Begin Again, and ‘authenticity’

I loved John Carney’s brilliant indie film Once. Loved the music, loved the sort-of-yes-sort-of-no love story, loved Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova. Of course, I especially liked Hansard’s music. “Falling Slowly” remains one of the great love songs ever.

It’s a movie musical about a busker, and so the music has a raw, unpolished quality that’s very appealing. It feels ‘authentic,’ whatever that might mean. Anyway, it’s one of my favorite movies ever, and when I saw that the director, John Carney, had made another movie, another love story, again about musicians that were struggling to break through, I couldn’t wait to see it. And so, thanks be to Netflix, I finally watched Begin Again.

Carney’s a bigger deal this time (that’s what happens when you make a movie for $60,000 and it grosses ten million). This time, he had a budget; this time, the movie has movie stars, Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. And it’s got some great songs again, by Gregg Alexander of the New Radicals. Like Once, it’s about a male-female relationship that isn’t quite a love story, but in which the two characters really do come to care about each other. Complicated and dimensional and human, rather than just boy-meets-girl. I liked it, I liked the music, I recommend it.

But. How real is the music, how raw and unpolished, how–that word again–authentic. Because in Once, Hansard’s music really does feel, you know, all those things, genuine. Musical authenticity isn’t an issue in the film, it’s just what the film is. But Begin Again is directly and specifically about that issue, the issue about staying true to your art, keepin’ it real, selling-out vs. not-selling-out. Artistic integrity. It’s a movie about musical authenticity.

Okay, so Knightley plays a singer-songwriter, and her boyfriend, Dave, has just signed with a record label, and she’s in New York to support him in a girlfriendly sort of way, and so she even lies about the fact that most of the songs on his album were co-written by him with her. She doesn’t want the songwriting credit, she’s too thrilled for his success to care. And the label sends him to LA to re-record some tracks, and while there, he cheats on her. He’s a creep in other words. And we realize that the label is going to turn all his (and her) songs into conventional pop tracks, and spoil the, you know, passion, truth, real-ness of the work. And Dave, the cheatin’ creep is played by Adam Levine. Lead singer for Maroon Five. The definition of inauthentic bubble gum pop.

But so anyway she’s ready to take her broken heart and blow New York and go back to London. But her pal Steve (James Corden, the Baker in Into the Woods) takes her to a nightclub, and makes her get up on stage and perform, and she does, rather badly, sing one of her songs. But Mark Ruffalo (a newly fired record exec/drunk named Dan) hears her song, and knows, instantly, in his soul, that she’s got It, that she’s the real thing, that she’s the artist he’s been waiting for. Or rather, he hears the song as he would produce it; he hears, not her song, but what he could make of it. It’s a lovely scene: enjoy.

This leads to a conversation about musical authenticity, and he challenges her to name a genuinely authentic artist. ‘Bob Dylan,’ she says, and Ruffalo points out all the ways in which Dylan, with the sunglasses and the carefully tousled hair, is pose and artifice. Then she says ‘Randy Newman,’ and Ruffalo concedes that Randy Newman is indeed, in his own way, authentic.

It’s an issue that recurs throughout the movie. She hears creepo Dave’s album, and it seems overproduced. She and Dan decide to make her album, and record it on the streets of New York, with ambient noise in the background. See: more authentic. (Except we see how carefully Mark Ruffalo controls the street sounds, bribing street kids and asking for quiet). She downloads her album onto the internet instead of allowing the label to release it, and it sells like crazy. (Because she knows Cee Lo and he tweets about it).

The first rule of artistic representation is that portrayal does not equal advocacy. I don’t know the extent to which Carney intends his film to deconstruct the pose of artistic and musical authenticity and the extent to which he’s relying on it. I mean, the epitome of ‘integrity’ in this film is supposed to be Keira Knightley’s character. And she can sing, some; a smallish voice, but okay for this kind of music. But at least in Once, Glen Hansard was singing songs he, Glen Hansard, wrote and performed as a busker. In this movie, ‘authenticity’ is represented by songs performed by a movie star, written for her by someone else.

I’m not knocking Keira Knightley. I like her as an actress, I think she does a nice job in this film, and she can sing enough to pull off the role. I just loathe that entire issue of musical authenticity. We all know the drill: Neil Young good, Neil Diamond not good. Janis Joplin real, Karen Carpenter not real. Thumbs up: REM, thumbs down: Hootie and the Blowfish. Punk: good. Disco: not so much. (Wasn’t Sid Vicious essentially a sociopathic poseur? Does Donna Summer’s pain not count?)  What bothers me about it is that we’re imputing a moral stance to what is essentially an aesthetic judgment. As it happens, I like Neil Young and I like REM; I love Dylan too. But sell-out is too harsh a term to apply to anyone. I genuinely believe that most artists really are trying to use their art to say something cogent about the world they inhabit. Just that some folks have muses that are more commercially appealing. Luck, not sin.

And yet and yet. This scene, this song, is lovely. And yes, it’s inauthentic. Knightley singing a song someone wrote for her (like that’s a crime), Ruffalo pretending to play bass (acting, in other words), Hailee Steinfeld pretending to rock out on guitar (again, acting). I don’t care. I think it’s a terrific moment in a movie I liked a lot.

And that’s what we actually care about, isn’t it? Whether we like the music.

Movie Review: Blackhat

I know I know I know. What kind of movie critic is it who does not review (because he hasn’t seen) most of the Oscar-worthy December releases, and then when finally he starts going back to the theaters, reviews Blackhat? A darn poor one, you might say, and you’d be right. Blackhat got a 31% favorable rating on rottentomatoes. It cost 70 million to make, and has made back around 4 million since its release. Flop-eroni. Bomb-eroo. A bad movie that didn’t do business. Avert your eyes, young-uns.

Well, they’re all wrong, and I’m right: it’s great. Well, maybe not great, but really good. Blackhat isn’t Oscar-bait, and the screenplay has some structural flaws the film (however stylishly made) never quite manages to overcome. That said, it’s a beautifully acted, romantic and human thriller, compellingly watchable and engaging. It’s also a Michael Mann film, his first feature film in seven years, and quite possibly the last film of his great career (Mann is 71).

The film inside the cable and wires and circuits of a computer network. Then we cut to a keyboard, and a finger pushes an Enter key. And the next thing we see is a nuclear power plant’s cooling system fail, and its reactor core blow. It’s that easy. That’s the world we live in. One finger hits one key, and boom.

So Chinese authorities, tracing the virus that caused the meltdown, turn to MIT-educated military officer (cyber-division) Chen Dawai (Leehom Wang) to figure it all out. He, in turn, contacts his sister, Chen Lien (Wei Tang), likewise a computer nerd. And they figure out that the virus is built on a model Dawai had originally built with his best friend in college, Nick Holloway (Chris Hemsworth). And he’s in prison, for hacking into a bank and stealing a lot of money. This leads eventually to some very shaky and borderline hostile international cooperation between the FBI (represented by Agent Carol Barrett (Viola Davis), and the Chinese military. Holloway is allowed out of prison, with all sorts of restrictions on what he’s allowed to do, and he and the Chens do all sorts of computer-y things, involving very fast and intense typing.

My guess is that people who are a lot more computer-literate than I am (which means everyone on earth age 20-35) found this part of the movie a bit cringe-worthy. I didn’t care about the computer-y stuff, though. It didn’t interest me, except as the stuff that had to happen to drive the plot forward. What did interest me, a lot, was the human element of this awkward multi-national cooperation. The stakes are very high–a madman is crashing stock market computers and blowing up nuclear power plants: why? Dawai and Holloway are old friends, but Dawai has divided loyalties, to his government, and also to his sister. Agent Barrett has to enforce the restrictions on the one guy who might solve the problem, and also doesn’t trust any of the Chinese authorities. Her partner, Jessup (Holt McCallany) is courageous and smart, but a rule-follower; they fight a lot. Nor is she trusted, much, by her FBI superiors.

Meanwhile Lien and Holloway are falling in love.

Wei Tang is tremendous in this film, as she was in Ang Lee’s brilliant (and controversial) Lust, Caution. And of course, that’s always what Michael Mann has done wonderfully well; work with actors: James Caan in Thief, Pacino/De Niro in Heat, not just Daniel Day-Lewis but also Madeleine Stowe in Last of the Mohicans. Wei Tang and Chris Hemsworth are both terrific in this, even when their characters are asked by the screenplay to do quite ludicrous things, as Hemsworth is in this. Again, I didn’t much care. I thought the acting was terrific, Hemsworth and Wei, but also McCallany and Davis and Leehom Wang. I know it’s just a thriller. But it’s a thriller about actual, believable human beings.

A good thing, too, because, from a plot standpoint, the last third of the film is a bit silly. Holloway, a hacker, becomes an action hero; goes after the bad guys, tries to overpower them physically. I think the film wants us to conclude that, while in prison, Holloway worked out a lot (we get a glimpse of it), and also became really really good at fighting, and also at making effective shivs out of regular hand tools. No more spoilers, but I didn’t believe it, and found the ending sadly preposterous.

But up to that point, we get one of the trademarks of Mann’s work; he isn’t afraid to kill off main characters, and to show characters we’ve come to care about die in horrible, slow-motion tragic ways. I got caught up in it, honest I did.

Remember this?

My wife and I agreed: there’s a scene in Blackhat that we were much reminded of. Blackhat‘s not as good a movie overall. But it’s got some powerful moments, and was well worth watching, we thought.

So catch it on Redbox. It’ll be there soon enough. You won’t regret it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interstellar: Movie Review

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

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

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

But.

The next morning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Film Review: Birdman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Movie Review: Fury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nightcrawler: Movie Review

Nightcrawler is the inspiring tale of a small business success story. I expect it to be cited in business schools as a perfect case study of triumphant entrepreneurship. It’s about a young man, without education or background, but full of drive and ambition, who finds a niche industry in which he can make his mark, who, through hard work and sacrifice, rises to the top. Indeed, I can only think of one popular-culture businessman’s-portrait equally inspiring; AMC’s television series about New Mexico pharmaceutical pioneer Walter White.

Rimshot. (If you missed it, that was an extended Breaking Bad joke just now). In fact, Nightcrawler is a superbly rendered portrait of pure human viciousness, an expose of the seamy underside of local television news programming, modern business ethics, and the whole positive thinking B-school mantras of success and achievement. Jake Gyllenhaal gives an extraordinary performance as an amoral creep drawn to the world of ‘nightcrawlers,’ which is to say video stringers, guys who cruise police radiowaves looking for particularly gruesome images of car wrecks, local crime stories, and other ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ sensationalism, which they then sell to local news outlets. It’s the same subculture that Richard Dutcher explored in his film Fallen. Dutcher’s film is a futile search for redemption in a lost and fallen world. This film, written and directed by veteran screenwriter Dan Gilroy, discounts even the possibility of grace. It’s more like an extended exercise in the mechanics of pure sociopathy.

Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a petty crook living by his wits in LA, and desperate for the kind of career success his daily internet trolling has convinced him is within the grasp of anyone with a dream. He has a perpetual smile pasted on, talks in full sentences chock-a-block with bromides and cliches drawn from personal improvement seminars and TED talks, and he never, ever, the entire movie, blinks. His peculiar intensity creeps pretty much everyone out, except when, more or less by accident, he happens upon an auto accident being filmed by veteran nightcrawler Joe Loder (Bill Paxton). He gets his own camera, and sells some footage to Nina (Rene Russo), the overnight news director of the lowest rated local newscast in LA. From then on, Lou is launched, and discovers he has a knack for getting shots other cameramen can’t (or won’t) even try for. Nina’s subordinate, Frank (Kevin Rahm), finds Lou’s footage repugnant and his methods unethical. But she outranks him, and Lou becomes the key to ratings success for a news outlet desperate for it. Meanwhile, Lou hires an assistant, Rick (Riz Ahmed) who is poor enough to work for a pittance, though increasingly troubled by Lou’s methods.

The film is thereafter structured according to that moral geometry. Lou will do literally anything to get footage for the morning news; Rick is his never-consulted conscience. Nina will follow Lou in doing anything to increase the station’s ratings; Frank is the angel on her shoulder, though one she has little trouble in ignoring. And Lou wins. Lou’s vision of the world triumphs. Nina’s success rides on his amorality.

And, of course, like any good sociopath, Lou’s primary interest in other people is in getting them to serve his purposes and ends. We see a sort of dreadful romance develop between Lou and Nina, entirely pragmatic on her part, entirely manipulative on his. And yes, they do sort of deserve each other. (It’s also beautifully played by both actors, especially Russo, who we see discover depths of pragmatic personal depravity she seems to find surprising. Like: ‘am I capable of, well, this? Yeah, guess so. How about. . . . this? Yep, that too.’

At one point, Lou points out that local news programs devote a few seconds a week on politics and public policy, spending most of every newscast on sensationalism. And the preference is for stories about crimes and tragedies in upscale white worlds; the ‘inner city crime is seeping into the suburbs narrative.’ This is not, in fact, true, as Nina and Lou both know; the stories they’re busy chasing are almost entirely anomalous. But they know their viewers. The purpose is to titillate. Their routine disclaimer–‘this footage is particularly graphic, viewer discretion is advised’–isn’t a warning, it’s a come-on.

And yet and yet. A lot of the fascination of this film is wondering what peculiarly awful footage Lou’s going to find next, and how much is he likely to get away with while broadcasting it. We’re implicated by the film as much as we’re appalled by it. We do this too, the film implies, we’re as much voyeurs as Nina is. And once we realize that Lou will literally do anything to get gory footage, we’re fascinated by that too. We do, in fact, want to watch.

As remarkable as Russo and Gyllenhaal are in the film, I was perhaps even more impressed by the acting performances of Ahmed and Rahm. Both actors do a remarkable job of conveying an essential human decency, though leavened by cowardice. In a way, their characters become even more morally culpable than Gyllenhaal’s and Russo’s characters. They know what they’re doing is repugnant. But economic dependency doth make cowards of us all; Ahmed is paid, we’re told, thirty bucks a night, but we also see how desperately he needs it. We see less of Rahm’s character–the movie’s focus is on Gyllenhaal more than Russo–but we can see, on the margins of the characterization, the same quiet desperation. He’s putting stories on the news that he knows are not just unethical, they’re lies. He does it anyway, protesting all the while, losing every inter-office fight, swallowing every insult, never quite able to quit. A wonderful, subtle performance.

It’s a tough film to watch; simultaneously, it’s compulsively watchable. It’s, literally, like watching a car wreck. It’s not so much a film you watch as one you rubberneck at. A remarkable achievement, and a film that will stay with me.

Two kinds of crazy

Anita Sarkeesian is a well known and well respected feminist scholar and critic.  Here’s her Wikipedia page. She specializes in studying how women are portrayed in various kinds of popular media, and especially in video games. She’s perhaps best known for a video series on Youtube, Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. Check it out. It’s great stuff, matter-of-fact, sensible, well researched.

She was invited to speak at Utah State University on Wednesday this past week. On Monday, though, a death threat was sent via email to university officials. The threat was specific and terrifying. I’m not going to quote it here, but it called Sarkeesian “everything wrong with the feminist woman,” and threatened not only her, but anyone who attended her lecture. Its author claimed to have pipe bombs, pistols and semi-automatic weapons. The email also referred to Marc Lepine, a gunman who murdered fourteen women in Canada in 1989.

I can’t begin to describe how incredibly troubling all this is. Sarkeesian’s videos are sensible, intelligent, informed, sort of fun, not terribly ideological. They do make the entirely reasonable point that women are objectified in video games. This is so obviously true, I can’t imagine it being a point of contention. Apparently there are men who feel terribly threatened–emasculated even–by feminism. Apparently lots of those men are also gamers. Who knew?

But as I researched this stuff, the misogyny embedded in so many video game texts, the ferocity of the rhetoric in so much of the so-called ‘men’s movement,’ I became completely disheartened. I wanted to post this yesterday, and couldn’t bring myself to finish it. I don’t want to research gamergate. I don’t even know what MRM stands for, aside from Men’s Right’s Movement. I read the MRM Wikipedia page, and found the MRM arguments incomprehensible.  I don’t want to follow the Red Pill subreddit. (I’m not even going to link to it. It’s on reddit, it’s not hard to find. I refuse to drive traffic there). I spent twenty minutes on Red Pill yesterday, and felt like I needed a shower.  I am a man, proud of being a man, proud to be male, fulfilled in my marriage and edified by the friendships and professional relationships with women I have always enjoyed. I’m a feminist, and proud of it. I don’t get this anti-women nonsense.

And death threats? Seriously, death threats?

And then came a (to be fair) entirely inadvertent interaction with a second group of crazy people.

And this gets tricky, because I have family members who are gun owners and gun defenders and I don’t want to call people I love ‘crazy.’

But here’s what went down. Sarkeesian was still willing to give her lecture on Wednesday. She just wanted to be safe while doing it. Perfectly reasonable. She wanted back packs checked at the door; Utah State made plans to do that. She also wanted personal firearms banned, except, of course, for cops providing security.  And Utah State couldn’t do it. State law allows concealed weapon permit owners to carry their firearms anywhere, to school, on a college campus. To search backpacks and confiscate (or ban) firearms is a violation of Utah law. And apparently a number of Utah State students do have concealed weapon permits, and could therefore have attended Sarkeesian’s lecture armed. Read about it here.

Argument A: This is a prominent speaker, speaking at the university’s invitation. The threat made against her was very specific and detailed. Surely the university had an obligation to take reasonable precautions to protect her safety. And the presence of concealed weapons by students licensed to carry certainly made her feel less safe, and probably actually made her less safe. If, heaven forbid, the guy who issued the threat had in fact shown up and started shooting, a bunch of untrained people waving their guns around and firing wildly would escalate the situation exponentially. The training received by concealed weapons’ holders is risibly ineffectual. Utah is the only state in the country with guns laws that idiotic. As Sarkeesian put it: “It’s sort of mindboggling to me that they couldn’t take efforts to make sure there were no guns in an auditorium that was threatened with guns and a mass shooting.  I don’t understand how they could be so cut and dried about it.”  She’s right. I don’t get it either. And I would certainly have cancelled my appearance, just as she did.

Argument B: Nobody at the university took the threat lightly. Everybody agreed that her safety needed to be protected, as well as the safety of other lecture attendees. But the University had no choice but to follow state law.  And concealed weapon permit holders are not the problem. Indeed, they’re potentially part of the solution to the overall problem of on-campus violence. It’s completely unfair to stigmatize law-abiding citizens exercising their Second Amendment rights. Nobody wants to be called a ‘nut’, and adding the word ‘gun’ to the front of it makes things worse. Concealed weapon permit holders have a track record of responsible gun ownership and use. “Right to bear arms”, y’all.  It’s entirely possible that women, attending the lecture, may well consider themselves feminists, and may find gun ownership completely compatible with their feminism.It’s possible that if the guy had shown up, and started firing, an armed woman may have been the one to put him down. Another kick-ass, armed feminist. They do exist, and if we’re feminists, we should embrace them too. Feminism needn’t be wimpy. Guns protect women too.

I’m an Argument A guy. I do understand Argument B. They both exist, and they both have many followers. Let’s acknowledge that, at least.

Sarkeesian cancelled her lecture because she was afraid of getting caught in a cross-fire. I would be too. I think that’s an entirely reasonable fear. She was, it seems, more afraid of the cross-fire than of the guy who threatened her. I totally get that. I don’t get the gun thing. I have never understood it. I don’t want to own one, and I never have. We didn’t let our kids play in their friends’ homes if they owned guns. I think that was a reasonable stance for us to take. And I feel completely safe unarmed.

But I’m also directing a play right now, and we have lots of guns on-stage. We have a props table with maybe twenty guns on it. The cast spends most of the show waving their guns around, and at one point, they use the guns to shoot a whole bunch of zombies. Now, the guns we’re using don’t actually work. Our ‘shooting’ is a sound effect. The guns are mostly plastic. They’re completely harmless. But oh my gosh are they cool. And our actors enjoy using them.

I haven’t talked to the cast about their personal gun politics. None of my business. But I do get this about guns: they’re cool. On TV, in movies, guns are awesome.

Now, this makes me think that concealed weapon permit holders are living out movie-driven fantasies. I’m still resolutely anti-gun. But I went to rehearsal last night, and saw that our props people had created this massive machine gun, and it was the coolest prop ever, and my reaction, when I saw the thing, was a heartfelt ‘awesome!’  And then I asked the actress who uses it to stop pointing it at my head. (Not that it actually worked. It’s a toy, basically). And our show is about zombies, a popular video-game trope.  So where does fantasy end, where does reality begin, where does sexism or violence in video games lead to sexist or violent behavior in the real world, where do internet, chat room fantasies play themselves out in real life?

I don’t know. I like Anita Sarkeesian, enjoy her video series, and wish I could have heard her lecture. She seems like my kind of people. And I’m unapologetically feminist, and don’t get MRM at all.  And I desperately hope they catch the guy, Sarkeesian’s threatener, before he acts out his fantasies. And . . . I think that machine gun is wicked awesome.  So it’s all maybe at least a little bit complicated.

 

 

 

 

 

 

16 Stones: Movie Review

Set in the volatile world of Missouri in 1838, 16 Stones follows three LDS twenty-somethings on their quest to find the sixteen stones touched by the finger of Jehovah, as described in Ether, chapter three in the Book of Mormon. They think that if they can find those stones, it will definitively prove the Book of Mormon (and by extension, the LDS faith) true, and that the Missouri mobs attacking Mormon settlements will therefore stop the violence.

That’s not the silliest premise I’ve ever seen for a movie. The notion that our Founding Fathers put a treasure map on the back of the Declaration of Independence, or the idea of an archeologist digging around for the Ark of the Covenant, so he can use it to defeat Hitler, both strike me as sillier. But National Treasure and Raiders of the Lost Ark are fun. They’re entertaining because they don’t either of them take themselves very seriously, and because they feature rollicking action sequences and plenty of humor. 16 Stones, on the other hand, is painfully, excruciatingly earnest. Earnestness isn’t a bad thing. It’s not, however, very aesthetically enjoyable.

I just suggested that the premise of the movie is ‘silly,’ when a better word perhaps should have been ‘naive.’  I can see some LDS audiences enjoying the movie, and finding it faith-affirming.  That was not my reaction to it. I found that I had plenty of leisure and brain-space to pick it apart.  And so I did.

The movie begins in Far West Missouri, in 1838. But it doesn’t exist in any actual historical Missouri, but in the Missouri of Mormon myth-making, in which the Saints were innocent and gentle, and the Missourians a scruffy and vicious bunch of thugs, with yellow teeth. (The bad guys in this film had uniformly ugly teeth). James Delford (Mason Davis) is an LDS blacksmith, chastely half-pursuing a romance with Elaine (Aubrey Reynolds), whose brother Thomas (Ben Isaacs), James’ best friend, is expected home shortly from his mission. A Missouri attack, however, results in James’ mother being shot in the back and killed, and James is distraught and angry. At first, he wants to hunt down his mother’s killer, but Joseph Smith (Brad Johnson) talks him out of it. Instead, James decides to go on his search for the 16 stones of the film’s title. And Thomas and Elaine agree to go with him.

What follows is not so much a plot as a string of increasingly preposterous coincidences. Thomas, on his mission, met an Indian who told him of his tribe’s mythology, involving ‘turtle boats’ crossing the ocean. This strikes James as suitably Jaredite-ish, and the Indian, Kitchi (Rog Benally), even gives them a handy map to follow. (I’m not kidding, the Indian character’s name is ‘Kitschy’).  The map leads them to some metallic plates, inscribed with ancient Hebrew letters. They can’t, of course, read ancient Hebrew, but they rescue a Jesuit Priest (Andy Jones), who is being beaten up by Missourians, and who can read Hebrew, and who leads them towards their next clue. And so on. Meanwhile, they’re apparently supposed to be traipsing their way across Missouri, to just outside Chillicothe, Ohio, then back to Indiana, then back home to Missouri again, all on foot, Missourians having stolen their horses.  That’s a heck of a walk, honestly. In real life, their trek would take months. But our heroes stroll along unhurriedly, and manage the whole trip without experiencing so much as a change in seasons.

They are pursued all the while by two more Missouri scalawags, played by Jarrod Phillips and Allan Groves. Although these villains were portrayed as a couple of bumbling idiots, they are also heavily armed, and greedy, and apparently much better at tracking than Our Heroes are at noticing they’re being tracked.

And this leads to one of the film’s biggest problems. Isaacs, Davis and Reynolds, the three leads, do a nice job with their badly under-written heroic roles. Davis is asked to play James as alternatively stalwart and doubting, and he handles both well, though he never does quite manage to turn those contradictions into a fully-realized dramatic character. Reynolds fares better, giving Elaine a courageous edge to balance her character’s doubts and insecurities. Isaacs is an energetic and appealing film presence, despite his character being given the least to do of the three of them.

But the poor actors forced to play bad guys in the film (and their numbers are legion) are uniformly dreadful, painting every Missouri bounder as both ferocious and dumb. The result was not just a film without nuance, it was a film that depicted most of its dramatic characters as subhuman. I do not see how this accords with my understanding art as an expression of the gospel. Art embraces our common humanity. It treats all human beings, even ones who embrace violence, as our brothers and sisters. When a narrative reduces all humanity to black and white, good and evil, then that narrative itself embraces falseness.  That’s okay in an action movie, which isn’t meant to be taken seriously. But the earnestness of this film urges us to take it very seriously indeed. Which, for me, turned out not to be possible.

This is because of the amateur clumsiness on display. The movie never could seem to keep straight who had guns or how many of them, let alone nuances like what sorts of guns the characters might plausibly have owned in 1838, or how likely those guns might be to misfire. At one point, Elaine casually lets her canteen (the one canteen owned by the three of them) dribble water onto a rock, despite it being the only drinking water available for three people on a long cross-country hike. The water on the rock ended up revealing an important plot point, but I was honestly more concerned with dying-of-thirst issues at that point, and I rather think they would have been too. Plus, it was never clear to me what these characters intended to eat on their journey. They certainly weren’t carrying much food, nor had they money to purchase any.  Aside from one early pork-and-beans dinner (cooked, of course, by Elaine; why else would you bring a woman along?), I don’t think they bother with food at all the whole movie.

Of course, they end up finding the stones. And then James is persuaded by Joseph Smith not to show them to anyone. You can’t prove the gospel true, Joseph sagely tells him. Faith doesn’t work that way. And it turns out the point of the whole journey was to teach James a Valuable Life Lesson. Not Proving the Gospel True.

Fair enough. But that’s actually the point of the entire movie. The whole reason for making the movie is to not just to bear testimony, but to Prove the Gospel True. The movie asserts as matters of provable fact that Indians had legends of turtle boats, that they wrote on metallic plates, that they worshipped a pre-Christian Jesus, that they wrote in ancient Hebrew. Plus, of course, that there really were stones that glowed.  That it’s all literally, provably, factually true.

But as a believing, practicing Mormon, I found every assertion of the movie unconvincing.  The reason is context. I find arguments made in good movies more persuasive than arguments made in bad ones. I don’t actually find faith difficult to maintain, but I do find naivete unsustainable. And so I tended to consign 16 Stones to a brand new category–“movies sort of like National Treasure, but nowhere near as fun.”  I did not find the sincere expressions of testimony made by these characters risible. I cannot say that about the film in which they appeared.

 

Divas

My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–‘s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.