A baseball game

Last night, the San Francisco Giants played the Colorado Rockies in a baseball game. It was a tremendous game, and possibly an important one, if any game in late August can be considered important.  The Giants won, on a ninth inning home run by Buster Posey.  That home run was the headline, and dominated the game stories in the press and on-line. But the game actually turned on three earlier plays. I know that a lot of you who read this blog don’t much care for baseball. But maybe a short discussion of these plays will help you understand the endless fascination some of us have for this remarkable sport.

The first came in the fourth inning. Up to that point in the game, neither team had scored. But with one out, Giants’ shortstop Matt Duffy hit a hard double to left. Second baseman Joe Panik then sliced a single to left, but hit too hard for Duffy to score. So that was the situation; runners on first and third, one out. The Rockies’ pitcher was Franklin Morales, a left handed pitcher. And the batter was Gregor Blanco.

Gregor Blanco does not usually start.  Neither does Duffy. They were in the game to give a day’s rest to the usual starters. Blanco is a fine player in every aspect of the game except hitting. He’s fast, a good outfielder, a fine baserunner.  But he’s a left-handed hitter, and at a disadvantage against a lefty.  And he’s not a terrific hitter even under more favorable circumstances. Blanco did not need to get a hit for Duffy to score.  A fly ball or hard grounder could score him. But Blanco looked badly overmatched on the first two pitches.

On the third pitch, though, Blanco laid down a surprise bunt. In that situation, a squeeze, as it’s called, can be an effective play. There are two kinds of squeezes.  The first is a suicide squeeze.  In this play, the runner on third just heads straight for home plate, trying to steal home.  The batter just has to get his bat on the ball, knowing any kind of bunt will score the runner. But it’s risky. If the batter misses the bunt, the runner will be out by an embarrassing margin. Or the batter could pop the bunt up, leading to an easy double play.

The second kind of squeeze is called a safety squeeze.  The runner holds on third until he can see that the batter has made a good bunt. But he has to time his run home perfectly, not going too early or too late.  And the batter has to place his bunt correctly, right at the first or third baseman, and not to the pitcher, who would have an easy toss home. As it happened, Blanco and Duffy pulled it off beautifully.  Blanco’s bunt went straight to the first baseman, and Duffy exquisitely timed his dash homeward. A run scored, and the Giants led 1-0. But think about it. Duffy has been in the major leagues for three weeks. He’s a young player, just 23, suddenly caught up in the excitement and tension and anxiety of a pennant race. And a safety squeeze requires communication between the batter and runner.  Blanco and Duffy have only been teammates for three weeks. In this crucial situation, though, Gregor Blanco and Matt Duffy executed a difficult play exactly as they were supposed to.

Okay, play two came in the ninth inning. The Giants led 2-1 heading into the ninth, but our best relief pitcher, Santiago Casilla, hit the first Rockies hitter with the first pitch of the inning, then gave up a game-tying double, to Justin Morneau. He got Nolan Arenado to ground out, then intentionally walked the dangerous Corey Dickerson, to set up a possible double play.  Runners on first and second, and the Rockies’ catcher Mike McKenry batting.  And then Casilla, having an off-night, uncorked a horrible pitch.

McKenry is a right handed batter.  The pitch was probably intended to be a slider on the outside corner.  But it completely got away from Casilla, and bounced at least two feet away from the plate, spinning even further away.  Buster Posey is the Giants’ catcher, and our best player. But if that ball got away from him, as it almost certainly would, both baserunners would advance. The double play possibility would vanish–the winning run would be able to score on an out.

Ordinarily, on a wild pitch like that, the catcher doesn’t really try to catch it so much as smother it. He’s wearing all that padding, after all. He wants to limit the damage, get his chest in front of the pitch, let it hit him, and then pounce on it before it can roll too far away.  It’s a tough maneuver, requiring that he move his feet quickly enough to get in front of the pitch.  But Casilla’s pitch was so far outside, smothering the ball just wouldn’t be possible. Nobody can move out of a catcher’s stance and get in front of a ball that quickly.

Posey didn’t even try. What he did was sort of hop and lunge. He hopped straight right, out of his stance, and then reached out with his glove (across his body, remember, since his glove was on his left hand and the ball was heading hard to his right), and just snatched the ball out of the air.  It was the most extraordinary thing.

It’s not the athleticism of the play that amazed me, though. It was the thought process it required.  Immediately upon the pitch leaving Casilla’s hand, Posey had to register what an awful pitch it was, and think ‘I’m not going to be able to reach that ball by conventional means. A shift-and-smother won’t work; it’s too far right and spinning too much. But maybe, if I hop right, I can lunge and reach it. Given the direction and spin, the ball should end up about . . . there. Go.’  And that hop-and-lunge is not a move most catchers practice–I’ve never seen it before, whereas the more conventional shift-and-smother move is one every catcher does hundreds of times. But somehow, in the heat of a pennant race, Buster Posey executed a play he cannot possibly have practiced much (or at all), and made it look actually kind of effortless.

The third big play came two pitches later. McKendry hit a slow bouncer to shortstop, and Duffy dashed in, fielded it, fired it to second, and then Joe Panik, the second baseman fired to first for the double play. The tough play was the pivot at second base by Panik.

The ball wasn’t hit hard enough to be an easy double play. McKendry is quite slow; the problem was Dickerson, the runner on first. He’s a fast runner, and built like a running back, and he had a head start, a quick jump. Panik had to catch Duffy’s strong throw, then pivot towards first and make the throw for the second out.

There are several ways to make a second base pivot. But remember, the runner, Dickerson, doesn’t want the second baseman to make a good throw. He’s barreling into second, ready to clobber the second baseman, if he can reach him. He can’t be obvious about it; the umps will just rule interference, and call McKendry out. But he does want to take Panik out.  And some second baseman, knowing that, will leap and pivot.  But what Panik did was use second base as a kind of protection. He caught the ball behind the bag, touched second, and leaned back, away from Dickerson, and from that position, made the strong sidearm throw to first.

The lean-back pivot is one players practice. A good second baseman will have practiced it regularly, along with four or five other pivot moves.  So in many respects, Panik’s pivot was just a professional ballplayer making the right play for the situation; unremarkable.  But Joe Panik is a rookie too.  As is Duffy. These two young guys, in the middle of a pennant race, in a tough, close game, kept their wits about them and made the play that needed to be made. It was extraordinary in its ordinariness.

And then came the bottom of the ninth inning, and Posey’s game winning home run. But it reminded me that baseball isn’t just about the obvious plays, the big home run or spectacular running catch. It’s about thinking on your feet, staying alert, figuring out, on the fly, what play you should make, and then executing it.  The Giants are among the best teams in baseball at doing the little things, mostly because, I think, they’re an exceptionally well coached team.  But it’s a beautiful thing to watch.

 

When the Game Stands Tall: Movie Review

When the Game Stands Tall is a pretty nifty example of the inspiring teacher/sports movie subgenre.  Inspiring teacher movies are all about how wonderful teachers change the lives of young people–Dead Poet’s Society, To Sir With Love, Stand and Deliver, you can probably think of twenty others.  Sports movies are generally about how a sports hero overcomes tremendous odds to win The Big Game–Rocky, Rush, Rudy.  So, an inspiring teacher/sports movie is about how a great coach teaches his/her young athletes to succeed, and to win The Big Game–Hoosiers, Remember the Titans, Friday Night Lights.  I used to be a teacher, and come from a family of teachers–I love inspiring teacher movies.  I’m also a sports nut–love sports movies.  It therefore follows that I’m a total sucker for ITSMs.  And When the Game Stands Tall is a first rate example of the genre.  If you like this kind of movie, you’ll like this one a lot; if you don’t, you probably won’t.

Jim Caviezel stars as Bob Ladouceur, football coach of the De La Salle High School Spartans, a team that over fifteen years, never lost.  151 in a row.  De La Salle was also a religious school, and Ladouceur teaches a kind of seminary class.  Bible studies. He was (and is) a devout Christian, and that’s why he’s stayed coaching at De La Salle, turning down much more lucrative college coaching offers. He thinks he can have his biggest positive impact on young men’s lives by coaching at the high school level, initially very much to the dismay of his long-suffering wife Bev (Laura Dern), who thinks it would be swell if he were home with his family occasionally, and also, gosh, more money sure would be nice.  That conflict (which could be huge, but in this film, isn’t), doesn’t take up much of the film, especially after Ladouceur has a heart attack and has to turn over spring practice to his best friend and assistant head coach, Terry Eidson (Michael Chiklis).  When Ladouceur finally is able to return to coaching, the guys on the team are busy sniping at each other, and lack the unity that had previously been their legacy.  They lose; the streak ends at 151. They lose the next week as well.  This sets up The Big Game, a televised battle with a rival school from Long Beach, a much deeper and bigger squad, against whom they basically have no chance; Apollo Creed, to their Rocky Balboa.

So it’s pretty conventional stuff. There’s also a brush with tragedy–a star player is murdered sitting in his car, and the coach and community have to deal with the tricky theological implications of random acts of murder, the unfairness that strikes us all when young people die unnecessarily. There’s the ‘inspiring team-building field trip,’ like the trip the team takes to Gettysburg in Remember the Titans; in this film, they go to a local VA hospital and work with wounded soldiers. There are the obligatory ‘working hard in practice’ montages. The players gradually are distinguished from each other, individualized, and each gets a moment of triumph. It’s all very well done, well acted and filmed, and the football sequences are believable and well filmed, if, of course, a tad implausible. And, as usual with high school sports movies, the actors are consistently five years older than the kids they’re supposed to be playing. But let all that go. It’s all well done and effective.

When the Game Stands Tall departs from convention nicely, though, in that it does not end with the Big Game. After all, the Big Game for De La Salle was the third game of the season. There was an entire season to finish, and the movie takes another twenty minutes to finish it. But it’s not really a let down, because the focus shifts to the team’s star running back, Chris Ryan (Alexander Ludwig), and his story. Ryan is very close to state record for career touchdowns, a record his abusive father (the always dependable Clancy Brown) very much wants him to break. Ludwig is very convincing as a big, John Riggins-style running back, a bruiser with speed, and he’s a terrific young actor otherwise.  (All the kids in the movie are–really a fine collection of good young actors). So in the season’s final game, Ryan’s quest to break that record becomes the main storyline of the movie. No spoilers here, but I found it very satisfying, at least thematically.  The movie is not, after all, about a football team with a long winning streak, but about the values of teamwork and sacrifice and character that the best coaches always stress and embody.

I never had an inspirational high school coach, because I didn’t play sports in high school. But my high school drama teacher was a remarkable woman, a life-changingly inspirational coach to me and to hundreds of other kids in our high school. So I get the concept.  My guess is that if you’re someone who likes inspiring teacher movies but are personally indifferent to the game of football, you’ll probably like this movie a lot nonetheless.

It’s very easy, of course, to be cynical about a movie like this, a very Christian-centric movie about how sports build character and how life lessons are taught by brilliant teachers. But I didn’t find myself cynical in the least. I found it very powerful and moving.  But again, I’m a sucker for movies like this.

Race, Ferguson, “exculpatory” and competing world views

While all the media attention has been directed at Ferguson, Missouri, and the shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, there was a second shooting four miles away. The second shooting, of 25-year old Kajieme Powell, was captured on video camera by a passer-by. Powell, walked into a nearby convenience store and shoplifted some energy drinks, which he took outside and carefully laid on the sidewalk.  He was walking around in circles, muttering to himself, and was holding a steak knife. On the footage, a police car showed up, two officers got out, and Powell took a step or two towards them.  Twenty three seconds after the squad car showed up, Powell was shot, at least nine times, killed, and then, bizarrely, handcuffed.

What’s interesting to me was the explanation offered by the St. Louis police department. Originally, they said that Powell moved towards the officers in a threatening manner, holding a knife, that he got within 2 or 3 feet of them, that he was armed and dangerous, that the shooting was justified, and that they released the video, at least in part, because it was, in their view, “exculpatory.”  In other words, they released the video because it supported the official police narrative of the event.

It doesn’t. Powell was never 3 feet from the nearest officer; more like 8 feet, and at least 15 from the second officer. And the officers were equipped with tasers. Nor does Powell seem particularly threatening. He appears, to be honest, a bit deranged.

“Exculpatory?”  I have never served as a police officer, nor in the armed services. I do not own a gun, and can’t imagine ever wanting to. I’ll grant, freely and absolutely, that I am uninformed. I don’t know what it’s like to be a policeman. Maybe I’d shoot too. I don’t know.

What I do know is that, to me, the video is not even remotely exculpatory.  If I served on a grand jury, and I was shown that video, I would absolutely vote to indict both officers for manslaughter. If I were on a jury trying them, and I saw that video, I would vote to convict them, perhaps not of murder, but certainly of the lesser charge of manslaughter. Chatting about it on the internet yesterday, though, a lot of people I don’t know disagreed with me. Some thought this was easily and obviously a justifiable homicide. The officers were threatened by a guy with a knife. They stopped him from hurting anyone, including themselves.

So I look at that video, and it seem obvious–this is an unjustified shooting, a criminal act. Police officers, apparently, look at the video and it’s just as obvious–justifiable homicide.  Our world views shape how we see evidence, and shape therefore the narratives we create around that evidence. I see the incidents in Ferguson from the point of view of a middle-aged white liberal. I tend to impute racism to other white people, partly because I’m acutely aware of my own occasional racism.  We’re all shaped by our life experiences, we all have ideological biases. We just don’t all see the world the same way. I cannot fathom anyone looking at that video and calling it “exculpatory” of the officers. Obviously, lots of people, and most especially people who work in law enforcement, completely disagree. We don’t all see the same video. And we tend to label those who disagree with us ‘nuts.’ We think they’re crazy. They just can’t see straight, we think.

Great Britain, France, Germany, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Belgium, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain–most of the countries of Europe, most First World nations have police forces, crazy people, and steak knives.  They have way way way fewer incidents where police shoot civilians.  In Iceland, in December, for the first time in their nation’s modern history, a police officer shot and killed an armed civilian. The victim was armed with a shotgun, which he used to shoot two other officers; the killing was completely justified.  But the whole nation’s practically in mourning over it.  In Iceland, police officers don’t carry guns. Neither do most European cops.  And they keep civil order just fine.  (Of course, they also have civilian populations that don’t have a lot of guns either.)

So my perspective on guns is urban, middle-class, and liberal. I don’t own a gun, and can’t imagine wanting to own one. If I did own one, it wouldn’t make me feel safer, it would make me feel less safe. I see policemen as essentially benign. To me, they are benign. My few interactions with cops come when I get a ticket for something, which doesn’t happen very often, and which, honestly, I pretty much always deserve, when I do get one.

But in Ferguson, a smallish town without a lot of crime, the Municipal Court issued three warrants and tried 1.5 cases per household. That’s a mind-blowing statistic. Guilty verdicts in Ferguson bring in an average fine of $280 dollars. Which means, if you’re a resident of Ferguson, you’re used to being hassled by cops. You factor fines and court appearances into your family budget and your family schedule. And those fines and arrests and court appearances disproportionately hit black families.  Why does Ferguson do this, have so many arrests? They have to. Those fines made up a quarter of the city’s budget. Unemployment is high in the city, and the tax base is small. A lot of businesses have closed. The city has to pay its bills somehow. So they arrest a lot of people, charge ‘em with crimes–loitering, jaywalking, moving traffic violations–and try ‘em. And pay the bills.

So the black population in Ferguson feels put upon, disrespected, unfairly stigmatized and criminalized. And the Michael Brown shooting was the match that lit the powder keg.

I just finished reading Michael Waldman’s terrific new book, The Second Amendment: a Biography.  Anyone interested in a smart, thoughtful, readable one volume examination of the issues surrounding the Second Amendment should check out Waldman’s book.  As he makes abundantly clear, the Framers absolutely did not intend to codify an individual right to own firearms. Their concern was entirely with state and local militias, institutions that no longer exist in anything like their 18th century forms. The idea that later generations would find in the 2nd Amendment a right for private individuals to own, for self-protection, a semi-automatic rifle, is an argument that the Framers would have found both incomprehensible and ludicrous. They didn’t like ‘standing armies’ and they did like ‘militias.’ And those sentiments were wide-spread enough to get James Madison to stick a poorly worded sop to militia fans into the Bill of Rights. Scalia’s pro-gun decision in District of Columbia v. Heller cannot, by the furthest stretch of the imagination, be called an ‘originalist’ decision. Originalism itself is just silly.

It also doesn’t matter. Justice Scalia ruled as he did because he’s a conservative who likes guns. But enough Americans agree with him (passionately!) that now, yeah, the Second Amendment gives individuals the right to own guns. That’s what our day believes. And there’s not a lot we anti-gun types can do about it, except try to persuade people that they’re wrong. And that’s not going to be easy; probably it won’t even be possible. We’re stuck with guns. Probably around 300 million of them, circulating.

There are members of my family who are really pro-gun. I don’t understand that. It seems nuts to me. But I hold beliefs that they disagree with too. I’m not sure how, in a civil society, we can find a way to disagree respectfully and calmly.

But we have to try.  We have to make some effort to maintain civil discourse, to respect each other’s differences, to always re-think and re-examine our own issues, in light of our biases.  It’s hard.  But it’s essential to our democratic experiment. We have to try.

 

Introducing: Postmodern Jukebox

I never heard of Postmodern Jukebox until yesterday.  My son sent me a link on Facebook to this awesome cover of Girls Just Wanna Have Fun, arranged in the style of the popular music of 1912. Give it a listen. I thought it was terrific fun, and I got curious. There’s a YouTube station called Scott Bradlee Loves Ya, and I just started watching videos. Before long, I’d tuned out the ballgame I’d been watching, and the next thing I knew, three hours had passed.

One of the awesome things about YouTube is that oddball acts can find an audience and launch a career just by posting there.  I saw an interview recently with Lindsay Stirling where she said that record companies kept telling her that what she did just wasn’t commercially viable; that a cute violinist/dancer chick with a love of fantasy just wasn’t something anyone wanted. So she posted amazing videos of herself on Youtube, and now she’s launched, a big star. Likewise The Piano Guys; likewise Pentatonix.  And dozens of others.  And now Post-modern Jukebox.

Basically, Postmodern Jukebox is the brainchild of a very bright, exceptionally talented jazz pianist and arranger named Scott Bradlee.  On the Postmodern Jukebox website, he declares his intentions:

My goal with Postmodern Jukebox is to get my audience to think of songs not as rigid, ephemeral objects, but like malleable blobs of silly putty. Songs can be twisted, shaped and altered without losing their identities–just as we grow, age and expire without losing ours–and it is through this exploration that the gap between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art can be bridged most readily. I want to contribute to the pop music lexicon in the best way that I can. I want to encourage others to push the boundaries of genres, and give them the tools to do so. Together I want to create an alternate universe of popular music.

High minded goals, though, of course, not really all that new. From Paul Anka’s cover of Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit to the stylings of Richard Cheese, this kind of project is not unknown. Aren’t mind-altering covers of pop songs essentially what Pentatonix does?

Still, what Postmodern Jukebox does is reinvent popular songs of today based on a thorough immersion in the popular music of the last century or so, done with consummate musicianship, wit and thoughtful attention to detail. And, at times, including vocals by a seven-foot tall weeping clown. As with their cover of Lorde’s hit, Royals. Ah, Pagliacci.  Or, in the same spirit: Smokey.

So Bradlee isn’t really doing anything quite that unique. Pop music is always a pastiche, echoing over periods and styles. But he’s also terrific. Say a swing version of Madonna’s Like a Prayer. Or a smokin’ New Orleans Jazz cover of Sweet Child ‘O Mine. Or a bluegrass barn dance version of Blurred Lines. Or a terrific country cover of Kesha’s Die Young. Or this torch song created from the unpromising material of Radiohead’s Creep.  Or maybe this: Peggy Lee’s Fever, sung in twelve different styles. Or a mashup of Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The singers he uses are tremendous: Robyn Adele Anderson, Miche Braden, Karen Marie. Not to mention, of course, Puddles the Clown. In fact all the Postmodern Jukebox musicians are terrific.

For an ensemble with ‘postmodern’ in the title, their videos are remarkably pedestrian. A lot of them look like they were recorded in the same corner of the same living room. The emphasis seems to be on musicianship, on musical originality. Basically, the singers wear period-specific costuming–that’s the only real visual element. I don’t know if they’re deliberately going for some kind of minimalist statement, or if they just didn’t have a lot of money when they were starting off. They have gotten more visually daring lately, including this video shot in the Cosmopolitan office.

Anyway, they’re terrific. Love their work, love what they’re doing, and am desperately hoping they tour out west sometime soon–their tours have all been back East. Buy their songs, watch their videos.  Love Postmodern Jukebox.

Ferguson and race

I am very very reluctant to comment on the current situation in Ferguson Missouri and elsewhere. I feel so astoundingly unqualified.  As a middle-aged white male, I cannot bring anything like any personal history to this situation.  But an event that I thought couldn’t possibly support political polarization has become politically polarized, and I will try to comment.

First of all, I’m not sure it’s possible for the Ferguson chief of police to bungle this situation more completely.  Last Thursday, thanks in part to the timely intervention of Missouri State Highway Patrol Captain Ron Johnson, the situation in Ferguson had begun to calm down. Friday morning, Thomas Jackson, the Ferguson police chief, released video footage of what appeared to be a strong-arm convenience store robbery, claiming that Michael Brown was the main suspect in that event.  As Ezra Klein put it, that footage was completely irrelevant to Brown’s shooting, or to the actions of Officer Wilson, the policeman who shot him.  It was, in fact, a transparent attempt to co-opt the narrative regarding Brown’s character.  And it meant that the already volatile atmosphere in Ferguson exploded over the weekend.

(Jackson’s handling of this case, BTW, couldn’t have been less helpful.  In our household, in fact, ‘Ferguson police chief’ has become synonymous with foolishness; as in “well, she’s plenty stupid, but is she Ferguson police chief stupid?”)

There remain dueling narratives in the case.  This story does a reasonably good job of sorting them out. But the subsequent actions of the Ferguson police all tend to support, at least, this conclusion; that the Ferguson police aren’t used to having their authority questioned, and react badly when it is questioned.  The militarized uniforms and armaments facing unarmed protestors, the arbitrary arrests of journalists, the hostility to anyone attempting to film them, and the pathetic attempts by Chief Jackson to leak information to make Michael Brown look like a thug, they’re all classically defensive overreactions. Watching the cops react to the protests is eye-opening.

What everyone seems to agree is that Brown was jaywalking.  A policeman stopped him, they had a confrontation in which Brown reached through the police car window, or was dragged in.  A scuffle ensued, in the car.  Brown broke away, ran off, and the officer fired at him.  He turned, faced the officer, put his hands up.  The police narrative is that Brown then charged the officer.  Most eyewitnesses agree that Brown had surrendered, arms in the air, and that he did not charge the police vehicle.  At the very least, I’d have to say that the most credible evidence points to the shooting as a homicide, requiring, at the least, the filing of criminal charges against Officer Wilson.

But what’s so disheartening about this is the hopelessness and impotent outrage and misdirected fury within the Ferguson black community.  If the town of Ferguson is two thirds black, and yet all elected offices in the town are held by whites (except for one City Council member), what happens in city elections?  Last election in Ferguson, voter turnout was 12%. And it all becomes clearer.

Why vote if it won’t make a difference?  Why engage politically if it doesn’t matter?  Why try to succeed, if the only outcome you ever see is failure?

What’s gone wrong?  Why does Dr. King’s vision seem so far away?  Why are so many young black men in prison, why do so many young black women have children out of wedlock, why is the African-American family in such crisis?

I don’t know. I don’t know what ideas are even out there.  I do know that the Bill O’Reilly ‘black people just need to be moral, go to school, go to work, stop having kids, and stop committing crimes’ elderly white male conservative nonsense couldn’t be more misguided.  Our society needs to do more, provide more opportunities, incarcerate fewer kids. And stop pointing the finger, blaming the victim, making young black people the Other against which Virtuous White American must always contend.

And for kids to be constantly, incessantly hassled by the police isn’t helping.  I haven’t experienced that kind of harassment in my life, because I’m an old white guy.  I have African-American friends, and they say that hassles with the cops are a routine, regular part of their existence.

And maybe there’s this:  Every morning, after nights of rioting and looting and protests and violence, young black men and women go out into the streets of Ferguson with brooms and shovels and clean up the streets.  It’s their city, and they don’t want it trashed.  That’s a force for good, if it could be harnessed.

But for starters, train cops better.  Reinstitute community policing. Make every polcie vehicle carry a camera; make police work entirely transparent.  Let the police/citizen relationship return to what it should be; non-adversarial, cooperative, Officer Friendly ready, always, to help.  And get out the vote.  There’s a Ferguson police chief, for example, who needs to go.

 

Sunday Thoughts

Yesterday, I went to Church with my boot on, having broken my foot.  The choir was singing, and my wife is the choir director.  High councilmen spoke, and as is often the case, my mind wandered.  So a wander-y post; please forgive.  There’s always a chance it will lead somewhere interesting.

The subject the speakers had been asked to address was ‘reverence,’ and as usual, the speakers emphasized that reverence isn’t just a matter of keeping small children from disturbing the meeting.  In fact, for the most part, the parents of small children in our ward are particularly punctilious about taking obstreperous infants out to the lobby.  But our speaker (a man for whom I have a particular fondness, because he’s from Kentucky, and speaks with the soft burr of a Kentucky accent, so familiar to this Hoosier boy) began speaking of reverence in lots of other settings; the music we listen to, the popular culture we consume, the clothing choices of young men and (especially) young women on dates.  We show reverence for Heavenly Father by eschewing hip-hop, by avoiding ‘certain movies,’ by dressing modestly; that seemed central to his thesis.  Rebutting it in my mind, I thought: ah, Ecclesiastes, “to every thing there is a season and a purpose under heaven.” And modesty standards are ephemeral/cultural/patriarchal/anachronistic, not transcendent/eternal/reverent.  And what of irreverence?  What of comedy?  “A time to weep, and a time to laugh.”

But my wife had been thoughtful ever since the passing of the sacrament.  From time to time, we pass notes in Church.  We try to do it reverently, or at least, secretively, and I love it, love communicating with her in these tiny notes scribbled in the margins of the program.  “Why,” she asked, “is the sacrament a two-part ordinance?  Why body AND blood, bread AND water?”  “Because that’s what Jesus instituted, at the Last Supper.”  “But why?” she asked.  “Why should we remember both the body and the blood?  Could it be because our bodies can survive lots of difficulties, but not the loss of blood?”  I wondered about this.  “Perhaps because Christ’s atonement was meant to overcome both pain (body) and death (blood)?”  Could that be it?

The Last Supper is described in all four gospels, but as with many incidents, is more elaborately told in John; it gets four chapters in John.  But John does not really mention the Supper itself; most of it is given to what must have been his last great sermon to the Twelve, a great dissertation on discipleship.  ‘Body and Blood’ aren’t mentioned, but the whole talk is full of dualisms: Jesus as ‘true vine’ and Father as ‘wine dresser’ for example, ‘servants’ who are also ‘friends.’

So perhaps our speculation isn’t scripturally based.  I still think my wife’s on to something profound. The sacrament celebrates Christ’s victory over pain and death, both.  We don’t just resurrect, we recover.  We overcome too.

And that’s something to cope with reverently.  We finished our note: the high councilman sat down, we headed up to sing.  But on our way up to the stand, my knee gave out a little.  I had to gimp my way up, then stand awkwardly while catching my breath enough to sing.  The song we sang was lovely, and the arrangement my wife had made for it emphasized the text in beautiful ways.  And I thought about pain, and the overcoming of pain, the part of the sacrament service (maybe) relating to bread, the body.  The beauty of music is enhanced by the difficulty of learning it.  The real dualism isn’t pain and death, but pain and joy, neither of which can be experienced without each other.

And another way to overcome pain, another way of coping with the endless struggles of human existence really is comedy, it really is irreverence.  That’s why people in power can’t really be very funny, unless they’re also self-deprecating.  A joke by a white supremacist about silly black people isn’t funny.  A joke by a black comedian about his own people can be.  Humor exists to afflict the comfortable, as well as to comfort the afflicted.  That’s also why the atonement was given us; that’s what Jesus meant by ‘inasmuch as you have done it unto one of least of these, my brethren.’ Did Jesus want us to laugh?

(And the single most reverent event I have attended was a performance of Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at Indiana University.  With rock music, and bad language, and a priest blaspheming.  And a child leading us towards atonement, and peace.  And there’s holiness in great comedy, there’s God in the details of theatrical performance, however secular.  I feel God’s presence, listening to Bach, to the Beatles, to Tupac, to Arcade Fire.  To every season there is a time.)

Also over the weekend, I re-read Anne Wroe’s spectacular Pilate: Biography of an Invented Man.  In the medieval passion plays and cycle plays, Pilate was always a leading character, and a comedic one.  A ranter and a drunk, he’d lay about him with a club, shouting curses to Mahmoud (Mohammed, and who cares about anachronism!).  Pilate was, as governor of occupying forces, the most powerful man in Palestine; Jesus as powerless as it was possible to be.  But, especially in John, the tables are turned on Pilate.  His conversation with Jesus is just strange enough to be plausible–Pilate asking what he must have thought were utterly straightforward questions (“where are you from?”) and Jesus giving answers as baffling as they were provocative. (Funny?  On purpose?  Comedic?) Because Jesus knew from the beginning that his body and blood had to be forfeit; he had to be killed, and in a specific way, and this Roman administrator had to order it.  But Pilate was just unsettled enough to see, with perhaps some genuine insight, how wrong his own role would have to be.  He nearly overcame his own limitations; three times, he declared that he could find no fault in this man.  But ultimately, his own weaknesses reasserted themselves.  And, finally, he affixed his seal to an order, and then ordered a basin, and washed his hands.

He did it because he was afraid.  He did it because he knew how Emperor Tiberius (pedophile and murderer and a Roman God, a vicious tyrant, and also believed to be divine) treated the bodies and blood of men under his command who did not handle the affairs of Rome perfectly.

So we all have the same choice Pilate had, the choice to behave courageously or cravenly, bow to authority or (at times, when prompted to) mock it.  And we’ll suffer either way, and die whatever we choose.  But we can honor that body and that blood, by the choices we make. But we have to make those choices.  And not let our culture, whatever it might be, dictate them for us.

Ferguson

Ferguson, Missouri, is a town of some 21, 000 citizens, in St. Louis County Missouri, basically a suburb of St. Louis.  The 2010 census revealed that 67% of the town is African-American, and 29% is white/Caucasian.  However, the town employs 53 police officers, 3 of whom are black.  The mayor is white, as are 5 of its 6 city council members.  The chief of police is likewise white. But a state report on racial profiling found that 86% of traffic stops were of black drivers, and that 92% of arrests were of black suspects. A lot of news stories about the town have, with justification apparently, called it a ‘powder keg.’

And on Saturday, an unarmed 18 year old black kid named Michael Brown was shot and killed by police.  Witnesses say his hands were up and clearly visible when he was shot.  Here’s a link to the NBC news story about the shooting.  Meanwhile, the streets of Ferguson are clogged with protestors.  Tear gas has been used to dispel protestors, and some looters have been arrested.  Three national news reporters have been arrested. A group called The Ad Hoc Committee for Justice on Behalf of Michael Brown has made four demands.  The first of those demands is that the officer who shot Brown be publicly identified and arrested for murder.

The hackers’ collective, Anonymous, has released this video on YouTube.  A few hours ago, they released the name of the Ferguson police officer who they claim was the shooter.  They also hacked into the Ferguson police department website.  Ferguson authorities, though, say the name Anonymous released is wrong; that that officer thus identified was not the shooter.

The Chief of Ferguson police, Thomas Jackson, is a pleasant-seeming round-faced man, who has been fairly unshakable so far in press conferences.  He comes across as reasonable and mild.  He says he’s concerned about race relations in the town, and that he has made healing those divisions his highest priority as police chief.  But the police presence clearly visible in all the national news stories about the Ferguson protests is anything but benign.  We’re seeing SWAT teams, with full military style regalia, in armored cars.  Gunners on rooftops with machine guns.  It’s difficult not to conclude that the police have badly overreacted to peaceful protests, and that fear is driving events on both sides.

By all accounts, Michael Brown was a big, cheerful kid.  He graduated from high school this summer, and was looking forward to college this fall.  He wanted to be a heating and air conditioning engineer.  He was cheerful, outgoing, liked to rap, liked to make people laugh.  What a terrible loss, to his family, to his friends, to his community, to our country.

I don’t know anything more about this story than what I’ve read in the news, seen on TV, or read on the internet.  I do have a few thoughts.

It doesn’t really matter what was said or done by Brown or by his friend.  There’s talk of a confrontation.  I wasn’t there.  Brown’s friend tells a different story than the police have been telling, but we only have partial information from all sources.  But this kid should never have been shot.  I can’t see any justification for it, based on preliminary news reports.  Even if we believe the most pro-police news stories that have emerged, this was a shooting that should never have occurred.

The officer in question, therefore, should have been arrested and charged with this homicide.  That doesn’t mean that he should be considered a murderer.  There are any number of lesser charges that could be filed, and I don’t doubt that prosecutors are already sifting through the accounts that have been given.  And I fully understand that reluctance of Ferguson police to release the name of the shooter.  But he could and should be held in protective custody, pending formal charges being filed.  It also appears that Anonymous’ videos have hardened police resolve. A Ferguson police spokesperson said that the hackers’ threats ‘prompted their decision’ not to release the officer’s name.

People in authority hate, absolutely hate having their authority challenged.  One of the reporters who was arrested said the police officers asked him to leave a restaurant where he was filing a story.  When he didn’t leave quickly enough, they slammed his head against a soda dispenser. There’s no justification for that kind of police behavior. Others have been arrested for taking photos of officers.  But taking a photo is not only legal, it’s constitutionally protected.  I understand that cops take huge amounts of crap in their jobs, and that mouthy civilians have to be very high on their lists of annoyances.  But, at least in Ferguson, and elsewhere, police training needs to be substantially revamped.  Whatever happened to community based policing, for example?

I really do think, however, that it’s time for some cooler heads to prevail.  It’s time to get the St. Louis SWAT teams out of there, perhaps by sending in the National Guard.  Perhaps it’s time to turn over the investigation to state authorities.  President Obama has called for ‘calm;’ that’s obviously welcome.  But I’m also glad he didn’t join Ferguson by overreacting.

Still, this is a terrible situation, and one that plays itself out nationally.  I have good friends who are police officers, and I know how tough their jobs are.  Go on YouTube, and you can find dozens of videos showing officers using excessive force.  But this is a big country.  If the National Police Misconduct Reporting Project’s statistics can be trusted, there are around 4, 000 incidences of police violent misconduct in our country annually.  Any good cop will tell you that that’s 4,000 too many.  But in a nation of 300,000,000, it’s a fairly negligible number.  We can and should do better, but let’s not also overreact, or think the problem is bigger than it probably is.

But then, I’m a middle aged, middle class white guy.  Police misconduct doesn’t affect me much.  If I were black, I’d probably feel very differently, and with good cause.

 

Robin Williams: requiescat in pace

The great Robin Williams died yesterday, an apparent suicide. And the rest of the day, FB was a place of mourning.  “Captain, my captain.”  The Dead Poet’s Society was a movie my wife and I both loved, and that iconic line seemed a fitting epitaph.

What’s remarkable to me about Williams’ death was this: he was one celebrity you never read about being a jerk.  With most celebrities, you read about them and you say ‘well, sure, s/he was a good actor, but there was that time. . . ‘  Not Williams.  Instead we heard literally hundreds of stories about his patience and kindness with fans.  When we heard negative stories about him, they were almost entirely self-inflicted–he had a substance abuse problem; he suffered from depression. But he did not seem infected by self-importance; quite the contrary.  I think he loved performing, but I always sensed some insecurity there too; he also wanted us to love him.

We need to recognize that depression is a real illness.  My oldest daughter is a remarkably bright and funny and delightful young woman who I love with all my heart.  She also suffers from depression, has for years.  Her comment on Williams’ death: ‘there but for the grace of God. . . .’  Let’s reach out to those in our own lives who suffer from this debilitating and life-threatening disease.  My parents are a good example of this.  When they learned of my daughter’s illness, they both made a point of articulating to her their unconditional love and support and prayers.

Depression is poorly understood by many in our culture, and from time to time we hear people say ‘they should just snap out of it,’ or ‘cheer up, life is good!’ or similar inanities.  Or they judge.  One so-called Christian blogger, who shall forever remain nameless here, demonstrated his own lack of charity with a blog post that disgraced the entire internet.  (I’m sure some of you know who I’m talking about; if not, he’s not worth your attention).   But on the same day that I learned of Williams’ death, I also learned that a close friend has been diagnosed with cancer.  I consider both diseases, cancer and depression, equally dangerous.  Blessedly, both can be treated more effectively today than in the past. Neither should be taken lightly.

But, Robin Williams!  Oh my goodness, what a loss.  People forget that Williams was trained as a classical actor at Juilliard, that he turned to stand-up as an alternative to acting, to pay some bills.  His stand-up routine was hyper-kinetic, full of impressions and voices and accents and riffs of popular culture, a rush of mayhem, with only the loosest transitions between subjects and topics.  We talk about how comedy is timing, and Williams had exquisite comic timing, but at a rapid-fire pace.  Compare him to someone like Stephen Wright, or Jim Gaffigan, two comedians with, again, extraordinary timing, but who work at a much slower pace, sometimes getting huge laughs from pauses.  Comic timing simply means this: telling the joke so that the punchline registers without distraction.  Comic timing really means comic clarity.  And I think there was probably never a better talk show host than Robin Williams, probably ever.  He was just so astonishingly on.

Of course, he was also a fine dramatic actor; a three-time Oscar nominee.  The roles he’s best known for are the inspirational ones: Good Will Hunting, The Dead Poets’ Society, Patch Adams, Good Morning Vietnam, where he played unconventional-but-heroic men who transform stodgy institutions through the power of irreverence. But we shouldn’t forget that he and Steve Martin did Samuel Becket, Waiting for Godot, on Broadway.

Here are five movie roles where Robin Williams really stretched himself, five unconventional movies in which all his gifts were on display.

Williams’ first feature film was Robert Altman’s Popeye. It received brutal reviews when it came out in 1980, but I loved the stylization of both Williams’ performance and Altman’s approach to the material.  It was a live-action cartoon, brought to cheerful life by Williams, by Shelley Duval as Olive Oyl, and by Paul Dooley’s Wimpy.  Note Williams extraordinary physicality in the role; the walk, the quickness on his feet.

In 1982, he played the title character, in the film adaptation of John Irving’s acclaimed novel, The World According to Garp. George Roy Hill directed, and found a way to navigate the novel’s blend of magical realism and genuine melancholy.  The film is mostly remembered now for John Lithgow’s Roberta Muldoon, a trans-gender former football star, who becomes Garp’s closest friend, but Williams holds the film together, gives it heart and passion.

I was never a huge fan of What Dreams May Come, a film that a lot of my friends and former students loved.  It’s about a man who searches the afterlife for his dead wife, intent on saving her.  Compelling story, but I was troubled by the theological implications of the film, the notion that people who commit suicide are forever damned.  Especially ironic, of course, given Williams’ own death.  But this scene got to me when I first saw it, and it still has the power to move.

Then, in 2002, after a series of critical and box office bombs, Williams had an amazing year creatively, refashioning himself as an actor, with three films: Insomnia, Death to Smoochy, and One Hour Photo.  Those films gave him the opportunity to explore the darker contours of his talent.  In One Hour Photo, he plays the employee of a photo lab who becomes obsessed with a family who frequents his store.  The Williams who always seemed, perhaps, a bit anxious to please disappears; he gives a creepily unforgettable performance.  In Death to Smoochy, a dark comedy about a TV children’s show host who loses his job, Williams captures a Mafiosa vibe, while retaining a child-like vulnerability.  This scene, with Jon Stewart, is brilliantly funny, in context. Finally, in Insomnia, an early Christopher Nolan film adapted from a Norwegian original, Al Pacino and Hilary Swank play detectives tracking a serial killer, in a northern location where the sun never sets, driving the detectives insane.  Williams is terrifying as the killer.  So check ‘em out.  I think you’ll be astounded by his range.

I feel fortunate to have lived during the Robin Williams era in American entertainment.  I am so grateful for the years he gave us, and so sorrowful for his passing.  Goodnight, Mork.  And thanks for all the years.

Reclaiming the language

The Deseret News just published a letter to the editor of mine, about immigration.  In this letter, I tried to make a modest and reasonable proposal.  Since conservatives are so upset about illegal immigration, why not make more immigration legal?  In other words, if you’re concerned about people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border illegally, why not issue more green cards?  Especially since immigrants are a net plus for our nation economically.  Develop some process where people without criminal records can come over legally and work here.

(The DN comments responding to my letter have been hilarious, BTW. I especially love the high dudgeon displayed by one dude, incensed at the suggestion that immigrants might be better people than Americans.  How dare I?!?!?)

I get that immigration is a hot-button issue, and that some folks get really riled up about it.  But one aspect of it seems particularly interesting to me; the fury people display at the word ‘amnesty.’  We liberals are, apparently, ‘pro-amnesty.’  And amnesty has become an epithet. Dave Bratt, who defeated Eric Cantor in Virginia, basically won his race by using one word: he labeled Cantor ‘pro-amnesty.’  Amnesty, in this context, means ‘soft on crime,’ (crossing a border illegally being the moral equivalent to rape/torture/murder, apparently).  Amnesty means telling illegal immigrants, ‘ah, we were just kidding.  It’s all cool.  Stick around, why doncha?’  It spits on the rule of law.  Or something. Watch: every time an immigration bill comes before Congress, someone in the House of Representatives will stand up and say ‘it’s a pro-amnesty’ bill.  And then see potential votes for the measure just . . . vanish.

So I declared myself in favor of amnesty.  I like that word: amnesty.  It’s a really good word.  It’s an act of forgiveness, a pardon.  It’s related to words like ‘kindness’ and ‘pardon’ and ‘absolution.’  It’s a Christian word, really.  Of course, obviously, we should extend amnesty to people who crossed our border, got a job, support a family, pay taxes, start businesses.  So someone broke a law years ago.  Let it go.

Conservatives have been very successful with this tactic, of turning a perfectly good word into an insult.  “Liberal” is one.  For awhile, a lot of liberals started calling themselves ‘progressives,’ because conservatives had been so successful in demonizing ‘liberal.’  Well, to heck with that!  I’m a liberal, and I’m proud of it!  “Favorable to progress or reform?”  You bet.

Liberals do it too, of course.  Both sides seek political advantage through the careful use of language.  Don’t think that the political slogan ‘hope and change’ represented much beyond language that had been carefully vetted by focus groups and polls.

 

Still, it can get mighty sleazy.  In 1996, Newt Gingrich sent a famous memo to GOPAC, a conservative political action committee.  In this memo, he urged conservatives to memorize two lists of words, one positive and one negative.  Here’s the memo.

I’m sorry, but this list makes me ill.  It really does.  How does calling political opponents ‘greedy selfish traitors’ contribute to civilized discourse?  If words have meaning, then really strong words, like ‘traitor’ or ‘treason’ have to stand for something significant and dreadful.  They can’t just be used to win a Congressional race over a guy you may not disagree with all that much anyway. And the cynicism of it appalls.  “You, too, can speak like Newt!  Just memorize these word lists!”

But it does work. We see it all the time in relation to President Obama.  There’s got to be relationship between the frothing-at-the-mouth fury we see so often directed at this President, and the language used to describe him.  He’s a tyrant, a communist, an uncrowned monarch!  He wants to be king!  He’s destroying America!

Except their actions don’t really match the rhetoric.  If you really do think that this President is a tyrant, hell-bent on destroying America, then obviously, you have to impeach him.  But there’s no real enthusiasm among Republican leaders to do anything of the kind.  The only people calling for impeachment are people who can afford to use irresponsible rhetoric or engage in irresponsible acts.  It’s all House back-benchers.  And talk show hosts.  And Sarah Palin.  People who will never be held accountable for their words.  Meanwhile, Speaker Boehner occasionally calls Obama an ‘imperial President,’ but he has to do that; he’s terrified of the Tea Party right.  His actions belie his words; all he’s really done about Obama’s supposed tyranny is file that ludicrous lawsuit.  And when the Speaker couldn’t get even a purely symbolic, harshly punitive border-kids bill through the House, he then said ‘well, the President can deal with this unilaterally; he has the authority.’  After suing the President for doing exactly that.  Funny funny stuff.

Anyway, as a liberal–and I am a liberal, and proud of it–I intend to use the word ‘amnesty’ every time immigration comes up in conversation.  Let’s claim it!  It’s a great word.  Let’s try to use language that is precise, specific, clear, and accurate.  Let’s not go around calling each other traitors.  That’s just silly.

Guardians of the Galaxy and Star Wars

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night.  It’s very fun, a tremendously entertaining movie.  I liked it a lot, in case you’re on the fence about it.  Rather than review it, though, I thought I’d make this point: jt’s basically Star Wars.  So if you haven’t seen it, and don’t want the plot spoiled, stop reading right now.  Go see it, and then come back.  I’ll wait.

Okay: it’s Star Wars.  It’s basically about a mismatched crew of vagabonds, flying around the universe, who join together to destroy a round ball that has the power to destroy a planet, or lots of planets.  In Star Wars, it’s a very big round ball; the Death Star; in Guardians, it’s the Orb, small enough to fit into the palm of a bad guy’s hand. But they’re both metallic round balls. They even look a bit alike.

The main character has a mysterious past, involving an absent father and a dead Mom. In Star Wars, his last name is Skywalker; in Guardians, he’s Peter Quill, but wants people to call him Starlord.  Skywalker=Starlord, close enough?  I’ll admit, in Guardians, Starlord is more like Han Solo than Luke–a sort of vagabond outlaw type, who has in the past been hired by an evil businessman–Yondu Udonta in Guardians, Jabba the Hutt in Star Wars.  But there’s a mystery about his parentage in both cases, and the absent father figure has left him with a legacy involving some kind of mysterious power: the Force in Star Wars, the ability to sort of control the Orb thing in Guardians.

There’s also a sidekick character.  Peter/Luke makes friends with another vagabond, Rocket/Han Solo, who has a very large, very deadly sidekick with limited language skills: Groot/Chewbacca.  Rocket and Han are both very good with blaster-type rifle weapons.  Both Groot and Chewbacca moan to communicate, though Groot also can speak three words of English.  (And major props to Vin Diesel, who endows “I am Groot” with many many meanings).

There’s also a bad guy who is tall, wears black, and has a deep bass electronically enhanced voice: Ronan/Darth Vader.  But in both cases, he reports to another even more evil bad guy: Korath/the Emperor.  Who he communicates with on some kind of screen thing, and also sort of plots against.

In both movies, there’s (of course) a girl, attractive and a good fighter: Gamora/Leia.  Both seem to be of quasi-royal blood.  Gamora is the adopted daughter of Thanos, though lent to Ronan, who she hates and wants to destroy. Leia, of course, is a Princess.  Her exact connection to the Emperor is unclear, but the Star Wars universe clearly has a kind of monarchical governmental structure, which she’s part of, though she’s joined the Rebel Alliance.  Gamora has green skin; Leia has her easily mockable hair style, which looks as though she glued two Danish pastries to the sides of her head. They’re distinctive looking, in other words.

Both movies are built around big escape scenes.  In Guardians, our heroes have to fight their way out of a massive prison.  In Star Wars, they have to break Leia out of prison, then escape the Death Star.

Both movies have a big bar scene, involving a planet that can be accurately described as ‘a wretched hive of scum and villainy’: Knowhere in Guardians, Mos Eisley in Star Wars. Both planets have, of course, bars, and our heroes go there to relax, among a motley bunch of aliens. In the Knowhere bar, the entertainment seems to involve a version of cockfighting involving small dinosaurs; in Mos Eisley, it’s a jazz combo. Not quite equivalent, I suppose.  But our heroes do have a drink, though they get drunker in Guardians.

And, of course, in both movies, the threatened planet has some fairly memorable characters.  Nova Prime (Glenn Close) in Guardians, and General Dodonna in Star Wars.

This leaves out a few major characters.  The Guardians universe doesn’t seem to have equivalents to Obi-Wan, unless you count Yondu, an older mentor figure to Peter Quill, but not really very similar to Obi-Wan at all.  And no one on Star Wars strikes me as terribly equivalent to Drax.  My wife suggested C3PO–he shares Drax’s conversational literalism.  But Drax is a fearsome fighter, and C3PO way isn’t.  My wife also suggested R2D2 as similar in some respects to Rocket, which works a little better.  But I’ll stick with Peter/Luke and Rocket/Han for now.  There’s also one of the most compelling characters in Guardians, Gamora’s cyborg half-sister Nebula. Also known as the character that allows Guardians to pass the Bechdel test.

Of course, one of the most awesome elements in Guardian is the soundtrack, involving Peter Quill’s beloved early ’80s mix tape. When we see the five Guardians, in slow motion, heading off to battle, to the sound of the Runaways singing “Cherry Bomb,” I laughed out loud, it was so perfect. But the music in Star Wars is pretty distinctive and memorable too.  Suffice it to say that neither movie would be anywhere near as fun without its musical score.

The main point, though, is that both movies are space-opera-fun.  As the last three Star Wars movies trudged tediously on, the movies lost the sense of humor that made the first one so enjoyable.  Star Wars was never profound, never self-consciously ‘great’. It was a ball. It was the funnest B-movie ever made.  That’s what makes Guardians so remarkable, and so successful. It’s not afraid to make fun of itself.  It finds a remarkable comedic rhythm and never forgets to maintain it.  It’s a comic book, in the best sense of the word.  And so was the original Star Wars.