Film Review: Lucy

My wife and I watched Lucy last night, and I don’t know how many brain cells that cost me.  But it was a lot.  The irony of this movie is that the smarter the main character, Lucy, gets, the dumber the movie becomes.  I want to write a coherent, logical, thoughtful review of this movie, but I don’t think . . .  what I’m saying is, I’m not sure . . . I can actually . . .

1) It seems suggestive at least that the two biggest money-making directors working in Hollywood right now, Michael Bay and Luc Besson, are both really bad at it. The main difference is that Besson’s films tend be a lot shorter. This is a good thing.  And he is better at filming action sequences.  The fact that his films don’t make a lick of sense is part of their fun.  I will pretty much always go see a Besson film, honestly.  Even if it’s nuts.

2) The adjective usually attached to Luc Besson is ‘crazy.’  Google ‘Luc Besson crazy’ and you’ll get 480,000 results. This has clearly not prevented him from making a whole of really popular movies. There’s a formula here: equal parts family values sentimentality + preposterous plotting + over-the-top action sequences, especially car chases, which he loves.  Even when they don’t make sense.

3) The ‘family values/sentimental’ moments in Besson films are never even remotely believable, and are often the ickiest parts of the movies.  You’d think they were written by a life-long bachelor, but Besson has been married/divorced four times, and has five children.  Still, note Liam Neeson’s creepy stalker-ish obsession with his daughter’s dating life with her boyfriend in the Taken movies.  Note 3 Days to Kill, with Kevin Costner torturing a guy, but then stopping the torture to ask for parenting advice. Note The Family, where the family values on display are mostly about beating up and torturing French villagers.  In Lucy, it’s where 20%-smart Lucy can suddenly remember a cat her family owned when she was one, then tells her mother she can remember the taste of Mom’s breast-milk. I thought this was kind of an odd detail for her to remember.  I also thought that most Moms, when a daughter talks about her mind being connected to The Infinite, and how she can see into the structures of cells, and can now remember the taste of breast-milk, would have one immediate and obvious response: “honey, are you on drugs?” Like, all concerned, right? Not this Mom, though. Moms in Besson-ville are insane.

4) The premise of Lucy, BTW, is that Lucy, a college student in Taipei, played by Scarlett Johansson, gets caught up in a drug-running scheme.  She’s going to be a mule, transporting a kind of blue powder, which, it turns out, makes you way way smarter, able to use the parts of your brain you’re currently not using.  This drug gives Lucy super-powers.  Eventually, she becomes God.  Sorry about the spoiler; that’s what the plot is.  Four minutes in, I knew that was what the plot was going to be.  Besson is not a subtle filmmaker.

5) But okay, we Mormons sort of believe that, believe in something like it anyway, men possibly becoming God-like.  So we should embrace this movie, should consider it theologically sophisticated, a movie that embraces human divinization.  Except we don’t really believe in it like this. We don’t think, for example, that some kind of blue powder is involved.

6) Though I did kind of like the scene where Lucy, now pretty well God-like, meets Australopithecus Lucy, a hairy hominid, and they touch fingertips, just like God and Adam do in the Sistine Chapel painting. I also thought Besson’s T-Rex looked more like an Allosaurus.

7) Lucy should be able to fly.  Certainly, when she first takes the blue powder, her body is able to defy gravity.  There’s a scene where she needs to get to a lab to meet with Morgan Freeman, and she drives like a madwoman through the streets of Paris, leaving any amount of vehicular carnage behind her.  She’s got a French cop (Amr Waked) as a passenger in her car, but he seems completely untroubled by all the lethally crashed cop cars along her car’s path.  I understand that, for reasons of the plot, she needed to get to that lab really quickly.  But since 20%-smart-Lucy could fly, 60%-smart-Lucy should be able to as well, only probably way better.  I darkly suspect that the car chase scene is only in the movie because Luc Besson really likes car chases.

8) What’s with all the Nature channel cutaways?  Seriously, how much do you not trust your audience?  We see a gang of thugs slowly moving towards Lucy.  Cut to wildlife videos of cheetahs closing in on antelope. See, they’re predators!  Get it: predators!  Or, at one point, Morgan Freeman points out–big revelation here!–that most mammals choose to propagate their own species.  Cut to lots of shots of humping hippos and giraffes.  We get it, Luc!  We know that animals reproduce!  We’ve been to zoos!

9) It is not, in fact, true, that human beings use only 10% of their brains, and that we could become super-heroes if we used more of ours. I think it’s unlikely that if we could use more of our brains, we’d be able to levitate bad guys and stick them to ceilings. I don’t think we’d be able to do that.

10) And even supersmart-Lucy can only do stuff like that sometimes.  At the end of the film, when lots of good-guy French cops are in a firefight with lots of bad-guy Chinese gangsters, it certainly seems like super-smart-Lucy could do a bit more to help the good guys.  Like stick evil Mr. Jang (Min-sik Choi) to the ceiling, maybe.  But she doesn’t.  Apparently becoming a God turns you into kind of a dick.

11) Mr. Jang is pretty obviously the devil.  At one point, Lucy stabs him in the hands with knives, but this doesn’t prevent him, later in the movie, from trying to kill her, plus all her French cop friends.  The bandaged hands are, I think, supposed to be his cloven hoofs, maybe.

12) But, as a bad guy, he makes all sorts of decisions that don’t make sense.  Okay, he’s a drug smuggler, with awesome blue powder to sell to American and European markets.  But the drug doesn’t make you high, it turns you way way way smarter.  Wouldn’t he want to try it?  Also, if Lucy’s supposed to be a drug mule, and has a packet of this drug surgically installed in her belly, wouldn’t Mr. Jang tell his henchmen to be super careful not to punch her in the belly?

13) I’ll say this, though; I was entertained.  It was an idiotic movie, but I did enjoy it.  Scarlett Johansson is very good in it, as is Choi, as is Waked.  No complaints about the acting.  The story is silly, but it’s a Luc Besson film; they’re always silly.  The dude’s written 56 feature films, produced over a hundred, directed 21. Fifth ElementThe TransporterBrick Mansions?  They’re pretty much always at least watchable, and even sort of fun, if you take the precaution of turning off your brain, along with your cell phone, upon entering the theater.

14) I think Lucy‘s supposed to be his masterpiece, though.  I think this is what passes for profound in Bessoniana. Ouch.

The end of the Mormon Moment

Once again, cannibalized from my Sunstone talk.  The so-called Mormon Moment, and the way it ended.

The Mormon Moment was, at least initially, about seeming. Our world really did become a stage, it seemed, and we really did become players. We’re used to that anyway. From our first talk in junior Primary to Primary programs to the talks and testimonies we offer, we’re on display. We’re told to be good examples; we’re told to play missionary when in public. We’re told to testify to each other. We all know our lines, do we not? With Mitt Romney’s Presidential campaign, we felt it, the spotlight on our collective faces. We became a people defined by optics and soundbites, presentation and representation. The Mormon Moment was, in short, theatre.

That’s not to indict the carefully crafted ‘I’m a Mormon ads,’ nor, certainly, the people who appeared on them. But like reality TV, reality advertising consists of narratives carefully shaped and edited and presented. There’s a falseness there, right next to the sincerity and reality of the testimonies themselves. I’m a Mormon we said. I’m a painter, I’m a sculptor, I’m lead singer for a rock band, I’m a biker, and also, I’m a Mormon. We’re not all businessmen. We’re not who you think we are.

But theatre isn’t just an exterior art form. We offer carefully constructed simulacrums of reality that somehow also manage to dig under the surface of what we’re portraying; it’s representation, but at times it can become revelatory. Hamlet doesn’t exist; he’s a construct of language, given flesh by an actor, in a space. We see a production of Hamlet, and we marvel over the cleverness of the design, the careful blocking by a director, the specific line-reading choices of the actors.

But I remember sitting on a train in London after seeing a particularly fascinating conceptual approach to Hamlet, engaged in a spirited discussion with a group of students. One girl sat quietly, by herself. To draw her in, I said, “what did you think of it?” “I hated it,” she said, quietly. Taken aback, I said, “really? I thought it was fascinating; the period, the setting, the acting chops on display. Why?” “I didn’t care,” she said. “I should care. He’s trying to decide whether or not he should kill himself, and I should care a lot. And he only decides not to because he’s terrified that what comes next might be worst. Life sucks so much for him, he wants to off himself. And you’re all, ooo, the design, ooo, the acting and concept. And I didn’t care. Hamlet’s too important for aesthetics.” She said that, in that train, and in a flash I realized that she was right. I didn’t care either, and I should have. Form without substance should leave us indifferent. It’s the substance that harrows.

So the Mormon Moment was, in very large measure, about Mitt Romney’s campaign for President of the United States. And there’s no foodstuffs with more empty calories than a Presidential campaign. Really; it’s all about optics and sound bites, stump speeches and media manipulation. And so so many balloons. Slogans, carefully tested. Hope and Change. Change we can believe in. What was Romney’s campaign slogan? I had to look it up: “Believe in America.” In his first run for President, Barack Obama briefly chose not to wear a flag pin on his lapel, a refreshing moment of rebellion from the handlers and managers. Then that became a thing, and now the pin is ubiquitous. Romney changed costumes, losing the suits as too corporate. We started seeing him in Dockers and checkered shirts. Even when he wore a white shirt and tie, the sleeves were rolled up. “I’m ready to get to work fixing America,” the outfit loudly proclaimed. Mostly we saw Obama in suits. “I’m a black guy executive,’ the suits announced. “A black guy you can trust.” And weren’t both as bogus and phony as Rick Perry’s new glasses? As the ‘oops’ guy poses as an intellectual.

And so, we can look at the whole enterprise cynically, and say, ‘they’re both the same, what does it matter, they’re both phony and the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t believe in Obama or Romney, any more than I believe that Axe body spray will make me more appealing to women.’  And part of you would be right. It really is all semiotic manipulation. We’re all good post-modernists, and share, as Lyotard put it, ‘an incredulity to metanarrative.’ The presidential campaign as performance art strikes me as a particularly rich field for that incredulity.

But that’s not all that’s going on. Under the outward form, we had to keep reminding ourselves, there really was substance. Let’s say you’re a young working mom, and it’s two o’clock in the morning, and your daughter is sick, feverish and headachy, plus her neck hurts. And you don’t have health insurance. And right then, right there, you’re faced with it, sick child, middle of the night, and you have two choices, and both of them suck. Both of your choices are completely, totally irresponsible. You can decide to take your child to the emergency room of a local hospital, and rack up a huge bill you have no possible way of paying, throwing already fragile home finances into even greater confusion and disarray. Or you can hope she gets better on her own. Maybe it’s just a late night kid’s fever, no big deal. Couple of Bayer children’s aspirin, and in the morning she’ll be running around same as always. Or it could be meningitis. And you don’t have health insurance. Two choices, and they’re both awful.

And that reality, that decision faced by millions of working poor families across the nation, that was what was at stake in the 2012 Presidential election. It wasn’t about slogans and balloons. It was about sick kids in the middle of the night. It was about cancer patients denied coverage because they’d been treated for acne when they were teens. It was about differences in policy with real world consequences. It was about that Mom, and that sick kid. It was as real as a punch in the gut. And one of the two candidates had gotten legislation passed that helped that Mom, and helped that child. And the other, it suddenly seemed, opposed it? And, of course, the irony is that the program Obama had enacted had originally been Romney’s idea.  But, Romney, after slogging through that Bataan death march of endless debates with insane people, had so compromised himself that the needed swivel to the left (which he executed with some dexterity), didn’t reassure.  And, of course, health care wasn’t the only issue in the campaign. It was about lots of things; Keynesian economics, foreign wars, regulation. But when it came to issues of equality? The choice was pretty stark, was it not?

The Mormon Moment had its ironies, not the least of which is that the media’s go-to person for explanations of all things Mormon tended to be progressives, most especially Joanna Brooks. In previous years, they’d gone to Jan Shipps, the ultimate inside outsider. And Jan did Mormonism a great service—put her name on the statue next to Colonel Kane and General Doniphan. But with Joanna Brooks, we had something even better than a inside outsider; we have an outside insider, bright as hell and articulate and insightful. I don’t, obviously, have the faintest idea who Joanna Brooks voted for. But does her writing not suggest a progressive?

But looking back at that campaign, I can think of two turning point moments above all others. The first came when President Obama made the appalling rookie politician’s mistake of telling the truth. “If you’ve got a successful business, you didn’t build that alone.” In other words: someone helped you, someone provided advice and capital, lots of someones pitched in to build infrastructure. What Obama dared suggest was that the Ayn Randian protean solitary genius, the Howard Roark or John Galt so loved by the libertarian right, is as much a figure of fantasy as Gandalf or Albus Dumbledore. His heresy was particularly resented by the likes of the Koch Brothers, rugged individualists who built their corporation entirely through their own hard work and enterprise, after inheriting a billion dollar company from their John Birch society founder Daddy, Fred Koch. Who got his start-up capital from Josef Stalin. True story. Still, they did it on their own! And bankrolled TV ad after TV ad showing President Obama tell businessmen that they didn’t do it on their own.

The President took a hit in the polls after that gaffe. But the more revealing incident came later in the campaign, when a Youtube video showed a clandestine recording of a speech Romney gave at a fundraiser in Boca Raton; the 47% speech. And the optics of that were particularly damaging. In the video, you can barely see Romney at all. Mostly, you see the backs of four people sitting in chairs. From time to time, we see a bartender in the foreground. The sound quality is patchy. And that all gives it the feel of authenticity. This, we think, is the straight scoop; this is what Romney really believes. Ignore the campaign; this is the real Romney.

It was devastating. It killed his chance of being President, I think. Because it felt real. Because it was real. There was no way to spin that video, no way to contextualize it to reduce the damage. And in a sense, the Mormon moment ended there, as the 47% video made its way from bartender Scott Prouty to David Corn at Mother Jones to Rachel Maddow to every major news outlet in America.  Mitt Romney lost control of the campaign narrative. From ‘sleeves rolled up, ready to go to work to fix what’s wrong with America,’ the narrative became, ‘I don’t care about nearly half the country, especially working class people.’ From ‘competent techocrat,’ to ‘arrogant rich plutocrat.’ The actor’s artifice revealed; it was that backstage moment when you discover that the magic castle is nothing but flats; painted canvas. It was devastating.

The 47% video was the beginning of the end to the Mormon moment. The Kate Kelly excommunication was the final death blow. No longer would the national conversation about Mormons be about Romney and all those nice grandkids and Jabari Parker and ‘gosh, did you know that Imagine Dragons and the Neon Trees are Mormon!” It became about excommunication, an old-fashioned, even medieval Catholic word, and how dismayingly oppressive it sounded to post-modern ears. What’s fascinating about the Kate Kelly case is the degree to which it became a battle between Ordain Women and Church Public Relations. It was, it seems, at least in part a fight over who would control the narrative regarding women in the Church. Ally Isom, from Church Public Relations, came on Doug Fabrizio’s show, and Fabrizio asked: “If women are raising that question, instead of being disciplined for raising that question, shouldn’t they be engaged in a conversation about it.” Ally Isom’s reply: “The conversation is not the problem. It is not what is being said. It is how it is being said.” In other words, it was always about style, about word choice, about presentation. It’s about the theatrics.

And it doesn’t matter who won. No one won. And that’s the reality under the theatrics: pain. Serious, debilitating pain. It hurt the Church. It hurt Kate Kelly. It hurt Hannah Wheelwright. It hurt a lot of us here. Here, on Mormoniconoclast, I imagined two women. One, a young professional, accustomed to being treated as an equal, who looks at Church culture and is overcome with cognitive dissonance. Result: pain, disillusionment, anger and frustration. The other, a woman who has never felt disrespected in the Church, but does feel disrespected by Ordain Women, who feels that her own life of faith and sacrifice is being slighted. Pain. Someone responded by positing a third hypothetical women, torn apart, sympathetic to both sides, pained at having to take sides, caught in the middle. Pain, and more pain. And civility erodes, and it turns out nobody controlled the narrative, the narrative became collateral damage. Families shredded, pre-mature faith transitions. People all over the Church writing The Letter. It was, and remains, awful.

So what’s next?  How will the next narrative read?  Is it time for retrenchment?  Time to double-down on engagement?  I wish I had something more profound to offer than ‘we will see.’

Preaching false doctrine

The preaching of false doctrine in Mormonism has been much in the news lately, what with the disciplining of Kate Kelly and (possibly) John Dehlin.  But that raises an issue, does it not?  What exactly is true doctrine, what constitutes false doctrine, how can we tell them apart?  And to what degree are our talks and thoughts and lessons and ideas the products of the larger culture that surrounds us, and to what degree are our thoughts genuinely inspired by God?

As I worked on my address for Sunstone last weekend, this idea, of the influence of culture on our theology, has been much on my mind.  So, if you’ll forgive me, I thought I would cannibalize my talk over the next few days, and give, over time, a truncated version of it here.  So here we go, with some really really obvious, undisputed, false doctrines that I have heard, either from the pulpit in General Conference, or in regular Church leaders, or in official materials published by the Church or by BYU.  Call it a ‘catalogue of cra-cra’ if you will; I tried to go for the really obvious ones.  Let me be clear, though; these are all doctrines that were once preached in our Church, but aren’t anymore.  Because they’re not true:

The all time champeen:  Black people can’t hold the priesthood because they were fence-sitters in the pre-existence.

No, it was because, unlike Adam, who was created by God and placed in the Garden of Eden, and whose children subsequently were all born with white skin, black people descended from monkeys, like Darwin said.  So they aren’t entirely human.

No, actually, in the pre-existence, there were three degrees of glory, three rankings of pre-mortal spirits, just as there will be a telestial, terrestrial and celestial kingdom in the eternities.  So celestial spirits were born into LDS families, and their test in this life is to prove that they (we) deserve to stay celestial. And terrestrial spirits were born into Gentile families, and most will just stay where they are eternally, but a few will embrace the gospel and move from terrestrial to celestial, and a few will make less good choices and end up telestial, but mostly they’ll stay where they are.  And telestial spirits are born into black families, and its barely possible that some of them will work their way up to terrestrial, but that’ll be it for most of them, except for a very few who’ll work their way up to celestrial, by joining the Church and being blessed by other peoples’ priesthoods.

The missiles that hit Iraqi targets, programmed by a guy in my ward, were inspired missiles; he was led by the spirit to program them that way.

The Ten Tribes of Israel are hiding in a cave, a really really big cave, located under the North Pole.  And one day, they’ll return, climb out of the cave, and they’ll have their scriptures with them, and guess what; they’ll compare them to our handbooks and manuals and, wow, perfectly correlated.

Masturbation leads to communism.

Space aliens are real. Of course they are.  If ‘many worlds have I created and redeemed by my only begotten son,’ then it stands to reason that there would be aliens.  And Earth would have to be a major tourist attraction.  The only planet wicked enough to crucify our savior?  They’d have to see that.

But Earth isn’t the only planet.  The Garden of Eden was on another planet, and then transported all its people here.  All the evidence for organic evolution (including dinosaurs) is real, it’s just irrelevant, because we humans came from a different planet.

Noah didn’t just have to find two of every kind of animal, he had to find the two most righteous of every kind, ‘cause, see, the animals were wicked too. So Noah had to find the two most righteous tigers and crocodiles and squirrels.  The ones not stealing acorns, presumably.

If you’re a really really good missionary, you’ll be blessed with a super-hot wife.

When we die, we’ll go back to our pre-earth offices, and the in-box will be full.  (I can’t imagine a more depressing vision for the after-life).

Cain still lives.  He’s Bigfoot.

American Indians who join the Church end up with lighter colored skin than their non-LDS-but-still-Lamanite relatives.

People born when I was born, say around 1956, were a special generation, saved for these the latter-days.  We’re meant to prepare the way for the second coming.  We’re Saturday’s Warriors, we children coming down, coming down like gentle rain through darkened skies.  With glory trailing from our feet as we go . . .

Except maybe not, because my kids, born in the 80s, were told exactly the same thing about their generation.  So I think my generation probably blew it.

San Francisco is ripe for destruction, like Sodom was, because of all the gay people who live there.  San Francisco is only being spared because of all the righteous Latter-day Saints who live there.  But not for much longer.

San Francisco and New York.

San Francisco and New York and Los Angeles (Hollywood).

And we’re getting pretty worried about Salt Lake City.

But reparative therapy, involving large amounts of basketball and also electro-shocks administered while watching gay porn, will help, if you suffer from same-sex attraction.

God wants you to turn in your roommates, BYU students.  If your roommate is doing something he or she isn’t supposed to be doing, the sin will be on your head.

Playing cards inevitably leads to much more serious sins.  Like coffee drinking.  And tobacco chewing.  And even, maybe, s-e-x.

Polygamy is, let’s face it, an eternal principle.

Polygamy is necessary because, let’s face it, women are naturally more righteous than men.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men than women died in the war in heaven.

No, polygamy is necessary because a lot more men were unrighteous in the pre-existence, because women are inherently more righteous than men.

President Obama is the anti-Christ, here specifically to destroy America.

And Kate Kelly is off the res?

Here’s my final point, though: we’re all human beings, and therefore, to some extent, crazy. The cultures we live in tend to be tribal and tend to be suspicious of outsiders, the other.  The gospel exists to help us all overcome cultural biases, embrace the genuine brotherhood/sisterhood of all of mankind.  I undoubtedly hold to prejudices ever nuttier than some of these.  So let’s move forward, embracing the all-inclusive love and forgiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Sunstone

This Saturday night, I will be the keynote speaker for this year’s Sunstone Symposium.  This is a tremendous honor, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity.

So, what’s Sunstone?  Here’s a link to their website.

Well, let’s see, it’s a magazine, a really interesting one, with lots of articles that will really resonate with you and other articles that don’t resonate at all, but that’s okay.  They publish short stories (they run an annual contest, and publish the winners), plus personal essays, doctrinal essays, historical essays; all sorts of stuff.  They also publish plays, and have published a number of mine–8, I think, but I could be wrong.  Once a year they sponsor the Sunstone Symposium, and there are all these awesome sessions where all sorts of fascinating topics get raised and discussed.

Sunstone is a home for people who don’t feel at home with mainstream Mormonism.  Except a lot of the people who congregate there are pretty mainstream Mormons.

Try it this way.  If you’re a Mormon, and you’re lonely and full of doubt and scared and you feel totally alone, totally out on a limb by yourself, and no one in your ward seems to even get why you feel that way, and you try to tell your home or visiting teachers and they are really super nice, but give you that look, like what on earth is wrong with this person, Sunstone is for you.  Sunstone is where you’ll find a community.

That’s not to say that Sunstone is for disaffected Mormons, though there are disaffected Mormons who come.

When I was first hired at BYU, Sunstone asked if they could publish one of my plays, Accommodations.  I was thrilled, and they did a dandy job with it; it looked great in the magazine, with illustrations that I loved as well.  I’ve been published there many times since.

I have also spoken there many times in the past, though never as keynote speaker.  I’m only able to go to my session this year, sadly, due to health concerns.  But I love the place.  Just love it.

If you have a chance to catch any part of Sunstone, please, do, you’ll be glad.  I’m speaking at the University of Utah Student Union.  There’s a banquet, and then I’ll speak, around 7:00.  I look forward to seeing some of you there.

Favorite bands: Gentle Giant

This is something I’ve wanted to do with this blog for a long time now; use it to try to turn people on to favorite bands of mine.  Anyway, I thought I’d start here, with Gentle Giant.

Gentle Giant were the quintessential mid-seventies progressive (prog) rock band. To quote Bob Stanley’s invaluable (and infuriating) new history of pop music, Yeah Yeah Yeah:

Groups used instrumentation, phrasing and rhythms that they had learned playing folk, jazz and blues; inevitably, many of the musicians had been trained in classical music.  Much maligned since, it can be very beautiful.  On the other hand, musical chops were essential, which resulted in some of the most tedious, self-indulgent music ever, and this has led to the whole genre being sharply unfashionable ever since.

And since this is in a chapter that begins with a quotation knocking Gentle Giant, I assume that Stanley intends ‘tedious and self-indulgent’ to refer to Giant, who he otherwise does not discuss at all.  They were the proggest of the progs, the most self-consciously intellectual and show-offy group of musicians perhaps ever assembled (aside from maybe the worst excesses of Frank Zappa, or possibly the Mahavishnu Orchestra).  On the cover of Gentle Giant’s second album, Acquiring the Taste (an album intended to introduce you to the pleasures of their music and genre), we find this pronouncement: “it is our intention to expand the frontiers of contemporary popular music, at the risk of being very unpopular.”  They never were afraid.  Their entire approach was very much ‘this is what we do.  Like it, or not.  We don’t much care.” Later, that changed; they wanted to be more popular, to sell more records, to make more money, and their music changed too, became more accessible, more commercial.  It didn’t work, and I think they knew it wouldn’t.  They had the most unique sound in the world, and not everyone was going to embrace it.

And I loved it.  I owned all their albums at one time, and listened to them a lot, and saw them in concert twice, once as the warm-up band for Yes, and the second time, as warm-up band for Jethro Tull.  Both concerts, something very strange happened; thousands of fans came for the warm-up band, and left after Giant left the stage.  We were there to hear Giant.  Fact was, I like Yes and Tull a lot too, and stayed both times, but I was in a minority.  Both times, easily half the audience scarpered after Gentle Giant’s set.

Here’s a song from Acquiring the Taste: “The House, The Street, The Room.” Give it a listen.  It starts with a long bass line, augmented by keyboard, and eventually guitar, but almost spooky, like the sound track to a particularly Grand Guignol horror movie.  We then hear Derek Shulman’s strong voice, with those enigmatic lyrics, harmonized by Ray Shulman with Kerry Minnear’s light tenor on the high notes.  (In performance, Minnear rarely sang). Then comes an instrumental interlude, with everything from pizzicato strings, some glockenspiel, some mandolin, very tight, very focused.  Then out of nowhere, a hard blues guitar solo, with Gary Green rocking out.  This is typical Giant.  Chamber music at times, but also unmistakably rock and roll.

The lineup kept changing, but the heart of the band were always three brothers, Phil, Ray and Derek Shulman.  Their father was a professional trumpeter, and insisted, growing up, that the boys learn multiple instruments: Ray started trumpet lessons at five, then violin lessons at seven.  They were joined by a friend, Kerry Minnear, who played keyboard and percussion; those four, the Shulmans and Minnear, all wrote the songs.  They added Gary Green, a blues guitarist who also could play mandolin, and drummer Martin Smith.  Between the six of them, they could play 43 instruments with professional competence; their musical chops are uncanny.  In concert, half the fun was watching them dash from instrument to instrument.

Most prog bands were British, for some reason, and fascinated by English myth and legend. So was Giant. A thread through many albums is the story of Pantagruel, a gentle giant who goes about the countryside helping (but also inadvertently scaring) the local citizenry.  Here’s Pantagruel’s Nativity from Acquiring the Taste. It starts with mellotron, adds some synthesizer, and is one of the rare Giant songs to feature Minnear’s voice. What I especially love is the three and four part harmonies they create, a Giant trademark.

Here’s a third song from Acquiring the Taste; my son’s favorite Giant song: Wreck. It’s about a shipwreck, and is often the case with Giant, alternates hard rock sections with chamber music; Ray Shulman’s violin is especially lovely in the first instrumental break.

After Acquiring the Taste, they dropped Martin Smith as drummer, and replace him with Malcolm Mortimer. They then recorded a concept album: Three Friends. It followed the lives of three childhood friends who, as adults, each take their lives in different directions.  One of the friends becomes a painter; this song, Peel the Paint is about his life.  Again, Ray Shulman’s violin is featured, but also Green’s shockingly disruptive guitar solos, with Derek Shulman’s powerful vocals, laying bare the turmoil underneath the successful artist’s facade.

After Three Friends, Malcolm Mortimer was nearly killed in a motorcycle accident, and although they wanted to keep him, they had just gotten a record deal and were under pressure to record quickly.  They replaced him with John Weathers, which proved an inspired choice; Weathers was another multi-instrumentalist, a fine percussionist in addition to just drumming.  His work added another level of complexity to their sound, and the result was their finest album, Octopus.  Here’s Knots, from that album, inspired by the word games of R. D. Laing.  It begins with their most complex vocal harmonies, then adds Weathers’ percussion.  First time I heard it, I didn’t like it, but it is a song that rewards multiple hearings.  Also from Octopus, another chapter in the Pantagruel extended story, The Advent of Panurge.

Following Octopus, Phil Shulman, who was eight and ten years older than his brothers, decided that his membership in the band was putting too much pressure on his wife and children, and quit.  The other five members carried on, and the result was an album, In a Glass House, that sounds a bit more like rock music.  Not all that much; the rhythmic complexity and multi-instrumental virtuosity were still on display, as per In a Glass House, the eponymous track from the album, which to me has a stronger jazz influence than heard in other albums and songs.

Their next album, The Power and the Glory, was very much a turning point.  They’d signed with a recording label, World Wide Associates (WWA), which was also Black Sabbath’s label.  It was not a good match.  This song, The Power and the Glory, was written by Derek Shulman, who hated it, under pressure from the studio, which wanted, not unreasonably, something commercial.  I know GG fans who like it, and consider it among the band’s best songs.  I think it’s, at best, mediocre Giant.

They quit WWA, and signed with Chrysalis, and Free Hand is the album that resulted. One of the ironies of Giant is that they were a British band, but always more popular in America than in Britain.  Free Hand became their biggest selling US album.  Again, some Giant fans think it’s pretty compromised, but I rather like it.  They certainly sound more polished, and the music is plenty complex, as, for example, the song Free hand.  I love the contrast between the intensity of Derek Shulman’s voice, and Minnear’s playful piano licks.  If this is Giant trying to be commercial, well, that was probably never going to happen.

And it didn’t.  They compromised and compromised, even, eventually, dropping all strings and woodwinds and percussion and reinventing themselves as a typical guitar, bass, drums, keyboard rock band, for the album Civilian.  And yet, even then, they stayed interesting, as per this song, Inside Out.  They’re just too good as musicians to write a boring song.

Finally, they broke up, and the split was fairly amicable. Derek and Ray Shulman got into the business end of the music world, and Phil opened a gift shop.  Minnear went into gospel, and now, by mutual agreement, handles all business matters regarding Gentle Giant.  Gary Green remains a session guitarist, very much in demand.  They have resisted for years calls for a reunion album or tour.

I still listen to their music, and my oldest son has become a Gentle Giant fan. As a nerdy bookworm and theatre kid in high school, they spoke to me as no other band could have done.  I still think they’re remarkable.  Give ‘em a listen.  It may take a little while to get into the sound; they’re not like anyone else. But what they are is amazing.

 

 

 

Gay mormons: two opportunities for conversation

When I was a kid, every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Fourth of July, we’d have a big family dinner, and, in addition to my folks and my brothers, we’d invite another man, Mr. Carl Fuerstner.  He was a musician friend of my Dad’s; a brilliant pianist, an accompanist and coach.  Whenever my Dad had a new opera role to learn, he’d call on Mr. Fuerstner to help him with it.  Mr. Fuerstner was short, balding, and very German, with a thick accent and abrupt manner.  He had small hands and short, stubby fingers, I remember, which amazed me because he was such an amazing pianist.  I would watch him and wonder at how he could move his fingers so quickly.  Anyway, I grew up thinking of Mr. Fuerstner as a kind of bad-tempered, generous, funny, Teutonic uncle.

He was also really bad at things like keeping up his house and lawn and car.  His car was always a wreck, and he never mowed his lawn.  He’d call my brother and I, and we’d get the gig of mowing it, but he waited until it was essentially a hay field, and took forever to mow properly.  But he did pay pretty well, as I recall.  It was just part of who he was; a brilliant musician, with a big lawn he never mowed.

And Mr. Fuerstner was also gay.  And we also knew that about him, that he was Dad’s gay musician friend.  He always had a guy living in his house with him (usually a much younger guy, and never anyone with lawn care skills), and that was also just part of who he was.  We didn’t think anything of it.  Mr. Fuerstner was German, a great pianist, bad at lawnmowing, and gay.

So when I was in high school, and my friends would engage in the thoughtless, routine homophobia of insecure adolescents in the mid-1970s, I was always pretty puzzled by their vehemence.  Gay people=Mr. Fuerstner.  A harmless old German guy.  Not a threat to anyone or anything.

I’m a Mormon, and for a long time, that same reflexive homophobia I remembered from high school has been part of mainstream Mormon culture.  I remember the seminary lessons: San Francisco was the latter-day Sodom, and God had only refrained from destroying it because of a handful of righteous Mormons.  That kind of nonsense. And I’ve also seen Mormon culture change, at least some, to, at least, a recognition that sexual orientation isn’t something people choose.  And I think that the change of attitudes we’re seeing is, in part, because more Mormons know more gay people.  If you’re a Mormon, and someone you love dearly is gay, it’s harder to cling to attitudes filled with hatred.

Dialogue’s a good thing.  Talking to people, in a respectful, non-judgmental way, is a good thing.  So I want to tell you about two opportunities to engage with a dialogue about and between Mormons and the LGTB community.

The first is a film, a documentary: Far Between. It’s being made by my friends Kendall Wilcox and Bianca Morrison Dillard, and it’s full of wonderful interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  Please check out their website.  They’re trying to raise money to finish the film via a Kickstarter campaign, and are close to making their goal.  From what I’ve seen of the film, it’s wonderful, honest and real and decent.  Please, if you can support Kendall and Bianca, there’s a link. Help them change the conversation.

At the heart of Kendall and Bianca’s film are interviews with gay Latter-day Saints.  That’s also at the heart of Ben Abbott’s wonderful play Questions of the Heart.  I’d like to be able to say that Ben is a good friend of mine, or that I’ve seen his play and thought it was wonderful.  In fact, though, we’ve never met (except on Facebook), and I haven’t seen his play.  So why am I recommending it, why am I calling it ‘wonderful’?  Because many many many mutual friends, people I trust, have seen it, and not a single one hasn’t found it wonderful.  When an old friend from Indiana (and a person of taste, education, intelligence and sophistication) calls me out of the blue and talks for forty-five minutes about how great this play is that she just saw, I take that seriously.

Ben’s play, like Kendall and Bianca’s documentary, is built on a foundation of interviews.  Ben’s approach strikes me as similar to that of Anna Deavere Smith, the playwright/actress/activist who used interviews to create such marvelous works as Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992. In the latter play, she interviewed various people involved in the Rodney King riots, and created a play around those interviews, playing all the various characters herself.  (West Wing fans probably remember Smith best for her role as Nancy McNally, President Bartlett’s National Security Advisor).  Anyway, Ben does that too; plays the Interviewer, and then each of the characters.

Ben Abbott is touring Questions of the Heart this fall.  Here’s his website. He’s starting the tour in Laramie, Wyoming, but you can see from the itinerary where else he’s playing.  So far, it doesn’t look like there’s going to be a Utah performance, but maybe we can find a date and venue for him here.

I applaud Kendall and Bianca, and I applaud Ben.  I think both of these projects are tremendous, and well worth supporting.  Anything that can advance this important conversation is worth doing.  I hope you can join me in giving your support to both.

Frozen: Movie Review (belated)

Back when our kids were little, my wife and I were constantly on the lookout for movies like Frozen: kid-friendly movies with some good songs and sorta funny comic bits.  We would have seen the movie in theaters the first week it was released, and we would have purchased the VHS tape of it, and the kids would have watched it over and over.  At that level, Frozen‘s not bad.

But we’re older, and our kids are moved out, mostly, and though this movie has been out for months, I hadn’t seen it until today, on Netflix.  I probably wouldn’t have reviewed it, except that I’d heard from lots of people that I ought to see it.  And I found it disappointing.

Let me start here: it does not compare with the best of the Disney animated musicals.  Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, different as they were in approach and style, were nonetheless movies with as much to offer adults as children.  They were movies we loved.  The songs were terrific, the animation beautiful, the comedic moments genuinely funny, the characters rich and compelling.  It’s at the ‘grown-up appeal’ level that Frozen fails.  It has essentially one character we care about, and basically one good song.  Most of the songs, in fact, don’t advance the story much at all, but are in the movie as filler.  It’s got fifty minutes worth of story, which it pads out to one hundred minutes.  Odder still, the protagonist of the story doesn’t get the one good song.  She has, I don’t remember, two, three, four songs, all of them forgettable.

In case you just arrived from Mars, it’s about two sisters, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel). Elsa is cursed with the power to turn things to ice.  Anna is happy and carefree and uncursed.  After a near-death experience, where Elsa accidentally zaps Anna, the parents decide to keep them apart forever, without ever once explaining why.  Despite a childhood of such dreadful deprivation, Anna grows up to be a delightful young woman, open and loving and kind.  Elsa grows up fearful.  On the occasion of Elsa’s coronation (the parents having died in a shipwreck, because this is Disney where all children are near-orphans), she zaps the entire kingdom, then, horrified, runs off into the mountains. She sings “Let it go,” a terrific song that you’ve probably heard a million times by now.  She builds herself an ice palace, and resolves to live there.  She’s also not the main character in the story.

The protagonist is Anna.  She falls in love with a handsome prince, then turns the kingdom over to him so she can look for and find and entreat her sister, to get her to de-ice-ify the kingdom.  That quest takes up most of the rest of the movie.

On the way, Anna meets another dude, Kristoff, playing the role of hypotenuse with her and her handsome-prince fiancee.  She meets Kristoff’s pet reindeer.  She meets a comic snowman, Olaf, who gets a “Once there was a snowman” hilarious song about how awesome heat would be.  She meets various rock people friends of his, who sing a ‘Matchmaker’ type song about her and him.  She fights off a snow monster. It’s all padding. Most of the songs in the show are like that; they’re in the movie as filler.  Instead of songs that drive the action forward, they’re songs that distract us from it.  We’re supposed to be thinking ‘ah, what a cute song by the snowman guy’ instead of ‘why aren’t you busy finding your sister?’

Again, for an audience of children, this probably all works fine.  The little snowman is cute.  His song is funny.  But the best Disney animated musicals work because they’re also good musicals (as any trip to Broadway today will confirm).  This show would close in Philadelphia.

I didn’t hate it.  I loved the Anna character.  She’s brave and she’s loving and she’s charmingly awkward about it all.  And if folks insist on a Disney show having a message, this one is all about how ‘true love involves sacrifice,’ which was lovely.  Nice to see a Disney film that mocks the ‘true love’s kiss’ tradition invented by, well, Disney.  It also, refreshingly, points out that ‘love at first sight’ is silly.  And that true love can be between sisters.  And while “Let it go” is a lovely song about female empowerment, that idea is promptly undercut by the rest of the plot, and is sung by a character that we otherwise don’t like very much, who isn’t even in most of the movie.  I just wish Frozen were a better, more memorable movie, more character-driven, more fun.  But, as I say, my kids would have liked it, and probably yours will too.

Tony Dungy

When Michael Sam was drafted by the St. Louis Rams in the most recent NFL draft, it was seen as very big, very important news.  Sam was the first openly gay football player to declare for the NFL draft, and to be drafted.  If he makes the team, he’ll be the first openly gay player in the NFL.  And the Rams’ decision to draft Sam was seen as a wonderful thing, a step towards inclusiveness and openness and the overcoming of homophobia.  And Sam’s courage in coming out was seen as a positive sign, suggesting that professional athletes in general and football players in specific (who, fairly or not, were seen as particularly benighted in this regard) were changing, that attitudes, at least, were more welcoming to the LGTB population than would likely have been the case only ten years ago, when Kwame Harris was drafted by the 49ers.

On Sunday, Tony Dungy, the much-respected former Colts’ head coach, who now works as a TV analyst, said he would not have drafted Sam. “I wouldn’t have taken him.  Not because I don’t believe Michael Sam should have a chance to play, but I wouldn’t want to deal with all of it. It’s not going to be totally smooth … things will happen.”  Tuesday, Dungy offered this clarification:

“What I was asked about was my philosophy of drafting, a philosophy that was developed over the years, which was to minimize distractions for my teams. I do not believe Michael’s sexual orientation will be a distraction to his teammates or his organization. I do, however, believe that the media attention that comes with it will be a distraction. I was not asked whether or not Michael Sam deserves an opportunity to play in the NFL. He absolutely does. I was not asked whether his sexual orientation should play a part in the evaluation process. It should not.”

Despite this clarification, Dungy has come under attack.  Intemperate comments on social media suggested that Dungy should be fired from his job at NBC Sports. Even more vitriolic tweets speculated whether James, Dungy’s son, who killed himself in 2005, may have been gay, and that his suicide may have been because he was rejected by his father.  Dungy is an evangelical Christian, and has publicly opposed marriage equality, though not since 2007. Dungy is also one of the most respected figures in the entire NFL. He has consistently reached out to troubled players, and is credited by many for making a difference in the lives of young men, in football, who have made poor life choices.

This gets tricky, because this whole situation was exacerbated by a particularly inflammatory post by a well-known conservative blogger.  Ordinarily, I link to any source I cite.  In this case, though, I refuse to.  I will not be party to driving traffic to his site.  Nor will I even tell you his name.  His initials are MW.  Some of you probably know who I’m talking about. If you don’t, let me leave it at this: in my opinion, he’s not worth your time.

Anyway, this whole thing has kind of blown up.  Sports talk radio won’t let go of it, and neither will the underground world of sports and political bloggers. I don’t particularly want to add to the noise.  Let me make a few points:

1) Michael Sam has handled the whole controversy with humor and class.  His initial comment on it was some variation on ‘I’m glad he’s not my coach!’  Later, he clarified, tweeting “Everyone in America is entitled to his own opinion.”  Other than that, he’s stayed out of it.  He’s trying to make the Rams’ roster.  That’s tough enough.

2) Coaches hate distractions.  Coaches want their players totally, 100% focused on the immediate task in hand; winning football games.  For Dungy to say ‘I wouldn’t want a player who is likely to be surrounded by media distracting my team’ is not, in a football context, terribly unusual.  Jeff Fisher, the Rams’ coach, who will make the decision regarding whether Sam makes the Rams’ roster, says he thinks Sam won’t be a distraction.  Fine: different coaches, different perspectives.

3) There are good reasons to think that Michael Sam will be a very good professional football player, and just as good reasons to think he might struggle.  Oddly enough, this question has become politicized in this discussion.  Not wanting to take too much of a shovel to the MW cesspool, let me say that the question of Sam playing in the NFL has little to do with politics.  Sam was the defensive player of the year in the toughest football conference in all of college football.  That suggests that he might be a remarkable talent, and a fine professional player.  He was also distinctly unimpressive in the NFL combine.  This doesn’t mean all that much.  Joe Montana’s throwing arm was thought to be inadequate coming out of combine workouts.  Emmitt Smith was too slow.  Sam Mills was too small.  They’re all in the Hall of Fame.  Sam might be a star.  He might not make the team.  If he makes the Rams, it will be because Jeff Fisher thinks he’s good enough to play.  That will be the only criterion, as it should be.

4) A well-nigh perfect comparison for Sam might be Tim Tebow.  Like Sam, Tebow was a brilliant college football player.  He was also known for things that had nothing to do with football (in Tebow’s case, his work as an evangelical missionary in Africa, and his very public embrace of a kind of muscular Christianity).  But Tebow’s talents did not translate well to the NFL, and his career has been short, and is now likely over.  We don’t know, of course, but if Sam doesn’t make the team (and he might not), it will be for football reasons.

5) This whole controversy is so immensely dispiriting.  Tony Dungy was asked a football question, and gave a football answer.  To accuse him of homophobia without cause seems unfortunate.  Why does everything in society have to be politicized?  Why does everyone have to take a side on issues like this one; why does this have to become another battlefield in the cultural wars?

Michael Sam was a superb college football player who may or may not be a good fit in the NFL.  Tony Dungy was a wonderful coach, a good man, a committed Christian, and a conservative male who, approaching 60, may not be entirely comfortable with gay people.  (And we don’t even know that).  Let’s all stop shouting and tweeting and opining, and let the kid play football, and let Dungy do what he does brilliantly, comment on football games.  Can’t we figure out a way to get along?

Poetry slam in Provo

Every Thursday night, at Enliten Bakery in Provo, there’s a poetry slam.  Called Speak Your Mind, it’s an open mic opportunity to read, recite or free-style poetry.  Last night, Speak Your Mind’s head gurupoet-in-chief, grand doyenne, Marianne Hales Harding (a good friend of many years’ standing) invited me to be the featured writer.  I figured, anything to help make Provo cooler.  I had a ball.

I don’t know how many people eventually showed up–maybe 50.  Of those who did come, maybe 15 or so actually read/performed.  Many were younger folks, but there were a few people closer to my age, including some very accomplished poets.  A young woman showed up for the first time, and I thought her poems (she read, I think, two) were splendid.  A young girl wrote with aching honesty about relationships and failures and how hard it can be just to break through all the barriers we humans put up.  A young guy wrote with ferocity and courage and passion about dualities and dualisms now and in the past. Marianne recited a terrific poem about tampons. And we snapped our fingers (and clapped some too), and the whole thing was great fun.

Enliten Bakery makes the best grilled cheese sandwiches on the planet.  And it’s management is super-cool, as good as their food.  They’ve agreed to a ‘no censorship’ policy, and I think that’s one of the things that made the night work so well.  If a poet’s muse requires the occasional dropping of an F-bomb or two, so be it–writers have to feel able to express any thought, any emotion, any sentiment, and that means using any language suited to the work.  And especially when you’re freestyling.  Especially then.

I was the ‘featured writer,’ which meant I got to go first, a scary prospect.  And I am most emphatically not a poet.  I am a playwright first, an essayist/blogger second, a critic third, and other kinds of writing are way down the list.  I’ve written a novel, I’ve written short stories, I’ve written some pretty terrible poetry, but mostly, I’m a character/setting/conflict guy.

So I imagined a short scene, a date, in which the guy has asked the girl, for their second date, to read a book before-hand, to give the date some focus.  Which she has agreed to, for reasons known only to herself.  The book he gives her is one that, he says, is the most important book in the world to him, the book that defines him as nothing else on earth defines him, and it’s not that she has to like it, he’s fine if she doesn’t like it, but she does need to engage with it.  Please?  And the book is Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead. Which she totally hates.  She’s a feminist; it’s a rape-y book, it’s contemptible.  It’s the worst book ever written.  Mein Kampf, he counters?  It’s the second worst book ever written, she replies.

So driving over to the event, I thought about that situation, and these two people, and I thought I’d freestyle a dialogue, me playing both characters, just to see what happened.  An approximation of my own writing method, maybe.  Anyway, I did it.  Driving in, the sun was low enough that I needed my sunglasses, and I figured, hey, poetry slam, so I kept ‘em on.  And my wife is out of town, so I haven’t shaved since Monday.  All part of the look.

It went okay.  I thought the scene had a strong opening, a pretty solid closing, lagged a bit in the middle.  I think I’m going to actually write it, see if it fits into something else I’m working on.  And then I figured, what the heck, it’s a poetry slam, so I freestyled a second piece, a poem this time.  A few weeks ago, I bought a new chair, a recliner, the single most comfortable piece of furniture I have ever owned.  So I called the poem “Recliner porn,” and it went okay, got some laughs, though it sort of fizzled at the end. So I sat down to enjoy everyone else’s poetry.

And half-way through, I realized I had another poem I needed to write and recite that night.  I’ve been angry for days, and anger is important, always write when angry, do not lose that energy.  So I grabbed a pen and a napkin, and wrote it, and Marianne slotted me in again at the end.  Here it is.  I call it: Detritus.

Detritus

 

What are we doing?

What are we doing?

I see them, red faced white women faces like harpies and gorgons and Scylla and Charybdis, nightmare faces dredged from the depths of a shared mythos, screaming, like voices from the past (screaming ‘nigger nigger nigger’ at 9 girls in Little Rock the year after I was born), now, today, screaming ‘go away.’  ‘Return to sender.’ ‘We do not want your diseases’ (ebola smallpox dengue fever none of them found in Honduras) at a yellow bus filled with brown-skinned children.

I saw.

60 kids wrapped in a quilt and tied to the roof of a train at a Texican border saying help us help us help us please.

We need Pampers

formula

diaper rash creme

fleeing murder and raped moms and sisters families blown apart.  Rubble and garbage and gnawing empty bellies

Because cities implode under the weight of violence

Because America’s hedgefund managers + dentists + CPAs + corporate attorneys + insurance adjusters + assistant managers + executive vice-presidents + used car dealers + realtors + computer programmers + ad execs + personal trainers

need

crave

candy with which to stuff their aquiline noses

and demand creates supply

and illegality restricts supply

and corporations we call ‘cartels’

and small businesses we call ‘gangs’

and salesman we call ‘dealers’

feed that need feed that need feed that need

and the kids wrapped in quilts are collateral damage we’d just as soon sweep into dustbins

detritus.

What are we doing?

I can take four

We have a guest room in the basement

We can take four

I know, preachy, plus political poetry has a shelf life of four and half minutes.  Given time, I could re-work it, maybe.  But I still have the napkin–I just transcribed it above.  Writing is re-writing, but sometimes the muse speaks a little, and those moments are maybe worth memorializing too.

And when it was done, the poets, kids and old guys and 30 something women, all just writers, all just trying to say something that matters, to us and each other, awkwardly fist-bumped and high fived and handshakes.  Every poem earned its fingersnaps; every poet deserves to be remembered.

Thursday nights, Enliten Bakery.  I’m going back.

Snowpiercer: Movie Review

Joon-ho Bong’s Snowpiercer is the most exciting summer action movie of the summer.  It’s also a excellent example of smart, inventive, science fiction.  It’s a profound and powerful film about poverty and social class and income inequality.  It’s a religious allegory of sophistication and intelligence.  It’s a cautionary tale and a meditation on leadership and power.  And the film itself is a metaphor for our lonely and desperate sojourn on this rickety craft we call planet earth. It’s also probably not playing at your local cineplex.  It certainly wasn’t playing at mine; I had to catch it at an art house in Salt Lake.

The producers of this film made the cheeky decision to release it the same weekend that Michael Bay’s fourth Transformer film came out, a movie that Snowpiercer is approximately 194,000 times a better movie than.  But Snowpiercer does not have the essential elements needed for a film to be embraced by the summer popcorn movie crowd: a pretty girl in shorts and skimpy top, and the smashed-up destruction of a major world city.  Nor does it feature trucks riding dinosaurs.  So it’s getting the slow, city-by-city art house release strategy.  Which means that so far, it’s made (approximately) 194,000 times less money than Bay’s movie has made, or is going to make. This is a situation you can personally make a small contribution towards rectifying: may I urge you to start this weekend.

Because Snowpiercer is just so, so good. Here’s the premise: earth has been rendered uninhabitable by a world-wide freeze.  Shot after shot of a world in icy desolation.  But eccentric billionaire Wilford somehow managed to build a train that could survive those conditions, and that could run a permanent looping course over rails covering the entire planet. The train’s engine is self-sustaining, and though ecologically a closed system, the engine can itself provide power, water and nourishment for a human population.  For seventeen years, a few thousand folks have survived on this train, the Snowpiercer. They are rigidly divided by class.  At the very front of the train, is the engine, tended by Wilford (who is, by now, essentially worshipped as a God).  At the very rear of the train are the poor people, crammed into tiny bunks, with just enough water to drink and to take care of sanitary needs, but not enough to wash up much. They’re fed on ‘protein bars,’ horrible gelatinous purple square things, strictly rationed.  Iron gates guard the other sections of the train, and initially we can only imagine how the people live in the rest of the train.  And from time to time, armed soldiers come back to the poor section and requisition people needed for some undescribed tasks elsewhere on the train. The astonishing Tilda Swinton plays Mason, the liaison between Wilford and the poor, and a ferociously comical propagandist for the social order.  Everyone has a place in the world, she insists.  You would not wear a shoe on your head; nor should the poor expect the benefits due to the wealthy. And so she culls them:  an elderly violinist is separated from his wife (who protests, and is savagely beaten).  Children are carefully measured and taken away.  And the poor folks seethe, and plot.

They’re led by Curtis, superbly played by Chris Evans, of Captain America fame. He’s organized, efficient, a natural leader, though he deflects any praise on that account. He also is haunted by secrets from his past (which, when eventually revealed, are a psychic punch in the guts).  He’s advised by the one-armed Gilliam (John Hurt), who may also have the ability to supplant Wilford and run the train. A friend, Tanya, (Octavia Spencer) brings her own maternal ferocity, when her son Tim (Marcanthonee Reis) is taken off by Mason.  And he has a younger assistant, Edgar (Jamie Bell, the kid from Billy Elliott). And from time to time, a capsule with a message inside shows up in their protein bars, and Curtis plans his revolution. He’s going to fight his way to the front of the train.  And he’s going to take over the engine.

The first step is to bypass the gates separating sections, and one of the cryptic capsule messages informs him that a security expert, someone able to open gates, can be found in the security detention area, which Curtis thinks he can reach.  And indeed, the first battle of the revolution does gain them that detention space, where detainees are stored in lockers.  And we meet Minsoo, played by the superb Korean actor Kang-ho Song.  Who tells them he requires a drug, Kronol, and wants two cubes of it every time he opens a gate.  And who also insists he won’t work without his 17-year-old girlfriend, Yona (Ah-sung Ko).

Kang-ho Song starred in Bong’s 2006 film, The Host, my favorite monster movie of all time.  He’s a tremendous presence in this film as well.  As Minsoo, he is soulful, intelligent, brave, untrustworthy and addicted, and deeply secretive.  Curtis needs him, but never quite trusts him, which turns out to be sensible.  Yona is similarly mysterious, in another terrific performance.

The heart of the film, then, is the journey through the train by Curtis and his increasingly depleted band of impoverished warriors.  And nothing that subsequently happens is in any way predictable.  Every time Minsoo opens another gate, we see another sub-stratum of Snowpiercer society, another world opens up, and they’re just astonishingly inventive and interesting.  And meanwhile, the train motors on, through a frozen wasteland, and from time to time we see icy barriers, results of an avalanche or snowfall, and we see Snowpiercer smash its way through, at times careening wildly on two wheels, nearly derailing, but always moving forward.

Early in the film, Bong describes the train as ‘an ark,’ and, watching it, I teased out one potential meaning.  The train seems all-powerful, self-sufficient, completely safe, a refuge and port-in-the-storm.  But it’s not safe at all.  It’s actually kind of ramshackle, an improvisation, not all that carefully designed or engineered.  And yet the people seem largely unaware of that reality (which we, in the audience, see all too well).  And the champagne pours and steak and seafood appears on wealthy folks’ plates.  Well, isn’t that our position here, now, on the Planet Earth?  Global catastrophe beckons, but we’d rather squabble over the politics of science?  And we don’t much trouble ourselves over it, as long as we’re well-fed, well-housed, well-clothed, and able to reproduce?  And we’re vaguely aware of people living lives of starvation and despair, and we may occasionally make some noise about helping them.  But we also send out Tilda Swinton to lecture about the inevitability of social classes and the destructiveness of threatening the existing social order.  We’re on top, and like it that way.  And if our craft frequently careens on the edge of disaster, it really always has righted itself, has it not?  So not to worry.

To explore other possible meanings and ideas in this film would require that I reveal details of the plot, which, for this film, I’d rather not divulge.  Ordinarily, I’m Mr. Spoiler, but this film isn’t in general release (yet), and I’d rather persuade you to see it than advance a critical conversation.

Suffice it to say that, an hour in, I made all sorts of predictions about what would happen, none of which turned out to be even a little bit true.  And I never failed to be astonished by the endless inventiveness of this wonderful director and his production team.  This is Bong’s first film with movie-star-like actors and American stars and, you know, a budget.  I’ve loved his earlier work–especially The Host and Mother–and this film fulfills and exceeds the promise he’s previously shown.

A couple of days ago, I raved (possibly even over-raved) the new Planet of the Apes movie.  I loved this film too, possibly even a little better.  I saw it with a friend, and we were both blown away by it; couldn’t talk about anything else all the way home.  See Snowpiercer.  Do not miss this film.  And then let’s talk, after you’ve seen it.