Truth: Movie Review

This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.

In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.

Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.

While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.

After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.

This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).

What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.

I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).

In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was.  I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.

And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.

Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.

73-9

Drive and dish. Spacing. Block out on rebounds. Screen. Swing the ball around the perimeter, find the open teammate. Communicate on defense. Switch. Basketball, like soccer, is a team sport in the best sense of the word. It’s five guys working together, using their imagination and creativity and discipline to create magic. It’s a game where each player knows his role, and executes. It can be beautiful to watch, as pretty and inspiring as any sport can be when played at the very top level.

And last night, the Golden State Warriors finished a season in which they became the greatest team in the history of basketball.

One might quibble with that assessment. Perhaps some of the US Men’s Olympic teams, collections of superstars and Hall of Famers, might disagree. And the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls won 72 games, lost only 10. They had two Hall of Famers–Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen–and current US ambassador to North Korea, Dennis Rodman. They were a brilliant, intense, brutally competitive team.

The Warriors, last night, won their 73rd game.

(There is one odd connection between that Bulls team and this Warriors team. Steve Kerr started at guard for the Bulls. He’s also the Warriors head coach).

Michael Jordan’s Bulls were reflections of his ferocious intensity. LaBron James’ Miami teams were a bit like that; fierceness and fury. That’s not the Warriors. They play a different kind of basketball, more graceful, somehow, more balletic. They can take your breath away, with ball movement and athleticism.

They’re also a reflection of their star, Stephen Curry. And Curry just isn’t like most other players. He’s thin, fairly short, not imposingly muscled. But the ball is a yo-yo in his hands, his control of it absolute. His footwork isn’t just perfectly disciplined, it displays an imagination and creativity unlike that of any other player. And he can shoot like no one ever before in basketball history.

The player in basketball history that Curry reminds me of most is The Pistol; Pete Maravich. Maravich had Curry’s insouciance, his deceptive cool. And Maravich was a marvelous ball handler and passer. And while Maravich was a wonderful shooter, Curry’s better. Demonstrably better, 40% better; statistically, Curry’s on another planet altogether from anyone who has ever played the game. The all-time record for most three-point baskets made in a season was 286, by Curry, last year. This year, Curry hit 402. And Maravich couldn’t, or wouldn’t, play defense. Curry’s a pest on defense, a ball hawking vexation.

But the Warriors are more than just one superstar. The first, second and fourth greatest seasons by three-point shooters are all by Stephen Curry. The third greatest season was by Klay Thompson, Curry’s teammate. An excellent shooting percentage for three pointers is around 35%. That’s a terrific season, by a great shooter. Curry was at 45%, which is absurd. But here’s what’s really absurd: Curry had 8 teammates that shot over 35% from three point range.

Aside from Curry, here’s who else is on the team. Shaun Livingston was one of the most promising young talents in the game, until 2007, when he suffered a knee injury so severe that the doctors’ initial assessment was that the only option was amputation. Thank heavens, that didn’t turn out to be necessary, but it still took him two years to rehabilitate the knee. Only now is he playing close to the high level that was once predicted for him.

That’s one guy. Andre Iguodala was, for eight years, the best player on a dreadful Philadelphia 76ers team. He signed with Golden State because he was tired of losing. Marreese Speights was a college star, a big guy who can shoot, who was Iguodala’s teammate at Philadelphia. Leondro Barbosa is from Brazil, a quick guard who has bounced from team to team in the NBA. Brandon Rush was a big college star who blew his knee out, and bounced from Portland to Indiana before ending up in Golden State.

Good players, right? You can see why the Warriors like them. Now, here’s the thing; that’s the Warriors’ bench. Those guys are their reserves. Barbosa is Curry’s backup.

Klay Thompson is the second best shooter in basketball history. Draymond Green is a human swiss army knife; does everything. He is the team’s best rebounder, best passer, best defensive player, and second best ball handler (after Curry). He’s also a terrific three-point shooter, when that’s needed. Andrew Bogut is an Australian center who starred at the University of Utah. A rugged rebounder and shot blocker who, as it happens, is also a marvelous passer. And Harrison Barnes is a young guy who would be a star for any other team in basketball, a 6’10 super athlete who can also shoot.

It’s a joyful thing to me, to see players this good mesh and blend their games so superbly. They’re fun to root for; easy to root for. Agreeable guys who are also wonderful basketball players.

I’ve been a basketball fan all my life. Heck, I’m a sports nut, and I’m from Indiana; of course, I love basketball. And I have no particular reason to root for a basketball team from Oakland. But I have gotten as much pure joy from watching this marvelous team play basketball than anything else I have done or seen or been part of. I’m so grateful to be alive to see them.

 

Eye in the Sky: Movie Review

Eye in the Sky is a beautifully calibrated, superbly acted, morally compelling and thoughtful film that also couldn’t possibly be more relevant to the contemporary world. As such, sadly, it also became kind of a box office flop. Still, it’s a terrific movie, and one I wholeheartedly recommend.

Helen Mirren plays a British military officer, Colonel Katherine Powell, tasked with monitoring an Islamist terrorist group operating out of Kenya and Somalia. As the film begins, she’s planned an joint op with the US and Kenyan military to capture the 2nd, 3rd and 5th most wanted East African terrorists. One of them, it turns out, is a British national, Susan Danford, now known as Ayesha Al Hadi. A radicalized American is also in her group. The Brits have intel about a meeting of these terrorist leaders, and the Kenyan military stands by for a raid and capture. American drones watch from above. But the intel is faulty, and the drones are unable to confirm the identities of all the targets. The bad guys pile into a van, and drive through the streets of Nairobi to a much more secure location, a house in an area heavily patrolled by armed militias. Powell has to call off the Kenyan operation. However, a Somali agent (Barkhad Abdi, as good in this as he was in Captain Phillips) is able to infiltrate a market close to the terrorist house, and send in this freaky little tiny insect-size drone, which gets into the house, confirms the targets. And then the drone camera captures, in another room, a chilling image; suicide vests and packets of C-4. And Powell realizes that a suicide bomb attack may well be imminent.

The story cuts between several locations. One is the tiny op center for the drone, where the pilot, Steve Watts (Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) awaits orders. Another is a conference room, where General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman, in his last film) is joined by two cabinet ministers, ready to observe the operation, and approve or deny any change in plans. Another is the market place in Kenya, where a little girl, Alia (Aisha Takow), plays with a hula hoop her father made for her, and also goes into the market to sell the bread her mother bakes. And her sales table is right next to the wall of the terrorist’s house.

Powell is certain that the terrorists are planning a suicide bombing. Since capturing them is no longer possible, she believes a drone strike is justified. But Watts, the American pilot, can see, in his cameras, this child next to the strike site. He insists on another collateral damage assessment. Powell is furious, but agrees. And the British cabinet ministers will not approve the attack. They insist on getting authorization from the British foreign minister. And meanwhile, of course, they all can see images from the teeny bug drone inside the house. They can see two young men donning suicide vests, those vests loaded with explosives, the explosives wired together, the men making their farewell propaganda videos. The clock is ticking, and Powell is desperate to authorize a kill order.

Meanwhile, their Somali agent continually risks his life for the girl, offering to purchase all her bread. But the little girl just goes back to her table and sells some more.

When we think of drone warfare, we tend to think of it as antiseptic. Clean strikes, from long distance. We also tend to think of it as fairly dispassionate. Intel provides a target, and our drones take out bad guys. Boom. This film reminds us that human beings operate those astonishing weapons, that those people have feelings and consciences and scruples. Aaron Paul is extraordinary, playing an ordinary soldier desperate somehow to obey his orders, but also keep civilian casualties to a minimum. Desperate to save the life of a child.

But Mirren and Rickman are no less remarkable, playing career soldiers who see an opportunity to strike a crippling blow against a vicious enemy. Powell and Benson know how terrorist groups operate. They believe that the people they can see donning suicide vests plan to launch an immediate attack on civilian targets. By risking the death of this one child, they may save dozens of civilian lives, including the lives of other children. Meanwhile, the politicians in Benson’s conference room have to weigh the propaganda costs. Possibly saving 80 civilians may damage the hearts-and-minds war, if the cost is a single child.

As we left the theater, my wife and I were both pretty shaken by the film, and my wife commented that she could see, and even agree with, the perspectives of every single character, even when those characters passionately disagreed. I thought so too. It’s a film in which each character represents a point of view, in addition to being an interesting character in his or her own right.

I especially loved Mirren’s performance, even at times when she seemed a bit off-puttingly bloodthirsty. Because, as Rickman’s character says at the end of the film, (probably the last line spoken by Alan Rickman on camera), “never tell a soldier that he does not know the cost of war.” That cost is front and center in Eye in the Sky.

And that’s part of what makes it such an important film. Children die in the war on terror. And sometimes, we’re the ones who kill them. Is it worth it? I love the way that this film does not provide a comforting answer to that disturbing question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hillary Clinton’s email

Nobody trusts Hillary Clinton. I mean, why would anyone trust her? She’s been a one-woman crime wave, apparently, for most of her career. Benghazi, for example. Or Whitewater; she was involved with that. And now, I mean, she’s this close to being indicted, for the email thing. I mean, she can’t be President from prison, right?

As I write this, it’s April, 2016. Hillary Clinton is running for President, against Bernie Sanders. And let’s get real; Sanders has run a terrific campaign for President, he’s inspired lots of people, especially young people, who were previously uninterested in politics, to become engaged politically. In every possible sense, the Sanders’ campaign has been a healthy, positive thing for our country. If he’s the Democratic nominee, I will work for him and I will support him. But he’s not my preferred candidate, and it’s very unlikely that he will win.

And the Republican dumpster fire/train wreck/sewage spill will almost certainly end in the nomination of either Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. Donald Trump. Or Ted Cruz. Yikes.

So, for the good of the country, let’s deal with the Clinton negatives. She’s probably going to be the Presidential nominee of one of our nation’s two major political parties. The other party is likely to nominate either an egomaniacal fool or a religious fanatic. I don’t mean to be unkind–I have friends who support both Trump and Cruz–but personally, I don’t know of any moment in American history when two worse potential nominees were running. For the good of the country, if she’s the nominee, Hillary Clinton has to win this.

Emails, then. Let’s start here. You may distrust this news source, but I went ahead and fact-checked its assertions. Can’t find any discrepancies. Here’s another source. And another. And Did Secretary Clinton use a private email server? Yes. So did Condoleeza Rice. So did Colin Powell. Using a private server was not illegal, nor was it unusual. Did she email classified documents using her private server? She asserts that she did not, but that that some documents that were emailed have subsequently become classified. So far, no evidence has emerged to the contrary.

I want to be very clear. I am not an IT expert, and I am not a national security expert. I’m a playwright with wifi. I try to be independent in my thinking, but I am a liberal and a Democrat, and I support Mrs. Clinton’s candidacy. It’s not surprising how incredibly politicized this all is. Google anything like ‘Hillary Clinton emails’ and you’ll find hundreds of news stories, going back a year or so, insisting that she’s going to jail any day now, and also that she has nothing, legally, to worry about. What we believe about Hillary’s emails is predicated on where our politics lie. On nothing more edifying than confirmation bias.

What’s going on? What went down? How should I know? I don’t know anything about internet security, or government regulations pertaining to them. Here’s what I can say; this follows the pattern of all the previous Clinton scandals.

Here’s what happens. The Clintons (Bill or Hillary, it doesn’t matter), make a decision that they think is innocuous; often, it’s something good that they’re trying to accomplish. But the situation turns out to be more complex than they’d originally imagined. At first, their response is to say ‘this isn’t any big deal, there’s no way this could blow up on us. Our intentions are pure.’ But the conservative press gets hold of it, and a narrative, involving charges of corruption and malfeasance and criminality emerges. The Clintons have to respond, and eventually do, though rarely satisfactorily.

Take the very first big scandal; Travelgate. Shortly after President Clinton took office, in 1993, he learned that an audit had revealed irregularities in the accounts of the White House Travel Office. That’s an office that’s been around since the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, nowadays tasked with making travel arrangements for members of the White House press. The office had a cozy relationship with journalists, at times even providing inaccurate paperwork so that reporters could file with their papers for travel expenses they weren’t entitled to. Clinton decided that he’d ferreted out a web of corruption, and fired the seven employees of the office, hiring instead a travel agency called World-wide Travel, a reputable company, but one with ties to Clinton’s third cousin. The press was outraged (the fired employees were friendly with reporters, and had had their jobs for years), and the new narrative was all about nepotism. So the whole thing blew up, and became a major embarrassment for the Clintons. Eventually it became a focus of Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr as part of the Whitewater investigation. Two things came out. First, the Travel Office’s records were a goshawful mess; they should have been fired. And second, the Clintons did nothing wrong. But that determination wasn’t made until 2000. Of course, the Clintons were exonerated. But nobody remembers that. This Wikipedia article does a good job of explaining the case in detail, in case you’re interested.

Compare it to the email scandal. Mrs. Clinton had a Blackberry she liked. She was also a very active emailer. The government’s IT security folks wanted her to have two accounts; one for personal emails, and the other for government business. She didn’t want to, and knew as well that previous Secretaries of State had used the same device for both work-related and personal business. So she insisted that she intended to go on using her Blackberry. Frankly, I get that. We older folks hate learning how to use new devices. And we have a tendency to think that IT security folks are too persnickety.

Since the story broke about an investigation of her emails, though, Mrs. Clinton hasn’t handled the situation very well, in part, it appears, because it took her awhile to realize that something like this could be a big deal. Again, typical Clinton scandal. She knew she hadn’t done anything wrong, so why is everyone freaking out? And, as is often the case with the Clintons, she hasn’t managed the subsequent hooraw very effectively. And so it’s still a story.

But it’s a story I’ve seen before. And when all these furious accusations of gross malfeasance start pouring in, I tend to take them with a grain of sale. There’s never anything to it, and there’s nothing to this one either. And years from now, when the whole story of the entire scandal is revealed, we’ll realize that this really isn’t actually important.

Remember this: For Bill and Hillary Clinton, the world is defined by sound and fury. For the most part, signifying nothing. Prediction: she’s not going to be arrested. She will eventually be exonerated. Which means, it’s okay to vote for her.

 

 

 

Loretta Lynn, and a feminist fix for Saturday’s Warrior

Last week, I reviewed the new movie based on the popular LDS musical, Saturday’s Warrior. It was a very personal review, one in which I genuinely tried to be honest and also balanced, judicious. And I blew it. My review missed the single most significant problem with Warrior, and one that the movie made no attempt to fix: patriarchal gaze. I’ll explain what I mean in a second. But first, let me talk about Loretta Lynn.

In the film, we’re meant to believe that the song Zero Population, sung by Jimmy Flinders and his pals, rose up the Billboard charts in 1974, reaching number one. As one friend put it, “Uh, Zero Population, one, Clapton’s Layla number two?” And in my review, I ridiculed the idea that a song about limiting family size could chart. I was wrong. I’d forgotten that there was, in the mid-seventies, a song about choosing to limit the number of children in a family. It was a big hit. It reached number one. It remains today one of the most important songs ever by a massively important artist.

It’s just that it was on the country charts, not pop charts, and it was by a woman, Loretta Lynn. It was her song, The Pill. Enjoy:

It’s a breezy little number, comically defiant in tone. And it’s by Loretta Lynn, the Coal Miner’s Daughter, the most decorated woman in the history of country music. Married at 15, a grandmother at 34, a champion of blue-collar women’s issues. Released in 1975, the song unleashed a firestorm. A lot of country stations wouldn’t even play it. But Lynn also received dozens of letters from rural doctors, thanking her for doing more to educate poor women about basic contraception than anything they’d ever done; their classes, pamphlets, visits. The song accomplished what they couldn’t.

What’s wonderful about The Pill is how triumphant it is. It reminds us how liberating having affordable, reliable, medically safe birth control has been for millions, heck, billions of women. It’s one of the greatest unsung advancements in human history. But of course, there’s also been cultural pushback against the idea of women taking charge of their own fertility, including, astoundingly, today. In the seventies, The Pill was a big deal, and it was very much an issue in the LDS Church. It isn’t at all difficult to find talks, from the pulpit, in General Conference, in which men told women they were to have as many children as they could possibly manage. I knew a woman who, back in the day, was denied a temple recommend because she told her bishop she’d gone on the pill. (I also knew an LDS couple who went on the pill, got pregnant, went to their doctor, and asked how this could happen, the husband hadn’t missed a day taking that pill. True story). That wouldn’t happen now, thank heavens. Those talks now read like the relics they are. And I’m delighted for it.

But back to Saturday’s Warrior. I’m a dude, I’m a guy, I’m an inadvertent avatar of Mormon patriarchy. And in my review of the movie, I missed what should have seemed obvious; all the talk about limiting the size of one’s family takes place in conversations between men. It’s Jimmy who’s the protagonist, who writes the Zero Population song and performs it, it’s Jimmy who rejects his father’s values, it’s Jimmy who has to recant and repent and reject his big popular successful song. And yet the issue at hand, the central issue of the entire play is a women’s issue. It’s not ‘is the position Jimmy takes on the abstract political issue of zero population growth viable.’ It’s ‘should women have the right to choose to limit how many children they will bring to term and bear.’

And raise. That’s in there too. Too often, it’s women, mothers, who feel like they’re in a boxing ring, pummeled daily by the pugilists ‘Too Much To Do’ and ‘Not Enough Time’ and ‘Not Enough Money’ and ‘Physical and Mental and Emotional Exhaustion.’ And of course men are in the equation. Men can and should be actively involved in child-rearing. In some families, that’s his primary role, leaving her to advance professionally. Certainly, if a married woman wants to take steps to prevent pregnancy, she should probably inform her husband, or even, if she wants to, consult with him, counsel with him, maybe. Up to her. There are surely as many ways for families to organize themselves effectively as there are families in the world (or Church, if we want to limit the conversation).

But it’s women, uniquely women, who grow another human being inside their bodies. It’s women, uniquely women, who give birth, who descend into the valley of death and struggle heroically out again with babies in their arms. I’m a guy. My understanding of what pregnancy and childbirth, those human experiences are like, my sympathetic feeling, remains one that’s essentially abstract.

It’s so weird to me, in retrospect, that Saturday’s Warrior, a play that’s fundamentally about pregnancy and birth and family is so cluelessly patriarchal. Or that it took me so long to notice.

In the spirit of Loretta Lynn and The Pill (and One’s on the Way, and Rated X; she talked about sexuality and childbirth in a lot of her songs), all that hardcore, grounded in life, hardscrabble, lived-experience, down and gritty feminism, let’s fix Warrior. And let me add; this is completely inappropriate, for any writer to offer to fix another writer’s work. I should be ashamed of myself. I am ashamed of myself. Call it a thought experiment, call it a writing exercise. Call it me being a jerk. I still think (or have convinced myself) it’s worth doing.

The protagonist pretty much has to be either Jimmy’s Mom or his younger sister, Julie. I’m voting for Julie.

So what if. . .

Julie promises Elder Kestler she’ll faithfully wait for him, then immediately starts dating other guys. There’s a wonderful little scene in the movie between Julie and her Mom where she tells her Mom she’s gotten engaged, only she approaches it clumsily, and Mom thinks Julie’s telling her she’s pregnant. Well, okay, what if she is?

Immediately, she has a decision to make. Could be a nice song there; she wants to go to college, she has some career plans, and she’s not in love with the baby’s father, who has nonetheless offered to Do The Right Thing By Her. Can she even consider terminating the pregnancy? Given her upbringing, probably not. Should she go ahead and marry the guy? The thought fills her with dread. What should she do?

What if she decides to go all Juno, carry the baby to term, give birth, and then give the baby up for adoption? I think, given her family and given what we know of her character, that would be the most plausible scenario for her. And then we get the scene in the pre-existence, where little Emily is waiting to come to earth a Flinders, and Alex Boye has to tell her there’s another loving family who wants her, and who will raise her, who she will love as deeply as she would love her parents-by-biology. That is, of course, entirely true, the power of adoption, plus it undercuts the play’s theological squeeginess nicely. Unneatens it. Messifies it. (For some reason, I’m in coinage mode today).

Probably, to make it work, you’d have to create another subplot, with this couple, nice folks, in the preexistence, imagining a huge family (‘ten children, no, fifteen, no, twenty!’). And then they come here, and meet, and nothing. Wham; infertility. And we see them cope with that struggle. And then . . . baby Emily. Handed to them, by the play’s protagonist, Julie. Who says goodbye. And then resolutely gets on with her life. Which means her relationship with Tod, I guess, but she comes to him as an older and wiser and sadder and stronger repentant new woman.

(You probably would have to cut some of the Jimmy subplot, like maybe the whole Zero Population song, to fit all that in. Gosh, what a shame that would be.)

I think it would all work. It wouldn’t be anywhere near as popular, of course, and wouldn’t make any money, and I should probably be shot for even doing this. But it does seem to me that any text about pregnancy, or family size, or birth control needs to be from a woman’s perspective. Not mandates from the patriarchy. Insights, from actual women warriors.

 

 

Saturday’s Warrior: Movie Review

I saw the new Saturday’s Warrior yesterday. Saw an 11:30 am screening, on a weekday, and the theater was mostly full. The Warrior phenomenon continues; 42 years, and it still packs ’em in. The movie is attractively shot and energetically acted, under the able direction of Michael Buster. There are a few new songs, mostly pretty good ones, and if older songs from the stage version have been cut, I didn’t miss them. The screenplay, by Buster and Heather Ravarino, has taken the original book, and with a few nips and tucks, trimmed and humanized it. Some characters are a bit more dimensional and interesting, and the Flinders’ family dynamic borders on believable. In other words, the inevitable changes needed to turn a stage musical into a movie were well conceived and executed, the music was generally well performed, and to the extent that Warrior works on stage, the movie worked better.

I know; this is all pretty grudging praise. I went to the theater expecting to enjoy myself, wanting to enjoy myself, thinking that after 42 years, my issues with the text would have dissipated. This turned out not to be the case. I found it a depressing, dispiriting experience. I left the theater feeling, as I have felt previously, the profoundest alienation from my own culture. It’s a musical about a Mormon family, about Mormon theology (or at least, Mormon folk theology), about Mormon culture. I’m a Mormon. I live in Provo, Utah; I taught for twenty years at BYU. And I recognized the familiarity of the conventions and constructs the text utilized. (Heck, I could sing, without prompting, every song in the show, except the new ones. Every P-Day on my mission, every single P-day. . .)

I’m a Mormon,. And nothing in that show is me.

(Crap. I’m doing it again. In 1974, my freshman year at BYU, my family home evening group went to Spanish Fork High School, and saw Warrior, then in its first professional run. And I was such an obnoxious jerk about it in the car home, I was never invited to another FHE activity the rest of the year. Dang. I don’t, I really don’t, want to be that guy.)

All right. Saturday’s Warrior begins in the pre-existence, with a terrific gospel song sung by Alex Boye. Boye is, as always, effervescent and charming, and while I missed the ‘who are these children coming down’ opening, I thought the new opening worked fine. And the various characters, pre-earth spirits, excitedly guess where they’re going and what it’s going to be like, and they make commitments to each other: ‘we’re going to meet and fall in love,’ and ‘I will be your big brother and look out for you.’ Okay, that’s popular Mormon folk doctrine (not the pre-earth existence stuff, which is canonical, but the ‘we met and fell in love there’ romantic version), and I don’t personally happen to believe it. It strikes me as predestinate. I especially loathe the notion that our decisions in the preexistence directly and specifically impact our mortal probations, and I especially dislike it in a text set in 1974. Although this is in no way implied in Warrior, it strikes me as a tiny baby step away from the fence-sitters heresy (which must itself be the subject of a much longer post). Still, I don’t mind a Mormon text that’s, let’s say, theologically adventurous. I’ve written a few myself (though that approach works better if employed transgressively).

In other words, my response to the ‘does Warrior preach false doctrine’ question would be ‘I don’t care.’ It’s built on a foundation of popular folk doctrine. That’s fine; it’s a work of imaginative fiction. I don’t actually believe in Hogwarts either, though I’d kill to teach there.

Now, I could take issue with this: Tod (Mason Davis), and Julie (Monica Moore Smith) pre-existently commit to find each other over on this side of the veil, and be together forever. Except Tod’s born in California, and isn’t LDS, while Julie is a Flinders, living in Colorado, and über-Mormon. Theirs’s the main romance in the piece. Okay, so Elders Kestler and Greene (Clint Pulver and Morgan Gunter, respectively, and as annoying in the movie as they were in the play) meet and teach Tod in San Francisco, and it turns out Julie is Kestler’s old girlfriend, so she meets him at the airport, and Tod comes with him (I mean, why would he?) for some unaccountable reason, so then they meet. And it’s all happily happily. My only problem with it is that Tod was this very cool hippie/guru/painter dude, who gets my favorite song in the show, a big age-of-Aquarius number set (I think), in Golden Gate Park. With the Piano guys! So what on earth would an awesome flower child like Tod see in a drip like Julie? I can’t see that they would have anything at all in common. But that’s a minor quibble. Plus: romantic attraction, who knows?

But, of course, that’s not the main conflict in the play or in the film. The protagonist is Jimmy Flinders (Kenny Holland), the oldest son in the Flinders clan. It’s a prodigal son story.

In the movie (and I applaud this change), the Flinderses are musicians. Adam Flinders (Brian Neal Clark) is the paterfamilias. The family has a kind of Partridge Family-like act they perform around town, and Dad also gives music lessons. We sense how non-lucrative all that is; the family home is smallish, and Jimmy shares a bedroom with multiple siblings. Terri, the Mom (Alison Akin Clark) is expecting their eighth child. Of course they all love each other, but we also see family tensions, child brattiness, too many people in too tight a space without enough money. What holds them together is music. And Mormonism. And by ‘Mormonism’ I don’t just mean religion; I mean a series of cultural considerations. One of which is, frankly, the expectation that we have large families; lots of children. Because there’s always one more waiting in the pre-existence. (Folk doctrine, folks. Not canonical).

So it makes sense that Jimmy not only is the star of the family band, he’s got his own side project too, a band called Warrior, with his best friend Mack (Carlton Bluford). Mack’s been reading Paul Ehrlich, about population growth, and Jimmy and Mack write a song together, Zero Population. Which they perform in public (desperately offending Ma and Pa Flinders). But which also gets them a record deal, with Capitol. And a west coast tour. It’s their big hit. And Jimmy, as good-looking lead singer/lead guitarists for popular rock bands who suddenly come into money tend to do, gets into drugs. Also groupies. Including, it seems, Mack’s girlfriend. Which Mack is surprisingly chill about.

So that’s all plausible, I suppose, and it makes for a strong central conflict, especially the drug stuff. His one connection to his family is phone calls with his crippled twin sister Pam (Anna Daines, probably the strongest actor in the cast). And yet, simultaneously, it’s not remotely credible. Because ‘Zero Population’ is such a ridiculous song.

Think about it. An earnest, preachy, on-the-nose song about a political issue like zero population growth becomes this massive Top 40 hit. (We even see a That Thing You Do montage, showing it climbing the charts). It’s not that rock can’t be political; see, for example, Muse, or Rage Against the Machine. Or Bob Dylan, or CCR. Many many many protest songs about Vietnam. Or something like Neil Young’s Ohio. Zero Population just isn’t the right kind of political song to be a big hit. It’s about a limited, fringe issue. It’s obnoxiously sermonizing. And it’s bad poetry. And it’s. . . .

I’ll tell you what it is. Zero Population is one of those issues conservatives imagine liberals embrace. Ehrlich’s Population Bomb is the kind of book that conservatives like hating. And I suppose it’s possible that, in 1974, some liberals somewhere quoted it positively–though I was an insanely political aware 18 year old in 1974, and I never heard of it until P. J. O’Rourke made fun of it in the ’80s. Ask me, though, as a card-carrying liberal, if I think the planet is over-populated, and I’d probably say ‘yes.’ Ask me what we should do about it, and I have no idea. I do have four children. Because that’s the number of children my wife and I decided to have.

It’s such a bad song, and it’s so central to the plot, that it warps the whole text. And there’s no middle ground possible in this story. The turning point in the film is Jimmy’s refusal to sing his one big hit, at which point he returns to his family. That’s the implication: to repent, he has to embrace everything his family stands for, including their politics. The notion that he and his father might agree to disagree–“Look, this is what I believe about population growth, but I still love all my siblings, and also thanks for helping me kick my drug habit, Dad”–is just impossible in the world of this text.

I was glad that the film chose to depict Mack as a decent guy, instead of pure villainy. I’m glad that Jimmy’s conflict included something real, like drug abuse. By trimming around the edges, Buster made the film stronger than the play. Some of the songs are pretty, if you don’t mind Carpenters/Bread/Harry Chapin soft rock. I went to the movie hoping to come to terms with a piece of Mormon culture that I’ve struggled with. As you can see, that didn’t happen.

Here’s what I do believe: you can be a good, active, believing, practicing Latter-day Saint, and still be a liberal, still like hard rock and gangsta rap, love R-rated movies and television, and still support such political causes as, I suppose, zero population growth or gay rights or a woman’s right to choose. Or global warming. And not believe in any of a variety of pre-existence folk doctrines. That’s where I stand. And, sadly, that seems to place me in opposition to a well-intentioned piece of popular Mormon culture like Warrior. But I’d rather not think that way. Michael Buster is a friend of mine, and so is Doug Stewart. (So, for that matter, is Carlton Bluford). I wish the movie well. I was glad to see the house so full. I’m just not part of its audience. And that’s okay too.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. Movie Review

I wasn’t going to see Batman v Superman, and I especially didn’t want to see it when the reviews starting pouring in. It’s at 29% on Rotten Tomatoes, and while that’s surely a flawed measure, it does not suggest a happy time at the movies. But a bunch of friends I trust liked it, and so my best friend, Wayne, and I decided we’d give it a whirl. We were both glad we did, and found it a powerful and thoughtful movie. My son told me recently that the ability to say something nice about rubbish movies is my superpower, and it is true that I tend to look more for reasons to like something than to dislike it. But I liked Batman v. Superman.

Looking at all those negative reviews, I was struck by how many critics disliked the movie because it was dark in tone, because it was ‘brooding,’ because it was ‘humorless,’ even ‘portentous.’ Well, it was dark in tone, brooding, gloomy even, humorless, and it was a bit portentous, even pretentious. That’s the kind of movie Zack Snyder was trying to make. It wasn’t a Marvel superhero movie, sort of fun and clever, and meta. This is a DC comic book movie, and clearly, DC is aiming for a different tone. That’s okay. Don’t judge a movie, even a superhero movie, by some artificial standard. Judge it by what it’s trying to accomplish.

And what is this movie trying to accomplish? Something very interesting; create a debate over the nature of justice, and place that debate within a theological context.

For starters, it’s a film about collateral damage. In Man of Steel, three years ago, Superman (Henry Cavill) fights off General Zod in a climactic battle scene that destroys much of Metropolis. This film begins with that same battle, only this time from Bruce Wayne’s (Ben Affleck’s) point of view. He owns one of those destroyed buildings, and sees his own employees killed. Thousands of citizens die. He also sees one employee, Wallace Keefe (the always terrific Scoot McNairy) get his legs crushed. The experience sours Batman on the whole Superman universe. Not that any of it was Superman’s fault; he’s fighting a bad guy intent on massive destruction. But Superman is an alien; he’s not from around here. Can he be trusted?

And that’s an interesting question, is it not? Once we grant the premise that a powerful extraterrestrial being, one that our technology is incapable of destroying, has come to earth, insisting on his (His?) essential benevolence, and rescuing folks from burning buildings, I think we would be justified in regarding him with at least a certain skepticism. And a Senate subcommittee (chaired by Holly Hunter) on Dealing With Superman would seem, at least, prudent.

Meanwhile, Superman’s in love. With, of course, Lois Lane (Amy Adams), intrepid reporter, who seems prone to stunts like flying to see an African warlord so she can ask him if he’s a terrorist. That whole scenario goes south in a big hurry, and amidst random gunfire (from whom? Shooting whom?), she’s rescued by the big blue guy. And again, there’s considerable collateral damage.

Here’s the thing; a movie about a battle between Superman and Batman seems stupid. Superman can’t be defeated, except by an extra terrestrial poison. Can Batman beat him? Of course not, unless the Bat has kryptonite, in which case, of course he can. Either way, it’s an uninteresting premise.

But in this movie, Superman’s flaw is not, actually, kryptonite. It’s love, human love. He has every opportunity to take out Lex Luthor (a terrific Jesse Eisenberg). But Lex has kidnapped, first Lois, then second, Martha Kent (Diane Lane), Clark’s mom. Superman’s love for humanity is abstract, generalized. His love for his Mom and for his girlfriend is specific, sharp, detailed. He’ll do what he has to to save the women he loves. Even if it places mankind in jeopardy. (Which I get. I’d be like that too.)

And yes, there’s also kryptonite. He can be killed by stuff from his home planet. On earth, he’s invulnerable. But if he can’t be killed, he can be distracted. And when he places Lois (or Mom) ahead of humankind, he risks losing, well, us. He can’t really function as Superman if he can’t win our hearts and minds. He actually does need us to love him. And he’ll always try to do the right thing. But not if it places those he loves the most in danger. So in a way, he’s Christ, but a compromised Christ, a Christ that puts Mary and Martha ahead of all the rest of us. Yeah, he ‘loves’ us. But he’s in love with Lois Lane.

Batman, meanwhile, isn’t interested in our love, or even in our regard. He slinks around at night, like a criminal, and he catches bad guys. And tortures them, trying to find bigger bad guys. He’s working for the greater good, but he finds the task Sisyphean; take out any bad guy, and five more crawl out from under the floorboards. His pursuit of justice is equivocal; the ends, to Batman, really do justify the means. And he gets things wrong. He’s a very human ‘hero,’ flawed and powerful and as much a danger to himself as to other criminals. Affleck’s terrific in the role, I thought; captures all the complexities of that oh-so-close-to-anti hero.

So we have a human hero, and we have a Christ figure. Obviously, we also need the Devil, and we get him, with Lex Luthor. (Ever notice how much Lex Luthor sounds like Lucifer?) Eisenberg plays him as a sly manipulator, brilliant and weird and filled with bile. He’s the reason Batman and Superman fight, and as they fight, they become increasingly dismayed to realize how much their enmity is based on misconceptions and deception.

And then, a disruptive third hero joins the fray, as Gotham is about to be destroyed. I don’t know what to make of Wonder Woman (Gal Gabot), except that she’s awesome. She doesn’t really fit into this neat God/Devil/Hero formulation. Is she Pallas Athena? Goddess of Justice? Whatever; she’s amazing. She’s in the movie for five minutes (probably a bit longer), and steals the show. Can’t wait for her to get her own movie.

But she’s also needed, because the combined forces of God and Hero are about to be defeated by a golem, a big one. Defined as an ‘anthropomorphic being, magically created from inanimate matter.’ Or in this case, foreign matter; he, like Superman, can only be destroyed by kryptonite. He is, of course, a powerful manifestation of Lex Luthor. He is, anyway, Hulk-like and Hulk strong, only he absorbs and is strengthened by effusions of earthly energy. Like, we Americans nuke him, and it just makes him more formidable.

Yes, the movie is darkish in tone. I still found it endlessly fascinating. Of course, it’s still a superhero movie. I’m imputing to it a profundity it honestly does lack. But it’s still trying for something beyond your standard ‘superheroes save the world’ kind of movie. It counts the costs and finds them close to unacceptable. It’s a superhero movie made with intelligence and insight. If it’s not cute and funny, well, I loved Deadpool too. There’s room for both kind of movies, isn’t there?

GE, Trump and Sanders

A whole series of commercials for GE explain, I think, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump political campaigns. But first, a story from my childhood.

I grew up in Indiana. The neighborhood I lived in as a child was, I now realize, pretty strongly blue collar, and that was reflected at the school I attended. I remember one day, in sixth grade, when our teacher asked a question that would be completely non-PC nowadays; she asked ‘what do your fathers do for a living? Where do they work?’ And around the room, the kids all answered: ‘He works at Westinghouse,’ ‘at Otis Elevator,’ ‘limestone worker,’ ‘at Crane (a naval base).’ In almost every case, the kids’ dads worked at factories or labor-intensive work sites in town. (We were just at the end of the Indiana limestone boom). When I said “my Dad’s an opera singer,” the kids stared at me like I was a Martian. And I knew recess that day would be, uh, trying.

What that odd classroom question reflected, however, was a kind of blue collar paradise that really did exist back then. You graduated from high school, got a job at the local factory, worked there for forty years, retired with a decent pension. Meanwhile, you filled your spare time with good works; coached Little League or volunteered as a Scoutmaster, or were active in your church, or joined the Elks or Moose Lodges or the Rotary Club. It was a good life, an honest life, hard work and sacrifice, but one that enabled you to raise your family and enjoy the fruits of a generally happy marriage.

And it’s almost completely gone nowadays. Gone for good, frankly. The economy’s changed. Those manufacturing jobs have vanished, and they’re not coming back. And it’s not just those jobs that are gone. It’s the whole social contract those jobs–that schoolroom conversation–represented. What we have nowadays is an information-driven economy.

Now, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are highly critical of free trade, and more specifically, the PNTR, the deal by which China got Permanent Normal Trade Relations, which has, as its end result, the reality that your I-phone was almost certainly built in China. Sanders says that one deal probably cost the United States 3 million manufacturing jobs. That’s almost certainly true, if we look at only one side of a very complicated series of calculations.

My point, for now, is not that those sorts of trade agreements have compensating virtues even for the US. Nor is it really that free trade is the single greatest weapon we could possibly wield in the fight against world-wide severe poverty. I mean, that’s true, but it’s a hard argument to make without sounding self-righteous about how much more moral your policy preferences are. (Not that this isn’t also a moral issue. Which is why I support Hillary Clinton’s candidacy).

No, the point is this: the US economy has changed, permanently and for the better, but with consequences that are severe and troubling for blue-collar workers and their families.

Which brings me to these commercials. They’re about a guy named ‘Owen,’ a software developer, who is very excited about his new job at GE. And he can’t explain it to anyone, because they literally don’t understand the ways in which the economy has changed, or because they regard those changes as threatening and foreign.

Here’s my favorite:

See what I mean? He’s telling his parents about this fabulous new job he’s gotten, one that he couldn’t be more excited about. And his father is almost openly contemptuous. He’s not going to be, you know, working. With tools. Like, a hammer.

The Dad’s a Donald Trump supporter. Right?

The next one shows Owen telling his friends about the job. And they are, apparently, all liberal arts weenies (says me, the lib arts weenie), resigned to their own lives working service industry jobs. (All of them, one presumes, feeling the Bern).

Finally this one. This time, his friends really, literally, don’t understand him. It’s like they’re speaking different languages. I love how condescending they are.

These commercials are weird to me, frankly. I mean, the obvious point is that GE is telling us about the way the company is changing. But in a larger sense, these commercials chronicle changes in the US economy that are frankly scary and more than a little damaging to a lot of people, in ways that have so far had all sorts of political ramifications.

What can we do? Work for GE, in development. Job retraining, education, expand the social safety net. But short term, let’s admit it; free trade causes pain, in addition to creating opportunities. And ‘picking up the hammer’ isn’t likely to work very well either.

The Trump/Kaufman hypothesis

I have a theory. Just tossing it out there. I don’t have, you know, any, like, evidence to support this theory. But I can say that the line of coincidences and correlations and suggestions is getting longer all the time. So, bear with me, and try to keep an open mind.

I think Donald Trump is actually Andy Kaufman.

That’s right. I think that the legendary comedian, Andy Kaufman, is playing a part, has taken on the persona of a billionaire reality TV star and is currently running for President of the United States.

It would certainly be in character for Kaufman. Most of his act was a put on. For much of his career, an aggressively untalented and obnoxious lounge singer named Tony Clifton would open for him. But Kaufman was Clifton; he played both characters. He pretended to be a wrestling ‘heel,’ and made up a feud with professional wrestler Jerry “The King” Lawler. (In fact, they were friends). And he wrestled women, as part of his act.

Kaufman’s act was a convoluted deconstruction of comedic convention, whether it involved his intentionally bad Foreign Man impressions (which he’d follow up with a spot-on Elvis), reading The Great Gatsby on-stage, or announcing his conversion to Christianity and engagement to a gospel singer. Kaufman never really did stand-up. His entire act was a long, extended piece of performance art. He was the original reality TV star.

So how out of character would it be for Andy Kaufman to take parts of his Tony Clifton characterization, turn him into an obnoxious billionaire, and run for President?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Andy Kaufman can’t be Donald Trump, because he died in 1984. But did he really?

  1. In 2014, a woman claiming to be his daughter showed up to the Andy Kaufman Awards show in New York, insisting that her Dad had faked his death and was still alive.
  2. Andy Kaufman’s brother, Michael, insists that Andy is still alive, and that he has been in contact with him.
  3. A video of Kaufman was found in 2013, showing him living in New Mexico.
  4. He was Andy Kaufman. Why wouldn’t he fake his own death?

Other evidence: Donald Trump was born in 1946; Kaufman in 1949. Close enough. Trump is listed at 6′ 3″, while Kaufman was also tall, at 6′ 1″. Close enough. Trump is famous for his combover; Kaufman was balding at the time of his death or disappearance. They both had roundish faces, prominent noses.

More to the point, though, look at the Trump campaign. The essence of the campaign is precisely similar to Kaufman’s comedy. Trump takes ideas to their logical possible extreme, then bluffs his way through the resulting mayhem. He’s not a conservative Republican, he’s playing one, on TV, for political purposes, and it gets him in all kinds of trouble. And, of course, it’s also really funny.

So: ‘should women who have chosen to have abortions be punished, legally?’ Well, if abortion is the wanton taking of human life, then the answer to that is obviously yes. But the pro-life movement is trying to win hearts and minds; they can’t, you know, say that. So Trump, hilariously, changed his position on abortion five times in three days. Genuine confusion? Or satire?

On every issue, Trump (or Kaufman) does this. Republicans always propose tax cuts. So what does “Republican” Trump do? Proposes a tax cut so massive as to be completely bonkers, while still insisting he’ll pay off the deficit in 8 years. Macroeconomic ignorance? Or supply-side deconstruction?

What would a billionaire businessman do in foreign policy? Well, the one thing he knows is how to make deals. So he’d look at our free trade agreements first, and promise to renegotiate them, more favorably for us. Trade wars? I don’t care about no stinkin’ trade wars.

Plus, you know, the wall. That wonderful, surreal, Kaufmanesque wall, to keep the Latkas of the world out. Which Mexico will happily, happily pay for.

Last week, the comedy kept building. Trump pretended to take a hard, serious look at NATO, and ended up concluding ‘we should get rid of it.’ Same with South Korea;  ‘what are we getting out of protecting Seoul? Why shouldn’t Japan have nukes? And Saudi Arabia, why not?’ And then, when Europe and Asia and the rest of the world collectively lose it, he plays Mafia don: ‘if you want our protection, it’s going to cost you. Pony up.’ That’s Trump’s foreign policy. “I’m going to make ’em an offer they can’t refuse.”

You can’t say that Andy hasn’t thought the characterization through.

Look at the way Andy Kaufman treated women. One of the things Kaufman was most known for was wrestling women. Of course, his wrestling matches were, again, purely performance art. One of his first ‘opponents’ was Laurie Anderson, for heaven’s sake. As Bill DeMain put it, “despite Kaufman’s over-the-top parody of a trash-talking, chauvinistic jerk, a lot of people believed the whole thing was real. Just like they believed wrestling was real.” And they sent hate mail by the bucketful.

Sound like anyone we know?

So we need to ask. Andy. Did you hear about this one? Tell me, are you locked in the punch? Andy are you goofing on Elvis, hey, baby?

Are you having fun?

I’ll admit, there are a couple of problems with my theory. First of all, if Andy Kaufman has been playing Donald Trump for years, what happened to the real Donald? I suppose it’s possible that Ivana smothered him with a pillow, but proving it could be tricky. Second, although Kaufman’s absolute commitment to his various comic bits was impressive, surely he’s looking forward to the reveal?

And the reveal pretty much needs to happen soon. Doesn’t it?

Please?

Miss Julie: Movie Review

Liv Ullmann’s 2014 film version of August Strindberg’s play, Miss Julie, is finally out on DVD, making it available to those of us who live in the hinterlands without an art house in town. (For those of you pointing out that there are two art film theaters in Salt Lake, and that this did play there, where I could have seen it, I can only say, yes, I could have, but I didn’t. It’s an hour away, and I’m old. So there).

I love Miss Julie. It’s a brilliant play, possibly Strindberg’s masterpiece (though I’m also partial to Dance of Death and A Dream Play), a play many years ahead of its day, and also deeply anchored in the late 19th century. Dramaturgically, that is, the play feels like it could be written today–all that non sequitar dialogue, every interaction between its three characters subtextual and interior. And it’s ugly. It’s a play about sex and violence and lust and the lies men and women tell each other. But it’s also a play about the class and gender expectations of the late nineteenth century. Julie has, in part, internalized her father’s preposterous notions about educating young women, just as Jean’s ability to act disappears, and he is completely paralyzed when his master rings for him. That doesn’t mean it’s dated. It’s a play about how cultural norms warp and twist and damage us. It’s a play about how false and deadly class and gender and society falseness can be. The film feels old-fashioned and dated, a bit, because it’s a film based on a play–dialogue-heavy, with long, talky scenes. But it rewards our patience.

Ullmann has shifted the action from Sweden to Ireland, a brilliant choice. In a play where the characters are defined by social class, it helps to contrast the Irish servants, Jean and Christine (who become John and Kathleen) with their British aristocrat oft-absentee overlords, Julie and her father, the Baron (who never appears on-screen).  Class becomes front and center in these relationships every time the characters speak. And the cast is magnificent: Jessica Chastain as Julie, Colin Farrell as John, Samantha Morton as Kathleen.

Of course, any production of Miss Julie requires a Julie who can meet the demands of that part. As Strindberg conceives her, Julie is a upper-class woman used to being obeyed, who, on a whim, at times, plays childishly at social leveling, then feigns shock when her servants resent it. Under that, is a budding sexuality, with its demands, and under that, a terrible, crippling insecurity and vulnerability. And under that, deadly, killing depression. Jean (or John, in this version), imagines himself to be undaunted by class, and free to play dangerous sexual games with someone in a position to destroy his life. In fact, he’s a weakling and a coward, which the sensible Christine (Kathleen here), knows in her bones, and is willing to be content with. He’s a valet; she’s a cook. Marrying him (which he seems to have hinted at, if not actually promised), is a step up for her, socially. So she waits on him, cooks special meals for him, sleeps with him. She’s the only character who sees right through John and Julie’s dangerous flirtations, and the only one interested in, though not capable of, pulling them back.

It can be a frustrating film to watch, I’ll grant that. The dialogue is opaque; they only rarely say what they’re actually thinking, and emotion drowns out clarity with alarming frequency. And it’s not an attractive film. Filmed at Castle Coole in County Fermanagh in Ireland, we don’t see much of the countryside, and almost nothing of the fancier areas of the castle. Mostly, the action takes place in Kathleen’s drab, functional kitchen. The focus is on the actors, on their physicality in that space. And Chastain is remarkable, with her angular face, her broken, stiff posture, her dress falling off her shoulder. The character ranges from imperious and commanding to suicidal, and Chastain makes it all work. Farrell is not a whit behind her, conveying both his self-delusion, his frankly open lust, and his dangerous and deadly weakness.

If I have one complaint about the film, it’s in its depiction of the Midsummer’s Eve celebration of the other servants. That night, full of drunken revelry and open sexuality, is actively dangerous for Julie and John, a night when only the most rigid compliance with the rules of class distinctions can prevent class resentment turning violent. In the play, Julie and Jean take refuge in his bedroom out of desperate self-defense. In the movie, John’s offer of safe haven seems to have just a hint of a sexual agenda. Does Julie seduce him, does he seduce her, do they willfully seduce each other? It’s a point Strindberg leaves unanswered. But in his play, we do see the other servants, as their party destroys Christine’s domain, the kitchen. I think we need that violence; the best productions I have seen don’t shy away from it, as Ullmann’s does. Ullmann’s filmmaking has a restraint and delicacy that work beautifully for most of the film. But when the film seems to require a harsher tone, she backs away from it a little.

Still, it’s quite wonderful. Liv Ullmann worked with Ingmar Bergman in ten films. She knows where to put the camera, and like Bergman, she also knows when the camera should linger, not on the speaker, but the hearer. Plus, it’s a superbly acted version of Miss Julie. What’s not to love?