Friday, August 31, 2012

How not to root for a Mormon, when you are one

My grandfather was a Norwegian, a steelworker, a union man, and a life-long Democrat.  As such, he believed that Walter Mondale was the finest man ever to run for national political office.  Of course, a lot of that had to do with Mondale's strong support for unions, but a lot of it was Mondale's Norwegian ancestry.  Mondale's grandparents were from Sogndal; they moved to Minnesota in the mid-nineteenth century.  That was close enough for my grandfather; he loved the guy.  He walked on clouds for most of the '84 election; well, all except for the result part.

I thought about that last night, as Mitt Romney accepted the Republican party's nomination for President.  A Mormon: a major party nominee.  I thought, of course, of Missouri and Governor Boggs, and Van Buren of 'your cause is just' fame, and of the humiliations of the Smoot hearings.  Of the colossal unconstitutional farce that the Smoot hearings even happened.  I thought of Joseph Smith's quixotic run for the Presidency back in 1844.  He had no chance of being elected, of course, but a platform of internal improvements, compensated emancipation for slaves, and prison reform could well have headed off the Civil War, if implemented.  I thought of the great Mo Udall, such a great mixture of ironic distance and passion, for the poor, for an end to Vietnam; still my favorite Mormon politician ever.

And I thought of Barack Obama, and what his victory meant to my African-American friends.  The idea that he could win was inspiring in ways I can hardly imagine.

A Mormon, one vote away from the Presidency, and the validation that would mean.  It's an awesome thought.

We all have these words we use to describe ourselves, and we all feel close to people who describe themselves similarly.  I am a father, I am a baseball fan, I am a playwright, I am an American, I am a liberal.  When watching the Olympics, we find reasons to root for or against certain athletes, and of course, one major rooting interest is patriotic. As an American, I root for Americans.  As a Norwegian-American, I also root for Norwegians.  I am a Mormon, and a Mormon is now the Republican candidate for President.

But boy am I torn.

Because another word I use to describe myself is 'liberal.'  And I go with liberal, not 'progressive' or 'left-leaning moderate' or whatever.  Ever since the Fox News commentariat started treating 'liberal' as a dirty word, I'm got even less interested in backing down from it.  In my ward, at Church, I've heard people use the word 'liberal' as an epithet; I call 'em on it, and it hardly ever happens anymore.  I'm a liberal.  I'm also really into politics, really into policy; being liberal is something worth defending, I think. I'm an L-word liberal, in other words, and the more I'm attacked for it, the more tenaciously (obnoxiously) I cling to it. 

So Mitt Romney is the Republican nominee for President, and a self-described conservative.  (This week: snap!).  I think he's a good guy--I still have very fond memories of the Salt Lake Olympic Games, and give him full credit for stepping in like he did.  I think that's a genuine accomplishment, something to be proud of.

But I don't want him to win.  I think the policy positions he has chosen are uniformly awful.  I think he'll make a terrible President, if elected, not because he's a bad person, but because he believes in policies that have no chance whatever of working.

So I'm conflicted.

I have a Dad and a brother who love Romney like my Bestefar loved Mondale.  And my Dad seemed genuinely puzzled the other day.  I have a lot of misgivings about the Obama presidency--so why wouldn't that make me a Romney supporter?  What I did not explain carefully enough is that my difficulties with the President are precisely why I'll never vote for Romney.  It's not that Obama is too liberal--he's not liberal enough.  I have reservations about Obamacare not because it's a step towards socialized medicine--I have a problem with the fact that it's NOT socialized medicine.  That's what I want: a single-payer system.  Of course, it's possible that Mitt Romney is not actually the die-hard tea party conservative he's campaigning as.  That's frankly the only reason to not move to Canada if he wins (as my daughter threatens to do.)  He might actually not be completely horrible.  He might even be a slightly less inept President than George W. Bush.  That's a thin hope to cling to.

But he's running against Barack Obama, a man who I also genuinely admire, and who holds policy positions that, though somewhat to the right of mine, are reasonable and thoughtful and likely to work, somewhat, at least.

I want to warn people against Romney, warn them against the perils our country faces if he wins.  But I have to do it without warning them against a man I admire, a kind of man I also sort of am.  The approach has to be: "Don't vote against the Mormon! Do! Not!  Uh, for policy reasons, mind.  He's actually a really good guy.  But don't vote for him!  Oh, and I'm a Mormon too, as it happens. . . So. . . ."

What do you know about the Church and would you like to know more?"     

Thursday, August 30, 2012

The New Normal

Every fall, the TV networks announce their new fall 'season.'  TV's calendar has traditionally followed the school calendar--summer ends when school starts in the fall, at which point, presumably, folks have more time in the evenings to watch TV.  Plus, they're building audience for October sweeps (the Nielsen ratings in October that determine advertising rates).  So there are all these news shows in late September, and ads for those shows starting in August.

A few years ago, I taught a class on sit-coms, which meant watching every new sit-com one fall.  Since that time, I've gotten in the habit of trying to watch at least one episode of every new show (except for reality shows, 'cause life's too short).  My wife has put up with the fall new show blitz for years, and is tired of it, so we'll pull back this year, only watch some of them.  One we will not be watching is The New Normal, on NBC.  KSL, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake owned by the Church (my church, Mormon), won't be showing it.

The premise of The New Normal is something like this: a gay couple in LA decides to adopt.  A single Mom from the midwest agrees to be their surrogate.  Her conservative grandmother rounds out the cast.

It's from the makers of Glee, I'm informed by the ads for the show.  Well, I like Glee a lot, because I like music a lot, and I like the idea of a musical TV show.  (Anyone else remember Cop Rock?  Check this out!)  And the singer/actors on Glee are all really good, and the musical sequences are often very clever and fun.  And the show's terrifically gay friendly, which I also like.  Kurt, a gay kid who's one of the show's central characters, is exceptionally well acted by a kid named Chris Colfer, who has the most beautiful singing voice.  And his father is a mechanic, and a very blue-collar guy, who nonetheless is completely supportive of his son, and their relationship is really lovely.  It's the best thing on the show, honestly.  The writing on the show is also massively preachy and irritating and cliched and bears the same resemblance to actual life in an actual high school as The Village People bear to actual construction workers, police officers and Indians.  So Glee's a mixed bag.  Boy, is it ever.  But it's worth watching, because of stuff like this.  And this.  And this

So The New Normal is going to be a gay-friendly TV show by some of the same people who write Glee.  Which might mean what's bad about Glee (the writing), and not what's great about Glee (the music.)  Which might mean kind of a bad show, honestly.  I love that Glee's gay-friendly.  I think that's awesome. It's also not all that ground-breaking. Uh,Will and Grace

Which is why, although this is the kind of thing about which I suppose I ought to have an opinion, either outraged or supportive, in fact, I don't.  KSL's statement defending their decision was pretty weasel-y: "dialogue might be excessively rude and crude. The scenes may be too explicit or the characterizations might seem offensive... For our brand, this program feels inappropriate on several dimensions, especially during family viewing time."  Might be?  Didn't they at least preview the pilot?

But rude and crude dialogue?  Uh, have you seen an episode of Whitney?  Also on NBC? Sexually explicit, and aggressively, unwatchably un-funny Whitney?  This fall, NBC's got a sitcom during family hour called Animal Practice, about the sexual hi-jinks of veterinarians; that's okay? And they're both on during 'family viewing time.'  

Ah, 'family viewing time,' that supposedly sacrosanct hour from 7-8 (first hour of prime time) when TV's supposed to show some discretion and at least marginally better taste; well, the New Normal's on after that.  When you think of the irredeemable rubbish available on TV, cable and networks, during that hour, it seems a little preposterous to insist that networks follow it.  And, of course, they don't.  Also, count how many police procedurals are on during 'family viewing time.'  Shows that basically live for rape and murder and serial killers.  Of course, on those shows rapists and murderers and serial killers all get caught and sent to jail, but with lots of graphic bad stuff shown along the way.  So how is that 'family viewing'? 

Look, to state what's obvious, KSL overreacted to a show that suggests that loving and committed gay couples represent some kind of 'new normal,' even though they actually obviously do. I think the show promotes gay marriage and I think the Church owns KSL.

I was talking to a friend the other day, a great guy, LDS like me.  And he said that he opposed gay marriage.  I know this friend's brother, who is gay, and I asked this: "if your brother were to come to you and say, 'I've met the man of my dreams, we're flying to New York and getting married,' what would you say?'"  And my friend said, "I'd be so happy for him.  That would be awesome."  And he would, and he'd come to the wedding, and he'd give the new couple a crock pot or a small appliance or something. It's possible to oppose gay marriage in the abstract, as a political issue, but also support your gay friends.  In fact, isn't that what most people, on either side of the political spectrum, do?

I'm on record as supporting gay marriage politically.  I'm also on record as opposing bad television shows.  I have no idea where that places me in regards to The New Normal.  Quite possibly, the show may be so dreadful that this entire kerfluffle will have been forgotten in six months.  If it turns out to be good, I'll catch it on Hulu.  Or maybe even  KSL's decision won't affect anyone who really wants to watch it.  Meanwhile, older viewers, who maybe don't know how to access Hulu, won't have to be troubled by it.  And that's all this is about.  

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

What not to wear

Reality bites.  As an actress niece of mine likes to point out, every time a reality TV show airs, it means money out of the pockets of hard-working actors.  They could fill that time slot with another scripted drama--they could create Art.  Instead, we see 'reality.'  One could even make the case that Reality TV is ontologically disorienting, phenomenologically warped; it's not about what's real, but what's 'real', it constructs a post-modern 'reality,' a carefully scripted, carefully edited selection of scenes that were staged and filmed and crafted and honed and polished and probably even rehearsed, mostly in an effort to make shallow, petty people appear shallower and pettier.  It's Jersey Shore, it's American Gypsies, it's Swamp People, it's The Real Housewives of Wherever.  It's the Kardashianization of American society.  It's the End, the Apocalypse, Ancient Rome, The End of Western Civilization.  Or something.

And then there's Clinton and Stacy.

I love What Not To Wear.  

I have spent my life in the theatre; studying it, teaching it, directing plays, writing them, even, on occasion, acting.  Costumes matter.  It's amazing what a good costume designer can do, the way costumes can enhance, or maybe even help create a character.  We are what we wear, and studying that, both historically and contemporaneously, provides a marvelous insight into human culture, human psychology. 

Liking costume design doesn't mean I can actually do it.  I know just enough so, when I'm directing, I can sort of nod knowledgeably when my designer takes me on my first rack walk.  "Hmm, yes," I opine sagely. "Yes, that'll work nicely.  Well done."  My great friend Janet Swenson (a costume designer of rare and extraordinary talent) knew me well enough to see right through me, which is not to say we didn't have our disagreements when working together.  But we always wanted the same thing.  We wanted the clothes to reflect the characters. 

I also can't do it in real life.  I would be perfectly capable of dressing like a hobo all the time.  In fact, I only dress like a hobo part of the time, when my wife isn't there to say things like "you're not seriously going out in public dressed like that, are you?"  The homeless bum look works for me.  It's not that I value comfort over fashion, I value comfort over everything

In case you're hopelessly in dark right now, What Not to Wear is a reality TV show; it's on TLC.  It stars Clinton Kelly and Stacy London.  The idea of the show is: ordinary people who go around dressed badly get nominated (turned in, really) by their friends. It's like a fashion intervention.  Clinton and Stacy film them surreptitiously for a couple of weeks, commenting all the while on their terrible taste, then confront them.  The target folks then get fashion advice from Clinton and Stacy, and a credit card with five grand, which they can use for a New York shopping spree.  They get a hair and make-up makeover, and then they get to show off their new look for the friends who recommended them in the first place.

Here's why I love the show: Clinton and Stacy are incredibly good at this.  The people on the show are not fashion models.  They're very average looking people; sometimes, quite unattractive people.  But Clinton and Stacy never put them down (they tease them good-naturedly in the early going, but it's very light-hearted).  Instead, they'll say things like "you're short, but you have lovely eyes, and you're a little small-busted.  So a good look for you would be. . . ."  And it's amazing--these people (almost always women) look terrific after their make-over.  They really do; they look way better; not just more attractive, but more confident, more self-assured.

And that's what's really wonderful.  These women, they'll admit they dressed badly not just because they didn't know how to dress well, but also because they were insecure, they didn't want to be noticed, they wanted to blend into the background, they didn't feel good enough about themselves to make the time and effort to dress well.  Clinton and Stacy build their confidence.  They take very average looking women and they say 'you're actually really beautiful; if you wear different colors or different styles or wear your hair differently, your unique, personal beauty will have a chance to shine.'  

Clinton's especially good at this.  He just comes across like this great friend, warm and sympathetic and kind.  He and Stacy have a great rapport--they seem to like each other, and like the people they work with.  Clinton's gay--I only know that because I happened upon a magazine in the doctor's office where he talked about marrying his partner in New York--but it's not Queer Eye or something--his orientation isn't front and center on the show.  Instead, his expertise is the focus.

I love people who are good at their jobs.  We have a mechanic we've been taking our car to for twenty years now, because he's just amazing.  We have a guy who mows our lawn who's like the best lawn-mower ever.  I admire competence.  And there's a sub-genre of reality TV shows that feature that, people who are really really good at something, like Mythbusters, or Cake Wars, or Antiques Roadshow.   I think shows like that promote expertise, promote excellence.  I think it's good to be good at stuff.  Nobody's better than Clinton and Stacy.    

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Politics and the Structure of Melodrama

Checking the network TV listings, the Republican National Convention is what's on this week.  I won't be watching.

I don't watch informercials.

But I especially don't want to watch this year.  I have insisted from the beginning that this election is between two decent, honorable and competent men who happen to disagree about policy.  You'd never believe it from watching the campaign unfold.  It's gotten uglier and uglier and nastier and nastier, with no end in sight. 

Both parties clearly feel that there's a political advantage to be gained by going negative.  Back in 2000, David Foster Wallace wrote what I still consider one of the most thoughtful and brilliant essays on contemporary politics: "Up Simba!"  Both parties have a solid bloc of voters who will vote for them no matter what.  It's in both parties' interest to make the process so awful that it turns off thoughtful, non-partisan folks, who might otherwise prefer an honest discussion of the issues.  And so what could be a reasonable national conversation about our problems and how to solve them, becomes melodrama.  Bad guys, good guys.  Invented narratives suggesting moral turpitude. On both sides.

Melodrama's a product of the nineteenth century.  The Industrial Revolution crowded farmers into cities, created massive transportation and communication networks, and created the need for popular entertainments for working class audiences.  Melodrama combined comedy and tragedy, action and adventure, fantasy and romance.  The stories were uniformly of heroes, villains, heroines and comic side-kicks, with lots of physical comedy and action sequences, all pumped up with musical underscoring.  It was a diversion, fun and exciting.  Folks ate it up.  You got involved in the action, too.  You booed the villain, cheered the hero.  I remember when I saw Star Wars the first time, first movie I saw after my mission; Darth Vader made his first entrance, and we booed.  Fun stuff. 

Theatre history textbooks say melodrama died out around 1915.  Poppycock.  Melodrama didn't die out, it moved to another medium.  D. W. Griffith is the seminal figure here, a guy who figured out that film could do everything the stage could do, only more excitingly and much much more cheaply.  Instead of traveling by train, town to town, lugging with you all the stage machinery necessary to put a fake train on-stage so you could tie a girl to the railroad tracks, to be rescued at the very last minute, you could film that sequence with a real train, and open in every town in the country on the same day. 

And especially in American melodrama, two villains were particularly popular.  One was the avaricious banker, the moneybags financier, who foreclosed on the family farm or rented you an unlivable tenement apartment. The greedy, smooth-faced (or moustache-twirling) rich guy.  Boo!  Hiss!

Or, the frightening foreigner, the anarchist, the swarthy mysterious stranger in our midst, somehow not really us, not really a true-blue American.  Smooth-talking stranger, quietly insidious, as he undermined The Family and The American Dream.  Jews were particularly popular villains in this vein, but also folks from other ethnicities; gypsies, Eastern Europeans, orientals. 

And so Democrats construct Mitt Romney as the avaricious capitalist.  In one popular narrative, he (and his cronies at Bain Capital--could you imagine a better name for them: Bain=Bane) fired a guy, costing him his health insurance, and his wife died as a result.  Perfect!  He foreclosed on the family farm, and Ma died of a broken heart.  We know that story; it's in our genes, practically. That's why all the pressure from the left to get him to release his tax returns--we know he's rich, we want to know how rich, and how much he's paid in taxes.  Very, and not much, is our guess.  So one of his main calling cards, his success in business, gets used against him.  

And Republicans construct Obama (it's never Barack Obama, or President Obama) as the anarchist foreigner, the untrustworthy Other.  They can't really construct him as the nineteenth century Negro, either as the grinning Steppin Fetchit fool, or the wise old Uncle Tom accommodationist.  They know better than to employ racism that baldly, plus, of course, Obama is stylistically so . . . reasonable, so cool, so unflustered. There's not really a Negro stereotype that fits him.  That's why they've been so busy painting him as a Man of Mystery.  The birther nonsense plays into that.  And that's why the Right wants his school records.  That's why you'll hear ridiculous garbage about his college years: how he doesn't seem to have had friends, and how all his classes were from Marxist radicals.  They're trying to paint this pro-business moderate as some kind of communist.  Or Moslem.  His middle name, after all, is Hussein. 

It's hard to sort through all the nonsense and get to the actual issues.  One game both sides play, for example, is to find some foolish thing someone in either party has said, and use it to suggest that this is the kind of thing Those People actually believe.  We're human beings, we all say dumb things from time to time.  But if you can make hay of it, make it seem like the other party consists of people who aren't just folks you disagree with, but monsters . . .  anything to win, right? 

'Course, something else can happen too.  Something as dangerous and potentially catastrophic as the Paul Ryan budget plan starts to look, well, substantive, a triumph of Policy over public relations.  That's what's really scary--when extremism gets a free pass. There actually are policy issues in this campaign of genuine importance, and while I'm endlessly willing to look at ideas from any source, some ideas really are bad ones.  If that makes me look partisan, so be it--there are good ideas and less good ideas and also some real stinkers.  We should acknowledge that as well.   

Best way to deal with it all, though, is to look, whenever possible, for the funny.  Really, there's nowhere on earth where human petty vanity and foolishness and pride and ambition are so painfully exposed.  The predominant dramatic structure for politics has become melodrama.  But really, as every great writer from Aristophanes to Mark Twain has known, it's the richest possible field for comedy.  Jon Stewart for President, and let's tune out the nonsense. 

Monday, August 27, 2012

Casa de mi Padre

When I saw Will Farrell on Jon Stewart, promoting his new film, Casa de mi Padre, I knew I had to see it.  The clip they showed wasn't so much hilarious as deeply weird, and I'm all about deeply weird.  Will Farrell in a homage/spoof of telenovellas, in a role in which he speaks entirely Spanish.  A language, by the way, which Will Farrell does not speak. It looked like the kind of odd-ball vanity project maybe ten people would see, but it also looked so strange, how could I resist?  So last night my wife and I, thanks to our Netflix fairy godmothers, watched it.

What can I say?  It was one of those movies that we both liked, but it was one of those where I kept laughing out loud and she'd say 'what?  I don't get it.'  And then I'd rerun it, and she'd laugh and I'd laugh more the second time. A lot of the jokes were in the backgrounds of shots, a lot of them involved continuity errors (turns out, my wife's better at spotting those than I am).  Plus it had Will Farrell, speaking Spanish.

The homage/spoof is a genre I've grown to love, especially the ones remaking a kind of movie nobody makes for real anymore, the grindhouse/drive-in movie movie.  When I was in high school, me and my friends would crowd into my car and head over to the Starlite drive-in on a Friday night and we'd watch these terrible old American International/Roger Corman films.  Bad sci-fi, bad car chase movies, blaxploitation films (unaccountably popular in white-bread Indiana), and occasionally, bad Westerns.  For my birthday a few years ago, a good friend gave me DVD's of a double-feature he and I remembered fondly, a particularly awful drive-in double date double feature.  Hitchhike to Hell, and Kidnapped Coed.  My son and I watched the DVD together, and my son, who I like to think we raised proper (a movie buff, in other words), was entranced.  He couldn't believe someone seriously made movies that bad, or that there was a market for them. When drive-ins went under, though, an entire B-movie industry went under with them.

And B movies were amazing, really, which is not the same thing as saying they were good.  They had tremendous drive and energy.  Every shot was in one take (they typically had, like, a week to shoot them), and the actors did their own, very dangerous, stunts.  When I was in MIA (the forerunner to Young Men's/Young Women's), our leaders always warned us against movies with, as they put it, gratuitous nudity and violence.  We'd nod our heads solemnly, knowing we were off that Friday to see drive-in movies that were basically nothing but gratuitous nudity and violence.  Hey, I was sixteen. But that's a lot of the voyeuristic pleasure of movies.  And, as I said, I still appreciate the pace and power of those films, their urgency, and of course, the music.

And nowadays, out of affection, big-deal studios are tackling them.  Black Dynamite (2009) parodied blaxploitation cop movies.  Robert Rodriguez, Eli Roth and Quintin Tarantino made Grindhouse (2007), which was subsequently re-released as two movies, Planet Terror (spoofing zombie movies), and Death Proof (spoofing car chase movies).  Loved 'em both, probably more because I'm so fond of the movies they're making fun of/honoring.  ('Cause it really is both.  You're mocking the conventions of these things, but you're also trying to make a really good one.)

So now, Will Farrell is doing novellas.  And it's brilliant.  Of course, Farrell doesn't actually speak Spanish, which means he has to speak it rather slowly, which means the subtitles can keep up, but it also makes his character seem slow-witted, which is fine because he is.  Farrell is Armando Alvarez, a simple cowhand, but also son of the wealthy Don Miquel (Pedro Almendariz).  Armando's brother, Raul (Diego Luna), is smarter, richer and a drug dealer; he's come home to introduce his new bride, Sonia (the impossibly beautiful Genesis Rodriquez, who turns out to be a pretty nifty comedienne).  But Raul is in a turf war with the vicious drug lord Onza (Gael Garcia Bernal), who it turns out is Sonia's uncle.  (That's pretty funny too; he looks younger than she is).  Bernal's an international movie star, of course, and he's clearly having a ball here, vamping it up as a slime-ball.  Meanwhile Armando falls in love with Sonia, although really he's so dim he doesn't seem entirely sure what to do about it. (He does, quite memorably, figure it out.) He also hangs out with his two best friends, Esteban (Efren Ramirez: Pedro from Napolean Dynamite) and Manuel (Adrian Martinez). 

There are songs, of course.  Including "no lo se", a song Farrell sings with his two buds, about how he doesn't know anything. ("Why does the moon shine at night?  No lo se!").  Funniest song in the movie, except perhaps for a song in which the lyrics are, in their entirety, "la la la."  There's also a bloodbath scene at the end, all slow motion shots of people getting shot, which somehow looked just fake enough to be funny.  (Diego Luna, who spends the entire movie with a drink in his hand, takes a sip as he falls, gunned down). 

There's also a white jaguar, played by a puppet so fake it was practically a muppet.  It dispenses spiritual wisdom, and heals Farrell when Bernal shoots him.  There also appears to be a sequence in which the white cat defeats several coyotes, which we don't see--instead, an apology statement appears on-screen for the gratuitous violence of the scene.  

It's not falling-down-in-laughter funny.  But somehow I laughed more than if it had been overtly funnier.  The director, Matt Piedmont, is an old writer friend of Farrell's from his Saturday Night Live days; he knows how to set up a gag and make it pay off. 

At his best, Farrell is the funniest man alive.  Of course, his movies are uneven--they all have funny moments, but they don't always hold together.  This movie looks at novellas with affection and good cheer.  I don't know how many people will see it, but it certainly tickled my funny bone. 

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Not all masterpieces

Sorting laundry this morning, I thought I'd watch a little VH-1, their weekly top twenty program.  Getting a sense of what records the kids these days are spinning on their phonograph machines.  First song up, Maroon Five.  Second, Matchbox Twenty.  Third, No Doubt: (I thought they were dead!)  And all the songs were, wow, generic pop tunes. The Maroon Five song sounded like all the other Maroon Five songs--I think there were goldfish in the video.  The Matchbox Twenty song had an okay guitar riff, but otherwise seemed sort of vaguely misogynist--there was a fashion model in the video.  The No Doubt song seemed to be about trucks. 

As a certified 'get off my lawn' aged geezer, I suppose it's required that I make disparaging remarks about the music of today, pointing out the insipid lyrics and forgettable tunes and unmemorable personalities of what's on the radio these days, assuming people have radios and listen to music on them.  We baby boomers are particularly obnoxious in that regard.  I'm reading a book right now about Ahmet Ertegun, founder of Atlantic records, and the guy who discovered, signed and promoted, oh, Buffalo Springfield and Sonny and Cher and Crosby Stills Nash and Young and Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones and heck, I'm still only on chapter four.  You've probably seen those internet memes dissing Justin Bieber, comparing his dumb lyrics with those of Frank Sinatra or Bob Dylan.  I mean, we baby boomers, we single-handedly ended the War in Vietnam, solved racism, invented rock and roll and landed on the moon.  Take that, kids nowadays. 

Yeah. Except it's all nonsense.  Vietnam was exceedingly popular among my age group in the 60s, the civil rights movement began in the 50s, and the 26th amendment, giving young people the vote, resulted in a landslide win for Richard Nixon, who the newly enfranchised kids voted for nearly 2 to 1.  As for pop music, it's worth pointing out that this song, and not, you know, "Stairway to Heaven" was Ahmet Ertegun's first big hit with Atlantic.  "Splish Splash" as recorded by Bobby Darin.

We love to falsify history, we love to revise it, with particular emphasis on our own supposed heroism or nobility or coolness.  This is particularly true of the history of popular music.  It wasn't all Abbey Road and Live at Leeds.  The songs of my youth were certainly not all masterpieces.

I thought I'd take a glance at the Billboard Top 100 for 1968, just to see what was popular back then.  I was twelve that year, and had just discovered radios and the music to be found on them. I listened a lot that year.  And I mean, '68, the year of the Chicago Seven, probably the Beatles' greatest year.  I bet pop music was amazing in '68.

And it was. The number one song on the Billboard top 100 for 1968 was this, the Beatles singing "Hey Jude."  Top that, other years.  So what was number two?  This.  "Love is Blue," Paul Mauriat and his Orchestra.  Okay, okay, not a half bad tune, not exactly a classic, but not too shabby.  How about number three? 

"Honey."  Bobby Goldsboro, singing "Honey."  I can't say definitively that "Honey" is the worst song ever recorded.  It certainly faces stiff competition.  But it's got to be in the running.  It's got it all: a syrupy heavenly chorus, idiotic lyrics, appalling sexism bordering on abusive misogyny.

How about '69? Big year for music, '69, what with Woodstock and all.  Big year for Creedence Clearwater Revival, big year for Sly and the Family Stone, big Stones year.  Elvis did "Suspicious Minds" that year.  So guess, just guess, what the number one song in America was in 1969?  I'll give you a hint: they didn't play at Woodstock.  Here, guess, then click on this link, see how you did.  I'll wait.

That's right.  The Archies, singing "Sugar Sugar."  Same year as Woodstock. 

Jump ahead a few years, to 1972, my first year in high school.  Great year for music, 1972.  Wow, was it ever.  Led Zeppelin Four came out that year, probably their best album.  "Stairway to Heaven" was on that album.  The Rolling Stones had a good year as well, with Exile on Main Street: "Let it Loose," "Torn and Frayed," "Tumblin' Dice." Often considered their greatest album.  Jethro Tull came out with Aqualung that year; Elton John, with "Rocket Man," The Moody Blues with "Nights in White Satin," Don Maclean with "American Pie."  Great year for music, '72. 

Billboard number one: a darn good one, Roberta Flack with "Killing Me Softly With His Song."  Number three, another good song, "American Pie."  I love numbers two and five, though.  Gilbert O'Sullivan with "Alone Again, Naturally" and Sammy Davis Jr. with "Candy Man.

As for nowadays, sure, some dumb songs are on the top forty today.  Absolutely. That's always, always been true.  But Iron and Wine is a fantastic band, as good as anyone in the sixties.  Adele is better than Janis Joplin.  There, I said it, and I stand by it: she's flat better.  Bon Iver is amazing.  I don't know any band, from any era, I would rather listen to than Arcade Fire. The Civil Wars is a great band.  It's not all Justin Bieber.

And is Justin Bieber any more obnoxious than, oh, any other pretty boy with a soulful voice popular with thirteen year old girls?  Like, say Tommy Roe, Bobby Sherman, Donnie Osmond, Leif Garrett, Shaun Cassidy?

I've been lucky enough to grow up surrounded by terrific music.  Kids today are equally blessed.  No one generation gets to be coolest.  


Friday, August 24, 2012

Home from the hospital, finance, and asymmetrical information

My wife's home from the hospital now, napping while I blog, feeling much better though still pretty wrung out.  And I just finished reading an interesting book about banking.  And Paul Ryan is Mitt Romney's VP pick.  And the Dodgers are pulling off a huge trade.  And all this got me thinking about asymmetry of information theory.  Hang on.

Here's why my wife was in the hospital.  She had a very minor medical complaint a couple of months ago.  Off to our doc, and she (the doc) said she wanted to run some tests, and sent us to a specialist for more tests, and he eventually said she needed surgery.  Not urgently, not immediately, but her condition, not serious now, was likely to get more serious if untreated.  He performed said surgery on Tuesday.  Actually, a robot performed it, under the docs' supervision.

Paul Ryan plans to phase out Medicare, replace it with a voucher system.  Instead of Medicare just paying for treatment, folks would get vouchers they could use.  The idea is that people would price compare, and the magic of free markets would drive the costs of medical care down.

I just finished reading a book about the rise and fall of WaMu, Washington Mutual, the bank that until fairly recently held the mortgage on my house.  WaMu, at one point, bought Long Beach Mortgage, a company that specialized in high risk loans, whose salespeople were especially fond of an instrument called an Option ARM.  That is, an adjustable rate mortgage, in which the customer could make one of several monthly payments, the lowest of which was interest-only.  They literally generated thousands of these loans, and at one point, WaMu's risk assessment folk looked at them, and said that if 5% of Option ARMs failed, the bank could be in very serious difficulty.  In point of fact, around 95% of them went into default. Not 5%, 95% failed.  And that's probably the main reason WaMu no longer exists.

What ties these stories together is that phrase, asymmetry of information.  To start with my doctor; there was never a point in our dealings with him when we had anywhere close to the kind of information he had regarding my wife's medical condition, and no possible way for us to obtain sufficient information to make an entirely informed decision.  He said she needed the surgery, and he explained why, and we trusted him.  I don't regret that at all.  I think we were entirely right to do so.  Our health insurance company had access to better information than we had (they employ doctors who consult with them), and they approved it (routinely, I think), and we trusted them as well.  That's the essence of the patient/doctor relationship.  They know more than we do, and we trust them to make appropriate decisions, to give us sufficient information to make what passes for an informed decision, to trust in their training and in the ethical standards of their profession.  That's how medicine is practiced in our country, and it's hard to see how it could be practiced any other way.  Doctors are very well paid, and we don't resent that either--they've earned it, through years of training and experience.

That's why the Paul Ryan voucher plan won't work, can't work.  It's ideology masquerading as reason.  If I'm planning to buy an I-Pad, or a vacuum cleaner, or a pair of shoes, I can gather enough information pretty quickly to make a reasonably informed decision.  And the stakes are low--it doesn't really matter much if I buy a vacuum cleaner that doesn't work all that well.  I'm out a little money, and that's all.  So market forces do tend to drive the costs of I-Pads down over time, and also drive people who make bad ones out of business.

But that's not true of health care. I wasn't about to call around to ten doctors to ask what they'd charge for the surgery.  I wasn't about to call around and see if someone could do the same surgery cheaper but probably less safely by not using the robot. If I'd had reason to question the doctor's diagnosis and proposed treatment, I might have asked for a second opinion from another doctor, but the same asymmetry of information would have applied to that conversation. And in fact, not having the surgery was not an option we ever seriously considered. I'm not particularly interested in my holistic medical options, or price comparing those options with those offered by the surgeon. This is my wife's health we're talking about.  I didn't want the cheapest doctor, or the cheapest surgical option, I wanted the best, I wanted state-of-the-art. And I wanted science. If my insurance had balked at it, I would have done my best to switch to a different insurance carrier.

The WaMu Option ARMs are similarly a story about information asymmetry.  WaMu's risk assessment people decided to hold a series of meetings with people who had used Option ARMS to finance the purchase of their homes.  They'd have these group sessions, and would ask really basic questions, like 'do you know what an adjustable rate mortgage is, do you know the difference between that and a fixed rate mortgage?'  They learned that folks had no idea.  They didn't have the slightest clue what kind of mortgage they'd signed up for.  All they knew is, a salesman had told them they would be able to buy their own home.  They'd gotten statements with several possible payments listed, and made the lowest one.  Every time.  They didn't, for the most part, know what 'foreclosure' meant, or how interest worked.  They had simply signed a bunch of papers and moved into their homes.

Multiply that situation times several million, and you have a world-wide financial crisis. Which is why it's essential that consumers be protected from unscrupulous lenders. Long Beach Mortgage style lending practices can and should simply be regulated out of existence, precisely because there will never be a symmetry of information between lenders and consumers.  I would add such regulations once existed, but no longer do.  Which is why, for me, deregulation is a dirty word.

In Eugene O'Neill's play, A Long Day's Journey Into Night, Jamie, the protagonist, is furious with his father, because he's dying, in large measure because his father never would pay for a good doctor, but only wanted the cheapest doctors.  That's the situation that existed before health insurance; really in that brief time in the early twentieth century when the medical profession was just starting to actually figure out how to diagnose and treat previously lethal diseases, but before medical schools and the AMA and the whole health care establishment we have today.  And it's entirely a good thing that the whole apparatus, training and self-policing and licensing, that all of it exists.  It works.  People get better from things that used to kill them. We're so so much better off.

That's why I like Obamacare.  I think every American should have access to affordable health insurance. That's why I loathe the Paul Ryan Medicare plan.  That's why I like regulations over financial markets.  I think unregulated finance just invites unscrupulous people to rip folks off.

And as a Giants' fan, I think the Giants' front office should try to block the Dodger trade somehow.  I think there's a mechanism to get it done, and I think they should try.  But I admit they have better information about it than I have. 

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Giants/Dodgers: Three days in August

Hospitals are wonderful places, temples to science and healing.  Also depressing: I find myself in need of diversion.  And what better diversion does American society offer than baseball.

It's late August, and the Giants and the Dodgers are essentially tied for first place in their division.  Based on the games they show, ESPN seems to think the greatest rivalry in baseball is Yankees/Red Sox.  Strewth!  Balderdash!  That's like the rivalry between Richie Rich and Scrooge McDuck--that's Microsoft v. Google.  When the two richest teams in the land go at it, I'll admit to a certain schadenfreudish hope for comical catastrophe, but that hardly meets the criterion for a rivalry. Giants/Dodgers goes back to the New York roots of both teams, given a NoCal v. SoCal twist.  Giants/Dodgers is sick

A week ago, though, things looked grim for my 'Jints.  Melky-gate had rendered us all gloomy.  This past off-season, the Giants pulled of a comically one-sided trade that landed us the second best hitter in the National League, Melky Cabrera.  He instantly became a fan favorite, with an entire section of the ballpark devoted to fans of his dressed like milkmen; i.e. the Melkmen.  (Or Melk-maids, for those of the female persuasion).  Then we learned of the possibility that his success was due in part to chemical enhancement--he had tested positive for testosterone.  It got worse--turns out Melky had paid someone ten grand to create a fake website, to create the impression he'd ordered a vitamin supplement on-line, not knowing, see, that it was laced with PEDs.  It ain't the crime, it's the cover-up that gets ya. 

So he's gone, suspended for the rest of the season.  And he's a free agent at the end of the year, and the Giants have lots and lots of historical reasons to be real uninterested in signing a steroids abuser.  So Melky's gone, the Melk-man outfits permanently retired.  And a team that struggles to score runs anyway just lost its best hitter. 

Or second best.  Because our catcher, Buster Posey has, without much fanfare, put together a wonderful season.  Last year, Buster's ankle was destroyed in one of the ugliest injuries I've ever seen on a baseball diamond.  A complete recovery seemed unlikely.  For him to come back, this season, better than ever, well, beyond a miracle of medical science, also suggests a young man of remarkable strength of character. 

And this Giants team is about pitching, about a brilliant core of young pitchers.  For us to have any hope of winning the pennant, the kid pitchers are going to have to step up.  This Dodgers' series--in Los Angeles--would show us all what they're made of. So the Giants are about pitchers and the guy who catches them.  That's the core of my favorite team.

Monday: Madbum. 

Most twenty two year old pitchers are still in the minor leagues, trying to harness their talent, developing secondary pitches, honing their craft.  Madison Bumgarner is already pitching big games in his third pennant race.  Madbum is a tall left-hander, from Hudson, North Carolina.  A good Christian kid, married to his high school girlfriend, his Mom's a schoolteacher.  He's got a smooth, three-quarter pitching motion, hides the ball well, throws a big fastball and sweeping curve, but his best pitch is a slider, which he gets in on the hands of right-handed batters.  Monday, he was up against the Dodgers' best pitcher, Clayton Kershaw, and it was a gorgeous game, a taut duel between two terrific young lefties.  Giants' first, Angel Pagan (and yes, that's his name, got to be the most conflicted name theologically since Jim Gott was facing Tim Teufel) hit a double, got bunted to third, scored on a fly ball by the Panda.  Pablo Sandoval, in other words, who resembles the Kung-fu Panda enough that it's become his nickname.  Panda knocked in another one later, and that was all Madbum needed: Giants 2, Dodgers 1.  Giants in first place, barely.

Tuesday: Timmeh. 

My favorite baseball player right has to be Tim Lincecum, the Freak.  Most great pitchers are tall: 6'3, 6'4".  You get more leverage, throwing down.  Lincecum is generously listed at 5'11'.  Skinny, long-haired, he looks and dresses like a skater dude.  Been busted for pot, won two Cy Young awards, can do a standing back flip from a table, over a sofa, and land on his feet.  When we won the World Series in 2010, Timmeh impishly made sure to drop at least one F-bomb in every network interview.  But when Giants' fan Bryan Stow was beaten half to death in the Dodger Stadium parking lot, Tim started a fund to help Stow's family, and seeded it with a generous donation. 

He's kind of a Franken-pitcher.  His Dad's a mechanical engineer, and figured out the optimal way for a kid to throw a baseball. Which means that his throwing motion isn't like anyone else.  And Tim throws a mid-90's fastball with movement, a nasty curve, a mean slider, and those aren't even his best pitches.  His change-up looks like a fastball coming out of his hand, and then drops off a table.  It's basically unhittable.  At his best, he doesn't get hitters out, he embarrasses them. 

And this season, he's been terrible.  Not must a little off, completely terrible.  It's been excruciating to watch, to see Timmeh, invincible Timmeh look unsure of himself on the mound.  He's kept working hard, trying to figure it out, he's changed his training regimen (it's no longer as In-'N-Out burger intensive), and he's looked good his last few starts.  Tuesday . . . well, he wasn't quite the old Freak, but he was darn close.  Six innings, one run.  Buster got him two runs in the first, and Timmeh breezed from there.  Final score, 4-1.

Wednesday: Matt Cain.

It's funny: most players have nicknames, sometimes pretty cool ones.  Matt Cain is just Matt Cain.  Big kid from Tennessee.  Tall, blonde, throws hard.  None of that captures him.

Let me try this: Matt Cain is a grown-up.  He's the team's union rep.  He's just unflappable.  For years, he had a reputation as a bad luck pitcher--the team had a horrible time scoring runs for him.  There's a stat for that (there's a stat for everything, it's baseball), run support--he had the worst run support in the National League.  Never a word of complaint.  At all, ever.  He just went out there an competed.

 He throws a good fastball, not great, a good curve, a good slider, a good change.  Normal repertoire of pitches.  He just goes out there, game after game, and quietly, without much fuss, gets guys out. 

Wednesday, I was following the ballgame on GameCast, with ESPN's Baseball Tonight on TV.  And in the first inning, Angel Pagan (who's been great lately), scored a run, and Curt Schilling was on ESPN, and he said (I'm paraphrasing) "That game's over."  His co-host was all, 'it's only the first inning, it's only one run, surely there's plenty of time for the Dodgers to win,' and Schilling (a heck of a pitcher himself, back in the day) said "it's Matt Cain. It's August, it's the pennant race.  Matt Cain will not lose this baseball game."  And he didn't.  Sweep. 

Baseball has the longest season of any major sport.  162 games, April to October, game after game after game, night after night.  It's about staying physically ready, having a routine, doing your stretching and your lifting.  It's about staying focused, staying mentally alert, ready to go.  Going to work, even when you don't feel much like it, it's about hard-working, lunch-bucket values.  That's really the appeal of the game.  This is what Melky forgot: being good at baseball is like being good at life. 

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I'm home from the hospital, feeling useless.  The doctor said the surgery would take four hours plus, and there was absolutely nothing helpful I could do for her, so I could either sit in their waiting room, or . . . just . . . go home.  And it didn't matter to them either way.  They're ten minutes away--they'll call me. It's a routine surgery, nothing to worry about.  Everything about the demeanor of all the doctors and nurses inspires confidence, and she's at a hospital I know really well--really well--where I've never gotten anything less than absolutely top-of-the-line care.  My own medical condition is one with a very high mortality because it's difficult to diagnose; it often goes misdiagnosed 'til it's too late.  The docs there at Timpanogas nailed it down in about twelve hours.  So there's absolutely nothing for me to worry about.  She's going to be fine. 

So, of course, I'm a complete basket case.

We met in a choir at BYU. She was the beautiful tall blonde girl I couldn't bring myself to ask out for months and months, because, get real, there was no way.  A girl like that?  Not a chance for a schlubb like me.  But I was the tallest bass, and she was the tallest soprano, and we got to sit together.  Talked books, Heinlein and history, and music (Me, Gentle Giant, her, Camel), and movies.  And I had a girlfriend, it wasn't like I didn't have a girlfriend, until a friend one day pointed out that everytime she saw me with Girlfriend, I looked miserable, and then when I went to choir, I was happy before and after, and maybe that meant something maybe I should do something about.  Hmm.

Dec. 27, 1980, we got married in the Oakland Temple.

To quote Peter Cook in The Princess Bride, 'mawwiadge . . . is what bwings us togever today."  But that's kind of right.  I've been thinking about Mormon theology: marriage is what bwings us together. It's the one main thing, central to our theology.  See, God wants us, ultimately, to love everyone, every person on earth, to love, unconditionally, as He loves.   He also knows we're not up to it.  We're selfish and foolish and greedy and mean-spirited, we're creatures of self-defeating habit, we're not really up to much, honestly.  That's the great Moses paradox. 

Moses Chapter One, Pearl of Great Price.  Moses gets this great vision of Everything.  I think what he saw was an even more awesome version of the show at the Hansen Planetarium, where you see stars being created and destroyed, and comets and asteroids and black holes and it's incredible.  And you feel so puny.  And that's what happened to Moses too: he sees this vision, and he goes "I know that Man is nothing, which thing I had never supposed."  (verse 10). 

I love that.  Moses is a guy, he's typically arrogant.  'I thought we were it, the shiz, the bomb. We're the top, we're the tower of pisa, we're the top, we're the Mona Lisa.  We're Botticelli, we're Keats, we're Shelley, we're . . . ovaltine!'  (If you'll forgive scriptural exegesis from Cole Porter).  'But now I've seen your big light show, God, and We. Are.  Nothing.'

And then God says something even more amazing.  "For behold, this is my work and my glory—to bring to pass the immortality and eternal life of man."  God's mission statement.  You are, in fact, everything you said before.  You're weak, puny, foolish.  Ya ain't the top of nuttin', pal.  You're also the point.  You're why it's all there.

We're nothing.  We're everything.  And we can't get our heads around the immensity of it.  You know that quote, Marianne Williamson actually, though often attributed to Nelson Mandela (he quoted it at his inauguration) "Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure." 

We had to figure it out somehow, love and forgiveness and the plenitude of pure joy.  We had to have a starting point.  So God gave us love.  He gave us marriage.

And me and her, we've had our squabbles.  We've screwed up.  We've had our selfishnesses and foolishnesses and insufferable moments of pure idiocy.  But when I've been sick, she's been my rock.  She's basically been my rock through everything.  And I've got things I'm not good at, and she's got things she's great at, and vice-versa.  And we're still together and that ain't never changing.

She's funny.  She makes me laugh, a lot, often.  I can bring the funny too.  In our family, you get props for funny--it's the currency of our shared world, comedy. 

And sometimes in the morning, or maybe sitting on the sofa while I sit in my chair, watching TV together, or waiting for her to pick me up, and seeing our car coming around the corner, knowing she's in it, or maybe sometimes just hearing her voice on the phone. .  . she takes my breath away.  I can't breathe, I love her so much. 

She's out.  The doctor called, it went perfectly normally, everything's fine.  She looks exhausted.  She looks wonderful. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Viral emails

I got two of 'em today.  I usually get 'em from my Dad.  You've all seen 'em, those emails with a whole bunch of names in the 'to:' box, some of whom you know.  My Dad sends along a bunch of 'em from a guy named Schwartzkopf, who I desperately hope is related to 'Stormin' Norman,' the General who led our troops in the first Iraq war, under the first President Bush.  The ones I get are always seriously right-wing, usually factually inaccurate to a spectacular degree, and overheated in tone.  Our country, it seems, is on the brink of some kind of disaster or another, and we have to do something about it.  Now.

The one today is about a Tennessee high school principal, Jody McLeod, and comments he made at a football game.  Dude was apparently ticked off because someone (his school district?) wouldn't let him say a prayer over the PA system, and so went off on a rant.  He seems to have thought that he could use the PA system to "approve of sexual perversion" as long as he called it "an alternate life style", or "condone sexual promiscuity" as long as he called it "safe sex." Seriously, at a football game?  I would love to see the high school where the principal got up there before the game and said "welcome to the game, and by the way, we're in favor of sexual perversion."  I think high school kids would find that pretty awesome.

When I get these things, first thing I do is check 'em out on  Most of them, of course, are completely bogus.  Some are legit, but there's usually something hinky even about the legit ones.  This high school principal one, for example, actually did happen--the guy actually did say all this stuff.   In 2000.  So it's hardly breaking news. 

But there are a lot more out there.  Obama's a socialist Moslem, born in Kenya, and secretly anti-American and pro-terrorist, or whatever.  I've seen some reporting that Medicare premiums will go up by some preposterous amount (2 1/2 times is usually mentioned), or that Hillary Clinton has arranged with the UN to take away everyone's guns, or that President Obama has gotten rid of the White House Christmas tree, or taken away the decorations, or done something nefarious with it, or that he refused the honorary assignment of President of the Boy Scouts.  All nonsense.  And they're all right wing: Politifact checked out 79 of them, found them all to be false, 76 of them promoting conservative causes.

I have a theory about this.  I mean, young people are incredibly sophisticated when it comes to the internet.  My kids are a lot better at it than I am, for example.  I'm 56; I'm old.  But young people are also tremendously cynical when it comes to the internet.  If they got an email--unlikely, since young folks don't much use email--and it made some grandiose claim about anything, they'd immediately be suspicious of it. What am I saying? Heck, if my kids got an email that was political at all, they'd be suspicious. Let alone this kind of political 'Obama's-a-moslem-commie' stuff--they take that as seriously as they take Nigerian princes in need of their help.  They've been lied to professionally for years--every ad on television--they have their BS meters tuned to their highest settings. 

But older folks--folks older than me--do use email, and tend to trust it.  It's a way to stay in touch, and they're pretty proud of themselves.  They've figured out something internet-y.  So they get these things and they're . . . susceptible.

And older folks tend to be conservative. I really saw this the other day when I saw Dinesh D'Souza's anti-Obama film.  The theater was packed.  And I was just about the youngest person there.  The house skewed very old and very white, and they clearly ate it up.

And what's the message.  Obama isn't . . . one of us.  Obama can't really be trusted.  Obama is Other, something exotic and . . . probably not completely American.  I mean, his father's from Kenya, his step-father was Indonesian, Barack Obama grew up in Hawaii and Jakarta.  He took classes from people like Edward Said.  So there's political mileage in making that case.  I really think that's why the budget deficit President Bush racked up didn't seem to bother anyone, but the budget deficits Obama's had to contend with are really scary and really dangerous.  I mean, I get that, deficits are scary, and they are dangerous.  But they seem worse coming from a President whose middle name is Hussein.  And of course old white people care about few things on earth more than they care about their grandchildren.  That's why this meme works: "we're piling on debt for our grandchildren."   

Someone is writing these things.  Someone has figured out how to send them out. I mean, I'm a writer, and I know how hard it is to make a living as a writer, so I'm sympathetic, but somewhere, some poor schmo has the job of making up ridiculous nonsense about the President or our country, writing it up in an email, and sending it out to scare older folks.  Boy.  Talk about having a job that sucks.

This doesn't mean, by the way, that Democrats don't use email.  Dems just use it differently.  Every time a prominent Republican says something stupid, I get an email from the DNC or MoveOn or someone, saying "Do you agree with Congressman Stupid Person, who said "Moronic foolish stupid thing? If not, send money to help defeat Congressman Stupid Person!"  Democrats use 'em for fundraising.  Not quite the same virally vileness, but in the ballpark.  But mostly, it's because the guy really did actually say the dumb thing.  I mean, it probably doesn't represent any mainstream Republican policy position, but it's still in the general realm of acceptable political discourse, to use the other guys' stupidity to fund raise.

I chatted on Facebook the other night with an old friend, who asked, what do you do when your parents get these idiotic viral emails and believe them?  Boy, that's tough. You can send them to Politifact, you can send them to Snopes.  But who knows what they'll believe?  Somewhere, some guy has this terrible job writing these things.  But I bet it pays well.  Because they work. 

Monday, August 20, 2012

Donald Westlake, and Dortmunder

The other day I was sitting around looking for something to read, and it occurred to me how long it had been since I'd read something fun, for fun.  I've been doing all this research for a play, reading all sorts of business books and books on macro-economics and mid-20th century history.  And I thought I was kinda up to speed on all that.  So off to the library, straight to the Mystery shelf.  And something that I would not have thought possible; found a Dortmunder book I'd never read.  Called Get Real--turns out, probably Westlake's last published novel.

Donald E. Westlake, mystery writer extraordinaire, died about four years ago, alas.  The Dortmunder books are a series of comic novels about a gang of thieves in New York.  John Dortmunder is their leader, and planner for their various heists.  His best friend, Kelp, handles logistics, while Murch is their driver.  Those three were in all the novels, but in most of them, the gang was rounded out by Tiny Bulcher, a massive guy who handled muscle when necessary, and a full cast of characters--Murch's Mom; May, Dortmunder's girlfriend; B.J., Tiny's girlfriend; Anne-Marie, Kelp's ditto; Arnie Albright, their fence; Rollo the bartender, who lets them use the backroom at the O.J. bar for planning, many others. One running gag is that they use a different locksmith each time; in the final novels, Kelp served as lock specialist.

Dortmunder's plans are ingenious, but his luck is horrible.  They never get caught, but they also don't make much money--about what they'd make if they just had normal blue-collar jobs.  That's the overall message of the series, not that crime doesn't pay, it certainly pays, just about what you'd make with a job.  Dortmunder is a sad sack, a fatalist. He knows his luck is bad, but doggedly forges ahead nonetheless. There've been movies based on the books; Dortmunder was played by Robert Redford in one, The Hot Rock (1972).  Redford's a fine actor, but dead wrong for Dortmunder--Harry Dean Stanton would be perfect, if he was twenty years younger.  

These thieves have a code of honor.  Two main principles drive them: 'what's in it for me,' and 'don't get caught.'  For example, if Kelp and Dortmunder are on a job, and it appears as though Dortmunder might get caught, Kelp just leaves.  No dramatic rescues--it's clearly understood he's on his own. And as Kelp puts it in Get Real, "we don't do violence.  We don't kill unless we're absolutely certain we can't get caught."

A lot of the fun comes from Westlake's deep knowledge of and affection for New York City.  One recurring bit involves Murch's encyclopedic knowledge of Manhattan traffic patterns; he seems to enjoy route planning more than the actual driving.  Kelp has his own code--he only steals cars with MD plates.  He figures doctors can afford it, plus they tend to prefer very high end cars.

I love the writing, the voice: the sardonic, world-weary voice.  As with this:

"Stan Murch's speciality was driving; when it became necessary to leave a location at speed, Stan was your man.  And his Mom drove a cab, so that was probably an argument for nurture."

He's so great at quick, two or three sentence character descriptions.  As with Darlene, a minor female character in Get Real.

"When your town is too small for a movie theater, and your combined regional high school is an hour away by bus and too small to have a football team, you are a deprived teenager, and there wasn't a teenager in town who didn't know it and didn't dream of the day when the Trailways could take them away to anywhere in the world that wasn't N. Flatte, Neb.  The first place the Trailways took Darlene was St. Louis, where she got a waitress job at a diner, lost her virginity, had an abortion, and learned how to avoid that sort of thing in the future, by which she didn't mean abstinence."

And so, in one short paragraph, we know Darlene.  We get her.  And we're probably going to root for her.

Here's why I love Westlake.  He's so relentlessly amoral.

People love caper novels and caper movies because they're about criminals getting away with it. Think about Ocean's Eleven, The Italian Job; the characters are all crooks. Are those movies immoral?  Sure, in the real-world sense that it would probably be better for criminals to get caught.  But in fiction, we like reading about rascals.  We just don't like admitting that to ourselves.  So we have this moralistic Hollywood structure, in movies but also in fiction, in which those rules get obeyed; heroes get rewarded, villains get satisfyingly punished, unless they're needed for the sequel.

Or, in which we root for bad guys because the bad guys they're ripping off are exponentially badder.

Westlake loathes that whole formula.  He's even said so, in interviews.  Dortmunder is not a role model--he's a capable, professional crook.  By choice and inclination.  Who never gets caught.  And while the Dortmunder books are fun, and funny, Westlake's written others that make use of the same approach, but much much darker in tone.  He wrote a whole series, for example, under the pseudonym Richard Stark, about a crook named Parker, who is a cold-blooded killer.  And as violent as he is, we do root for him.  Number one rule of fiction: you will root for the protagonist.  No matter what.

Quentin Tarantino has said that Elmore Leonard is an influence, and Leonard has talked of his admiration for Westlake.  They're all working the same side of the street.  Walt, on Breaking Bad, lives there too, as does Don Draper.  I love Leonard too, as much or more than Westlake.  But they're all terrific. They're all in the business of telling us something about humanity, something maybe we'd rather not know, but something real and true nonetheless.  Crime, in Dortmunder's case, does pay.  Just not very much.  

Saturday, August 18, 2012

2016: Obama's America

In 2004, in the middle of a Presidential campaign, Michael Moore made the documentary film Farenheit 9/11.  It was a powerful indictment of the Presidency of George W. Bush, focusing particularly on the war in Iraq.  It was also a hyper-partisan, viciously one-sided polemic against a President Moore clearly despised.  It was intended to win the election for John Kerry--obviously, it did not succeed.

I went to the theater to see 2016: Obama's America, Dinesh D'Souza's documentary film about Barack Obama.  The tone of the film is very different.  D'Souza's on-screen voice is measured, calm, dispassionate.  He comes across as a scholar, trying to investigate the phenomenon of Barack Obama--who he is, where he comes from, what he believes, and what it all means for America.

The best parts of the film are the early bits, as D'Souza tells his own life story.  He grew up in Mumbai, in India. He got a chance to go to America, and study at Dartmouth, where he became a prominent member of a Dartmouth conservative student group.  He got a job in the Reagan administration, and has become a well-known conservative writer and thinker.  It's an inspiring story, the American dream incarnate.  And, he says, because he came from a similar background as Obama's, he understands him in ways white Americans maybe can't.

D'Souza then declares that Obama has pursued some very odd policies as President, beginning with his return, to the British, of a bust of Winston Churchill that was once in the Oval Office.  And that Obama has favored the Palestinians over the Israelis, and favored radical Islam, and has done nothing to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons. And so the rest of the film asks 'what in Obama's background would lead him to pursue such strange policies.

It's all just nonsense.  Obama did not remove Churchill's bust.  It's still in the White House.  As for his support for radical Islam, I suggest the ghost of Osama bin Laden might disagree.  The Obama administration has actively pursued diplomatic efforts to prevent Iran from gaining nuclear weapons, and his support for Israel has been exceptionally strong.   What Obama has actually done is support policies Dinesh D'Souza disagrees with.  That's it.

Next comes forty five minutes of armchair psychologizing.  D'Souza quotes liberally from Obama's auto-biography, Dreams From My Father (we actually hear an actor who does a really good Obama imitation), to show how a major conflict in young Barack's life had to do with his absent father.  Children who grew up with absent fathers tend to struggle with a variety of trust issues and identity issues; so did Barry Obama.

But Obama's father was an outspoken anti-colonialist, which led him to embrace anti-American, anti-capitalist and anti-Western dogmas.  These, says D'Souza, Obama came to embrace.  His greatest mentors, says the film, were such anti-colonialist icons as Frank Marshall Davis (who D'Souza says breathlessly, was investigated by the FBI, yeah, like Arthur Miller and Orson Welles) and Edward Said (one of Obama's Columbia professors).  Well, Edward Said is one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century.  I'm envious of anyone who got to study under him.  To reduce a complex and fascinating scholar into a two-bit 'anti-colonialist Marxist' is just irresponsible and foolish.

One of the most interesting interviews in the film is with George Obama, Barack's much younger half-brother, who still lives in Kenya.  George is author of a book arguing that, while colonialism was terrible, Kenya and other African nations made a huge mistake when they emerged from it by embracing Marxism, instead of market economics.  George is clearly a very bright young guy, and D'Souza obviously agrees with him.  But D'Souza then says, without providing any evidence whatever, that 'Barack Obama went a different way, following his father's beliefs, and not his brother's.'  (I'm paraphrasing).

Nonsense.  Isn't it far more likely that Barack and George Obama are on the same page ideologically?  Of course Dinesh D'Souza, as a conservative ideologue, sees evidence of Obama's radical Marxism everywhere.  But it's all just nuts.

Obama's mentors do include Said; they also include such well known commies as Bill Gates and Warren Buffet.  Obamacare may be controversial, but it's hardly socialist.  He modeled it on a market-friendly program pioneered by a Republican governor--guy named Romney.  When the auto industry was going bust, wouldn't a socialist have nationalized the auto industry?  Instead, he provided loans to keep GM and Chrysler solvent.  And yes, he's proposed raising the marginal tax rate from 33% to 39%.  Nothing, next to the 91% tax rate in place in the administration of that wild-eyed Marxist radical, Dwight David Eisenhower.

D'Souza is particularly incensed that Obama has proposed reducing America's nuclear arsenal.  Fine, he thinks we should hang on to our nukes.  I think that's crazy.  Since the START treaty's reductions, the US still has enough warheads to kill every man, woman and child in the world several times over.  How does it weaken America to get rid of weapons that deadly, weapons we can never use, weapons that have no strategic value anymore at all?     

D'Souza argues that Obama's success is because he's black.  White Americans have struck a kind of deal over Obama.  Because he seems calm, measured, thoughtful, he seems to be the right President for a post-racial America.  Previous black candidates for the Presidency--Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton--came from the civil rights movement, and although that's a movement we hold in high esteem, its leaders seem angry, seem to accuse all Americans of being racist, even when they don't quite put it that way.  But Obama's persona and rhetoric suggests something else, that white Americans have put racism behind them, that we're no longer African-Americans and Hispanic Americans, but just Americans. We elected someone President who had very little experience in government because he made us feel better about ourselves, and moved us past the bitter fight over race that had, for so long, defined us.

But I'd like to suggest that D'Souza actually represents much the same dynamic for conservatives.  D'Souza's skin is about the same shade as Obama's (he even makes a point of it in the film).  Because D'Souza is dark-skinned, he has extra credibility with conservative voters.   D'Souza's on-screen presence reassures conservatives that they're not racist for opposing Obama, that it really can just be about policy.  So when D'Souza recycles old Fox News talking points, he does so with more credibility than if it were Sean Hannity or someone saying the same things. 

Michael Moore's Farenheit 9/11 was loud, angry and unsubtle.  D'Souza's film is quieter, subtler, and therefore more pernicious.  It's a film that insinuates more than it accuses; it's a knife in the ribs, not a club to the face.  It's still a contemptible and vicious exercise, a pastiche of half-truths, cherry-picked evidence, deliberate omissions.  It'll play to the base (it got a round of applause from the packed theater in Provo where I saw it), but my fear is, it might be insidiously persuasive to ill-informed moderates. 

At least, he admits Obama was born in Hawaii.  I'll give him that much. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Rock's top ten

Okay, so just for grins and giggles, I posed this question on Facebook: since there seems to be a kind of consensus regarding the four greatest rock bands in history--Beatles, Stones, Who, Zep--who would you put as number five?  (It's surprisingly hard to pose the question without using the word 'who'!) 

Now, this was obviously a silly question.  What do we mean by 'the best' rock band?  What do we mean by 'rock band'?  Do we include solo artists?  If you do, do you count, say, Bob Dylan, Janice Joplin, Tupac Shakur?  Do you count albums sold, do you measure it that way?  How much should innovation play a part in our consideration?  This about preference, it's about the heart and gut, not those pesky 'facts.'  And it's entirely, completely, absolutely subjective.

And I say that, and yet and yet. . . . When we ask 'who's the greatest,' we're asking something unanswerable and unobjective and foolish, but is it also without some truth?  I think Hamlet is a 'better' play than Henry VI Part 2.  I think Ibsen was a 'better' playwright than his contemporary, Victorien Sardou.  I think Willie Mays was a 'better' baseball player than Hal Lanier.  I think Degas was a 'better' painter than Thomas Kinkaid, and that Monet was 'better' than LeRoy Neiman.  I think Ben and Jerry's makes 'better' ice cream than Western Family (a local, very generic brand).  And I don't think most folks would argue with any of those propositions. 'Better' may be meaningless, but that doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything. 

And we love it, we human beings, we love talking about (arguing about) this kind of thing.  Every Oscar season we do it.  We even get kind of passionate about it.  We say "how can you say The Artist was the best picture last year?  Are you kidding me?  It maybe made the top fifty.  Obviously, the best movie last year was The Tree of Life!" (I'd say that.  I have friends who disagree, uh, passionately.  I have friends who thought watching The Tree of Life was like watching paint dry.  These people are misguided).  For many many years, the national championship in college football was decided by a vote, by an opinion poll.  If you don't follow college football, you probably think I'm kidding.  If you do follow college football, you're nodding your head sadly. 

Anyway, what's better, who's worse, that's number one, no it isn't, it barely makes the cut, you guys are all wrong, that one sucked.  We do that. It's something people do.

So the four best rock bands of all time are the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Who, and Led Zeppelin.  They just are.  They're the best, in that order.  'Cause I say so. Some people argued that they each had long lacunae in their careers, periods where they kind of sucked.  You can absolutely say that for the Stones, for example.  So what?  "Gimme Shelter".  "Sympathy for the Devil".  "Jumpin' Jack Flash."  Song after song after song.  They're number two.  They just are.  And then the Who and then Zep.  So who's fifth?

In my completely objective, scientific, on-line Facebook poll, a consensus emerged. The fifth best rock band of all time is, apparently, Pink Floyd.  

I strenuously disagree with this assessment, but will defer, reluctantly, to the judges.  To me, Pink Floyd is a two album band.  I think The Dark Side of the Moon is a genuinely great album (though I don't think it syncs up all that well with The Wizard of Oz.  I mean, I've done that, and it's cool about three times).  I think Wish You Were Here is a half of a great album.  I think The Wall is great. And that's it.  Two (and a half) great albums doesn't get you to number five in my book. 

But I got out-voted. 

So who comes sixth?

My poll arrived at what was to me a surprising consensus.  Queen.  I like Queen a lot, and I might even put them in the top twenty.  To me, though, they were more theatrical than substantive.  To me, a band has to have something more to say, something more going on.

My son Tucker made a strong case for Radiohead, and I think he's right.  This starts to get generational, and I don't want to have the entire list dominated by the 1970's.  Radiohead is a band I admire more than love, but then I'm probably too old to completely get them.  But I do get Arcade Fire just fine, and would put them on my top ten list.  I think they're amazing, even after only basically four albums.

Some people argued that REM isn't a rock band; that their music doesn't count as guitar-driven rock. I play 'What's the Frequency, Kenneth?' for them and rest my case.  Great album after great album for twenty five years; they belong.  I don't think you can do a Top Ten list and leave U2 off it. I also think we need to include more classic American rock and roll, especially southern rock, so add Lynyrd Skynyrd and Creedence Clearwater Revival. 

I think the people who voted for The Monkees weren't taking the project seriously.  I don't know, though, how you don't include the Beach Boys.  I have to include two prog rock bands, if only because the critics at Rolling Stone Magazine (a vile and witless lot) hated them SO much: so Jethro Tull and Yes.  Three seminal and important bands who were amazing and great, but who had short careers: The Velvet Underground, The Kinks and Deep Purple.  And finally, to recognize the importance of punk, The Ramones (I just can't bring myself to include The Sex Pistols--loathe Sid Vicious). 

So here's my top ten list:

The Beatles
The Rolling Stones
The Who
Led Zeppelin
Pink Floyd (under protest)
Queen (under much more muted protest)
Jethro Tull
The Beach Boys
Deep Purple
Creedence Clearwater Revival
The Kinks
Lynyrd Skynyrd
The Ramones
Arcade Fire
The Velvet Underground

There you go.  Top Ten.  Ten greatest bands of all time.  The Ten best.  (I also suck at math.) 

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Michael Weston and The Six Thousand

In 2009, an episode of Burn Notice featured a character named Spencer Watkowski.  He was a computer genius, also a conspiracy theorist, who approaches Michael Westen (Jeffrey Donovan), the burned spy who the show's about.  He thinks a co-worker of his has been murdered, that the murderers are on to him, and that 'they' are out to get him, plus also commit treason or something.  Of course, Michael and Sam think Spencer's nuts, and of course, it turns out he's not, he's right about all of it, well, except for the part about the space aliens.  And our heroes get to save the day, like they do every week.  I remember the episode for two reasons: one, because the actor who played Spencer was really good, and the other, because he was played by an actor named Michael Weston.

I loved that; it felt so meta.  You just know the producers of this series about a spy named Michael Westen cast Michael Weston on purpose.  Can't confirm that it was on purpose, but believing that makes me a happier person.  For example, on the show, every time Sam has to pretend to be someone else, he uses the name Chuck Finley.  I have to believe the show runner for Burn Notice was and is an Angels' fan.  I mean, has to be.  (Chuck Finley was a left-handed pitcher for the Angels, was their best player from like '86 to '99.  Great player.  Not a Hall-of-Famer, but certainly would make the Hall-of-Really-Good. Perfect for Sam. Like I said: meta).

Anyway, I checked out Michael Weston on IMDB, and he's definitely one of the Six Thousand, the Industry equivalent of the Hall of Really Good.  See, people believe Hollywood is about movie stars, about Cruise and Damon and Clooney and Charlize and Brangelina. But I believe Hollywood's basically about the Six Thousand.  Let me explain: at any given time, there are basically 6,000 actors working in Hollywood.  I call them The Six Thousand.  You see the same faces all the time when you watch as much TV and movies as I do.  I have friends who're in The Six Thousand.  One of them is a wonderful actress named Erin Chambers, and you see her all the time, usually either getting murdered, murdering someone, or being interrogated as a suspect in a murder.  (That's TV for you; it's basically all about murder.)  That's not all she can do, obviously; she even played God for awhile, in a series called Joan of Arcadia that I loved.  I enjoy watching her, because she's always really good, and because she's basically the last person on earth I would ever imagine killing anyone in real life.  And she's hard-working, and she's a good person, and those are always the people you want to see succeed.

Same with Michael Weston; I don't know if he's a good person, but he probably is, and he's certainly hard-working.  He had a small but really good part in the terrific indie film Garden State.  Recurring characters in really good shows, like ER and Six Feet Under.  Made the best of a small part in an awful movie, The Dukes of Hazzard.   CSI, House, Law and Order.  He's short, and he's good at nerds, and good at comedy, but obviously that's not all he can do.  New TV mini-series coming up, Coma, where they turn an implausible but scary movie into TV ditto; he's in that. I think he's a murderous doctor.  He's a professional, a good working actor.  He's one of the Six Thousand.

Every once in awhile, one of the Six Thousand breaks through, becomes one of the Sixty--the guys who front big movies. And basically all of TV is a place where the Six Thousand get to be, not Stars, but stars lower-case, like "stars", like that, anyway, "stars" for awhile, because they have their own TV series. Bryan Cranston. Jon Hamm. Danny Trejo.  Jeffrey Donovan.  These guys are all tremendous actors--is there anyone better than Cranston?--but no one knew it, because they weren't Movie Stars.  But that's the Six Thousand--they're all terrific. They're better actors than, well, some really big, really well paid Movie Stars in really Big Star Vehicle movies.  Dirty Secret: some of those Stars are actors who aren't actually good at all. Wasn't it great to see Jeremy Renner, for example, front the new Bourne, and be so incredibly good in it?  (Not that Matt Damon wasn't good; some movie Stars are also terrific actors).  Bruce Campbell is the patron saint of The Six Thousand; got his break with The Evil Dead, and has been working steadily ever since, going on thirty years. 

I think they're the backbone of Hollywood, the Six Thousand, the really good working actors who you immediately recognize but can't quite put your finger on what else you've seen them in.  My wife and I did it tonight; were watching Falling Skies and saw this actor and were both all "who is that?"  And she said, "it's Max Headroom!"  And son-of-a-gun, it was.  Matt Frewer, still working, still terrific.  Another proud member of the Six Thousand. 

The Church of Scientology

So I found this book at the library, called The Church of Scientology.  Glancing through it, it appeared to be an attempt to simply describe what Scientologists believe--not attack them, not proselyte for them, but simply say 'here's who they are, this what they believe.'  I thought I'd give it a read. I'm a religious guy, and I like learning what other people believe. And unexpected side benefit: family members, seeing me reading it, ask, with some trepidation, what I'm reading.  I show them the title, and then add, in the sincerest voice I can produce, "and it's changing my life."  Always go for the funny.

Anyway, it's very interesting.  The author, Hugh B. Urban, is a religious studies scholar, and it shows--some of the prose can get a bit jargon-y, and he clearly intends to bend over backwards to be fair--not just fair to Scientologists, but also to those who think of Scientology as a dangerous cult.  So there's a lot of 'on the one hand, Scientologists argue, on the other hand, their critics insist.'  This gets tricky, because Scientology is so controversial.  Overall, though, I think Urban does a good, balanced job. 

Here's the best sense I can make of their beliefs.  Scientology is not a religion in the sense of Christianity; it's not questions of salvation, the next life, what we have to do or believe in order to be saved.  It's probably more accurate to describe it as a religion in the sense of Buddhism--a religion built on a kind of mental/spiritual discipline, intended to provide enlightenment and healing and peace. In fact, Scientology used to be Dianetics--it's a self-help organization that became a religion for tax purposes, then its founder got deeper and deeper into creating a theology.

Scientology was founded by L. Ron Hubbard, a fantastically prolific science fiction author from the Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov generation.  A. E. van Vogt was an early acolyte, and John Campbell (the legendary editor of Astounding Science Fiction in the 50's) was his earliest editor.  Hubbard wrote hundreds of novels, under dozens of pseudonyms--it's hard to sort out his entire oeuvre--and he seems to have been a tremendously engaging and charismatic guy.  Urban calls him a bricoleur--a guy who built his religious beliefs like a kind of collage--some Buddhism, some Native American beliefs, a bit of Freud and a bit more of Jung, gnosticism, some occult beliefs, beliefs drawn from lots of sources, including mid-50's science fiction.  My wife and I are both huge Heinlein fans, and as I read this book, I asked her if she could imagine Heinlein starting a religion.  We both agreed it wasn't remotely implausible--Heinlein's religious views are sprinkled through a number of novels, most particularly Stranger in a Strange Land

Scientologists use the word 'thetans', meaning, essentially, souls.  We each of us are a thetan; our unique personality and spiritual identity.  Once Thetans occupied their own universe, but somehow they got trapped in the MEST universe (Matter, Energy, Space and Time), where they're (we're) miserably unhappy.  Waves of Thetans have entered MEST and tried to conquer it, but each have been conquered in turn by the next wave. Life is a battle--and Thetans strike me as rather amoral.  Thetans live multiple lives--Scientologists believe in reincarnation, some of them here on earth, and some in other universes.  In fact, Hubbard used to gather with his acolytes and everyone would tell stories of their past lives.  Makes sense that actors would be drawn to it.

Our thetans aren't free.  They're hurt, troubled by, something called engrams. Engrams are painful memories, damage done from terrible experiences which we've repressed.   Hubbard invented a gizmo, an E-meter, which can read our engrams.  What passes for 'treatment' is something they call an audit, in which engrams surface, are released, are sort of cured.  The word they use is 'cleared.'  It strikes me as really quite Freudian. Anyway, a Thetan Clear is a kind of superman, able to re-arrange time and matter and space through the power of the mind.  (Kind of like a movie star can sort of do?) 

There's lots of sci-fi stuff in their theology.  You may know of Battlefield Earth, for example, a 2000 film produced and starring John Travolta.  It's based on a Hubbard novel that apparently Scientologists take very seriously indeed.  Earth was once populated by Psychlos, who enslaved mankind.  Our Thetans fought a revolution and were freed. The movie's apparently terrible--I haven't seen it, but probably will one of these days, praise be to Netflix.

There are various levels of enlightenment.  Earth is still haunted by super-Thetans, an alien race that died here, but whose Thetans remained.  To get Clear of them, we have to go through various stages, each of which costs lots of money--details of which have now surfaced on the internet.  

One final point, which seems crucial; people who have been audited and Cleared describe the experience as difficult, painful, but ultimately euphoric.  It helps.  They feel better afterwards, and describe their lives as having changed in valuable ways.  Scientologists proselyte aggressively, and members make serious financial sacrifices.  Scientology is, as I said, a self-help movement that became a religion for tax purposes, in pursuit of which they fought a no-holds-barred for years against the IRS.  Their aggressiveness, secrecy and money-making practices all lead people to regard them as a cult. And 'cult's' a very loaded and negative word, a word that serves to marginalize them and illegitimize them as a serious religion.  But there's plenty of testimony that what they do works.  It helps people.  People go through a process, results are promised and, for many, delivered.

Do some Scientologists' beliefs strike me as squirrelly?  Sure.  So does Mormonism to non-Mormons. But I have a lot more respect for Scientology now, and I think of them as a uniquely interesting American religion.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Bourne again

So, the future of one of the great action movie franchises, the continuing story of Jason Bourne, was looking fairly bleak.  Paul Greengrass, who had directed Supremacy and Ultimatum, didn't want to do it anymore, and Matt Damon didn't want to work with a different director.  Enter Tony Gilroy, who wrote the previous three Bournes, and had an idea for another one, with another 'Jason Bourne.'  Bourne, if you recall, is a genetically enhanced super-spy, a product of Operation Outcome, a top secret program producing uber-spooks.  Gilroy's solution, maybe there's more of them.

This makes sense to me.  The style of the Bourne films, the frenetic hand-held camera stuff, and all the guys in suits talking about ops in various codes--is it Operation Treadstone, is it Operation Blackbriar, who is Ed Norton and what does he stand for?--that's all Greengrass.  But the story, the continuing, complex, convoluted, paranoid, war-on-terror amorality, that's all Tony Gilroy.  He's the perfect person to keep the franchise alive, and the perfect person to direct The Bourne Legacy.  (The Robert Ludlum Jason Bourne novels, on which the series is ostensibly based, has been long-ago abandoned and ignored, and good riddance--I read one of them once, can't remember a thing about it.)

Question one: can you make a Bourne movie without Jason Bourne? Answer: sure.  Jeremy Renner plays Aaron Cross, another black-ops chem experiment gone human.  The story, this time, is actually fairly simple, though the characters all speak in such carefully coded double-speak and nerd-jargon that it's not always easy to follow.  Anyway, he's on a training mission in Alaska with another operative, when out of nowhere, an unmanned drone tries to kill him.  Turns out Ed Norton, learning that Jason Bourne (who basically isn't in this, except in conversations about him), has compromised the program, has decided to shut it down, basically by killing everyone involved in its creation.  Cross figures out he's in trouble. Cross is also out of pills.  Outcome agents have pills they take to keep stable their genetic mutations for extra physical prowess and intelligence.  Cross needs more pills.  He knows the doctor who had examined him in previous debriefings, Dr. Shearing (Rachel Weisz) and figures she can get him more pills.  After saving her life--a terrifically tense action sequence--she explains she can do him one better--she can 'virus him out,' seal his mutations with a special virus.  Problem is, the virus is in Manila, in the Phillipines.  So they have to go there, which means a plane flight, which means passports and IDs and security cameras, which puts them back on the government's radar.  So all these very tense scenes in Manila. 

Question two: Can Jeremy Renner replace Matt Damon as an action movie hero?  Answer: you bet he can.  Renner's a terrific actor (his performance in The Hurt Locker is one I'll not soon forget), and he's got what Damon has, the ability to project a fundamental human decency despite the awful things he's been trained and ordered to do.  He's great in the action sequences, and he's charismatic and compelling.  He's great. 

Question three: How can Rachel Weisz look better at forty-two than she did in her mid-twenties when she was doing The Mummy movies. Not sure, but she does; my wife pointed it out immediately.  She's a wonderful actor too--The Fountain, The Shape of Things, The Constant Gardener, and The Whistleblower give some idea of her range. She and Renner have a wonderful chemistry in this, not as lovers, but as bright and resourceful people who need each other to survive.  I also love how she runs, arms pumping high.  Some actors, when they run, look dorky--Zoey Deschenel comes to mind.  Weisz is almost as good an on-screen runner as Tom Cruise. 

Question four: does the film still keep that contemporary feel, that paranoid war-on-terror, the ends-justifying-the-means amorality that is so central to the films' appeal?  Yes, yes, and more yes, mostly because Ed Norton is such a wonderfully bureaucratic bad guy.  What a fine character actor he's becoming!

Should you go see it?  Absolutely.  My wife loved it as much as I did.  Very exciting, exceptionally well-made, topical and scary.  Must-see movie-making at its finest.