Grand Budapest Hotel: Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title.  Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.

But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines.  When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’  But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.

That’s the key to the film, I think.  M. Gustav represents civilized values.  He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job.  He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste.  When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness.  Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne.  Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes.  All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there.  But first things first.  A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.

We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s.  But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there.  And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.

Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks.  A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author.  Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham).  Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30′s, when most of the film takes place.  In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge.  And there we go.  What survives, is literature.  The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read.  A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.

The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle.  But it’s not.  One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav.  Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way.  Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick).  Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.

But to what end?  To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically.  It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends.  I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes.  She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face.  She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him.  (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’  The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.)  So it’s a love story?  Well, yes and no.  It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.

In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig.  I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was.  There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England).  He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them.  They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful.  I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author.  Here’s his quotation from Zweig:

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe.  He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon.  But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing.  And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground.  And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.

We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.

We don’t see that, of course.  We don’t view such things in polite society.  We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive.  Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films.  It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from.  It’s what’s underneath.

The Founding Fathers, and Obamacare

A warning: this is a silly post on a silly subject.  A response to a Facebook meme; hard to get sillier than that.  Apparently Nancy Pelosi said that the Founding Fathers would be pleased with Obamacare.  And this led to all kinds of mockery from conservatives, who continue to double-down on their ‘Obamacare will destroy America’ obsession.  The Founders, it goes without saying, would never have agreed to a socialist takeover of American health care!  Never in a million years.  ‘The Founders,’ in this case, constructed entirely of freedom-loving Christian Republicans. Job creators, don’t you know.

Anyway, it tickled my funny bone, the idea of the Founders ‘opposing Obamacare.’  So I thought, I’d dialogue it.

Me: So. . . . do you oppose the Affordable Care Act?

FF: What’s an Affordable Care Act?

Me: Uh, well, let’s see.  It’s basically a reform of the health insurance industry.  Most people have health insurance, but there are around forty million who don’t.  So it’s an effort to provide them with coverage.

FF: The US has forty million people?  Where?

Me: Well, all over, really. The US stretches all the way to the Pacific.  Ever since Jefferson bought Louisiana.

FF: Jefferson did what?

Me: Look, just take my word for it.  There are about 300 million people in the country right now.  317 million, to be exact.  And it’s kind of a problem when 40 million don’t have health care.

FF: What’s health care?

Me: You know, medicine.  When doctors make sick people better.

FF: Doctors make sick people better?

Me: Yeah.  See, lots of people used to die of diseases that we can cure now.

FF: How?  Are you just better at bleeding people?

Me: No, we don’t do that anymore. See, diseases are caused by microbes.  Uh, little tiny bugs, uh, germs, uh, just call ‘em ‘creatures’, too small to be seen except by microscopes.

FF: What’s a microscope?

Me: Come on, guys.  You’ve heard of microscopes.  Galileo made one?  You’ve heard of van Leeuwenhoek?

FF: All right. But you tell me that you can see these tiny disease-causing creatures?  We can’t.

Me: Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that we, in the future, can build better microscopes?

FF:  All right.  We’re very scientific people, you know.  Franklin even figured out that lightning is made of electricity. So you’ve figured out how to cure diseases.  Like what diseases? Surely not cholera?

Me: No, we can cure cholera.

FF: Diptheria?  Yellow Fever?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Measles?  Mumps?  Dysentery?  Gout?

Me: Pretty much.  All curable.

FF: Smallpox?

Me: We’ve completely eradicated smallpox.  Gone.

FF: Colds?

Me: No, we still get colds.  Sorry.  Did I mention we’d cured smallpox?

FF: Well, you live in an age of miracles.

Me: We do.  Heart disease is still a problem; we’re working on it.  Huge progress on cancer, though it’s still a frightening and dangerous disease.  Those are the biggies.

FF: So what’s the problem?

Me: Well, it’s all very expensive.  Doctors have to train for years to become doctors, and they charge a lot for their expertise.  And diagnosing all those diseases is expensive.  We have all kinds of amazing diagnostic equipment, but those machines are costly, and we have to train people how to use the devices properly.  We also have lots of drugs that can affect amazing cures, but they’re also really expensive.  There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry constantly coming up with new medications, but their research is also expensive.  Anyway, most people can’t afford the more expensive procedures; in fact, hardly anyone can.  So we created insurance for medical care.

FF: That makes sense.  In fact, Ben Franklin created the first fire insurance company in the Americas.

Me: Right!  Only, Mr. Franklin, you wouldn’t insure some houses, if you thought they were a fire hazard.

FF: Of course not.  Insurance spreads risk around. But an insurance company can’t survive if people only buy it right before their house is going to burn down.

Me: Exactly.  What we do is require everyone in the country, if they own a home, to buy fire insurance for it.  And we also won’t let them build a house that doesn’t meet certain safety standards.  That way, only a few houses burn down annually, and they are able to rebuild with the insurance money.  And insurance companies can make a profit, because everyone with a house also has to buy a policy.

FF: Most sensible.  That’s another way to do it.  We had people who built foolishly, and their wooden houses burned all the time. So we just wouldn’t insure them. Insurance has to limit risk for the insurer and the insured. Same basic principle.

Me: Well, we applied the same principle to health insurance.  If you have insurance, you can afford to pay for medical care for yourself and your family.  But we had a problem.  Really sick people would go to hospitals and get treatment, but couldn’t afford it.

FF: We have hospitals.  Real nice one in Philadelphia.

Me: Right.  Except that the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t very good at making sick people better.  Mostly folks just died there.

FF: You can’t have everything.

Me: No.  Well, our hospitals are better than yours were; in fact, they’re kind of miraculous.  And we didn’t want people to die just because they were poor.  But when people couldn’t pay for their care, it was a problem.  Mostly, costs just went up for everyone.

FF: Why didn’t you just throw people into debtor’s prison?

Me: We don’t really do that anymore.  What we have instead is collection agencies.

FF: Sounds horrible!

Me: Yeah.  But we thought; wouldn’t it be better if everyone had health insurance?  And if we allowed all health insurance companies to compete in an open market for clients?  With some minimum requirements their policies had to meet?

FF: So, what’s the problem?

Me: Well, you don’t approve of it.

FF: We don’t approve of it?  George Washington died of a simple throat infection.  Mostly, he died of being bled and given a powerful purgative at a time when his body was fighting off an infection.  Our health care was a joke.  If you know how to make sick people better, and have figured out a way to share the cost of it nation-wide, why on earth would we oppose that?

Me: I don’t know.  Some people think you would have.

FF: They’re crazy. Wait, is craziness curable?  Do you still have madmen?

Me: We do.

FF: Well, ignore them.  We’re entirely in favor of this ‘universal health care’ thing.  Whatever it is.

Me: Okay!

FF: Universal, though?  Everyone gets good care? Even slaves?

Me: Yeah.  About that. . . .

 

The Art of Fielding: Book Review

In 1973, Steve Blass, the ace pitcher for the World Series winning Pittsburgh Pirates, found himself suddenly and inexplicably unable to throw a baseball accurately. He was in perfect health, and his arm was uninjured. His difficulties were not physical, but psychological. It wasn’t a matter of courage, or cowardice. He was simply completely unable to do something that he had previously been as good at as anyone in the world. The best article about Blass and his baffling condition appeared in the New Yorker in 1975, written by the great Roger Angell; it was subsequently anthologized in at least two of Angell’s published compilations.  Although previously unknown in baseball history, in the forty years since Blass retired, his odd affliction, ‘Steve Blass’ disease,’ subsequently afflicted another pitcher, Rich Ankiel, two second basemen, Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, and catcher Mackey Sasser.  Sax and Knoblauch found themselves incapable of making routine throws to the first baseman; Sasser became unable to toss the ball back to the pitcher between pitches.

And now Henry Skrimshander.  Chad Harbach’s first novel, The Art of Fielding, is about a preternaturally talented young shortstop, suddenly afflicted with Blass’ weird syndrome.  But it’s not just a novel about baseball, or even primarily a novel about baseball.  Henry suddenly can’t make routine throws to first, not because he’s been physically disabled, but because he overthinks it, over-analyses the problem, which leads to a crisis of confidence.  And where else would you set a novel about crises of confidence and paralysis-through-over-analysis but in a modern college?

Harbach introduces us to the world of Westish College, a small midwestern 4-year liberal arts school, with high-ish academic standards, somewhat decaying infrastructure, and a really bad baseball team.  And in this world lives Mike Schwartz, literate, well-read, tough, inspirational, a man’s man, who essentially wills the Westish Harpooners (the entire school worships Melville) to improve athletically.  Schwartz is, above all, Henry Skrimshander’s best friend, his mentor, his personal trainer, his coach and conscience and motivator and his captain-my-captain.  And Schwartz has given so much of himself to build up Henry he has begun to wonder who he is, and what he will do with the rest of his life.

The novel also focuses on three other extraordinary characters.   First is Owen, Henry’s roommate; brilliant, gay, kind, utterly sure about himself and who he is, a man who, when a coach yells at him, is neither offended nor motivated by it, but sort of delighted–’look, I get to study apoplectic rage!’  How very interesting!’  He’s also an athlete; a pretty doggone good hitter, though one who, between at bats, reads in the dugout. Harbach could write an entire novel about just Owen, and I’d read it.  Equally compelling is Guert Affenlight, the Westish college president, a once-fashionable young literary scholar, now slowly decaying as an administrator; no longer a teacher or published scholar, but a generous and charismatic soul.  And finally his daughter, Pella, a bright and beautiful and deeply unsure of herself young woman, who has moved home to escape a terrible marriage, and who has found personal fulfillment working as a dishwasher in a college cafeteria.

Affenlight is infatuated with Owen, and they finally do have an odd but convincing romance.  Pella and Schwartz also hook up, and although they’re good for each other, they also fight, mostly over Henry.  And Henry himself is . . . a sage, a mystic, a ninja turned ronin, a priest without vocation.  A lost and despairing artist who has lost his muse.

I’m making the novel sound morose or gloomy.  It’s anything but.  Pella’s marriage is terrible, but we do meet her husband, and he’s a richly comedic creation.  The writing throughout is . . .  alive.  The characters are funny and smart and rich and foolish and capable and incapable and eloquent and tongue-tied.  They’re people.

But it’s also smart.  Even profound.  There’s this, for example:

’1973,’ thought Affenlight.  In the public imagination, it was as fraught a year as you could name: Watergate, Roe v. Wade, withdrawal from Vietnam.  Gravity’s Rainbow.  Was it also the year that Prufrockian paralysis went mainstream–the year it entered baseball?  It made sense that a psychic condition sensed by the artists of one generation–the Modernists of the First World War–would take awhile to reveal itself throughout the population.  And if that psychic condition happened to be a profound failure of confidence in the significance of individual human action, then the condition became an epidemic when it entered the real of utmost confidence in same–the world of professional sport.  In fact, that might make for a workable definition of the postmodernist era: an era where even the athletes were anguished Modernists.  In which case, the American postmodern period began in spring 1973, when a pitcher named Steve Blass lost his aim.

Do I dare, and do I dare?

Affenlight found this hypothesis exciting, if dubiously constructed.

Thesis, followed by a cheeky antithesis.  The rest of the novel is the synthesis; it is both about a radical loss of self-confidence, and the devastation wrought by it, as well as rebirth and redemption.

Or this: pardon the ellipses.

The thing to do, really was to wash the dishes. In fact, she was feeling a strong desire to wash the dishes. . . . the ones near the bottom were disgusting, the plates covered with water-softened crusts of food, the glasses scummed with white bacterial froth, but this only increased her desire to become the conqueror of so much filth. . . an objection crossed her mind.  What would Mike think?  It was a nice gesture, to do someone’s dishes, but it could also be construed as an admonishment . . . even if she and Mike had been dating for months, unprovoked dishwashing might be considered strange.  But the dishes weren’t hers and she and Mike weren’t dating.  They hadn’t even kissed.  Therefore, the doing of dishes could only be weird, neurotic, invasive.  And Mike would shrug and never call her again.  She looked down at the white bubbles.  Steam rose off the water. . .  she really really really wanted to do those dishes.

And so maybe I picked the most pretentious literary paragraph in the novel, and followed it by the weirdest internal monologue paragraph. Plus it’s about baseball.  Meh.  You’re thinking that, possibly.  Meh.

Darn it. I’ve blown it already.  And yet, it’s so so good.

One more, then:

By the time they finished,  Owen had said ‘There, finally’ to two pairs of jeans, two shirts and two sweaters.  A modest stack, but Henry added up the price tags in his mind, and it was more than he had in the bank.  “Do I really need two?” he said?  “One’s a good start.”

“Two,” said Jason.

“Um.”  Henry frowned at the clothes.  “Mmmm. .”

“Oh!” Owen slapped himself on the forehead.  “Did I forget to mention?  I have a gift card at this establishment.  And I have to use it right away.  Lest it expire.”  He reached for the clothes in Henry’s hand.  “Here.”

“But it’s yours,” Henry protested.  “You should spend it on yourself.”

“Certainly not,” Owen said.  “I would never shop here.”

 

So: this:  This is a novel in which every plot turn and incident is surprising, and yet inevitable.  That is to say, everything that happens flows convincingly from the things that happened earlier, but they also catch us unawares.  It’s also a novel in which the dialogue is literate but persuasive; where the characters talk like the really smart people they are, except for the stupider ones.

I want badly for you to pick up this novel, buy it on Kindle or walk into Barnes and Noble or check it out at your local library; read it! in other words.  So I won’t spoil the plot for you.  But as you read it, you will very much want things to work out well for characters you’ve grown to love, and they do, and the last two chapters are splendid and right and fulfilling.  But it’s a twisty road getting there.  So persevere.

And what if you don’t like baseball?  I wondered about this.  I’m fully aware that this novel did not exactly present me with acceptance-and-enjoyment challenges. I love the game of baseball, though I never played it well, (certainly not as well as Henry does), and I admire the way this author gets every baseball detail exactly and exquisitely right, and boy does that contribute to my engagement with this text.  And maybe, possibly, some of you don’t like baseball as much as I do.  Or (shudder) at all.

Then let me recommend it to you all the more.  Because it’s a terrific read, a marvelous first novel from a guy who I sort of desperately hope writes more of them.  It’s funny and smart and real and profound.

I just really liked it a lot.  I read it until late last night, and work early and finished it this morning, and couldn’t wait to tell someone, everyone, that it’s really good and that you should read it.  So.  It’s really good and you should read it.  That’s The Art of Fielding.  By Chad Harbach.  Click this link to buy your own copy.  It’s about baseball, and it’s about life, and it’s sad and joyful and funny and sad.  But enough.  No more overselling.  You’ll get it, or you won’t.  Just, if you don’t, you’re missing out big time.

A Provo playwright

Sunday was the closing performance of 3, the final play in Plan B Theatre Company’s Season of Eric.  Or perhaps I should put it #seasonoferic, social media being all the rage these days.  I already wrote from the heart about this marvelous year.  But last night we had a staged reading of the first draft of another new play.  And so it continues.

The new play is about 11th century papal politics, and right now, it isn’t very good.  This often happens.  Plays aren’t so much written as re-written, and this piece needs a lot of work.  Frankly, hearing the reading, I thought the middle third of the play was just flat boring.  This is not a good quality in a dramatic entertainment.  But the core is solid, the characters work, and all the problems are fixable.  So onward.

I’ve been writing plays, and getting them produced, for 36 years now.  I’m fifty seven years old; I turn fifty eight on Thursday.  And for most of that time, I was living and working in Provo, Utah.  There’s a general tendency for people in Salt Lake to think of Provo as backward, reactionary, conservative, old-fashioned, out of touch.  Hicksville.  All these criticisms/impressions are entirely correct; exceedingly well founded.  I live in Provo because for many years, I taught at BYU; my house is ten minutes from the campus where I worked.  It’s now ten minutes from the campus where my wife works.  I live in Provo as a matter of convenience and necessity.

And yet, I sort of love it.  It’s become home in the most personal sense of that word.  There are many aspects of Mormon culture that drive me bananas. But my ward is characterized by kindness, and my neighborhood is both nurturing and pleasingly eccentric.

Until recently, for example, we had one family in our ward that had these huge dogs; Newfoundlands.  The dogs were trained as therapy dogs, and our friends routinely took them to children’s wards in hospitals to interact with sick kids.  When my daughter was ten, she had to have surgery, a serious back condition, and our friends came to see her in the hospital, and brought their dog.  It was astonishing, to see how that visit transformed my daughter.  We’d see our friends walk the dogs down the street, and it was almost comical; the dogs looked more like bears than canines.  But they were endlessly gentle, the dogs.  I’m still moved when I think of our friends and their hundreds of visits to hospitals, and these huge dogs bringing joy to the lives of sick children.

There’s another family in our ward; good friends as well, from South Africa. And the husband is very active in local politics.  He is, of course, a staunch Republican.  But he could not possibly be more respectful of my heterodox Democratic stance.  He does tease me from time to time about it, but I tease him right back; we’re friends, in every sense that could possibly matter.  And I know he puts in countless hours working with city government on issues that affect our neighborhood.  Puts me to shame, to be honest.

I honestly think that living in Provo has made me a better playwright.  Such is the power of confirmation bias that all of tend to think tribally. And if our political tribe is ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ then we tend to think of ideas from the ‘left’ as self-evidently true and valuable and ideas from the ‘right’ as deluded or mistaken or perhaps even actively malicious.  But I have two tribes now.  One is my Salt Lake tribe, the family of actors and designers and theatre professionals who try,as best we can, to do some good theatre from time to time.

But my other tribe is in Provo, in my ward, where people try to raise their families and do their home teaching and find fulfillment in callings and service.

And bad playwriting is polarized, bad playwriting is all about heros and villains and people who are Right in opposition to people who are Wrong.  I’ve done it myself, and been embarrassed afterwards.  I don’t want to write that way, any more than I want to live that way.  I want to honor the best of both my tribes.  I’m Salt Lake and Provo.  A pretty conventional progressive and a Mormon high priest.  Both/and.

The power of bad reviews

I’ve had a play running in Salt Lake City for a couple of weeks now, and we’ve gotten lots of reviews.  Really really really positive reviews.  It’s really gratifying, to get good reviews, and especially when they’re from people I respect and think of as particularly astute.  I’ve had a season of my work in production in Salt Lake this year, and all the shows got great reviews.  I’m like anyone else; I enjoy being praised for my work.  I like it a lot.

But I got to thinking about reviews, and what they mean in terms of box office.  And I think that while a good review may help sell tickets, they’re probably a fairly negligible factor.  I think bad reviews can hurt ticket sales.  What happens to me occasionally is that I’ll see a preview for a movie and think ‘that looks interesting.  I’d like to see that.’  And I’ll talk it up to my wife, and we’ll make plans to see it.  And then I’ll check Rottentomatoes.com, and see that it’s gotten a 20% positive rating.  And I’ll read a few reviews.  And rethink my plans.  By the same token, if there’s a movie I never would have imagined liking, but it gets tremendous reviews, I may change my mind.  That happened recently, for example, with The Lego Movie.  I would never in a million years go to see something called The Lego Movie, but it got fabulous reviews, great word-of-mouth from friends, and we finally saw it and loved it.  So that happens.

But there’s a certain kind of bad review that’s probably better for box office than any good review ever could be.  I was thinking about this recently in relation to Ibsen.  My Dad asked me to write something up about Ibsen for the Sons of Norway, and I did, but I got to thinking about Ibsen’s play Ghosts (which I have translated and directed, and which I absolutely love).  When the Independent Theatre in London produced the play in 1890, it got gloriously awful reviews.  George Bernard Shaw, who was involved with the production, later gathered some of the worst reviews and published them in his Quintessence of Ibsenism. The play was  “an open drain”; “a dirty act done publically”; “a loathesome sore unbandaged”; a “mass of vulgarity, egotism, coarseness and absurdity.”  Ibsen himself was described as “a crazy fanatic”; “Ugly, nasty and dull”;  “A gloomy sort of ghoul, bend on groping for horrors by night, and blinking like a stupid old own when the warm sunlight of the best of life dances into his wrinkled eyes.” And Ibsen’s admirers were described as “lovers of prurience and dabblers in impropriety, eager to gratify their illicit tastes under the pretense of art.”  “Effeminate men and male women.”  “Muck-ferreting dogs”.  And (this is my personal favorite), “ninety-seven percent of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.”  Of course, all those negative reviews did nothing except make Ghosts the hottest ticket in town.  And people who saw the play saw a powerful, somber tragedy, and a magnificent portrayal of one of the great female characters in theatre history, Mrs. Alving.

Those Ghosts reviews were so extreme, so over-the-top, that people correctly recognized that something else was going on with that show.  It was a cultural event.  Every critic in London had to go see it, and had to condemn it in the strongest possible terms, because otherwise they might be thought of as ‘not up-to-date,’ but also as ‘not moral.’  You had to see it, and you had to blast it; it was just essential to do both.  And of course, now, looked at through the lens of history, all those earnest critics look ridiculous.  ‘Please.  It’s Ghosts.  What’s your deal?’ 

I think the same dynamic is at play with Obamacare.  Conservatives hate the Affordable Care Act. Hate it. The House has voted to repeal it, like, forty times.  And it’s like they’ve been competing to see who can denounce Obamacare in the strongest terms. A future Shaw is going to have a jolly old time assembling a compilation album.  ‘Worse than the Holocaust.’  ‘Calculated to destroy America.’  ‘Worse than slavery.’   It’s pretty hilarious.

Meanwhile, over seven million people have enrolled in the ACA exchanges, and many more have signed up for the Medicaid expansion.  And I have to think a lot of younger people looked at the overblown rhetoric opposing Obamacare and thought ‘okay, that’s nuts.  What’s going on?  I’m going to find out for myself.’

I thought about this, as well, in relation to conservative reviews I’ve read of Darren Aronovsky’s Noah film.  ‘A gratuitous insult to Christianity!’  Well, no, it’s not.  It’s a film, and a darn good one.  I think the negative reviews were, again, so extreme, all they did was make people want to see it.

So this weekend, Ordain Women is planning to go to Temple Square, and politely request tickets for the Priesthood session. Their requests will be refused, and they will calmly and reasonably step away.  It’s a protest, of course, but a very mild one.

But I’ve seen the response on social media to Ordain Women.  Ferocious.  Even violent.  A lot of it has a ‘what do those dizzy dames want?’ kind of vibe, only in many cases much more strongly expressed.

And I think it’s going to backfire.  I think that when people actually meet the women involved in OW, they’ll be shocked to see that they’re reasonable, thoughtful, smart, funny women.  I know quite a few OW members, and I’ve never met one I didn’t like, immensely.  I think it’s pretty obvious that the letter from the Church’s PR department, essentially inviting OW members to quietly sit themselves in the back of the bus (or more accurately, actually outside the bus on the pavement), was, uh, tactically unsound.  I think that when people meet Ordain Women women, they’ll like ‘em.  And when they listen to what they have to say, they’ll be even more impressed.

I think so far that OW have gotten some over-the-top bad reviews.  And, historically, that tactic really doesn’t work very well.

 

Noah: A Review

Let’s start here: Darren Aronofsky, as a filmmaker, is not just a gorgeous visual stylist, he is the one major director I know of who is genuinely immersed in the power of myth and in the power of tragedy.  Lots of directors today appropriate myth as material for otherwise conventional Hollywood melodramatic narratives: The 300, Clash of the Titans, Thor, the upcoming Hercules.  But the mythical trappings of these films are essentially just production design, and we leave them essentially unmoved. We think ‘that was awesome’, without ever having experienced awe.  Aronofsky explores myth creatively, even uses contemporary subjects matter to reimagine myth.  In Black Swan, he uses backstage ballet company squabbling to retell the myth of Odette and Odile; in The Wrestler, the wreckage of a life spent professionally wrestling is given the weight and depth of tragedy; Mickie Rourke’s Randy the Ram becomes a Hector, an Achilles, an Agamemnon.  The seeds of Aronofsky’s new Noah film are found in his 2006 film The Fountain, an extraordinary, complex multi-layered meditation on the Tree of Life, and (possibly), the redemptive power of love.  Ignore critics who scoff about the ‘Biblical accuracy’ of this Noah; this is not a Sunday School lesson, it’s a Darren Aronofsky film, and a great one.

There were giants in the earth in those days. . . . (Genesis 6: 4)

The operative OT word is Nephilim; ‘giants’ is a common translation.  Aronofsky calls them ‘Watchers’, and imagines them as fallen angels, sent to earth to help mankind, but cursed with bodies of stone. They’re ponderous creatures, and move as though every step is agony.  But they’re huge and powerful, and now, having helped mankind accomplish the ruination of the planet, they help Noah build (and they later defend) the Ark. When they die (and they can die, humans can kill them), they again become creatures of light, and are released, gloriously, to heaven.

And Zillah, she also bare Tubal-cain, an instructor of every artificer in brass and iron. . . (Genesis 4: 22)

Tubal-cain is a central character in the film, superbly played by Ray Winstone.  After the slaughter of Abel, Cain’s offspring multiplied.  There are essentially two branches of humanity; the children of Cain and the children of Seth.  The Cainites have destroyed the planet; Sethites have been reduced to one family, Noah’s.  After a vision, Noah takes his family on a journey to find his grandfather, Methusaleh, and we see a ruined world; sludge ponds, tree stump deserts, abandoned mines and factories.  Having instilled in humankind an insensate greed for tools, Tubal-cain is king of what’s left.

Russell Crowe creates an essentially kind and loving Noah.  He knows The Creator (the word ‘God’ is never used) intends to drown the world, and that he’s to build an ark so that ‘the innocent’ (by which he means animals) can survive it, and initially, he believes that The Creator also intends his family to be spared, and his family to mark a new beginning for humanity. The difficulty is that he has three sons, and only one daughter-in-law.  And she, Ila (the magnificent Emma Watson) is barren; married to Seth, but unable to conceive.  His wife, Naameh (the equally magnificent Jennifer Connelly), is also past the years of child-bearing.  So how can mankind survive?

And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.

The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence.  And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence. . . . (Genesis 6: 11-13).

Noah goes to Tubal-cain’s encampment to look for wives for his sons.  And what he sees is a nightmare world, a world of brutality and sexual violence, a world of cruelty to animals, a world of murder, and above all, a world of rape.  We hear it more than see it; hear the cries of women subjected to violence, echoing everywhere in the camp.  And Noah feels, in his heart, his own capacity for violence.  He has killed in the past, defending his family.  He is a gentle man, and a kind hearted man, but he is a man, and he is shaken by the camp, but not just by its reality.  He’s also devastated by self-knowledge; by his own capacity to become that evil. He is, perhaps, titillated by it.  And that realization drives him mad.

And he kills, again he kills, not by design or intent, but by neglect and cowardice, he kills.  He kills a young woman that his son Ham has saved, a woman who is, in Ham’s words, ‘innocent.’  And Ham (Logan Lerman, also magnificent) cannot forgive it.

I will cause it to rain upon the earth . . . and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. (Genesis 7: 4)

And we see it. And again, more than what we can see, we can also hear, and we see Noah’s family, in agony as they hear human beings, clinging to their Ark, drowning in despair, beating on the wood with their hands, shrieking in desperation.  And it goes on and on.  And they are devastated.

And, so, on the Ark, Noah gathers his family, and he tells them the story, of Adam and Eve and Creation.  Innocence and joy, purity and the love of the Creator.  And the serpent, and Cain’s violence to his brother.  And he tells his family that humankind must end with them.  They will save the animals, they will make possible re-Creation.  And then, one at a time, they will die.  And the youngest son, Japheth, will bury the last of his brothers, and then he too will die.  That is the vision the Creator has shown him.

Here’s what Aronofsky has done with the myth of Noah; he has imagined for us a prophet who is wrong.  He has created a titanic figure in Noah, but also a madman, a good man driven insane by visions of violence and death.  And the heart of the movie is there, on the ark, as a three-way debate takes shape and defines the intellectual contours of the movie.

In fairness, let me urge you to stop reading now if you haven’t seen the movie and want to.  Spoilers to follow; and I think they can’t be avoided.  Because this film is also a moral argument, and an argument that is worth describing fully and honestly.

What Noah does not know is that Ila, his daughter-in-law, is no longer barren. Naameh, in compassion and love, has taken her to Methusalah for a blessing, and she is now with child.  Shem is to be a father, and Noah, a grandfather.  And when Noah finds out, his madness intensifies, and he declares that if the child is female (and if, therefore, she represents a possible future for humanity), he will kill her.  And Naameh pleads with him, and their children avoid him.  He has gone insane.

Or has he?  Because the film is now defined by an argument, and one side of that argument is that mankind does not deserve to live.  I’m reminded of Matthew McConnaughey’s character in True Detective, arguing that human consciousness was an evolutionary error, and that at some point, nature will simply fix the mistake.  Eradicate us.  And we’ve seen a world defined by violence.  We see in Tubal-cain’s camp; we see it today, in the Congo, or North Korea, or Darfur.

What Noah does not know is that his Ark has a stowaway; that Tubal-cain was able to climb aboard. And Ham knows it too, and is angry enough at his father to keep Tubal-cain’s secret.  And the king is a tough old bird, but he’s not stupid and he has something else going for him; he loves mankind.  He thinks we’re supposed to rule, we’re supposed to exercise dominion over the earth. Maybe at times we exercise dominion foolishly, but we can fix that too; we’re smart enough to shape our environment, to use tools to manipulate our world, and incidentally benefit ourselves.  Violence is our heritage and our legacy.  We were meant for power.

But there’s a third point of view.  And it does not come from divine revelation, as both Noah and Tubal-cain (both of whom pray, and to the same Creator), think their philosophies come from.  It comes from the human heart, from what we Mormons would call the ‘light of Christ within.’  It’s Naameh’s opinion, and it’s based on love.  She believes in, and forcefully articulates, the power of human love. She believes that we can choose good over evil, that we can choose to serve something greater than ourselves, because she’s done it; she’s given her life for her family.

So: obvious.  Except it isn’t.  As Noah points out to her; she’d kill for her family.  Her love has an undercurrent of violence, or at least the capacity for violence, the possibility of it.  We love, and perhaps that does ennoble us, but we’re tribal beings, and we can and will kill for those we most care for. And maybe love is a powerful force, but those words, ‘power’ and ‘force’ are rooted in a capacity for violence, are they not?  And yes, Tubal-cain is disgusting as he kills for food, and when he tells Noah that he intends to take from him his women.  But don’t human beings share with other creatures an innate instinct for survival?  And isn’t the world of ‘innocence’, the world of nature, a violent one?

And when Tubal-cain is finally defeated (by Ham, the son whose filial devotion is most equivocal, the boy who has cause to hate his father), Ila goes into labor, and is delivered of twins. Twin girls.  And Noah, as promised, takes up his knife to kill.  And Ila begs of him one last favor.  The babies are crying.  Can’t she, at least, calm them, quiet them, allow them to die while peaceful?  And he allows it.  And when he realizes that he can’t do it, he can’t obey his Creator to that final extremity, he cannot, finally, kill again, that realization does not heal his madness.

And Noah . . . planted a vineyard:

And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent. (Genesis 9: 2o-21).

And he drinks, and it’s not comic; it feels like a punch in the guts, because we see it as more madness, as PTSD made manifest on the earth.  It’s only when Ham ‘uncovers his father’s nakedness’ (in the film, it’s translated as ‘leaves on a self-imposed exile, rather than cope with his father’s insanity’), that Noah begins to heal.  And the family begins to heal, and his marriage begins to heal, and we see, in the heavens, an image of hope.

I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth.

 And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud. (Genesis 9: 13, 14).

I am a believing, practicing Mormon, which means a believing and practicing Christian.  A Bible reader and a Bible lover.  And this painful and tragic and wonderful film does the Bible the courtesy of taking it seriously.  It honors the text by creatively re-imagining it, by giving myth a personal gloss. It’s not a slavishly literal retelling of the story, and it does not provide comforting platitudes.  It honors the horror of the Flood, or of all floods, it honors the painful reality of God’s plan; that we’ve been sent here to a world of volcanoes and hurricanes and earthquakes and tsunamis.  And war.  And murder.  And with an innate human capacity for violence.  I left the theater edified, discomfited, uplifted, disturbed. Shaken.  Moved.  It’s a great film.

 

So now that we know that Obamacare’s a success. . . .

The rollout of the health care exchanges on Healthcare.gov went badly.  For two months, people were effectively unable to enroll, due to software glitches in the programming of the website. Half of the states rejected ACA money to expand Medicaid, even that expansion cost those states nothing, largely for irrational reasons. The anti-ACA misinformation campaign was ferocious; a majority of Americans now think that the Affordable Care Act is a good thing, but that ‘Obamacare’ is a disaster, despite them being exactly the same thing.  The President’s early sales pitch misfired as badly as it could have done.  When he said ‘if you like your current health insurance, you’ll be able to keep it,’ that wasn’t strictly true.  Lots of people had cheapo, low-cost, low-benefit insurance policies they liked just fine.  They offered the illusion of adequate coverage, but didn’t cost much; obviously, if you didn’t get sick, that kind of policy would seem perfectly adequate.  Insurance companies made a cheap buck off those policies, knowing they could only offer them for a year or so; the ACA would outlaw them, and it would look like the President’s fault. What the President should have said was ‘if you have a good health insurance plan, offering adequate coverage, you’ll be able to keep it.’  He didn’t say that, and he’s paid a high political price for it.

The initial goal was for 7 million people to be enrolled in the Healthcare.gov exchanges.  Two months ago, that goal looked completely unattainable, for all the reasons listed above.  The early enrollment period ended yesterday.  Although final figures aren’t yet available (some late enrollments still need to be processed), they will exceed 7 million by a considerable amount.  That’s 7 million people who did not previously have insurance, many of them having been denied coverage because of pre-existing medical conditions.  Now they’re all covered; getting affordable health coverage, and for many, life-saving health care.  The website works.  The ACA works.  It’s going to continue to work.  Service will improve.

Republicans continue to shout from the rooftops that Obamacare is a catastrophe, that it’s a complete failure, that it’s the worst bill in American history.  Quite possibly, Tea Party favorites like Senator Ted Cruz (R-Pluto), will continue to compare Obamacare to slavery, or the Holocaust, or the zombie apocalypse.  Republicans are counting on this being THE big issue in the 2014 Congressional elections, and they’re hoping that they could very well win the Senate, and increase their lead in the House, based entirely on Obamacare.  That could happen, I think.  Off-year elections are low-turnout elections, and conservatives are unified in their hatred of this President and his signature legislative achievement. If enough young voters stay home, a strong showing by conservative voters could cost the Democratic party Congress.

But long-term, opposition to Obamacare will increasingly become a losing strategy.  Because in it’s own slipshod, ramshackle fashion, Obamacare does work.  Is it a flawed bill?  Of course.  Could it be improved?  Absolutely.  What I would love to see is a sensible, bi-partisan approach to the ACA that acknowledges the bill’s strengths and works to fix some of its problems.  And writing those words ‘sensible’ and ‘bi-partisan’ caused me to throw up a little in my mouth.

What I am certain of is that the ACA will not be repealed, and that opposition to it will fade over time.  And there will be no viable conservative alternative, because, let’s face it, the ACA IS the conservative alternative.  What liberals wanted was a single-payer system.  What liberals wanted was for health insurance companies to go out of business.  Republicans say they want a ‘market based’ alternative.  What could be more market-based than a health care exchange?  What could be more market-friendly than a website where lots of health insurance companies compete for your business?

What everyone hates about health insurance is a situation where you have a serious illness and your insurer won’t pay for your treatment.  What everyone hates is the concept of a ‘pre-existing condition’ that makes it impossible for you to get any health insurance at all.  It’s the double-bind in which parents without insurance coverage find themselves.  Your kid’s sick.  You don’t have insurance.  Your only choices are both irresponsible.  You can go to an emergency room and rack up a bill you can’t afford to pay.  Or you can not get treatment for your child, who may well have a serious, but treatable illness.  Choice A stinks.  Choice B stinks worse.  We’re the richest country in the history of the world.  We have to be able to fix this.

But it also doesn’t make sense to pay for something you don’t need.  If you’re not sick, paying health insurance premiums is a waste of money. Wouldn’t it make more fiscal sense to only get health insurance after you get sick?  By the same token, paying fire insurance premiums is a waste of money.  What makes more sense is to buy fire insurance only when your house is actually on fire.  But that defeats the purpose of insurance.  So we say to everyone who buys a home ‘oh, and you also have to buy fire insurance.’  We say to everyone who wants to operate an motor vehicle ‘you have to buy auto insurance.’ And that’s why the ACA includes a health insurance mandate.  We’re going to make you buy health insurance (and auto insurance, and fire insurance), because that’s the only way to make sure the money is there to care for people who become really really ill.  (Or wreck their cars, or burn down their houses).

So whenever you hear people say ‘what I like about the ACA is the prohibition on people who can’t get coverage due to ‘pre-existing conditions,’ but I hate the mandate; this is America; we can’t make people buy insurance,’ understand that those people don’t know what they’re talking about.

One thing I don’t like about the ACA is the way it continues to link employment to insurance coverage.  I think the ACA has incentivized companies to cut employee hours so as to avoid having to pay for health insurance for those employees.  That’s happened a lot at universities, for example, and it’s reprehensible.

I’m intrigued by the concept of ‘defined contribution’, where companies no longer have to administer health insurance, but simply create a pool of money for insurance, and allow employees to buy their own coverage on an exchange.  I think companies would like the flexibility of defined contribution.  And all employees would have access to the money set aside for health insurance, though with less money available for part-time employees.  I like the flexibility of being able to choose between a PPO (Preferred Plan Organization) or an HMO (Health Maintenance Organization), each of which have advantages and disadvantages.

But the reality is, misinformation aside, the ACA works, and better than most people thought it would.  Any narrative about ‘the failure of Obamacare’ will become increasingly quaint and old-fashioned. We’re moving towards a time when everyone in the country will have access to affordable, high quality health care.  We’re not there yet, but the ACA is a step in the right direction.  Let’s put this debate behind us, and take the next step forward.

 

 

Three faces of Lincoln on I-15

I’ve been making the Provo-to-Salt Lake drive a lot lately, for rehearsals and performances.  It used to be that there was really only one way to make that trip; via I-15.  Poor city planning, in my opinion, to put a big old mountain between the two largest cities in the state!  But with Frontrunner, we now have a reasonable alternative to the I-15 commute; we can take the train, which I do, quite a bit, and which I very much enjoy.  Still, I’ve been doing the drive three or four times a week, and I’ve just about got the billboards memorized.  This last weekend, though, as I was driving, something struck me: on that forty-five minute drive, there are three places where you can see the face of Abraham Lincoln.  And as I thought about it, the three I-15 faces of our 16th (and greatest) President, it seemed that they say something about America, or American culture, or maybe just about Utah.

Moving from north to south, the first Lincoln face is the first of a series of billboards advertising Ken Garff Motors; a bunch of auto dealerships.  The caption is ‘other car dealers would fire him.’  Because Lincoln was too honest, presumably.  The series of Garff billboards feature clever-ish messages on similar themes; that the sales staff at Ken Garff dealerships will really listen to your needs and concerns, that they are scrupulously honest with you, and that the same cannot be said of Garff’s competitors.  ‘We listen, we’re honest, they’re not.’  One billboard just features a big pair of ears, with the Ken Garff logo.  Another shows a Ken Garff ancestor, with unnaturally large ears. Good listeners; right? Another suggests, with brackets, the words ‘Truthful’ and ‘Full of it,’ with captions saying that ‘we’ are ‘Truthful,’ and ‘they’ are ‘Full of it.’  Plus, of course, Lincoln, who Ken Garff would hire, and his competition would not.

As it happens, I was in the market for a car a couple of months ago, and shopped at a Garff dealership.  I didn’t find the Garff salesperson particularly attentive to my needs.  Quite the contrary; I told him from the outset that I wanted a used car, within a certain price range and with certain features, and was shown several new cars, more expensive than I could afford and without the features I needed.  I don’t really question the dude’s honesty; it seemed that they had a special sale on for new cars, and he was determined to sell me one.  He did not succeed; I bought a car from one of Garff’s dishonest/unwilling-to-listen competitors.  A used car, within my price range, with the features I wanted.

This whole billboard campaign plays on two myths, neither of them particularly true.  One is that car salesmen are uniformly dishonest.  That may have been true once (‘this car was owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sunday!’) but nowadays, with Carfax and other research tools easily available on the internet, there’s just too much information available to consumers.  A car is a major purchase, and there’s no excuse for people to come to the auto-shopping experience in ignorance. When I asked if I could see the Carfax report on the vehicle I ended up buying, the salesperson immediately printed it off and handed it to me. Why wouldn’t he?

The salesperson I bought my car from was not very experienced, and frankly, not very good at his job.  While test driving, for example, instead of focusing entirely on selling me the car, he spent some time griping about how he was going to miss lunch, and could we hurry things along, so he could get a sandwich.  I didn’t much like the guy, to be honest.  What he had going for him was a car I really liked, and could afford. But I didn’t think he was, you know, a crook.  I just don’t think salespeople can get away with that much anymore.

The other myth is that Abe Lincoln was scrupulously honest; that he was some paragon of integrity.  The ‘Honest Abe’ meme was a campaign slogan; it was political marketing. It was no more true than the Garff billboards are true. Abe Lincoln was a very good President, in part because he was a crafty politician.  Before becoming President, he was a very effective lawyer, and his most lucrative clients were railroads.  He was, in short, a successful corporate attorney.  But watch the movie Lincoln, with Daniel Day-Lewis playing old Abe.  You’ll see a politician perfectly capable of wheeling and dealing and arm-twisting and conniving, and selling the public on half-truths.  That’s why he was effective; he was good at all that grubby politicking.  I rather suspect that if Ken Garff were lucky enough to hire Abe Lincoln in sales, he’d be very good at the job, but not, one suspects, due to his scrupulous integrity.  He was a master politician and salesman–he got things done.

The second Lincoln face on I-15 is on another billboard; one urging people to read, and perhaps even memorize, the Gettysburg Address.  This is part of an effort spear-headed by documentary filmmaker Ken Burns and others; here’s their website.  As part of that effort, BYU did a big thing at halftime at a recent basketball game; a group of school children recited the Gettysburg, led by a biker, Stan Ellsworth, who has a show on BYUTV, American Ride.  I love Ellsworth; a raspy looking dude in full biker regalia, but with a heart of gold and a patriot’s soul.

And I love me some Gettysburg Address.  It’s the second greatest speech in American history, the first greatest being Lincoln’s Second Inaugural.  It’s a profound statement of the greatest ideals of American democracy.  But let’s face it; it’s also an act of salesmanship.  It declares that the Civil War is a test of the proposition that a nation, dedicated to equality, can survive.  But that’s not now the South saw it. Lincoln, in arguing for the sacrifices made by all the soldiers who died on that battlefield, consecrated it to democracy.  But wasn’t the Civil War about the failure of democracy?  Did Lee’s soldiers, the brave and foolhardy men who marched straight uphill into gunfire on Pickett’s charge, really think of themselves as fighting for a new birth of freedom?  Or weren’t they actually in a sense fighting for an institution that denied freedom?  Lincoln’s words are inspiring, because they’re aspirational–he’s defining the struggle as nobly as he could, to, eventually, bring a warring nation together.

The third Lincoln face, again heading south on I-15, is on a mini Mount Rushmore in an amusement park in Lehi, Utah, part of the Seven Peaks Fun Center.  The Mount Rushmore seems to be part of a roller coaster–they call it the ‘Rush Coaster’, get it?   Here’s their website.

They apparently also have a miniature golf course, where you putt amidst replicas of the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, plus also, of course, Mt. Rushmore.  And there’s other stuff too: laser tag, bumper boats, a pirate ship.

It’s probably a lot of fun.  If we had small children, we’d probably take them there.  From the freeway, the place looks kind of tacky, to be honest, but that doesn’t mean a good time can’t be had.  It all seems to me a bit more reminiscent of Jefferson (‘pursuit of happiness’) than Lincoln (‘last full measure of devotion’), but who knows, maybe you get a little patriotic buzz while shooting someone at laser tag.

The problem is, Mount Rushmore kind of creeps me out.  I know, it’s a popular place, three million visitors a year (and in South Dakota!), it’s a patriotic tribute to four great Presidents.  Still, there’s something about the history of the place that’s more about ‘manifest destiny’ than ‘four awesome politicians.’  Check out the wikipedia entry.

Mount Rushmore was always intended as a tourist attraction, and the original notion was that it would feature the likenesses of famous Americans, like Red Cloud and Buffalo Bill.  Multi-cultural, sort of.  But Gutzon Borglum, the sculptor, wanted to do Presidents instead, and got Congress to fund it.  Borglum was a Danish-American-Mormon polygamist kid from Idaho.  As an artist, he liked heroic themes, and he liked big.  He did a six ton head of Lincoln.  He was commissioned by the Ku Klux Klan to carve Confederate Generals onto Stone Mountain, in Georgia.  He joined the Klan, but left (both the Klan and the project), over disputes over artistic issues, and (shocker), over money.

Mount Rushmore was a sacred mountain for the Lakota, who called it Six Grandfathers.  It was part of a spiritual journey taken by Lakota chief Black Elk.  It’s probably still owned by the Lakota.  But it got renamed after a lawyer named Rushmore, and, working under the incontestable legal theory that our army has more guns than you do, was ‘given’ to Borglum to carve Presidents into.  And Borglum was a nativist; a fan of manifest destiny.  He wanted there to be a museum with a glass floor, with images of native American leaders (Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, Black Elk), under glass, so that whenever people visited the park, they’d literally walk on the faces of Indian leaders.

If you go to Mount Rushmore, and ask the Forest Service rangers about Borglum, and his wackier notions, they’ll tell you all about it; they’re all amateur historians and not big fans of the guy.  And the exhibits there nowadays pay respect to native cultures.  On their website, teachers can get lesson plans about geology and ecology and,yes, obviously, American history.  The place has a less-creepy vibe than the ‘let’s celebrate American expansionism’ ideology that Borglum intended to advance. But that vibe is still there.

And the addition, in Lehi, of a roller coaster and bumper boats, seems sort of quintessentially American; the commodification of icons, the transformation of ideals into the tackiest sort of entertainment.  And good for us. Jefferson nailed us; we’re about pursuing happiness, wherever we can find it.  In the cars we purchase, the speeches we memorize, and the roller coasters we ride.  All available off I-15.

 

 

Theology and culture

I’ve been reading a lot about the tenth and eleventh centuries lately.  Research for a play, but also, it’s just a really interesting period in history.  Because my play is about European politics in the period, I’ve been reading about Europe, but of course, 11th century Europe was, by almost any standard, a backwater. The 11th century was the high point of the Song Dynasty in China, for example. So while the Chinese people had magnetic needle compasses, Bessemer steel processes, and spherical trigonometry, the most educated European pope, Sylvester II, was generally thought to be trafficking with the devil because he knew how to use an abacus. The greatest cities in the world were Moslem, especially, Cordova, in Spain, with a population that approached a million people, and boasted the world’s greatest universities, librarys, and running potable water. The Toltecs were ascendent in the Americas, and Japan’s Fujiwara clan ruled benevolently and promoted literature and music and drama.  Europe, in contrast, stank.

Europe was savage, primitive, violent and filthy.  Rome, once the greatest city of antiquity, had fewer than 30,000 inhabitants, living like rats in the ruins left behind after the sacking of the city 500+ years earlier.  Commerce was minimal.  Emperors and kings had their hands full just fighting off Magyar, Viking, Saracen and Slavic pirates and bandits and raiders.  The ramshackle, jerry-built feudal system provided some rudimentary governing stability, but small-scale warfare was constant.

The Catholic Church could have, and was supposed to provide some moral boundaries and some pastoral care. But the Church itself lurched between corruption and over-jealous reform.  The Dominican monastic order was the closest thing they had to a stabilizing influence, but it too ranged in influence and virtue from the Cluniac reforms in France to utter debauchery and vice elsewhere.  What I’m basically saying is that life sucked in the 11th century.

And everyone knew it.  And so Catholic theology responded by building an entire world-view around the idea that life was supposed to be awful.  Hardship, violence, filth and disease were endemic to the human condition.  We human beings had chosen a world of corruption and death and illness and pain when Eve tempted Adam to partake of the forbidden fruit (i.e., sexual intercourse).  We shouldn’t expect any happiness in life.  We shouldn’t expect anything good at all.  Every hope, ever dream, every ambition was based on some expectation of the next life.

And so the holiest and best people practiced self-denial and self-mutilation.  They starved themselves in lengthy fasts, they wore clothing that tore the flesh, they flagellated themselves with whips; they built lifestyles around the mortification of the flesh.  I used to love teaching the plays of the great 10th century nun/dramatist, Hrosvitha of Gandersheim.  We would read her play Pafnutius.  Thais, a prostitute, is called on to repent by the righteous monk Pafnutius.  She locks herself in a cloistered cell, where she lives for a year, mortifying her flesh, not eating, with (as the play takes pains to mention), no place to relieve herself.  At the end of the year, she’s half dead, but holy.  She lasts long enough to say a final prayer, then dies and angels greet her, taking her soul to heaven.  As I would remind my students, that play’s a comedy, and that’s a happy ending.

But it makes sense.  If life is unrelievedly grim and awful, violent, short and painful, the theology people might find comforting would be one that focuses on a better life to come.  The saddest figure of the period, I think, was Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor, who fought bravely to preserve the Church and Empire, but became appalled at the misery his wars caused people.  He began the usual mortification routine, with long fasts and hairshirts and the rest of it, and died at the age of 22.  But he died in hopes of a better life to come.  And while I can look back at medieval history and see a talented, brilliant and capable young man who could well have done a lot of good in his time here (as his grandfather, Otto I, had done), and see as well a young man succumbing, tragically, to clinical depression, well, that’s not how they saw it. He was in a better place.

Okay, so fast forward 500 years or so, to the early seventeenth century, and our American forbears at Plymouth and Boston, the generation of John Winthrop and Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams. By that point, of course, European life was a lot happier, generally.  Europeans knew how to build boats that could cross the Atlantic.  Better roads, better carriages, better rigging for horses. It was still a violent period, but much much less so than had been the case in previous centuries.  We human beings now exercised considerable control over our environment.  We could built reasonably safe and comfortable homes for ourselves.  Cleanliness had become wider spread.

But while we did have safer and more comfortable lives than previous generations had enjoyed, it was something of an illusion.  Infant mortality was around fifty percent. Childbirth was tremendously dangerous for women.  So the really important issues–will my children be safe, will my wife survive childbirth, will we be able to raise our families safely–still must have seemed completely random and arbitrary.  It may have been easier to transport goods to market–better roads, something approaching rule-of-law–but everything else must have seemed out of our control.

So theology, again, echoed culture.  The theology of the day was almost entirely predestinate.  God had, for His own reasons, chosen a few folks to be in his Elect.  We mortals had nothing to say about it.  We couldn’t influence His decision in any way.  You were either going to heaven, to live in eternal bliss, or you were going to hell, where demons would torture you forever, and there wasn’t a darn thing you could do about it. You’d think this would result all manner of debauchery.  If nothing you do can make the teensiest difference in your salvation/damnation, you may as well live it up, right?  But no.  The Separatists who founded New England believed that the Elect could be seen as such by their particularly blameless lives.

Anne Hutchinson was condemned, excommunicated and exiled, not because she questioned predestination, but because she questioned whether living an externally exemplary life proved anything.  She believed that the Spirit of God communicated with her, and that any Christian could feel God’s Grace within.  This made her, in John Winthrop’s mind, a heretic; specifically, an antinomian. It may strike us as a trivial theological dispute, but they didn’t; to them, this was crucial stuff.  But if you think about it, it fit their culture.  You can’t exercise any control over the really important events in your life.  But you can control some things, like what you wear, or how long you sit on a hard bench in Church on a Sunday.  Those actions are meaningless, and you know they’re meaningless, but you cling to them anyway, because maybe, just maybe, they offer a tiny window into God’s thought processes regarding you.

When we Mormons read the Joseph Smith story, we read about the theology controversies of the Burned Over district in upstage New York ca. 1820, but we don’t think about what the issues were.  What were all those churches contending over?  More of the same.  The intricacies of predestinate theology.  Was baptism essential to salvation?  Obviously no, it couldn’t be. Baptism is a thing people can do for themselves, so obviously it had to be irrelevant to the question of Grace.  But there’s that pesky scripture in John 3:5; where you have to be born of water and the spirit.  So you have to be baptized, as a sign that you were elect.  No, you didn’t!  Yes, you did!  And back and forth and back again.

So along comes Joseph Smith, and right there, Section 1 of the Doctrine and Covenants, what does he say?  All sorts of blasphemy.  Vs. 2: God’s message is to everyone, everywhere.  Vs. 3: what you do isn’t going to stay secret anymore.  Vs. 4, it gets bad: God’s going to send out missionaries, who will, vs. 8, have the power to seal people unto salvation or damnation.  This is seriously Catholic stuff–people, human beings, having the power to send people to heaven.  Or, you know, t’other place.  And then, the biggie: vs. 10:

Unto the day when the Lord shall come to recompense unto every man according to his work, and measure to every man according to the measure which he has measured to his fellow man.

In other words, what we do matters.  Our actions count.  We can actually do things–like try to be a good person–which will make a difference in our salvation.  Predestination, in other words, is no longer central to Christian theology.

And yes, I know; that verse (and a whole bunch of other verses a lot like it) has led us to a modern Mormon cultural world of unrealistic expectations, and self-righteousness, and judgmental attitudes.  To ‘modesty standards’ and ‘body image issues’ and an epidemic of perfectionism and clinical depression.  A theology of works, it turns out, is essentially impossible to live up to entirely.

But what’s the alternative?  Because American culture today fundamentally rejects predestination.  In the marketplace of competing theologies, anyone who preaches that our salvation is entirely arbitrary and that we can’t affect it any way whatsover, well, that theology is going to look weird and be very quickly rejected.  We live in a time when we expect to control our environment.  If our kids get sick, we take ‘em to the doctor with the expectation that she’ll prescribe something that will make the kid better.  Over and over, popular culture preaches that everything is awesome, that you can and should dream, that you can do anything you want to with your life.  The fact that none of that is particularly true doesn’t matter.  If we believe in God, we kind of do have to believe in one who cares who wins the Super Bowl. Our theology reflects our culture, for better or for worse, just as theology reflected 11th century culture, and 17th, and 19th.

And if you think about it, the Mormon theology of works may set up unrealistic standards for us, but it surely has a considerable upside as well.  We have to pay attention. We have to try to do good things.  We have to ask our friends constantly ‘did I do that right?’  We have to send water and blankets to countries nailed by tsunamis.  We aren’t free to just pursue happiness.  We see ‘pursuing happiness’ in social terms.

Of course, when I say ‘a theology of works,’ I mean Mormon theology but also world-wide, mainstream, people-who-believe-in-God theology. And also world-wide, mainstream, atheist and agnostic theology.  We don’t divide the world up into ‘Elect’ and ‘Damned,’ but we do divide it up into ‘People Who Care’ and ‘Selfish Bastards.’  We do think we should all be trying to make a difference, and when we think of a ‘good person,’ we don’t think of Otto III, poor kid, beating himself up for being a bad person, and starving himself to death.  When we think of a ‘good person,’ we think of Bono.  Or Angelina Jolie. Or Mother Teresa.

In short, we reflect our culture in our theology. As people ever have done.

 

90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.