Category Archives: Popular culture, general

The lily-white Oscars

The Oscar nominations just came out, and as usual, were greeted with cries of outrage from everyone whose favorite movie got dissed. Or (I live in Provo), outrage because Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn haven’t come to town. (They have come to Salt Lake, forty miles away, but I’m old, sick, and the weather’s been lousy). But also because of how few people of color received nominations.

Which complaints seem to me completely justified. Let’s grant, first, that determining the ‘best’ actor’s performance of the year is entirely subjective. Eight films were nominated for Best Picture, but for all of us that list had some real head-scratchers. I liked Mad Max: Fury Road a lot, and was thrilled to see it get an Oscar nomination, but my wife thought that was a ludicrous selection. Comedies and action movies are routinely ignored by Oscar, despite the fact that they are essentially the movies that keep the film industry alive financially. One big complaint about the Oscars is that they honor films no one has heard of or seen. Like Spotlight, Room and Brooklyn. Film is both an industry and an art form, and profitability and respect don’t always walk hand-in-hand.

Complaints about color-blind Oscars do seem justified this year. If there were movies about the African-American experience, by African-American filmmakers, that were exceptionally well-done, and that were ignored by the Academy, then African-Americans in the industry could legitimately feel ill done by. And if those same films had some nominal white participation which was, actually, honored by the Academy, then the exclusion of Black filmmakers can seem particularly egregious.

And that happened. Straight Oughta Compton was an outstanding film about N.W.A., well-reviewed, a terrific film about an exceptionally crucial group in the history of rap, crucial chroniclers of the African-American experience. It was directed by F. Gary Gray, an important African-American director, and the cast was essentially all Black. Its two principal screenwriters were both white, Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff. And Herman and Berloff were the only two Oscar nominees from that film. Creed was another excellent film, written and directed by Ryan Coogler, another fine young Black director. It starred Michael B. Jordan, a wonderful young actor who gave a career-launching performance, after doing equally outstanding work in such films as Fruitvale Station and Red Tails. Again, it received one Oscar nomination; for Sylvester Stallone, for Best Supporting Actor.

Sorry, but that just seems like a deliberate snub, an intentional insult. Which, of course, it wasn’t. The Academy members who vote on these things are pretty much all Hollywood liberals, exactly the people who would be appalled and offended to be accused of racism. But they’re also, most of them, white. A recent study by the Los Angeles Times showed that of the 5, 765 members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 94% were white, and 77% were male. Only 2% are Black, and fewer than that were Hispanic. And they’re old; average age 62.

I know people who get the mailers. They take the whole thing very seriously. But their votes are heavily influenced by sentiment and prejudice. The Creed vote makes sense. Creed was a Rocky movie; the final chapter, one presumes, in that endless saga. It’s about the boxing career of Apollo Creed’s kid. Rocky movies don’t win Oscars, not since the first Rocky did. But Sylvester Stallone is one of the giants of the industry. The political incorrectness of the second Rambo movie and jingoism of Rocky IV have long ago been forgiven. I can well imagine a kind of groundswell for his nomination. And while Creed was an outstanding movie, it is a Rocky movie.

And now Jada Pinkett Smith and Spike Lee have announced their intention to boycott the Oscars. George Clooney and Lupita Nyong’o have voiced similar criticisms. Chris Rock, this year’s host, is being pressured to step down. The story has legs.

So, for example, why wasn’t Will Smith nominated for Concussion? Big star, important, issue-oriented movie? Why not a nod? Well, who should he replace? Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl? Terrific actor, former winner, in an exceptionally well-made movie about transgender people? Okay, then, why not Bryan Cranston for Trumbo, or Michael Fassbinder for Jobs?  Except that Hollywood loves biopics. And you’ve got a film about a victim of McCarthyism, or a film about the founder of Microsoft. It’s not an easy call.

What makes this issue so fascinating is the way it illuminates the way racism actually functions in our society. Here you have a group of people who would rather die than be regarded as racists. And with the very best of intentions, they try to honor particularly outstanding members of their group. And they end up belittling and insulting their Black colleagues, quite inadvertently. But the outrage of the Hollywood Black community is real, and justified. Racism’s insidious that way.

Sean Penn’s Rolling Stone interview with El Chapo

The actor Sean Penn has been under fire lately, because of an interview he recently conducted with Joaquin Guzman, otherwise known as El Chapo: Shorty, in Spanish. El Chapo is probably the most famous druglord in the world. Penn’s interview was published in the most recent issue of Rolling Stone. It was also immediately ridiculed by pretty much every late night comic. El Chapo is famously reclusive; now, suddenly, he’s best buddies with a movie star? Shades of Dennis Rodman/Kim Jung Un? Hilarious. Also, over the weekend, the Mexican police arrested El Chapo, and suggested that they were able to find him, in part, because of information found in Penn’s interview. So El Chapo is presently in prison. We’ll see how long that lasts; he’s escaped from prison twice before.

Anyway, Penn’s interview has been widely ridiculed, first, because it happened, and second, because Sean Penn’s writing style is somewhat pretentious (and therefore comical). The idea of a movie star weighing in on American drug policy is seen as ludicrous. He’s a naive, silly, privileged white American celebrity; of course, he’s ridiculous. Shame on Rolling Stone for publishing it. What were they thinking? And so on.

So I thought I’d read the article. Make up my own mind about it. If the article is indeed silly, I’d make fun of it too.

Here’s the shocker: it’s not silly at all. It’s not very well written. But Sean Penn is a serious man, who asks serious questions. Is he naive? Does El Chapo dupe him? Is this just nonsensical pro-drug cartel propaganda? I don’t know. But look past the infelicities of Penn’s prose. There’s a thoughful critique of American drug policy in Penn’s piece: here’s the link. Read it yourself.

Start here: Economics 101, Prices are set by the immutable laws of supply and demand. If demand is high, prices (and profits) will rise. If, for any commodity, we artificially reduce supply, and demand remains high, prices and profits will skyrocket. If, for example, we make certain drugs illegal, and demand for those drugs remains constant, the result, inevitably, will be El Chapo. A drug cartel. That is to say, some ruthless person will create a highly organized and extraordinarily profitable, criminal enterprise. In fact, lots of cartels will rise, and compete. And, while competing, will shoot each other. A lot.

All of which El Chapo knows, I think. Here’s an excerpt:

Is it true what they say that drugs destroy humanity and bring harm?
Well, it’s a reality that drugs destroy. Unfortunately, as I said, where I grew up there was no other way and there still isn’t a way to survive, no way to work in our economy to be able to make a living.

Do you think it is true you are responsible for the high level of drug addiction in the world?
No, that is false, because the day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all. That’s false.

Did your drug business grow and expand when you were in jail?
From what I can tell, and what I know, everything is the same. Nothing has decreased. Nothing has increased.

Do you consider yourself a violent person?
No, sir.

Are you prone to violence, or do you use it as a last resort?
Look, all I do is defend myself, nothing more. But do I start trouble? Never.

What is your opinion about the situation in Mexico, what is the outlook for Mexico?
Well, drug trafficking is already part of a culture that originated from the ancestors. And not only in Mexico. This is worldwide.

El Chapo, in Penn’s interview, is completely unrepentant. He says, proudly, that he supplies more heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine and marijuana than anyone else in the world. He’s proud of it. He’s quite open about his money-laundering efforts, and points to many respectable international corporations who are his business partners. Eventually, he wants to invest more in the energy sector. Of course, he’s a murderer, he admits. But not indiscriminately; only when it’s a matter of business. Does Penn glamorize him; does he soft-pedal El Chapo’s murders? No, not really. Also, sure, of course he does. Sean Penn’s a movie star. He’s considering making a movie about this guy. He’s pitching that movie to us, the audience.

Should movies glorify criminals? I don’t know if they should, but that is what they do, at least at times.

What about, for example, the Godfather films? Don’t those films sentimentalize Don Corleone? Don’t they turn the Don into something of a Teddy Bear? (In fact, the Don’s downfall is partly because he’s unwilling to get into the drug business. It’s ‘infama,’ he says). Isn’t Michael Corleone a family man, a war hero, a legitimate businessman? Sure. But also, of course, a stone-cold killer. What about Scarface? We think of the ’83 De Palma film, with Al Pacino, but the 1932 film had every bit as important a director (Howard Hawks), and an equally compelling lead performance, with Paul Muni. Hollywood likes gangsters; always has. Also gangstas, nowadays. As long as they’re Americans. Or white. Or, at least, can plausibly be played by a young Al Pacino. Or some supercool black dude.

Of course, for every film glamorizing gangsters, there are twenty glamorizing the cops who catch and arrest brutally kill gangsters. Sicario, one of the best films of 2015, is an example. In that film, Emily Blunt’s FBI agent is laughed at by Josh Brolin, her partner, when she suggests that they arrest a suspect in the drug trade. That’s not really what they do. Murder’s more final.

Penn got the interview through the Mexican actress Kate del Castillo, who famously wrote an open letter to El Chapo, encouraging him to use his wealth and power to promote the power of love, and not the power of violence or money. Of course, that really is sort of charmingly naive. But she also said that she trusts El Chapo more than she trusts the Mexican government, and that’s a pretty popular opinion in her country. In her subsequent interactions with him, she discovered that Chapo was interested in a film about his life. As she pitched that idea to various Hollywood producers, Penn heard of it, and got interested. It wasn’t just Penn interviewing the guy; del Castillo was there too.

His article, then, is partly a self-glorifying narrative of how he got to meet this guy, but that’s not its main purpose. Mostly, it’s a critique of the United States’ ‘War on Drugs,’ a policy or series of policies that, argues Penn, have unequivocally failed. Again, Penn does not write terribly well. Frankly, some sentences, you don’t even know what he’s saying. His article is passionate, but he does, at times, come across as cluelessly naive. He likes Joaquin Guzman, based on one short dinner and subsequent conversation. There are 27,000 drug-related homicides in Mexico a year. There is a part of me that wants Penn to interview the families of those murder victims. Do that next, pal.

But on one crucial point, he is right. US drug policy has failed. We’ve treated a public health problem as though it was a criminal justice problem. Our prisons are crowded, with non-violent offenders getting a PhD in criminality at taxpayers expense. We also treat an economic problem as though it was a moral problem. El Chapo’s fortune is the result. If he had not made that fortune, someone else would have. Arresting him (and extraditing him to the US, which is in the works), is viscerally satisfying. A really really bad guy is going to do hard time. Awesome. It will accomplish exactly nothing.

Really, it’s time to try something else. Legalization and treatment, for starters. And wave goodbye to the prospects of any politician in America who proposes that solution. Which, to be clear, is probably the only solution with a chance of working. Sean Penn wrote a serious article on a serious subject, and has been made to look like a buffoon. That’s where our public debate is on drugs. And that’s a shame.

Chronicling change, or stuff that used to be true, but isn’t anymore

Kind of a grab-bag post this time. A ‘once we all . . . but now we all. . . ‘ kind of thing. What changes, major or minor, have you noticed in contemporary society? I’m not looking for things like Uber, or electric cars. More everyday kinds of things. Feel free to weigh in.

  1. Hospital food isn’t terrible. I got sick recently, spent some time in the hospital, and I couldn’t believe how good the food was. They had a big menu you ordered from, and 40 minutes later a delicious entree–with dessert!–would show up, hot and tasty. Apparently, American medicine figured out that patients recover faster if they have a better hospital experience. In a way it’s sort of a shame. Used to be, when friends got sick, you’d say sympathetically ‘you poor thing, eating hospital food.’ No longer; I almost didn’t want to go home.
  2. The DMV experience is quick, efficient, and not all that unpleasant. It always used to be, when you talked about difficult experiences with the government, you could count on the DMV for providing completely miserable government employee interactions. Now you can schedule your appointment on-line, and be in and out in minutes. At least you can in Utah; I wonder if Indiana has followed suit.
  3. Political advertising doesn’t work anymore. When this election, prognosticators all thought Jeb! Bush would be a big favorite, because he had raised so much money for his campaign. Money=TV ads=electoral success. Sure enough, Bush has been running ads all across Iowa and New Hampshire, as well as in other early states. And the polls show his candidacy tanking. He’s at a whopping 3 percent nationally. Meanwhile, The Donald is way ahead, in first place, without running any ads at all. (He ran his first ads this week). Of course, Trump gets tons of free media attention; he doesn’t need to spend. But I don’t see much evidence that spending works anymore. I think, BTW, that this is an awesome development. Political ads are, way too often, shrill and annoying. Which may explain why they don’t work.
  4. Cops don’t seem to spend their free time in doughnut shops anymore. Remember what a proven laugh-getter this way; linking cops to doughnuts? Police Squad, that hilarious old TV series starring Leslie Norris (which led to the Naked Gun movie series) began each episode in a doughnut shop, for example. But it isn’t all that true anymore. I think police departments have emphasized fitness a lot more recently. Also there aren’t as many doughnut shops anymore.
  5. I don’t want this to sound like a grumpy old white dude, but there was a time when the best writers were Americans with these grumpy old white dude names. Not anymore. I think this is awesome, but right now the best writers in the world are all people like Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, David Bezmozgis, Sarah Shun-lien Bynum, Yiyun Li, and Rivka Galchen. I mean the best playwright in America is probably Lin-Manuel Miranda, except he’s also probably also the best composer and performer. I can’t tell you how heartening this particular change is.
  6. Four-way stops: out! Roundabouts: In! I grew up in Bloomington Indiana, a town known for a terrific local music scene, a great college basketball team, and four-way stops at every corner. I don’t think any city planner anymore would put a four-way stop at an intersection where she could put a roundabout. Way better.
  7. Of course, there will always be highly partisan news outlets, like Fox News or Salon.com or National Review or the Nation. But have you noticed how many factually based, determinedly not-partisan websites there now seem to be? Like Vox.com? Or Fivethirtyeight.com? A welcome development, I’d say.
  8. For some reasons, a lot of the TV programs I like watching anymore feature ads that seem pitched to old people. Ads for denture adhesives, bowel regularity pills, burial insurance, lift chairs. Viagra ads. (Especially the ones where the couple are on a beach, watching fireworks, and look fondly at each other. And hold hands. And. . . ?  I hope they at least drape a blanket over themselves). I saw one the other day, an ad for adult disposable undergarments, where they’ll deliver them to your home, so you don’t get embarrassed in the grocery store line. Yikes! I’m not that old! I have no idea why these ads for those shows; its not like I haven’t always liked game shows.
  9. Airline travel used to another reliable laughter-inducer. It was annoying, security checkpoints were intrusive, the seats were too small, the service terrible. Even really good comedians, like Louis CK and Ellen Degeneres used to make airline jokes. Nowadays, though, air travel . . . still sucks. So that one’s still true.

I’d love your observations. The world is changing; it’s good to chronicle change.

Fixing Star Wars: A review of The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made a billion dollars faster than any other film in history. It’s the hottest movie ticket in the world. And it’s an exciting, fast-paced movie. It’s fun. I enjoyed it. I’m not being a Star Grinch when I say that I don’t want to see it again. It’s a cool flick. It’s fine.

And I’m absolutely itching to fix everything that’s wrong with it.

Ordinarily, I don’t do this. Writers own their work, even if the ‘writer’ is a committee. But Star Wars is communal property, like the six pack of Diet Coke in the break room fridge. And nearly every conversation I have had with people about The Force Awakens has gone like this: ‘I liked it. But. . . .’ So let’s roll up our sleeves. (I’m going to assume that you’ve all seen the movie. But since some of you may not have, I’m not going to reveal The Big Spoiler. Just: there is one).

First of all, let’s acknowledge that The Force Awakens is a pastiche. Early in the film, when we first meet Rey (the incandescent Daisy Ridley; what a find, and so great to see a female protagonist), she’s scavenging in a crashed Star Destroyer, quite possibly the one we see at the beginning of Star Wars (Episode Four, the first movie. I won’t call it A New Hope). That’s how she makes her living; picking up bits and pieces from destroyed ships. My son pointed out that her profession provides the perfect metaphor for the whole movie; that’s J. J. Abrams. He’s Rey; he’s a scavenger. That’s the whole movie; bits and pieces (and plot points, and story elements) from the first three movies. I wish the story were a little more original. But Rian Johnson is directing (and writing) the next one. I’m content to look at The Force Awakens as a combination homage and extended trailer for the two much better films that will follow.

No, I don’t propose to redo the whole thing. I want to fix this movie. Reshooting and reediting wouldn’t cost more than ten million, tops. (Hey, it’s not my money).

Star Wars films always take place in both a political and a religious context. There’s the Empire v. Rebel Alliance story: politics. And there’s the Force: religion. This film is no exception. Except in this case, it’s the sinister First Order (which wouldn’t seem to be in power, right? Which presumably is a rebellion against the Galactic Republic?), and the good guys, the Resistance (which otherwise would seem to be . . . the government?) So the original films are about a scrappy insurgency against a tyrannical central government. In this film, it’s about a Hitleresque insurgency against . . . the Weimar Republic? Which, for a military force, relies on a Resistance? Mercenaries? Or legitimate soldiers on the side of the Senate? And where’s the Senate anyway? Disempowered, even assassinated?

The Senate, the Republic, are barely mentioned in this film. And we need more; the scroll isn’t enough by itself.

Meanwhile, we do see something of the First Order political structure. We see a ginormous holograph of The Supreme Leader (the great Andy Serkis). Under him is General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), who gets one big scene, a marvelously fascistic speech to an army of storm troopers; he stands for ‘order.’ (Of course he does). Also in the ruling triumverate is Kylo Ren, who represents the Dark Side, and hero-worships his grandfather, Darth Vader, but who is otherwise a bit of an adolescent weenie. He eventually is involved in The Big Spoiler, which I won’t reveal here. (I know he’s a controversial character, but I like everything about the actor, the performance, and his story thread. In fact, I think it needs to expand).

The Force, meanwhile, has been popularly relegated to myth and legend. Except maybe not; because this film’s MacGuffin is Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants him. So does the Resistance. But why? Because he’s the only Jedi Knight left? That’s more important than, oh, destroying an entire planet?

Here’s my suggestion. Tie the political and spiritual more closely together. Instead of the Force being mythical, how about instead if the Dark Side of the Force is the only Force people know? Maybe that’s the secret to the First Order; they have the Dark Side, having succeeded in shutting down all access to the Light Side. Luke has disappeared; they want to kill him. What if the world is just . . . meaner? What if the First Order is ascendent because the Dark Side infects everything, sours all interpersonal relationships? (We see a hint of it on Jokku; Rey doesn’t seem to have many friends, and the world seems driven entirely by self-interest).

The light side, meanwhile, like Luke, exists, but quietly and in hiding. When Finn (and John Boyega is terrific in the role) can’t bring himself to murder villagers, he says it’s because it was the right thing to do. Well, where does his conscience come from? Not his upbringing. The light side, obviously. What’s needed is more of an acknowledgment about how weird his little rebellion is. Poe Dameron needs to react to it; he takes it way too much in stride.

Rey’s initial skepticism about the Force would have more impact if her doubts were about the possibility of the Force having a good side, not the Force existing at all. Again, Han could sell that. He could talk about how there was a time when the Force was a positive thing.

Maybe even this: what if the poisoned atmosphere of a Dark Side-dominated world was, in part, what broke up his marriage to Leia. Because, come on, there needs to be some bitterness there, doesn’t there? Kylo brought the dark side into the midst of that family? And there’s some lingering nastiness? It would give Carrie Fisher something to do, at least.

A lot of this, both the political and spiritual elements in this film could be clarified by fixing the one great completely incomprehensible missed opportunity of the film. It amazes me that Abrams didn’t do more with Poe. I mean, Oscar Isaac is a terrific actor. Poe is an exciting and interesting and charismatic character. But he gets four minutes screentime early in the movie (where he’s terrifically compelling), and then disappears for ninety minutes. Then he comes back to destroy the Death Star-ish planet thing. “Where have you been?” asks Finn? He offers a brief, unsatisfying answer. Not. Good. Enough.

Of course, it’s possible that they’re making him deliberately mysterious, because they have plans for the character in the next two movies, probably involving an extended flashback. Maybe so. I still the film’s use of Finn as a massive missed opportunity. The Star Wars films don’t do well with flashbacks. They’re great at cross-cutting between multiple story lines. Here’s what you could do:

Show his TIE fighter crash, his survival, and his spectacular escape from Jokku. He’s a great pilot; maybe he steals some other crappy ship, or maybe he steals another TIE fighter. (It would lengthen the movie by, I don’t know, three minutes. Big deal). He meets Rey, is smitten. (Love triangle!) But he’s also skeptical of Finn. ‘Yeah, he rescued me, but why?’ Stormtroopers don’t just throw off their training and indoctrination like that. But then Leia (she has The Force, remember), says, ‘there’s something about this guy. I think he has the Force.’ Again, Poe’s skeptical, (the Force is all Dark Side, remember), but it’s Leia; she’s a legendary figure too. And Han could back him up, ‘I like this kid, he reminds me of . . . Luke.’

I wouldn’t recast Kylo Ren–I like Adam Driver in the role, and love the character. I loved The Big Spoiler. I’m willing to put up with all the echoes of the first three movies. I just think there are missed opportunities here. Let’s fix it. Back to your laptop, Mr. Abrams!

 

The politics of The Hunger Games: Movie review, kind of

Two events, on a similar theme: last night, my wife and I saw the most recent Hunger Games movie, or rather The Hunger Games: Mockingjay–Part Two. I know, a month after everyone else saw it. So I wondered; should I review it? Here’s the second thing: on Rachel Maddow’s show, she showed a flier that someone in Michigan put in the windshields of cars parked outside a movie theater where Mockingjay was playing. It began by asking Is American like Panem? It obviously concluded that America is in fact a great deal like Panem, and proposed, as a remedy, voting for Ted Cruz. And, of course, it’s hard not to notice that the Hunger Games novels and films are intensely political. They are, after all, about a revolution and a civil war. So political how? And does it have anything to do with our tangled politics here, now, in America?

Here’s the text of the flier:

In the Hunger Games, Michigan would be in District 800–and our job would be producing textiles. The Panem Capitol promises to give you free stuff–security, food, and a job. But what you really get is hunger, torture, and a lack of opportunity. America has wealthy rulers living in the Capitol just like Panem. The political elite think they are entitled to your hard earned money to support their extravagant lifestyle. You are left with: student loans you can’t repay, struggling to put food on the table, not being able to afford healthcare fines, knowing you were lied to by the political elite.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. It is time for something different: Freedom, Opportunity, Fairness under the law, Personal sustainability, Hope. Join the Rebel Underground! Ted Cruz: Catching Fire!

In fairness, the Ted Cruz campaign told Rachel Maddow that this flier wasn’t produced by the Cruz campaign. Still, the basic themes echo the Tea Party critique of today’s America. Lack of freedom, a faltering economy, Obamacare, arrogant elites wasting our substance. The need for a political revolution. And so on.

I’m going to assume that you all know these novels and movies. And my discussion of them will include many many spoilers. Because I do want to talk about them in the context of politics. So: the flier. Well, of course, Ted Cruz looks nothing whatsoever like Katniss Everdeen, though I do see a slight resemblance to Caesar Flickerman, nor does Barack Obama look even remotely like President Snow, though he is skinny, and getting grayer. Superficially, the comparison doesn’t work at all.

And if it did, it wouldn’t help Ted Cruz. The entire point of Mockingjay–Part II is, as the Who once put it, “meet the new boss, same as the old boss.” Alma Coin, head of the revolution for which Katniss is such a powerful force, turns out to be even more brutal and dictatorial and manipulative as President Snow ever was. Which is why (oops, spoiler!) Katniss assassinates her. If we’re to compare this film with that candidate, we’re led inescapably to the conclusion that voting for Ted Cruz would be a very very bad idea indeed. If you don’t like Obama, Cruz (if he’s really Catching Fire) would, by the logic of the movies, be much worse. There’s a technical, political science-y term for the kind of thinking this flier represents: twaddle. The Hunger Games is about a dystopic future in which American politics is a brutal totalitarian nightmare. That is quite specifically and obviously not the America in which we currently reside. It is, in fact, its polar opposite.

Still, it’s a fascinating question. Suzanne Collins, who wrote the trilogy on which the movies are based, has created a powerful and compelling narrative and a beautifully realized world in which to set it. And they are political novels and movies, with echoes of ancient Rome, but also, of course, of histories and societies closer to our own day. The Ted Cruz flier may be ridiculous, but it gets at something that’s not; the ways in which Collins’ world resonates with our own. Libertarians, I’ve heard, have embraced the Hunger Games world, and with some justification. Panem is certainly a nightmarish society in which personal liberties are abridged routinely. But a Bernie Sanders fan might find the movie reflects her political views. Panem is also a society essentially defined by income inequality.

But I think these similarities are superficial. The specific thing about Panem that makes it so horrifying is the Hunger Games notion. Panem is a society where, annually, children battle to the death, for the amusement of adults. Panem isn’t just an unequal or unfree society; it’s a society where an entire entertainment complex is built around violence to and by kids. There really isn’t a contemporary analog.

My libertarian friends point to Panem as an illustration of Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, his careful analysis of the steps by which a democratic society becomes less free. Hayek’s great book was based on his own experiences in Austria in the 30s, and on seeing Germany devolve into a dictatorship. But Hayek’s analysis has nothing to do with The Hunger Games. We don’t see President Snow gradually accrue power, step by step. When the books open, he’s already in power; his conquest a fait accompli. And we’re given to understand that he came to power following a terrible war. We might more properly see Panem as illustrating Hannah Arendt’s essay On Revolution, showing how President Coin will inevitably follow the path of President Snow; how the talents of a revolutionary aren’t particularly relevant to the task of governing, and how therefore so many revolutions lead only to tyranny.

The reason I like the Hunger Games books and (especially) movies so much is simply this: they deal honestly with that reality. These are YA novels, intended for a teen audience. But they’re not remotely triumphalist. They’re not about a notional good overcoming an intensely imagined evil. They’re about civil war and revolution, bloody and violent and morally appalling. Katniss only ‘triumphs’ by becoming an assassin. Her entire intention, in fact, is murder/suicide. In fact, for a big, expensive set of action movies, Mockingjay–part 2 avoids the pitfall of so many of these sorts of films, the big, final battle scene with spectacular stunts and CGI, in which Our Hero beats the bad guy once and for all (unless they need him for the sequel). Katniss’s final walk towards Snow’s palace looks like it’s going to be the set up for just such an ending. Instead, she gets to see her beloved sister die horribly. And then she’s wounded. No big victory. Just a lot of death.

In the world of The Hunger Games, revolution and civil are horror shows, in which a lot of people we care a lot about die painfully and unnecessarily. Katniss Everdeen volunteers to fight, to spare her sister. Ultimately, she can’t even manage that small task. I love that unsparing honesty.

So, no, I don’t see any particular, specific contemporary political parallels to The Hunger Games. But I do see books and movies I can respect, superbly acted and produced, ending with a moment of earned grace, but not remotely simple-minded or facile. That’s their achievement, and I honor them for it. They have nothing whatever to do with Ted Cruz.

Great punch lines: the history of American comedy

I just finished reading Kliph Nesteroff’s The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy, essentially an idiosyncratic history of stand-up, or at least, a history of live performance. It hardly mentions Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the Marx Brothers, for example, except for their vaudeville careers; hardly a discussion of their film work at all. Even his discussion of television is kinda weird; hardly a word about, say, I Love Lucy, while all sorts of talk about Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. Of course, the subject of comedy is too huge for any single book, and I’m grateful, at least, for Nesteroff’s passion for the subject, and above all, his anecdotes. He was able to interview a lot of older comedians before they passed on, and there are some terrific stories that are likely found here and nowhere else.

But it got me thinking about jokes, about the way in which jokes are constructed. Set up, set up, payoff. “Did you ever notice how. . . .” “Take my wife. Please!” What are the greatest punch lines in the history of American comedy? Not possible to quantify. So what are some really good ones?

“I’m thinking!”

Jack Benny

Jack Benny’s comedic persona was that of a tightwad. A miser, a skinflint. (In reality, he was known for personal generosity). He was also master of the comedic pause. So in a radio sketch, he’s approached by a thief, who snarls “your money or your life.” The resultant pause went on forever; the studio audience cracked up. Then Benny built the joke further “I’m thinking.” The set-up was as funny as the punch line.

“Well, Vaughn Meador’s screwed.”

Lenny Bruce

This one needs some explanation. Vaughn Meador was the star of one of the biggest comedy albums of the ’60s, The First Family. It spoofed the Kennedy family, poking gentle fun at JFK’s accent and fondness for touch football games on the White House Lawn, and Jackie’s penchant for decorating. It was very popular; sold over 7 million copies, and the President especially enjoyed it, often giving copies away as a gift. Meador wasn’t much of a comedian, and wasn’t even much of an impressionist. Mostly, he was just a guy who sounded a lot like Jack Kennedy.

And then, Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy was assassinated. The country was in shock. Comedy clubs went dark; nobody was in the mood.

A few days after the shooting, Lenny Bruce had a gig in Miami. Fifteen hundred people in the house. And he came out, and there was another long pause. Nobody had any idea what he’d say. People who were there say that the laugh after the Vaughn Meador line lasted for minutes; a huge emotional relief laugh. I can imagine.

“We’re going to Greece!”

“And swim the English channel?”

The Firesign Theatre

This is a purely idiosyncratic choice; I loved the Firesign Theatre when I was a kid, and this exchange is just typical of their non-sequitar-based, surrealist verbal humor, first on radio, later captured on vinyl. Peter Bergman, Phil Austin, Dave Ossman, and Philip Proctor. This bit’s from their album Don’t Crush that Dwarf, Hand me the Pliers. Unless it isn’t.

“Dead honky!”

Richard Pryor

In the first season of Saturday Night Live, as it was establishing itself as the edgy, brilliant, essential show it has become, on their seventh episode, Richard Pryor was the guest host. He brought in Paul Mooney as a writer, and Mooney came up with the Word Association sketch. Chevy Chase played a white manager, interviewing Pryor, who has applied for a janitorial position. Chase insists that one final step before hiring is a word association exercise, which starts off innocuously enough. Chase says some neutral word; Pryor responds: “Dog.” “Tree.” But then Chase’s clue words get more and more racially charged. The last exchanges: “Jungle Bunny”, “Honky!” “Spade”, “Honky Honky,” and then the N-word. Pryor’s anger sells the bit, as does Chase’s oleaginous managerial straight man.

“Write that novel you got kicking around in your head. You know, the one about the intrepid Washington reporter with the courage to stand up to the administration? You know, fiction!”

Stephen Colbert

Generally, the White House Correspondents dinner is an innocuous enough affair. The President attends, and tosses out a few jokes at the expense of Washington insiders. A professional comedian is usually hired. But the 2006 Correspondents dinner was something else again. Stephen Colbert came on, playing the character he’d perfected on The Colbert Report; the obnoxious, clue-less conservative commentator. And he sliced and diced everyone in the room.

What’s remarkable about Colbert’s performance is not just the way he bashed (while praising) President Bush, or the media. It was how uncomfortable the audience clearly was with the performance. It takes a brave comedian to bomb on purpose. Because, of course, his real audience was YouTube viewers.

Comedy is, of course, how we cope with all sorts of terrible events. And a truly great comedian, a Jon Stewart, a George Carlin, a Louis C. K. captures the anxieties and tensions of their times on earth, and gives it just enough of a twist, to help us laugh, to help us deal with things. And yes, comedians are outcasts, sometimes, social misfits. But they’re also essential.

What I think Donald Trump means by political correctness

Donald Trump is way ahead in all the national polls, in the race for the Presidency. And this unlikely fact is driving the professional political class crazy. Things weren’t supposed to happen this way. In the leadup to the 2012 election, the list of announced Republican candidates had a similar clown car vibe, and unlikely front runners did keep popping up–Herman Cain, anyone?–but eventually order was restored, and the putative favorite, Mitt Romney, did in fact become the nominee. That isn’t happening now. And various pith-helmeted politico/anthropologists have been jungle-safariing for an explanation.

The most recent of these was the respected conservative pollster, Frank Luntz, who declared “my legs are shaking” after meeting with a focus group of Trump supporters:

The focus group watched taped instances on a television of Trump’s apparent misogyny, political flip flops and awe-inspiring braggadocio. They watched the Donald say Rosie O’Donnell has a “fat, ugly face.” They saw that Trump once supported a single-payer health system, and they heard him say, “I will be the greatest jobs president God ever created.” But the group—which included 23 white people, 3 African-Americans and three Hispanics and consisted of a plurality of college-educated, financially comfortably Donald devotees—was undeterred.

At the end of the session, the vast majority said they liked Trump more than when they walked in.

The same night, Republican strategist Nicolle Wallace, who is working for the Jeb! Bush campaign, reported similar encounters with one particular Trump supporter: her father. She was on Rachel Maddow’s show a couple of nights ago, and she declared herself similarly baffled and appalled. Trump supporters don’t care: that Trump called Mexicans rapists and insulted Megyn Kelly and holds heterodox views (for a supposed Republican) on a whole range of issues. None of that matters. He says things that would permanently end most political careers, and his poll numbers go up. Then he’s called on it, refuses to apologize, refuses to back down. And his poll numbers go . . . up.

Here’s what I think is going on.

Remember, early on, when he said “I don’t have time for political correctness.” I don’t think he meant ‘political correctness’ as I generally understand the term. Political correctness usually refers to super-persnickity sensitivity to un-or-sub conscious sexism or racism in commonly used language. It relates to, among other things, the dismaying fact that English, unlike other languages, does not have a gender-neutral personal pronoun. Take this sentence: “when your child asks for chocolate, what he’s really asking for is. . . .” That’s sexist. It assumes that ‘your child’ is male. One unsatisfying solution would be to use the feminine pronoun ‘your child . . . she’s.’ Another, equally unsatisfying, would be ‘your child . . . he or she.’ My inner grammar finniken recoils at the increasingly popular compromise ‘they.’ Fact is, there’s not really an elegant way to de-genderize our personal pronouns. Well, the political correctness police don’t care about syntactical elegance. They want sexism gone from our language. They’re fine with ‘your child . . . he or she.’ Or worse, ‘your child . . . your child.’  Now I’m depressed. . . .

Sorry. Back to it. That’s not the kind of political correctness Mr. Trump seems to be referring to. Essentially, he’s saying ‘I’ll be rude if I want to.’ My beloved schoolmarm mother is, properly, horrified.

Digging deeper. I just finished reading a fascinating book, Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. Ronson describes a woman, Justine Sacco, who, as she passed through Heathrow Airport in London, sent out a tweet about the trip she was taking to Africa. A dumb joke, she thought. She got on the plane, shut off her phone, fell asleep. When the plane landed, and she turned her phone back on, she discovered that her life was essentially over. Her tweet had gone viral, and was widely condemned as racist. She lost her job. She couldn’t get another one, because prospective employers would google her, see the tweet and the reaction to it, and decide she was toxic. 30 years old, and unemployable. Terrifying.

So Ronson’s book is about public humiliation, the ferocity of the cyberworld, the way we judge others based on a single tweet or comment or incident. And he cites several other examples of people whose lives were ruined, as Sacco’s was. But his book also includes a fascinating, and rather Trumpian, counter-example.

Formula One racing mogul, Max Mosley is not just prominent in his own right, he’s also the son of a prominent man–Oswald Mosley, the British fascist leader during WWII.  Max Mosley was filmed by the British tabloid News of the World having a spectacular sado-masochistic sex orgy with five prostitutes, in a torture dungeon filled with German memorabilia. And he survived it, reputation and employment intact. He survived by going on a national news program and saying ‘yes, that’s me in those videos. I have a kinky sex life. So what? Lots of people do. I’m not ashamed, or embarrassed, any more than anyone else should be about their sex lives.’ And it worked. If anything, he was more popular afterwards.

I’m not saying that Donald Trump has Nazi-themed sex orgies, or anything like it. But there’s a certain game that somehow attaches to politics more than other endeavors. It’s a cycle of mistake-scandal-contrition-forgiveness that all politicians, when they say or do something embarrassing, are supposed to engage in. When Donald Trump says he rejects political correctness, he’s saying that he’s not playing. He’s unashamed.

Look at Facebook. If your Facebook newsfeed is like mine, it includes dozens, hundreds even, of politically-themed memes. And a lot of them show some prominent political figure, and a quotation of something offensive they said on some subject or other. And we’re supposed to recoil in horror. We’re supposed to take that particular quotation as indicative of the program or platform or personality of that political figure. We’re supposed to conclude that anyone who could say something like that must be either a monster or a moron. Certainly, having said that awful thing disqualifies him or her for public office.

Well, Trump’s not having it. He’s not playing that game. He’s not apologizing. He’s running for President because he thinks America’s on the wrong path. He wants to ‘make America great again.’ And a lot of people agree with him, and love how unabashed he is about it. And one of the things they like about him is that he’s not acting like a politician, carefully parsing every statement and focus-group-testing every stance. I get it; I get why he’s popular.

We all say dumb things all the time. And our mistakes don’t define us. We all have blind spots and we all have cockamamie ideas and we all have irrational and foolish prejudices. Trump just doesn’t apologize for his. Part of his personality is that he says rude things about people sometimes. Part of his personality is that he brags all the time about how great he is. That’s who he is; that’s the package. If you don’t like it, vote for someone else.

And that humiliating search for ‘gotcha’ quotations and past policy preferences, and the perceived necessity of groveling before the media when you get caught; it really does seem demeaning and unnecessary and self-righteous. That’s what Trump’s not interested in. He won’t apologize and he won’t back down. And that’s what he means by rejecting ‘political correctness.’ It is, I’ll admit, kind of refreshing.

(There’s still zero chance I’m going to vote for him. He’s just wrong on too many issues. But I am starting to get his appeal.)

The End of the World (as we know it)

My wife and I have just finished watching two TNT summer TV series we were pretty hooked on, both on the premise of huge national and international catastrophes. One was Falling Skies, the other The Last Ship. The series finale for Falling Skies aired a week before the season finale of The Last Ship, which will continue next summer. In Falling Skies, evil space aliens, called the Espheni, have invaded the earth, killed a bunch of people, are kidnapping children (so they can turn them into Espheni), and taking over the planet. A ragtag band of American guerillas, led by a former history professor named Tom Mason (Noah Wylie), fight back. They call themselves the Second Mass (after Massachusetts), and are loosely tied to a larger paramilitary structure. On The Last Ship, a global pandemic has swept across the world. A single US Destroyer, the Nathan James, has been tasked with finding a cure, the key to which, apparently, is found in the Arctic. So a heroic doctor, Rachel Scott (Rhona Mitra), and the ship’s heroic captain, Tom Chandler (Eric Dane), have to save what’s left of, you know, the human race.

The similarities between the shows are almost as interesting as the differences between them. For some reason, both shows seem to think that ‘Tom’ is a particularly heroic first name. Both Toms are played by actors primarily known for playing doctors. Noah Wylie was the hapless Dr. Carter on ER, while Eric Dane was mostly known as Dr. McSteamy on Grey’s Anatomy. Both have scruffy actors playing rogueish-but-heroic secondary characters–Will Patton’s Captain Weaver on FS is just a somewhat older version of John Pyper-Ferguson’s Tex on TLS. On both shows, the main character’s love interest is a doctor; Tom Mason marries Anne (Moon Bloodgood), while Tom Chandler is clearly majorly into Dr. Scott, though of course, that series is only in its second season. There’s time for that relationship to develop. If she survives–the season cliff-hanger involved her getting shot, by a weasel-y little creep who declared ‘sic semper tyrannis’ as he pulled the trigger.

Both shows were entertaining and exciting, and while the final episode of FS was pretty disappointing, the show did deliver lots of predictable-but-agreeable entertainment over its run. And the scrubbed and eager sailors are a little easier to make fun of than the unshowered masses of the Second Mass, so I think I like TLS a little better. But that ‘sic semper tyrannis’ line pointed to the larger problem of both series. Essentially it comes to this: on both shows, the biggest threat to mankind is posited as being essentially really bad guys. Not the virus, not the space aliens–both of which are bad enough–but villains.

On Falling Skies, the Espheni were plenty scary. They included big six-legged spidery things called ‘skitters’, plus big super-robot fighting machines called mechs, plus big hornet flying things, all under the control of really tall skinny aliens called ‘overlords’, which were eventually revealed to be under the control of a ruling spider queen. But we got alien help too, from two rival alien races, the Volm and the Dornia. Problem was, the Volm saw earth as a tiny unimportant skirmish point in their larger war against the Espheni, and didn’t really see fit to give humans many resources in our fight, and the Dornia are mostly extinct, and mostly communicate via dreams Tom has about his deceased wife. But the CGI was well executed, the acting was mostly passable, and we liked following the twists and turns of the plot. But, in addition to fighting off skitters and being bombarded by hornet-things, Tom Mason also had to worry about a angry human jerkface, Pope (Colin Cunningham). And at times, Pope was a bigger, or at least more immediate threat than the Espheni.

It’s even worse in TLS. In the first season, the intrepid crew of the Nathan James discovers an evil conspiracy to use human bodies to power cities. In the second season, Dr. Scott having found a cure for the disease, we learn that that small percentage of the small percentage of the population who are immune to it don’t want the cure distributed. They sort of like the power trip of being the Superior Race. And they have a nuclear submarine. ‘Sic Semper’ dude belongs to that loathesome crowd.

And I don’t doubt that a global pandemic/alien invasion would bring out the worst in a lot of people, just as it would bring out the best in others. It just seems to me that the biggest threat the human race would face, after we got the disease/aliens under control, would be something a lot more basic. Feeding ourselves. Not to mention basic stuff like drinking water and sanitation.

The fact is, the basic problem of any species on this planet is one we homo sapiens have basically solved; the problem of food. We have, over the years, developed an elaborate infrastructure devoted to the production, refinement and delivery of food. We don’t think about it, but grocery stores don’t really carry all that much food at any given time. A constant stream of food goes from farms to processing facilities to transportation hubs. Someone has to load it on a truck, someone else has to drive that truck, someone else has to unload it. Someone else shelves it, someone else sells it to you. Every. Single. Day. And any disruption of any part of that chain could be catastrophic. And those space aliens skittering towards you, or that infected neighbor stopping by to chat make for pretty serious food-supply-disruptions.

On both shows, there are scenes where the characters are, as they put it, ‘low on supplies,’ and have to stop in some city grocery store to restock. In reality, uh, good luck with that.

There was this one moment in FS when Tom Mason, having been zipped off sky-ward by a hornet alien thing, finds himself under the care of the daughter of an elderly farmer at his idyllic rural farm. And Tom is inspired, and thinks ‘this is the America we need to rebuild.’ It was a nice moment, this history prof basking in a Jeffersonian fantasy. He’d also know, though, that our history didn’t unfold that way; that we’re in fact way more Hamiltonian as we’ve evolved. And it got me to thinking; who would in fact survive? If our lives were disrupted by ETs or nasty microbes; who would actually thrive?

Well, small rural farmers. I mean, cities are complex triumphs of infrastructure and organization, and thus easy to disrupt. A pandemic killing 98% of everyone? Wouldn’t that just devastate cities? But in the wide-open places of the flyover states, pockets of folks would probably survive. And with the skills to continue to survive. Skills which, frankly, I lack. Along with most everyone i know. Ain’t that a pleasant thought?

TV requires photogenic, easily identified bad guys. To give our even more preposterously attractive heroes someone to battle. I liked both these shows, and will keep watching TLS, probably. But a show about reestablishing infrastructure and food distribution nets? That would be awesome! Actually, probably not. But it would make for a nifty board/video game, I think.

 

Just watch me

I know it’s well-intentioned. I know that people are trying to be kind, trying to offer counsel based on life experience, trying to provide a more mature adult perspective. And there’s truth in it. Not all dreams are realistic. But there’s a message our young people, and especially our young women, in Mormon culture and also in American culture, are being taught. It’s a message of limitation. It’s a message of can’t, a message of don’t try. It’s a message that says that your dreams aren’t achievable. It goes like this: ‘you have to be realistic. It’s going to be impossible to balance what you want to achieve against the realities of family life. You can’t have it all. It isn’t possible. No matter how hard you work, no matter how smart you are, no matter how disciplined, you probably cannot do all the things you want to do.’

You want to be a cardiologist. You probably won’t be able to. You want to move to Los Angeles, and act professionally. That’s not a responsible, reasonable dream. You want to go to graduate school, get a PhD, make a scholarly contribution. That’s probably not realistic. You want to go to law school, get a job in a law firm, sue big corporations, argue cases in the highest courts. That’s not likely to come true. Why are you majoring in construction management? That’s not really a good major for a girl. Switch to something more sensible.

You can’t do it. You can’t balance marriage and career that way. You can’t spare the time, the many years of professional training and preparation required to succeed in that field the way you want to. You can’t do it.

And more and more, young LDS women I know are responding to that advice, that kindly intended, so reasonable, so rational advice. And here’s what I hear them saying:

Just watch me.

If you can’t help me, then at least get out of my way. I can too do this. And you can’t stop me. Nothing can. Nothing will. Just. Watch. Me.

And also, by the way, some encouragement would be nice. Not that I need it.

I taught at the university level for over twenty years. And while I certainly don’t claim to have had a lot to do with it, I look back over the young women I had the great privilege of teaching. And they’re doing it. They’re doing what our culture has tried to tell them they shouldn’t even try. They are achieving.

I have a friend, a former student, who is in medical school–in fact, I know several doctors and doctors-to-be. One’s an oncologist: one is currently in a cardiology residency. Young women who are going to change the world. I know a whole bunch of lawyers. Smart, capable, hard working young women who have no interest in a culture of limitation. I just got a wonderful Facebook message from an actress who I once worked with in a show. She’s at Harvard, getting her PhD. She’s a brilliant young woman, with a joyful, positive, optimistic confidence in her own ability to write and research and change the way we understand the world. I know several young actresses, women who have carved out successful careers in what I think is probably the most difficult profession in America. They’re not movie stars, but they’re able to support themselves, they’re always working, they’re accepting professional challenges, and they’re succeeding.

And yes, I know a young woman who is majoring in construction management. She’s generally the only woman in her classes. And she’s excelling in her program. She knows exactly what she wants to do with her life, and she’s going to make it. I can also say that her parents support her goals one hundred percent. I can say that with confidence, because I’m one of them.

This is the future of Mormonism. This is where we are, and where we are going. And more and more, equality is going to be part of it, because these young women, these remarkable and motivated young women, simply won’t settle for anything else.

And what about the young men of Mormonism? Well, they’re going to have to keep up. They’re going to have to bring it. The women of Mormonism are simply not going to be interested in second-rate, or second-best. I’m honestly a bit more concerned about the guys, to be honest, because our culture coddles them, a bit, and they haven’t had to fight as hard for support.

But the women. Man, the young women of Mormon culture amaze me. Let’s stop trying to hold them back. Let’s stop well-meaning messages of limitation-acceptance. Tell these women that they can’t, that they won’t, that they never will. And listen to the response.

Just watch me.

 

 

The Rose Exposed

On Saturday, I was involved in one of the coolest arts events of the year. The theatre company where I do most of my work, Plan B, is housed in the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center; one of six resident companies that share that facility. Well, on Saturday, we all arrived in the morning and spent the day creating works of art, which were then performed Saturday night at 8:00. The event was called The Rose Exposed.

All the works shared a theme: Dreamers. Dreamers refers to kids who, as small children, were brought to America by their undocumented immigrant parents. Now they’re here; they speak English, consider themselves American, have never known any other country. But they are not American citizens, and cannot get, for example, a Social Security card. They’re stuck. As is a piece of legislation, the Dream Act, that would allow them to become citizens; it’s stuck in Congress. Can’t get out of committee or to a floor vote. Which it would certainly pass. Thank your Republican congressmen for that. Anyway, ticket proceeds went to Art Access, an organization that explores and documents Dreamers’ lives.

Anyway, my contribution was a play. X, Y and Z are young Dreamers, late high school, early college age. And Z has earned, but cannot accept, a prestigious fellowship, because he doesn’t have a Social Security card. So his friends, X and Y, are searching various government databases to see if there’s some form, some process that will allow for an exception for their friend. Three actors, Latoya Rhodes, Tyson Baker and Anne Louise Brings, directed by my good friend Mark Fossen. And they all did superb work. Honestly, my only regret about the whole thing is that, during the performance, I thought of a Donald Trump joke that would have killed, if only there’d been time to insert it. Dang.

The whole thing began with a short film by David Evanoff, with a Star Wars scroll introducing the companies, and then backstage footage of each of the groups rehearsing. I love Dave’s work, its mixture of eloquence and impudence, and the opening film set the stage beautifully for what would come.

Next up, the Gina Bachauer International Piano Foundation, featuring a wonderful young pianist, David Horton, performing the Third movement from Leopold Godowski’s Sonata. Played with beautiful sensitivity and, of course, remarkable skill.

Three of the companies at the Rose are dance companies. And as always, when I see dance, I wonder why I don’t go to see dance events more often. Dance is so remarkably beautiful. Anyway, next up was the Repertory Dance Theatre’s piece, to a Ravel toccato, performed by Anastasia Magamedova, featuring guest artist, Melanie Paz, who is herself a Dreamer. It was a piece of extraordinary precision and beauty, creating a series of tableaux, morphing then into the next set piece.

My friend Julie Jensen also wrote a play, for another resident theatre company, PYGmalion. Magamedova played again, this time Debussy. PYG’s play was about the idea of Dreaming more generally; Bijan Hosseini, Tamara Howell, Tracie Merrill and Aaron Swenson (terrific actors, who I very much regret not having had the chance to work with professionally. Yet) built the play around monologues about the dreams parents have for their children. Not specifically about the political issue that had brought us all there, but that doesn’t matter; it was a lovely piece, and I enjoyed it immensely.

Next up, another dance company, Sweet Beast Dance Circus, with an imaginative piece about Adam and Eve and their expulsion from the Garden. It was sweet tempered, warm-hearted, and very very funny. Loved their use of a wheelbarrow and a long rope, which their Lucifer seductively wrapped around himself. Wonderfully acted and danced. Their music was a Schubert Impromptu, performed by Magamedova.

My piece, from Plan B, was next. I thought it went well. I was exceptionally well served by my director and actors. Could the piece have been perhaps a little too on-the-nose thematically? Could be, but I’m not going to worry about it. David Horton wrote and performed the music for our piece, and it worked spectacularly, especially the way it sparked Mark Fossen’s director’s imagination. Gave the piece a final mood of melancholy that fitted the evening perfectly.

The final dance number was by Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, accompanied by Horton performing six short Schoenberg pieces. The dance was itself in six parts, each a solo number featuring a different member of the company, broken up by the entire company marching in lockstep perpendicularly across the stage.

The evening culminated in a performance by Magamedova of William Bolcom’s The Serpent’s Kiss, one of those amazing rag pieces he composed. It’s a fun, showy piece of music, and it brought the audience to their feet.

But, then, the whole night was spectacular. Can you think of a better way to spend a Saturday night? To see five original works of performance art, saucy, profound, amazing, moving. And all for the best of causes. I am so honored to have been a part of it.