On global warming

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I can’t breathe”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that would never happen, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

Some thoughts on Ferguson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The true meaning of Christmas

To all pastors, ministers, priests, bishops and elders, of whatever Christian denomination:

I’m asking you, please: do not denounce, decry, disparage, lament, condemn, attack or rail against the commercialization of Christmas. Do not complain about Black Friday, or Christmas advertising. Christmas excess and Christmas commerce can make for tempting subjects for sermonizing. Resist that temptation.

During the Christmas season, people are subjected to tremendous cultural pressure to buy lots of stuff for their friends and loved ones. Merchants plan on this. They base sales projections, bonuses, advertising budgets, work schedules around it. Many small businesses rely on the Christmas season for their very survival.

If people don’t buy things during the holiday season, it could destroy the economy. In a destroyed economy, human suffering increases ten-fold. The poor are hammered. Even in a diminished or weakened economy, people suffer, people are harmed. Homelessness increases. Starvation can result. I say this with some confidence: Jesus does not want for any of that to happen.

Commerce is not evil. Commerce is good. People buying and other people selling; all are positive, good activities. A robust commercial season increases employment, allows more people to support themselves and their families. Encourage people to shop, to spend. As robustly as their budgets will allow.

I am a Mormon. The LDS Church recently invested in the building of a new, downtown, Salt Lake City shopping mall. I know some people criticized this. I didn’t, and don’t. That investment spurred economic growth. It rejuvenated the downtown. It led to the creation of businesses, to new jobs.  It allowed people who had been unemployed to find employment.

We’re urged, at Christmas, to contemplate the True Meaning of Christmas. Indeed, we should do precisely that. We should give to local food banks and homeless shelters. We should increase our charitable giving; of course we should. And we should remember that the Christmas narrative involved the giving of gifts, really expensive ones, which undoubtedly came in handy for Joseph and Mary, poor young people from Nazareth, a tiny, impoverished village.

You say that Christmas advertising is tacky. The key words at Christmas are “Peace,” “Love” and “Joy”. Peace and love don’t lend themselves to ads, but ‘joy’ sure does. And so we see ads describing ‘the Joy of Fleece,” “the Joy of Chocolate,” “the Joy of Earthen Bakeware.” To describe Christmas ads as ‘tacky’ is to make an aesthetic, not a moral judgment. If tackiness moves product, then tackiness is likewise a social good, and should be applauded. Snicker, but buy.

Can Christmas shopping be overdone? Of course it can be. Anything good can be. Should we put ourselves massively in debt for expensive gifts? Certainly not. That doesn’t mean we should neglect dear old Aunt Mildred, or leave out our daughter’s step-kids. Be generous. Remember Scrooge, who discovered the true meaning of Christmas, and did what? Bought gifts for people!

And children! Christmas is about the birth of a Child, and it’s the holiday most beloved by children. And certainly a lot of Christmas advertising is aimed at kids, and certainly the toys aren’t always of the highest quality. But kids love opening presents. Is there anything inherently un-Christian about making children happy, even if only for a moment? I say no. Brave the lines at Toys R Us! Shop for your kids, all the kids in your life!  It’s good for the economy, and believe me, we want the economy to prosper. Because kids are the first ones hurt when it doesn’t.

Every year, we hear it. “The commercialization of Christmas.” Or sermons attacking Santa. Thank heavens no one pays the least attention. Have a Merry Christmas! Buy stuff! Lots of it!  Celebrate this holiday season! Shop!

Interstellar: Movie Review

I’m going to assume that many of you have already seen Interstellar. It’s a big budget, well-marketed movie, written and directed by one of the hottest and most exciting big-deal directors in the business: Christopher Nolan. And it’s been out since the beginning of November. Here it is, almost Thanksgiving. And it’s taken me til now to get  my sorry butt to the movie theater, and subsequently in front of a computer? What’s wrong with me?

Plus, since it came out, I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve had this experience; I run into a friend, and we chat, and the conversation winds around to movies, and they say ‘have you seen Interstellar?’ With that peculiar eagerness that some movies seem to provoke, where everyone who sees it absolutely has to talk to someone about it. It’s that kind of big popular culture phenomenon, where seeing it isn’t enough, where you also have to engage in subsequent conversation.

So here’s my initial reaction: it’s a really good movie. It’s exceptionally well filmed, well acted, well written. Not surprising, since it’s a Christopher Nolan film, and he really does seem to be one of those directors who knows what he’s doing. Matthew McConaughey is great in it. This is not surprising, because he’s a terrific actor, but he’s particularly good in this. Anne Hathaway, not really my go-to actress to play a scientist, is completely convincing in the role. So is Jessica Chastain. So is SPOILER ALERT, the Big Movie Star who shows up two thirds of the way in, dominates maybe fifteen minutes of the movie, and then disappears forever. I enjoyed it. I’m glad I saw it. I was on the edge of my seat. I was moved, at times, and scared at times for the characters, and emotionally engaged in their fates, all of them, the whole movie. Pity+Fear=Catharsis; Aristotle would have been blown away by it, not least because it’s all science-y and A-dog was the pre-eminent scientist of the 4th century BCE.  Two thumbs up. Positive movie-going experience. All that.

But.

The next morning?

Okay, if you haven’t seen it, and are only reading this so you can decide if you want to see it, read no more, and go see it. It’s still in town, will be for weeks, and you’ll enjoy it. You’ll get your money’s worth. Honestly, it’s a really good movie.

So: warning, it’s nothing but SPOILERS from here on in. Because it really is the kind of movie that you want to talk about with people afterwards, and to some extent, I think, those post-viewing conversations work maybe a little bit to the movie experience’s detriment. I’m not sure it’s a movie that wears all that well.  And here’s why.

Okay, so, a crop-destroying plague is slowly choking off life on planet Earth. McConaughey plays Cooper, former pilot/astronaut turned farmer, with two kids, Tom, the boy, Murph, the girl. Casey Affleck and Jessica Chastain later on in the movie, played by two kids earlier. Tom loves farming, and is good at it; Murph is super-bright, and wants to study science. Her room, she thinks, is haunted by ghosts. Stuff happens, books fall off shelves, dust settles unsettlingly. She isn’t frightened by her ghosts; she’s just a little kid, but she studies the ghostly phenomena methodically. She persuades her father to take her research seriously, and he figures out that the ‘ghost’ is sending them signals; map coordinates. And he and Murph follow those coordinates, and find a secret NASA lab, which is sending manned missions to a worm-hole out by Saturn, and from there, on a search to find habitable planets, Earth having been spoiled environmentally.

They’re aware that it’s all just too coincidental. Gravitational anomalies giving map coordinates to a NASA lab, one that just happens not to have any trained pilots/astronauts for a mission that absolutely requires one. Also, this nifty worm-hole appearing out of nowhere. Also the worm hole leading to several possibly habitable worlds. Someone is helping mankind out. Who?

Okay, so Cooper and Brand (Hathaway) and the two other astronaut guys (who are not given enough to do and die too soon) make it to the first planet, awfully close to the black hole that caused the worm hole, and with lots of water and truly amazing black hole-proximity-tsunamis. A surfer’s dream of a planet, honestly, if you don’t mind having no beaches, and also don’t mind relativity causing you to age way too quickly.  And the relative aging of the astronauts and the earthlings they’ve left behind is seriously problematic, not just because their families are aging rapidly in relation to their aging, but also because Earth, they know, can’t sustain life all that much longer. So a one-hour equals-ten-years-on-Earth planet does them no good. Especially since it’s uninhabitable.

So, the clock is ticking. They can’t just find an inhabitable planet; they have to find an inhabitable planet while there’s still a human race left to transport there. In the back of their minds, though, they remember how some kind of kindly-disposed cosmic entity has seemed to have been helping them out. And they know that in the black hole is some kind of singularity, where Time and Space may represent only two of many dimensions. Is, therefore, time travel possible? Is their survival possible? The answers may be found in the black hole singularity, presuming that whoever or whatever’s been helping them can be persuaded to do so again.

Okay, Waterworld have proven disappointing, they have to choose between two other planets. They’ve been getting positive reports from one of them; the other is further away, but Brand (Hathaway) thinks it’s a better choice, plus she’s in love with the earlier astronaut sent to it. And this becomes a theme in the movie, how love, human love, is a force in the universe.  So do we go to Matt Damon Planet (Cooper’s choice, because it’s closer, and therefore easier to explore in a time frame that might enable him to see/save his kids), or do we go to Anne Hathaway’s Boyfriend’s Planet (her choice, for lots of good science-y reasons, plus her boyfriend’s there)? Cooper decides; ultimately, they have to follow someone’s heart, and it’s going to be his, because he’s in charge.

So we meet Matt Damon, and it turns out he’s a creep and a worm. He represents self-love; he represents cowardice. He feels a little bad about trying to murder Cooper, but he does it anyway. He’s been lying to them about the life-sustaining possibilities of his planet, because that was the only chance he had of being rescued by someone. He tries to steal their space ship. His entirely unheroic love, however, can’t save anyone. Not even him, turns out.

And here’s where the movie turns all gooey for me. Cooper goes into the black hole singularity thing. He has a vision, of seeing his daughter in her bedroom, with him shoving books onto the floor hoping she’ll notice. He transmits data to her through a watch he once gave her.  In other words, the mysterious cosmic beings who have been helping humanity’s quest to survive are . . . human beings, driven by love. The person communicating with Murph is Cooper, her Dad. Well, Future Cooper.

It’s a time-travel paradox movie. Some mysterious being communicates with Cooper. It turns out to be Future Cooper, communicating with Past Cooper. It’s all circular. Our Future Selves communicated with our Past Selves, to save humanity, so that Future Us could survive. If you could travel back in time, would you go to 1923 and kill Hitler? Not sure? Okay, how about this: if you could travel back in time, would you go back to 1905, and whisper “E=MC squared” into Einstein’s ear? Knowing it would lead to a series of insights and discoveries that would eventually make it possible for Future You to travel back in time to 1905 and meet Einstein?  Or, if you’re Marty McFly, would you get in that DeLorean, would you make sure your parents kissed at the prom? Would you trust the flux capacitor? Knowing if you didn’t, there’d be no Marty McFly?

Interstellar‘s a very cool, state-of-the-art, awesome, well-made movie that ultimately just resurrects the hoariest of sci-fi plots; the time travel paradox plot. And it locates the power of time travel in the love of a father for a daughter. Which honestly feels maybe just a trifle gooey.

I think ultimately it’s a really cool movie, exceptionally well made, that, at its heart, is pretty sentimental. Daddy’s love will conquer all! Including plague, including space-time, including black holes, including relativity itself?  Color me skeptical.

 

Charlie’s marriage

I wouldn’t say that the news ‘broke’ the internet, but it certainly put a nasty dent in it: Charles Manson has applied for a marriage license. Charlie Manson, age 80. Announcing his ‘engagement’ to one Afton Elaine Burton, age 26, who now goes by the name ‘Star,’ considers herself already married to him, and maintains a website insisting on his innocence. (Which I will NOT link to–I’m not driving traffic to Charlie freaking Manson’s site). Burton’s Mom, by the way, is fine with it. Says the couple shares a commitment to environmentalism. Grantland’s Molly Lambert’s story about it can’t really be improved on; see the link for details.

What’s interesting to me about this is the way in which Charlie Manson still does have the capacity to capture our attention. This was big news. And, as always with Manson, we read it with a little frisson of oh-so-delicious fear. Charles Manson, the most mesmeric, the most charismatic, the most Satanic human being on earth, was up to his old tricks once again. Fascinating young people (mostly young women); bending them to his will.

Remember the watch thing? Vincent Bugliosi, the prosecutor who put Manson away, wrote a best-selling book about it, Helter Skelter. In the book, he describes a time when Manson stopped his watch by just staring at it. In the first Helter Skelter made-for-TV-movie, the 1976 one with Steve Railsback as Manson, George DiCenzo (as Bugliosi) notices his watch has stopped, looks over at Manson, and we see Railsback give him a creepy grin. So that’s part of the lore; Charlie Manson can make a watch stop.

Of course, he couldn’t. Bugliosi’s book is very compelling, but its hero is Bugliosi; the courageous prosecutor who put Charlie Manson away, and the more evil and Satanic Manson was, the greater Bugliosi’s triumph over him. I don’t much trust it. I rather suspect that if Charlie Manson had the ability to stop watches, he would also have had the ability to open prison doors. But what he did have was a kind of crazed charisma. He persuaded a group of lost runaway hippie kids (most of them girls) to form a ‘Family’ and commit horrible atrocities, and he persuaded Dennis Wilson of the Beach Boys to fund ‘Family’ activities for months. He’s regarded as one of the worst mass murderers in history, and he never actually personally killed anyone. Not for lack of trying; the Family’s first victim, Bernard Crowe, was shot by Manson in Crowe’s apartment in June of ’69, two months before the Sharon Tate killings. But Crowe survived.

And then, on August 9th, 1969, Tex Watson, Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian, and Patricia Krenwinkel murdered Sharon Tate and four other guests in her home, and also a delivery guy, on Manson’s orders. The next night, joined by Manson himself, and with two other Family members, Leslie Van Houten and Clem Grogan, the same four murdered Leno LaBianca and his wife, Rosemary, in their home. Manson directed the killings, but did not kill himself. Several subsequent killings have been linked to Manson’s Family members. And in 1975, Manson Family member Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme tried to murder Gerald Ford, the President of the United States.

Fromme’s attempt took place in Sacramento. She and Sandra Good had moved there to be closer to Manson while he served out his sentence at Folsom Prison. In 1987, Fromme escaped from prison in West Virginia. She was apprehended within a few days, as she headed west, towards California. She wanted to be close to Charlie, who she heard was suffering from cancer. This is also typical of Manson Family members; even while incarcerated, they seem to crave physical closeness to their prophet/guru. Afton “Star” Burton has also moved, to Corcoran California, out in the desert, so she can be ‘closer to Charlie.’  Sandra Good maintains a pro-Charlie website, which competes with Burton’s.

And we’ve never lost our fascination with this guy, this career criminal, failed musician, this man who seems to have had one great gift in life, the ability to attract young women to believe in him, and at times, to kill for him. Two made-for-TV movies. Several documentaries. Several major TV interviews, with Diane Sawyer, Tom Snyder, Charlie Rose, Geraldo Rivera, Ron Reagan Jr.

The myth of the sixties’ counter-culture was a myth of innocence, a myth of invincible virtue, opposing Establishment Evil. Hippies were peaceful idealists, devoted to non-violent protest and positive world-change. Hippies stopped the war in Vietnam, ended racism, fought the good fight against ‘the man.’ It was the dawning of the Age of Aquarius. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor, go ahead and cheat a friend,” Coven sang, describing, see, the Establishment’s hypocrisy, embellishing the irony with achingly pure intentions and ferocious self-righteousness–“one tin soldier rides away”; the song punctuated the message of peace-lovin’ martial artist Billy Jack.  Nick Lowe asked, with aching sincerity, what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding. Punk answered back, always more honest; Lowe’s song was bitterly deconstructed by Elvis Costello.  (Elvis: the King of Rock and Roll. Costello: half of the comedy duo who asked Who’s On First. Even his name functioned as satire).

Charlie Manson did us this one great favor: he showed us the lie at the heart of hippie idealism and blissed out mellow. Teenage runaways, escaping the dreariness of square middle-class hypocrisy, crowding the streets of Haight-Ashbury, could easily fall for predators. Hippies could, turns out, kill. So could drugs. So could casual sex. And so could rock and roll, as Dennis Wilson bankrolled The Family, and Charlie grotesquely misread the Beatles.

So we didn’t. Do any of that; we didn’t. We weren’t significant; we weren’t important. I mean, we really didn’t: in the national election of 1972, 18-21 year olds could vote for the first time. George McGovern, whose entire campaign was built on ending the war in Vietnam, was on the ballot. He got crunched, and the Youth Vote went heavily to Richard Nixon. Nixon was right about that silent majority thing. Sixties and Seventies, we youthful idealists, we didn’t end Vietnam or racism or sexism. I wasn’t a hippie–too young for the movement–but I loved the music and was attracted to the ideals, and I wish earnestness and sincerity really could change the world. It can’t. What does change the world is hard work, compromise, working daily at the endlessly boring and crucially important details of legislation.Line upon line, idea upon idea. A hard grind.

Good music is good music, and then the song is over. And that sort-of-interestingly-dangerous, compelling hippie man is saying lovely attractive things about revolutions and race riots and the White Album, and he wrote this nice song about me, and I even got to meet one of the Beach Boys! And then he’s handing me a knife and telling me to kill total strangers. And hey, why not, they’re just establishment pigs, right? Viva la whatever.

That’s who Manson was, the worm in the apple, the snake in the garden, the ugly violence at the heart of ideology. The sad game, played by naive fools. Now he’s got another one, another follower, another ‘wife’ for his ‘Family.’ So happy for them both.

 

Film Review: Birdman

Or to get the entire title right: Birdman (or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) is the most mind-bending, thought-provoking, hilarious, heart-breaking, downright weird (in a good way) movie of the year.  The writer/director/producer is the prodigious Mexican director, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñarritu, whose previous films include Amores Perros, Babel, 21 Grams, Biutiful, superb films all, but not really comedies. Not to pigeon-hole, but at least one of the labels we would attack to Birdman is ‘comedy,’ along with ‘absurdism,’ ‘magical realism,’ ‘fantasy,’ ‘backstage-theatre satire,’ ‘black comedy'; pick one or many. (In fact, the film includes a brilliant speech, pure invective against the work of art critics, and in particular, their penchant for labeling heart-felt works of art).

But, okay. The film is about Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton, who has written, directed and stars, on Broadway, in a play based on Raymond Chandler’s short story “What we Talk About when we Talk About Love.”  Riggan was once the star of a beloved series of super-hero movies, in which he played the Birdman. His career has since foundered, and everything, his self-respect, his career, his reputation, his carefully hoarded retirement money, everything depends on this play succeeding. The play opens in two days. One of the leading actors, Ralph (the wonderful Jeremy Shamos) is terrible in his role, and, for contractual reasons, cannot be fired. So Riggan uses his superpowers (of course he has superpowers), to konk him on the head with a lighting instrument. Ralph is now too badly injured to continue; the part now has to be recast. And every actor that Riggan and his lawyer/agent/producer Jake (Zach Galifianakis) can think of to replace him is currently in a superhero movie. (Jeremy Renner, even? Nope, he’s now an Avenger). And then Lesley, the female lead (Naomi Watts; amazing) mentions that ‘Michael’ is available, having just been fired from a movie he was doing. Michael is brilliant; everyone knows that. But he’s . . .  difficult. Method-y, demanding, perhaps a bit crazy. But he’ll sell tickets. And, it turns out, he knows the lines. So they call him, and that’s how Ed Norton enters the cast, and the movie.

It’s all very meta, of course. Ed Norton is known for being difficult, and method-y, and disdainful of actors who play, among other things, superheroes. (But he played The Hulk). And Michael Keaton played Batman; close enough to Birdman, no? Naomi Watts hasn’t really done superheroes, but she did do King Kong. And so the film is able to riff on acting, and career choices, and celebrity, and live-theatre-is-art-while-movies-are-entertainment-crap in wonderfully amusing ways, but our reception of all that snark is tempered by knowing all about the compromises these specific actors have, after all, made in their careers, right? And Iñarritu is known for his wonderful, but very art-y films, but also for his close personal friendships with Guillermo del Toro, who directed Pacific Rim (brilliantly), and Alfonso Cuaron, who directed (the best of) the Harry Potter movies.

Emma Stone is also in the movie, playing Sam, Riggan’s daughter, fresh from rehab and working as a production assistant, but hostile about it. And Amy Ryan, playing Riggan’s suspiciously ethereal wife, who may or may not consistently, uh, exist. And Andrea Riseborough, Laura, also in the cast, and possibly pregnant with Riggan’s child. And finally, Lindsay Duncan, as Tabitha, the theatre critic who will decide the fate of Riggan’s play, and who personally loathes him and everything he stands for. Which would seem to bode ill.

But I’m leaving out all the important stuff. Like Emmanuel Lubezki, whose soaring camera work gives the film its sweep and movement. Like the film editing of Douglas Crise and Stephen Mirrione, who magically create the illusion that the entire film is one long unedited take, but covering three days time in two hours somehow. Like the Birdman himself, a costumed superhero, who haunts Riggan’s waking dreams, and may be the one character capable of reaching him.

And above all, Michael Keaton, who gives a career performance, just tremendous, playing this . . . guy, a mediocre artist and father and husband who is desperate to transcend his limited gifts and, somehow, rise. Grow. Fly. Which, it turns out, he’s also able to do; actually fly. I don’t want to say that Keaton was ‘great’ or ‘terrific.’ The film warns us of the dangers of labeling. Just that in the middle of all this meta-cinematic strangeness, he made me care, he made me feel something. I wanted, desperately, for his play to succeed. Even while suspecting that it didn’t deserve to.

And so, in one scene, Keaton/Riggan is lost, alone, fantasizing, wandering the streets of New York’s theatre district in his tighty whitie undies, and as he stumbles along, we hear the ‘tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’ speech from Macbeth, shouted, screamed, but barely audible, and then we turn a corner, and it’s Shamos, the bad actor fired from the cast of the play, and he’s screaming it, and the music is drums, and turn another corner, and there’s a drum kit complete with drummer. And in the glorious context of this wonderful film, it all makes perfect sense. See this amazing film. Do yourself that favor.

 

Play Review: Company

The Sugar Space Arts Warehouse in Salt Lake City is, well, a converted warehouse. The floor’s concrete, the ceilings are high, acoustics are echo-y, and watching a play up there you can constantly hear an air compressor. Presumably, it was trying to warm the place up; it didn’t work. It was cold outside, and maybe a bit warmer indoors. The actors had to wear mics, and early on, the sound mixing was a bit off. And none of that mattered at all, not even a little bit. When a live theatre performance is as alive, and compassionate and wise and smart and funny and sad and warm-hearted and, my gosh, as human as Silver Summit Theatre‘s production of Company was last night, nothing else matters.

In fact, I rather liked the space and its limitations. Silver Summit is a company in search of a home; they find different venues for each of their productions, but they do great work, fully professional in every way that matters, and their Company was a pure joy. They’re worth following around. I spoke briefly with Michelle Rideout, their artistic director, during the interval, and told her that I felt like I was watching an early-days show at the Donmar. (Best off-West End company in London, and yes, they perform in a warehouse. And were the first London company to revive Company). We don’t go to the theatre for comfy chairs and gorgeous sets. We go to connect with our fellow human beings on this planet. We go to feel something, learn something, grow a little, weep and laugh and rejoice.

I wondered how Company would hold up, after all these years. This Sondheim/Furth musical was the hottest show on Broadway 45 years ago, and yes, there are moments where it shows its age. It’s hard to imagine a single, successful, Manhattan-apartment-well-off kinda guy today admitting he doesn’t know anyone black, Hispanic, gay. But I suspect that there are still ladies who lunch around today, and those great great songs are still knock-outs; “Another hundred people,” “Being Alive,” “Side by Side by Side.”

For those of you who don’t know it, Company is about Robert, Bobby to his many friends, a single man just turning 35, who is starting to think that maybe it’s time to not be single anymore. His friends both agree and disagree. He’s wonderful company, after all, charming and fun and widely beloved; he’s integral to all their social lives, it seems. But perhaps he’s not quite . . . ready? And the glimpses we see of his friends’ marriages are vivid reminders of, well, human frailty, the petty hypocrisies and foibles and annoying eccentricities that marriage both helps us overcome and accentuates. It’s a musical with no heroes and no villains and hardly any story, and Bobby never does meet the girl of his dreams. But maybe, at the end, he might. Might be ready for it, at any rate. And all fourteen of its characters are vivid, brilliantly drawn and acted and sung.

A few standouts last night, not that there was a single weak link in the cast. Rick Rea was tremendous as Robert, smiling, fun, smart, empathetic Robert, Bobby to his friends. And then, gradually, we see other shadings, his loneliness, his occasional selfishness (especially in “Barcelona,” with Heather Shelley wonderful as slightly dim flight attendant April), his increasing sense of quiet desperation. And his performance of “Being Alive” was wonderful. What a song.

I can’t say enough about Eve Speer and Brandon Rufener, as the karate fighting couple, Sarah and Harry. I loved Natalia Noble as the lively and eccentric Marta; her “Another Hundred People” had just the right mix of fear and comedy and pathos. But Marcie Jacobsen was a sensation. “The Ladies Who Lunch” is such an excoriating, biting satire of New York society, and Jacobsen found the right blend of self-destructive self-loathing, viciousness and tragedy in her Joanne. Look at the great Joanne’s of the past: Patti Lupone, Barbara Walsh, Elaine Stritch. Jacobsen fits well in their company. Or Company.

Anyway, wow. Go see it, y’all. The house was half full last night, on a Friday night. Go, and take a date, and ask your date to ask a friend, and date, to join you. Then maybe, like, both couples could ask out two other couples, make it an eight-some. And afterwards, there’s a really nice restaurant close to the, uh, well, a few blocks at least from the, uh. . . . actually, the theater’s pretty much in the middle of nowhere. But there is a Leatherbys kinda close. Bring a sweater, (a good, thick one) and see a fine production of a great musical. With a bunch of your friends. You won’t regret it.

 

Movie Review: Fury

David Ayer’s Fury is one of the best war films ever made, and certainly one of the two best films about the Second World War, right up there, perhaps, with Saving Private Ryan, a film with similar strengths and weaknesses. It’s a tremendously visceral film, communicating, with appropriate violence and brutality, what may well be the reality of combat. (I can’t say for sure, of course, because I did not serve in the military and have never experienced combat). It’s an ugly and unheroic film about deeply damaged, flawed and exhausted men, which nonetheless depicts powerfully what actual heroism entails.

It’s a film about the crew of a Sherman tank, set in April 1945, as the war was winding down, an Allied victory all but ensured, but with battlefields punctuated with final bursts of German desperation and aggression. Sgt. Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt) is the tank’s commander, a laconic and matter-of-fact leader of men who, only occasion, slips away from his men to give way to his emotions. As the film begins, one crew member had died, and the tank has been damaged. The men are on edge, and bicker fiercely. one of them, Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (John Bernthal) works on fixing the tank’s ignition, almost incoherent with rage and frustration. Another, Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Peña) rides him mercilessly. Meanwhile, the deeply religious Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LeBeouf) studies his scriptures. And then the new guy shows, up, Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), idealistic, naive, a typist shocked to be assigned to a tank, an assignment for which he has received no training, hopelessly unprepared for combat and its rigors. These are the characters with whom we’ll spend the movie, and each performance is remarkable, especially Bernthal, who makes the half-savage Travis one of the truly memorable characters of any film I’ve seen recently.

American Sherman M4 tanks were faster than German Tiger I, but lightly armored and with inferior firepower; we see one battle in which four Shermans go up against one Tiger, and three are quickly destroyed. When Collier’s men are able to maneuver their tank to a position to destroy the German tank, it’s depicted as an extraordinary achievement. That said, tanks always did have an advantage over infantry, a fact that becomes central to the final battle of the film.

But as the Fury (the word painted on the tank’s gun turret) travels from objective to objective–liberating a town, protecting a supply line–we see glimpses of the horrors of warfare. They drive by a huge pit, and we see a bulldozer shoveling human bodies in. We see women and children hanging from lampposts, each with a placard saying they had refused to defend the fatherland, and Collier (who for some reason is fluent in German) that the SS is hanging anyone defying the drafting of ten-year olds. Ayer doesn’t allow his camera to linger on any of these images, which makes them, in their matter-of-factness, even more horrifying. And in one battle, a German army surrenders, and we see that most of its soldiers really are children.

We like to think of World War II as the good war, the war in which we, the Allies, really were the good guys, and the Germans, the Nazis, really were evil. And I don’t dispute that narrative–the Holocaust does tilt the table one direction only, morally speaking. But in one brutal scene, Collier, furious at Norman’s reluctance to fire his weapon, forces him to shoot an unarmed captive German soldier. And we don’t necessarily applaud. But we do get it. When we talk about the sacrifices made by soldiers, we don’t just mean that they sacrifice their lives. They do that, yes. But the soldiers who survive also sacrifice their innocence. They not only die for their country, they kill for it.

In the most fascinating and crucial scene in the film, after the Fury has ‘liberated’ a German town, Collier takes Norman up the stairs to an apartment occupied by just two German women. Ilsa is older, perhaps in her forties, and her cousin, Emma, is much younger, a pretty girl. Collier asks for hot water, washes and shaves. He trades the women some eggs, some cigarettes and some other supplies for a brief R&R. And he sends Norman and Emma off into the apartment’s bedroom. But oddly, the scene does not really seem to suggest either rape or prostitution, but rather a time-out, an interlude, a moment of life in the midst of so much death, a moment of innocence and romance accelerated by the exigencies of slaughter. It’s possible (the scene suggests it), that Emma and Norman, however briefly, fall in love. They try to exchange addresses. Then the other men in the tank crew show up, and Ilsa feeds them, but their crudeness and violence and pent-up rage (especially from Travis) become overwhelming, turning a sweetly flavored moment into terror and barely-averted violence. We learn how little actual authority and control Collier is capable of exerting. Something, death, violence, PTSD, has turned these men, (especially, again, Travis) into hardly trained animals. It’s a tremendous scene, a scene that shows us, briefly, something akin to civilization amidst the barbarity of combat. And it ends tragically. Of course it does. How could it end otherwise?

Some critics have wondered what the point of it all is, what we’re supposed to conclude from this film’s unapologetic depiction of violence and death. I think the point is that there is no point. Not to say that there weren’t strategic objectives to be achieved in April 1945, or that WWII wasn’t justified, or that the only possible response to any war anywhere is just cynicism and nihilism. Nothing like that. Just that the experience of ordinary foot soldiers was probably somewhat like this, surrealist episodes of sheer horror, unremitting violence, punctuated by periods of pure boredom. That the men in a tank crew or squad get on each others’ nerves and drive each other crazy, and yet, you end up caring for each other like no other humans on earth.

The ending has the same flaw, I think, as Saving Private Ryan. These ordinary foot soldiers become super-heroic and kind of bullet-proof for a finale that’s perhaps that one degree too Hollywood. But that’s a minor flaw in an extraordinary film. Pitt’s tremendous in it, as is Lerman, Peña, LeBeouf. But the performance that lingers is that of Jon Bernthal. It’s a difficult, ugly,profane, uncompromising film. But I was profoundly moved by it.