Monthly Archives: April 2013

Jason Collins

Yesterday, Jason Collins of the Washington Wizards came out.  He therefore becomes the first active male professional American major team sports athlete out as openly gay.

All those modifiers are necessary, because there have certainly been other prominent gay athletes.  Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King in tennis.  Greg Louganis, the Olympic diver.  Sheryl Swoopes in women’s professional basketball.  John Amaechi, in the NBA, and Dave Kopay and Kwame Harris, of the NFL, all came out after they retired, as did Billy Bean in baseball and, most recently, Robbie Rogers, an English premiere league soccer player.

What makes Jason Collins unique, therefore, is that he’s still an active player, a current male team sport athlete who still has to deal with whatever issues a pro locker room brings. All that icky showering and so on.  So, another milestone passed, another bridge crossed. And pretty uneventfully, in this case.  Since his coming-out article came out yesterday in Sports Illustrated, he’s received overwhelming Twitter support, including heartfelt and enthusiastic congratulations from Kobe Bryant and Magic Johnson, from Steve Nash (“Maximum support!), from NBA commissioner David Stern (“proud you assumed the leadership mantle on this very important issue”, from Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama, from fellow player (irony alert) Rudy Gay, and from RuPaul (“I’m still gayer than you!”).

All his former coaches weighed in positively.  Kevin Love and Metta World Peace (the NBA needs a guy named Understanding), tweeted their support.  Current players with Collins’ back; basically a Who’s Who of stars: Dwayne Wade and Al Horford, Paul Pierce and Baron Davis, dozens more.  There have been, so far that I know, zero negative responses from NBA players, past or present.  Collins says that if anyone says anything privately, he’ll deliver an elbow and a hard pick and then let it go.  There are basketball ways to deal with homophobia.

To me, it’s interesting that it’s Jason Collins.  Richard Greenberg wrote a terrific play ten years ago about this scenario. Take Me Out is about a baseball player coming out.  Saw it on Broadway and liked it immensely, while still quibbling over plot points.  In Greenberg’s play, the ballplayer, Darren Lemming, is a superstar; he was thought to have been based on Derek Jeter.  (Uh, after Minka Kelly, Hannah Davis, Jessica Biel et. al., no, I don’t think Derek Jeter’s gay.) Take Me Out opened on Broadway at a time when there were rumors about Mike Piazza, who probably isn’t either.  Point is, Jeter and Piazza are both first ballot Hall-of-Famers. Greenberg’s point is that to do something like come out, a player would need the protection of genuine athletic greatness.  No one’s going to hassle Derek Jeter.

That was then, this is now.  Jason Collins is hardly a star.  He’s a journeyman career backup center.

Here’s his profile: graduated from Stanford, with his identical twin, Jarron Collins. Both brothers are seven feet tall; neither would have a career if they weren’t.  Basketball is a sport that rewards height, and a seven-footer can play professionally without being particularly athletic.  Jarron Collins played for the Jazz, and both Collins brothers fit the same profile–they’re not very quick or fast or strong, and aren’t great jumpers.  So take a guy who is very tall, but not much of an athlete, a disciplined and intelligent man.  Well, he can learn how to shoot–shooting’s just muscle memory, just takes practice.  Both Collinses can hit a fifteen foot jumper.  Jason Collins can get good rebounding position, and he can set a pick or screen.  He can’t block shots, despite his size (he can’t jump), but he can hold his position and take a charging foul.  He’s not a good one-on-one defender (not quick enough), but will battle the other team’s center, using his size. He plays, in other words, an inelegant style of basketball, not pretty, but in a limited role, effective.  Make Jason Collins your starting center, and you’re not likely a good team, but bring him off the bench and play him 12-15 minutes a night, and he can help you.  My point is, that’s not really the profile I would have suspected for the first out ballplayer.  And yet, it really is exactly the same profile John Amaechi had–and Amaechi came out within a couple of years of retiring from basketball.  Don’t know what to make of that, probably nothing.  Just this: so far, at least, superstars haven’t been the ones to out themselves.  Maybe they feel like they have too much to lose.

I assume Collins likes basketball.  But as an intelligent, articulate, disciplined guy, with a degree from Stanford, he could have pursued a number of careers. Pro basketball pays the best. Ten years in the NBA will allow him the financial independence to do literally anything he wants to do with his life.  And he’s only 34 years old, a young man, with a bright future.

His announcement is interesting in other respects.  He’s an identical twin, and very close to his brother, Jarron, but Jarron’s straight and was apparently completely taken by surprise by Jason’s announcement.  Their Mom, though, wasn’t surprised by it; said she’d always known.

For those arguing that being gay is or isn’t biologically determined, the Collins brothers would seem to complicate the issue or confirm biases, depending.  I don’t think it matters.  Sexuality and sexual orientation are complicated matters, and for me, this happens to be one instance where the best evidence is actually anecdotal.  Jason Collins says he’s known he was gay for years, that it dates from when Jarron was dating a girl seriously and he wondered why he didn’t seem to feel the same way about girls that his brother did.  Why is that story not enough?  The dude’s gay.  Power to him.

And see, that’s where this gets fun. Jason Collins is a black basketball player, a center, and gay.  That’s how he put it in the SI article.  So count the exploded stereotypes; Jason Collins is not, I don’t know, swishy.  He’s a blue collar dude, a tough, hard-nosed player who plays a very physical style of ball.  He’s a pick setter, a screener, a rebounder.  He takes on the meanest, toughest players in the league, and he battles ’em to a standstill.  None of that impacts, or is impacted by, his sexuality.

Why did he come out?  He says it’s because his roommate at Stanford, a straight guy, also a Kennedy and currrently a Congressman (Joe Kennedy) told him about marching in a gay rights parade, and he thought, ‘dude, he’s straight and he’s marching for my rights?  Why wasn’t I there?”

One wonders what effect this will have on Collins’ career.  I think it’s quite possible that his career may have ended were it not for this announcement.  This last season, he was a back-up center for the Washington Wizards, a terrible team. A bad, older player on a bad team, in other words. His contract is over, and he’s now a free agent, able to sign with anyone.  I wonder who wants him.  He’s not actually all that good–never was.  Maybe New Orleans, backing up Anthony Davis.  He could be a mentor for a talented young center, as much a coach as teammate.  And New Orleans would certainly welcome him, one would think.

But my gosh, the reaction is interesting, isn’t it?  No negative responses, none?  Nothing but support, from teammates, coaches, league officials, politicians?  Everyone happy for him, everyone saying ‘good for you!’  It’s not like homophobia has disappeared, but isn’t driving it underground a victory?  Have we really come this far, that fast?

One last detail: players can choose their uniform numbers. Last year, Collins changed his number to 98.  Yesterday he explained why.  It was in honor of Matthew Shepherd.  Poor Matthew Shepherd, of Wyoming.  Beaten to death by homophobic psychopaths.  In 1998.  So Jason Collins is out.  So, here’s one more voice, added to the chorus: Good for you, big guy.  Hoop it up, dude, and we all got next.




Oz, the Great and Powerful: a review

Oz, The Great and Powerful has been in town for awhile, a movie my wife and I wanted to catch, but one that was always sort of a second choice.  Great cast: James Franco, Michelle Williams, Rachel Weisz, Mila Kunis.  Sam Raimi directed.  The trailer was terrific, gorgeous. Finally, Saturday, we took it in.  The trailer was right–it’s a lovely film to look at.  Oz is magical, luminescent.  The film, however, not so much.

Terrific production design, a first-rate cast and a really fascinating premise, turns out, isn’t enough. You can have all that, and still end up with a lackluster, even annoyingly smug little movie, if the writing’s bad.  As we left the theater, I overheard folks dissing the actors: “James Franco was terrible, wasn’t he?”  That kind of thing.  Audiences do that–think an actor is to blame for a weak performance.  Most of the time, the actor’s up there doing the best s/he can with a poor script.  And that’s what dooms Oz, The Dull and Mediocre.

I used to teach a class at BYU, TMA 114, remember it fondly, a class on basic dramatic structure. Basic Protagonist/Objective/Obstacle kind of stuff–a class for freshman.  And when we talked about the attributes of an interesting protagonist, the most important one was volition.  A protagonist, to be compelling, has to drive the action of the story.  The protagonist has to make the most important decisions, has to have a strong and interesting objective, something s/he wants desperately.  A non-volitional protagonist is a character to whom things happens, as opposed to making things happen. What you want is a volitional protagonist.

Sometimes you can write a non-volitional protagonist and make it work: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, for example, manages to be an interesting film despite a non-volitional protagonist.  Forrest Gump has a fairly non-volitional protagonist.  But more often, you end up with a film like Glitter, the Mariah Carey vehicle from like ten years ago, where the main character makes no major decisions about anything, ever, and as a result comes across as the most weak-willed, unwatchably annoying character ever filmed.

So you want a strongly volitional protagonist.  Look at the Wizard of Oz.  You know the film, 1939, a young Judy Garland incandescent as Dorothy, with the great Margaret Hamilton as the Wicked Witch.  Dorothy arrives in Oz, and essentially from the beginning of the film tells everyone she meets that she wants to go home.  That’s her objective throughout, and there’s hardly a moment in the film when her character’s not pursuing it.  And the Tin Woodman and Cowardly Lion and Scarecrow (even Toto, the dog) are there to help her achieve it.  And they also have strong and interesting objectives of their own. And the result, of course, is one of the greatest films ever made, with a tremendously compelling main character. Dorothy is the protagonist, and we root for her throughout. Even the song, “Somewhere over the Rainbow” supports her quest: ‘why, oh, why, can’t I?’

And that’s precisely the problem with Oz, the Quotidian and Unremarkable.  James Franco plays Oz; short for Oscar Something Something.  He’s a conman, a circus conman, a stage magician.  He’s all misdirection and showmanship, but fundamentally shallow and soulless, with a tawdry seduction routine involving music boxes, which he buys en masse.  He climbs in a hot air balloon to escape a jealous husband/boyfriend, and a gale blows him away to Oz, shifting the movie from black and white to Technicolor (in a meaningless homage to this film’s much superior predecessor).  He arrives in Oz, meets a pretty girl, Theodora (Mila Kunis), a witch, who takes him into the Emerald City and tries to enlist him to kill the wicked witch.  He pulls the music box act on her, and seduces her.  (It’s a family film, and the question of what exactly happens sexually between them is left deliberately vague, but her subsequent actions only make sense if we assume he really does seduce her, and then dumps her.)

Turns out, though, that the wicked witch he’s agreed to kill for Theodora, is actually Glinda (Michelle Williams), the good witch, and Theodora and her sister Evanora (Rachel Weisz) are the evil witches.  Glinda’s been waiting for the fulfillment of a prophecy from her father, a powerful wizard, that after his defeat, another wizard would come and free Oz.  Glinda convinces herself that this new wizard is James Franco.

But through most of the film, Franco’s Oz doesn’t know what to do or how to do it. He sort of drifts through the film, following the lead of whichever pretty witch he’s happened to talk to most recently.  When he’s with Theodora, he does what she says; when he’s with Glinda, he does what she says.  Finally, the last twenty minutes of the film, he figures out a way to con the Wicked Witches, and uses his prestidigitation to Win the Day, and with it, Win the Girl. He’s interesting for twenty minutes. Otherwise, he’s a weak character, skating by on charm.

Of course, in part, that’s James Franco.  In something like 127 Hours, when he’s playing a character with a strong objective, he can be terrific.  But he’s a good looking guy, a bright guy, almost too talented for his own good.  When asked to host the Oscars, he basically floated through the night, grinning and reading his lines, but adding nothing of his own to the occasion.  It was a lazy performance.  In this, he’s certainly convincing as a conman and sleaze.  But when he tries to deepen and enrichen the character, it seems perfunctory. And the writers did him no favors. He’s playing a character without a strong objective, and he seems, as a character, correspondingly aimless. I’m not sure he’s a good enough actor to manufacture a forceful personality not directly suggested by the script.

He’s not, in other words, Rachel Weisz. The actresses fare a bit better, although the character objectives they’re asked to play are non-specific and vague, and you can see how hard they have to work to give this gorgeous-but-listless film some energy.  Rachel Weisz is the queen of strong character choices, and makes the most of an underwritten role.  As unconvincing as Evanora is, Weisz commands the screen in all her scenes; also she looks terrific.

Poor Mila Kunis has the worst-written part in the film, poor thing, an innocent girl who for some reason is also just wicked–no explanation, she just is.  Then, when seduced and spurned, she literally turns green with envy, puts on the whole Margaret Hamilton regalia.  In other words, at the very point where her character gets interesting, she has to assume a characterization initially created by another actor.  And basically her role is to fly around, cackling, and making dire threats she never seems to act on.  It’s a thankless role; I suppose she does her best with it.

And Michelle Williams; my gosh, what a waste.  Raimi has Michelle Williams in his film, and can’t think of anything more to do with her than have her play The Pretty Girl.  She’s the most astonishing actor, the queen of indies, a woman of extraordinary range and interpretative power.  She actually even does some nice work here.  Glinda is a woman of faith.  Her father said a wizard would come, and by golly, here one is, so I’m going to believe in him, period.  She has no illusions about Oz’s integrity or magical abilities; she decides to Believe, as an act of will.  That’s a subtle thing to convey, and Williams sells it; sells religious faith and basic goodness.  And then at the end of the film, this strong and faithful woman, having saved her kingdom, is supposed to be satisfied with her big reward–some projection booth nookie with James Franco.  Blech.  That ending left such a sour taste, I couldn’t wait to leave the theater.

It’s the kind of film that gets more depressing the more you think of it.  We saw it on Saturday, and I’m writing this on Monday, during which time my reaction has gone from “it’s okay, not terrible” to “major disappointment.”

It’s not the source material.  They could have done more with it, the writers. (For one thing, why does Oz never question, like, his own sanity, being transported to a completely different magical realm named after himself?  Wouldn’t you be looking around for the guys with the butterfly nets?)  The musical Wicked also plays fast and loose with both the Oz myth, and its own source, the Gregory Maguire novel Wicked.  I like Maguire’s novel a lot more than I like the musical, but the show does have some great songs, and Elphaba is a strong, volitional protagonist.  Oz: The Moronic and Offensive will be deservedly forgotten this time next year.  Dorothy’s Oz will live forever.


The NFL Draft

I spent three hours last night watching what has to be the most incomprehensible TV program possible for anyone outside the loop.  The loop, in this case, is hard-core fans of the National Football League, and while our numbers are legion, we’re not ubiquitous; football haters likewise abound.  And not to get too gender-cliche-y, the NFL draft does strike me as a potential battlefield in the war of the sexes.  It’s a guy thing.  Guys like football, action movies, and NASCAR; gals like gymnastics/ice skating, chick flick romcoms, and mini-vans.  Of course there are also lots of exceptions–girls who like football, for example; not to mention Danica Patrick.  But cliches exist because they have some basis in reality.  ESPN has both male and female anchors, and yes, Chris McKendry does draft analysis, just as Linda Cohn is a hockey expert.  Still, I watched the draft last night, and while my wife was exceedingly awesome about it, she conspicuously didn’t watch with me.

Anyway, the NFL draft.  Boy, is it weird.  I’m sort of a football fan, even, and I get how weird it is.  So here’s how it works: college football players are put into a pool of candidates, and NFL teams take turns choosing which ones they want; they then have exclusive rights to sign their selections to a contract.  Yes, it’s exactly the same system used to pick sides in junior high school gym class: “I’ll pick Bobby; okay, I pick Sam.”  Imagine that every person who graduated from college in Accounting were then meticulously ranked and underwent accounting skills tests and interviews, and then every Accountancy firm in America got to pick, in order, which ones they wanted to hire. That’s the basic principle.

I watched last night because of Ziggy.  Ezekial Ansah, who played football at BYU this past fall.  Ziggy is from Ghana, where he played a little basketball, but no football at all, ever.  He joined the Church, came to BYU, and then was persuaded by roommates to try out for the football team.  The roommates thought maybe Coach Mendenhall might find some use for a guy 6’5″, 275 pounds, who was also a fantastic natural athlete–incredibly fast and quick.  And, by all accounts, a heck of a great kid.  Coach worked him out, and couldn’t believe what he saw.  My favorite Ziggy story–apparently at one point, he told his roommates that he thought he’d quit the team.  He liked it and all, enjoyed the camaraderie, liked the coaches and his teammates, but he came from Ghana, after all, needed to put his education first.  I mean, it’s not you could make any money at this football thing, right?  Right?  (Ziggy was drafted fifth, by the Detroit Lions. Last year, the fifth pick in the draft signed a contract for 18.5 million dollars.)

I am a deeply conflicted football fan. I probably would not have allowed a son to play high school ball, for example; not that either of my boys wanted to.  It’s a dangerous, violent game, with serious health consequences for way too many players.  It’s also beautiful, with an occasional athleticism that takes your breath away, and the guys who play it professionally talk about how much they love it, and miss it when they can’t play anymore.  And I look at the NFL draft, and part of me is thrilled for these guys, for the bright (and wealthy) futures their drafting portends.  It’s about opportunity–an opportunity for guys to do well, but also an opportunity for teams to improve themselves.  That’s why we watch–we want to see who our favorite team drafted, and fantasize about how great they’re going to be.

But you also can’t help but notice another resemblance–to a slave auction.  Before the draft, there’s the NFL Combine, where all the players run and lift weights and jump and undergo interviews and take intelligence tests.  Are weighed and prodded and examined.  And the top physical specimens are then selected, without having any choice in the matter.  Ziggy Ansah blew everyone away at the Combine–he’s a sensational athlete.  He also has less football experience than anyone else in the draft.  He’s seen as a ‘project,’ with a ‘high ceiling.’  For that potential, the Detroit Lions will be gambling 18-20 million dollars. And Ziggy will have no choice but to move to Detroit.  He’s from Ghana.  Perhaps he would find a gentler clime more congenial.  Tough noogies–it’s Detroit or nothing.

Now, if he’s a slave, he’s an exceptionally well compensated one.  The draft exists to ensure competitive balance–bad teams get the best players.  And nobody is forced to participate–either in the Combine or the draft. You can choose to do something else with your life.  But if you want to play professional football. . . .

And this is on television? Yep.  The teams select players in ten minute increments. So what happens is that a team picks a player, announced by Roger Goodell, the commissioner of the NFL, and the guy who got picked comes up and poses for a picture with him, and then these ESPN talking heads analyze the choice.  Chris Berman (aka Boomer) starts off, but defers to the real experts, Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.  For years, Mel Kiper was the draft guru.  He was employed by ESPN at what I have to assume is a preposterous salary just to do this, just to work, basically, one day a year.  And, my gosh, the guy really is an expert, with an encyclopedic knowledge of essentially every player on every team in all of college football, their strengths and weaknesses, and how they fit the needs of the NFL teams considering them.  Then, the last couple of years, ESPN hired McShay, a second guy to do the same job.

And it’s one of the highest rated shows on television. Hour after hour, we watch.  Imagine high school graduation.  Imagine, then, that the principal took ten minutes between announcing each graduating kid.  Imagine that your basic high school graduation ceremony took three days to complete. Now imagine it being televised, and getting a twenty share.

Also, if you’re a fan, you’re a fan of one team, right?  I’m a 49ers fan; I root for the San Francisco 49ers.  Obviously, for a kid in Indiana, I would root for sports teams from the Bay area.  Anyway, I was rooting for Ziggy, but after he was drafted, I kept watching.  I wanted to see who my team picked.  And I had opinions!  On who they ought to pick!  I was hoping for a defensive end, a cornerback, or a safety.  They picked Eric Reid, a safety from LSU.  I knew a lot about the guy; fast, good tackler, could be the next Ronnie Lott.  I liked the pick.  And I am, at best, a casual football fan.  In other words, I watched TV for three hours, tension building, anticipation mounting, for one moment that lasted maybe ten seconds (“The San Francisco 49ers, with the 18th pick in the NFL draft, select Eric Reid. . . “)

It is, a lot, like graduation, where you wait in uncomfortable chairs for that moment when your kid gets her diploma.  Or, like, her 3rd grade play, where you know she’s playing the crucial role of Third Tree, and you sit there waiting for her one line (“Trees also provide shade”).  Which you already know, because you drilled her on it for, like, days.  That’s what you’re there for.  You could give a darn about all the other kids.

It’s complete, utter insanity.  The NFL draft, its massive popularity and the fantastic ratings it gets on TV, it’s completely crazy.  It’s not just the most boring show on television, it’s the most boring show you can imagine anyone ever putting on TV.  And I’m, at best, a casual fan of the sport; mostly, I’m conflicted about whether I should keep  watching football.  Let alone a show about sorting young wizards into their respective Houses (Mel and Todd arguing about who Gryffindor drafted). Neither of them wearing a Sorting Hat.

And I watched it for three hours last night.

And it’s on again tonight.  And I’ll probably watch it tonight too.

Guys, let’s face it.  We’re nuts.  Why on earth do women put up with us?





How about, just for grin and giggles, we talk some macro-economics?

So in 2010, Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard economics professors (they’re both at Harvard now; she was at Maryland when she wrote the paper), published a major study. “Growth in a Time of Debt,” about the relationship between debt and economic growth.  To summarize; they argued that whenever a nation’s debt rises above 90% of GDP, it slows economic growth–destroys it, in fact.  This paper proved very influential–was cited all over the place, especially by politicians suggesting that our number economic priority had to be deficit reduction.  Reinhart/Rogoff was laid the the intellectual foundation for European austerity measures.  David Cameron cited it, in Britain.  Paul Ryan did so as well back here in the US of A.  It was a Very Big Deal.

Most other macro-economists disagreed with it, and are on record opposing both the paper and the policies it spawned.  Paul Krugman was prominent among them.  But it took a grad student to completely blow Reinhart/Rogoff out of the water.

Guy named Thomas Herndon.  A grad student at the University of Massachusetts, Herndon was taking a class in Applied Econometrics.  For his term paper, he suggested replicating Reinhart and Rogoff’s findings. This story describes what happened: his profs almost didn’t approve it.  It was too simple, they said.  Just basic math.  For a graduate level class, they suggested he do something more challenging.  But he kept pushing, and they finally let him do it.

And Herndon discovered that Reinhart and Rogoff’s entire thesis depended on a spreadsheet error. That they’d made a simple mistake, probably because they didn’t know how to use Excel.  That economic growth, according to their own statistics, for countries with debt exceeding 90% of GDP, wasn’t negative .1 percent.  It was 2.2 percent, positive.  That they had basically gotten all the math wrong. Because they didn’t know how to use the most popular and user-friendly spreadsheet program in existence. Why had no one caught it before?  Because the initial publication of the most influential paper in macro-economics in my lifetime had not been peer-reviewed.  That the first peer to review it was this kid.  A grad student.

Nightmare.  Some kid caught you.  You’re a university professor, tenured and respected, and you’ve published a lot, many articles, and you write something really significant, something people pay lots of attention to.  And some whippersnapper comes up to you and says, “uh, prof?  Seriously, you can’t use Excel?  Wow. Here, let me show you.  You made this simple math error.  It invalidates your entire argument.”  Marketplace of ideas, indeed.

True story: many years ago, I was a grad student, and I had a paper accepted at an academic conference.  I went, and my dissertation advisor invited me out to dinner with some of his friends.  It was me, another grad student, and five of the most distinguished theatre historians in the world.  Completely terrifying.  We went to this incredibly nice restaurant in New Orleans–I couldn’t have afforded anything on the menu, but the profs kindly offered to get the check–and it immediately became clear that the two grad students were on trial. They were grilling us: I was holding my own.  But I had just gotten the seventh edition (may have been the sixth), of Oscar Brockett’s History of the Theatre.  And there he was, in the flesh, Brock himself, the great Oscar Brockett, right there at the table.  And I’d read the book that night, preparing for the dinner, and caught a mistake.  Not a little mistake either–he’d gotten Shakespeare’s birth year wrong.  I mentioned this, and the look on Brockett’s face was priceless.  As was the ribbing he got from his colleagues at the table.

Could have been worse. He could have had Stephen Colbert making fun of him/them. But it is great for the grad student who catches the big boys.  If you catch a big enough prof in a big enough error, Stephen Colbert will put you on his show.

The Colbert clip with Herndon is great, mostly because Stephen Colbert has so much fun with it.  But I loved this fact: Herndon wondered, initially, if he could have possibly gotten things wrong.  So he had his results peer-reviewed.  He showed ’em to his girlfriend.

It’s certainly possible to feel a bit bad for Reinhart and Rogoff.  But I’ve gotten to feeling a lot less sorry for them since Herndon’s paper was published. Their reaction has been wholly defensive, insisting that their basic conclusions were basically right even when the evidence supporting those conclusions has gone pooft.  Oh, and they admitted that they deliberately left out counter-examples.  Australia, New Zealand and Canada had inconveniently robust growth despite massive debt; R/R excluded them from their data.

The fact is, these two became policy wonk celebs, testifying before the House Budget Committee and the British Parliament and the EU General Council.  Anytime anyone talked about austerity, it was Reinhart/Rogoff they cited, unless they decided to put the guy’s name first, and call it Rogoff/Reinhart.  Now they look like bozos.  Caught by a kid.  (Who now replaces them as policy wonk celeb du jour.  By, among other things, going on Colbert.)

The thing was, as Keynes pointed out in his General Theory, austerity is always going to be puritanically attractive.  When an economy stalls, it’s tempting to see that failure in moral terms.  Our spending was too extravagant, too luxurious; our debt suggests profligacy and imprudence.  We need to cut back.  We need to punish ourselves, tighten our belts.  Look at government, wicked, evil government!  I wouldn’t run my family finances that way!  When I want to buy a new car, by gum, I save up for it!  We’re on a national (look at the moral implications of this language) spending spree.  And we need to stop.

Except none of that’s true.  Everywhere I look, I see a federal government where basic functions are endangered because they’re underfunded.  Say that to people, and they’ll go on a tirade about wasteful government spending.  And sure, there probably is some.  But mostly what needs to happen right now is more spending, stimulative spending. We’re in a Keynes moment, and Keyne’s basic IS/LM model has actually performed superbly in this crisis. R and R published a paper that was deeply and obviously flawed, and they got away with it for three years because it said something policy makers wanted to hear.

So the whole thing would be pretty funny, if it weren’t also serious.  People are suffering out there.  Unemployment is too high and underemployment rampant.  Europe is really struggling.  Austerity has been tried and tested and found wanting.  We know what works and we know what doesn’t work.  Peer review, turns out, works good.  Austerity, not so much.



The Zen of the Knuckleball

A major league fastball arrives at the plate at a velocity of around 90 to 95 MPH.  To throw a ball that hard requires that a pitcher turn his entire body into a sling, generating power, not just from his arm and shoulder, but also his thighs, knees, back.  Throwing a fastball is a violent and unnatural act, one which puts tremendous pressure on the shoulder, the elbow, the arm. A list of pitchers who have undergone Tommy John surgery, an ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction, in which the ulnar collateral ligament is replaced with a tendon from another part of the body, would fill an All-star roster.

The point isn’t just to throw the ball hard.  Imagine trying to hit a baseball with a stick, thrown at top speed from a distance of 60 feet 6 inches.  Sounds impossible, doesn’t it?  But in fact, professional hitters have extraordinary reflexes and fast-twitch fibers and hand-eye coordination, and if you just throw the ball hard, you’ll get clobbered.  The point is to spin the ball, impart movement on it, change speeds, try to disrupt the hitter’s timing.  Put enough spin on the ball, and it slows down, and drops precipitously at the last second–a change-up.  Or you can spin it so it changes direction–a curve.  Or move laterally–a slider.  And there are dozens of deadly variations on each of those pitches.  Splitters and cut fastballs and circle changes and screwballs and slurves.  All attempts to fool a pitcher, to disrupt him.  To throw the ball past him.

And then there’s the knuckleball.The anti-pitch.  Fluky, freaky. This video shows how you throw one–you push the ball out of your hand using your fingertips.  It’s not really thrown with the knuckles at all.  Thrown much softer–a relaxed, easy motion.  The point is to impart as little spin as possible.  Let the ball float up there, acted on by air currents.  Maybe it drops.  Maybe it sails.  As the pitcher, you don’t know where it’s going, and of course, neither does the batter. It looks like the easiest pitch in the world to hit–a batting practice fastball.  And then it jumps around unexpectedly.  The batter takes his best home run swing, and ends up whiffing, looking completely foolish.

It’s kind of a beautiful thing.  The point of a fastball/curve/change/slider pitcher is to control the outcome–you want the ball to cross a tiny corner of the plate, spinning and curving, at a velocity that makes it nearly impossible to hit.  A knuckleball pitcher, on the other hand, trusts to forces beyond his control.  Invisible air currents control the pitch.  Whatever happens, happens, dude.  But, man, can it be effective.  Here’s the great Tim Wakefield against the Yankees, a playoff game in 2003.  Best hitters in baseball completely helpless against a pitch arriving at home at 63 miles per hour.

And now we have a terrific new documentary, Knuckleball! documenting the 2011 season, and featuring Wakefield, in his last season, and R. A. Dickey of the (then) Mets, who emerged from the shadows that year. It makes sense that it would focus on just two pitchers, because throughout the history of baseball, there are really never more than a couple of knuckleballers working at any given time.  Hoyt Wilhelm and Wilbur Wood, when I was a kid. Then it was Phil and Joe Niekro and Charlie Hough in the 70s and 80’s, Bert Hooten after that.  Wakefield came up in ’92, and just retired, and now it’s R. A. Dickey, the new kid on the block.

But when you consider how few of them there have been, it’s remarkable how good they’ve been.  Two knuckleballers, Wilhelm and Phil Niekro, are in the Hall of Fame.  Joe Niekro could be.  Wakefield’s credentials are perhaps just a titch below that standard, but with over 200 career wins, he’s been an extraordinarily effective and consistent pitcher.  For the most part, knuckleballers turn to the pitch out of desperation.  Guys who want a career, and can’t figure out any other way to get batters out, turn to the knuckler, hoping against hope they can master it.  Most can’t. It’s a tricky and difficult pitch to learn how to throw consistently.  But if you can manage it, you can throw it basically forever. You throw so softly, it doesn’t put much pressure on your arm. Phil Niekro pitched ’til he was 48; Wilhelm until he was 50.  Wakefield had a 20 year career.

But they’re also an interesting bunch of guys.  When I was a kid, my favorite baseball book was Jim Bouton’s Ball Four.  The first great baseball tell-all, profane and funny and moving.  Bouton had been a great fastball pitcher for the Yankees, then blew his arm out.  Ball Four describes, in part, Bouton’s attempt to refashion a career by throwing the knuckleball.  He describes the frustration of it–one day, it dances like a ping pong ball in a hurricane, the next day it spins, and gets hit very hard by large hairy men with clubs in their hands. You get Bouton’s love for the game, his dogged determination and grit.  You also get a sense of a locker room, the rude humor, the casual insults, the camaraderie.  Bouton’s also in the doc; who knows how long his career as a knuckleballer might have lasted, were it not for being effectively black-listed by the baseball establishment for writing his book. But the point is that Bouton was a smart, observant, interesting guy, and a fine writer. (After his baseball career finished, he became wealthy by inventing Big League Chew–a bubblegum that looked like chewing tobacco, for kids who wanted to look especially cool.)

So is R. A. Dickey.  He’s also got a book out: Wherever I wind up: My Quest for Truth, Authenticity and the Perfect Knuckleball.  It’s a wonderful book, warm and insightful and funny.  I also love his blog.

It makes me think that there’s something fascinating about this pitch, this odd sort of anti-pitch.  Everything about it seems backward.  You control events by losing control of them–you admit you don’t know where the ball is going, and you’re okay with that fact.  It’s pretty Zen, really–I’ll got with the flow here, I’ll let the ball do whatever the ball wants to do. Only some guys can do that, and they tend to be interesting people, unusually thoughtful, outsiders and mavericks.

And then you get in trouble–walk a couple of guys (always a knuckleball possibility), maybe a wild pitch.  (If you don’t know where it’s going, and if the batter doesn’t know where it’s going, then obviously the catcher doesn’t know either!).  A conventional pitcher, in that situation, wants to throw harder.  The pitching coach comes out, says ‘okay, Ace, time to really bear down.’  If you ordinarily throw 93, now is time to throw 94.  You want to spin the ball more severely, catch even less of the corner, really hum it in there.

But not a knuckleballer.  If you try to throw a knuckleball harder, you’ll spin it, and it’ll get hit. A knuckleball pitcher wants to throw the ball softer. Try less to control events.  Trust even more to chance and fortune.  Like I said: Zen.

I love that.  I especially love it as a writer.  When you’re up against a deadline, and facing writer’s block, the temptation is to force it.  You work yourself into a state, you beat yourself up, you go ‘come on, damn it, think of somethingWriteNow!

It never works.  And I’ve come to realize there’s a real wisdom to knuckleballing.  Maybe the answer, in times of high stress, is to relax. Trust the air currents more.  Let happen what’s going happen.  Leave things, a bit, to chance.

Throw softer.

BYU Dress and Grooming

A friend shared this image, a poster from the BYU Honor Code office, and a parody of that poster from the Student Review.  Yes, that’s James Bond being used as a positive example, a guy who follows the BYU Honor Code.  Clean-shaven and all.  Also a womanizer who kills people for a living, but let’s not quibble over nuances.

A couple of points worth making about the BYU Honor Code.  First of all, every college in America has an Honor Code.  They may not call it that, exactly, but every school has one.  If you’re caught cheating on a test, or plagiarizing, you’ll get in trouble.  If you’re a serial sexual harasser, or have multiple DUIs on your record, you’ll get in trouble; state schools, private schools.  BYU is not unique in having an Honor Code.

Where BYU is unique is what sorts of things the Honor Code includes.  You can’t drink, smoke, drink coffee or chew tobacco. You can’t have sex with anyone, unless you’re married. BYU cares what clothes you wear and, if you’re a guy, the length and location of your facial hair.  Tattoos are not allowed, nor are multiple piercings.  Here are the actual rules, if you’re interested.  BYU is a university where students are not allowed to drink or fool around.  Yeah, BYU’s unique.

I taught at BYU for twenty years.  And my feelings about the Honor Code were, to be honest, conflicted. Obviously, some provisions of the Honor Code were there because it’s a Church sponsored school, with its own institutional take on the doctrine of in loco parentis.  Other rules were just public relations. BYU wanted students to look a certain way, clean-cut and well scrubbed. That part always struck me as silly.  I couldn’t care have cared less how my students wore their hair, or their shorts were knee length.  I used to get the giggles, thinking of the Honor Code committee, and how comically solemn committee meetings usually were anyway, and then add sober-sided administrators issuing Talmudic disquisitions on hair or skirt length to the agenda, and ROFL.

But personally, I was actually kind of grateful for the grooming stuff.  Here’s why; my preferred mode of dress and grooming is basically that of a hobo. Left to my own devices, I absolutely would have worn my hair to the waist, gotten my ears pierced, festooned my visible bits with tattoos.  I’m essentially a hippie at heart.  I would certainly have sported any number of styles of beard. Faded and patched jeans, Grateful Dead tee shirts, Hawaiian shirts; heck, I wouldn’t have put anything past me.  Lava lavas.  Kilts.  Jodhpurs.

In short, I would have looked like a pathetic middle-aged guy desperately clinging to a long-vanished youth, and I would have made a public spectacle of myself.  Now, as it happens, I’m also married, and would never have gotten away with any of that.  But here’s my larger point: I don’t know how to dress.  I don’t care.  I don’t just value comfort over style, I value comfort over everything.  BYU’s silly rules simplified my life.  I had to get a haircut every few months.  I had to shave most mornings.  And I had to dress decently, wearing clothes my wife bought for me because she didn’t trust me to buy anything for myself, nor should she have done.

So BYU prevented me from following my own misguided sartorial heart, and I’m grateful for it.  As a teacher, I didn’t care what anyone wore–I couldn’t be bothered.  If I saw a kid with a beard or long hair, I figured he was an actor growing it out for a role.  It would never have occurred to me to turn anyone in for anything.

Boy, some people sure care, though.  As I understand it, one big issue now has to do with a current fashion popular among young ladies, in which they wear a short skirt with long leggings.  This either is or isn’t a violation of the Honor Code, and some people have taken it upon themselves to write nasty notes to perceived offenders, or otherwise chastise them.  One joker wrote one to my daughter.  Apparently, some guys find some women’s fashions sexually arousing, or something, and think it’s the responsibility of young women to dress in a non-arousing way. “When you dress that way, you don’t know what it does to my relationship to the Spirit.”  Or some such self-serving blather.  “I’m a spiritual Giant, I am, except for those times when you make me not be one!”  Blarg.  BYU fauna do include herds of self-righteous dolts–let’s hope they grow out of it.

As a professor I never would have noticed if a girl was dressed inappropriately, because noticing would have required that I look at her, not as a student, but, however briefly, as a sexual object.  I said that badly, I think, but I want to make this clear; my students were there to learn from me.  My job was to teach. I felt it was my professional obligation to treat all students, male or female, exactly the same–as people who were there to learn.  It certainly wasn’t any part of my job to think of any student in any other way.  For me to look at a young woman and think ‘I think that skirt is too short’ would have required for me to consider something as irrelevant to the subject matter as the length of her skirt.

But it’s tricky.  First of all, I wanted all my students to think of themselves as special, unique, valued.  This went beyond trying to remember their names.  If a student had distinguished herself in some positive way, I tried to remember that, and refer to it in conversation.  If a student had asked me a question about something, I might ask her about it later–‘did you ever find an answer to such and such?’  So I might say something like ‘cute tee shirt,’ if the student was wearing a clever or funny tee shirt.  I might say something like ‘did you change your hairstyle?  It’s cute.’  Because college aged women do change their hairstyle with some frequency, and like it when people notice.  This is going to sound weird, but the persona I tried to cultivate was ‘older gay friend.’  Odd, because I’m not, in fact, gay. Just romantically uninterested/unavailable/unappealing.  Just this: there’s a fine line between ‘I like that sweater’ and ‘wow, you’re really hot,’ and I tried to stay on the appropriate side of that line, and I think I generally succeeded.

One thing that helped, I think, is that I’m not an attractive guy.  I’m big and I’m not good-looking.  When I say this, understand I’m not pathetically begging for sympathy and reassurance.  I’m perfectly fine with how I look.  Remember–I’m a theatre guy.  When I say “I’m fat,” I don’t mean “I’m consumed with self-loathing!”  I mean it like an actor: “there are parts I’m right for.”

I was a professor of Theatre, a playwright and a director.  And that means being acutely aware of clothing, of social signifiers and cultural constructs, and what message does wearing that outfit send.  I did get to work with costume designers, really good ones, and that was sometimes tricky for me, because I really genuinely don’t personally care about clothing.  But I do care a great deal about stage picture and the look of a show.  So in casting a show, I did have to take looks into consideration.  Again, a fine line: I couldn’t allow myself to think ‘that’s a pretty girl,’ but I could allow myself to think ‘she’s an ‘ingenue type;’ probably not right for Lady Capulet.’  I think I engaged in more non-traditional casting than most other directors in the department, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t take looks into account.  I do one time recall telling an actress that, although her audition was tremendous, I didn’t think I could cast her, because I thought she was too pretty to be convincing in the role.  She showed up to the call-back looking like a complete mess–no makeup, hadn’t showered, she said–wowed me with her acting, and easily won the role.

So the modesty debate is an interesting one, on a lot of levels. It certainly does get caught up in all sorts of issues of sexism and misogyny and how our culture constructs gender and gender roles.  So saying ‘I don’t care if that skirt is considered immodest’ doesn’t mean ‘I’m indifferent to issues relating to sexual immorality.’  It means ‘I’m deliberately placing myself outside that particular debate.  I’m absenting myself from considering her physical attractiveness.  She is, to me, a student. I am, to her, a teacher. And that relationship, teacher/student, is, to me, something holy.’



The Pope of Islam

The Boston Marathon bombing crisis seems to be over.  As best we know, the guy who masterminded the whole thing is dead, and his younger brother/accomplice is in custody.  Days to come, we’ll learn a lot more, about why this happened, motives and ideologies.

‘Not knowing’ doesn’t mean ‘not voicing opinions,’ however.  And I’ve been reading lots of chest thumping bluster on the inner-tubes about What It All Means.  And one opinion I hear regularly is that this proves– proves I tell you!– that Islam is an inherently violent religion, that Islam is fundamentally about jihad and terrorism, that the soft-headed notion that Islam is a peaceful religion is just more liberal media bias.  ‘Where are the prominent Muslim voices rejecting violence?  All we hear is terrorism, and more terrorism!  This kind of thing indicts their entire religion!’  And so on.

I get that it’s just ignorance.  I get that most Americans don’t know doodly-squat about Islam.  I’ve heard too many uninformed voices, the last few days (or rather, read too many uninformed posts), inventing silly nonsense about Islam.  One deep thinker opined that, as a religion, Islam has basically four tenets: suicide bombers, IEDs, Al Qaeda, and oppressing women.  And until authoritative Muslim voices denounce terrorist acts, in public, loudly and unmistakably, this guy says he’ll continue to think so.

The thing is, I’m hardly any expert on Islam.  I’ve read the Qur’an, but only once, in English translation.  I don’t have Arabic as a language, and I’ve hardly traveled extensively in the Islamic world–been to Israel, but that’s about it.  I’ve studied the religion a little, but not in any detail. I could get a lot of this wrong.  So bear with me, and forgive my ignorance, and if I’ve screwed up, set me straight.

But, yeah.  Islam is a peaceful religion.  The five pillars of Islam are straightforward: 1) the shahadah or creed (there’s only one God and Mohammed is his prophet), (2) daily prayers, (3) caring for the poor, (4) fasting during Ramadan, and (5) a once-in-a-lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca.  They believe in God, pray to him several times a day, care for poor people, fast, and renew themselves spiritually on a pilgrimage.  It’s awesomely simple and beautiful.

Are there passages in the Qur’an that suggest that God approves of violence?  A few, yeah, which we mostly take out of context. There are maybe ten or fifteen verses all told, most of which deal with defensive war, which the Qur’an does consider morally justifiable–fighting to protect your family and neighbors.  Are there passages in the Bible that suggest that God approves of violence? Sure, like ten times more.  We have the entire book of Joshua to explain away. Does that make either Judaism or Christianity blood-thirsty religions?  Of course not–we look at Joshua in its larger historical context. And the Crusades, and the Inquisition.  We have a history, they have a history.  Let’s call it a draw.

So, yes, we’re in a War on Terror, and terrorists nowadays are Moslems.  All of ’em, basically; terrorists.  “Uh, what?  Wait! What about me?” That’s Timothy McVeigh, feeling neglected. Joined by Basque separatists, the Shining Path guerrillas, the Red Army, the Irish Republican Army, the Weather Underground, Che, Mao, Pol Pot, Carlos the Jackal. . .  .

So isn’t terrorism mostly a function of actual (and perceived) oppression?  Isn’t it more about politics than it is about religion, or perhaps a combustible mix of religion and politics?  We don’t know anything yet about the Boston guys, but if this is about Chechnya, isn’t the big thing there independence?   When people talk about Afghanistan under the Taliban as an example of an ‘Islamic nation,’ when they suggest that the Taliban’s hostility to education and grotesque mistreatment of women are typical of what happens when you create an Islamic theocracy, I would suggest that the problem in Afghanistan isn’t Islam, it’s the fact that Afghanistan is a miserably screwed-up poor country.  Don’t compare Afghanistan (war-torn, violent, oppressive, Islamic) to, I don’t know, Denmark (peaceful, non-violent, free, Christian).  Compare Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of the Congo (war-torn, violent, oppressive, Christian).  Compare one screwed-up poor country to another screwed-up poor country.  Conclusion: it sucks to live in screwed-up poor countries.  Stop the presses.

Another factor–the unrelenting destructive power of sheer boredom. The 9/11 hijackers all came from either Saudi Arabia or Egypt. Both are Muslim nations, and both are reasonably prosperous.  But those countries have other things in common–massive unemployment, and a huge income gap; incredibly rich people, and desperately poor people, and not much in-between. 25 percent unemployment in both countries, more or less.   Unemployment means you’ve got lots of educated young men with no job prospects and nothing to do all day. Bored. (Could that describe the Boston guys? Underemployed bored young guys?)  That describes bin Laden, and it also describes Zawahiri and what we know of most of Al Qaeda’s leadership, and most of their recruits.  What does Al Qaeda want?  Essentially, the re-establishment of the caliphate. It’s a political goal. And it’s one that not all Moslems share.

The Shi’a sure don’t.  Okay, so when Mohammed died, he left behind a succession crisis.  According to Sunni Moslems, Abu Bakr Siddique ran things first, then passed the caliphate on to Umar ibn-Khattab, who passed it on to . . . ah heck, you can read Wikipedia as easily as I can.  Anyway, eventually the various attempts to establish a trans-Islamic caliphate failed, and there is no caliph anymore, though it’s the dream of some Sunni (including Al Qaeda) to re-establish one.  Shi’ite Moslems, however, think Mohammed intended his cousin and son-in-law Ali to be successor, to be passed on to his immediate family.  There’s even a hadith (a ‘saying’) of Mohammed to that effect, sort of the equivalent of Jesus saying to Peter, ‘on this rock will I build my church.’ (And a quick look at Christian history shows how much mischief that one caused!) Anyway, when Ali’s grandson, Hussein, was murdered, the Shi’a rejected the Caliphate entirely.  Some Shi’a look forward to a Messianic Mahdi, who come to earth and rule and reign.

So here’s the point: Al Qaeda is working towards the time when a single pan-Islamic caliphate will be restored, when a caliph, called by God, will come and rule the entire Islamic world, unified under Sharia law.  That’s what they’re trying to achieve.  And they see the West, in unholy union with the corrupt Saudi regime, as preventing that from happening.  In other words, as I said before, it’s an essentially political ambition. It’s also crazy.  Seriously: Turkey, Indonesia, Iran and Yemen (just for grins and giggles, let’s toss Pakistan in there too) unified under a single theocratic ruler?  It’s completely insane. Whole lotta wars required to bring that one about.

And everyone knows it. It’s a fantasy, especially when you consider that the Islamic world is hardly united at all about what ‘sharia law’ means.  What percentage of the Islamic world shares those specific goals?  Hard to say, because it kind of depends on how you phrase the question.  Ask Christians how many ‘look forward to the Second Coming of Christ’ and my guess is a majority would say ‘yes.’  But if you asked it this way, ‘if the Second Coming of Jesus included a thermo-nuclear holocaust, would you look forward to that happening?’  The numbers would undoubtedly drop.  So when Moslems are asked if they support a restoration of the caliphate, yes, a majority do favor that.  But when you ask if Moslems support using terrorist means to accomplish the restoration of the caliphate?  Huge, overwhelming majorities oppose it, because nearly all Moslems consider terrorism un-Islamic. Basically, Islamic terrorists are to Islam what the Ku Klux Klan is to Christianity–tiny groups of fanatics without popular support.

So my friend asks, why don’t we see major figures in Islam condemn terrorist acts, when they happen?  One reason is that Islam isn’t a church.  It’s a religion, but it’s not organized like a Church is, with a President and leadership councils and that kind of administrative apparatus. Islam doesn’t have a Pope.  That’s kind of what bin Laden wanted, to give Islam a Pope. But there are four main divisions within Sunni Islam and two main ones in Shi’a Islam, and they’re all sub-divided.  There are certain imams with some influence, but there’s not an organizational structure that can do things like issue press releases condemning terrorism.  If a mullah in Iran issues a fatwa against Salman Rushdie, it’s not really binding on other Moslems, unless they happen to agree with that mullah.

But if Islam isn’t a church, boy do Moslems like to organize.  So, okay, just for fun, here’s a list of a few prominent Moslem groups that have consistently and completely condemned terrorism:

The American Muslim Political Co-ordination Committee.  The Islamic Circle of North America.  The Afghan Muslim Association. American Muslims for Global Peace and Justice, American Muslims Intent on Learning and Activism, the Arab-American Congress, Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Islamic Networks Group, the Islamic Society of the East Bay, the Muslim Peace Fellowship, the Zaytuna Institute.

The Grand Sheik of Al-Azhar University, the oldest seat of Islamic learning, Muhammed Sayyed Tantawi, has repeatedly condemned terrorism. Sheik Abdul Aziz bin Abdullah bin Baz and Sheik Uthaimeen, two important Saudi scholars, have come out against terrorism.  Oh, and Every Other Major Scholar of Islam, has come out against the indiscriminate killing of innocent civilians and terror tactics generally. Abdul Aziz al-Ashaikh (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia and Chairman of the Senior Ulama), says that terrorist attacks constitute the worst possible violation of Islamic law, hirabah, waging war against society.  I don’t know what the Senior Ulama means, or Mufti either, but the dude sure sounds important. And sensible, and moral, and right.

I’m no expert on Islam, not in any way, not in any sense.  But to say ‘Moslems don’t condemn terrorism’ is just foolish and ignorant and prejudiced.  I looked it up. I Googled ‘Moslems oppose terrorism.’  Found everything listed above.  Took me five minutes.

Meanwhile, two screwed-up young guys did terrible things.  One of them’s dead, the other one’s in custody, badly wounded and trying to make sense of the disastrous mess he’s made of his life.  Let’s just leave it there for now.



The Sorcerer and the White Snake: A Review

At least that was the title when my wife and I watched it last night on Netflix. On IMDB, it was called The Emperor and the White Snake. Chinese, with English subtitles. A gorgeous film, a magical Buddhist fairy tale, as genuinely beautiful a film as can be imagined. Also, sort of weirdly misogynist, in the sense that all the female characters in the film, without exception, are demons.  But there are evil demons and benevolent demons, so I suppose it’s defensible, sort of.  Here’s the trailer, to give you a taste.

The version on Netflix doesn’t look entirely finished.  At times, the CGI is spectacular, amazing. At times, it looks more like a marker.  I suspect that what we saw was the film as screened at the Venice Film Festival, and that the plan is to finish it for Chinese release.

The film is directed by Tony Siu-Tung Ching, veteran fight choreographer and director; you may know him from the Legend of the Swordsman films.  The story: Jet Li plays Fahai, a Buddhist monk tasked with hunting down and imprisoning demons.  As the film begins, he fights an ice demon, played by Vivian Tsu; a spectacular sequence, lots of that flying/fighting stuff that make Chinese martial arts films so amazing.  That’s sort of the prologue.

As the film proper begins, two half-snake, half human sister female demons, the White Snake (Eva Huang) and the Green Snake (Charlene Choi), writhe sinuously in what looks like sort of an enchanted glade.  Eva Huang is breathtaking in this film, lovely beyond description despite, you know, being half snake.  The White Snake sees a mortal, Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), who is gathering herbs on a mountain cliff. For fun, she transforms to her snake persona, and scares him.  He falls off the cliff into the ocean; stunned by the fall, he begins to sink.  She transforms to human form and jumps in after him, and kisses him, transferring some of her life essence, and also oxygen.  He comes to, but does not remember her, but she’s utterly smitten by him.

And so she goes to a local city festival to look for him.  Green Snake, her sister, reluctantly comes along, and meets Neng Ren (Zhang Wen), Jet Li’s assistant monk, who she kind of likes, enough at least to enchant.  Anyway, White Snake tells Xu Xian her name is SuSu, and they fall in love, and marry.  Xu Xian is an herbalist/physician, and when the city is stricken with plague, he creates a remedy.  She adds more of her life essence to the concoction, and it works–saves everyone in the city from plague.  They are completely. blissfully happy.  But SuSu has given too much of herself, given up too much life essence, and is dying.

Meanwhile, Fahai is out fighting other demons.  He defeats an entire group of fox demons (also lovely young women, in their human form).  In one battle, his assistant Neng Ren, is bitten and infected by a demon, and over the rest of the film, slowly becomes one.  This makes him, apparently, all the more attractive to Green Snake.  And Fahai knows of the love affair of Xu Xian and SuSu, and doesn’t approve.  Love between mortals and demons, he says, is always a bad idea.  But he tells SuSu he’ll let it go, for now.

But she’s dying. And Xu Xian is told by a magical rat that there’s an herb that could save her, but it’s locked in a magical pagoda.  (There are magical rats, of course; why wouldn’t there be?  Also magical chickens, rabbits and a tortoise, though the tortoise speaks too slowly to be much use to SuSu.)  So Xu Xian determines to storm the pagoda and save his wife’s life.  But it turns out, the pagoda is the prison where Fahai keeps all the demons he’s captured, and the herb that could save her is also the magical herb that keeps them locked up. And releasing the herb leads Xu Xian to be attacked by all these demons.  And Fahai and all his apprentice monks fight to keep the demons locked up (though the cost is them torturing Xu Xian).

So releasing the demons–and saving the White Snake/SuSu– leads to a huge epic fight scene between the White Snake and Fahai.  And it was at that point in the movie that my wife turned to me and said, “exactly who is the bad guy in this movie?”  Great question, honestly.  Xu Xian is being attacked by demons.  SuSu/White Snake wants to save her husband.  Fahai wants to keep all these demons from attacking mankind; keep evil contained.  So who is the bad guy?  Who do we root for in that fight?

The answer, obviously, is Buddha.  I won’t give away the ending.  (I barely understand the ending).  Except it’s wonderfully romantic and deeply tragic, and doesn’t make a lick of sense, from my perspective as a Westerner.

I was blown away by this movie, and feel like my life is richer for having seen it. I don’t pretend to have understood it all.  Jet Li is always so grounded in these things, that ravaged face giving him such dignity and pathos. I had thought that Ziyi Zhang was the most breathtakingly beautiful actress of Chinese cinema, until this film introduced me to Eva Huang.  I didn’t think this film was quite up to the standard set by Hero, or Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, but it holds up–it’s a film that can be mentioned in the same breath as those films, at least.  I wouldn’t ordinarily recommend a film in which all the female characters are, you know, demons.  But White Snake is an awfully morally good demon, and her love for Xu Xian is the heart and soul of the movie.  See it, if you can.  It’s really something else again.

Boston and Iraq

On Monday, two IEDs exploded near the finish line of the Boston Marathon.  Three people were killed, over a hundred badly injured.  The bombs used were pressure-cooker bombs.  Instructions on how to make them are readily available on the Internet.  I found instructions in about four minutes, using Google.  Hydrogen peroxide makes a good explosive for them.  The bomb-makers also filled the cookers with nails and ball bearings; shrapnel.  I’m thinking, you could do it with two trips–a hardware store, and a big box retailer, for the pressure-cooker and then hit the beauty supplies aisle.

Also on Monday, on April 15, same day as the Boston bombings, six different car bombs exploded in Kirkuk, an oil town 180 miles north of Baghdad, killing 9 people.  And in Tarmiyah, a policeman was killed in a drive-by.  And over a hundred people wounded by car bombs in Fallujah.  And Baghdad, a car bomb hit the bus station, killed 10 more.  Twenty seven dead people killed by IEDs in Iraq, all told, and hundreds more wounded, all in one day.

An IED stands for Improvised Explosive Device.  They were really popular in the Iraq war and also in Afghanistan.  The Hurt Locker is a terrific movie about the military specialists who are tasked with bomb disposal.  When I first saw the news reports from Boston, they said that two bombs had exploded, and that other, unexploded bombs had been found.  This turned out not to be true, but I did think briefly of The Hurt Locker.  In Boston, the bombs were apparently placed in bags and left by the roadside. Not sure what they used for detonators; apparently it involved batteries and circuit boards.  As I speak, the FBI has released photos of guys who they want to talk to.  Let’s hope they catch ’em.

So a bad day in America, a worse one in Iraq.  The difference is, they’re pretty used to car bombs and roadside bombs and bombs generally.  We’re not.  So you hear phrases like ‘a loss of innocence.’  And Patriot Day, a big holiday in Boston, and the Marathon itself will never be the same.  And that may well prove true.

I remember, though, going to Israel with some students, for a major conference of the International Society for Theatre Research, sponsored by the University of Tel Aviv.  We’d go to these events, and our tax driver would tell us, with some relish, of terrorist attack sites as we passed them.  “Right there,” he’d say.  “That used to be a restaurant.  Car bombing in ’93.  And that corner there, hit by a rocket.”  It was sort of entertainingly grisly. I think that these attacks will fit rather neatly into the Patriot Day narrative, with a minimum of tweaking.  It’ll be something else we celebrate, like Lexington and Concord.

We’re still pretty innocent, we Americans. We’ve been attacked, to be sure.  But I’m not convinced we’ve come to terms with it entirely.  We’re used to being invulnerable, the richest country in the history of the world.  The most luxurious lifestyles ever.

I spent this past week watching the Boston news, and also dealing with our cable company, being driven to distraction by their corporate phone tree.  And it’s amazing to me, thinking back on it, how easily consumed I became by my personal first world problems.  First world problems.  I’m comfortably housed and clothed, with plenty of food, completely safe, and also blessed with literally dozens of entertainment options, spent this week upset because I had like two fewer than I was used to having.

Okay.  And on Monday, Boston happened, a horrible act of terrorism.  And yes, we should absolutely thank the first responders, and pray for the victims and their families, and hope they catch whoever did this.  It was a terrible thing, and pointless, and cruel.  But is it worth pointing out that, also on Monday, twenty seven people were killed by IEDs in Iraq. See, there’s an election coming up, and Al Queda votes with bombs.  And the civil war in Syria rolls on, 70,000 dead so far.  And there were terrorist attacks in Somalia this past week.  And so on.

So what am I saying?  I’m saying that this world is still a dangerous place, and we’re fabulously fortunate, we Americans.  I’m saying that we’re the richest people who have ever lived on this planet, enjoying lives of luxury unknown to anyone else ever. We shouldn’t feel guilty over any of that, but blessed and humble and determined to share whatever we can.  And we should hug out children a little tighter.  I don’t have anything profound to say about any of this.  Just . . .  we’re so incredibly lucky.

I was momentarily inconvenienced, and spent the week wrapped in self-pity. Maybe instead I should have, I don’t know, found a way to serve.  Given blood, donated money. Something. Something.

42: A review

In an early scene in 42, the new Jackie Robinson biopic, Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey looks through a whole pile of scouting reports, trying to find exactly the right guy to integrate baseball.  He lingers on Jack Roosevelt Robinson’s file; army officer, college graduate, four sport athlete.  Not as famous as Satchel Paige or Josh Gibson, but a good enough player so that no one could question his ability to play big league ball.  What about his temperment? Too hot-headed?  Then Rickey sees a note in the file, and his face brightens.  “A Methodist,” he crows.  “I’m a Methodist, and so is he.  This is the guy.”

If you’re going to make a movie about a seminal character like Jackie Robinson, it seems to me that the first decision to be made is this: is the movie about the person, or his impact?  In other words, should the movie focus on Jackie Robinson, on his personal life and his struggles and weaknesses and how he overcame them, or on the impact his life had on others, his teammates, opponents, the nation generally?  What this film does is combine the two.  It’s a film about absolute morality, a film that says something like this: you were either for Jackie Robinson’s right to play major league baseball, or you were against it, and that decision was a fundamentally moral one.

And that’s how his Dodger teammates line up.  Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman) and Bobby Bragan (Derek Phillips) and Kirby Higbe (Brad Beyer) never could overcome their prejudices, and opposed him. (Bragan later recanted, which the film depicts, but it’s not given much dramatic emphasis).  And Walker and Higbe are ‘punished’ for it by Rickey–traded to (shudder) Pittsburgh.  Pee Wee Reese (Lucas Black) and Eddie Stanky (Jesse Luken) come around, take Jackie’s side, publicly support him.  Ralph Branca (Hamish Linklater) is pro-Jackie from the beginning.  And this was all a function of their superior moral sense.

Chadwick Boseman is terrific as Robinson, as is Nicole Beharie as Rachel Robinson.  Boseman looks like a ballplayer.  He runs bases, swings the bat, fields a grounder, throws, and never once does it seem actorly. In some baseball movies, the players just don’t look right.  (John Goodman as Babe Ruth and Gary Cooper as Lou Gehrig come to mind.)  Boseman’s terrific in the role.  He captures Jackie’s fire, his competitive passion, his pride.  This is a fierce Jackie Robinson, not in the least meek and long-suffering, which gives his forbearance when pelted with racist epithets some real power.  Beharie’s great too.  Rachel Robinson was a California girl, from an upper middle-class family.  In one early scene she stares, uncomprehending, at a ‘white’s only’ sign on a restroom door.  Rachel Robinson has to be a thankless role–the virtuous, loyal spouse–but Beharie (and Brian Helgeland’s screenplay and direction) create a woman of humor and intelligence, who seems at times rather bemused by this odd racism thing.  (And who makes a point of hiring a white caregiver for Jackie Jr.).

And Harrison Ford is tremendous.  Gruff and uncompromising, Rickey seems perpetually outraged at the vicissitudes of a racist backlash he nonetheless completely anticipated.  It’s a crafty performance–his moral outrage perfectly calibrated for each exigency.  It’s valuable to remember that Jackie Robinson didn’t just decide one day to try out for the Dodgers, any more than Rosa Parks didn’t just decide one day she didn’t feel like riding in the back of the bus.  Both acts were more than just morally subversive–they were carefully calculated.

In the best scene in the movie, Jackie is subjected to absolutely unremitting racist abuse from Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk–say it ain’t so, Wash!), in a game in Philadelphia.  In a tight pitchers’ duel, Robinson struggles at the plate, and with every pop to short, Chapman lets him have it, n-word after n-word.  Finally, Eddie Stanky leaves the Dodger dugout and confronts Chapman, offers to fight him, even. (I assume this actually happened, and it made me happy: scrappy little Eddie Stanky, all 5’8 and 170 of him, was the one Dodger most likely to punch out the other team’s manager).  Chapman backs down, and in an interview afterwards, says to reporters that he didn’t think his language was out of line.  After all, he calls Hank Greenberg a kike, and Joe DiMaggio a wop and what’s the big deal?  But in Tudyk’s performance, there’s this glimmer of fanaticism; you can see this isn’t just about routine bench jockeying; he hates what Jackie Robinson stands for.

And look, I don’t question for a second the central premise of this movie. Obviously, racism is just flat out evil, and obviously Jackie Robinson had an absolute right to pursue his chosen profession.  Every year, Major league baseball honors the Robinson legacy by having every player, on April 15, on every team, wear 42.  This is right and proper and fitting.  And I do consider Pee Wee Reese, a guy from Kentucky, heroic, when he put his arm around Jackie, a gesture of solidarity, in a game in Cincinatti when the abuse was starting to really rain down.  And I think it’s awesome that Stanky nearly punched out Ben Chapman, and that Ralph Branca (however awkwardly), told Jackie that he should just go ahead and shower with the white players, that it was no big deal.

And it’s a good, inspiring movie.  I liked it.  My wife, who doesn’t like baseball, liked it too.

I just wish. . . .

Okay, Pee Wee Reese and Eddie Stanky were good guys and Dixie Walker and Kirby Higbe and Bobby Bragan were bad guys, and I get that, and don’t disagree.  But wasn’t this, in part generational?  Pee Wee was 28 in 1947, an established young star.  1947 was Ralph Branca’s rookie year, and he was also the best pitcher on the team; his job unthreatened.  In 1947, Dixie Walker was 36, near the end.  Kirby Higbe was 32, a hard-drinking Southerner, from South Carolina.  His autobiography, The High Hard One, is terrific, a rolicking memoir of Depression-era baseball, as well as an alcoholic’s confessional.  It seems a shame to see a complex and interesting man relegated to the role of ‘racist villain’.  Dixie Walker became a highly respected hitting coach, especially known for his work with Jimmy Wynn, a great black player for Houston. As for Bobby Bragan, he was one of those guys hanging on by his toenails to a big-league job, a 29-year old backup catcher, who batted .190 in 1947.  He had to know what Robinson meant to a guy like him–an influx of black talent, competing for one of the 400 major league jobs.  If Robinson succeeded, Bragan had to think his career would be over–and that’s also what happened.  Roy Campanella joined the team in 1948, and the job he took was Bragan’s.

I am glad that the film makes a big deal of Wendell Smith, the reporter for the Pittsburgh Harold-American, a black newspaper, who Rickey hired at 50 dollars a month to be Jackie’s friend, confidant, chauffeur and amanuensis.  Smith was every bit the pioneer Jackie Robinson was, excluded from press boxes, typing game stories with a typewriter on his lap in the stands.  But what the film does not say is that Smith had been agitating for baseball integration for years, nor that he was the man who recommended Robinson to Branch Rickey.

In fact, Branch Rickey broke the color barrier for many reasons, some of them moral and religious to be sure, but also because he wanted first access to the black talent pool that would follow baseball’s integration.  And while he certainly paid Jackie and Pee Wee the same salary, he didn’t pay either of them all that much.  Owners didn’t, back then.

In other words, the baseball fan and historian in me sees the potential for ten much more nuanced and interesting films about Jackie Robinson.  Which is not to say that the film we have isn’t a good one, or an important one, or an inspiring one.  I liked it immensely, loved the performances, love the importance of Jackie Robinson in our history, which the film does get pretty well right.  The fact that other, maybe better films kept peeking out around the corners doesn’t negate what this one accomplished.