Monthly Archives: May 2013

Ducking bullets

So, Gangster Squad showed up in my mailbox today, so I gave it a watch.  You may remember the trailer.  Awful, kaka poo poo movie. I mostly wanted to watch it because a former student of mine, Mireille Enos, is in it. She was in fact, great, in the small but crucial role of Josh Brolin’s pregnant wife.  She was also the only character that brought something that looked sort of like humanity to the film; not actual humanity, because it was too bad a movie for that, but the kind of faux humanity that is the highest action movies ever aim for.

But Gangster Squad did include several examples of a new action movie meme I’ve seen a lot lately.  Obviously, because it’s an action movie, the good guys are very good shots, and the bad guys can’t hit the broad side of a barn.  So in scene after scene, the good guys and the bad guys would be shooting at each other, and bad guys would drop like flies, moaning and holding injured parts of themselves, while the good guys go unscathed.  Oh, sure, occasionally a good guy sidekick character would die, so all the other good guys can weep and mourn and vow with clenched teeth how they’re going to devote themselves to getting the miserable scum who killed Joey.

The idea that good guys are marksmen and bad guys can’t shoot isn’t anything new.  (The best example of it ever was in the original Star Wars, when Obi-Wan sees the damage done to Uncle Owen’s farm and says that it has have been done by Imperial Storm Troopers, because of the accuracy of the firepower.  This about a group of clowns that can’t shoot at all).  No, the new meme isn’t that bad guys can’t shoot, it’s that good guys can literally dodge bullets.

Have you seen this one?  In Gangster Squad‘s final scene, for example, the good cops are coming after Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who is holed up in a luxury hotel, protected by an army of tommy gun wielding thugs.  The good guys consist of, like, five cops.  They’re outnumbered 100-5.  And their oh-so-clever plan is to walk up to the front door and start shooting people.  That’s not a violation of civil liberties, not at all, ’cause you see, they have a search warrantSigned by a judge.  So everything’s completely copacetic.

So Ryan Gosling and Josh Brolin are advancing into the hotel.  And this one baddie jumps out with a tommy gun, and opens fire.  Right there, point-blank range, blasting away at Josh Brolin. Who responds by sort of ducking his head a little.  And then plugs the bad guy mid-chest.

It’s the ducking thing that got to me.  Apparently, it’s possible, when someone is shooting at you (with an automatic weapon, no less), if you duck at just the right time, you can literally dodge the bullets.  I mean, I don’t know how else to interpret that cinematic moment.  The guy is maybe fifteen feet away, point blank range, and he has a machine gun, and he blasts away.  Josh Brolin ducks. And the bullets all miss.  How else are we supposed to interpret that?

I’ve seen it in other movies.  Chris Pine does it in the new Star Trek.  Tom Cruise did it in Jack Reacher.  Good guys have always been bullet-proof, but now, it seems, they’re bullet-proof not as a sign of their moral superiority, but also due to their superior, super-human reflexes.

Okay, this is all silly and we all know it’s unrealistic.  But I do think some version of it drives some folks’ views on public policy.  For example, one persistent thread I’ve seen in relation to Benghazi goes like this: “Obama could have and should have sent troops in.  We could have saved the lives of those brave Americans if we could have responded, immediately, with Special Forces.”  And this, of course, is Obama’s fault, not sending in reinforcements.

Well, former Defense Secretary Bob Gates (a Republican, let it be noted), addressed that very issue.  We’re so used to movies, we’re so used to good guys beating bad guys against impossible odds, we have a, well, cartoonish understanding of real-life military capabilities.  Cartoonish is the word Secretary Gates used, and it’s an apt one.  Movies like Gangster Squad are cartoons.  And cartoons can be amusing.  But they don’t even approximate real life.

In the actual factual military, ops are planned, based on solid intel.  And in movies, the good guys plan too. But their plans are always silly.  Basically, the plan, in Gangster Squad, is ‘we’re going to walk up to the front door and start shooting.  And eventually, we’ll work our way through all the henchman and kill Sean Penn.’  It works splendidly.  But mostly because Josh Brolin has the ability to duck incoming bullets.

Even a movie like Zero Dark Thirty, which went to great lengths to get the combat sequences right, does romanticize battle some.  But it does show how carefully real Navy SEALS train, and plan, and how meticulously they execute.  It’s refreshing to see a movie at least try to get all that right.  But Hollywood mostly doesn’t bother.  It’s more fun to see Josh Brolin duck bullets. My guess is, he actually can’t.


Apparently, the city of Portland, Oregon publicizes itself through a slogan: Keep Portland Weird.  I’ve never been to Portland, except through the magic of television, but I do think there’s reason to think of the place as weird.  For one thing, they seem to have an inordinate number of half-human, half-animal creatures called ‘wesen.’  All have funky German names, and all look perfectly human, until they ‘volga,’ which mean, reveal their animal identities.  But it’s okay. Most wesen are quite peaceable, and anyway, there’s a Grimm to keep them in line.

Such is the premise of NBC’s fantasy police procedural drama Grimm.  David Giuntoli plays Nick, a Portland homicide detective, who learns from his mysterious aunt that he is a Grimm.  Grimms have the task of killing wesen, but Nick is a kinder, gentler Grimm, a cop Grimm.  He likes wesen, wishes them no harm, as long as they remain peaceful.  His girlfriend, Juliette (Bitsy Tulloch) spent the first season of the show unaware he was a Grimm, which meant he had to spend a lot of time lying to her about what he was up to, which put a strain on their relationship.  His partner, Hank (Russell Hornsby) doesn’t know at first either, but as the second season has proceeded, both Hank and Juliette have learned Nick’s secret.

Nick also has a best friend, Monroe (Silas Weir Mitchell), who is a Bludbad–kind of a werewolf.  Monroe is far and away my favorite character on the show, sort of comic relief, only very loyal and brave.  He also has a girlfriend, Rosalee (Bree Turner), a Fuchsbau–sort of a half-fox, half human.

A lot of the show involves Nick and Monroe doing research on different kinds of wesen in his aunt’s old trailer, one she left to Nick when she died retired from the Grimm trade. That trailer is a terrific set, with all sorts of nasty medieval-y weapons laying about, some of which Nick gets to use on particularly obstreperous wesen.

There’s also a lot of mystery involving Nick’s boss, police Captain Renard (Sasha Roiz), who we spent most of the first season wondering about–was he a wesen too?  Turns out, yes, but he’s become a very interesting character too.

There is one other cop character in the show, Sergeant Wu (Reggie Lee).  This leads to the conclusion that one of the things that makes Portland weird is that the city seems to have an entire police force consisting of four cops–two detectives, a captain, and this one sergeant who does all the other work.  I actually think that, with a current population of a little over half a million, Portland might want to hire a few more police officers.

I mock because I love.  Grimm is a terrific show, easily one of the best shows on network television.  The creators have given us a fascinating fantasy universe, and although the police procedural part is a little lame (basically the killer is always a wesen), that’s not why we watch it.

My wife and I, when we watch it, also like making up silly German names for new wesen.  ‘See that guy?  He’s a gesamtkunswerk!’  ‘Oh, yeah, well I think that woman is a weltschmerz’.  That kind of thing.  It adds a certain deconstructive quality to our viewing pleasure.  But do catch the show.  It’s really very good indeed.

Michele Bachman and Bob Dole

Michele Bachman has announced that she will not run for re-election in 2014.  A victory dance would, of course be unseemly.  But this strikes me as good news.

In related news, Rachel Maddow’s show last night directed to our attention the remarkable fact that Bob Dole’s 1996 Presidential campaign website is is still on-line.  It has, as Rachel pointed out, a time capsule feel, not just because of the old-school graphics, but because of content.

Bob Dole was the very model of the Republican career conservative politician.  He was Senate Majority leader, and an effective one.  He considered himself a fiscal conservative, and on his website calls for lower taxes, smaller government, a balanced budget.  He was also a decent and honorable man, a genuine war hero and an effective legislator.  His Presidential campaign fell short, in part because he wasn’t a particularly effective campaigner–sort of comically fond of third person locutions, among other perceived ineptitudes.  “Bob Dole does not support . . . ” That kind of thing.

But look at that website, where he stood on issues.  He was a huge supporter of the Americans With Disabilities Act, for example; co-sponsored the bill, and always advocated for disabled people.  Supported the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Federal Water Pollution Control Act.  He was a very Republican kind of environmentalist, supporting the “Private Property Rights Act to ensure that the government justly compensates property owners for the “takings” of private property for public use.”  Still, his environmental record was a strong one.

Women’s Issues?  He strongly supported the Violence Against Women Act.  Welfare: supported expanding food stamps.  Education: wanted to expand student loans.

In other words, Bob Dole supported positions on a whole range of issues that would be anathema to the national Republican party today.  Essentially, he’d be a Democrat today.  And he knows it.  On Fox News Sunday, he said scathing things about what’s happened to his party.  “I think they ought to put a sign on the National Committee door that says ‘closed for repairs,’” he said. And he said that neither he nor Ronald Reagan would be welcome in today’s Republican party.  “Certainly Nixon couldn’t make it today,” he said.  “He had ideas.”


But who is he talking about?  He didn’t make this connection, but it isn’t hard to: he’s talking about Michele Bachman and her ilk.  He’s talking about the Tea Party.  He is, in short, referring to the latest iteration of movement conservatism.

I don’t think it adds much to civilized discourse to call people crazy. I do think, though, there’s some value in pointing it out when national politicians say silly things.  When Michele Bachman suggested (in 2008) that most members of Congress weren’t patriotic Americans–when she essentially accused Democrats of treason–that’s crazy.  When she said that hurricanes and tornadoes, in 2011, were God’s punishment to the US for overspending, that’s, uh, not a serious policy statement.  It’s nuts.  The HPV virus does not, in fact, “cause mental retardation,” as Bachman suggested on the campaign trail, nor can gay people be turned into straight people through aversion therapy, notwithstanding her husband’s best efforts. So hearing of her retirement strikes me as a good thing.

It’s de rigueur, at this point, to say that there are equally silly people in Congress representing the left.  But I don’t know that that’s true.  When a neutral site like Politifact points out that 51 percent of Bachman’s public statements are factually inaccurate, that suggests that something is seriously wrong.  When Bachman said recently, about Obamacare, that ‘the IRS is going to be in charge of a huge national database on health care that will include Americans personal, intimate secrets,” Politifact didn’t just call her on it, it awarded her its coveting ‘pants on fire’ designation, reserved for the most outlandish, ridiculously untrue claims.

So Andrew Sullivan’s website, The Dish, recently researched Politifact, in an effort to determine if one party or the other lied more often.  His research showed a significant edge to Democrats in this category. Democratic politicians, pundits and talk show hosts just generally tended to say factually inaccurate things about a third as often as conservative media and Republican politicians do. About ten percent of public statements by Republican leaders are characterized by Politifact as ‘pants-on-fire,’ which means preposterously untrue.  Less than three percent of public statements by Democrats are designated ‘pants-on-fire.’  Among pundits, it’s worse–conservative media figures get 17 percent pants-on-fire ratings, while liberals are again around 2 percent.

But see, I don’t think this suggests any kind of moral superiority for Democrats over Republicans, or liberals over conservatives.  What it does suggest is that the basic philosophic underpinnings of each party’s ideology are at odds.  In short, conservatives tend to believe in things that just aren’t true.  And this isn’t surprising, because conservatives tend to respond to science more dismissively than liberals do, as a general thing.

Is massive planetary climate change taking place, and is it caused by humans?  The scientific consensus would be, I think, that it is happening, and that human energy consumption is a causative factor.  You may disagree with that conclusion, but if you do, odds are that you’re a conservative.  Right?

I recently reviewed a documentary film about battles in the Texas School Board over textbook standards.  Well, one of the conservatives featured in that film is a ‘new earth creationist.’  Which means, he believes that God created the Earth six thousand years ago, that Noah’s flood destroyed all life on the planet except for that saved in his ark, and that dinosaurs were among the creatures saved.  I don’t want to mock the guy; that’s genuinely what he believes.  But I think the scientific community would find those views, uh, inconsistent with existing evidence.

And of course most conservatives don’t share those specific theological views. But as Politifact suggests, a whole lot of conservatives do believe in things that aren’t true.  A third of conservatives think, for example, that Barack Obama was born outside the US. A huge number believe that Obama was directly responsible for the terrorist attack in Benghazi, and that he ordered the IRS to target conservative groups.  My Dad sometimes sends me these viral emails he gets from a friend: a veritable cornucopia of anti-Obama insanity.  Obama wants to take ‘in God We Trust’ off US dollars.  He refused Christmas tree ornaments, because, you know, the war on Christmas.  Of course, it’s an article of faith that Obama is a socialist.  Whatever that means.

Now it is certainly true that liberals believed in lots of crazy stuff back when George W. Bush was President.  As someone who considers himself a sensible liberal, I well remember the fires we had to put out then.  The worst was the suggestion that Bush had purposely set explosions to destroy the Twin Towers; that 9/11 was a Bush plot.  I thought that suggestion was contemptible, and said so.

But what I do reject is the suggestion that all political opinions are equally valid, that there’s no such thing as truth in political discussions.  I do think that perfectly decent, equally intelligent people can disagree on political issues.  I think that people who disagree with me politically are often reasonable, thoughtful, good people who just happen to hold different views.  But I do also think that some views not only can be but are just flat wrong.

For example, when I was in high school, my civics teacher was a brilliant man, and a wonderful teacher, who happened to believe that the US involvement in Southeast Asia was entirely justified.  He believed in the domino theory.  He thought that if the US allowed Vietnam to turn communist, Cambodia would be next, then Thailand, then the Phillipines.  Then (ominously), Hawaii?  And he was an eloquent and informed defender of those ideas.  And he was wrong.  Demonstrably wrong, historically wrong, provably wrong.

So today, when we look at the economy, to the simple-minded extent that two opinions exist, which we can label ‘austerity’ on the one hand and ‘stimulus’ on the other hand, reasonable, thoughtful, intelligent good people can disagree.  And do.  And in economics, both sides can point to various statistics to support their opinions.  But eventually, one side will be proved to have gotten things right, and the other side will have been proved wrong.

In the last Presidential election, Mitt Romney was convinced that we was going to win.  He said so, many times.  Nate Silver, of, looked at the polling data, and said that the President was going to win re-election.  Silver also predicted every Congressional and Gubernatorial race in the country.  It turned out that Silver was completely right, right in every instance.  He wasn’t right because he was smarter than Governor Romney or Governor Romney’s campaign staff.  Silver was right because he had the facts on his side.

More and more, facts seem not to be on the side of conservatism.  And one of the most egregious purveyors of misinformation, Congresswoman Michele Bachman, has announced her retirement.  It’s a good day to be an American.


Mike Kickham

Tonight, a young man named Mike Kickham will make his major league debut for the San Francisco Giants. One of our starting pitchers, Ryan Vogelsong, broke his hand, hit by a pitch, and will be out for two months.  Kickham is Vogelsong’s replacement.  He will be the first guy drafted by the Giants in the 2010 draft to make it to the major leagues.

Every year, Major League baseball conducts a draft. Amateur players (either straight out of high school or college guys) put their names in a pool, and teams draft them in reverse order. In other words, the team with the worst record in the previous system drafts first, and the team with the best record drafts last. When a player is drafted, that means that the team who selected him has exclusive rights to try to sign him to a minor league contract.  But the player doesn’t have to sign if he doesn’t want to.  The draft lasts fifty rounds, and of the players the Giants selected in 2010, thirteen did not sign.  If you’re a talented high school player, you have options.  You can sign a contract, and start playing for money right away. Or you can go to college, play college ball on scholarship.  Likewise, a college player drafted after his freshman year could decide that the money being offered isn’t good enough, and stick around in college another year.

The Giants are typical of most major league teams, in that they own and manage seven minor league teams, in addition to the major league club in San Francisco.  These minor league teams are all ranked AAA, AA, A and Rookie league.  The AAA team (in Fresno), consists of players who are basically ready to play in the majors.  AA (Richmond VA) is for the players who are close to that level.  The three A teams are not all equal.  The San Jose A team is considered a ‘high A team’, playing competition a cut above other A teams.  The other A teams are in Augusta GA and Salem-Keizer OR.  In addition, the Giants own two Rookie league teams, which play a much shorter season than A-level teams.  One is an Arizona League team (the entire league made up of teams from town in Arizona), and the other is in the Dominican Republic. All these minor leagues are professional leagues–the guys get paid, though not much.  Orem has a Rookie league team–the players live with families in the community.  The folks who live across the street from us in Provo fostered several Orem Owlz over the years.

So every year, 50 players are drafted, 35-40 are signed, and 35-40 minor league players already in the system are released.  They’re finished, their major league dreams permanently ended.  They played baseball professionally, but they never made it to The Show. They have a little money in their pockets, but it’s not much.  It’s brutally Darwinian.  You’re either good enough or you’re not.  If not, you’re gone.  So a young man drafted by a major league franchise faces tremendous odds against making his major league dreams come true.

At the majors, though, there’s a chance to make serious money, enough money to basically retire for life.  It’s certainly a dream worth pursuing.

To put it in perspective, Mike Kickham has been playing, up to now, on a minor league contract.  When he signed a contract, he was probably paid a signing bonus. He was drafted in the sixth round, which means his signing bonus was probably in the neighborhood of $20,000.  As a Rookie league player, his salary was $850 a month (though, again, his housing costs were minimal, as he probably stayed with a host family.)  After that, he could negotiate a salary every year, but even AAA players usually make something like $50,000 to $80,000.

But Mike Kickham will sign a major league contract today. He’ll show up at the ballpark around 3 or 4, and it’ll be waiting for him.  And the minimum major league salary is $490,000.  Half a mill.

As you can see, Kickham’s a nice looking kid.  Left handed pitcher, from Springfield, Missouri. 6′ 4″, 220. Born in St. Louis, life-long Cardinals fan. (Well, probably not anymore).  He played college ball at Missouri State, where his stats were unimpressive.  But the Giants pitching guru, Dick Tidrow, liked his delivery and his fastball, and persuaded the team to draft him.  He signed late his rookie year, pitched only 3 innings at the Rookie level, then was inconsistent in 2011, pitching at Augusta.  But he showed the Giants’ management enough that they jumped him to Richmond last year, where he really pitched well.  That got him advanced to Fresno this year, where, after a rocky start, he pitched exceptionally well his last 8 starts.

He seems like a nice kid.  His parents are both athletes–his father’s an amateur tennis player, and his Mom played college volleyball.  He has three siblings.  He’s bright–he was pre-med in college, and goes back to school to work on his degree in the off-season.

And after today, for the rest of his life, he’ll be a major league baseball player.  His name will appear in the Baseball Encyclopedia.  He will be able to tell his grandchildren about it, about pitching a ballgame in May, in Oakland (we’re playing the A’s) for the defending world champs.  He’s in The Show.  I hope his parents (Kevin and Dana) and his siblings (Danny, Caroline and Janie) will fly out for it.  Mike Kickham makes his major league debut today, and his life will never be the same.


Star Trek Into Darkness: A Review

In a recent interview on Jon Stewart, J. J. Abrams said, about Star Trek, that when he initially watched the show, preparing for the reboot, he didn’t get it.  And didn’t like it.  Of course, he quickly added that he’d grown to love it, an essential correction, lest every Trekkie in the universe commit instant self-immolation.  And of course lots of fan commentary on the recent movie has cited that conversation, as reasons why Abrams shouldn’t really be trusted with the franchise. And I know that I sound like the most doctrinaire Trekkie when I say that this movie proves that we were right.  This isn’t a very good movie, and that the reason is that it strays too far from what made Star Trek special.

Look, I totally get that it’s a hundred million dollar film, and that it needs to appeal to general audiences and not just fan-boys.  But watching Star Trek Into Darkness (shouldn’t there be a colon in there, between Trek and Into?), I felt mostly a sense of loss.  It’s a slick, fast-paced, fun and exciting popular entertainment.  It’s got lots of ‘splosions, and chases, and fight scenes, and stunts, and ‘splosions, and ‘splosions.  As a result, it feels generic, a common-or-garden action thriller.  Sure, it pays passing homage to Star Trek story conventions.  Bones says, “damnit Jim, I’m a doctor, not a . . . ” Spock rejects some course of action as “illogical,” and the only people who die wear red shirts. And Benedict Cumberbatch makes for a tremendous villain, as “Khan.”  But I put quotation marks there, he’s a sort-of Khan, certainly villainous and tough and strong and charismatic, but more an approximation of Khan.  Just as “Kirk” and “Bones” and “Scotty” aren’t really Kirk and Bones and Scotty, but simulacrums of them. This isn’t just because different actors are playing the roles.

I think my wife got it right.  Kirk and Spock are supposed to be great friends, for example, and Spock cries when Jim ‘dies’ in this. (Oops, sorry, spoiler alert, but it’s a movie; you know he doesn’t really die).  But we haven’t had enough time with them to believe in that friendship.  They haven’t spent enough time together.  Their relationship feels perfunctory, not because they’re bad actors, but because the movie doesn’t establish a relationship–it assumes one.  And those tears feel fake, not because Zachary Quinto can’t act–he’s a wonderful actor–but because the movie itself hasn’t taken the time to build a friendship.  That goes to the heart of what’s wrong with the movie.  It possesses the outward form of Star Trek, while denying the power thereof.

This is, again, not a knock on the actors.  Chris Pine is perfectly fine as Kirk.  He’s a good actor, captures Kirk’s devil-may-care charm and his courage.  I like Karl Urban as Bones, Simon Pegg as Scotty.  I even like that Pegg brings his manic comic sensibility to Scotty.  And Zachary Quinto is tremendous.  I notice that even Sheldon, on Big Bang Theory, (as quintessential a fictional Trekkie as can be imagined) has come around on Quinto, as well he might.  But again, Quinto isn’t really Spock.  He’s “Spock.”

There’s one brief moment, in Into Darkness, when Quinto’s Spock accesses the alternate universe where Leonard Nimoy’s Spock lives and they have a chat about Khan.  That moment saddened me more than I would have thought possible.  It gave me a glimpse of what  Star Trek means, the sensibility that Abrams doesn’t seem to understand. It grounded the movie, for one too-brief moment in moral depth and complexity.

The major dramatic question in Abrams’ version of Star Trek goes something like this: should one obey orders?  Should one obey the rules? But the dramatic question in (I hate myself for putting it this way) the real Star Trek (sorry) is ‘what is the right thing to do?’  The Prime Directive, which Kirk famously disobeys all the time, is intended as a guideline, not a commandment. Kirk and Spock wrestle throughout the series with questions of the greater good, and how it’s best served.  The ‘order-disobeying maverick’ protagonist is a pop culture cliche, a mainstay of, like, every action movie ever.  Star Trek deepens that question, digs deep into the complexities and ambiguities of moral choice in a difficult and complicated world.

And Leonard Nimoy slowed things down.  My gosh, it was so wonderful, to have a moment’s respite from the endlessly frenetic pace Abrams sets.  Of course, Star Trek was an action series, and it had its share of fights and chases and explosions.  But it did so with a sense of wonder and awe, at times, and with a genuine appreciation of alien cultures (even though they were often, for budgetary reasons, absurd).

So in this film, there’s a moment where Kirk and Spock and Uhura are on a Klingon planet, surrounded by Klingon ships.  And the Klingons looked great; like a cross between old-school Klingons and the Worf TNG reboot.  Anyway, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), says to Kirk “you brought me here because I speak Klingon.  So let me talk to them.”  And he does, and she does, and speaks well, about honor and how the Klingons were violating their own code of honor by harboring Khan.  It was a nice Star Trek-y moment.  A moment where Klingon culture is respected, and communication between peoples becomes possible. And then, of course, its like Abrams went ‘Boring!  We haven’t blown anything up for awhile.  Time for a fight scene!’  And Khan shows up, and there’s a huge battle.  And a dramatically tense moment turned into just another generically frenetic action sequence.  It turned an interesting moment boring.  I know, bodies flying around, phaser blasts flashing, stunt men dramatically dying–exciting stuff.  But it wasn’t.  It was dull.

I’ve often thought that one of the finest episodes in the history of Star Trek, especially TNG, is this one; the episode called Darmok.  In this episode, Picard and an alien captain are trapped alone on a dangerous planet.  They have to figure out how to survive together, and they have technology allowing the translation of most words, but cultural barriers prevent them from really communicating. And they succeed, with Picard figuring out a myth: Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.  And he responds by telling the story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu.  What’s wonderful about that episode is just the idea of it, the importance of cross-cultural communication.  Just human beings trying to talk to each other. And through stories, myths, they manage to prevent an violent incident, perhaps even a military confrontation, perhaps even a war.

Into Darkness eschews complexity.  It basically could be anything; any summer action flick. It’s an action movie pastiche–all borrowings and appropriations.  My sister-in-law, after she saw it, texted to ask about one moment in Into Darkness, which she thought she’d seen in something else, but what? I thought Independence Day, but as I finished texting her, I immediately thought of ten other movies that had it too.

And now Abrams is going to make Star Wars too; he’s directing that reboot as well.  And it’s not hard to see what he’ll come up with.  We’re seeing it now, in the theaters, with all those other big action movies. He’ll do another one, and it’ll be sort of exciting and basically okay.

J. J. Abrams is a bright, talented guy, with technical chops, a knack for staging action sequences, and great timing for comedic moments, especially for throwaway laughs in the middle of action. I didn’t dislike Star Trek Into Darkness, at least not while I was watching it.  And I know people who swear by Lost, which he also created.  And I liked Super 8, Spielberg homage though it was.  But I wish he had something to say.  And I wish he’d stop borrowing from other artists who do.


The Revisionaries: Review

My wife and I watched one of those Christopher Guest mockumentaries last night.  Only to realize, to our horror, that it was an actual doc, and that the people in it weren’t actors.

The Revisionaries is a 2012 documentary by Scott Thurman about two battles in the Texas State Board of Education over the curriculum standards that they insist be addressed in the textbooks they purchase.  Textbook publishers have to pay a lot of attention to Texas, because the state buys so many textbooks, and because other conservatives states tend to follow Texas’ lead.  So while the Board deliberates, textbook writers and publishers watch, with increasing dismay, as School Board President, Don McLeroy (probably Fred Willard in the Christopher Guest version) fights for creationism in science textbooks, and a Christian dominionist perspective in Social Studies textbooks.  He’s joined by Liberty University law professor Cynthia Dunbar (the Catherine O’Hara role), SMU anthropology professor Ron Wetherington (Michael McKean), and Texas Freedom Network head Kathy Miller (Deborah Theaker).

I know I’ve pushed the Christopher Guest joke way too far.  But McLeroy almost does seem like a caricature.  He’s a young-earth creationist, convinced that the earth is 6000 years old, that Noah had dinosaurs on his ark, that the Bible is inerrant.  He’s a dentist by profession, and we see him preaching (I guess he’d say ‘witnessing’) to his patients.  Which I would find immensely annoying, enough to find another dentist, but he seems to have a large practice, and a successful one.  But he’s an agreeable guy, a fine, energetic Sunday School teacher.  And the last guy on the planet earth you want on a State School Board.

The School Board battles depicted in the film are over what strikes me as minutiae.  Should science teachers be required to teach ‘strengths’ and ‘weaknesses’ of evolutionary theory?  Should students have to ‘evaluate’ scientific claims.  On one hand, that language doesn’t strike me as terribly anti-educational.  But you can see how it might open the door to creationism.  A door Don McLeroy very much wants opened, as he quite candidly admits.So he sees getting ‘evaluate’ into the standards as a major victory.

It’s important to understand that nuance.  McLeroy isn’t stupid.  He knows that he’ll never get away with straight-out creationism. ‘Intelligent design’ is slightly less problematic, but he also knows it won’t fly as official state educational policy.  So his efforts are intended to subtly discredit evolution, by insisting that students be required to consider ‘both sides’ of the debate over it.  And when scientists (like Wetherington, in the film) insist that there actually aren’t two sides to a debate over evolution, they come across as dogmatic and close-minded.  And McLeroy’s an agreeable guy.  And he and Wetherington are pretty friendly.  In the best scene in the film, the two of them sit own and have a pleasant enough conversation about their differences.  You think, ‘gee, that should happen more often.’

By the same token, Cynthia Dunbar gets into it about insisting students know about the various intellectual influences on the American Revolution.  So she lists names: Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Voltaire.  Sure, fine; good people for high school kids to have to know.  Then she goes: ‘John Calvin, Thomas Aquinas.’  And you think, Saint Thomas Aquinas, an Enlightenment figure?  And she says, ‘oh, and we need to drop Thomas Jefferson from the list.’  Uh, what? Then (I couldn’t believe it), an amendment is proposed to include Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to a list of important intellectuals of the American Revolution.  And it fails.  In favor of Aquinas and Calvin.

So the whole debate gets pretty weird.  The standards the Board is revising came from qualified experts in the field: actual scientists, actual historians.  And the school board people aren’t really qualified at all. McLeroy is, after all, a dentist.  Cynthia Dunbar is a law school professor.  But at Liberty University, on-line. And you can tell that the Christian conservatives on the Board have an agenda–they’re even pretty open about it–but the battles are on the margins, on specific language to be used in guidelines for textbook purchases.

My favorite moment in the film is when they’re talking about questions a teacher might raise in a classroom, and a question comes up about the political importance of hip-hop.  And McLeroy says, ‘I propose to change ‘hip-hop’ to ‘country music.”  I was pleased by the compromise that led to–one in which students could talk about either hip-hop or country.  Multi-culturalism rules.

Still, it’s a scary film.  (And while the filmmakers clearly are trying to be even-handed, the music they use lets them down–it’s a bit too spot-on, scary for McLeroy, upbeat for Wetherington.)  But if Don McLeroy seems like a caricature, it’s because that’s how he presents himself.  But the real problem is this: State Board of Education elections have very low voter turnout.

In an election with 10 or 15 or 20 percent participation, the most motivated voters can have disproportionate impact.  And a state school board ends up dominated by people with frankly extreme views.  And, presumably, education suffers.  Decisions get made by the people who show up.  Which suggests that we really all need to vote, every time, every election.  Make our voices heard.


Keynes revisited: a review

A couple of years ago, I made the fateful decision to write a play about John Maynard Keynes and a night he spent on a college chapel roof with F. A. Hayek.  Two of the greatest economists in history in a small, limited, theatre-friendly setting; sounded fun. The problem: I didn’t know anything about economics. Plus, economics is about math.  Yikes.  Words are your friends; numbers are the enemy–I found the prospect of research, uh, daunting. I did have a son who majored in economics, and he lent me his macro-economics textbook–that was a good place to start. And I read a whole bunch of books. Really, a boat-load of books.  And I think now, finally, I’ve kind of gotten my head around the subject.  Some.  A bit.

One of the books I had to/got to read was Robert Skidelsky’s monumental 3 volume biography of Keynes.  Each volume was some 700 pages, which means the three books together had to add up to, uh, (shoot, uh, 3 X 700, carry the 4) 3600 1278 a whole bunch of pages. But it was worth it–a great read about a great subject. So imagine my feelings when, couple days ago, my wife went to the library, and found a new Keynes biography, just published.  Only way shorter, and tons more readable.  Keynes, by Peter Clarke, Professor Emeritus of Modern British History at Cambridge.  It’s quite splendid. It clocks in at a brisk 180 pages, and took a day, instead of the weeks it took me to wade through Skidelsky.  Don’t get me wrong–I don’t in any sense resent the time I spent with Skidelsky’s 5478 many pages.  But man, do I wish I’d read this first.

There have been three Keynes biographies that I know of, plus Nicholas Wapshot’s book on Keynes and Hayek, which is the one that got me started on the project.  The first Keynes bio was by Roy Harrod, who was a friend of Keynes and wrote not long after his death.  I found it pretty hagiographic, plus it chose to ignore Keynes’ homosexuality–gentlemen didn’t talk about that sort of thing when Harrod was writing.  Skidelsky’s brilliant, but he presumes a readership with a basic knowledge of the period and history.  I found I had to read it with my computer open to Wikipedia–spent a lot of time going ‘okay, who was Lord Halifax again?’  That’s one reason I like Clarke–he takes the time to give you a few sentences orienting you on major figures.  Love that.

But the main reason I love Clarke is this: he’s not so much interested in writing a biography of Maynard Keynes, as in Keynes’ economics.

‘Cause here’s the thing; we’re in a Keynesian moment right now.  Our economy remains struggling, not quite in full recession, but stagnating and with completely unacceptable levels of unemployment.  Exactly the situation Keynes faced in the ’30s in the US and Britain.  But the idea of a Keynesian stimulus has also been politicized.  There are tremendous misconceptions about who Keynes was, what he taught and believed, and how relevant those ideas are to us, today.  Those are the issues Clarke takes on.  He’s primarily interested in the relevance of the Keynes legacy on public policy in the early 21st century.

So, some myths.  The first is, that Keynes was ideologically inconsistent; the second, paradoxically, that he insisted on a rigid doctrinaire program to be followed without deviation.  The reality is that Keynes was the very antithesis of the unworldly ivory tower academic.  He managed to arrange his teaching schedule at Cambridge so he could spend most of his time dealing with huge responsibilities at the Ministry of the Treasury.  He had a wide correspondence in the US, and frequently traveled there to meet with government officials.  He may not have been architect of the New Deal, but he was consulted by the people who were its architects. He was also a director of the Bank of England.  And a trustee of both Cambridge and Eton.  And director of the Cambridge Art Theatre, a trustee of the National Gallery, a ballet impresario.  And an astute and successful investor.  And so on.

In other words, Keynes did not just write about economics, he practiced both economics and politics at a very high level.  And he did so during the Great Depression and the two World Wars. Although his ideas were radical, he had to make them practically achievable. And Clarke shows exactly how he did it, how he would work within a committee and ministry structure to influence policy.  He knew how to trim his sails to the wind.  So if you accuse him of inconsistency, he also understood that any economic theory is worthless unless it can be actively implemented as policy.

So to apply Clarke’s insights to current events.  President Obama’s response to massive unemployment was a Keynesian stimulus.  And it’s axiomatic on the right that the Obama stimulus didn’t work, that it did not pull the US out of recession.  So stimulus is a failed policy. So Keynes was wrong, and Obama wrong to believe in Keynesian economics.

But the stimulus did work.  There’s just not a valid case that can be made for it not working. It slowed unemployment to a halt, and it reversed the job-loss trend.  It just wasn’t large enough to do the job completely. Every major neo-Keynesian economist–Paul Krugman, Brad DeLong, Greg Mankiw–all called for a much larger stimulus.  But Keynes would have appreciated the fact that a larger stimulus was simply not politically possible.  President Obama had to do what he could with the money Congress would agree to authorize.  Half-measures, sure.  But Keynes knew all about half-measures.  He spent the Great Depression urging the Roosevelt administration to triple what it was spending on New Deal programs. It was tricky though–Roosevelt had won election by accusing Republicans of fiscal profligacy.  A larger New Deal wasn’t politically feasible.  And Keynes knew that as well.

That’s the thing about Keynes–he was the ultimate realist. But my gosh, it’s interesting to see the parallels between his work in the 30s and today.

I think one of the objections to Keynes is, essentially, moral. We’ve all been raised to consider ‘thrift’ a virtue.  Keynes thought thrift was destructive. Budget deficits are often described in moral terms, as ‘piling debt on the next generation.’  Keynes did not actually favor budget deficits, but he didn’t mind them, in national emergencies.  Keynes even described himself as an ‘immoralist.’  So conservatives didn’t like him then and don’t like him today.

But above all, Keynes was an optimist.  He believed in the positive power of good government, and he believed in it as an insider, as someone who spent most of his life working closely with government ministers.  He believed in the creativity of common, ordinary people. He liked Roosevelt, in part because he too believed that the only thing we had to fear was, in fact, fear.

Here’s the Keynes I love:

The Conservative philosophy says, you must not try to employ everyone, because that will cause inflation.  You must not invest, because how will you know if it will pay?  You must not do anything, because this will only mean that you cannot do something else.

But we are not tottering to our graves.  We are healthy children.  We need the breath of life.  There is nothing to be afraid of.  On the contrary.  The future holds in store for us far more wealth and economic freedom and possibilities of personal life than the past has ever offered.”

I love Hayek too, for other reasons.  But right now is not the time for pessimism.  I voted for a man who promised hope and change.  Keynes would have liked him, I think.

Hollywood and the Constitution

Last night, my wife and I decided to watch the latest movie delivered by our elf friends at Netflix, Jack Reacher.  Perfectly competent Tom Cruise thriller.  Suspenseful, well put together, lean and mean and pretty exciting.  It’s been interesting to watch how Tom Cruise has taken control of his own career, producing as well as starring in films specifically taylored to his gifts as an actor.  For a man in his early fifties, he looks tremendous, moves with a great economy of motion, and conveys a kind of terse intelligent intensity.  And for my wife and I, it made for an enjoyable evening home alone.

Anyway, the story involves a lone crazy shooter scenario, in which an Army sniper apparently guns down five random people in Pittsburgh.  An opening montage shows, without dialogue, good cops putting together the clues, and arresting a former Army Ranger named Barr (Joseph Sikora).  The evidence is overpowering against him, and instead of a defense, he writes down a name, Jack Reacher (Cruise).  His defense attorney, Helen (Rosamund Pike), her DA father (Richard Jenkins) have no idea who Jack Reacher even is, until he walks into their attorney conference.  He’s a former Ranger himself, a prosecutor of war crimes, and he knows all about Barr, who he had previously prosecuted in Iraq.  Reacher’s immediate thought is that Barr probably did what he’s accused of, and he’s fine with Barr getting the death penalty, but Helen persuades him to take another look at the evidence.  He eventually concludes that Barr’s been framed, and as the film progresses, he goes after the real shooter, who he learns has been hired by a Russian mobster businessman, the Zec, a wonderfully creepy Werner Herzog.  (In fact the film is basically worth watching just to see Werner Herzog act.)

Okay, so, but, Reacher has no evidence for any of this.  All the evidence points to Barr, and nothing in the film changes that.  Yes, he gets the actual shooter to even admit it to him, but Jack Reacher is basically an off-the-grid drifter do-gooder martial arts expert/attorney.  Not somebody whose testimony is going to hold up in any court.  So Reacher knows who-dun-it, also who didn’t do it, and he can’t prove any of it.  So he kills all the bad guys.  Just shoots ’em in cold blood.  (To be fair, they’re busy shooting at him for a lot of it).  Rescues the girl. (Rosamund Pike is terrific, by the way, a performance with emotional resonance far beyond that required by this frankly pretty generic thriller).  And we’re fine with it.  We’re fine with Jack Reacher, (well, Tom Cruise) playing judge, jury and executioner. I certainly was, watching the movie last night.  Because he knows who the bad guys are, obviously–I mean, geez, it’s Werner Herzog, he’s obviously evil to the core–and since our poor pathetic criminal justice system clearly can’t cope with a guy like that, justice has to be done somehow.  So bang bang bang.  Done.

Bear in mind, this is a movie I quite liked. And why not like it?  How different is this from a whole bunch of other thrillers?  How much time gathering evidence and taking depositions and building a case does John McClane spend in the Die-Hard movies?  All (gulp) six of them?  I mean, it’s Bruce Willis–of course he can be trusted to get the bad guys.  How punctilious is Liam Neeson in the Taken movies about chains of evidence and international coordination?  (To be fair, in the first Taken movie, he does try to involve the French police, only to learn that they’re in cahoots with the bad guys.)  How many thrillers, how many cop shows, how many action flicks show cops, uh, not bothering much with due process?  Actually, a TV cop show like, I don’t know, Law and Order, did a pretty job showing police procedures.  Though they did manage to close every frickin’ case.

So, change of subject, back to reality.  On September 30, 2011, an American citizen living in Yemen, Anwar_al-Awlaki was killed by a drone attack.  Two weeks later, his son, sixteen year old Denver-born teenager, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, also living in Yemen, was similarly killed.  Both were killed as terrorists, without due process, without having been charged with a crime.

And yes, al-Awlaki was a member of Al Qaeda, and a recruiter for terrorism.  There doesn’t seem to be much question about that.  And so you can say, well, he was an enemy to the United States, and a dangerous man devoted to the destruction of our country.  Someone who supported and possibly even planned terrorist attacks against our country.  And we’re in a war on terror and on terrorists.  Of course we have the right to kill him.

But we are a nation of laws.  And we are governed by a constitution. And there is nothing in the constitution that gives the President of the United States the power to kill an American citizen living on foreign soil (living in a country with whom the United States is at peace) without due process.  Was al-Awlaki guilty of treason?  Well, Article 3 Section 3 is quite specific about the grounds for a treason prosecution.

Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.

Yes, the President is Commander-in-chief.  Absolutely.  Read Article 2 Section 2.  Nothing in there about ordering the deaths of American citizens without due process.

Our constitutional obligation, if the CIA did in fact have evidence of al-Awlaki’s treason, was to ask Yemen to extradite him to the US for trial.  And then try him.  And yes, I know that’s complicated ten different ways.  And I know we’re at war with Al-Qaeda, whatever ‘at war’ means with an international organization.  I totally get that it’s way way easier to just send a drone strike.

But we can’t. Or rather, yes, obviously we can, but we shouldn’t, and we can’t do it legally.  Anymore than Jack Reacher can just shoot the bad guy in a movie.  It was interesting to me to see the reaction of the Rosamund Pike character to Reacher killing the Zec.  She’s an attorney, a member of the Pennsylvania bar. She’s just watched her paid consultant (I guess that would basically be Reacher’s relationship to her) kill a suspect in cold blood.  She’s an officer of the court.  She has a professional obligation to arrest Reacher, to testify against him, to cooperate with a police investigation into murder and the subsequent capture and arrest of the killer.  She didn’t do any of that in the movie, obviously, because it’s a movie, and as such, a fantasy.  But due process means something.  The law means something.  Ignoring it, pretending that this or that situation is somehow beyond a legal remedy, that’s a terrible indictment of us and our society.

I love this exchange, from Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons.  It’s a conversation between Sir Thomas More and his son-in-law William Roper.

Roper: So, now you give the Devil the benefit of law!

More: Yes! What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

Roper: Yes, I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws, from coast to coast, Man’s laws, not God’s! And if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake!

I’d give the Devil benefit of law.  Yes.  And, okay, maybe Al Qaeda is the Devil, and maybe the plans of al-Awlaki are indeed devilish, Satanic, just as Werner Herzog is pure evil in Jack Reacher.  Pure evil, a murderer, a man who orders the deaths of four innocents so he can kill the one person he wants dead, someone holding up a business acquisition he wants to have happen.  We still have to take him to court.  For our own protection, to live in a nation ruled by laws.

Two final points. Robert Duvall is in Jack Reacher, playing an elderly rifle range owner. A crusty conservative, he agrees to help Reacher kill the baddies, and provides covering sniper fire as Reacher moves in on them.  I am on record on being in favor of gun control. But I have family members who are gun owners, and who fiercely defend their Second Amendment freedoms.  Those same family members love the Constitution.  They would not, under any circumstances, join a vigilante in a frontal attack on possibly bad guys, an attack of at best dubious legality. I found the whole movie, and especially the portrayal of the Robert Duvall character, an insult to my gun-loving friends and their principled support for the Second Amendment.

And finally this: Anwar al-Awlaki and his son (and I haven’t even talked about the killing of his son) were men who held certain beliefs, men, apparently, of strong views.  If we can believe the news reports on al-Awlaki’s beliefs, they seem to have believed that the United States of America is evil, is an insult to the God they worship.  They believe that the United States is an affront to their religion, and that America should be therefore brought to its knees.  According to my reading of the Constitution, those are opinions they are allowed to hold.  Americans are allowed, constitutionally, to not believe in America. American citizens are protected in their right to believe that the United States of America is evil, and should be destroyed.

They are not allowed to do anything about it.  They are not allowed to actively work to murder, or to attack US possessions or institutions.  Americans are not, in short, allowed to perform acts of treason. But we are allowed to hold treasonous opinions.  That’s how confident our Framers were about the nation they created.

Recently, Michele Bachman has made some silly noise about impeaching President Obama for this IRS nonsense.  She’s also welcome to her opinion, as I am welcome to consider her a dimwit.  At the same time, I think there do exist grounds to impeach President Obama.  For ordering the murder of American citizens without due process.  I consider those actions high crimes and misdemeanors.  We elected a President, a chief executive, a commander-in-chief.  We did not elect Jack Reacher.  Hollywood fantasies have their place in American culture.  They have no legitimate place in American jurisprudence.


Granite Flats: A Review

BYU-TV has national ambitions, unlike KBYU, which is BYU’s public television station. BYU-TV wants to go national, be available on cable.  My folks in Indiana get it, for example, through their local cable company–that’s where they watch General Conference.  And so BYU-TV created their first fictional series, an 8-episode, hour-long TV drama, Granite Flats, which concluded its first season on Sunday.

My wife and I figured we’d watch it, give it a chance.  It wasn’t terrible.  It’s also not very good, though not good in what strike me as interesting ways. If I had to describe it, it would be a cross between The Andy Griffith Show and Twilight Zone, written by a big fan of the Encylopedia Brown books.  With, occasionally, just a hint of Twin Peaks.

It’s set in the late ’50s-early ’60s, soon enough after the Korean War that those memories are still raw for some of the characters.  Granite Flats is a town in some unspecified state, probably in the West.  Beth (Annie Tedesco), a nurse, has moved there with her 12-year old son, Arthur (Jonathan Morgan Heit), following the death of her husband, a military test pilot. Arthur befriends two other kids, Madeline (Malia Taylor), and Timmy (Charlie Plummer).  The kids are all science nerds, and they eventually decide to form a kind of kid detective agency.  They’re like a cross between Encylopedia Brown and Harry, Ron and Hermione, with Arthur (the outsider) as Harry, and Madeline as Hermione (bookworm brainy girl).

Granite Flats seems to be, at times, small town America, nice shops, a central Church.  But it’s also apparently a military town, with a local military base and hospital.  There doesn’t seem to be a non-military hospital in town, for example, though there pretty much would have to be.  Anyway,  Beth works at the hospital, where she becomes friends with a mysterious patient, Frank Quincy (Scott Christopher), who seems to suffer from really strange momentary lapses in memory.

Meanwhile, Timmy’s father, John Sanders (Richard Gunn) is the Granite Flats chief of police, where he interacts somewhat uneasily with the head of military police, Slim (Brandon Molale). And when a mysterious explosion at the base kills a private, an NCO, Sergeant Hershel Jenkins (Peter Murnick) appears to be responsible, and in fact confesses to having committed murder.  Sergeant Jenkins soon-to-be orphaned son, Wallace (Ethan Ross Wills), is informally adopted by another hospital nurse, Regina (Jessica Wright).

But in fact, the deadly explosion seems to be related to an event witnessed by Arthur, in which some mysterious celestial object flew over the town, shredding some kind of debris.  And the kids decide to investigate it, even inventing a home-made metal detector.  And they find all kinds of misshapen metallic objects along the flight path of the whatever-it-is.  Which Timmy then tells his police chief Dad about, who then expands the search.  And why are FBI agents skulking about town?  What’s going on?

So basically, the show follows four main stories.  1) The three kids and their detective activities.  2) the chief of police, the metal objects he finds, and the FBI’s interest in him and them, 3) Sergeant Jenkins, in prison, insisting he committed (and be executed for) a murder we’re pretty sure he didn’t commit, and 4) Beth’s relationship with Frank Quincy of the strange memory lapses.  I would add 3a) Regina’s relationship with Wallace, this poor sad kid with the father in prison and school reputation as a bully.  Also, all these characters profit variously from the advice and counsel of Pastor Todd (Mitchell Fink), a kindly young clergyman who refers to God as ‘the Guy Upstairs’ and consoles his parishioners with his famously terrible lemonade.

Re-reading this description, it seems like there’s a lot of interesting dramatic stuff going on, and that it could be a compelling and enjoyable TV series.  But it doesn’t really work very well, and I think know why.

In their advertising for the show, folks at BYU-TV kept saying that they wanted to make a family-friendly TV series.  And that’s fine, that’s a laudable goal, I suppose. The LDS critique of contemporary popular culture is that it’s too sexy, too violent, too profane.  The lament is, ‘why can’t we go back to the time when good entertainment didn’t have all that sex and violence?’  This show is an attempt to do just that.  But it seems defined by what’s essentially a negative aesthetic.  By insisting on creating an entertainment that doesn’t have certain elements, they haven’t really defined what they want to do instead. As a result, the show seems peculiarly undramatic.

To take the story thread with the kids, for example.  When we meet the kids, they’re fascinated by this flying object that soared over their town shredding debris.  They build a metal detector, they define its flight path by the stuff they find, they map out the direction it came from and they identify where it might have landed, and they go looking for it.  That’s all really interesting stuff.  But it’s as though the producers or writers then went ‘wait a minute, why are these kids traipsing around unsupervised.  That doesn’t show Good Family Values.  They should tell their parents and turn over their investigation to grown-ups.’  Which is exactly what happens–Timmy tells his Dad, and the kids stop looking for UFOs.

The kids go from there to solving the mystery of a missing cat (completely uninteresting), the mystery of a missing baseball mitt (totally uninteresting), and then, wow: they learn that someone’s been embezzling cash from the local hardware store.  Hey, my wife and I thought, not bad, they’re actually solving a crime.  It wasn’t a great mystery–my wife and I figured out who-dun-it in about four seconds.  But it was pretty engaging for a few minutes there. They solve it, kudos all around. Then one of the kids’ classmates asks if they’ll help her figure out the identity of her secret admirer.  It’s as though the writers went, “oh my gosh!  The kids’ story-line is dangerously close to becoming dramatically compelling!  I know, we’ll bring in this lame secret admirer thing.  Whew!  Crisis averted!”

Same thing with the FBI story thread.  Chief Sanders has this collection of twisted metallic debris, and then one day, the FBI steal it from his cupboard, and take him to an abandoned warehouse or something.  He’s sitting in a chair across a table from a head FBI honcho, the room illuminated by a single light bulb.  He’s interrogated.  It’s all very tense and dramatic.  Well, we obviously couldn’t have that.  So the head FBI guy affably says “hey, here’s what’s going on, let’s work together on this,” and from that point on, he and the chief are best buds. Again, it’s like someone went ‘conflict?  We can’t have dramatic conflict!?!?!’

Same with the Sergeant Jenkins story thread.  He’s in prison, charged with a murder he did not commit, facing the death penalty.  Slim, his jailor, won’t let the chief even come see him.  Jenkins has, in fact confessed to the murder.  He’s been given a lawyer, the worst, most weasely and incompetent lawyer ever (can’t figure out from IMDB who played him).  So, okay, there’s some real dramatic potential there.  Maybe they’ll have a powerful and interesting trial scene or something.  Nope.  Instead the chief talks to his FBI friend, who tells the judge about the mysterious flying object (a spy satellite, it turns out, though why is it Soviet in origin?), who drops all the charges.  Jenkins is in danger of his life!  And then pfft.  The whole conflict goes way.

Oh, and Sergeant Jenkins’ confession? To a crime he didn’t commit?  Turns out all that came from his guilt over men he commanded who died in Korea.  He ‘wants to die.’  The scene where he admits to that could have been interestingly dramatic too, so the show makes sure to zip through it as quickly as possible.

I mentioned Twin Peaks, and the show has a little of that going on too, but I don’t know how intentional it is.  It has some of Twin Peaks’ slow pace, awkwardly long and pointless conversations, the way the camera lingers on some otherwise innocuous object in a room.  But I don’t know if that’s an attempt at Lynchian weirdness, or just not-great direction.  They never seem to know when to end scenes, for example, all the cuts being either a half-second too fast or too slow.

And the research seems off, though of course I may be wrong.  But Beth’s husband (and Frank) both seem to have come from ‘Edwards’ which makes sense.  Edwards Air Force base in the Mohave is famously where test pilots field-test new aircraft.  If Beth’s husband was actually a test pilot, Edwards is where he’d have been stationed.  But ‘Edwards’ is consistently referred to as an Army base.  The local base in town is an Army base, as is the hospital.

It is true that Edwards was once the Muroc Army Air Field, but the Air Force took it over and changed the name in 1949, well before the period of this TV series.  Also, the FBI chief honcho guy is played by an African-American actor.  Which would be fine today.  But under J. Edgar Hoover, it was a national disgrace how few African-American agents there were, and there were no supervisors.  Minor anachronisms, I know, but they bugged me.

It was sort of fun playing ‘catch the continuity errors.’  Or arguing with my wife over which is the worst actor in the cast.  And it’s always fun to see a show shot in Utah, and seeing local actor friends get work.  It was fun watching my old friend Colleen Baum get arrested for embezzlement, for example.  But I wish there were more local actors in the show.  Most of the actors in this show were jobbed in from LA, and that seemed to me a shame.  It’s not just civic pride to insist that Utah actors are as good as actors anywhere–it’s simply my professional experience, in a lifetime spent doing theatre.

I don’t know if there’s going to be a second season of Granite Flats.  I suspect there might be.  The first season ended with a cliff-hanger, after all, and we still have room to suspect that all may not be well in Granite Flats.  Of course, based on the first season, I suspect they’ll find a way to squander the dramatic opportunities they’ve set up for themselves.  But I’ll watch at least the first episode.  It’s a show I keep rooting for, even when it disappoints.



I am physically disabled.  And because I am medically disabled, I am eligible for, and receive, Social Security disability benefits.  Which is why this story hit me so hard.

It is not always possible to tell if someone is disabled by just looking at them. Sometimes, perfectly healthy looking folks can actually be dealing with very serious illnesses.   You see some guy parking in a disabled parking spot, and when he gets out of the car, he looks okay.  You think, ‘what’s his deal?  Cheater!’  We judge.  And when it comes to our tax dollars, we can tend to judge with particular harshness.  So we think, why are perfectly healthy (looking) people sitting around all day doing nothing on my dime?  Jesus would not have told us not to judge people if it wasn’t a sin human beings are particularly fond of.

Around seven million people receive Social Security disability benefits annually.  And it’s possible that a few of those recipients are undeserving.  I found this story on the interwebs, expressing a fairly typical outrage over how much money deadbeats are costing the government.  By golly, if we could catch all the disability cheats, we could basically . . . cut the deficit by some tiny fraction of one percent.

And that’s the thing: I just doubt all that many people cheat. The Social Security Administration estimates that fewer than one percent of disability benefits receive them inappropriately, and my guess is that even those cases aren’t about cheaters, but more about seriously sick people who have gotten marginally better.

I can tell you from personal experience that the application process for disability benefits is a rigorous one.  The paperwork wasn’t onerous, but it was detailed, and the paperwork my doctors had to fill out was equally daunting.  I’m not saying the process is needlessly bureaucratic or filled with endless amounts of red tape. That was not the case.  I thought it managed to walk a fine line between efficiency and thoroughness.  But I also have reason to believe that my case wasn’t terribly border-liney.

But we don’t like it when deadbeats get away with it.  We really get ticked off.  That’s why Ronald Reagan got so much political mileage from stories about Cadillac-driving welfare cheats.  The fact that those stories were fictional was irrelevant; we really hate the idea of our tax dollars supporting lazy bums. We’re sure it happens a lot–undeserving poor people mooching off hard-working Americans.  We probably even have anecdotal evidence of that kind of indolent malfeasance: ‘I knew someone once who. . . .’

And, you know, it’s quite possible that some conservative critiques of welfare have some truth to them.  I don’t doubt that, for some people, welfare can become a lifestyle, that poverty can become generational.  I don’t doubt that some kinds of welfare foster dependency.  But the statistics suggest that most food stamp recipients, for example, only receive them for a few months–that they do what they’re supposed to, provide a short time safety net for folks trying to get back on their feet.  In fact, the best evidence suggests that welfare dependency does exist, but that it’s nowhere as pervasive as we think.

Most people would rather work.  I sure as heck would.  I loved my job (most of it), and would go back in a second, if I was physically able to.  And I’ve gotten to know quite a few disabled people lately, and I don’t know a single one who wouldn’t much prefer to have a job.

So Great Britain, with an economy tanking due to, frankly, bad economic theories put into practice, decided to go after disability cheats.  Prime Minister David Cameron declared that hundreds of thousands of Brits were ripping off the system, pretending to be ill when they really were capable of working.

So they outsourced the nasty job of kicking people off disability.  They hired a French firm to sift through the disability rolls,with the obvious intent of kicking people off.

And seriously sick people, including (anecdotal evidence, to be sure), a guy examined two days after having a stroke, were declared ineligible, lost their benefits.

Because it’s all relative, isn’t it?  We can’t tell how much pain someone is in from just looking at them, can we?  We don’t know what kind of job someone might be capable of doing.

Can you work?  Could you hold down a job?  I can walk, a little.  I only need my wheelchair some days.  And I do work–I write, hours every day.  I get paid for some of it (and every time I get paid, my benefits are correspondingly reduced).  I can cook dinner, and do.  I can do some things.

So now, as austerity continues to fail in Great Britain, as it increases misery and does nothing positive in regards to employment, as spending cuts lead to more misery and more suffering, while the economy continues to languish, American conservatives remain unaccountably enamored by it.  And this is next, I think. Cutting spending means looking for waste and misapplied spending.  It would not surprise me to see the Social Security Disability Insurance Trust Fund come under scrutiny.

Some conservatives are already calling for it. Jonah Goldberg wrote about it in April.  His proposal; have every disability benefit recipient report to a government appointed doctor for an examination, and a up or down spot judgment about eligibility.  The point, of course, is to save money.  By cracking down on sick people.

But see, that’s the thing about austerity, as an economic principle.  It carries with it the possibility of that kind of foolishness, that sort of mean-spirited judgment. It’s time, pre-emptively, to oppose it.  Sick people aren’t cheating for the most part, and the few who might be aren’t costing enough to be worth spending a lot time catching.  And that guy in the parking lot, the guy with the handicapped parking sticker who appears, as far as you can see, to be perfectly healthy? You have no idea what kind of pain he might be in, what invisible ailments have made his life a torment. And Jesus doesn’t like it when you judge that guy.