Monthly Archives: June 2012

Three movies that are way better than you think they are

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rooting for laundry

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

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

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

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

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

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

The root of the word ‘fan’ is fanatic. 

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

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

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

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

“It’s policy”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hymns and the LDS hymnal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie Review: Coriolanus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movie review: Jeff, who lives at home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conspiracy theories

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Williams’ America

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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