Monthly Archives: April 2014

Common Core and the politics of testing

When I was in high school, we had one standardized test that all male students had to take.  Female students were exempted.  It was a test administered by the Army.  (Or maybe by all the Armed Forces; don’t remember; it was forty years ago).  A military aptitude test.  I was, as it happened, very good at taking standardized tests. Aced the SAT, and the ACT, and (later) the GRE.  I hadn’t gotten the highest scores in my school, however, and wanted to on at least one.  My slightly-smarter friends had told me they planned to punt on the military test thing, because Vietnam was still a thing, and get real. I don’t actually know what my military aptitude test score was, but given the really massive military recruiting to which I was subsequently subjected, I think I did pretty well on it.  Talk about your Pyrrhic victories.

In recent news:

ITEM: at the recent Freedom Summit, in New Hampshire, a conservative gathering of some consequence, Jeb Bush was booed, not only because of his support for immigration reform, but also because of his support for the Common Core State Standards.  Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) got some of the biggest applause of the convention when she said “get rid of Common Core and replace it with common sense.”  Nearly every speaker at least mentioned Common Core, and nearly all of them attacked it.

ITEM: the comedian Louis C. K. recently used Twitter to sound off on Common Core. He was trying to help his daughters with their math homework; didn’t go well.  And the daughter in question is in 3rd grade.

ITEM: At the Earth School in New York City, three teachers recently told their principal that they would no longer proctor Common Core tests, or any other standardized tests, ever, as an act of conscience.  In their letter to the principal, they said that they could “no longer implement policies that seek to transform the broad promises of public education into a narrow obsession with the ranking and sorting of children.”

ITEM: Former Slovenian President Danilo Turk has been touring the US, talking education, and saying things like “creativity must be at the center of education,”

And I got a FB message from Braden Bell.

Braden Bell is a former student of mine.  He’s now a junior high school teacher and a published novelist, and we’re still good friends.  Braden is, politically, a conservative; I’m a liberal.  I respect and admire him immensely, while occasionally disagreeing politically. But on this issue, on education, I think we’re very much in agreement.

Braden sent me this link, and I’m grateful.  It’s for a left-right alliance on Common Core and on testing.  I’m aboard.  There are a lot of issues in this country where liberals and conservatives really strongly disagree.  This may not be one of them. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Here’s the thing: I don’t really have any kind of major ideological problem with Common Core.  I don’t mind the Department of Education coming up with some ideas about what an appropriate curriculum might look like.  I know a lot of conservatives consider Common Core yet another example of federal overreach, as more big government foolishness, of Big Brother dictating to states and communities.  I don’t see it that way.  I don’t care about big government vs. limited government issues.  Most conservatives I know want a smaller government, a limited government.  The assumption is that liberals, therefore, want bigger government, more government.  But we don’t.  We could care less.  We just want government to do the things that government does well, and not do the things that government does badly.  And public education ought to be something government does well.  Pay teachers, build schools; those seem like great examples of good governance.  But Common Core goes enough beyond common sense that I can’t support it.

See, I care a lot about education.  My father was a college professor; my mother a grade school teacher of remarkable imagination and vision.  I have three aunts who were school teachers.  My grandmother was a teacher and a college professor.  I have three sisters-in-law who teach.  I was a college professor.  I think universal education is one of the greatest endeavors of any civilized society.  I love public education.  I think schools are temples.  And to the degree that Common Core rests on a foundation of standardized tests, I think it’s immensely destructive.

In other words, I don’t really get all that upset about Common Core per se.  If it were voluntary, if it merely suggested certain standards that states and local school boards could make available to teachers, I’d be okay with that.  But I loathe standardized tests.  I loathe centralized administrative control over education.  I despise anyone telling any teacher what he or she has to teach, or how he or she is to teach it.  Any program that intrudes on teacher classroom autonomy, (except for those very rare instances where teachers behave abusively), must be considered suspect and must be opposed.

What we need is a fully supported liberal arts education.  What we need is more art, more music, more theatre, more free exploration, more recess and more physical education in our schools.  And we need to eliminate all standardized tests.  All of them, without exception, permanently and completely gone.

I know the educator establishment buzz word.  It’s ‘accountability.’  Without testing, how will teachers be accountable?  But teachers are already accountable.  When you see those kids in your classroom, ready and eager to learn, you feel it.  You know how responsible you are, and how important your job is.  The kind of faddish artificial accountability that testing provides has no real-life corollary in the classroom.

This needs to be a bi-partisan issue.  We need to reject President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race to the Top. This happens to be an issue where both Bush and Obama have been listening to the wrong educational ‘reformers,’ and implementing ideas from the wrong education ‘experts.’  It’s one issue both administrations have gotten wrong.

President Bush is no longer in office, and I can see little point in attacking his signature educational reform, NCLB.  It wasn’t quite as bad an idea as the Iraq war, but it was right up there; a completely failed initiative, a treasure trove of loopy educational theory and a bonanza for the student testing industry.  But I think Race to the Top may be even worse.  Race to the top gives points to states when they do certain things approved by the bureacracy, and provides funding depending on how many points you accrue.  And how do you get points?  Teach to the test.  If teachers can brow-beat and cajole their kids into doing well on the standardized tests, then yay! You get points.  Which can then be exchanged for valuable prizes.

Check out the White House’s description of RTTT:

Race to the Top marks a historic moment in American education. This initiative offers bold incentives to states willing to spur systemic reform to improve teaching and learning in America’s schools. Race to the Top has ushered in significant change in our education system, particularly in raising standards and aligning policies and structures to the goal of college and career readiness. Race to the Top has helped drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools.

So look past the stirring rhetoric, and you can see how completely testing-dependent it is.  ‘Raising standards’ (as measured on tests).  ‘Aligning policies . . . to the goal of career readiness’ (as measured by tests).  ‘Improve teacher effectiveness’ (in teaching to the test).  ‘Use data effectively’ (data derived by the tests).  So in other words, we’re educating students to . . . be good at taking standardized tests.  To enable them, presumably, to . . . be good (or at least not Dilbert-ly awful) at a boring desk job somewhere.

The best possible response to this would come from the students themselves; just blow the frickin’ test off.  Do badly on purpose.  This would probably require for parents to encourage their kids to, you know, be kids, rebellious and obnoxious and unreasonable. It would be great if more teachers followed the lead of the Earth School teachers in New York and refused to participate.

But one thing we can do, left and right and center, Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and Green Party activists alike, all of us, is agree to press political candidates on this issue, and agree never to vote for any candidate, from either party, that won’t vote to get rid of all standardized testing, forever.




Robert Caro: The Passage of Power, a Book Review

I just finished Robert Caro’s The Passage of Power, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, volume four of his magisterial series of books about President Johnson and his times.  I loved the first three volumes of this series; this book is the best of the lot.  Above all, I love Caro’s sense of judgment and proportion.  LBJ has to be one of the most fascinating figures in American history, and one of the most tragic.  I remember reading a review of one of the earlier volumes in this series, in which the reviewer wondered why Caro would spend so much of his life writing about a man he clearly despised.  But this is nonsense; Caro doesn’t despise LBJ. But only by acknowledging Johnson’s many flaws can we take his full measure, including, of course, his considerable positive achievements.

This is the book about the Kennedy assassination, and the extraordinary seven weeks following the assassination when Johnson had to calm a nation, assume power, and begin the almost superhuman task of cementing his predecessor’s legacy.  As part of that, Caro addresses this (frankly rather silly) issue; was LBJ in any sense complicit in Kennedy’s death?  Was there a conspiracy to assassinate the President, and if there was, did Johnson participate in that conspiracy.  Here’s Caro’s conclusion:

“Nothing I have found in my research leads me to believe that, whatever the full story of the assassination may be, Lyndon Johnson had anything to do with it.”

That’s the short version; in another passage, Caro describes just how intensive his research has been.  Quite literally, Caro has studied every document relating to the career of Lyndon Johnson he has been able to get his hands on.

In a 2004 Gallup poll, 18% of the American people said they believed that Kennedy was killed as the result of a conspiracy involving Lyndon Johnson.  Caro took that issue seriously.  He researched it with his usual thoroughness.  He’s found nothing to support that conclusion.  But if had discovered something, anything, that would suggest Johnson’s involvement, he would publish it.  Caro doesn’t shy away from even the most unsavory suggestions about the subject of his books.

Lyndon Johnson’s finances, for example, were always a matter for scrutiny during his life.  He was on the public payroll most of his adult life, and he died a multi-millionaire.  Caro describes the deeply rooted corruption in Texas and national politics that allowed Johnson to become wealthy.  Johnson was rumored to have had numerous extra-marital affairs; Caro tells you with whom, and under what circumstances.  Johnson was a bully, a vulgarian, a profane and crude man.  Caro provides every detail.  This is no hagiography; Caro wants to paint the clearest picture he can.  And does, in prose as exact and precise as I’ve ever encountered.

But, my goodness, those seven weeks, the seven weeks from Kennedy’s assassination to Johnson’s State of the Union in ’64, what Johnson accomplished in those seven weeks deserves recognition, deserves the amazing attention Caro gives them.  And until I read this book, I had no idea.

When Johnson took office, the Kennedy legislative program was in very serious jeopardy.  Johnson was unaware of just how much trouble it was in, because Johnson was not in the loop.  Kennedy always treated Johnson courteously, but Johnson was almost never able to meet with the President, and decisions took place in meetings to which he was not welcome.  And the Kennedy staff treated LBJ with barely concealed contempt.  He was Rufus T. Cornpone, a joke, a figure of fun.  I have read other sources that have suggested that Kennedy fully intended LBJ to stay on the 1964 ticket; Caro doesn’t think so, and makes his case convincingly.  Worst of all, of course, was the relationship between Johnson and Jack Kennedy’s closest advisor, best friend, and brother.  Bobby Kennedy loathed Lyndon Johnson, and Johnson returned the compliment.  It was the greatest political rivalry of the ’60s, and it had a nasty edge.

When JFK was killed, Johnson had to reassure the nation, and he had to do it immediately.  And one way to accomplish it was to keep the Kennedy team intact.  The American people needed to believe that Kennedy’s death did not mean the end of the Kennedy vision for the future of the country.  So LBJ worked quickly, to keep staffers (who days before had been mocking him in private) from leaving, to keep the cabinet intact, including that cabinet’s Attorney General.  And then to work with Congress and get some bills passed.  And first, to get a bill defeated.

For one thing, the Kennedy administration had presented a budget, and that budget needed to be passed.  And it was locked up in committee, held hostage by the courtly Virginian, Harry Byrd, chairman of the Senate Finance committee.  There was also a tax cut bill, likewise locked up by Byrd’s committee.  There was, of course, Kennedy’s Civil Rights Bill, which had almost no chance of passage in a House and Senate where the key committees were all chaired by Southerners.

But before any of that could be addressed, there was another bill to be considered, first up in the program.  To ease tensions with the Soviet Union, Kennedy had offered to alleviate the chronic Russian difficulties feeding their populace by selling them wheat from American farmers.  It was a good idea; a little more money in the pockets of American farmers, food for Russian children, a way to relax Cold War apprehensions.  But hard-liners on Congress didn’t want to approve it, and one of them, a Republican Senator from South Dakota named Karl Mundt had proposed an amendment that would have blocked funding for the measure, effectively killing it.

The Mundt amendment was scheduled for a vote on Tuesday, November 26, just four days after the Kennedy assassination.  One of the new President’s first phone calls was to Senator George Smathers of Florida, who Johnson had worked with when he was Majority Leader, and who he respected as an expert vote counter.  Smathers told him that the Mundt amendment was going to pass easily; that defeating it was hopeless.  1964 was an election year, and no Senator wanted a vote on his record that could spun as ‘soft on Communism.’

This was not a particularly important bill, in the larger scheme of things.  But this is the point of the story: Lyndon Johnson was really good at passing legislation.  And at defeating it.  And so, with a murdered President lying in state, LBJ hit the phones.  The greatest legislative salesman in US history began threatening and massaging and complimenting and cajoling and wooing US senators. “This was Jack Kennedy’s greatest foreign policy achievement,” he’d say. “Do you really want to repudiate President Kennedy?  Now?”  The day before the Senate vote, an astonished George Smathers called the new President and told him that his count now showed the bill going down to defeat–the vote would be close, but it would lose.  Not good enough, Johnson told him.  He didn’t just want that bill defeated. He wanted it destroyed.  He wanted Mundt humiliated.  He wanted, he told Smathers, that bill to be ‘murdered.’  He wanted to send a message. There’s a new man in the White House.  There’s a new sheriff in town.  And you do not challenge him.

And so, piece by piece, it all fell into place.  Johnson got a budget passed. He got the tax bill passed.  And then it was time for civil rights, and the passage of the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, one of the greatest legislative achievements in US history.

Those were all Kennedy bills, and Kennedy is often, quite properly, given credit for them.  But I don’t think Kennedy could have gotten them passed. Jack Kennedy was, in most respects, an estimable man and a fine President.  But he wasn’t particularly good at working with Congress.  He had a Vice-President who was exceptionally good at working with Congress, and he kept him on the sideline.  Not many Presidents have been all that good at working with Congress, honestly.  The US Constitution is built on the foundation of separation of powers, checks and balances, which means it’s much easier for Congress to defeat bills than it is to pass them, and which means that really important progressive legislation tends to fail, and usually requires some major national emergency before it can pass.  The New Deal passed when the economy collapsed in the Great Depression; the Great Society passed in the wake of a Presidential assassination, and Obamacare only passed after the financial crisis that diminished the world’s money supply by 40%.  When Kennedy proposed a Civil Rights bill, the South could treat it as ‘business as usual,’ and use their usual tactics to defeat it.  But when Kennedy was killed, the game changed dramatically.  And one politician was savvy enough to use that opportunity to transform America.

And then it all fell apart, and the Johnson Presidency, which started so promisingly, was destroyed by the grinding, hopeless ferocity of Vietnam.  And a man who might otherwise be regarded as one of our greatest Presidents left office reviled as few other Presidents ever have been.  And now his legacy is almost entirely tragic.  I will read Caro’s next book, of course.  But I dread it.  That period in our history was just too painful, the failures of Johnson just too awful to contemplate.

Volume four, this volume, this is the sunny one, comparatively.  (Though I had to put the book down for two days when he got to mid-November of ’63, because I knew what was coming and couldn’t bear to read it.)  It’s worth remembering that time, that brief period, before Vietnam escalation, when the struggles of Selma and Birmingham suddenly seemed justified, when our country’s sad legacy of racial discrimination appeared to be headed for the dustbin of history.  And there are two historians of that period who must be read, first and foremost.  Taylor Branch.  And Robert Caro.  Read them both.  Take the time.


The Muppets Most Wanted: Movie Review

The first Muppet Movie came out in 1979.  The celebrity cameos included Milton Berle and Bob Hope; Charles Durning played the film’s villain. And in one of the movie’s last scenes, a ‘Hollywood mogul’ directs his assistant to prepare a standard ‘rich and famous’ contract for the Muppets.  That mogul was played by Orson Welles. And the late Jim Henson voiced Kermit and Frank Oz voiced Miss Piggie and Fozzy Bear.  Sigh.

And now it’s 35 years later, and in the new Muppets Most Wanted, the villain is Ricky Gervais, and cameos are provided by Lady Gaga and Usher (playing, of course, an usher), and Kermit’s voice is provided by Steve Whitmire and Miss Piggy’s by Eric Jacobson.  But Kermit and Miss Piggie Fozzie and Gonzo and Dr. Teeth and Beaker and Animal and all the rest of them have never aged. And their newest movie is just as delightful as all of them have been.

How have they done it?  How have the Muppets stayed so fresh, so G-rated irreverent, so musically hip, so funny?  I think, in part, they’re almost a living time capsule of long-forgotten American comedic forms.  They’re always trying to put ‘an act’ together; they’re a company of players, in the world’s longest running vaudeville company, so vaudeville and variety are an influence.  Statler and Waldorf’s commentary is very Borscht Belt–the fact that their insults are never actually very clever or funny is itself a lot of the joke.  Miss Piggy has always been voiced by a man; she seems less like a diva than a drag queen; or aren’t drag queens always divas?  Of course the movies are always musicals, and a lot of the fun is watching Tina Fey or Ricky Gervais or (I’m not kidding), a chorus line of guys in prison attire, including Danny Trejo, Jemaine Clement and Ray Liotta, sing and dance.

And the songs are terrific.  Bret McKenzie of Flight of the Conchords wrote seven original songs for this movie, and they’re all great fun. Tina Fey nails  The Big House, a doo-wop introduction to a Gulag prison (joined by Josh Groban). A Russian evil Kermit-look-alike sings a duet with Ricky Gervais, I’m Number One.  But, for me, the musical highlight was a duet between Celine Dion and Miss Piggy.  See this movie, and see Celine and Piggy sing My Heart Will Go On together.  I can now die and go to heaven.

The Muppets have never been afraid to make fun of themselves, and the conceit in this movie is that an evil Kermit, a Russian Kermit, takes over the Muppets, all the better to commit various heists along their international tour route.  And, of course, aside from Animal, none of the Muppets ever figure out why Kermit’s suddenly speaking in a Russian accent. Mostly, they don’t even notice that he has an accent.  Even Miss Piggy, who still adores her frog (and has become ever more insistent that the two of them tie the knot) doesn’t catch on to fake Kermie. The Muppets have always been pretty cloth-headed.

But, aside from Kermit, (and possibly, Miss Piggy), none of the Muppets are interesting enough characters to carry a whole movie. The movie is built along cameos, yes, with Hugh Bonneville and Frank Langella and Tom Hiddleston and Miranda Richardson and James McEvoy and Tom Hollander and Zach Galifianakis and Salma Hayek and Christoph Waltz and Sean Combes and Rob Corddry getting one scene each. (I rather suspect that no one, ever, says no to the Muppets).  But really, Dr. Teeth and Rowf the Dog and Dr. Bunson Honeydew and The Swedish Chef, they basically all get cameos too; one short scene each.  The movie’s always going to be about Kermit, loyal, brave, earnest Kermit, a frog with a simple dream–to entertain, to make people happy.

And they’ve succeeded for so long, so marvelously, and the franchise never seems to age.  I had a great time, visiting old friends, hearing their new songs, groaning at old schtick, marveling at new inventiveness.  And their new movie is a ball.  And there’s no better news than this: They’re doing a sequel.


Captain America: The Winter Soldier: a Review

I really like what Marvel is doing with their treasure trove of cartoon heroes and villains and story lines.  We’re heading towards another Avengers, obviously, but meanwhile it’s possible to make several Iron Man movies, a few Thors, now a second Captain America. Of course, they’re all disposable, cultural fast food. But they’re fun, exciting flicks.  I’ve seem pretty much all of them, and haven’t really had a bad time yet.

One of the things I like best about them is that they’ve recognized that the star of a Captain America is the fact that it’s a movie about Captain America; you don’t need an established movie star to play the character. You just need a good actor.  That’s what they’ve got in Chris Evans (it’s also what they’ve got in Chris Hemsworth, in the Thor movies).   Evans faces a terrific challenge when playing Cap.  Captain America is a square.  He’s not an angsty teen, like Spiderman, or darkly conflicted, like Batman, or a womanizer playboy, like Iron Man, or just flat preposterous, like Superman.  Cap’s an All-American kid, a Boy Scout.  Captain America is decent, patriotic, idealistic, fundamentally good.  He’s a square. And it’s a very small step from ‘square’ to ‘drip.’  He could be a figure of fun; he could be a blockhead.  But as Evans plays him, Cap is all that, trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly etc., but he’s also dramatically compelling. Partly that’s the writing, of course, but a lot of it’s Evans; he’s very good in the role.  Basically Captain America is a decent, honorable soldier, who finds himself mired in the ugly realities of the war on terror.  And he hates it, and hates how hard it is to fight it honorably, decently.  The rest of the movie is Captain America’s quest to live up to his (and our) own highest ideals, to, in the best sense of the word, lead.

That’s not to say that these movies don’t have real movie stars.  Samuel L. Jackson brings his unique brand of American hip cool to Nick Fury, the leader of SHIELD.  Robert Redford’s in this too, so good to see him again, though time has not been kind to his movie star good looks.  Plus, of course, Scarlett Johansson, but only as a second lead. But she’s great at action sequences, and she can act; I’m glad she’s in it.

SHIELD, we assume, is on the side of good.  My wife and I have become quasi-fans of the ABC TV show, Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. It’s sort of a strange show, definitely in the same world as the Avengers, but lower key, without superheroes, though in a fictional wilderness in which superheroes exist.  It’s about six SHIELD agents, led by Agent Coulson (Clark Gregg), who was in the Avengers movie, and featuring a computer hacker, two scientists, and two fighters.  And they fly around in an airplane and have adventures and fight bad guys.  It’s not a great show, but it’s all right, and I’m kind of a Clark Gregg fan.  But it’s basically about SHIELD, this massive, international terror-fighting organization that doesn’t seem to have any oversight or supervision and basically can do whatever it wants to.

That’s a recipe for tyranny, and so kudos to this new Captain America movie for recognizing that fact, and putting it in the center of the movie.  Basically, having created a fictional world protected entirely by this big SHIELD organization, Marvel uses this movie to deconstruct it.

It’s really nicely done.  And I don’t mean to suggest that an action movie about a guy who wears a costume and beats bad guys with his amazing round shield thing is, you know, profound.  But I like it. I liked the way this disposable entertainment ended up at least asking some interesting questions, about the ever-present tension between security and liberty, and the balance we have to strike between them.


Robert Redford’s the bad guy in this movie.

Redford plays Alexander Pierce, who seems to be the managing partner of SHIELD, one of a group of five people who give the organization what supervision it actually has.  And he has a plan.  He wants to build a death star.

Well, not really, more like three huge flying killing helicopter platform things which, when coordinated, can kill 20 million people pretty much immediately, and be sort of surgical about it.  And SHIELD also enjoys using an NSA 2.0 sort of surveillance apparatus, that can literally listen to any phone conversation and read every email, and figure out who in the world is either a bad guy, or inclined to become one.  So there’s the question.  Let’s suppose there are 20 million such people on the planet.  We can instantly kill all of them, and massively reduce any kind of terrorist threat to the world.  That’s what Pierce wants to do, and he has the means to do it.  Should we let him?

Well, Captain America can’t allow that to happen, and that’s basically the movie; Cap trying to blow up the Death Star destroy these big heli-killers.  And it’s all very exciting, because of course all he has as a weapon is his shield, plus super strength, speed and endurance.  And Scarlett Johansson, as the Black Widow.  And Anthony Mackie as Falcoln, a soldier with wings that allow him to fly really fast (and dodge anti-aircraft fire).  And it’s all very CGI and exciting and fun, although the action sequences are a bit too Michael Bay for my taste.  Too much shaky-cam, too quickly edited, so we’re never quite oriented in time and space, and frankly can’t always tell what the heck is going on.

Also, I have no idea how Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD is going to deal with suddenly-evil-SHIELD.  But I’m really glad this movie went there.  Of all the superhero characters in the Marvel fictional universe, Captain America is the right one to question the civil liberties implications of SHIELD’s very existence.  And the right one to send a message to everyone in SHIELD inviting them all to join him in rebellion against the organization’s worst impulses.

And the cause of moral ambiguity is also well served by the ‘Winter Soldier’ of the film’s title.  Sebastian Stan (another talented no-name actor), plays him, a super bad guy, terrifyingly good at violence and single-minded in his devotion to the twisted duty to which he’s been assigned.  But (SPOILER ALERT), he’s also Bucky Barnes.  He’s Steve Rogers/Captain America’s best friend from the last movie, cryogenically preserved, genetically enhanced, and now an evil killing machine.  He is, in short, Darth Vader.  And Cap (Luke?) can’t bring himself to kill him.

Sam Jackson gets a terrific Pulp Fiction joke near the end of the movie, and of course Marvel creator Stan Lee gets a cameo. Long live pop culture po-mo self-referentiality!  And I’m willing to overlook how infinitely negotiable death seems to be in this universe, as well as how quickly characters seem able to recover from near-fatal gunshot wounds. It’s a movie about Captain America. I’m glad it took itself seriously, and I’m just as glad that it didn’t take itself too seriously.

Bad songs

My wife got me a Kindle Fire for Christmas, and for my birthday, a Kindle gift card.  So I went on a search for authors I like who might have reasonably priced books available on Kindle. I’ve made all sorts of fun finds (lots of P.G. Wodehouse hilarity, for example, often for less than a dollar each).  I also found some Dave Barry.  He has a new book, a collection of longer essays than we’re used to from him, but also an old fave; Dave Barry’s Book of Bad Songs.  And I’ve been reading it aloud to my wife and my daughter.

Back in the 90s, when Barry was still writing his nationally syndicated humor column, he did a piece about popular songs one hears on the radio quite a bit, which suck. In other words, yes, they’re popular, yes they’re on the radio quite a bit, and usually the tune is quite catchy–often REALLY catchy–but the songs themselves are really terrible, in the sense that he, Dave Barry, hated them, and so, it turned out, did a lot of other people.  And so he wrote a column about it, and tons of people responded with their least favorite songs, and that led to a second column, and a survey, and finally, a book.  Which I just read aloud to my wife, and which we both thought was hilarious.  As he points out, when Neil Diamond sings:

I am, I said

To no one there,

And no one heard at all

Not even the chair.

I mean, why should the chair be listening?  It’s a chair.  Or when Richard Harris wrote (and Donna Summer covered):

Someone left the cake out in the rain

I don’t think that I can take it

Because it took so long to bake it

And I’ll never have that recipe again

Oh Noooooooooo!

We can either contemplate the profundity of that metaphor, and the anguish we’ve all felt when we left a favorite cake out in the rain, or . . . . we can laugh.  In fact, MacArthur Park was selected the worst song in the history of pop music in Barry’s (completely unscientific survey).  And yes, it’s a dumb song. I personally, would have voted for Honey, by Bobby Goldsboro.  I’m not sure if anything can match Honey’s amazing mix of rank sexism and crass sentimentality.  But MacArthur Park is plenty bad too.

But Dave Barry did his survey in 1992.  There have been a whole lot of songs on the radio since then.  So I thought I’d weigh in.  What are some recent very popular songs that (and I mean this scientifically), really suck?  What really awful terrible songs have become popular recently?  Because bad taste is a constant, is it not?  And bubble gum lasts forever?

I’m going to jump right in here: I think Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is the worst song I’ve heard in the last ten years, a song that makes Baby, It’s Cold Outside or Only the Good Die Young (both of which it rather resembles) seem enlightened.  Just a few sample lyrics:

Okay now he was close

Tried to domesticate ya

But you’re an animal

Baby it’s in your nature

Just let me liberate ya

You don’t need no takers

That man is not your maker

That’s why I’mma take a good girl

I know you want it

Can’t let it get past me

You’re far from plastic

Talk about getting blasted

I hate these blurred lines

I know you want it.

He’s doing her a favor, see. What a good guy.

And those are all from early in the song.  Later in the song, he’s much more explicit:

Nothing like that last guy, he too square for you

He don’t smack that ass and pull your hair like that.

What a charmer.

Now, my link above is not to the seriously R-rated video, which I have not seen, but which, I’ve heard, takes the essentially rapey Neaderthal sexism of the song and Playboy-izes it to a considerable degree.  The lyrics do suggest that the girl to which he’s directing his smarmy attentions either isn’t aware of them, or, more likely, has just decided to ignore the dirtbag. Still, this song is not just the moral but also the tactical equivalent of construction workers wolf-whistling passing female executives on nearby sidewalks; you’re just being annoying, guys.

Really, seriously, why was this repugnant song a hit?  I really, genuinely don’t get it. This song has nothing going for it. At all. Nothing.

So Blurred Lines is sort of uniquely bad. But there are other songs out there nearly as bad.  Which brings us to the Beebs.

I shouldn’t pick on Justin Bieber. Cute little massively marketed/modestly talented boys with high pitched singing voices have been fluttering the hearts of fourteen year old girls ever since David Cassidy, and indeed much much earlier.  I’m going to argue for Bieber’s Boyfriend for my bad song list, not because there’s anything remarkable about it, but because it’s so generic.  Insipid lyrics, a nice dance groove, a video showing JB being (preposterously) good at bowling, and a completely unnecessary and intrusive rap verse (by Ludacris, in this case), make this a standard variety 20-tween pop hit, undistinguished by melodic or lyrical interest of any kind. Also, it’s annoying.  And ubiquitous.  So it makes my list.

Turning my attention from modestly talented/massively marketed cute boys to MT/MM cute girls brings us straight to Miss Taylor Swift, and so I’m putting We Are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together Forever on the list.  Anymore, it’s difficult to distinguish between songs and the videos for songs, and Taylor’s video for this song combines cuteness with incomprehensibility.  It’s Taylor, in a ‘sexy librarian wearing pajamas’ outfit, joined by large numbers of her friends, who, for some reason, have chosen to dress up like animals, as though they were already in the What Does the Fox Say video shoot and decided to drift over to the Taylor Swift shoot next door. I don’t know what to make of this song.  Is it a ‘breakup anthem,’ Taylor Swift channeling her inner Alanis?  But the extra two ‘evers’ in the title suggests that she’s not so entirely sure about this break-up thing; that she’s protesting over-much.  So is it a ‘you’re bad for me, but you’re also super cute’ kind of ‘break-up wuss-out’ song?  I think the end of the video sort of suggests that, yes.  But the musical mood is strident.  So it’s a strident wuss-out song?  Boy, do we need more of those. Blarg.

I really don’t want to pick on Carly Rae Jepson, or on Call Me Maybe.  If men can objectify women based entirely on physical appearance, why shouldn’t women do the same, or write songs about how fun objectification can be, when the shoe’s on the other foot? (Or when the attractively ripped jeans are on the other set of legs).  If you take my meaning. And the tune is so maddeningly catchy, we’re pretty well all of us stuck with it for the rest of our lives.  That’s what you’ll hear every day if, fifty years from now, you find a job in a nursing home.  Room after room playing Call Me Maybe.

Hard and fast rule; do not, in your song, reference people more talented than you. I’m serious; it just invites unflattering comparisons. I’m looking at you, Maroon Five.  Adam Levine; Moves like Jagger? No. Right Said Fred was not too sexy for his shirt, and you do not move like Mick Jagger.  You probably sing a little better than he did.  Mick Jagger never could sing.  It didn’t matter.  He was (and is) the greatest front man for any rock band ever, and the band he fronted one of the three best in the history of popular music.  And all you front is Maroon Five.  And lyrics like these:

Take me by the tongue

And I’ll know you

Kiss me ’til you’re drunk

And I’ll show you

don’t help.

Maybe one more?  But who?  I loathe Wrecking Ball, but have I already picked on too many female songstresses?  And isn’t Miley Cyrus an easy target? I know some people are going to vote for Pharrell (Skinny Smokey the Bear) Williams and Happy, but I actually sort of like Happy.  One Direction has Best Song Ever, in which the video is, quite possibly, more annoying than the Baba O’Reilly rip-off of a song, but once you pick on the Beebs, it seems redundant to pick on One Direction.  Then I found this: Alison Gold’s Chinese Food. For one thing, Alison Gold looks maybe thirteen.  And the entire song is . . . about how much she likes Chinese Food?  Seriously, that’s the song.  So, yeah, we have a winner. Even though I darkly suspect the song was done by the same people who gave us Friday and Rebecca Black.

I asked my daughter what she thought, and she responded “anything by Kendrick Lamar.”  But I wasn’t about to listen to a whole bunch of Kendrick Lamar songs to figure out which one was the worst.  (Poetic Justice?) So I asked her boyfriend, and he said “anything by Kendrick Lamar or Ke$ha.”  I sort of like Ke$ha, though I find the mid-name dollar sign affectation unnecessary.  But, then, she’s built her career on affectation. She was a straight A student, aced her SAT’s, and is a math nerd par excellence.  But she’s from a dirt-poor family, and by playing the musical role of ‘hard-drinking party girl’ has become a millionaire. Power to her, I guess.  So here’s TiK ToK; enjoy.

So what are your choices?  I don’t mean to suggest that any songs today are quite as idiotic as MacArthur Park. ‘Someone left the cake out in the rain’ sets a standard it will be hard to beat.  But there’s still a great deal of drivel being written, and recorded.  So what songs drive you bananas?



The politics of boredom

Politics is power, and political power can be exercised to accomplish many things, for good and ill.  But sometimes power can just be exercised, like a muscle.  It’s said that Caligula, at a banquet, suddenly began laughing.  His table companion nervously asked what the emperor found amusing, and Caligula is said to have responded, ‘I was thinking how funny it would be to stab you right now.  Nobody could stop me.  I can do anything, to anyone.’  Bet it made for a nervous meal.

And sometimes dictators use their power to bore.  It’s a constant in history; long tirades by tyrants.  We’ve read in recent months of Kim Jung Aun’s murder of his uncle; the detail that explains it is, apparently, that the uncle had the temerity to look bored during an endless speech by that preposterous young despot.  Hitler, of course, was famous for his speechifying.  His last days, languishing in the bunker, he ate chocolate cake for every meal, and he harangued his remaining staff for hours, long lectures on his own greatness and Germany’s glorious future, after the current minor crisis (the war he’d already lost) was over. Stalin’s speeches for the Presidium lasted most of the day, and at the end, had to be endlessly applauded–the first person who stopped clapping could be shot–and often was.  Mao Zedong’s screeching dogmatic tirades were so tedious–and so faithfully copied by his underlings–that being forced to listen to a political speech was a particularly feared form of torture during the Cultural Revolution.  Fidel Castro was probably the champion; his speeches, required listening on state radio, could go on for days.  Cubans braved sharks to escape them.  As the great Albert Camus put it, in The Rebel “tyrants conduct monologues above a million solitudes.”

I thought about this today, while watching Rachel Maddow’s show.  She described a press conference recently given by Vladimir Putin that lasted for four hours.  Now, a four hour disquisition is the work of a piker; Mussolini, at the four hour mark, was just getting warmed up.  But then Putin is pretty tinpot, as dictators go.  His actions in Ukraine are provocative, to be sure.  But this isn’t the Cold War, and he’s no Lenin, or even Peter the Great. And Ukraine’s government epitomizes dysfunction.  In any event, I think his acts call for a tempered American/EU response, for diplomacy over sabre-rattling, and sanctions over any armed response.  He’s a four hour monologue guy; that’s all. A lightweight.  Let’s not overreact.  This isn’t Munich, and President Obama’s no Neville Chamberlain.  How can I be sure Putin’s not much of a threat?  He stopped after four hours.

But the larger question is an interesting one; how often despots exercise the power to bore.  Why do so many big corporations have ‘retreats,’ and hire ‘motivational speakers,’ and subject their employees to brain-numbing seminars and presentations?  Why do academics spend endless hours creating ‘mission statements,’ or ‘assessment objectives?’ Because administrators can force them to.  Because it’s a way to maintain the power structure, make sure everyone understands their place in the world.  Why is so much of school boring?  Because bored kids tend to be tractable.  It’s enervating, boredom; it’s soul-draining.  It takes away your will to live.

Boring people is a form of aggression, is it not?  Because boredom is a kind of death; your brain deprived of stimulus, your soul not fed, but starved. John D. McDonald had a lovely definition of a bore: some who deprives you of solitude without providing you with company.  Great conversation is life-affirming.  Boredom is the opposite. That’s why I always need a nap after Church on Sundays.  Fighting boredom is exhausting.

And yet, theologically, Mormonism actually does incorporate an opposition to boredom into its theology.  What?  And I know what you’re thinking; that sacrament meetings are the very definition of boring, the absolute epitome of this thing I profess to despise.  And that’s true; Church can be boring. I have two personal remedies.  One is that my wife and I pass notes back and forth during the meeting.  One antidote for boredom is snark.  And failing that, one can always just fall asleep.

But theologically?  What is eternal progression but a recognition of the negative power of boredom?  I think of the standard Protestant or Catholic heaven.  An eternity spent singing praises to God, right?  I love choral music; I met my wife singing in a choir, and singing together has been one of the great pleasures of our marriage.  And I love rehearsing great choral music.  I love the mental exercise of it. But an eternity spent doing nothing else?  No thanks.

I’m a theatre guy, and my greatest fear is that something I write or direct might be boring to an audience.  It’s an awful thought.  As a director, I’m actually in a position of authority over an audience, albeit a limited, voluntary one.  I’m responsible for entertaining all those people, it’s my job, it’s my task to allow them to pass two hours of their lives agreeably.  All those people, all those living souls. What if the play is boring?  What if two minutes pass (an eternity!), or even ten seconds, with a scene change or a blackout; two minutes or ten seconds in which nobody is being entertained!  Unsupportable; cannot be allowed.  So I do whatever I possibly can to pump up the energy.  I don’t care if people are offended.  Offended people are feeling something.  What I cannot live with is the idea that they might be bored.

In fact, the idea of eternity is a frightening one.  So you read every book ever written.  You read them all repeatedly, until you’ve got them memorized. You listen to every piece of music ever written, again until you’ve committed them to memory.  Likewise every painting, every sculpture, every play, every movie. Then what?  It’s quite terrifying.  And an eternity spent fighting boredom?  Frankly, there’s only one word for it. Hell.

(And really, those horrible Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the hands of an angry God” versions of hell, what with all the flaying and burning and torment, wouldn’t that really be preferable to a hell spent being bored?  Wouldn’t it at least stay interesting, to wonder what body part the demons were going to work on next, to compare the exquisiteness of various kinds of tortures?  Wouldn’t boredom be worse than that?)

But if we believe in eternity, we must also believe in eternal progress; we must believe that just as existence is never-ending, so is the ability to learn, to grow, to improve, to develop. So at death, either consciousness ends, either the entity that was ‘me’ ceases to exist.  Or it, me, I, us, we, me gets to continue.  And goes to either heaven or hell.  And hell is boredom.  So heaven has to be a place of eternal growth and learning.  It’s really that simple.

And so the most brutal dictators in history, essentially insecure as all such tyrants must be, have to keep proving it, how powerful they, how few limits exist for them. One way to do it is to kill.  Another is to torture.  And a third is to bore.  Know this: unrighteous dominion does exist.  How can you know when it’s being practiced?  It’s excessively boring.

An Open Letter to kids

I’m writing this to American kids currently in school, in grade school or maybe junior high.  I’m a former college professor; you probably don’t know me.  And I’m not important.  I just wanted to tell you that there’s something you can do to improve your school and your school experience.  It would make school more fun for everyone.  It would also stop a bunch of really mean bullies.  But it won’t work unless everyone does it.  So you need to tell all the other kids in your school, and all the other kids in every other school in the country, and you all have to do it together.

The end of this year, like the end of every year, you will have to take a test.  This isn’t the usual kind of test, like a math test, where your teacher is trying to see how well you understand long division or something.  It’s a test the government makes you take.  You know the one I’m talking about, right?  The one your teacher has been preparing you for, because, she says, it’s really really important for you to do well on it?  Not for your sake, but for hers. It’s a test that doesn’t have anything to do with your grades in any classes; it’s really kind of a test of how good your teacher is, and how good your school is.

I want to suggest that you fail this test.  I think it could be fun, actually.  Miss every question on purpose.  Do as bad on this test as you possibly can.  Don’t even try to do well on it.  Fail it.

I know that your teacher won’t like this.  It will make her look like a bad teacher.  And that’s why it’s important that everyone else in the country does this too; every kid in the country.  Because the point of doing this, failing the test on purpose, isn’t to say to everyone “I have a bad teacher, and I go to a bad school.”  You probably have a lot of school pride.  You probably go to a very good school. You probably have a very good teacher.  You don’t want to make her look bad.

No, you should fail this test on purpose, because it’s a stupid test.  And it’s stupid of the government to make you take it.  And if everyone fails the stupid test, then maybe all the grown-ups who are in charge of education in America will realize it’s a stupid test, and stop making you take it.

Here’s why this would be good.  I bet your school is kind of boring.  Here’s why it’s boring.  A lot of people who want to be in charge of schools in America are bullies. Grown-up bullies. They think that most teachers are bad at their jobs.  They want teachers to only teach in bad, boring ways. They want to spend all the time on boring subjects, so that when you finish school, you can work at a boring job and they think you won’t notice how boring it is, ’cause you’ll be used to it. They don’t trust teachers to teach stuff that’s really interesting, or to teach in ways that kids would find interesting. And they certainly don’t want to pay teachers enough money to live on.  Or pay a little more money so that classes don’t have so many kids crammed in there that it’s really hard for anyone to learn anything.  That’s why they came up with the idea of making every kid in America take a stupid test.  So they could beat up on the schools that they think are doing a bad job.

Those tests make everything worse, for everyone.  Teachers have to teach what’s on the test, regardless of whether it’s interesting or important. Teachers aren’t free to do what they do best: teach.

There’s an important principle of science here.  It’s this: when you measure something, you change it.  Maybe you’ve noticed this yourself. Like, if you wanted to know how long your cat’s tail was, so you got a ruler and measured it, but you had to hold the cat still, and now she won’t climb up on your lap anymore, because you might be trying to measure her tail again.  Well, it’s the same thing with the stupid test.  Making you take it makes school stupider.

There are some countries in the world that told the bullies to go away and stop bothering schools.  Finland is one of those countries.  In Finland, kids have lots more time for PE, or for music, or art, or science classes where you do real experiments.  In Finland, teachers decide what to teach, without bullies telling them what to do.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a problem with bullies. Two bullies: Charles and Terry.  My Mom made my lunch every day; a sandwich, only the bullies took it from me and I went hungry.  So I told my Mom that I was really really hungry, and could she make three sandwiches instead.  She thought I was going through a ‘growing spurt,’ and made me extra sandwiches, and so I gave them to the bullies instead, and still had one left over for me.  Then one day, I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that anymore.’  And I told Charles and Terry that they couldn’t have my sandwiches anymore.  And they beat me up, and it hurt for a day or two.  But they stopped bothering me after that.

That’s the way to deal with bullies. Ignore them.

So let’s send the bullies a message.  You don’t have to do good on that stupid test.  If you fail it, it won’t hurt your grade.  And if everyone fails it on purpose, soon they’ll go away. And everyone will be much happier. And schools really will improve.

So do it.  Skype and tweet and text everyone you know.  Everyone fail the test together.  Every kid in America.

The Bundy standoff

Big news in the Old West recently.  Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, who had not paid grazing fees for twenty years, and who has lost in court regarding those fees repeatedly, resisted the Bureau of Land Management’s efforts to seize his assets, several hundred head of cattle.  He was supported in that resistance by a self described armed local militia.  This CBS news story strikes me as a good starting point, if you’re interested in reading more about it.

As the situation started to escalate, and as tempers grew ever more heated, the BLM backed down.  The Clark County sheriff Doug Gillespie helped negotiate a settlement, but one to which the BLM was not party.  400 head of cattle, seized from Bundy, were returned to him.  Negotiations are on-going, and the situation remains unresolved.

For some on the right, this whole situation is more about states’ rights than it is about one elderly scofflaw tax cheat.  The National Review offered their usual overheated and preposterous analysis.  Apparently, this is part and parcel with the Obama administration’s (legendary, and entirely fictitious) lawlessness and tyranny.  Blarg.

Obviously, nobody wanted for shots to be fired; nobody wanted that kind of escalation.  And yet, as I’ve been reading about this case, I couldn’t help but think about the ‘what would the Founding Fathers do?’ rhetorical question, much beloved on the Right.  In fact, this specific situation is one in which we know exactly, precisely, unequivocally what the Founders would have done.  It’s almost an exact historical parallel to the Whiskey rebellion.  In 1791, farmers in western Pennsylvania forcibly resisted the collection of a tax on whiskey.  President Washington not only sent troops to deal with it, he personally commanded them (in the last military adventure of his career).  The Founding Fathers (or at least Washington, Adams, Hamilton–those Founders in the Washington administration), had little patience with armed insurrectionists.  One option in Nevada would have been to call out the National Guard, disperse those ‘local militias,’ disarm, arrest, and try them.  Probably just as well we didn’t go that route, but it remains an option.

And yet, as I read about this on the intertubes, I did feel some sense of poignancy.  One commentator pointed out that Clark County once had many rancher families.  Now Bundy’s the only one.  Clark County is home to Mesquite, quite possibly the tackiest gambling-oriented resort town in a state inundated with them. This protest is in part over the loss of a lifestyle.  Possibly it’s in part about images of the Old West, over nostalgia over a cowboy lifestyle now vanished, or vanishing.  Relegated to cultural obscurity, to the cowboy poetry gathering in Elko, replaced by the most sordid examples of pop culture tackiness (read Las Vegas).

And perhaps that goes a long way towards understanding at least some of contemporary conservatism.  Isn’t the Tea Party movement driven by white resentment, by specifically elderly white male resentment?  Isn’t it possible to see a successful Presidential campaign, by a black candidate with a suspiciously foreign name, based on a theme of ‘Hope and Change’ as threatening?  If you’re used to being in charge, being on top, seeing people who look like you running the world, wouldn’t you see a call for fundamental change as sinister, as threatening?

So it’s not surprising that this ridiculous ‘protest’ by a rancher who doesn’t recognize the existence of the federal government as a legal entity, who believes that ‘federal land’ actually properly belongs to the state of Nevada, his state, his western state, his place in the world, his home, could be so embraced by conservatives.

And let’s face it.  There was a time when you could graduate from high school, get a good job at a good wage at a local factory, work there all your life, retire with reasonable benefits, and meanwhile coach Little League or work with 4H, or volunteer as a Scoutmaster, and enjoy a good life.  Support your family, have a presence in the community, go fishing or hunting on the weekends.  Or a time when open range ranching was an economically viable occupation.  And those times are gone, probably forever.  And that world has been replaced by a world of uncertainty, and what must seem like moral relativism, and what must seem as the triumph of obnoxious young furriners, dang it.

So Clive Bundy’s in trouble again over his ranch.  So you pick up your rifle and show your support for a friend and neighbor, and the heck with his fruitier political views.  It does all make sense.

The BLM, the Obama administration showed remarkable restraint, and good for them.  But this will need to be resolved, and Cliven Bundy cannot win. Nor should he.


Grand Budapest Hotel: Movie Review

Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel is just exquisite, a bittersweet confection as beautifully shaped as the Mendl’s pastries served to honored guests by M. Gustav (Ralph Fiennes, in one of the great performances of his career), the legendary concierge of the hotel of the film’s title.  Like all Wes Anderson films, the film’s delicate artificiality (even preciosity) is evident in every carefully framed shot, in every time actors face and address the camera, in every perfectly staged set piece. Watching the film last night, I kept wanting to hit a pause button; there’s always something going on in the background of that production design, some detail in the corner of the frame that you just don’t want to miss.

But of course, the mannered, stylized performances also contrast with the shocking vulgarity of some (not many, just enough) of the lines.  When M. Gustav is arrested and imprisoned (in the grimmest of Eastern European hellholes), we think ‘he’s so high class, so hoity-toity, how can he possibly survive?’  But, visited in the pen by his loyal assistant, Zero (Tony Revolori), he growls “you can’t be a candy-ass in a place like this,” and we know he’s going to be fine.

That’s the key to the film, I think.  M. Gustav represents civilized values.  He’s endlessly polite, endlessly charming, endlessly suave and cultured and completely on top of his job.  He’s the best concierge in Europe, and if his understanding of his duties includes sleeping with the odd wealthy elderly widow, it’s all part of the service, and always in the most exquisite good taste.  When he escapes with prison, and Zero loyally waits by the sewage culvert from which he emerges, Gustav takes the time to upbraid Zero about his lack of preparedness.  Zero hasn’t thought of a hideout for them, he hasn’t provided an escape vehicle; worst of all, he’s forgotten M. Gustav’s cologne.  Gustav chews the kid out, then is stricken with remorse for it, and elaborately apologizes.  All the while, of course, they should be high tailing it out of there.  But first things first.  A gentleman apologizes, and only then escapes.

We’re told almost nothing about Gustav’s past, and only a little about Zero’s.  But what we are told is sufficient; it’s a raw and brutal and violent world out there.  And the best way to survive is to cling ever more fiercely to civilization, to its forms and manners, to its high culture and higher ideals.

Anderson gives the film a five act structure (of course he does), and begins it with a series of flashbacks.  A young woman, living in the bleak gray of an eastern bloc nation, visits the grave of The Author.  Cut to the Author, now elderly (Tom Wilkinson), finishing a memoir, interrupted by grandchildren. Cut to the Author as a young man (Jude Law), staying at the now hopelessly run-down Grand Budapest Hotel, where he meets an elderly Zero (F. Murray Abraham).  Then cut to Zero’s youth, as lobby boy to M. Gustav, in the 30’s, when most of the film takes place.  In the end, we return to the Author’s grave, and the young woman, reading a book; presumably the one we’ve been following, about the hotel and its concierge.  And there we go.  What survives, is literature.  The part of the human spirit that endures is cultured, refined, well-read.  A beloved book can transcend even the ugliest of realities.

The tone of the film is so light, and so comedic, it feels like a trifle.  But it’s not.  One of M. Gustav’s elderly patrons, Madame D (Tilda Swinton) has died, and her nephew Dimitri (Adrien Brody) hopes to inherit. It turns out, though, that she’s left an immensely valuable painting, Boy With Apple, to Gustav.  Dimitri wants it all, and he has an evil henchman, Jopling (Willem Dafoe), ready to murder anyone who stands in his way.  Dimitri gets Gustav falsely accused of murder, and imprisoned; he escapes, with the help of an elderly-but-ferocious inmate, Ludwig, (Harvey Keitel, demonstrating all kinds of growly Harvey Keitel schtick).  Meanwhile, a well-meaning and decent Army officer, Henckels (Ed Norton), is trying to sort the whole thing out. And Gustav’s escape is aided by a secret society of concierges, including Bill Murray, Bob Balaban, and Owen Wilson.  A complicated plot, in other words, with an army of terrific character actors popping in for a scene or two each.

But to what end?  To show, finally, the triumph of brutality and violence over civilization, at least potentially, and also, of course, historically.  It’s an extraordinarily funny and engaging film, but it’s also bittersweet; things do not turn out well for M. Gustav, nor for his friends.  I haven’t mentioned Agatha (Saoirse Ronan), Zero’s brave and loyal fiancee, but her character epitomizes the film’s large themes.  She’s a cake-maker, for Mendl, a mean and demanding boss. She also has a large birthmark on her face.  She falls in love with Zero, and eventually marries him.  (At one point, Gustav rhapsodizes about how her finest quality is ‘her purity.’  The look on Tony Revolori’s face was priceless; he knows full well what they’ve been up to.)  So it’s a love story?  Well, yes and no.  It’s the thirties. We learn her fate; she just dies, as so many did in those terrible times. Courage and kindness, loyalty and love didn’t much matter in a world gone mad.

In the closing credits, we learn that the film is dedicated to (and based on), the writings of one Stefan Zweig.  I expect that most viewers of the film wouldn’t know who that was.  There was a time when Zweig was the most popular author in Europe, and even in the US (he never really caught on in England).  He was a novelist, a playwright, a critic and historian, but the short story was his preferred form, and he crafted hundreds of them.  They’re very much like Wes Anderson films, actually; beautifully executed, funny, warm, a bit artificial, tasteful.  I know him primarily through an odd book, rather a favorite of mine: Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia. It’s a collection of critical/personal essays, each inspired by one quotation from one favorite author.  Here’s his quotation from Zweig:

With whom have we not spent heart-warming hours there, looking out from the terrace over the beautiful and peaceful landscape, without suspecting that exactly opposite, on the mountain of Berchtesgaden, a man sat who would one day destroy it all?

Zweig was Austrian, from Vienna, and he was a product of that time and place, of Vienna, opera and concert halls and gardens and monuments, the most civilized society in Europe.  He eventually settled in Salzburg, where he assembled the most magnificent personal library in Europe, and turned his home into a permanent literary salon.  But underneath Vienna’s politesse, beneath the civilized veneer, was the most rabid and ferocious anti-Semitism; Vienna was not just where Zweig set his most charming stories, it’s where a failed art student learned the craft of rabble-rousing.  And in 1938, a Nazi committee declared Zweig’s library ‘decadent’, and burned it to the ground.  And in 1942, Zweig and his wife, rather than live under the rule of a thug, chose to commit suicide.

We see that too, in this, yes, mannered and precious and charming and hilarious film, but also in the brass knuckles Willem Dafoe wears as Jopling, and in the thuggish prison guards and the thuggish brutes who demand to see Gustav’s paperwork on a train. And in one extraordinary scene, in which Dimitri, seeing Gustav and Zero, pulls out a gun in the hotel, and fires, and room after room of soldiers all open up as well, everyone shooting at everyone, amidst the Art Deco splendor of the Grand Budapest Hotel. It’s funny, but it’s also pretty grim, and also pretty accurate. How many different armies invaded and despoiled small Eastern European countries like the fictional Zubrowka of this film? How many different uniforms were worn by thugs, on trains, demanding to see passenger’s papers? And, we suspect, when those papers weren’t entirely right (by this week’s rules), those guards on the train could take Gustav outside and shoot him by the tracks.

We don’t see that, of course.  We don’t view such things in polite society.  We’ve invented polite society, and also politeness itself, and manners and good taste, all to hide that part of ourselves that knows that, in this world, candy asses can’t survive.  Wes Anderson’s greatness as a filmmaker isn’t about how perfectly he frames every shot in his films.  It’s in what that perfect framing is meant to distract us from.  It’s what’s underneath.

The Founding Fathers, and Obamacare

A warning: this is a silly post on a silly subject.  A response to a Facebook meme; hard to get sillier than that.  Apparently Nancy Pelosi said that the Founding Fathers would be pleased with Obamacare.  And this led to all kinds of mockery from conservatives, who continue to double-down on their ‘Obamacare will destroy America’ obsession.  The Founders, it goes without saying, would never have agreed to a socialist takeover of American health care!  Never in a million years.  ‘The Founders,’ in this case, constructed entirely of freedom-loving Christian Republicans. Job creators, don’t you know.

Anyway, it tickled my funny bone, the idea of the Founders ‘opposing Obamacare.’  So I thought, I’d dialogue it.

Me: So. . . . do you oppose the Affordable Care Act?

FF: What’s an Affordable Care Act?

Me: Uh, well, let’s see.  It’s basically a reform of the health insurance industry.  Most people have health insurance, but there are around forty million who don’t.  So it’s an effort to provide them with coverage.

FF: The US has forty million people?  Where?

Me: Well, all over, really. The US stretches all the way to the Pacific.  Ever since Jefferson bought Louisiana.

FF: Jefferson did what?

Me: Look, just take my word for it.  There are about 300 million people in the country right now.  317 million, to be exact.  And it’s kind of a problem when 40 million don’t have health care.

FF: What’s health care?

Me: You know, medicine.  When doctors make sick people better.

FF: Doctors make sick people better?

Me: Yeah.  See, lots of people used to die of diseases that we can cure now.

FF: How?  Are you just better at bleeding people?

Me: No, we don’t do that anymore. See, diseases are caused by microbes.  Uh, little tiny bugs, uh, germs, uh, just call ’em ‘creatures’, too small to be seen except by microscopes.

FF: What’s a microscope?

Me: Come on, guys.  You’ve heard of microscopes.  Galileo made one?  You’ve heard of van Leeuwenhoek?

FF: All right. But you tell me that you can see these tiny disease-causing creatures?  We can’t.

Me: Isn’t it reasonable to imagine that we, in the future, can build better microscopes?

FF:  All right.  We’re very scientific people, you know.  Franklin even figured out that lightning is made of electricity. So you’ve figured out how to cure diseases.  Like what diseases? Surely not cholera?

Me: No, we can cure cholera.

FF: Diptheria?  Yellow Fever?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Measles?  Mumps?  Dysentery?  Gout?

Me: Pretty much.  All curable.

FF: Smallpox?

Me: We’ve completely eradicated smallpox.  Gone.

FF: Colds?

Me: No, we still get colds.  Sorry.  Did I mention we’d cured smallpox?

FF: Well, you live in an age of miracles.

Me: We do.  Heart disease is still a problem; we’re working on it.  Huge progress on cancer, though it’s still a frightening and dangerous disease.  Those are the biggies.

FF: So what’s the problem?

Me: Well, it’s all very expensive.  Doctors have to train for years to become doctors, and they charge a lot for their expertise.  And diagnosing all those diseases is expensive.  We have all kinds of amazing diagnostic equipment, but those machines are costly, and we have to train people how to use the devices properly.  We also have lots of drugs that can affect amazing cures, but they’re also really expensive.  There’s an entire pharmaceutical industry constantly coming up with new medications, but their research is also expensive.  Anyway, most people can’t afford the more expensive procedures; in fact, hardly anyone can.  So we created insurance for medical care.

FF: That makes sense.  In fact, Ben Franklin created the first fire insurance company in the Americas.

Me: Right!  Only, Mr. Franklin, you wouldn’t insure some houses, if you thought they were a fire hazard.

FF: Of course not.  Insurance spreads risk around. But an insurance company can’t survive if people only buy it right before their house is going to burn down.

Me: Exactly.  What we do is require everyone in the country, if they own a home, to buy fire insurance for it.  And we also won’t let them build a house that doesn’t meet certain safety standards.  That way, only a few houses burn down annually, and they are able to rebuild with the insurance money.  And insurance companies can make a profit, because everyone with a house also has to buy a policy.

FF: Most sensible.  That’s another way to do it.  We had people who built foolishly, and their wooden houses burned all the time. So we just wouldn’t insure them. Insurance has to limit risk for the insurer and the insured. Same basic principle.

Me: Well, we applied the same principle to health insurance.  If you have insurance, you can afford to pay for medical care for yourself and your family.  But we had a problem.  Really sick people would go to hospitals and get treatment, but couldn’t afford it.

FF: We have hospitals.  Real nice one in Philadelphia.

Me: Right.  Except that the hospital in Philadelphia wasn’t very good at making sick people better.  Mostly folks just died there.

FF: You can’t have everything.

Me: No.  Well, our hospitals are better than yours were; in fact, they’re kind of miraculous.  And we didn’t want people to die just because they were poor.  But when people couldn’t pay for their care, it was a problem.  Mostly, costs just went up for everyone.

FF: Why didn’t you just throw people into debtor’s prison?

Me: We don’t really do that anymore.  What we have instead is collection agencies.

FF: Sounds horrible!

Me: Yeah.  But we thought; wouldn’t it be better if everyone had health insurance?  And if we allowed all health insurance companies to compete in an open market for clients?  With some minimum requirements their policies had to meet?

FF: So, what’s the problem?

Me: Well, you don’t approve of it.

FF: We don’t approve of it?  George Washington died of a simple throat infection.  Mostly, he died of being bled and given a powerful purgative at a time when his body was fighting off an infection.  Our health care was a joke.  If you know how to make sick people better, and have figured out a way to share the cost of it nation-wide, why on earth would we oppose that?

Me: I don’t know.  Some people think you would have.

FF: They’re crazy. Wait, is craziness curable?  Do you still have madmen?

Me: We do.

FF: Well, ignore them.  We’re entirely in favor of this ‘universal health care’ thing.  Whatever it is.

Me: Okay!

FF: Universal, though?  Everyone gets good care? Even slaves?

Me: Yeah.  About that. . . .