Five bills to pass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Game Seven

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

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

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

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

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

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


My parents are in town this week, visiting, and my Dad and I had a long chat this morning, him reminiscing about his career in opera. My Dad was never an opera star, as stars go. He was like a good Triple A catcher; the best player on a high minor league team, with a long career and multiple call-ups to the majors. He sang at New York City Opera, at Chicago Lyric, at Boston Lyric, but he didn’t have a long European career, nor a career at the Met. He could have; I don’t have any doubt of that. He was a terrific bass-baritone, with a voice strong enough for Wagner, but lyrical enough for Mozart. And he was a fine actor.  So if the Scarpio got sick (in Tosca), New York City Opera could call my Dad, and he’d fly in and sing the role at a moment’s notice. Meanwhile, he had regular gigs with Kentucky Opera, back when, under the direction of Moritz von Bomhard, it was one of the best regional opera houses in the country.

But Dad never wanted a European career, or a career at the Met. He taught voice at Indiana University (back when it was either number one or two in any listing of American music schools), and loved teaching. He loved his life in Indiana, playing catch with my brothers and me, sailing on Lake Monroe, camping and hiking and enjoying his family. I don’t want to say that he wasn’t ambitious, exactly, just that his ambitions revolved around family and teaching and the Church, not opera stardom. As a singer and performer, he would rather be good than famous. People who mattered to him knew the high level of excellence his work regularly achieved. And personally, he was kind of a blue-collar guy. He’d been a sheet metal worker, and was a dab hand with a set of carpenter’s tools. And he brought that work ethic and lack of ego to his opera career. He was never a diva.

But boy did he know some.

And that’s what made this morning so fun. Mom and Dad and I sat together in our family room, and he told stories of the great opera singers he knew, both at Indiana and in his career, and how preposterous their ego demands could become. I’ve worked professionally in theatre for over thirty years, and I’ve known some egotistical and demanding actors. And I’ve stood in the wings and snickered with fellow cast members at the antics of diva-esque stars. But theatre divas can’t even begin to compare with opera divas.

Case in point: Madame M—-, a singer Dad knew at IU who turned to teaching after a long career at the Met. She didn’t have a car, or any means of transportation, so she took cabs everywhere. She’d call the cab company and she’d say, in her heavy German accent, “Peek me opp.”  And, sure enough, the cab would show up. She’d take the cab to wherever she was going, and then she’d sweep regally out, saying to the cabbie, “zank you very much.”  The cab company would then send a bill to the Dean’s office at the Music school, where one poor secretary had the responsibility of paying this singer’s bills for her, carefully deducting them from her paycheck. She did the same thing at clothing stores. She’d select a few dresses and walk out with them, with an aristocratic smile for the clerks at the store, who would follow her around, keep of track of what she took, and send the Dean the bill.

Dad told a new Madame M—- story, one I hadn’t heard before. Apparently, a colleague followed her into a lady’s room, and heard, coming out of Madame M—–‘s stall, a most spectacular, lengthy and melodious fart. Then, after a moment, Madame M—– said, almost reverently, this: “schön.”

Dad told of the tenor who was singing the demanding title role in Verdi’s Otello.  As was often the case back in the day, he didn’t show up until the week the opera was to open; he’d walk through a dress rehearsal, then perform the next night. He showed up–the set completely built, the opera entirely staged, and saw that the door for his first entrance was stage left. He called for the stage director, and said, ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’ The stage director pointed out that the set was completed, that there was no door stage right, and that he had been staged entering from the left. The tenor responded ‘in Otello, I enter stage right.’  And that was it. Tickets had been sold to an audience expecting to see this particular star. There was nothing to do except to completely rebuild the set that night, to give him a stage right entrance.

Another story, a favorite of mine: a soprano, arriving in Los Angeles for a gig, called her agent in New York and woke him from a sound sleep to demand that he call the driver of the limo she was sitting in to tell him to turn down the air conditioning. Obviously, she couldn’t be expected to, you know, actually talk to the limo driver herself. There are people who do those jobs.

A few years ago, I remember, my wife and I went to an opera. And before it began, we heard this pre-show announcement: “Miss _______ (the leading soprano) is ill, and not in good voice tonight. She has nonetheless consented to perform.”  I try to imagine, I don’t know, an actor like Ian McKellen or Patrick Stewart or Michael Gambon doing that. “Mr. Gambon is ill tonight. Nonetheless, he has consented to perform.”  The best actors I know would honestly rather die than let you know they were under the weather some night. The show must go on, and every audience for which you perform deserves your very best. That’s the theatre ethic. Not this opera singer. What if she cracked on a high note? Better for us all to know how courageous she was even performing.

Dad did, of course, also sing with other big stars who weren’t remotely divas.  He was good friends with James King, for example, a splendid tenor and a fine actor and complete professional. One of my favorite roles of my Dad’s was his John the Baptist in the Richard Strauss opera Salome, with the wonderful Nancy Shade in the title role. Most opera stars are perfectly reasonable people, dedicated to their craft and easy to work with.

But sometimes, a combination of ego, insecurity and selfishness leads performers to misbehave. And this was the final point my Dad made, chatting about divas this morning. He said he saw this over and over; a diva opera star would perform, and during the curtain call, you’d hear thunderous applause for all the other performers, and then, for the diva, a big fall-off.  “You can’t fool audiences,” he said. “They can always tell a phony.  They see through them every time.”  I’ve seen that too. The diva’s mask may look, initially, comic. But it’s pure tragedy every time.



The Hobby Lobby decision

“I’m not a. . . ” Jon Stewart recently did a montage of statements from politicians in which they declared repeatedly what they are not.  “I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . ” I’m not a professional chef, but. . . ” “I’m not a climate scientist, but. .  . .” It was a funny bit.  Obviously, the point of saying “I’m not a. . .” is to insist, against all evidence, that a person nonetheless has something cogent to say on a subject in which s/he isn’t actually expert, with the amusing subsequent possibility of idiocy resulting.  “I’m not a rocket scientist, but it seems to me that if we’re going to send astronauts to the sun, we should probably go at night.”  That kind of thing.

Well, I’m not a legal scholar, but. . . ”  I’m a playwright, with a Ph.D. in history.  Uh, make that ‘theatre history.’  I’m not an attorney, a law student, a legal scholar.  I’m a guy who writes dramatic entertainments, for fun and for profit. And I’m a guy who likes reading court decisions.  I read for kicks.  I like Supreme Court decisions basically because I like the logic of them, and I dig the prose.  They’re not written in legalese, really.  The language is accessible.  So with all those caveats and disclaimers, understand that I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.  But the recent Supreme Court decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby is really amazing.

First of all, let’s admit this: as big, for-profit corporations go, Hobby Lobby is one of the good guys.  They don’t sell cocaine.  They don’t sell missiles.  They don’t sell smallpox diseased blankets. They sell crafts supplies.  Check out their website.  They have knickknacks you can use to spruce up your backyard patio.  Cool stuff.  And they treat their employees fairly.  They pay double minimum wage for full-time new hires.  They give lots of money to charity (well, Liberty and Oral Roberts Universities).  They close the doors of their stores at 8, instead of 9, to give employees more of a family life.  They close on Sundays.  On a moral continuum from ‘contemptible’ to ‘Christ-like’, with the Tijuana drug cartel way over there on the left, and the American Red Cross on the right, Hobby Lobby’s over there towards the right, next door, but to the left of, Costco.  Way to the right of, like, Walmart.

But now, because of Obamacare (shudder) (ironically), they have to provide health care for their employees, something they were already kind of doing.  They’re run by the Green family; their CEO is David Green. And he’s a very religious guy.  And he objected to paying to provide some kinds of birth control for his employees.

There are 20 different birth control medications approved by the FDA.  4 of them, including morning after pills and IUDs, constitute, in the opinion of some Christian traditions, de facto abortions.  If ‘personhood’ begins at conception, then birth control methods that terminate post-conception zygotes would be, I suppose, sort of abortion-y.  Those are the methods to which Green objected.

Here’s the logical chain of his objection, best I can ascertain it.   The Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993 restricts the government from “substantially burdening a person’s exercise of religion.” The ACA (Affordable Care Act–Obamacare) required employers to provide birth control, and allowed the Department of Health and Human Services to define what, specifically, that meant.  They declared that all 20 birth control options approved by the FDA were covered.  Religious non-profit organizations, however, who objected to contraception mandates, were exempted.  Hobby Lobby is a for-profit corporation mostly owned by one family, and run by members of that family.  So Hobby Lobby can claim that it is a religiously oriented for-profit corporation, and that it should receive a similar exemption to the ones non-profits receive.

So that’s the first issue: can a for-profit corporation define itself as a person with religious objections to, well, anything?  I wouldn’t have thought so.  Who owns a corporation?  Shareholders, officers, employees?  Presumably a big variety of religious opinions are included within the ranks of ‘owners.’  This would be particularly true of a publicly traded company.  But Hobby Lobby is not publicly traded. It’s owned by a small number of people, nearly all of them from one family, all of them religious.  To quote Justice Alito (writing for the majority):

Finally, HHS contends that Congress could not have wanted RFRA to apply to for-profit corporations because of the difficulty of ascertaining the “beliefs” of large,publicly traded corporations, but HHS has not pointed to any example of a publicly traded corporation asserting RFRA rights, and numerous practical restraints would likely prevent that from occurring.
In other words, theoretically, any company might claim a religious exemption, but mostly, such claims would probably fail.  But it doesn’t fail to a company like Hobby Lobby, which only has a few owners.
But what’s the difference between a company offering 16 different methods of contraception and offering all 20?  Since the women employed by the company are the ones that decide which method to use (presumably in consultation with their physicians), then why would it be sinful for the company if some employees choose a method of which their employers disapprove?  It’s here that Alito’s decision starts to fall apart.
The belief of the Greens implicates a difficult and important question of religion and moral philosophy, namely, the circumstances under which it is immoral for a person to perform an act that is innocent in itself but that has the effect of enabling or facilitating the commission of an immoral act by another. It is not for the Court to say that the religious beliefs of the plaintiffs are mistaken or unreasonable.
So, it’s not sinful for employees to choose which contraception methods they’ll use, but since, in the opinion of their employers, some of the possible choices are immoral, their employers might end up sinning second-hand?  If I’m a pacifist, I’m opposed on moral and religious grounds to all war.  Can I object to paying taxes, if those taxes might be used to build weapons?  Obviously not. This ‘second-hand sinning’ stuff seems seriously problematic to me.  Obviously, HHS isn’t requiring David Green personally to abort a fetus.  Maybe one of his employees might, of her own free will, take a medication that, to Mr. Green, might be construed as abortion-like. That strikes me as a problematic standard. And Alito offers no legal reasoning to support this, to me, odd little side-step.
The court also suggested that if the government wanted to give women the option of using other birth control methods than the 16 the Greens approve of, the government could simply pass a bill paying for it.  “The Government could assume the cost of providing the four contraceptives to women unable to obtain coverage due to their employers’ religious objections.”  That’s almost comically naive; obviously, today’s Congress is never going to pass a law approving any such thing.
Then, right at the end, Alito’s decision veers into sheer incoherence.
This decision concerns only the contraceptive mandate and should not be understood to hold that all insurance-coverage mandate for vaccinations or blood transfusions, must necessarily fall if they conflict with an employer’s religious beliefs. Nor does it provide a shield for employers who might cloak illegal discrimination as a religious practice.
Just ’cause.
It’s really bizarre.  The court crafted a narrow ruling out of whole cloth. If the Greens can refuse to offer their employees birth control options they, the Greens, object to, then why couldn’t a Jehovah’s Witness CEO refuse to provide her employees with health insurance through which they might get a blood transfusion paid for?  Well, they just can’t.  Alito offers no rationale for this, no legal justification for it, no logical transition to it.  He just says ‘this exception is limited to this one case only, because we say so.’  No slippery slopes on this hill!
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s dissent makes for fun reading.  If you don’t want to read 35 page dissents, here’s a highlight reel.  Or, if you’d prefer to hear her dissent in song form, here you go!
So it’s a narrow decision.  Justice Alito says so. But as often is the case with women’s health issues, (male) trolls pretty quickly started crawling out from under their bridges.  My favorite was our own Mike Lee (sorry, that should be Constitutional Scholar Senator Mike Lee), who opined that women use birth control for ‘largely recreational reasons,’ (or agreed with another troll who said it), and added “this administration is using the often coercive power of the federal government to force people into their way of being and their way of existing, their way of believing and thinking and acting.”  Not really, no.  Contraception is medication. 60% of women have used contraception for reasons other than to prevent pregnancy.  Also, what’s wrong with preventing pregnancy?  Isn’t it wonderful, that we live in an age where women can make their own decisions about how they’re going to live their lives?

So how is the Hobby Lobby case not an example of unwarranted judicial activism?  There are three women on the Supreme Court; they were joined, in dissent, by one man, Justice Breyer.  Also, and I feel bad pointing this out, but it does seem germane; there are five Catholics on the Court.  Roberts, Thomas, Scalia, Kennedy.  And Samuel Alito, hapless author of this unfortunate decision.  Meaningful?  That all five Catholics on the court concocted this bizarre mess of a decision, which also happens to deal with contraception and sort-of-abortions?
Here’s what I think: Kennedy, or maybe Kennedy and Roberts, was leaning towards joining Ginsburg.  So Alito appended this odd little final paragraph, limiting the possibility of Hobby Lobby causing further mischief down the road.  We’ll see what further mischief it actually causes.

Iraq again

Once again, Iraq is in the news. A Sunni army, called The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (Isis, for short), has been sweeping through northern Iraqi cities, butchering as they go.  They seem to be headed to Baghdad.  And Iraqi troops have responded, basically, by laying down their weapons, ripping off their uniforms, and running away.  President Obama met with Congressional leaders, like he’s supposed to, and announced that 250 troops will be going back, tasked with embassy security and some minimal training of Iraqi forces.  (And Speaker Boehner and Senate Majority leader McConnell and Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi all agreed that, Article One Section Eight notwithstanding, the President has plenty of authority to do anything militarily he wants to. Political courage has not been in abundant display over this one).  Iraqi President Nouri al-Maliki asked for some limited American airstrikes, which President Obama agreed to, if they can be precisely targeted.

And so Dick Cheney (and his daughter, Liz, straight off her failed bid for the Wyoming Senate seat) unloaded on President Obama in an op-ed piece, saying ‘rarely has an American President been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many,” while calling for American soldiers to return to stabilize things.

The response has been remarkable, especially on the Right. Glen Beck (!?!?!?!?) said, on his radio show, that liberals were right, and he was wrong, about Iraq. Jim Webb, Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of the Navy, wrote a very strongly worded op-ed piece opposing any further US involvment in Iraq.  And a lot of liberal websites showed the remarkable footage of Fox News’ Megyn Kelly taking the former Vice President to task over his piece.

Sadly, they didn’t show the whole clip.  It’s true that Megyn Kelly started off with some tough questions.  But she’s Megyn Kelly, and she does work for Fox; the interview devolved into typical Fox blather about what a dangerous (really, seriously, dangerous) president Obama is.  Usual argle-blargle about how feckless he is, how he doesn’t take the terror threat seriously, how he’s left America weak, and so on.

So ripped Cheney to shreds.  In fact, every substantive claim made by the two Cheneys on their Fox appearance is demonstratively false.  Basically, the complaint Dick Cheney has against President Obama is that he’s not quite as crazy paranoid about terrorism as Cheney was.

I don’t doubt that terrorism and terrorist groups and support for jihadists have all increased under President Obama.  But it’s not because he’s soft on terror.  That’s ridiculous.  I maintain that terrorism has increased precisely because of the actions we’ve taken to fight it.  I strongly suspect that every time an American drone kills a terrorist, we recruit fifty new terrorists.  The secret to fighting terrorism is winning the hearts and minds of people who mostly want to be left alone to raise their families in peace.  When an unmanned drone swoops out of the sky to fire missiles at a Pakistani village or Yemeni town, one response for those witnesses is to become radicalized.  Their friends, neighbors, acquaintances, townspeople, tribesmen, co-religionists have just been killed.  How would you feel about it?

As for Iraq, I do suppose the President is right to want some additional security for our embassy there, and if a little more training can make a difference for their army, then fine, though I’m skeptical.  Black-flagged Isis is plenty scary.  But I’m worried about mission creep.  I’m worried that 250 advisors today becomes 500 tomorrow.

The invasion of Iraq under President Bush remains the single most appalling blunder in the history of American foreign policy.  It’s time for Dick Cheney to shut up.

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.