Saturday, June 30, 2012

Three movies that are way better than you think they are

Every once in awhile, a movie comes out that the studios just don't know what to do with.  It's not a romcom, it's not an action movie, it's not a bromance farce, it's . . . different.  It's like they say: movies are cats, plays are dogs.  That is: all movies are really pretty much alike, like cats are--all about the same size, all about the same level of crotchety independence.  But dogs, man, a 'dog' can be anything from some yappy tiny critter small enough to hold in your hand, to some super friendly monster the size of a bear. 

And Hollywood complicates matters by making the same four movies over and over again.  So when they do something genuinely different, the marketing department seems totally lost at sea.

Take, for example, The Break-up (2006).  It's terrific, this sadly human naturalist examination of a nice young couple and the tensions and pressures and hurt feelings and misunderstandings and pent-up resentments that lead them to break things off.  Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Anniston, both of them great. It's also funny, but it's dark humor. But it's real and smart and sad; it's a genuinely great movie.  I used to use it in classes, to teach modern naturalism. 

Thing is, I know people who swear it's the worst movie they've ever seen ever in their lives.  Because the movie was advertised as a romantic comedy.  What happened, I'm sure of it, is people went to what they thought would be a fun date-night movie, a Jennifer Anniston rom-com.  Instead they got this sad, depressing thing.  It wasn't the charming, our-girl-Jen finds Troo Luv movie the trailer suggested it would be. Expectations are important--the experience of seeing a movie doesn't begin with the opening credits.  It begins way earlier, perhaps with the decision to see that movie instead of all the other movies you could see.  And when you've set your palate for 'ice cream,' you react badly to that serving of brussels sprouts.  

Same dynamic for The Grey.  The premise: six oil workers survive a plane crash in the wilds of Alaska, only to be attacked by wolves.  It's about their fight for survival.  Liam Neeson, Dermot Mulroney star, along with several unknowns, all of them great.  It's a terrific, man-vs.-nature picture, very Stephen Crane.  But it's more than that--it's a wonderful philosophical film, a film that asks, quietly and without much fuss, questions about God and life and the fight for survival and what that means theologically.  You'd miss that from the trailer.  It looks like a horror film, a scary action film.  I found watching it to be a completely shattering experience, as did Roger Ebert.  But you'd never know how great this movie was from the marketing.  Or rather, you'd never know what kind of great movie it is. 

Third film: John Carter.  The conventional wisdom had already been well-established before the film was ever released.  It was a disaster, a catastrophe in the making.  Andrew Stanton, the director, was in way over his head.  Sure, he'd directed Wall-E and Finding Nemo; but those were Pixar films--he couldn't do a live-action big budget blockbuster.  It cost too much and it wasn't any good.  It was stupid.  And they'd gotten this kid from Friday Night Lights, Taylor Kitsch, to star in it, and boy was he miscast.

Well, I thought it was great fun.  I enjoyed it thoroughly.  It was kind of silly, to be sure--it was true-ish to its source, and Edgar Rice Burroughs was a pulp writer.  But it was exciting, it looked great, the action scenes were well-staged, and Kitsch was a terrific leading man, very charismatic and charming.  It wasn't quite as good as The Avengers, but it was certainly every bit as entertaining as all the other summer action movies released in the last year. 

When we go to the movies, we always go early, because my wife and I love watching the trailers.  And you can usually tell--we knew That's My Boy was going to be terrible (and that we weren't going to go see it) based on the trailers, and we knew that Inception was going to be awesome (and that we were going to see it).  But sometimes movies confound our expectations in really good ways.  You feel particularly well-rewarded when that happens. 

Friday, June 29, 2012


When I heard that Rachel Maddow had written a book, I wasn't sure what to think.  I like Rachel a lot; I don't watch her show all that often, but do catch it from time to time.  What I love about her is her exuberance, her genuine geeky enthusiasm, which seems to me more about policy than politics.  Of course, she's also a political commentator, and at times she can seem pretty uninterestingly partisan--a lefty version of Bill-O or Hannity. Just because I agree with Rachel and disagree with Fox News personalities, doesn't mean I don't get how divisive and ultimately bad for our country all that partisan back-and-forth name-calling is.

(Also, why do I call her Rachel?  I don't know her--she's a respected reporter and commentator--shouldn't I call her Maddow?  But she's younger than I am, old habits die hard, I guess.)  

But she wrote a book, and it became a best-seller, and I thought I should read it, hoping desperately it would be better than all those 'Liberals Torture Kittens' books produced by the likes of Ann Coulter and (gag) Glen Beck.  I thought it likely that Rachel's book would be about policy, in this case, US military policy.  What I did not expect was a book this well-written.  I did not expect a book this funny.  I did not expect a book scarier than anything by Stephen King.  Above all, I did not expect a book making essentially a conservative case for constitutionality. 

Drift argues basically this: the constitutional doctrine of separation of powers is nowhere more important than at times of war. The Founders believed that, since the President is commander-in-chief, the executive branch would generally be the pro-war branch.  That the decision to wage war, if left only in the hands of the executive, would be made more frequently if another branch didn't provide a check to executive power.  In other words, Presidents are probably going to be the guys wanting to go to war, so its a good thing they can't without Congressional approval. 

Only, in recent years, the clear meaning of the Constitution has been eroded to the point of meaninglessness.  Maddow quotes George H. W. Bush's journal, where he describes the tremendous pressure he felt, as the man with the sole authority to send young men and women to combat.  Uh, what?  When it began to look like we might go to war without so much as a Congressional debate, a Representative, Ron Dellums, filed a federal lawsuit.  Maddow quotes at length from Judge Harold Greene's decision in Dellums v. Bush: "Article I Section 8, Clause 11 of the Constitution grants to Congress the power to declare war.  To the extent that this unambiguous direction requires construction or explanation, it is provided by the Framers' comments that they felt it would be unwise to entrust the momentous power to involve the nation in a war to the President alone."  There's a lot more to that quote--it's all good stuff.  The President can't just send troops to war.  He has to ask Congress first. And Bush did, and the subsequent debate in Congress honored our nation.

Only that's not what happens now.  This is non-partisan stuff: Bill Clinton didn't really ask for Congressional approval to send troops to Bosnia, and George W. Bush didn't really have Congressional authority to invade Afghanistan.  We've privatized war-making--most people aren't aware of just how many functions that used to be done by soldiers are now done by private contractors--who are not really part of the chain-of-command. 

Rachel Maddow doesn't just make a constitutional argument.  Her book is full of wonderful anecdotes and stories which illustrate the points she's making.  For example, she tells the tale of the Houbara bustard.  It's a bird, a really fast one.  Good eating, too, apparently.  It's the favored prey for the sport of falconing, a sport much favored among Arab royalty.  And it lives in Balochistan, part of Pakistan.  So the United Arab Emirates bought this strip of land, the favored wintering grounds for the bustard, and built an airbase there, so all these Arab princes from the UAE and Saudi Arabia and Qatar could fly in with their pet birds and watch the falcons hunt. Bustards are fast and elusive and tough--it makes for good sport.

So Shamsi air base, in Balochistan, is now where the CIA launches its drones from.  When we killed Bin Laden, the Pakistanis wanted all US forces out of their country.  But we're still there, in Shamsi, because it doesn't belong to Pakistan anymore.  We leased it from the UAE.  All thanks to the Houbara bustard.  Great story, right?

Okay, so then, in her last chapter, Rachel Maddow decides to scare the wee out of us.  She talks about nukes. 

Before reading her book, I assumed that all the US missile silos and war heads aboard subs and all the other nuclear weapons built during the Cold war, all those deadly bombs, that they were all safe.  That fail-safe programs made an accidental launch impossible, that we had vigilant army guys watching those bunkers, that at least, the possibility of nuclear war had ended with the end of the Cold War.  Turns out, not so much.  We still have missiles in silos, in North Dakota mostly, and the job of guarding them sucks so badly it's hard to find anyone to do it.  Nuclear warheads are degrading, and we have no idea what kinds of bizarre chemistry experiments from hell are frothing and brewing down there.  And all those missiles are aimed at the Soviet Union, which no longer exists. 

Why?  What possible positive function do nuclear weapons serve nowadays?  During the Cold War, the doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD, my favorite acronym ever) meant they had some deterrent value.  Not any more.  Plus, as my wife is fond of pointing out, we have some nerve telling Iran and North Korea they can't develop nuclear weapons. Not while we cling to our arsenal.

President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize, a much deserved one, because without a lot of fanfare, he's done a lot to promote disarmament.  He negotiated a START treaty with Russia, reducing nuclear stockpiles substantially. He got a lot of countries to get rid of their Eisenhower-era arsenals. So is this maybe an issue liberals and conservatives can agree on?  How about maybe we decide that's a place where we can cut spending?  How about we just get rid of them?  All of them, forever. 

As Maddow points out, the US now spends more money on defense than every other country in the world combined.  As she also points out, our Constitution is pretty clear about what war is and means and who gets to declare it.  The drone program, which has such a faux purity to it, so surgically clean, so deadly and effective without needing to put our soldiers in harm's way, is also of extremely dubious constitutionality and legality.  We need to have, at least, a debate about these questions.  That debate isn't really happening.  So Rachel Maddow decided to start one.  While she's at it, she wrote a readable, fascinating, funny, scary book.  Boy oh boy do I recommend it.  

Thursday, June 28, 2012


This morning, when the Supreme Court announced their decision unholding Obamacare (sorry, that's the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act), I learned of it via a text from my nephew.  His text, in its entirety: "Hoopsatorem!"  And I knew exactly what had happened.

This particular nephew lived with us for awhile, while he was attending BYU.  One day, we were driving up to school together, and we saw the marquee outside Provo High School.  On that marquee was one word: "Hoopsatorem."  We were deeply puzzled by this enigmatic message.  Hoopsatorem?  What the heck were the administrators of good old Provo High trying to say?  We finally decided that it was simply an expression of youthful enthusiasm and animal high spirits.  Someone was having a good day, was all.  To express their exuberance and good cheer, they'd invented this wonderful word: Hoopsatorem!  Yay!

It became an all-purpose exclamation of delight for us all.  Our whole family used it.  "I got an A on that test today!  Hoopsatorem!"  "That cute guy finally asked me out!  Hoopsatorem!"  "My new play got great reviews!  Hoopsatorem!" "We're having pizza for dinner tonight?  Hoopsatorem!"

My oldest son burst the bubble.  It wasn't an gleeful exclamation at all.  It was informational.  Provo High was playing Orem High in basketball.  The word wasn't 'Hoopsatorem.'  It was 'Hoops, at Orem."

But at that point, it didn't matter.  'Hoopsatorem' had become part of our family's personal vernacular.  We still use it.  And so, when my nephew heard the wonderful news about the SCOTUS ruling, he texted 'Hoopsatorem' and I knew exactly what he meant by it.  And was, of course, equally delighted by the news.

That's the way language works.  We get to make up words.  In Norwegian, you kind of have to make words up.  It's a language full of compound words, and grammatically, you sometimes cram two words together to convey some very specific idea or thought. 'Sykehuset' for example--combining 'sick' and 'house': a 'sickhouse', i.e. 'hospital.'  German does that too: 'Schadenfreude,' 'gesamtkunstwerk.'

But even within families or groups of friends, we often have invented words, insider language, like hoopsatorem. I'm part of a San Francisco Giants chat group, and we often use old player games as a kind of code.  "The guy was getting in my grille, I stood up to him, and he went all Hal Lanier on me."  If you know who Hal Lanier was, you know what happened.

When I was in high school, my friends and I had our own invented language, proto-hipsters that we were.  A 'pube' for example, was someone acting immaturely.  A 'bloat' was a fat guy, and a 'maciate' was a skinny guy.  'Specs' were teachers and 'b' meant a thug, a bully.  (Not 'b' for bully; 'b' for the B-wing of our school, where they tended to congregate.)  'Dub' meant to drink until vomiting.  I didn't drink, but I knew a good word to describe it.  

I do this when teaching playwriting all the time, invent words, invent terms.  The other day I was talking to a young playwright. I thought his play used too many poop jokes.  I found myself saying "you need to depoopify your dialogue."

As long as it communicates, it's a word.  That's the rule.  And it's something to celebrate.  We should, in fact, celebrate the diversity and flexibility of our language almost as much as . . . great Supreme Court decisions.  Hoopsatorem!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rooting for laundry

I am a  Giants' fan, and that means I hate the Dodgers. 

I just wrote that, and looking at it on my computer screen, it seems ridiculous.  I have chosen, for arbitrary reasons of my own, to like and to root for the professional baseball team that plays in San Francisco, a town I do not now and never have lived in. That is to say, I am emotionally invested in the fortunes of a group of professional athletes hailing from the Dominican Republic and Venezuela and Mexico and North Carolina and Tennessee and Texas and Seattle, who happen to have signed contracts to play baseball in San Francisco.  (All of them from modest backgrounds, and all of them paid better than I will ever be paid for anything ever in my life.)  And that emotional investment means that I am obligated to dislike adherents of a group of professional athletes hailing from the Dominican Republic and Oklahoma and Arizona and Texas and Japan and other states and countries who happen to play in Los Angeles.  Basically, I'm rooting for whoever wears the uniform of my favorite team. Basically, I'm rooting for laundry.  Against slightly different laundry.

Okay, so: this.  March 31, 2011, Bryan Stow, a 42 year old Santa Cruz EMT, drove down to LA with a bunch of friends, to watch the Dodgers play the Giants on opening day.  He went to Dodger Stadium wearing a Giants cap and jersey.  The wrong laundry.  After the game, two Dodger fans jumped him in the parking lot and nearly killed him, beat him so severely that he suffered a serious brain injury.  Fourteen months later, Stow can talk a little, recognizes his family, can feed himself.  He'll certainly never work again.  (Tim Lincecum, the Giants' pitcher, started a fund to help the Stow family, and donated a sizeable amount to seed it.  Reason number 822 why we love Timmeh.) 

And that's ridiculous, of course I get how absurd that is.  I like the Giants.  But beating people up?  What are, we: soccer fans?

Last night, the Giants beat the Dodgers.  Ryan Vogelsong (one of the best stories on the team) outdueled Clayton Kershaw (the Dodgers' ace, a scary-good left-hander) 2-0.  It felt good.  I watched it on the Inter-tube thingy, right here on my computer-machine; not sure how that works, but am pretty sure wizards were involved.  Sports are fun, sports fandom is fun.  Last night, at the ballpark, they showed a group of ten guys dressed like milkmen--old fashioned white uniforms, with caps and orange ties.  They're Melk-men; fans of Melky Cabrera.  With them were two girls, in powder-blue milk maid costumes, hair in pigtails, cute as can be.  Melk-maids, right?  Then Melky Cabrera hit a home run, and they went nuts.  I thought about those kids, the time spent thinking up and putting together those costumes, how much fun they must have been having. 

But nearly killing a guy who's wearing the wrong cap is just . . . I can't think of words strong enough to condemn it. Or rioting, or fighting or thuggishness generally.  Years ago, I was in London, riding the Tube.  I saw a British soccer fan, wearing the colors of a team that I'd read in the paper was in danger of relegation.  They were playing that night, and if they lost, then next season, they'd be dropped down a level, move from the Champions league to a lesser league.  So this bloke was riding home after this crucial game involving his team.  Apparently, they lost.  I got this from the fact that, every stop on the way home, the guy stuck his head out so the doors would close on his head.  Crunch crunch crunch.  Every stop for miles. 

The root of the word 'fan' is fanatic. 

So when I say I'm a Giants' fan, and that I hate the Dodgers, I'm using 'hate' and 'fan' in very specific and limited ways.  I'm a Christian. I don't believe hatred solves anything. I'm a liberal humanist--not so down with fanaticism either.  Okay, I guess I hate Hitler, in some weirdly abstract way.  I hate Evil.  I hate Injustice.  But that's all meaningless, just a rhetorical indulgence really.  What matters is what you do when someone treats you badly, and what I in fact do under those circumstances is harbor grudges to the point of absurdity.  (I said I was a Christian; I didn't say I was a good one.) But hate?  Really HATE?  No.  Not ever. 

It's a strange word anyway, the way we use it.  "I hate it when you do that," we say to our loved ones.  "I hate mustard on hot dogs."  "I hated that movie."  But then we talk about 'hate crimes,' and how 'hatred' fuels episodes of genocide and ethnic cleansing.  Real hatred is a real thing, with real consequences.  So it's a word that means everything from 'an emotional state so severe as to lead to murder' to 'mildly dislike.'   Everything, and next to nothing, and everything in-between

So when I say I 'hate the Dodgers' I mean I feel good when the Giants win a game and feel even better when we win at the Dodgers' expense.  But my best friend lived in LA for years, and is a Dodger fan, and we get along great.  It's meaningless foolishness, this rooting for laundry stuff, even though it's a kind of meaningless foolishness in which I indulge myself with great frequency and pleasure. 

We play the Dodgers again today.  They're in first place, but we're on their heels, and if we win, we'll be tied.  And there are still four months left in the season.  It's tremendously important that we win, and it's also completely meaningless; everything, nothing, everything in-between.  I'm a fan without being a fanatic, I root for laundry with an ironic nod to that absurdity.  I think emotional investment is a good thing, even when it's for something silly.  Embrace the silliness, then, and Go Giants. 

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

"It's policy"

Every organization has to establish a whole array of policies, procedures, priorities, rules and regulations.  We all know this; at work we count on it, we rely on some set of guidelines telling us what to do under the normal circumstances we encounter.  And under abnormal circumstances, when things aren't going smoothly, we count on someone having anticipated whatever difficulty we find ourselves in.  We count on there being a rule. Having policies in place makes things run more smoothly.

But when we're customers, consumers, clients, in circumstances where we're interacting with some big organization, like a business, a government agency, a university, when we're trying to get something done, nothing can be more annoying than to be told "our policy is. . . ." Especially when that policy conflicts with whatever it is we're trying to get done.  Especially if we have good reason to believe we're in the right.  So when someone says "it's not our policy to give you that refund, it's not our policy to let you skip that step, it's not our policy to solve your problem," it's beyond annoying, it's infuriating.  And it's at that point that you have to find the One Person who can get you what you want.

That's how I came to graduate from college. Fall of '83, I graduated from BYU, sort of.  I was accepted to grad school at Indiana, moved my family from Provo to Bloomington, started my classes.  It was that point, fall of '83, that I got a letter from BYU.  They'd done a records review, and it turns out, I never did take freshman English.  I wrote back, and said that I'd been told that I didn't need to.  I'd taken English 251 (I still remember the course number), gotten an A, and that qualified as the equivalent for freshman English.  Weeks passed; they wrote back.  Turns out that the year I entered BYU, English 251 could not be used to replace freshman English.  It replaced it every year before, and every year afterwards, but not that one year. Policy: it didn't count.

They said I could appeal.  I did.  Appeal turned down.  So I asked if I could test out of freshman English (I was, after all, in grad school).  They said I could, if my bishop in Indiana would proctor the test.  So I went to my bishop and said "Dad, would you proctor this test for me?"  He did, I took it, got a 98.  Few weeks later, got another letter.  I'd gotten a 98, true.  But the test was in seven parts.  I'd gotten 100 on six of them, an 89 on the seventh.  Policy was, you had to score over 90 on all seven parts.  I had still not passed freshman English.  At that point, my only recourse was to move back to Provo, re-enroll at BYU, and take stupid @*^#&*^$(@#&(@^#(@$^*@&*)! freshman English. 

I was living in Indiana, in grad school at IU.  I absolutely did not want to move back to Provo for one ridiculous class.  I wrote to everyone I could think of.  No help.  Finally, someone suggested I appeal directly to the Chair of the English department.  I called, and his secretary answered--he was in a meeting.  We chatted, I explained my story--in three part harmony, with guitars and drums and an entire string section accompaniment--and it turned out she'd heard about it.  All those letters.  Then she said "seems to me, if that 89 could be changed to a 90, your problem would be solved.  Let me see if I can do that."  Incredulous, I asked, "you can do that?"  "I don't know," she said.  "Never tried."  Then I heard this 'beep' from a computer.  And she said "Congratulations, Mr. Samuelsen!  You just graduated from BYU!" 

That's the trick.  That's the secret.  If you want something from a company and what you want isn't policy, you need to find The One Person who can make it happen.  And it's not always the CEO.  Often, it's a secretary or administrative assistant, who knows how things work and how to solve problems.  Of course, a lot of the time, you'll run into people who are just determined to follow policy, period, end of story, them's the rules and bad luck to you. In which case, you keep after it.  Keep looking, until you find someone who isn't bound by policy.

A few years ago, we got a ridiculous bill from A T & T.  We'd switched carriers, and there'd been some computer glitch; they were charging us eighteen dollars a minute for in-state long distance.  That meant that an eight minute phone call from my wife to her sister in Salt Lake cost $144.00.  Called, fixed the problem, no problem.  Next month, we got another bill, for over $400.  Same thing, a few short calls to Salt Lake.   Called A T & T, and it turned out, they had a policy--they would fix that specific problem once, but not twice.  I owed them $400. 

It took three hours, during which time I was transferred to nine different people.  I kept my cool, just kept politely explaining my problem and what I wanted them to do about it.  Here's the key--some folks just don't have the authority to do anything about a stupid policy.  It's not that they don't want to help you, they can't.  So ask to speak to their supervisor.  One woman was rude--she was the Rules Nazi type.  They had a policy: sorry.  But even she told me something valuable--there were lots of people she was dealing with that day with the same problem I had.

Finally, I got a vice-President.  We went through it.  She finally agreed to override the policy, and zero out the bill.  "But," she said, "that's it.  If you get another bill like this next month, you will have to pay it."  "It's your computer problem," I replied. "If I get another bill next month, I promise, I will call you again."  I pointed out that I wasn't the only person having that problem.  And then I used the three magic words every corporation fears.  Class.  Action. Lawsuit.  Problem solved forever. 

I actually kind of like dealing with these things.  We all run into them, where what we need to happen conflicts with a policy.  I'm in the middle of one with BYU right now, over a chair (long story, not worth getting into).  Four rules:  1) Find That One Person who can help you, 2) Don't lose your cool.  Stay calm, polite and firm.  3) Know exactly what it is you want them to do for you, and all the reasons they should do it, and 4) Keep after them.  Persevere.  Don't give up. 

A fifth rule, too, perhaps.  Remember, the person you're talking to is just doing their job.  This isn't personal.  They have rules, and there's nothing wrong with them having rules--all companies have to set certain policies, and usually, what you want is outside their parameters.  But what's a policy for them is just an obstacle to you.  Don't quit until they give in. 

Monday, June 25, 2012

Hymns and the LDS hymnal

My favorite part of going to church is singing the hymns.  That's not necessarily true for the most exalted reasons.  The sad truth of our LDS hymnal is that the quality of the hymns is, alas, uneven.  Some are absolutely gorgeous.  Some are, frankly, kind of funny; unintentionally funny, but funny nonetheless.  And yes, I've been known to, uh, improve the lyrics.  And some manage to combine bad music with a bad text to be really completely uninspiring.  (To me, I should add.  If  you're reading this, and I'm dissing your faves--sorry.)

It almost goes without saying that nothing conduces to worshipful reverence like music.  On Father's Day, my daughter turned me on to Stumbleupon, and it led me, in turn, to the Vatican's interactive Sistine Chapel website.  The music was a mass: Palestrina?  If anyone knows, I'd appreciate hearing from you.  I listened to it for three hours.  I don't know when I've felt closer to God.  

Absolutely my favorite parts of General Conference are the hymns, especially since the Tabernacle Choir has managed over the last fifteen years to go from a really good choir to one of the greatest choirs the world has ever heard.  That's in part what happens when a great composer/arranger becomes head conductor.  Mac Wilberg is just astounding.  His arrangement of Come thou fount of every blessing moves me to tears every time I hear it.  That hymn, though, is not in our hymnal.  Likewise:  Simple Gifts. Not in our hymnal. My Shepherd Will Supply my Needs? Not in our hymnal. Amazing Grace?  Emma Smith loved it, wanted it in.  Didn't make the cut. 

What is in our hymnal is, of course, some glorious, worshipful music.  I wish that were true of all the songs in there.  Alas.  We've got "Put your Shoulder to the Wheel." I can't help myself; I rewrite the chorus: "we all have work, you lazy jerk, put your shoulder to the wheel."  I always sing "NO" for "YES" and "YES" for "NO" while singing "Shall the youth of Zion falter?" and I have been known to sing enthusiastically "high on a mountain top, a badger ate a squirrel."  And I've changed "In the cottage, there is joy" to "in the cottage, there is cheese, there is cottage cheese.  Put it on lasagna, please, oh that cottage cheese."  Plus there's "Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing."  Anyone else ever succumb to the temptation to sing "go tell Aunt Rhody the old gray goose is dead" instead? 

Worse than that are the really martial hymns.  I worship the Prince of Peace; I don't want to Behold a Royal Army."  Not a big fan of "Onward Christian Soldiers" or "We are All Enlisted" ("Happy are we?"  Seriously?  You're in the army, pal.)  Even "A Mighty Fortress" bugs me, though the music's glorious and "Ein Feste Burg" is a massively important hymn.  And worse than warlike are the cheerful ones. Check out the hymn categories for "Cheerful."  Nine hymns there, all of them sicky sweet shiny-happy-people happy:  "Scatter Sunshine," "Improve the Shining Moments" "There is Sunshine in my Soul Today", "You can Make The Pathway Bright."  Blarg.

I know, I'm a cynic.  I'm a mean, bad-tempered grouch.  Probably true.  I just like hymns to be worshipful.  I don't want to be exhorted.

Favorites?  Too many to list, maybe.  But I love If you could hie to Kolob.  I like this version. even better.  Such a nutty poem, with lovely music.  I love Oh Savior thou who Wearest a Crown. It's actually the chorus O Haupt voll blunden from Bach's St. Matthew's Passion. (Or, if you prefer, Paul Simon's "American Tune." Check it out; same tune.)  Lovely music, in English or German. I love "That Easter Morn." I love the pioneer ones: "Come come ye Saints" of course (with that astounding last verse; I like this version; imagine sitting around a campfire in Nebraska).  Do any of you know Adam-ondi-Ahman?  It's not sung often, but it's one of those beautiful, original LDS hymns.  I was never much a fan of A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief, until I heard it sung by David Johanson of the New York Dolls.  Do you know God of our Fathers, Known of Old? It's Rudyard Kipling's Recessional, given a beautiful setting.  Good hymn for nowadays--a great hymn urging humility for the world's one superpower. 

And now, I can think of twenty more hymns I love. But there's one in particular that I love.   Reverently and Meekly Now is unique among LDS hymns, because it's the only hymn written from the point of view of Jesus.  "In the solemn faith of prayer, cast upon me all thy care, and my Spirit's grace shall be like a fountain unto thee."  It's by Joseph Townsend, a guy I only know from Wikipedia; a Payson pharmacist, apparently.  Just a guy.  But he worshipped through song, and that makes him a friend.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Movie Review: Coriolanus

Coriolanus has been, for a long time, one of the neglected Shakespeare tragedies; rarely produced, certainly not often filmed.  In part, I think, it's neglected because the title character and protagonist is so unlikeable.  Coriolanus is a tough, mean, uncompromising SOB.  Early in Ralph Fiennes' brilliant film, we see him prowling the streets of Coriolus, shaved bald head drenched in blood, driving his men into a deadly urban battlefield by the sheer force of  his personality.  He fights his way into an apartment building, and goes door to door, looking for enemies to shoot.  Fiennes seems unstoppable, raw, brute power.

The look of the film is entirely contemporary, machine guns and tanks in battle, TV screens in the city scenes.  Fiennes wanted to do the film, but couldn't persuade anyone to direct it, so took it on himself--it's his first film, and let's hope it's not the last.

The story:  Gaius Martius, a soldier's soldier, returns from battle a war hero; having won his laurels in Coriolus, the Senate renames him Coriolanus, and power-behind-the-throne Senator Menenius (Brian Cox) schemes to make the new hero consul--President.  But power in Rome isn't just found in the Senate.  A consul has to woo the people too, and the newly minted Coriolanus remains the least ingratiating of political aspirants. Knowing this about himself, Coriolanus demurs, but his ferocious mother Volumnia (Vanessa Redgrave) persuades him to run for consul.  He proves himself no politician. Two Senators, the wily foxes Brutus (Paul Jesson) and Sicinius (James Nesbitt), stir up the common people in opposition, and he's finally banished from Rome. 

He seeks out Rome's great enemy, Aufidius (Gerard Butler), general of the Volcian forces he'd defeated in Coriolus.  Aufidius accepts his help--sees him as providing an easy path to conquest.  Knowing they have no chance of defeating a Volcian army commanded by Coriolanus in battle, the Romans send various old friends to try to talk him out of invading.  Menenius, rejected, commits suicide.  But there is one Roman strong-willed enough to stop Coriolanus.  Volumnia, accompanied by his wife Virgilia (Jessica Chastain), talks him into stopping the invasion. Rome is saved.  Aufidius, furious, puts Coriolanus to death. 

The filmmaking is superb, all hand-held cameras and brutal battle scenes and then, all these scenes in Parliamentary back rooms, with sleazy politicos plotting together.  The acting is beyond superb.  I know the play well, and I know that great confrontation scene between Volumnia and Coriolanus, in which she persuades him not to conquer Rome.  And still, when Vanessa Redgrave marches through this army camp to where her son sits in a camp chair, I thought "there's no way.  Not this Coriolanus.  he's so tough, he's so mean, there's no way she persuades him."  And then, she starts, and it's Vanessa Redgrave, 75 now, all those years of concentrated power and fury in her voice and body.  It's a clash of two great wills, and when she wins, it's somehow believable; incredibly, we buy it.  It's one of the greatest scenes in Shakespeare--watching the film, we get to see it as well acted as ever in history. 

But everyone's great in it--Butler, as the charismatic soldier Aufidius, Brian Cox, even poor Jessica Chastain, who makes something of the thankless role of Virgilia.  I was especially taken with a Belgian actress, Lubna Azabal, who plays First Citizen, and turns her into a kind of proto-terrorist, all brain-less direction-less anger and resentment; also an Israeli actor, Ashraf Barhom, who plays Second Citizen, a guy who tries to be a voice of reason, but is far too easily drowned out.  Tiny roles, both, but in this film, they're utterly memorable.

Shakespeare works well on film, I think because the Elizabethan platform stage was so versatile--it's pure theatrical space, and filling it required imaginative interaction.  We can re-imagine 'Coriolus' as Sarajevo, or turn Romeo and Juliet's Verona into Verona Beach, or let Richard III declare "now is the winter of our discontent" into a WWII era microphone, and it enhances the text, it doesn't do violence to it. And I rank Fiennes' work here among the greatest of Shakespeare screen adaptations, along with Baz Luhrman's Romeo and Juliet, Kenneth Branagh's Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, and Hamlet (which, I know, is wildly uneven; I still love it), and Richard Loncraine's Richard III, (with Ian McKellen).  It's an unsettling, shockingly contemporary play, with a modern cynicism about politics.  Did Shakespeare get everything right? 

Friday, June 22, 2012

Movie review: Jeff, who lives at home

One of my favorite movies ever was The Puffy Chair, a 2005 independent film, made on a budget of $1.83 (source IMDB), which was featured in 47 film festivals, all of which it won (you might not want to quote me there).  It was written and directed by two brothers, Jay and Mark Duplass, and starred Mark and a girl (Katie Aselton).  Mark played Josh, and Katie played Emily, and the premise is this young couple (not so young anymore, and together for a long time) who decide to travel cross-country to pick up a chair, an exact copy of Josh's Dad's favorite chair, bought on e-bay, and then deliver it to Dad for his birthday.  (His Dad, BTW, was played by their Dad). That's it--that's the entire plot.  Oh, and Emily's pretty well decided it's time for Josh to marry her already. And . . .he's not so sure. They also pick up his brother, Rhett (Rhett Wilkins), who travels with them, and marries a girl he meets in a movie theater, for about six hours.  I mean, they're married for six hours.  Josh and Emily are this annoying couple who are so lovey-dovey and icky you want to shoot them.  And that's how they go about not dealing with really serious problems in their relationship.  The dialogue in the film was so spot-on real it sounded improvised, which it was.  I don't want to give away the ending, but it was genuinely suspenseful and so well acted--it made the movie.  It was this smart, funny, heart-breaking movie about real people who we cared about--I got it on Netflix (they do that, deliver movies you want to see right to your house, as long as they're not the second season of Downton Abbey), and watched it three times one day. 

The Duplass brothers have gradually moved from the slums to the suburbs, professionally, with downtown penthouse aspirations.  Their next film, Baghead, was this semi-parody of horror films--it included their trademark sharp dialogue and characterization, and was if anything funnier than Puffy.  Next came Cyrus, a comedy of hostility, with John C. Reilly and Jonah Hill at each other's throats when Reilly starts dating Jonah Hill's Mom, Marisa Tomei. 

Now it's Jeff, Who Lives At Home, a beautiful little five actor comedy.  The plot: Jeff (Jason Segal) lives at home, in the basement of his Mom's house. (Mom was Susan Sarandon).  She wants him to go to the hardware store and buy a tube of wood glue so he can fix the kitchen blinds.  That's it.  That's the plot.

Well, there's a little more.  Jeff's brother, Pat (Ed Helms) is employed, but he's this fantastic a-hole who, after having a conversation with his wife Linda (Judy Greer) about how they need to save up for a down payment on a house, decides instead to lease himself a Porsche.  So that marriage's on the rocks. Mom, meanwhile, is getting mash note texts from a secret admirer at work (where's she's got this cubicle drone job doing something for some company).  And Jeff.  Well, Jeff is this guy who lives in his Mom's basement smoking weed all day, and watching Signs over and over (M. Night's space alien movie), certain that everything in life is connected and that he's on to discovering the cosmic secret to the universe, which, after a wrong number phone call, would seem to involve someone named Kevin. 

Jeff and Pat keep separating, but then, through the magic of 'Kevin,' reconnecting.  Among other things, they spy on  Linda who Pat is convinced is having an affair.  Turns out, she's thnking about it, but in the tautly written and acted scene in which he confronts her, our sympathies are entirely with her.  In another brilliant scene, Sarandon arranges to meet her 'secret admirer' by the water cooler, which becomes an embarrassing fiasco involving a guy who really did just need a glass of water. I said five actors--fifth was Rae Dawn Chong, the actual secret admirer.  Who gets, with Sarandon, a lovely scene involving an office sprinker system.

Of course it does all work out at the end, and the ending, which I won't give away, could be sentimental and yucky and isn't.  Turns out everything in life really is connected, and the key really is a guy named Kevin.  And the Duplasses get away with it.  It's just this likeable, funny, smart movie, about flawed and real characters who mess up big time and somehow then make up. 

The Duplasses have been called mumblecore directors.  I really hate that term--it seems dismissive, a put-down terms.  In fact, the Duplass brothers, like Kelly Reichardt and Lynn Shelton and Jeff Nichols and Chris Kentis and Kathryn Bigelow and even, now, Ben Affleck, and OMG yes, Mike Leigh, and, earlier, Scorcese have been defining a new film Naturalism a la Emile Zola, building an aesthetic on finely observed human behavior, rejecting Hollywood plot elements and moralizing, looking at real people and how they really actually do interact.  It's on TV too: Mad Men, Breaking Bad.  Watch: the Duplasses are going to make ten great films over the next ten years.  It's going to be fun to watch. 

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Conspiracy theories

We would all like to believe that most folks are rational; that people generally follow a decision-making process involving carefully thinking a problem through, assessing evidence, arriving at a thoughtful, informed judgment.  I'd like to think that something like objectivity is possible. And I do think that when we follow some kind of sensible, rational process, we get better results than if we just follow our gut.  Maybe. But we also have prejudices and cultural predispositions; we have our own 'monstrous partialities' (to quote Roger Williams.)

But then there are ideas, conclusions, determinations, theories that some folks believe in despite essentially ALL evidence.  There are ideas out there that are just flat nuts.  And what I've learned is that when people we know--friends even--believe in certain nonsensical theories, there's no shifting them.  They simply will not listen to evidence.  Ever.  My son gave me a book for Father's Day; Bart Ehrman's Did Jesus Exist?  Great book, really enjoyed it. It reminded me a bit of  Stephen Greenblatt's writings on the Shakespeare authorship question, a kind of scholar's embarrassment over having to address such a nonsensical issue.  There is as much evidence that Jesus never existed as there is for the idea that Shakespeare's plays were written by someone other than William Shakespeare, glover's son from Stratford.  That is to say, there is no evidence whatever for either proposition.  And there is an overwhelming consensus among serious scholars who have spent their lives studying either question that, Jesus existed, and that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare.  Here's Ehrman: "Anyone who chooses to believe something contrary to evidence that an overwhelming majority of people find overwhelmingly convincing--whether it involves the fact of the Holocaust, the landing on the moon, the assassination of Presidents, or even a presidential place of birth--will not be convinced.  Simply will not be convinced." 

I'm not sure anyone's immune, either.  A few years ago, for example, I was having an insomniac night alone with late night TV and I saw a special someone had made about the moon landings.  It was called something like: "The Moon landings: did they really happen?"  That wasn't the actual title, of course.  Anyway, that was its argument--NASA, to justify their federal funding, perpetrated this massive fraud on the American public.  All the Neil Armstrong "one small step" stuff was done in a movie studio.  It never happened.  There's even a mainstream movie based on it: Capricorn One, back in '77 (this particular falderol is of ancient vintage).  Starred Brenda Vaccaro, Sam Waterston was in it . . . and O.J. Simpson. Anyway, I'll confess, for about ten seconds, watching this stupid TV show (it was late, I was tired), I found myself wondering, gosh, could it be . . . is it possible. . . ?  But no.  Neil Armstrong really did land on the moon.  Sorry: he did. 

Of course, BTW, there was a mainstream movie based on it.  Most of the really popular conspiracy theories have movies based on them: JFK, The DaVinci Code, Anonymous.  Movies do paranoid nonsense well, from Knowing to, well, Conspiracy Theory

Why do people believe in nonsense?  Check out Richard Hofstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics.  Hofstadter's great book was written in 1964, before the Tea Party, before Birthers, before Truthers (the guys who think Bush orchestrated 9/11), but boy does it seem prescient.  I like Wikipedia's summary. In part it comes from a rejection of expertise, from a kind of proud rejection of pointy-headed intellectuals with all their fancy degrees and big words.  It's fun to think you know something nobody else knows, that you, personally, have Figured Things Out.  And of course it's self-perpetuating.  If you're an Oxfordian, you spend a lot of time on Oxfordian websites, for example.  If you're a libertarian, it's easy to find libertarian economists, people who reject Keynes, who think the New Deal didn't work.  And when you read only one kind of book, only one kind of article, when you visit only one kind of website, it's easy to feel confirmed in your beliefs, buttressed against all those unthinking masses you haven't studied as you've studied.  You're learned to conflate "evidence" with actual evidence. 

It makes life more exciting, less mundane. It feels good, to be in the know.  And it feels good to feel smarter than anyone else.   It feels good to give in to the crazy. 

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Roger Williams' America

I just finished reading a terrific book: John Barry's Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State and the Birth of Liberty.  I've always been fascinated by Williams, especially after reading Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates, about Massachusetts.  Vowell's an unconventional historian, of course--her books are half personal history, half actual history, but never uninteresting and at times, lol-funny.  But I'd been thinking I should read an actual historical book about Williams, and Barry's is the most recent.  And now I want to write a play about him.  I often get that urge, and usually it passes quickly--this time, we'll see.

Okay, so here's the basic story: Roger Williams was an apprentice to the greatest legal thinker of Jacobean England, Sir Edward Coke.  He was also a Puritan, and as Coke fell into disfavor with Charles I, Williams, to avoid arrest, came to America, and settled in Massachusetts, in Salem.  He was a marvelous preacher, brilliant and amiable, and also pretty unorthodox.  The Massachusetts Bay authorities tried to discipline him in lots of different ways, and finally banished him back to England--a death penalty, really.  So in the middle of the night, in the punishing cold of the worst winter in memory, Williams escaped.  He was taken in by Indians, and eventually made his way to what's now Providence, Rhode Island, where he started a new colony.

Williams' main offense was simply this: he thought it was immoral to combine Church and State.  He thought Massachusetts was wrong to punish people for their privately held religious beliefs.  He thought laws should be based entirely on the Second Table--that is, the last six of the Ten Commandments.  The First Table, which dealt with Man's relationship with God, should be entirely a matter of religious conscience.   

Here's one of the things I found remarkable.  Williams was as devout a human being as has ever lived on earth.  In his writings, it's difficult to find a single paragraph that doesn't invoke deity.  He made his living as a minister (at least early on--he came to believe that it was morally wrong for ministers to accept a salary.)  But when he wrote the city charter for Providence, there's not a single mention of God.  No other New England colony did that; every one expressed specific religious purposes for their colony.  Williams believed in complete freedom of religious conscience.  And practiced it.  So Rhode Island became a refuge for religious dissenters of all kinds.  He wouldn't even allow a church building in Providence.  He felt, if you had a church house, it would be the biggest building in town, and become a place where people would gather, and in time, it might become a place where decisions got made. . . . and politics would become part of the conversation.  

Another example: Williams loathed Quakers.  Massachusetts persecuted Quakers furiously--imprisoned them, tortured them, executed them.  Williams agreed theologically with Massachusetts' opinion, though not with their actions.  The Quakers taught universal salvation; they rejected predestination.  For Williams, and for Puritans generally, this was anathema.  Williams' writings attack Quaker beliefs with a most impressive rhetorical ferocity.  Rhode Island was the only colony with religious liberty, which meant the only possible home for American Quakers.  They started moving in.  And Williams responded.

By debating them.  That's what he did--he challenged three leading Quakers to a public debate.  It became this big public event, and afterwards, the Quakers stayed in Rhode Island, tolerated, their religion respected.  I mean, Williams welcomed Catholics, Jews, atheists, Moslems, even Baptists.  Quakers fit in fine.   

What else?  Williams thought it was immoral to take Indian lands.  He learned the language of the tribes in the region--I mean, conversational fluency--and wrote the first English/Algonquin dictionary.  He made friends with the local chiefs--lifelong, deep, personal friendships.  He preached Christianity to them, they preached their religion to him--everyone got along.  He purchased the land he settled in, and when there was land he wanted that the local tribe didn't want to sell, well, it was their land.  He banished slavery from Rhode Island.  (That one didn't take.  The family Brown University is named after made their fortune as slavers.)   

Barry's book is at its best in describing Williams' return to England in 1643.  All the English speaking colonies in America had unified politically.  The United Colonies wanted all of the Americas to follow one legal code; the theocratic code of Massachusetts.  They'd had enough of Rhode Island, and all that freedom of conscience nonsense. Plus they wanted Williams' land. So Williams went back to England to argue for a Parliamentary charter just for Rhode Island.  Massachusetts had every possible advantage in this dispute.  Their delegation was richer, better known, with better contacts.  And 1643 was in the middle of the English Civil War.  Puritans dominated Parliament.  The people Williams was trying to persuade were engaged in enforcing their own theocratic state.  And Williams was asking them to favor a small colony built on the rejection of theocracy.

Williams had a few friends.  One was John Locke, another, John Milton.  He also had his book- A Key to the Language of America. The English were fascinated with Indians, and with the possibility of Christian conversion.  Williams could prove two things--Massachusetts had done nothing to evangelize Native Americans, and he personally had done a lot.  That helped.  But mostly what Rhode Island had was Williams--his earnestness, his passion, his eloquence.  He could argue for a position that Parliament thought nonsense, and persuade people to give his point of view a chance.  Rhode Island was small, and weak.  An experiment, he called it--using the language of another close friend, Francis Bacon.  He won.

He left behind a little present.  While in England, he wrote a book: The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for Cause of Conscience.  It's a book of theology--the theology of tolerance.  He attacked as the worst kind of heresy what he called a "monstrous partiality": the hubris of believing that you're right, everyone else is wrong, and their wrongness requires persecution.  It was condemned by Parliament, censored, burned.  It was also a best-seller.  Nobody dared say they agreed with it. But many did, and throughout the English-speaking world, it had a tremendous impact. 

My daughter starts at BYU next fall, and she's taking a required 100 level class in American history.  I looked over her textbook for that class--it's called A Shining City on the Hill.  That's Winthrop, of course, John Winthrop, first governor of Massachusetts, with his vision of a millenarian America.  That's also a religious vision, a vision for America as Israel, as the Zion of the last days, of an American theocracy.  It was also a vision Roger Williams rejected.  And, I'm sorry, but I hold with Williams. 

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Thick as a Brick

Summer of 1972, my family packed up our Travelall, and made our annual summer trek to Utah.  My Dad loved our summer vacations, planned them carefully. The idea was, what interesting places could we visit somewhere between Indiana and Utah?  We'd visit it en route.  Sometimes, our en route destinations could be dangerous--my great-grandmother Mary Markham once refused to feed us on arrival because we'd stopped at the Truman library on our way to see her.  That's a Republican, by golly.  But I digress.  See what I did there?--talking about travel digressions by digressing. 

Anyway, visiting Utah meant visiting cousins, which meant, in turn, visiting the Steves.  I have two cousins that are about my age, and both, as it happens, are named Steve.  I don't get to see the Steves much these days, but we're still close, and I still think of both as treasured friends.  Anyway, I was a classical music nerd--Beethoven, Bach, Verdi, Wagner.  I knew some rock music, and I vividly remember when my friend's older brother let us listen to his brand new Beatles album--Sgt. Pepper's, but only if we promised to be very quiet and not bother him.  And we lay on the floor, listening, and it was basically one of the great religious experiences.  But Steve D was very into it, much more than me, and in the summer of 1972, he'd gotten tickets for me and Steve M and him: Jethro Tull in concert, at the Salt Palace. 

I'd never been to a rock concert before--didn't know what to expect.  We arrived, a band got on stage, started performing. It was awful: loud, boring, an assault on the ears.  I gave it a half hour, couldn't take it anymore, said to Steve D "man, I'm sorry, how offended would you be if . . . .."  I never finished the sentence. "That's the warm-up band," he said. "That's not Tull. I agree, they're awful.  Just hang in there, okay?" And soon enough they finished, to scattered, unenthusiastic applause.  "Okay, Tull's next," Steve told me. 

Okay, so the band cleared off, a bunch of roadies got on-stage, moving instruments around, plugging amps in.  They were dressed, for some reason, in white lab coats.  This took awhile, I'm sitting there wondering what was going on.  One of them picked up a guitar, was messing with it.  I heard these opening chords.  Suddenly, the guys threw off their lab coats, house lights go down, stage lights up, and they launched into "Aqualung." 

The concert had two acts--the first included all the songs on Aqualung, and the second was the entire album Thick as a Brick.  That link shows a live concert in '78, six years after the one I saw.  I was blown away by all of it.  For one thing, their lead singer also played guitar and . . . flute?  The sound, it was like this mix of folk music, classical music, jazz, and very tight rock and roll.  It had dynamic levels and nuance, it was complex, interesting music.  It was brilliant.

When I got home, I bought both albums, and wore them out listening to them. I still love Aqualung.   And Thick as a Brick was unlike anything else anywhere.  For one thing, the entire album was one, 45 minute song.  It told a story, a long, involved, complicated story--a king, an army of some kind, a coming-of-age.  Plus the lead singer was a baritone! Yay!  I could sing along with him.  And, boy,  did I. 

It was my favorite album ever, and still is.  And that summer of '72 was the last time they ever performed the entire thing live.  The clip above is what they've mostly done since--a twelve minute truncated version.  About which more later.

A bit about the band. I assumed that the lead singer/flautist was named Jethro Tull.  That's wrong--Tull is the name of the band, his name is Ian Anderson.  Early in their career, their music was so different from anyone else's, they had a hard time getting repeat bookings, so kept changing the band's name.  One of their managers was a history buff, and suggested they name themselves after the 18th century agronomist Jethro Tull--their first concert using that name, they got invited back for the first time, so that's the name that stuck. 

They're really Ian Anderson's band, in a lot of important ways.  He's their singer, he writes all their songs, and his flute is their signature sound.  Since 1969, Martin Barre has been their lead guitarist, and he's phenomenal, a superb musician who is sufficiently ego-less to subordinate his own technical genius to the band's overall sound.  During their peak, in the '70's, Barrie Barlow was their drummer, and John Evan their keyboardist.  Jeffrey Hammond, Anderson's closest childhood friend, played bass, but not terribly well--in the albums, Evan and Anderson would quietly sneak back to the studios and re-record the bass line.  Hammond eventually quit and is now a renowned painter--he was replaced by John Glascock.  David Palmer, who did a lot of their arranging, joined as a second keyboardist--their songs sometimes used piano, synthesizer, harpsichord, organ and mellotron, so a second keyboardist was helpful.  That's the lineup in that '78 clip.  Then Glascock, the new bass player, died of a heart attack, and Barlow, his best friend, quit, depressed. Evan and Anderson had a falling out--there have been many changes over the years.  Only Anderson and Barre have been constants.  When I saw them in Salt Lake in 2007, David Pegg and Doane Perry and Andrew Giddings joined Anderson and Barre.  Great concert, BTW. 

When I was in high school, Tull was my favorite band, and my favorite kind of music was what was called prog-rock.  Progressive rock.  Bands like Yes, Emerson Lake and Palmer, King Crimson, The Moody Blues and Genesis (back in their Peter Gabriel years) were all prog, as was the greatest prog band ever, Gentle Giant. I saw all of them in concert many times, especially Gentle Giant, who me and my friends sort of followed around, like some people did with the Grateful Dead. Dave Matthews is basically a prog band today--for sure Arcade Fire is one.  It's related to fusion jazz, to Herbie Hancock and Oregon and the Mahavishnu Orchestra.  It was all an attempt to fuse rock, classical music, folk and jazz together, to, as Gentle Giant put it on their Acquiring the Taste album, to "expand the frontiers of popular music at the risk of being quite unpopular." Here's a taste.

It's also kind of un-cool.  None of the bands above have made the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which is frankly preposterous.  But Rolling Stone magazine HATED prog.  Just HATED it.  It's actually officially on their mission statement: "to advance rock music everywhere, except for prog rock, which we HATE." Prog rockers did concept albums.  Shudder.  They had cellos and flutes and glockenspiels and harpischords.  It was pretentious.  It was laughable.

Except it's not.  It's great music.  It's genuinely great. Complex, original, never uninteresting.  Moving, powerful.  Smart, thoughtful music, that also moves my soul.  I love the late Beethoven string quartets, I love Wagner's operas, I love Bach's St. Matthew;s Passion.  And I love Tull. 

And now, Ian Anderson has written and recorded Thick as a Brick 2. That was my daughter's Father's day gift to me--I've listened to it four times already, and it's great.  This fall, he's touring it, and the original Thick as a Brick. They're coming to Salt Lake.  My wife bought me tickets for my birthday.  My best friend Wayne and I are going. 
I.  Can't.  Wait. 

Monday, June 18, 2012

British Bulldog

When I was a Boy Scout, many moons ago, we had a scoutmaster named Mike Mitchell.  He was British--that is, he was from Britain, had the accent, which we all thought was very cool--but was retired from the US Army.  He turned out to be one of the great men of my life.  We had the most awesome campouts.  We learned so many cool skills, like lashing--I could still, to this day, build a signal tower with logs and rope if for some reason I needed one. 

Brother Mitchell had this idea about Scouting. He thought the main purpose of it was to have fun.  People talk about scouting and how it builds character and teaches boys about leadership, and instills values and stuff like that.  Probably that's all true; though I remember with some vividness sitting around in a tent at Scout camp, some older boys telling us all, with great confidence and authority and, it turned out, truly astounding inaccuracy, where babies came from.  And probably Brother Mitchell taught important values too.  I just don't remember them.  What I do remember, and will remember until the day I die, were those campouts. And above all, I remember British Bulldog.

British Bulldog was a game he taught us, which we played essentially every night after MIA (what we now call Young Men's).  In fact, we told our parents Scouts went 'til 9:00 instead of 8:30, so we could have an extra half hour for British Bulldog.  It was a very simple game.  You played outdoors, in a field.  There were two goals, one at each end of the field.  One guy was chosen as It.  When he said "British Bulldog," everyone else ran from one goal to the next.  It tried to tackle one guy, and pick him up, hold him off the ground long enough to say "British Bulldog one two three."  If It succeeded, then that guy joined him as It; you had two Its.  The two Its would then try to grab a third guy, hold him up: "British Bulldog one two three."  If they succeeded, you had three Its.  The other guys couldn't just run--It had to say "British Bulldog" first, so you all ran together.  But guys would get captured, and eventually, everyone was It except for one final guy.  Then he had to try to run through the entire group to the other end.  That's how you won--you were then the British Bulldog champ.

Only two guys in our troop ever succeeded in becoming British Bulldog champ.  It was hard--you had to run past or through the whole troop, at least twenty guys. One champ was my friend Allen Teare.  He was a real athlete, very fast and quick, the starting point guard on our ward basketball team.  I was the other champ.  I wasn't fast or quick, but I was really strong back then.  Allen's approach was to use his speed and quickness to dodge people.  My approach was to plow ahead like a fullback, just keep my legs churning, and also grab people trying to stop me and throw them aside.  I only made it the whole way once, but man, I was proud of that.  And even when I didn't win, I was hard to bring down. 

Here's the thing: once It grabbed you and held you up--"British Bulldog one two three"--he'd just let you drop.  And there were no other rules.  Biting was frowned upon, but objections to it were more aesthetic than moralistic--it seemed an inelegant way to avoid capture.  Basically, though, British Bulldog was unrestrained mayhem.  I mean, that was the appeal. 

It's just unimaginable to me to think of any Scoutmaster today allowing boys to play British Bulldog, let alone, tell boys what the rules are and then watch matches and cheer, as Brother Mitchell did.  And it's not like he was saying 'careful, there, boys, we don't want anyone to get hurt.'  That wasn't Brother Mitchell's style.  He was more like 'get in there!  Grab him!  He's getting away!' recently ran this article, which involves the kinds of complaints about 'modern liberal overreach' to which I am generally unsympathetic.  But then I remember British Bulldog.  The thing was, when It grabbed you and held you up and shouted "British Bulldog one two three," it wasn't gently done.  And then, It (or in my case, usually several Its) would just drop you.  Right?  Just right on the ground.  And in our current litigious society, I think Brother Mitchell would have gotten in trouble.  I think teachers wouldn't have allowed it, or any of the other games that enlivened recess when I was a kid.  And maybe things are safer, and maybe that's good.  And maybe, also, we've lost something valuable.  Kids being kids.  Boys, rambunctious, wild, roughhousing boys, being boys.

Everything about British Bulldog hurt.  It was like tackle football, but with fewer rules.  We loved it.  But yeah, it hurt. It wasn't unusual for the smaller kids to start crying; bloody noses, black eyes, bruises, road rashes were all common.  The point was to never, ever, tell your parents what we were doing.  We were united in conspiracy.  A little kid, weeping in pain, knee of his trousers ripped out, nose bleeding, skinned knee and elbows would nonetheless angrily reject the very idea that he might tell on us.  "No way," he'd say.  "I'm no rat fink." And the next week, that same kid would be the first to ask "Brother Mitchell?  Time for British Bulldog yet?"   Such is the power of peer pressure.

We also played tackle football, of course.  Touch football?  Flag football?  Games for wusses.  My house had a backyard that was very long and very narrow and very liberally festooned with dog crap from our beloved Prancer.  That made it a perfect venue for tackle football, involving every guy in the neighborhood, where every play was a fullback plunge.  Our driveway was for basketball--the rule there was, it wasn't a foul unless it drew blood.  Layups were, uh, rare--uncontested layups, unknown. 

And Scout camp was also about, well, violence.  I vividly remember a game of Capture The Flag that took one whole day during a campout one fall.  Two hills, flag atop each, with a stream in the valley between them, covering at least, two miles.  I still remember my friend Larry May grabbing the flag, sprinting off, taking a huge leap off a cliff, landing in a bramble patch to victory.  We learned all sorts of values that day, like strategy and tactics and whacking people with flag poles.  It was great.

And yeah, we got hurt.  I kept breaking my arm.  Different arms, many times.  I broke an arm playing backyard football, I broke an arm running track, I broke an arm being flipped off a log by my best friend Wayne Johnson ten minutes into summer camp one year.  I never broke an arm playing British Bulldog.  No one did, which is good, because we thought our parents probably wouldn;t approve.  (I think, though, they knew, and thought it was fine.)

I'm an Eagle Scout, because my Scoutmaster was Mike Mitchell, and he was (no hyperbole, just fact) the greatest Scoutmaster in the history of the world.  And I expect I learned all sorts of great values from Scouting. Mostly though, dang, we had fun.  Brutal, dirty, violent fun.  Perfect for a troop full of boys.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Burping and acting

Watching on ESPN this morning, I was enchanted by a guy going for the record in the world burping championship.  I think he was trying to beat this guy.  My guess is, you had the same reaction to that clip that I had--"Man, Russell Crowe can burp." 

You may also be wondering, "there's a World Burping Championship?"  Indeed there is. In fact, I'm not sure what I find more enchanting; the existence of such a championship, or the fact that the winner's named after a Roman God.  But I personally find this all very reassuring.  In fact, I am an excellent burper; an amateur, to be sure, but a gifted one.  I take pride in that fact.  I am really very good at burping.

We all were good at it once.  When our kids were babies, we had to burp them, basically after every meal.  Generally, burping the kid was my responsibility.  For obvious reasons, Annette did most of the feeding, then she'd hand the kid over, and I'd lay him/her over a shoulder and pat gently.  You learned pretty early on to first lay on a burp cloth over the shoulder, in case the burp turned, uh, productive.  But when the kid finally did burp, it was glorious.  The kid would just beam, this huge beatific smile.  "I did that?" the smile suggested.  "I am so talented."  In fact, come to think of it, burping may be the first real skill kids develop.  Rolling over, crawling, walking; they all build on that first discovery, the power of the burp.

I am privileged in my life to be friends with a man I consider the finest actor working in Utah right now, the great Kirt Bateman.  Last year, I wrote a play, Borderlands, which I still think is the best thing I've ever written.  It was given a magnificent production at Plan B, played to packed houses, nearly got me fired, won awards, Plan B extended the run--just an incredible experience.  Kirt played Dave, a used car salesman, and was amazing--I'd still buy a car from him.  But at one point in the play, I wrote in a burp for Dave.  He's sitting in the used car sales office, drinks a soda, and burps.  And another actor responds to his burp, so he pretty much had to do it.

I still feel a little weird about that.  Kirt's a fantastic actor.  But it turned out, he just wasn't a consistently great burper.  Some nights he burped really well--he'd kind of relax and let it rip, and it was a beautiful thing to watch (and hear).  Other nights, it would sort of fizzle.  Instead of an awe-inspiring, chest pounding, proud-to-be-human BRAAAAAP, he'd sort of go Bluuup.  I felt so bad for him, those nights. 

I blame acting schools.  They spend all their time teaching 'playing objectives' and 'stage movement' and, you know, 'acting.'  Kids get almost no training in really useful acting skills.  Like spit takes. That's important stuff.  What if you, oh, I don't know, are on Jimmy Fallon's show?  It could come in handy, that particular skill.  Or, you know, doing a double take.  All sorts of useful skills that actors should have ready in case they're needed.  Like the eye poke. Or a goofy accent.  Or the stage slap.  Or slapstick generally.

I'm proud to say, I can still burp, at some length, on command.  I was never much of an actor, and my skills have, sad to say, deteriorated.  I can't really cry on command anymore, or, you know, get up from a chair.  But I still can burp. 

Friday, June 15, 2012

It's going to be a rough ride

It's June--we have a national election coming up in November. It's going to get ugly. Both parties are out there, running ads, both candidates making speeches.  The stakes are high.  We're going to be subjected to tremendous loads of misinformation from both sides.  We don't know what's going to happen, of course, but the competing campaign narratives are taking shape.  Here are a few claims that will be made.

1a) Mitt Romney's record at Bain Capital, the private equity firm he co-founded, will be scrutinized.  He will be accused of destroying jobs, of predatory investment strategies.  We will see ads in which we see blue-collar workers describing how their lives were ruined by Bain.  In fact, they already exist.  Nobody likes the guy who fired them, but the reality is much more complicated than that.  Here's what wikipedia says about the company. In fact, private equity firms invest in failing companies, and try to turn them around.  About 75% of the time, Bain's been successful.  Essentially, what Bain does is what President Obama did with the auto industry.

The Republican narrative is that the federal government needs to be restructured and downsized, much the way Bain did with private companies.  Private firms are not the US government.  But if you think that this approach should be tried, then Romney would be a good choice as President. 

1b) President Obama is going to be accused of spending money foolishly,  Expect phrases like 'spending spree,' and 'spending like a drunken sailor on leave,' and similar phrases suggesting wanton profligacy.  It's all nonsense.  In fact, even counting Obamacare, Obama hasn't overspent. It is true that the federal deficit has grown under Obama, but that's almost entirely due to the recession.   (By the way, I've tried to go with reputable, non-partisan sources for these links.)

One argument that we've heard and will continue to hear is a moral one--it is immoral, say conservatives, to rack up large debts our grandchildren will have to deal with.  I agree with this argument, but with this codicil--I think our current levels of unemployment are similarly immoral. It's immoral to sustain an economy in which my son's generation, graduating from college, can't find jobs.  If we can stimulate employment--and there's not much question that government can--it seems immoral not to try.  

2) Expect both the budget plans of Governor Romney and President Obama to be characterized as unrealistic and damaging.  Romney's plan is, if anything, worse than his critics have suggested. President Obama's plans are much vaguer, and similarly unrealistic.  I should add that I plan to vote for the President, largely based on this factor--I think the President's plans, though inadequate, are a step in the right direction: Romney's plans, in my view, are economically unsound.

3)  The biggest issue in this campaign is certain to be the economy.  Democrats have generally argued that the US remains in a demand-side recession, and that expanding deficits are a symptom, not a cause of our economic woes.  In general, Democrats want more stimulative spending to boost employment, and more aid to states. Republicans reject Keynesian economics, and believe that large federal deficits harm the economy, making investment more difficult. 

The most outspoken liberal economist is almost certainly Nobel laureate Paul Krugman of the New York Times.  He has been highly critical of Obama, because he doesn't think the stimulus package Obama called for was anywhere near adequate.  He has a new book out called End This Depression Now, which I have read, and recommend highly.  Krugman's blog is a daily must-read.  But Krugman's views are actually pretty mainstream--most academic macro-economists agree with him.  My son just graduated from BYU with a degree in economics--he said, when it came to macro, what he was mostly taught was basically Keynesian. 

Conservatives like to cite various Austrian school economists--Hayek and von Mises--both of them long dead. Most libertarians cite the 19th century French satirist Frederic Bastiat (who is really very witty and entertaining), and Henry Hazlitt's Economics in One Lesson.  (Hazlitt had no formal training in economics--he dropped out of college after one semester, and spent his life as a journalist.  I honestly think that's one of the reasons libertarians like him, and one reason academic economists disdain him.)  I've been known, on occasion, to waste time arguing on the internet with libertarians, and they always have a book they want you to read.  I've read a few--Murray Rothbard, Gary North--and found them interesting, but ultimately, unpersuasive. Certainly there are no conservative economists as outspoken or well known as Krugman. 

There's also an historical argument we should expect.  We're in the worst recession since the Great Depression--Krugman calls it, The Lesser Depression.  So people want to re-litigate the New Deal.  Arguments will be made that Roosevelt's policies didn't work, that they made the Depression worse.  This kind of counter-factual speculation strikes me as foolish and unproductive; there's no actual evidence to support the idea that the New Deal didn't save our nation. 

In this next election, I don't think social issues will matter much.  Gay marriage is an issue neither side seems very interested in touching on, because public opinion on it is shifting so rapidly, neither side can be sure where the political advantage is.  Abortion is tricky--Democrats want to highlight states that impose restrictions on abortion rights, and unmarried women are an important Democrat demographic.  But because of Romney's changing positions on abortion, he's not a terribly plausible pro-life zealot.  And I think a lot of Americans share my own feelings about abortion--a profound ambiguity and unease. 

I am, as I said, going to vote for President Obama.  But it's going to be a close and ugly election, and I hope we can at least vote on actual policies, and not partisan distortions of them. 

Wednesday, June 13, 2012



I have been a San Francisco Giants fan since the mid-60's.  Growing up in south-central Indiana, this was a very odd thing for me to be. Most of my friends were baseball fans, to be sure--we tended to like baseball third best among the major team sports, after basketball and basketball.  Almost all my friends were fans of the Cincinatti Reds, since they were closest to Indiana, or the Chicago Cubs, second-closest.  (You just didn't root for the White Sox.  You just didn't.)  But San Francisco?  Seriously?

But playing Little League baseball, our coach took us to a game in Cincinatti, where the Reds were playing the Giants, and we got to shag flies during batting practice.  Some of my friends and I wanted to get Pete Rose's autograph--he turned us down, rudely and profanely.  Fighting tears, I wandered away, and this huge black guy came over and said "what's the matter, kid?"  It was the Giants brilliant first baseman, Willie McCovey.  He took me over to the Giants' dugout, and I got my glove signed by five eventual Hall-of-Famers: Willie Mays, McCovey, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry and Orlando Cepeda, as well as other Giants' greats--Tom Haller, Jim Ray Hart, Jose Pagan, Hal Lanier.  My Mom threw that glove away when I went on my mission.  I expect someday to be able to forgive her. 

Later in life, I began dating a girl from San Jose, went to visit, and thought I'd ingratiate myself with her family by offering to take her little brother with us to a baseball game.  We went to Candlestick Park in San Francisco.  Willie McCovey, close to the end of his splendid career, played his next to last game that day.  He hit a single, hit it so hard to right field, he was nearly thrown out at first.  The Giants lost.  They lost a lot, those years.

It's nice when the team you root for wins.  In 2010, for the first time in my life, the Giants won--won the World Series.  I glowed, for days I glowed.  But you grow to truly love a team when they lose, especially when they lose valiantly, bravely, after a great struggle.  From 1962-1969, the years I became a baseball fan, the Giants had the best record in baseball--that's the most wins, cumulatively, for that 8 year period.  They never won any single year.  Made the playoffs in '69, lost the World Series in '62.  But year after year, Mays and McCovey and Marichal would finish barely second. 

Willie Mays was as close to baseball perfection as anyone I ever saw play--fielding, hitting, baserunning, he was great at all of it.  But his lifetime batting average was .302--he got hits 30% of the time.  And yet, in baseball, perfection is possible.  A pitcher can throw a perfect game.  He can face 27 batters, and get all of them out.  It's rare--only happened 22 times in the 130 years of major league baseball.  And no one on the Giants has ever done it--not Christie Mathewson, not Carl Hubbell, not Marichal or Perry or Timmeh.  (Giants' fan refer to Tim Lincecum as Timmeh). 

Until tonight. Matt Cain pitched a perfect game tonight.  Finished it ten minutes ago. 

Matt Cain is either the second or third best pitcher on the current edition of the Giants.  I think that's about right--he's not quite as good as Timmeh, and he may not quite be as dominant as Madison Bumgarner.  Such is the brilliance of the Giants' pitching staff--he'd be the best pitcher on the team for almost anyone else.  He's twenty seven, a big kid from Tennessee, drafted out of high school, in the majors since 2005.  Heading into this season, we had a lot of concern about him--his contract was about to expire, leaving him a free agent at the end of the season.  We had horrible nightmares of Matt pitching for the Yankees.  But this spring, the Giants' organization signed him for 127 million over six years.  He's a Giant; he'll pitch for us until he retires.  I was amazed that he signed, honestly.  Up to tonight, his defining characteristic as a pitcher has been bad luck.  Giants' media calls it 'getting Cained', pitching brilliantly while your team doesn't score, losing games 1-0.  (That wasn't going to happen tonight--we scored 10 runs, our season high, he wasn't getting Cained tonight.)  He's a good guy--he and his wife bought a house in the Bay Area, he gives a lot to charity.  He's a team leader--the team's union rep. 

And now he's perfect.

We never get to be perfect, we human beings.  And perfection, even in baseball, is equivocal, human, limited.  Baseball perfection, I suppose, would be a game in which the pitcher struck out every hitter on three pitches.  Nobody does that.  There was one foul ball in this game that was barely foul, so close that the replays were inconclusive--that could have been called fair, and ruled a hit.  A long smash to right center looked like a sure hit, but Greger Blanco, our rightfielder, ran and ran and dived in the warning track and barely came up with it--an amazing catch. 

Still, it's something to contemplate.  That perfect mixture of stuff and command, a superb pitcher in full control of his craft, exquisite pitch after exquisite pitch carving up the Astros' hitters.  The camera kept cutting to Chelsea, his wife, in the stands.  She was crying, couldn't watch, couldn't not watch.  My right hand still hurts, I was clutching the remote so hard.  Cain looked--indomitable, fearless.  A final groundball to Joaquin Arias, playing third.  He looked terrified, moved to his left, fielded it, stumbled a little.  It looked like he was going to fall down.  Then he threw, a bad throw, off his back foot, not a strong confident throw.  But enough, in time. Brandon Belt caught it, and went nuts.  125 pitches.  14 strikeouts. 

Perfection.  And perfect jubilation.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Two different takes on vampires

My daughter and I, in our never ending quest to scare the wee out of ourselves, checked out two pretty good vampire flicks recently, praise be to Netflix (may their profits ever grow.)  The first one, Fright Night, is a recent remake of the 1985 film--the original was more a spoof of the genre, while this one balanced the funny and scary quite delightfully.  It's got Colin Farrell as the vampire, and was directed by Craig Gillespie.  I don't know much about the director, except that he's mostly been a TV guy, but he also directed Lars and the Real Girl, one of my all-time favorite movies ever.  The premise is that these two high school nerdy kids, Charley (Anton Yelchin) and Ed (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) come to suspect that Charley's next door neighbor, Jerry, is a vampire.  Turns out, he is.  And terror ensues. Charley enlists the help of vampiric entertainer Peter Vincent (David Tennant), who purports to be an occult expert, and who has built a successful Las Vegas act around said expertise.  Naturally, he's a fraud and poseur--also inevitably, he ends up overcoming his innate smarmy prat-ness and helps win the day.

But it's Colin Farrell's film.  He's just great as a kind of suburban handyman Lothario, who turns one of those Vegas tract house neighborhoods peopled by lonely, cougar divorcees into his own personal vampiric playground.  He's Jerry the vampire, a toolbelted heartthrob, a lithe and meaty predator.  He's charming and funny and lethal, and he carries the film.  Interesting take on vampires--not the decaying Mittel-European aristocrat, like Drac and Nosferatu, but blue-collar, all muscle cars and wife-beaters.   Yelchin's fine as the putative hero, but you never really sense a guy who could possibly stand up to Jerry. But add the creepazoid Peter Vincent to the mix, and we do actually buy the obligatory happy ending.

Can I also express my endless admiration for the effortlessly flawless American accents sported by actors from across the pond?  Farrell's Irish, Toni Collette (who plays Charley's Jerry-besotted Mom) is an Aussie, and Imogen Poots (Charley's girlfriend) is an impossibly lovely British lass, but they all sound pure American Southwest.

A very different take on vampires comes from a low-budget American film Stake Land.  It's a post-apocalyptic vampire film, reminds me a lot of The Road, and The Book of Eli, but I liked it a ton more than either of those very good films.  The director, Jim Mickle, has only made one other feature, Mulberry Street, which I haven't seen but which is apparently a lot like this: an urban post-apocalyptic tale, only with ginormous rat things instead of vampires. 

In Stake Land, the world as we know it has been destroyed by vampires, and people wander around, trying to survive.  The film follows two such people: Mister (Jim Damici), a grizzled, gnarly, tough old vampire hunter, and a kid he sort of adopts, Martin (Connor Paolo, from the TV series Revenge).  They drive around in a battered old car, hunting for vampires, who in this film are sort of insensate predators, incapable of strategy or tactics or any vestige of humanity--pure, desperate killers.  Mickle's vision of vampires is actually a lot closer to most movies' take on zombies, until the end of the film, when we finally do meet an intelligent, though completely evil, vampire.  We also see hints of what little human civilization that has survived.  We see a couple of old West-y towns, and we hear of something called New Eden, which Mister seems to be seeking.  But there are also The Brotherhood; a religious cult, who conquer through rape, and have helicopters, which they use to airdrop vampires into the towns. 

The plot, such as it is, involves Mister adding, one by one, other survivors to his gang, who then, one by one, die tragically.  Damici is quite brilliant as Mister.  He lives to hunt--he doesn't just kill vampires who happen upon him, he trolls for them, he actively hunts.  For much of the film, he seems half-vampire himself--we see hardly a sign of kindness or compassion or humanity.  But he does befriend a few stragglers, and fights just as hard to protect the new additions as Martin.

The new additions include a nun (Kelly McGillis), who Mister saves from Brotherhood rapists, Belle (Danielle Harris), a pregnant teenager who survives by playing guitar and singing in towns, and a lost Marine, out of touch with his command (Sean Nelson). 

The film's very episodic, driven by voice-over descriptions of the devastated landscapes this small group of travelers struggle through.  But the acting is tremendous, especially from Damici, who I've never heard of (and who also gets a writing credit), but who is a consistently compelling presence in the film.  It may seem strange to talk about a thoughtful, well-made post-apocalyptic vampire film, but this genuinely is one.  I liked it better than the more critically acclaimed The Road.  It's almost as bleak, but it has more going on--it was just more compelling, I thought.  Anyway, my daughter and I both recommend it highly. 

Monday, June 11, 2012

Movie-ending final fight scenes

My wife and I were watching Dune last night.  Not the David Lynch movie, the 2000 mini-series.  Anyway, the last scene of the movie was, as mandated by federal law, a fight scene between the hero and the bad guy.  It was very exciting, but really only for one reason.  The good guy in Dune was played by a stolid block of granite named Alec Newman--in the fight, we saw the actor's entire emotional range, from sullen to, well, no, actually, that was it.  But since it was the last scene in the movie, there was always the chance that he'd portray something else--anger, greed, humor (no chance of that) maybe even lust.  That never happened, but one could hope.  I spent the entire movie thinking the bad guy was being played by the Winklevoss twins, but alas, Armie Hammer was only fourteen when they made the thing, so his Mom probably wouldn't let him out of school.  Instead it was Ivan Drago.  No, actually, it was a different tall blonde guy named Matt Keeslar.  Of course, it was immensely suspenseful--who would win?  Would Paul Atreides/Muad-dib/Kwisatz Haderach, the hero of the ENTIRE SERIES, win and wed the emperor's pretty daughter?  Or would the murderous Feyd, of the brutal house of Harkonnen, upset the entire plot we'd been watching for six freaking hours

Is it just me or are those the most tiresome scenes in all movies ever? Final fight scenes, man.  Every single stupid action movie has to end the exact same way, with the exact same outcome.  All of them, without fail.  Don't you feel kinda bad for the bad guy?  Shouldn't he get to win at least once?

Dune was sort of hilariously bad, especially the costume design, in which all the women got to wear the most ludicrous hats ever put on screen.  But the fight scene set new lows for unsuspensefulness.  First of all, Feyd was a really minor character.  He was only a third-tier bad guy, even--he had an evilly plotting uncle who got way more screen time, and a cousin character who you knew had to be a way worse human being because the actor who played him was physically unattractive. Second, Paul Atreides had this kind of Matrix-y lean-to-the-side-to-dodge move he used.  Except he doesn't use it for most of the fight.  I mean, his entire life, plus the empire, plus his marriage all rest on winning this fight, and he has this amazing trick which will win it for him, so of course he waits until the end of the fight when he's almost dead to use it.  Like any of us would.

In The Avengers, there's this nice moment in the final fight scene.  Loki, the bad-'un, says to the Hulk "I am your God!  Worship me!"  And Hulk grabs him and goes wham wham wham, smashing him back and forth on the ground.  That's a nice twist on the final fight scene convention, in which the villain and hero not only have to fight each other, but the hero has to almost lose a bunch of times.  You know, so it'll be suspenseful. 

I know why we do it.  All modern action movies are based on conventions developed in the 19th century.  Melodrama was the main form for popular entertainment for a hundred years, and it had these rigid structural requirements--heroes and villains, comic sidekicks, cliff-hangers, stunts and special effects, a heroine in need of rescuing, musical unscoring to pump up the excitment.  Theatre History textbooks say melodrama died out around 1915.  Theatre History textbooks lie.  What happened in 1915 wasn't some growing sophistication in audiences rendering the conventions of melodrama tiresome.  No, what happened in 1915 was Birth of a Nation.  D. W. Griffith figured out that everything melodrama did on-stage, movies could do way cooler and make more money at.  Plus, to give his nifty new plaything some weight and heft and intellectual cachet, he tossed in lots of racism, that being his days' cultural au courant discovery.  So the heroes got to be this Hot New Thing--the Ku Klux Klan.  They're the good guys, they're the cavalry riding to the rescue in Birth of a Nation.  Nothing's changed today.  Any popular delusion of our day can be melodramatized--the Mayan calendar predicting the End of the World?  Done.  Apollo 11 finding Something Out There?  Done. Treasure maps on the back of the Declaration of Independence (a subset of Founding Father worship).  Done. 

The only thing we do differently today is our heroines don't get rescued.  We don't like that; we're all feminists now.  Of course, women in action movies can kick butt like any guy. But they can't actually be, you know, people.  They have to essentially define contemporary notions of sexual allure.  They have to look insanely hot.  So we're only sort of feminists.

They can also help the hero win the final fight scene.  If there's an evil sidekick character, they can maybe take him on.  But the hero has to win.  The hero wins, not because he's plausibly better at fighting than the villain.  He wins because it's a required plot convention.   

In fact, I can only think of one final fight scene that actually works dramatically.  It's from Rob Roy.  Liam Neeson v. Tim Roth.  What's great about it is that Liam Neeson--the hero-- never has a chance.  Roth plays this sociopathic freak who's an amazing sword fighter--Neeson hasn't a tenth of his training or skill.  But Liam's fighting for his family.  And manages to win plausibly.

Mostly, though, they're dull.  And that's weird, isn't it, a requirement that the climax of a movie be boring? 

Look, I like movies, and I like action movies.  I also like apple pie, hot fudge sundaes and chocolate cake with my wife's sour cream frosting.  Action movies are plenty fun. But mostly we should be watching better films.  Right?  We should actually be trying to learn something about the human condition, maybe.  Plays are better at that.  At least I think so.