Category Archives: Popular culture, general

Oprah for President?

In 2004, at the Democratic National Convention, an Illinois state legislator (and US Senate candidate) named Barack Obama stood up before a Boston crowd, and gave a keynote speech that none of us who saw it will ever, ever forget. He began by telling his story–start with your personal narrative, says every speechwriter ever–about his unorthodox family and unlikely rise to prominence. He tied his own tale, a story of hard work and sacrifice and the dream of a better future, to the stories of people he’d met all across America. He offered the obligatory keynote speaker praise for the actual Democratic nominee, John Kerry. And then he spoke of “the audacity of hope, hope in the face of difficulty.” It was a powerful, inspiring speech, and it was delivered by an African-American guy with a funny name that I’d never heard of before. The living embodiment of the American dream. A poor kid from a fractured family, who genuinely believed that through hard work and dedication, anything was possible.

I remember telling my wife as the speech finished, “that’s the guy. If Kerry loses, this guy will run for President in 2008, and he will win. This may be the next President of the United States.”

I didn’t watch the Golden Globes last night. I never do. But my Facebook page blew up with people saying things like ‘did you see Oprah last night? OMG!’ Positive and negative; I have conservative friends who didn’t like it. So this morning, I went to YouTube, and was maybe the nine trillionth viewer of the speech. Oprah Winfrey’s acceptance speech, after winning the Cecil B. DeMille award. Here it is.

Notice what she does. She starts with her personal narrative, a wonderful story about watching Sidney Poitier win an Oscar, and how she watched with her bone-tired, working class, single mother Mom. She tied that story to other narratives, about civil rights heroine Recy Taylor, a powerful, ultimately inspiring story that also tied together civil rights and feminism. She then made reference to the struggles of women all across the country. And she brought the speech to a rousing conclusion, about hope for the future and the powerful voices opposing sexual harassment.

And the crowd reaction was kind of interesting. It wasn’t a glamorous, Hollywood-celebrating night. The women were all in black dresses, turning haute couture into political engagement. The audience gave Oprah repeated standing ovations, but people seemed unclear about whether to sit down afterwards, or just stay standing. It was awkward; some people standing, others popping up and down.

Acceptance speeches on award shows are typically short; 30-45 seconds. They do give a little more latitude for big career lifetime achievement awards, like the DeMille. Oprah spoke for just shy of ten minutes. And no, the orchestra did not try to play her off. She commanded the stage, and the reaction to her presence and to her speech was rapturous.

In his opening monologue, Seth Meyers (who was terrific, I thought), mentioned his 2011 speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner. In that speech, Meyers rather famously made fun of Donald Trump, who was there. In Joshua Green’s book Devil’s Bargain, Green describes how angry Trump became during the speech, which he found insulting and humiliating. According to Green, Meyers’ monologue was what prompted Trump’s decision to run for President.

So, last night, Meyers addressed Oprah Winfrey directly:

Oprah, while I have you, in 2011 I told some jokes about our current president at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner — jokes about how he was unqualified to be president — and some have said that night convinced him to run. So if that’s true, I just want to say: Oprah, you will never be president! You do not have what it takes!

An “Oprah running for President joke.” Followed, fwiw, by a jab at Tom Hanks. “And Hanks! You will never be Vice-President!” Ha ha. Ha.

And then, Oprah gave an absolutely terrific political speech. And, yes, it was intentionally political; the Golden Globes last night became a political event, what with all the black dresses, and constant references to l’affair Weinstein. And that was great, though I imagine a Hollywood exercise in self-congratulation is a weird venue for a political rally. Oprah’s speech, in structure, directly mirrors one of the greatest political speeches of all time; Obama’s, in 2004. It was shorter, of course, but it had all the elements: personal narrative, inspiring historical anecdotes, tributes to the hard-working Americans you’re reaching out to, with a final uplifting appeal to hope. (Best of all, not a single mention of John Kerry.)

I begin every morning by looking at a dozen political websites: Salon, Politico, Slate, Vox, Daily Beast, the NYT and WP. This morning, every one of them had a story about Oprah’s speech, and every one was speculating about two questions: is Oprah Winfrey–bright, accomplished African-American with a funny name–going to run for President in 2020? And if she runs, can she win.

And, honestly, ask yourself this question. As Alex Burns put it in the New York Times: “Ms. Winfrey could face a difficult fight for the Democratic nomination, especially against _______.  It’s difficult to finish that sentence.” Indeed. Gillibrand? Warren? Booker?

Oprah has built an entire career on her unique ability to connect to working class women. She’s, like, the definition of empathetic. She’s certainly willing to face tough issues, and to confront difficult subjects. She’s also not a political figure. She’s a celebrity. Are outsiders in? She’s certainly able to self-fund a campaign. She’d be like Roosevelt; a rich person who can plausibly engage with not-rich people. Her big issue, if she ran, would be sexual harassment. Running against a serial sexual predator like Trump, she’d be a potent voice for women, and women’s empowerment. Will guys vote for her? Over Trump; oh, heck yes.

In a general election, as things currently stand, she would crush Donald Trump. I’m talking a 65-35 edge, electoral college sweep kind of landslide. Her base would be working class women. If she sweeps that demo, plus people of color, plus progressives, plus young people, plus college-educated people, and breaks even against white men, it’s a tsunami.

And nobody hates her, really. I can’t think of a soul. She may be accused of being a lightweight, of not being a policy wonk. My conservative friends thought her speech last night bashed men, which it totally didn’t; I think that’s more fear than anything.  But she’s a great public speaker, and she’s certainly smart enough to bone up on the political stuff.

I don’t know what she’s thinking, or what she will decide. I do think she’d make a formidable candidate, and that she would clobber Donald Trump in a general election. She’ll be 65 in 2020, and may decide she’d just as soon retire. Or she may just decide to keep doing with her life what she’s already doing. But, oh my gosh, if she runs. . .

Christmas talk, 2017

I spoke in Church today. Here is my talk.

I have a friend, a former student, who was telling me about her five-year-old. They just got a kitten, and this little boy loves it. For his recent birthday, he said he wanted to become a cat. So they got him some cat pajamas, with a little cat tail and cat feet slippers, and he loves it. Running around the house, making cat noises. But then, my student told me, he was racing around, and slipped, and slid across the floor of their house, right down the stairs, thump thump thump to the landing below. She ran to the stairs to see if he was okay. And then she heard his little voice, saying “Okay. One life gone, eight more to go.”

I can identify with that little boy actually. This last year, I’ve definitely felt like I’ve used up at least a couple of cat lives myself. But thanks be to great doctors and hospitals and nurses, I’m doing much better. And when I think back on 2017, what I remember are moments of joy. The things I love most in life, friends and family, theatre and movies, books, and above all, music have sustained me, even in times of difficulty.

And as I’ve had leisure to think about it, I realized that illness and pain and difficulty are only to be expected and accepted. Suffering, disappointment, diseases and their symptoms, depression and loss, were always part of the deal. Mortality is a test, after all. It had to be that way. It had to be hard, to obey, to serve, to grow, to be kind. There also had to be unfairness, unwarranted suffering, undeserved pain. Life wasn’t fair for Job. And we believe that the atonement will reconcile everything, will heal every hurt and right every wrong.

But as I’ve contemplated this, something else occurred to me. Pain’s essential; Beauty may not be. The ability to experience the loveliness of Earth, and even to create beauty ourselves; that may not necessarily be required. It may just be a blessing. Look to our north. Check out Timpanogas. We don’t have to see it as beautiful. It could be, to us, nothing more than a great stone barrier, fallow ground, bad for crops and rotten for travel. But we don’t. It’s glorious. And that’s just one mountain, just one sight, amid the infinity of wonders we call our home. Annette and I once had a calling in the nursery, and we were supposed to teach the kids lessons. Two year olds; lessons. But the manual for the class was terrific. One lesson: Trees show how Heavenly Father loves us. That’s a wonderful thought, isn’t it? But doesn’t all beauty, all loveliness, all art, all music testify of God’s love? They’re extra, they’re free gifts. They’re not necessary parts of the test. But they’re wonderful, because that’s also who Heavenly Father is; wonderful is one of His names. And the greatest gift of all, I think, is music.

Hold that thought.

It’s Christmas Eve, and tomorrow we celebrate the arrival of the Christ child; the birth of Jesus. And yes, it was the beginning of atonement, the essential moment when Jehovah received his mortal flesh. But it was something else too. An ordinary thing, a young couple, making a journey, a young woman giving birth.

Why do we not think of Christmas as a women’s holiday? Why is it not a feminist celebration? Is there anything more uniquely and spectacularly female than giving birth? And consider this: Mary was the first woman, in the history of the world, to know one thing. She knew that her baby would live. Angels told her that her baby would live. I love that thought. Not that we should ignore poor Joseph. His part was colossal; male role model for Deity. How do you nurture that nature? But Christmas is about Mary.

And a journey. Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth, in Judea; Bethlehem was in Galilee, perhaps because some inflexible bureaucratic regulations required them to go there for a census. We usually picture Mary riding a donkey, but it’s unlikely they could have afforded one; in all likelihood, they walked. It’s seven miles as the crow flies, probably closer to ten by foot; it’s a rocky and difficult terrain. Probably took two days.

They were poor. As I understand it—I don’t speak Greek– Mark and Matthew use the word ‘tekton’ to describe Joseph. Tekton can be translated ‘carpenter,’ but more often, it’s translated ‘laborer.’ It’s the lowest rung in Roman society; Luke, writing years later, gave him a promotion to ‘peasant.’ And Nazareth was, literally, the punch line to a joke.

They arrived in Bethlehem exhausted. There was no room for them in the inn, because there is never room for the poorest of the poor. And then Mary went into labor, in a stable, the only shelter they could find.

We don’t just appreciate beauty, we create it. Which is hardly surprising, given who our Heaven Parents are, and who we are meant to become. As Sister Gayle Rice recently posted on Facebook, “as we awaken to our own creativity, we open ourselves to the power of God, and His influence and direction.” She would know; she’s a wonderful artist. So when we think of an event like the nativity, so simple and so packed with meaning, it’s hardly surprising that so many artists have chosen that moment, in that Bethlehem stable as their subject. One of my favorites is a painting by Brian Kershisnek. Tucked into the corner of a huge canvas, are the holy family. Joseph, looking terrified, as though he’s just begun to understand what he’s taking on. Mary, exhausted, of course. Baby Jesus. And filling the rest of the canvas, hundreds upon hundreds of angels. They also have a dog. The dog’s the only one who can see the angels. He seems quite delighted by them. It’s hanging at the BYU Museum of Art: check it out.

Art enhances, magnifies, intensifies, reinforces. Art can also distort; it’s a powerful force, and needs to be wielded carefully. And there are many paintings of the Nativity. But what I love most of all is the music.

And so I’m drawn to holy scripture. Specifically to hymns numbered 201 to 214 in the hymnal we open every Sunday. And when I look at those hymns, a couple of things strike me immediately. First of all, there are no LDS hymns among them. They’re all from the European or American Protestant tradition. There’s nothing wrong with this, of course. But it reminds us that Christmas really is for and about everyone. Our hymnal should appropriately expresses an ecumenical generosity of spirit.

And each hymn takes some small aspect of the Christmas story and amplifies it, directs our attention to it, urges us to contemplate it. The first hymn, 201, is Joy to the World, which is hardly about the nativity at all. Instead it looks forward, to his return, to the time when “Jesus reigns, and saints their songs employ. When “fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding joy.” It’s a triumphant imagining of an event that hasn’t happened yet. So we start with a comprehensive look at the entire mission of our Savior. 202, Oh Come all Ye Faithful, reminds me a lot of Kershisnek’s painting. Someone had to get all those angels there. It’s in the voice, I imagine, of the choir President, making all those reminder phone calls. Come along, everyone! It’s happened! Come, all of you, to Bethlehem. Come and behold him, born the king of angels. Come, let us adore him.”

203, Angels we have heard on High, takes a different tack. We’re not in the angelic choir anymore; we’re bystanders, wondering what’s going on. Oh, look, shepherds; they might know. “Shepherds, why this jubilee? What the gladsome tidings be, which inspired your heavenly song.” And we get an answer, but for some reason it’s in Latin. Gloria, in excelsis, Deo.

And then comes 204. Silent Night. I love this hymn. And here’s the thing; childbirth is never silent. And we don’t want it to be. We want newborn babies to cry, it signals vitality and strength, we want our new child to be healthy. But afterwards, after the mess and confusion and pain of childbirth, there comes a moment when the new mother holds the infant in her arms, and both of them, finally, rest. Silent Night is about that moment, as a bewildered but staunchly supportive Joseph stands watch, as Mary and her heavenly child enjoy a moment of reverential repose. And while a heavenly chorus was undoubtedly rejoicing musically, I hope they sang sotto voce, a focused and intense pianissimo, letting mother and child, holy infant, so tender and mild, get some sleep.

I don’t have time to go over the rest of our Christmas hymns. But I want to call your attention to the last hymn in the cycle, number 214. You’ll be invited to join the choir in singing it later in this meeting. It’s I heard the bells on Christmas Day, a lovely setting of a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Longfellow wrote it in 1863, at the height of the brutal slaughter of that horrific exercise in incivility, American civil war. Longfellow had long opposed slavery, but the war depressed him mightily. Adding to his depression, his beloved wife Frances, known as Fanny, died shortly after the war began, in a house fire. Then his son, Charles, very much against his wishes, enlisted, and in his first battle, was badly wounded. The accumulation of political and personal tragedies find expression in the song’s third verse. “And in despair, I bowed my head. There is no peace on earth, I said. For hate is strong, and mocks the song of peace on earth good will to men.” When our choir sings in just a moment, pay note to the beautiful arrangement by brother Curtis Winters of that powerful verse. And which of us wouldn’t be similarly overwhelmed. By the horrors of war, by the hatred of people who had once been united, and by the death of a beloved spouse, and terrible injury to a beloved child?

But that is not the meaning of Christmas bells. That pain, that sorrow, though understandable, belays the hope that came to earth in that Bethlehem manger.  No heartache can exist that the atonement cannot heal. God is not dead, nor doth he sleep. The wrong shall fail; the right will prevail. And the message of this Christmas season, the meaning of all Christmas seasons, is peace on earth, good will toward men.

The great and everlasting atonement is an all encompassing purpose. But it wasn’t the only message Jesus brought. Christmas does not just urge upon us a generosity of soul and spirit, but physical, temporal, active generosity of action. As James Martin, a Catholic priest, wrote in a recent LA Times editorial, “Is it any surprise that Jesus felt such intense compassion for the poor and marginalized? That he constantly asked his disciples to care for the poor, the sick, the forgotten, the stranger?” The child born in a Bethlehem manger was also born into the most abject poverty. And that choice, and it was a choice, was made for him by our Heavenly Father. And it was a magnificent event, a beautiful event, made even lovelier through the music by which we celebrate it. But let’s not be blinded by that beauty. The nativity also imposes on us an obligation, even unto the least of them, our poorest and most deeply suffering brothers and sisters. Remembering that obligation is perhaps the truest meaning Christmas has.

Kobe Bryant

This morning, ESPN’s SportsCenter did a big piece about Kobe Bryant. Lots of highlights, showing Bryant shooting, dunking, scoring. Interviews with former opponents, with former teammates, with Shaq, who was both. The occasion, the decision by the Los Angeles Lakers to retire both of his numbers. That’s right; Kobe played while wearing number 8 through 2003, then switched to 24 in 2004. Both numbers will be retired.

Professional athletes get attached to their numbers, and it’s unusual for a player to change. Kobe claimed that he asked for the change because the Lakers had just traded Shaquille O’Neal, which, said Kobe, suggested a new direction for the team. New direction; new number. From a basketball perspective, it makes sense for the Lakers to retire his number. He was easily the sixth best player in the history of the franchise; possibly even the fourth. Of course, Magic Johnson, Kareem Jabbar, Jerry West would go 1-3, and I’d put Shaq and Elgin Baylor ahead of Bryant as well. But he’s an easy vote for the Hall of Fame. A genuinely great player. Except, of course, something else happened in between.

I have to say, I find all the Kobe-love completely baffling, and especially today. The lead story on SportCenter this morning was the decision, by Carolina Panther’s owner Jerry Richardson, to sell the team, in the wake of serious (and creepy) sexual harassment allegations against him. Sports Illustrated did a big expose story about Richardson, and it took two daysm no more, for him to quit, resign, decide to sell the team. On the same day he quit, ESPN falls all over itself to praise Kobe Bryant. I truly don’t get it.

Has everyone forgotten? On June 30, 2003, Kobe Bryant checked into a hotel in Edwards, Colorado, preparing for scheduled surgery on July 2. On July 1, he had a sexual encounter with a female hotel employee. The next day, the woman reported that she’d been raped. Kobe was interrogated by the Eagle County Sheriff. He initially denied having had sexual relations with the woman. Physical evidence proved that he had. He then explained that her bruised neck was the result of rough, but consensual sex. An arrest warrant was issued, and Bryant surrendered, and was immediately released on bond.

Predictably, a media circus ensued. Bryant’s attorneys trashed the accuser’s reputation. So did national sports media. The accuser received hate mail, including death threats. Those got worse after some idiot released her name.  Public attacks on her credibility were so vicious that she attempted suicide. Twice. Finally, the unrelenting pressure she endured reached the point that she decided she could no longer testify in court. Instead, she filed a civil lawsuit. That case was settled; details were not disclosed.

In the initial press conference held by Bryant after his arrest, his wife stood by his side, playing the good wife. A few days after his arrest, he bought her a four million dollar ring. Any connection between those two events is purely conjectural.

Did Kobe Bryant rape this woman? I have no idea. I wasn’t there. Was the rape charge against him plausible? Absolutely. The Eagle County Sheriff had to have known that a rape charge against a celebrity was going to turn into a big deal. The Eagle County prosecutors had to have known how difficult such a case would be to prosecute. Their defendant in the case would be able to afford first class legal representatives. They went ahead with it. Seasoned, experienced law enforcement officials thought a woman had been raped, and were willing to do whatever they had to to prosecute the rapist. Bryant even made a public statement in which he acknowledged that, although he “truly believed this encounter . . . was consensual,” he recognized “that she did not and does not view this incident the same way. After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person,” (he) now “understood how she felt that she did not consent to this encounter.” He said she said? Maybe. But with physical evidence supporting her narrative. And why would she lie? She had to know that the pushback from sports fans would be ferocious.

Okay. That was then, this is now. Things have changed, very much for the better. Jerry Richardson, apparently, repeatedly asked female employees if he could shave their legs. That’s super weird and creepy and the very definition of someone creating a hostile work environment. I’m glad he’s quit; if he hadn’t, the National Football League would have been perfectly justified in kicking him out. Richardson’s actions also fall considerably shy of rape, a crime of violence, a dangerous assault.

American society is lurching uncertainly towards a place where allegations of sexual aggression and harassment and assault are taken seriously, as they should be. Men in power should never have been allowed to get away with disgusting sexual behavior. I welcome this development, as should be all.

So why does Kobe Bryant get a pass? Why has an entirely plausible rape allegation been swept under the rug?

In his first game in Utah in the 2003-4 season, Kobe Bryant was booed by the Salt Lake crowd every time he touched the basketball. It got comical; these quick bursts of booing when he’d make a touch pass. I wasn’t there; I have friends who were, and they said it was the most electric atmosphere they’d ever felt in a sporting event. And then, in 2016, on his  NBA farewell tour, Jazz fans cheered him. A noble opponent, honored for his skills.

What? Why does this guy get a pass, especially now? I truly don’t get it.

“Guys.”

I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2018

Let’s talk about something more fun.

2017 has been, in my humble opinion, a complete armpit of a year, what with the toxic politics and mass shootings and ill health and family tragedies (the last two are idiosyncratically mine). Let’s look forward to 2018. And, as it happens, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced the latest candidates for induction. So let’s argue about something meaningless, for a change. As always, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s choices are quite illogical, and at times, completely insane. And we’ll also never agree. That said, here are my choices.

Bon Jovi: Isn’t Bon Jovi kind of the perfect rock band? For one thing, they’re from New Jersey, did the whole high school friends/garage band thing. They have a cool-sounding band name, and yet all they did was pick the last name of their lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi. If they’d gone with the name of their lead guitarist, they’d still have a cool-sounding name: I’d listen to a band called Sambora. Old school rock and roll, with a big enough sound to fill arenas, plus they do stuff like build houses for poor people. Are they actually, you know, good? Good enough, I’d say. I’m a yes for Bon Jovi.

Kate Bush: A lot of people have declared Kate Bush a token pick, an attempt to address the R&R HOF’s ‘women problem.’ As in, there aren’t a lot of women in the Hall. It would be a shame to dismiss an artist as innovative and imaginative and unusual as a token pick, though. She’s as much a performance artist as she is a singer, and I love that about her; love how uncompromising her commitment is to her own vision. I’m voting for her, despite not actually liking her music all that much.

The Cars: I was ‘no’ on the Cars last year, and I’m voting ‘no’ again this year. I just don’t think they’re all that good. They’re not particularly innovative, not particularly influential, and their career was relatively short. They just had a few hits. No.

Depeche Mode: I don’t like Depeche Mode. I find their sound uncongenial. i do have to admit that Martin Gore is a terrific songwriter, and I love some of their songs, mostly when covered by other people. They’re certainly influential; unfortunately influential, to my mind. So I cling stubbornly to my ‘no’ vote. They’re probably getting in, though.

Dire Straits: This is the first year Dire Straits have been nominated, and it’s about time, in my opinion. Mark Knopfler is one of the great guitarists, and an outstanding songwriter. Just listen to the throw-away riffs in ‘Sultan’s of Swing,” or the urgent passion of that final solo at the end of “Brothers in Arms.” Just sublime. A heart-felt ‘yes’ to Dire Straits.

Eurythmics: Annie Lennox has one of the great voices in the history of popular music, let alone rock and roll. And with a multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter like Dave Stewart, she found her perfect collaborator. Their collaboration was relatively short-lived, but there was some amazing music over the years. An easy ‘yes.’

The J Geils Band: Sorry, but no. Look at their hits. “Freeze Frame.” “Love Stinks.” “Centerfold.” Essentially two novelty songs and a song built off one catchy riff. I know, they did more than that, but that’s what I know them for, and it’s just not good enough. A hard ‘no.’

Judas Priest: Rob Halford is an excellent rock and roll singer, and their guitarists, Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing are both first rate. They’re very good heavy metal musicians. There are lots of bands like that, and I don’t know that Judas Priest really distinguishes themselves from everyone else. So: No.

L L Cool J: Certainly an important and influential rap artist. I don’t know his work very well, and therefore it’s easy for me to say ‘no.’

MC 5: Or rather, the Motor City 5. If punk music is meant to be political, these guys are proto-punk pioneers. But their career was very very short, and I wouldn’t include them among the most important bands in the early history of punk. Just not important enough, and didn’t last very long. No.

The Meters: A tough call. Certainly, they were funk pioneers. In a way, it’s absurd to say that Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and Funkadelic belong in the R&R HOF, but the Meters don’t. But much of their career was spent as back-up musicians for people like Paul McCartney. Their music is great fun, but, for this year at least, I’m voting ‘no.’

The Moody Blues: See, this is what happens when you let Yes in the R&R HOF; the riff-raff start showing up. I shouldn’t call them riff-raff. I have lots of friends who loved them. I just don’t think they’re the prog musicians that should go in first. Let ELP and Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Gentle Giant in the Hall. Then we can talk about the Moody Blues. No.

Radiohead: This is their first year of eligibility, and yes, they absolutely have to go in. It’s like the baseball HOF; we spend a lot of time arguing about guys like Tommy John, but when Derek Jeter becomes eligible, the vote’s pretty much unanimous. Radiohead is an easy call. Great band. Yes.

Rage Against the Machine: Punk and metal and politics. They’re ferocious partisans of a whole bunch of political causes that I, sort of, support. But purity of motive doesn’t necessarily lead to great music. No.

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Again, if you like funk (and I do), they’re important. I just think Chaka Khan should go in by herself, as a solo artist, before Rufus gets in. So, a reluctant no.

Nina Simone: certainly she was a great jazz singer. And she was a magnificent singer period. But her soul music was only a small part of her career, and I’m just not sure she was ever particularly rock and roll. So: no.

Sister Rosetta Tharp: First of all, yes, she should be in the HOF. She recorded a song called ‘Rock Me’ back in 1938. A gutsy black woman singing gospel music, accompanying herself on an electric guitar; she was a rock and roll pioneer. I just think she should be inducted by the HOF equivalent to the Veteran’s Committee. No, in this format.

Link Wray: certainly an important influence on future musicians. He really should have been inducted 30 years ago. Again, pass him on to the Veteran’s Committee.

The Zombies: Immensely important early rock and roll band, one of the most important British Invasion bands of the late 1960s. But they only put out two albums. A reluctant no.

So, those are my choices. Really, I think Link Wray and Sister Rosetta should be inducted too. This fan vote is largely a popularity contest. Love to hear your feedback!  And here’s a link to the website, and your chance to vote.

 

War for the Planet of the Apes: Movie Review

War for the Planet of the Apes is, among other things, about an authoritarian American leader who is bound and determined to build a wall between him and his perceived enemies, and also wants the Apes to pay for it. It’s also about Native American genocide, and the persecution of Christianity by ancient Rome, and other incidents of needless brutality perpetrated by the strong over the weak. It’s about a tragic class of cultures. It’s about leadership and suffering. It’s just an extraordinary movie.

This is the third movie, and I think probably the last movie, in the Planet of the Apes reboot that began with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011, and continued with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes in 2014. All three movies have starred the remarkable Andy Serkis as Caesar, a preternaturally intelligent Ape, and a born leader. In the world of these films, a search for a cure for Alzheimers resulted in two unintended consequences. First, Apes, given a drug as part of the research, grew vastly more intelligent. Second, the drug created a pandemic that wiped out most of humanity. The Apes escaped to the forests; mankind retreated to various military compounds. An Ape vs. Human war ensued, driven in part by human paranoia and xenophobia, but also in part by a terribly mistreated Ape, Koba, who sought revenge against his human tormentors.

As this film begins, Koba is dead, killed by Caesar in the previous film. But a well-armed, well led army has begun a war of extermination against the Apes. Caesar continuous insists that he has no interest in killing humans. He realizes that humans and Apes probably can’t co-exist peacefully, but sends the message; leave him the forest, and leave him alone, and he won’t attack humans. That’s not good enough for The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). He intends to wipe Apes off the planet. In one attack, he kills Caesar’s wife and oldest son. Caesar sends the rest of his people away, and heads out, looking for The Colonel, with a small group of close followers. He thinks that killing the Colonel might be enough to get humans to leave him alone. That’s his object.

Caesar is a born leader, tactically advanced and with a sophisticated sense of what humans want and how to defeat them. But he’s stuck on horseback, without more advanced transportation or communication technology. Apes can use human weapons, but have limited ammo. Much of this movie is about Caesar’s journey to find The Colonel, and the discoveries he makes along the way. One discovery involves men who have either been murdered or buried alive. They seem to suffer from a disease that robs of the power of speech. Caesar also meets a young girl, Nova (Amiah Miller), similarly afflicted. She can’t talk, but she is an intelligent young woman, capable of sign-language communication (which is also the main way the Apes communicate), and courageous and loyal. Caesar takes her with him, lacking any better idea what to do with her, and she proves a valuable ally.

The initial plan was for Caesar to go questing after the Colonel, while the rest of his people sought refuge in a desert south of their woods stronghold. But the Colonel’s technological advantages have defeated Caesar’s plan, and Caesar’s people have been captured and taken to a fort The Colonel is building by an old army supply depot. The fort needs a wall. The Apes are set to the task of building it. And Caesar is captured as well, though his Nova and his two ape comrades are free.

Not all Apes, however, are on Caesar’s side. The army has coopted quisling apes, which they call ‘donkeys,’ And, like black overseers during slavery, the ‘donkeys’ prove more vicious and brutal than their human bosses. They also have devised a unique punishment for recalcitrant apes (and for Caesar, eventually). They crucify them.

It turns out that the Colonel has essentially seceded from white society, because of this odd muteness disease. It’s a mutation from the initial Alzheimer’s disease that proved so devastating for humans, and so beneficial to Apes. The Colonel quite ruthlessly executes anyone with the disease. Another army, from ‘up north,’ is on its way to bring him to justice. The wall is protection against another human army. Meanwhile, Caesar only wants to rescue his people. The last thing in the world he wants to is for Ape society to get caught in a crossfire. He just wants them to be free. And, like Moses, he’s willing to bring them to a Promised land he himself will be unable to enter.

Harrelson is wonderfully psychopathic as The Colonel. Serkis, is, of course, utterly brilliant as Caesar. CGI acting is simply acting; his performance is simply that of a superb actor at the top of his craft. The CGI just builds off the performance.

The whole film is rich and powerful. So many historical resonances; so much to take in. I was deeply moved by the entire film, as I was with the previous films. It’s a wonderful movie. It got a little lost in the shuffle of summer movies, but it’s certainly as moving as any. See it on the big screen, if you can, and bask.

The Circle: Movie and Book review

The Circle is a 2013 novel by Dave Eggers. I suppose you could say it’s both dystopian and futuristic; it has a 1984/Brave New World vibe. I found it more or less by accident, and liked it so much I recommended it to my wife and daughter. They both read it, and liked it as much as I did, and so, last Friday, we decided to go together to see the new movie based on it. The movie was quite good too, though we agreed it wasn’t quite as effective as the novel. I should point out that the movie got horrible reviews, with a very low score on Rottentomatoes.com. And also that liking the novel is, apparently, exceptionally uncool. Guilty as charged: I liked both movie and novel a lot, and think the critics that didn’t like either are wrong. I will add that the theater was packed when we saw the movie, and, shamelessly eavesdropping as people left, heard enough to think that pretty much everyone who saw it the same night we did liked it too. Found it as chilling as we did.

I’m going to take it a step further. I think it’s an exceptionally prescient and important novel. I think the questions it raises are important ones, and exactly the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves right now. So there.

The Circle is a high tech company; that’s its name. It combines the best features of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Paypal, Amazon, and any five other exceptionally big, hi-tech companies. It’s the coolest place to work you could possibly imagine. It offers the best benefits–dorm-like housing, gyms, off-the-charts health care–provides the best after-work social life, and sells the best products. Today, you may have an Amazon account, a Facebook account, a Twitter account; you probably have thirty internet accounts, each with its own password. The Circle gets rid of all that inconvenience; you get everything through The Circle.

Mae Holland is a young woman, bright and ambitious, working in a dead-end temp job. But she has a friend, Annie, who works for The Circle, and who gets her an interview. Which she aces. Next thing you know, she works in Customer Care. Better money than she’s ever made in her life, plus they extend her health benefits to cover her parents. This is huge, as her father suffers from MS. Mae is ecstatic.

Except, it turns out, her social score is kinda low. She goes home weekends, to help her Mom; she’s a no-show at various Circle parties. Her bosses notice, and she’s called on the carpet; kindly, of course, but firmly. After-hours social events are, of course, completely voluntary. But a low social score is, hmm, a matter of concern.

Circle-world is a place where everything is enumerated, evaluated, rated, assessed. Every customer care interaction is scored on follow-up customer surveys, and she’s encouraged to follow up on the follow ups, inquire about low scores.  She’s also given a side responsibility; product surveys, attitude polls. Plus, you know, there are all these parties she has to get to. She acquires a boyfriend, Francis, who, after love-making, wants to know how he did. What’s his score? And who gets real whiny if he doesn’t get a perfect 10. It’s not worth the hassle telling him he’s closer to a 3.

The tone of the novel is matter-of-fact and straightforward. Eggers specializes in scenes that are both comic and kind of horrifying. Mae is our window into this company, and her character serves Eggers well. She loves the place. She’s a compelling character, and we want to shake her; we want to shout ‘run!’ But she doesn’t. Whatever unease she may feel, she works off by kayaking. Or in love-less, frantic, self-destructive sex with Mystery Man, Kalden. We can absolutely see what makes Mae the most all-in Circler of them all. Though we’re worried to death for her.

But there are warnings. Not just Kalden; Annie, her friend, who landed her the gig, is clearly losing it. And Mae’s specifically warned by her ex-boyfriend, Mercer. Mercer’s kind of a doofus; he makes chandeliers from deer antlers, and is pretty much a Luddite. Or at least, an anti-Circle version of one. Mercer is close to and wonderfully kind to Mae’s parents. But Mae wishes he’d just stop pestering.

The Circle has a political agenda, too. The company has three CEOs, one of which, Eamon Bailey, is, of course, like, the perfect boss. Kind, generous, endlessly sympathetic, a plausible surrogate father for all the young Circlers. And Eamon is the main spokesperson for the multiple uses for SeeChange, a small, easily overlooked digital camera with excellent video and audio pickup. Eamon urges followers to put SeeChange cameras everywhere, every public place. SeeChange, he says, will end both government tyranny and terrorism, through complete, radical transparency. He also urges all politicians to go transparent; wear a SeeChange camera 24/7. People behave better, he says, when they know other people are watching. He suggests that transparency is a basic human right. Privacy is Theft becomes one of the company’s slogans. (Sharing is Caring is another). And Mae, to set an example, goes transparent too. Wears a camera everywhere; is on display, on the internet, always. A more-aware ramped-up Truman Show.

Okay, spoiler alerts. All these policies and devices are revealed publicly, in a big  Circle auditorium (which in fact, is not an arena, but a proscenium, the one public space configuration that most emphasizes performer domination and control. Bailey’s radical democracy looks a lot more authoritarian the more we interrogate it). Anyway, Mae introduces a new Circle innovation; using SeeChange to find missing miscreants. It becomes a game; let’s see if we can find this fugitive from justice, everyone! And they do, in less than ten minutes. Then the crowd insists that Mae use that technology to locate Mercer, who has become something of a hermit. (Of course they all know about Mercer; they know everything about her). And all those busy SeeChangers out in the world find where Mercer’s holed up. Panicked, he gets in his truck, tries to escape, run away from all the cameras and drones. And Mae doesn’t call it off. And he runs his truck off a cliff.

To people who essentially live virtually, for whom the internet and it’s many uses and possibilities, I can see how this movie could be seen as a gratuitous attack on the coolest thing on the planet. I think that may explain at least some of the bad reviews. But Eggers is on to something; people do not necessarily act better when they know people are watching, especially when they’re part of a crowd. Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed describes dozens of instances where people’s lives have been ruined by the collective judgment of internet users. And we may not have quite reached the point of The Circle‘s notion of radical transparency, and SeeChange cameras may be a few (very few) years off, but everyone has cameras, and it’s much much more common nowadays for particularly shocking (but context-less) images to go viral. Dr. David Dao was, no doubt, treated shabbily by United Airlines, but United flies millions of passengers around the world without untoward incident. Should the company pay? Undoubtedly. Should it be hounded out of business? Am I an old, clue-less white guy intimidated by technology? Of course I am. How implausible is the fictional Circle? Not remotely. Is Eamon Bailey something of a cartoon villain? Okay, sure. So’s Big Brother.

The movie takes the same essential scenario as the novel, but creates a filmic narrative around it. Mae’s two love interests disappear–there just isn’t time for Francis, who is in any event an essentially comedic character. If the movie had gone for satire instead of cautionary tale, Francis might have worked. As it is, I didn’t miss him–he’s completely absent. Kalden likewise goes away, sort of; in the book, he is eventually revealed to be Ty, the Circle’s Founder and one of its three CEOs. That revelation comes much earlier here, and Mae and Ty don’t have a romantic/sexual relationship. Biggest of all is this change: Mae isn’t a Circle-worshipper in the movie. She actively wants to destroy it. And does, but that’s creepy too; she wins by buying in most completely to Eamon’s doctrine of radical transparency.

The casting is well-nigh perfect, with Emma Watson as Mae, Tom Hanks (who else?) as Eamon, John Boyega as Ty, and Bill Paxton, in his last screen role, quietly superb as Mae’s father. The one misstep, I thought, was Ellar Coltrane as Mercer, who never really found his footing in the role. Best of all, IMO, was Scottish actress Karen Gillan as Mae’s friend, Annie. In the book, Annie ends up in a coma, but it doesn’t really have the resonance of the movie, where we can read Annie’s self-loathing self-destruction in the actress’s face. That’s what movies are great at; faces.

The movie’s good. It’s great to look at, beautifully acted, and tells the story of The Circle with economy and dispatch. I found it almost as chilling as I found the novel. I did find the novel a bit richer, but that’s often the case of novels-turned-movies. Above all, I found myself cherishing privacy more than ever. I’m a fairly social person, I think, and I love social media. Up to a point. Any tool can be abused, including, of course, the most powerful tool of them all. The internet. Can we love it, and also find it terrifying? I rather think we can, and should.

Multi-level marketing (scams)

You know that thing where you’re talking to someone about something, and it’s a thing you have a strong feeling about, and you express that strong opinion, strongly? And it turns out you probably expressed yourself more strongly than you should have? I did that recently.

Utah is home to many many multi-level marketing companies. Just in Utah County, I can think of several. NuSkin sells, like, dietary supplements. DōTERRA sells essential oils; I think they call their salespeople ‘wellness advocates.’  Morinda sells various products derived from a morinda citrafolia, a Tahitian tree that produces the noni plant, juice from which is supposed to be good for you. There’s also Neways; they also sell nutritional supplements. There’s Young Living–they sell essential oils–and Nature’s Sunshine–natural health supplements. There are many others.

And they all work the same way. Ordinary folks sign up for this stuff, and sell the product, but are also trying to get their friends involved in selling it too. You make your money via a pyramid. You get a cut out of your sales, but you also get a cut from the sales of the people beneath you on the pyramid. The basic model is Amway. Also Bernie Madoff.

Here’s the strong opinion I expressed that got me in trouble. I think multi-level marketing companies are all crooks. I think they should all be illegal. I think they’re scams, ripoffs, hoaxes, frauds. I think their CEOs should be in jail. I think the normalization of con artists is a bad idea, and that businesses built on a pyramid model are nothing but Ponzi schemes, pure and simple. And I tend to think their products are all, without exception, worthless crap.

I come by these views honestly. I have family members who have been ripped off in Ponzi schemes. I have seen how devastating they can be. I know people whose lives were ruined by Amway. I think the world would be a happier place if Amway was shut down, and its business leaders thrown in the slammer. And that would include Dick DeVos, former Amway CEO and husband of Betsy DeVos, Trump’s Secretary of Education. And that includes Jason Chaffetz, my Congressman, a former NuSkin exec.

In China, MLMs are illegal. Good for them. If you want to know why they’re not illegal in the US, check the previous paragraph: they’re well-connected. The Federal Trade Commission has been trying to shut down Herbalife for years. Herbalife has responded in the usual way; by buying Congressmen, and by spending hundreds of millions of dollars on high-powered legal representation. So does Amway; so does Mary Kay. These are rich, powerful companies. They aren’t going to be easy to stop.

And they’re big in Utah. And that bothers me. Why are Utah Mormons susceptible to these kinds of scams? Because we’re naive, gullible, trusting? That’s surely part of it. But it’s also Church connections. Our lives tend to center around wards. And our fellow ward members are also our friends. If a person you think of as a friend comes to you and says, ‘hey, I know about this great opportunity, a way for you to make a little extra money, and also enjoy better health. It’s worked for me, and it can work for you.’ Well, that’s a powerful inducement.

It’s also why these things are so insidious. A friendship shouldn’t be about some outside agenda. We’re friends because we genuinely like each other. We’re friends because we decided to make a commitment to someone, to maintain and nurture a relationship with another person, for its own sake, not because you can make something from it. MLMs take the idea of friendship, that personal connection we feel towards other people, and profane it. It’s fundamentally sociopathic. It’s like doing your home teaching solely to get good numbers, without making any effort to actually make friends.

Pyramid scams take basic, honest human feelings and turn them into sales opportunities. I want to believe that my friends like me because they like me. Not because they think they can sell me some kind of weirdo goop. Frankly, I think MLMs are worse than Bernie Madoff’s Ponzi scheme. Madoff ran an investment firm; his clients may have thought of him as a friend, but that friendship began as a business relationship.

I remember when my wife and I moved to Utah. I was a new BYU faculty member, and we hardly knew a soul. Some old friends of my parents, BYU veterans, invited us over for dinner, and we were thrilled. We knew these people a little, and it was nice to think that they wanted to be friends, maybe introduce us around to this new university subculture.

And then they pulled out their selling materials, and told us all about what a great deal Amway was.

We weren’t just offended. We were hurt. We were angry. We hid it pretty well, and are still able to greet these folks, when we run into them, with polite cordiality. But what an opportunity wasted! Of course, any possibility of actual friendship was completely gone. And that’s a shame.

So, sorry, but it’s time for these rip-offs to end. China got this one right. MLMs serve no legitimate role in any healthy economy. Or in any health-promoting friendship.

 

The Circle: Book Review

Dave Eggers’ The Circle would have to be described as a dystopic sci-fi novel, though the future it describes is likely no more than five years or so off. It’s the story of an extremely nice, hard working, basically decent young woman named Mae Holland, and the great job she gets at the best company on the planet. She’s healthy and bright; she kayaks for relaxation. She has long since put her cynical sad-sack boyfriend behind her. She’s moving up.

The company she works for is called The Circle, and it combines the best features of working for, say, Google, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter and any five other forward-thinking tech companies. Her best friend, Annie, has risen to a top executive position there, and gets Mae an entry-level job at CE, which stands for Customer Experience.

And Mae loves it. She loves her job, loves the company. Her father is very ill with MS, and dealing with insurance companies and arranging every aspect of his care has become her mother’s full-time occupation. The Circle puts him on Mae’s insurance, and suddenly, he’s getting the best health care on the planet. (Though he is expected to show some gratitude for it). The Circle is as interested in Mae’s social life, in what she does for relaxation and fun as it is in her work product, and opportunities for recreation abound. She’s making good money, and doesn’t have much to spend it on, so completely does The Circle see to her every need. And she rises in the company, eased along by her boss, the pleasant, genial, forward-thinker progressive Eamon Bailey, one of the Three Wise Men who run the place.

Eamon, in fact, believes in the possibility of human perfectability, and thinks it can be hastened along through technology. He thinks it can be accomplished through a kind of hyper-transparency. He wants cameras everywhere. He gets politicians to wear cameras 24/7. What do they have to hide? After all, Secrets are Lies, Privacy is Theft, Sharing is Caring. Don’t people behave better when they’re being watched? Isn’t it, therefore, in the best interests of all mankind if we’re all watched, everywhere, all the time? And can’t small, plantable, easily transportable cameras, with excellent sound and HD pictures, monitored on the ‘net, be put everywhere? Who could possibly object?

Eamon’s goal isn’t a totalitarian state. It’s a kind of totalizing democracy. The democratization of ubiquity. And so, so achievable. And Mae loses herself in his vision.

Really, The Circle is the story of a nice girl, a deserving young woman, who gets a great job, loves it, is great at it, and advances. It’s the story of a great company, that takes terrific care of its employees, and is genuinely committed to doing good in the world. It’s the story of technological whizzes re-inventing mankind.

And so, you think, there’s got to be a plot twist somewhere. It’s going to turn out like, I don’t know, Soylent Green. This utopia can’t be what it seems to be. There’s a catch. But there isn’t. At the end of Brave New World, everyone really is happy. At the end of The Circle, Mae and Eamon and the other Wise Men really are exactly what they seem to be.

And if we readers find ourselves completely terrified by it, that’s our fault, of course.

Kong: Skull Island Movie Review

I would have given anything to be in the meetings where they greenlighted Kong: Skull Island. I mean, I haven’t ever worked at a studio or been in those meetings, but I have a fertile imagination and have seen lots of movies about Hollywood. All these guys–not in suits, they don’t wear suits–in skinny jeans and mismatched shirt/tie combinations listening to some writer going “cross King Kong with Apocalypse Now, with an environmentalist twist. Plus, Tom Hiddleston’s interested!” And the head of the studio’s going ‘I love it!’

In other words, this movie is nuts. That doesn’t mean I didn’t like it; I liked it a lot. But it’s a big budget, major CGI, cast-of-thousands movie. And it literally is a cross between King Kong and Apocalypse Now. A King Kong movie that stays on the island and never takes its act to New York. It’s also the kind of movie where the main characters do completely insane things for utterly nonsensical reasons. Nothing in the movie makes the least sense, and our powers of disbelief-suspension are pushed to the breaking point, but it’s generally well acted, and the monsters are freaking awesome and the whole movie looks great. I was willing to go along with the ride.

Plot: wow, where to start. It’s 1973. The US is pulling out of Vietnam. So, okay, a “scientist” named Bill Randa (John Goodman) is obsessed with monsters. He thinks there may well be gargantuan super predators out there in nature somewhere, and he thinks the US government should find them before the Russkis do. And persuades a US Senator (Richard Jenkins) to fund an expedition, and also to provide him and his team with a military escort. His team includes a scientist named Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins), who has what he calls his ‘hollow earth’ theory, namely that the earth has massive subterranean caverns where ginormous critters could live. And Randa and Brooks have seen satellite footage of Skull Island, which they think might prove both their theories. They also bring a Chinese scientist, San (Tian Jing), because movies like this need more than one female character. But Randa’s worried about security, so he hires a British Special Forces mercenary, James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston). And a photographer, Mason Weaver (Brie Larson).

And they get a military escort. Like, ten helicopters (I lost count), under the command of Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson), who is spoilin’ for a fight, Vietnam having gone so swimmingly. And lots and lots of soldiers, most of them pretty anonymous, but a few played by minor stars like Toby Kebbel and Shea Whigham and John Ortiz and Jason Mitchell. (We already know that they’re the ones who are going to survive). (Kudos to Kebbel, BTW; he also wore the motion-capture suit and played Kong).

Skull Island, it turns out, is in the Pacific (and not the Indian Ocean as in previous movies), and is surrounded by a permanent storm system. (The science in this movie is wonderful, what with the hollow earth and perma-storms and apex predators thirty stories tall). But the Pacific makes it closer to Vietnam, see. Anyway, they show up, and Sam Jackson pilots all those helicopters in past the storm system, and they see this tropic paradise (which really was cool looking). And Randa and his merry band of idiot scientists start dropping explosive probes onto Skull Island. And this pisses King Kong off. And he destroys all their helicopters, and kills a bunch of men. So the survivors are scattered to hither and yon. Eventually, they form two parties, one under the command of Colonel Packard (who’s getting increasingly nutty), looking for a way to kill Kong, and the other under the command of Conrad, because Tom Hiddleston. All the women are on that team, as is Randa and his scientist team. They just want off the island, and so are trying to reach a rendezvous spot.

Let’s pause for a sec and think about this. Randa and his team are looking for really big predatory animals. Which they think are on this island, or underground, in a hollow-earth-underworld. They find a new tropical island. A brand-new, extremely delicate ecosystem. Which they want to study. So they start by blowing a lot of it up.

Who does that? Who on earth thought this was a good idea? But, see, I think that’s the point of the movie. The movie has its scientist characters do wildly insane, incredibly destructive, pointlessly dangerous things, because it was the cold war and we did stupid stuff like that. I mean, is it stupider to drop explosive probes on King Kong, or drop atomic bombs on the Bikini Atoll? Or the Nevada desert? Or oceans of napalm in the jungles of Southeast Asia? Or all foolish things human beings do in the oceans and atmosphere and mountains and rivers and lakes of our poor mother Earth, searching for oil or coal or gold or whatever. Really, I think this movie, dumb as it is, has an environmentalist agenda front and center. John Goodman plays a scientist who is also kind of a moron (and whose lines are really quite absurd). And who sets off a chain reaction of events that kill dozens of US soldiers.

The ecology of Skull Island is fascinating. Insects are huge. A spider is twenty feet across. King Kong himself is maybe 200 feet tall. And he’s not the island’s scariest critter. Those would be these skull-headed dinosaur things, bigger than Kong, and with horrifying prehensile tongues. Which, of course, leads to this question: what do all these apex predators eat? Kong, we see, has a taste for octopus (if you can imagine an octopus 60 feet long). So, that’s one meal. But if skull-o-saurs do live in subterranean caverns, what else is down there?  Really big predators require really big prey. (They do seem to be able to eat American soldiers pretty well, but they end up urping them up afterwards).

John C. Reilly is in the movie, playing an American airman who crashed down on the island during WWII, nigh on thirty years earlier. He has been protected and saved by the island’s homo sapiens natives. Yes, there are native tribesman, mud-daubed and silent (though why they’re not 30 feet tall escapes me, given the relative sizes of other Skull Island fauna). Anyway, the natives all like Kong. He’s their protector.

In other words, King Kong is an apex predator essential to preserving the delicate ecosystem of this island. Tom Hiddleston’s character recognizes it; Samuel L. Jackson’s does not, and want Kong dead. (Though how he intends to bring that about is one of the many issues this screenplay doesn’t really address. I think napalm has a lot to do with it.)

Anyway, Kong, after some initial helicopter-bashing, turns out to be sensitive and courageous, with a soft spot for the ladies, like all Kongs before him. He and Brie Larson have a nice scene together, though on a high cliff and not the Empire State Building. And ultimately, insane Samuel Jackson and addle-pated John Goodman are appropriately eaten by monsters. And this preposterous (though wildly entertaining) movie marches off to its inevitable happy-ish ending.

I will say this; seeing a gas-masked Tom Hiddleston take on hundreds of flying menaces with a kitana in a field of poison gas was absolutely worth the price of admission. Do I recommend Kong: Skull Island?  It was very entertaining, the story and situation made no sense whatsoever, it got real preachy (though on subjects where I agree with it), and the action sequences were pretty well executed. What does that add up to for you? For me, it was two hours well-spent in a movie theater.