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The Shallows: Movie review

In The Shallows, Blake Lively plays Nancy, an American med student on a surfing vacation to a remote beach in Mexico. While surfing, she is attacked by a shark, and injured. Somehow, she has to get back to shore in one already-munched-on piece. It’s a woman-in-peril movie, a movie about surviving a desperately hostile situation. It’s pretty well-done; kinda exciting. I know, tepid praise. And I’m not sure why I can’t recommend it with more enthusiasm. Lively’s a fine actress, she does good work here, and we do genuinely worry that she may not survive. It’s not that we’re indifferent to her plight.

This is going to sound weird, but the movie it really reminded me of was Gravity. That was in outer space, while this is a shark-infested lagoon, but otherwise, they’re basically the same movie. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock is stranded, and in danger, but she also has a series of steps she can take. She has to get from the space station to another space station to a satellite array to another facility; that’s what drove the plot. She has to get from damaged space haven A to damaged space facility B, to C and D and E and eventually back to Earth. Same thing here. Lively sees a dead whale in the lagoon–presumably, the whale is what attracted the shark. So Lively climbs up on the whale, and that keeps her safe for awhile. But not for long; sharks apparently can ram dead whales, to knock people off them. So Lively has to escape to a coral reef. And from there to another one. And from there to a buoy. It’s the same plot. “I’m safe for now, here, but that won’t last. I have to get to there. And from there to that other place.” And so on.

Of course, throughout the whole awful ordeal, Nancy’s resourcefulness, imagination, and courage pull her through. She doesn’t have much to work with, and she has a nasty, deep shark-bite wound on her thigh. But she’s a medical student; she does know how to suture a wound, for example. Of course, all she has to work with are her own earrings, but in a pinch, they hold up adequately. She turns her wetsuit jacket into a compression bandage, and uses what’s left of her surfboard for shade from the brutal tropical sun. All those scenes are fascinating, well acted; they’re the best things in the movie.

I compared The Shallows to Gravity, which it very closely resembles. But the biggest difference is that Gravity was tremendously exciting, absolutely riveting every second of the way. I found The Shallows kind of meh. I’m trying to figure out why. It’s not the star–Blake Lively is terrific in this, every bit as interesting as Sandra Bullock was in her movie.

I think there are two reasons. The first is just the setting. We don’t know much about space, but we do know it’s plenty dangerous. And we find Sandra Bullock’s resourcefulness convincing, because we don’t know better–we don’t know anything about outer-space survival. But we’ve all seen how many scary shark movies? And how many hours of Shark Week on TV? Ultimately, I think, the last third of The Shallows doesn’t work very well because we think we know how actual sharks actually behave, and it’s not the way this shark behaves. If real sharks can’t do what this shark does, then her duel of wits with it is substantially diminished.

I think there’s another reason too. In Gravity, George Clooney’s character dies pretty early on. That heightens the stakes; we think that Sandra Bullock’s character might actually die. Of course, she’s not going to die; Hollywood doesn’t do that to protagonists–only second leads. But in this movie, Blake Lively plays essentially the only character that matters. There are two Mexican dude surfers in it, and they do get shark-eaten, but they don’t matter as characters–we never even learn their names. So their deaths don’t have much resonance. And that means, we never really do believe that Nancy might not make it.

My all-time favorite shark movie, Open Water, a wonderfully terrifying small indie movie works precisely because we don’t really have any reassurance that the characters are going to survive. As we watch, we think that they’re as likely to die as to live; it generated terrific suspense throughout for that very reason. I wonder how much of the difference is due to casting. Open Water starred Who? and Whosat? (Blanchard Ryan and Daniel Travis, actually). While this is clearly a Blake Lively vehicle. She’s probably going to survive it.

Anyway, if you’re in the mood for a pretty well made, moderately suspenseful, fairly exciting woman-in-peril movie, The Shallows does deliver. There’s a lot to like here; I can’t point to any part of the filmmaking that didn’t work. It’s just a little too easy to compare it to other really similar movies that are just that much better.

 

Free State of Jones: Movie Review

Free State of Jones is kind of a mess of a movie, the kind of film that never seems to have quite decided what it wanted to be. At times, it felt like a docu-drama. At times it was more like a melodrama; at times it felt like classical tragedy. It employs a framing story set 80 years after the main story it tells, but it uses that frame very oddly, and starts it much too late for it to be terribly effective. I saw it with my wife, my daughter, and a sister-in-law, and afterwards, we went to lunch, and spent an enjoyable half hour tearing the movie apart. While also agreeing that, with all its flaws, it had affected us deeply. We found the history the film described completely fascinating. But we also weren’t sure how much of the movie’s version of that history could be trusted.

Newton Knight was certainly a real guy, and as played by Matthew McConaughey, a charismatic and fascinating character. He was a farmer from Jones County Mississippi, conscripted to fight in the American Civil War. He served as a nurse, apparently because he was strong enough to carry wounded soldiers from the battlefield to those horrific civil war surgical tents. The movie begins with a line of southern soldiers marching stolidly to their deaths. A union skirmish line cuts them down. The bloody battle scenes are graphic and ferocious, and set up the rest of the movie; we wouldn’t want to fight back then either, and would do whatever we could to get out of it. And so does Newton, especially after a young family member dies in his arms. He deserts. And helps neighbors fight off Confederate teams who go from farm to farm, stealing crops for the war effort.

Eventually, Newton is sufficiently notorious an outlaw that he has to go into hiding, in the swampland of the Mississippi delta. Also on the lam, a number of escaped slaves. And Newton, already disposed to treat his black neighbors with courtesy and respect, makes friends, especially with an educated slave, Moses (Mahershala Ali), who becomes his close friend. He also becomes ever closer to a black woman healer, Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), who he eventually marries, his first (white) wife, Serena (Keri Russell), having left him.

We also cut back and forth to a modern (1940s) Mississippi trial, in which a Knight descendant, Davis Knight (Brian Lee Franklin) is tried for having entered into an illegal marriage to a white girl. Davis is accused of being one eighth black, and thus a Negro ineligible to marry anyone white. We cut back to the incidents of that trial on, perhaps, three other occasions.

Back to the civil war past, however, Knight eventually organizes his neighbors (many of whom have also deserted), and escaped slaves into an army. And they secede from the secession; declare themselves the Free State of Jones, with by-laws prohibiting rich men from profiting from the labor of the poor, and also outlawing slavery. (This is, ultimately, a film about the history of Southern race relations, but almost as much, it’s a film about social class. Knight was more a class warrior than a racial provocateur). Knight proves himself an effective guerilla leader, until finally he raises enough fuss that the Mississippi and Confederate authorities have to send a full regiment to deal with him. At which point, he and his men melt back into the swamp, where cavalry can’t follow them and infantry won’t. A few of his men are caught and hanged; most get away scott-free.

Those incidents make up perhaps the first two thirds of the movie; maybe a little less. The rest of the movie covers the end of the war, Reconstruction, the fight for voting rights, and the return of Knight’s first wife. (He welcomes her home, and builds her a cabin on his property, while his beloved Rachel remains with him in the main house). All this is handled episodically, with the story continuity provided in titles.

In short, we have essentially three movies. One is an exciting action movie, about Knight and his rebellion against the confederacy. The second is a story closer to our age, about a trial, in which a Knight descendent has to prove he has the mettle of his grandpappy. The third is a docudrama, in which we dramatize a few random incidents after the civil war; interesting incidents, to be sure, and tragic ones, as the history of the state of Mississippi is inherently tragic and dreadful.

I liked all three movies a lot. I found them all fascinating. They don’t mesh together very effectively, but that didn’t matter much to me. But it might to other viewers. It’s a terrific history lesson, even if the history can’t be entirely trusted. Who was Newton Knight actually?

The first thing I did when I got home from the movie was look up the Wikipedia article for Newton Knight. If that source can be trusted, then yes, the movie took some liberties with the story. It made his army bigger than it probably already was, and showed them as being more militarily successful. And, of course, Newton Knight is a contested figure in American history and Confederate history. Apparently, there’s a good, scholarly book about Knight by historian Victoria Bynum. I’ve ordered it on Amazon, and intend to read it when it arrives.

And I think that captures the impact of this movie more than anything. The story is fascinating. The acting is beyond superb. The filmmaking is stylistically inconsistent, but I also didn’t much care. But the history! My goodness! It’s a very interesting movie, and one I’m very glad to have seen. It’s also not a cinematic masterpiece. Let that be my recommendation.

Orlando, and guns.

It was completely horrifying. It was also terribly, horribly familiar. Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, specializes in nightly themed performances. Saturday night was ‘Latin night.’ Estimates suggest there were a bit more than 300 people there. Omar Mateen, an American-born citizen of Afghani-American heritage, opened fire in the club. He was carrying a handgun, and an AR-15 assault rifle. Mateen killed forty nine people, and wounded fifty three.

Mateen had been under investigation by the FBI for possible ties to terrorist groups. He had a history of domestic violence, and of anti-gay sentiments publicly expressed. He was also a concealed weapon permit holder. He was, in short, a dangerous man, with a history of violence, an adherent to a radical ideology, and known to be homophobic. He does not appear to have violated federal gun laws or the risibly lenient Florida statutes.

Of course, our initial response to this kind of violence is emotional, and personal. We hug our kids close. We weep. We call friends, and we post on social media. We want to do something. Perhaps we give blood. We feel impotent and helpless, and we’re angry about not being able to act. And we gravitate to those voices that seem particularly eloquent and compassionate–Lin-Manuel Miranda, Frank Langella, at the Tonys, for example.

But our response is ineffectual. We know that too. As my wife put it this morning, if the Sandy Hook shooting couldn’t lead to effective gun control measures, nothing will. Newtown involved kindergartners. If that doesn’t galvanize the public, nothing will. And in fact, after each major US shooting event, the public does become galvanized, or at least outraged. Our first reaction is straightforward: ‘we need to do something about this.’ But even the worst school shootings don’t tend to lead to meaningful reform. The gun lobby is incredibly adept at fighting off impulse-prompted legislation. The NRA recognizes that the emotional attachment to gun control is transitory. Those emotions fade in time. And in the meantime, little of substance has happened legislatively.

What we have to do is, simply put, to work harder. We have to decide what we want our society to become, and fight for it. And we have to agree that we’re in for the long game. I do not want to live in a society where military weaponry is readily available for private purchase. I do not want to live in a society where essentially everyone is armed. I also don’t want to live in a society with radical income inequality, where public education is underfunded, or where people suffering from mental health issues cannot get adequate treatment. But today, it’s time to talk about guns.

Here’s what we want. A federal assault weapon ban. Mandatory waiting periods for firearms purchases, and a federal registry of people who really shouldn’t be allowed to buy or own guns. I would love to see major restrictions on ammunition; if we can’t ban guns, let’s ban bullets. And I would love a national gun buy-back program. But really, any measure that would limit the numbers of guns in private ownership, I would favor.

Second Amendment? I’m completely in favor of well-regulated militias.

How do we accomplish any of this? First of all, let’s stop railing at the NRA. Many of the milder measures I’m describing are in fact supported by rank-and-file NRA members. In any event, the NRA is a lobbying organization, and an effective one. Fine; learn from them, beat them at their own game.

Here’s where we start, though. Vote. Vote in every election. Vote for state legislators, county commissioners, judges. Vote in every off-year election, vote in every primary. We’re in a Presidential year, and those elections are highly publicized. But there will be another national election in 2018, and it’s just as essential that you vote then. As Samantha Bee reminded us, the most consequential election in your lifetime was the election of 2010. The one you may not have voted in. The one where the progressive gains of Obama’s first two years vanished. Vow now: that will never happen again.

Don’t just vote, but nag your friends into voting. Be a pest about it. Bug them about it. The NRA has blood on its hands right now. The NRA leadership is partly to blame for this horrible shooting. But, I don’t mean to be rude, but if you didn’t vote, if you didn’t do that minimal civic act to oppose NRA-approved candidates, then blood is on your hands as well. Vote. Always vote. And make sure your friends and family understand how important their vote is too.

And that’s just the start. Volunteer. Donate. Make phone calls; drive shut-in voters to the polls. Your vote does count. Your contribution does matter.

Elections are won by the people who show up to vote in them. What we cannot afford is apathy. What we cannot afford is indifference. What we absolutely cannot afford is the luxury of easy cynicism.

We can change our society. But we have to work harder than we have, up to now. After Orlando, I’m fed up with excuses. We can turn this around. But we all of us have to work together. Vow now. Orlando is the turning point. Orlando is where we decided to change.

Searching for the meaning of life, Donald Trump edition

I feel for anyone trying to write political satire these days. Reality, man. Add me to the list of former Trump skeptics forced to eat crow; I’ll have mine with a side of snark, garnished with whatever the opposite of relish might be. Donald Trump will be the Republican nominee for President of the United States. This is really happening.

For me, this simplifies everything. I’m a liberal. I probably wasn’t going to vote for the Republican this year anyway. The Democrats are almost certainly going to run Hillary Clinton, an outstandingly well-credentialed candidate, and someone I’ve liked for years. Is she untrustworthy? According to Politifact, she is, in fact, the most honest candidate running. I am going to support, with time and money, the candidate I’ve favored all long. Easy-peasy.

But Republicans are in disarray. Trump’s going to be the nominee. And so Republican pols have to decide if they can support him, or whether they should find some poor schmuck to run as a third-party conservative alternative. Or, they might decide to blow this year off, and vote for Hillary. Amazing.

The stark choices top Republicans face came into clear focus the day after Cruz’s withdrawal, in the person of Paul Ryan. Right now, Ryan is, as Speaker of the House, the most powerful Republican around. Except that, normally, the presumptive nominee becomes the notional ‘head of the party.’ If the two men were in lock-step ideologically, this wouldn’t be a problem; they’d just work together. Hah.

Vox.com covered the resulting spat nicely. In an interview with Jake Tapper, Ryan said  “I think conservatives want to know, does he share our values and our principles on limited government, the proper role of the executive, adherence to the Constitution?” That’s fair enough; Ryan does need to know the answer to those questions. The difficulty is that Trump’s been running against the Republican agenda the whole time.

Let’s unpack that a little. That core–a belief in limited government and adherence to the Constitution–seems like something that would be easy enough for Trump to agree to, because it doesn’t mean anything. (Or, at least, it means different things to different conservatives). All Republicans call themselves conservatives, and say they believe in limited government and Constitutional principles. The problem is, conducting your affairs based on empty, meaningless rhetoric is essentially what Trump seems to mean by ‘political correctness.’ It’s the main thing his entire campaign has been about opposing. Trump’s attacks on political correctness are sometimes portrayed on the left as simply him declaring a license to insult people. But it’s more than that. Ask any Trump fan, and they’ll say ‘he tells it like it is.’ That’s what they like about him.

Let’s get specific, show how this works in relation to a single issue; the development of a single aircraft: the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Building that jet is part of the Republican legislative agenda. It’s something Paul Ryan supports. Trump opposes it.

The F-35 is a little faster than the F-15 or A-10, which it would supplant, and it has a little bigger gun. Plus, it would keep defense contractors happy. It’s very expensive–building and deploying it will cost over $1.5 trillion dollars. Seems to me that spending huge amounts of money on an aircraft that’s not needed expands the size and reach of government. It’s difficult for me to see how building a very expensive new plane just because it’s a little cooler than the perfectly adequate planes we already deploy is consistent with principles of ‘limited government.’ But, Paul Ryan’s version of conservativism is sufficiently flexible to allow him to support that plane, and to not worry overmuch about how it’s going to be paid for.

But Trump doesn’t care. It’s expensive and we don’t need it. Get rid of it.

The spat continues, and on some issues, Ryan seems right, and Trump wrong. Paul Ryan’s version of conservatism also includes “a message that would appeal to all Americans in every walk of life, every background. . . .” It’s not hard to decode that: he’s asking Trump to tone down the anti-immigrant demagoguery. This isn’t just political calculation. I mean, sure, Republicans know they have to broaden their appeal to minority voters. Trump’s anti-Hispanic, anti-Muslim, and anti-Chinese nastiness is genuinely troubling to us all. Ryan’s right on that point. But I don’t think it’s likely that Trump’s going to back away from any of that. His line about how Mexico is going to pay for ‘that wall,’ (the one he wants to build on the Mexican border) is the biggest hit of his stump speech. From Trump’s perspective, Ryan is asking him, Donald Trump, to give in to political correctness. Ain’t gonna happen.

The differences between Ryan and Trump are more than stylistic, in other words. They’re substantive. Paul Ryan is an ideological conservative. Conservatism is core, even when it doesn’t make sense. As an outsider, I think conservatism’s weird. I understand conservatism as a tendency, but not as a movement. In other words, saying ‘I want to carefully vet any piece of legislation, to make sure it’s fully funded’ makes sense to me. Saying ‘in general, I’d rather not raise taxes, though of course there are times you have to’ makes sense. To say ‘as a matter of constitutional principle, the government shouldn’t do much, should never raise taxes, and above all, shouldn’t do anything that might make the lives of citizens better, because it would expand government and that’s always bad’ seems very weird to me. (I also don’t mean to misrepresent conservatism. Please let me know if I just did.)

Conservatives don’t think Trump is a conservative. They don’t count his paleo-conservative nativism as, you know, actually conservative. They believe that conservatism is a set of principles, the first of which is a small, limited government. Trump isn’t that kind of conservative. His policy proposals tend to be poorly thought-through, and he changes his mind every ten minutes, while ferociously denying he’s doing anything of the kind (has there ever been a candidate for high office this thin-skinned?). But there doesn’t seem to be much ideology behind them.

But if what drives him isn’t ideology, what is it? It’s essentially his life-experience as a businessman. He sees foreign policy as essentially deal-making. He can’t see how destabilizing his proposals are, because in the business world, you can always renegotiate any deal. It’s not that Trump opposes multi-national trade agreements out of principle, the way Bernie Sanders seems to. Nor does he embrace them the way Paul Ryan might; free trade as an extension of conservatism. No, Trump looks at any trade deal in isolation; did we get a good deal here? Does it massively favor the United States? If not, we’ll renegotiate. Don’t worry, Europe. It’ll be great. It’ll be huge.

And so, this week, as part of his spat with Ryan, Trump actually said something remarkable, not that anyone noticed. He changed his mind about supporting a big tax cut. Said ‘I’m not necessarily a big fan of that.’

Tax cuts for the top 1% is as close to Republican orthodoxy as any issue could be. Every Republican candidate in this race favored tax cuts. When Republicans talk about a ‘pro-growth economic program,’ that’s what they mean; tax cuts, and trickle-down economics. Kasich favored a tax cut. So did Jeb!, so did Rubio, so did Cruz. Tax cuts transfer money from the public sector (bad!) to the private sector (good!). Tax cuts automatically make government smaller (yay!). There’s not a single issue that unites conservatives like tax cuts. Trump proposed one too–the biggest tax cut of any of them. (The fact that tax cuts don’t trickle-down, that they’re fiscally ruinous, and fraudulent and terrible public policy, we’re not supposed to notice. Hillary Clinton, by the way, is the one fiscally responsible candidate in this race).

Now, having just won the nomination, Trump is backing off from them. He’s saying “I’m not necessarily a big fan” of tax cuts. And nobody noticed. Really, it blows my mind how little attention mainstream media pays to policy.

If Trump actually runs on this issue? If he actually make opposing tax cuts a centerpiece of his campaign? I think it’s the one thing he might do that gives him a chance against Hillary Clinton. And it destroys the Republican party. Wow, do we live in wacky times.

 

 

 

Keanu: Movie Review

Keanu, the new Key and Peele movie, is, I think, the funniest comedy about racial code switching in the history of film. It also stars an adorable kitten. So you probably now have enough information to decide whether or not to see it. My work here is done.

What’s that? Oh, code-switching. You know, the way a bi-lingual speaker alternates between two language variants over the course of a single conversation. Or between two linguistic modes, or cultural referents. We’re all multi-lingual, and we do this all the time, suggesting class and ethnicity in how we speak. And nobody has built their comedy on this notion more than the smart, savvy comedians Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele.

On their Comedy Central show, they repeatedly built sketches around the various social roles African-Americans assume. In fact, Key and Peele are educated, middle-class fantasy nerds. But they can, and often do, play urban gangbangers, hilariously.

As they do in Keanu. Peele plays Rell, and Key plays Clarence, best friends, upscale and affluent. When Rell’s girlfriend breaks up with him, he’s initially distraught, but is comforted when a kitten shows up at his door. Before long, he’s photographing the kitty wearing costumes in a variety of movie set recreations. He’s making a calendar, he says. Then, on a weekend when Clarence’s wife and children have to be out of town, the cat, named Keanu, is abducted. Clarence and Rell go on a search. And discover that Keanu has been taken by a street gang led by a guy named Cheddar (Method Man). And so Clarence and Rell code switch; begin talking and acting like gangbangers. And its really very funny.

Cheddar finds their act convincing, and sends them out with a few of his gang members. They’re to show these guys the ropes, in exchange for the kitten. And before you know it, Clarence is introducing these thugs to corporate team-building exercises. (“The key, guys, is communication.”) Then, while Rell is making a big drug sale to Anna Faris (playing herself as a cokehead) with a female gangsta named Hi-C (Tiffany Haddish), Clarence introduces the other gang members to his favorite musician; George Michael. (“But what happened to Andrew Ridgeley” “He was never seen again” “They offed him?!?!” “He was never. Seen. Again.” Anyone familiar with the history of Wham! will get that joke.)

Eventually, Cheddar’s gang runs into another gang, this one run by Bacon (Luis Guzman). Both gangs, it turns out, want Keanu, mostly because he’s a very cute little kitty. And violence ensues, with Key and Peele scared witless and Keanu busily dodging bullets. It turns out that there is something inexpressibly funny about long, slow-mo, gangbanger shootout scenes when you add a kitten to the mix.

I kept wondering what I was missing. Key and Peele are exceptionally bright guys. Is this just a comic action movie with a kitten, intended as their breakthrough out of sketch comedy and into mainstream movie-making? Possibly that’s all that’s going on. But I do think there’s more to it than that. The male African-American experience is not, after all, just about drug gangs and violence. In fact, somewhat nerdy middle-class dudes like Clarence and Rell are closer to the norm than the likes of Cheddar and Hi-C. But because of the movies, we know all about urban violence, and gang warfare. Surely this movie is as much satire as it is parody. Surely there’s at least one level of protest built into its structure. Which is why one of their most famous and successful sketches involves not just the preternatural cool of Barack Obama, but the seething rage that (we imagine), may underlie it. (Careful; there’s some language)

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.

Bingo.

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.