Grand Budapest Hotel: Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title.  Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.

But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines.  When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’  But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.

That’s the key to the film, I think.  M. Gustav represents civilized values.  He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job.  He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste.  When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness.  Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne.  Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes.  All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there.  But first things first.  A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.

We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s.  But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there.  And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.

Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks.  A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author.  Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham).  Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30′s, when most of the film takes place.  In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge.  And there we go.  What survives, is literature.  The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read.  A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.

The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle.  But it’s not.  One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav.  Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way.  Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick).  Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.

But to what end?  To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically.  It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends.  I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes.  She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face.  She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him.  (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’  The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.)  So it’s a love story?  Well, yes and no.  It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.

In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig.  I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was.  There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England).  He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them.  They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful.  I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author.  Here’s his quotation from Zweig:

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe.  He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon.  But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing.  And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground.  And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.

We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.

We don’t see that, of course.  We don’t view such things in polite society.  We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive.  Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films.  It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from.  It’s what’s underneath.

The Founding Fathers, and Obamacare

A warning: this is a silly post on a silly subject.  A response to a Facebook meme; hard to get sillier than that.  Apparently Nancy Pelosi said that the Founding Fathers would be pleased with Obamacare.  And this led to all kinds of mockery from conservatives, who continue to double-down on their ‘Obamacare will destroy America’ obsession.  The Founders, it goes without saying, would never have agreed to a socialist takeover of American health care!  Never in a million years.  ‘The Founders,’ in this case, constructed entirely of freedom-loving Christian Republicans. Job creators, don’t you know.

Anyway, it tickled my funny bone, the idea of the Founders ‘opposing Obamacare.’  So I thought, I’d dialogue it.

Me: So. . . . do you oppose the Affordable Care Act?

FF: What’s an Affordable Care Act?

Me: Uh, well, let’s see.  It’s basically a reform of the health insurance industry.  Most people have health insurance, but there are around forty million who don’t.  So it’s an effort to provide them with coverage.

FF: The US has forty million people?  Where?

Me: Well, all over, really. The US stretches all the way to the Pacific.  Ever since Jefferson bought Louisiana.

FF: Jefferson did what?

Me: Look, just take my word for it.  There are about 300 million people in the country right now.  317 million, to be exact.  And it’s kind of a problem when 40 million don’t have health care.

FF: What’s health care?

Me: You know, medicine.  When doctors make sick people better.

FF: Doctors make sick people better?

Me: Yeah.  See, lots of people used to die of diseases that we can cure now.

FF: How?  Are you just better at bleeding people?

Me: No, we don’t do that anymore. See, diseases are caused by microbes.  Uh, little tiny bugs, uh, germs, uh, just call ‘em ‘creatures’, too small to be seen except by microscopes.

FF: What’s a microscope?

Me: Come on, guys.  You’ve heard of microscopes.  Galileo made one?  You’ve heard of van Leeuwenhoek?

FF: All right. But you tell me that you can see these tiny disease-causing creatures?  We can’t.

Me: Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that we, in the future, can build better microscopes?

FF:  All right.  We’re very scientific people, you know.  Franklin even figured out that lightning is made of electricity. So you’ve figured out how to cure diseases.  Like what diseases? Surely not cholera?

Me: No, we can cure cholera.

FF: Diptheria?  Yellow Fever?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Measles?  Mumps?  Dysentery?  Gout?

Me: Pretty much.  All curable.

FF: Smallpox?

Me: We’ve completely eradicated smallpox.  Gone.

FF: Colds?

Me: No, we still get colds.  Sorry.  Did I mention we’d cured smallpox?

FF: Well, you live in an age of miracles.

Me: We do.  Heart disease is still a problem; we’re working on it.  Huge progress on cancer, though it’s still a frightening and dangerous disease.  Those are the biggies.

FF: So what’s the problem?

Me: Well, it’s all very expensive.  Doctors have to train for years to become doctors, and they charge a lot for their expertise.  And diagnosing all those diseases is expensive.  We have all kinds of amazing diagnostic equipment, but those machines are costly, and we have to train people how to use the devices properly.  We also have lots of drugs that can affect amazing cures, but they’re also really expensive.  There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry constantly coming up with new medications, but their research is also expensive.  Anyway, most people can’t afford the more expensive procedures; in fact, hardly anyone can.  So we created insurance for medical care.

FF: That makes sense.  In fact, Ben Franklin created the first fire insurance company in the Americas.

Me: Right!  Only, Mr. Franklin, you wouldn’t insure some houses, if you thought they were a fire hazard.

FF: Of course not.  Insurance spreads risk around. But an insurance company can’t survive if people only buy it right before their house is going to burn down.

Me: Exactly.  What we do is require everyone in the country, if they own a home, to buy fire insurance for it.  And we also won’t let them build a house that doesn’t meet certain safety standards.  That way, only a few houses burn down annually, and they are able to rebuild with the insurance money.  And insurance companies can make a profit, because everyone with a house also has to buy a policy.

FF: Most sensible.  That’s another way to do it.  We had people who built foolishly, and their wooden houses burned all the time. So we just wouldn’t insure them. Insurance has to limit risk for the insurer and the insured. Same basic principle.

Me: Well, we applied the same principle to health insurance.  If you have insurance, you can afford to pay for medical care for yourself and your family.  But we had a problem.  Really sick people would go to hospitals and get treatment, but couldn’t afford it.

FF: We have hospitals.  Real nice one in Philadelphia.

Me: Right.  Except that the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t very good at making sick people better.  Mostly folks just died there.

FF: You can’t have everything.

Me: No.  Well, our hospitals are better than yours were; in fact, they’re kind of miraculous.  And we didn’t want people to die just because they were poor.  But when people couldn’t pay for their care, it was a problem.  Mostly, costs just went up for everyone.

FF: Why didn’t you just throw people into debtor’s prison?

Me: We don’t really do that anymore.  What we have instead is collection agencies.

FF: Sounds horrible!

Me: Yeah.  But we thought; wouldn’t it be better if everyone had health insurance?  And if we allowed all health insurance companies to compete in an open market for clients?  With some minimum requirements their policies had to meet?

FF: So, what’s the problem?

Me: Well, you don’t approve of it.

FF: We don’t approve of it?  George Washington died of a simple throat infection.  Mostly, he died of being bled and given a powerful purgative at a time when his body was fighting off an infection.  Our health care was a joke.  If you know how to make sick people better, and have figured out a way to share the cost of it nation-wide, why on earth would we oppose that?

Me: I don’t know.  Some people think you would have.

FF: They’re crazy. Wait, is craziness curable?  Do you still have madmen?

Me: We do.

FF: Well, ignore them.  We’re entirely in favor of this ‘universal health care’ thing.  Whatever it is.

Me: Okay!

FF: Universal, though?  Everyone gets good care? Even slaves?

Me: Yeah.  About that. . . .


One Summer: A review

Bill Bryson’s newest book has the most splendid title.  It’s One Summer: America, 1927. An admirably succinct description of a wonderful book.  It’s about, yes, the summer of 1927, and about what happened in America during that summer.  It extends each of its main stories forward and backward in time, giving each narrative an appropriate beginning and end.  It’s a funny book, with the usual Bill Bryson wit, but it’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, his The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, or A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s approach this time is more journalistic, more ‘here’s what happened, here are the facts.’  He’s not really an historian, per se.  As always, he’s attracted to the quirky human details of the stories he tells.  But it makes for a wonderful read.

The book primarily focuses on these stories.  First and foremost, it’s about Charles Lindbergh, his flight to Paris, and, more broadly, the state of aviation in the US and world-wide. It’s also about Babe Ruth, and the 1927 New York Yankees, and the rise of the (carefully marketed) American sports hero; specifically the Babe and Jack Dempsey.  It describes the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and a typically odd summer vacation he spent in South Dakota.  It tells about the Ruth Snyder murder trial, and the phenomenon of flagpole sitting, and the rise (and fall) of Al Capone in Chicago, and the emergence of The Jazz Singer and talking motion pictures.

Bryson seems primarily to follow these stories as they appeared in the newspapers of the era.  As such, then, the book’s main topic would be the earliest stirrings of what we call celebrity culture.  Charles Lindbergh was the biggest celebrity of his era, his popularity very much transcending his own personality, which was distinctly non-charismatic.  Babe Ruth was a sports celebrity, Al Jolson an entertainment celebrity, and Ruth Snyder a murder suspect celebrity of the kind featured nowadays by Nancy Grace’s show.  We are inundated with each of these still today.  On the other hand, Al Capone was a uniquely 20s phenomenon; a gangster celebrity.  And Capone was celebrated primarily because he represented rebellion against the single most foolish public policy fiasco in American history; Prohibition.  And Bryson explores the dimensions of that peculiarly American idiocy in lengthy, loving detail.

That’s part of what makes this book so compelling; the contrast between the 1920s and the 2010s.  The Babe Ruth phenomenon strikes us as eminently relateable; our sports entertainment culture nurtures the images of sports heroes every bit as assiduously today as newspaper writers did back then.  But then there’s this:

Remarkably, the Ku Klux Klan was not the most dangerous outpost of bigotry in America in this period.  That distinction belonged, extraordinary though it is to state, to a coalition of academics and scientists.  Since early in the century, a large number of prominent and learned Americans had been preoccupied, almost to the point of obsessiveness, with the belief that the country was filling up with dangerously inferior people, and that something urgent ought to be done about it.

That amazing paragraph comes early in a chapter about racism, xenophobia and eugenics, a chapter that will make you proud to be an American.  And yet, I did find it a bit encouraging, honestly.  Because of all the preposterous crackpot ideas widely believed in American society today, at least eugenics no longer seems intellectually fashionable.  Some small progress has been made, I suppose.

It’s about about popular enthusiasms.  It’s a book about the rise of an industrial entertainment complex, still in its infancy, but certainly recognizable today.

And it’s a book about the uses and misuses of popularity and publicity and celebrity itself.  It’s a book that notes, with bemused detachment, that Al Capone gave frequent press conferences, and a book that tells us what he said in them.  It’s a book that describes precisely how enterprising South Dakota businessmen got President Coolidge hooked on fishing, how they transformed a confirmed non-outdoorsman into an avid angler, and why.  It tells us of Herbert Hoover, the most energetic and efficient member of Coolidge’s cabinet, and of his strenuous and successful campaign to make sure everyone in the country knew just how good he was at his job, and why he might make a dandy choice for an ever higher one.

Anyway, check it out.  Give it thirty pages.  I promise, you won’t be able to put it down.


‘Unwinding’ marriages

It’s been two weeks now, since Judge Shelby issued his opinion, and gay couples all over Utah dashed over to their county clerks and were issued marriage licenses.  So far, about a thousand couples have gotten married. And every day since, the newspapers have included stories about the progress of the appeals filed by the state.

Here’s the Trib from today.  And this is from today’s Deseret News.  They’re pretty straightforward legal stories.  The state is asking Justice Sotomayor for an emergency stay on Judge Shelby’s decision.  She can grant the stay, deny it, or refer it to the rest of the Supreme Court, the 10th Circuit having punted on it.  I’m not a legal scholar, and though I’ve read both the state’s brief and the brief from James Magleby, who represents the gay couples who filed the original case, I certainly can’t say I understand them with any degree of sophistication.

But I do want to comment on one paragraph from the Trib article about the state’s appeal:

Those decisions were an “affront” to the court’s “unique role as final arbiter of the profoundly important constitutional question that it so carefully preserved in Windsor,” the state said, and could lead to an “enormous disruption” to the state and its citizens of potentially having to later “unwind” those marriages if the state prevails.

Well!  Judge Shelby’s decision was in insult, an affront, to the State of Utah’s democratic processes and to the honor and dignity of SCOTUS.  I will meet you at dawn, sir, and as offended party, insist on pistols at ten paces!  Sorry, that language grates.  For that, the state spent two million dollars on outside counsel?  But look at that final sentence. In fact, look at one word in that sentence.

Unwind.  It would be disruptive, the state suggests, to have to ‘unwind’ those marriages.

When the state applied to Judge Shelby for a stay, it suggested that the marriage licenses being issued should be seen as temporary; that they may have to be revoked.  When Utah applied to the 10th circuit, it made the same argument–those marriages might need to be undone.  Over a thousand couples have been married in the last two weeks.  Now the state, once again, is threatening to undo them.  To ‘unwind’ a thousand marriages.

Looking at this from the state’s perspective, I can see why the Governor and legislators are ‘affronted.’  The state had a referendum on same sex marriage, and amended the state constitution to prohibit it.  Opposition to gay marriage has widespread public support.  Where does this Judge Shelby character get off, just unilaterally deciding that gay people can get married in Utah?  Judicial activism bites!

I’m also sure that the governor understands, in the abstract, that democratic processes are irrelevant when it comes to basic civil rights.  If it can be demonstrated that a ban on gay marriage violates the rights of gay citizens (which is what Judge Shelby ruled), then it doesn’t matter how bitterly Utahns disagree, or how big the majority it is that opposes it.  At the same time, if gay marriage had come to Utah via democratic processes, it would carry a presumption of legitimacy that this decision lacks.  I get that.  I understand that a lot of people in Utah are upset about it.  We’re perilously close to Roe v. Wade territory here, where the fact that abortion was legalized through a court decision means that a sizeable minority of Americans do not and never will regard it as moral or legitimate.  I’ll grant that, my conservative friends, if you’ll admit this: the stakes are much lower here.  If my neighbors marry, and I don’t approve, I do have to admit that their marriage doesn’t actually affect me at all. It’s really very difficult to see how the state is adversely impacted by Judge Shelby’s decision.  At all.

But . . . ‘unwind’?  Really?  That’s what you want to do?

May I suggest that this would be an exceedingly unwise course of action?  By all means, let the state appeal.  Let this go to Justice Sotomayor, or to the 10th Circuit, or even to SCOTUS.  Let the debate continue, in and our of our fair state.  But let me, in the strongest possible terms, urge you not to consider the marriages that have taken place in the last two weeks illegitimate.

What a nightmare scenario.  Imagine it, the state just declaring that a thousand married couples suddenly aren’t married anymore.  Two thousand people, who think they’re married, told ‘no.’  Sorry.  You’re not.  You don’t count as married.  You can’t file taxes as a couple.  You can’t, as a couple, begin an adoption process.  You’re not married anymore.  Your marriage certificate, neatly and proudly framed and on display in your home, is now worthless, meaningless.  Because you’re gay, your wedding is invalidated.  By the power of the state.

Governor Herbert.  Let me address you on this point. Here’s why this is a very very very bad idea.

First, it would be a public relations nightmare.  The pro-marriage-equality optics of the last two weeks have been off the charts.  How many photos, how many news stories, how many interviews in national publications have showed happy people smiling and crying and holding hands and kissing and embracing, overcome with joy?  There’s a reason people like going to weddings–it’s wonderful to see happy people commit their lives to each other. You know the part in weddings when the pastor says ‘if anyone opposes this union, let him speak now or forever hold his peace?’  Have you ever seen anyone stand up and do that?  I never have.  Well, that’d be you; the unwelcome guest, the naysayer.  Right now, the conservative opposition-to-gay-marriage crowd does not have a face, a spokesperson, which also means that the pro-gay-marriage crowd doesn’t have a villain.  You would become that villain.  Gary Herbert would become the face of a frankly pretty unpopular movement. You’d be the guy.

Second, that decision would have economic ramifications.  You know as well as I do that there are lots of reasons for companies to move to Utah, or open offices here, or invest here.  Utah has spectacular scenery, great recreational opportunities (including world-class skiing), improving infrastructure, great cultural offerings (a symphony, dance companies, a film festival, great theatre). But companies increasingly have openly gay employees.  How long would it take for Utah’s national reputation to shift from ‘good place to do business’ to ‘jack-booted thugs ripping up people’s marriage certificates?’

Third, how would this work logistically?  Would you just declare all marriage licenses issued to same sex couples invalid?  How long before the protests started?  How long before couples start handcuffing themselves to county clerks’ offices, holding their marriage certificates?  You gonna order the arrest of people protesting your decision to end their marriages?  Have you really thought this through?

And what’s the upside?  What exactly does the state think it’s going to gain?  Right now, it’s all abstract; you’re ‘defending traditional marriage.’  Whatever that means.  But do you really think it makes sense to accomplish that by telling people who have committed their lives together, and who think they have certification from the state sealing that commitment, that they’re going to have tear up their marriage licenses?  Or you’ll send in cops to tear them up?  Seriously–would you go that far?

Personally, I think the very suggestion that you’re going to start ‘unwinding’ marriages is likely to lose you this case, ultimately.  The very idea of it is pretty terrifying. I don’t have any idea what the 10th circuit will decide a few months from now, and I don’t have any idea what SCOTUS will do next week, but I do think that any suggestion of invalidating marriages is a legal loser.

Don’t do this.  Drop that part of your appeal.  Stop thinking in those terms.  A thousand couples have gotten married the last two weeks.  Two thousand citizens of the state of Utah.  That’s happened.  Live with it.  I don’t see that you have much choice.





The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, a review

The middle movies of trilogies are always tricky.  Beginnings are exciting, ends are satisfying (or not), but middles are like sitting in the back seat of the car, whining ‘are we there yet?’ to our parents. Middle movies don’t have to disappoint–The Empire Strikes Back was the best movie of the first Star Wars trilogy, and The Two Towers continued the Fellowship story beautifully, while setting us up for The Return of the King.  But both Star Wars and Lord of the Rings had prequel/sequels–trilogies that came out after the original sequels, but chronologically covering an earlier part of the extended storyline.  And it’s looking like both are going to disappoint.

I remember vividly seeing previews for Episode II: Attack of the Clones, and the feeling of dismay that overwhelmed me. Of course, I was going to see the movie.  But I felt sort of condemned to see it, fated to see it.  There would be no pardon from the governor, no warden’s reprieve.  I was going to have to trudge over to the cineplex and see the doggone movie.  And as dreadful as Episode I: The Phantom Menace had been, this one looked worse, and proved to be worse even than that.  Above all, half the movie was wasted on the least romantic love story in film history, Padme and Anakin, Natalie Portman and (shudder) Hayden Christensen, doing an entirely unconvincing mating dance, while the rest of us perished in ennui. Blech.

So okay.  The Desolation of Smaug is the Middle Earth equivalent of Attack of the Clones. The middle movie of a prequel/sequel, following a disappointing beginning.  The warden called, and, yes, you have to see this too.  No wonder I waited, like, weeks.

I’m happy to report that the Desolation of Smaug isn’t terrible, though, and a lot of it’s pretty darn watchable. It’s built around four long action set pieces, sort of video-gamey in their choreography and execution, but imaginative and fun, the way the better video games tend to be.  One is a long fight against giant spiders, in which first Bilbo, then the dwarves, then Legolas (so good to see Orlando Bloom again!) and Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) join in.  Giant nasty spiders are always blucky and gross, and fighting them looks grisly and cool. Second is a very long extended sequences in which the dwarves float down a river in barrels, fighting orcs off, again helped by the two elf warriors.  (And Evangeline Lilly fires off arrows with near-Legolas precision and style).  Third is a big orc v. elf thing in a human village–I’d give it a B plus.  Finally, the one fail: a preposterous sequence in which the dwarves try to drown a dragon in molten gold, which was just too silly to work very well.

Those scenes take up a lot of the movie, and three of them are thrilling.  There’s also a lot of time spent traipsing through Middle Earth, which once again looks fabulous.  New Zealand stands in beautifully for Tolkien’s world, as always, and the entire movie is gorgeous to look at.

That leaves the rest of the movie, which honestly kind of passed me by in a blur.  Honestly, I spent half the movie wondering what the freakin’ heck was going on.  I don’t know when I’ve seen a movie more confusing, and my favorite movie ever is The Tree of Life.  For one thing, there are too many dwarfs, and I never could tell them apart. Okay, I could tell them apart; they’re very different looking.  But aside from Thorin (their increasingly untrustworthy and unreliable leader), and the old looking one with the big beard . . . they’re just dwarfs.

But that’s not the real problem. Let me see if I can explain.

It’s a movie about dwarfs, really.  And this particular lot of dwarfs have their own history and mythology and politics, which is very involved and which needs at least some basic explanation, if you want the audience to have a chance of getting what’s going on.  But then there are also wizards–specifically Gandolf and bird-poop-costume Radogast.  And they also have a history and a mythology and politics and story line and stuff they have to accomplish, which also requires explanation; like, Gandolf is supposed to meet the dwarfs, but then he can’t, so why?  And it compounds.

There are elves, two communities of elves in fact, and they also have a history and a mythology and a politics and a storyline.  Also an inter-species love triangle involving Legolas/Tauriel and the one sort of cute dwarf.  Also there are shape shifting giant/bears (that is, creatures that can change from giant to bear), with their own h/m/p/s.  And spiders, with their own h/m/p/s.  And orcs, with their own h/m/p/s.  Also Smaug, the dragon; he’s got a h/m/p/s.

And humans: ditto.  And that’s when my head exploded.

Here’s the scene that did me in.  The dwarfs are ferried across this lake to human village by Bard (Luke Evans), a sort of smuggler/revolutionary (Han Solo?).  He’s a good guy, we think, and especially since he opposes the Rivertown mayor/king/master, gleefully played by Stephen Fry.  We know he’s the bad guy, because he only has two rotting teeth, and everyone knows there’s a direct correlation between personal morality and dental hygiene.  So there’s lots of explanation of the Rivertown history/mythology/politics/storyline, involving, of course, a ‘Eureka!’ discovery of just the right ancient parchment, and leading to a town meeting.  In which evil Stephen Fry turns out to be on the side of the dwarfs, and virtuous Luke Evans against them!

Boom.  Big messy explosion, poor theater clean-up crew having to scoop my brains off the walls.

I mean, it’s not that they didn’t explain it all.  They did explain, sort of, everything.  It had to do with the past, and someone’s father shooting arrows at a dragon, and the whombas overthrow of the kingdom of whazzat.  And gold, probably.

See, and that’s a problem, in that The Hobbit is one rather thin book, and to fashion it into a full-out nine hour trilogy requires fleshing out all sort of hints and clues in the novel, plus random stuff from the Silmarillion, and other Tolkien trivia from Stephen Colbert levels of Middle Earth nerdiana.  Plus, frankly, just making a lot of crap up.

And while I appreciate it, all the h/m/p and story threads, it does get exhausting, and I really don’t think I got much of a handle on it all.  I just didn’t understand the story much of the time.  I’d probably understand it better if I saw it again, but I’m not going to see it again.

The one part that really worked for me was just the big conversation between Smaug and Bilbo, when Bilbo goes to steal the whatever.  That conversation was riveting.  In part, it’s great, because it’s Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and we get to see what those two actors have been doing instead of giving us more Sherlock episodes to watch.  In part it’s great because they’re both smart, a smart dragon and a smart hobbit, exchanging barbs, while the stakes couldn’t be higher.  That’s when the movie really came alive for me.

Overall, the rest of the movie’s not as good as that scene, but that scene’s terrific.  The rest of the movie’s a solid B.  It’s not great, and it’s confusing, and not everything worked. But it’s better than the first Hobbit movie, and I’m glad I saw it.  Above all, it was great just to visit Middle Earth again.  I’ve really missed that place.

The Wolf of Wall Street: Review

There’s a scene late in Martin Scorcese’s The Wolf of Wall Street where Leonardo DiCaprio and Jonah Hill, playing Wall Street supersalesmen Jordan Belfort and Donnie Azoff, decide to try some super-strong Quaaludes Azoff has been saving for a special occasion.  They’re in Belfort’s mansion, and they ceremoniously open this pill bottle, and take one pill each.  Nothing happens.  They notice an expiration date on the bottle–the pills are several year’s older than should be safe.  They take a few more.  Again, nothing.  They take some more.  Suddenly, the pills kick in, and they find themselves deprived of most motor functions–they can’t really walk, swallow, talk coherently.  At that point, Belfort/DiCaprio gets an urgent phone call from his private detective friend–the FBI have bugged the phones in his home, and he needs to get to a pay phone for further instructions.  Somehow, he makes it to a nearby country club and uses the pay phone there, but can’t make himself understood on the phone, and collapses on the floor.  But now, he realizes he needs to get back home, and he can’t walk anymore.  He crawls over to the front door of the country club, rolls down the stairs, somehow drags himself along the ground to his car, and incredibly, drives home.  (He thinks, safely–later we see the trail of destruction his car left behind).  At home, he sees Azoff/Hill on his home phone, likewise incoherent, but talking about all sorts of illegal things that he knows the FBI shouldn’t hear.  He fights Azoff/Hill for the phone, thrashing together on the kitchen counter.  Azoff/Hill sees some cold cuts on the counter, and eats some ham, only he can’t swallow either, and begins choking.  Meanwhile, Belfort/DiCaprio notices his daughter, staring at him, shocked, while a Popeye cartoon plays, unnoticed, behind her.  But seeing Popeye eating spinach gives Belfort/DiCaprio an idea. He finds his kitchen stash of cocaine, and pours it down his nose.  This stabilizes him enough to perform CPR and save his friend’s life.

I describe this sequence in some detail because it seems key to understanding Scorcese’s approach to the material. First of all, it’s a very very funny extended sequence.  I heard a lot of laughter in the theater, and I was laughing out loud myself.  It’s farcical, watching Jonah Hill and Leonardo DiCaprio thrashing around, fighting clumsily over a phone, wrapped in a phone cord.  Equating Popeye/Spinach to DiCaprio/Cocaine was funny. It’s both horrifying and hilarious to think of DiCaprio trying to drive when he’s so incredibly impaired. And throughout the sequence, you think, ‘these guys are morons.  How in the world do they not get caught?  How in the world have they stayed out of prison?’

The film is based on Jordan Belfort’s book, about Stratton Oakmont, the tony sounding Wall Street firm he created, and its rise and fall.  It’s not just about Belfort and Azoff.  It has juicy roles for a wonderful array of character actors playing founding stockbrokers for the firm–P. J. Byrne, Kenneth Choi, Brian Sacca, Henry Zabrowski.  Kyle Chandler plays the FBI agent who finally sends Belfort to jail, and the extraordinary Australian actress Margot Robbie is astonishing as Belfort’s not-terribly-long-suffering second wife, Naomi. (Naomi takes as little crap from him as she possibly can).

The film’s three hours long, but it’s a super-charged ride, brimming with brio and raw animality.  The characters are almost entirely repugnant human beings, which is typical of farce–the film’s comedy comes from piling on excess after excess. In one of the earliest sequences, Stratton Oakmont employees throw velcro-wearing little people at targets, with cash bonuses awarded on the spot depending on where they stick.  That scene’s not terribly funny–it’s pretty horrifying, actually–but it sets up a later/earlier (later in the film, earlier chronologically) scene, a meeting of the firm’s leadership where they, in all seriousness, plan that event. (‘They’re built for this,’ they reassure themselves).

Above all, it’s a film about selling, about the exuberance and unleashed joy (and unabashed misanthropy) of pure sales.  DiCaprio is incredibly compelling here–Jay Gatsby’s comic foil–and his motivational pitches to his team are fevered odes to pure greed.  You want to apply for a job with him.  You want to start selling securities.  You want to sell worthless crap to people who can’t afford it, and use the money to buy high-priced garbage.  And lose your humanity in an orgy of sex and drugs.

It’s a film that sells a certain lifestyle, and then deconstructs its own success at doing so.  It’s a film that urges us to laugh out loud at the ridiculousness of vulgar excess, while maybe a small part of us wishes we could get a little for ourselves.  It’s exuberant, excessive and over-the-top, and very funny.  One example; vacationing on his yacht off the coast of Italy, Belfort gets an urgent call from his Swiss banker; he has to get to Geneva and it can’t wait, or he’ll lose twenty million dollars.  He asks the yacht captain if they can get to Monaco quickly.  The captain hesitates, says something indefinite about ‘chop.’  Belfort turns on the salesman’s charm–”sure you can!”  The captain, clearly very reluctant, agrees.  Cut to the yacht foundering in thirty foot waves.  ‘Chop’ indeed.  And Belfort shouts to Azoff that he needs him to go back to the yacht’s stateroom and get the Quaaludes.  “It’s three feet underwater!” shouts Azoff into the storm.  “Get my ‘ludes,” shouts Belfort. “I will not die sober!”  Funny, horrifying stuff.

The film’s also really really really seriously R-rated.  More F-bombs dropped than in any other Scorcese film ever, with 506, and considering that this is a Martin f-in’ Scorcese film, that’s saying something.  Nudity throughout, depictions of drug use throughout, excessive party scenes like something from ancient Rome.  So if you’re squeamish about those sorts of images/language, do NOT go to see this.

But as a ‘take down the rich,’ income inequality, Occupy Wall Street, seriously righteous examination of where we are as a nation (or at least where some of us are), this film can’t be topped.  This is the first farce about income inequality, and it’s incredibly funny and true and shattering.  It’s a tremendous political film, one that never mentions politics.  Marty Scorcese, age 71, has made the most youthful protest film of the year.  I’m in awe, frankly.

An amazing fraud

So, this morning, made me some pancakes, poured a glass of moo-juice, sat down to watch some TV with my breakfast, as is generally my wont.  I’d taped last night’s Daily Show, and started there, as usual.  Jon Stewart began with this story and I sat there, jaw dropping on the floor.  John Beale, you are my newest hero.

Sort of hero. Villain, I meant.  Boo! I mean, Boo!!!!  Bad EPA administrator!  Bad!  I guess, kind of.  You did what, again?  Seriously?  Wow, that’s amazing.  I mean terrible.  That’s what I mean.

Like most Americans, I have a kind of sneaking admiration for conmen and hucksters; hence the continued popularity of caper films.  I mean, we made folk heroes out of sociopathic thugs like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd; we turned Willie Sutton into a lovable scamp, Billy the Kid into myth, Jesse James into legend.  Made hit movies out of the exploits of Butch and Sundance and Bonnie and Clyde.  And don’t get me started on Robin Hood. In all his iterations.

In real life, we don’t.  In real life, we’re delighted to see Bernie Madoff get perp-walked into the slammer.  If you’ve ever been the victim of a real-life scam, it sucks. My wife and I got identity-thefted a couple of years ago, and even though we didn’t end up losing anything, and did get our money back, the whole experience was frustrating, draining, aggravating.  We don’t really like crooks.  We like clever fictional crooks.  We like the Dortmunder gang.  We’re fascinated by Keyser Söze. We like Saffron (the wonderful Christina Hendricks, pre-Mad Men), and get that Mal’s into her because he’s as much a scamp as she is.  (Sorry, you either get Firefly references, or you don’t; they take too long to explain).  We watch the Oceans‘ movies, marveling at the cleverness of Pitt/Clooney/Damon because, after all, who’s really getting ripped off here?  A worse bad guy?  We’re connossieurs: The Sting or The Italian JobThe Illusionist or Brothers Bloom?  (Don’t know of a movie with a better opening than what that clip shows).

We also admire/don’t admire workplace slackers.  We love, Wally, for example, in the Dilbert world, who somehow keeps his job year after year, which seems entirely to consist of walking around with a coffee cup in hand.  We like the Simpsons’ episodes where Homer displays yet again his awesome incompetence.  We love The Office and Office Space, where Steve Carell and Gary Cole, respectively, demonstrate the world’s worst bosses.  And we cheer, in Office Space, when Peter Gibbons decides to stop doing his job, stopping by work only to clean fish he’s caught while slacking, and as a result, gets a raise and promotion from his clue-less bosses.

John Beale, however, takes the cake.  Beale had a government job, in the Environmental Protection Agency, as a deputy assistant administrator, in the office of Air and Radiation.  Okay, ‘deputy assistant adminstrator’ doesn’t sound very impressive–it almost sounds made-up.  But Office of Air and Radiation?  Dude, we want good people in that job, do we not?  We sort of need air, and we’d prefer it breathable.  And radiation? If this guy’s in charge of the office monitoring levels of radiation. . . .

Plus he’s a climate change expert, apparently.  A well-respected published scientist.

But at some point, he seems to have made two important realizations about his life, and one very important decision.  The first realization seems to be that he didn’t want to go to work much anymore.  That he’d way rather get paid to hang around at home, or go on trips on the government’s dime.  The second realization seems to have been that the people he was working for were, for whatever reason, astonishingly gullible.

So for the past ten years, when he wanted some time off, he told his bosses he was, in addition to being an EPA administrator, a spy.  A CIA operative.  And that he therefore needed to not come in for a few weeks, so that he could fly to Pakistan or someplace and be James Bond for awhile.

He got raises.  He got retention bonuses.  He got free first class tickets to California, to see his family, and London to see shows.  He even got a personal parking space near the building where he worked at the job he was busy ditching, because of the malaria he’d contracted in Vietnam.  Even his wife thought he was a real CIA agent.

Except, of course, he wasn’t a CIA agent, and he didn’t have malaria, nor was he a Vietnam vet.

So what did he do with all his time off?  He’d fly to California. . . to visit his aging parents.  He’d sit at home, and . . . ride his bicycle.  Or catch up on his reading.  He’d vacation in Cape Cod.

My guess is, the thrill of getting away with it is what drove him.  He didn’t steal money out of the company safe; he stole a salary he didn’t earn, plane flights he wasn’t entitled to.  He stole time.  When you get a job, you agree to trade your time for their money.  Your employer is entitled to tell you how you’ll spend a certain number of hours–in exchange, he pays you.  John Beale liked the pay part, and seems to have been very good at the work part.  But, I don’t know, maybe he was getting older, maybe the work had gotten stale.  Going all Walter Mitty on the US government must have seemed . . . exciting.  More exciting, certainly, than monitoring air quality.

This seems like it might be one of those rare political news stories without a partisan angle.  I did enjoy the clips I’ve seen of the House Oversight Committee, seeing Jason Chaffetz’ look like his mind had been completely blown by this guy.  And then, the ranking Democrat on the committee wearing exactly the same expression.  Politico reported that they’re talking about federal legislation, making it super-duper-double-bad illegal to not go to work and get paid and make up stories about it.  Knock yourselves out, Congress–this is probably not going to happen much, or ever, again.

Beale got caught, eventually.  Agreed to pay a little shy of a million in restitution, and will spend two and a half years in prison.  He’s such a mild looking guy, undistinguished middle-aged man, balding, a little dumpy.  Hardly a criminal mastermind. Maybe Paul Giamatti plays him in the movie. Please please please let Wes Anderson direct.  Isn’t there a part of you rooting for him?



Yesterday’s post, about junior high and bullying, has me feeling nostalgic, and I thought maybe I should write about something more positive.  So I thought I’d write about basketball.

I grew up in south-central Indiana, which means I played basketball.  My Dad was an opera singer, often gone, a gig somewhere, and my Mom was a school teacher, which meant I was a latchkey kid; came home to an empty house.  Poor poor pitiful me; I loved it. I didn’t come home to an empty house at all.  I came home to a house with a basketball standard in the front driveway.

Every day, basically, we’d play.  My brother and I and some neighbor kids–Mike Rogers especially, also Bruce Ramage and Hig Roberts and Andy Hughes and, oh, I can’t name them all, anyway, we’d play.  Rob and I would play by ourselves if no one else was around, but usually other kids would join us soon enough.  When my Dad came home, he’d play with us too, even though he didn’t really dribble very well, but he did have a one handed set shot he could score with. And Rolf, our younger brother; he’d play, though he was eight years younger than me, and worse, a lefty–harder to guard.

The weather didn’t matter.  When it got dark, we’d turn on the porch light and play by that.  Indiana winters can get sleety and freezing cold; we’d play.  We’d play when it was so cold, the ball would hardly bounce, and the rain and sleet would turn the ball hard as concrete, and our hands were bright red from cold and jet black from the crud on the wet driveway, and still we’d play, every night we’d play.

The goal was half-way up the driveway, on the south side of it, and of course it was a driveway, long and skinny.  So most of our shots were from the baseline; the top of the key was basically out of bounds.  I was skinny and not very tall at first, and then got a growth spurt when I was thirteen and grew fourteen inches in a year, which meant I was tall, skinny, and incredibly uncoordinated.  I wasn’t much of a ball handler, but I could shoot, a little, though I was very streaky.  My brother, Rob, was younger than I was, and therefore shorter, but he was an athlete; faster, quicker, more coordinated, a better jumper.  Since we played against each other a lot, he had to figure out how to get his shot off against a taller kid.  So he developed a fadeaway jump shot that was absolutely deadly.  I couldn’t block it no matter how hard I tried.  I was a head taller than he was, and he’d back into me, and turn and float this high arching shot up there, and I was helpless. That was his shot when, as a six-three center (often playing against kids eight or nine or ten inches taller than he was), he averaged twenty points a game and made All-State his senior year in high school. He honestly could have played college ball–his game was very similar to Adrian Dantley’s.

The driveway was just big enough that you could comfortably play three on three.  Four on four was just barely possible, but traffic under the basket could get pretty rough.  I vividly remember one day, I was in high school, when Jeff Chitwood came to play.  Jeff was a pick-up game legend, the best teenaged basketball player in the city.  He loved Billy Jack.  Remember Billy Jack?  Tom Laughlin, man; my gosh it was a horrible movie.  But much beloved in my high school.  Chitwood dressed like Billy Jack, he wore a hat like Billy Jack, and he wore boots like Billy Jack.  (He had long hair, though; he would only take hero-worship-mimicry so far).  And he’d show up to pick-up games in his Camaro, and he’d carefully take off his hat, and his boots, and he’d pull on these raggedy sneakers.  And then he’d torch everyone.  He was a fabulous player, quick as a cat and a phenomenal shooter.

He didn’t play on the high school team.  The rumor we heard was that he showed up to the first try-out as a sophomore, and the coach said ‘you’re gonna have to cut your hair to play on this team.’  And Chitwood looked at the coach, quickly took ten straight jump shots, hit ‘em all, then looked back at the coach, said ‘not interested,’ and walked away.  I have no idea if that story was true, but it ought to have been true.  Chitwood ended up playing city league–a fifteen year old playing grown men–and dominated.

Anyway, it was an honor if your pick-up game was considered good enough for Chitwood to show up, and he did once, just once, to ours, and I’ll never forget it.  It happened to be one of the rare games when my shot was falling, and he turned to me once and said ‘good shot.’  Forty years ago, and I remember every detail. . .

(I’m convinced that the writers of Hoosiers named their star player Jimmy Chitwood because they’d remembered Jeff from a pick-up game.  They were in college in Bloomington at the right time, anyway.)

We mostly played two on two, I remember; usually Rob and I on opposite teams.  I probably played three thousand basketball games against my brother–I was calculating it this morning, and making the most conservative assumptions, it has to be over three thousand.  And I’m sure his teams beat mine more than my teams beat his. Add normal sib-riv tensions, and you’d think we fought all the time.  In fact, we really didn’t.  Still don’t, even now, when he’s a businessman and I’m a playwright, and maybe we don’t have all that much in common.  But we’re still great friends, close friends, and always have been, and I’m absolutely certain that the reason is basketball.

(We do disagree, of course we sometimes disagree. Usually over really really serious crucially important issues, like who the greatest center in the history of basketball was; him clinging obstinately to Wilt Chamberlain, when the obvious answer is clearly Bill Russell.  I mean, come on.)

Here’s the thing; I love other sports as a fan.  Love baseball, probably more, as a fan, than I love basketball.  Love soccer, and still do follow American football. But that’s as a spectator, as a follower.  As a sport to play, it’s basketball.  Always will be.

And above all, it’s basketball as played in Indiana.  We grew up rooting for the Hoosiers, the Indiana University basketball team; went to many games, and watched all of them on TV.  Professional basketball was cool too, and we grew up loving the Pacers.  That is, the ABA Pacers, from the American Basketball Association, the upstart league that barely clung to survival from 1967-1976.  They played with a red, white and blue ball, and had three point shots (which were later adapted by the NBA and colleges and high schools–every level of basketball uses the three-pointer, but it started in the ABA).

I didn’t know that the NBA, the older, more established league, looked at the ABA with disdain, considered it a minor league, thought the level of play was sub-par.  I liked basketball, and the Pacers were our local team.  And they were good, won the ABA championship in 1970, ’72 and ’73, and finished second in ’69 and ’75.  I can still remember the lineup (and I’m doing this from memory): Mel Daniels, Bob Netolicky, Roger Brown, Freddie Lewis, Billy Keller.  Keller was short and balding and chunky, but he hustled like crazy and was a terrific shooter.  The Pacers signed him because he was college roommates with Rick Mount, who was a superstar at Purdue, and the Pacers thought maybe Mount might be willing to consider playing for them if he could play with his best college friend.  And it worked, but Mount turned out to be a bust, a mediocre pro player, and Keller, through sheer hard work and determination was much better, as a pro.  And Darnell Hillman, who I loved, because he could jump out of the building and had the baddest ‘fro I’d ever seen on a human being.

My gosh, the memories.  All those games, on TV, at Assembly Hall in Bloomington (IU) and at the Indiana State Fairgrounds (Pacers), and later at Market Square Arena (Pacers again).  But the real memories are of our driveway. The uneven bounces, the freezing weather, the frozen ball.  Every day, every single day, Rob and I and neighbor kids shooting hoops, scoring and rebounding and dribbling and passing. The best of times, and the best of times.

Thoughts on torture

Saw the new movie Prisoners the other day.  It’s really very good, exceptionally well acted and quite well written, if, you know, also kind of preposterous.  Two married couples, the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello), and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), best friends, are enjoying Thanksgiving together when they notice their seven-year-old daughters are missing. Their older kids remember the girls playing by a dilapidated van parked in the neighborhood; cops are called, the van is discovered, driven by a mentally handicapped guy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano).  But, so, the Paul Dano character doesn’t seem to know anything, or even have the mental capacity to understand the questions he’s being asked, so the cops have to let him go.

And Hugh Jackman goes crazy.  His character, Keller Dover, is pretty tightly wound anyway.  He’s a carpenter, a hunter, a gun owner–has a concealed carry permit, movie starts with him and his son shooting a deer.  And he’s a religious man; prays openly several times in the movie.  A good family man, you sense.

But his little girl’s been kidnapped. And he loses it.  Kidnaps the Paul Dano character, and begins torturing him.  Finally builds a tiny closet for him, with off-and-on scalding water.  And keeps him there for days.

And the other couple, the Birches, they know about it.  And they’re appalled, and they’re horrified, and they know it’s wrong and say so.  But they can’t quite bring themselves to make him stop, call the cops or something.  Terrence Howard’s brilliant in this movie, as a deeply conflicted guy who nonetheless, out of desperation, chooses not to act, thereby violating his own deeply rooted religious and moral convictions.  I mean, his daughter’s gone too.  And Viola Davis is equally superb, as her character goes along with these dreadful decisions made by these two men.  They’re moral cowards, really, all of them are, but we also get why.

And it works. Torture works. Eventually, this poor sad guy, Alex Jones, who barely even understands the questions they’re asking him, he says something that cracks the case open. And Hugh Jackman grabs his gun, and goes to where he now knows his daughter is being held.

Now, in the interest of spoiler-avoidance, I won’t say more.  Jake Gyllenhaal, as Detective Loki (seriously, the cop’s a Norse God?) continues to work the case, and eventually solves it, despite screwing up pretty badly a couple of times. As I said, I rather liked the movie; mostly because these are all terrific actors and they carry the film.  But torture works.  That’s my takeaway.  Torture works.

But then, it often works in Hollywood.  Zero Dark Thirty? I know Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal insist they’re opposed to torture–still, I saw their film.  Torture works.  Through torture, a key piece of intel, leading eventually to bin Laden’s capture, is discovered.  It’s not the only intel they have, and it’s not the key to anything, but it starts Jessica Chastain down the path that eventually leads to Osama bin Laden’s execution.  Torture works.

24? One of the most popular shows in the history of television, right?  Jack Bauer tortured someone nearly every week, and it pretty much always worked.  What about Homeland? Crazy Carrie Mathison (played by presumably not-crazy Claire Danes) is the show’s heroine, and she orders torture, and again, it kind of works. Provides key information, leading to . . . well, something.  Info, if not actionable intel.

Now, all these characters are conflicted by it.  Hugh Jackman’s character is wracked with guilt over what he has to do to poor Paul Dano.  He prays about it, repeatedly.  And I know, that could be read as another example of Hollywood mocking religion; another hypocritical Christian.  But as a Christian, I don’t see it that way.  I think all Christians are, to some degree, hypocrites.  We have to be, given the impossible precepts and example provided us in the Sermon on the Mount. Love our enemies, turn the other cheek? The point of that Sermon is aspirational–it’s what we should work towards, knowing we’ll never achieve it. Which is why we also believe in God’s grace.

But when characters torture other characters, in movies or on TV (or in theatre), they’re always deeply conflicted about it.  And that elevates them.  They’re not torturing monsters.  They feel bad about it.  They’re facing a moral dilemma.  They have to decide; does this end justify these means?  And the thing they’re working for (capturing terrorists, rescuing kidnapped daughters, killing Osama bin Laden, saving the world) is always something noble and grand.  So torture isn’t exactly a good thing.  And it hurts me as much (or more) as it hurts you.  But sometimes you just have to.

BS.  Nonsense.  Balderdash.  Here’s Ali Soufan, former FBI agent and the one man who came closest to figuring out and stopping 9/11:

Time and time again, people with actual experience with interrogating terror suspects and actual experience and knowledge about the effectiveness of torture techniques have come out to explain that they are ineffective and that their use threatens national security more than it helps.

This from the Army Field Manual:

“Torture is a poor technique that yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say what he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.”

I could multiply these quotations a hundred times over.  Torture simply doesn’t work. Nor is it ennobling. Ask Lynndie England: the torturers at Abu Graib were driven by, mostly, boredom.  They were inadequately supervised, had a job they hated, and took it out on the prisoners under their care.

I know that some members of the intelligence community dispute this.  I know that Dick Cheney insists that valuable intelligence was discovered through ‘enhanced interrogation techniques.’  He’s cited the example of captured Al Quada operative, Abu Zubaydah (who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and bi-polar disorder), and was (according to the International Red Cross) subjected to

Waterboarding, sleep deprivation, isolation, exposure to extreme temperatures, enclosure in tiny spaces, bombardment with agonizing sounds at extremely damaging decibel levels, and religious and sexual humiliation.

All this was entirely unnecessary.  The man broke 30 seconds into his first waterboarding session (though he continued to be subjected to it).  He did what everyone does when they’re tortured.  He told his torturers whatever he thought they wanted.  He’d worked as a travel agent, and so he told about plots to attack the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty, the New York subway system.  As a result, the US spent millions of dollars chasing false alarms.  Ron Suskind’s great book, The One Percent Doctrine details his interrogation.  When he was simply questioned by sympathetic listeners, he gave up actual, actionable intelligence. When they started torturing him, his stories got wilder, and nonsensical.

Torture doesn’t work.  Not in real life.  In movies and on TV, they use it, because it’s dramatically tense and gives actors a chance to suffer photogenically.  But we could write better, truer stories.

So I’ve got a play in rehearsal right now.  Nothing Personal, it’s called, and it’s about the assault on civil liberties.  And it includes a torture scene.  And audiences and critics will decide if it’s a very good play.  (I’m proud of it, but then I’m proud of all my children).  But I can say this with some pride, I think: in my play about torture, torture doesn’t work.  Because it doesn’t.  And I wish Hollywood would figure that out.