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Miss Julie: Movie Review

Liv Ullmann’s 2014 film version of August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, is finally out on DVD, making it available to those of us who live in the hinterlands without an art house in town. (For those of you pointing out that there are two art film theaters in Salt Lake, and that this did play there, where I could have seen it, I can only say, yes, I could have, but I didn’t. It’s an hour away, and I’m old. So there).

I love Miss Julie. It’s a brilliant play, possibly Strindberg’s masterpiece (though I’m also partial to Dance of Death and A Dream Play), a play many years ahead of its day, and also deeply anchored in the late 19th century. Dramaturgically, that is, the play feels like it could be written today–all that non sequitar dialogue, every interaction between its three characters subtextual and interior. And it’s ugly. It’s a play about sex and violence and lust and the lies men and women tell each other. But it’s also a play about the class and gender expectations of the late nineteenth century. Julie has, in part, internalized her father’s preposterous notions about educating young women, just as Jean’s ability to act disappears, and he is completely paralyzed when his master rings for him. That doesn’t mean it’s dated. It’s a play about how cultural norms warp and twist and damage us. It’s a play about how false and deadly class and gender and society falseness can be. The film feels old-fashioned and dated, a bit, because it’s a film based on a play–dialogue-heavy, with long, talky scenes. But it rewards our patience.

Ullmann has shifted the action from Sweden to Ireland, a brilliant choice. In a play where the characters are defined by social class, it helps to contrast the Irish servants, Jean and Christine (who become John and Kathleen) with their British aristocrat oft-absentee overlords, Julie and her father, the Baron (who never appears on-screen).  Class becomes front and center in these relationships every time the characters speak. And the cast is magnificent: Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John, Samantha Morton as Kathleen.

Of course, any production of Miss Julie requires a Julie who can meet the demands of that part. As Strindberg conceives her, Julie is a upper-class woman used to being obeyed, who, on a whim, at times, plays childishly at social leveling, then feigns shock when her servants resent it. Under that, is a budding sexuality, with its demands, and under that, a terrible, crippling insecurity and vulnerability. And under that, deadly, killing depression. Jean (or John, in this version), imagines himself to be undaunted by class, and free to play dangerous sexual games with someone in a position to destroy his life. In fact, he’s a weakling and a coward, which the sensible Christine (Kathleen here), knows in her bones, and is willing to be content with. He’s a valet; she’s a cook. Marrying him (which he seems to have hinted at, if not actually promised), is a step up for her, socially. So she waits on him, cooks special meals for him, sleeps with him. She’s the only character who sees right through John and Julie’s dangerous flirtations, and the only one interested in, though not capable of, pulling them back.

It can be a frustrating film to watch, I’ll grant that. The dialogue is opaque; they only rarely say what they’re actually thinking, and emotion drowns out clarity with alarming frequency. And it’s not an attractive film. Filmed at Castle Coole in County Fermanagh in Ireland, we don’t see much of the countryside, and almost nothing of the fancier areas of the castle. Mostly, the action takes place in Kathleen’s drab, functional kitchen. The focus is on the actors, on their physicality in that space. And Chastain is remarkable, with her angular face, her broken, stiff posture, her dress falling off her shoulder. The character ranges from imperious and commanding to suicidal, and Chastain makes it all work. Farrell is not a whit behind her, conveying both his self-delusion, his frankly open lust, and his dangerous and deadly weakness.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s in its depiction of the Midsummer’s Eve celebration of the other servants. That night, full of drunken revelry and open sexuality, is actively dangerous for Julie and John, a night when only the most rigid compliance with the rules of class distinctions can prevent class resentment turning violent. In the play, Julie and Jean take refuge in his bedroom out of desperate self-defense. In the movie, John’s offer of safe haven seems to have just a hint of a sexual agenda. Does Julie seduce him, does he seduce her, do they willfully seduce each other? It’s a point Strindberg leaves unanswered. But in his play, we do see the other servants, as their party destroys Christine’s domain, the kitchen. I think we need that violence; the best productions I have seen don’t shy away from it, as Ullmann’s does. Ullmann’s filmmaking has a restraint and delicacy that work beautifully for most of the film. But when the film seems to require a harsher tone, she backs away from it a little.

Still, it’s quite wonderful. Liv Ullmann worked with Ingmar Bergman in ten films. She knows where to put the camera, and like Bergman, she also knows when the camera should linger, not on the speaker, but the hearer. Plus, it’s a superbly acted version of Miss Julie. What’s not to love?

John Grisham, Rogue Lawyer: book review

I have a confession to make; I really like John Grisham novels. I’ve read them all, I think, even the YA Theodore Boone, Kid Lawyer books, which are actually great fun. I fully agree that Grisham’s not a great prose stylist. He writes legal thrillers–so does Scott Turow, who is a better writer by far, a point Grisham has conceded. (In fact, Turow and Grisham are friends, and have worked together politically in opposition to the death penalty). But Grisham tells a great story, creates memorable (if a trifle flat) characters, and gets the legal details of his fictional cases right. And his heart’s in the right place. Grisham gives a lot of money for shelters for victims of domestic violence, and many of his novels seem to be as much about publicizing problems in the American legal system as they are about being entertaining potboilers.

I just re-read the last paragraph, and it occurs to me that my praise is pretty grudging. This is, after all, a writer who I really enjoy, and who has provided me with untold hours of reading pleasure. It’s quite possible that, as a fancy-pants intellectual type, I’m possibly a trifle embarrassed about liking a best-selling author of genre novels. Yikes. So let me start over; I really like John Grisham’s novels. And I just read the most recent of them, and it’s a corker. Get it; read it. Enjoy.

Most Grisham novels are about young idealistic lawyer protagonists. Often, Grisham’s heroes work in big soulless, horrible, New York law firms, hate everything about their lives, and quit when given a chance to Make A Difference (but for a lot less money). Grisham’s novels posit the law as a fundamentally neutral force in society. It can do a lot of good, in the right hands, and can shield and protect the worst elements in American society in the wrong hands. Grisham’s sympathies (and therefore, our sympathies) are with underdogs, but underdogs don’t really win all that often, which is why, in his more recent books, Grisham’s heroes have often ended up disillusioned. There’s also usually an issue Grisham’s books deal with; the plight of black-lung-suffering miners, for example, in Gray Mountain. Anyway, that’s Grisham; a popular story-teller, and a good guy, a man with a soul and a conscience, who uses his unique place in popular culture to try to do some good in the world.

His newest, Rogue Lawyer is a terrific read, but it’s really a departure. The hero, Sebastian Rudd, is a mean, tough, son-of-a-bitch, the ultimate bottom-feeding lawyer. He defends murderers and drug lords–he’ll defend anyone. (He couldn’t care less if the guy he’s defending is guilty or not–he’s going to try to get him off). He trawls for personal injury cases. He’s also a tremendous lawyer, though pretty thoroughly unethical; he’s constantly skating right on the edge of disbarment. He figures that prosecutors cheat and lie, so he needs to as well. His office is a van, and his best friend is also his bodyguard. His favorite recreation is MMA–his hobby is managing kick boxers. He’s divorced, and pretty well despises his ex-wife, but they manage to keep things (barely) civil for the sake of their son, a nice kid who Sebastian genuinely does love, though he nearly loses custody when he takes the kid to an MMA cage match.

Rudd is, in short, one of the most memorable and compelling lead characters Grisham has ever created. And the way Grisham uses him is equally fascinating. Usually, a legal thriller focuses on one case; Rogue Lawyer gives us four, each of them terrific. And each case illustrates beautifully a serious problem in the American legal system.

In the first case, for example, Rudd is defending a drug-addicted, brain damaged eighteen-year old accused of murder, a murder he did not commit. Not that Rudd cares if he committed it or not, but as it happens, Gardy, the defendant, is actually innocent. He’s also a loser, a semi-homeless petty thief, with multiple tattoos and piercings and a perpetual smirk to further endear him to a middle-class jury. The murder victim is young, attractive, female and middle-class. The prosecution wants the death penalty. It’s a highly publicized case. And Rudd’s client didn’t do it.

And that’s exactly the kind of defendant most likely to be found guilty despite the lack of any forensic evidence, and exactly the kind of defendant likely to be given the death penalty. And, frankly, Gardy is the kind of defendant likely to be assigned a public defender. He gets lucky; Rudd takes the case, not for the money, but precisely because it’s a highly publicized case; he loves notoriety. And, of course, Rudd’s defense is riveting; the description of the trial’s a real page turner. But the entire case, and Grisham’s discussion of it, is clearly an indictment of our entire criminal justice system relating to capital cases. I loved it on both levels.

The whole book’s like that. Rudd becomes a kind of symbol of both the worst and the best aspects of the American legal system. He’s a tremendous lawyer; he’s also a cynical, scabrous, mean, foul-mouthed jerk. And Grisham uses him superbly, to shed light on where our legal system has gone wrong, where, in particular, our lawmakers have failed. We see the consequences of the over-the-top militarization of the police. We see how far cops will go to protect their own. We see a venal and corrupt governor, who Rudd is able to manipulate to get some rough justice for a client.

The book’s going to be a movie, and I found myself wondering who would play Rudd. Who has that edge; who can play mean? Leonardo DiCaprio, maybe.

The entire book’s a thrill ride, thoroughly enjoyable, and pleasantly thought-provoking. It’s a fast and easy read, but it’s also trying to do some good in the world. I loved the time I spent with Sebastian Rudd, and can say that Rogue Lawyer is easily my favorite John Grisham novel. And I really like his work.


American fraud: University Assessment

I used to teach at a major University. I don’t anymore. I was once tenured faculty; I’m not anymore, for health reasons. I miss teaching, I miss interacting with sharp kids. And I miss good colleagues who became good friends. And I find that old habits die hard. Nothing I do now is governed by the academic calendar, but I am still aware of that calendar, and I do think ‘today, I would be meeting new students, yesterday would have been filled with department meetings.’ And that’s the part of university life that I don’t miss at all. Meetings, and especially meetings about university assessment.

‘Assessment’ essentially describes the way professors determine whether or not students are learning anything in their classes. At least, that’s the idea; to describe it so reasonably essentially involves slathering huge quantities of lipstick on some fabulously ugly pigs. We’re supposed to decide what ‘learning outcomes’ we expect from our students. We then devise ‘assessment instruments (or ‘rubrics’), and measure outcomes. And then adjust our teaching in response to those findings. Numbers are good. If you can prove that ‘learning outcomes’ are being achieved, and can prove it statistically, that’s the holy grail. The powers that be want evidence based educational improvement.

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently published a terrific article by Erik Gilbert. In case you don’t want to bother with the link, he says that his kids are heading off to college, and as they prepared to make that important decision, he realized that he didn’t care about their assessment programs:

My lack of curiosity about assessment when making an important choice about my children’s education probably surprises no one, but it should. It’s unsurprising in that no one, higher-ed insider or not, ever seems to worry about this when choosing a college. No admissions officer ever touted his institution’s assessment results. No parent ever exclaimed, “Suzy just got into Prestigious College X. I hear they are just nailing their student learning outcomes!”

Gilbert then continues to describe his experience with assessment:

Every year on my annual productivity report I write a mandatory and usually somewhat contrived narrative describing the ways in which I have changed my courses and teaching in response to the assessment data from the previous year. As an administrator, I sit on the Learning Outcomes Assessment Committee. . . .

So, what does it say that I looked at climbing walls, not assessments, when making a significant and expensive decision about my sons’ educations? It says that I, like virtually everyone else, don’t think that good assessment makes good universities and well-educated students or that bad assessment makes bad universities and poorly educated students. In fact, I am starting to wonder if assessment may actually do more harm than good.


The dirty little secret of higher education is that assessment–which involves a huge expenditure of time and resources–is essentially worthless, if not actually harmful. The key, in fact, is the line ‘mandatory and somewhat contrived narrative.’ Because he’s trying to be fair and balanced and reasonable, he understates: the narrative of assessment is essentially fraudulent.

I admit that my views on this subject are extreme. When assessment was presented to us in various department and college faculty meetings, I made an obnoxious pest of myself by asking, repeatedly, why we were wasting time with this ridiculous nonsense. That phrase, ‘ridiculous nonsense,’ led to a meeting with a Higher Administrator. Who admitted that, of course assessment was worthless. But we had to do it, so stop rocking the boat. Which I did. To the dismay of many many colleagues, who privately told me that my anti-assessment tirades were both entertaining and spot-on, so please don’t stop.

What never happened, though, not once, not ever, was any attempt to sell the program on its merits. If, for example, some trusted senior colleagues had spoken, talked about how valuable assessment had been to them, how much their teaching had improved; if any respected figure in higher education had ever once offered a testimonial, I think we might have been better disposed towards it. Never happened. Instead it was the worst kind of top-down management; you are doing this, period, so shut up.

Anyway. I taught playwriting. Here’s how you teach playwriting. You have students write plays. They read them aloud in class, and you lead a discussion, offering feedback. The students are asked to re-write their plays. A couple of weeks later, we read the re-write, offer more feedback. Repeat as necessary. Then, if possible, produce the play.

“But how can you know, how can you demonstrate, that the plays have actually improved, that the feedback really did help?” This from a senior assessment administrator. “What rubric can you devise to assess your method?” And this is what she suggested. Contact all the other college playwriting teachers in the state. Send them my students’ plays; get them to send me their students’ plays in response. Come up with a form, breaking plays down into different categories: characters, structure, dialogue, stagecraft/theatricality. Assign points to each play in each category. Everyone reads everyone’s students’ plays, and all assess them according to these criteria. If a play’s first draft scores a 30, and the rewrite scores a 45, then the feedback you offered was helpful.

I came out of that meeting greatly discouraged. Essentially, I would need to read four times as many student plays as I was already reading, and so would my friends at other schools. We were talking about a prodigious amount of work, all to prove what? That plays improve when they’re re-written?

Then, it occurred to me, that I had two alternatives. I could do all that, send bundles of plays off to colleagues at four other universities, do all that reading and assign all those numbers. Or I could just take ten minutes some afternoon and make up a bunch of numbers.

Guess which one I did.

Everyone did. I had another colleague who taught a beginning theory class. The students had various units in which they learned about various kinds of critical theory, and how to apply those theories to play texts: feminist theory, post-colonialism, deconstruction, new historicism, and so on. It was a terrific class, wonderfully taught by an energetic and imaginative colleague. The main assessment tool was a series of critical essays the students were expected to write at the end of each unit, applying the theory to the assigned play. Anyway, I was asked to be one of the assessors for that class, reading a ton of essays and assigning points in various categories: clear thesis, strong use of evidence, coherent argument, etc.

Here’s what we learned, and could prove (with numbers!). Some students were really into theory, and others much less so. Some students wrote really well, other students didn’t particularly. If a student didn’t like theory very much, and didn’t write very well, she could still work hard and do well in the class; this professor gave great feedback on the written work, with room for students to redraft.

So that’s what we learned. Obvious stuff that we already knew. Also, we learned, that the colleague teaching the class was really good at it. We knew that too. The next semester, I’ll admit, we kind of blew off all that reading. Making up numbers was way easier.

To be fair, the Chronicle also allowed someone to rebut Gilbert’s article, and Joan Hawthorne’s response is passionate and well written. It’s an administrator’s response, and describes the heady early years of assessment, a time when dinosaurs roamed the earth, insisting that what professors professed was more important than what students learned. I don’t buy it. The straw man she sets ablaze is certainly flammable, but no, there never was a time when professors didn’t care if students learned the material in their classes. I can say that with some confidence; my father, grandmother and aunt were all university professors.

At this point, I think the burden of proof is on assessment, not on its detractors. If assessment is so terrific, why have no faculty, anywhere, defended it? Why isn’t the literature replete with anecdotal evidence, with ‘I thought I was a good teacher, but assessment opened my eyes’ testimonials? Why do I have this sneaking suspicion that administrators and compliance officers are keeping assessment’s dessicated remains breathing because doing so justifies their bloated salaries and ever-expanding numbers? Why do I see this as analogous to primary education, with its preposterous proliferation of standardized tests for second-graders?

I will say this: many faculty fake the numbers. We learn the assessment jargon, and we pretend that assessment matters and that we’re doing it properly. I did, and so did every colleague with whom I interacted across campus. Assessment is just the latest edu-babble fad, super-attenuated but essentially worthless. It does no good, and never has, because it doesn’t actually serve the students. It is–here’s that phrase again–ridiculous nonsense. Time for it to go bye-bye.

The election of 2016, and 1828?

Yesterday, This Week with George Stephanopolous, featured a political event in Iowa. It looked sort of fun, with lots of balloons and tents and barbecue and shots of children eating corndogs and, you know, like, elephant ears. Several candidates were viewed in their natural habitat, presumably to eventually be tagged and released into the wild. And the politician/star around which all the moons revolved was, of course, that gas giant Donald Trump.

And so, journalist-turned-anthropologist Martha Radatz gathered a group (a pride, a murder, a coven?) of Trump supporters around her and asked the question bedeviling American political observers ever since His Hairness announced his candidacy: ‘what’s the deal with Trump?’ A high school girl (giddily anticipating voting for the first time), an old guy, a middle-aged woman; it was a diverse group, if one doesn’t think as ‘diversity’ as suggesting the presence of black or Hispanic or gay people. A diverse crowd of white, straight, middle-American Republicans, in other words. And they didn’t just like Trump, they really liked him; they were wildly enthusiastic about both his candidacy and what it portends. You could see it in their eyes. Genuine excitement.

And it was all about style. Every comment was some variation on a theme; he’s not an (epithet) politician. He’s not guarded in his speech, he doesn’t care if he offends people. He’s forceful, he’s tough, he’s strong, he’s direct. He’s unafraid. He says what he thinks. Nobody put it this way, but the fact that he doesn’t have the normal politician’s filter when he speaks was seen as a huge plus. Pundits have been predicting for weeks that the Trump bubble will burst, because no political figure can recover from, well, whatever. Insulting Mexicans, belittling John McCain’s military service, attacking Megyn Kelly. It didn’t matter. To the people in this focus group, what pundits might perceive as insulting and dismissive rudeness was a plus. It’s just Trump being Trump. Our country’s in a mess, and what’s needed is some plain talk and direct action.

It reminds the historian in me of the election of 1828. Look up that election on Wikipedia and you’ll learn that the key issues in that campaign was the Tariff of 1828, and also controversy over the election of 1824, an election that ended up in the House of Representatives, where Henry Clay ended up supporting John Quincy Adams, and was subsequently named Secretary of State, a turn of events that became known as ‘the corrupt bargain.’ But like the current election, 1828 was as much about style as it was about substance. Andrew Jackson was seen as a rough-hewn, plain-talking Man of the People (though, in fact, he was a wealthy plantation owner). Adams was seen as an effete Easterner, who owed his influence to wealthy bankers.

And of course, after Jackson was inaugurated, the Westerners who had supported him, uh, enjoyed a celebration. Okay, they totally trashed the White House. Margaret Bayard Smith, a Washington socialite of the period, described it thusly:

But what a scene did we witness! The Majesty of the People had disappeared, and a rabble, a mob, of boys, negros [sic], women, children, scrambling fighting, romping. What a pity what a pity! No arrangements had been made no police officers placed on duty and the whole house had been inundated by the rabble mob.

Furniture and china was destroyed, as was the White House carpeting. Finally, punch bowls full of booze were set out on the White House lawn to lure the mob out of doors. Jackson himself, meanwhile, had to sneak away to a nearby hotel.

Okay, 1828 is not 2015, the issues of their day are not the issues of today, and I don’t think that nice Iowa focus group is interested in grinding cheese into the White House carpet, and throwing tea cups at the wall. What does seem similar is the sense that ‘our’ country is slipping away from us, that powers beyond our control have taken over the political process, that whatever prosperity we’ve achieved since 2008 isn’t necessarily shared by all Americans. That Congress and the Presidency are under the thumb of monied interests; banks in 1828, corporate lobbyists today. And what’s needed now is a harsh and liberating dose of straight talk, of political incorrectness, of power wielded for the common good. That’s what Trump (and Andrew Jackson) seem, (seemed) to their supporters, to stand for. (Though, to be fair, Donald Trump hasn’t actually shot anyone in a duel. Which Andy Jackson was kinda known for: 103 duels altogether.)

Andrew Jackson makes a lot of ‘top ten Presidents’ lists. And I suppose, as a Democrat, I’m supposed to admire the founder of the Democratic party. I don’t. The two great moral evils our country committed on its way to prosperity were chattel slavery, and the brutal mistreatment of our Native American populations. Jackson participated with great energy and enthusiasm in both. He didn’t just own slaves, he bought and sold them, and he was the author of the unspoken pact in which the Democratic party would stand by the South’s ‘peculiar institution.’ He pushed the Indian Removal Act through Congress, and was therefore the instigator of the Trail of Tears. He ignored the Supreme Court when it suited him to. He opposed the Bank of America, setting back the economy by fifty years. (I think it’s hilarious that he’s on the 20 dollar bill. The one guy in US history most opposed to a national currency got his face put on the bill we all use the most. That’s a joke that never gets old). He didn’t think the federal government should build roads or bridges.

He was, in short, a cantankerous, obstreperous, hot-headed SOB. He was wrong about pretty much every major issue of the day. So, no, I’m not saving room on Mt. Rushmore for the guy.

But at least he was decisive. Slavery, and the north/south tensions created by a slave-driven economy, was the most festering wound in our body politic in the 1830s. He dealt with it. Something had to be done about Native American populations. He did something. I think he was wrong in both instances, but that’s an easy, armchair judgment for me to make; at least the man didn’t back away from major problems.

(And, again, like Trump, he was sort of obsessed with fake/nonsense issues. For Trump, it’s illegal immigration, for Jackson, the ‘incipient despotism’ of building a coastal light house).

Look, I’m not saying that Donald Trump is the next Andrew Jackson. And I’m certainly not saying that what we need is a Jackson Democrat; a return to the common sense of average people. At the same time, I do understand being fed-up with the status quo, and I absolutely understand the desire for someone completely different, someone radical and transgressive. Maybe that person is Bernie Sanders. Maybe it’s Jim Webb. Maybe it’s someone brand new.

I do think that the pre-ordained favorites, Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton, are not actually reading the mood of the country very well. And, amazingly, Donald Trump is. We’re a very long way off, but already this election is . . . interesting.

Towards fun

I was having a conversation this morning with my son, and, as is our wont, we got to talking about what we’re reading right now. He’s working his way through the Game of Thrones novels, which I haven’t read yet, but undoubtedly will. He mentioned that some people think George R. R. Martin doesn’t write particularly well, but he thought the extraordinary plot construction, characters and story threads more than made up for whatever deficiencies the man may have as a prose stylist. And then my son said something profound. He said ‘reading is supposed to be fun.’

Yes! Yes, a thousand times yes! Obviously, we read for hundreds of reasons–to pass the bar exam, to figure out who-dun-it, to laugh out loud, to use up tedious/terrifying minutes in the dentist’s office. But those of us who love to read mostly do it because it’s fun. It’s fun to learn about the world. It’s fun to explore imaginary worlds. It’s fun to keep up with old friends, or to make new ones. It’s fun to root for the good guys to win, and for the bad guys to lose, and for the ordinary schlubbs in the middle to at least survive. Sometimes, in fact, I root for the bad guys to win, if they’re sufficiently rogueish and attractive. Anti-heroes are a hoot.

I am a theatre person, and I love going to a theater to see a play. While there, I expect to be entertained. Of course, ‘entertained’ is a contested term; I’m quite entertained by plays that some of you may find as exciting as watching grass grow. But I think we’re basically in agreement about some basics. We want to see a play that will move us, touch us, make us think, lead to conversation. We want to see believable characters we can care about (even if they’re bounders). Same with movies. I’m not saying I only want to see action/adventure, with car crashes and ‘splosions and movie stars running unscathed through enemy machine gun fire. What I do want is fun. That can mean a slow-paced film with lots of long conversations, if what the characters say is crackling sharp-witted (or engagingly dim-witted) and full of conflict.

As Kai and I were talking, I asked him what his response would be if I told him that I had two books which I knew he hadn’t read, and he could have either one–one by Elmore Leonard and the other by John Updike. His response was immediate, and was the same mine would be: Elmore Leonard, in a New York minute. To heck with the books lit professors assign to their classes. Though in fact, lots of lit professors nowadays may well assign Leonard.

This isn’t to say that I can’t or won’t read literary fiction, or that I only like crappy genre novels. In fact, I do like crappy genre novels, but my favorite contemporary (or ‘sort of contemporary’) novelist is the famously difficult David Foster Wallace. And I know that Jonathan Frandzen is Wallace’s writer bestie, and I love Frandzen too. But I will go to my grave insisting that Stephen King and Donald Westlake are as good (and as important and as vital and as ‘important’) as any other writers in America. The ‘genre v. literary’ dichotomy is so much nonsense; what I want is a good story well told.

But what I really loathe is the idea of medicinal art. You know what I mean. It’s the idea that seeing Great Works of Art is good for us, is edifying, enlarges our understanding, inoculates us from ‘worldly’ shallowness, teaches us uplifting and morally upright principles. And I suppose that there’s a level at which all that happens. But I don’t generally give a crap about being edified. My morality is my business; what I want from an artist is something, well, fun.

Pitch Perfect 2: Movie Review

The first Pitch Perfect movie came out three years ago, and kind of took people by surprise. It was a word-of-mouth success. I’ve heard from lots of people who had the same reaction my wife and I did; we weren’t much interested, but so many friends recommended it, we decided to give it a chance. And were blown away. It was a movie of gross-out humor, exuberant energy, and lots of terrific a cappella music. I didn’t even know that national a cappella pop music competitions were a thing, though I did know that lots of local a cappella groups were popping up in and around Provo. And we’re big fans of Pentatonix, and were thrilled to see that quintet make a too-brief cameo appearance in the second movie. The sequel has the same energy and sense of fun the first one did, and the music is every bit as delightful. It is, however, a subtly different movie than the first one, and I think, is a stronger film, a little more sure of itself. Here’s why I say this: the movies are very similar, but the first one was, frankly, pretty much a rom-com. This one isn’t. I found it kind of confidently and surprisingly Bechdel-test-friendly, and really liked it for that reason.

Both movies are essentially structured the same. In both films, the all-female a cappella group, the Barden College Bellas, compete in formal singing competitions. The films are structured, frankly, like sports films; we meet the members of the team, see them work through personal and team issues relating to their ability to compete, culminating in a final high-stakes game/match/contest. Which, SPOILER, they win. I mean, come on; we’ve seen hundreds of these things; the good guys always win, right? The journey’s the point.

There is this difference, though. In the first film, one of the main conflicts involves Beca (Anna Kendrick), a gifted music arranger and singer, but not really a Bella type. She’s not sweetly feminine; she’s alt-indie chick. And she meets a guy, Jesse (Skylar Astin) the lead singer for a rival a cappella group, and their romance is beset by competition-related vicissitudes. Both the romance and the competition come together at the end, when she includes “Don’t you forget about me” from The Breakfast Club (his favorite movie) in the Bellas’ final set. The Bellas win, and Beca gets her man.

Here’s the difference. Jesse’s still a character in Pitch Perfect 2, which is set three years after the earlier movie. He and Beca are still together. That’s it; there’s no conflict involving them. They’re a couple now; it’s all good. The conflict now is that Beca is getting worried about what she’s going to do when she graduates from college. The Bellas are, after all, an extra-curricular activity for her. She’s going to need to get along with her life. She wants to become a music producer, and has landed an internship as a crucial step towards that goal. Her boss is a big deal producer-type (amusingly played by Keegan-Michael Key). (In one of the movie’s funniest scenes, they’re trying to record a track for a Snoop Dogg Christmas album–we get to hear Snoop sing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland”). And she has a bit of a break-through. There’s a new girl in the Bellas, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), who writes music; Beca produces a song for her, and it’s good; a nice little pop song. Not great, but a song that might advance both their careers.

That relates to the main conflict of the film; what will the Bellas do when they graduate? What will these talented, intelligent young women make of their lives, and how will the spirit of sisterly comradeship they’ve developed as Bellas help them?  Chloe (Brittany Snow), the Bella’s leader, is terrified at the prospect. Aubrey (Anna Camp), a co-leader of the group in the last movie, has already made that transition. She runs a teamwork-building corporate-retreat outdoors camp for big business, and she’s, uh, amusingly forceful in that role. Fat Amy (Rebel Wilson) is the only character who really gets much of a romantic relationship in the movie, and it’s very much a sub-plot. (Fat Amy, BTW, is the character’s listed name, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s the one who ends up with a boyfriend).

The first movie was directed by Jason Moore, and it employs the ‘big competition’ structure to essentially explore a romantic relationship. It defined its protagonist, Beca, romantically. This movie is directed by a woman, Elizabeth Banks, who turned it into a subversively funny feminist comedy. Banks also plays Gail, one of the two a cappella announcers who comment on the competitive action–her partner, John, was brilliantly played by John Michael Higgins. Gail and John are hilarious throughout in both films, but honestly, I thought they were meaner, and therefore funnier this time around. Higgins was spectacularly clueless, and Banks plays Gail as equally unaware, a sexist-pig-enabler, if you will. Anyway, I think it’s significant that a woman directed this movie. Banks is a smart, savvy actress, and she turns this slight, fun comedy into a feminist fable. It’s a movie about young women growing up, growing together, competing together, supporting each other. It’s a movie in which the romantic partners and romantic lives of women are basically irrelevant to the plot, subordinate to their professional aspirations and achievements. A movie in which young women embrace feminism with exuberant good cheer; what’s not to like?

Throughout the movie, of course, the music is terrifically sassy and energized and fun. The Bellas’ big rival is a German a cappella band that my wife and I ended up calling ‘The Hitler Youth.’ (Actually Das Sound Machine; even funnier). With their stage outfits straight from Kraftwerk, and their scary Teutonic discipline, I loved everything they did, most especially an a cappella arrangement of Muse’s hit, “Uprising.” Best of all, a scene in which a variety of goofy ensembles engage in a kind of improv battle of the a cappellas; funny, funny stuff.

The film’s inciting incident, the plot point that launches the main story, comes early on, when the Bellas give a command performance for, among others, President Obama. And Fat Amy, doing a kind of Cirque du Soleil dance wrapped in cloth, (to Miley Cyrus’ “Wrecking Ball”) gets all tangled up, and her skin-tight trousers split. And, to the horror of the crowd, she slowly rotates up there, and exposes her vagina. (We don’t see it; the story is told through reaction shots). The crowd’s reaction is appropriately over-the-top; basically everyone overreacts as though Amy had committed some kind of gross indecency. She didn’t. She had a wardrobe mishap, an accident. She flashed the President. Not the end of the world. Though that’s how it’s treated.

I’m sorry, but I think that crowd overreaction was intentional. I mean, imagine the same scene with a male actor. Let’s suppose a performer had a wardrobe malfunction in which he dropped his trousers, exposing his penis. I think the reaction would be amusement; some outrage, possibly, but not this kind of ‘it’s the end of the world’ hysteria. Maybe I’m reading feminist commentary into a simple comic stunt and plot point, but given the rest of the movie, I don’t think so. I think Elizabeth Banks is pointing to a specific kind of cultural anatomical hypocrisy. And power to her.

Anyway, my wife and I had a blast. What do you know? A movie about an all-female musical ensemble that ends up being about, well, women, and female achievement and solidarity and ambition, about talented young women finding their collective voice.

Mad Men, the finale

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats’ feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

The central rule of television narrative is that there has to be the constant illusion of change, without anything actually changing.  Most individual TV episodes have to serve two major story objectives. There’s a micro story: we’re on this planet, and there’s a problem that has to be solved, or there’s been a murder, and the bad guy has to be identified and arrested, or one of the guys at the bar has a problem that needs resolving. And there’s also a larger macro story, relating to the central conflict of the entire series: Voyager’s lost a long way from home, Detective Kate Beckett’s Mom was murdered, and that murder nags at her, Sam and Diane are desperately in love, something neither can ever acknowledge. And of course, it can get ridiculously formulaic, even in classic TV series. Did you see the episode of Home Improvement where Tim inadvertently hurts his wife’s feelings, and the neighbor advises him on how to fix it? Or the Bewitched where Endora casts a spell on one of the Darrens, and Samantha has to save his career? Or the episode of I Love Lucy, where Lucy gets a new idea of a career she might try, Ricky tells her not to, she does it anyway and makes a frightful (and funny) hash of it. And then he forgives her. (Blarg!)

But in recent years, thanks in part to new producing entities, like HBO and TNT, we’ve seen some of the best writers in America have turned to writing multi-episode long-form television series, like Shakespeare did with the War of the Roses. Which is why some of the best writing in current American culture is happening, not in novels or films, but on television. And why we’re in the midst of a new Golden Age of television. Nowadays, the point isn’t just to keep a story going indefinitely. Now, there really is a discernable end towards which the macro narrative is heading. And when we get there, in a final culminating episode, it’s a magnificent viewing experience. And afterwards, we sit there, in front of our TV sets, and only when we let our breath out, do we realize that we’ve forgotten, for a moment, to breathe.

And that was what happened last night, with the final episode of Mad Men.

At its best, Mad Men wasn’t really even about narrative. It bordered on the surreal, at times, while also, paradoxically, grounding itself in sociology. It deconstructed the sixties, but mostly the sixties that I remember, a sixties where anti-war protesters and hippie spiritualism existed, sure, in magazines and in the songs we’d sometimes hear on the radio, but which was mostly pretty distant from our everyday concerns. Which were consumerist, honestly. I was a kid in the sixties, and I remember Christmas, and the build-up to Christmas and the marvelous feeling of anticipation over all of that year’s new toys. And then the toys would arrive under our tree, and my gosh they were terrible. Over-hyped, badly produced crap, almost without exception. Lincoln logs? Silly putty? Erector sets? Model airplanes? My gosh, they were worthless.

That’s what Mad Men was about, ultimately, worthless people energetically selling worthless products. All that sexist garbage, the dirty jokes and clandestine gropes and mistresses stashed in penthouses. I remember how shocking it was when we learned that Don Draper, whose, uh, active dating life we had seen up close, was also married, with two kids.  That’s why the two most fascinating characters really were women–Peggy and Joan–in a show about an aggressively masculine world. The men were real oinkers.

In the final episode, Don Draper, the ultimate Hollow Man, goes on a journey of self-discovery. And, because he’s Don Draper, that journey will involve sleeping with a woman, not quite a hooker, who steals his money, gives it back when he catches her, then sleeps with him again when he relents and lets her keep it. And of course, that’s Don, successful as a womanizer because he’s got money. (The last we saw of Megan, his second wife, was the look on her face as he wrote her a check for a million dollars). And then he meets Stephanie (Anna Draper’s screwed-up hippie niece), and offers to save her, because that’s also Don Draper, fixer of broken women. That doesn’t work either. When he learns of his first wife, Betty, and her terminal cancer, he immediately decides to go home and be A Dad to his three children. But Betty (and his ultimately more-mature-than-he-is daughter Sally) persuade him to give up that fantasy. His kids hardly know him, and with the death of their Mom, are going to need more stability than Don’s emotionally capable of providing. And so, we see the third kind of relationship Don is capable of having with women, women who mother him, who take charge, who make his life easier. And so he calls Peggy, and breaks down on the phone, desperately pours his soul out, about his life failures and his lack of direction or a plan. Peggy is sympathetic, but can’t help. And in any ever, she might possibly be ready to find some happiness with Harry.

In this last of meeting places
We grope together
And avoid speech
Gathered on this beach of the tumid river

And so Don ends up at an Esalen camp, practicing yoga and TM and, in a group session, connecting with another hollow man, a total stranger, who talks about never experiencing love, not even with his family. And Don begins to weep, and crosses to the man, and they weep together, embracing. But it didn’t so much feel like a break-through for him. It felt like acute self-pity. And that led to the final images of the show. Don, in a yoga pose, chanting. And the camera moves in on a close-up. And we see the smallest traces of a smile. Cut to this commercial:

The most cynical commercial in the history of advertising, a commercial that used all those great sixties ideals of peace, love and understanding, and commodifies them, uses them to sell sugary soda pop.

Some critics have called those final images ‘enigmatic’ or ambiguous or something. I don’t think so. All the way through the series, I wondered how it would end. The opening sequence, with a stylized body falling out of an office building, suggested that it would end with Don’s suicide. It didn’t. He’s going back to work. He’s going to create the most cynical and successful ad ever for the sinister and piggish agency that most of his friends can’t wait to abandon. He’s never going to grow, and he’s never going to stop being Don Draper, this fake identity he killed for, and with which, as he says to Peggy in his cry-for-help phone call, “I have done nothing.”

The men stay children, and the women grow up. Joan, bless her heart, grew, over the course of the series, from the ultimate enabler of male privilege to the show’s great feminist icon–her production agency is going to soar. Peggy finds some joy with Harry, and in time, she’ll get the promotions at work she deserves. The straw men will remain stuffed with straw, though Roger Sterling is too clueless to notice. As for Don?

This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.

Dr. Ben

Dr. Ben Carson announced his candidacy for President earlier this week, and I feel kind of bad about it. Dr. Carson is a retired pediatric neuro-surgeon. He’s from Detroit, oldest kid in a dirt-poor family, raised by a remarkable single Mom. Went to Yale, then the University of Michigan Medical school. After a residency at Johns Hopkins, he began practicing there, and became, at 33, head of pediatric neurosurgery there. He’s a pioneer in a number of surgical techniques. He’s also a fine author, with six published books, mostly about his own auto-biography and his philosophy of success, which can basically be summed up as ‘work hard, and have faith.’ He’s a devout Christian, and a dedicated family man.

And he’s a conservative African-American. And he came to prominence following a speech on Feb. 7, 2013, when he was invited to speak at a White House prayer breakfast, and turned it into a hard-right political speech. Since President Obama was there, Carson’s speech was interpreted as ‘courageous independent speaks truth to power,’ and went viral. Since that time, he’s been a popular conservative speaker, and kind of a darling of the Tea Party right.

He’s an admirable guy. I applaud his success. And I don’t think that someone who has never held political office should be banned from running for President. Not at all. If he can convince enough people to vote for him, he’ll win. No one can question his intelligence, work ethic, or his patriotism. Polls show him doing surprisingly well among likely Republican voters. He’s raised a lot of money, in small increments, suggesting the strength of his grass roots support. Here’s a website supporting his candidacy, which includes a link to his fund raising page.

So why do I feel bad about him running? Well, for one thing, he’s not going to win, and if he won the nomination, he would lose the general election badly. He really only distinguishes himself from the hard core conservative right on a few issues. He calls the US invasion of Afghanistan a mistake, though he hasn’t been clear about what he would have done regarding foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. I actually think he’s right on that issue, so good for him. He’s pretty extreme on the big social issues–opposes gay marriage, opposes all forms of gun control, opposes Obamacare, radical on abortion rights–but predictable on economic issues. He supports a flat tax. He supports school choice. On all those issues, he’s way to the right of the general electorate, but in the mainstream of the Tea Party.

But that’s not why he’s going to lose. To tell why he’s going to lose, let me tell a Karl Malone story. I remember when Karl was close to retirement, he was asked what he wanted to do with his life. And he said he wanted to get into acting, become an action hero.

I thought Karl Malone was one of the greatest basketball players who ever played the game. Strong and athletic and powerful and smart, a great shooter and rebounder and defender, he worked hard for 18 years, and had a brilliant career. And I’m sure he thought; ‘action hero; it’s all about physicality and athleticism. I could do that.’ And it would have been the way to stay in the limelight, which he’d gotten used to, and make a lot of money, which he’d gotten even more used to. And he got a screen test.

But acting is really hard. Acting on a sound stage, in front of a green screen, is incredibly difficult, requiring imagination and focus and all the other skills actors develop through years of training and talent.

Most people in life don’t get to be good at multiple things. Ted Williams, the old Red Sox star, was a terrific combat pilot, in addition to being a great baseball player. Later, after he retired, he became an award winning commercial fisherman. I remember commentary about him, how rare it was to be one of the best in the world at three separate things. But he worked hard, and was a unique talent, plus all three skills required other-worldly hand-eye coordination. So he pulled it off. But it was the height of arrogance for Karl Malone to assume that being good at basketball meant he could be just as good at acting.

So it is with Ben Carson. Running for elected office is a difficult thing to do. It requires certain skills, and those skills need to be refined and developed over time. It was interesting for me to watch Mitt Romney run for President. By his third campaign, he’d gotten pretty good at it. But it took awhile, and, as it happened, the guy he was running against was better at it than he was. That’s not surprising.

I think Dr. Ben Carson is an admirable guy. He’s running, and he’s going to lose badly, and I”m very much afraid he’s going to make a fool of himself. And I think that’s a shame.



Five bills to pass

So now what? Republicans have a majority in the House of Representatives, and a smaller majority in the Senate. The President still has a veto, and has made it clear that he’ll use it. It’s time for (drumroll) bi-partisan cooperation. This President has never, once, shown any interest in working with Republicans, on any issue ever, according to my Republican friends. He has also been so open to working with Republicans, he’s consistently in danger of violating utterly essential tenets of liberalism, according to my Democratic friends. To both sides, the truth of Obama’s bi-partisanship couldn’t be more obvious. Obama simply will not work with Republicans, ever, on anything. Simultaneously, he’s so intent on pushing for Grand Compromises that we wonder how anyone could ever have considered him progressive at all. He’s ‘my way or the highway!’ He’s also Mr. ‘meet you way way more than half-way.’ It’s like those hardcore conservatives who insist that he’s Bozo, clownishly inept at everything. And also a tyrant, horribly dangerous because he’s such an accomplished villain. Both/and, either/or.  All, and also none of the above.

Anyway, them dudes gotta work together, or ain’t nuttin’s gonna happen. So what are some actual genuine real national problems Republicans and Democrats could maybe work together and pass? Here are a few thoughts (and please feel free to correct me if I get any of these details wrong. I’m not a policy analyst-just an old retired college prof/playwright):

1) Highway bill. There’s about a 100 billion dollar gap between infrastructure needs nationally and the amount of money the gasoline/diesel tax raises for the Highway Trust fund. The gas tax is 24.4 cents a gallon, and hasn’t been raised since 1993. Raise the gasoline tax (which is comically low anyway, compared to most of the industrialized world. In Germany, for example, it’s, like, 8 bucks a gallon). There’s a Democratic bill that would raise the US tax by 15 cents a gallon, with a slighter higher hike for diesel. I don’t think that’s anywhere near enough, but it’s a start. Something needs to be done; the current approach is to toss an extra 10 billion or so into the pot every few months. A fix here should be possible.

2) Time to actually pass the Keystone XL pipeline. President Obama was asked to hold it up for a few months, so that moderate Democratic red state US Senators could attack him for holding it up, distancing themselves from him, and demonstrating their ‘independence.’ Buncha cowards. Glad they lost; good riddance. Build the darn pipeline.

3) I rather like the Hire More Heroes bill, though. It’s a bill that would allow employers to not count veterans for purposes of the ACA employer mandate. Employers have to provide health care if they have 50 or more employees, but veterans already get VA benefits. Pass it; give our men and women in uniform a leg up in hiring.

4) It’s hard to imagine Republicans wanting to give this President more power, but suggested they might pass a fast-track trade authority agreement that would make it easier for him to negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. Car companies don’t like it, but it’s a good bill and one Republicans have traditionally supported.

5) George F. Will had a recent column outlining the various things Congress could try to do now. It was, for the most part, a list of suggestions for legislation that, if passed, Obama will simply veto. But a repeal of the medical devices tax wouldn’t be the end of the world, and might slake some of the Republicans’ thirst for anti-Obamacare measures. Expect that to pass, and expect Obama to sign it. Though I sort of hope he doesn’t.

I’d love to hear some other suggestions. Certainly, it would be nice for Congress to actually, you know, do its job. Maybe get their approval rating up to Paris Hilton levels. Wouldn’t that be just swell.



Game Seven

This is it. Tonight, this is finally it. Baseball is a grueling endurance test, a 162 game regular season marathon, followed by three rounds of white-knuckle playoffs, a test of character, of consistency and finely honed skills on daily display. It’s about nagging aches and high pain tolerance levels, about sliding strawberries and pulled hamstrings and hard baseballs fouled off feet and thighs and ankles. The best teams are the teams that make a habit of professionalism, the teams that drill into their players the need to always take the correct route to a fly ball, to always throw to the right base, to always stay low on grounders. Play the right hop, swing at good pitches, cut off errant throws, back-up teammates.

And the quality of baseball has improved markedly over the years. When I was a kid, I read the baseball kids’ novels by Duane Decker, and in those novels, on ground balls to the infield, a sign of extra hustle, unusual enough to remark upon, were instances where a catcher hustled down the first base line to back up the first baseman in case of a bad throw. This wasn’t required, we were given to understand, but was something special, for important games and big moments. And Decker was reflecting the baseball of his day; Yogi Berra almost never hustled down the line. Now, Buster Posey, the Giants’ catcher, always does it, always backs up first. He never doesn’t. All catchers play it that way; it’s expected. I remember when, on double plays, the second baseman didn’t actually have to tag second, but just tagged the ground somewhere close to it. It was called a ‘phantom double play’ and it was the normal, everyday way you turned one. Never happens anymore. Television has done this, increased accountability, and therefore, professionalism and quality.

Game Seven. And because of the way pitching has gone in this series, neither manager is able to start his ace tonight. Madison Bumgarner of the Giants has pitched brilliantly. Right now, in his third World Series, he ranks statistically as the finest pitcher in World Series history. That’s ever; he’s been better than Sandy Koufax and Whitey Ford and Christie Mathewson and Walter Johnson. Ever. But he last pitched on Sunday, and may only be available for an inning or two tonight. “Big Game” James Shields, the Royals’ ace, is likewise gassed, and unavailable.

Instead the Giants are going with Tim Hudson, who is 39 years old and therefore the oldest pitcher to ever start a Game Seven. He’s been an outstanding pitcher for many years, with Oakland and with Atlanta, but he’s never pitched in a World Series before. The Royals’ pitcher is Jeremy Guthrie, another veteran and one of the few Mormons in all of Major League baseball. He attended BYU, served a full-time mission to Spain. Another respected veteran, he’s known as a tough and smart competitor, if a trifle under-talented. Both pitchers, in other words, survive on guts and guile, not raw talent. I love it. It’s going to be a match-up of craftsmen, two intelligent and respected leaders making the most of fading gifts.

This World Series has, above all else, honored the game of baseball. The defensive play, on both sides, has been remarkable. The Royals’ outfielder, Lorenzo Cain, has been a revelation, running down fly balls that looked completely unreachable. Both shortstops, Alcides Escobar and Brandon Crawford, have played well, Crawford, perhaps, a bit more consistently. One things I’ve noticed is that neither team seems to strike out much. Baseball today has evolved into a home-run happy game, where hitters swing from the heels and try to hit the ball a mile, and if they miss, no big deal. Neither the Giants or Royals do that much. Both teams hit well with two strikes, both sides believe in hitting the ball and making the other team play defense.

I’ve been a San Francisco Giants fan since I was eleven, growing up in Indiana. I’m going to watch tonight in a kind of heart-felt agony. But the Giants won in 2010 and 2012. And this Royals team is exciting, young, appealing and tough. If we lose, we lose to greatness. This is it. The end of an endless season, the finale, the curtain. Go Giants! Gulp.