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.








Seeing the other side

I like sports.  I like pop culture.  I also like blogging, and blogging culture. And that helps explain why I’m a big fan of The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons.  I’ve read his column for years, on, and now, on

Which is why a recent Grantland column, casually and unreflectively outing a transgender woman, was so painful.  Clearly it hurt the woman in question, and may have contributed to her suicide. A writer I admire was complicit in an action that has to be regarded as contemptible.  And he knows it.

Simmons’ approach from the beginning has been what the Brits call ‘laddish.’  He’s a guy who likes sports, and for years he wrote from that outsiders’ perspective; not the perspective of a sports writer with locker room access and friendships in the industry, but the perspective of a fan, a guy in the stands. In recent years, he’s become more of an insider.  He’s on TV now, with his best buddy Jalen Rose and with Magic and Shaq–he knows famous people.  It hasn’t really changed him much, I don’t think. His voice has always been that of a barely-grown-up adolescent: casually sexist, juvenile, self-mocking, and really really funny. Every few weeks, he has a ‘mailbag’ column, in which he interacts with his readers–it’s jokey and crude and can be hilarious. Amidst the yucks and the ‘tournaments’ and the endless pop culture references was some really solid analysis, especially of basketball, the sport Simmons knows the best and writes about the most insightfully.  His Book of Basketball is a terrific history of the NBA, a solid book, but marred with dick jokes and movie references and all sorts of guy humor.

A couple of years ago, he started the Grantland website.  The idea was to find really good bloggers on sports and pop culture, and provide them with a forum.  And a paycheck–he wanted to pay good writers to write.  Simmons would serve as editor-in-chief, but he’d treat the website like a good magazine, with standards and integrity, a home for good writing, a fun site to visit.  I like it. I check it out a couple of times a week, especially on Fridays, when Simmons own column usually appears.

So last Wednesday, Grantland posted this story by a writer named Caleb Hannan, about an inventor named Essay Anne Vanderbilt, or ‘Dr. V,’ who had invented a magical putter. That is to say, the truest, finest putter ever seen on a golf course.  Hannan became as interested in ‘Dr. V’ as he was in her putter.  His phone interviews with her were bizarre, as were her stipulations regarding those interviews.  He bought one of her putters, and it worked as well as advertised.  He kept digging.  And he learned that ‘Dr. V’ had once been a man named Stephen Krol, that she had not received a degree from MIT as she claimed, but, as Krol, had worked as a mechanic.

Hannan’s phone conversations with Dr. V became increasingly worrisome.  At one point, she said that if he published his article, it would be tantamount to committing a hate crime. In one final, email, suicide note, Dr. V wrote this:

“To whom this may concern, I spoke with Caleb Hannan last Saturday his deportment is reminiscent to schoolyard bullies, his sole intention is to injure or bring harm to me … Because of a computer glitch, some documents that are germane only to me, were visible to web-viewers, government officials have now rectified this egregious condition … Caleb Hannan came into possession of documents that were clearly marked: MADE NON-PUBLIC (Restricted) … Exposing NON-PUBLIC Documents is a Crime, and prosecution of such are under the auspices of many State and Federal Laws, including Hate Crimes Legislation signed into Law by President Obama.”

And, on October 13 2013, Dr. V. committed suicide.

Last Wednesday, Grantland went ahead and ran Hannan’s story about Dr. V and the magical putter.  On Monday, Bill Simmons wrote this column.  It’s a remarkable mea culpa.  He carefully describes the Grantland editorial process, and then admits that the final decision to publish was his.

Here’s the gist of his apology:

To my infinite regret, we never asked anyone knowledgeable enough about transgender issues to help us either (a) improve the piece, or (b) realize that we shouldn’t run it. That’s our mistake — and really, my mistake, since it’s my site. So I want to apologize. I failed.

More importantly, I realized over the weekend that I didn’t know nearly enough about the transgender community – and neither does my staff. I read Caleb’s piece a certain way because of my own experiences in life. That’s not an acceptable excuse; it’s just what happened. And it’s what happened to Caleb, and everyone on my staff, and everyone who read/praised/shared that piece during that 56-hour stretch from Wednesday to Friday.

So for anyone asking the question “How could you guys run that?,” please know that we zoomed through the same cycle of emotions that so many of our readers did. We just didn’t see the other side. We weren’t sophisticated enough. In the future, we will be sophisticated enough — at least on this particular topic. We’re never taking the Dr. V piece down from Grantland partly because we want people to learn from our experience. We weren’t educated, we failed to ask the right questions, we made mistakes, and we’re going to learn from them.

Probably the most prominent trans-gender sports writer currently working in the field is Christina Kahrl.  She’s a founding editor for Baseball Prospectus, a site that provides the most in-depth and thoughtful baseball analysis found anywhere.  I say that unequivocally; BP is the best.  Of all the BP writers, I liked her work the best; a lot of BP writers are stat nerds who don’t write very well–she’s a stat nerd who writes brilliantly. So Bill Simmons contacted Kahrl, and asked her, basically, to tell everyone what he’d done wrong.  Here’s her piece on the issue.  Here’s her conclusion:

I’m also angry because of the more fundamental problem that this story perpetuates. We’re talking about a piece aimed at golf readers. So we’re talking about a mostly white, mostly older, mostly male audience that wound up reading a story that reinforced several negative stereotypes about trans people. For an audience that doesn’t usually know and may never know anyone who’s trans and may get few opportunities to ever learn any differently, that’s confirmation bias of the worst sort. I may not have made you care about people like CeCe McDonald or Islan Nettles or even Essay Anne Vanderbilt here, but better to fail in the attempt than to reinforce ignorance and contempt bred through the thoughtless trivialization of their lives and challenges.

Obviously, Hannan went into the story with the best of intentions, and Simmons published it without meaning to do harm. The tone of Simmons’ letter from the editor shows he chastened he feels by the entire incident.  I’m sure Hannan feels even worse about it.  But damage was done, and done without consideration or even the most basic human kindness.  Christina Kahrl is right to be furious, and Bill Simmons was right to give her anger a prominent forum on his website.

But we all do this at times; write in ignorance, repent at leisure.  I didn’t know much about transgender issues until I saw Matthew Ivan Bennet’s extraordinary play, Eric(a), on the subject.  I was so grateful to Matt for opening my eyes on this important subject.  I can be a laddish boor at times.  I want to do better.  I hope that this whole sad affair can help all of us feel more compassion and kindness and love and acceptance to all our transgender brothers and sisters. I would hate to think that Dr. V’s sad death doesn’t accomplish anything, that we can’t learn from it, and grow.  That’s why we’re here, after all.


Marriage Equality in Utah

I live in Provo, Utah.

That’s liberal, progressive, gay-friendly Utah.

It’s been an amazing week.

Okay, so, last Friday, I’m on Facebook, and a friend messages me, and says, with multiple exclamation points, “Federal judge just ruled Third Amendment unconstitutional.”  Here’s how clue-less I was; my first thought was, ‘Third Amendment?  So . . . the federal government can now quarter troops in our homes?  What?’  But no.  That’s the third Amendment to the Utah Constitution.

I think.  Searching for the Utah Constitution on-line this morning, I couldn’t find the darn thing.  I saw lots of stuff about the amendment process for the Utah Constitution, but all I could find on marriage was this: Article 1, Section 29 of the Utah Constitution, to wit:  “(1) Marriage consists only of the legal union between a man and a woman.  (2) No other domestic union, however denominated, may be recognized as a marriage or given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect.” Our old pal Wikipedia’s article explains.

Last Friday, Dec. 20, a federal judge, Robert Shelby of the U.S. District Court for Utah, found that language, Amendment Three, Article 1 Section 29, unconstitutional, on Fourteenth Amendment grounds.  This article does an effective job of breaking down the legal arguments on both sides, and the reasons given by Judge Shelby for ruling the way he did.

And so, people started getting married. Salt Lake County instantly began granting marriage licenses, and Salt Lake Mayor Ralph Becker began to perform marriages.  A minister and his long-time partner asked if they could cut to the head of the line, so they could marry, and so he, the minister, could then also begin marrying people, for those who wanted a pastor to officiate.  As the lines grew ever longer, a local Boy Scout troop stopped by with pizza for the County Clerks working late into the night.  Since Friday, hundreds of couples have married, mostly in Salt Lake County, but also elsewhere.  At forty bucks a pop for marriage licenses, the state coffers have been enriched to the tune of (do I multiply here? let’s see, carry the four) lots of money.

The state has tried to stop it.  Which is perhaps the most hilarious aspect of the whole thing, actually, since it’s the State Attorney General’s office that has to file requests for emergency stays and motions and stuff, and that office has been in disarray for months.  The previous AG, John Swallow, turns out, was a crook, but it took forever to force him out of office, with local papers doing stories day after day exposing various kinds of malfeasance by the guy, while Governor Herbert hung in there, defending him.  So when it came time to file a request for a stay (stopping the marriages while filing an appeal of decision), the AG’s office basically just repeated the same arguments they’d used earlier, the arguments that Judge Shelby had just rejected.  Not surprising when he refused to grant the stay, nor when the 10th District Court of Appeals also refused to grant one.  I’m not an attorney, but it does seem to me that if you lose a case before a judge, and then appear before that same judge asking him to stay his opinion pending appeal, you might want to try different arguments than the ones that just lost.  Just sayin’.

And so the weddings continue.  And the Deseret News has been in fine fettle all week, with two big op-ed pieces fulminating against Judge Shelby’s ‘judicial activism.’  I was particularly struck by this passage in the first of those pieces, titled ‘Judicial Tyranny’.

It is true that state efforts to restrict marriage on the basis of race have run afoul of the federal constitutional protections against racial discrimination. But as we scour the legal landscape, we find no 10th Circuit or Supreme Court precedent that prevents Utah from adhering to a traditional definition of marriage. Nonetheless, Judge Shelby’s blithe mix-and-match approach to legal argumentation has, for the time being, created a new class of same-gender applicants deemed “married” under the Utah Constitution.

Hmmm.  On Christmas, the DN published a more optimistic piece, suggesting that Utah has a ‘historic opportunity’ to vigorously defend traditional marriage in court.  Here, though, is the second paragraph of the piece:

The unprecedented overreach by Judge Shelby — and most especially his refusal to temporarily stay the effects of his decision — has come at high cost. The immediate outcomes from Friday’s decision include a high dose of legal uncertainty for those licenses being issued under the court order as well as polarization of pubic opinion around these understandably emotional issues.

I don’t really see how Judge Shelby’s decision came at any particularly high cost. A lot of people who have been in long-term relationships got to get married.  No one was hurt; no one was harmed.  But there it is again: ‘legal uncertainty.’

In short, in both these piece, the DN is suggesting, strongly suggesting, that the marriage licenses issued by the State of Utah since last Friday may only be temporary. That Utah is seriously contemplating telling hundreds of married people that they’re not married anymore.  That people who have, for example, filed joint tax returns may have violated tax law in doing so, may have to face penalties for doing so.  What if some of those couples, over the next few weeks or months, choose to adopt children?  You’re saying they’re going to lose their kids?

I understand that feelings are high right now.  And since the Deseret News is choosing to see this as an opportunity to defend traditional marriage, once and for all, in court–imagining a sweeping decision ending all this same-sex marriage nonsense once and for all–then may I gently suggest that any such strategy has a public relations component?  That seeing what we’ve been seeing for a week now, which is hundreds of happy couples embracing and kissing and holding hands and laughing and crying for joy as they marry the people they love is really super appealing and positive and awesome?  And that coming back a year from now and telling all those people that they’re not married anymore might not, uh, play so well?  In addition to being cruel beyond imagining?

There’s clearly a lot of push-back against Shelby’s decision.  Famously conservative State Senator Stuart Reid published a really extreme op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, kind of a ‘blood will run in the streets’ thing, imagining that the commitment to ‘rule of law’ by the good citizens of Utah may come to an end over this issue.  I just don’t think so, though.  Maybe I’m optimistic, but I really think most folks will take this in stride.

I know that I’m not exactly objective here.  Two of my closest friends on earth right now are a theatre director I’ve worked with frequently, and his husband, a superb actor who has appeared in several of my plays, with more to come in the future.  They’ve adopted a wonderful little boy, cutest tyke on the planet, and are deliriously happy with him and each other. The boy calls one of them ‘Papa’ and one of them ‘Daddy.’  It works great, and they’re conscientious and caring parents, as good as any parents I know. These aren’t just people I work with professionally, or people I’m acquainted with.  These are people I love.

I also have a nephew who’s a kind of Youtube celebrity.  His marriage proposal is now up to over 11 million views, over 8,000 comments.  He and his fiancee were on CNN this morning, talking about this week’s events.  They’re wonderful guys, and I love them both dearly, and can’t wait for their actual wedding in February.

And I have more gay friends, many more, former students and current colleagues.  I’ve spent my life in the theatre; I know a few gay people.  My father was an opera singer, I grew up with gay people.  Gayness isn’t weird or wrong or unnatural or foreign or odd to me.  It’s just normal.

That’s what we’ve been seeing for days now.  It’s become extraordinarily ordinary, remarkably unremarkable.  We’re seeing all these very average looking people, ecstatically happy as they commit their lives together.  Standing in line, in a snow storm, to commit their lives together.  Utah is now
the 18th state in which gay marriage is equal.  Mindblowing.  Normal.  Wonderful.


Making Spiderman a Musical

I just finished reading Glen Berger’s Song of Spiderman, his account of his role in creating one of the most famously troubled musicals in the history of Broadway.  I suppose reading it’s an exercise in schadenfreude, the moral equivalent of rubber-necking at a car accident.  I excused myself by calling it an educational exercise.  I’ve been doing theatre, as an actor, director and playwright, for well over thirty years now; thought maybe I could learn something from the professionals. In fact, though, it all felt much much too familiar.

Making a musical out of Spiderman isn’t, on the surface, a completely terrible idea.  Lots of popular and successful Broadway shows are based on pop culture, and many are based on popular movies.  People go to the theater for lots of reasons, at least one of which is to be dazzled.  I’m not a huge fan of Phantom of the Opera, but it does have a few great tunes, and it’s always amazing when that chandelier falls.  We go to see the helicopter land in Miss Saigon, to see the barricade in Les Mis, to see the blue girl fly in Wicked. I imagine the big aerial battle between Spidey and the Green Goblin could be very exciting in the theater.  And you can still see it.  The show’s hardly much of a success, but it is still playing in New York.  Lots of failed musicals hardly even open.

We go to the theater, in part, to see a story unfold (Spiderman has one), to hear great music (Spiderman has music by Bono and Edge–the creative team of U2), to see good actors perform (this is New York; the acting’s always going to be at least competent), and perhaps to be given something to think about (and Spidey is the most introspective and thoughtful of superheroes).  There’s no particular reason for the whole thing to have gone sour.

It also made sense for the initial producers to hire Julie Taymor to direct.  She’d already made one artistically satisfying silk purse out of a pop culture sow’s ear (The Lion King), and she wanted to do Spiderman. The problem is why.  Early in the process, reading early Spidey comic books, she discovered the very minor character of Arachne, the Greek Goddess of spiders, and that’s what interested her.  She wanted Arachne’s story to be front and center in her Spiderman.  She wanted a dark, sexually obsessive Spiderman. She didn’t want to do Spiderman much at all. She wanted to do Arachne: The Musical, also featuring. . . .

In other words, she wanted to make a 65 million dollar musical about a comic book franchise she neither understood nor particularly liked, and she wanted to put her disdain for its fan base front and center.  She created a Geek chorus of Spiderman fans. That’s not a misspelling: Geek chorus. They commented on the action, yes, and provided vocal backing for the music, but they also were there to be made fun of–they were on-line, comic book culture personified.

(I’ve done that.  I wrote a musical once based on a novel I didn’t like or respect.  It was a horrible experience.  It also was pretty successful commercially. I’m not going to tell you the name or circumstances; suffice it to say that as I read Berger’s account, it was with an unpleasant thrill of recognition).

The problem was, Taymor’s vision for the project was always just the wrong side of technically achievable.  Berger describes the production stage manager, a man of infinite patience and humor and competence, who would, daily, ask for a short break, so he could run out and throw up. The flying stunts Taymor and Berger imagined were so elaborate they became unsafe, and the show became plagued with actor and dancer injuries.  The rigging for those stunts was so extensive, there was no place for speakers.  So one of the main attractions for audiences, the music of Bono and The Edge, was all fuzzed out and ugly in the house, essentially impossible to mix.  After the first, all-day technical rehearsal, Berger looked at his script, and realized that over the course of a long and exceptionally frustrating day, they had managed to tech the first 41 seconds of their show.  That’s all.  And, it turned out, that was a pretty good day.

At times, Berger’s descriptions of the show’s many many difficulties can be pretty funny, in a terrifying sort of way.  For example, at one point, Peter Parker is supposed to sing a song mourning the death of his beloved Uncle Ben.  He’s supposed to sing this song while kneeling on Ben’s bed.  So they designed a mechanical, remote controlled bed, that was supposed to come on-stage so it could be sung/cried upon.  Only it never worked.  Peter would hit his mark, and the bed would come careening off in various random directions, with Peter emoting like a madman while chasing the darn thing down.

Here’s the other thing, though, and my main take-away from the book.  The show took forever to tech, and had nearly a year’s worth of preview performances while they worked out various problems–240 preview performances all told.  And the solution to the show’s many problems became increasingly obvious to everyone.  It was narratively confusing, too elaborate, in large measure because it was far too dominated by Arachne’s character.

So Berger sees this, comes up with what he calls Plan X.  A complete re-write.  De-emphasize Arachne.  Have it be about Spidey and the Green Goblin. Cut half the stunts; keep the coolest ones, and give the sound people room on the grid for their speakers.  Have the show be about Spiderman, aerial acrobatics, and the music of Bono and Edge. Cut the Geek Chorus entirely. Cut back on the Arachne stuff.

He writes up a fifteen page treatment, outlining the changes he thinks are required.  The producer reads it: approves.  Edge and Bono love it.  Everyone’s aboard (except the actress playing Arachne).  They meet.  And Julie Taymor goes ballistic.  And wins.  And the endless previews continue, her vision unimpeded.

It’s a rule of theatre–heck, a rule of life–that sometimes decisions get made by the one person most willing to be unpleasant about things.  Sometimes the loudest voice in the room, the voice screaming and throwing tantrums, wins, because everyone else wears down.  That’s wrong.  That’s sad.  But it can sometimes be true.  My brother had a boss once like that.  He was in the corporate arena, and my brother, an entirely decent and exceptionally good-at-his-job kind of guy had a vision for the company.  But his boss won every argument, not because he was right, but because he was horrible.  Grown-up tantrums work.  Would that they didn’t.  But that’s reality–some people win through intimidation, even when they’re wrong.

Bono and the Edge have been the heart of one of the world’s greatest rock bands for over thirty years. You don’t succeed in that business by being easy to cow.  Spiderman‘s producer, Michael Cohl, produced the last Rolling Stones’ tour–you don’t produce a major tour by the Stones by being easy to intimidate.  These are all tough-minded, confident people.  But Julie Taymor achieved it.  She won, time and time again, because she was the Artist with A Vision, and nobody tells her what to do, and her tantrums were essentially nuclear.  She comes across in the book as a bit of a tragic heroine, honestly.  But then I’m not sure Medea would be all that much fun to work with either.

Finally, Cohl had no choice but to fire her.  A new director was hired, and a new book writer.  Plan X was implemented–that’s the show still running at the Foxwoods Theater today.  I haven’t seen it, except for Youtube clips.  I rather like some of the music, but then I’ve always been a U2 fan.

William Goldman is famous for saying, about show biz, ‘nobody knows anything.’  Nobody knew that Spiderman‘s budget would triple, or that the aerial stunts it required would nearly kill a dancer, or that all the other disasters associated with the show would happen.  But great art comes from a single controlling artistic vision, uncompromisingly pursued.  And that’s also where the worst flops come from. And you never know in advance which any show is going to be.  Why does anyone do this for a living?

Jon Stewart: dead wrong about something

I love The Daily Show. I watch it every morning–can’t stay up late enough to watch it live–and I think its incredibly funny.  He’s been wrong a lot lately, but that doesn’t change the fact that Jon Stewart is the most consistently funny political comedian of my lifetime, and a thoughtful and incisive interviewer.

People get two things wrong about Jon.  First of all, Jon’s favorite targets are not politicians or policies, but the media’s coverage of them.  He loves to attack Fox News, for example, because he thinks their particular brand of ideologically driven news is really really funny.  But he attacks CNN as much or more, because their desperation for ratings gives their broadcasts a show-offy edge that’s hilarious.  It’s been interesting to watch Jon’s coverage recently of Toronto mayor Rob Ford.  I mean, you have to cover Rob Ford if you’re a politically-inclined comedian.  “I only smoke crack cocaine when I’m in a drunken stupor in my basement.  Only then.”  That’s funny stuff.  But Jon clearly feels guilty–well, ambivalent– about it.  Let’s face it, Rob Ford is a guy with a serious, life-threatening problem.  If he drops dead, that’s not so funny.

Jon does get into politics, a lot, and he’s never funnier than when he’s really really ticked off about something.  And I tend to agree with him.  This creates the impression that he’s a serious political player, a commentator who we should listen to and regard.  I don’t think that’s true, mostly.  He’s a comedian.  As he puts it, “I don’t think what I do is honorable.  But I try to do it honorably.”

But on one issue, he’s completely, wholly, entirely wrong.  And it’s an issue he’s spent two whole shows on recently.  And I have to speak up here.  Friends tell friends the truth, and Jon, I’m sorry, but you’re allowing your own parochial provincialism to blind you to the truth of things.  Here’s Jon’s initial rant. I’ll grant you, it’s passionate, strongly stated.  Colorful images and metaphors.  But I’m here to tell you something you clearly need to hear.

Chicago-style stuffed pizza is delicious.

In grad school, I worked for three years in a pizza parlor.  Garcia’s Pizza, it was called, owned by a company called the Flying Tomato Brothers.  We sold deep dish pizza by the slice.  And then we expanded, and included a stuffed pizza option. It didn’t take long for stuffed to dominate our menu. I still make it at home, for my kids.  It’s incredible pizza.  It’s amazing.

And yes, I’ve been to New York.  I’ve eaten New York style flat pizza.  And I’m a civilized human being.  I eat New York pizza the way God intended, off a paper plate, folded.  Skinny end first.  And it’s okay.  It’s not bad, as a change of pace.  For those days when you really feel more like crust, and are willing to short-change the cheese and the sauce.

What New York pizza really does, though, is emphasize pepperoni.  And pepperoni, though tasty, gives people heartburn.  That’s the whispered secret behind why New Yorkers are so in-your-face confrontational.

When you go to New York, you become a New Yorker; that’s just basic survival.  I remember flying into Kennedy from overseas one time.  We were standing in a line waiting to go through customs.  Each person in line was going to a different customs official, and then the line would re-form as we headed to ground transport.  As we approached the customs desks, the woman ahead of me said, in that strident New York accent, “when we get through customs, and go back in line, I’m still ahead of you.  I’m not arguin’, just bein’ informational.  I’m in front.”  ‘Infumational’ is how she put it. And she wasn’t kidding.  If my customs guy was faster than hers, it was my obligation to wait for her to finish, so she could still be ahead of me in line.  And she wasn’t confronting me about this fact; she was informing me of it.  She was in front of me.  Just sayin’.

There’s an appropriate New York response to that and similar announcements, I’ve learned.  It consists of two words, the second one ‘you’, the first one beginning with the letter ‘f.’  But I’m a nice Mormon boy from Indiana/Utah.  I allowed myself to be cowed.  Intimidated.  By a fifty-ish red-haired woman a foot and a half shorter than I am.  I finished with customs first, then waited so she could be ahead of me in the next line.

But why would she say that?  Why would she be ‘infumational’ on that point, so confrontational, with a total stranger.  The real answer, I’m convinced, is New York pizza.  The pure acidulous pepperoni, unleavened and untamed by copious amounts of mozzarella cheese and marinara sauce, had curdled the milk of human kindness in her.  She had been raised to eat pizza aggressively, folding the crust, biting down in the tip.  Instead of savoring it, on a plate, with a knife and fork, and really getting the full flavor of all that melted mozz.

Jon did make amends, after a Chicago restauranteur came by the show with some deep dish, allowing as how it was ‘tasty.’  But what the guy gave him was just deep dish, maybe with a hint of stuffed crust.  It wasn’t full blown stuffed pizza, the kind Jon–in what I can only defend as a sad lapse caused by short-term temporary early-onset dementia– had referred to as ‘a marinara bath for rats.’   Even Jon’s new pizza mogul friend dismissively called stuffed pizza ‘a casserole.’  It saddens me. Jon Stewart, who I love and admire, is closing himself off to one of the essential joys of the human experience; one of the world’s culinary treasures.  I’d bake him a stuffed crust pizza myself, if only he could be persuaded to come to my home so I could cook it for him.

He’s also wrong about Hawaiian.  Deep dish pizza with ham and pineapple–the sweetness of the fruit setting off the tartness of the sauce–is another treasure.  But Jon may be confused.  He called ham and pineapple ‘California’ pizza.  And California does indeed do terrible things to pizza.  Close to my home is a California Pizza Kitchen, part of that chain.  They sell many many varieties of pizza there, all of them, without exception, completely inedible.  It amazes me–I’ve seen people go in there, sit down, and pay good cash money for pizza that tastes like someone poured catsup on a soda cracker.  Of their own free will and choice!?!?!?  Sometimes I don’t understand people.

So I get it, and I agree there are some things civilized human beings simply must never do.  Put chicken on pizza, for example.  Or buy Little Caesars on the way home from work.  Or Dominos.  (Pizza Hut and Pizzaria 712 are the only home delivery options worth eating in Provo).  Brick Oven makes an okay pizza in Provo, though I’m not a huge fan of their crust.  But ham and pineapple is terrific.  And stuffed crust is the best. The best.  Ever.

And when in New York, sort of as part of your overall cultural experience, a New York flat pizza can be choked down without too much difficulty.  It goes 1) stuffed; 2) deep dish Hawaiian; 3) other deep dish; 4) commercial delivery pizza, 5) New York pizza, 6) every other kind of pizza imaginable; 7) cardboard, covered with Heinz; 8) California Pizza Kitchen.

And yes, I’ve had Italian pizza, in Italy.  It’s basically flavored bread.



Terrible people: great art

My wife and I are going to see the Ender’s Game movie tonight.  Ever since it was announced, I had friends who would ask me, sometimes rather challengingly, ‘are you planning to see it?’  I guess because I’m a well-known leftie, pinko commie, and Orson Scott Card has said some things that, uh, suggest he isn’t.

So there’s a boycott.  And it’s the kind of boycott that someone like me seems likely to support.  So do I support it?  Am I going to see the movie?  Let me end the suspence: my wife and I have purchased tickets already.  We’re seeing the movie.

I read Ender’s Game many years ago. I liked it.  I especially liked the triumph of a kid who was victim of bullies.  I could relate to it.  It wasn’t my favorite book ever or anything–I preferred Frank Herbert’s Dune–but I thought it was good.

In recent months, though, OSC seems to have begun, for whatever reason, positioning himself at the Jon McNaughton end of the political spectrum.  His right as an American, of course, just as it’s my right to write long blog posts taking issue with his views. Whatever; he’s a fine novelist and a brother in the gospel.  He also has weird ideas about President Obama, and ideas about gay rights I don’t agree with.  Free country.

But boycott the movie?  No, I don’t think so. No way.  First, because I have no intention of depriving myself of the pleasure of seeing a movie I’ve wanted to see for years.  I’ve read mixed reviews; I have to think, though, that it’s going to be better than the movie version of Frank Herbert’s Dune.  Lo freaking l.

The larger question, though, is this: do we not see various works of art based on our personal disapproval of the lifestyle, ideas or personal obnoxiousness of the artist.  Pablo Picasso was a pig; does that negate the extraordinary beauty of Guernica?  Richard Wagner was a womanizer and seducer, who held utterly disgusting political views; does that prevent me from attending a performance of Tannhäuser?

When I was in grad school, working on my dissertation, I was allowed a dedicated desk in the library.  It was soon piled high with Ibseniana. The desk next to mine was equally covered with books about Bertold Brecht; the desk of my friend Cynthia, who was working on BB for her dissertation.  One day, we were both up there, and she was reading her stuff and taking notes, and I was reading mine, and she sighed, sat back, and said to me, “what’s it feel like studying someone who was, at least, a decent, moral human being?”  Which Brecht was not.

Except, except.  I’m an Ibsen scholar and an Ibsen translator; I think Henrik Johan was one of the greatest playwrights who ever lived, part of a holy trinity that includes Shakespeare and Sophocles.  So you study him, and sure, he was obnoxious.  Grumpy, irritable, egotistical.  But anyone who studies Ibsen seriously runs, soon enough, into the Emilie Bardach problem.  The Helene Raff problem. And the Hildur Andersen problem. Ibsen, in his sixties, liked young women.  He certainly had an affair with Emilie Bardach–her journal and letters have been recently discovered.  He spent huge amounts of time with Andersen and Raff–teenage girls.  It’s quite possible, in fact, that Ibsen was, by our standard, a pedophile.

And he wrote about it.  Only one character appears in two of his plays; Hilde Wangel.  We meet her as a teenager in The Lady From the Sea, and she reappears as a twenty-year-old in The Master Builder.  And The Master Builder is about an elderly artist, past his prime, who is inspired to greatness again by a relationship with a fascinating young woman.

Here’s the thing: it’s also a tremendous play.  It’s terrific.  It’s creepy and has weirdly pedophiliac overtones, but it’s also brilliant. A good play can do that, can show a mutually destructive and icky relationship between a really old guy and a really young woman, and turn it into art. Does it excuse pedophilia?  Portrayal is not advocacy; the play ends tragically.  So Ibsen as an elderly playwright, has an affair with a teenager, and writes, as a result, a play about an elderly architect who has an affair with a teenager.  And it’s a really good play.

This is my point.  I personally disapprove in the strongest possible terms of elderly married men having affairs with girls young enough to be their grand-daughters.  I think that’s reprehensible behavior.  My favorite playwright–a playwright I have spent most of my life studying and writing about and translating–not only did that, but rubbed our faces in it.  Wrote one of his greatest plays about the very behavior I despise.  How do we handle all that?

We recognize that art is about life–it’s a testimony about lived experience. And that life isn’t always pretty.  And that we sin, we humans, we sin all the time.  And writers write what they know.  Including sins, including, in fact, the specific sins they created.

So Wagner was a womanizer, and wrote these magnificent, sensuous operas about, among other things, sexual longing, sexual attraction, passion and obsession.  And Ibsen was inspired by young women–they fascinated him, and became subjects for his plays.  And Picasso didn’t just live a life of moral relativism, he placed relativism–or at least relativity–as the central organizing theory of his paintings.

Art celebrates humanity, all of it, even the grubby bits. It transforms experience, even even nasty experiences.  We can avert our eyes.  Sometimes, maybe we should. But no, we don’t say ‘I won’t see that; the artist, I heard, was a bad person.’  It’s art.  Honest, it is; it’s not a cesspool.  How can we tell? Take a swim.