Monthly Archives: August 2013

Zealot: Review

Reza Aslan’s newest book, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth was already on its way to best-seller status, even before he got the biggest boost an author can hope for: controversy.  A particularly idiotic Fox News interview went viral, and the narrative, for some, became ‘some Moslem dude wrote a book about Jesus.’  In fact, Aslan is a fine popular historian. He writes well, and he’s an adept synthesizer of the main threads of contemporary Bible scholarship. And he’s an honest scholar, citing in his end notes those experts in the field who disagree with him, as well as those who agree.  I don’t think he’s a particularly controversial figure in the world of Bible scholarship; more like he’s an especially eloquent participant in that scholarly conversation.

Not that I’d know.  I’m not a Bible scholar, not at all.  I’m at best a layman who enjoys reading books of popular scholarship in this field.  I read Aslan’s previous book, No God But God, on Islam, and enjoyed it a great deal.  I’m a big Bart Ehrman/Karen Armstrong/Raymond Brown kind of guy; in fact, I would strongly recommend that anyone reading Aslan’s book first consult Father Brown’s outstanding An Introduction to the New Testament.  Read that first, then by all means tackle Aslan.

Aslan’s main argument–and his book is very much an argument, more than it’s a biography–is that Jesus of Nazareth was primarily a political figure, a zealous Jewish messianic and apocalyptic preacher.  The idea that Jesus was the Son of God, or that that we was the pre-existent Logos of John, or that he was the literal Incarnation of God, all those mainstream Christian beliefs, were ex post facto inventions by Hellenist Jewish converts, starting with Stephen and Paul.  Jesus preached revolution, a revolution against the status quo, which meant revolution against the Roman occupation, and against the Jewish priestly caste that grew wealthy through collaboration with Roman authority.  For that crime, for the crime of preaching what Romans would have seen as sedition, he was crucified.  As Aslan puts it:

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E. and the second is that that Rome crucified him for doing so.  . . . These two facts can help paint a picture of Jesus of Nazareth that may be more historically accurate than the one painted by the Gospels.  Indeed, the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up, as all Jews of the era were, in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.

Aslan then goes on at great length to immerse us in that world, the violent, dangerous, deadly world of first-century Palestine. That’s Aslan at his best, the vivid descriptor of cycles of murder and repression and enslavement that engulfed Galilee and Judea.  And in that world, Jesus was not unique. Aslan tells us of many others like him, violent revolutionaries, miracle workers and magic-wielding con men, messianic pretenders by the dozen. I found myself fascinated by those descriptions.  I loved reading about Nazareth, the small, completely insignificant Galilean town where Jesus grew up.  If Jesus was, in fact, a tekton, a woodworker or builder, then he would have belonged to a caste just barely above that of subsistence farmer.  The Romans used ‘tekton‘ as slang for an illiterate peasant.  But Sapphoris, the closest big city to Nazareth, had been destroyed by the Romans, and given to Herod Antipas, who rebuilt it.  Jesus and his father and brothers could have found employment there.  And Sapphoris was a Jewish city, albeit a Greek-speaking one.  It’s possible Jesus may have learned some rudimentary Greek there, in addition to his Aramaic, the language of the poor. It could have even have been a place where, mingling with other Jewish laborers, he might have, for example, heard of John the Baptist.

When describing the world of ancient Palestine, the violence, the politics, the religious fervor, the Temple rituals and their meaning, the Jewish priestly caste, and the on-going, ever-present conflicts with the Roman occupying forces, and finally the tragic destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, Aslan is at his best.  But Aslan isn’t just interested in depicting an historical past.  He also makes arguments about it, arguments with which, as a Christian, I, at times, take issue.

I’ll grant that Palestine was a brutal place, in a violent time in history.  I’ll grant that Palestine was full of messianic pretenders, and popular revolutionary uprisings were rampant, and that Jesus of Nazareth needs to be seen in that context. I’ll happily grant the unreliability of the Gospels as historical sources.  But look at the long paragraph cited above. It may be true that “the Jesus that emerges from that historical exercise–a zealous revolutionary caught up . . . in the religious and political turmoil of first-century Palestine–bears little resemblance to the gentle shepherd cultivated by the early Christian community.” But by saying that, Aslan downplays this central fact: there did exist a gentle early Christian community.

Aslan does admit that Jesus of Nazareth, while he may have resembled other messianic figures of his time and place, is different from the others in this crucial regard–Jesus’ movement survived.  And it survived for a reason that Aslan admits he finds perplexing–Jesus’ followers claimed that he was resurrected from the dead.

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain. 1 Corinthians 15: 12-14.

Christianity exists because of Jesus’ resurrection, witnessed first by two women at the tomb, then by various disciples, then by gatherings of hundreds of followers.  Our faith, as Christians, depends on it. More to the point, though, historically, this one movement succeeded where so many others failed, because of it.

As an historian, Aslan doesn’t deny the resurrection–he says it’s a matter of faith, outside the historian’s purview.  Fair enough.  But he deals even-handedly and well with the historical fact of the resurrection–that is to say, with the historical fact that resurrection was claimed to have happened, and that those who made that claim preached it and were believed. And he points out something that may otherwise have escaped our attention–that resurrection really was something new and different; a notion that would not have fit well into the world-views of Jews or Romans.

My biases are, I think, obvious to anyone who knows me.  I am a believing, practicing Mormon, and as such, a believing, practicing Christian.  And I’m a former college professor, and a historian of sorts, though my discipline is Theatre History.  My reaction to Zealot is that I found it very interesting, enjoyed it, disagreed with parts of it, and did not in any sense find it challenging to my own faith.  My good friend James Goldberg knows way more about this stuff than I do, and had a similar (though far more eloquent) reaction.

I believe that the answer to any intellectual dilemma challenging to faith is never to read less–it’s always to read more.  By all means, read Zealot.  While you’re at it, read James Goldberg’s The Five Books of Jesus.  Read Father Brown.  Read Jesus the Christ.  Oh, and may I recommend to you four other books, short ones, but really good, probably not written by the people they’re named after but pretty darn authoritative nonetheless: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

The message of Jesus of Nazareth did, quite likely, have a political component.  I don’t think, as Aslan does, for example, that the parable of the Good Samaritan had entirely a political message and impact, but I’ll certainly grant that it had some political resonance in its day.  But I believe that Jesus’ message also spoke to the deepest spiritual longings of a people buffeted by politics.  And it’s that spiritual message that continues to resonate today.

I love and revere my Savior. I’m also fascinated by the history of Jesus of Nazareth.  The two perspectives are not incompatible.  I learned a lot from reading Zealot.  Enjoyed the book very much, even when disagreeing with its conclusions. (I believe, for example, that the disagreement between Paul and his followers and James and Peter and the Jerusalem Church, was far more collegial than Aslan portrays it). I don’t regard its conclusions as definitive, though, and think of it as contributing to an on-going conversation, not as any kind of final word.

Meanwhile, if you’re a Christian and want to read something challenging, then go ahead.  Read. By all means, absolutely read.  Anything, anywhere: read.  Also pray.  Then read and pray some more.  And while you’re at it, maybe find someone struggling, the least of His brothers, and ask if you can serve.  We Christians really can do both–read anything, but don’t ever, ever, in any sense ever neglect the poor.



Attacking Syria

In 1982, Hafez al-Assad, then the President of Syria, ordered the complete destruction of parts of the city of Hama. Hama was the fourth largest town in Syria, but was also home to an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood against Assad’s government.  According to the estimate of Robert Fisk, a journalist who was there and who wrote Pity the Nation, the best book on the massacre, 20,000 people were killed–but Assad’s brother bragged that they’d killed 36,000, and the actual number may have been higher still.  Torture and mass executions continued after the initial attacks. Muslim Brotherhood neighborhoods were literally leveled, the rubble bulldozed into massive parking lots. And it’s possible that hydrogen cyanide may have been used by government forces.

The New York Times reporter Thomas Friedman coined the phrase ‘Hama rules‘ to describe Middle-east dictators’ responses to popular uprisings.  After Hama, such uprisings mostly didn’t happen. . . because the various Middle Eastern dictators–Assad, Hussein, Gaddafi, Mubarek–could always go Hama on their own people.  And Assad knew he could get away with atrocities, because the international response was so muted, so tepid.

In 2000, Hafez al-Assad died, and his Presidency was assumed by his son, Bashar al-Assad.  Bashar, like his father, is a Baathist–member of a secular, socialist trans-regional political party. Saddam Hussein was also Baathist. Bashar’s trained as a doctor, an opthalmologist. He looks quite a bit like Ed Norton, the actor; that’ll be who plays him in the movie.  Throughout most of his life, Bashar doesn’t seem to have been much interested in politics–his brother Bassel was the heir apparent.  But Bassel died in 1994, thrusting Bashar into the Presidency.  His initial actions as President suggested that he seriously intended to reform Syrian society, open things up, allow for dissent.  But since the Arab Spring in 2010, he’s followed in his father’s footsteps, cracking down on dissidents, and ferociously conducting war against the forces allied against him.

In the current Syrian civil war, the United States has armed some of the rebels against Assad, and offered refugee relief.  But Assad is known to possess chemical and biological weapons, and last year, President Obama warned against their use.  It now appears that Assad may have used chemical weapons in an attack on the western Damascus suburb of Moadamiyeh.  This attack, if it happened, was probably conducted by the elite Syrian 4th Armored Division led by Bashar’s brother, Maher.  After initially resisting UN entreaties, Bashar has now allowed a UN inspection team access to the site, where they are conducting tests to determine if a chemical attack did take place.

Right now, there’s tremendous pressure on President Obama to order US retaliation, or at least some kind of armed response. Obviously, if Bashar Assad is using chemical weapons to murder his own people, that’s contemptible, and a human rights nightmare.  The President has made it clear that Assad should step down, but we have almost no leverage to force him to.  And Assad’s opponents in the civil war are the Muslim Brotherhood–hardly US allies. You might think we should back the more secular side in that war.  But in this case, that’s Assad.

In the build up to the Iraq war, as President Bush was making the case for the clear and present danger Saddam Hussein presented due to his ‘weapons of mass destruction,’ a UN inspection team, under the direction of Hans Blix, went to Iraq and looked for WMD.  Before they could complete their report (which would have undercut the Bush administration’s case for war), the invasion began.  Blix has been in the headlines again, arguing that any US or international intervention in Syria should wait until the UN inspectors have done their jobs, and insisting, as he did before, that the US is not the world’s policeman.  Hard to argue with that.

So, a few thoughts:

First, does the United States have any compelling national interest in this struggle, except for the need to provide humanitarian aid?  The Syrian civil war is devastating; it’s awful. But how can we meaningfully intervene?  On what side?  And if we do what’s been discussed, send in some cruise missiles, what good is that likely to do?  Even if missiles destroy a stockpile of chemical weapons, how can we be sure they won’t just scatter chemical weapons all over the place?  Doesn’t any intervention increase the possibility of an escalating US involvement?  And how is this our fight anyway?

Second, there’s a compelling Constitutional question to address here. Rachel Maddow’s show last night did a nice job of exploring some of those questions.  Congressman Scott Rigell (R-Va) was on Maddow (yes, a Republican on Rachel Maddow); he’s author of a letter to President Obama, urging the President to convene Congress to talk about Syria.  Rigell’s letter has bi-partisan support, as it should; Article 1, Sec. 8 makes clear that Congress, not the President, is who gets to declare war.  It’s true that the President, as Commander-in-Chief, can use the armed forces in an emergency–an invasion or something.  But that’s hardly the case with Syria. If the United States is seriously going to go to war with Syria, a robust Congressional debate needs to happen, and Congress needs to authorize any such incursion.

Third, there’s the international community, which is divided on Syria too.  I understand that a lot of Very Serious People in Washington think Bashar Assad has crossed a line by using chemical weapons, and that we need swiftly to retaliate.  But we don’t know for certain that chemical weapons were used.  The UN inspectors, guys who are very very good at their jobs, need to have the time to finish doing them.  A UN Security Council resolution ordering military action if Assad does not step down–well, that would be lovely.  It ain’t gonna happen.  We might cobble together some kind of anti-Assad coalition.  Turkey has said they’d join it.  But the Russians support Assad–they’re always going to support a secular-minded socialist guy in a fight against Muslim extremists–and will veto any such vote in the Security Council.

There is, of course, a long history in Syria, which the Muslim world remembers and Americans do not remember, of various US interventions and CIA coups over there.  We tried to topple one Syrian President in 1957, but failed.  We’ve closed our embassies and then re-opened them.  We never had the faintest notion how to deal with Assad.

And this whole horrible mess could turn into a larger religious war, and could spill over to other countries.  Syria is a Sunni-majority nation.  But Assad is Shiite and so is most of his army.  He’s supported by the Shiite terrorist group Hezbollah, and Iran has sent officers, troops and weapons.  Al Qaida is Sunni, however, and supports the rebels, as do the Saudis.  The Syrian civil war has already started spreading to Lebanon.

In other words, this is a complete mess, with no good answers. Syria, right now, is why Presidents go gray so quickly.  But there’s not much we can do that won’t make things first.  I hope we stay out of it entirely.  Most likely, though, we’ll get a destroyer to launch a few cruise missiles, rattle the rubble a bit and probably kill a few more civilians. Watching the Sunday talk shows was dispiriting, with all their talk of ‘red lines’ and ‘a meaningful response’ that doesn’t involve ‘boots on the ground.’  Most Americans, though, do not want to see our soldiers involved in another meaningless slog, another war without clear objectives and without any compelling national interest.  We have no dog in this fight.  Leave it be.



Ibsen at the Rose

The pop machines in the Green Rooms at the Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center charge $1.45 for a 12 ounce Diet Coke.  And only accept exact change.  So there we were all weekend, scrounging for dimes. Theatre is fueled by massive amounts of Diet Coke (I would be hesitant to cast a Pepsi drinker), and while we all had the requisite dollar bills, we were desperate for coins. My wife and I have a big change jar in our bedroom, and for our Friday rehearsal, I took every quarter, dime and nickel, brought ’em to rehearsal in a baggie. We survived.

We were doing a staged reading of Ibsen’s Ghosts, and those coins provide the metaphor for our experience–we improvised, worked together, and we survived. We had four days to put it up–Thursday and Friday evening rehearsals, all day Saturday, all day Sunday, with a late afternoon Sunday performance.  It was a reading, but fully blocked, actors holding book, but with performances as strong as four days’ rehearsal could make them.

Sunday morning, I was working that devastating final scene, the scene in which young Oswald Alving, his brain being destroyed by syphilis, begs his mother to administer the pills that will end his life.  Her final line: “No, no, no.  Yes.  No, no!”  And the play ends indecisively.  We talked about it; what would she choose?  We were, as a company, as conflicted about it as audiences seemed to be.

But the more salient question for us regarding that final moment: how do you act it?  Does Mrs. Alving lose it?  I would, if that were my child; I’d be a basket case.  Does she hold her emotions in check?  That’s what she’s done all her life, throughout her nightmare of a marriage; covered up, hidden her feelings.  Is it a combination of the two?  And we were working it out, the actors and I, and solving the acting problems in that scene felt as impossible as the dilemma we were presenting.  Not that my actors weren’t up to the challenge–they were magnificent throughout.  No, what frightened us was our sense of the size of the problem and the exceedingly limited time we had left to solve it.  I felt like we were trying to eat a huge meal in one bite, instead of nibbling on it for weeks.  Ghosts is such a magnificent play; we were terrified we wouldn’t be up to its demands.  Four days, right?  Just four days.

Christy Summerhays played Mrs. Alving.  I’m not kidding when I say that if I were asked to direct Ghosts in New York or London, and given my choice of any actor in the world to play Helene Alving–Streep, Winslet, Mirren, Blanchett, anyone–I would cast Christy and I wouldn’t hesitate.  Such an extraordinary combination of technique, elegance, beauty, vulnerability. I don’t say this because we’re friends, though I treasure our friendship–I say this because she’s that good.  And so, how did she handle that delicate final moment?  All of the above.  Given a choice between two possible interpretations of the scene, she gave me the best, the rightest moments of both of interpretations. She didn’t nail it–she pushed far beyond just ‘nailing it.’  Afterwards, my wife and I just sat there.  “My gosh, she’s good,” we kept saying.  In four days.

We had a late addition to the cast.  Jason Tatom joined us, and played the small comic role of Jacob Engstrand.  But Engstrand, with only three scenes and not a lot of lines, is an extraordinary role.  He’s the one character in the play who knows exactly what he wants, and exactly how to get it.  He’s the man with no illusions whatsoever.  As we talked about the role, Jason compared him to Alfred Doolittle in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady.  The cynic, the con artist.  But we both agreed that Engstrand is a much richer part than Doolittle.  And I’m glad I had Jason to play him.

Because as I’ve been saying all along, to anyone who would listen: Ibsen’s funny.  I’m not kidding, either–Ghosts is a very funny play, at times. Without really playing for laughs, without pratfalls or comic takes, just playing the lines, as written, there’s fantastic satirical potential.  Jason Tatom is an extraordinary comedic actor–I knew he’d earn every laugh honestly.

But the richer comic creation is Manders. Pastor Manders, Mrs. Alving spiritual (and financial) advisor has the second most lines in the play.  He’s a fusspot moralist, a sputtering High Victorian churchman, a buffoon and a hypocrite.  That’s how he’s written–my translation doesn’t push the comedy.  Jason Bowcutt is an actor I didn’t know very well, but I learned soon enough what a fine actor he is, and how perfect for Manders.  But Jason is also a fundamentally decent human being, kind and caring, and he worried about Manders, about mocking a churchman, about possibly making fun of a genuine and sincere Christian.  Well, is it possible for someone to be a genuinely compassionate religious leader and also a bit of a fool?  Is it possible for someone to give disastrously ineffective advise to a parishioner, but also care deeply about her welfare?  In our last rehearsal, I challenged Jason to show us all of Manders, his foolishness and his compassion, his hypocrisy and his sincerity.  I remember saying “I’m greedy!  I want it all!”  Wishing we had four more weeks of rehearsal to explore all sides of this character.  Then, Sunday afternoon, in performance, Jason Bowcutt came through.  He was magnificent.  And he got every laugh, and there were many.  And yet. . . I cared about Pastor Manders as well.  And understood why Mrs. Alving says to him, ‘sometimes I just want to throw my arms around your neck and kiss you.’

I had seen Jessamyn Swenson in a play reading in Orem, and recommended that she audition for Jerry Rapier, artistic director of Plan B, and she ended up winning the difficult role of Regina, the maid, Oswald’s half-sister.  Regina is a fascinating character too.  It’s like she embodies the Feminine Other, the attractive young woman as, eternally and forever, Object.  Oswald (who is putatively in love with her–at least he proposes marriage) calls her empty-headed, which she’s clearly not–she’s obviously a highly intelligent, though badly under-educated young woman.  Mrs. Alving is willing to entertain the thought of her marrying Oswald (her half-brother, no wonder the Victorians found the play shocking), but regretfully adds that Regina is “not the right sort of woman” for her son.  Engstrand (ostensibly her father), is happily willing to whore her out, and even Manders doesn’t seem to have a clue who she really is.  In rehearsal, the challenge for Jessamyn was to find the real Regina, the actual person underneath all the masks the other characters want to fit on her face.  In performance, in her last scene, she met and exceeded that challenge.

Finally, Topher Rasmussen played Oswald.  In rehearsal, we were kidding around about the characters’ names.  Ibsen’s character names are often meaningful, and I mentioned that ‘Mand’ in Manders means ‘husband’ and Regina, obviously, suggests royalty.  Topher spoke up: “what does Oswald mean?”  “The guy who shot Kennedy,” I responded.  Rimshot.

But Topher is a brilliant young actor, so immediate, so responsive, so intuitive in his choices.  I’ve worked with Topher quite a bit in the past, and I knew what we’d get from him–a consistently surprising, utterly grounded performance.  Oswald’s a tough character too. His final scene is unbearably moving, but he’s also kind of a jerk, the kind of young man who can say to his mother, “I’m sick, mother, I don’t have time to think about other people.”  But Topher’s reading of that line rooted it in pain and fear–we cared tremendously in his last moments.

Ghosts isn’t done much in the States.  Ibsen isn’t done much anymore.  I blame the British ‘Gloomy Ibsen’ tradition.  I’m a nervous wreck during performances, writhing in my chair; my wife likes to tease my about it.  So we had a packed house in the Rose’s big proscenium space, I think mostly consisting of people who had heard about the play, knew of its historical significance, but had never actually seen it in production.  I’m an Ibsen evangelist, and I was on record as saying that I think Ibsen’s funny; I was acutely sensitive to every laugh.  Even had two actor friends sitting on opposite sides of the house–my own two-man claque.  They weren’t needed, turns out.  The laughs built and built, culminating in Manders’ great second act curtain line: ‘And it’s not insured!’  Jason Bowcutt had them by then; they loved everything he’d done up to then, and that laugh rocked the house.  And yet the laughter did not in any sense detract from the tragedy of this great play’s final lines.

We only had four days.  Given four weeks, we could really have showed you something. Meanwhile, a packed house got to see that Ibsen still works.  It was, at any rate, a wonderful experience.


Tea Party thoughts

The 1972 election was, in most respects, not very interesting.  The Democrats, after a hectic primary season and convention, nominated George McGovern, an estimable and good man (and a genuine war hero), who was also likely the most liberal presidential candidate ever, calling for a ‘national minimum income,’ and of course, the immediate end to the war in Vietnam.  By ’72, though, the war seemed to be winding down.  Nixon’s ‘Vietnamization’ policy (training up the South Vietnamese army, letting them do the fighting) turned into a catastrophe, but electorally, it played.  His expansion of the war into Cambodia was trumpeted by McGovern; middle America yawned.  Nixon’s China breakthrough was a huge achievement. The economy was humming along.  McGovern botched his vice-Presidential nomination, and his campaign never did get any traction.  Nixon won 49 states, 60% of the popular vote.

But ’72 was the first in which 18-year olds were allowed to vote, following the passage of the 26th Amendment. And it was thought that those votes might make a difference.  18-year olds, after all, were the ones who might be drafted, might actually have to go fight in Vietnam (or their brothers/friends/boyfriends might). In Barry McGuire’s 1965 hit, Eve of Destruction, the lyric ‘you’re old enough to kill, but not for votin” seemed particularly apt.  Could this turn into a generational election, with young voters voting for the most aggressively anti-war candidate of my lifetime?

Not so much.  Half of the new voters, the 18-22 crowd, didn’t vote at all.  Of the ones who did, it went 52-48, Nixon.  Tricky Dick won every demographic.  Including the voters who might personally be voting to go fight in a war they didn’t want to fight in.

I’ve got a book on my library shelf; I’m looking at the cover as I write this: Mark Kurlansky’s 1968.  Terrific book, all about the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Students for a Democratic Society, and Mario Savio and Tom Hayden and Abbie Hoffman and the Yippies and the ’68 Chicago convention.  And the body blows–the assassinations of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King.  It’s about the 60s as counter-culture, the first five minutes of Hair.  It’s about my generation, man. Living idyllic hippie lives in Central Park, spontaneously breaking into Tywla Tharp choreography.  Peace, love and understanding, man.

My generation.  We ended the war in Vietnam.  We ended racism and sexism. And we invented rock and roll.  Pat ourselves on the back. Peace out.

That’s a popular and massively self-congratulatory narrative. And it isn’t particularly true.  Hippies weren’t popular and they weren’t effective.  Ronald Reagan had a put-down line for hippies; used it at every speech.  Hippies, he said, ‘dressed like Tarzan, had hair like Jane, and smelled like Cheetah.’  It killed.  And the arrogance of the 60s counter-culture remains an ugly and ineffective part of liberals’ rhetorical stance today.  A sense of privilege and entitlement, an overweaning sense of moral superiority. ‘We have ideals, and that makes us better.’  It’s annoying.  And untrue.  And I can say that; I’m a liberal.

In ’72, of course a lot of voters voted for McGovern and against Nixon.  But more supported Nixon.  And that reflects what I remember from my friends in high school. There were a few folks who were adamantly and angrily political, opposed to Vietnam, liberal in all the ways we think of when we think of ‘the sixties.’  Most of my friends, though, were just trying to get through school.  I was attracted to the anti-war activists, mostly because there was this one girl I had a huge crush on.  But there were just as many kids in my school who were Christians and conservative, and loved the American flag; wore their hair short and kept their heads down.

And then we got to see how well Vietnamization worked, as we watched Saigon fall, condemning our former allies to death.  A few months later, we all watched the President of the United States say, on national television, “I’m not a crook.” I watched it with my parents, and I remember the shock of it, thinking, ‘geez, he’s lying, he’s a crook, he’s the President and he’s a crook.’  Watergate, and the Ford pardon (the right thing to do, but it didn’t sit well at the time), and the humiliation of the hostage crisis.  And how, even though I didn’t vote for him, the confidence and humor of Reagan felt. . .  reassuring.

So that’s our history, me and my friends, our shared history together.  This is purely speculative on my part.  I have no proof, no evidence. But I’m wondering about the Tea Party movement.  Is it possible that the current Tea Party movement has its roots in that era, in the late 60s/early 70s?  That the 18-21 year-olds who voted for Nixon in ’72, Nixon’s ‘silent majority,’ the children of the people who thought Reagan’s Tarzan joke was hilarious, that those people in my high school who kept their hair short and their heads down, that those same people, now grown-ups, make up much of the Tea Party today?

Because we know the Tea Party democraphic.  It skews white and it skews old and it skews married, and to some extent, it skews male.  That’s not to say there aren’t young black single women in the Tea Party.  But I have Tea Party friends, and a close Tea Party relative.  Good folks, all of them.  And they tend all to be older, male and white.

(It helps explain one of the odder Fox News attributes.  Fox’s demographics are elderly, which makes sense.  Older folks get their news from television; older folks also love email–it’s like the one computer-like thing they know how to use.  Hence Fox News, also viral conservative emails.)  So why are so many Fox News presenters young attractive blonde women?  Gretchen Carlson,  Megyn Kelly, Martha MacCallum, Shannon Bream, Marianne Rafferty, et al.  Is it maybe because the core Fox demographic is old white guys?

But, see, here’s the thing.  Barack Obama campaigned on hope and change.  That generation likes hope, but is scared of change. That’s why a reasonably pedestrian pro-business moderate like President Obama gets called a ‘socialist.’  In the election, he seemed to be calling for a radical transformation of society.  That’s a scary thought for people who aren’t sure anyway about their pension plans, and who are desperately worried about their grandchildren.

My parents were just out visiting, and my Mom has this big project going that’s been driving us all a bit nuts.  She bought green tee shirts for everyone, and wants us all to wear them and take pictures.  She wants pictures of everyone, of all her grandchildren and great grandchildren, wearing our green tees.  I noticed, this visit, how much of her conversation was about her grandchildren.  This is, of course, both normal and desirable.  Old folks talking about their grandkids–it’s awesome, isn’t it?

But for the Tea Party, old folks worrying about grandchildren has become a national political movement.  And what’s driving it?  Three things:

First, debt.  George W. Bush, ‘fiscal conservative,’ feels now like the punch line to a joke.  So start with an unprecedented amount of debt. Then came the financial crisis has left behind its residue of debt, and President Obama’s Keynesian advisors (and they’re not all neo-Keynesians) prescribed the standard macro-economic response to a demand-side recession–stimulus spending.  So we had debt to start with, followed by a financial crisis that increased debt, plus a stagnant recessionary economy increasing debt, and a response that involved, yes, more debt.  To my Dad’s generation, debt is bad, debt is to be avoided, debt is immoral and crippling.  I can talk ’til I’m blue in the face about macro-economics and the value of stimulative spending–to my Dad, this government (and this president) are feckless over-spenders.  We’re passing on mountains of debt to our grandkids!  Our grandkids!  The elimination of debt becomes an absolute moral imperative.

Second, taxes.  No one likes paying taxes, but older folks especially despise it, because many are on fixed incomes.  And so over-taxation becomes a huge political issue.  The way to deal with debt is to cut spending, they think, and especially, to cut spending on worthless bums who won’t get a job and provide for their families.  And that generation grew up during the Cold War, which means the most lavish and wasteful federal spending, defense spending, is sacrosanct.  Tea Partiers are convinced that ending ‘welfare spending’ will balance the budget.  It won’t, wouldn’t come close, but that doesn’t matter–nobody trusts fancy-pants egghead numbers-crunchers.

Third, health care.  The very essence of the Tea Party has to be that picture from a rally of the woman holding up the sign that read ‘keep the government’s hands off my Medicare.’  Obamacare is exotic and complicated and therefore must be a complete disaster.  And this is doctors we’re talking about!  Our grandkids won’t be able to see good doctors!

I am trying, at least, to understand the Tea Party.  It feels like an irrational movement, attracted to silly ideas like Mike Lee’s ‘shut-down-government-until-Congress-defunds-Obamacare initiative.  Something as obvious and automatic as raising the debt ceiling becomes a political fight.  It feels like the Republican party’s gone nuts.  But Tea Partiers make sense when confronted on their own terms.  And what no one seems to have been able to do is explain basic, sensible, positive, pro-growth policy in ways Tea Partiers can understand and appreciate.

Except for one person.  My son is an economist, and is great at econometrics.  He seems to be able to talk to my Tea Party Dad (who I adore) in a way that makes sense.  That’s because he’s a grandchild.  So that’s the way to deal with the Tea Party.  Get their grandkids to explain policy to them.


Elmore Leonard

Never open a book with weather.

He’s dead. Stroke killed him, age of 87.  Sorry, I’ve ready messed this up; this is not how Elmore Leonard opened his novels.  Terse, quick snatches of dialogue.  In media res. Wise guys, cops, low-lifes, maybe a con man or sociopath.  Shooting someone’s hard; you shoot the breeze first, working yourself up.

Avoid prologues.

Novels set in Detroit, a lot of the time.  Miami. Hollywood.  Any place on the edge.  Cheap bars, horserace gambling in back. I wrote a play once in which I described Heaven, only I made it an Elmore Leonard heaven, where the onions are fresh pickled, and jazz and Mo-town on the jukebox. When I should have been reading Proust, I read Leonard.  He and Donald Westlake–they didn’t know each other, but they also did–two connoisseurs of great American prose tipped their hats to each other.  He knew how to do stuff.  How to make a great rum punch.  Which guns which guys would carry.  How most fights end in one punch, then the one guy’s broke his hand and the other guy’s broke his nose.

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue

Or just start the new paragraph with quotation marks.  But sometimes you need to clarify who’s speaking–then it’s said.  Not ‘asserted.’  Not ‘grumbled,’ ‘gasped,’ ‘lied.’  John said.

Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’

What he liked about Hollywood were the crooks.  The big studio heads were like top mafiosi–not interesting, because non-dimensional.  He liked small producers, hustlers, guys putting together small packages, maybe a low budget with a TV star and a chick and a script from a drinker that maybe has a little juice.  He had no illusions about the movies based on his own novels.  Called one of them ‘the second-worst movie ever filmed.’  Then they did a sequel, and he said now he’d seen the worst.

Keep your exclamation points under control.

You’re allowed no more than 2 per 100,000 words.  2.

Never use the words ‘suddenly,’ or ‘all hell broke loose.’

Writers who used ‘suddenly’ couldn’t be trusted with exclamation points.

Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

He was the great master of American dialogue.  Nobody better, ever, nobody.  He started out writing cowboy books, to make a living.  They’re spare and smart and unsentimental, followed the conventions but not enslaved to them.  Then he turned to cops, contemporary settings.  Then, for fun, he put a cowboy in urban settings.  US Deputy Marshall, Raylan Givens, first in Pronto, then Riding the Rap.  Raylan then got his own TV series, Justified. Leonard was ticked because they didn’t get his hat right.  Leonard’s last published novel, Raylan, is like a series of Raylan Givens short stories, loosely novelized.

Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Again, though, nobody created more compelling or rich characters.  Chili Palmer.  Jackie Brown.  Ordell Robbie.  Jack Foley and Karen Sisco.  Often crooks or con artists, with an odd sense of honor.  You’d get a quick detail, a hint.  Raylan likes ice cream.  Chili Palmer never carries a gun. Small stuff.

Don’t go into great detail describing places or things.

Jazz lover.  Tigers’ fan, life-long.  Mike Lupica says, you’d call him and ask when he was free, and he’d say ‘I go til six.’  Had this big writing desk, was at it every day.

Try to leave out the parts that readers tend to skip

Five greatest movies based on Elmore Leonard novels:

1) Jackie Brown.  The best Tarantino movie IMO, a neglected masterpiece, (and QT loved Leonard–Vincent and Jules are essentially Leonard characters, that’s where QT developed his ear, reading Leonard).

2) Out of Sight, one of the best Soderburgh films, great chemistry between Clooney and J-Lo, fantastic minor characters–Ving Rhames, Steve Zahn, Don Cheadle.

3) 3:10 to Yuma.  Captures the flavor of Leonard’s Western fiction, with Christian Bale acting circles around Russell Crowe.

4) Get Shorty.  John Travolta is Chili Palmer; best match of character and actor imaginable.  A tremendously funny movie because it never forces anything, just tells the story, relies on character.


Nope.  Couldn’t find one.  Was going to put Be Cool, or The Big Bounce, or Killshot or something, but Leonard didn’t like any of them much, so I’m going with just four. This is Elmore Leonard we’re talking about.  Don’t overdo.

If it sounds like writing, rewrite

One last novel, finished before he died, should come out within a few months.  It breaks my heart to think that’s going to be it.  We’re selfish, we readers–we hate it when the story’s are late, we hate it worse when the writers we love most pass on.

Elmore Leonard quite drinking in ’77, was twice divorced, but finally happily married, won numerous awards, wrote every day of his life, changed my life, changed the lives of more people than anyone could count.  You wanna honor him?  Get back to work.





The Creation of Anne Bolelyn: A Review

Susan Bordo is a fan of Anne Bolelyn.  She’s particularly fond of the various ways in which Anne has been portrayed in films, novels and plays.  Her new book, The Creation of Anne Bolelyn isn’t really a biography of ‘England’s most notorious queen.’  It’s more a feminist social history of the various ways Anne has been represented through the years.  If you are reasonably cognizant of the Tudor period in English history, and if you’ve enjoyed, say, The Tudors, Anne of a Thousand Days and/or The Other Bolelyn Girl, you’ll love this book.  Love it.  (Well, maybe not TOBG.  Bordo’s not a fan of that particular take on Anne).  It’s this good; before reading Bordo, I was not familiar with Howard Brinton’s play Anne Bolelyn: after reading Bordo, I purchased a copy.  If you’re looking for a solid, well-written, well-researched biography of Anne, I recommend Eric Ives’ The Life and Death of Anne Bolelyn, or Alison Weir’s The Lady in the Tower.  Or try  Good stuff there. That’s not to say that Bordo’s book doesn’t include solid and interesting biographical material; just that biography is not its focus.

But it’s a great book, witty and fun and smart.  My only quibble; she left out Rick Wakeman’s record album The Six Wives of Henry VIII.  I’m listening to it now while I write this blog.  I know it’s just instrumental music, Yes’ legendary keyboardist’s take on each of the wives.  But I defy anyone to listen to his Catherine Howard track and not admit that he got it right.  (I also love Jane Seymour from that album–his Anne Bolelyn strikes me as a titch melodramatic).

Ahem. Continuing.

Anne Bolelyn did not have six fingers on one hand, and it’s exceptionally unlikely she had a vestigial third nipple.  She was dark in complexion, possibly with what we would call ‘sallow’ skin, and with dark, though probably not jet-black hair.  Her body was tall, slender, possibly even boyish.  (Natalie Portman’s not terrible casting, actually, if she hadn’t been handed a script that so dismally misrepresented its subject).  In an era when a white complexion and a buxom frame were considered desirable for women, she would not have been regarded as beautiful.  She was educated in the French court of Marguerite of Navarre, whose salon was the most forceful, brilliant and liberal in Europe. Anne therefore received the finest education available to a 16th century European woman.  That, Bordo thinks, is what attracted Henry to her–her wit, her intelligence, her advanced and informed views on the major issues of the day.  She was not a Lutheran, but she was a Protestant, and her personally library included every major intellectual influence of the day.  She was, in short, someone Henry had not previously encountered, a brilliant, forceful, smart, funny, intellectual woman, his equal and partner.

One prevailing view of her is that she ‘bewitched’ Henry, seduced him into apostasy and murder.  That’s essentially the portrayal of The Other Bolelyn Girl, Natalie Portman playing Anne as a vicious and conscience-less seductress.  This was the view promoted by Anne’s bitterest enemy in the Tudor court, Eustace Chapuys, the ambassador from Spain.  Chapuys was a fervent Catholic, and a forceful defender of Katherine of Aragon.  He detested Anne, for what seem to have been personal and political reasons.  Unfortunately, Chapuys was also a prolific and capable writer.  His accounts of the period are an unmatched historical resource.  But his biases were also clear, and have to be accounted for by any judicious historian.  Philippa Gregory, author of The Other Bolelyn Girl did not break new ground in her novel–she merely recycled the Chapuys Anne.  The opposing Protestant view (found in, for example, Foxes’s Book of Martyrs, portrayed an entirely innocent Anne, heroic and virtuous, the victim of a rapacious and evil king.

Finding the ‘real Anne’ between those ‘whore or saint’ stereotypes is probably impossible, and certainly extremely difficult.  But I find Bordo’s Anne convincing.  Henry VIII was an intelligent and well-educated King. I think it goes without saying that he had a rather forceful personality. It’s preposterous to imagine an Anne Bolelyn who wrapped him around her (vestigial) little finger, an Anne who drove him reluctantly to murder close friends and advisors like Cardinal Wolsey and Sir Thomas More. Nor is it remotely plausible that Anne, once she became queen, would have been foolish enough to commit adultery.  (In fact, the specific accusations of adultery under which she was condemned were almost entirely physical impossibilities; specific instances in which she could be proved to have been hundreds of miles away from the men with whom she was supposed to have been sleeping).

No, the far more plausible reality was probably this: Anne Bolelyn was a witty, charming and brilliant woman who became Henry’s partner and wife, a committed Protestant who introduced him to authors who grounded Henry in Protestant thought, a capable administrator who proved an effective co-governor. Anne probably also saw Thomas Cromwell as a friend and co-Protestant advisor, and so he proved to be.  But Cromwell was, above all, a politician and survivor.  When he saw Henry’s growing displeasure with Anne’s inability to provide him with a male heir, Cromwell was smart enough to turn on his former ally.  It’s unlikely that Anne was complicit in the death of, say, More, though.  Henry had proved himself capable of violence and murderous jealousies and rages years before he met Anne Bolelyn.

Not many of Anne’s writings have survived.  Henry had all her letters burned, though a cache of his letters to her has survived.  Those of her writings that have survived, though, reveal a direct and straightforward style, and a matchless courage.  The greatest Annes of stage and screen portrayal (and Bordo particularly admires Natalie Dormer in The Tudors Showtime miniseries, and Genevieve Bujold in Anne of a Thousand Days), have captured Anne’s intelligence, humor and strength.  She was, I think, genuinely her daughter’s mother.  And her daughter was the greatest King England ever saw.


The Butler: A Review

Lee Daniels’ The Butler is a tremendous film, a likely Oscar winner in several categories.  I don’t know, but I suspect it’s also not quite the film Lee Daniels intended to make. I think he thought he was making a film celebrating the civil rights movement. What I found instead was a film celebrating those who found the civil rights movement, with its turmoil and violence and disruption, frightening.

This is one of those ‘based on a true story’ movies, and I would rather like to know how much license Daniels and his screenwriter, Danny Strong took.  It follows thirty-plus years of the life of Cecil Gaines, a White House butler (there were six butlers at any given moment–‘butler’ seems to mean more or less what ‘footman’ means on Downton Abbey).  The film is based on a newspaper article about an actual butler named Eugene Allen.  I haven’t read the original newspaper article, but it seems clear there was a whole lot of fictionalizing going on here. Anyway, Forest Whitaker plays Gaines, in what is essentially a family story.  Oprah Winfrey plays Gloria, Cecil’s alcoholic and neglected wife, and his oldest son, Louis, is played by the superb British actor David Oyelowo.  A younger son, Charlie, less central to the story, is played by a fine young actor I’d never heard of, Elijah Kelley.

The film essentially tells two linking stories. First, we see Cecil working in the White House, quietly standing in the background as Presidents discuss world-shaking events and policies, omnipresent, pre-warming the cup the President’s coffee will be served in, handing out cookies to childrens’ White House tours, shining the President’s shoes and serving at state dinners.  Meanwhile, Louis is a civil rights activist, in the middle of the very events Presidents are dealing with; demanding service at a Woolworth counter (in a shocking and powerful scene), riding a Greyhound bus for freedom, registering voters in Mississippi, working closely with Dr. King, briefly joining the Black Panthers with his Angela Davis-coiffed girlfriend Carol (Yaya Alafia).

It’s a powerfully effective structure, Hegelian in its impact, all the more so because Cecil’s thesis so completely rejects Louis’ anti-thesis, and their synthesis doesn’t come ’til the end.  Because far from celebrating the civil rights movement, Cecil despises it.  It terrifies him, and angers him, frankly.

And in the first scene of the movie, we see why.  Young Cecil, taught to cotton farm by his father (David Banner), sees a white man, the rich and privileged scion of the farm where they’re sharecropping, striding along the field towards Cecil’s mother (couldn’t find her name on IMDB).  The white guy directs the Mom to a shed, where he rapes her.  The father briefly protests.  And the white guy shoots him dead.  And Vanessa Redgrave, the family matriarch (grandmother to the murderer), appalled, responds in the only way her class and position and culture allows–she tells young Cecil that she will train him to be a ‘house-nigger,’ a domestic servant.

That training is what allows Cecil to rise in the world, to become, eventually, a White House butler.  But that primal early experience is what teaches him that the white world will forever be hostile and dangerous, and is best accommodated privately, quietly.  Serve without questioning.  Don’t make waves. Grow a second face, one smiling and servile. Stay in the background.

To Cecil, his son is a troublemaker without cause.  He can go to college, he can afford to better himself, on Cecil’s dime, because of Cecil’s sacrifices and Cecil’s success.  Instead, he throws it all away, gets thrown in jail repeatedly (and in Whitaker’s marvelous performance, every Louis jailing is like a physical blow, shame landing on his, the father’s shoulders).  And fighting for what?  An equality that will never be granted, rights that will never be recognized.  He knows how little Presidents want to do about civil rights, because he knows, intimately, who Presidents are and how they act.

But, of course, to Louis, his father is the worst kind of accommodationist, an Uncle Tom, a traitor to his race.  In one potent dinner table conversation, Cecil and Louis nearly come to blows over Sidney Poitier.  Cecil admires and respects Poitier, sees him as who is genuinely making a difference in changing white perceptions of black people.  To Louis, though, Poitier does nothing but provide white liberals with a comforting stereotype, an ideal based on nothing approaching reality.  And of course, that’s also what Louis thinks of his father.

That’s the heart of the movie, the intersection between its parallel stories, the ferocious internecine conflict between a father and son who love each other and who cannot ever surrender or agree.  And caught in the middle, Gloria, superbly played by Oprah.  And I’m not kidding when I say that; she’s amazing in this film.  Oprah Winfrey hasn’t really acted since Beloved in 1998–she’s done a lot of voice-over work, and of course she’s an important producer.  But her performance in this film is a revelation.  She’s torn apart, by the struggle in her family, by loneliness (because of the endless hours required of a White House servant), by alcoholism, by a short and loveless affair with a numbers-running neighbor (a wonderful brief gig for Terrence Howard).

Great actors abound in this film.  Cuba Gooding Jr. and Lenny Kravitz are terrific as Cecil’s fellow butlers (and best friends).  Nelsan Ellis (from True Blood), gets one short scene as Dr. King, and nails it–it’s a scene with maybe ten other actors, and the second you see him, you think ‘OMG, it’s Dr. King.’  And it’s a crucial scene as well, in which Dr. King points out that domestic servants (like Cecil) do tremendous good for the cause of civil rights, in a quiet understated way, because they model, for the white world, trustworthiness and competence.  And Louis, in the room, nods ever so slightly.  And then Dr. King steps out on the motel room balcony, and we realize where we are–room 306, Lorraine Motel, Memphis.  And then cut to Cecil picking his way through a riot, terrified and heartsick, all his worst fears realized.

And yet, finally Father and Son are reconciled, and Cecil has the courage to not just ask for, but demand a raise, so that black White House servants can receive pay equal to their white counterparts.  (It took that much time, the Reagan administration, for that to happen).  And Cecil protests apartheid, and is arrested, and we see him in jail, close, finally to his son, who he now knows to be a hero.

And it’s also a film with lots and lots of Presidents.  Daniels makes an interesting choice here–most of the actors playing Presidents don’t look much like them, but they’re good enough actors to convince us. And we don’t see, you know, Presidents. We see them as they appear to the butler.  So Robin Williams makes a fussy and ineffectual Eisenhower (who was anything but), because when it came time to send federal troops to Little Rock, he did prevaricate and dither. And John Cusack makes a terrifically snake-like Nixon, visiting the butlers’ work space to ask them what they think black people want (and making promises he has no intention of keeping).  James Marsden is charismatic and charming and kind as Jack Kennedy, while Minka Kelly (as Jackie), has a deeply affecting breakdown in a short scene after Kennedy’s assassination.  Liev Schreiber is suitably crude as LBJ, and Alan Rickman made a fine Reagan.  Above all, I loved the snarky choice of Jane Fonda to play a certain iconic First Lady. Hanoi Jane, meet Nancy Reagan–that’s inspired casting.

Here’s what makes this film remarkable to me, though.  We celebrate the civil rights movement in this country, and should.  And in films like, say The Help, and 42, the movement is treated as unequivocally good, and the white racists who oppose it as sub-human scum.  And liberal white people are on the side of the angels, and are, in fact, the people who make good things happen–Emma Stone in The Help, and Harrison Ford as Branch Rickey in 42.  Fine, fair enough, white people helped, no question.

But this is a film, mostly, about white people who did not help, not nearly as much as they should have, except for that Texas vulgarian LBJ (whose Presidency was destroyed by Vietnam).  One scene in particular sticks with me here–John Cusack’s vulpine acquiescence as Haldeman suggests they treat civil rights with ‘benign neglect.’ And Ronald Reagan, staunchly standing up for, uh, ‘principle’–to not join a boycott of apartheid South Africa (Rickman’s particularly fine here).

But even more than that, this is a film that sympathetically portrays a generation of blacks who did not support civil rights, not because they disagreed with its ideals, or had any delusions about white privilege, but because the tactics employed by Dr. King terrified them.  And Malcolm X scared them even more.  Not every older black person was Fannie Lou Hamer–some middle-class blacks thought the Movement was too far too fast.  And this film portrays that dissonance.  Forest Whitaker plays a man who nearly cracks from the pressure of maintaining the two faces of the ideal butler. Add the pressure of an activist son, and he’s nearly destroyed, and his wife is nearly destroyed, and his family falls apart.  And our sympathies are with his son, not with him.  But Whitaker makes us care.

A final credit dedicates the film to the civil rights movement, and the final images of the film demonstrate the astonished joy felt by this elderly man and his wife at the election of our first black President.  And finally, the Butler returns home, invited by that President.  “I know the way” he says, dismissing a clue-less usher guide. It’s a film that honors a man who does, finally, find his way.  But it never dishonors his journey.

To the Wonder: a review

Terrence Malick has had the most fascinating career of any genuinely great filmmaker I can think of.  He directed Badlands in 1973, to rapturous reviews.  Then came Days of Heaven in ’78.  It’s the most exquisite film I know–ecstatically beautiful, tragically moving.  But it was released amid all sorts of rumors of cost overruns and set tensions, and didn’t initially do well in the box office.  Malick went back to his day job as a philosophy professor, only to re-emerge in 1998 with The Thin Red Line, another film of rapturous beauty, telling a terrible and tragic story, set in WWII.  Seven years later, he came out with The New World, a lovely meditation on Jamestown and Pocahontas, then in 2011 came The Tree of Life, a film I consider of the five finest films ever directed.  As with all Malick films, it’s a love-it-or-hate-it enterprise.  I waxed evangelical to any friend I could make sit still long enough to tell them about it, and many saw it and compared the experience afterwards to that of watching paint dry.  Others loved it as much as I do.  Can’t think of a soul who was lukewarm.

We have a joke in my family about 2001: A Space Odyssey.  It’s a film I love, and I’ve made all my kids watch it with me.  None have liked it at all.  I’m accused of liking awful pretentious boring daggone movies; my response: “it’s a genuinely great movie.  I’ll concede it is a trifle slow-paced.”  And so, ‘slow-paced’ has come to mean ‘unwatchable and boring.’   Terrence Malick films are slow-paced and weird.  Let’s admit that upfront.

So my folks were in town, and they wanted to see a movie with us, and two Netflix envelopes arrived and they said, ‘hey, how ’bout one of those?’  And they’d seen t’other one.  So we watched To the wonder.  My Mom sort of liked it, some.  My Dad didn’t, and said so, mocking the film unceasingly.  After half an hour, I gave up.  Watched the whole thing the next day, while my folks were out visiting other relatives.

And I don’t blame them.  It’s easy to make fun of Terrence Malick, to call him artsy-fartsy and pretentious, to say his films are art-house dull, to say they don’t really tell a story.  To me, though, I think his films are beautiful.  I love his restless experimentation, the indirect approach to story-telling, the way the camera lingers on a single image unconnected to narrative, the way his films deal with issues of faith and forgiveness and pain and betrayal, and ultimately, atonement, reconciliation, rebirth.

To the Wonder starts in France, in Mont St. Michel, the island cathedral off Normandy. An American man, played by Ben Affleck, meets a French woman, played by Olga Kurylenko.  We see them playing, gamboling, wading, holding hands, rapturously in love.  He takes her home to the States, to his house in Oklahoma.  They talk about getting married, but it’s complicated–she’s Catholic and previously married, to someone with whom she has no contact–doesn’t even know how to reach him.  She also has a daughter, maybe ten or twelve, Tatiana, who hates America, and ends up moving back to France.  Meanwhile, their priest, played by Javier Bardem, has lost his faith.

Malick’s films announce their themes in voice-overs.  Dialogue is spare, and usually more or less unconnected to the plot.  In this film, we have voice-overs in three languages–English for Affleck, French for Kurylenko, and Spanish for Bardem.  Bardem’s are mostly prayers; hopeless, despairing prayers, a lost man desperate to find some way to reconnect to God and to suffering humanity.

Kurylenko returns to France, and Affleck has an affair with an old girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams.  Then Kurylenko returns to Oklahoma, and she and Affleck marry.  But she’s terribly unhappy, and we sense that the connection of these two is volatile and strained.  She has an affair as well, and Affleck’s character loses it, kicks her out of his truck and makes her walk partway home before relenting.  But in time, Barden’s priest serves the despairing rural poor of Oklahoma, death row inmates and other incarcerated souls, and he starts to return to God.  And he counsels Affleck and Kurylenko’s fractured couple, and they are restored. And the film ends at Mont St. Michel.

That’s the best I can make of the story.  Malick’s camera is restless in this film.  Every shot is on movement, and every shot is traveling; I think he shot the entire film with a Steadi-cam.  It’s impressionistic, all about images and movement and music and light.  The characters rarely speak–I doubt Ben Affleck had four lines of dialogue the entire film–and their conversations are incidental, passing snatches of words half-heard in passing, almost never advancing any narrative.

It’s a film about nature, about the beauty of this planet and images of damaged earth, broken waterlines and cracked foundations.  It’s a film about redemption.  It’s a film about love shattered and betrayed, and then, maybe, restored.  It’s a film much more about exploring questions than providing answers.  It’s a film that urges us to bask in beauty, and not worry so much about storylines or character development.  We only know the characters’ names if we stay for the closing credits, and we don’t have any idea why they do the often self-destructive things they do.  It’s a film full of images to be savored.  It’s not just a beautiful film, it’s Beauty: the Film.

If you don’t like films about gamboling gamin waifs, don’t watch this.  If you don’t like films about stolid uncommunitive men, don’t bother. If you don’t like films where the main character is suddenly visited by a ‘best friend,’ who tells her to leave America and go back to France, only you have no idea who she is or what she’s doing there or why she just threw Olga Kurylenko’s purse in the bushes, give this a pass.

It’s not The Tree of Life, and it’s not Days of Heaven. It’s a late minor masterpiece by a 70 year old genius, worth watching for that reason if no other.  But approached carefully, it’s exquisite.  You know yourself whether that’s likely to be enough.

OSC, and the end of civilization

I like Orson Scott Card. And I owe him.  Many years ago, he taught an undergrad playwriting class at BYU; as a student in that class, I learned a lot, probably more than from any other playwriting teacher I ever studied with.  I wrote a play for that class which he championed, and which was eventually produced.  I am a playwright today largely because of OSC.  I wouldn’t say we’re friends, exactly–as writers, he’s way up there, and I’m way down here–but I know him, like him, and enjoy his writing.  Can’t wait to see Ender’s Game, for example.

And I will see Ender’s Game. OSC and I, uh, differ politically.  Nowhere do we differ more than in the politics of gay marriage.  But I do know him well enough to defend him against the charge of homophobia.  He finds himself, I think, in that gray area occupied by a lot of Mormons, who have gay friends and gay family members, and feel conflicted by a Church policy they nonetheless feel they need to defend.  I get where he’s coming from, while disagreeing pretty strenuously, and I do not plan to join the boycott against the film.

I also think that all of us who care about the United States and are worried about the future, patriots on the Right and Left, people who care a lot about politics and who write about it, have an occasional tendency to fly off the handle and write things we end up wishing we hadn’t written.  I thought about this yesterday when I read a blog post from OSC, dated May 9, titled ‘Unlikely Events.’  It went viral yesterday, which is when I learned of it.  A friend of mine called it ‘the post where OSC writes the script for the next Jon McNaughton painting,’ which about captures it.  Here’s the link: enjoy.

Obama the dictator.  Michelle Obama as a Lurleen Wallace, a figurehead President to circumvent the 22nd Amendment.  A laundry list of Tea Party/Conservative laments about this President.  A ‘national police force’ of inner city hooligans.  Reading it was dispiriting.  I wanted to lament, like Ophelia, “O, what a noble mind is here o’erthrown.”

The thing is, I’ve done this too, harbored the same fantasy.  When George W. Bush’s Presidency was nearing the end of its first term, I fantasized that even if John Kerry won the election, Bush wouldn’t surrender power.  That he would use the ‘war on terror’ as a pretext to declare martial law.  And what would we do then!  Boy, would the Constitution ever hang by a thread then!

But I was wrong.  Completely, unmistakably, utterly wrong.  Turns out that George W. Bush was a politician I disagreed with.  That’s it.  That’s all.  Not a monster, not a buffoon, not a tyrant, not a fool, not a despot.  A patriot, a man with limitations like all men, who tried his best to protect and serve our country, and who made some serious mistakes along the way, inevitably, but who did some good things too.

That’s who Barack Obama is.  And I think in his saner moments, OSC will admit that he’s overstating things a tad, that the President is, drumroll please, just a politician he disagrees with.  Not a tyrant and not a fool.

Back when I was in grad school, I remember studying the theatrical theories of Richard Wagner.  Later, I taught Wagner to grad students of my own.  Great composer of course, and also a genuine theatrical innovator.  And a man with political ideas that were both silly and dangerous.  Ideology blinds us.  I don’t think of myself a particularly doctrinaire liberal; I try at least to be reasonable and to listen to those who disagree with me.  But when I’m wrong (and I’m often wrong), it’s because I let a set of doctrines define me, instead of evidence and reason.  And, of course, the idea that any of us are objective and rational and completely without prejudice is a chimera.  We’re all products of culture.

Having said that, I suppose I should point out how, specifically, OSC is wrong. But lest I be called a witless Obama sycophant or something, let me point out that I have, on this blog, called for Obama’s impeachment, for drone warfare conducted against American citizens without due process.  I have serious misgivings about some of the policies of this President.  I also am willing to defend strongly others of his policies.  I don’t think the ACA is a stellar piece of legislation, but I think it’ll work pretty well, and it beats the status quo.  I think the President is right sometimes, and I think he’s wrong sometimes, like all the other Presidents.  I do think, though, that OSC’s rant is seriously fact-free.  It’s just the usual, dull, Fox News/Breitbart argle-blargle.  Frankly, it’s silly.  And with all due respect, we need to call him on it.  OSC is a fine writer, a genuinely interesting sci-fi/fantasy author.  He’s not an interesting political thinker.

“Obama is, by character and preference, a dictator. He hates the very idea of compromise; he demonizes his critics and despises even his own toadies in the liberal press. He circumvented Congress as soon as he got into office by appointing “czars” who didn’t need Senate approval. His own party hasn’t passed a budget ever in the Senate.

Nonsense, nonsense and more nonsense.  Every President has had advisors; calling them czars is a media thing.  Jimmy Carter had czars, so did both Bushes, so did Reagan.  Obama does respond when attacked–I guess that’s what‘s meant by ‘demonizes critics.’  His critics on the Left (I am one) think he’s much much too willing to compromise, eager to, in fact.  He’s spent most of the last three years calling for, and working for ‘a grand bargain,’ a comprehensive budget bill. As for not passing a budget, he’s done his job–he’s proposed budgets.  Every year.  Not his fault if an ideologically divided Congress can’t/won’t pass ’em. 

In other words, Obama already acts as if the Constitution were just for show. Like Augustus, he pretends to govern within its framework, but in fact he treats it with contempt.”

Uh, he’s an expert in Constitutional law.  Taught it at the University of Chicago law school.  And I wasn’t aware Caesar Augustus ever consulted the US constitution.  I will concede, though, that OSC knows more about time travel than I do. 

In his years as president, the national media have never challenged Obama on anything. His lies and mistakes are unreported or quickly forgotten or explicitly denied; his critics are demonized.”

Oh, please.  The last three months have seen the national media go completely wild on various ‘scandals’ that turned out, on further examination, to be substance-less.  What a silly allegation. 

“He has never had to work for a living,”

So law school professor isn’t a real job?’ 

“He has never had to struggle to accomplish goals.”

Poor kid from a fractured family becomes law review editor, law school professor, US Senator and President of the United States?

“He despises ordinary people”

Like his grandparents, his mom, everyone he ever grew up with?

Is hostile to any religion that doesn’t have Obama as its deity”

Uh, wasn’t he attacked earlier because he was TOO CLOSE to Reverent Wright, his Chicago pastor?  Because he believed TOO MUCH in Reverent Wright‘s sermons?  Which is it?  Atheist, or wacko religious extremist?  

“And his contempt for the military is complete.”


He uses drones precisely because they will put fewer soldiers in harm‘s way.  I think the use of drones is strategically and morally wrong, but he doesn’t use them because of some imagined contempt for the military.  In fact the evidence for Obama’s contempt for common people, or the military, or the media, is. . . wait for it. . .  (crickets). . . . nope, nothing there. 

Which is the problem here.  OSC engages in a rant, an attack, an attempt at political analysis that is nothing but unsupported allegations, assertions without any supporting evidence whatsoever.  It‘s truly unfortunate. 






Ghosts and translation

On August 25th, Plan B Theatre company in Salt Lake City will have a script-in-hand reading of my translation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Ghosts.  I am also directing.  The show is basically sold out, unfortunately, but it’s possible day-of tickets may come available.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Henrik Ibsen’s play Gengangere (Ghosts) was the most radical, subversive, dangerous and heavily censored play ever written.  Its one main challenger, in fact, may well be the Ibsen play that preceded it, Et Dukkehjem (A Doll House).  A Doll House is Ibsen’s ferocious dissection of  Victorian marriage, and concludes with a scene in which a woman leaves her husband.  Ghosts describes the consequences for a woman who chooses not to leave.  Specifically, she contracts a sexually transmitted disease, which she passes on in utero to her son.  More than that, though, Ghosts lays bare the hypocrisy of the sexual double standard.  It shows us, frankly and without apology, what happens to women in a world constructed for and by men.

A Doll House could barely be discussed, quietly, whispered in the darkest corners of Victorian polite society.  Ghosts couldn’t be talked about at all, anywhere; it was social suicide to admit to having read it. A Doll House was produced in a few small theatres in various cities in Europe.  Ghosts couldn’t legally be produced at all, anywhere.  And yet people did read it, and young theatre artists were desperate to produce it.  So across Europe, censorship laws were carefully searched for loopholes that would allow Ghosts to be produced.  In France, Andre Antoine (a clerk at a gas company) established the Theatre Libre as a ‘private club,’ charging ‘membership fees’ instead of selling tickets; their first season, in 1887, featured a production of Ghosts.  In 1889, critic Otto Brahm founded the Freie Bühne; their first production was Ghosts.  In England, Bernard Shaw and William Archer and J. T. Grein founded the Independent Theatre (using Antoine’s ‘private club’ model), and opened, of course, with Ghosts. And Shaw, in his Quintessence of Ibsenism, had a lot of fun quoting some of the reviews:  “an open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publically, poisonous, fetid, indecent, delirious, literary carrion.”  And so on.  My favorite, a review in the Sporting and Dramatic News, which calculated, with mathematical precision, that “97% of the people who go to see Ghosts are nasty-minded people who find the discussion of nasty subjects to their taste in exact proportion to their nastiness.” 

What’s astonishing today, of course, is to read those reviews and then see the play, this powerful, deeply moving family tragedy.  One really does wonder what all the fuss was about.  But the play still packs a punch.  My wife and I were talking about it just last night, the central idea of the play, the idea that we’re surrounded by ghosts—by rotting dead ideas that permeate our culture, that bind us and limit us and suffocate us—ghosts of inequality, sexism, homophobia, racism. 

When I decided to translate the play, it was for the most prosaic of reasons—having done A Doll House, the next project had to be Ghosts.  But I began researching the play’s production history, and realized that our ideas about Ibsen himself were being stifled by ghosts, by a production history that threatened to choke the life out of the play. 

Case in point: a really stellar 1986 production broadcast on BBC, available today on Netflix.  Michael Gambon as Manders, Judi Dench as Mrs. Alving, Kenneth Branagh as Oswald.  It is, of course, superbly acted.  But it’s dreary, humorless, a well-nigh perfect example of the ‘gloomy old Ibsen’ tradition.  I saw Robin Phillips marvelous production in 1999, with Anthony Andrews as Manders, and Francesca Annis as Mrs. Alving.  I took a group of students with me, and we all agreed it was very moving.  If, sadly, somewhat dreary. 

The British respect Ibsen, and produce his plays with great fidelity and care, and most of the leading Ibsen translators have either been British, or working in a British idiom—Michael Meyers, Rolf Fjelde, Brian Johnston.  My intention has been to give the plays an American gloss, to translate them into a perhaps less stuffy American idiom.  I want to translate with integrity, honoring the Norwegian text.  But I want to capture something vital that I think has been lost; Ibsen’s ferocious, savage wit. 

Pastor Manders is often described as the play’s villain.  But his villainy is many years in the past—his role in the play’s timeframe is mostly to sputter indignantly at Mrs. Alving’s appalling intellectual proclivities, to natter ineffectually at Oswald’s heresies, to notice, and comment (but no further, not he!) on Regina’s nubile physical charms, and to be swindled by the unscrupulous Engstrand.  He is, in other words, a fusspot, a hypocrite and a fool.  Ibsen makes the good pastor his richest comic creation, in a play that’s as much satire as it is tragedy.  And translating Manders’ diction, with his fondness for multisyllabic locutions, and his constant fussing over what people will say (his entire theology: ‘don’t get caught’), well, I kept laughing out loud. 

It’s certainly true that Ibsen can feel rather old-fashioned.  His audiences weren’t used to dialogue full of sub-text and subtlety.  They required dialogue that spelled everything out, and the result is a kind of ‘I’ve learned. . . .’ ‘you mean. . .?’ ‘yes!  It’s true!  You are the. . . .’ sort of pattern.  It’s not until The Wild Duck and Rosmersholm that Ibsen first experimented with what we see as a fully realist dramatic idiom—with non sequitars, lines trailing off, topics discarded mid-sentence, subtext implied.  His contemporary and rival, the Swede August Strindberg led the way with Miss Julie, though Ibsen, in his later plays, may well have surpassed him.  (Ibsen and Strindberg never met, but in his final years, Ibsen kept a portrait of Strindberg above his writing desk, for inspiration). 

But the ideas of Ghosts are still relevant.  And the plays are so perfectly constructed, so superbly realized, that translating Ibsen is like taking a graduate seminar in playwriting.  I am honored to have had the opportunity to bring this tremendous exercise in theatrical transgression to life.