Thursday, May 31, 2012

Dune, and The Hunger Games

When I was a kid, I absolutely fell in love with Frank Herbert's Dune.  It was uber-geek fantasy, with overtones from the past, yet set in an all-too convincing dystopic future. I was a history nut even then, and the setting of Dune echoed medieval history, Arabic history, monastic history.  Paul Atreides, the book's hero, was scion of the House of Atreides--and we were in fourteenth century Europe.  His mother was a Bene Gesserit witch--reminiscent of those powerful eleventh and twelfth century convents, when mothers' superior, like Hrosvitha of Gandersheim, consulted with emperors--plus, you know, with the addition of magic.  Paul lands on Arrakis, a desert planet, populated by the nomadic Fremen--sorta kinda the Arabic tribes at the outset of Islam.  He becomes Maud-dib, a sheik warrior, fighting against the Padishah Emperor--all of it very Roman Empire, with overtones of Persia. (Love that, the thought of Mohammed leading his tribes against the might of Imperial Rome.)  Paul's also the Kwisatz Haderach--a Messianic figure for the Bene Gesserit, and the Lisan al-Gaib, the Fremen version of the Imam Mahdi--the messianic figure of current Shi-a Islam.  Oh, it was all there, including each chapter beginning with a quotation from the Orange Catholic Bible.  I couldn't get enough--read it over and over.  Even saw the very weird unsuccessful David Lynch film Dune.  

Here's the thing: Herbert wrote several sequels, all of which I read, and all of which sucked.  Well, seriously disappointed, let's say.  No, that's too nice: Children of Dune blew

They just didn't work, the sequels.  Everything that made the first novel distinctive and awesome just disappeared.  Mostly, it was Paul Atreides.  He was a terrific character, in Dune.  Then he became emperor, and I stopped caring.  Maybe it was good for me--maybe it was a reality check I needed but wasn't ready for. Take the really interesting kings in history: Henry V, say, or Charles II.  You follow this charismatic, brilliant leader, and then he becomes king, and suddenly, he's flabby and corrupt and arbitrary.  Like, say, Henry VIII became.  Henry V gave way to his weakling son, VI (whose wife had all the balls in that family).  Charles II gave way to James II.  "Yes we can" Barack Obama gives way to, well, our current President, fighting to retain that puny health care compromise, drone-bombing American citizens abroad on flimsy pretexts.  (Sorry. I am going to vote for him, but let's not pretend his Presidency isn't disappointing.) 

Okay, huuuuuuuuuge leap here: The Hunger Games II: Catching Fire

I'm not going to try to convince you that Catching Fire (which I'm kicking myself for staying up past midnight to finish reading last night) has anywhere near the depth and texture and metaphoric power of Dune.  They're quite literally in different universes. (Including length).  Still, there are parallels--dystopic futures, echoes of specific historical moments, including ancient Rome.  Okay, Hunger Games just has ancient Rome, while Dune is reminiscent of, like, ten ancient cultures.  Still, both have gladiatorial combats entertaining The Masses.  Both feature massive insurrections against established imperial powers.  Both have vicious and corrupt dictator characters Our Heroes fight to overthrow.  Hunger Games is YA fiction for girls; Dune was YA fiction for seriously nerdy guys. 

And in both, the sequel kind of sucks.

I do get that I'm not the target audience for The Hunger Games.  I read the first book, saw the movie, liked both a lot.  But Katniss spends a lot of time agonizing over the Two Boys Who Like Her, and that's an issue about which I care not at all.  Both guys are great.  Pick one.  It doesn't matter. 

And for most of Catching Fire, the premise of the first book was bearing fruit.  Katniss wins the Hunger Games, but defies President Snow to do it--her gesture awakens long-suppressed aspirations and resentments in the Districts, revolution is in the air.  So President Snow doubles down on violent oppression (like every dictator ever), and makes the serious blunder of staging another Games--that'll show 'em!  And Katniss--Peeta again by her side-- has to get her Game on once again.  At which point the novel falls completely apart.  Why?  The author violates our heroic expectations for the hero.

In the first novel, Katniss was a terrific heroine--brave, tough, loyal, smart, motivated, plus awesome with bow and arrow.  In the second novel, she's all those things again--up to a point.  The last quarter of the novel, however, she stops making decisions, stops driving the action of the novel forward, and becomes a pawn, and an annoyingly weepy one to boot.  Suddenly, her Games becomes a vehicle for plots and machinations by other characters--Haymitch, a brand-new character named Finnick, a completely uninteresting conspirator, Plutarch.  Katniss never knows what's going on, and what's really damaging to our interest in her, she never figures it out.  And we do--she's the narrator, she gets the same clues we do, we're miles ahead of her.  When finally all is revealed, we learn that the conspirators want her as window-dressing--as the figurehead for the revolution--a walking, arrow-shooting Che tee shirt.  She gets miffed, and even decides to die--they have to force-feed her. And this passive-aggressive nonsense is what she decides to do INSTEAD of actually, you know, doing something positive, to rescue Peeta, to fight the bad guys, to actually lead the revolution. We don't blame them for not trusting her with much.  By that point in the novel, crying looks to be about all she's up for. 

It would have been so fixable.  I spent the night imagining the conversation between Suzanne Collins and her editor, after she turned in this early first draft of her second novel. "Come on, Suzanne," says the editor (me).  "How about this.  Katniss figures out what's going on.  Katniss leads.  Katniss revises the conspirators' plot in useful and interesting ways. Katniss shoots someone bad, instead of just a bunch of orange monkeys.  I don't care about her feelings.  I want her to do something."

Maybe it's for the best.  Revolutions aren't won by sixteen year old girls, after all (pace, Joan of Arc).  She's been through a lot.  Maybe it's best if she's just a pawn.  Probably, that would happen. The grown-ups would take over.  Sigh. It just doesn't make for a very interesting novel.  

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

A playwright's take on economics

I love the letters section of The Deseret News.  They just published a letter to the editor from me, which led to a brisk, and disappointingly positive response.  Stirring up a hornets' nest isn't as much fun when the hornets, instead of swarming, stop to applaud.  But it's also encouraging--more people than you think actually do understand economics.

And that's actually a hilarious line, that last one, about understanding economics.  It makes it sound like I do.  This, from a guy who can't balance a checkbook--Annette runs our family finances.

But this world wide financial crisis thing is huge, and (here's where I come in) a fascinating subject for a playwright.  So I've been doing what I do: reading.  That's always the first step for me, research.  I started with Michael Lewis--three books of his, plus books about Lehman Brothers and Deutches Bank and Goldman Sachs, plus maybe thirty articles, plus a lot of other stuff.  I wanted to get my head around it, and it needed to be in words, not numbers--I don't handle math. 

That led to economics, and so I read The Worldly Philosophers and Wealth of Nations, and Mill and Malthus and Mises and Keynes and Hayek and Friedman.  So far, I've written two plays on the subject, both of them inadequate, but still in progress. 

When I read economists, I'm attracted to the prose stylists--I like guys who wrote well, and don't care for guys who wrote poorly.  So I love Keynes.  But I'm also drawn to his ideas, which seem to me persuasive.

I'm informed.  I know what I'm talking about. Sort of.  In my own completely idiosyncratic way.

So I wrote a play, about Keynes, and in that play he has this line:

"When you vote, Mr. Bowles, bear this in mind.  You believe you’re voting for a chap, a good bloke.  You like his message, not considering that all elections hinge on experts carefully crafting messages of optimism or fear-mongering, or of both simultaneously.  And that’s all right—Mr. Churchill is a master manipulator of opinion, but he’s also right and Hitler must be defeated; we both support him.  Don’t we Hayek? (Hayek nods solemnly.)  But none of that ultimately matters, not the person, not the literature or platforms or slogans.  You are voting for a set of economic principles.  You are voting for one of several competing economic theories, each with its own policies and programme.  And if you vote wrongly, if you vote for a theory that is wrong, that inadequately describes the world, that foolishly ascribes to human beings behaviors they do not in fact engage in, or inadequately accounts for behaviors we do in fact engage in, if you vote the wrong way, for the agreeable chap you could imagine sharing a pint with, but who, as it happens, believes in a bad theory, an unworkable theory, a chap who will, if elected, attempt to implement an foolish economic programme based on an untenable theory, you could, in very short order, drive your nation off a cliff into disaster.  (BOWLES stares at him.)  Catastrophe.  It has happened many times in the past.  It has destroyed entire empires.  It absolutely can happen again."

And, you know, we're sort of doing it now. 

Right now, both parties are contemplating massive cuts in federal spending.  The argument seems to be that the best way to increase employment is to increase unemployment.  If the Paul Ryan budget plan is enacted--and Mitt Romney is on record as supporting it--it will be a mistake, and potentially, a catastrophic one.    

I think.  The guy who can't balance his checkbook.  

Anyway, that's why I can't support Mitt Romney, and the reason I'm not wildly happy with President Obama. The deficit is scary.  Cutting it radically right now is scarier.  

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Avengers

The Avengers is great fun.  I thought it might be. called it "last summer's best movie," and it's true that last summer's string of superhero action movies got pretty tedious.  I liked Thor, liked Captain America a little less, have liked both Iron Man movies, loathed The Green Lantern.  There weren't Black Widow or Hawkeye movies, and Mark Ruffalo wasn't in the latest Hulk.  It's just felt like there were so many.  Knowing they were heading towards an Avengers movie with all these preliminary offerings didn't so much create a sense of expectation as ennui; crap, they're doing another one? 

Of course, it's also possible to not see them.  That is a choice.  I could have actually skipped a few.  The problem is, if you love movies, and if you decide to start skipping the popular, populist ones, you place your soul at risk.  If you're not careful, you could find yourself on a path to terminal hipsterdom.  Too cool for school.  Bored with everything.  Superior snobbishness. Blarg.

Me, I'm all about art films.  I can epater la bourgeoisie, in the right time, place and mood.  I have absolutely seen more than my share of morbid, slow-paced movies, with subtitles and lots of rain in them. But sometimes, you just need 'splosions. 

And The Avengers is great fun.  I kind of thought it would be.  It's a Joss Whedon movie, after all.

Here's the thing: Whedon knows that even an action movie, even a genre movie, needs to be rooted in interesting human characters.  The Avengers takes its time.  Each character is introduced with his/her own action set piece, the one exception being Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) who ends up being about the most interesting Avenger during the film's final battle scene.  And then, when all the Avengers are finally assembled, turns out they don't get along.  Thor and Iron Man have a nasty battle scene, Iron Men mistrusts Nick Fury (Sam Jackson, world's coolest actor, with a gratuitously coolness-adding eye patch), Captain America thinks they should just be good soldiers and obey orders, and meanwhile everyone sort of walks on eggshells trying not to piss off The Hulk. We know they're going to work it out, get along, learn to fight together.  But they're people, they're interesting. 

Best of all: the villain.  Tom Hiddleston was great in Thor and he's great here--Loki is completely untrustworthy, and Hiddleston has genuine charisma, with a gleefully evil grin.  He's even a complex character, hiding his insecurities with bluster. 

Great stuff.  Maybe my favorite was Scarlett Johansson, as Natasha (Black Widow) Romanoff, a spy turned superhero-powerless-superhero.  She's got an interesting backstory--her ledger's in the red, as she puts it--and she can seemingly turn on the vulnerability at will, strategically.  There's a scene you've all seen from the trailers, in which the camera pans all the Avengers--there's Hawkeye with his bow and arrows, Captain America with his shield, Thor with his hammer, and. . . . Scarlett Johansson with her handgun.  I laughed out loud. And we know why she's in the movie: we all like some sex with our violence.  But she holds her own; Scarlett (and her stunt double) are seriously plausible at fight scenes. 

Of course the movie ends with a big CGI fight scene, as mandated by federal law pertaining to American-made movies.  But the big fight scene is even good here, better than most and light years better than any Transformers fight scene.  It's funny.  That's, again, a Joss Whedon speciality.  He's maybe the best ever at the funny fight scene, at tongue-in-cheek violence.

Which is why the violence of the film remains for me so inoffensive and genial--it's funny. Whedon knows the premise of the film is silly; that superheroes, in their costumes, are silly.  He also knows we have to genuinely feel some sense of menace and danger.  Those two impulses strike us as irreconcilable.  But Whedon balances them.  The final battle takes place in midtown Manhattan, and we see lots of ordinary citizens terrified by the extraterrestrial monsters Loki has recruited for his army.  Their fear seems genuine; the running crowds aren't superfluous. Captain America takes charge, directs police attempts to protect folks--Chris Evans is great in those scenes.  But then comes the moment when the Hulk faces off against Loki.  "I am your God," Loki commands, "kneel before me!"  And Hulk grabs him and smashes him to the ground a few times.  "Puny God," he mutters.  It's hilarious. 

Okay, I admit, I'm a Joss Whedon geek, of the most obnoxious Firefly-quoting variety.  He hasn't made a film for a long time, and now he's got this, and it's going to make buckets of money (maybe even more buckets than any other movie ever), and that presages an artistic freedom in the future that I basically can't wait to see what he does with.  The bad news, of course, is that there will be an Avengers sequel, which Whedon will not direct.  That's okay; we don't have to watch it, (though I probably will).  The good news is, he'll be doing something else just as awesome. 

Monday, May 28, 2012

In Memoriam

I've been reading a book about the Crimean War lately.  It's actually called The Crimean War, by Orlando Figes.  It was a birthday present from my oldest son, and a completely awesome one, not because I've got some kind of jones for obscure nineteenth century wars, but because he knows I do have a jones for any book about any era in history, and the Crimean War happens to be one I don't know much about.  The Charge of the Light Brigade, Florence Nightengale, Tolstoy's Sevastapol Sketches: that's about it.  Well, now I know more.

It's a great read.  Figes is my favorite kind of historian: thorough, in-depth, clear about events and personalities and strategies and tactics.  But my gosh, what an awful war.

The British were certain they could finish the war in a few weeks, and didn't send any winter supplies--their troops had light overcoats, light summer tents, light provisions.  The Russians never really bothered to supply their armies.  The French were a little more conscientious about the welfare of their troops; the Turks not at all.  Deaths from cholera plagued both sides in the summer, deaths from exposure and pneumonia wiped out soldiers throughout the winter.  The Russian soldiers were, for the most part, serfs, and essentially went unfed--they were forced to forage, and many starved to death.  British troops were routinely flogged, for even the most minor of infractions.  Until Florence Nightengale showed up, medical care for the sick and wounded was close to non-existent.

So what were they fighting for?  Most of the soldiers on all sides had no idea.  Most of their commanders had only the vaguest notion.  It's not that Figes isn't exhaustively thorough in his discussion of the war's causes.  All the nations fighting in Crimea had different, irreconcilable objectives.  Something about curbing Russia's expansionist ambitions, with the Brits and French and Austrians eying the crumbling Ottoman empire, each with their own endless nineteenth colonization ambitions.  There were also, inevitably, religious overtones--the Tsar saw himself as the protector of Orthodox interests, the Brits were unaccountably Islamophilic.

Very very serious and intelligent men thought carefully and hard about their nations' geopolitical needs and interests, and concluded that war was both inevitable and desirable. And the public, and the newspapers that shaped and amplified their views, were gung-ho for it.  And that's always true, isn't it?  The decision to go to war is rarely if ever taken lightly. But once taken, we're all in.  The saddest verse in the Star Spangled Banner, for me, is the fourth verse: "then conquer we must, when our cause, it is just."  When are we ever not convinced that it is?

Then historians look back at them, the newspapers and journals and the writings of those serious, powerful men.  We reexamine their motives and objectives, and their wars seem so incredibly pointless, their deliberations shallow, their motives venal.  It almost never seems justifiable, the bloodshed and horror, the suffering and sickness. When we look back at those moments in history when old men sent young men to die, it almost never looks anything but pointless and foolish.

The Crimean War was unique in one regard--it's the first major war in which armies made full use of the small unit cohesian theory.  The idea was that an army should consist of relatively small groups of men, men who would train together and serve together, that they would fight harder for men they had come to regard as comrades and friends. Talk to people who have served in combat, and they nearly always talk about their fellow soldiers, the other guys in their unit.  Ask what they fought for, and usually soldiers have some sense of a large objective.  But that's not what they end up fighting for.  They fight for each other.  They fight for their friends.

For us?  For us civilians, at home?  Maybe, sometimes.  Mostly, not. We justify it that way, their pointlessly heroic sacrifices.  We say 'they fought for us."  That was maybe true for the Second World War.  And that's about the only time Americans fought in a war where our way of life was seriously threatened.  That's the one war that seems a bit justified, fighting to defeat a madman.  

There aren't a lot of soldiers in my family background.  My father's a veteran--spent his time in Germany just after the end of the Korean war, an MP, who says his main task was patrolling pubs to make sure the white soldiers and black soldiers didn't kill each other in drunken brawls.  I just missed Vietnam. A great uncle was a highly decorated sailor in World War Two.That's all.

But I've read.  History is mostly about war, scripture is mostly about war, most popular entertainments deal with violence and war.  We glorify it, even when we don't intend to.  And we study it, and should, because that's the only way we're going to end it.  Study it, so we can put it behind us, along with witch hunts and inquisitions and pogroms. 

On Memorial Day, we remember those who served.  We honor their service.  It's altogether right and proper for us to do that.  But the best way we can memorialize soldiers is to end war entirely.  As Elder Uchtdorf put it recently: "Stop it."  Stop trying to dignify our momentary, transitory, ephemeral disputes with bloody human sacrifice.  Stop trying to gain some foolish political advantage through the deaths of our best and brightest citizens.  This.  And this. And this, And this, this. . . .

Saturday, May 26, 2012

A day full of Killing

My wife and I are devout DVR users.  We watch a lot of TV, and we tend to record shows, save them up and watch 'em when we have time.  Plus, we like fast-forwarding commercials. And so today, we decided to catch up on The Killing.

We got started on this show because I know the lead actress.  Mireille Enos was a freshman at BYU the same year I joined the faculty, and I cast her in the first show I directed.  It was a medieval passion play--basically, we adapted the Wakefield play of Corpus Christi into something called The Wakefield Passion. All the actors played multiple roles, and this tiny red-head became one of the cast standouts.  I've kept tabs on her ever since, as she's carved out her career on-stage in New York and now in film and television. She was a wonderful 18 year old actress, and she's even more wonderful now.  Plus, it's so cool seeing her getting to carry a gun. 

In The Killing, Mireille plays Sarah Linden, a detective trying to solve the murder of a teenage girl, Rosie Larson.  It's based on a Danish TV series, which I haven't seen.  A lot of TV critics howled at the end of the first season when the show didn't solve the murder.  The producers had hinted that they would, and all the clues seemed to be falling in place, implicating a mayoral candidate, Darren Richmond.  Turns out he was framed, and the murder was still unsolved.  Still is, for that matter, mid-way through the second season. 

I really like the show, though it sort of drives me nuts. One thing I like is that it really does show the anguish of the family of the murdered girl.  Too many shows treat the pain of victims' families in a perfunctory way, but Rosie's Mom, Mitch Larson (Michelle Forbes) is about the most compelling character in the show, compelling because of her grief.  I love the performances, by Mireille and also her kind of skeevy partner, Holder (Joel Kinneman). Plus, Michelle Forbes was a Bajoran on Star Trek: TNG, and Linden's ex-husband (Tahmoh Penikett) was a Cylon on Battlestar Gallactica.  So in all his scenes with Mireille, Annette and I have to go 'don't trust him, he's a Cylon!' 

But, my gosh, they're awful cops, Linden and Holder.  They just consistently violate the most basic rules of police procedure.  They don't check up on the most obvious clues, they tell the victims' families things they have no business telling them, they never finish an interview, they don't secure crime scenes.  If the point of the show was that these were terribly inept, hopelessly incompetent cops trying to solve this thing, all right.  But they're supposed to be good at their job.  It's just badly written, not from a character standpoint, but in terms of basic cop research.

I am, as it happens, something of an expert on police procedures, particularly as it relates to murder investigations.  It's just something I know a lot about.  You may ask, 'how did you achieve this particular expertise?'  I've never gone to cop school, never been a cop, never been friends with cops.  But I've seen hundreds of hours of Law and Order, and CSI, and Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue, and Prime Suspect and the Mystery channel, and Castle and literally dozens of other police procedural dramas. We all have. Most Americans are murder experts, even murder connoisseurs. We know cops, and by golly, we know murder. 

And Annette's better at it than I am.  Watching murder mysteries with her is an amazing experience.  She pretty well always knows who-dun-it, and why.  I tell her she'd be a great detective.  She says she wouldn't be, because she's only good at figuring out the way they write these kinds of shows.  A real life crime scene would probably leave her flummoxed.  She likes The Killing because she still hasn't figured it out.  It's got her stumped, and that makes it more fun. 

Or maybe not. I've actually read a lot of real crime stuff, plus I used to home teach a cop, and most actual murders aren't hard to solve.  Most actual murders, the cops show up, and the poor schlub is sitting on his porch covered with blood, holding the gun, saying over and over, "she wouldn't give me the remote. That's all I wanted, was for her to HAND ME the REMOTE."  On cop shows, the investment banker had to kill his accountant because he knew the password to the Cayman Islands' account, plus his girlfriend was the daughter of his rich uncle's attorney. Most real murders, it's about two drunks and a beer tab. 

A whole day with The Killing, however, turned out to be fun. I'm pretty sure Mireille didn't kill Rosie.  Beyond that, I still got no idea.  

Friday, May 25, 2012

Fixing graduation

My daughter graduated from Provo High School last night, and it was a wonderful celebration.  We had lots of family in town, a great barbecue in the afternoon, and then we all trooped over to UVU's McKay Events Center for the graduation ceremony itself.  Lexie looked lovely in her white robe, and dealt patiently with various wannabe family comedians suggesting that it only lacked a pointy hat for perfection.  (Klan jokes: always fun.) 

And then we spent two hours watching total strangers walk across a stage.

Let's face it, graduation ceremonies suck. Pomp and Circumstance can get tiresome pretty quickly, and frankly it's the highlight of the evening.  At my son's college graduation last month, the orchestra played P and C at a tempo that would have made a dirge sound lively; at Lexie's last night, I guess the orchestra kids never learned it; we listened to a recording. 

Three kids spoke, and they did fine; usual pablum about Dreams and The Future, with that Nelson Mandela quote prominently featured. Four musical numbers by school ensembles, all fine. And then various administrators also spoke, and brother did we all REALLY not care about their remarks.  Then finally, with all sorts of elaborate choreography and much milling about, they finally got to the names and diplomas.  Provo High did this thing where as they read each kid's name, they showed their picture and a baby picture, giving us all two chances to think "geez, that's a geeky lookin' kid." 

I was feeling cranky anyway.  UVU is not very handicapped accessible (I mean borderline non-ADA-compliant, it was that bad), which meant an interminable walk to the crip section, where they had no chairs, until Annette found a patio that had chairs and stole some.  So, Lexie walked, she looked awesome, big smiles all around; it was great.  We did lose Grandma and Grandpa in the crowd afterwards, but eventually found 'em okay, besides which, that's kind of de rigueur: the Tossing of the Caps, the Wearing of the Tassels, the Losing of the Grandparents. 

Still, it's interminable.  Two hours plus, when what you're there for takes two minutes.  It's Kentucky Derby Broadcast level boring.  (You know, where ABC takes three hours to broadcast a two minute horse race.) 

This is totally fixable.  Instead, why not create a graduation DVD for each kid?  It could be a school activity. Like: the Graduation DVD Club. Interview a few teachers, a few friends, then finish with a shot of the kid holding her diploma.  Just hand those out the last day of school.  You could even tape the valedictorian's speech and include it.  The whole 'sit in a basketball arena for hours watching pedestrian traffic patterns' thing is just soooo twentieth century. 

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Albert Nobbs

In Albert Nobbs, Glenn Close plays the film's title character, a woman, who dresses like a man, is thought to be a man by the other characters, goes by Albert, and works as a waiter at a posh Irish hotel. She has a cache of money under the floorboards of her hotel room, and enters all her earnings in a small notebook.  Late in the movie, she calculates how much it's going to cost to continue to court Helen (Mia Wasikowska, as great in this as she was in Jane Eyre), a maid at the hotel.  She's appalled by the cost--calculated over a year, it could add up to over seven pounds! After a moment, she sits back and says something like "I'll propose after three months, then."

It's a comic moment in a film that needs them--Rodrigo Garcia has built a wonderful film on stillness, on Albert's unblinking gaze, as she tries to figure out a world she finds utterly bewildering.  Her world is defined by two reactions: terror, and incomprehension.  As we learn her story, we wonder if the two aren't related.

As a fourteen year old, we learn, she was assaulted by a gang of five guys.  Shortly thereafter, she saw an advertisement for a waiter--she got hold of a second-hand suit, and began her career as Albert Nobbs.  She seems completely clueless about human sexuality.  As she ponders marrying Helen, her biggest worry seems to be whether she should reveal herself as a woman before the wedding, or let it wait until their wedding night.  What people actually do on their wedding night--or how Helen will respond to such a revelation--seem well beyond her powers of comprehension.  She imagines Helen as a hostess for the tobacconist's business she intends to start and is saving towards.  She imagines Helen serving tea. When Helen, in frustration, kisses her, saying "that's how I like to be kissed," Albert recoils in shock and confusion.  Is she really that naive, that innocent?  Or is it a deeply repressed trauma?  What exactly was the nature of that assault?

Early in the film, Albert is asked by the hotel's proprietress Mrs. Baker (Pauline Collins) to share her bed with Hubert Page, a house painter who's been hired to spruce up a few of the rooms.  Albert demurs, but Mrs. Baker runs roughshod over her objections, and so, retiring for the night, she finds the tall, rough-and tumble Hubert curled up on her bed.  She tries to crawl in next to him, fully clothed, but, plagued by flea bites, has to undress briefly to scratch.  Page wakes, sees her breasts, laconically tells her she needn't worry; he won't reveal her secret.  The next day, Hubert tells her why.  Hubert is also a woman, passing as a man (played brilliantly by Janet McTeer).

Albert suddenly finds herself with something she seems never to have had previously, a friend.  She meets Hubert and she meets Hubert's wife (Bronagh Gallagher).  A wife, a comfortable home, respectability--that's what Albert wants, and that's what she pursues, in the person of Helen.  In one wonderful scene of liberation, she and Hubert dress up as women, and stroll together down a beach, free to be themselves, clomping about in what are for them strange and uncomfortable shoes. 

We know this all will turn out badly.  Helen thinks of Albert as an odd duck, a weird old man; her interest in him is entirely mercenary, and she's sleeping with another servant, Joe (Aaron Johnson).  When Helen becomes pregnant, Joe can't handle it, tells her he's going to leave her.  Helen is astonished when Albert, the strange man she's been using, is untroubled by her pregnancy. For one brief moment, it appears that Albert will succeed, that she will improbably negotiate all the gender confusion of the situation and end up happily with (somehow) Helen. But no.  

The ending of the film is deeply tragic, and the resolution, although unexpected, is also unsurprising.  It's a quietly powerful film, blessed with magnificent performances. At the end, the hotel's doctor (the magnificent Brendon Gleason) shakes his head over the sad and private lives of his friends.  His benediction closes the story of hidden, tormented, only occasionally joyful lives.

Monday, May 21, 2012

What bad novels do

I just read a really bad novel, which I sort of enjoyed in a grubby sort of way--it passed the time.  The author's name is Christopher Farnsworth--I wrote a play once about Philo T. Farnsworth, and so this guy's name caught my eye in the new fiction section at the library.  Book's titled Red, White and Blood, which is also an album by Generation Kill, a metal band I've at least listened to a couple of times.  Plus it's about contemporary politics, which I'm also into.  Plus, vampires: score! 

This is the second book (that I know of) in a series with this premise: the President of the United States has a vampire working for him. Vampire's named Nathaniel Cade, discovered by President Andrew Johnson, who got him (it) to swear an unbreakable loyalty oath binding it (him) to protect the President and the nation forever.  So Cade lives in a lair underneath the White House, and when we're faced with some REALLY bad situation, they bring him out and he goes to work.

Now, I don't know about you guys, but that strikes me as a splendid premise for a trashy novel.  And so it turns out.  Cade is the only actually interesting character in the book, of course, but he's plenty interesting.  Part of the premise is that dark spooky critters from the Underworld keep slithering into our world, and Cade's the only one who can deal with 'em.  The bad guy in this novel is the Boogeyman.  He's basically the unkillable evil spirit who inhabits the bodies of loser guys who, after he possesses them, become serial killers. Cade's caught him and killed him oodles of times, but he always sneaks back, finds a new host, and starts killing folks.  This time back, he's after the President. 

If only Farnsworth could write.  Alas . . . .

Here's what he does: he'll create a character, call him, whatever, Anderson, Jones, Saltalamachia.  You learn a little about Anderson, like, maybe he's a porn producer.  He's slimy, he's a bad person; we get maybe a page and half about the guy.  We read about him meeting a girl, and they have wildly acrobatic sex.  In the midst of this, the monster kills him and the girl.

That's half the book, scene after scene exactly like that.

Now, as it happens, I am aware that people do have sexual relations from time to time. But not like this.  What happens in bad novels of a certain kind is that we pornografy sex, turn it into something fundamentally untruthful.  We then get to moralize over it, like slasher flicks do.  Bad girls do bad things, which we enjoy watching/reading about/consuming, but which also must be punished.  So the whole 'see her naked/see her killed' dynamic.

I said that it's fundamentally untruthful.  But it's not entirely untruthful--it's oddly revelatory of a certain kind of male adolescent mindset. But it's entirely false in the larger, moral universe that we'd really rather have even our pop fiction inhabit. 

I get that it's a novel about a vampire, and that vampires don't actually exist.  I don't think, though, that it's too much to ask for fantasy novels to display some acquaintance with human truth. I also don't mind wasting my time reading a trashy novel occasionally.  I just don't want to feel grimy after I've read it. 

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Sunday Sermon: Baptism for the Dead

I get that it's peculiar.  I understand  how it looks. 'Those Mormons are so desperate for converts, they can't even let dead people alone.'  It can seem almost comically presumptuous.  I know the history of forced baptisms for Jews, and I understand how terrifically offensive baptizing Holocaust victims can seem. I get it.

But baptism for the dead is a central tenet of Mormonism.  We can and should defend it better.

Baptism for the dead is the most remarkable theological innovation of any Christian church of the 19th century.  It stands as a rebuke to the most offensive of Christian heresies: the heresy of geographic salvation.  Every Christian faith, every denomination, Catholic, Protestant or Orthodox, Armenian and Coptic, Arian and Athanasian, Huegenot and Anabaptist, all of them, without exception have in their history--in their recent history--the preposterous absurdity of believing that a loving God would condemn most of His children to eternal torment based solely on the land in which they were born.

And the logic's compelling.  If salvation is found only in Christ Jesus and Him crucified, if you must be born of the water and the spirit to be saved, if God really did so love the world that He gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life, if that's true, then most of the people born on earth must therefore perish, solely and entirely because of where they happen to have been born.  John 3:16 is a glorious scripture, but it also implies inevitably that God loved His Europeans, and for centuries, basically not anybody else. 

That particular heresy was more implied than explicitly stated, but its logic is so inescapable, it led to three great Christian responses.  Over millennia, Christian missionaries risked their lives to preach in China and Africa and India.  That's one response, and we must honor their sacrifices, while acknowledging the fruitless inadequacy of most of their efforts.  The second response: violent ethnocentrism, colonialism, wars of conversion, crusades. 

But the third response is to enshrine theologically the inevitable absurdity of this heresy, and make it central to Christian faith.  The third response has been, historically, the doctrine of predestination.  Since God decides where His children will be born, it follows He must love some of us better than others.  Or, perhaps, our own inherent sinfulness requires Him to hate us all equally, extending His divine grace to a few, arbitrarily Chosen. Nobody believes that anymore--the whole Christian world believed it for centuries.

Joseph Smith jettisoned the entire superstructure--predestination and geographic salvation and the need for Crusades, all of it, gone.  He replaced it with a radical extension of salvic opportunity--extending missionary efforts beyond the grave.  And also including, no, requiring, baptism for the dead.

I remember one time, when I worked at a pizza parlor, part of an assembly line laying down sausage with two philosophy majors.  The work was mindless--the conversation anything but.  One day, one of them asked about the Granite Mountain Record Vault--that repository of geneological records maintained by the Church.  "What's in there?" he asked.  "Like, paintings, poetry, philosophy?  Collected works of Kant, that kind of thing?"  He was taken aback, and a bit offended, when I told him we collected names.  The goal--the quixotically impossible, gloriously crazy goal--was to collect information about every human being who ever lived on this planet.  "Why?" my friend asked, astounded.  Why indeed?

Because God wants those people remembered.

I know it can seem comically bureaucratic.  God says everyone has to be baptized, so by golly, we're gonna do our best to baptize 'em; they're free to reject it in the afterlife if it's not what they want.  But it's part of a larger vision.

Check this out:  2 Nephi 29: 10-11 "Wherefore, because that ye have a Bible ye need not suppose that it contains all my words; neither need ye suppose that I have not caused more to be written.
For I command men, both in the east and in the west, and in the north, and in the south, and in the islands of the sea, that they shall write the words which I speak unto them; for out of the words which shall be written I will judge the world, every man according to their works, according to that which is written."

What does this mean?  It means Mohammed really was a prophet.  Buddha, Confucius, Lao Tzu.  It means God has spoken to every culture, in their language.  And it means salvation, eternal salvation, is as much about what we do as what we believe.  It means Jesus wasn't kidding about the Sermon on the Mount.  Belief isn't enough; isn't even, probably, all that important.  We're supposed to love and serve our brothers and sisters.  

Joseph Smith was way ahead of the conversation--you'd be hard-pressed to find a prominent Christian preacher today who thinks Chinese peasants are condemned to Hell, or that our actions don't matter. Or even that Hell exists. That's basically what Rick Warren's talking about, or T.J. Jakes, or Jim Wallis, or David Jeremiah.  I imagine they think baptism for the dead's pretty squirrelly (1 Cor. 15:29 notwithstanding), but they don't actually have a better solution to the problem of geographic salvation than a generalized 'I'm sure God will take care of those people.'  

Well, that's what we're doing.  That's what our temples stand for, that's what they mean.  "A great welding link between dispensations" said Joseph Smith.  Hearts of children turned to their fathers.  God loves all His children, all of them personally, all of them, by name.  He wants us to feel that love, to practice it, to implement some part of it in our lives.  

So we baptize. 

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Beethoven, Brahms, the Beatles

The economist Paul Krugman has a blog I love, in which he sometimes writes about stuff other than economics, like, on Fridays, music.  This is what he wrote recently:

"I love Mozart as much as ever; but it would be a sad world if we had to go back to the 18th century — or even the 20th century! — to find music that moves the soul.

The real classical music of my generation — classical in the true sense, meaning that it endures and will continue to be played for a long time — was actually pop/rock/folk. The reality is that the Beatles are at this point as solidly embedded in the Western canon as Beethoven and Brahms — and rightly so.

Now, as the aging baby boomer I am, for a long time I thought that the great age of modern music ended some time in the 70s. My big discovery — which, I’m embarrassed to say, came after Arcade Fire won their Grammy and I decided to give them a listen — is that the wonder goes on.

And don’t let the trappings of pop performance fool you: many of these musicians are deeply sophisticated. Some commenters mentioned the passing of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who brought lieder to a wide audience (and my mother was a Fischer-Dieskau fanatic!); listen to Feist for a while, and you’ll realize that what she’s writing are art songs, in some sense very much in the same tradition."

My father is an opera singer, and a huge Fischer-Dieskau art song fan, and he would probably not agree.  But I think Krugman's dead right. 

When Rudyard Kipling wrote "Recessional," that poem, by that poet, was considered so significant that the Times of London published it on their front page.  Poetry mattered.  And poet friends of mine sometimes go off on the decline of poetry, how Kids These Days don't read poetry, how no poets since Robert Frost (or Phillip Larkin or Alan Ginsberg) are embedded in the national consciousness, how, at the Presidential inauguration, when the poet-laureate reads the official inaugural poem, the audience takes it as their exit cue. (Could it be that the inaugural poem sucked?). I think the modern generation, the Kids These Days, are immersed in poetry, inundated by it, I think kids know more poetry than any kids ever in the history of the world.  I think the Sturm und Drang kids standing on mountaintops reading Herder or Lenz, or the young romantics, starving themselves to buy a copy of Childe Harold had nothing on Kids These Days.  We just don't call it poetry--we call it rap. 

So in two hundred years time, it'll be interesting to see what music gets studied and played and talked about as great and significant and important.  Phillip Glass and John Adams?  Nigel Osborne or Bryan Ferneyhough?  Or Win Butler and Regine Chassagne of Arcade Fire, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Michael Stipe of REM? 

I'm not even worried about the Beatles.  They're already in. 

Friday, May 18, 2012

American Idol

American Idol is a better show than it's ever been, and the reason is the judges.

My wife and I love American Idol; watch it every week.  We started close to the end of Season One, when Kelly Clarkson came out of nowhere to win, and we've seen it all.  I know, I know, there are lots of AI blogs and fansites and commentary, and I know that's not a popular opinion.  I stick to it, though.  This has been a great season, and the reason is the judges.

When American Idol started, the real star was Simon Cowell.  He was the prototype nasty Brit, proof positive of the notion than anything sounds more profound if spoken in a British accent (see also Hitchins, Christopher).  The early episodes really were about Simon's gift for invective, as he would routinely (and comically) eviscerate deluded wannabes sent on from the contestants' pool by a sadistic staff as patsies, dupes, foils.  Then, once the competition began, Simon could be nasty, but he was also pretty insightful.  He was . . . right.  A lot of the time.  Paula would gush, and Randy would offer his few catch-phrases, and then Simon would say something pretty true and often helpful.

So you felt like a misanthropic jerk for watching the early 'crush the dreams of the untalented' segments, and then you stayed, because you did have this sense that Simon was good at his job, like you also sense that Gordon Ramsey is a genuinely gifted cook offended by mediocrity. 

Then came Season Eight, and suddenly Simon met his equal.  Adam Lambert dominated that season as never before.  He was brilliantly talented, but also flamboyant, spectacular, theatrical.  He had the best voice that the show had ever seen, and he also knew what he was doing; he turned each song into an event.  Simon had no idea what to do with him. He'd call him 'music hall,' (a huge put-down from a Brit); and here's the thing: Adam knew Simon was putting him down, and didn't care.  Adam had been doing musical theatre for years; he knew exactly what he was doing, and he fully intended to keep doing it.  We all knew that someone that openly and unapologetically gay had little chance of winning--Middle America would be more comfortable with someone boring and bland and inoffensive, like Kris Allen.  But what Adam knew was that winning didn't matter.  Surviving is what mattered, using Idol as a personal showcase yet another week.  I mean, check this out: Adam Lambert sings Mad World .  (Simon actually liked that one, BTW).

We know that Simon was going to leave, that he had what Bill Simmons calls 'the disease of me', that they would never offer him enough money while poor Paula never got a raise.  When they announced the new judges for Season Ten, it seemed lame.  Steven Tyler from Aerosmith, with Jennifer Lopez and of course, the tired mediocrity of Randy Jackson.  At least they fired Ellen.  (Who I love, but she doesn't know enough about music to be an Idol judge.)

I was wrong.

People think the main function of the judges is as opinion-shapers. Contestants perform, and the judges speak, and the public's votes are swayed.  I don't know how much authority the judges command, but it's irrelevant; that's not why the judges are important.

The judges cast the show.

That's it.  That's their really vital function.  So it doesn't matter if J-Lo loves everyone and hardly ever criticizes even a little.  (You can tell J-Lo didn't like a female contestant when she says 'you look great in that dress.')  So what if Steven Tyler's comments are frequently bizarre: "when you're in the spotlight, the shadows are all behind you, man." (My wife and I think Steven Tyler, in that rock star regalia, looks like the scariest old woman in the nursing home.  We've taken to calling him 'dear old Mrs. Tyler, as in "do you think Dear Old Mrs. Tyler knows that in that blouse, you can see her mastectomy scars?")  So what if Randy has to name drop.  They cast the show.

And that matters.  Simon, for all his talent, had an irretrievably mainstream mentality--he liked top forty pop, and he only cast people with the limited talent range to become pop stars.  He loved Carrie Underwood.  She was the ultimate Idol candidate, I think.  And Carrie's good, I'm not dissing Carrie. But I don't think he would have cast Adam, without three other judges to overrule him; I think that was Kara Dioguardi's contribution to the show. I remember when Kris Allen sang Glen Hansard's "Falling Slowly."  Simon chewed him out for singing something 'so obscure.'  This, in response to the song that had just won the Academy Award. 

This group of judges likes a wider range of music.  Steven Tyler loves rock, obviously, but also blues, jazz, gospel.  This year, the contestants were terrifically diverse and interesting.  Check out this: Elise Testone sings Bold as Love; one of my favorites singing Jimi Hendrix. (She also rocked Zep: Elise Testone rocks Zep.)  Or this: Colton Dixon sings Everything. Or this. Phillip Phillips sings Volcano.  J-Lo is open to any kind of interesting music.  I think even Randy sort of is. 

Their comments after the singers sing aren't terribly insightful most of the time.  J-Lo says everyone is 'crazy,' which she means as a compliment.  Dear Old Mrs. Tyler says everyone is 'over the top,' which he also means as a compliment.  But the show also features coaching sessions and comments from Jimmy Iovine, and he's great.  He's every bit as insightful as Simon ever was, while also being a kind and decent human being. 

Next week, the choices are Phillip Phillips, who the Idol blogosphere loathes as a Dave Matthews wannabe (so what, Dave Matthews is a terrific musician), or Jessica Sanchez, an insanely talented skinny sixteen year old with more pop tastes, who I like and root for, while still wanted PhilPhil to win.  And if Jessica wins, I'm fine with it.  I like Idol, because I like watching talented young musicians get a shot.  They've never been better than this year.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Stuck in Utah

I'm not surprised.  It's what I expected.  There's really no reason to expect anything else.  But after doctors' appointments the last two days, it's pretty well official.  I'm probably never going to leave Utah again.  Polymyositis is nasty stuff, and I feel good about having battled it to a standstill.  I'm unlikely ever to get better, but I'm also probably not going to get worse.  I'm plateaued. In remission, but also stalled.

What this means is: Utah.  It's possible I could take a short trip, maybe to California. I can go wheelchair to plane to wheelchair, for a short flight, if I can sleep for a day afterwards.  But my favorite places on earth--London, New York, Oslo--are beyond my reach.  I'm exiled, like Euripides in his cave. 

Plus, you know, in Utah. 


Utah is incredibly beautiful.  People who like to hike, or camp, or mountain climb love it, and should. The fly fishing, I'm reliable told, is magnificent. It's a hunters' paradise.  It's got some of the best skiing in the world.  Just from my house, I can see amazing mountains, some of which have letters painted on the side.  A politically conservative business person with a great love of the outdoors would thrive here.

I'm not any of those things.  What I like about the outdoors is that it's over there, outdoors, while I'm safely indoors.  The outdoors has insects. Heck, it even has bears, or as Stephen Colbert calls 'em, 'godless killing machines.' The outdoors has abrupt and rapid changes in temperature and climate.  You have to walk to get anywhere. Camping requires sleeping in a sleeping bag, which means, all night, you're always either roasting, freezing, or having nightmares about being wrapped up in a cocoon by a spider.  Plus you're sleeping on the ground, which is hard and uneven and bumpy.  In a tent; you ever change your clothes in a tent? Without dislocating your shoulder? I've never hunted in my life.  I think fishing is the most boring sport on earth until you catch something, at which point it becomes the most disgusting.  The outdoors is pretty, and you know what, I can see all that prettiness right here on my laptop, sitting in a comfy chair. 

Utah's also full of Mormons.  Yes, I am a Mormon, pretty faithfully Mormon, but culturally? I drink Diet Coke.  I like R rated movies. I'm terrible with authority figures.  A guy called me a 'secular humanist' the other day, and I think he meant it as an insult.  But that's actually kind of right.  I'm certainly a humanist, and I like 'worldly' art, or would if I had any idea what that term meant.  I'm a liberal--I think the term we're supposed to use now is 'progressive,' but I prefer liberal, plus Fox News uses it as an epithet, so I pretty much have to embrace it. I don't own a suit or a white shirt, and all my ties (which I absolutely never wear except for Sundays) are designed by Jerry Garcia.  I'm not a Tab Choir Mormon.  I'm a rock and roll Mormon. 

Which is why I'd be lost, really lost, without Salt Lake City.  At least, darn it, there's Salt Lake. Gay friendly, granola eating Salt Lake, with Plan B and SLAC and also Park City, with the Egyptian and Sundance.  It's not London, and it's not New York.  But it's my favorite city on earth that I can actually get to.  As long as I have Salt Lake, I'm going to be fine. 

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Apocalypse never?

Mankind is growing ever less violent, ever more moral.  We live in a world of unprecedented peacefulness.  By almost every measure, life is longer, happier, healthier, kinder than ever before in human history. Such, at least, are the conclusions of Steven Pinker, whose book The Better Angels of Our Nature I just finished reading. 

Because these ideas strike many as counter-intuitive, Pinker amasses an astounding body of evidence to support them.  It's a dense and powerful book, and at times while reading it, you feel inundated by statistics and sources.  I found it both persuasive and powerful. And the stories, the descriptions, the history! At times, I was overwhelmed by the book, overwhelmed to the point of tears, reading Pinker's recitation of the atrocities human beings have historically visited on their fellow human beings. 

Do people still murder? Yes, but murder rates have never been lower, and the trend is for them to fall further still. Does war still disfigure the international landscape?  Of course, but there have never been fewer wars than now, nor wars as comparatively non-lethal.  And acts that were once commonplace are now unthinkable.  We no longer burn witches, or torture heretics, or allow our governments to brutalize gay people.  One example out of thousands: the History channel will air, starting on Memorial Day, a mini-series about the Hatfields and McCoys. Can we even imagine that bloody feud today?  Of course not--cops would show up, SWAT teams, CNN. 

Why is this happening, why this new period of peace?  Pinker suggests many reasons, among them the wider dissemination of knowledge through printing presses, radio, TV, the internet. The power of ideas of non-violence, the science that stresses our common humanity with other races and peoples. The growing power and influence of government, the Leviathan, with its monopoly on sanctioned violence. People have made it happen.  We have chosen to make it happen, to write about it, talk about it, get out the word. 

Thought shift: change of topic.  I loathe Sunday School lessons about the Last Days.  Detest them.  I know, we're supposed to say, with the Revelator "even so, Lord Jesus, come quickly."  I don't.  I have a horrid fascination with the Book of Revelation, with the Four Horseman, with Conquest, War, Famine, Death, with the Seven Seals, with images of destruction.  I don't know if Mormons believe in the Rapture--in people taken up into heaven, pilots raptured out of their planes, drivers from their cars. I do know I don't believe in it.  We're supposed to find the Last Days bearable, because they lead to the Second Coming and the Millennium.  In those classes, I hear good people, my brothers and sisters, saying 'the world is so wicked right now, I look forward to His coming.'  I shudder at that thought.  I don't think the world is particularly wicked, and I think it's getting much less wicked all the time. I love reading contemporary scholarship about the Revelation, love the evidence supporting the idea that it was not about the future at all, but about Nero and Rome and the first century A.D. I'm rooting for it to not be about today. 

So what if, instead, the Millennium, that thousand years of peace, where the teachings of Jesus flood the earth, where the Prince of Peace reigns, what if that's something we're supposed to make happen?  What if this isn't supposed to be about bloodshed and horror wiping out The Wicked?  What if it's about peace, in our neighborhoods, in our homes, in our government institutions and schools and media? 

What if Pinker's right?  What if we're heading towards a kind of millennium right now, a comparative one, one in which we just keep doing a little better, every new generation?  What if  Saturday isn't a time for warriors at all, but peacemakers?

What if bringing about the Millennium is something we're supposed to do?

Why the Hunger Games movie is better than the Hunger Games novel

'Cause it's in third person.  The novel is in first person.

Of course, movies are mostly in third person.  I supposed I could imagine a first person movie--lots of subjective angle POV shots--but it would be unsufferably avant-garde.  There have been movies with scenes done that way, of course, lots of them.  The first one I can remember was John Carpenter's Halloween, which had long scenes from the killer's POV.  This was considered spine-tinglely transgressive, and I recall lots of learned commentary about how we were now implicated in the killings or more inured to violence, or whatever.  I remember not caring--I was a teenager, and I thought I'd just seen the coolest, scariest horror film ever.

But most films, the camera is neutral, objective, recording the action as a kind of omnipotent, often distant arbiter.   The Hunger Games film does something interesting--the early scenes, with Katniss hunting in District Twelve, are more intimate, more hand-held camera--what my wife calls shaky cam.  The objective observer is a close friend, perhaps, or like maybe a bird.  But when they get to the Capitol, the camera's further off from the action, recording it sardonically, so we can get to see all the production design for that oh-so-sophisticated Big City.  Then, when the Hunger Games begin, we go back to shaky cam.  But there aren't many shots--maybe not any--from Katniss' POV.

The entire novel is told from Katniss' POV, and it's effective.  She's an agreeable, tough, brave young woman, and we don't mind living in her head.  My favorite novel ever is Huck Finn, and that's also first person, from the point of view of a very bright and observant, but not remotely sophisticated young person.  When the Hunger Games begin, the novel gives us a sense of just why they're called that, how it's not just about killing, it's also about survival at its most basic.  Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Katniss--she conveys Katniss' courage and loyalty and essential decency, but the movie, because it's a movie and shorter than a novel, doesn't do as well showing Katniss' fight with hunger and cold and injury and illness.

But the novel is about a teenaged girl, for a readership of teens, and quite a bit of it is about 'I like this boy a lot, but I'm not sure he likes me the same way, and this other boy likes me a lot, but I'm not sure I like him the same way' kinds of thoughts and feelings.  None of which I cared about, pretty much at all.  I'm not who the novel is meant for.

What the movie does instead is get into all sorts of things I was really interested in that the novel, because it's first person, couldn't even touch.  Like politics.  President Snow is played by Donald Sutherland, and is such a terrifically compelling presence in the film that even with less than three minutes screen time (my estimate), he kind of dominates.  I love the scene between him and the Game Designer (himself a terrifically interesting character who doesn't appear in the novel at all), where Snow says 'have you ever met 'the underdog?"  Chilling stuff.  The novel gives us one brief glimpse of Snow, exactly the kind of sociopathic autocrat who you can see rising to the top of a society like Panem--a sort of bearded Putin--but the movie fleshes out the character in wonderful ways.  And the Senecan suicide of the Game Designer: that scene was superb.  The actual Seneca, the Roman Senator, philosopher, and playwright Seneca, accused of treason, was told he would be arrested within one day.  So he took a warm bath, and opened his veins, chatting calmly with his wife and family while his life drained away.  The Game Designer is murdered with similar sophistication and also, just a touch of murderous wit.  The character's name?  Seneca Crane--Wes Bentley in a terrifically intricate beard.

The movie follows the novel really closely.  What it doesn't do is what the novel does easily--get inside Katniss' head.  What it does instead is dissect the Games, and the society that produced them.  And I found that much more interesting.  I liked the novel fine.  I liked the movie a lot.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Playwriting without a safety net

For nine years, Plan B Theatre Company in Salt Lake has produced SLAM, a 24-hour theatre experience.  I've been a SLAM playwright for eight of those years.  Most of us who have done it describe it metaphorically in terms suggesting a circus--tightrope walking without a safety net, into the lions' den without a whip or chair.  It's terrifying, exhilarating, exhausting and terrifying; also terrifying. 

What happens is, we show up at the theater at 8 on a Friday night, are given headshots and resumes for three actors (sometimes up to five, but this year, three), are shown a set, and, most of the time, are also given a title.  We then have to write a ten minute play using those actors, that set, and that title, a hard copy for which we deliver the next morning at 9.  The actors rehearse all day, and perform, off-book, that night, at 8. 

This year, we weren't given a title.  I've whined enough about not getting a title, but I did find it much more difficult, and frustrating.  Anyway, the theater's in Salt Lake; I live in Provo.  I drive home Friday night, and usually have something sort of blocked out in my head by the time I make it home.  Write all night, put it through four or five re-writes, catch an hour sleep, and then deliver it to Jerry.  Jerry's Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan B. 

You don't have time for self-doubt or second guessing.  You don't have time to experiment.  You go with the first idea to pop into your head, and you write as quickly as possible.  Usually, the hard part for me is getting it down to ten pages.  My first drafts tend to be thirteen or fourteen pages long--cutting is difficult. 

So Friday, I had nothing.  No title, no ideas.  Here's what I had: a set consisting of four benches.  A wonderful director, Christy Summerhays, who I've worked with many times before and adore.  These three actors; Jason Tatom, a wonderful actor who I've worked with ever since Gadianton, in '94, Kalyn West, a terrific actress who I don't know at all, but who I saw as Sally Hemings in Plan B's production of Third Crossing, a play I liked a lot, and Claire Wilson, a fifteen year old who I'd seen in The Scarlet Letter.  So, relationships: Father, Mom, Daughter?  No, Kalyn's too young-looking.  Some other family? Couldn't think of any.  Father, Two Daughters?  Maybe, except, again, no ideas.

Then I thought that the benches looked a bit like benches in some public place, like, I don't know, the DMV.  And I thought three random people who aren't related might be there, at the DMV.  I think waiting in line at the DMV is a frustrating experience, so the play might work as a comedy.

I thought it might be interesting to have Kalyn play like a college professor deconstructing some 'incident' that took place at the DMV, have it be maybe a futuristic thing where law enforcement had been turned over to literature professors.  I even had a nifty Jennifer Love Hewitt joke in there.  "Ever since President Love Hewitt reformed our legal system. . . "  Surefire!

Just didn't work.  Couldn't find a hook, couldn't find a story.  Finally, I just went with a straight comedy, three frustrated people at the DMV, with a teenager gaming two grown-ups.  I wrote it in three acts: Jason and Claire, then Kalyn and Claire, then Jason, Kalyn and Claire. 

Jason is a wonderful comic actor.  I wrote some funny stuff for him, and he sold it.  But the first Kalyn scene didn't work as well, which I realize on re-reading the scene was entirely my fault, and not hers at all.  What happened was, for Jase I wrote some good set-up, set-up, payoff jokes, with a solid kicker.  For Kalyn, for some reason, I wrote set-up, set-up, fizzle.  I couldn't come up with a punch line for her character.  There was some fun stuff about 'rules' and 'rule-breakers,' and I could hear it in the audience; they liked the character and wanted to laugh, but I didn't structure it right--I didn't give them the punch-line release line they were craving.  I feel terrible about that.  She's a great actress--not her fault she was badly served by her playwright. 

The last scene worked well, because Claire Wilson is a fifteen-year old comic genius.  I had her sing that awful Maroon Five song about having moves like Jagger, only with suggestions in the script that she didn't know all the lyrics, so it was "something something duh duh duh moves like Jagger."  That's what I wrote.  She ran with it, and was terrific. 

Sitting in the house for SLAM, you have one prayer--please let mine not suck the worst.  I thought I didn't.  I actually thought all five scripts were good, very different, but good.  I'd call it a five way tie.  Best of all, I survived, we all survived.  And I can't wait to do it again!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Marriage redefined

In my lifetime, I have been lucky enough to see some remarkable changes in society.  Probably the most important has involved a redefinition of the social institution of marriage.  I thought about this yesterday, when President Obama announced his support for gay marriage.  But what nobody seems to have pointed out is that the really radical, genuinely revolutionary change in marriage, in the way we understand it and live it, has already happened. Marriage customs differ from culture to culture, of course.  But basically, fundamentally, historically, marriage has traditionally been about the control, even the ownership, of women.  It's been a subset of property law.  And that's no longer true.

In Sunday School, I teach a class called Marriage and Family Relations.  Great class, really enjoy it.  I start by asking people to define marriage, and the answers are inevitably the same: 'marriage is a partnership of equals.'  Everything in the manual (that correlation-approved manual) supports that definition.  People use different language to describe their own marriages, but inevitably, they describe the same ideal--we're partners, we're equals, we make decisions together, we're unified. If I were to say to them 'so, you're suggesting a feminist understanding of marriage, we're all of us now feminists,' most of them would be appalled.  But that's what's happened; when it comes to gender equality in marriage, we're all basically feminists.  (Which of course does not mean that there aren't still appalling vestiges of patriarchy and sexism in society.)

In the Bible, in the many codifications of marriage found in Leviticus and Deuteronomy, when a woman is married, she passes from her father's control to that of her husband.  A woman who is raped is required to marry her rapist, and he is also required to pay a penalty to her father or oldest brother.  They have been wronged, because she is their, well, property.  (Maybe 'stewardship' is less harsh a word for it, but it would also be less accurate). Two of the Ten Commandments touch on marriage.  The Seventh Commandment prohibits adultery--a woman committing it is stoned to death, a man cheating on his wife goes unpunished.  The Tenth Commandment is interesting--a man who covets his neighbors wife has sinned against her husband.  How she's supposed to feel about some creeper checking her out is not recorded.

Jesus had very little to say about marriage; he was opposed to divorce.  I've always believed that his opposition to divorce was part of his compassion for women.  Divorce was a male perquisite--men got to initiate divorce for almost any causes, leaving women destitute. Prohibiting divorce was a way to temper some of the worst excesses of patriarchy.  But historically, Christianity's subsequent treatment of women was appalling. 

That's what traditional marriage meant.  It meant the control and subjugation of women.In most societies, there have been restrictions on women's ability to own property, conduct business, travel unescorted.  Wife abuse, in traditional marriage, in most cultures, was rarely illegal and rarely prosecuted.  Women were seldom allowed to choose their husbands, or initiate divorce proceedings against brutes.

That's all changed, and changed recently, changed in my lifetime, certainly.  I think of my Sunday School class--a Provo Ward, with young married couples together with folks in their late 70's, and every age in between.  The older folks were great--they said stuff like 'when we were younger, we didn't really talk about this partnership thing. But it's what we wanted, and for you younger folks, it's great.' I'm not sure we reflect often enough on how profound and important that change is.  When we think of a radical redefinition of traditional marriage, it's hard to imagine anything more radical than this: 'marriage is the ownership and control of women by men,' to 'marriage is a loving partnership of equals.'

The next step, the step President Obama articulated yesterday, adding gay couples to the mix, doesn't seem all that radical in comparison.  It feels like an inevitable, welcome, continued evolution, to me.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

European elections=high comedy

Big elections in France in Greece recently, and I don't which story, or which piece of commentary is funniest.  Well, actually, Jon Stewart's funniest.  Jon Stewart on Europe. But this Very Serious commentary comes pretty close: Deseret News scolding.

Often debates over economics come down to theory and opinion. There are, after all, a variety of schools of thought in the world of economics, and each tends to align rather nicely with a corresponding political stance.  So I have theorists I like, conservatives have theorists they like, and we can have a jolly old time insulting each other: "you, you, you're a a a  Keynesian!"  "Yes I am!  As for you, you like Hazlitt!  Bastiant!?!?! What a joke!"

But now?  As it happens, the 2008 financial meltdown was international in scope.  Lots of countries ended facing very similar problems with very similar causes: the collapse of the market for securitized mortage bonds.  So when we, in the United States, face a recession, and are trying to figure out what to do about it, we can look at other nations and see what they've tried, and what works and what doesn't work. They have similar problems to ours; what works Over There is likely work for us, and what hasn't worked There, is unlikely to work for us. It behooves us to pay attention.

This fairly obvious point seems to elude a lot of Very Serious commentators in the national press.  First, we have an election going on, which means that thoughtful, informed discussion of policy is right out the window--watch any major news show, and see how thoroughly horse race coverage dominates.  So when Romney embraced the Paul Ryan budget plan, almost nobody actually got into the nuts of bolts of economic policy--instead, it was presented in political terms--mostly as Romney caving in to Tea Party extremists.

And the path most of Europe has taken--under Germany's leadership--is austerity.  It's all about cutting deficits, cutting spending, curtailing social services, economic retrenchment.  It hasn't really worked anywhere.  Great Britain, my gosh--they're rioting there, it's gone so well.  Now French voters have rejected it wholesale, by electing Socialist Francois Hollande, who proposes a major tax hike on the richest Frenchmen, and doesn't intend to retrench anywhere else.  And Greece, wow.  Greece just put in a Communist/Neo-nazi coalition.

This is funny for lots of obvious reasons, but it's also funny because this is Greece.  Honestly, I think God decided to give Greece its entire quota of smart people, forever, by the 5th century BC.  Read Michael Lewis' book Boomerang for perspective--for one thing, nobody in Greece pays their taxes.  They can have all the debates in the world about what tax policy should be, and it doesn't matter--nobody pays 'em anyway, except for the VAT tourists pay.  Germany demanded that Greece put some teeth into tax collection as a requirement for loan money--it turns out, they polled EVERY MEMBER of the Greek parliament, and discovered that they were all, without exception, tax cheats.  The sharpest financial minds in Greece are the monks in this one monastery.  OF COURSE Greece is being run by a coalition of two insane parties that hate each other (historically, to the point of murder). Sometimes you'll hear conservatives in the US use Greece as a cautionary tale.  "We're getting as bad as . . . Greece!"  No. We're not. Not even close.

As for France, what's happened is that the French people are rejecting austerity.  It hasn't worked, and they're betting it's not going to work. They're sort of giving Germany the finger--which could mean the end of the EU, not that would be so bad. They're looking for guidance to--drum roll please--Iceland.

Iceland (population 820,00) got crunched in 2008.  I mean, CRUNCHED.  They transformed their economy from one based on fishing to one based on international banking, and it proved very lucrative at first, then went full melt-down catastrophic.  They then turned things over to their women.  There are two major political parties in Iceland, as I understand it, one about 80% male and the other 80% female. They put the women in charge. First step: they nationalized their banks.  Take that, free market. They kept social services intact, but with some needed cutbacks. They're talking about pegging their currency to the looney--the Canadian dollar.  They're in way better shape than Great Britain.

If there's one thing we've learned from all this, it's that four years isn't enough time for any country to recover from this particular financial meltdown.  But the French election gives the rest of the world a counter-example to that of Great Britain and other conservative austerity approaches.

Meanwhile, we have an election coming up.  And no, Obama isn't a socialist and he isn't a Hollande. But the Ryan plan, which Mitt Romney has embraced, is a more severe example of the austerity policy that is so spectacularly not working in Europe.  It's interesting--the nastiest thing you can say about an American politician, apparently, is that they want us to 'become another Europe.'  But actually, that's sort of what Republicans are talking about.

In any event, this is what the election should be about.  The economy.  Not sound-bites about the economy,  Not silly nonsense like 'Romney's run businesses; what has Obama ever run,' or 'Romney ran the wrong kind of business!  Private equity companies are bad for the country!'  Instead, I hope the conversation is about looking around and seeing what works and what doesn't work.  That'd be nice for a change.