90 percent

A Mormon feminist group called Ordain Women orchestrated the mildest of protests at the Priesthood session of the last General Conference of the LDS church.  They asked for tickets to attend.  They asked politely, and were politely turned away.  The Priesthood session is only open to Priesthood holders, which to say, only men.  I don’t have any idea why this is.  The sessions are immediately available on-line, and are broadcast on BYU-TV. No occult secrets are revealed, no special instructions shared.  I hardly ever go, because it’s held at the Marriott Center on the BYU campus, and I can’t manage the stairs. I can, however, watch it on my computer, and so can anyone else.  I can’t for the life of me see what harm would be done if, say, a widow wanted to go with her twelve-year old Deacon son.

So, when Priesthood session is happening, I usually read it or watch it on-line. I have never felt like I missed a thing when I don’t attend.  I have good friends from OW who were there, in Salt Lake, asking for tickets. It took a lot of courage and commitment to do that.  Good for them.

Anyway, as April Conference approaches, a spokeswoman for the Church’s Public Relations department, Jessica Moody, wrote a letter to Ordain Women, asking that the organization confine their protest to ‘free speech zones’ just off Temple Square.  If you’ve been to Conference in Salt Lake, you’ve seen the free speech zones; mostly they’re populated by evangelicals or other groups proselytizing against the Church.  Kate Kelly, an Ordain Women spokeswoman said this in response:

“We feel as faithful, active Mormon women we have nothing in common with people who oppose the church and want to protest against it. The church  is its members. We aren’t against the church, we are the church.”

During Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, when Mormonism was very much in the national and international spotlight, it was fascinating to see who the world media turned to for information and perspective and explanation. Mostly, it was Joanna Brooks, and Kate Kelly, and other leading Mormon feminists.  I thought about Joanna Brooks, in fact, when I read Kate Kelly’s comment ‘we aren’t against the Church; we are the Church.’ The fact is, media types weren’t much interested in pro forma comments from official Church sources, anymore than they’re interested in comments from official spokespeople for big business, or politicians, or movie stars, or any institutions big enough to have a PR department. They want the real skinny; they want to hear from someone who Knows.  For a long time, they loved Jan Shipps.  She was perfect; not LDS, but a scholar of Mormonism with impeccable scholarly credentials. Jan’s retired now, and nowadays, it’s an insider/outsider they want, someone like Joanna Brooks; a scholar, an active Mormon, but an insightful and thoughtful observer of her own faith and culture.  We liberal Mormons, we became unofficial representatives of Mormonism.  (Because of publicity generated by the national candidacy of a guy probably none of us voted for!)  We are the Church, indeed.

Monday, when Jessica Moody’s letter was made public, was pretty discouraging to a lot of my LDS feminist friends.  Many took particular issue with this:

“Women in the church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for priesthood ordination for women and consider that position to be extreme.  Declaring such an objective to be non-negotiable, as you have done, actually detracts from the helpful discussions that church leaders have held as they seek to listen to the thoughts, concerns and hopes of women inside and outside of church leadership. Ordination of women to the priesthood is a matter of doctrine that is contrary to the Lord’s revealed organization for his church.”

I have a couple of reactions to this letter, and to the heartbreak I’ve seen expressed by many many friends.  First, it is at least encouraging to think that the Church’s leaders are engaged in ‘helpful discussions’ with LDS women, inside and outside of Church leadership.  I’m encouraged to think that members of the Twelve are really listening to the ‘thoughts, concerns and hopes’ of women in the Church.

I have no special insight into what the future might bring. I do know that the narrative of the nineteenth century Church was filled with stories of women, called as midwives, laying on their hands and blessing women about to give birth, and of Relief Society presidents holding blessing meetings with their sisters. I can imagine almost any future.

But only one present.  And it seems to be defined as this: “Women in the Church, by a very large majority, do not share your advocacy for Priesthood ordination for women, and consider that position to be extreme.”  So what we have is a fight over definitions.  OW wants it to be clearly understood that ‘we are the Church.’  But Sister Moody’s letter wants to define OW as ‘extreme,’ as a tiny minority, easily ignored and rightfully marginalized.

Back in October, a PEW poll of Mormon men and women offered statistical evidence supporting Sister Moody’s position.  In that poll, 84% of LDS men, and 90% of LDS women, oppose priesthood ordination for women.  And when the Deseret News published a story about Moody’s letter, the comments section on-line was flooded with responses, almost all of them ferociously opposed to OW’s goals.  Many (not all) of the comments were vitriolic, profoundly un-Christian.  It saddened me to think that people in my Church could harbor such anger towards their sisters and brothers.  I kept seeing that number.  90%. And not just the number, but also the vitriol must be immensely discouraging for Ordain Women’s adherents.

But then, that number is hardly surprising. A lot of progressive notions follow a similar pattern. Initially feared as radical, they come, over time, to seem less and less so.  Such early feminists as Elizabeth Cady Stanton, when they began advocating for women’s suffrage, faced similarly overwhelming majorities. In 1911, an organization called the National Association Opposed to Women’s Suffrage (NAOW), started by a woman, had chapters in 25 US states.  In their literature, they claimed that “90% of women don’t want” the vote.  And they invoked the scary thought of “petticoat rule”.  Shiver.

I have no doubt If you had asked our forefathers what they thought of ‘miscegenation’ (that is, interracial marriage), I’m sure at least 90% of men and women would have thought that a radical notion, and opposed it.  Gay marriage: I can’t even imagine nineteenth century Americans knowing how to frame the question.  That one wouldn’t have been opposed by any 90% of Americans; if we can even imagine a poll asking about it. Everyone would have thought the idea a crazy one. Today, close to 60% favor it.

I do think the 90% figure is probably pretty accurate.  My wife, for example, doesn’t want the Priesthood, because she says it sounds like way too much work.  But she’s also an ardent feminist.  That’s also a responsible and intelligible position. Me, I’m still trying to figure out why the Sunday school President in a ward needs to be a guy.  Or why the Relief Society President can’t sit up on the stand with the Bishopric.  Or why it needs to be the entire Bishopric up there.  I’m an incrementalist, maybe.

And yet, and yet.  “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” said Dr. King.  He was quoting a nineteeth century Unitarian minister (and committed abolitionist) named Theodore Parker.  Here’s Parker’s quotation in context:

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice. Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just.

And Jefferson was a great thinker, a great President, a brilliant man, and a man who owned slaves, and knew that doing so was an abomination.  And yet, he preached equality, though rhetorically he limited it to ‘all men.’  And still the arc bends, past the Amistad, through Antietam, on past Selma, and it bent again to touch the heart of Spencer W. Kimball, in 1978. I can’t see the shape of the arc either, from my limited, skewed perspective. But the world is better today than it was a hundred years ago, and better then than a hundred years further back. Can I see ahead another hundred years?  No: I’m too short-sighted.  Does it bend towards female ordination?  I don’t know.  But change there will be, and I believe it will be just, and righteous; bending towards a millennium.  And still the arc bends.




Two movie reviews

Everyone knows that February movies are terrible. Studios load all their Oscar-worthy films into November and December, and all their big budget popcorn flicks into the May-August summer movie season. But post-New Year movies tend to be things like Monuments Men, an issue movie intended to generate Oscar buzz, but which just wasn’t good enough to make the cut, or movies primarily intended for foreign distribution, like the new 300 movie, or Pompeii.  February is for flotsom, or on occasion, jetsom.  Which is why it was so nice to see two really pretty fun movies released last month. I had a busy February, as it happens, and only just got to see them, but they’re both really pretty good, and I recommend them with great pleasure.

First was The Lego Movie.  If you had told me six months ago that I would spend my hard-earned cash to see something called The Lego Movie, and not only that, enjoy it, I would have laughed in your face. Or that Tegan and Sara would write the catchiest pop song of the year, especially for that movie?  No way.  Well, take that, six-months-ago-me!  What a tool that guy was!  In fact, The Lego Movie is awesome. Of course, everything is awesome, as the movie’s one song reminds us over and over and over.  But so is the movie.

Basically, there are two ways of playing with Legos.  One way is to follow the instructions carefully, and build the stuff that’s on the cover of the box.  The second way is to ignore the cover of the box, and build whatever awesome thing your imagination can come up with, limited only by the Legos at hand.  That Legos insight somehow becomes a premise, and eventually a story, and eventually an animated movie.  Lord Business (or President Business; the titles are interchangeable) voiced by (and eventually played by) Will Ferrell, wants conformity.  He wants everyone to obey the rules.  And so, in his world, there’s one song that everyone builds stuff to: the aforementioned “Everything is Awesome.”  There’s one TV show that everyone watches, a sitcom called “Where are my pants?”  It features one character, and one joke; dude can’t find his pants.  And everything is about to be locked in, set in stone.  Glued firmly in place.

Opposing Business, is a fierce female ninja warrior, Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), her boyfriend Batman (Will Arnett), a prophet figure (Morgan Freeman, natch), and a perfectly (and I mean perfectly) ordinary Lego figure named Emmet.  Also a team of Master Builders, which is to say people with the ability to use Legos to build anything.  Master Builders include Gandalf, Abraham Lincoln, a Pirate, Han Solo–oh, there are a ton of them.

All I can say is, the movie comes down on the side of childish imagination, that it’s the most pleasurable pop culture pastiche, that it moves at a giddy pace and that every second of it was a pure delight.  It’s the funnest, awesomest, most wildly inventive movie I’ve seen in awhile. Let me add that the strongest bad word any character ever uses in the movie is ‘heck’ or ‘darn,’ and that that ends up making perfect character sense by the movie’s end.

Second movie is nowhere near as fun, but it was plenty exciting: Liam Neeson in Non-Stop.  It’s a terrific action movie, and one which I really seriously doubt will be shown on the airplane next time you fly.  That’s assuming that you ever fly ever again after seeing it.  I know I won’t.

Neeson has reinvented himself as an action movie star now, in his 60s, and somehow it works.  He’s a big guy, his face looks like it’s seen better days, and he makes a kind of exhausted physicality work for him; first in the two Taken movies, and now in this.  In Non-Stop, he plays Bill Marks, a federal air marshal, who hates flying, and yet has a job in which he basically does nothing but fly.  On a New York to London flight, he gets a text message. Someone on the plane is going to kill a passenger every twenty minutes unless Marks can get his bosses–the federal government–to wire transfer 150 million dollars.

He figures he can trust two people on the plane.  One is Julianne Moore, who was sitting next to him when he got the text message–he figures therefore she can’t be the person who sent it.  The other is Lady Mary Crawley.  Oops, sorry, Michele Dockery, playing a flight attendant.  And, one by one, people on the plane die.  Second to go is the plane’s captain.  Which means the co-pilot is both a suspect, and the only guy who can fly the plane.

One of the things I liked about the movie is that Bill Marks is a very flawed hero.  He’s an alcoholic; he’s about to lose his job.  He sneaks into the lavatory, tapes over the smoke detector, and has a smoke.  And as the emergency progresses, he handles it badly at first, bumbling about, essentially running all the plays in  the bad guy’s playbook.  And the passengers become increasingly convinced that Marks is the bad guy, that he’s hijacked the plane.  And–the power of smart phones!– so does the rest of the world media.

Including me.  I’ll be honest, half-way through the film, I wasn’t sure who the good guy really was.  Could it be that Liam Neeson’s character is, in fact, the bad guy, that we’re seeing the film from his p.o.v., but, a la Roger Ackroyd, he’s also the killer? Very nice misdirection from the director, Jaume Collet-Serra, the Spanish director who also directed Neeson in Unknown, another pretty good thriller.

I won’t spoil the ending, except to say that when we do learn the whys and wherefores of the actual plot, the movie suddenly gets a whole lot dumber.  That the ending, though unquestionably exciting, doesn’t make a lick of sense.  And also, if you’re an iffy flyer like me, this film may well convince you never to fly again.  Funny how that didn’t happen after Snakes on a Plane. But in the case of Non-Stop, a more plausible scenario made for a very exciting action movie.  It won’t increase your understanding of life or the universe or anything.  But it’ll pass a couple of hours agreeably enough.

So, you see, there are good movies released every month. Including February.  And The Legos Movie is weird and fun and bizarre and really really awesome.  And Non-Stop is a darn good thriller, not remotely paint-by-numbers.  They’re both worth your time, I think.




Movie review: Short Term 12

Sometimes, you just need a good movie.

It’s true.  Sometimes, just watching a really good movie can help.

Short Term 12 is the ultimate low budget independent movie.  It won all sorts of awards at SxSW, the great independent festival in Austin.  It can’t have cost much to make.  The acting is tremendous, but I’ll bet you’ve not heard of most of the actors.  But it’s such a lovely movie, smart and kind and compassionate and real and true. It’s at 99% positive on Rottentomatoes.com, and deserves it. It’s on Netflix; check it out.

Brie Larson stars as Grace, who runs a short term facility for really troubled kids.  One co-worker there is Mason, played by John Gallagher Jr., who plays Emily Watson’s assistant on The Newsroom.  Grace is astonishingly good at her job, incredibly empathetic and caring.  She seems to know when kids need discipline and when they need to be left alone, to work things out.  She’s funny and smart and kind, and Mason is very nearly her equal.  Together, you know they’re making an incredible difference in the lives of the 12-15 kids who live in their facility. It’s a real home, a refuge, with rules and expectations that the kids (mostly) live up to.

Grace is also a seriously messed up young lady.  When a very troubled teenage girl, Jayden, shows up, Grace takes a particular interest in her, because she recognizes a lot of her own life in Jayden.  (Jayden, by the way, is played by the amazing Kaitlyn Dever, who was so great as runaway teen on Justified).  And as Grace works with Jayden, we get glimpses into her own troubled past, which includes sexual abuse from her father.  We learn that Grace testified against her Dad, that he’s now in prison for it, but that he’s soon eligible for parole, and that knowledge throws her into a real tailspin.

Mason and Grace are also lovers, and Grace learns early in the movie that she’s pregnant.  When Mason learns of this, he’s great with it, proposes marriage, insists that the two of them are going to be terrific parents.  But the combination of Jayden’s problems, Grace’s own past, her father’s impending prison release all cause her to start to lose it.

I’m not going to give away the ending, except to say that it’s wonderfully life-affirming and yet utterly grounded in the reality of the characters.  At the movie’s end, I was just stunned.  Took a deep breath, wiped away a few tears.  And tried to think of something nice I could do for other people.

Okay, I suppose I should give a content warning.  The movie’s rated R, because messed up teenagers use messed up language; it’s a trifle F-bomb intensive.  And it’s disturbing to see great looking kids, kids we care about and wish well, coping with really serious issues and problems.  Kids should get to be kids.  Kids shouldn’t have to deal with the kinds of abuse that kids, in the real world, regularly have to deal with.  But it’s also a movie that says that help is available.  It’s a movie that says that genuinely kind, but badly overworked, flawed and imperfect people are out there, fighting every day, making a difference.  Human goodness is possible.

So at the end of a day that was actually kind of discouraging, this was the movie to see.  This was the right one.  I know the title’s not good, and I know that you’ve never heard of the actors, and I know there’s bad language.  But this is a genuinely great movie, a work of art that also manages to be a mitzvah, a virtuous act.  Sometimes this happens,for art to become testimony, for testimony to be life-changing. Short Term 12, made for pennies, pulls of that miracle.

Spiritual Twinkies

Yesterday, one of the speakers in church talked about ‘spiritual twinkies,’ and how they differ from good spiritual nourishment.  In other words, some people substitute silly, shallow, faddish notions for actual gospel truth.  What we need, she said, is a commitment to solid gospel scholarship, found in the scriptures, and not fill our minds with the intellectually fashionable whims and caprices of ‘the world.’

It was a good talk, and I enjoyed it.  But the speaker didn’t really define her terms very well. She didn’t give examples of what she meant by ‘spiritual twinkies,’ or of ‘good gospel nourishment.’  It was probably just as well that she didn’t.  I think if you ask most Mormons ‘do you agree that we should avoid ‘spiritual twinkies’ and fill our souls with ‘substantive gospel nourishment,’ 100% would agree.  But if you got more specific about it, there’d be a lot of disagreement.  I think what you’d see is a massive display of confirmation bias.  I think everyone would say that their own pet ideas are ‘solid nourishment’ and that ideas they dislike are ‘twinkies.’  And we’d get all polarized, and once again American culture wars would seep over into Mormonism.

I remember two particular priesthood lessons, back to back, many years ago that illustrate my point.  In one lesson, the teacher talked about how important it was that we live by the standards of the gospel in all things, including our amusements, and that we should therefore never play with face cards.

I was outraged. I grew up playing hearts and euchre with my folks.  My Dad taught me gin and blackjack.  My grandfather supplemented the family income by playing poker for cash at the union hall.  He spoke heavily accented, immigrant-y English, and would pretend to not really understand the rules of poker, sort of shambling over to the table, looking pretty clueless.  But in fact, he was an exceptionally intelligent man, with the ability to compute poker odds in his head.  He’d clean up.  My parents love Michigan rummy and played pinochle with friends for years.  I love playing cards.  I still play hearts on-line.  So when this dweeb of a priesthood instructor quoted someone saying we shouldn’t use face cards, I tuned him right out.  Obviously, that was just his opinion; a spiritual Twinkie if ever there was one.

The next week, we had a different instructor. And he based his lesson on President Kimball’s ‘Don’t shoot the little birds” talk, and went on to talk about how hunting was probably inconsistent with a gospel-centered life.  This was in a Utah ward, and most of the guys in there loved hunting; went deer hunting every year. Uproar!  Outrage!  How dare he!  “My father took me hunting, his father took him hunting, his father took him hunting. Nothing, nothing has strengthened our family more!” And so on.

I don’t hunt; have never gone hunting in my life.  Can’t imagine wanting to, ever. The closest I’ve ever come to hunting is fishing, which I did do, as a kid, whenever Dad wanted to and I couldn’t figure out a graceful way to refuse.  I’ve always regarded fishing as the boringest sport on the planet Earth, right up to the point where you catch something, at which point it becomes the most disgusting. Do not see the appeal. So this anti-hunting lesson in Priesthood seemed very appropriate to me. I thought it was a great lesson.  Solid gospel nourishment, that one.

So can that be the standard?  If we agree with it, if it confirms us in self-righteousness, if it gives us a nice warm glow of moral superiority, then it’s obviously spiritual sustenance, but if it involves some petty practice, perhaps even a sin, that I personally enjoy committing, then any talk condemning it is probably a Twinkie. And cultural norms are affirmed, and anyone disagreeing is probably an apostate.

So maybe we should dig a little deeper into this question, this tough little Twinkie vs. Nourishment conundrum.  If all we’re doing is confirming our prejudices, then I’m not sure why we should bother even going to Church.  And I’m not entirely sure that the answer is something simple, like ‘read the scriptures.’  Because, let’s face it, you can find support for almost anything in the scriptures.

I agree that we should read the scriptures, and I do, every day.  Right now, I’m working my way through the Old Testament.  Really enjoying it, especially now that I’m using a different, better translation than the King James, and can mostly understand what’s going on.  But let’s face it, there’s a lot of crazy stuff in the Bible.  A lot of crazy stuff. I’m not sure how much spiritual nourishment we can get from the story of Lot and his daughters.  Or Elisha and the she-bears.  Or the entire pro-genocide book of Joshua.

So what exactly does qualify as non-Twinkie spiritual nourishment?  It seems to me really it’s just a few basic things.  Jesus, and his life and example and atonement and resurrection.  The restoration of the Gospel.  Continuing revelation. And the attempt to live a Christian life, according to the precepts of the Sermon on the Mount.  Forgive. Empathize. Live lives of charity and kindness and service.  Be kind, be reasonable, be gracious, be decent.

That’s all what nourishes me.  It’s also really hard, to live your life that way.  Forgive those who trespass against us?  Turn the other cheek?  Wow.  Seems impossible, sometimes.  But isn’t that the essence of the good news of the gospel?  Jesus Christ, and him crucified?  His example, his precepts, and the nearly impossible standard of goodness he did, in fact, require of us.

So here, tremblingly tentative and unsure, is a possible rule of thumb.  If someone’s sermon or lesson or talk involves asking something difficult of me, asks me to try to live my life in a way that I personally find really really hard, then that’s gospel nourishment.  Pretty much anything else is Twinkies.




Boxes of books

My daughter has been on a ‘clean up this dump’ kick lately, and tonight, she got going on our basement.  And she found three big cardboard boxes full of books.  She brought them upstairs, and my wife and I went through them, deciding which ones, after all these years, we still want to keep, and which ones we can get rid of.

Books are friends. Our house is filled to overthrowing with books.  The room where I work has four big IKEA bookshelves, each one filled close to full.  And a great book has to be treasured, preserved, loved.  I home-teach an elderly woman, disabled to the point that she’s effectively bed-ridden, but I love visiting her.  Her room is full of bookshelves and books, and she’s a thoughtful, interesting and intelligent woman; when we visit, we talk books.  And conversations can last long beyond the appointed time for home teaching.  She reminds me of my mother-in-law, another bibliophile of the first order.

So as my wife and daughter and I went through the books we had so carefully stored, and so carelessly forgotten, I was reminded of times I had completely forgotten.

One of the first books out was The Fate of the Persecutors of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Pitch.

I remember finding it in a used book store on 7th East in Provo (now long defunct), and taking it home and reading it, jaw dropping.  It was a wacky book, full of gruesome details about how everyone who was involved in the martyrdom of Joseph Smith had awful lives thereafter, and died in excruciating agony, of horrible diseases.  All of this, the diseases and the agonies these guys suffered, was recounted in voluptuous detail, with then a citation from whoever had told the authors the story.  The book was bonkers, and it turns out, BS.  But I was a college freshman, and I took it home and devoured it. I liked it so much, I took it to my grandmother (a former professor of library science, and the kind of dedicated bibliophile that puts the rest of us to shame), and she snorted in disgust.  She turned to an early page, and she pointed to the book.  “He cites this woman, you see?  Well, I knew her well; crazy as a loon.”  And she said, “this is just folklore, Eric, and a pretty nutty example of it.  I’m surprised at you for being taken in by it.”  And that exchange made me like the book even more!  I’ve loved Mormon folklore ever since. Still, I’ve outgrown it.

The collected poetry of Philip Larkin.  Keep.

I don’t remember when I first read Philip Larkin.  I am the most random, idiosyncratic and unsystematic of poetry readers–I love cowboy poetry no less than Lance Larsen, tend to dislike poets we’re all supposed to like.  I won’t read anything for six months and then go on a spree.  But Larkin amazes me; so grim, so honest, so completely unsentimental. Among other things, I didn’t know you could put the ‘f-word’ in a poem.  He did; not often, but when it was required. I kept the book, and I know I’ll be going on a Larkin binge pretty soon.

Nibley on the Timely and Timeless.  Kept.

Hugh Nibley is, I think it’s fair to say, the godfather of Mormon apologetics.  He was a man of extraordinary erudition, and he wrote book after book arguing for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.  It made him beloved.  But while a lot of his research has been effectively discredited, his occasional essays on Mormon culture still hold up.  He was a theatre guy too, loved good plays in good productions.  He wasn’t a literary critic, particularly, but he was certainly a cultural critic, in his own inimitable, irascible way.  I can’t believe I had this book in storage for fifteen years; it goes back on my shelves tonight.

Elizabethan Drama: Tossed.

A favorite anthology, consisting entirely of plays by Elizabethan authors other than Shakespeare.  I remember getting it in grad school, and being fascinated by Gammer Gurton’s Needle, and Tamarlane, and Cambyses: King of Persia. There was a time when such a collection would have been called something like ‘pre-Shakespearean plays,’ or something. Shakespeare was the only thing that mattered; everyone else’s work either helped us understand Shakespeare better, or helped us realize how much better Shakespeare was than anyone else.  That kind of bardolatry is passé in today’s academy (blessedly), but I remember with great pleasure a class I took in which we read and discussed all these plays.  Marvin Carlson taught it, and it was one of those great classes.  But I’m not a scholar anymore; send it away.

Four great plays by Henrik Ibsen.  Back in the day, these kinds of anthologies were very popular among academic publishers.  We teachers would have to assign certain plays to our students, and take them from anthologies, since there wasn’t really any other way for kids to get hold of them.  But publishers didn’t want to actually solicit good translations, so they’d find some public domain (and very old-fashioned) translation, and publish four plays or so.  Those old William Archer Ibsen translations are very Victorian and British, which is not to say they’re worthless, but they’re why I’m doing my own, in an updated American idiom.  I kept this book, though, to inspire me.

I don’t want to go through every book we looked at tonight.  But every book was meaningful, led to memories and spurred conversations. Books can do that, and not much else can.


High school theatre

My wife reminded me last night that it’s been a week since I blogged.  Indeed it has, though for good reasons; I’ve been up against some deadlines on other projects.  But I’m back today, and glad to be.

Yesterday, I went to Herriman High School to judge the Region Four One-act play competition.  I was one of three judges, deciding which shows and which actors would advance to the state competition.  It was a fun day.  ‘One-act’ suggests a short play, forty minutes (or so) in length, but some of the plays we saw were cuttings from much longer plays; what my wife calls ‘the Cliff Notes version.’  So one high school did Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.  Not just forty five minutes of the play, but the whole play condensed to forty five minutes.

When I saw that I was going to be seeing a high school production of The Crucible, my first reaction was ‘someone shoot me in the head right now.’  This is not because I dislike Miller’s great play.  I love The Crucible, and grew to love it even more after playing Giles Corey (“More weight!”) in a good production.  But it’s a grown-up play, a play about politics and adultery and fanaticism and the way people lie to hide their own weaknesses.  And the characters are all, well, grown-ups.  Would high school kids be able to convey all that?  I needn’t have worried; the kids did it beautifully. Some projection problems (some of the kids’ voices weren’t strong enough to handle a big space), but strong emotional content, and an intelligently conceived production.

We were asked to rate the shows Superior, Exceptional, Good and Fine, with a strong suggestion from the Region supervisors that it would be seriously uncool of us to give any show a Fine.  They needn’t have worried; I gave six of the seven shows Superior ratings, softy that I am.  And yet, my two fellow judges were equally prodigal; the shows really were that good.

Some of the show choices were interesting.  One high school did a terrific job with Christopher Durang’s Wanda’s Visit.  Durang’s a wonderful comic playwright, who builds his plays around cartoon monsters–Sister Mary Ignatius in Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All to You, the Doctor in Beyond Therapy, the parents in Baby with the Bathwater.  Mostly he writes them for performance by his Yale BFF, Sigourney Weaver.  Anyway, Wanda’s Visit is outrageous; a nice WASP couple, Jim and Marsha, is visited by the husband’s former girlfriend, who is, as I say, monstrous, a completely horrible human being. Much of the comedy comes from Marsha, the wife, trying to stay polite while this awful woman destroys her home.  The girl who played Marsha was tremendous, absolutely great; disciplined, focused, and very very funny.  And the girl who played Wanda was terrific too.  I liked the show very much, while also aware that actors at this level don’t yet have the experience to capture every nuance of this kind of savage comedy.

An even stranger choice was the high school who performed David Henry Hwang’s The Sound of a Voice.  It’s a Japanese ghost story, about a mysterious woman who runs what appears to be an inn, but an inn from which visitors never ever escape. Turns out, she’s a witch, a lonely-but-deadly seductress. It’s a quiet play, with many short scenes, just two actors, very rooted in Japanese culture. The girl who played the witch was wonderful, elderly and hobbling in the earlier scenes, and then growing increasingly youthful and dangerous as the play progressed.  It was a trifle slow-paced, and I could sense a little high school restlessness in the audience as it progressed.  But I thought it was splendid.  Such a risky choice–what you’re risking is boredom–and such beautifully subtle work from the kids.

We were supposed to choose a single winner, and my fellow judges and I were torn between two plays that were actually very similar.  Several high schools chose to do big cast, monologue heavy shows, like Jack Hilton Cunningham’s Women and War. It’s just a series of monologues about the experiences of American women in wars fought from WWI to Afghanistan.  I get why it would be a popular choice–lots of parts for girls, and a chance to do good ensemble work.  It was interesting to me, though, how a show like Women and War could still have a single outstanding performance. Everyone was good, but one girl, playing a veteran of Afghanistan, was really sensational–matter-of-fact, non-melodramatic, completely grounded and emotionally devastating.

Another somewhat similar show (large cast, monologue-heavy, good parts for lots of kids), was Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, about the murder trial and community impact of Matthew Shepherd’s brutal death.  It was beautifully directed, nicely acted, and I found it very moving; we eventually gave it first place in our rankings. Utah is a very conservative state, and I was delighted to see a high school willing to tackle that difficult a play, dealing with such sensitive subject matter.  Well done.

Overall, though, the entire experience was, well, uplifting.  We hear a lot about a current ‘crisis in education.’  About the challenges facing today’s youth.  About how tough life can be for this generation of teenagers.  And yet, all across America, kids are being taught by dedicated teachers. All across America, kids are trying out for the school play, and making friends the best possible way, by working hard together on a project all of you care about and consider important.  And teachers put in long long hours in rehearsals, building sets, coaching kids.

And of course, it’s not just high school theatre that’s wonderful and character building and educational and immensely important and valuable.  Kids are playing high school sports, tennis and volleyball and basketball and yes, even football, and good men and women are coaching and refereeing and administering, and other kids are joining the chess club or the math club or working on the school paper or raising cattle in 4H or working with Scouts or Explorers.  And kids are learning and growing and caring about good causes.

High school can be full of wonder and joy.  It can also be horrible.  But good people, caring grown-ups are busy at work every day, badly underpaid and under-appreciated, to help as many kids as possible to have great experiences, and minimize the bad ones.

My high school drama teacher changed my life.  Mary Forester, her name was, and she absolutely altered the course of my life.  I am who I am today, in very large measure, because she gave her life to building a great high school drama program.  So yesterday, in the tiniest possible way, I tried to give back just a little to that larger cause.

American education does face serious challenges.  But what I saw yesterday was something wonderful–a company of caring adults leading terrific kids to perform, to do something really hard really well. At the end of the day, I was completely exhausted.  But I’m not sure when I’ve felt better.


And. . . the bizarre West Wing parallels continue.  This article does a nice job showing the more obvious ones; the last two seasons of The West Wing are about a Congressman, Matt Santos, as he runs for the Presidency, and the Santos=Obama prescience is really quite amazing. (Not to mention Vinick=McCain).  But now there’s another one.  The last year of the fictional Presidency of Jed Bartlet is marked by a crisis in Kazakhstan, in which the President puts American troops right in between a Russian army and Chinese troops.  Well, we have a Russian army invading a neighbor; not an exact parallel, but once again, there are voices calling for American armed intervention.

Or sort of.  In fact, I don’t know of anyone actually calling for President Obama to send troops to Ukraine.  You kind of have to read between the lines.  Bill Kristol, for example, wrote:

Ukraine can expect no serious assistance in getting Russian troops off Ukraine soil or helping secure Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. Nor is President Obama committed to seeing to it that President Putin pay a real price for his actions.

And his entire column is an angry denunciation of President Obama’s measured, diplomatic response to this particular piece of Russian aggression.

Bill Rogers, R-Michigan, (kind of a favorite go-to guy on the Sunday talk shows, because he’s articulate and usually pretty reasonable), said “Putin is playing chess with us; we’re playing marbles.”  But he also agreed that President Obama doesn’t have a lot of viable choices:

There is not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed,” the Michigan Republican said. “And unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”  He continued:

There are not a lot of options on the table and, candidly, I’m a fairly hawkish guy, sending more naval forces to operate in the Black Sea is really not a very good idea, given that we know that that day has long passed, and unless you’re intending to use them, I wouldn’t send them. Now you’ve got only economic options through the EU.”
In other words, me paraphrasing: ‘we probably can’t send troops in, though we could have earlier, and should have. So, darn it, we probably can’t go to war over this yet.’
Good old Lindsay Graham weighed in as well, calling President Obama “weak and indecisive,” and saying that Presidential weakness on this scale “invites aggression.”  He then added melodramatically “President Obama needs to do something!”  Others have attacked President Obama’s supposed timidity and weakness: Dick Cheney among them.  And everyone–by which I mean the mainstream media and Congressional Republicans– agrees that this is the defining crisis of the Obama Presidency.
That’s bonkers.  When President Obama took office, the American economy was in freefall.  Tanking big time.  That was the defining crisis of the Obama administration, and he handled it pretty darn well.  I know our economy has stagnated, but the fact that the Speaker won’t even bring a jobs bill up for a vote in the House has a lot more to do with it than any action the President can realistically take.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine is a serious matter.  The Ukrainian people suffered greatly under the Soviet Union’s tyranny, and we have a moral obligation to support their Democratic aspirations.  We also have treaty obligations towards Ukraine; specifically, the Budapest accords, to which Russia is also a signatory, and which Putin has violated most egregiously.
But the fact is, we have no national interests at stake in Ukraine. And Putin has not invaded most of the country, nor has he tried to take it over.  He hasn’t, for example, sent troops to Kiev.  He’s in Crimea, putatively to protect the lives of Russians living there–a big majority of the Crimean population.  Worst case (and most likely) scenario; the Crimea votes on which country they want to be part of; Russia, or Ukraine.  We probably could live with that, and so could Ukraine.  We don’t really have a dog in that fight.
I suppose the President could have sent troops to Ukraine two weeks ago, to prevent the Russians invading.  Problem is, you sort of have to be invited to send troops to foreign countries, and no such invitation was (or would ever have been) extended. I suppose the President could have sent ships to the Black Sea or something.  In the middle of the Olympics, precipitating an international crisis.
I think everyone can agree that it’s morally wrong for a country to unilaterally violate another nation’s sovereignty, and especially egregious to do so under some made-up pretext.  But we have no credibility on that issue internationally either.  Because that’s precisely what we did in Iraq.
So why on earth are we listening to Bill Kristol on Ukraine?  Or Lindsay Graham or Dick Cheney?  They were wrong, spectacularly and brutally and violently wrong, on Iraq.  What on earth qualifies those characters as geo-political players, as people whose expertise should be consulted?
What solutions are they offering?  Kick Russia out of the G-8. Not sure it matters, plus Putin doesn’t even care enough about the G-8 to attend the last one, plus we can’t do that unilaterally, and Germany might not agree to do it now.  They need Russian oil.  Sanctions?  A lot of Europe relies on Russian oil.  We can, and should, freeze Russian assets in American banks.  But there’s not a huge economic price Putin’s going to have to pay here.
Diplomacy is the answer, and I get that it can feel like a pretty ineffectual one.  But that’s how civilized nations resolve their differences.  Russia is not, let’s be clear, behaving like a civilized nation right now, and should be condemned for it.  But we didn’t either, in 2003.  Did we?


The meaning of this year’s Oscars

I watched the Oscars, as I do every year, and, as happens every year, was bored to tears by the parts of the broadcast intended to entertain me and entertained by happenstance, accident and humiliating failures.  The ‘theme’ this year was ‘heroes’ or something, which meant we were subjected to 418 looonnnngggg montages about heroism. I’ve seen all those movies, and mostly enjoyed them; seeing 2 seconds each from 50 of them is dull. Idina Menzel sang the winning song from Frozen, but her performance, though perfectly fine, was much less entertaining than John Travolta’s butchering of her name in her introduction.  Matthew McConaughey is an amazing story, a lightweight actor in movies like Failure to Launch and We Are Marshall and How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days who like three years ago decided to completely reinvent himself as an actor.  He’s terrific, he earned his Oscar, and boy does he know it; his self-aggrandizing acceptance speech was a comic highlight.

But there is an interesting message that emerged from this Oscar season, and it has to do with the films that didn’t win as much as the films that won.  Gravity won, and deserved to win, a boatload of Oscars for things like Sound Mixing and Special Effects–it’s a technological achievement of the first order, plus an immensely exciting and entertaining film.  12 Years a Slave is a deserving Best Picture winner–a powerful, issue oriented film.  Her had one great strength as a film–its innovative, imaginative screenplay, and Spike Jonze won in that category.

But two films had to have been considered the biggest losers of the night: American Hustle and The Wolf of Wall Street.  Multiple nominations, critically acclaimed, and between them, they won bupkus.

American Hustle is a comedy; I think that hurt it. But it’s also a specific kind of comedy; a comedy about dreadful people who do dreadful things.  And it’s also a film about unattractive dreadful people. Christian Bale was great as a two-bit conman turned government informant, but he was hardly playing Batman; Bale got a pot belly and a spectacularly awful combover, plus ghastly 70′s costumes.  Amy Adams gave a tremendous performance, I thought, easily deserving of a Best Actress Oscar (though frankly the same could be said of all the women nominated in that category), but her costumes were, again, horrid looking (intentionally and comically).  Best of all, her British accent came and went–sometimes it sounded sort of authentic, and other times it went away completely.  Which was, again, intentional.  Adams’ character, Sydney, is a conwoman, and not a very good one–her schtick is to pretend to be an upper class British woman, but it’s all fake. Adams, the actress, created an inconsistent and inauthentic British dialect for a character who is only pretending (unconvincingly) to be British.  It’s a great choice, and a great comedic choice.  But it could also look like bad acting.  So a great actress created a character who is a bad actress, and I think it’s quite possible she fooled at least some Academy voters in the process.  Because the Academy voters do still tend elderly, and conservative; not politically conservative, but aesthetically.

But The Wolf of Wall Street was the real surprise. Martin Scorsese is 72 now, but he’s still the youngest director out there, and though his filmography is astonishing, Wolf could well be his masterpiece.  But it’s a good deal uglier than Hustle. It’s a film about morally repugnant human beings behaving badly, and enjoying it, and profiting from it.  And it’s a film that never redeems them or anyone else.  There’s no character or moment in the film where a sympathetic character says ‘you’re bad people, and you deserve your comeuppance.’  The moral center of the film resides outside the film itself, in the collective conscience and judgment of the audience.  We’re sickened by the characters’ choices, and worse, we’re titillated by them, implicated in them.  It’s a film that condemns the American financial industry, shows how it destroyed America, shows how much fun everyone in that industry had while they were doing it, and reveals their utter contempt for average Americans, their utter misanthropy.

It is, in short, the perfect example of new American naturalism.  It’s the heir to the theatrical tradition of Neil Labute and David Mamet; it’s Glengarry Glen Ross with a lot more cocaine and much higher class hookers. And as such, it’s a deeply disturbing, deeply moral, powerfully redemptive film.  Redemptive?  Yes.  Because we need to see this; we need to recognize its essential truth. Examining our consciences as a prelude to confession.  It’s an Occupy film, really, only it focuses and channels the moral passion of the Occupy movement and gives it a name and an identity; Jordan Belfort.  Leonardo DiCaprio.  Gatsby without Daisy.  Richard Roma with a sales staff and motivational speeches.

It’s a terrifying film, in part because it’s so hypnotically addicting.  The Oscars had to ignore it, I think.  And it’s not like 12 Years a Slave let us off easy.


I’ve been reading a terrific book lately, Liaquat Ahamed’s Lords of Finance, about the bankers who ran the economies of the four great nations of the earth during the 1920s and 30s, and how their stubborn allegiance to a monetary policy based on the gold standard led to the Great Depression, and eventually to the dreadful events of the 40s and beyond.  The main characters of the book, Benjamin Strong, Montagu Norman, Emile Moreau and Hjalmar Schacht, are a bit overshadowed by a fifth figure, John Maynard Keynes, who was also active during the period, a gadfly, commenting throughout, who had the annoying habit of being right pretty much about everything.  Since I just wrote a play about Keynes, I found myself wishing I’d read this a year ago!  But better late than never.

The big Four bankers in the book clung to the gold standard because, as far they knew, doing so had always worked before, so why change?  In fact, the gold standard never really worked well at all; major panics and recessions plagued the Industrial Revolution at regular intervals, and nobody knew how to prevent them.  We still don’t, though our better grasp of monetary policy does seem to have smoothed things out somewhat, 2007-8 notwithstanding.  (And the Great Recession was as much caused by bankers and governments ignoring the lessons of the past as by applying them). 
But the point is, the bankers of the 20s and 30s really were sensible men, busy applying the lessons of the financial crises of the past, and unable to comprehend how completely the world had changed. 
We do that, we humans.  Generals fight the latest war by the strategies and tactics of the previous one, business people apply the successful models their grandfathers employed, election campaigns follow the blueprints of earlier contests.  We think about the world through existing prisms, and though ‘thinking outside the box’ has become a cliche, boxes continue to constrict cogitation.
I’ve thought about this quite a bit the last few days, in relation to a few major stories.  First, the current unrest in the Ukraine, and the emerging narrative on the Right about what our President has done poorly, and what we should do now.  Second, the release by the Joint Chiefs of new proposals for national defense spending.  And a third thing: the debate in Utah over air quality.
As you probably know, Vladimir Putin has sent troops to the Crimea, a direct violation of the Budapest accord, which Russia, the Ukraine, the US and the UK signed in 1994, guaranteeing Ukrainian sovereignty.  I think it goes without saying that Vladimir Putin doesn’t give a rip about international law, or that he just violated a treaty to which the nation he leads is signatory. Although US media sources are quick to declare that claims of violence directed towards ethnic Russians living in the Ukraine are merely pretexts for Putin’s invasion, there have in fact been reports of such violence. I think it’s likely that if the Crimea were to hold an open plebiscite, that Crimean Russians would probably vote for the region to rejoin Russia.  That’s also a factor.  But really, this seems like a power grab.  Putin has publicly mourned the end of Soviet hegemony over its former republics, and just as he sent forces to Georgia in 2008, he’s doing the same now in Ukraine.  German Chancellor Angela Merkel apparently told President Obama that, in her conversation with Putin, she wasn’t sure he was completely sane. Makes sense; he’s reliving the Cold War, at least to some extent, which always was irrational.
But so is the American Right.  In a moment of international crisis, it’s customary for politicians to set partisanship aside and support the President.  Not this group of conservatives, who have apparently decided to set aside patriotism in favor of more name-calling and second-guessing.  He’s ‘weak,’ we’re hearing.  He doesn’t ‘project strength.’  The Russians will always test a new President, and Putin, having tested this President’s resolve in Syria, has now decided it’s okay to push even harder, and retake part of an old Republic. 
We’re re-fighting the Cold War, in other words.  Weak=bad and strong=good, and the Russkis only respect tough guys. 
But we had a tough guy in the White House in 2008, and it turns out, the Russians tested him too, in Georgia. And George W. Bush didn’t do much about it then either, because, let’s face it, his options were very very limited.  As are this President’s. 
We can apply diplomatic pressure.  Putin doesn’t seem to care.  We can kick Russia out of the G-8.  But Germany has balked at that, because Germany needs Russian oil and gas. 
Or we could send troops in. Which, let’s face it, we’re not going to do, anymore than President Bush would have in Georgia.  We simply do not have any compelling national interest in the Crimea.  Unless we’re seriously contemplating sending our young men and women into harm’s way so the President can ‘look strong’ when John McCain or Rudolph Guilani makes fun of him.
The Cold War is over. And Iraq and Afghanistan have made us very leery about foreign adventures.  What we have not done, as a nation, is rethink our national priorities.  We haven’t had a national conversation about the military, about what we want it to do, and where we want it to go, and under what circumstances we are willing to send young people to fight, and kill, and die.  Are we in fact the world’s policeman?  Isn’t that a better job for the United Nations?  How does the UN Security Council reign in Vladimir Putin when Russia has a permanent veto over all UNSC decisions?  What’s the use of having an international treaty, like the Budapest Accord, when one of the countries who signed it has no intention of being bound by it?  
Which brings us to the US defense budget.  Here are the facts. The US has an annual defense budget of 682 billion dollars. That’s 39% of the money spent by the entire world on weapons and soldiers. That’s more than the next twelve (or ten or fourteen, depending on how you calculate exchange rates) countries combined.  If we cut our military spending in half, we’d still be number one in the world in military spending.
That’s crazy.  That’s completely unsupportable.  The doctrine that the military still relies on is this: we need to be able to fight two full-out wars on two different fronts simultaneously. That’s World War II level thinking.
The threats we face today are 1) international terrorism, 2) rogue states, and 3) humanitarian military disasters in failed states.  Category 3 clearly doesn’t concern us much, considering how completely the US has managed to ignore the continuing horror show in the Congo.  Category 2 bothers us now in Crimea, but we’re not going to send troops there, for all kinds of obvious reasons.  The biggest rogue state in the world right now is obviously North Korea, which continues to experiment with the ‘insane complete dictator’ form of government. The fact that the closest thing we have to diplomatic relations with North Korea is Dennis Rodman speaks volumes, but so does the fact that every time Kim Jung Aun starts to act up, China (its only ally) steps in quietly and shuts him up.  Dude can’t feed his people; I don’t think they’re honestly much of a threat. 
That leaves terrorism, and right now our strategy for dealing with terror seems go as follows: figure out where a terror cell is, send in drones, kill a few terrorists with considerable collateral damage, and tick off local populations sufficiently to boost recruitment into terrorist organizations.  So that works splendidly. 
Okay, so, here’s my standard for ‘advanced’ or ‘civilized’ or ‘industrial’ or ‘First World’ nations.  I call it the ‘daughter’s fiancee’ standard.  Let’s suppose that your daughter got engaged to a guy from another country, and told you they planned to live there after the wedding.  How concerned would you be?  If the fiancee was from, say, Switzerland, you’d be totally cool with it, wouldn’t you? So, that’s a positive daughter’s fiancee country, or PDFC. If he was from, say, Somalia, you’d freak out, right? So that’s a negative daughter’s fiancee country, or NDFC?  Well, let’s compare the US to all the other ‘positive daughter’s fiancee’, let’s compare the US to all the PDFCs in the world.
So let’s compare the US to other PDFCs in the world in terms of taxation.  Let’s look at total taxation as a percentage of GDP.  The US is around 26%.  That’s low. The UK is 39%, Finland 41%, France 46%, German 40%. I linked to the chart; see for yourself. If your daughter married a French guy, you’d be delighted, wouldn’t you?  Visit ‘em in Paris?  C’est magnifique. 
(It’s an interesting chart, isn’t it?  Do you notice something?  That PDFCs all have high tax rates?  NDFCs low tax rates?  How thrilled would you be if your daughter moved to Ethiopia (11.6%)?  Or Bangladesh (8.5%)?  Direct correlation between high taxes and functioning economies?)
So here’s my point.  The US has the lowest tax rates of any country you’d want your daughter to live in.  It also has the highest defense spending of the next fourteen countries combined. So what things do we end up not having enough tax dollars to really do very well?
Health care.  Education.  Environmental protections. Transportation. Pensions. Retirement.  Maternity leave for mothers and fathers. 
Can we rethink these priorities?
Right now in Utah, one of the biggest problems in the state is air quality.  It’s a huge issue. Salt Lake County has the worst air quality in the country.  It’s due to a combination of factors: mostly too many cars, in a valley surrounded by mountains.  And, following this session, the legislature has, apparently, no plans to do anything whatever to alleviate it.  Because we’ve always had single family homes in suburbs, where you really do have to have a car to get around.  Public transit?  More high density neighborhoods?  Don’t even think about it.
We need to rethink.  We need to reconsider. We need to rethink the military, our place in the world, lifestyles built on non-renewable energy, recklessly expended, and rendering our planet uninhabitable. 
Here’s Keynes, writing in 1919:

In continental Europe the earth heaves and no one but is aware of the rumblings. There it is not just a matter of extravagance or “labor troubles”; but of life and death, of starvation and existence, and of the fearful convulsions of a dying civilization.


And, as Keynes predicted, those ‘fearful convulsions of a dying civilization’ would spend themselves in the worst kind of barbarism, violence, ferocity and genocide. I’m not saying we’re on the brink of anything similarly catastrophic.  But our priorities seem to be, for now, to dig a hole, and sit in it, and pull the dirt in over our heads.  All is well, all is well.  But I’m not persuaded anything we’re trying works all that well anymore.

Oscar predictions! Sort of.

Yes I know the Oscars are a fraud, a self-congratulatory orgy of narcissism.  An industry pretending it represents an art form. All that.  I still like it, and I still watch.  I care about film, about the art form, and I do think there’s a genuine core to the Academy Awards, a real attempt to identify and reward excellence.  They don’t matter, but they also matter a great deal, an accolade given to artists by their peers.  So we watch.

And half the fun, of course, is predicting who might win, who will win, all that.  But I’m not going to play their game by their rules!  Not me.  So these are not so much my Oscar predictions, as much as the films I’ve decided have already won.  I know stuff; I’m smart.  If the actual Oscar voters disagree with me, they’re obviously wrong.  Just as I will go to the grave insisting that Forest Gump did NOT beat Pulp Fiction for Best Picture in 1995, the voters’ actual votes notwithstanding.

I’m using Oscar.go.com’s website, and I’m going to start at the bottom of their page.  So first up:

Visual Effects:  Gravity. Has to be Gravity.  It’s going to clean up in the technical categories.

Best Screenplay (Adapted): Tough category.  I think John Ridley will win for 12 Years a Slave. But all five films nominated were wonderfully written.

Best Screenplay (Original): I can’t see the Academy ignoring David O. Russell’s smart, funny, human screenplay for American Hustle. Though I really loved Spike Jonze Her screenplay, and Bob Nelson’s taut, powerful Nebraska.

This year, I didn’t see any of the films up for Short Film (Live Action).  They’re available on-line too; shame on me.

Sound Editing and Sound Mixing: both will go to Gravity.

Best Song: “Happy” from Despicable Me 2.  Pharrell Williams song is amazing; his video‘s even better.  But I’m also sort of rooting for “Let it Go” from Frozen, as an Oscar ‘in your face’ to the crazy lady who thinks Frozen is about gay rights.

Production Design: Gravity wins again, in a tough category.  I’m sort of rooting for The Great Gatsby, though.

Short Film animated: Didn’t see them; my bad.

Foreign Language Film: The Hunt. With a stellar performance by Mads Mikkelson; I think it’s a shattering film.

Makeup and Hairstyling: The Dallas Buyers Club.  This is the category in which Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is nominated.  Blarg.

Music Original Score: Alexander Desplat, for Philomena.

Documentary Feature: 20 Feet From Stardom. Wonderful film about rock’s legendary back-up singers.  Loved this film, loved it.  See it!

Documentary Short Subject: Didn’t see any of them; wish I had.  No opinion.

Film Editing: Gravity. The film’s an extraordinary technical achievement, if not much else.

Cinematography: Phedon Pappamichael for Nebraska. A lot of the power of this wonderful film was in the starkness of the black and white photography.  Plus, the guy’s name is Phedon Pappamichael.

Costume Design: Michael Wilkinson for American Hustle. The tackiness of the 70s has never been on more continuously amusing display, but the costumes aren’t parodies; they’re lived in, real.

Best Director:  Alphonso Cuaron, for Gravity.

Animated Feature: Despicable Me 2.  Consistently inventive and funny and warm; loved this film.  Frozen was great too, though.

Actress in a Supporting Role: Jennifer Lawrence won the Golden Globe in this category, but has since asked her publicist and agent to quietly ask people not to vote for her here, which makes me like her all the more.  Lupita Nyong-o will win, I think, for 12 Years a Slave.  And she’ll deserve to.  But my heart is still rooting for June Squibb for Nebraska.  She’s tremendous in the film, and I’m sure, at the age of 84, she’s thrilled just to have been nominated.  But she also genuinely deserves it; her performance is a marvel.

Actor in a Supporting Role: I’m going way out on a limb here, but Barkhad Abdi in Captain Phillips. As a Somalia pirate, he brought extraordinary gravity, intelligence and tragic power to the role, all the more amazing considering that he’s never acted before.  I thought all five actors were great, but that was the performance that stood out for me.   Jared Leto’s probably going to win, though, for Dallas Buyer’s Club.

Actress in a Leading Role: Amy Adams, American Hustle.  A tremendous category, with stellar performances all the way down the line.  I know that Cate Blanchett is the favorite, her performance in Blue Jasmine was terrific.  But I hate it when an actor wins for a great performance in a less-than-great movie, a la Meryl Streep in The Iron Lady, a mediocre Maggie Thatcher biopic.  And I didn’t think Blue Jasmine was a very good film. It’s Woody Allen’s homage to A Streetcar Named Desire, but one with no Stanley Kowalski, no menace, no danger, and no real conflict. Blanche Dubois is damaged, but she’s not crazy.  Cate Blanchett’s character is just nuts.  And I didn’t care. And how do you choose between Judi Dench and Meryl Streep, both at the top of their game?  You don’t.  You give it to the only actress in the category never to have won before.  Who also, incidentally, was incandescently great in American Hustle–vulnerable, intelligent, tough, damaged.

Best Actor in a Leading Role: Bruce Dern, Nebraska.  Another incredibly tough category.  In this case, it features five wonderful actors who have never won before, and who give career performances.  Really, I’m rooting for a five-way tie.  But as much as I admire and respect Matthew McConaughey, Christian Bale, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Leonardo DiCaprio, I want the Oscar to go to Dern, a magnificent actor who has never been recognized before, and won’t again, at his age (77).  What I love about Dern’s performance is it’s complete lack of sentimentality. Every chance he has to tug at our heartstrings, he resists.  And we don’t really fall in love with his cantankerous old coot of a character.  Better: we understand him.  The other actors will have many more opportunities.  It’s Dern’s turn.

Best Picture: I honestly think it’s between three films: American Hustle, Gravity and 12 Years a Slave.  So here’s my reasoning:

American Hustle is a comedy.  It’s smart, it’s world-wise, it’s human and real and tough-minded, but it’s still a comedy.  Oscar doesn’t often award comedies.

Gravity is a technical marvel. And it’s as engrossing and exciting a picture as I have ever seen.  Edge of your seat doesn’t even begin to describe it.  But it’s a sci-fi film, and Oscar has never given Best Picture to sci-fi. Maybe it’s time, but the film also suffers from a kind of weightlessness, a lack of, well, gravity.  It’s contentless; it doesn’t mean anything, or stand for much.  It’s just a tremendously entertaining movie.

12 Years a Slave will win, I think.  Has won, in my book.  And deserved to.