Favorite bands: Gentle Giant

This is something I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a long time now; use it to try to turn people on to favorite bands of mine.  Anyway, I thought I’d start here, with Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant were the quintessential mid-seventies progressive (prog) rock band. To quote Bob Stanley’s invaluable (and infuriating) new history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah:

Groups used instrumentation, phrasing and rhythms that they had learned playing folk, jazz and blues; inevitably, many of the musicians had been trained in classical music.  Much maligned since, it can be very beautiful.  On the other hand, musical chops were essential, which resulted in some of the most tedious, self-indulgent music ever, and this has led to the whole genre being sharply unfashionable ever since.

And since this is in a chapter that begins with a quotation knocking Gentle Giant, I assume that Stanley intends ‘tedious and self-indulgent’ to refer to Giant, who he otherwise does not discuss at all.  They were the proggest of the progs, the most self-consciously intellectual and show-offy group of musicians perhaps ever assembled (aside from maybe the worst excesses of Frank Zappa, or possibly the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  On the cover of Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste (an album intended to introduce you to the pleasures of their music and genre), we find this pronouncement: “it is our intention to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music, at the risk of being very unpopular.”  They never were afraid.  Their entire approach was very much ‘this is what we do.  Like it, or not.  We don’t much care.” Later, that changed; they wanted to be more popular, to sell more records, to make more money, and their music changed too, became more accessible, more commercial.  It didn’t work, and I think they knew it wouldn’t.  They had the most unique sound in the world, and not everyone was going to embrace it.

And I loved it.  I owned all their albums at one time, and listened to them a lot, and saw them in concert twice, once as the warm-up band for Yes, and the second time, as warm-up band for Jethro Tull.  Both concerts, something very strange happened; thousands of fans came for the warm-up band, and left after Giant left the stage.  We were there to hear Giant.  Fact was, I like Yes and Tull a lot too, and stayed both times, but I was in a minority.  Both times, easily half the audience scarpered after Gentle Giant’s set.

Here’s a song from Acquiring the Taste: “The House, The Street, The Room.” Give it a listen.  It starts with a long bass line, augmented by keyboard, and eventually guitar, but almost spooky, like the sound track to a particularly Grand Guignol horror movie.  We then hear Derek Shulman’s strong voice, with those enigmatic lyrics, harmonized by Ray Shulman with Kerry Minnear’s light tenor on the high notes.  (In performance, Minnear rarely sang). Then comes an instrumental interlude, with everything from pizzicato strings, some glockenspiel, some mandolin, very tight, very focused.  Then out of nowhere, a hard blues guitar solo, with Gary Green rocking out.  This is typical Giant.  Chamber music at times, but also unmistakably rock and roll.

The lineup kept changing, but the heart of the band were always three brothers, Phil, Ray and Derek Shulman.  Their father was a professional trumpeter, and insisted, growing up, that the boys learn multiple instruments: Ray started trumpet lessons at five, then violin lessons at seven.  They were joined by a friend, Kerry Minnear, who played keyboard and percussion; those four, the Shulmans and Minnear, all wrote the songs.  They added Gary Green, a blues guitarist who also could play mandolin, and drummer Martin Smith.  Between the six of them, they could play 43 instruments with professional competence; their musical chops are uncanny.  In concert, half the fun was watching them dash from instrument to instrument.

Most prog bands were British, for some reason, and fascinated by English myth and legend. So was Giant. A thread through many albums is the story of Pantagruel, a gentle giant who goes about the countryside helping (but also inadvertently scaring) the local citizenry.  Here’s Pantagruel’s Nativity from Acquiring the Taste. It starts with mellotron, adds some synthesizer, and is one of the rare Giant songs to feature Minnear’s voice. What I especially love is the three and four part harmonies they create, a Giant trademark.

Here’s a third song from Acquiring the Taste; my son’s favorite Giant song: Wreck. It’s about a shipwreck, and is often the case with Giant, alternates hard rock sections with chamber music; Ray Shulman’s violin is especially lovely in the first instrumental break.

After Acquiring the Taste, they dropped Martin Smith as drummer, and replace him with Malcolm Mortimer. They then recorded a concept album: Three Friends. It followed the lives of three childhood friends who, as adults, each take their lives in different directions.  One of the friends becomes a painter; this song, Peel the Paint is about his life.  Again, Ray Shulman’s violin is featured, but also Green’s shockingly disruptive guitar solos, with Derek Shulman’s powerful vocals, laying bare the turmoil underneath the successful artist’s facade.

After Three Friends, Malcolm Mortimer was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, and although they wanted to keep him, they had just gotten a record deal and were under pressure to record quickly.  They replaced him with John Weathers, which proved an inspired choice; Weathers was another multi-instrumentalist, a fine percussionist in addition to just drumming.  His work added another level of complexity to their sound, and the result was their finest album, Octopus.  Here’s Knots, from that album, inspired by the word games of R. D. Laing.  It begins with their most complex vocal harmonies, then adds Weathers’ percussion.  First time I heard it, I didn’t like it, but it is a song that rewards multiple hearings.  Also from Octopus, another chapter in the Pantagruel extended story, The Advent of Panurge.

Following Octopus, Phil Shulman, who was eight and ten years older than his brothers, decided that his membership in the band was putting too much pressure on his wife and children, and quit.  The other five members carried on, and the result was an album, In a Glass House, that sounds a bit more like rock music.  Not all that much; the rhythmic complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity were still on display, as per In a Glass House, the eponymous track from the album, which to me has a stronger jazz influence than heard in other albums and songs.

Their next album, The Power and the Glory, was very much a turning point.  They’d signed with a recording label, World Wide Associates (WWA), which was also Black Sabbath’s label.  It was not a good match.  This song, The Power and the Glory, was written by Derek Shulman, who hated it, under pressure from the studio, which wanted, not unreasonably, something commercial.  I know GG fans who like it, and consider it among the band’s best songs.  I think it’s, at best, mediocre Giant.

They quit WWA, and signed with Chrysalis, and Free Hand is the album that resulted. One of the ironies of Giant is that they were a British band, but always more popular in America than in Britain.  Free Hand became their biggest selling US album.  Again, some Giant fans think it’s pretty compromised, but I rather like it.  They certainly sound more polished, and the music is plenty complex, as, for example, the song Free hand.  I love the contrast between the intensity of Derek Shulman’s voice, and Minnear’s playful piano licks.  If this is Giant trying to be commercial, well, that was probably never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  They compromised and compromised, even, eventually, dropping all strings and woodwinds and percussion and reinventing themselves as a typical guitar, bass, drums, keyboard rock band, for the album Civilian.  And yet, even then, they stayed interesting, as per this song, Inside Out.  They’re just too good as musicians to write a boring song.

Finally, they broke up, and the split was fairly amicable. Derek and Ray Shulman got into the business end of the music world, and Phil opened a gift shop.  Minnear went into gospel, and now, by mutual agreement, handles all business matters regarding Gentle Giant.  Gary Green remains a session guitarist, very much in demand.  They have resisted for years calls for a reunion album or tour.

I still listen to their music, and my oldest son has become a Gentle Giant fan. As a nerdy bookworm and theatre kid in high school, they spoke to me as no other band could have done.  I still think they’re remarkable.  Give ‘em a listen.  It may take a little while to get into the sound; they’re not like anyone else. But what they are is amazing.

 

 

 

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Tony Dungy

When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the most recent NFL draft, it was seen as very big, very important news.  Sam was the first openly gay football player to declare for the NFL draft, and to be drafted.  If he makes the team, he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  And the Rams’ decision to draft Sam was seen as a wonderful thing, a step towards inclusiveness and openness and the overcoming of homophobia.  And Sam’s courage in coming out was seen as a positive sign, suggesting that professional athletes in general and football players in specific (who, fairly or not, were seen as particularly benighted in this regard) were changing, that attitudes, at least, were more welcoming to the LGTB population than would likely have been the case only ten years ago, when Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers.

On Sunday, Tony Dungy, the much-respected former Colts’ head coach, who now works as a TV analyst, said he would not have drafted Sam. “I wouldn’t have taken him.  Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”  Tuesday, Dungy offered this clarification:

“What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams. I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does. I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.”

Despite this clarification, Dungy has come under attack.  Intemperate comments on social media suggested that Dungy should be fired from his job at NBC Sports. Even more vitriolic tweets speculated whether James, Dungy’s son, who killed himself in 2005, may have been gay, and that his suicide may have been because he was rejected by his father.  Dungy is an evangelical Christian, and has publicly opposed marriage equality, though not since 2007. Dungy is also one of the most respected figures in the entire NFL. He has consistently reached out to troubled players, and is credited by many for making a difference in the lives of young men, in football, who have made poor life choices.

This gets tricky, because this whole situation was exacerbated by a particularly inflammatory post by a well-known conservative blogger.  Ordinarily, I link to any source I cite.  In this case, though, I refuse to.  I will not be party to driving traffic to his site.  Nor will I even tell you his name.  His initials are MW.  Some of you probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me leave it at this: in my opinion, he’s not worth your time.

Anyway, this whole thing has kind of blown up.  Sports talk radio won’t let go of it, and neither will the underground world of sports and political bloggers. I don’t particularly want to add to the noise.  Let me make a few points:

1) Michael Sam has handled the whole controversy with humor and class.  His initial comment on it was some variation on ‘I’m glad he’s not my coach!’  Later, he clarified, tweeting “Everyone in America is entitled to his own opinion.”  Other than that, he’s stayed out of it.  He’s trying to make the Rams’ roster.  That’s tough enough.

2) Coaches hate distractions.  Coaches want their players totally, 100% focused on the immediate task in hand; winning football games.  For Dungy to say ‘I wouldn’t want a player who is likely to be surrounded by media distracting my team’ is not, in a football context, terribly unusual.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, who will make the decision regarding whether Sam makes the Rams’ roster, says he thinks Sam won’t be a distraction.  Fine: different coaches, different perspectives.

3) There are good reasons to think that Michael Sam will be a very good professional football player, and just as good reasons to think he might struggle.  Oddly enough, this question has become politicized in this discussion.  Not wanting to take too much of a shovel to the MW cesspool, let me say that the question of Sam playing in the NFL has little to do with politics.  Sam was the defensive player of the year in the toughest football conference in all of college football.  That suggests that he might be a remarkable talent, and a fine professional player.  He was also distinctly unimpressive in the NFL combine.  This doesn’t mean all that much.  Joe Montana’s throwing arm was thought to be inadequate coming out of combine workouts.  Emmitt Smith was too slow.  Sam Mills was too small.  They’re all in the Hall of Fame.  Sam might be a star.  He might not make the team.  If he makes the Rams, it will be because Jeff Fisher thinks he’s good enough to play.  That will be the only criterion, as it should be.

4) A well-nigh perfect comparison for Sam might be Tim Tebow.  Like Sam, Tebow was a brilliant college football player.  He was also known for things that had nothing to do with football (in Tebow’s case, his work as an evangelical missionary in Africa, and his very public embrace of a kind of muscular Christianity).  But Tebow’s talents did not translate well to the NFL, and his career has been short, and is now likely over.  We don’t know, of course, but if Sam doesn’t make the team (and he might not), it will be for football reasons.

5) This whole controversy is so immensely dispiriting.  Tony Dungy was asked a football question, and gave a football answer.  To accuse him of homophobia without cause seems unfortunate.  Why does everything in society have to be politicized?  Why does everyone have to take a side on issues like this one; why does this have to become another battlefield in the cultural wars?

Michael Sam was a superb college football player who may or may not be a good fit in the NFL.  Tony Dungy was a wonderful coach, a good man, a committed Christian, and a conservative male who, approaching 60, may not be entirely comfortable with gay people.  (And we don’t even know that).  Let’s all stop shouting and tweeting and opining, and let the kid play football, and let Dungy do what he does brilliantly, comment on football games.  Can’t we figure out a way to get along?

Poetry slam in Provo

Every Thursday night, at Enliten Bakery in Provo, there’s a poetry slam.  Called Speak Your Mind, it’s an open mic opportunity to read, recite or free-style poetry.  Last night, Speak Your Mind’s head gurupoet-in-chief, grand doyenne, Marianne Hales Harding (a good friend of many years’ standing) invited me to be the featured writer.  I figured, anything to help make Provo cooler.  I had a ball.

I don’t know how many people eventually showed up–maybe 50.  Of those who did come, maybe 15 or so actually read/performed.  Many were younger folks, but there were a few people closer to my age, including some very accomplished poets.  A young woman showed up for the first time, and I thought her poems (she read, I think, two) were splendid.  A young girl wrote with aching honesty about relationships and failures and how hard it can be just to break through all the barriers we humans put up.  A young guy wrote with ferocity and courage and passion about dualities and dualisms now and in the past. Marianne recited a terrific poem about tampons. And we snapped our fingers (and clapped some too), and the whole thing was great fun.

Enliten Bakery makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet.  And it’s management is super-cool, as good as their food.  They’ve agreed to a ‘no censorship’ policy, and I think that’s one of the things that made the night work so well.  If a poet’s muse requires the occasional dropping of an F-bomb or two, so be it–writers have to feel able to express any thought, any emotion, any sentiment, and that means using any language suited to the work.  And especially when you’re freestyling.  Especially then.

I was the ‘featured writer,’ which meant I got to go first, a scary prospect.  And I am most emphatically not a poet.  I am a playwright first, an essayist/blogger second, a critic third, and other kinds of writing are way down the list.  I’ve written a novel, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written some pretty terrible poetry, but mostly, I’m a character/setting/conflict guy.

So I imagined a short scene, a date, in which the guy has asked the girl, for their second date, to read a book before-hand, to give the date some focus.  Which she has agreed to, for reasons known only to herself.  The book he gives her is one that, he says, is the most important book in the world to him, the book that defines him as nothing else on earth defines him, and it’s not that she has to like it, he’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she does need to engage with it.  Please?  And the book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Which she totally hates.  She’s a feminist; it’s a rape-y book, it’s contemptible.  It’s the worst book ever written.  Mein Kampf, he counters?  It’s the second worst book ever written, she replies.

So driving over to the event, I thought about that situation, and these two people, and I thought I’d freestyle a dialogue, me playing both characters, just to see what happened.  An approximation of my own writing method, maybe.  Anyway, I did it.  Driving in, the sun was low enough that I needed my sunglasses, and I figured, hey, poetry slam, so I kept ‘em on.  And my wife is out of town, so I haven’t shaved since Monday.  All part of the look.

It went okay.  I thought the scene had a strong opening, a pretty solid closing, lagged a bit in the middle.  I think I’m going to actually write it, see if it fits into something else I’m working on.  And then I figured, what the heck, it’s a poetry slam, so I freestyled a second piece, a poem this time.  A few weeks ago, I bought a new chair, a recliner, the single most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever owned.  So I called the poem “Recliner porn,” and it went okay, got some laughs, though it sort of fizzled at the end. So I sat down to enjoy everyone else’s poetry.

And half-way through, I realized I had another poem I needed to write and recite that night.  I’ve been angry for days, and anger is important, always write when angry, do not lose that energy.  So I grabbed a pen and a napkin, and wrote it, and Marianne slotted me in again at the end.  Here it is.  I call it: Detritus.

Detritus

 

What are we doing?

What are we doing?

I see them, red faced white women faces like harpies and gorgons and Scylla and Charybdis, nightmare faces dredged from the depths of a shared mythos, screaming, like voices from the past (screaming ‘nigger nigger nigger’ at 9 girls in Little Rock the year after I was born), now, today, screaming ‘go away.’  ‘Return to sender.’ ‘We do not want your diseases’ (ebola smallpox dengue fever none of them found in Honduras) at a yellow bus filled with brown-skinned children.

I saw.

60 kids wrapped in a quilt and tied to the roof of a train at a Texican border saying help us help us help us please.

We need Pampers

formula

diaper rash creme

fleeing murder and raped moms and sisters families blown apart.  Rubble and garbage and gnawing empty bellies

Because cities implode under the weight of violence

Because America’s hedgefund managers + dentists + CPAs + corporate attorneys + insurance adjusters + assistant managers + executive vice-presidents + used car dealers + realtors + computer programmers + ad execs + personal trainers

need

crave

candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses

and demand creates supply

and illegality restricts supply

and corporations we call ‘cartels’

and small businesses we call ‘gangs’

and salesman we call ‘dealers’

feed that need feed that need feed that need

and the kids wrapped in quilts are collateral damage we’d just as soon sweep into dustbins

detritus.

What are we doing?

I can take four

We have a guest room in the basement

We can take four

I know, preachy, plus political poetry has a shelf life of four and half minutes.  Given time, I could re-work it, maybe.  But I still have the napkin–I just transcribed it above.  Writing is re-writing, but sometimes the muse speaks a little, and those moments are maybe worth memorializing too.

And when it was done, the poets, kids and old guys and 30 something women, all just writers, all just trying to say something that matters, to us and each other, awkwardly fist-bumped and high fived and handshakes.  Every poem earned its fingersnaps; every poet deserves to be remembered.

Thursday nights, Enliten Bakery.  I’m going back.

Snowpiercer: Movie Review

Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is the most exciting summer action movie of the summer.  It’s also a excellent example of smart, inventive, science fiction.  It’s a profound and powerful film about poverty and social class and income inequality.  It’s a religious allegory of sophistication and intelligence.  It’s a cautionary tale and a meditation on leadership and power.  And the film itself is a metaphor for our lonely and desperate sojourn on this rickety craft we call planet earth. It’s also probably not playing at your local cineplex.  It certainly wasn’t playing at mine; I had to catch it at an art house in Salt Lake.

The producers of this film made the cheeky decision to release it the same weekend that Michael Bay’s fourth Transformer film came out, a movie that Snowpiercer is approximately 194,000 times a better movie than.  But Snowpiercer does not have the essential elements needed for a film to be embraced by the summer popcorn movie crowd: a pretty girl in shorts and skimpy top, and the smashed-up destruction of a major world city.  Nor does it feature trucks riding dinosaurs.  So it’s getting the slow, city-by-city art house release strategy.  Which means that so far, it’s made (approximately) 194,000 times less money than Bay’s movie has made, or is going to make. This is a situation you can personally make a small contribution towards rectifying: may I urge you to start this weekend.

Because Snowpiercer is just so, so good. Here’s the premise: earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a world-wide freeze.  Shot after shot of a world in icy desolation.  But eccentric billionaire Wilford somehow managed to build a train that could survive those conditions, and that could run a permanent looping course over rails covering the entire planet. The train’s engine is self-sustaining, and though ecologically a closed system, the engine can itself provide power, water and nourishment for a human population.  For seventeen years, a few thousand folks have survived on this train, the Snowpiercer. They are rigidly divided by class.  At the very front of the train, is the engine, tended by Wilford (who is, by now, essentially worshipped as a God).  At the very rear of the train are the poor people, crammed into tiny bunks, with just enough water to drink and to take care of sanitary needs, but not enough to wash up much. They’re fed on ‘protein bars,’ horrible gelatinous purple square things, strictly rationed.  Iron gates guard the other sections of the train, and initially we can only imagine how the people live in the rest of the train.  And from time to time, armed soldiers come back to the poor section and requisition people needed for some undescribed tasks elsewhere on the train. The astonishing Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the liaison between Wilford and the poor, and a ferociously comical propagandist for the social order.  Everyone has a place in the world, she insists.  You would not wear a shoe on your head; nor should the poor expect the benefits due to the wealthy. And so she culls them:  an elderly violinist is separated from his wife (who protests, and is savagely beaten).  Children are carefully measured and taken away.  And the poor folks seethe, and plot.

They’re led by Curtis, superbly played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame. He’s organized, efficient, a natural leader, though he deflects any praise on that account. He also is haunted by secrets from his past (which, when eventually revealed, are a psychic punch in the guts).  He’s advised by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt), who may also have the ability to supplant Wilford and run the train. A friend, Tanya, (Octavia Spencer) brings her own maternal ferocity, when her son Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) is taken off by Mason.  And he has a younger assistant, Edgar (Jamie Bell, the kid from Billy Elliott). And from time to time, a capsule with a message inside shows up in their protein bars, and Curtis plans his revolution. He’s going to fight his way to the front of the train.  And he’s going to take over the engine.

The first step is to bypass the gates separating sections, and one of the cryptic capsule messages informs him that a security expert, someone able to open gates, can be found in the security detention area, which Curtis thinks he can reach.  And indeed, the first battle of the revolution does gain them that detention space, where detainees are stored in lockers.  And we meet Minsoo, played by the superb Korean actor Kang-ho Song.  Who tells them he requires a drug, Kronol, and wants two cubes of it every time he opens a gate.  And who also insists he won’t work without his 17-year-old girlfriend, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

Kang-ho Song starred in Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, my favorite monster movie of all time.  He’s a tremendous presence in this film as well.  As Minsoo, he is soulful, intelligent, brave, untrustworthy and addicted, and deeply secretive.  Curtis needs him, but never quite trusts him, which turns out to be sensible.  Yona is similarly mysterious, in another terrific performance.

The heart of the film, then, is the journey through the train by Curtis and his increasingly depleted band of impoverished warriors.  And nothing that subsequently happens is in any way predictable.  Every time Minsoo opens another gate, we see another sub-stratum of Snowpiercer society, another world opens up, and they’re just astonishingly inventive and interesting.  And meanwhile, the train motors on, through a frozen wasteland, and from time to time we see icy barriers, results of an avalanche or snowfall, and we see Snowpiercer smash its way through, at times careening wildly on two wheels, nearly derailing, but always moving forward.

Early in the film, Bong describes the train as ‘an ark,’ and, watching it, I teased out one potential meaning.  The train seems all-powerful, self-sufficient, completely safe, a refuge and port-in-the-storm.  But it’s not safe at all.  It’s actually kind of ramshackle, an improvisation, not all that carefully designed or engineered.  And yet the people seem largely unaware of that reality (which we, in the audience, see all too well).  And the champagne pours and steak and seafood appears on wealthy folks’ plates.  Well, isn’t that our position here, now, on the Planet Earth?  Global catastrophe beckons, but we’d rather squabble over the politics of science?  And we don’t much trouble ourselves over it, as long as we’re well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, and able to reproduce?  And we’re vaguely aware of people living lives of starvation and despair, and we may occasionally make some noise about helping them.  But we also send out Tilda Swinton to lecture about the inevitability of social classes and the destructiveness of threatening the existing social order.  We’re on top, and like it that way.  And if our craft frequently careens on the edge of disaster, it really always has righted itself, has it not?  So not to worry.

To explore other possible meanings and ideas in this film would require that I reveal details of the plot, which, for this film, I’d rather not divulge.  Ordinarily, I’m Mr. Spoiler, but this film isn’t in general release (yet), and I’d rather persuade you to see it than advance a critical conversation.

Suffice it to say that, an hour in, I made all sorts of predictions about what would happen, none of which turned out to be even a little bit true.  And I never failed to be astonished by the endless inventiveness of this wonderful director and his production team.  This is Bong’s first film with movie-star-like actors and American stars and, you know, a budget.  I’ve loved his earlier work–especially The Host and Mother–and this film fulfills and exceeds the promise he’s previously shown.

A couple of days ago, I raved (possibly even over-raved) the new Planet of the Apes movie.  I loved this film too, possibly even a little better.  I saw it with a friend, and we were both blown away by it; couldn’t talk about anything else all the way home.  See Snowpiercer.  Do not miss this film.  And then let’s talk, after you’ve seen it.

Fox News vs. MSNBC

Okay, so you’re at a family function, and you find yourself alone in a corner with your Tea Party-supporting Uncle Bob. And Aunt Lydia’s home-made root beer has had that one week extra to really ferment.  And you’re a progressive/liberal/commie, and Uncle Bob is at his most obstreperous.  (I’m aware that a lot of you who read this aren’t actually progressive/liberal/commies, but go with me here.)  And so you suggest that his opinions aren’t actually factually based, because he watches Fox (or Faux) News.  And he says, ‘oh, and the news you get from MSNBC isn’t biased?’

And there’s the equivalency.  Fox News vs. MSNBC.  Maybe Fox News does lean right, but the entire mainstream (or ‘lamestream’) media is biased too.  On Fox, we conservatives are getting the straight scoop, the real skinny, the actual news divorced from leftist ideology.  Fox is a corrective, sure, but that doesn’t mean Fox isn’t ‘fair and balanced.’  Fox also clearly distinguishes between ‘straight news’ and ‘opinion,’ and has some first-rate journalists doing the straight news bits.  But MSNBC is basically nothing but opinion, with hosted opinion-based shows back to back to back.  Except for weekends, where MSNBC does reality shows set in prisons.

I don’t watch Fox News much, but I do watch it some.  Let me start off by saying this: in general, Fox News commentators are better at their jobs than many MSNBC hosts are.  I don’t mean truer, or more factually based, or more reasonable.  But. . .  let me explain.

When I was in grad school, I had a job in radio. My station, WFIU, was a PBS station, and so we carried Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and other PBS programming, as well as, of course, such public radio fave-raves as Car Talk and Garrison Keillor.  I also had a show of my own; a classical music call-in game show called Ether Game.  I hosted it every Tuesday night, mostly written by staff (I had staff!), but occasionally by me.  And on Saturday mornings, I had a sports talk show, co-hosted by a friend and fellow sports nut.

That sports talk show was the single most difficult thing I have ever done.  We were just establishing ourselves, and didn’t have a lot of callers at first.  A lot of sports talk radio is dreadful; shouty and angry and judgy.  I wanted something different, a sports talk show focused on evidence and expertise.  I interviewed an Olympic swimmer about her practice routine, for example.  A gymnast about Title IX.  A wide receiver coach about how to train wide receivers.  That kind of thing.  I love sports, know sports, can talk about sports with, I think, some knowledge and insight.  But my gosh it was difficult.

Try it.  Try talking non-stop for ten minutes.  On any subject on earth, on something you perhaps know a lot about.  You have to talk with some fluency, and you can’t repeat yourself, and you have to say something engaging and interesting to listeners.  I knew and liked the subject matter, I knew a lot about it, I’m a reasonably articulate guy, I think, and I researched; OMG did I research.  It’s still incredibly difficult.  To be good at talk radio requires a very specific skill set that very few people on earth have.

I loathe Rush Limbaugh’s politics, for example, but I admire his talent immensely.  He’s incredibly good at what he does.  Howard Stern is amazing on radio, not that I share his obsessions and foibles, but he’s extremely good at what he does.  Dave Ramsey’s exceptionally gifted.  Garrison Keillor is a frickin’ genius.

Well, talk radio tends to be dominated by conservatives.  I’m not sure why, but it does seem to be true. And most Fox News hosts came from radio, and brought that skill set with them.  I think Sean Hannity is one of the most annoying people on earth, but he’s a talented radio guy, and he’s brought his own articulate presence to Fox.  Bill O’Reilly’s a radio guy.  Glen Beck was, and is.  If you watch Megyn Kelly’s show, you can see how much she struggles with the format. She can be a sharp interviewer, and she’s good at TV, but she can’t just riff, the way O’Reilly and Hannity can.  She doesn’t have that radio background.

Far and away the best show on MSNBC is Rachel Maddow’s show; not surprising, given her background in (liberal) talk radio.  If you watch Rachel regularly, you’ll notice a habit she has.  She repeats herself a lot.  She’ll say something like, ‘the strongest allegations about Chris Christie, the biggest arguments against him, the people making the toughest case against him. . . .’  That’s a radio trick; people are in their cars, driving, and not necessarily paying close attention, so you repeat yourself a bit, with slight varieties between each repetition, to make sure you’ve captured their full attention. It enables her to make a more nuanced argument, and to base it in history of some kind.  That’s her strength.  And if you watch her on election nights, you realize how good she is at off-the-cuff improvisation.

So Fox News is, in many respects, just better at TV broadcasting than MSNBC is.  On Fox News, the messaging is tight, clear, punchy.  On MSNBC, it feels more self-indulgent.  Lawrence O’Donnell isn’t a very good TV show host–nowhere near as good as Rachel–because he goes off on idiosyncratic tangents. (And sometimes has to apologize later). Now, when there’s a big major story breaking, MSNBC is excellent, because they simply become an extension of the work being done by the professionals at NBC News.  Fox doesn’t have as many real journalists at their disposal; they’re not great at breaking news.  MSNBC is improving; Steve Kornacki’s terrific, as is Jose Diaz-Balart, as is Melissa Harris-Perry.  But Al Sharpton’s show is painful to watch, as is Chris Matthews’.  And I really dislike Morning Joe, though it’s a popular show. Beats me why.

But–and this is the point I really want to make–there’s no way MSNBC is anywhere near as important to liberals as Fox is to conservatives.  Not even close.  The ratings bear this out; Fox clobbers MSNBC in TV ratings all the time. And that totally doesn’t matter.  Because liberals don’t tend to get their news from TV.  And conservatives do, mostly from Fox.

This is basic demographics.  The median age for Fox News viewers is 65.  Fox News viewers skew heavily old, white and male.  Rachel Maddow actually wins her time slot regularly among the 25-54 age demographic.  Older people are used to getting their news from television.  They’re also used to TV news personalities being authoritative–Cronkite, Rather, David Brinkley.  And Fox News speaks to their fears and concerns.  The national debt is a potent issue for those viewers, because they’re worried about their grandchildren.

(This also explains Megyn Kelly getting her own show.  She’s not much of a journalist, though she is a pretty good interviewer, and has a feisty, confident on-air personality.  But she is an attractive young blonde woman.  Demographics; older white men like pretty blonde women.)

But younger, more liberal voters tend not to watch network television at all, and mostly, when they do watch TV, it’s via the internet.  And satirists like Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert speak to their style and approach.  Fox News seems square, earnest in comparison (and the Fox News website is generally considered lame).  Liberals are much more likely to get news from a variety of sources, most of them internet sources: Daily Kos, Salon.com, vox.com, 538.com, Huffpo, Politico.com, etc.  Paul Krugman’s blog is a daily must-read. I agree that conservatives have their pet websites too: Breitbart, National Journal, Heritage, Cato. But I know conservatives who really do watch Fox for hours every day.  I don’t know a soul who could bear to watch that much MSNBC.

So Uncle Bob is right when he says that MSNBC is, in a sense, the liberal equivalent to Fox News.  (Though, I would point out that the second most popular show on MSNBC is hosted by a conservative, Joe Scarborough, something for which Fox has nothing comparable).  But it isn’t true that MSNBC and Fox are really equal.  Fox News is an immensely important part of the conservative movement, and of the Tea Party movement.  MSNBC is . . . just another news source.

Of course, mainstream media are also important, though their influence is diminishing.  CNN can be embarrassingly bad, especially at international news.  And of course, the myth of ‘liberal media bias’ needs to be dispelled once and for all. We all of us, right and left, suffer from confirmation bias, and though I do believe truth exists, it can be frustratingly difficult to discern.  Reading broadly and widely helps.  Watching one network all the time is a waste of time.  We can use news to confirm our prejudices, or we can try to learn something from the media we consume.  We can’t watch or read everything.  But we have, at our fingertips, the greatest source for information the world has ever seen.  Maybe we could use that resource in a way that increases wisdom and understanding.

 

Two big political questions for Mormons

Today, we Utahns enjoyed the edifying spectacle of seeing our last two Attorneys-General hauled off in handcuffs for political corruption.  Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow, who between them were Attorneys-General in Utah for sixteen years, both charged with multiple counts of receiving and soliciting bribes.  Chatting with an old friend from Indiana, he asked the obvious question: what’s going on in Utah?  Why are all your attorneys-general crooks?  And the best answer both of us could come up with is this: Utah’s a one-party state.  With veto-proof majorities in both chambers of the state legislature, the Republican party rules untroubled by any thought of electoral consequences.  And that lack of voter oversight can lead to, well, corruption.

That’s the first question, and the first attempt at an answer.  Here’s the second question: why do Mormons hate President Obama so much?  A recent gallup poll asked people if they approved or disapproved of this President, but also broke down the results by religion.  Turns out, Mormons hate him more than any other religion.  He got a 18% favorable, 78% unfavorable.  So why do we Mormons hate this President so much?

I’m just going to discount the possibility that it’s because he’s a terrible President and Mormons, with our powers of spiritual discernment, saw it before anyone else did.  Or that we’re all conservatives because only conservatism is compatible with gospel values.  I’m ignoring both those possibilities, because this is my blog and I can say anything I want to on it.  And also because that’s silly.  Neither political party has any kind of monopoly on truth or values or good policies, and no objective look at Obama’s Presidency could possibly fail to notice that he’s had some successes and some failures, like every President ever.  I’m a Mormon, and I think he’s an excellent President.  I have also, on this blog, called for his impeachment.  I think NSA spying on us violates the Constitution, and that drone warfare is an abomination.  I also think Obamacare is a big success story (the evidence for that is pretty well overwhelming), and that he’s been an effective advocate for sensible economic policies. And for the poor, which is my number one issue anyway. So Obama’s a mixed bag.  Add it up, and he’s been a good President. Top-tier.

But conservatives hate him, and Republicans tend to froth at the mouth at how much they hate him, and that’s weird.  Mormons tend to be conservative Republicans, hence his bad poll numbers. Plus, he defeated a Mormon hero, Mitt Romney (an estimable man, I think.)  Plus he’s black.  That’s all gotta be in the mix.  But mostly, it’s because he’s a liberal and Mormons really really aren’t.

Here’s one theory about why Mormons tend to be Republicans.  Mormons disproportionately live in the western states, especially Utah and Idaho.  And those states tend to be very conservative.  Utah and Idaho are very conservative, and have large Mormon populations, but Wyoming and Montana also tend to be very conservative, and don’t have majority Mormon populations.  Western states tend to have large amounts of federally owned land, which is a constant source of friction. We fancy ourselves independent loners, who enjoy wide open spaces.  Rural Americans tend to be more conservative than urban Americans, and Utah is really quite rural.  Except for Salt Lake City itself, which is also Utah’s one enclave of hard-core liberals.  So Mormons are conservatives because Mormons are rural Westerners, who tend to be conservative.  It’s entirely demographics; has nothing to do with doctrine or beliefs.

But I live in Provo, and Provo/Orem is really pretty urban, with two major universities, and lots of suburbs. And Provo/Orem are, like, majorly conservative.  Democrats are outnumbered in my town at least 10-1.  So the ‘independent right-wing rancher’ theory doesn’t entirely hold up either.

We’d like to believe that voters are well-informed and thoughtful and make their decisions based on reason and evidence.  I don’t think that’s all that true for most people. There’s a lot of social science research on this; most people respond viscerally and emotionally to political questions, which they’d otherwise prefer not to think about much.  In Utah, a Republican named ‘McKay’ is going to do very well in most elections, because LDS people have really positive associations with the name ‘McKay’ and a great many voters will just vote the straight Republican ticket anyway.  That name and that party affiliation will generally be enough to win any race that guy enters.  Not caucuses, though, because caucus voters tend to be very well informed and passionate, and of course also really majorly conservative.

So why are Mormons such hard core Republicans?  I think it’s about one issue above all others.  I think it’s because of abortion.

Abortion evokes very powerful emotions for social conservatives, and for Mormons.  The argument that ‘The prophet has spoken on this’ is a winning argument in almost any setting, and there’s no question that the Church has taken a strong stance against elective abortions.  And it’s an emotional issue. One the one side of it are people who believe, with all their hearts, that women absolutely should be the ones to make the most essential medical decisions regarding their bodies.  On the other side of it, you’ve got the ‘baby-killer’ argument. So you can demonize the other side as either ‘anti-women’ or ‘baby murderers.’  Strong stuff.

Of course, it’s a far more complex and nuanced issue than either of those formulations would suggest.  While the Church is certainly strongly ‘pro-life’, it does also say that morally defensible abortions can be performed when the pregnancy places a mother’s life at stake, or when the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.  And in those situations, the person who should have ultimate responsibility for deciding whether or not to terminate the pregnancy should be the woman.  That’s one reason that some evangelical Christians protest against the Church at General Conference; we’re soft on abortion, in their view.

And to criminalize abortion would be a catastrophe.  We’ve seen it before; young women so desperate to end an unwanted pregnancy that they’ll go to any extreme, including medically dangerous procedures performed by back-alley charlatans.  The brilliant Romanian film 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days captures the agonized desolation of a young woman who will go to any extreme to terminate her pregnancy. Historically, women have always known ways to end an unsustainable pregnancy, secrets passed down by midwives and other older women who know the secret.

As a Democrat, I support Bill Clinton’s formulation: abortion should be safe, legal, and rare. I also love this reasoning, from one of my favorite authors, David Foster Wallace:

The only really coherent position on the abortion issue is one that is both Pro-life and Pro-choice.

Given our best present medical and philosophical understandings of what makes something not just a living organism but a person, there is no way to establish at just what point during gestation a fertilized ovum becomes a human being. This conundrum, together with the basically inarguable soundness of the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about whether something is a human being or not, it is better not to kill it,” appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Life.

At the same time, however, the principle “When in irresolvable doubt about something, I have neither the legal nor the moral right to tell another person what to do about it, especially if that person feels that s/he is not in doubt” is an unassailable part of the Democratic pact we Americans all make with one another, a pact in which each adult citizen gets to be an autonomous moral agent; and this principle appears to me to require any reasonable American to be Pro-Choice.

Abortion is, in other words, a highly emotional issue that isn’t simple and isn’t black and white, but which easily be framed in black and white terms. Especially when we’re talking about something as absolute and fundamental as killing babies.  Or denying women basic human rights.

But this isn’t about me being torn.  It’s about why Mormons are Republicans.  And the emotional power of the abortion issue trumps every other consideration.  And as long as the Democratic response to the issue of abortion is ‘it’s a nuanced and complicated question, not a black-and-white one,’ which is perfectly true, we Dems are going to lose a lot of elections in Utah.  For a very long time.

 

 

 

 

 

Dawn of the Planet of Apes: Movie Review

It’s a big blockbuster summer action movie.  About monkeys.  I went with fairly low expectations.  But Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the smartest, saddest, most deeply tragic film of the year, a soulful, brilliant movie, thoughtfully conceived and superbly rendered.  It feels like a Shakespearean tragedy, honestly, that kind of power and resonance.  Images linger.  My wife and I went home, and could hardly talk about it; it overwhelmed us both.  It’s just a remarkable film, an amazing meditation on leadership and the limits of leadership and on the inevitability of violence and the way peaceful intentions can become derailed.

If you saw the 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with James Franco, this is the sequel.  In that earlier film, Franco played a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s, desperate for a cure for his rapidly diminishing father.  He experiments on Caesar, his pet chimpanzee, and is astonished when Caesar develops human intelligence and emotional complexity.  But Caesar is taken from him, and placed in an ape sanctuary, where he becomes a leader to the other apes.  He acquires more of the drug developed by Franco, and he and the other apes escape to a forest sanctuary.  But the same drug, it turns out, is toxic to humans, and a massive pandemic threatens mankind.

As this film begins, most of the human race has died in the pandemic.  Some few survivors, however, had a genetic defense against it, and have gathered in San Francisco, where they have formed a community under the leadership of Dreyfus (Gary Oldman).  Also in that community, Malcolm (Jason Clarke), his domestic partner, Ellie (Keri Russell), a doctor, and his teenaged son from before the pandemic, Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee). The community’s energy reserves are badly depleted, and Malcolm has been tasked with repairing the electrical generators at a nearby dam.  But his route to that dam runs straight through Caesar’s forest home.

Caesar, meanwhile, has created a city, a refuge for apes, perfectly adapted to simian abilities and needs.  They have a highly sophisticated kind of sign language, but can also speak human English, though they have difficulty forming words.  They tend to use the human language for emphasis, but for conversations requiring subtlety and nuance, they prefer signing.  They’re mostly chimps, along with one gorilla and one elderly orangutan, Maurice, who serves as the teacher for their school.  And Caesar has given them a religious code of sorts, the first commandment of which is ‘ape not kill ape.’  Caesar’s ‘chief-of-security’ is a deeply damaged and angry ape named Koba.  Caesar is also married, with a son, and his wife has just given birth to a second boy.

As in the earlier film, Caesar is played, in an extraordinary physical performance (then animated via CGI), by Andy Serkis.  As in the earlier film, Maurice is played by Karin Konoval.  But the film’s antagonist, Koba, is now an actor named Toby Kebbell.  And he gives the performance of the film.

Okay, so, the first big cultural clash between human and ape comes when Malcolm’s team of humans, trying to fix the generators at this dam, cross ape territory, and are confronted by a security team led by Koba.  One of the humans shoots and wounds an ape, and it appears as though the confrontation is likely to turn violent.  But Caesar shows up, and by his sheer presence, forces Koba to back down.  Malcolm and his party retreat back to San Francisco.  The next day, Caesar and a large party of apes show up at the human colony and Caesar warns the humans not to return.  He’ll maintain the peace, as long as humans stay in their territory and don’t trespass into ape lands.  (All this is expressed in a few words, but it’s unmistakable).

The problem is, the human colony desperately needs energy, for heat and light and, above all, for communications, for attempts to contact other possible human enclaves.  And so Malcolm goes back, and negotiates a truce with Caesar.  He promises that humans will surrender their guns, if safe passage can be guaranteed to and from the dam.  And Caesar agrees to this, although it really puts his authority with his own people to the test.  Koba especially does not trust humans.  Koba was, in the earlier film, the subject of the most brutal kinds of animal testing–he’s a torture victim–and in a deeply moving scene, he points to his various scars and says ‘human work, human work, human work.’  (Which is one of the things I love about this film.  Koba is the ‘villain’ of the piece, but he’s a deeply wounded, damaged, sympathetic character, beautifully written and acted.)

So Malcolm and his men get the dam repaired (with considerable help from the apes), and suddenly, San Francisco has electricity.  And we see one of the characters, searching through a suddenly-aglow gas station, and he finds a CD player, and he puts in a CD, and we hear the strains of The Band playing The Weight.  And we see him dance.

But Koba, always mistrustful, leads a small team back to the city, and finds where the human weapons’ arsenal is.  And he sees a a group of human soldier-wannabes taking target practice.  And all his suspicions about the untrustworthiness of humans are confirmed.  And when the human ‘soldiers’ see him, they’re about to shoot, but he puts on a happy monkey act for them, what would be for apes a Stepin Fetchit act.  A Cheetah act; jivin’ and grinnin’; monkey blackface vaudeville.  It’s a tremendous scene, and an effective one, seeing Koba demean himself to survive.  And then Koba playfully grabs an AK-47.  And then he starts shooting humans.

And then, back at the ape town, Koba shoots Caesar, abandons him, and leads the rest of the apes back to San Francisco, on horseback, heavily armed.  And a battle scene commences, an ugly, violent horrific war between man and ape.  And then Koba commandeers a tank, and we see the battle unfold from his POV.  And the humans are defeated, and crowded into cages.  As are Caesar’s remaining allies among the apes, including Maurice.  And Caesar lingers, close to death.  And Caesar’s older son is torn, between his loyalty to his father, and his admiration for Koba and Koba’s courage and charisma and pain.

But Malcolm and Ellie find Caesar, and Ellie performs life-saving surgery.  And Caesar survives.  And heads back into San Francisco, again to lead his people.

I don’t want to give away the ending.  But what’s remarkable is this; it’s not triumphant.  Caesar and Malcolm remain close friends to the end, but this will not end peacefully.  The two real leaders have become impotent; peace eludes them, and will continue to elude them.  Foolishness and paranoia and fear and the enticing prospect of violence are too ingrained in both human and ape personalities; war must come, and it will not end well.

I kept thinking of historical parallels.  The first is to our own history, and the ugly warfare between whites and Indians that marred it.  Caesar could parallel some of the extraordinary Native American leaders of the past, men like Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull and Tecumseh and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce. On the other hand, the people against whom Sitting Bull was pitted had not been decimated in a pandemic, while Native tribes certainly all were.  Or we might look to our day, to the inevitability of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, to the current battles fought between the Israeli army and Hamas.  Or we might look to other historical parallels.  Much of the power of this film is in its dissection of what inevitably happens when two peoples fight over limited resources.  This film manages to feel historically grounded, without recalling any one specific historical period or conflict.  But it’s completely convincing, especially in its depiction of genuine, great leadership (Caesar, and to a lesser extent, Malcolm), and suspicion and hatred and paranoid leadership (Dreyfus and Koba).  Leaders can only lead up to a point.  And then everything blows up.

I should add a word about the acting in this film.  Obviously, Serkis and Kebbell give extraordinary performances, given the extra detail of seamlessly integrated CGI.  But I can’t say enough about Jason Clarke.  He was terrific in Zero Dark Thirty, equally fine in The Great Gatsby.  This is his first big action movie lead, and I hope it really launches him.  He’s a tremendous actor, another of those Aussie acting marvels, and I’d love to see him have one of those Mark Ruffalo/Peter Sarsgaard careers, where he’s great in everything in he’s in, but is never quite an A-list superstar.  He’s certainly remarkable here, if a bit overshadowed by Serkis’ performance.

Anyway.  Wow.  Great movie.  See it.  I know; summer action movie.  Monkeys.  It doesn’t matter.  This is the best movie of the year, so far.  See it.

Suing the President

John Boehner and Barack Obama don’t like each other.  That seems apparent.  I don’t know, of course, how personal this is, or if it’s just political and professional.  I had a colleague at BYU who I just flat out disagreed with pretty much all the time on pretty much every issue our department confronted.  But when we weren’t squabbling in faculty meeting, we got along fine.  Our disagreements were entirely professional. When we were able to talk on neutral subjects–football, say–we got along really well.  At faculty parties, his wife and my wife became pals.  It may well be that President Obama and Speaker Boehner’s disagreements are like that; professional and political.  John Adams said really rude things about Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson returned the favor.  But when they were both out of office, they re-established their friendship, and their correspondence is one of the glories of American letters. Maybe Obama/Boehner will have the same happy outcome.  But I’m rather inclined to doubt it.

Anyway, for weeks now, Speaker Boehner has been threatening to sue the President.  President Obama’s response has been, basically, ‘bring it.’  The President’s on the stump these days, making what sure seem like off-the-cuff speeches about how much he would love to work with Congress (read ‘the House’) on legislation, but that they don’t seem interested.  The Senate sent over a bi-partisan immigration bill months ago, and it would probably pass the House too, in a straight up-and-down vote.  But in an election year?  Immigration?  It’s a toxic issue for Republicans, who are much more afraid of Tea Party challenges to their right than they are of possible Democratic challengers in the general election.  So Speaker Boehner won’t call for a vote, and that means President Obama gets to make fun of him for it.  It’s all pretty amusing.

But not as slap-stick comical as this lawsuit malarkey.  The guys at the invaluable website vox.com have been all over this, with four separate (and very good) articles about it, looking at it from several angles.  Here’s Ezra Klein on the issue:

Consider what happens if Speaker John Boehner wins  his lawsuit against President Barack Obama: the court will order Obama to implement the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate without further delay. Which, given that Obama only delayed the mandate until 2015 and court cases can take a long time to wind their way through the legal system, might mean the court will order Obama to do something he has already done.

What’s even odder about the suit is that Boehner hates Obamacare’s employer mandate. And the business groups that back Boehner hate Obamacare’s employer mandate. So Boehner is lifting heaven and earth to get the court to demand Obama more rapidly enforce a policy Boehner hates, that Boehner’s allies hate, and that Obama says he’s going to start enforcing in a few months anyway.

It’s as if Pat Riley was suing LeBron James to force him to begin playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers sooner.

Exactly.

Our friends on the Right insist that President Obama’s delay in implementing this so-called ‘employer mandate’ is clearly and obviously unconstitutional.  Funny how they didn’t think so when President Bush unilaterally and without Congressional approval delayed the implementation of Medicare Part B.  George W. Bush did exactly what conservatives accuse Obama of doing; changing the specific requirements of a law. I don’t remember the howls of protest then.

And it’s the kind of thing the Constitution is very vague about.  The Constitution says Congress passes legislation.  The Executive branch executes those laws.  So, we have a law, requiring employers to provide insurance to their employees.  Because of feedback from the business community, President Obama decides to delay implementation of that provision by a year.  So is that a case in which the President is illegally re-writing a law?  Or is it a minor case of tweaking a deadline, in order to better execute the law?  The Constitution doesn’t clarify this point, and shouldn’t, for something that’s so obviously a gray area.  As the courts will certainly rule.

So why is Boehner doing it?  Why is he pursuing a lawsuit that he almost certainly won’t win, to implement a law that he loathes?  Ezra Klein, again over at Vox, thinks it’s an idiotic gambit legally, but quite brilliant politically.

See, conservatives really really really hate Obama.  I mean, frothing at the mouth, spittle emitting hatred.  There’s this thing called the internet; mostly consists of tubes or something, best I can understand it.  Go on Reddit or Facebook or something, and post  ‘boy, I think Obama is a really good President.’  It’s kind of entertaining, to see how angry people get.

So people like Sarah Palin–well, actually, Sarah Palin–have been calling for President Obama’s impeachment, because, I don’t know, Benghazi.  And their latest meme is that he’s lawless.  He’s trampling all over the Constitution!  He’s consciously destroying America!  Or something.  And Boehner, because he wants to keep being Speaker, says all that too.  So when Boehner talks about this ‘lawless criminal’ in the White House, exercising ‘king-like authority,’ he’s just echoing the rhetorical excesses of everyone on the Fox News right.

But the problem is, if in fact Obama is a lawless criminal, acting in a king-like disregard for Constitutional values, well, there’s a perfectly adequate Constitutional remedy for that: impeachment.  But Boehner doesn’t want to pursue impeachment.  First of all, he knows perfectly well that Obama hasn’t done anything impeachable.  Second, he knows how an irresponsible impeachment would backfire politically.  Right now, the President isn’t very popular; impeach him, and watch his numbers climb and his political capital grow.  It’s not even entirely clear that the House can impeach Obama.  Impeachment is a serious step, and Boehner has to know he can count on exactly zero votes from House Democrats on it, and there are enough Republican moderates to make it a very chancy proposition, especially, again, when Obama hasn’t done anything to build a bill of impeachment around.  And, of course, impeach and remove is a complete impossibility; Democrats control the Senate.

Hence, this ridiculous lawsuit.  It gives Boehner the space he needs to keep up the ferocious rhetorical attacks on Obama the Tea Party loves so much, without quite having to go so far as impeachment.  It’s smart-ish politically.  The only cost is that the President gets to keep making fun of him for it.  But that’s the key to Boehner’s speakership; speak loudly, and carry a tiny stick.  He’s certainly the most inept Speaker in US history, but being Speaker right now, is an impossible gig.  He’s really really bad at his job, but it’s impossible to imagine anyone else being better at it.

Of course, the House can always vote to repeal Obamacare again.  That always works. And isn’t that great?  They vote over and over to repeal the ACA, then file a lawsuit seeking to force Obama to . . . implement more quickly the ACA.  What a strange political world we inhabit.