Utah Jazz: 2015

I’m trying something brand new this year. I’m rooting for a sports team, watching as many of their games as I can, but not watching any game to the end. I don’t care if they win. I’m looking for improvement, not results. And I’m having a blast.

I have a theory about team sports. When your team wins all the time, that’s not necessarily a good thing. You tend to become complacent about winning; worse, you get arrogant. When your team loses all the time, that’s even worse. You start to get all numb about fan-ness, cynical, even. I know that being a sports fan is absurd; the fun comes when we really embrace that absurdity. What really builds sports fanaticism is when your team is very good every year, and almost wins. Every year, you root like crazy, there are wonderful moments, but in the end, you’re stabbed in the heart. The best fans, the most informed, most passionate, are fans of the Red Sox and Cubs in baseball, the Browns and Bills in football, the Thunder and the Jazz in basketball. The close-but-no-cigar fans.

I have been a big Utah Jazz fan ever since my family moved out here in 1992. And, of course, as it happens, 1992 was a particularly good year to be a Jazz fan. Year Seven of the Stockton/Malone era. John Stockton was one of the greatest point guards who has ever played the game; Karl Malone, one of the greatest forwards. Stockton the passer, Malone the scorer. Stockton stealing the ball, Malone getting rebounds. And they were both fitness fanatics, and lasted forever. It was fun to watch. Salt Lake City renamed two city streets, so when you go to a Jazz game today, the arena is located at the corner of Stockton and Malone.

And then, finally, Stockton and Malone both retired. And we hung in there for awhile, building a team on guys like Andrei Kirilenko and Deron Williams. But all good things end, and last year’s team was, frankly, pretty hard to root for. They played ugly, losing basketball. A mixture of young, unproved talent, and old, past-their-prime mediocrity. They lost, but what’s worse, they looked bad while losing. The single most fundamental play in basketball (and the play we watched Stock and Karl run to perfection year after year) is called the pick-and-roll. And the Jazz last year could not more defend a pick-and-roll than solve differential equations.

I knew the Jazz were going to be bad this year. But I thought there was a chance they’d be interestingly bad. They got rid of guys like Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush, guys who had never been stars and were now at the tail ends of mediocre careers. It was a youth movement all the way, a team with four rookies on the roster. They also hired a terrific young coach, Quin Snyder. And when hired, he said all the right things. The guys on the team were going to grow together, fail together, learn together, improve together.

That’s why I decided not to care if they won or not. And early this year, they lost a lot. They made a lot of mistakes, threw the ball away, got discouraged, couldn’t score when they needed to. But they just kept improving, especially defensively. They can guard a pick-and-roll. And on offense, you can see Snyder’s influence. Their spacing is better. They’re becoming a good passing team, looking for the guy with the open shot. They’re playing the kind of basketball I love, unselfish ball, with everyone touching the ball, working it around, drive and dish.

My favorite guy on the current team has to be Rudy Gobert. He’s 22, and huge. 7′ 1″, with an abnormally wide wingspan. He didn’t even start playing basketball until 2009, when his friends apparently suggested that a guy like him might have more success playing basketball than soccer. Last year, Rudy was big and awkward and hadn’t the faintest idea what he was doing out there. But he worked hard, kept after it, listened to the coaching staff. This season, you can see him improve week by week, game by game. It’s palpable, his growth, his increased understanding. Last year, he couldn’t catch the ball; this year, he’s got pretty good hands. Last year, he couldn’t shoot at all; this year, he’s got a nifty little hook shot, which usually misses, but looks serviceable enough. (In practice, he’s a deadeye with that shot). Above all, he can block shots. He was the 27th pick in the 2013 draft, and looks like a steal.

A big guy needs a passer, and the Jazz took a gamble in the last draft, taking a flyer on a 19 year old Australian kid, Dante Exum. They drafted him on pure potential. He didn’t have good form on his shot, and you can see how inexperienced he is. But his shot has improved a lot this season, and he’s also grown defensively. Last night, he guarded Tony Parker of the Spurs (a certain Hall-of-Fame point guard), and completely outplayed him. Dante’s fast, quick, tall, a leaper, an athlete. He also doesn’t know what he’s doing, but he’s just a kid. And he’s getting so very good at finding open teammates. He could be outstanding.

Until a week ago, the Jazz had a big center, Enes Kanter, from Turkey. Talented player, good shooter, good rebounder, really improving. And Enes seemed happy enough to be in Utah. But his agent, Max Ergul, was, to put it politely, nuts. Kanter was a good player, but he was not, as his agent seems to have believed, “the most dominant player of his generation.” Uh, no. I watched him play, game after game. And to be blunt, Enes Kanter was a bad defensive player. I saw it, game after game; whoever we played, their center had a career night while being guarded by Enes Kanter. Kanter could score, but obviously that doesn’t help your team when you give up even more points on the other end of the floor.  Ergul whined and whined about how the Jazz ‘mistreated’ his client, and finally he was traded, to Oklahoma City. He’ll do well there. And the Jazz haven’t lost since he left. Trading Enes Kanter was a classic case of addition by subtraction.

Add Exum and Gobert to a foundation of Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Trey Burke, Alec Burks, and you’ve got enough talent to compete, and the coach to help them get there. And the team should have two first round draft picks in this year’s draft. I know who I want them to use them on: Willie Caulley-Stein of Kentucky and Justin Anderson of Virginia. They both should be around when the Jazz draft, and they’re both perfect fits for Coach Quin’s system. This team is going to be fun to watch.

 

Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things: Book Review

Some years ago, an evangelical friend who had gotten into the world of LDS filmmaking was telling me how much she liked the movie The Home Teachers. Since I thought The Home Teachers was the flaming dragon’s mouth of hell worst movie ever made ever, I asked how on earth she could have liked it. ‘You Mormons can laugh at yourselves,’ she responded. ‘I think that’s awesome!’ Which, come to think of it, it is. Think of James Arrington’s Farley Family plays, for example, or Pat Bagley’s cartoons, or the glory years of the late lamented Sugar Beet. Or the self-deprecatory wit of some of our General Authorities. We really do seem to enjoy laughing at ourselves, and that’s a good and healthy thing.

Which brings me to my good pal Janiel Miller’s delightful new book, Mormons Say and Do the Darndest Things. Janiel’s an actress, a singer, a Mom and a life-long active Mormon. I just directed her in Much Ado about Zombies. When I told her that I was casting her as zombie-virus disease-vector, she said that I had fulfilled one of her life’s ambitions. In fact, her role was small, but you could see audiences looking forward to her every appearance, she made so much of it.  She became the cast den mother, and our resident humorist. And we had a great time with the show.

What I enjoyed most about her book is how perfectly it captures her voice. She approaches every subject sideways, a little off-center. She goofs around with language, and culture. It’s smart without being smart-ass. It’s a book about tone. Genial, always positive, endlessly enchanted by everything absurd about our culture, the book feels like a lunch with my old friend and her wonderful husband Bruce and my amazing wife,  sitting in Cravings Bistro, eating their mac and cheese grilled cheese sandwich (can cuisine get more Mormon than that?) conversationally goofing around. Without ever being angry, or vicious, or disrespectful, never for a second remotely mean-spirited, Janiel takes our culture on with affection and insight. I got the book, dipped my toe in, then set it aside for a few days. It took me awhile to get into it, and then I imagined Janiel reading it aloud, and it came to life for me, and once I figure that out, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed a read more. My daughter caught me reading it, and asked why my lips were moving. I hadn’t realized they were. But it’s that kind of book, a read-aloud. Even if you’re alone.

The book starts with a kind of lexicon of Mormonish terminology. Some examples:

Bishop: a man who spends a century over the course of five years herding his flock towards the celestial pen, whilst his wife and kids post ‘missing persons’ bulletins with his picture on them all over town.

Cultural Hall: a vast chamber into which ward members overflow for sacrament meetings, listen to inspirational speakers, and partake of nourishment–all beneath the benevolent gaze of a pair of basketball hoops.

Eagle Scout Project: a program where the mother of a scout earns her Eagle badge by forcing helping her son through each of his merit badges, then dragging him downtown to replant all the bulbs around the city’s trees.

Missionary Farewells: we don’t have them. *snort*

Polygamy: sooo. This. We don’t do this anymore. We did it before. Now we don’t. Anybody who still does this ain’t us, a’ight? I mean, even stalwart pioneer-type dudes were smart enough to eventually realize that having fourteen PMS-y women under one roof made them about as safe as a bucket of KFC Extra-Crispy at the Donner party, and would eventually result in fourteen merry widows.

Terrestrial Kingdom: Second Degree of Glory. The ‘middle child’ of the Three Kingdoms. Not quite good enough, not quite bad enough. Like American Idol runners-up, but with more bling.

 

But I’m making it sound too straightforward. Most of the lexiconographical entries include asides, anecdotes, clarifications, funny, barely-relevant-but-probably-true stories. Janiel takes a scattershot approach to her comedy, reflecting a magnificently random mind. That’s the charm of the book. Plus the fact that she generally gets us right. And truth may be beauty, and beauty truth, but truth is always the basis for funny.

Like the recipes. After the lexicon, we have recipes. For Funeral Potatoes and Green Jello salad; authentic Mormonicana. And I mean, come on. I always use frozen hash browns for my funeral potatoes, thank you very much, and crushed corn chex on top, not panko bread crumbs. (Seriously, panko bread crumbs? Way too highbrow for the World’s Greatest Comfort Food). Also, onion powder is optional for the best Utah fry sauce. Really, all you need is ketchup and mayo, though I understand Burger Supreme seasons theirs with BBQ sauce.

Ahem. Sorry. Anyway, the last section of the book was the most delightful; just stories. And that’s when the book gets a little more real, a little more vulnerable. I mean, it’s still funny. She can’t help but be funny. But we get that little bit more truth. It’s where Janiel moves from straight-up Erma Bombeck to later, more reflective Erma Bombeck, with a strong flavor of Jean Kerr. Maybe a little Molly Ivins. Good stuff, though, and moving.

I think I know Janiel well enough to know that she won’t be insulted when I call this the perfect bathroom book. In fact, though, I did not read it in the bathroom. I mostly enjoyed it in my office, waiting for my computer to download the latest I-tunes update, or for files to backup. It’s a book that made annoying mandatory downtime pretty fun. I started to look forward to computer hassles, honestly, so that I could get back to reading Janiel’s book. It was that much fun.

So, seriously, buy this and read it. It’s a lark, a wheeze, a ball. And also wise and smart and real. And if you’re not a Mormon, but want to learn more about us, read this. Do not see The Home Teachers. It’s really bad. And this is really really good.

The Sound of Music, Lady Gaga, and the Oscars

Last night was the annual Academy Awards broadcast, and as always, it was bloated and self-congratulatory and unfunny and often sort of weird. I liked it anyway. I always do. Neil Patrick Harris was a perfectly adequate host, a movie I liked a lot won Best Picture, lots of total strangers shared with the world the happiest moments of their professional careers, while the orchestra rudely played them off the stage, John Travolta seems to have thought that the way to apologize to Idina Menzel was to paw at her face disconcertingly, lots of people wore horrifically unflattering clothing, and Jennifer Lopez’s dress, heroically, managed, barely, to not fall off her. It was an Oscar night. As Bette Midler (bless her) once put it: ‘betcha didn’t think it was possible to overdress for this occasion.’

There were, as always, several musical numbers. Most of them were quite forgettable, but three in particular that stood out. First, the frenetically choreographed number for ‘Everything is Awesome,’ that fabulous song from The Legos Movie. The biggest Oscar travesty of the year is that TLM didn’t even get nominated in its category, Best Animated Feature. It was just too inventive and amazing and fun and funny and smart; can’t have that! Anyway, I liked the number; love Tegan and Sara. Second, I really liked the performance of ‘Glory,’ the song from Selma, John Legend and Common. One of the pre-Oscars’ narratives had to do with that movie, and how its director and star were both snubbed. The song and performance were powerful, as was John Legend’s comments after it won best song.

And then Lady Gaga performed a medley of songs from The Sound of Music. She sang very very well, and then introduced the still-radiant Julie Andrews. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of that film, and apparently it’s being re-released. And I said something rude about it on Facebook. And lots of friends told me, kindly and with great forbearance, that I am an idiot. I probably am. Still, let me explain myself.

The Sound of Music. It’s the most uplifting, triumph of the human spirit, relentlessly upbeat movie ever made. Fresh faced, incandescently talented young Julie Andrews and her mob of well-scrubbed adorable urchins. ‘Climb Every Mountain.’ Grouchy Captain van Trapp healed by the power of True Love. The heroic escape from evil Nazis. ‘Doe, a deer, a female deer.’ All those kindly nuns worrying about how to solve a problem like Maria. ‘The lonely goatherd.’ What kind of grinch wouldn’t like The Sound of Music? The great Pauline Kael was supposedly fired from McCall’s because she gave it a bad review. (Not true; she was fired because she gave every big popular movie a bad review.) Serves her right, you might think. (And apparently, most of my friends do think).

Let me be clear: I don’t think Art has to be a downer. I don’t think that Art shouldn’t be happy, cheerful and uplifting. I have no objection to art that is upbeat and positive. Art can be anything: gloomy, sad, tragic, funny, mean, crushing, and also buoyant, jaunty, merry, fun. I love ‘Anything is Awesome,’ a song so relentlessly cheery it burrows into your brain like a remora into a shark’s hide. I just think that there’s something strange about a movie musical being as upbeat as The Sound of Music when its subject matter is the German annexation of Austria, the Anschluss. I think the shadow of the Holocaust darkened everything about that time and place.  Don’t you think maybe Liesl’s Nazi boyfriend, Rolfe, could sing something a trifle darker than that condescending ‘sixteen going on seventeen’ number?

Other cheerful happy musicals managed it. Take the musical 1776. A fun show about our Founding Fathers and the writing of the Declaration of Independence. Charming cute songs. But then there’s the song ‘Molasses to Rum to Slaves.’ The South Carolina delegate, Rutledge (otherwise a minor enough character), sings it, attacking the hypocrisy of the North over the slave trade, pointing out how they benefit from it too. The shadow of slavery darkened those deliberations, and although it’s a fun musical, an upbeat musical, that shadow is given a face and voice and point of view. Or South Pacific, with the song ‘They’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught’. Or the dream ballet in Oklahoma, where Laurie imagines the death of her lover. You can do dark, amidst cheerful.

More to the point, the actual story of Maria von Trapp and the Trapp Family Singers is essentially ignored in the stage musical and film. For example, Maria did not want to marry Georg von Trapp. She wasn’t in love with him, and she really, genuinely wanted to be a nun. She was ordered to marry him by her Mother Superior. She says she went through the entire wedding ceremony seething with resentment towards him, the Church, and God. ‘Climb every mountain, ford every stream, follow every rainbow, ’til, you, find, your, dream!’ Not so much the case. More like ‘Do what you’re told girl, do as I say, ignore your real feelings, obey, obey, obey, o-bey!’

What bothers me about this isn’t the fictionalizing. I get that in the late fifties-early sixties, you couldn’t have authority figures be wrong. A Mother Superior had to be portrayed as kindly and wise; mainstream audiences of the time wouldn’t stand for any of that commie subversion-of-authority stuff. I get that. No, what bothers me is that the real story is so much better. It’s a much more compelling, honest, powerful, human conflict. By turning truth into uplift, they cheapened the power of actual human experience. Maria was raised an atheist. She was converted by the music of Bach. So include some Bach in the film!  Maria von Trapp became the powerful matriarch of a family choir (and the loving wife of the Captain) through sheer force of will. She made herself strong and independent. You could say that she obeyed, and was rewarded for her obedience. But I see it as the triumph of someone who made the best of terrible circumstances.

Like starting a family choir. Which she did out of sheer necessity. That lovely huge home in Austria where they all live in the movie? They lived in a much smaller house, and took in borders. Captain von Trapp lost his shirt in the great depression. They sang to put food on the table. They were not a wealthy family. And again, that’s a more interesting story. You couldn’t have all that in the early sixties either; fathers were all-wise patriarchs, not spend-thrift ne’er-do-wells.

Nor was Captain von Trapp a distant, brooding father. Nor was Maria a freespirited young woman. She was moody and a strict disciplinarian; he was charming and fun and very close to his children. He liked singing with them, but found the prospect of earning money from their music embarrassing.

They also didn’t sneak off with their musical instruments and suitcases in the middle of the night, hiding in a cemetery so the Nazis wouldn’t catch them. They carefully weighed the offers they got from the Nazis (which were more lucrative than the fees they earned initially in the US), and decided, on balance, it would be better for their kids if they left. They told everyone they were leaving, and left on a train, their papers in order and fares properly paid. And they didn’t sneak off to Switzerland. They went to Italy, and from there, to America, all arranged by their agent. That’s, again, a better story; not fake persecution, but adults, coolly and thoughtfully weighing their options, making the right decision for their kids.

Anyway. I really can’t stand The Sound of Music. It’s nothing but compromises, fake moral uplift, phony conflicts and ludicrous character depictions. And the von Trapps hated it too, especially the portrayal of stern and distant Captain von Trapp.

But there’s the music. Those songs are really famous and really pretty. And Gaga does have an impressive set of pipes. I get why she might want to sing those songs, and I thought Julie Andrews’ appearance last night was lovely. But it grated, it really did. I mean, I get why Elvis Costello made an album with Burt Bacharach. And Lady Gaga has recorded with Tony Bennett. And that’s fine. And Gaga’s career has stalled, and she’s getting married, and wanted, perhaps, to go back to her roots, in musical theatre. Still. It felt tone-deaf, after the Selma song.  It felt like a white girl celebrating whiteness. It felt . . . off. Someone as relentlessly avant-garde and post-modern and intentionally transgressive as Lady Gaga should probably use the Oscars to do, I don’t know, something radically transgressive. It felt like (and I hate this, I genuinely hate this), a sell-out.

And I’m sorry if I offended even more people. I just don’t like that musical very much.

Iran and Obama

The National Review recently published an article called “Five Middle East Blunders,” by someone named Victor Davis Hanson. I don’t usually respond to articles in the National Review. It’s just another hyper-partisan, ‘blame Obama for everything’ publication, not worth any sensible person’s time or attention. But this particular article was fairly well-written at least, and I thought I might respond, to at least the first of Mr. Hanson’s charges, regarding this President’s policy towards Iran. (Which, of course, in NR‘s mind, is horrible. Bad. Wrong). Please, as always, bear in mind that Mr. Hanson has credentials here that I probably can’t match. He’s, like, a Fellow at some conservative think tank. (I could look it up, but that would require that I care). Me, I’m not a Fellow, I’m just a guy. I’m a playwright with wi-fi. That’s all.

It is the policy of the Obama administration, stated many many times without equivocation, that Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. I agree that it would generally be better for the world if Iran did not have nukes. But just for grins and giggles, let’s go through what we might regard as the worst kind of nuclear-armed-nation-nightmare. What would define a country that really, seriously, shouldn’t have nukes? Let’s see: a nation without democratic traditions, in which military forces are not really under the control of civilian authorities. A poor country, a country without much of an economy, or a middle-class, a country with an easily radicalized population. A nation with a recent history of supporting terrorism or harboring terrorists. A country that has no particular love for the US, or much connection to the West. And a country with a nearby neighbor with a majority religion hostile to its majority religion. That sound about right? Does that sound like a country that honest-to-Pete should not be allowed to have nuclear weapons? Because I just described Pakistan. And Pakistan is a nuclear power. Yikes.

Why on earth does Pakistan even want nuclear weapons? Well, one answer is as a deterrent to India, its neighbor, which is likewise a moderately terrifying nuclear power. But there’s another answer. Having a nuclear capacity puts you in the major leagues, nation-wise. It’s popular with the population, because it signifies something; it means, by golly, that we’re a country that gets up every morning and puts on its big boy pants. That’s why pathetic, awful North Korea wants them. It feeds a kind of national insecurity. To me, it’s like why cities want professional sports franchises. It’s why otherwise sensible municipalities ruin their local economies, spend massive amounts that otherwise would pay teachers and cops and firemen so they can build stadia for their local (privately owned, rich-as-heck) teams. It’s about ‘civic pride.’ It’s a matter of national/local pride.

I’m not saying that the President shouldn’t pursue, as a high-priority foreign policy initiative, the goal of preventing Iran from having a nuclear capacity. I am saying that it may not be the end of the world if Iran got them. I would add that this is not actually a matter we get to decide. Iran is a sovereign nation, capable of managing its own affairs. We are not the boss of them. The US does not actually get to have a veto over which other countries get nukes. And Iran is far more stable, more prosperous, and more Western-friendly than Pakistan, or, for that matter, India.

There’s also not a lot we can do. There are two ways we could proceed; a carrot approach and a stick approach. The ‘stick’ involves international sanctions aimed at preventing other nations from trading with Iran. The ‘carrot’ involves making diplomatic overtures reducing tensions and working to include Iran in the fellowship of nations. I like carrots, honestly. Respect the richness of Persian culture, admit that we were wrong to assassinate Mohammed Mossadeq back in ’53, apologize for the Shah’s excesses and our propping up that vicious creepy thug for so long. Which we were, you know, honestly, wrong for killing Mossadeq, wrong for the Shah.

The fact is, though, decisions about things like their nuclear build-up are made by the ruling Iranian mullahs, and especially the Ayatollah Khameini. He’s Supreme Leader, and has been since 1989. And he’s not really someone we can pressure effectively; he’s essentially immune from electoral pressures, and even internally, his power base is the Iranian military. And remember, the nuclear build-up is popular in Iran. It’s in his interest to keep up with it, because the general population is not really all that supportive of some of the religious restrictions that have been imposed. Iran leads the world in satellite dishes, remember, and an Iranian friend of mine points out that their favorite program is re-runs of Baywatch. Part of what keeps the people tractable is their ‘big boy pants’ national pride in their nukes.

Up to recently, the ‘stick’ was what we mostly tried. Economic sanctions against Iran were imposed, and did some damage to Iran’s economy. We were able to make that work because Iran’s President, until recently, was Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He became the public face of Shi’ite extremism. He was, frankly, kind of a nut. And so it wasn’t difficult for our allies internationally to support sanctions aimed at any regime (titularly) headed by him.

But things have changed. First, of course, for our allies, those sanctions were not really in their own nations’ interest. Iran can supply something for which there is huge international demand. Black gold, Texas tea. Oil.

And there are other factors. Ahmadinejad is out. Hassan Rouhani is the new President, and he’s much more Western-oriented, much more democratic. He’s a much more favorable candidate, in other words, for a ‘carrot’ approach. It would have been massively irresponsible for any American President to engage with Ahmadinejad, but equally irresponsible not to engage with the new guy. Most of the ‘thawing’ in US-Iranian relations are past overdue anyway, and with Rouhani in control, much easier to implement.

And there’s also Isis. And Isis is a specifically Sunni group of murderous thugs. Their main attacks have been against Shi’a communities. In fact, check this out. An article from the Times of India, about the literally life-or-death questions Isis asks captured prisoners. Sunni are released, Shi’a summarily executed. So why wouldn’t the US want to invite the largest Shi’ite power in the region to work with us in the war against Isis? We do, in fact, need allies there. And in fact, Iran has been helpful.

So yes, it’s absolutely true that the economic sanctions we once imposed on Iran have been relaxed, as part of a larger diplomatic engagement. Those sanctions weren’t viable anyway, internationally, once Ahmadinejad left office. And yes, it’s true that Khameini can accurately be described as rabidly anti-Semitic, or at least, anti-Zionist. Israel is very concerned about the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran. They have reason for their concern. We should too; Israel is our loyal ally, and will remain so.

It’s also true that American conservatives have been rabid in their opposition to the current Iranian regime, and that many in the neo-conservative press have called for the US to bomb and then, eventually, to invade Iran, if sanctions didn’t succeed in disarming them. And that among the voices calling for precisely that option, was Victor Davis Hanson. So: he’s another nut.

Ali Khameini is 75 years old, and in poor health. Iran is under new leadership, one we can actually engage with diplomatically. It’s time for a new course. This President, wisely and sensibly, is pursuing that course. An apoplectic National Review is welcome to weigh in. And the rest of us, equally welcome to ignore their particular brand of reflexive anti-Obama hysteria.

 

Austerity: Book Review

Every dollar spent by government is a dollar not available for job creation and investment. Our first national priority must be eliminating the federal budget deficit, and paying down the national debt. It is immoral to pass on all that debt to our grandchildren. Europe’s problems are of its own creation: too generous a welfare state, too high taxes. What’s needed is belt-tightening, cuts in spending. Recessions are simply normal parts of a business cycle. Ride them out, and normal and natural rates of unemployment will return. The biggest problem in a recession is for a government to spend; it just prolongs the misery. The Great Depression would have ended years earlier were it not for Roosevelt’s foolish reliance on Keynesian stimulus efforts. What we need is to improve business confidence, achieved by cutting government spending. Or, heard more faintly, out on the fringes, this: what we need is to get rid of the federal reserve, and go back to the gold standard. What’s needed, above all, is austerity.

You have probably heard most, if not all of the ideas expressed in that first paragraph. Sometimes they’re uttered by politicians, sometimes by commentators, often by businessmen, occasionally even from economists, though only from that small (but sadly influential) minority of economists from the Austrian school of neo-liberal or libertarian thinkers. You’ve probably heard them at family gatherings, from your elderly great-uncle Horace, or on-line from that old high school friend now working as a computer programmer. But here’s what’s really important: everything in that first paragraph is false. All of it; every sentence. Demonstrably false. Provably false. Factually false. Or, to put it more colorfully (and here I quote Mark Blythe), “absolute horse***t.”

May I recommend an excellent book making that case: Blythe’s Austerity: The History of a Dangerous Idea. And no, his language isn’t generally that colorful. But it’s a passionate book, a fiery polemic, as well as a first-rate economic history. I loved it, and found it almost compulsively readable, but I should warn you; it’s a book about economics by an economist. It’s intelligibly written, intended for a general readership, but there are still paragraphs it may take you some time to unpack.

Blythe is professor of economics at Brown University, holds an endowed chair, published scholar with a lengthy resume. But, of course, economists disagree with each other all the time, and the main rival schools of thought hold views that are unreconcilable. So don’t just believe him because he’s a smart guy with advanced degrees in the field and an impressive publishing history. Read the book. Follow his logic and reasoning and evidence. Then let’s talk.

Because, let’s face it; austerity has a certain grim appeal. The United Kingdom, and France, and Spain, and many other countries in Europe have generous welfare states, high unemployment, and massive budget deficits. All that debt is crippling their ability to budget responsibly, especially when paying interest on debt already accrued becomes a major budget line. So what’s needed is good old fashioned thrift and industry. It’s common sense, we think, because that’s what we would do in our families. If we had a situation, in our families, where someone was out of work and our income shrank, we’d immediately cut down on our spending. We’d see if we could cut our food budget, we’d clip coupons, we’d forgo that new purchase, we’d scrimp and save and make do. Even if our income didn’t shrink, even if we did find ourselves in relative prosperity, we still look for ways to be frugal. Frugality is a virtue; profligacy a vice. How much TV advertising is based on that premise? You can save $___ if you use our insurance company, or wireless service, or buy that car from our dealership.

The problem is, if everyone practices frugality and austerity, the economy grinds to a halt. If everyone does it, it doesn’t work. Companies go broke, factories are shuttered. And a government is the very definition of ‘everyone.’

So when governments spend, more money is put into circulation, demand grows, and supply grows to meet demand. When governments contract, less money circulates, unemployment increases, and, paradoxically, budget deficits increase. Over and over again, Blythe makes this point: austerity doesn’t work. It has never worked. It’s been tried repeatedly, in countries all over the world, and has essentially a one hundred percent fail rate historically. What does tend to happen in austerity situations is that rich people get richer (because they’re insulated from the effects of it), and poor people, obviously, get a good deal poorer. And there are always neo-liberal economists who will insist that the only thing that’s needed is more patience. That it will work eventually.

Economically, there’s no reason to believe that austerity will ever work. Politically, of course, it’s a complete failure. As Blythe points out repeatedly, you can’t have a gold standard in a democracy. Gold standards constrict economic growth, and voters eventually get fed up. That’s exactly why the anti-austerity party, Syriza, just won an election in Greece, for example.

Blythe does not suggest, BTW, that governments should spend irresponsibly, or that deficits don’t matter at all, ever. Of course, too much government debt is a bad thing. But he does suggest several policy initiatives that are more likely to be successful. Looking at the debt held by the US government, for example, one obvious solution is to raise taxes on the super-rich. The greatest periods of economic growth in US history coincided with very high taxes on the top brackets.

He also believes that there exists, internationally, a tax collection crisis. That’s certainly true in Greece, where wealthy scofflaw tax cheats held, at one time, nearly every seat in their parliament. The fact is, most rich people don’t like paying taxes, and have the resources to avoid paying them. Governments need relentless imagination and cunning to see to it that that doesn’t happen.

I’m a bit skeptical about a country like the US mustering the political will to actually raise taxes, or let banks fail–another policy notion Blythe recommends. But the book is a treat. Give it a read. Plow through. You’ll be well-rewarded.

 

 

Mama: Theatre Review

I had the recent privilege of attending a dress rehearsal of Mama, Plan B Theatre Company’s World Premiere of a new play by Carleton Bluford. There are many reasons to see this show, apart from the obvious; you should always see everything Plan B does, all the time, always. That almost goes without saying.

But there are other reasons to see the play. It’s funny, it’s smart, it’s poignant, and it’s superbly directed and acted. The play is about, well, mothers. Mamas. The terrific four-person cast move back and forth from serving a choral function, reciting famous ‘motherhood’ quotations, to monologues about various mothers that seem to have come from a Facebook plea for such stories, then acting out the vignettes about motherhood that are the spine of the play.

I am, as it happens, very fond of my own mother. I’m less fond of Bartlett’s-style quotations about motherhood. But there’s a grit and power to the vignettes that offset the occasional sentimentality of the quotations. That’s where the play really comes together, as we realize that the vignettes are not meant as real-life illustrations of the quotations, but as tough-minded counter-narratives. That’s the dramatic tension of the piece, between ideals of motherhood and reality. And the reality is, Moms aren’t perfect. But also, that Moms do remarkably well nonetheless.

One of the vignettes, for example, started with Dee-dee Darby-Duffin on the phone with her lover. Their conversation is frank and explicit; the man is coming over, and his intentions with her, and her intentions with her, are lasciviously clear. Her son (Cooper Howell) shows up, and reminds her that a representative from Brown University is coming over, to assess his candidacy for a full-ride scholarship to the school. Mom informs him that she has plans for that evening, and that those plans do not include cooking a nice dinner for some white woman. Not quite the perfect Mom, we might think. Except that, in the next scene, the woman from Brown (Liz Summerhays) does show up, and tells Mama that she can’t stay long–the decision has been made, the son will not receive the scholarship. The response approximates that of a she-grizzly bear with a cub in danger. It’s a terrific scene, about a Mom who comes through in the end.

The fourth actor in the cast is the equally terrific Latoya Rhodes, who shines in the one historical vignette of the piece, a pre-Civil War Harriet Tubman piece about the lengths African-American parents went to to protect their children amidst the horrors of slavery. But another vignette was marvelously comic, with Summerhays as a white woman joining a black family, and countering a prospective sister-in-law’s dismissal with sass and courage, while Mama plays cheerleader.

Some plays tell one sustained story; others, like Mama, are episodic. Preferences vary. I’m generally a ‘sustained story’ kinda guy, but I liked Mama very much indeed. It really is a ‘you’ll laugh, you’ll cry’ kind of piece. Go see it. Tickets are on sale here.

The SI swimsuit issue

The big news in human sexuality this week is the release of the movie Fifty Shades of Grey. I have not read the celebrated novel on which it’s based, and would sooner face the gallows, nor have I any intention of seeing the movie. I like bad movies, but only bad movies of a certain type and genre: bad horror, bad action/adventure, bad sci-fi, yay! Bad porn: I’ll pass. I do find the national reaction to this film (based on that novel) pretty interesting. It’s the leading ticket pre-sale movie ever, for example. But those massive pre-sale tickets have been unevenly distributed geographically. It’s doing boffo business, apparently, in the South: Mississippi, Alabama, Arkansas, West Virginia, Kentucky. Rachel Maddow, last night, had a lot of fun with the fact that Tupelo, Mississippi (Elvis!) is the headquarters for the American Family Council. And that Tupelo leads the nation in FSOG pre-sales.

What has not been remarked upon is the fact that the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue also just came out. It usually does come out about this time of year, two weeks after the Super Bowl, in early February. Sun and sex, enlivening the bleak midwinter. It’s only come out later than that once, in 1992, when SI just quietly announced they were putting it off for a couple of months. Why? Well, therein lies a tale, I think. I don’t remember anyone pointing this out, but it seemed obvious to me why: the biggest story in sports, in late January and early February of 1992, was the rape trial of Mike Tyson.

I have subscribed to Sports Illustrated since 1977. I like it. I look forward to reading it. SI really does genuinely publish the best writing about sports in America. The photography, in SI, is routinely remarkable. In a time when magazines are going the way of the dodo bird and brachiosaur, SI remains popular and successful. And SI isn’t just a magazine for male sports fans. The magazine champions female athletes, and female writers about sports. (It’s also progressive in its recent focus on LGBT athletes). SI‘s recent story about the Australian Open tennis tournament, for example, was much more about Serena Williams’ win than about Rafael Nadal’s. I think this is because of the one way in which SI does still retain a parochial focus: it’s a magazine much more about American sports than it is about international sport. Serena got more and better coverage because she’s an American. (Plus, SI has pretty much always liked Serena). It’s a magazine for American sports fans, about sports American fans care about.

And then, once a year, the magazine seems to just go insane.

Okay, a few caveats: first, there remains a certain laddishness to American sports fans which a magazine may as well acknowledge, and their way of doing that is show photos of pretty girls wearing bikinis. You can argue that it’s harmless enough; more comical than offensive. The women who appear in the Swimsuit issue are hardly coerced into doing so; nothing does more for a model’s career than an SI Swimsuit cover. Of course the swimsuits are ridiculous. Fashion is always ridiculous. Sports is a celebration of human achievement, is it not? A chance to honor the extraordinary, the superbly conditioned, the marvelously disciplined. Yes, team sports are gloriously preposterous; yes, we really are rooting for laundry. Still, we’re allowing ourselves to be amazed, by that catch, that throw, that leap, that sprint. It’s Sports Illustrated, Sports Photographed, Sports Written-about. The photographs–a human being in motion, captured for an instant–are a lot of the point. So why is it such a stretch to ask those same brilliant photographers to go to a beach somewhere and shoot some pretty (and fit!) girls in their swimwear. Or, as is often the case, just barely wearing swimwear. Or not wearing anything at all, but a coyly positioned hand or elbow. (Especially when the stories accompanying the pictures piously describe the models’ personal fitness regimens. We’re promoting exercise, folks).

Which is where it goes skidding off the tracks for me. Those photos, found once a year in this issue, are so obviously, so blatantly sexual in their appeal, and so clearly objectifying in their approach, it’s not really possible to see them as anything but sexist. Borderline, at least, pornographic. (Granted, pretty soft-core, but still). For every article and photo of Serena Williams or Mone Davis or Diana Taurasi, every inspirational article about a female athlete competing, we also get this, an entire issue completely devoted to women. It’s like the magazine is saying, ‘yes, women play sports, and good for them. Also, check this out!’

I generally reject the idea that there exist one-to-one correlations between the media we consume and the choices we subsequently make. But I do worry about blurred lines, mixed messages, confusing signals. I don’t think that there’s much direct correlation between the Swimsuit issue and rape. But I can’t help but remember the early winter of 1992, when Desiree Washington had to summon all her courage and tell an, at times, hostile courtroom, ‘no, I did not consent. No, I did not agree to what he did.’ I can’t imagine the mental toughness that took. And, no, probably the two things aren’t quite related, but the subsequent decision by SI to hold off awhile on sending their most popular issue of the year to peoples’ mailboxes seems to betray, at least, a certain unease.

I don’t understand the appeal of Fifty Shades, though I can’t help but speculate about how, in the Bible Belt, forbidden sexuality might give off a particular frisson. I totally get why guys like the Swimsuit Issue; I’m a guy. But I have daughters, I’m married, I have many many women I consider close friends, I call myself a feminist. Women are not objects, existing to gratify men, not even women who agree, with whatever degree of enthusiasm, to participate in their own objectification. Way too many men get the SI Swimsuit Issue, and way too few men actually commit acts of rape, to suggest correlation between the two. But are the two phenomena completely unrelated? Aren’t attitudes shaped by media, just a little, and don’t those attitudes, occasionally, for some people, lead people to act, at least sometimes? Are the seeds of domestic violence somehow planted in this particular soil?

I’m not suggesting we protest, boycott, picket. SI’s not going to give up their most popular annual issue, movie studios are always going to make movies based on best-selling novels. And I don’t want to sell magazines, or movie tickets either. I am recommending what I do. Glance through the magazine, chuckle a bit, then toss it. Glance, chuckle, toss. Because there really is a sense in which hypocrisy is always funny. Especially when it’s this blatant.

Taken 3: Film review

Ah, yes, another chapter of ‘Eric reviews movies that have been out for a month.’ But, come on, it’s a Taken movie. Must-see stuff, but maybe not exactly opening weekend. But I finally saw it, and oh my gosh. Wow. I mean, seriously.

I love the Taken movies, as I love all things Luc Besson, but I let’s face it, cinematic masterpieces, they’re not. Liam Neeson is clearly having a ball in his new role as ‘elderly action hero,’ and if what you want from movies is lots of ‘splosions, lots of hand to hand combat action sequences, lots of scenes where bad guys fire hundreds of rounds from automatic weapons at Our Hero and somehow miss every time (in fact, where horrible bad guy marksmanship seems central to Our Hero’s plan, like something he’s planning on), lots of spectacular car crashes, all leavened with Family Values sentimentality, well then, the Taken movies are for you. They’re red meat for red staters. Or in that carefully hidden lizard brain red stater at the heart of most guys.

Of course, if you want the plot to make a lick of sense, then you might want to try something, you know, good. Narrative incoherence is part of the strategy. Or rather, they’re incoherent in any kind of real-world sense. I mean, Taken 1 requires that we believe that hundreds of teenaged upper-middle class American girls, vacationing in France, could just go missing, sold as sex slaves, with no reaction whatsoever from the US Embassy, or State Department, or Homeland Security, or CIA, FBI, ATF, Interpol, the girls’ parents (Liam Neeson excepted), or from CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News, Fox News, MSNBC, Politico, Vox. Facebook. Twitter . . . Nope. Nada from anyone. Except for Liam Neeson, on a one man killing spree of villainous Albanians. In France. Actually, in Paris. With also no reaction from the French police, except for covering it all up, because they’re in the pocket of Albanians. I’m totally not kidding, I don’t know when I’ve enjoyed myself more at a movie. Funniest thing ever.

Of course, Taken 2 upped the stakes. Moved it to Istanbul (not Constantinople). More Albanians, only this time we’re supposed to believe that Liam Neeson’s character’s daughter, Kim (Maggie Grace) could just drop hand grenades off the tops of buildings, in Istanbul, blowing up peoples’ cars and stuff, with no reaction from Turkish police. Wow. Just, wow.

But, so, okay, Taken 3. (Besson didn’t direct this one BTW; he wrote and produced it, but it was directed by his long-time 2nd unit director, Olivier Megaton). So, Liam plays, as always, former Special Forces ace Bryan Mills. His ex-wife, Lenore, is married to rich douche-bag, Stuart St. John (Dougray Scott). Daughter Kim is in college, living with her boyfriend, and pregnant. Lenore is unhappy in her marriage, and kinda wants to get back together with Liam/Bryan, but he’s too noble to take her up on it; suggests she sort out her relationship with Stuart first. So, Liam/Bryan gets a text; Lenore wants to meet to talk over bagels, so Liam/Bryan gets the bagels, dashes home, sees her car parked there, goes in, and she’s dead. Murdered. He sees knife, picks it up, then cops pour in. So there he is, caught red-handed. Framed.

Okay, it turns out that what happens next is the turning point for the entire movie. Liam/Bryan could just get arrested, explain everything, trust in the cops to get it right. Main cop is Forest Whitaker, who is always a smart guy in these things, so that wouldn’t seem like a bad strategy. But Bryan/Liam decides to beat up all these cops instead and make his escape. Most of the rest of the movie is this big chase scene, with loads of cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, while he hacks into the police computer and figures out various clues as to who-dun-it (murdered Lenore and framed him for it). And Forest Whitaker basically follows him around, always a few minutes late. Eventually, it turns out that Stuart was behind the whole thing, trying to put together some money he can use to pay off the Russian mob. (The main Russki mobster, BTW, was played by the brilliant character actor Sam Spruell, also the main baddie in Snow White and the Huntsman. Skinny blonde guy? Anyway, always glad to see his work.)

So, anyway, finally, Bryan/Liam breaks into the Russian mob stronghold, kills a couple of dozen guards, gets shot at, hundreds of rounds worth, by various automatic weapons, never gets hit, and uncovers nasty Stuart’s whole plot.And the Russian bad guy dies. So Stuart takes Kim with him, and races off, to his private jet.

Leading to this: Liam/Bryan is driving the Porsche he took from the main Russian guy. He gets to Santa Monica airport just as Stuart’s jet is taking off. Now, remember, Liam/Bryan is mostly interested in protecting Kim. That’s all he cares about; protecting his daughter. The police, at that point, know Stuart’s the bad guy. Jets have to land somewhere, and wherever that one lands, Stuart will be arrested. So, knowing Kim’s in the jet, Liam/Bryan decides the best thing to do is to ram the jet with the Porsche. ‘Cause there’s just no way that could go wrong, plane crashes being notoriously safe for passengers.

Of course it works. It’s a movie, stupid crap like that always works in movies. But then comes the very next scene, a final conversation between Liam/Bryan and Main Cop/Forest Whitaker. And the cop admits that he’s known the whole time that Bryan’s innocent.

Which made me realize something crucial. What if, when he first found his wife dead, Liam/Bryan had just let himself be arrested. The cops, we learn, were suspicious of the crime scene. They were planning to investigate the murder. They’re always five minutes behind Liam/Bryan as he puts the clues together and works it out. They’re smart cops. If Liam/Bryan had just let them arrest him, the result would have been exactly the same. Minus all the dead people.

‘Cause there’s also this: all those chase scenes, with cops chasing Liam/Bryan around, they’re all massively costly. We see dozens of cars destroyed, at high speeds, on LA freeways. There’s no way someone didn’t die, though in fact it appears that no one did, in the movie. Lots of cops get hurt, beat up, concussed, kidney punched. But Forest and Liam have this nice chuckle together and go, ‘it’s all good, we’re fine.’ What? Seriously?

Here’s what I think: in real life, people who cause dozens of high speed traffic accidents for no purpose whatsoever generally are taken to account for it. People who beat up dozens of police officers aren’t allowed to go free.

Now, I’m not saying that it was irresponsible or immoral for Besson/Megaton to make a movie in which those specific crimes aren’t punished. I do think it makes for bad film making. I think it’s specifically bad film making when, in order to enjoy the happy ending, we have to forget everything that happened earlier in the movie.

I’ll grant you that the standard isn’t high. But Taken 3 is far and away the stupidest movie in that particular franchise. This one actually manages to be stupid enough to not be enjoyable. That wasn’t true of the last two, but it is true of this one. It took awhile, but I’ve finally been stupided out by a Luc Besson film.

Jupiter Ascending: Film Review

Jupiter Ascending is looking like a very expensive flop. According to IMDB, it cost $175 million dollars to make, and had an opening weekend of $19 million. It’s gotten terrible reviews; a Rotten Tomatoes score of 22. You’ve probably heard what a bad movie it is. I’m here to tell you that none of that is true. My wife and I went to see it last night, and we had a blast. It’s fast paced and fun, visually stunning, and tells a story that’s certainly out there, but that is coherent and holds together and is never for a second boring. The Wachowski siblings are immensely imaginative sci-fi story-tellers, and while this isn’t The Matrix, it’s a thoroughly engaging piece, with contemporary political relevance, even. We both liked it. It’s a movie that needs, and that will reward, your support.

As one of my friends put it, it’s a movie where the final scene involves a werewolf doing battle with a giant lizard, a fight taking place in and on Jupiter (the planet’s) red spot, while a huge factory there explodes around them. While that’s true, it leaves out the turbo-powered gravity-defying sneakers worn by the werewolf (played by Channing Tatum). Add to it Mila Kunis having a super-cool superpower–she’s able to control bees, which she sends swarming around bad guys trying to kill her–an extended comic scene about the universe’s worst bureaucracy, and Eddie Redmayne alternately whispering and shouting all his lines, and you’ve got yourself a space opera that dares actually be operatic, by golly.

The Jupiter of the title is actually Jupiter Jones, played with moxie and bravado by Mila Kunis. She lives in Chicago with her Russian emigre extended family, including her Mom (Maria Doyle Kennedy, so terrific as Mrs. S on Orphan Black). The family has a maid service business, and Jupiter’s specialty, apparently, is cleaning toilets. Her life sucks, in other words.

Turns out, she’s actually royalty. Like, one of four ruling members of the most powerful family in the universe. She’s an Abrasax, and she has three part-siblings, each of whom owns huge amounts of the universe. Earth, it seems, is tiny, but kind of important, because it’s a perfect source for this liquid with magical life-extending powers. Super rich people will do anything (will pay anything) for that liquid.

Spoiler alert: skip this paragraph if you don’t want the plot ruined. The magic life-restoring liquid is actually soylent green. It’s people. That’s why the Abrasaxes want Earth; they intend to harvest our excess people. We’re a particularly good source for the stuff. It’s all about profit, in other words.

Alright, so, Jupiter is a perfect genetic match for the three Abrasax siblings’ Mom, and the richest Abrasax, Balem (Eddie Redmayne), wants her dead. He sends an assassination team to Chicago to dispatch her. But they’re spoiled by Channing Tatum, playing a former-soldier-turned-mercenary, Caine Wise. He’s half wolf, and has, as mentioned, these awesome rocket power shoes. He rescues Jupiter, and takes her to his old partner/mentor, Stinger, (Sean Bean). See, he’s been hired by Titus Abrasax (Doug Booth), an effete sensualist who wants Earth and its potential profits. But instead, Caine and Stinger deliver Jupiter to Kalique Abrasax (Tuppence Middleton), ruthless socialite, who sort shows Jupiter the ropes. And Jupiter makes her claim to Earth ownership, negotiating this horrendous intergalactic imperial bureaucracy to accomplish it.

Suffice it to say that Jupiter gets to spend some time with each of her Abrasax family members, discovering how increasingly loathsome they are. Meanwhile, she’s increasingly attracted to Caine, who seems pretty much into her too, but he’s got that doggie DNA problem. (“But I like dogs,” Jupiter assures him).

There’s also, it seems, a inter-galactic police force, led by Diomika Tsing (the stunning Nikki Amuka-Bird) trying to force all the Abrasaxes to play nicely together. And meanwhile, Caine keeps having to fight various baddies who are trying to kill Jupiter. Who does some pretty impressive fighting herself.

Sci-fi can (and some would insist, should) have some contemporary relevance. Stories about imagined futures ought to, in some sense, comment on our problems and needs. I don’t think that’s a requirement, but Jupiter Ascending surely meets that challenge. For all its flash and action, this is a film about income inequality, is it not? The super-rich don’t get rich on the backs of the poor, they literally kill poor people so they can bathe in their extracted human essence. Until they’re challenged by a tough American girl who grew up scrubbing toilets. I think the film makes a strong political statement.

The film is failing in box office terms, and it doesn’t make sense. Compare it to the Terminator movies, which it somehow resembles. Cosmic politics playing out on Earth? Ginormous creatures doing battle in the sky, midst ‘splosions? The difference is that Jupiter Ascending is 47 times a better movie. (Yes, my phone has that app). The Wachoskis can stage a big CGI action sequence where we can always tell what’s happening, we’re always oriented in time and space, and we actually have the time to care about or worry about characters we’ve come to like. The spectacle, in a Wachoski film, isn’t just awesome, it means something. I know, comparing them to Michael Bay is to damn them with faint praise. But this was a fun movie, an enjoyable time in the theater. The last Transformers movie was a bore. I never cared about any characters in it, couldn’t follow the back story, and couldn’t bring myself to care enough to follow the plot.

It was also a big hit. This one cost a lot to make too, and won’t be a hit. And that’s a shame. At least they got my ten bucks.

Movie Review. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

So finally, finally, I saw it. The latest Hobbit movie, the one you guys all saw and made up your minds about two months ago. (Forgive me; I like to see these with my wife, and we’ve had a lot going on). What everyone said about it was that it wasn’t very good, and that there was no reason to make three movies based on one thin novel. In this case, everyone was right.

For starters, it’s not about a battle involving five armies. It’s about a battle involving either four, or seven armies, depending on what you call an army. Count ‘em: there’s a human army, led by Bard (Luke Evans). An elvish army, led by Thranduill (Lee Pace). An dwarvish army, led by Dain (Billy Connolly). An Orc army, led by Azog (Manu Bennett). That’s four. There’s also Thorin (Richard Armitage), the dwarf king, and his twelve dwarf pals, if you want to count them as an army, plus a second Orc army, plus an army of giant eagles who show up sort of deus ex machina-y. So: seven. Four, or seven, take your pick. Not five.

But that’s only for the final battle sequence, which takes up maybe the last forty minutes or so of the movie. Up to that point, the major dramatic question asked by the screenplay was this: will Thorin, out of sheer buttheadedness, provoke a completely unnecessary war, which he will lose in about four (or seven) minutes, involving humans and elves, who outnumber him five bazillion to one, all battling for a buncha worthless gold. And which we, in the audience, don’t care about. Or the gold, or the war. Or Thorin. Or, at that point, actually, even Bilbo.

See, when last we visited Middle Earth, the big question was, would Smaug, the dragon, attack Bard’s village, and if so, would Bard summon up the strength and courage to shoot it down with a big iron arrow someone crafted specifically for that task. That was an awesome question. It gets answered five minutes into this thing. Smaug sets fire to the town, Bard shoots it down, badda boom badda bing. Lots of devastation, though, so Bard up and decides they’ll all move to this abandoned town by the dwarfish mountain stronghold. (We all saw the Two Towers, we all know that moving your town to a mountain stronghold is a bad idea).

Then we spend forever watching Thorin go all Gollum on us over all that dragon gold. Which for some reason, the humans want some of (they’re starving, what they actually need is food and medical supplies, which they can’t use gold to buy because, far as we can tell, there’s no one anywhere to sell it to them). And then the elf army shows up, wanting their special elf crown jewels, which we’ve totally never even heard of before. Then a big ol’ supporting dwarf army shows up, and all three of these armies spend some time posturing and glowering at each other. Then, finally, super-evil Orc armies start showing up, and we get to the big battle scene we’ve all been waiting for.

Which wasn’t remotely suspenseful, and was actually kind of hilarious. Intentionally? Could be; a troll head-butts a wall, and knocks himself silly–that’s funny stuff. An Orc is allowed to drown–trust me, it was funny. Legolas defies gravity again: funny. We do get to find out what happens when Legolas runs out of arrows. But that’s not actually all that suspenseful, because we know Legolas shows up in the three movies to which this serves as prequel. So we know Gandalf’s gonna be safe, and Bilbo. The real dramatic tension involves Thorin, who we, by that point, have stopped caring about.

All three movies felt padded, but this was far and away the most padded of the series. Bottom line: we don’t actually care if Thorin gets his gold. That was the driving impetus, story-wise, of all three movies, and we never did care about it. And in this movie, when he’s being such a sulky drama queen about his precious precious gold, we care least of all. I don’t fault Armitage, a fine actor, who is never unconvincing. It’s a story problem, a script problem.

What we have here is a script that never really did work, but that managed to hide that fact behind the smoke-and-mirrors of a lot of stunt-and-CGI action sequences. It was fun to visit Middle Earth again. It was fun to see Galadriel again, and Evangeline Lilly was terrific as Tauriel (though I never did manage to care about her love story), and nice to see Christopher Lee play a good guy for once. Radagast is a fun character, and they found Evans, an actor who looks a lot like Viggo Mortenson, to play Bard, who’s a lot like Aragorn. But when all that affection wears off, and all that admiration for good actors trying their best, what we’re left with is, frankly, some resentment. I didn’t so much look forward to seeing the three Hobbit movies as I felt sentenced to buy tickets to them. I will not purchase the DVDs, and I certainly won’t watch them on HBO. Peter Jackson earned a lot of good will by making three spectacularly great movies. He did, sadly, somewhat squander that good will by making three much-less-good ones.