Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Dungy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poetry slam in Provo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Detritus

 

What are we doing?

What are we doing?

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

I saw.

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

We need Pampers

formula

diaper rash creme

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

Because cities implode under the weight of violence

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

need

crave

candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses

and demand creates supply

and illegality restricts supply

and corporations we call ‘cartels’

and small businesses we call ‘gangs’

and salesman we call ‘dealers’

feed that need feed that need feed that need

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

detritus.

What are we doing?

I can take four

We have a guest room in the basement

We can take four

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

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

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

Excommunication, Republican-style

Excommunication has been much in the news lately, and especially in Mormon circles.  It’s always a little surprising for me when issues relating to Mormonism receive national attention.  The John and Kate story has recently been a big story in the Huffington Post, the New York Times, Good Morning America.  I mean, when Mitt Romney was running for President, his religious beliefs were, quite properly, part of the American political conversation.  I get that.  But the letters received by John Dehlin and Kate Kelly?  Why is that a national story?  In part, I’m sure, it’s because Mormons are weird.

When I say that we’re weird, I don’t mean because we seem to like green jello, or because we wear strange underwear.  It’s not because we oppose gay marriage, or don’t drink coffee.  It’s because we believe in other books of scripture than the Bible, because there are men we refer to as ‘prophets,’ because we claim the power of revelation, because we have these big pretty buildings we call ‘temples,’ because we send out thousands of young missionaries (kids, who wear suits and go around preaching).  We’re weird, I think, in part because we believe in a set of quite specific doctrines, many of them way outside the Christian mainstream.  And because we excommunicate.

That has to seem oddly medieval to people outside our faith, doesn’t it?  I’ve been researching a play set in the 11th century, about a clash between the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope; excommunication was central to that conflict, because that particular Emperor wanted to ordain bishops, and that Pope considered ordination an exclusively papal responsibility.  Because the Pope excommunicated the Emperor. And then they nearly fought a war over it.  Thousands of young men nearly died, because of that disagreement over ecclesiastical prerogatives.  And Catholics historically excommunicated lots of people who taught heterodox doctrines.

Boy, not any more.  I know lots of Catholics who disagree with the Church on really fundamental questions, like abortion, birth control, celibacy.  Nobody gets excommunicated for it.

I also read a book recently about the philosopher Baruch Spinoza, who was excommunicated as a Jew at the age of 23 (and who was later honored by the Catholic Church when they put his books on the Index of Forbidden Books).  John Dehlin recently talked about Jewish people, friends of his, who may not even believe that God exists, but are still regarded as respectable and faithful Jews by their rabbis.

Mostly, excommunication doesn’t happen much anymore.  But this week, it occurred to me that it sort of does happen politically.  It’s probably because the big political news of the week was the primary defeat of Eric Cantor in Virginia.  But isn’t there a sense in which Cantor could be said to have been excommunicated?  Because of doubts within his ‘church’ over the authenticity and orthodoxy of his beliefs?

Okay, in case you were vacationing on Mars last week, Eric Cantor was the House Majority Leader, the third highest ranking Republican in Washington, after the Speaker of the House and the Senate Majority Leader.  He represents the Virginia Seventh (the “fightin’ Seventh,” as Stephen Colbert would put it).  He lost in the Republican primary to a Tea Party-supported economics professor named Dave Brat.  Cantor outspent Brat by a massive amount.  Polls showed him winning by a wide margin.  But he lost, and lost badly.  It was a huge upset.

Brat was essentially a one-issue candidate, hammering Cantor for supporting immigration reform, which Brat characterized as ‘amnesty.’  So this election was seen nationally as kind of a referendum on immigration reform, and a confirmation of a national narrative that sees the Tea Party as hopelessly nativist and borderline racist.  In fact, as the invaluable Rachel Maddow pointed out this week, in-depth polling of the Virginia Seventh District shows that Virginia voters didn’t care much about immigration.  It wasn’t an important issue to them.  Brat kept hammering it, and he did win, but Maddow argued that Brat would have won just as easily if he’d picked another issue to hammer Cantor over.  The fact was, Cantor’s unfavorable ratings were very very high.  He wasn’t popular in his district.  He seemed much more focused on his Washington career (and his probable advancement to House Speaker), than on the issues that mattered to his district.  And on conservative, Tea Party issues, he seemed . . . insincere.

In post-election interviews, Cantor kept saying something that seemed weird to me.  He said that he would continue ‘fighting for the conservative cause.’  If he had been a Democrat, I think he wouldn’t have said ‘I will keep fighting for the liberal cause.’  He would probably say something like ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the American people,’ or ‘fighting for the issues that matter to the people of Virginia,’ or ‘fighting for what I believe in.’  Liberalism isn’t an ideology.  And conservatism is one.

Look, it’s a truism that all politicians pay lip service to issues, but the only issue they really care about is their own election/re-election.  In fact, I do think some folks get into politics because they care about certain issues.  I love the TV show Veep, and Selina Meyer, the politician played so wonderfully by Julia Louis-Dreyfus is entirely career focused–she doesn’t care about anything, or believe in anything, and her cynicism (and the utter cynicism of all the characters) is key to the comedy.  It’s satire.  Satire’s always exaggerates for comedic effect–that’s how it works.  And there may well be politicians that cynical, but mostly they’re not, I think. They may compromise, but they still believe.

But Tea Party voters today really do seem to get angry when politicians don’t believe in the issues they believe in as fervently as they believe in them.  Eric Cantor would sometimes explain his support for immigration reform in political terms–’we’re up against some hard demographic truths, we need to reach out to Hispanic voters, who will never vote for us if they perceive us as, you know, racist, so we need this, we need immigration reform.’  There’s some terrific footage of Cantor trying a variant of that argument in a town meeting, and getting roundly booed.  He didn’t believe in what Tea Party Republicans believe.  He was an opportunist, a political calculator.  He wasn’t ideologically pure.  And so he got fired.  Excommunicated.

The Democratic equivalent has to be Hillary Clinton’s Presidential campaign in 2008.  She had voted for the war in Iraq.  To many liberals, the war in Iraq was anathema.  Barack Obama had not supported the war.  That made him seem more authentically Democratic, more genuinely liberal.  And so he won the nomination, and eventually the Presidency.  So yeah, liberals can do it too.  But the war in Iraq really was important.  It really was defining.

And for the Tea Party, the list of ‘really important, ideologically defining’ issues is very long.  You have to, absolutely have to oppose Obamacare.  You have to be against immigration reform.  You have to oppose the minimum wage increase.  Gay marriage and abortion are, as always, crucial.  Any tax increases, at all, ever, for anyone, ever, is political suicide.  Cutting spending is embraced with an evangelical fervor.

Dave Brat is an ideological extremist, and will, if elected this fall, make Congress crazier.  He’s an ‘economics professor,’ but exists on the Ayn Randian lunatic fringe of his discipline.  But I also get why he won.  He seemed genuinely to care about the issues his constituents cared about.  He comes across as sincere.  And Eric Cantor does not seem similarly authentic.

So they excommunicated him, for ideological impurity.  What a weird world we live in these days.  In a week where the Mormon part of it got weird too.

Censorship

My daughter and I had a great time Saturday night at Plan B Theatre’s celebration of the First Amendment, And The Banned Played On.  Various local politicians and Salt Lake celebrities read excerpts from favorite children’s books that have been banned somewhere or another.  Dangerous, subversive, pornographic works, intended to destroy the morals of America’s Youth.  Like Charlotte’s Web.  And Winnie the Pooh.  And The Giving Tree.  And Green Eggs and Ham.  And Where the Wild Things Are.  And The Wizard of Oz.  You know.  Books by commies.

It made for a deliciously entertaining evening, and I couldn’t possibly do a better job of reviewing it than this lovely piece by my friend Les Roka.  But my daughter and I had a wonderful conversation about it in the car on the way home, and it led to this thought.

Isn’t censorship the single most foolish human endeavor ever?  I mean, for some reason people keep doing it.  It’s culturally universal.  All the books listed above were banned somewhere in the United States, and we’ve got a First Amendment.  Most civilizations have practiced some form of it historically.  But isn’t the failure rate essentially 100 percent?  Isn’t the inevitable result of censorship this: that later generations look back at those doing the censoring as complete and total idiots?

Now, of course there are times censorship works fine, if the goal is to destroy books and the knowledge and wisdom found in them.  If, when you burn down the library of Alexandria, you destroy priceless copies of books now lost to mankind, you have to say the book burners won. Just in terms of my field,  dramatic literature, the losses are devastating: Sophocles wrote 123 plays–7 have survived.  Aeschylus wrote 90; again, we have 7 today.  For Euripides, the count is 18 of 92.  Saddest of all is Menander, who wrote over 100 plays, of which only the Dyskolos remains.

But when we think of burned manuscripts, destructive fires in the libraries that collected them, our reaction is sadness and anger.  ‘What a shame,’ we think.  ‘What dolts,’ we think, ‘to have destroyed or neglected so much of our historical legacy.’  Basically nobody thinks ‘boy, those generations of censors did good work.’

As my daughter and I drove home on Saturday, we talked about some of the celebrated censorship cases in American history; over Lady Chatterley’s Lover, over The Tropic of Cancer, over Howl.  Do you know the name David Kirk?  He was a literature professor at SFSU who testified that Allen Ginsburg’s Howl was a work utterly lacking in literary merit.

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix, angel-headed hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night. . . .

I did that from memory.  I can cite a lot of it from memory.  In the 2010 movie about the Howl trial, Jeff Daniels plays Kirk in a performance that’s a comedic masterpiece.  That’s how we think of David Kirk nowadays.  A joke.

Probably best to define our terms.  Obviously no library can purchase every book, and library boards have the difficult task of deciding where to spend limited resources.  That’s why a literary canon is helpful, and also why it’s ever expanding. I’m playwright in residence at a local theatre company; they have to make tough decisions every year about which plays to produce.  If they look at 20 plays and decide to produce 5 of them, they haven’t censored 15 plays.  That’s not censorship.

I know another local theatre company, an exceptionally good one, that basically only produces small musicals and small-cast comedies.  That’s their niche.  And they do great work.  That doesn’t mean they’re ‘censoring’ larger cast musicals, or large cast dramas.  They know their audience, and they produce plays that audience wants to see.  Publishers can’t publish everything, theatres can’t produce everything, libraries have limited shelf space.

No, censorship, as I’m using the term, involves bowing to pressure.  It’s when a library or school or bookstore is pressured to not carry a book, or, having carried it, to remove it from their shelves.  It’s when a theatre company decides to cut that word or that speech or that gesture from a play they’ve agreed to present, or when the author of some book is threatened because of something he or she has written.  If a professor publishes a controversial book, s/he has to be able to rely on the university where s/he teaches to have her/his back.  That’s why tenure and academic freedom are so essential, and why any university that doesn’t have real tenure or doesn’t strongly support academic freedom shouldn’t be accredited.

As a private citizen, if another citizen says something I disagree strenuously with, and I state my disagreement strongly, that’s not censorship.  I’m uncomfortable with campaigns to fire someone, or to boycott a product based on something someone said.  I like robust debate in a democracy.  And I think that censorship is by no means limited to conservatives.  The punishment of politically incorrect speech is as distasteful to me as any other kind of censorship.

I have been censored, and, sad to admit, I have acted as a censor.  Back when I was a college professor, I was very occasionally called upon to see a student-directed theatre production, to see if there was anything in it that might offend our audience’s sensibilities.  I found it a profoundly distasteful task, but I did it, mostly because I know most of my colleagues hated doing it as much as I did, and it seemed selfish to me to refuse to do a disagreeable job that might otherwise have to be done by a friend.

What I hated about it was this: when you act as a censor, when you’re there to censor a play production, you watch it differently than you ordinarily do.  You can’t just enjoy it.  You’re there to look for things to be offended by.  You’re watching it from the perspective of someone who gets offended by stuff, whatever, language or subject matter or something.  And that’s a horrible way to watch a play.

Censor-watching isn’t the same thing as criticism. On this blog, I do a lot of criticism, of plays and movies and books.  Criticism is a healthy thing, and a positive thing.  When you criticize a work of art, you’re trying to look beneath the surface, trying to figure out what’s really going on, or at least what appears to be going on.  When I see a play written or directed by a friend, I want to do that friend the respect of taking their work seriously, to really interrogate it, to really break it down.

But censorship is inherently shallow.  Censorship is when you count the number of swear words.  Censors look to be offended; they’re trying to be offended.  A critic offers the artist the compliment of suspending disbelief.  The censor can’t be bothered to work that hard.  The censor doesn’t want to share in experiencing the central act of art; to bear testimony, to lose ourselves in a story and a world, to feel compassion for another damaged and lost soul.  The censor instead wants to bask in the warm glow of self-righteousness.

Censorship judges.  Censors don’t get Matthew 7:1-5.  Censors can’t get past the mote in the brother’s eye.  Censors are blinded by the beam.

 

 

An Open Letter to kids

I’m writing this to American kids currently in school, in grade school or maybe junior high.  I’m a former college professor; you probably don’t know me.  And I’m not important.  I just wanted to tell you that there’s something you can do to improve your school and your school experience.  It would make school more fun for everyone.  It would also stop a bunch of really mean bullies.  But it won’t work unless everyone does it.  So you need to tell all the other kids in your school, and all the other kids in every other school in the country, and you all have to do it together.

The end of this year, like the end of every year, you will have to take a test.  This isn’t the usual kind of test, like a math test, where your teacher is trying to see how well you understand long division or something.  It’s a test the government makes you take.  You know the one I’m talking about, right?  The one your teacher has been preparing you for, because, she says, it’s really really important for you to do well on it?  Not for your sake, but for hers. It’s a test that doesn’t have anything to do with your grades in any classes; it’s really kind of a test of how good your teacher is, and how good your school is.

I want to suggest that you fail this test.  I think it could be fun, actually.  Miss every question on purpose.  Do as bad on this test as you possibly can.  Don’t even try to do well on it.  Fail it.

I know that your teacher won’t like this.  It will make her look like a bad teacher.  And that’s why it’s important that everyone else in the country does this too; every kid in the country.  Because the point of doing this, failing the test on purpose, isn’t to say to everyone “I have a bad teacher, and I go to a bad school.”  You probably have a lot of school pride.  You probably go to a very good school. You probably have a very good teacher.  You don’t want to make her look bad.

No, you should fail this test on purpose, because it’s a stupid test.  And it’s stupid of the government to make you take it.  And if everyone fails the stupid test, then maybe all the grown-ups who are in charge of education in America will realize it’s a stupid test, and stop making you take it.

Here’s why this would be good.  I bet your school is kind of boring.  Here’s why it’s boring.  A lot of people who want to be in charge of schools in America are bullies. Grown-up bullies. They think that most teachers are bad at their jobs.  They want teachers to only teach in bad, boring ways. They want to spend all the time on boring subjects, so that when you finish school, you can work at a boring job and they think you won’t notice how boring it is, ’cause you’ll be used to it. They don’t trust teachers to teach stuff that’s really interesting, or to teach in ways that kids would find interesting. And they certainly don’t want to pay teachers enough money to live on.  Or pay a little more money so that classes don’t have so many kids crammed in there that it’s really hard for anyone to learn anything.  That’s why they came up with the idea of making every kid in America take a stupid test.  So they could beat up on the schools that they think are doing a bad job.

Those tests make everything worse, for everyone.  Teachers have to teach what’s on the test, regardless of whether it’s interesting or important. Teachers aren’t free to do what they do best: teach.

There’s an important principle of science here.  It’s this: when you measure something, you change it.  Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself. Like, if you wanted to know how long your cat’s tail was, so you got a ruler and measured it, but you had to hold the cat still, and now she won’t climb up on your lap anymore, because you might be trying to measure her tail again.  Well, it’s the same thing with the stupid test.  Making you take it makes school stupider.

There are some countries in the world that told the bullies to go away and stop bothering schools.  Finland is one of those countries.  In Finland, kids have lots more time for PE, or for music, or art, or science classes where you do real experiments.  In Finland, teachers decide what to teach, without bullies telling them what to do.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a problem with bullies. Two bullies: Charles and Terry.  My Mom made my lunch every day; a sandwich, only the bullies took it from me and I went hungry.  So I told my Mom that I was really really hungry, and could she make three sandwiches instead.  She thought I was going through a ‘growing spurt,’ and made me extra sandwiches, and so I gave them to the bullies instead, and still had one left over for me.  Then one day, I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’  And I told Charles and Terry that they couldn’t have my sandwiches anymore.  And they beat me up, and it hurt for a day or two.  But they stopped bothering me after that.

That’s the way to deal with bullies. Ignore them.

So let’s send the bullies a message.  You don’t have to do good on that stupid test.  If you fail it, it won’t hurt your grade.  And if everyone fails it on purpose, soon they’ll go away. And everyone will be much happier. And schools really will improve.

So do it.  Skype and tweet and text everyone you know.  Everyone fail the test together.  Every kid in America.

Three faces of Lincoln on I-15

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?

 

 

Witches and movies

Witches, as they’re popularly conceived, do not exist.  Cackling ugly hags flying on broomsticks and casting evil spells; that’s what doesn’t exist.  No such thing. I mean, we’re all agreed there, right?

Okay, so, William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a play in 1606, Macbeth, that includes three witch characters.  It’s an awesome play, and the witches are awesome characters.  I directed a production of it some years ago, for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  I cast my daughter as one of the witches.  Other parents were upset about this casting choice, calling it ‘nepotism’; whispering that I’d cast my daughter in one of the coolest roles just because she was my daughter.  This criticism was 100% accurate, wholly justified.  I put the time in; my daughter was going to have a good experience, and she wanted to play a witch.

But the witches are such cool presences in the play that, depending on how they’re used, they can distort and damage productions.  There’s always the temptation to include witches throughout the production, but if they control the action, if they are seen as controlling Macbeth and his choices (and his wife’s choices), he becomes a less volitional and therefore less compelling character.  So you have to use them judiciously.

In Macbeth, anyway, the ‘weird sisters’ are clearly evil.  They make potions, they curse the characters, they make prophecies.  They’re bad.  And while I love the play (and its playwright), their presence in the play is also a bit troubling.  The play comes from a time in world history when people really did believe in witches, and persecute them and try them, and hang them, and burn them.  And innocent women were murdered.  As many as 60,000 women executed between 1480 and 1720, according to such historians as Lois Martin, Anne Barstow and Brian Levack. This scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny, but also maybe not quite all that funny, right?

Anyway, I’ve just seen several not-very-good movies with witch characters.  These movies are numerous enough to constitute ‘a trend’, and in my mind, a worrisome one.  But they’re also bad enough that maybe that trend isn’t as worrisome as I’m making it out to be. Judge for yourself.

One movie–just watched it–was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, one of the emerging ‘brilliant young Norwegian directors,’ and maybe the craziest of the lot.  (A previous film of his was Dead Snow, a Nazi zombie horror flick.)  Anyway, Hansel and Gretel, (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) having killed a witch as children, now go around killing them professionally. It’s a sort of medievally setting, but they have these weapons, like a kind of machine-gun crossbow thingy, that never did actually exist.  So, that’s the movie, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton hunting down and killing witches.  With a sexy love scene in the middle, and a final big massive fight scene–our Two Heroes vs a zillion witches.

Okay, it’s a silly action movie, one of those things Jeremy Renner made before he was a movie star which then got released after his Bourne movie came out. But wouldn’t you agree that any movie based on the premise of someone hunting down human beings and killing them is, uh, at least morally questionable? Especially since this actually factually did happen?  Killing ‘witches’, I mean?  But see, no one can ever be falsely accused of witchcraft in the world of this movie.  Because, as Hansel/Renner explains, real witches are easy to spot.  They’re really ugly.  Evil seeps out, from the inside, rotting away their faces. And teeth–evil witches have terrible teeth. Ugly women=evil women=women we can feel okay about executing.  What a reprehensible film.

Second film: Season of the Witch. Awful Nicolas Cage film, 14th century setting.  Cage and Ron Perlman play knights tasked with transporting a young woman accused of witchcraft to an abbey, where a book of spells can de-witch-afy her.  The Plague, the Black Death, is omnipresent, and is thought to have been caused by this girl, this witch.  Claire Foy is really good in the movie, playing the girl. But here’s the thing.  Either the Black Death is caused by witches, or its not.  Either this girl is a witch, or she’s not.  Either the medieval Catholic Church had the power to drive out evil spirits or it had no such power. In Reality-land, the answer to those questions are all clear: no, no, and no.  The Black Death is caused by a bacterium, and the medieval Church couldn’t even name a pope, let alone drive out witchy spirits, which anyway don’t exist. But movies aren’t based on truth, they’re based on artificially generated excitement. By answering all three questions ‘yes,’ this director, Dominic Sena . . . was able to make another bad, unsuccessful Nicolas Cage movie. Meanwhile, we got to perpetuate the idea that the biggest problem with medieval Europe was that they just didn’t kill enough witches. Gosh darn it.

Third movie, and certainly the best movie of the three, and the most financially successful: The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, the guy who made Saw.

The Conjuring isn’t so much a movie about a haunted house as it is a movie about paranormal experts investigating and eventually exorcising a haunted house.  The Perron family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor), buy a house out in the country, and they move in with their five daughters, only it’s haunted.  So Famed Paranormal Investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) check it out, and eventually Ed exorcises the ghost of a witch.  One of the witches, in fact, from the Salem witch trials.  Who, it turns out, really was a witch. Genuinely evil.  Salem got it right.

The Conjuring is a very competently made and exciting horror film.  It was also kind of a hit; according to IMDB, cost $20 million to make, and grossed $137 million.  I saw it; scared the wee out of me, which is exactly what scary movies are supposed to do. My guess is that for most audiences, it was an effective commercial film.  Exciting and frisson-generating. But the Salem witch trials are central to the film’s plot. And the Salem witch trials did really happen, and remain a blot on the historical record. They were about public hysteria and panic and a mob mentality.  They weren’t about real witches. Because real witches don’t exist. Not, at least, in the sense of being able to fly on brooms and cast spells.

Look, I get that witches are fun.  I like scary stories about witches.  I think The Blair Witch Project is one of the scariest films ever made.  I think it’s awesome that Hermione Granger is a witch, and I love it when Elphaba decides to ‘defy gravity’ in the musical, and I loved The Witches of Eastwick and I grew up on Bewitched and I think The Lion and the Wardrobe needs a Witch in the middle, for balance.

But let’s not forget that there’s a history here. I’m troubled by a film that says that ugly women may well be witches, and if so, it’s okay to hunt them down.  Witch killing really happened, and it’s a horrible, terrible part of Western history.  And today, perfectly gentle and nice people share in the Wiccan belief system, and we should accord their religious beliefs the same respect and tolerance and honor we would any other belief system.

So by all means, let’s continue to stage Macbeth. And make scary movies.  And create fun fantasy worlds in which witchcraft is a real thing.  But maybe let’s also interrogate the narratives we create.  Because there is a history here, and it’s an ugly one.

 

 

Justin Bieber

There’s an internet meme that I wanted to use for this, but I couldn’t find it. The title is something like: Justin Bieber’s music saved my life.  And it goes on to tell a story, first person singular, about someone in a coma after a terrible accident.  Day after day, this one nurse played Justin Bieber’s music.  It was the only thing this coma patient could hear.  And after weeks of it, nothing but Bieber’s music 24/7, the story goes: “I got up from my hospital bed and I turned off the CD player.  Justin Bieber saved my life!”

I do not like the music of Justin Bieber. I say this in ignorance; I’ve never listened to any of his songs all the way through, nor sat through any of his videos.  I’ve been lucky in that regard, always close enough to a door or a window or an escape pod to be able to leave when one of his songs came on.  But there’s nothing particularly unusual or unique about the Bieber phenomenon.  I didn’t like Shaun Cassidy’s music either, back in the day, nor Leif Garrett’s. I didn’t like One Direction, or The Jonas Brothers. I probably wouldn’t have liked Bobby Darin.  I didn’t care for Donnie Osmond back in the day, or David Cassidy. I didn’t like the Archies.  From the earliest beginnings of rock and roll, there have been cute boys with high voices who sing upbeat pop love songs or fun little dance grooves for audiences, mostly, of teenaged girls.  There will be more of them in the future. I’m personally immune to the charm of such singers, but I also understand their importance to commercial popular music.  They dominate top 40 airwaves, and always have.

Americans like hearing about people like Justin Bieber because there’s always something sort of inspiring about ‘rise to fame’ narratives.  But what Americans really like is hearing about the inevitable fall of these kinds of pop idols, because deep down inside we find them annoying, and schadenfreude (German for ‘enjoying the misfortune of others) is a powerful emotion. ‘Serves ‘em right,’ we think.  ‘I always knew he couldn’t really be that clean-cut.’ Heh heh heh.

Okay, so, last week, Andrea Mitchell, a very respected reporter for NBC News, was doing a story about the NSA, and the question of electronic surveillance of American citizens.  She was interviewing former Congresswoman Jane Harmon of the Woodrow Wilson International Center, a recognized expert on electronic surveillance and the law.  A substantive conversation about a major national issue on MSNBC, exactly the kind of story for which MSNBC would like very much to be known.  But mid-story, this happened. The monetwork cut away from the interview to cover late-breaking news involving . . . Justin Bieber’s arrest for DUI.

Mitchell was widely ridiculed for this, perhaps unfairly–she wasn’t the one who made the call.  Jon Stewart had great fun with it. Mitchell defended herself, but oddly–she pointed out that her show on MSNBC does covers more substantive international news than any other cable news show, and that MSNBC really only covered Bieber for a few minutes. A tacit admission, perhaps, that covering Bieber at all may not actually qualify as, you know, news.

But there is one sense in which MSNBC’s decision could be defended; in fact, in which their decision may have been right.

When researching my play Clearing Bombs (currently in rehearsal, opens Feb. 20), I read two articles by F.A. Hayek, 1931′s “Prices and Production,” and “Profits, Interest and Investment”.  I found both of them stunning. In the play, I have Hayek say this:

If a solitary genius had invented prices, he would be lauded as one of the great men of any age.  But prices simply happen, driven by the everyday decisions of ordinary people, doing their shopping.  And as such, they tell us about value, about what we want and who we are and what we really think of things.  Not what we think we should value, not what we might tell a clergyman we value, not what we imagine ourselves to value.  What we actually, really, love.

If you think about it, prices really are remarkable. Unsentimental, unadorned by ideology or religious feeling or any other consideration, prices tell us what human beings genuinely do value.  They quantify value.  We may think that we should value broccoli or green beans or cabbage more than we value steak.  But we don’t.  We value steak more, and we can prove it; it costs us more.

Look at wages. You may think that it’s absurd that someone like, I don’t know, Scarlet Johansson, say, makes more money than an army medic.  You may think it’s preposterous that we value Lebron James more than we value a good high school chemistry teacher.  You may think that what Louis CK does for a living is ridiculously less important than what a good cop does.  But in fact, our society demonstrably values a movie actress, a basketball star and a comedian far more than everyday people.  We can prove it; we can quantify exactly how much more important Lebron is to us.  We have dollar figures as proof.

By that standard, Andrea Mitchell cutting away to a story about Justin Bieber makes sense.  Justin Bieber’s arrest is much more important than Jane Harmon’s views on the NSA. Bieber moves product. For MSNBC to survive as a cable news network, they have to sell advertizing.  Privileging Bieber makes economic sense.

David Sarnoff, the founder of RCA and CBS and one of the pioneers of television (and the guy who engineered the theft of TV technology from its rightful inventor, Philo Farnsworth), believed in the civilizing power of this powerful medium, TV.  He also believed in ‘Sarnoff’s law’: the value of any television program is measured by viewers. He believed that TV should broadcast programs to improve the human condition, but he also believed that the purpose of television is to sell advertizing; that shows existed to entice viewers to purchase products. He did not believe that those values were incompatible.  I think most of us would agree that, to some degree, they are.

Justin Bieber, and his life and career and success and popularity are, I think, of no particular significance. As an American, I think that the NSA spying controversy is massively important.  But let’s not pretend that the economic argument is without foundation or value.  TV news networks probably shouldn’t be spending much time with Bieber trivia.  But if they do, they risk losing viewers, and subsequently money.  Because we may say we don’t really care about Justin Bieber.  But we do care, we care a great deal.  We can prove how much we care.  We can put a price on it.