates that money plus the life boat. It’s a decent haul.  But we’ve already seen the pressure Muse is under.  A Somali warlord is a demanding boss.  Thirty grand won’t cut it.  There’s a certain relief evident when he takes Phillips hostage–he can collect a kidnapping ransom, and still come out ahead, and it won’t require learning how to navigate an entire modern American cargo ship.

Because that’s really what this movie is about, a clash of civilizations.  It’s what happens when an essentially pre-modern (though heavily armed) society pisses of the greatest technological and military power the world has ever seen. In a key exchange, Hanks looks compassionately at Muse and says something like ‘you don’t have to do this.  You could do more with your life.’  And Muse replies sadly “maybe in America.  Maybe in America.”

Of all the miserable, poor, violent, screwed-up countries on earth, Somalia may be the most seriously screwed-up.  It’s what happens when, without even the rudiments of government, you try to build a culture around AKs and khat chewing.  But Somalia’s coast line is right along shipping routes between very very wealthy countries.  And Somalia’s previous main industry was fishing. You’ve got a country with lots of guns, lots of people who own boats and know how to use them, with badly over-fished coastal waters.  (Over-fished by Western fisherman, says Muse).  Hardly surprising that so many Somali sailors turn to piracy, supervised, financed and armed by local warlords.

Desperation and poverty and violence.  And so these ragged, skinny, desperate young men capture a cargo ship, with no idea after that what to do with it.  And then, having taken a hostage, run afoul of the United States Navy.

Muse is the leader, but all four pirates are fully realized characters; more individuated than Captain Phillips’ crew, for example.  Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman) is the enforcer, barely sane, hair-trigger violent and subject to berserker rages. Only Muse can control him, and even then, only occasionally.  Najee (Faysal Ahmed) is maybe sixteen, and barefoot; his role the all-crucial one of khat supplier. He seems mostly terrified throughout.  And Elmi (Mahat M. Ali) is the boat guy, the guy who knows how to steer a small boat in ocean waves and how to maintain and outboard motor.  He’s the voice of reason throughout, Muse’s right hand man.

We know all four guys.  We grow to care about them, as people.  And once the Navy ships show up, we know they have no chance whatsoever. They’re going to be killed, the only question being whether Phillips survives.  The question of Phillips’ survival is a powerful one, and I don’t mean to suggest that the last half hour of the film is anything less than completely suspenseful. But the Somalis are doomed.  And at least three of them are intelligent guys, people who could, given some education and opportunity make something useful of their lives.  In fact, even scary Bilal isn’t treated with contempt by the filmmaker.  Khat addiction, and a childhood filled with violence (both of which the film suggests), could warp anyone.

Paul Greengrass is an extraordinary director, politically minded, but also a fine entertainer–he made the best two Bourne movies, for example.  This is one of those ‘based on a true story’ movies.  Rich Phillips is a real guy, and his ship really was hijacked, and he really did survive despite terrible treatment.  And the real-life Muse is, as in the movie, currently in federal prison.  But while making an exciting, powerful, entertaining movie, Greengrass also does something else.  He makes us care about the third world.  He makes us care about Somalia.

 

The World Series

This World Series has been terrific, thoroughly enjoyable baseball from two teams I respect a lot, in which I end up rooting for both of them.  My poor Giants didn’t make the playoffs this year, for what turned out to be good reasons.  The pitching, which in previous years (2010! 2012!) has been the team’s biggest strength, really fell apart this season.  But the hitting also stank.  Plus they didn’t field well.  So they were bad at scoring runs, bad at preventing the other teams from scoring runs, and bad at turning hit balls into outs.  This is not a recipe for success.

The St. Louis Cardinals were very good this year, as they’ve been every year of the last ten. Their scouting department is unparalleled.  Every season, it seems, they have a new crop of young, superbly talented pitchers and hitters coming up from the minor leagues.  (This is also something the Giants are bad at, BTW). Their biggest find this year is a young pitcher named Michael Wacha.  The name is pronounced ‘wocka‘, like the thing Fozzie Bear always says to punctuate a joke. Wacha the pitcher is 22 years old.  18 months ago, he was a college kid.  But he throws the ball 98 miles an hour, knows what he’s doing on the mound, and has been basically unhittable, except by David Ortiz, the Red Sox best hitter, and a guy who the Cardinals seem completely incapable of getting out.

The Red Sox are a fun team to follow too, though.  They’re a storied franchise, a tribute to the enduring power of myth, building a team tragedy on hubris and karma.  Myth: In 1918, they had the best player in the history of baseball: Babe Ruth.  The Red Sox owner, Harry Frazee, though, wanted to produce a Broadway musical, No, No, Nanette.  So he sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees.  The Red Sox never could win after that, while the Yankees won championship after championship.  Curse Harry Frazee!  Curse No, No, Nanette! It doesn’t hurt that lots of great writers live in Boston, and love baseball.

But then, see, then, the Curse of the Bambino was atoned for, you see, by an offering of human blood.  In the 2004 playoffs, the Sox best pitcher, Curt Schilling, suffered a serious ankle injury.  The sheath supporting his Achilles (more myth!) tendon was torn.  A team doctor thought the loss of that sheath could be compensated for with sutures, and Schilling went out to pitch, badly injured, against the Yankees.  Of course, against the Yankees.  The sutures tore, and blood was visible pouring through his sock.  Schilling somehow persevered, pitched brilliantly, won.  The Sox went on to win the World Series.  Against the Cardinals.  Blood atoning for original sin–I’m telling you, this myth has everything.

And it’s all nonsense; well, except that Schilling really did pitch superbly though injured.  But he wasn’t atoning for sin; he was just a good pitcher playing hurt.  Harry Frazee didn’t invest in No No Nanette in 1918; he produced the musical five years later.  And the Red Sox were indeed cursed, and did bring it on themselves; Tom Yawkey, their long-term owner, was a racist who refused to allow the team to sign any black players until many many years after every other team in baseball had.  So while all the other teams had managed to sign the Jackie Robinsons and Willie Mays and Hank Aarons of the US, the Sox were always at a scouting/team development disadvantage.

Ballplayers are a superstitious lot, however, leading to this World Series most immediately obvious defining characteristic; the Red Sox players’ awful beards.  Left fielder Jonny Gomes, I swear, needs to be cast in the last Hobbit movie; he’s essentially a Middle Earth dwarf.  David Ross’ is even uglier.  Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli look Amish. There is a reason for it, though.

Last year’s Red Sox really sucked. They hated their manager, the players were unhappy, morale was horrendous, and they underachieved.  They traded away some dead wood, brought in guys like Napoli and Gomes (hard-nosed professionals both), and fired the manager.  Their new manager, John Farrell, is on of the most respected in all of baseball, and the team responded with a terrific turn-around season. But Napoli and Gomes thought team morale might improve if they had a beard growing contest.  So they’re an entertainingly scruffy lot, but they’re good; just a team of guys who throw out tough at bats and play good defense and scrap and hustle.

So there’s a bit of a contrast in styles in these two teams; they’re otherwise perfectly matched.  One game turned on a play where an umpire reversed a call, which never happens.  Another game ended on a controversial obstruction call, an obscure baseball rule which was, I was delighted to see, applied correctly to the kind of situation that doesn’t often come up. Another game concluded with a rookie Cardinals baserunner, in the game to pinch-run, having a brain freeze and getting picked off first.  Never seen a game end that way.

The Red Sox have a relief pitcher, Koji Uehara, a Japanese guy who has not, as it happens, grown a beard–possibly because he can’t–who hasn’t walked a hitter since July.  His statistics look like a misprint–no one can possibly pitch that well.  But you watch him pitch, and it’s astonishing; he makes Major league hitters look completely foolish.  The Sox lead the Series 3-2, and I think will win it in 7, mostly because they have Uehara, and the Cardinals relief staff, though very good, isn’t quite THAT good.

Plus the Sox have Papi.  David Ortiz, aka Big Papi, was their best hitter when they won the World Series in 2004, their best hitter when they won in 2008, and by far their best hitter so far in this Series.  I don’t know of any athlete more beloved in their city than Papi is. I think the Cardinals will hang tough behind Wacha on Wednesday, and the Sox will win it on Thursday.  But boy has it been a terrific World Series.  Find a chance to watch it some.

 

 

A Primary program

In church this week, the program was provided by the Primary, making it my favorite week of the year.  I adore the Primary kids.  For those of you not familiar with Mormonism, Primary means the organization that teaches little kids, ages 3-12.  So every six months, they take over Sacrament meeting.  The kids sing lots of songs, and then, by class, they stand up and recite some churchy thing they’ve memorized.

Of course, they’re little kids. And that’s what makes this so fantastic.  The ‘theme’ this week was “I am a Child of God,” which is both a terrific Primary song plus an awesome basis for a theology.  And the Primary is about teaching kids really basic gospel principles, which then get theatrically performed for everyone in Church.

But they’re kids.  So the ‘message’ that is in fact conveyed is more about the triumph of childish exuberant anarchy over indoctrination.  It’s actually sort of the entire plan of salvation in microcosm.  We’re here on earth, expected to perform.  But we’re bored, we’re excited, we’re scared, we have stage-fright, we don’t actually know the songs all that well.  Well-meaning grown-ups keep whispering in our ear, but we’d rather pull our dresses up over our heads (if female), or whap the kid next to us with our ties (if male), or just generally melt-down altogether.  And yet, somehow it sort of all does work out, kind of.

It’s also about how it takes a village to raise a child.  And yes, I remember when Hillary Clinton wrote her book, It Takes a  Village and how many Utah and Mormon conservatives were outraged by it.  “Nanny state!” “It takes a family, it takes parents!” But in fact, nobody practices the idea of village-child-raising more than Mormons do. It’s amazing to me, to see all those wonderful children up there, on the podium, and their dedicated teachers, people who genuinely care about them. A few years ago, my wife taught in the Nursery.  Little tiny kids, ages 18 months to 3 years.  Now those same tiny kids are 8 and 9; they were in the Primary program.  And we still care about them.  We still get misty-eyed, watching them.

My two daughters, especially, were cared for in the Young Women’s program (ages 12-18).  The women who ran that program were awesome; smart, organized, together, confident.  And good, you know, with the goodness of true compassion.  Because LDS women don’t hold the Priesthood, people outside our community think of them as oppressed.  I’m not going to express an opinion on that subject here.  But the LDS women I know are amazing, and I could not possibly have asked for better role models for my daughters.

So, first up in the Primary program were the Sunbeams–three year olds.  And their teacher is a young woman who is close friends with my youngest daughter.  I thought she did a fantastic job, staying calm and kind.  Her first kid got up, a little girl, got up to the mic and looked at that scary scary crowd and that was it.  She lost it.  Next kid, a boy, got up and gave the audience a huge grin.  And grinned.  And grinned.  His teacher kept whispering his line in his ear; he just kept on grinning.  He then turned to her–we later learned that what he said was ‘I don’t want to do this.’  And that was that.  No one in that class actually said his/her line, but it didn’t matter; the teacher’s endless patient love was the real lesson.

The younger kids generally provided the unintentional comedy.  One kid said, “I can pee my carrot. I try my best every day.”  That can’t have been his actual line, but it’s what both my wife and I (and other ward friends) heard, clear as a bell.  Another kid looked at the congregation and started off by saying, “Jesus. . . .” He then said “Nah”, looking at his teacher for confirmation.  Encouraged, he continued skeptically with “performed many miracles.”  He was followed by the kid who said, confidently, “Jesus was wreck-erected.”

One terribly tragic and weepy little girl said, with a face contorted with sadness, “I love that I . . . can be with my family forever.”  I know that she was probably just dealing with stage-fright, but it did seem like the prospect of eternity with her family was what was troubling her so.  I loved the kid who went “I can follow Jesus’ example by being kind to my. . . ” and then the rest of it was lost, as he couldn’t get off the riser fast enough. A few programs ago, we were entertained by the kid who said confidently “in this life, we can be weak, or we can be violent.” (Teacher whispers in his ear). “Valiant.” Maybe he, too, can pee his carrots.

There’s one kid in our neighborhood (which also means ‘our ward,’ since we live in Provo), who I call the Lemonade Stand Kid.  He’s a tremendous little entrepreneur, from whom I purchased many many glasses of warm lemonade all this past summer, a dollar a pop.  (The listed price was 25 cents, but he did not provide, and did not seem to understand the concept of, change).  He looks like Ralphie in The Christmas Story movie; blonde hair, glasses.  Anyway, the Lemonade Stand Kid stood up there confidently, began his line, lost his place, started all over, lost his place again, started again, and finished with a flourish, then waved delightedly at his Mom.  I love that kid.

And of course, the kids all had to speak into the mic. And some got their faces right up into the mic, so when they spoke, it startled us out of our chairs.  And others were inaudible.  And others waved their faces in front of the mic, so you basically heard every fourth word, very loudly, and the rest hardly at all.

Of course, the memorized bits were interspersed with music, all of it sung with tremendous enthusiasm, and commendable volume.  One little girl (one of my wife’s former Nursery kids) was particularly into the music; she sang like a miniature Kristen Chenowith on Broadway, big beaming smile on her face, almost entirely in tune.  The Primary choristers deserve every commendation possible–whatever they’re paying those people, it’s nowhere near enough.  (Kidding: we’re Mormons, nobody gets paid a dime).

Then came a moment of transcendence.  One of the older girls (probably a twelve-year-old), gave a short talk.  She told about a time when she didn’t particularly want to work at the school library, where she was an intern, because she was really tired, but then prayed about it, and felt she should go after all, and found an entire shelf of books that had been mis-shelved, a problem she then fixed without having to bother a librarian.  It was so sweet and earnest and lovely.  And I could tell that this is a little girl who loves books as much as I do (and did, at her age), someone for whom a mis-shelved book is a very serious problem indeed, well worth God’s personal attention, through her.  I teared up, I’m totally not kidding.  It was such a beautiful, honest talk.

And then, the closing song, a great Jan Perry song, A Child’s Prayer. And it’s a complicated song, really, for Primary kids, with two competing themes in counter-point.  And the kids launched into it with more energy than skill.  But in that glorious cacophany, I could hear, faintly, the musicality they were striving for, just as through the dropped lines and actor meltdowns, I could sense the thoughtful articulation of a Plan, with a Father, and know that I too am a Son.  Of God.

And then a closing prayer, and the teachers, exhausted after a solid hour of kid-wrangling, got to take their hyped-up minions back to the Primary classrooms, and spend the next two hours back at it, teaching kids gospel fundamentals, how God loves us and also how standing up in front of a crowd and speaking is good for you, builds confidence and prepares you for a mission.  For two more hours, the Village continued to help raise the Village children.  Good friends, being there, helping.  Best Sunday of the year.

The Saratov Approach: A Review

In many ways, The Saratov Approach marks the next evolution in Mormon cinema.  It’s intelligently written and directed by Garrett Batty.  Production design, cinematography, editing: they’re all Hollywood standard, state of the art.  The music is better than that: Robert Allen Elliott’s score manages to enhance the action without intruding–I thought it was one of the great strengths of the film. Saratov features four outstanding acting performances, and several creditable supporting performances.  And the story is both compelling and powerfully told.

In 1998, two LDS missionaries serving in the city of Saratov, in the Russia Samara mission, were kidnapped. Details in the movie suggest that the script holds pretty closely to the facts of the event. Elders Tuttle (Corbin Allred) and Propst (Maclain Nelson) meet a young Russian named Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov), who invites them to teach a discussion a few days later, and gives them an apartment number.  When they go to the appointment, they’re attacked, handcuffed, blindfolded and transported to another location, a small cabin outside the city.  There they meet an older man, the planner of the kidnapping, Sergei (Alex Veadov).  Sergei’s in charge, and is the one who contacts the US embassy, demanding $300,000. Meanwhile, Nikolai guards the guys; feeds them, releases handcuffs one at a time so they can take care of bathroom needs.  Mostly Nikolai keeps to himself, watching soccer or basketball on a small TV set in another room; very occasionally, he interacts with them, shyly talking basketball with them, for example.  Sergei comes by occasionally, yells at Nikolai for small breaches of security, and terrorizes the missionaries.  So most of the movie is about those four characters, with intense threats from Sergei interspersed with conversations between the two missionaries–why they went on missions, their families and home towns, sports, just passing the time–and Nikolai, a sad kid who isn’t much of a guard and seems to be in over his head, with secrets of his own.  All four actors are terrific in these scenes.

We also cut to their families, back in Oregon and Arizona. Mr. and Mrs. Propst are played by Bruce Newbold and Jennifer Erekson; we spend more time with them than we do with Tuttle’s parents (IMDB lists Peggy Matheson as playing Mrs. Tuttle, but doesn’t credit the actor who plays Tuttle’s Dad).  We do also see various FBI agents, but whatever negotiations may be taking place between the State Department and Russian police authorities are only referred to in passing–this is not a film about the police investigation.  Which seems to have been pretty perfunctory–a Church member was present when Nikolai made his initial approach to the elders, but we never see him questioned, for example. One tiny subplot involves a US Senator, Gordon Smith, who calls the Propsts and offers ‘support,’ but who never seems to do anything.  My guess is that Senator Smith’s kindness meant a lot to the actual Propst family, and his character’s inclusion in the film was on their urging.

I found the film both faith-affirming and powerful.  I also think it’s a film that’s unlikely to make any sort of national break-through.  I may be wrong–it’s possible that other Christians will also find it affirming and moving.  But it seems to me to be a film intended primarily for LDS audiences, without much cross-over appeal.  Here’s why:

Spoiler alert: I’m going to give away two major plot points in the movie.  I have to.  So stop reading now if you’re not interested in having the film spoiled.

But let me start with Aristotle. In the Poetics, he says something that struck me as odd the first time I encountered it:

It is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity.

In other words, the fact that something may actually have happened is irrelevant to the task of creating a plot, which is concerned, not with what happened, but with what could happen. When I used to teach this stuff, the example I would often use is that of Michael Fagan, a demented homeless man who, in 1982, wandered into Buckingham Palace, and ended up in Queen Elizabeth’s bedroom.  Given all the security forces and apparatus that protect the Queen, this incident has be seen as not just implausible, but frankly impossible–you couldn’t put it in a movie.  No one would believe it.  It nonetheless really happened.

There are two moments in Saratov that seem to me to stretch the boundaries of plausibility. One happens in the States.  An anonymous donor tapes an envelope with a cashier’s check for $300,000 to the door of the Propst family home. Mr. and Mrs. Propst (I should call them Brother and Sister Propst) suddenly find themselves in possession of the means to save their son.  And they choose not to use it. As a matter of faith.

As Elder Propst points out in the film, it is LDS Church policy never to pay ransom for kidnapped missionaries (or other Church officials).  With 75,000 young people serving full-time all around the world, many in politically unstable nations, any ransom paid to kidnappers endangers every one of them.  I agree with this Church policy.  I can absolutely see why it’s necessary. But if my child were kidnapped, and if I had the financial means to save him or her, it’s hard for me to imagine that I wouldn’t personally ignore that policy and save my kid.

In the film, we can see how distraught the Propsts are about the dilemma in which they find themselves.  They suddenly have the money; they suddenly have the means to save their boy.  I found their willingness to submit to Church policy implausible.  I also completely believe that a faithful couple would act as they did.  In other words, I had two reactions to the scene in which they make that decision.  Part of me was going ‘oh, come on!’  And part of me was going ‘good for them. What incredible faith.  Wow.’

The other big decision moment in the film comes when sad sack Nikolai doesn’t secure Elder Propst after a bathroom break.  Suddenly, Propst’s no longer handcuffed to the wall.  Propst and Tuttle work out a plan.  They find an iron in the room (an electric iron, the kind you use to get wrinkles out of shirts).  They grab a sheet–they put on their winter boots.  Propst climbs up on a stool, holding the sheet; Tuttle holds the iron.  They’ll call for Nikolai, and when he comes in the room, Propst will throw the sheet over his head, and Tuttle will hit him with the iron, and they’ll try to take his gun, knock him out, and escape.

When I was 20, raised on action movies, I totally would have thought this was a good idea, and that I (who have never hit someone in my life), could nonetheless overpower an armed man.  It’s exactly the kind of hare-brained scheme 20 year-olds would think up.  And it could work.  Two healthy young men, with a rudimentary weapon and the element of surprise could possibly pull it off.  It’s believable.

And then Propst has a vision; a strong message, he believes, from God.  And changes his mind.  Gets off the stool, puts away the sheet and iron.  They take their boots off, get back  on the bed.  And fasten the handcuffs to the wall.  Either God will protect them, or their death, if it happens, is consistent with His will.  Fighting–beating Nikolai up and taking his gun and escaping–is not.

Again, as a faithful Mormon, I believe this is what actually happened.  I believe that the real Elder Propst had some kind of revelation, persuading him not to attack Nikolai. I’m sure that’s what actually happened; that they nearly attacked their guard, and decided not to. But it’s not plausible.  It’s not the kind of thing that happens in movies.

Not in real life, but in fictionally plausible life, 20-year olds attack and overpower their kidnappers, and parents ransom their kids.  In this movie, those two things do not happen, and do not happen for reasons relating directly to the faith of the characters, and presumably, the real people to whom this really happened.  This is not to bash movies.  This is not to say ‘movies have worldly values.’  It is to say that Aristotle is right, and we creators of fiction generally value the plausible over the real–the possible over the true.  Which makes this a faith-affirming film that, I suspect, mainstream audiences may not embrace.

Now, when we think of the ridiculous drivel that mainstream audiences do flock to, maybe this distinction wouldn’t matter.  In the (fantastically commercially successful) world of Taken, the father of one of the missionaries, a former CIA operative, would fly to Russia and kill the kidnappers, and 80 or so other Russian mobsters to boot. It’d be a Liam Neeson action flick, and as idiotic as those are, we’d buy it. Or perhaps an American diplomat (female) works with a world-weary Russian cop (male), and they can’t stand each other initially, but then work together and put clues together and solve the crime, and rescue the missionaries.  And fall in love.

I like Saratov better, obviously.  I’m a Mormon–the film affirms my entire belief system.  And I like Nikolai’s humanity, the awful trap he’s in, the way this basically decent guy suddenly finds himself kidnapping people.  And I like Sergei, haunted by a terrible past, committing actions that violate his best sense of who he is.  The missionaries survive, and their survival is rooted in, yes, faith, but also in believable choices made by well-defined and interestingly written characters.

I saw the film in a packed movie theater, which is significant because I saw it in Provo and there was a BYU home game the same exact time I saw the movie.  (Thank goodness for DVRs).  But the audience clearly was moved by the movie; saw a lot of teary faces leaving the house.  I don’t think this movie will be a break-out hit.  But I’m awfully glad investors put money into making it.  Garrett Batty’s made a darn fine film here.  We’ll see how well it does.

 

 

 

Nothing Personal: Opening night

My new play, Nothing Personal, opened last night at Plan B Theatre at the Rose Wagner Studio Theater, in Salt Lake.  I know, I know–how narcissistic, he’s writing about him watching his play.  Forgive me.  But this play is pretty. . . different.

It’s a strange experience anyway, watching a play you’ve written performed for an audience.  My wife’s teasing has cured me of my worst habits; mouthing the lines along with the actors, moaning in distress at the tiniest production glitches, writhing in my chair.  Still, I managed to make a spectacle of myself.  I had my cane with me, and shifting positions at one point, I managed to drop it onto the riser where I was seated.  Clatter clatter, crash.  The actors didn’t seem to notice, but afterwards, I learned, yeah, they had.

Nothing Personal  started off as a play about Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal, about the Clinton-era independent prosecutor’s pursuit of any and every sexual indiscretion committed by the President.  Odd, of course, since Starr was actually supposed to be investigating a real estate deal gone bust.  But prurience will out, and the national fascination with Monica Lewinsky’s stained dress became our take-away.  In the middle of it all was Susan McDougal, who served eighteen months in prison for contempt for court for refusing to testify regarding a false accusation of adultery made by chief Whitewater accuser David Hale.

I was fascinated by Susan.  I loved her integrity, and consider her essentially the one genuinely heroic figure in the whole Whitewater debacle.  And my initial impulse was to write a play about her, about her travails.  But as I worked on the play, I kept wanting to expand it.  I wrote the play mostly in the mid 2000s, the high water mark of the Bush war on terror, and allusions to ‘enhanced interrogation’ techniques and black sites and Gitmo, and other violations of human rights kept encroaching into the play.  So finally, I gave up.  It’s no longer a play about Kenneth Starr and Susan McDougal.  It’s about “Kenneth” and “Susan”, abuser and victim.  And it ranges very widely indeed from the actual facts of Whitewater, though with just enough specificity to ground it.

There are only three characters, only two of whom speak (mostly.)  Kenneth is played by Kirt Bateman, an astonishing local actor who has been in two of my other plays, and enriched both with his extraordinary talent.  Susan is played by April Fossen, who also starred in my play Miasma, and completely rocked the leading role in Suffrage, another recent Plan B offering.  The third, mostly silent character, the Matron, is played by Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin, an actress I didn’t know previously, but someone I have quickly become friends with.

The experience of watching the play is: intense. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it on stage before.  It really is like seeing someone we’ve come to care about being mistreated, eventually even tortured.  You feel completely hopeless, helpless.  Some audience members haven’t been able to handle it–a small handful have left early.

The play has seven scenes, and scene six is perhaps the most intense.  As the scene ended, I said, under my breath, a little swear word.  Completely involuntary. I’ve seen that scene in rehearsal many times.  Heck, I wrote it.  But I was shaken, shaky, distraught.  That’s an odd reaction, even for me–and as I say, I’m usually a basket case while watching my stuff. But it was as though I didn’t know what was going to happen next, I so completely identified with April Fossen’s performance.  My reaction was visceral.  That horrible woman and that awful man are going to hurt that nice young woman!  (Speaking of two actors I love, people I signed off on casting!)

I’m awful that way, though.  I’ve been doing theatre all my life, ever since, age six, I got to perform in the opera Peter Grimes with my Dad.  But a few years ago, I was watching Arsenic and Old Lace in a fine BYU production.  The actresses who played the two murderous old ladies are life-long friends of mine.  I passed by the set as it was being built every day on my way to my car.  And still, watching the play in production, every time the two old ladies exited, I imagined them going to a real kitchen, making real tea or real sandwiches.  Even though I knew, absolutely knew, there was no kitchen backstage, and in fact they were heading backstage to sit in chairs drinking water waiting for their next entrance.

I suspend disbelief, is what I’m saying.  And so, last night, watching my play, that I wrote, in performance, having previously seen it in rehearsal, I didn’t think ‘dang, April is giving a tremendous performance, holy cow Kirt is great in this, my golly Dee-Dee is amazing.’  That was all true, but that wasn’t what I thought.  What I thought was ‘that poor woman.  Those awful people persecuting her.’

That’s live theatre.  It’s the ultimate exercise in compassion and empathy.  And yes, it’s artificial, it’s a simulacrum of reality, it’s just art and artifice.  The characters aren’t people, they’re constructs of language.  But we believe.  And we care.  And from that, we think new thoughts and consider new ideas, and deeply engage with, yes, a fiction, but a fiction that speaks truer than Truth.

Or so I thought and so I felt last night.

Nothing Personal runs through Nov. 3.  Tickets are still available.

Two terrific Scandinavian films

I have been fascinated by the rise of contemporary Scandinavian filmmaking, mostly coming from Norway and Denmark.  Sweden, of course, has Ingmar Bergman to crow about–certainly one of the most important filmmakers of the twentieth century. And of course Lars von Trier and Susanne Bier are internationally famous. But in addition to those giants, Denmark and Norway have both provided funding for a whole string of terrific young directors, and in the last five years, we’ve seen some genuinely brilliant work.

This week, I want to talk about two such films, one Danish and one Norwegian, both about the world of big business, and the world of high crime, and similarities between them. Neither film is exactly ground-breaking stylistically, but they’re highly sophisticated films, reflecting larger movements in contemporary filmmaking.

The Norwegian film Headhunters (Hodejagerne) is the third feature film by director Morten Tyldum; his two previous films were a thriller and a rom-com.  It stars Aksel Hennie, who played the heroic Norwegian freedom fighter Max Manus in the film by that same title.  In this film, Hennie plays Roger Brown, a corporate headhunter.  That is, he’s a guy who consults with big multi-nationals looking for a CEO, and also the guy who grooms smaller company presidents looking to move up in the corporate world.  He’s happily married to Diana (Synnøve Macody Lund), their marriage only slightly marred by the fact that’s she’s half a foot taller than he is (which he insists only slightly bothers him), and also by his lifestyle, which outstrips his salary by a considerable sum.  To make up the financial difference, he’s a successful high-end art thief.  And the two jobs are related–when interviewing potential CEO’s, he’s casually casing their homes.

It starts to fall apart when he chooses the wrong target.  A particularly ruthless businessman, Clas Greve (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) is up for a highly desirable CEO position, and also owns, it appears, a Rembrandt.  It turns out Greve is just setting him up, and is also even more ruthless than Roger ever imagined.  Hence the plot, in which an increasingly desperate (but just-clever enough) Roger barely escapes from trap after trap.

The film is very Coen Brothers–reminds me a great deal of Fargo or others of the Coens’ caper films.  Greve’s trying to kill Roger, and has no qualms about taking out various policemen along the way–Roger, meanwhile, is forced to hide out in various unpleasant places.  An outhouse, for one.  And guess where?  In what part of the outhouse?  Yep.

I found the ending a trifle disappointing, but I may have misread it. I found it a bit sentimental, and thought it tonally off, at odds with the absurdist violence of the rest of the film.  And unearned–Roger’s the hero of the film, but he’s hardly a good guy–moralistically speaking, he doesn’t deserve a happy ending.  But maybe that’s intentional, maybe it’s some kind of meta-cinematic comment about compulsory narrative closure, obligatory poetic justice.  Meanwhile, the film’s amazing, even very funny in a ‘ewwwww’ sort of way.  Put it this way; do you like FargoBarton Fink, The Big Lebowski, Blood Simple?  If so, check out Headhunters.

The second film I want to talk about is A Hijacking (Kapringen), the second feature from writer/director Tobias Lindholm.  His first film, R, is a sensational naturalist prison drama–in this film, the focus is the corporate boardroom, every big as feral and dangerous.

I haven’t seen Captain Phillips yet, and now, after seeing A Hijacking, I’m not sure I want to.  It’s hard to imagine a better film about a boat hijacked by Somali pirates.  The MV Rozen, a Danish cargo ship, is close to port when it’s boarded.  We don’t see the boarding, and for the first half of the film, we hardly know the pirates at all.  The focus is on the corporate headquarters of Rozen’s owners, and CEO Peter Ludwigsen (Søren Malling), who is negotiating its release.  And then cut back to the ship, and especially the ship’s cook, Mikkel (Pilou Asbæk), the one crew member who gets to move around a bit, because he has to provide food for crew and pirates alike.

As the film progresses, we also meet Omar (Abdihaken Asgar), who negotiates for the pirates, but claims not to be one. So as Peter claims to have to clear any cash payment with his board, Omar claims to answer to the pirates, and of course both sides see the other sides’ offers insultingly low.

Peter is one of those ‘rather be feared than loved’ sorts of bosses, buttoned-down, but plenty ruthless.  Omar, meanwhile, can go from genial to ferocious immediately, as needed, tactically.  And poor Mikkel just wants to get home to his wife and daughter.  The whole film manages to balance incredible dramatic tension with an almost off-handed super-realism.  And the negotiations drag on, and on.  We never sense that Peter is indifferent to the welfare of his threatened employees–he fully intends to do what he can to bring them home safely.  But he’s also not about to pay top dollar for their release, not least because his board really won’t let him.  And so the negotiations drag on. For months.  And Mikkel’s pantry empties, and the ship’s drinking water is nearly gone.  By the end of the film, the constant tension under which Mikkel labors has driven him nearly catatonic.

I won’t give away the ending, except to say that things do sort of work out, but not without terrible consequences.  But the film itself honors the ultra-naturalist tradition, found in this country by the films of Kelly Reichardt and Derek Cianfrance and the Duplass brothers and so many others.  It’s the starkest, most compelling film I’ve seen in months.

So anyway.  Two great films, by two young and gifted Scandinavian filmmakers.  Check ’em out.

 

Reimagining 2012

Political junkie that I am, I just finished reading yet another book about the 2012 election, Dan Balz’ Collision 2012: Obama v. Romney and the future of elections in America.  I thought it was first-rate, outstanding; very even-handed and fair.  Jonathan Alter’s The Center Holds, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago and which I also liked at lot, nonetheless was odd unbalanced: about 60% about the Obama campaign, and 40% about the Romney campaign.  Balz’ book focuses much more on Romney–at least 70% of the book is about the Republican candidates–but that seems fair to me.  After all, Romney had to win the Republican nomination first, and only then, after that grueling battle, turn to the general election.  Obama was unopposed among Democrats.

The book is also very fair to Mitt Romney personally, which I also appreciated.  It portrays him as a somewhat gaffe-prone campaigner, but as a decent and caring man, a man of family and faith, and a much more effective candidate than he’s often portrayed.  The book does dissect his electoral loss, but blames it more on demographics than any personal failings of Mitt Romney himself. I agree with that perspective.

One theme I found both fascinating and a bit depressing is how hard a long campaign is on the candidates’ families. Several prominent Republicans considered running for President, including men who may well have been formidable contenders–Chris Christie, Mitch Daniels, Haley Barbour.  Daniels was thought by some to have the strongest credentials of any in the field–a very successful governor, with federal experience.  But his wife wouldn’t hear of it–and one can hardly blame her.

Mitt Romney polled his family before running in 2008. At a family retreat, the governor, his wife, Ann, their five children and their children’s spouses each got a vote; the tally was 12-0 to run.  Having gone through it once, though, in 2011, the family voted very differently.  This time, it came out 10-2 against running, with Ann Romney and oldest son Tagg the only votes in favor of running. For most of the Romneys, it was just too grueling, too invasive, too unpleasant. Ann was willing to do it, though, and Tagg was able to talk the other kids and spouses around. And he ran, frankly, because Mitt Romney was a patriotic man afraid for the future of his country.  I respect that.

Eventually, of course, after further discussion, Governor Romney did run, won the nomination and lost the general election, but it’s intriguing to wonder what might have happened if the Governor had followed his initial instinct and withdrawn.  Who would the Republican candidate have been?  Rick Perry?  Rick Santorum?  Newt Gingrich?  I have to think that any of them would have been a much weaker candidate than Romney proved to be.  Perhaps the election would have been a bigger landslide than it turned out to be?  Perhaps Obama would have had bigger coattails, maybe even winning back the House of Representatives?  It’s intriguing to consider.

But, let’s consider another alternate universe mind game.  What if, instead of John McCain, Mitt Romney had been the Republican candidate in 2008?  Could he have won?  After all, his main appeal was as a businessman who could fix an ailing economy. The economy was a good deal sicker in 2008 than in 2012.  What if Romney had won the Presidency in 2008?

First of all, we wouldn’t be talking about Obamacare now, would we?  But I think it’s likely that we would be talking about health care.  Mitt Romney’s signal achievement as governor of Massachusetts was health care reform. And considering that Americans spend twice as much as most other nations on health care, with significantly poorer health outcomes, I think any President in 2008 would have to at least consider making health care reform a priority.  Differences between Romneycare and Obamacare are trivial, and the aspects of the ACA that conservatives hate the most, especially the individual mandate, are also part of the Massachusetts plan.  I think, therefore, that Romney would propose a national plan essentially similar to Obamacare, with the only real difference being that Republicans would generally support it.  And I think Democratic opposition would be fairly muted.  Anything that helps poor people get coverage would find fairly substantial Democratic support.  So I think, in 2012, we’d still be implementing Obamacare, only it’d be named after Romney, and popular with conservatives.

But I also think that the Democratic candidate in 2012, whether Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, would very likely have held Romney to a single term as President.

The economy was in very serious trouble in 2008.  The initial steps to save it–bail out banks, save the auto industry–would probably also have been implemented by Romney.  But Mitt Romney is a Republican.  Nowadays, that generally implies disdain for Keynesian macro-economics, and a fondness for supply-side solutions.  And given that what we faced in 2007-8 was a liquidity trap, in which the zero lower bound on short-term interest rates rendered monetary policies alone ineffectual, I don’t think Romney would have embraced the obvious Keynesian solution.  I don’t think he would have, or even politically could have, asked Congress for a stimulus package.

Look at Romney’s 2012 campaign.  His entire appeal was technocratic–I’m a businessman, I know how to fix an ailing economy, I’m capable of getting under the hood of our economic engine and tinkering with it and getting it running again.  But his specific proposals were utter nonsense.  He embraced the Paul Ryan plan.  He talked about a tax cut.  He insisted that his tax cut would be revenue neutral, because he would off-set it by closing deductions, but the numbers never came close to adding up–there simply weren’t enough deductions that could be closed.

In other words, to the extent that Governor Romney offered a specific plan to fix the economy, it made no sense.  He wanted to cut spending (unspecified).  He wanted to cut taxes, which, he said, wouldn’t add to the deficit because his tax cuts would be balanced by closing loopholes (unspecified, and imaginary).  At a time when we needed to pump more money into the economy, he proposed pulling money out of the economy.  And what’s the point in a tax cut that’s revenue-neutral?  Do we want to increase the money supply, or decrease it?  And do investors, when considering investments, even worry much about tax rates?  Isn’t their main concern ‘is this a good investment?’

So let’s suppose that he won election in 2008, facing the same world-wide economic crisis that Obama faced.  Everything we know about the man tells us he would have embraced austerity, like Europe did.  And we know, for an absolute certainty, what austerity in the face of a demand-side recession does.  It deepens the recession.  We know that, with complete assurance, because that’s what’s what happened to the Europeans.

I will grant you that the economy hasn’t exactly been robust under Obama.  That’s because the amount of stimulus the economy needed was at least double the amount that it actually got. In addition to funding shovel-ready infrastructure improvements, we should have given states block grants so they wouldn’t have had to lay off so many public employees.  (Job losses in the public sector are the main driver of high unemployment right now).  Right now, unemployment rates in the US are around 7.3%. That’s too high.  That’s not great.  We still have a major unemployment problem.  But it’s higher in England, and well over 10% in France.

Now, I suppose it’s possible that Romney could have campaigned as a Hayekian and governed as a Keynesian. The man does seem to embrace a certain . . . flexibility of mind.  I don’t see him as a conservative idealogue.  But if there is one macro-economic doctrine with a proven track record of unequivocal failure, it’s supply-side, trickle-down, Laffer curve economics.  Or, in other words, the basic working assumptions of the Paul Ryan budget plan.

Anyway, it’s fun to speculate, and I could be entirely wrong about all of it.  But it’s interesting to think about a world in which Obamacare is a Republican idea, embraced by conservatives, and in which we really did try austerity, and watched it fail here too.  All things considered, I’ll take the reality we actually have.

 

 

Ylvis

So I’ve been sitting here with a cold, laughing my head off, having just discovered a new band.  When I say ‘new band,’ I mean, to me they’re new.  They have a YouTube video, after all, with over a hundred million hits.  It’s what they’re known for.  You’ve all probably all seen it many times over.  It’s the video “What does the fox say?

I’ve heard they did the video mostly as a joke, and that’s quite possible.  But it has all the qualities I’ve noticed in song after song of theirs: an incredibly catchy tune, a fun video, a mock serious lead singer (with a terrific pop voice), and head scratching lyrics.  I mean, what?  What does the fox say?  It’s like a Sesame Street video, as written by Christopher Durang and produced by Weird Al.

But again, boy, is that tune catchy.

Ylvis is basically two Norwegian guys, brothers, Vegard and Bård Ylvisåker.  Vegard’s older by four years; are now in their mid-thirties.  They added a third guy, Calle Helvevang-Larsen for their TV show Ikveld med Ylvis (Tonight with Ylvis).  They’re basically a variety comedy act.  Terrific musicians, with their own off-beat sense of humor.

They’re very Norwegian, though, in their approach to comedy, and often in the subjects they’re attracted to.  I wonder if American or international fans really get a lot of what they’re about.  For example, there’s this. They’re on the set of their TV show, and then the other two leave Vegard alone, and he looks soulfully at the camera and sings “You raise me up.”  You know that song, a favorite of Josh Groban, covered many times by many other artists. Originally, though, it was written and recorded by Secret Garden, a Norwegian band.  Well, Norwegian/Irish.

Okay, so Vegard’s singing, and suddenly he turns, and starts singing to a middle-aged blonde woman (who can barely keep a straight face).  What? Who?  Well, it’s Erna Solberg.  Prime Minister of Norway.  Imagine Chris Rock or Will Farrell singing “You raise me up” to Barack Obama.  I just think that’s a very funny bit.

And the great thing about is that Vegard has a lovely voice.  (So does Bård).  And even when he’s singing this pretty uplifting song absolutely straight, you know there’s a catch; something funny is going on, even if we don’t get it yet.

I also love the satire of their song (and video) “Jan Egeland”.  The real Jan Egeland is one of the most respected politicians in Norway.  Heck, in the world. Here’s his Wikipedia page. An indefatigable worker for peace and human rights. An extraordinary diplomat. Hard to think of an American equivalent, except maybe Jimmy Carter.  But it’s essentially impossible to imagine an American comedy rock band doing a song with these lyrics:

“When he’s sad, he goes to funerals,

in unusually heavy rain.

Large amounts of water in his face, but that doesn’t hide his pain.

He breaks down just like a homo,

And starts crying just like a girl,

But I guess you can cry, and still be a man, when your day job is saving the world.”

 

And no, the song is not a slam on Egeland.  The tone is triumphant, the intent is sympathetic and reverential. With those lyrics. (And Jan Egeland is said to love the song–thinks it’s hilarious).

The Cabin (quick content warning before you link to the video) is similar, though again, I think it’s hilarious; it’s funnier if you know the cultural context.  Norwegians (like Utahns, come to think of it), love their “hyttas“–rustic cabins. They love getting away to the mountains, love the getaway thus provided.  At least Norwegian guys do–it’s no secret that some Norwegian women are less enthusiastic.  The song has a lovely R&B feel, and it’s basically a love song, a paean to rustic simplicity and authenticity.

“Sixty square meters of heaven on earth, a tiny wooden paradise.

My own private pinewood Taj Mahal,

except for the shape and the size.”

The song also, of course, makes abundantly clear why his wife hasn’t joined him there for ten years–it’s tiny, freezing, unsanitary. But it’s his Taj Mahal.  And it’s completely his.  Except for having to share it with, like, eight family members.

I also love their Christmas parody song, “Da vet du at det er jul“, which, sadly, you have to speak Norwegian to get. But it’s great, every Christmas cliche imaginable.  And then quite horrible realities intrude.

More accessible to non-Norwegian speakers is “Stonehenge“. in many respects, it’s like “What does the fox say?”, in that it asks an unanswerable question, and also has an insanely catchy tune. (Bit of a content advisory for that video too, sorry).  I mean, seriously, why did they build Stonehenge?  And wouldn’t you give your car to find out the answer?  Even a really reliable Honda Civic?

Finally, let me recommend “Someone like me.” It’s a really pretty, sort of Burt Bacharach-esque love song. With a really nasty dub-step beat. Really funny stuff.

Who can Ylvis be compared to?  Lonely Island comes to mind, a band Ylvis say they admire, but hadn’t heard of until very recently.  I think more of Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand comedy rock duo.  Check out their Hiphopopotomus vs. Rhymenoceros. Much of the same goofy fun, combined with musicianship. Or maybe a bit of Stephen Lynch.

But Ylvis isn’t any kind of copycat band. They’re uniquely, goofily Norwegian; internationally minded, sophisticated, exceptionally bright, influenced by musical styles from everywhere, but also with their own take on what’s funny.  Check ’em out.  Except you already have.

 

 

 

Yes!

The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just announced their nominees for 2014 induction.  You can vote here. We’re allowed to vote for five candidates, and as usual, I’m really really torn.  Honestly, it wouldn’t break my heart if they all made it.  But two bands in particular seem controversial.  KISS is finally nominated.  And the other band is Yes.

There is, and always has been, a close connection between the  Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Rolling Stone Magazine and Columbia records.  This makes sense, because the most important founders of the RRHOF were Ahmet Ertugen and Jann Wenner.  And HOF voters have always despised progressive rock. Jethro Tull is not in the HOF.  Nor is Emerson, Lake and Palmer, nor is Gentle Giant, nor King Crimson, nor the Moody Blues.  Pink Floyd made it, but they were only tangentially prog.

The reality is that the Rock and Roll of Fame voters are largely comprised of rock historians, many of them from Rolling Stone Magazine, who think prog rock sucks.  They think it’s pretentious, they think it’s not really rock and roll.  They think it’s the very definition of terrible music.  And as a lifelong prog rock fan, as a person for whom, in high school, Gentle Giant and Jethro Tull and Yes were the sound track to my life, that’s a highly offensive attitude.  So last year, when Rush made it on the ballot (and was voted into the Hall by fans), it felt very much like the prog rock camel’s nose slipping under the tent flap.  This year, let’s bring in the rest of the camel.

Which is another way of saying, yes!  to the fact that Yes made it on the ballot.  And so did Peter Gabriel.

But this year, I’m going to do something else.  I’m going to compare the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame nominees to Baseball Hall of Fame inductees.  I mean, the first is clearly modeled on the second, including the name ‘Hall of Fame.’  Plus I think this might be kind of fun.

Here are the candidates, with my comments on each:

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band:  NO.

They were up last year, and I think will be on the ballot every year until they get in.  Someone at the Rolling Stone really really likes this band.  Let me say, first, that blues-based mid-sixties rock bands are not exactly in short supply in the Hall.  They had two great albums, basically.  They played at Woodstock.  I just don’t see their accomplishments as sufficiently substantial to warrant inclusion. Baseball equivalent: Pistol Pete Reiser.  (Reiser was a great young player, very short career due to frequent injuries).

Chic: NO.

Important disco band. I love the guitar lick on “Le Freak.”  But disco is already well represented in the Hall.  I vote no.  Baseball equivalent: Omar Moreno.  (Slick fielder, very fast and fun-to-watch baserunner, couldn’t hit, didn’t stick.)

Deep Purple: NO.

I love Deep Purple.  The opening guitar lick for “Smoke on the Water” is iconic.  Great keyboard work from Jon Lord, great guitarist in Ritchie Blackmore.  Very tough call, but the band didn’t last quite long enough for me to vote for them this time around.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Parker. (Old Pirates outfielder; genuinely great player, not quite HOF material).

Peter Gabriel: YES

One of the great innovators in rock history, a restless explorer trangressing musical boundaries.  Also a guy who reinvented the rock video, turned the four minute mini-movie into an avant-garde art form.  Enthusiastic yes: he’s gotta be in.  Baseball equivalent: Dennis Eckersley (Brilliant starting pitcher, even better relief pitcher; versatile and superb).

Hall and Oates: Blarg.  NO.

Just too top 40 for my taste.  To make the HOF, you have to do more than craft hit after hit.  I get why they’re nominated, but they’re the bottom of the pile this year. Baseball equivalent: Steve Garvey.  (Dodger first baseman, big star, massively overrated).

KISS: NO.

But a tough call.  I’m voting no, frankly, because I just don’t like their music very much. And everything about their approach seems cynical to me. “You wanna like some music your parents will HATE? Right?”  But they were influential and popular.  (Speak of cynical, though: I don’t think it’s an accident that KISS got nominated the same year Yes was.  The HOF loathes both bands, but recognizes they have very large and vocal fan bases. And while we can all vote five times, only the top vote-getter automatically makes it in).  Baseball equivalent: Jose Canseco. (No one liked his antics, but grudgingly had to admit his gifts).

LL Cool J: NO

One of the great rappers, I think he’ll make it in eventually.  But I like the idea of promoting diversity–having inductees representing a variety of sub-genres.  And N.W.A. is more important, historically.  Baseball equivalent: Bernie Williams. (Great player on those great 90’s Yankees teams, not quite enough resume to be in).

The Meters: NO.

Fantastic New Orleans funk band, though. Really like ’em.  But they had kind of a short career, then became a sessions band, recording with a huge variety of other artists.  A lot of great bands up for induction this year–sadly, for me, they don’t quite make the cut. Baseball equivalent: Luis Tiant. (Red Sox pitcher, fun to watch, contorted his body oddly before each pitch).

Nirvana: YES.

The easy choice this year.  Obvious yes.  Incredibly important band, historically and artistically and culturally.  Baseball equivalent: Pedro Martinez: (incredibly good, but sadly short career, not in the HOF yet, but will be soon).

N. W. A.: YES.

We’re just moving into the rap era.  Because of the Hall’s eligibility requirements–they can’t be nominated until 25 years has passed since they released their first record–Tupac, Biggie Smalls, that generation is just starting to be nominated.  N.W.A. is one of the most influential bands in history, a band that showed the radical political power of rap.  Easy call.  Baseball equivalent: Rickie Henderson (greatest lead-off hitter in history, but not really recognized as great until the Bill James revolution changed how we look at the game).

The Replacements: NO

But I hate myself for not voting for them. I know they influenced everyone from Nirvana to Green Day to Fall Out Boy. And every few days or so, I get in the mood for some DIY post-punk indie and go to my Replacements Pandora station. But I’m not sure they were ever quite . . .  substantial enough for this company. Baseball equivalent: Fernando Valenzuela: (Remember Fernandomania?  So immensely charismatic and fun, and then it all went away).

Linda Ronstadt: NO

A very reluctant no. I love her music, owned several albums, plus had a huge crush on her based solely on her Hasten Down the Wind album cover. I don’t like Hall and Oates and I do like Linda Ronstadt, but I won’t vote for either this year for much the same reason: they had a lot of hits, but weren’t important historically.  Baseball equivalent: Don Mattingly.  (Yankee first baseman; not quite as good as we thought at the time).

Cat Stevens: YES

I love Cat Stevens’ music. I listen to it all the time, and I think there was a time, about 1974 or so, when his music kind of saved me.  I found hope in his music when I was feeling kind of hopeless; he’s honestly one of the reasons I went on a mission.  And I admire his courage; converting to Islam because of the peace he found in it.  I love this guy–he has to make it in.  Baseball equivalent: Barry Bonds. (Controversial choices, but my gosh was he great).

Link Wray: NO

I get his historical importance.  But does the Hall really need another late-50’s guitar player?  Not given the strength of the other contenders.  Baseball equivalent: Bruce Sutter.  (Cubs pitcher, invented the split-fingered fastball.  But was he that great on his own merits?)

Yes: YES

A thousand times yes.  Of course Yes belongs in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. To say otherwise is just pure snobbery and prejudice.  One of the greatest bands in history, a band as important to the seventies as the Rolling Stones or Who were to earlier generations.  Baseball Equivalent: Tom Seaver: (yes, Tommy Terrific. That good).

The Zombies: NO

But not a bad choice. Again, though, it’s not like the RRHOF has a shortage of British Invasion sixties bands.  I’m not kidding–Herman’s Hermits will make it some day.  Baseball equivalent: Dave Kingman: (at the end of the day, just another slugging first baseman).

Anyway, I put the link above. Vote! The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame needs your input.  And remember: Yes is, in fact, on the ballot this year.  Just a reminder.. . .

It’s over . . . for now

So, okay, last Tuesday night, the US national men’s soccer team was playing Panama’s national team.  In Panama.  It was a World Cup qualifying game, but meant nothing to the US team–we’ve already qualified for the World Cup, first in our group.  But this game still needed to be played, and was important; if Panama won, and Mexico lost, Panama would qualify for the World Cup.  If the US won, however, Mexico would qualify. Mexico was playing at Costa Rica, and could also qualify just by winning.  But late in the evening, the US was behind Panama 2-1, and Mexico was losing, also 2-1.

Mexico is a soccer-mad nation, and for their national team to not qualify for the World Cup would be a national bummer of epic proportions.  Panama is a much smaller country, what with being split in half by a ditch and all; making the World Cup would be super cool for them too.

Soccer games last 90 minutes, with the clock running continuously.  But during the game, guys get hurt, penalties get assessed, and the referee keeps track of how long the game is delayed by those events, and that time then gets added to the 90 minutes at the end.  It’s called ‘stoppage time.’  Which means, when the clock shows that 90 minutes are up, there are usually 3 or 4 minutes left to play. And goals scored in stoppage time count, obviously.

So after 90 minutes, Mexico trailed Costa Rica, and the US trailed Panama.  And it looked like Panama was going to the World Cup.

The Mexican national team stands to lose 600 million dollars this year.  If they don’t make the World Cup, their finances are that amount in arrears.  They hope that by making it to Brazil, to the World Cup, they’ll recoup those losses.

Sunday night, the Red Sox, having earlier lost Game One of the American League Championship Series, trailed the Tigers in Game Two.  In the 8th inning, they were behind 5-1.  If they lost the first two games of that 7 game series, they were unlikely to win the series.  Especially since the Tigers have the two best pitchers in baseball, Justin Verlander and Max Scherzer, ready to go as needed.

Also, the New England Patriots were losing to the New Orleans Saints at home, 27-23, with a little over a minute left.  The Patriots’ quarterback, Tom Brady, is superb.  But his best receivers are all hurt.  They’ve dropped pass after pass.  He’s working with third stringers, plus former BYU star, Austin Collie, who has been with the team two days and doesn’t know the plays.

The Tigers play in Detroit. Detroit is bankrupt.  Detroit is also home to the auto industry, which nearly went bankrupt.  One of President Obama’s signal domestic accomplishments was his loan, which led to the restructuring of the auto industry, saving thousands of jobs.  It would be really really good for Detroit to win the World Series.  This year.

The Red Sox are from Boston.  Boston has an annual holiday, Patriot’s day, third Monday in April. Schools are closed, also municipal buildings.  The Red Sox play at home.  And later in the day, the Boston Marathon is run.  This year, the Marathon was interrupted by two bombs, which killed three people and badly injured dozens more.  The Patriots also play in Boston.

Meanwhile, Tuesday night, John Boehner presented a bill in the House of Representatives that would re-open the government and allow us to avoid default on our nation’s debts.  This bill was pretty close to the Republicans last chance to get something substantive in their negotiations.  Assuming it could pass the House, pass on a Senate vote, and be signed by the President, all of which looked pretty iffy.

The US soccer team has a guy, Graham Zusi, plays professionally for Kansas City, barely on the National team, but hardly ever plays.  For the US, this game against Panama doesn’t matter–none of our stars are in the game.  But in stoppage time, Zusi heads in a perfect cross.  Game tied, in the 92nd minute.

Tuesday night, as the House is preparing to vote on Boehner’s bill, the conservative advocacy group Heritage Action vets the bill, says House Republicans should vote against it.  The Heritage Foundation is run by former Senator Jim DeMint.  For a few minutes, it appears that DeMint is de facto House Speaker.  In any event, Heritage Action’s memo scuttles the bill–rather than suffer a humiliating defeat, Boehner withdraws it.

Tom Brady moves the Patriots down the field.  A key fourth down catch is made by Austin Collie.  With five seconds left, Brady throws a touchdown to an undrafted free agent rookie receiver, Kenbrell Thompkins.  The Patriots, who looked dead, win the game.

David Ortiz, of the Red Sox, comes up with the bases loaded in the 8th, facing the Tigers best relief pitcher, Joaquin Benoit.  Ortiz hits a low line drive to right.  The right field wall in Fenway Park is very low; it looks like the ball might barely clear it.  Tigers right fielder Torii Hunter leaps, actually jumps over the fence.  The ball eludes his glove.  Game tied.  In the 9th, the Red Sox, who looked dead, win the game.

David Ortiz, Big Papi, is the only Red Sox player still on the team who played in the 2004 World Series, in which the Sox shattered the curse of Babe Ruth.  A big Dominican, he has been embraced in the city of Boston as few other athletes have ever been embraced by their cities.  The day after the Boston bombing, Ortiz asked to take the take the mic.  When he said, proudly, “this is our f-ing city,” the place erupted.  That was in April.  Now, in October, the season on the line, he hits a grand slam home run to win a game they had to win.

In Panama, in the 94th minute, well into stoppage time by now, the game nearly over, another USA reserve, Aron Johannsson, strikes a ball sharply for the left corner of the goal.  It barely slides past the diving keeper.  Here’s a link.The USA, who looked dead, win the game 3-2.

In Costa Rica, the Mexican announcer hears the US score and goes berserk.  The Mexican national team, who looked completely dead, have qualified for . . . well, not the World Cup, but a playoff game with New Zealand, the winner to advance to the World Cup.  The announcer’s great: audibly weeping, he shouts ‘GOAAAAAALLLLLLLL’.  For a goal in a different game than the one he was announcing, played in a different country.  Then he says, in English, “We love you!  We love you forever! God bless America.”  And then, best I can make out, the same sentiments many many times in Spanish.

Mexico advances.  The Red Sox win.  The Patriots win.

On Wednesday, Senators Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell, the Majority and Minority leaders of the Senate, craft a bill that will re-open the government, and raise the debt ceiling.   Speaker Boehner calls for a House vote, which passes.  The President signs it into law. The United States of America, which looked as close to dead as it’s possible for the richest nation in the history of the world to look, just that close to default, our full faith and credit in jeopardy, probably the world economy at risk, has (barely) survived another crisis.

It’s been, to say the least, an exciting few days.  The Patriots survived.  Detroit and Boston, two cities who need some good news, remain locked in a titanic playoff battle.  Mexico, right now, loves America.  And a few other people whose patriotism seemed dubious did, finally, do the right thing for the country.  So dish up some ice cream, or whatever you celebrate with, and, very quietly, rejoice.  They play the Super Bowl every year, and the debt ceiling will have to be raised again in February.