Tomorrowland: Movie Review and commentary

Finally catching up on movies that have been out forever, we saw Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland last night. I think it’s the ‘lost in the shuffle’ big summer movie, the one that just didn’t generate enough buzz to really take off, which is a shame. It’s an energetic and enjoyable flick, and also a seriously intended commentary on contemporary society and politics. In fact, that’s its biggest problem, I think. Bird has something significant to say in this movie, but the vehicle for his message is so pretty and funny and light that the message doesn’t penetrate. Except when it did.

The movie first. A kid, Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson), brings an invention to the 1964 World’s Fair, a jet pack, an awesome piece of James Bond-ish technology that has the solitary defect of not working very well. Queried about it by an enigmatic judge figure, Nix (Hugh Laurie), young Frank admits that it’s not a practical invention. It could, however, inspire young people, he insists. Not good enough, says Nix, and leaves, his nine-year-old daughter, Athena (Raffey Cassidy) accompanying him. But Athena gestures for Frank to join them, and he does, ending up in Tomorrowland, a magic world of amazing technology, like Epcot Center on steroids.

Cut to the future, and we meet a teenaged girl, Casey (Britt Robertson), about to commit an act of sabotage. It’s the future (or our present?), and the NASA launch pad at Cape Canaveral is scheduled for demolition. Casey, a plucky optimist and science freak, thinks this is unconscionable, and zips around on her motorcycle, frying the controls of the demolition equipment. This leads to fights with her father (Tim McGraw), a soon-to-be-unemployed NASA engineer. But we sense how much father and daughter (and also her younger brother (Pierce Gagnon) care about each other. And in their conversation, the ruling metaphor of the film finds its first expression. The human spirit is likened to two wolves: one, positive, optimistic, kind, the other selfish, fearful, negative. Which one will survive? The one we feed.

Okay, so Casey is caught and arrested, and Dad makes bail, but in her effects, she finds something that’s not hers; a pin with a T on it. And she discovers that when she touches the pin, she’s transported to a wheat field outside a magical city, the same techno-paradise that young Frank saw in the earlier scenes. But the pin has a time limit, and when hers expires, she returns to her reality. Obviously, the next step is an internet search for that pin, which leads her to a curios shop in Texas, run by the amusingly menacing couple, Ursula (Kathryn Hahn) and Hugo (Keegan-Michael Key). When Casey won’t tell them where she got the pin, they pull out space age blasters, and start shooting. She’s rescued, however, by little Athena, aged not a day from her earlier iteration, but now with mad martial arts skills. Athena then sends Casey to the home of a world-weary recluse, Frank, now played by George Clooney.

The world, it seems, is on the brink of destruction. Climate change, political instability, ethnic hatreds, all are leading us to destruction. We have about two months left. But old Frank sees something on his various monitors that tell him that the world might still be salvageable, because of this girl, Casey, because of her optimism and courage. And so he takes her with him to Tomorrowland. He takes her to, in other words, a technologically advanced society living in a parallel universe to earth, run by, yes, Nix, Athena’s putative father (who also hasn’t aged).

And amidst their various struggles, Nix gives a speech. Seeing the end of the world rapidly approaching, he decided to send a signal from his world to ours, showing precisely what would happen if we all continued in our current course. He thought the warning would wake us up. He thought we’d change our ways. He thought we’d all figure out what we were doing wrong and make the political and cultural changes that would hold destruction at bay. He thought the human capacity for innovation and invention would prevail, that we’d allow it to prevail. But in fact, he ‘fed the wrong wolf.’ We embraced nihilism. We embraced various visions of dystopia. We fetishized it, in pop culture, in movies and television and video games. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss: we’ve accelerated our headlong rush to oblivion. And he doesn’t see a lot of reason to stop sending that signal. He warned us. We don’t seem to care. Let us blow ourselves up.

What can we do? Well, we can blow up that signal, and Clooney and Laurie can scrap a bit, finally Casey wins, and with Frank’s aid, she createss a whole bunch more Tomorrowland pins, which she distributes, which I read as ‘recruit forward-thinking optimists and get things solved.’ The ending of the movie really was genuinely moving and inspiring. I mean, yes, in part, the movie is arguing for a Disney-esque vision for mankind, and asks us to reject the values of the other big box office movie released the same week, the new Mad Max. It’s Disney asking us all to adopt Disney values. (And reject worldly nihilistic values). It’s Disney Corp. saying only Disney can save us. See what I did there? Used a positive family-values movie to feed my inner cynic?

But in fact, Nix is right. I know, he gives a pretentious and didactic bad-guy-monologuing nihilist speech at the end of a fun fantasy adventure movie, and I’m probably taking that speech way too seriously. But he is right. He accuses mankind of short-sightedness, laziness, selfishness and complacency, and he basically gets us right. Doesn’t he?

I mean, I live in Provo, Utah. A nice little town, maybe 100, 000 contented souls. And it’s a town built on the suburban model. It’s all single-residence homes, grass yards, transportation needs filled by cars. It’s an ecological disaster. Hardly any mass transit, which one of the most contentious local political issues involves expanding. If global warming is raised as an issue at all, it’s in the context of disputing whether or not the science can be trusted.

We should probably change. We should increase buses, add more rail options, move into apartments, retire our cars. (I live with my wife and daughter–we own three cars between us). We should make massive cultural and lifestyle changes in an effort to stave off global warming. And we’re not going to. We don’t want to. I don’t want to. Run for public office on a ‘radically downsize society, or we’re doomed’ platform. You’d get, what, 1% of the vote? Less?

It’s easier to amuse ourselves with dystopias. It’s easier to comfortably embrace nihilism. Yes, global warming, how very dreadful. Gonna be tough on our grandkids. But, hey, they’ll figure something out.

I found Tomorrowland . . . unsettling, in a way that’s peculiarly at odds with its colorful and fast-paced fantasy storytelling. I liked Clooney, liked the child actress Cassidy, really liked Robertson. But Hugh Laurie ended up costing me sleep. Brad Bird is a visual stylist of the first order. But he’s also a bright guy, with something to say. We should probably all pay more attention.

But we’re not going to. It’s too much trouble.

San Andreas: Movie review

I love big stupid disaster movies. I’ve been a fan of them ever since the ’70’s, when Towering Inferno, The Poseidon Adventure and Earthquake marked the high points in what was something of a golden age of disaster. All these movies were about terrible events, with lots of death and destruction and very high death counts, which we weren’t supposed to worry about much because, after all, characters played by movie stars are the only human beings that matter. Really, though, the movies were about showcasing whatever passed for state-of-the-art special effects.

Earthquake, for example, featured sensurround. It made it feel like that theater was actually shaking, accomplished by using low level bass, low enough that you couldn’t hear it, but only feel it. It was awesome, but impractical; there weren’t enough movies that used it, and it was expensive to install in theaters. It was used, I remember, in the 1979 Battlestar Gallactica movie. I remember how cool it was, to feel like your seat was shaking.

No sensurround, alas, for San Andreas, though there was tons of CGI. They had to plausibly film the destruction of Hoover Dam, downtown Los Angeles, and all of San Francisco, after all. That’s a lot of destruction, and a lot of people killed. But all those dead people don’t matter, because Dwayne Johnson’s family is in danger, and has to be saved. And that becomes the only thing we’re supposed to care about.

I have many many friends in LA. I love San Francisco, and have enjoyed my fair share of ballgames out there in China Basin. I would care a lot if both cities got clobbered. So would you; so would everyone.  There are millions of people in those cities–strangers to me, but fellow sojourners on this rock. Obviously a real life 9.6 clobbering both places would be an unimaginable catastrophe. Unimaginable, except, of course, we do get to imagine it; we have to imagine it, after we’ve laid down our eight bucks for tickets and taken our seats.

To deal with the story as quickly as possible, Dwayne Johnson plays Ray, a firefighter/helicopter rescue specialist. His wife, Emma (Carla Gugino) has filed for divorce, and has moved in with her new squeeze, Daniel (Ioan Gruffudd), while daughter Blake (Alexandra Daddario) heads off to college. An opening scene shows Ray helping a young woman who has managed to drive her car off a cliff and onto a mountain ledge–Ray, of course, manages a last-second rescue. But life on the home front is nothing but one long humiliation, though he manages to be civil to oily architect Daniel.

Meanwhile, a seismologist named Lawrence (Paul Giamatti) has figured out how to predict big earthquakes, and is being interviewed by a TV reporter, Serena (Archie Punjabi) about it. That’s the big subplot. I can only hope that Giamatti got paid a lot of money.

Anyway, the big one hits. And it destroys Hoover Dam (without killing Lawrence, because he’s a seismologist, and therefore able to know exactly how close to the dam he can safely stand as it collapses). And his magic predicting system tells him that first LA and then San Francisco are going to get clobbered. Which he has to figure out how to tell everyone, so the authorities can evacuate both towns.

I imagine the producers’ thinking here was; why wipe out one iconic American city when we can have double the fun by wiping out two? In any event, Ray, flying around on his helicopter, is able to find the LA building where Emma is having lunch with, I think, Daniel’s horrendously bitchy ex (Kylie Minogue, having way too much fun). So Ray snatches Emma off the top of a skyscraper just before it collapses. And they’re back together.

Awkwardly. See, Ray’s problem is that he can’t express his feelings. That’s why Emma’s divorcing him; he’s uncommunicative. Because their other daughter died, and he blames himself. So when he breaks through and cries a little, Emma feels so much better about him. That was the first time I laughed out loud in the movie. See, in a movie in which Los Angeles California has been reduced to rubble (with how many millions dead?), what we really care about is Dwayne Johnson weeping for us, over a previous dead daughter.

But, see, they still have a living daughter, and Ray and Emma, now united, have to rescue her too. But San Francisco is a ways off. So they ditch the helicopter, steal a truck, ditch it, steal an airplane, and finally ditch it too and parachute onto the field at AT%T Park. That enables them to steal a boat, and drive around the waterfront looking for their daughter, who really, genuinely, could be anywhere in the city.

It turns out, though, that Dastardly Daniel has ditched her. She was in his limo, it got smushed, and rather than get her out, he scarpers. But never mind, two cute British brothers, Ben (Hugo Johnstone-Burt) and Ollie (Art Parkinson) get her out of the car, and off the three of them go, looking for Mom and Dad, and also dodging various collapsing buildings.

But what brings them all together, Mom, Dad, Blake and Brits, is a tsunami. Never mind that tsunamis only happen at subduction faults, which San Andreas is not. San Francisco gets a big one. In fact, that’s what destroys the Golden Gate Bridge–not the earthquake, but a cargo ship which the tsunami smacks the bridge with (incidentally, also crushing Dungbeetle Daniel). Meanwhile, Ray and Emma are in their boat, driving around flooded streets, where they just happen to see the one big building in which their daughter has taken refuge.

We’re close to the end of the movie now, so BELATED SPOILER ALERT. But when Ray rescues Blake, it’s too late. She’s already died. Drowned. No big deal, as it turns out; death in these movies is more an annoyance than, you know, The End. He CPRs her back to life, and she’s fine. And all ready to hook up with Ben the Cute Brit.

But that’s not the ending. No, the ending was the final time I laughed out loud in this ridiculous movie. Dwayne Johnson stands on a hill overlooking the Bay. We see an American flag wave (hanging from the Golden Gate wreckage). And Carla Gugino says “What do we do now?” And he says, solemnly, “We rebuild.” And the camera flies upward, and we see destroyed San Francisco from, yes, God’s POV.  ‘Cause, see, He approves of optimistic American pluckiness in the face of disaster. (Which, sorry, He sort of caused. Isn’t He in charge of earthquakes?)

It’s a ludicrously terrible movie, even before its final moment of blasphemy, and that’s why my wife and I went to see it; we were in the mood for craptacular. San Andreas did not disappoint, really at any level.  It’s a movie about the wholesale deaths of millions of people, that manages to leave us completely unmoved, because Dwayne Johnson’s character’s daughter survived (and even acquires a new boyfriend. Yay!) But that’s what we expected. It’s a good thing that these movies are so cheesy. Better movies would leave us utterly devastated. These things have to be formulaic and stupid. The acting has to be mediocre, the stories preposterous, the dialogue, comically idiotic.

Otherwise, we couldn’t bear it.

My parents and their 60th

I haven’t blogged for over a week, largely because of computer problems, but also because I was out of town. I was back home, in Bloomington Indiana, celebrating my parents’ sixtieth wedding anniversary. We had a lovely time, culminating in a big party, with singing (including numbers by my brother’s talented kids), and also a tribute by, uh, me. And I rather thought that I would publish that tribute, and do it here. So here goes:

“In many respects, the most remarkable thing about my parents’ 60 year partnership is that they ever met at all. My Dad wrote once that they were brought together by Adolf Hitler, and by a brutal murder, and there’s honestly a lot of truth to that. Imagine this:

Mary Lou Thorne, daughter of a Salt Lake grocer, became a nurse, and lived and worked in Salt Lake City. She never married.

Roy Samuelsen went to sea at 15, and was a popular member of the Norwegian merchant marine fleet. His singing delighted his fellow sailors. Eventually, he retired to Moss, Norway, and worked for years in the glass factory there. He never married.

It’s easy enough to construct alternate life histories for them both, in which they lived more or less happy, but entirely separate lives, with an ocean and continent, not to mention language, culture and nationalities, keeping them apart. Eternally and finally apart. And alone.

Because what I find myself unable to do is to imagine either of them marrying someone else. This is, of course, in part because of my innate prejudice towards my own existence on this planet. But they seem so peculiarly well-suited to each other. They are people of complementing strengths, perfectly balanced, leaning together like the support legs of the Eiffel Tower.

And they’ve continued to grow together, adjoining giant timbers in a forest. Dad: bluff and hearty. Mom: more contemplative, though in fact my father has grown introspective in recent years. They are not today the people they were 60 years ago. They’re refined the parts of themselves that most rely on the other. They are, singularly, a pair.

And it was indeed the brute forces of world and local history that drove them together. The ravages of Hitler’s occupation of Norway drove my grandparents, post-war, to the unimaginable step of leaving Moss, and coming to, of all places, Provo, Utah. The murder of Harold Thorne, salesman and prospective grocer, drove my grandmother, Lucile Thorne, to the home of her mother, Mary Markham, teaching school in Provo, Utah. Youthful boy-craziness led to the final step, my Mom and her friends’ decision to join my Dad’s Scout troup on a trek up the mountains, crashing a camping party. (And whenever my Mom would tell me the story of that Scout hike, she had an expression on her face that admitted to a teenage rebellious naughtiness for which she wasn’t, in retrospect, even a bit repentant).

My Mom wasn’t ordinarily a party girl, however. She was a bookworm, a scholastic over-achiever. Dad was an entertainer, probably intriguingly foreign with his Norwegian accent, with some modest skill on the guitar, a love of American folk songs and cowboy movies, and a voice like spun velvet.  They clicked, pretty much immediately.

And so, after his army stint in Germany, Mom and Dad were married, in the Salt Lake Temple, on May 25, 1955.

May 25. I took the liberty of looking up that date on the internet. Sixty years ago, on May 25, the biggest news was the first ascent of Mount Kangjenjunge, the third highest mountain on Earth. A tornado clobbered Udall Kansas, and a crazed fan broke into the home of Frank Sinatra, because he’d written a song he hoped that Frank would record. On the radio, hits included Mitch Miller’s recording of The Yellow Rose of Texas, and Bill Hays singing The Ballad of Davy Crockett. But number one, in May of that year, was Bill Haley’s Rock Around the Clock. My Dad won’t appreciate me saying this, but it’s true: my parents’ marriage and rock and roll both turn sixty this year.

Sixty years. I’m enough Hoosier to look up the basketball results, and saw that the Philadelphia Warriors won the 1955 NBA championship. That same franchise, transplanted to Oakland, plays for the same championship now. The Warriors defeated the team from Fort Wayne Indiana, run by a Hoosier businessman named Fred Zollner, who built car pistons. Hence the team’s name: not the Fort Wayne Pistons, but the Fort Wayne Zollner Pistons. That team’s star player was Mormon royalty; Mel Hutchins, from BYU, whose sister, Colleen, had three years earlier been named Miss America. My Dad once told me privately that in his opinion, my Mom was a lot prettier than Colleen Hutchins.

Meanwhile, my newly married Dad had a job in Joe Creer’s sheet metal shop. And I suppose somewhere in the back of his mind, he may have hoped that maybe, the music classes he was taking at BYU might, possibly, turn into something more. The dream of an opera career must have beckoned, as a fantasy, all the while he worked construction. I suspect that neither he or my Mom had ever so much as heard the word “Hoosier.”

1955. And in the future, Wagner and Puccini and Verdi, concerts for kings and princes, New York City Opera and the Boston Lyric and Houston Opera, a life spent projecting that voice, that astounding voice, over full orchestras.

And Mom there for all of it, while, fully independent, pursuing her own career as an astoundingly innovative school teacher.

How did they do it, how did they pull it off? Separate careers, lives always together, each of them the other’s biggest fan? Not just sixty years together, but sixty years together, unified, united.

Almost everything I can think of to describe it comes across as banal, clichéd, banal.

‘They never fought.’ Today, they insist they rarely did. That’s a tribute to their unity; their marital disagreements have become, over time, forgotten and unimportant, trivial. But they were, and are, tough, independent people; of course they had some corkers. I remember being the intermediary a couple of times: “Eric, please tell your father. . . ” “Eric, please inform your mother. . . .”

‘They worked hard.’ We tell young people this, that marriage is hard work, and I suppose it is. But what I mostly remember was a whole lot of fun. I remember the laughter, the bad jokes, the puns, the goofy songs and long board games. Marriage is work. If it’s not also fun, why put the time in?

‘The gospel united them.’ And it did, of course it did, in a hundred different ways. I hope the Lord will forgive me if I say that the foundation of our family was much more about basketball than the Bible, much more playing catch than piety, much more about waterskiing than worship. We were a camping, hiking, boating bunch. And every summer, we’d take a family vacation together, and every summer, a car or boat would break down, and we’d have to improvise. We got darned good at it.

And Mom. . . .

Mom found the right balance, always. She was a lady, entirely feminine, in a family of boys, and somehow, she handled it. She loved waterskiing as much as the rest of us, but she did it her way. She didn’t want to muss her hair, and would carefully lower herself into the lake, ski with evident enjoyment, then drop the skis and allow herself to settle into the water, hairdo intact. And we’d help her aboard.

Let me finish with that image, Mom skiing with delicacy and daintiness. That signified her accommodation to her reality. And my brothers and I profited from both feminine and masculine tropes; books and learning and culture AND nature and competition and aggression, both from them both.  Because my Dad’s world was grand opera, and don’t make the mistake of doubting the sensitive artistry of his use of his vocal instrument. Or my Mom’s competitive nature, or the steely strength of her will.

Both worlds, both sets of values, from both parents. And now, in the twilight of their shared life and love, what’s left is iron. Iron wills, iron commitment, iron convictions, iron strength.

For sixty years together, 3 children, lucky 13 grandchildren, I give you life well mastered, lives well lived.

Roy and Mary Samuelsen

Mom and Dad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Pitch Perfect 2: Movie Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave

Late Night, with David Letterman debuted on Feb. 1, 1982. His first guest, famously, was Bill Murray. I never watched it. It was on too late for me, and besides, I was in graduate school, working two jobs; I didn’t have time for television. In 1992, after considerable controversy over whether Letterman or Jay Leno would replace Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show, Leno got the gig. CBS then created the Late Show with David Letterman to compete for the late night audience. My wife and I had just moved to Utah, and we decided to give the show a try. Dave became our frequent late night companion. He could be a cranky, weird, unpredictable late night friend. He was also consistently and brilliantly entertaining. You have to be likeable to succeed on television. You had to be someone people wouldn’t mind inviting into their home night after night. Dave was a prickly houseguest. But from the outset, I loved his show.

One of the first things Dave did on the Late Show was called ‘meet the neighbors.’ He went around with a camera crew and visited the small businesses surrounding the Ed Sullivan Theater. Eventually, some of those local businessmen became minor celebrities, frequent guests on the show. And one day, I had an epiphany about Dave. His job revolved around celebrities. He was there to promote their newest projects, to interview them and make them seem charming and fun and cool, to laugh with them and joke around with them.  That was his job; the care and feeding of famous entertainers. That was what Carson was brilliant at doing, what Leno was also becoming very good at. And Dave thought the whole thing was a crock.

And that became the central dynamic of Dave Letterman’s show, the key to his entire appeal. Night after night, Dave Letterman deconstructed celebrity. Instead of worshipping at the shrine of celebrity–Leno’s raisson d’etre–Dave undercut it, revealed its essential emptiness, showed the inherent instability of how it structured its sign system. Celebrity just means ‘someone who is celebrated’–it’s entirely circular. So Dave set out to prove that ‘celebrity’ meant nothing. He could turn anyone into a celebrity.

So Rupert Jee, owner of the Hello Deli, on West 53rd street, became a celebrity. (Jee appeared on Late Night over 200 times). So did the two Bangladeshi businessmen, Sirajul Islam and Mujibur Rahman, who ran a gift shop nearby. Never mind that Sirajul and Mujibur weren’t particularly charismatic or amusing. Nor was Jee, who mostly just came across as nervous. That was the point; neither were most ‘celebrities.’ That’s why Letterman got so much mileage out of the Stupid Pet Tricks and Stupid Human Tricks that became show specialities. Or the frequent appearances of spectacularly unfunny characters like Larry “Bud” Melman. Again, there was Dave turning essentially anyone to a celebrity. That’s why he’d do weird things like drop bowling balls off the roof of the theater, or water balloons, or whatever. Aren’t you amused? You think ‘celebrities’ are talented? Watch this guy launch ping pong balls from his mouth, and then catch them. Watch this guy carry a bicycle around balanced on his chin. Watch this dog walk around with a paper bag on its head.  Think George Clooney can do that?

Sometimes, it took an ugly turn, as can happen with deconstruction–a tool that can certainly turn on you. He made ‘Vickie’, a young intern, a celebrity. (She was actually an intern named Stephanie Birkitt). He’d call her up, and eventually put her on camera; she had more than 250 appearances on the show. (That story took an ugly turn in 2009, when Birkitt’s boyfriend threatened to blackmail Letterman for his alleged sexual affair with Birkitt).  So, there was a dark and sordid underside to the Letterman project. But in a weird sort of way, didn’t the blackmail and the revelations of his affairs confirm the validity of the show’s position? Dave got away with it, didn’t he? And why wouldn’t he? He’s a celebrity, after all. And don’t celebrities always get away with everything?

The deconstruction of celebrity helps explain the consistent popularity of certain guests–Bill Murray, Teri Garr, Tina Fey, Jim Carrey. Talented people, that is, who were basically in on the joke. And that’s why the most disastrous guest of all time was the one celebrity who most thoroughly embraced that role and life–Madonna. Or, more recently, why he seemed to delight in ripping Bill O’Reilly to shreds. Self-righteousness never did play on Letterman. 

And that’s also why Letterman’s occasional moments of authenticity were so tremendous. His first show after the 9/11 terrorist attacks was one of the greatest cultural moments I can remember. He was the one guy who got it absolutely right. Under pose and artifice can be, you know, actual truth.

Last night, Dave’s last show aired; he’s decided to retire, and will be replaced with Stephen Colbert. Ever since Dave’s departure was announced, I’ve felt petulant, out of sorts. I rarely watched his show the last few years; I’ve become a Jon Stewart man. But it’s not right, darn it, for Dave to not be on anymore. I’ve felt this more and more lately, an uncharacteristic conservatism, a feeling that things are changing far too fast, and that I want it to stop. Late night is not supposed to be dominated by people named Jimmy. I’m getting old, and let me tell you, aging is not for sissies.

I do know this: Letterman was great because what he did was righteous and needed to happen. He took a show that was about nurturing the cultivating the cult of celebrity, and used it to reveal, like Dorothy with Oz, the fakery and delusion at the heart of that cult. He did some good in this world. He’d also be the first remind us, he was basically just a talk show host, not the Dalai Lama. He was a deeply flawed human being, capable of terrible abuses of his own power, but a man with a core of decency underneath. He was a friend I kind of stopped seeing, but that I now find I will miss. Don’t be a stranger, old pal, and stop by again sometime.

Golden State

You become a sports fan, because you really like certain sports. You choose which teams you root for pretty randomly. I became a San Francisco Giants fan because my little league team, back in Indiana, went to a ballgame in Cincinatti, and I got to meet Willie McCovey. I became a San Francisco 49ers fan, in the NFL, because, hey, I was a fan of one San Francisco sports team, so why not root for San Francisco in other sports. I had never been to San Francisco when I made those decisions–in fact, I was just a kid, living in Indiana. And all my friends thought I was weird not to root for the Reds like a normal person. But the Giants and 49ers were my teams forever after. (I loved the Indiana college basketball team, of course, and the ABA Indiana Pacers. I was that much a Hoosier). It was just serendipity that I grew up and married a girl from Northern California.

Sometimes, though, you just fall in love. You have no connection to a particular group of athletes. You just like watching them play. Or like rooting against them. I love basketball, and have my whole life. But I’ve never rooted for LaBron James. I respect him. He seems like a good guy. He’s a wonderful basketball player. I just always find myself rooting against his team. No idea why.

It’s all weirdly random. I was a fan of San Francisco sports teams, not Northern California ones. I never cared about the Oakland A’s, or the Oakland Raiders. For that matter, I didn’t root for the Golden State Warriors. I suppose I knew they played their games in Oakland, but I didn’t care. They weren’t very good, and for me, they were just another team.  I just didn’t care.

Except, for the last two years, I do care. I have a crush. I am absolutely, madly in love with this particular iteration of the Golden State Warriors. And I know why. They play the most beautiful basketball on the planet. They are so marvelously constructed, so wonderfully well coached. Everything I value about the game of basketball, they excel in. They play team ball, sharing the ball, switching on defense, rebounding as a team, then running down the floor for yet another fastbreak. I’m a Hoosier, and that doesn’t just imply a fan of basketball, but a particular kind of basketball; team ball, built on defense and jump shots and quick, short, accurate passing. That’s the Warriors. As with the best basketball teams, they play with a kind of sloppy discipline, a relaxed intensity. They’re cool. They’re a real team.

And their best player doesn’t look he should be as good as he is. Stephen Curry is 6’3″. Tall-ish for a basketball player, but he looks short next to the other NBA players. He’s skinny and not very athletic looking. He insists that he’s capable of dunking a basketball, and his teammates say he’s done it in practice, but that’s not really his game; he’s not a great leaper. He’s not very strong. And he’s a bit slow, honestly; in a footrace, he’d probably finish close to last on his team. (Though he’s exceptionally quick laterally, with out-of-this-world hand-eye coordination).

What he is is a genius at playing basketball. He’s the most extraordinary shooter I’ve ever seen, with an instinct for that moment when the other team is poised to win a game, when a three-point jump shot will feel like a dagger to the heart. He’s a sleepy assassin, who looks a bit bored even while he’s nailing the important shots. He’s got an exceptionally quick release, and shoots with enough arc on his shot that even much taller players can’t block it. And he sees the floor better than anybody. He has a knack for it, for knowing which of his teammates is open, or going to be open, and precisely what kind of pass will get the ball to him.

There are guys like this, who just show up from time to time. Joe Montana was too short to be an NFL quarterback; too skinny, with insufficient arm strength to make the big throw. But he was the greatest leader in the sport, with the best field sense, and he became the greatest quarterback of his day. Wayne Gretzsky was thin, slow, unathletic. And the greatest hockey player of all time. These guys are just intuitively brilliant. It’s about sight, I think, and anticipation. They can see the game unfold, with a knack for seeing what’s likely to happen, and how they can exploit the situation as it develops.

He’s got a tremendous team surrounding him. Draymond Green is a strong, powerful forward, a stalwart defensive player and a fine shooter. Klay Thompson is a marvelous shooter as well, and a tough, battling defender and rebounder. Harrison Barnes is a young guy, probably the best pure athlete on the team, quick enough at 6’10” to guard anyone. Andrew Bogut is a big bruising inside presence. And the Warriors have put together the best bench in the league, with a series of veterans, former All-Stars, who have somehow agreed to set aside egos and do what’s needed for the team to win: Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingstone, David Lee, Mareese Speights, Leandro Barbosa, Brandon Rush. Their coach is Steve Kerr, one of Michael Jordan’s favorite former teammates, and when you watch them play defense, you can see MJ’s influence; they’re just tenacious.

Above all, though, they have Curry. I don’t know him, of course, though last night I was as charmed as anyone when, during the post-game press conference, his two-year old daughter told him to ‘be quiet, Daddy.’  He seems very nice; bright and articulate, and not as ferociously competitive as his game suggests. He’s a beautiful athlete, though. And I’ve become a Warriors’ fan.

 

The Trans-Pacific Partnership

We’re so used to seeing American politics through the distorted lens of partisanship that it’s often pretty easy to figure out what our position should be on most major issues. I’m a liberal Democrat–that’s a nice shorthand. I’m obviously anti-gun, pro-choice, anti-death penalty, pro-marriage equality, against tax cuts for rich guys, in favor of food stamps and welfare for poor people. Neat and tidy.

Which is what makes the controversy over the Trans-Pacific Partnership so interesting. It’s a big free trade bill, supported by President Obama, opposed by Elizabeth Warren (yay!), Bernie Sanders, and what’s generally regarded as the liberal wing of the Democratic party. It’s supported by Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader, a pro-business (boo!) Republican (boo!!!!).

Here’s the thing: I’ll put my credentials as a liberal and a Democrat up against anyone’s. And I’m for the TPP. I support it. I think it’s a good thing. I think the Senate should ratify it. (And they’re expected to do just that, this week, with more support from Republicans than from Democrats).

What is it? It’s a trade agreement among nations that border the Pacific ocean. From right to left, that means the US, Canada, Mexico, Peru, Chile, New Zealand, Australia, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Vietnam, and Japan. The bill will lower trade barriers, reducing tariffs on all sorts of things, including textiles. Also rice. It’ll also require countries to enact stricter environmental and labor protections, and lots more. Vox.com has a nice summary.

Criticism of the bill has tended to focus on three areas. First, the President was negotiated in secret, and the specifics of its provisions aren’t available to the Senators who have to vote on it. Second, the President wants it fast-tracked. In other words, he wants an up-or-down vote, without the possibility of any Senators amending it. Third, labor groups believe that it will cost American jobs. Under those concerns is this one: the bill is perceived as pro-corporation. It will be lucrative for certain big companies, possibly to the detriment of American workers.

Here’s why I support it. First of all: free trade. I like free trade. Most economists like free trade. Ending trade barriers is a good thing. Because trade is good. Business is good.

In an archeological dig in a small fjord in Norway, archeologists found, of all things, a beautifully made Buddha statue. It dates from the 9th century CE. Think about that. Somehow, a Viking village ended up with an artifact that has to have originated in India. Wouldn’t you love to know that story, how a Buddha statue ended up all the way up north like that? Isn’t that remarkable?

I’ll grant that the story that statue might tell wouldn’t necessarily be about trade. Not entirely. My Viking ancestors were, to be blunt, not always known for, you know, paying for the cool things they ended up owning. Still, all across the world, throughout history, goods have passed from hand to hand, town to town, culture to culture. And all the people on the planet have benefited overall.

I don’t like protectionism. I don’t like harsh tariffs and restrictions on the free movement of goods and services. It is quite likely that some American jobs will be lost if TPP passes. But far more jobs will be created. The difficulty is that people who oppose the bill can point quite specifically to areas where those job losses will occur. It’s less easy to point as directly to areas where other jobs will be created, to offset those losses. But that’s what will happen. That’s what always happens when trade barriers are lowered.

Will this bill increase the sum total of human misery? Will it lead to more sweat shops making Nike shoes and Old Navy clothes? Will it lead to more child laborers exploited by unscrupulous middle men? Yes, that will all happen. Absolutely. I wish that weren’t true (and the bill does have provisions to reduce that kind of action). But yes, that will all happen. 98% of all the clothes sold in retail stores in America are made overseas, using methods that we regard as unsavory. Do I defend that? Do I defend Wal-Mart and the Gap reducing their inventory costs on the backs of foreign children?

Yes, I do. Because in poor countries, those jobs are prized. I would much rather have Vietnamese children making Nike sneakers in a factory than starving, or being forced, by economic necessity, into prostitution. Poor kids in poor countries don’t have a lot of choices in life. And I know it seems hard-hearted for economists to defend the kinds of practices that make for such juicy news exposes by saying ‘well, free trade is a good thing.’ But it is, ultimately. Ultimately, it really will reduce human suffering, overall, given the alternatives.

Should this bill be fast-tracked? Shouldn’t the Senate be given the opportunity to propose and even pass amendments to it? No, absolutely not. Elizabeth Warren is dead wrong about this. This isn’t just a normal Senate bill. It’s an international trade agreement, negotiated, over many years, by representatives from 12 nations. If the Senate were to propose any amendments at all, those would then have to be completely renegotiated by all those nations. We have to pass it as is. And should.

The other criticism of this bill is that it will benefit certain huge multi-national corporations. And that’s also true; it will. Speaking as a liberal Democrat, though, let me say this: we’re not opposed to corporations. We’re not against big business. We’re against big businesses that misbehave. Elizabeth Warren has done a lot of good pointing out the excesses of big banks, of Wall Street equity firms and too-big-to-fail financial institutions. But that doesn’t mean that we liberal democrats are against banks, or against Wall Street.

I like rules. I like regulations and I like to see government enforce those regulations. But those regulations can’t make it impossible for businesses to operate profitably. Profits are good. Successful people and successful businesses are good for our culture, for our nation, for the world.

So, yes, I’m with President Obama here, and with Senator McConnell. Elizabeth Warren is an admirable Senator, and when she’s right about something, I’ll offer her my full support. She’s wrong about the TPP.  Enough details about it are known to be able to make a judgment. And I’m for it.

Mad Men, the finale

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

T.S. Eliot The Hollow Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A response to Ralph Hancock

The opinion page of the Deseret News has published a number of op-ed pieces lately opposing same sex marriage. The most recent was by Ralph Hancock, a very respected conservative scholar, a professor at BYU, with a degree in political science from Harvard and a distinguished publication record. I thought, with some trepidation, that I would write a piece disagreeing with his article. I certainly don’t have credentials to match his; as I’ve said many times on this blog, I’m basically a playwright with wifi. But I do have a PhD, and I thought someone ought to respond. I suggest you read Hancock’s article first: here’s the link.

Hancock begins rather oddly, with the Enlightenment:

When the aggressively secular philosophers of the 18th century realized that simple logic could not actually refute traditional ideas of God or of a Higher Good, they settled on a strategy that did not depend too much on reason: the public would have to be moved by passions and appetites to reject traditional authority, and the rational appeal of transcendent goods would have to be neutralized by a relentless campaign of ridicule conducted by a unified army of prominent writers. Haughty contempt, aided by wit and literary talent, would suffice to intimidate traditionalists and thus supply the defect of truly conclusive reasoning.

Apparently, Hancock thinks the Enlightenment philosophers were all in on the plan, including the deliberate use of satire. Well, Voltaire wrote satire; so did Jonathan Swift. And it’s certainly true that the writers of the Enlightenment used a variety of approaches; journalism, poetry, drama, essays, novels. But mostly, they wrote long, dense books of moral and political philosophy, in which they disagreed with each other all the time. You can see what Hancock’s doing here; he’s suggesting that those attacking ‘traditional authority’ realized that the tools of philosophy and reason weren’t sufficient to get the job done. They resorted to snark and sentimentality, because they knew how weak their case was. But that’s just nonsense. Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, Locke, Hume, Spinoza, Leibniz were perfectly confident in their ability to reason their way to truth, and did precisely that, book after book. There’s a reason they won.

But, hang on. Did you see what he’s doing? He’s choosing sides, and placing himself on the side of ‘traditional authority,’ and ‘traditional ideas of God or a Higher Good,’ against the Enlightenment. And among the major Enlightenment figures he opposes would surely have to be Jefferson, Madison, Adams, Thomas Paine. And let’s face it, he has to do this; if there’s one thing the Founders had in common, it was an opposition to traditional authorities. That was the point of the Revolution, to reject the authority of King and Crown. (And wouldn’t we add Joseph Smith to the list of prominent thinkers who rejected ‘traditional ideas of God?’)

But of course Hancock pretty much has to do this–take sides against the Founders. After our central founding document included the phrase “all men are created equal,” our subsequent history unfolded uneasily around that idea, of equality. Well, his article is in opposition to marriage equality. Equality, therefore, becomes the main idea against which he’s forced to argue. And Jefferson’s phrase planted a seed, leading eventually to abolitionism and Lincoln’s election and a horrific Civil War, and to three Constitutional amendments, the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth. The most important of them, it turns out, was the fourteenth. That amendment, and the subsequent history of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and Brown v. Board and the Civil Rights movement, all centered on something as simple as the redefinition of a word: Negro. Was a Negro a man “with no rights which the white man was bound to respect,” as the Dred Scott decision put it, or was he a citizen of the United States, with all the privileges and responsibilities of any other citizen? Over a hundred years of tortured history later, that word, ‘equality,’ prevailed. The word Negro was redefined, and although we still have a long way to go, the fundamental humanity and, legally, the full citizenship of black Americans is today affirmed.

The case currently before the Supreme Court, Obergefell v. Hodges, is a Fourteenth Amendment case. It’s an equality case. Opposing it, therefore, either means opposing the Fourteenth Amendment, or it means opposing the application of that amendment to the current controversy. Hancock, oddly, chooses a third route. He focuses on the issue of dignity, and the supposed desire of people to have their sexual preferences accorded dignity and respect, and he accuses those who support same sex marriage of, essentially, sentimentalizing the issue. That’s his perception; it’s not mine, and it seems irrelevant to the actual issues addressed in the case itself. By choosing to ally himself with tradition, with traditional formulations of marriage, Hancock, in this article, comes across a bit like Tevye, stomping the ground and shouting about Tradition, while his uppity, independent (and beloved) daughters each insist on their right to marry who they choose, not the guy Papa picks. And tradition itself is like someone trying to stand on a roof and play the fiddle. It’s precarious up there, and unsteady. Hancock might respond that Tevye’s daughters sentimentally want their personal romantic preferences accorded dignity, a trivial consideration. But they know their own hearts best. Tradition is what’s failing them.

Although he doesn’t use this phrase, Hancock wants to argue for ‘traditional marriage,’ for marriage based on a ‘shared moral understanding.’ But that’s an ever-shifting foundation. Traditionally, marriage wasn’t really between a man and a woman, but between a citizen and his female property. If we define ‘woman’ as an ‘autonomous equal to men,’ as a fully participating citizen–as equal–then marriage as we understand it is a relatively new invention. But one that recognized that the ‘shared moral understanding’ of what constituted women’s rights and roles had shifted, evolved. And a good thing too.

But there’s another sense in which the phrase ‘the traditional definition of marriage’ is inadequate. There really isn’t ‘the’ definition of marriage, but as many definitions as there are marriage partners. Abigail Adams may not have been her husband’s legal equal, but their letters have survived, and it’s clear that she carved out a space in her society for every bit as much equality as she could possibly achieve. Nor was Dolley Madison any kind of shrinking violet. They may have represented something close to one extreme of 18th century female equality, one towards which society was slowly shifting. The other extreme of inequality was quite probably represented by the odd and creepy relationship of Jefferson and Sally Hemings, a woman with no rights her white master was bound to respect.

So marriage has constantly been redefined, as other related words have been; ‘woman’, ‘black,’ ‘wife,’ ‘servant,’ ‘citizen.’ And individual marriages are under a constant process of negotiation and redefinition. And the whole process has always been informed by society’s ever evolving understanding of Jefferson’s phrase, of what ‘created equal’ means. And even that ancient racist obsession, over miscegenation, became, in Loving v. Virginia, redefined as, well, just ‘marriage.’ Two citizens exercising the fundamental human right to choose to commit their lives together, something normal and good. And our societal understanding of ‘equality’ evolved yet again.

And so the latest word to be productively redefined is before us: ‘homosexual.’ And, of course, traditionally, homosexual meant citizenship and equality only as far as it was kept strictly closeted. Otherwise, homosexual meant an outcast, a pervert, a degenerate, a deviant. And it was legal to fire gay men and women, legal to arrest people for the crime of displaying public affection, legal to deny housing or access to public facilities.

Hancock does not really clarify his main argument against gay marriage. Here’s his best attempt:

At its core is another understanding of human dignity, one that embeds individual dignity within shared communal goods and responsibilities. It is this more traditional understanding of dignity, and not an absolute power of human self-definition, that still resonates in the idea of liberty under “the laws of nature and nature’s God.”

Honestly, this describes pretty well exactly what our gay brothers and sisters want; to exercise their rights and obligations as citizens, to join in ‘shared communal goods and responsibilities.’ And human dignity thrives under the presumption of equality.

The key, I think, to understanding Hancock’s argument is the phrase he cribbed from, again, Jefferson: ‘laws of nature and nature’s God.’ He seems to be arguing that the lifestyle of gay people so offends the laws of nature and of God that it disqualifies them from full participation in civil society. And he seems to regard this as a widely shared understanding. Or, I suppose, as what would be a widely shared understanding if people could just reason more clearly. But he’s savvy enough to know that he can’t quite put it that way, lest he prove that he’s driven by enmity to gay people. But it does appear that he wants to retain the traditional definition of ‘homosexual.’ And thereby deny gay people equality. If you’re gay, Hancock suggests, you’re not actually created equal. You’re created: Other. But that’s my reading of a confused mess of a paragraph.

There is another approach he might have taken, the preferred tactic of the Obergefell respondents. Essentially it’s this; to demonstrate through the social sciences that children do better if they’re raised by two straight parents. To essentially ask gay people to take one for the team, to stop arguing for marriage for the greater good of children in society. The Obergefell respondents found themselves arguing that a preferred outcome might be to say that marriage is about child-rearing, and gay couples aren’t as good at it as straight couples are, so what if we just let straight couples raise all the kids. In fact, the best evidence suggests no such idea; kids do best with two committed parents, no matter their orientation, according to the various studies cited by the plaintiffs in the case. (The respondents cited no competing studies). And current marriage laws don’t require that prospective couples demonstrate the ability to procreate, rendering reproductive viability moot. Professor Hancock deserves credit for not wandering down that thorny path.

What Hancock does address is, essentially, a side issue; the question of dignity, the question of how people feel, and how nice people are to them. That’s not relevant. Obergefell is a case about equality before the law. Either gay people are citizens or they’re not. Issues of religion, or of dignity, or the Higher Good are not really relevant. For those who want to argue against the full equality and citizenship of our gay brothers and sisters, then let me suggest that they’ll need a stronger argument than the ones that have so far been advanced, including Hancock’s.

The Avengers: Age of Ultron, movie review

Marvel’s newest, latest, biggest, noisiest entry in the ‘dominate escapist filmmaking’ sweepstakes, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, certainly has everything you might want in a summer popcorn movie; lots of action, exceptionally well staged, lots of ‘splosions, lots of feats of derring-do, and a basically coherent storyline, which ends up dovetailing nicely with the twenty other Marvel storylines found in other movies, TV shows, and, of course, comic books. Writer-director Joss Whedon is a better filmmaker than his rival billion-dollar blockbuster mavens, Michael Bay and James Cameron and JJ Abrams, and Age of Ultron had the potential to be a much better movie than than the various entries in the Star Wars, Star Trek, or Transformers franchises (anticipating whatever the new Star Wars trilogy will be).  Ultimately, though, this film was undermined by the unavoidable fact of it being part of that Marvel universe. Allow me to explain.

The big challenge for Whedon with this film is precisely that it’s an Avengers movie. There have to be storylines and character arcs and motivations and reasons to care about a whole buncha characters. There has to be a Bruce Bannon/Hulk storyline, and one for Natasha/Black Widow, and a Steve Rogers/Captain America one, and a Thor one, and a Clint Barton/Hawkeye one, plus of course, the plot has to basically revolve around Tony Stark and Iron Man. Plus, we end up adding two more Avengers, the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver, and they need an origin story and a certain amount of backstory screen time. Plus, this one has a terrific new villain, Ultron, who also needs some explanation and some time to monologue about who he is and what dastardly misdeeds he wants to do and why. It makes for a long movie. This puppy clocks in at 141 minutes, and therefore has to sustain our interest throughout. I didn’t check my watch until somewhere around the 120 mark. But I did check my watch.

To explain both the best thing about this movie, and also the reason that my interest in it finally flagged a bit, let me do a basic structural analysis. Who is the protagonist of the movie? Well, it had nine main characters, so that’s a bit difficult to suss out, but ultimately the guy who drives the main action of the film is Tony Stark. He’s the guy who figures out that Ultron is loose and dangerous, he’s the guy who figures out what to do about it, he’s the guy who sees what Ultron’s destructive plan is, and what can be done to stop it. It’s about Tony Stark and various iterations of Iron Man, good and evil.

And who is the antagonist, the main villain or bad guy? Obviously, Ultron. Who is an artificially intelligent entity, embodied in a whole series of really destructive robots. And who was created by Tony Stark. That’s Stark’s big plan; to create some Turing-test-passing robot entities to protect the Earth forever, making the Avengers, ultimately, redundant, and unnecessary. Ultron is, in other words, also Tony Stark. He’s Tony’s alter ego; he’s Tony’s Id to Iron Man’s Superego. In other words, the protagonist of this narrative is the character Tony Stark. And so is the antagonist.

I love that. I think that’s smart, and innovative, and morally complex. Tony becomes Frankenstein, and Ultron his Monster. And Ultron wants something more; to become sort of human. He wants to create an ultimate indestructible but biological body for his evolved AI consciousness. But in a terrific action sequence, his body, stuck in a kind of incubator, gets captured by the Avengers. And Tony gets it to his laboratory. And he, Tony, decides to go ahead and finish it. His good guy alter ego consciousness lab assistant entity, Jarvis, is around; Tony decides to download Jarvis into this Ultron-created body. And Bruce Bannon reluctantly agrees to help him. Tony’s convincing argument? “We’re both mad scientists.”

I’m sitting there in the theater thinking ‘what a terrible idea.’ And the other Avengers show up, and they all agree. And they have this fight scene, right there in the lab, Cap and Black Widow and Hawkeye fighting over this incubator thing. And then Thor charges in and hits the incubator with his hammer. And a new creature emerges, with all sorts of superpowers, but sort of neutral, morally. It’s Vision, and he’s wonderfully indestructible, and also decidedly ambiguous on a hero/villain scale.

I loved all of that. I loved the fight in the lab, I loved Tony Stark having this terrible idea, to finish Ultron’s creation, I loved Bannon helping him, I loved all of it. It’s loopy and strange and filled with equivocation and all sorts of dramatic potential. Could the Avengers’ squabbles wreck their potential to Save the Earth? Could Tony Stark’s hubris and arrogance doom us all? Are mad scientists good for humanity, or bad, or both? I thought the whole scene, including the creation of Vision, was Joss Whedon at his best.

And then? What happens next?

Spoiler Alert: a big fight scene. Completely predictable and frankly kind of dull. Will Captain America save all the people of this town? Of course he will. Will The Scarlet Witch help save the day? Obviously. With forty five minutes to go, the film could have gone literally anywhere, narratively. And where did it go? Nowhere, except for a very long sequence of obligatory heroics.

There’s absolutely nothing else Whedon could have done, of course. He was hired to make an Avengers‘ movie, not deconstruct the Tony Stark character and narrative.  It’s a movie about superheroes. They have to fight as heroes, and they have to be super good at it. I can sit there and mourn the waste of promising (but unrealized) story threads all I want to. This movie was going to end in a big action sequence, which would be won by the good guys.

Except maybe not. Because there is a final scene, an homage to films like The Day the Earth Stood Still. It’s a conversation between Vision and Ultron, over this question, which also is the main dramatic question in TDTESS. Is mankind worth saving? If a super-powerful alien entity was sent here to earth to humanity to the ultimate test, to determine if we, as a species, should be exterminated or allowed to live, what would the verdict be? Ultron thinks it’s a no, Vision, a kind of equivocal yes. I liked that final moment a lot too.

So it’s a superhero movie that had the potential to be more than that, a potential that absolutely could not be realized, but that was at least there, in the room, haunting the whole movie like a ghost. It’s also a witty and intelligent film–with a very funny Eugene O’Neill joke, bless it–up to a point, before becoming yet another exercise in evil robot bashing. It’s going to make a lot of money and I don’t begrudge it its success. But it made me hungry for a film about, you know, human beings. The Marvel thing is still playing itself out. As long as they throw in quirky projects like Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man, I’ll pay attention. But it’s time to retire Iron Man, at least. Nice to have spent time with you sir. And Marvel, give us new stories to follow.