Monthly Archives: February 2014

Pompeii: a review

Spoiler alert: everyone dies.

You don’t go to see something like Pompeii because you think you’re going to see a cinematic masterwork.  You go because you’re looking forward to two hours of escapist fun.  Pauline Kael once wrote: “Movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.”  Well, Pompeii isn’t great trash, but it’s fairly enjoyable trash; my wife, my daughter and I had a good time at the movie, and a better time making fun of it on the way home.

(And yet, somehow, sitting there in the dark, whispering snarky comments back and forth, isn’t it possible also to feel somehow diminished, to feel some regret over the fact that we’re treating this immense human tragedy as fodder for laughs?)

A lot of the fun is seeing actors in unaccustomed roles.  Kiefer Sutherland plays Corvus, a Roman centurion turned Senator; my daughter called his character ‘Evil Jack Bauer’ and he was certainly a wonderfully disagreeable character, a genuine villain, with his bleached hair and Peter Lorre lisp.  His BFF was Sasha Roiz, the Captain on Grimm, playing a character named Proctologist (checking IMDB) Proculus.  And Kit Herington (John Snow in Game of Thrones) was the hero, a gladiator named The Celt, actual name: Milo.  ‘Milo’ we hooted!  And his best friend gladiator was Adewale Akinnouye-Agbaje, a marvelous, dignified, powerful presence who sort of dominated the movie.  His character was called Atticus (‘Finch!’ we hooted), but I couldn’t help but think of him as Otis.  Milo and Otis; get it!  Hilarious. And yet all four main actors were really quite good.  Of course, there was also a girl, Cassia, played by the lovely Mireille Enos look-alike Emily Browning.  Cassia is daughter of Pompeii’s leading citizen, the sort-of-mayor, Severus (Jared Harris), and she’s in love with a gladiator, and he with her.  Which totally could happen.  Not.

But, this:

You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore. (Pliny the Younger).


‘Cause here’s the thing: we can treat the tragedy of Pompeii in several ways. Divine retribution for the wickedness of Pompeii is a popular one. I remember visiting Pompeii–one abiding memory is of, uh, nasty statuary.  Plus, you know, their popular amusements involved watching people kill people. It makes for a handy sermon topic: the wickedness of Pompeii led to the city’s destruction by a vengeful God.

And this very question gets asked in the film itself.  Sweet little Cassia asks it of her gladiator boyfriend, and Milo confirms it; to his way of thinking, the destruction of Pompeii is divine retribution for the brutality of the Roman conquest of Britain, which he personally witnessed and where he saw the deaths of his parents.  It’s vengeance by the Celtic Gods.  Which ends up being more or less the point of view of the movie.

Except.  In point of fact, of course, God didn’t have a darn thing to do with it. Pompeii was destroyed by an active volcano.  The people of Pompeii died, not because they built a society on the shaky foundation of routine violations of (at least) the sixth and seventh commandments, but because their town was foolishly situated.  Vesuvius is answer enough; let’s not wrest scripture.

But this is a movie, a popular entertainment.  It has to have a plot; it has to tell a story.  And the story it tells is the most hackneyed of melodramas.  Evil Jack Bauer/Corvus has killed young Milo’s parents back in Britain, then risen off that triumph to a seat in the Roman Senate.  He’s a proto-typical corrupt politician.  And, like all villains in all melodramas, he has malign intentions directed at the lovely person of innocent Cassia.  He wants to marry her; he makes it clear, he wants to dominate her, break her. He’s an abusive jerk/corrupt politician.  And he lisps.  Kiefer Sutherland’s quite terrific in the role, though I have to say, it involved a lot of horseback riding for an aging actor with a bad back.

Because you think that; the film gives you leisure to think things like that.  You see Carrie-Ann Moss in the thankless role of Cassia’s mother, and you think, ‘you’re Trinity, we’ve seen you do martial arts, kick Evil Jack Bauer in the bejoobies!’  But she doesn’t; she just looks kind of stricken.

Another problem: the film has all these combat set pieces; gladiatorial fights, carefully choreographed and actually pretty cool.  And Milo and Otis get to fight an entire Roman cohort; not quite a centurio, but a buncha soldiers.  And it’s all very cool.  But what’s the point?  We see gladiators die, but Vesuvius has already started burping fireballs; they’re all going to die anyway. We see Milo and Otis pull of some nifty battlefield tactics, fight two on 50, and win.  And so we get to see . . . how cool gladiatorial combats must have been as a spectator sport?

And so does this implicate us as an audience?  Does it make us complicit in watching scenes of enacted violence?  Well, maybe some, but it’s blunted; it seems normal.  We’ve seen movie stars dispatch stunt men in so many movies by now, it’s become old hat.  And because we never actually see actual people actually dying, we’re not actually complicit, are we?  What we like is kinetic sport, action movie stunts as an art form. We’re not ancient Rome (or Pompeii); we know those same stunt men will move on to the next film, and whack and slice and stab and fall down all over again.  The Hunger Games is many times more effective at implicating us, in causing us to at least consider the moral dimensions of being entertained by violence than something like Pompeii can manage.  This thing is hackneyed: another bad guy/good guy/pretty heroine/sidekicks extravaganza. But check it out; cool CGI!

I did laugh when Graecus bought it.  Joe Pingue played Graecus, a slimy fat Roman leech with pasted on forehead curls (a first century combover!) who buys and sells gladiators (and choreographs their combats) for a living.  When Vesuvius blows, he hops in a litter and has his slaves haul his butt to the harbor, where he bribes a ship captain into letting him aboard.  The ship pulls out of the harbor, and it looks like it’s going to escape, but Vesuvius is lobbing molten rocks towards the harbor, and after one near-miss washes away the curls, another nails Graecus dead center. And I laughed.  He wasn’t a character, he was a caricature-of-evil, and Pingue played him as such; we’re meant to cheer when he goes down.

But that’s this movie’s sensibility.  The director, Paul W. S. Anderson is a hack.  No, he’s not Paul Thomas Anderson, and he’s not Wes Anderson; not one of the good directors named Anderson.  This is the guy who directed that loathsome Three Musketeers a few years ago.  Remember that one, with Logan Lerman as D’Artagnan and Milla Jovanovich as Milady and some flying boat contraption?  Shudder.  You know the guy?  Directed three (3) Resident Evils?  Alien vs. PredatorDeath Race?

For some reason, someone keeps giving this guy a hundred million dollars to make bad movies.  And while Pompeii isn’t good, it’s probably going to go down in history as his masterpiece. I’ll give him this.  Some of the actors are good, none are awful, and one, Akinnouye-Agbaje, is really good. The effects are convincing, and while the scenes in which we see Pompeiians die have no (none, zero) emotional impact, that’s more about us being jaded than anything else.

And at least he has the courage to let everyone die.  There’s a tiny ‘but their love will live forever’ coda at the end, but still; everyone does die.  And that’s ultimately the truth about Pompeii. Everyone died.  And the reason has nothing to do with God.  The reason really was just this: Vesuvius.


Our conservative Constitution

In the 1940s, with the world embroiled in war, the conversation in economic circles turned to what would come afterwards.  With two major world wars in thirty years, whatever Europe was doing clearly wasn’t working.  What should humankind try next?  What might work better? William Beveridge, a British economist, chaired a committee that produced a report describing one possible future; the European social welfare state.  I’m not alone in calling it a ‘combination state’; a market economy, but with a very strong social safety net.  And some version of that combination state has become the European norm. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Iceland, the United Kingdom, Italy, Spain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Argentina, South Korea; basically all the countries in the world that work pretty well, all have some version of the combination state. Basically, use this rule of thumb; if your daughter told you she was marrying someone from one of those countries, and she and her new husband were going to live there, you’d be fine with it.  Those kinds of countries.

The United States is pretty close to a combination state, but we’re not really one by these measures: we don’t have universal health care.  We don’t really subsidize higher education.  There are lots of family-friendly policies (mandatory maternity/paternity leave for new parents, mandated work days and vacations, generous retirement benefits) that all the countries listed above have, and that we don’t.  That’s why America is usually described as a more ‘conservative’ nation than the other successful countries in the world.

For example, Norway had a national election last September, and although Labor won the most seats in Parliament (Storting; literally ‘Big Thing’; I love Norwegian), a conservative/centrist coalition gained enough seats to win power.  But the Norwegian Conservative party (Høyre, or ‘Right’ in Norwegian), is only comparatively conservative; most Høyre members hold to policies that would put them on the left fringe of the Democrats here.

For example, in that election, Høyre ran on issues like improving Norway’s health care system, improving Norway’s hospitals, and better care for the elderly.  There’s a long waiting list, for example, for nursing home care–that was an issue in the campaign.  But nobody, on either side, even mentioned, oh, requiring families to pay for nursing home care, or requiring college students to pay tuition (they pay none, even if they go to college in some other country), or things like co-pays for doctor or hospital visits. No responsible politician in Norway could hope to win on such a radically conservative agenda. Erna Solberg is the new Prime Minister–she’s ‘Conservative,’ but is seen as a moderate, and is anyway hardly a polarizing figure.

So it’s interesting, isn’t it?  Why is it that all of Europe, basically, is some version of a combination state, but the US isn’t?  Why is stodgy, old, traditional Europe so much more liberal than the US?  The answer, I think, has to do with our Constitution.

The US Constitution essentially favors conservatives, and makes political life difficult for progressives.  When I say this, I don’t mean that the Constitution is built on a Christian foundation, or that it favors a market economy, or that God inspired our Constitution, and God’s a conservative.  I don’t mean any of that.  I mean it in this sense; the Constitution makes it easier to block legislation than the other forms of Democratic government we see on the world stage.

Most countries in the world have Parliamentary systems of government.  To take Norway, again; 8 political parties won seats in Storting.  That means that if you’re a politically engaged Norwegian, you can choose to support a political party pretty close to your views. You vote for your guy, and if he wins, you hope the party you favor can join the ruling coalition government. Supporting even a tiny party, like the Green party (with one seat in Storting), still makes sense–that one guy could join a coalition, and wield genuine power in a government.

But in America, the Republican party consists of pro-business people, religiously oriented social conservatives, Tea Party constitutionalists, internationally expansionist neo-cons, libertarians–it’s an unstable coalition.  Honestly, guys like Rand Paul should probably just be libertarians; people like Michelle Bachman should probably just be Tea Party candidates.  But Paul or Bachman can’t really leave the Republican party without diffusing its power.  That’s because we elect candidates, not parties.

So when a Parliamentary coalition government is formed, they really do get to rule.  They will always have a majority in Parliament; in fact, that’s the source of their power.  Most European parliaments are unicameral, or, if bicameral, one of the houses is constitutionally nugatory.  So in England, whoever has the most seats in the House of Commons rules.  The House of Lords has no say in governing; the Lords exist as a kind of super-advisory committee.  (Most Lords are really awesomely-successful people who just got Lorded; imagine having a governmental body with no power, but consisting of people like Bill Gates, Steven Spielberg, and John Elway, who could be put on committees and offer advice).

Anyway, that’s the secret.  Parliamentary government means that whoever wins an election gets to set and pass its agenda. It was inevitable that some election, hard-core progressives would win, and we’d get a social welfare state.  And once implemented, welfare states are hard to get rid of, because people really like them.  A lot.  So Erna Solberg, the new ‘Conservative’ Prime Minister of Norway can’t realistically run against having a national health service.  People like it too much.  Try to get rid of it, and you’re going to lose a vote of no confidence, leading to an election you’re going to lose.

But in America, the central Constitutional doctrine is separation of powers. The Framers were way too cynical about human nature to trust anyone with that kind of power.  In a Parliamentary government, the executive branch is inextricably linked to the legislative branch.  Here, they’re separated.  It’s difficult to get legislation passed.  Intentionally.

American government is, right now, almost comically inept, risibly incapable of governing.  The House of Representatives is so politically opposed to the policies of President Obama that they essentially won’t vote for anything he proposes.  We end up having these horrible, bruising fights over absolutely routine matters, like raising the debt ceiling, which simply means paying our nation’s bills.  The result is gridlock–nothing gets done.  I’m not saying that this is an outcome the Framers intended, or anticipated, but it’s not necessarily one they would have minded much.

This is why I say the Constitution is basically a conservative document.  Because isn’t the essence of conservatism a skepticism towards new ideas?  Progressives saying ‘hey, let’s try this!’  And conservatives saying ‘not so fast, there, bub.’  Conservatives want to study things out, think it through, carefully consider all the possible ramifications of any change in policy.  Conservatives are, by nature, cautious.

I see it, for example, in the current debate over marriage equality.  Liberals say ‘it’s not fair to deny an entire class of people something as basic and fundamental as marriage solely on the basis of fundamental biological differences.’  And conservatives are saying ‘marriage is the founding, central, crucial institution of society.  Let’s not rush into changing that something that fundamental.  Let’s slow down.’

And when it comes to federal legislation, our constitution makes it easier to block new ideas than it is to enact them. It gives a lot of power to those who want to say ‘wait.’  And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

I do think that a US combination state is inevitable.  It really does appear to be the favored form of government internationally.  I mean, mankind has tried the ‘insane paranoid dictator’ form of government–it didn’t work very well, and doesn’t work today, in North Korea.  We’ve tried the ‘maybe we don’t even need a government; let the strongest survive’ approach–it didn’t work well either, and doesn’t today, in Somalia.  We’ve repeatedly tried the ‘thugocratic laissez-faire, favoring one guy and his ten best pals’ approach, currently on display in Russia.  What works is democracy.  What works is free markets.  But also, what works, is a strong social safety net.  We can see that lots of places today, and we can see as well that it generally works pretty well, with some hiccups.  Maybe when we implement it, we’ll have cured the hiccups. If so, (and this is hard for me to say), we’ll have conservatives to thank.

Meanwhile, we can see that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it does actually seem to bend towards social justice.  With that quote from Dr. King, let’s keep the good fight going. While respecting our conservative friends, urging us to carefully look before we leap.

Thoughts on watching the Olympics

The Sochi Olympics are over, and we watched them all, every night.  Which is to say, we hardly watched the Olympics at all.  What we watched instead was NBC’s nightly highlights show.  That is to day, we watched a slick, professional, well produced television program every night, hosted by Bob Costas and (thanks to his pinkeye) a few other hosts.  We watched those sports NBC deemed particularly interesting to US audiences, which is to say, sports that Americans are particularly good at, or sports where the outcomes supported a particularly uplifting/tragic narrative.

And I loved it.  That’s all I wanted to watch anyway. I wanted neat story-lines, I wanted well crafted television.  I wanted exciting finishes, or particularly lovely visuals.  In short, I wanted to skip all the boring bits.

I say it’s all I could have watched, but that isn’t true.  I was gone every night, up in Salt Lake directing a play, but my wife and I had weekends, we found enough time to watch the stuff we wanted to watch.  And I could have watched the daytime coverage (much of it in real time) on MSNBC and CNBC and the internet.  I didn’t; not at all.  Not even the hockey, a sport I basically only follow once every four years.  Or curling, a sport I adore, but have no idea how it’s even scored.  I was happy enough with Bad Eye Bob, and his nightly highlights show.

It’s true that there were way too many commercials, and that they intruded on the action, but we just fast-forwarded those moments. And they had all those up-close-and-personal athlete profile bits, in which we saw or heard how all the adversity the competitors had overcome.  Skipped all those too.  I’m an American, gosh-darn it.  I have a short attention span.  I generally was able to watch a nightly three hour broadcast in a little over an hour, by skipping all the boring parts and going straight to the coolest parts.

And what were the coolest parts?  Well, my wife and I both love the ice skating. I love the fact that it straddles the line between an athletic competition and an art form.  I like that; I’m a theatre guy, and what I like most is the artistry of it.  I’m also not any sort of expert in it.  So what I tend to overvalue is the artistic elements of the programs–the stories the programs tell, the attitude they express.  So, case in point, we were riveted by the ladies’ skating.  The Russian skater, Adelina Sotnikova, and the South Korean, Yuna Kim, were both exquisite, and I thought both deserved gold, and was happy enough when Sotnikova won it, with Kim taking silver. But bronze? The Italian skater, Carolina Kostner, who won bronze, struck me as peculiarly unartistic, especially her short program, skated to “Ave Maria,” with a heavenly chorus and a pious look to the heavens at the end.  I found Kostner an unattractive performer, but could see that she was a marvelous athlete, and that her program was very difficult.  Gracie Gold, the American girl who finished fourth, had a nasty fall in her free skate, as did Yulina Lipnitskaya, who finished fifth.  But I adored the feisty, sassy American Ashley Wagner, and the impish Japanese girl, Akiko Suzuki.  I also tend to want to disqualify skaters who fall, or who, in my wife’s phrase, ‘exercise the element known as the spinning butt slide.’  So I had Wagner with the bronze, on my personal, completely inexpert and ill-informed score card.  And now I fully intend to go back to ignoring ice skating as a sport until 2018.

As I will other sports that I kind of fell in love with this Olympics.  Like slopestyle, both in skiing and snowboarding.  It’s a nutty sport, combining jumps, spins, twists, plus a sort of obstacle course.  Like many sports at the Olympics, it looked like a sport for crazy people, but the kids who did it sure looked like they were having fun. All the snowboarding events looked fun, and I was delighted with the raffishly dressed, apple cheeked insouciance of the kids who performed.  They all seemed as delighted by their competitors’ good runs as with their own, and when they biffed (and all snowboard sports included biffs aplenty), they’d shrug it off: “ah, well.”

I’m just sadistic enough to prefer sports where the athletes fall, or even crash into each other, over sports where they’re essentially racing against a clock.  I loved snowboard and skiing cross, for example, in which groups of four or five skiers or snowboarders race down a hill with lots of jumps, and as they struggle for position, often knock each other off the course.  I much prefer short track speed skating over long track.  Long track’s a bore–they just skate really fast, and without checking out the scoreboard, you have no idea who is fastest.  Short track, though, had sharp elbows, fabulous passes, skaters leading into turns inches from other skaters.  It’s wonderfully exciting and fun.  Best of all, the short track relays, in which you ‘pass the baton’ (so to speak), by giving the next skater on your team a shove on the butt.

As a Norwegian/American, I should probably say something about Ole Einer Bjoerndalen, the greatest winter Olympian ever.  And I understand how difficult his sport must be–cross country skiing, combined with target shooting.  But to me, it’s a sport more respected than enjoyed.  I’ll grant that what Bjoerndalen does is incredibly difficult, and if we ever fight a guerrilla war in a Nordic country, I totally want that dude on my side.  At the same time, I don’t understand it well enough to really get into it.  I found myself fast-forwarding to the target shooting bits.  Sorry, fellow Norwegians; I’m a shallow American after all.

Before the Olympics, the stories were all about inadequate or incomplete facilities.  Those ended up not mattering.  It was a wonderful two weeks, watching marvelous athletes from all over the world ski and skate. It’s really humanity at its best, human beings celebrating the extraordinary capabilities of their fellow human beings. One American figure skater is 15 years old, and is now the seventh best in the world at her event. Can you imagine that, being 15 and seventh best in the whole world at something?  Amazing and lovely.  As NBC kept reminding us.

Opening Night: Clearing Bombs

Opening night. Normally a time for nerves, for anxiety, for all kinds of personal crazy.  Superstitious rituals, trying to remember shows that bombed, and what omens presaged disaster. But last night, I was calm, as my wife steered our car out the driveway and down the street.  And perfectly cool five minutes later, when she turned the car around and went home, because I’d left our tickets on the kitchen table.  And absolutely collected, when, for the second time, we headed off north. And even pretty mellow when I arrived at the theater, and realized I’d gotten the time wrong, and we were way way early.

So maybe I was a smidge nervous.

Wednesday night, we had a preview performance, attended by many friends from Sunstone.  And one audience member said he was anticipating an evening about as exciting as a night spent watching bread dough rise.  Because Clearing Bombs is a play about macroeconomics.  And the track record for plays in which two guys in suits spend ninety minutes arguing economic theory is . . . actually, I don’t think there are any other plays that do this.  Never heard of any, at least.  But the prospect of it must seem pretty grim.

But that’s what I’d written.  In 1942, John Maynard Keynes and Friedrich August Hayek spent a summer night on the roof of King’s College Chapel in Cambridge, protecting the building from German incendiary bombs.  That fact, basically one sentence in Nicholas Wapshott’s book Keynes Hayek, had absolutely captivated me when I read it three years ago, and I’d turned it into a play, heaven knows why.  Another audience member suggested that Clearing Bombs isn’t a particularly compelling or accurate title; I pointed out that my original title was Keynes and Hayek Argue on a Roof, so Clearing Bombs was a big improvement.

But here’s the thing: this is probably really egotistical of me, but I do actually think the play works.  It was never my intention to write an economics lecture.  I’m a playwright–I wanted to write an effective drama.  I wanted to write a play that would engage an audience for an evening, that would be thought-provoking and emotionally wrenching, that would entertain.  And, my gosh, I had wonderful actors: Mark Fossen, Jay Perry and Kirt Bateman can act in anything and everything I write for the rest of my life, as far as I’m concerned.  And boy was the scenic design, by Randy Rassmussen minimal and spare and evocative and great.  And Phillip Lowe’s costumes perfectly captured the age and the characters.  And Jesse Portillo’s lighting design is mysterious and quietly powerful.

And Cheryl Cluff’s sound design was simple perfection.  Okay, so, two links to the sound: this, from the pre-show music; quite possibly the sickest song from the 40s.  (And yes, I do know that Eminem has a “Run Rabbit Run” song too; which also works for my show, actually).  And, again from the pre-show music: this gem. The song is Vera Lynn, but the imagery is from Dr. Strangelove; the final bomb montage. I’m completely serious: Cheryl Cluff is a genius.

So I had great support.  Great cast, great team of designers, world’s greatest stage manager, Jen Freed.  None of that guarantees that the play will work. I directed it; if it fails I have no one to blame but myself.  But I do think it works, and after last night, I think it works even more. As one very kind elderly woman told me as she left the theater, “it’s better than Downton Abbey!”  High praise indeed!

But if it works, and I do think it might, it works because ideas matter.  Because we human beings, irrational and emotional and arbitrary and prejudiced and foolish and biased and culturally blinkered though we are, are sometimes, every once in awhile, capable of thinking at a very high level, and expressing quite profound ideas in prose that crackles.  And ideas can change the world.  And Keynes and Hayek were thinkers on that level.

In the 1940s, everything seemed to be in flux, and it seemed impossible to imagine what the outcome might be.  Two great totalitarian ideologies, Hitler’s National Socialism and Lenin/Stalin’s Communism were literally slugging it out to the death.  Of the 70 million deaths caused directly by World War Two, 30 million of them took place in the fighting on the Eastern front, many of them civilian deaths.  Unimaginable slaughter outside Stalingrad, unendurable suffering in the death camps in Poland and Eastern Europe.

To many in the West, the events of the 30s, including the world-wide economic catastrophe we call the Great Depression sent a clear message: capitalism was doomed.  Market economies could not provide for even the most basic of necessities.  Winston Churchill gave a focus to British energies–the task at hand was to defeat Hitler.  Do that first, and we’ll sort out the rest of our problems afterwards.  Excise that evil, and let’s see what good might result.

Keynes’ great insight, in the midst of the horror and bloodshed of war, was to embrace irrationality. What is money? he theorized.  A necessary convention. It didn’t need to rest on any foundation, it didn’t need to rely on anything.  It’s a convenient fiction, a game we all play, and embue with a meaning it actually lacks.  So we can pump ‘money’ into an economy and if we do. we’ll create something tangible–prosperous businesses and households. At Bretton Woods in ’44, Keynes even proposed a new currency: the ‘bancor’. Close enough to ‘bitcoin’, I think.

But if money is nothing, if ‘money’ describes nothing tangible, then what’s to prevent unscrupulous governments from manipulating currency (as Hayek had seen Austria do), and quietly use a central bank and economic planning commissions to seize power?  And so Hayek sounded an alarm. He tried to resurrect a ghost that Keynes thought he’d exorcised; he tried to re-constitute laissez-faire.

Keynes thought investors were crazy, full of ‘wild animal spirits’ and that that was a good thing, very much to be encouraged. (Part of me wonders how Keynes would have responded to the drug-fueled, excessive, exuberant, misanthropic animal spirits on display in The Wolf of Wall Street).  Hayek thought monopolies and trusts and the super-rich would still be sufficently guided by enlightened self-interest to allow wealth to trickle-down, and that anyway regulating their businesses was the first step towards tyranny.  But Hayek believed that, because he’d seen it; the spectre of Hitler shadowed his thought.  Both men were trying to figure out what could or should come next, when the shooting stopped and the blood soaked fields of German and Poland and France and Russia and Austria finally found rest.

What did result was something neither of them really anticipated and neither would really have quite approved of; the ramshackle, jury-rigged, inefficient, fabulously productive combination state; half free markets and half socialist.  The modern social welfare state, as found (with small but significant differences) in Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, France, Poland, Great Britain, Canada, The Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, and the list continues. A kind of state without progenitors or theorists, one that just happened, delivered by parliamentary governments, and still resisted in the US, because of the built-in and intentional inefficiencies of our Constitutional checks and balances, which always will give conservatism (caution, prudence, patience, leery fearfulness) a political advantage.

But what Keynes and Hayek did achieve was remarkable. They defined what the issues would be for the next seventy years.  They, together, wrote the agenda.  And since politics is really just economics dressed up with balloons and parades and brass bands and slogans, they remain at the center of our political debates even now.

I lucked into a great subject for drama.  I lucked into the perfect producing entity, the perfect design team, and the perfect cast, to carry it out.  If the play works, it’s more by luck than design.  But we playwrights have to embrace good fortune when it comes our way. Dionysus is, and always was, an untrustworthy deity.




Beatles on Ed Sullivan: 50th anniversary broadcast

February, 1964.  I was seven.  My cousins were visiting us in Indiana, I recall, though I have no idea why. Sunday night, the Ed Sullivan show (which my family watched occasionally; not always, but often), had announced that their guests would be a band from Liverpool, England; the Beatles.  John, Paul, George, Ringo.  My parents weren’t sure we should watch it.  I was seven; my brother was five.  Were the Beatles ‘wholesome entertainment?’  But–I may be misremembering this, but I don’t think so–my older cousin Cathy talked them into it.

I remember a few things from that night.  Most remarkable was the behavior of my cousin, who, when the Beatles came on, let out a shriek.  And I remember really liking the music. It was fun; it was exciting.  Mostly what we listened to at home was opera or orchestral music, plus show tunes, and my parents were big fans of all that Sinatra, Bing Crosby, Nat King Cole sort of pop.  The Beatles were something new, and I remember liking it, while also wondering what on earth was wrong with my cousin.

A few years later, I was in school, I was eleven, and we heard about this amazing new album by the Beatles, a weird thing, incomprehensible and strange, and sort of . . . against the rules.  I didn’t ask, but I assumed my parents wouldn’t care for it.  Which meant it was enticing beyond belief.  Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was called.  And my friend’s older brother had bought it.  And my friend, Jimmy Higgins, bugged him and bugged him, and finally his brother told us we could listen to it, but only once, with him in the room, and we had to sit on the floor, and we couldn’t say anything, not a thing.  And we went in to his room, and he lay on the bed and put on the album, and we listened, quiet as church mice.  And the first song came on, crowd noises, tuning violins (‘like opera!’ I thought), then that guitar jangle, chugga chugga bass and drums, and those words, “It was twenty years’ ago today, Sgt. Pepper’s taught the band to play, and we’re going in and out of style, but we’re guaranteed to raise a smile. . . ” and I thought, what?  What on earth?  Who?  I thought this was the Beatles?  Who’s this Sergeant Peppers?  Who’s Billy Shears?  What is going on?”

But it was so . . . propulsive.  So energizing. The mystery of it so compelling. And I couldn’t move, couldn’t budge, because if I did Jimmy’s brother might turn the record off and we’d never get to hear it. And my whole understanding of music, of what it was and what it could do and how it could make you feel, changed forever.

50 years.  Fifty, since John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan.  Those black and white images, the set with arrows pointing to the band.  John, furthest left, stage left that is, on the right side of the screen.  John unsmiling, his legs in a wide stance, hardly moving, all masculine challenge and bravado.  George in the middle, because he had to sing backup, with John for Paul’s solos and with Paul for John’s, and they only had two mics.  Playing all the toughest guitar bits, his right leg shooting out occasionally, just a small half-kick.  Paul stage right, TV left, smiling as he sang, bobbing his head a bit, playing that left handed bass, smallish, shaped like a violin, lefty so his guitar shot off in what felt like the wrong direction.  And Ringo, above and behind them, the big nose, drumming like a metronome.  Icononic images, four fresh-faced lads from Liverpool, longish hair, with long straight bangs.  A Beatles’ ‘do.

So CBS created a TV special, an ‘event’ to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Sullivan broadcast, and it aired a few days ago.  David Letterman’s show is now broadcast live from the Ed Sullivan Theater, and Paul and Ringo did some recorded conversations with Letterman as he walked them through the old building.  Those were interspersed with short biographical sketches, following, mostly, the familiar template.  It’s John, Paul, George and Ringo for a reason.  John began the group, and was always its leader, and he brought in Paul.  Paul, in turn, brought in his guitarist friend, George.  And George grew close to Ringo in Hamburg, when the Beatles shared a stage with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, and the bands would mix after shows.

And we heard the familiar stories; the deaths of Julia Lennon and Mary McCartney, and of Richy Starkey’s tough childhood, the sickly child who nearly died of peritonitis when he was six, and of tuberculosis when he was thirteen.  No mention of Pete Best or Stuart Sutcliffe, no mention of Brian Epstein and only a passing nod to George Martin.  And Ringo’s now 73, and he looks terrific, and performed with energy and charisma.  And Paul’s 71, and looks (and sounds) pretty great himself, though he cracked on the big high note on “Hey, Jude.” And Yoko Ono was there, with Sean, as was Olivia Harrison, and Dhani Harrison performed too.  Julian Lennon gave his regrets.

The bulk of the CBS show, however, involved various artists covering great Beatles’ songs, sometimes well, and sometimes less well.  And the evening generally revealed a crisis in contemporary rock and roll, as did the Grammys broadcast a month ago.  I don’t want to pretend that rock and roll hasn’t always been commodified and over-produced and over-hyped and in danger of losing its soul.  There is still great rock music being written and performed, and brilliant young bands still make a splash: the Kings of Leon and Arcade Fire and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals and Buckcherry. And you could probably name twenty others, and so could I given time.  But it does sometime feel like Dave Grohl is out there, fighting a rear guard action against pop, keeping rock relevant pretty much all by himself.

Case in point: the special began with performances of “Ticket to Ride” and “I Saw Her Standing There.”  By Maroon Five.  Beatles covers, by Maroon Five.  Blarg.

But it wasn’t all bad, and some of it was terrific.  Best of all, and the highlight of the night for me, was Dave Grohl and Jeff Lynne covering “Hey Bulldog”.  I’ve been trying to link to it for you, but I can’t; CBS keeps deleting links, and you’ll have to buy it on I-tunes or something.  But the fact that Grohl would even cover “Hey Bulldog” is significant. It was never a hit, but it’s a gem of a song, from Yellow Submarine, a great song for Beatles’ cognoscenti.

I am able to link to Alicia Keys and John Legend’s cover of “Let it be“, which I thought was very good. And I quite liked Ed Sheeran’s sensitive and powerful “In my Life.”  I did not appreciate watching Imagine Dragons acoustify and emasculate “Revolution,” and was mostly just saddened when Annie Lennox and Dave Stewart reconstituted the Eurythmics for one night, just so they could botch “Fool on a Hill.”  And even though Paul can’t hit the high note on “Hey Jude” anymore, he’s gotten good at treating audiences to a ‘na na na na na na na’ sing-along.

But the star of the night, for me, was Dave Grohl’s daughter.  She looks to be maybe six, or eight, and she was there with her Daddy, and she clearly knew every song, was singing along with every song.  And I thought of my youngest daughter, and how her older siblings turned her on to the Beatles, with a different album every birthday.  And Grohl said, “the Beatles were my Mom’s favorite band, they’re my favorite band, and now they’re my daughter’s favorite band.”  And the little Grohl girl stood up on her seat and made a heart sign with her fingers.  She hearts the Beatles.

And amidst all the old clips of their Ed Sullivan appearance, and the historical videos, we saw women, women now in their seventies and eighties, who were in the audience, at the Ed Sullivan Theater, in 1962.  And they’re still alive, and still vibrant at the memory, and still sure that Paul will some day notice them, and propose marriage.  And they talked about it, how much these four musicians meant to them and how much they meant to us all.  And, yes, the CBS special was a star-studded affair, because no event in America today can truly be significant unless blessed by the benevolent hand of celebrity.  But Tom Hanks didn’t seem to be there for window dressing, not considering how enthusiastically he was singing along.  He remembers it too.

As do I.  Staring at my shrieking cousin, wondering what kind of special power these four guys had over girls.  And sitting on the floor of my friend’s brother’s room, listening to something rare and beautiful and weird and quite possibly forbidden.  At least it felt forbidden.  Because surely all those feelings, all at once, music of a surpassing strangeness overwhelming you with emotion, surely that couldn’t be  .  . . allowed?



Kristen Stewart writes a poem

Kristen Stewart is a movie star. She is an accomplished professional actress.   She stars as Bella in the Twilight movies.  For some people, those movies epitomize vapidness.  Teen romances about a young girl caught in a love triangle, torn by feelings of attraction between a vampire and a werewolf, clearly intended primarily for audiences of teen-aged girls.  I’ve only seen one of them; it was okay.  I rather think that I’m not the demographic for which these movies are intended to appeal.

But I’ve seen her in other movies in which I thought she was terrific.  I liked her as a troubled teen in In the Land of Women, as rocker Joan Jett in The Runaways, as a self-destructive young woman in Adventureland, as a seriously messed up girl in On the Road.  That’s what she’s been good at, at playing young women who don’t know who they are or what they want, and who engage in self-destructive behavior as a result. Is she a ‘good actress?’  I would say that she’s a very good actress with a rather limited range, but very effective within that range.

And now, she’s written a poem. She read it aloud on the Marie Claire website, and it was published in the magazine. Here it is.  Or, if you don’t want to link, here:

My Heart Is A Wiffle Ball/Freedom Pole

I reared digital moonlight
You read its clock, scrawled neon across that black
Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen
Thrown down to strafe your foothills
…I’ll suck the bones pretty.
Your nature perforated the abrasive organ pumps
Spray painted everything known to man,
Stream rushed through and all out into
Something Whilst the crackling stare down sun snuck
Through our windows boarded up
He hit your flint face and it sparked.

And I bellowed and you parked
We reached Marfa.
One honest day up on this freedom pole
Devils not done digging
He’s speaking in tongues all along the pan handle
And this pining erosion is getting dust in
My eyes
And I’m drunk on your morsels
And so I look down the line
Your every twitch hand drum salute
Salutes mine …


And the response has been snarky, funny, mean, and very very negative.  It’s been called, for example, the worst poem of all time. I think you’d be hard-pressed to write a more negative review than that one.

Well: I like it. I like Kristen Stewart’s “My Heart is a Whiffle Ball/Freedom Pole.”  I think she should just pick one image for her title, and not crowd two in there.  But the poem itself is intriguing, and by no means terrible.  I think it’s inventive and free and playful. And bizarre, but that’s okay, poems can be bizarre.

I really think that a lot of the negativity comes from the fact that Kristen Stewart wrote it.  I think the logic goes like this: Kristen Stewart is a rubbish actress who does rubbish movies, and that means she has to be vapid and stupid, and how dare she, of all people, write a poem, so it’s rubbish.

What constitutes a good poem, or a great poem, or a bad poem?  If our standard is notoriety/fame/reputation, then all poems by Emily Dickinson are, by definition, masterworks, and all poems by Kristen Stewart are, by definition, terrible.  What if this were the first stanza of Stewart’s poem?

Wild Nights. Wild Nights!

Were I with thee,

Wild Nights should be

Our luxury!

Rowing in Eden.

Ah, the sea.

Might I but moor

Tonight with thee!

Imagine the uproar! The snark! Imagine the roars of laughter!  She’s writing about Robert Pattinson!  She wants to ‘moor’ with him!  Hardy har har har.

Except that’s Emily Dickinson.

I recently helped judge a poetry contest.  I can’t, for reasons of confidentiality, say any more about it than that.  What I can tell you, with 100% confidence and assurance, is that Kristen Stewart’s poem is NOT the worst play ever written.  That I have, quite recently, read literally dozens of poems much much worse than hers. Wish I could quote you some.  Really, I do.

Of course, poetry is subjective, and of course, there’s no good way to tell people who love them that “The Touch of the Masters Hand” or “It takes a Heap of Livin’ in a House to Make it Home” are just flat out not good poems. Some people love them, are moved by them, like hearing them read aloud.  They’re recitation poems, intended for public performance, like “The Cremation of Sam McGee” or “Casey at the Bat.”  That’s also true of cowboy poetry, which I read for pleasure and think is wonderful.  People used to memorize those rhyming story poems, and some still use them in talks, and there’s nothing wrong with that.  I may feel like Yeats’ poetry, or Phillip Larkin’s, or Auden’s, or Lance Larsen’s are all, in some real sense, ‘better.’  But that involves the kind of judgment that generally makes me uncomfortable–judging my brothers and sisters on this planet for a supposed lack of sophistication or a failure in taste.

In fact, Kristen Stewart loves beatnik poetry, loves the generation of Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder.  She’s expressed a love for the poetry of Richard Brautigan. There’s some Sylvia Plath going on there too. Her imagery is wild, her use of language idiosyncratic, like you’d find in the best work of the beats.  A line like Kismetly … ubiquitously crest fallen, Thrown down to strafe your foothills …I’ll suck the bones pretty could come straight from Ginsberg.

It’s a scary thing, to publish a poem, to lay it out there for the public to rip apart or embrace.  I applaud her courage, both in writing poetry and in sharing it.  She’s young, and the poem is unpolished.  But there’s some real talent there, some real energy and love for language.  She reads good poets, and she responds to the energy in their work.  I hope she keeps going.

As for all the people who hate it, hey, it’s a free country.  But are people really responding to the work itself, or to the fact that a movie star (by definition idiots all) wrote it?  Haters gotta hate, and I say, shame on you.





One Summer: A review

Bill Bryson’s newest book has the most splendid title.  It’s One Summer: America, 1927. An admirably succinct description of a wonderful book.  It’s about, yes, the summer of 1927, and about what happened in America during that summer.  It extends each of its main stories forward and backward in time, giving each narrative an appropriate beginning and end.  It’s a funny book, with the usual Bill Bryson wit, but it’s not quite as laugh-out-loud funny as, say, his The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, or A Short History of Nearly Everything. Bryson’s approach this time is more journalistic, more ‘here’s what happened, here are the facts.’  He’s not really an historian, per se.  As always, he’s attracted to the quirky human details of the stories he tells.  But it makes for a wonderful read.

The book primarily focuses on these stories.  First and foremost, it’s about Charles Lindbergh, his flight to Paris, and, more broadly, the state of aviation in the US and world-wide. It’s also about Babe Ruth, and the 1927 New York Yankees, and the rise of the (carefully marketed) American sports hero; specifically the Babe and Jack Dempsey.  It describes the Presidency of Calvin Coolidge, and a typically odd summer vacation he spent in South Dakota.  It tells about the Ruth Snyder murder trial, and the phenomenon of flagpole sitting, and the rise (and fall) of Al Capone in Chicago, and the emergence of The Jazz Singer and talking motion pictures.

Bryson seems primarily to follow these stories as they appeared in the newspapers of the era.  As such, then, the book’s main topic would be the earliest stirrings of what we call celebrity culture.  Charles Lindbergh was the biggest celebrity of his era, his popularity very much transcending his own personality, which was distinctly non-charismatic.  Babe Ruth was a sports celebrity, Al Jolson an entertainment celebrity, and Ruth Snyder a murder suspect celebrity of the kind featured nowadays by Nancy Grace’s show.  We are inundated with each of these still today.  On the other hand, Al Capone was a uniquely 20s phenomenon; a gangster celebrity.  And Capone was celebrated primarily because he represented rebellion against the single most foolish public policy fiasco in American history; Prohibition.  And Bryson explores the dimensions of that peculiarly American idiocy in lengthy, loving detail.

That’s part of what makes this book so compelling; the contrast between the 1920s and the 2010s.  The Babe Ruth phenomenon strikes us as eminently relateable; our sports entertainment culture nurtures the images of sports heroes every bit as assiduously today as newspaper writers did back then.  But then there’s this:

Remarkably, the Ku Klux Klan was not the most dangerous outpost of bigotry in America in this period.  That distinction belonged, extraordinary though it is to state, to a coalition of academics and scientists.  Since early in the century, a large number of prominent and learned Americans had been preoccupied, almost to the point of obsessiveness, with the belief that the country was filling up with dangerously inferior people, and that something urgent ought to be done about it.

That amazing paragraph comes early in a chapter about racism, xenophobia and eugenics, a chapter that will make you proud to be an American.  And yet, I did find it a bit encouraging, honestly.  Because of all the preposterous crackpot ideas widely believed in American society today, at least eugenics no longer seems intellectually fashionable.  Some small progress has been made, I suppose.

It’s about about popular enthusiasms.  It’s a book about the rise of an industrial entertainment complex, still in its infancy, but certainly recognizable today.

And it’s a book about the uses and misuses of popularity and publicity and celebrity itself.  It’s a book that notes, with bemused detachment, that Al Capone gave frequent press conferences, and a book that tells us what he said in them.  It’s a book that describes precisely how enterprising South Dakota businessmen got President Coolidge hooked on fishing, how they transformed a confirmed non-outdoorsman into an avid angler, and why.  It tells us of Herbert Hoover, the most energetic and efficient member of Coolidge’s cabinet, and of his strenuous and successful campaign to make sure everyone in the country knew just how good he was at his job, and why he might make a dandy choice for an ever higher one.

Anyway, check it out.  Give it thirty pages.  I promise, you won’t be able to put it down.


Changing Obamacare

President Obama recently announced that he would, by executive order, extend the deadline for the employer mandate part of the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare.  The reaction on the Right was, uh, negative.  Just for fun, I thought I’d Google ‘constitutionality of Obamacare changes,’ just to see what I’d find.  I think my computer exploded.  Shrapnel everywhere. It was amazing; article after article on the same theme; Obama is a dictator!  He’s acting unilaterally in a way that violates the clear intent of the Constitution!  George Will weighed in.  So did Charles Krauthammer.  So did, wow, everyone else on the Right, from Michelle Bachman to Ted Cruz to John Boehner.  If Obamacare is the one issue, above all others, that unifies conservatives, then changes to Obamacare amp up the volume to eleven.  Any time you get to call President Obama ‘lawless,’ that’s Christmas in July to conservatives.

The argument goes like this.  Obamacare is the law of the land. The executive branch has to implement it, but can’t change it without approval from Congress.  But the President has changed it, by granting this employer mandate extension. He’s therefore in violation of the Constitution.

I scrolled through thirty pages of invective and bile looking for someone, a constitutional scholar say, making the argument that this particular executive order is, actually, fine; constitutional.  The fact that I couldn’t find such a site or blog doesn’t mean that they don’t exist.  People who hate this President have generated so much traffic for any anti-Obama site that voices on the other side become hard to find.

So I thought I’d write one. I’m declaring myself a Constitutional scholar, based on having read it a couple of times.  Read some books about it.  I figure I can at least make an argument.

And I figured I’d start with the Constitution itself, see where that leads us.  So: Article One starts off with this: “all legislative powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.”  And Article Two starts off with this: “The executive power shall be vested in a President of the United States.”  Huh.  That’s it.  That’s all the guidance the document grants us.

Let’s break it down.  The ACA has in it certain requirements.  Employers are required to provide health insurance for their employees, given certain stipulations.  And employers are given a certain time frame by which they’re supposed to accomplish it.  So, on the one hand, you could legitimately argue that the entire bill, including the specific deadlines mentioned in it, have all now become the law of the land, in which case President Obama can’t change those deadlines without Congress’ approval.  On the other hand, you could argue that the mandate itself is the clear intent of the law, and that things like deadlines are more like technical matters that the executive branch can amend consistent with that intent.

I think that both of these interpretations are potentially valid.  I think that the Constitution doesn’t specify what provisions of a law are ‘legislative’ mandates and which ones are up to ‘executive’ discretion.  And I think, historically, that the executive branch has been granted some latitude regarding the implementation of laws passed by Congress. As long as the executive branch doesn’t actually violate a law, it can execute the law in lots of different ways.  I would add that, realistically, the executive branch has to have some wiggle room here.  As long as a good faith effort is being made to implement the law, the executive branch has to have some logistical leeway.

Before I deal with this specific case, though, I think some context might be in order.  The complaint is that President Obama didn’t have the authority to unilaterally change a deadline, that to change a deadline, he needed Congressional approval.  Fine.  But in reality-world, Congressional approval was never going to happen.  We all know this, right?  The House of Representatives has voted to repeal Obamacare, what, over 40 times?  The rhetoric on the right is ferocious on this subject.  The Tea Party loathes everything about the ACA.

So suppose President Obama had gone to Congress and said ‘I want to extend the employer mandate by a year.’  What are the chances that they would have passed a bill doing that?  Zero.  Nada.  There is no chance that the House of Representatives would have passed any such bill. None.  There would not have been a single Republican vote in the House for any such measure.

Nothing unites Republicans like their hatred for Obamacare. They were trying to destroy it.  If the President had said ‘I’d like Congressional approval to put off this mandate.  If you don’t give me that approval, I think the whole program might fall apart,’ well, that was what the House wanted.  For the bill to fall apart.  That’s why they kept voting to repeal it, over 40 times, right?

So the President couldn’t possibly ask Congress for permission to extend the employer mandate. There’s no chance Congress would ever have passed any such bill.  And knowing that Obamacare implementation was in jeopardy would have given the House the lever it needed to repeal the whole thing.

My argument, then, is that the only way the President could fulfill his Constitutional obligation to execute the ACA law passed by both House and Senate and signed into law by him was to act unilaterally regarding implementation. That an executive order delaying the employer mandate was the only possible way to actually respect and honor the will of Congress when it passed the bill in 2010.

That’s why the President did not act unconstitutionally when he delayed the employer mandate.  He did not act tyrannically, he did not subvert the Constitution, he did not violate his oath of office.  It was his Constitutional obligation to execute the law.  His mandate was to follow the clear and unmistakable intent of the ACA.  Businesspeople (like Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google), visited him and asked for an extension.  The Department of Health and Human Services took a little longer than usual to write the specific regulations that employers needed to follow.  A short extension of the implementation deadline was needed, for understandable and practical reasons. By executive order, he extended the deadline.  That’s a perfectly reasonable way for him to proceed.

So it turns out, there is no Constitutional crisis here.  Congress has legislative authority, and the President has executive authority.  Implementation deadlines exist, probably, in some gray area between ‘legislation’ and ‘execution.’  In reality, though, they reside more comfortably on the ‘executive’ side of the equation.
And given the political realities with which a President must contend, there was simply no realistic way to seek Congressional approval.  If the House wanted a say in Obamacare implementation, it might have demonstrated some good will first. Like, I don’t know, not voting to repeal the bill 40 times.

Rhetoric has consequences.  And it does strike me as disingenuous to say ‘Obamacare is treasonous, and Obama is Hitler for passing it!’ and then, in the next breath, argue ‘also, you must rigidly enforce its every provision!’

The Constitution is really really important.  Abiding by its provisions is the obligation of every lawmaker and by every President.  But this is not an ‘unlawful’ or ‘unConstitutional’ President, and a slight extension of the employer mandate has not led us to the brink of Constitutional crisis.  Maybe it’s time to tone down the rhetoric a little, and, I don’t know, maybe pass an immigration bill or something.  How’s that sound, guys?

The Monuments Men: Review

Nazis bad.  Art good.

That didn’t take long.

George Clooney’s new film, The Monuments Film is one of those movies that critics tend to dislike, with a low Rotten Tomatoes score and a December “Oscar buzz!” release date pushed back to the doldrums of January.  I thought it didn’t deserve so glib a dismissal. It’s certainly not a great film.  It’s an agreeable enough stroll through art and history and the last months of World War II.  Leisurely paced, with familiar actors doing familiar schtick, I felt like I was visiting some old friends, had a nice dinner and some pleasant conversation, and was happy enough to sit through their slide show of vacation photos of all the museums they visited last time they were in Europe.

Written and directed (and starring) George Clooney, The Monuments Men is about a group of art historians who were drafted into the US Army at the tail end of the Second World War, and tasked with finding, saving, and if possible returning works of art stolen by the Nazis.  An opening credit reads ‘based on a true story,’ and in this case, I rather think it was.  The film is loosely plotted and episodic enough to make me think that it was in fact based on an actual memoir.  I would call it “Stuff that happened to me and my friends while we were looking for all the art Hitler stole.”  Most of the incidents of the film don’t really advance any particular plot.  The historians find a German map, realize that the cities marked on it are all close to mineral mines, and figure out that the Nazis are hiding the art in those mines.  That takes up maybe five minutes of the movie.

The rest of the movie is about other events basically unconnected to that story.  So Bob Balaban wanders off from camp, taking a pee break, and an armed German soldier holds him up.  Bill Murray sees them, and a standoff ensues.  The soldier speaks no English–they speak no German.  Bill Murray offers the kid a cigarette.  Everyone relaxes. The kid wanders away. Or, another scene, John Goodman and Jean Dujardin are pinned down by a sniper.  They’re not soldiers, but sort of improvise a way to capture him; when they do, it’s a twelve year old kid.  Or, another scene, Matt Damon has sort of a romantic-ish date with art curator Cate Blanchett, at the end of which she gives him her meticulous records of the art that was in the museum she ran, and who it all belonged to.  Or, another scene, Goodman and Dujardin, hopelessly lost, see a beautiful horse grazing in a meadow.  They stop to admire it, and then notice German and American soldiers hiding in the woods.  They make it back to their jeep, but not before getting caught in a cross-fire.  Dujardin is wounded, and bleeds out, dies, because Goodman, lost, can’t find a field hospital.

That’s most of the movie, those sorts of ‘stuff that happens when art historians pretend to be soldiers’ scenes.  Hugh Bonneville is ‘Donald Jeffries,’ one of the historians, a disgraced alcoholic Brit who sees this assignment as offering him some personal redemption.  But he never seems like a disgraced alcoholic; he’s Lord Grantham from Downton Abbey, and nothing in his performance suggests anything else.  And when he’s killed, it’s a fumbly, awkward kind of death; the kind of death you’d expect when an art historian trades shots with a professional soldier.  Or if Lord Grantham opened fire on an SS officer.

It also isn’t true. Donald Jeffries is a fictional character, but the real Army unit tasked with saving Europe’s art did include a British art historian, who was one of the two of the unit who was killed.  The real bloke, Ronald Balfour, isn’t mentioned in the film, and our British friends aren’t happy about it.  Balfour was an interesting guy; a member of the Cambridge club, The Apostles, part of the Bloomsbury circle, friends with E.M. Forster and John Maynard Keynes.  And, quite probably, gay.  It’s hard for me to imagine that George Clooney would have deliberately omitted Balfour from his screenplay for that reason.  Balfour was killed by a shell fragment–more likely, Clooney wanted a more dramatic death for his British member of the team.

But if so, it was miscalculated.  ‘Donald Jeffries’ isn’t a very interesting character in the film, and although I adore Hugh Bonneville, he doesn’t bring much pizazz to the party.  But then, no one does.  Matt Damon’s one of my favorite actors, but mostly in this film he sort does-and-doesn’t romance Cate Blanchett, then steps on a landmine, which sort of fizzles instead of explode. (Like the rest of the movie). Jean Dujardin plays probably the most charismatic character in the movie. Can’t have that: his character dies half-way through.  In fact, the only non-movie-star in the movie was, I thought, the most interesting character in it: Dimitri Leonidas plays Sam Epstein, a kid from New Jersey who was raised in Germany, speaks fluent German, and is the translator for the group.  He was terrific in the part, and his character makes most of the major discoveries in the film, despite having way fewer lines and much less screen time than all his co-stars.

It’s a movie that wants to make some profound statements about art, and the value of art, and what art says about human beings as a species, and why we need to save and preserve the greatest artifacts of our culture.  Would you die to save the Mona Lisa?  Would you, personally, die, to save Michelangelo’s David?  And I think, no, I wouldn’t.  But to save the only surviving print of Guernica?  To save the last copy ever of Hamlet?  To save the Beatles Abbey Road from extinction?  Maybe.  Except . . . are any of those works actually in danger of extinction? I don’t need to fly to Florence to see the Pieta; not anymore.  And wasn’t Picasso used recently to sell cars?

Honestly, I think this movie exists because George Clooney read about this crew of art historians, thought the story was fascinating, and figured that he may as well make a movie about them, since no one else seemed to be stepping up to do it. And movies mean publicity, and now more people have heard of their work than would have otherwise.  So that’s all good.  As I say, I quite enjoyed The Monuments Men.  While fervently wishing it were better than it is.  But isn’t what we usually think when we leave a museum?



Witches and movies

Witches, as they’re popularly conceived, do not exist.  Cackling ugly hags flying on broomsticks and casting evil spells; that’s what doesn’t exist.  No such thing. I mean, we’re all agreed there, right?

Okay, so, William Shakespeare, glover’s son from Stratford-upon-Avon, wrote a play in 1606, Macbeth, that includes three witch characters.  It’s an awesome play, and the witches are awesome characters.  I directed a production of it some years ago, for my daughter’s fifth grade class.  I cast my daughter as one of the witches.  Other parents were upset about this casting choice, calling it ‘nepotism’; whispering that I’d cast my daughter in one of the coolest roles just because she was my daughter.  This criticism was 100% accurate, wholly justified.  I put the time in; my daughter was going to have a good experience, and she wanted to play a witch.

But the witches are such cool presences in the play that, depending on how they’re used, they can distort and damage productions.  There’s always the temptation to include witches throughout the production, but if they control the action, if they are seen as controlling Macbeth and his choices (and his wife’s choices), he becomes a less volitional and therefore less compelling character.  So you have to use them judiciously.

In Macbeth, anyway, the ‘weird sisters’ are clearly evil.  They make potions, they curse the characters, they make prophecies.  They’re bad.  And while I love the play (and its playwright), their presence in the play is also a bit troubling.  The play comes from a time in world history when people really did believe in witches, and persecute them and try them, and hang them, and burn them.  And innocent women were murdered.  As many as 60,000 women executed between 1480 and 1720, according to such historians as Lois Martin, Anne Barstow and Brian Levack. This scene from Monty Python and the Holy Grail is funny, but also maybe not quite all that funny, right?

Anyway, I’ve just seen several not-very-good movies with witch characters.  These movies are numerous enough to constitute ‘a trend’, and in my mind, a worrisome one.  But they’re also bad enough that maybe that trend isn’t as worrisome as I’m making it out to be. Judge for yourself.

One movie–just watched it–was Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters. Written and directed by Tommy Wirkola, one of the emerging ‘brilliant young Norwegian directors,’ and maybe the craziest of the lot.  (A previous film of his was Dead Snow, a Nazi zombie horror flick.)  Anyway, Hansel and Gretel, (Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton) having killed a witch as children, now go around killing them professionally. It’s a sort of medievally setting, but they have these weapons, like a kind of machine-gun crossbow thingy, that never did actually exist.  So, that’s the movie, Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton hunting down and killing witches.  With a sexy love scene in the middle, and a final big massive fight scene–our Two Heroes vs a zillion witches.

Okay, it’s a silly action movie, one of those things Jeremy Renner made before he was a movie star which then got released after his Bourne movie came out. But wouldn’t you agree that any movie based on the premise of someone hunting down human beings and killing them is, uh, at least morally questionable? Especially since this actually factually did happen?  Killing ‘witches’, I mean?  But see, no one can ever be falsely accused of witchcraft in the world of this movie.  Because, as Hansel/Renner explains, real witches are easy to spot.  They’re really ugly.  Evil seeps out, from the inside, rotting away their faces. And teeth–evil witches have terrible teeth. Ugly women=evil women=women we can feel okay about executing.  What a reprehensible film.

Second film: Season of the Witch. Awful Nicolas Cage film, 14th century setting.  Cage and Ron Perlman play knights tasked with transporting a young woman accused of witchcraft to an abbey, where a book of spells can de-witch-afy her.  The Plague, the Black Death, is omnipresent, and is thought to have been caused by this girl, this witch.  Claire Foy is really good in the movie, playing the girl. But here’s the thing.  Either the Black Death is caused by witches, or its not.  Either this girl is a witch, or she’s not.  Either the medieval Catholic Church had the power to drive out evil spirits or it had no such power. In Reality-land, the answer to those questions are all clear: no, no, and no.  The Black Death is caused by a bacterium, and the medieval Church couldn’t even name a pope, let alone drive out witchy spirits, which anyway don’t exist. But movies aren’t based on truth, they’re based on artificially generated excitement. By answering all three questions ‘yes,’ this director, Dominic Sena . . . was able to make another bad, unsuccessful Nicolas Cage movie. Meanwhile, we got to perpetuate the idea that the biggest problem with medieval Europe was that they just didn’t kill enough witches. Gosh darn it.

Third movie, and certainly the best movie of the three, and the most financially successful: The Conjuring, directed by James Wan, the guy who made Saw.

The Conjuring isn’t so much a movie about a haunted house as it is a movie about paranormal experts investigating and eventually exorcising a haunted house.  The Perron family (Ron Livingston, Lili Taylor), buy a house out in the country, and they move in with their five daughters, only it’s haunted.  So Famed Paranormal Investigators, Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) check it out, and eventually Ed exorcises the ghost of a witch.  One of the witches, in fact, from the Salem witch trials.  Who, it turns out, really was a witch. Genuinely evil.  Salem got it right.

The Conjuring is a very competently made and exciting horror film.  It was also kind of a hit; according to IMDB, cost $20 million to make, and grossed $137 million.  I saw it; scared the wee out of me, which is exactly what scary movies are supposed to do. My guess is that for most audiences, it was an effective commercial film.  Exciting and frisson-generating. But the Salem witch trials are central to the film’s plot. And the Salem witch trials did really happen, and remain a blot on the historical record. They were about public hysteria and panic and a mob mentality.  They weren’t about real witches. Because real witches don’t exist. Not, at least, in the sense of being able to fly on brooms and cast spells.

Look, I get that witches are fun.  I like scary stories about witches.  I think The Blair Witch Project is one of the scariest films ever made.  I think it’s awesome that Hermione Granger is a witch, and I love it when Elphaba decides to ‘defy gravity’ in the musical, and I loved The Witches of Eastwick and I grew up on Bewitched and I think The Lion and the Wardrobe needs a Witch in the middle, for balance.

But let’s not forget that there’s a history here. I’m troubled by a film that says that ugly women may well be witches, and if so, it’s okay to hunt them down.  Witch killing really happened, and it’s a horrible, terrible part of Western history.  And today, perfectly gentle and nice people share in the Wiccan belief system, and we should accord their religious beliefs the same respect and tolerance and honor we would any other belief system.

So by all means, let’s continue to stage Macbeth. And make scary movies.  And create fun fantasy worlds in which witchcraft is a real thing.  But maybe let’s also interrogate the narratives we create.  Because there is a history here, and it’s an ugly one.