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.

 

 

What’s news?

Over the weekend, my wife and I watched Anchorman II, astoundingly silly Will Ferrell turn as a newsman. Also this morning, as is my wont, I watched last night’s The Daily Show, getting my Jon Stewart fix, and followed it with my Stephen Colbert fix. Also watched some Rachel Maddow, and caught a little news, some on Fox and some on MSNBC. And then, finally got to Sunday’s John Oliver show.

John Oliver got his start on Jon Stewart, and filled in one summer when Jon was off making a movie. He was so good that HBO gave him his own show, Last Week Tonight.  It’s amazing. Of all the fake news shows out there, from Saturday Night Live‘s Weekend Update (“Francisco Franco is still dead!”) to Bill Maher to Stewart and Colbert, Oliver’s show is, IMHO, the best. Oliver does still laugh at his own jokes, which can be annoying. But because he’s only on once a week, he’s able to dig deepest, focus on just a few issues, really take some risks.

Anyway, on his show last Sunday, he did this story, about the Miss America Pageant (warning: the clip has some bad language). It’s hard to imagine anything more ridiculous than the Miss America Pageant, or more anachronistic. As Oliver put it in his opening, “how the &$^$^(@ is this still happening?”  It’s the year 2014. How does an event, in which a fully clothed male stands in front of a line of half-naked women, so they can be judged, still be a part of American culture?

Okay, it was a funny bit. But then Oliver dug deeper. First, he showed the ridiculous questions the contestants get asked, and then showed one young woman, in 20 seconds, give a thoughtful, intelligent, nuanced response to a question about ISIS. His point is clear: yeah, it’s a beauty contest, but these are some exceptionally sharp young women. It’s heartbreaking, in fact, to think that these bright and talented women have to parade about in swim suits to earn a college scholarship.

But of course, Miss America is a scholarship pageant. That’s what’s at stake. These women are competing in an organization that prides itself on being the biggest provider of scholarships specifically for women in the world.  And they probably are. At least, Oliver and his staff researched the question, and couldn’t find anyone else providing more money.

And then they dug deeper. The pageant claims that it ‘makes available’ 45 million dollars annually. That’s a lot of money. Is it true? Oliver and his staff dug deeper. The Miss America pageant is a non-profit organization, required to file publicly accessible financial reports with the government. Oliver’s staff dug through those records, and found that the pageant actually gave out $482,000 in scholarship funds. So they pulled the tax forms from every state level competition in the country.

What they discovered was that the 45 million dollar claim is basically bogus, that Miss America reached that number by counting every scholarship any affiliated school might possibly offer.  If a young woman is eligible for scholarships at one of four Pennsylvania schools, for example, Miss America counts the total value of all four school scholarships, though obviously Miss Pennsylvania is only going to attend one of them.  That kind of thing. Miss America does not provide 45 million dollars in scholarship funds.

It was a very funny comedy routine. But it was also informative, well researched, and quite probably true. The Miss America pageant felt it necessary to respond. So did other scholarship programs for women. And nobody really disputed Oliver’s research. His story was funny, yes, but it was also truthful, accurate and disturbing.

So how was it not journalism?

And that’s the point. The line between fake journalism and real journalism, between the way comedians deconstruct the news and the often preposterous sideshow 24 hour news has become is, at the very least, very thin indeed.  If it exists at all. I know people who get all their news from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. They don’t necessarily strike me as ill-informed.

I wish more people read newspapers. But newspapers are dying. I look nostalgically back to the days when news was delivered by the Cronkites and Huntleys and Brinkleys of the world. But that time is long past.  What we have is. . . well, what we have is this.

Anchorman 2 is an incredibly silly movie. The characters are buffoons and fools, selfish and self-centered. That’s why they’re so funny. (In fact, the one genuinely human moment of connection in the film is the relationship between Steve Carell and Kristen Wiig, who play a weatherman and a secretary, both of them dumb as bricks). But it’s also an incisive and intelligent satire on the news industry, on 24 hour news networks, who try to bring people “the news they want to hear, not the news they need to hear,” as Ron Burgundy puts it. This means overt calls to patriotism. Car chases. Soft-core titillation. Weather people buffeted about by hurricane winds (because how can you report a hurricane without putting some poor schmuck in the middle of one). A lot of the movie is pretty flabby, honestly, but in middle of it is some pretty sharp satire.

Jon Stewart has been accused by conservatives by having a liberal bias, which he freely admits is true. But his main target on the Daily Show is not in fact conservatism. It’s the same thing comedians have always made fun of: human stupidity and incompetence. Hubris and arrogance and people in power with their pants around their ankles. Fools behaving clownishly. Ron Burgundy is an idiot, of course, but his twenty-four news show is successful. There’s one sequence in the movie where Ron’s wife, a news anchor on a mainstream news show, is interviewing Yasser Arafat, a huge scoop for her (the show is set in the 80s). Ron, meanwhile, decides to follow a random car chase taking place in Milwaukee. His story gets much better ratings, of course. And it would. That’s why the scene is funny; that’s what would happen.

So if Jon Stewart is liberal, and Colbert plays a conservative idiot for laughs, and obviously John Oliver is liberal, and Bill Maher is so liberal he bleeds blue, why hasn’t there been a conservative fake news show?  There actually was one on Fox for a short while–it totally bombed. It bombed for an exceptionally good reason: because it wasn’t funny.

The real answer, of course, is that conservatives don’t just have a successful fake news show, they have an entire fake news network. CNN is funny because they’re lame; they’re funny in the same way that earnest people taking silly things seriously is always funny.  CNN is funny because CNN covers Justin Bieber the same way it covers ISIS.

Fox is funny in much the same way; that combination of earnestness and triviality is always going to be funny. But add ideology to the mix and the whole thing becomes hilarious. They’re not just earnest people taking trivial issues seriously, they’re also people who always, always have the Right Answer to any question, found in an unswerving allegiance to a specific set of ideas. The federal government: bad. Global warming: non-existent. Corporations: good. Barack Obama: Satan.

But look at they way they repackage classic comedic tropes. Take that Fox standby, the pompous, pontificating elderly authority figure. Polonius, in other words. The fathers in all of Moliere’s comedies. Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Bill O’Reilly epitomizes the type. Remember, during the Ferguson stand-off, Bill O giving those condescending scoldings to black people? Offensive, sure. But also really really funny, as hubris always is (that is, when its not tragic). And Sean Hannity; isn’t he also a comic type? Eddie Haskell, maybe? Alex Keaton? Obsequious young suck-up?

I mean, why are all the Fox News reporters and co-anchors pretty blondes? I don’t mean to suggest that attractive blonde women can’t read the news, or that they’re universally bad at their jobs. But come on. Isn’t it at least a little funny that a news organization can’t find anyone else to hire? The Stepford Wives jokes aside, is it an accident that Fox’s demographics skew so severely old, white and male? A generation of men who grew up girl-watching? And that, simultaneously, all the news presenters are attractive young women?

I know the response from conservatives. MSNBC has a liberal bias worse than Fox’s conservative bias. Plus, so do CBS, ABC, NBC, CNN. PBS. Fox is a necessary corrective. I’ve heard all the arguments. My point, though, is that Fox is itself basically a fake news organization. They have the trappings of real news–the sets, the graphics, the anchors sitting at a desk, the field reporters–while actually sort of ducking the responsibilities and obligations of actual news reporting. And John Oliver did a real news story–dug for facts, asked tough questions, researched and reported. So what’s news? What counts anymore?

 

When the Game Stands Tall: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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