Monthly Archives: October 2017

Sleeping Beauties: Book Review

Stephen King is, and always has been, an extraordinary popular novelist. I don’t mean that disparagingly; not in any sense. The stories he tells are meant to entertain, but that doesn’t mean they’re not built on a solid foundation of clear, honest, and even at times, lyrical prose, well-drawn characters, and situations that somehow feel plausible, even when utterly fantastic. With Sleeping Beauties, his son, Owen, joins the family business. They co-wrote this, and I couldn’t tell who wrote which passages, so that’s all to the good. Anyway, I enjoyed the novel immensely, Couldn’t put it down, in fact. When I say that they seem to be aiming for a profundity they never quite achieve, I say that with full appreciation for everything the novel does accomplish.

It’s a genre novel, of course, but it’s really more sci-fi than horror. It traffics in the supernatural, but through a character that seems more alien than fantasy. Above all, it’s a novel about gender. It’s about men and women, and the ways we’re different, and the ways we’re similar. In fact, as the title suggests, an examination of ‘gender’ is at the heart of everything the novel is trying to achieve. I have a sneaking suspicion that it resonated with me because I’m a guy, and it’s a novel about women written by guys. I wonder if it would be a different novel if Stephen King had written it with a daughter (if he has one; I don’t know), instead of with a son. Or with his wife, Tabitha, a fine novelist too.

Okay, here’s the premise. In the town of Dooling, a town of 30,000 in the American Midwest, the sheriff, Lila Norcross, has worked a long overtime shift, is dog tired and ready for some shuteye, when she’s called to a crime scene. In a low rent trailer, next to a shed where he cooks meth for sale, one Truman Mayweather sits with his meth-head girlfriend, Tiffany, and a visiting cousin, when a woman, a stranger, astonishingly strong, breaks in, kills the two men–ramming one’s head through a trailer wall–and then disappears. Lila sees her, covered with blood, walking mostly naked down the middle of a highway. She arrests her, takes her into custody. This woman, who will only identify herself as Eve, is, in appearance and language and skillset, otherwordly. Not sure what else she can do with her, Lila arranges for her to be incarcerated, not in the local jail, but in the town’s nearby women’s prison, where her husband, Dr. Clinton Norcross, works as the prison psychiatrist.

About the same time, all around the world, women fall asleep and do not wake up. I don’t mean that everyone falls asleep at once, but just that when women do fall asleep, they don’t wake. Instead, they quickly are covered with a kind of cocoon. If anyone removes the cocoon, the women instantly wake, are possessed with a superhuman strength, and commit unspeakable acts of violence to whoever woke them. They then go right back to sleep, and the cocoon reforms around them. While sleeping, though, they’re fine. To the extent that medical personnel can measure their vital signs, they’re perfectly healthy. But all bodily functions stop; they don’t seem to need to eat or relieve themselves. And this mysterious affliction, which media dubs ‘Aurora’, hits every woman in the world. No men, all the women. No exceptions.

Except one. Eve, the mysterious stranger in the Dooling women’s prison. She can sleep and wake up. She also can talk to the prison’s resident rats (all prisons, apparently, are troubled with rodents), and the rats do her bidding. As Dr. Norcross observes her (and talks to her), she also can read minds. What the good doctor does not know is that she can also communicate with other animals, including a fox, and including the ubiquitous moths that begin gathering.

Knowing that they won’t be able to wake up, many women choose to stave off sleep. All groceries and drug stores have runs on any kind of upper drug. The women in the prison in charge of the mess hall brew up a super strong batch of vile-tasting but effective coffee. Men, meanwhile, freak out. Riots break out. Violence increases–civil order is disrupted. Of course, lots of men try to wake up their wives and sweethearts, and suffer immediate and lethal consequences. The news media sends out the direst of warnings. The CDC is overwhelmed. And in Dooling, mobs begin to gather. Rumors spread of this strange women, Eve, who is immune to the illness. And vigilantes decide it’s time to take matters into their own hands.

Guys, in other words, act like guys. Irrational and violent. Aggressive.

About halfway through the novel, we learn where all the women are. The women of Dooling (and apparently, nowhere else), find themselves in, well, Dooling. But it’s an overgrown ruin of the town they knew. Time moves at a different rate in Our Place, as the women begin calling it. And they build a new society. With no men around, they cope for themselves just fine. They find food. They grow crops and they kill game. They manage to rebuild the electrical grid. A few of them were pregnant when they fell asleep; they carry their babies to term, and give birth, and the children born to them are the usual mix of boys and girls. And they’re determined to raise their male children to be less, well, guy-like. Less aggressive, less violent, less irrational.

I’m not going to give away the ending. But the novel posits two separate worlds, one with no men, the other with no women, and draws parallels between them. Except the guy world is pretty dystopic. And the gal-world is . . . less so.

In other words, gender is described about the way you’d think it would be described by two men who would self-identify as feminists, but who are not particularly sophisticated students of gender. (For one thing, the novel never even mentions transgender people).

As I said, I enjoyed it a lot. I thought the characters were very well drawn, including Frank Geary, an animal control officer with a real temper who becomes the head of the vigilantes and probably serves as the novel’s villain. He’s an interesting character, though, and I liked that he wasn’t really painted as ‘good’ or ‘evil.’ I thought the two Norcrosses, Lila and Clint, who are the leaders of the two worlds, were both superbly drawn. And I loved “Eve”, the supernatural character.

I do think the Kings were striving for something more important, a statement of greater significance, than what they achieved. I still, I liked it, very much indeed. And, like Stephen and Owen King, I do worry about my gender, especially in the light of recent revelations about Harvey Weinstein and his ilk. Anyway, it’s a good one. Give it a read.

Jeff Flake’s speech

Senator Jeff Flake, R-Arizona gave a speech yesterday at the US Senate. It was a terrific speech. Here’s how he started:

I rise today with no small measure of regret. Regret because of the state of our disunion, regret because of the disrepair and destructiveness of our politics. Regret because of the indecency of our discourse. Regret because of the coarseness of our leadership. Regret for the compromise of our moral authority, and by our, I mean all of our complicity in this alarming and dangerous state of affairs. It is time for our complicity and our accommodation of the unacceptable to end.

Well, who could argue with that? He comes across as a decent man, a man of conscience, a conservative in the best sense of the word. I’ve seen interviews with him, and I’ve read his book, cheekily titled Conscience of a Conservative. The title he may have stolen from Barry Goldwater, but those ideas are now mainstream conservatism. It’s the disgust with the Presidency of Donald Trump that’s, sadly, kind of unique. But back to his speech:

Reckless, outrageous, and undignified behavior has become excused and countenanced as telling it like it is when it is actually just reckless, outrageous, and undignified. And when such behavior emanates from the top of our government, it is something else. It is dangerous to a democracy.

Preach it brother! Amen! Absolutely! And when I say ‘brother,’ I mean that in a religious sense; Flake’s LDS. And his speech isn’t just an attack on Trump. It’s also a call to action:

When the next generation asks us, why didn’t you do something? Why didn’t you speak up? What are we going to say? Mr. President, I rise today to say, enough. We must dedicate ourselves to making sure that the anomalous never becomes the normal.

Great. That’s fine. We don’t want the anomalous to become the normal. Couldn’t agree more. I just want to know this:

Why haven’t you done anything?

And why are you leaving?

Here’s an example. Betsy DeVos was confirmed at Secretary of Education back in February. It was perfectly obvious from her confirmation hearing that she was spectacularly unqualified for the job. She was the wife of a major Republican donor, who has spent her time trying to privatize the American education system. She demonstrated repeatedly that she knew absolutely nothing about the most pressing education issues of the day. And she was confirmed 51-50, with the tie-breaking vote cast by Vice-President Pence.

And Jeff Flake voted for her. He voted ‘yes’. He made normal, in other words, Trump’s sensationally anomalous choice for his cabinet.

Okay, that’s unfair. Flake is a big school-choice guy, a charter school guy. Maybe he agreed with her on education issues, and was willing to overlook her, ahem, idiosyncracies. And that vote was a long time ago. So what about yesterday? The Senate voted on a measure that would have made it harder for ripped-off citizens to sue the banks or credit card companies that cheated them. The one recourse people have under such circumstances is to sue, either individually or through a class-action suit. Credit card companies want people to use binding arbitration instead, because they usually win those. The Senate was voting on the measure. So, easy vote: Wall Street vs. consumers. And two Republicans voted against the banks, joining all 48 Democrats. Jeff Flake was not one of them. Trump wanted it, and Flake voted with Trump. Again, Mike Pence broke the tie. 51-50.

So, again, the anomalous becomes the normal. And Jeff Flake’s anti-Trump rhetoric starts to look pretty empty, pretty self-serving.

And, all right, let’s suppose Flake really would now like to oppose Trump on principle, that he wants to join the fight against normalizing anomalies. Then why not stay in the Senate? Because Jeff Flake’s big speech was essentially a farewell address. He’s quitting. He’s leaving the Senate.

I get that Trump hates him, and that Steve Bannon is willing to spend ten million dollars of Robert Mercer’s money to defeat him. Flake’s main concern seems to be all that support flowing to his primary challenger. He, understandably, does not want to humiliated by a primary defeat.

But it’s not like his opponent is some juggernaut. She’s Dr. Kelli Ward, an ER doc from Lake Havasu City. She’s probably a very good doctor. And she may not be quite as nuts as she sometimes appears. She appeared on Alex Jones’ show, where she suggested that John McCain may be trying to kill her. Kind of; Jones said it, she just didn’t contradict him. She hosted a town hall meeting about chemtrails. Though she hasn’t said where she stands on the chemtrail issue, she clearly took that particular conspiracy theory seriously enough to hold a town hall on it. So, no, it’s not entirely fair to call her Chemtrail Kelli. But she also sees political advantage to cozying up to conspiracy theorists.

What does she stand for? I went on her website, and guess what: if Trump’s for it, so is she. Border wall, tax cuts for rich guys, no gun control at all, for anything.

Remember, Steve Bannon is an insurrectionist. He’s pro-chaos. He wants desperately unqualified people in the cabinet and Congress; he’s trying to rush us towards something akin to the Second Coming. He likes creative destruction. That’s why he supported (and we may be stuck with), Roy Moore for the US Senate. Moore’s crazy. Bannon likes crazy.

More to the point, Flake isn’t crazy. At least, he’s not-crazy enough to understand what a disaster Donald Trump’s Presidency has become. He is, at least, competent, and a decent guy. He’s massively conservative, and if I could vote in Arizona, I’d vote for his likely opponent,  Kyrsten Sinema. She’s a liberal Democrat. Who he would probably beat.

What bothers me most, though, is him not even trying. What troubles me is the suggestion that active opposition from someone as extreme and bizarre as Steve Bannon might scare Flake off. Or that he doesn’t seem to think he can beat a Trumpite like Kelli Ward.

Flake’s speech seems to suggest that an actual conservative (whatever that is), can’t support Donald Trump in good conscience, and that the Republican party needs to disassociate themselves from Trumpian policies and politics. Great. Good start. But he’s not going to do anything about it. And that, frankly, strikes me not as conscience, but as cowardice.

The Foreigner: Movie Review

The Foreigner is one of the stranger action movies you’re likely to see; a big budget, movie star vehicle action movie without a single likable or relatable character.  And considering that it stars Jackie Chan, that’s kind of amazing.

Because Jackie Chan, in addition to being one of the two greatest physical comedians who ever lived (his only rival, Buster Keaton), specializes in playing nice guys. He’s got that big grin, and all that energy; he’s charming. He specializes in playing good guys who find themselves in circumstances where the only possible way out is through advanced martial arts. That’s the combination that makes Jackie Chan movies such a delight; astonishing action sequences, and preposterous plots. He’s a rescuer of innocents, an inadvertent foiler of dastardly schemes. Even Jackie’s occasional struggles with English are appealing. He’s sixty three, now, and not as quick with a punch or a fall, but this is a movie I marked on my calendar. A new Jackie Chan movie is not to be missed.

And he really can act. In The Foreigner, he plays Quan, a London restauranteur, and father of the lovely Fan (Katie Leung: Cho in the Harry Potter movies), a teenaged girl with a British boyfriend. She pops into a shop to buy a dress for a Big Date, which is promptly destroyed by a terrorist bomb. Quan is devastated. And for the rest of the movie, Chan plays this guy as someone who has essentially been destroyed emotionally, turning him completely single-minded. He is going to find and kill whoever killed his daughter. Nothing else matters; no power on earth can stop him. Beyond that one desire, he seems completely numb. It’s a tragic and moving performance. But not likable. His single-mindedness turns him into a end-justifies-the-means kind of guy; essentially, he becomes something of a terrorist too.

And he’s not much interested in doing detective work. The bombing was carried out by a newly-minted IRA splinter group. Quan sees on the news that a former IRA member, who has settled into a role as a British minister to Ireland, Liam Hennessey (Pierce Brosnan), is trying to head up the effort to discover who bombed the store. So Quan focuses on Hennessey. Who, we discover, does in fact know a lot more than he’s saying to the Press. The movie becomes a cat-and-mouse duel between the two men, with Quan terrorizing Hennessey’s family to force Hennessey to tell him what he knows.

Hennessey’s no prize. It turns out, he has a mistress, Maggie, or Sarah, or something, superbly played by a fine actress named Charlie Murphy who I’d never heard of before. But Maggie/Sarah is one of the terrorists, and she sleeps with various men to further the nefarious terrorist plans, which also involve blowing up an airplane. Meanwhile, there are all sorts of political machinations involving Hennessey, his uneasy relationship with the British crown, represented by a cabinet minister, Katherine Davies (Lia Williams), with other Irish crime bosses, and his own wife, Mary (Orla Brady), who despises him and may well betray him. I’m oversimplifying–the plot is more convoluted even than I’ve described it, but it’s all made clear in the picture.

Problem is, we don’t like any of them. The battle of wits between Quan and Hennessey is what carries the picture, and it’s edge-of-the-seat compelling. But we don’t actually care who wins, ultimately, because they’re all pretty awful people.

When I taught dramatic structure, I used to introduce students to two kinds of theatrical naturalism, which I called Naturalism A and Naturalism B. This is a Naturalism A structure, but it’s also an action movie, a melodrama. Melodramas have good guys and bad guys; heroes and villains. Naturalist pieces have no heroes, nor really any villains. Everyone’s just trying to survive.  We’re to watch it dispassionately, with much attachment to any characters. That’s what this is. A cold-blooded, well-made, superbly acted exercise in pure detachment, with utterly amoral characters pursuing a fairly loathesome objective. I mean, is Quan seeking justice? Or just revenge? And what is the difference?

I found it fascinating, and riveting, and not remotely ingratiating. My wife was as fascinated as I was by it, but ultimately found it quite disappointing. If you’re expecting a Jackie Chan vehicle, a fun action/comedy, you’ll be disappointed too. If you don’t mind a pretty well made formalist exercise, and a chance for Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan to show off their acting chops, you’re more likely to find it to your taste.

A rare outbreak of bi-partisanship

Congressional Republicans found themselves in a bind. For years, they stood in steadfast resistance to the Affordable Care Act, colloquially known as Obamacare. The House, under Republican control, voted repeatedly to repeal it. Granted, the Senate, under Democratic leadership, never brought any such measure to a (failing) vote, and if they had, through some miracle, passed it, Obama would have vetoed, but still, the Republicans had run for election on repealing Obamacare. Fulminated against it, lied about it, misrepresented it, put all their eggs in that one basket. Never let it be said that they didn’t try! Over and over again, they wasted everyone’s time with this silly symbolic exercise. It never meant a thing. It was just this silly pointless thing they did, like me putting ‘diet and exercise’ on my New Year’s Resolutions. Or a dog chasing a car.

Then suddenly, one day, a health scare, and the doctor was telling me, in all seriousness, dude, diet and exercise; you have to lose a lot of weight fast or you could die. One election, and the state of our nation shifted from ‘peaceful transfer of power after a democratic election’ to ‘on-going national crisis.’ And the Republicans found themselves controlling the House, AND Senate, AND White House, and also, pretty much, the judicial branch as well. The dog caught the car, and suddenly wondered what he was going to do with it. And it turned out, the Republican party was much better at ‘repeal,’ than ‘replace.’

For years, we’d been told of these wonderful conservative, market-oriented alternatives to Obamacare. It turned out, they didn’t exist. Various approaches to repealing and replacing were floated, and just as quickly, shot out of the sky. Republicans, turns out, are great at winning elections. They’re incapable of governing. In fact, most conservatives don’t actually want the government in charge of health care. It’s a commodity; if you can’t afford it, you don’t get it. Various attempts were offered, bills created, and, darn the CBO, vetted. Every one of them would have substantially reduced the numbers of citizens with good health care. Citizens without health insurance get sick or get in accidents at about the same rate as everyone else; without insurance, people can die. And voting margins on these bills were sufficiently narrow that all kinds of legislative hocus-pocus was brought to bear. Bills were rushed through, jammed through, forced down people’s throats. In short, lots of really sucky bills scorched their way through Congress, right up to the point where Congresspeople voted on them. Thousands of people began cramming their way into Congressional constituent meetings, exercising their First Amendment rights to be vocal, contentious and angry. Obamacare is still the law of the land.

President Trump, it turned out, was terrible at working with Congress to get this stuff passed. This is hardly surprising, since Trump is awful at all the other aspects of his job as well, but in this case, his ineptitude combined with Congressional fecklessness to produce no bill, no answers, numerous lies and a thoroughly honked-off populace. So Trump decided to do see what some executive orders might accomplish. Since Obamacare couldn’t be repealed and replaced via legislation, as the Framers intended, Trump cut insurance subsidies, and destabilized insurance markets. He wants Obamacare dead. Or something. It’s hard to tell; he’s given speech after speech that makes it sound like he favors a single-payer system. Or block grants to states. Or witchcraft and wizardry. Or something.

Meanwhile, something weird was happening in the offices and conference rooms of the Senate. Patty Murray, D-Washington, and Lamar Alexander, R-Tennessee, chair and ranking Dem on the Health Committee, were holding hearings, and meeting, and discussing, and trying to figure out a way to fix the real-life actual-factual problems Obamacare did in fact have. And they came up with a bill. Bi-partisan. A compromise. A little bit from the left and a little bit from the right. And it’s not a great bill, but it’s likely to be effective. Turns out, overcoming the partisan divide wasn’t completely impossible. Obamacare can be saved. Regular order works.

It was shocking. And nobody seems to know what to do about it. Trump was startled enough that he initially even seemed to suggest he’d support it. He immediately muddied the waters by saying nine other contradictory things about it, but who knows, he likes signing things. The House didn’t seem to know what to do about it. A few people reflexively made some noises about how this wasn’t ‘repeal and replace.’ It was a fix. The spectacle of two elected officials actually doing their jobs and serving their constituents has taken everyone by surprise. Even the national media didn’t know how to handle it; it was a below-the-fold-page-seven story in the national news.

Meanwhile, Alexander and Murray say they’re lining up co-sponsors, and hope for a Senate vote soon. Like, you know, real Senators. And Nancy Pelosi says she’d love to bring her House caucus aboard. It might, you know, actually pass. I wouldn’t bet my Mom’s pension on it, but stranger things have happened. Wouldn’t that be a hoot?


Basketball begins

The NBA season starts tonight, and I couldn’t be more excited.

To get us all pumped up for the start of a new season, HBO showed Hoosiers today. It’s a wonderful movie, an old favorite, about the Indiana high school basketball tournament, and also, more generally, about the hold the sport of basketball has on the state of Indiana, where I was raised. I’ve seen it many times, of course, but still pick up something new from it every time I see it. It was made in 1986, so 31 years ago. And, although it follows the fictional Hickory High team of 1951, it’s actually about the unlikely Milan championship in 1954, the smallest high school to ever win the state tourney. Which means that the movie was made 35 years after the events that it tells. So we end up with three interesting snapshots of basketball historically. Basketball in the early 1950s, in the mid-80s, and today.

Although the movie is nostalgic in tone, a paean to basketball played between small town high schools, where everyone in town came to all the home games, then drove through wintry country roads to away games, where all the town fathers gathered in the barber shop to reprise each win or loss–and the players got free haircuts, it’s also about an important turning point in basketball history. Anthony Pizzo, who wrote Hoosiers, and David Anspaugh, who directed it, are both from Indiana, sports nuts and basketball fans of the first order, and one of the marvelous things about their movie is the details.

This time through, I noticed Rade (Steve Hollar), and his one footed outside shot. Hank Luisetti is often credited as the first player to shoot a jump shot, but if you look at archival footage of his game, he really shot more like Rade; a long shot, with one foot ahead of the other, shot two handed. He did jump, so technically it’s a jump shot, but the smooth one handed shot with which Jimmy (Maris Valainis) wins so many games is the shot used mostly now, shot with shoulders square to the hoop, bouncing off both feet. Watch footage of Ken Sailors shot, a few years after Luisetti, and he’s shooting what we now regard as the classic jump shot. And that’s Jimmy’s shot as well, and it’s deadly. So this movie figured, an average player would shoot using the old fashioned Luisetti form, but a better player would use the cutting-edge Sailors shot. They got that right, is what I’m saying. I’m in awe.

So, as the jump shot revolutionized the game, so did a far more important factor, as basketball (slowly, reluctantly) integrated, as the best African-American players changed the way the game is played. In the movie, the Hickory team we follow (based on Milan High’s ’54 state champions), plays South Bend Central for the state title. And the South Bend team features four Black starters. In actuality, Milan played against Indianapolis Attucks High, starring the young Oscar Robertson.

Oscar Robertson was the greatest talent of his day, and one of the greatest players who ever lived. And when he finished high school, he desperately wanted to play college ball at Indiana University. The IU coach was Branch McCracken, once a superb coach who, sadly, allowed himself and his attitudes to be overtaken by time. He had his quota of black players, he told Robertson, and could not recruit another. Nowadays, of course, that attitude doesn’t just seem racist, it seems colossally, monumentally stupid. Hickory beats South Bend in the movie, and Milan beat Attucks, but those wins came to seem more and more anomalous. Today, basketball is played by, well, anyone who wants to play it. (The Utah Jazz, this season, will feature players from 9, count ’em, 9 different countries. That’s amazing).

The ’80s, when the movie was made, were the time of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, and the transformation of basketball in the national consciousness, and the rise of the NBA. Hoosiers helped; the best basketball movie ever, coming in the midst of the game’s big leap forward. And Bird, the white Hoosier kid, and Magic, the black kid from Michigan, became, in time, great friends, and great ambassadors for the game. And Bird, today, runs the Indiana Pacers, and Magic, the LA Lakers. Both bad teams, but that won’t last.

Most important, the game has changed, and entirely for the better. Watching Hoosiers, you can see the limitations of old style basketball. With the addition of a shot clock and a three point line (both, thanks to the upstart ABA), the game is more about floor spacing, about outside shooting, about defending passing lanes and opening up corner threes. The Utah Jazz, my team, meanwhile, thrive on the old fashioned virtues of strong defense, and team-oriented, state-of-the-art pick-and-roll, drive and dish modern basketball.

So do the Golden State Warriors, and therein lies the rub; the Jazz will not compete for a championship this year, or anytime soon. And this season carries little suspense. The Warriors play the game the way its supposed to be played. They’re an amazing defensive powerhouse, and their offense is about passing and spacing and screening and shooting, the way God intended.  But they also happen to have 3 of the 8 best players in the world. They have the right approach and the right coaching and the right attitudes, and they also feature Kevin Durrant, Stephen Curry, and Draymond Green. The Jazz, meanwhile, feature Rudy Gobert, a monstrously good defender, who can’t shoot. We’re not going to beat the Warriors, and neither will anyone else.

I don’t care. I’m feeling very Zen about the Jazz chances. I’ll be fine if they make the playoffs. My evenings are taken for the next six months.  I’m excited. I’m thrilled. Basketball is back, and all is right with the world.


I’ve been reading Katy Tur’s new book, Unbelievable, about her time as an NBC correspondent covering the Trump campaign. Tur’s a tough-minded and tenacious reporter, and her book is riveting. She’s also, incidentally, an attractive woman. And she has one chapter about the incredibly inappropriate sexual things men have said to her under the most ludicrous circumstances. Including the time when Candidate Trump, the guy who wanted to be President, who she happened to be covering, came up to her, apropos nothing, and kissed her.  When she describes these incidents, she dismisses them with a single, contemptuous word: “guys.” Just “guys.”

I hate that. I know what she means, and she’s right, and I’m glad she put it in her book, but I also hate it, what it says about men. Speaking as a dude, a fella, a ‘guy’, I don’t know what’s wrong with these people. Katy Tur had the most important political story of my lifetime, and she reported it with intelligence, nuance, integrity and unrelenting courage. Why can’t that be enough? Why can’t that be all?

When I heard about the current Harvey Weinstein news story, about the sordid and disgusting sexual history of the legendary Hollywood producer, my first thought was, sad to say, “so?” I mean, isn’t that the oldest of American pickup lines: “I’m making a movie, and there may be a part in it for you?” Film producer is also a sleaze? Also, NBA player is tall.

I taught theatre at the university level for twenty years. I’ve also directed maybe 50 plays, in college settings and professionally. I’ve also pulled down a few checks as a script consultant. That puts me in the very very furthest, Pluto-adjacent, outer edges of show-biz, I suppose. And the school I taught at was a religious school, and we always had to warn about students about, you know, professional realities. Some directors/producers/casting directors are honorable and competent and professional. Many are not. Watch out. Be careful. Carry pepper spray. All that.

But, you know, even as an outsider, it’s not hard to see how the sexual objectification of women is built into the very fabric of Hollywood. It’s not just who might proposition you in exchange for an audition. How many movies have roles for the male lead, and the female love interest? How often is the actor in his 50’s or 60’s, and the actress in her mid-20’s? How many movies or TV shows include gratuitous, not just nude scenes, but underwear scenes, bikini scenes, naked-from-behind scenes? How often are women depicted either as objects for male sexual interest, or as loyal and supportive and dull?

Everything about Hollywood seems sexually charged. Isn’t ‘glamour’ synonymous with ‘alluring?’

I thought of Dory Previn, the first wife of legendary Hollywood composer Andre Previn. You probably don’t know her work, but she was a terrific singer/songwriter, a cutey-pie voice singing lyrics of unmatched savagery, and a ferocious critic of Hollywood morés, such as they were. Here’s a lyric from her song Hooray for Hollywood.

They lead you like an animal to slaughter; you’re inspected, you’re rated, you’re stamped, standard or prime. They hang you on a meathook when you age, but female meat does not improve with time. They cut you up, and take the part that’s tender, and when they’re through, all that’s left of you is tough, tough, tough. The flesh is willing, but the spirit’s growing weaker. Enough, enough, enough, enough, enough.

Then straight to the chorus: “Who do you have to f*** to get into the movies? Who do you have to lay to make your way? Hooray for Hollywood!” (Dory Previn was outraged when her husband had an affair with an actress, Mia Farrow, 17 years his junior. When she objected, he had her committed to a mental institution, where she was subjected to electro-shock therapy).

Here’s what’s really horrible: Harvey Weinstein was one of the good guys, if by ‘good guy’ you mean talented, with an eye for a good script. How many genuinely great movies did he produce? Pulp Fiction, Ciderhouse Rules, Jane Eyre, The Englishman Who Fell Down a Hill but Came Down a Mountain, Emma, The English Patient, Shakespeare in Love, Mansfield Park, Chocolat, Gangs of New York, maybe 50 others, first for Miramax, then for his own company. Everyone knew he was a sexual predator. Everyone protected him, I think, in part, because he made great movies. Disgusting human being. Gifted artist. Like Roman Polanski. Woody Allen. Mel Gibson. Cosby. Michael Bay, Oliver Stone, Lars von Trier. How many people in Hollywood does that describe? I’ve seen lots of films by all those guys, and enjoyed them. I also voted for Bill Clinton, twice. Am I complicit? Am I responsible?

Here’s what else I know, though. Whenever an actress auditions for a movie, TV series, or play, she accurately perceives herself as a professional, as a hard-working, talented, skilled artist, looking for an opportunity to show what she’s capable of. That’s how she sees herself, because that’s who she is. She is fully aware that there are dozens, or hundreds of other women auditioning, all of them capable and talented. She also knows that getting cast is a long shot, and that sheer dumb luck will play into it. She wants to read well. She wants to act well. What I absolutely guarantee is this: she isn’t thinking “wow, this is my chance to have sex with a disgusting overweight unattractive man 40 years older than I am! Lucky me!” She did not show up to that audition to be sexually harassed. She was not signalling a desire to be sexually assaulted. She does not want to see the film’s producer naked. She’s applying for a job, seeking a professional opportunity. And deserves to be treated as such.

I’ve auditioned hundreds of actors, and cast many shows. What am I looking for? The “right” actor for the role. What does that mean? Can’t tell you. It’s a matter of feel, a question of instinct and experience. When will I know any particular actor is “right?” You just sort of do.

But yes, of course, to a limited extent, appearance enters into it. If I’m casting Romeo and Juliet, I need young actors in those two roles. And Juliet should be, well, pretty. Her physical appearance is one factor I need to take into consideration. But what you have to think (what you inevitably do think) is this: ‘is she pretty enough to be plausible in the role?’ What you can’t ever think (and I can truly say, I never have thought, not once, not ever), is this: ‘gosh, she’s cute; I wonder if she’d like to date me?’ I mean, why would you even think that? You have X amount of time to get the show up, and Y amount of things that have to be done and rehearsed and polished first. And Y>X, always, forever. And you’re going to waste your time making a fool out of yourself, and btw, an enemy of someone you still have to work with? While also wasting everyone’s time? How dumb can you be?

One thing would help: too high a percentage of producers and directors and writers are male. Hiring more women isn’t tokenism. It’s called ‘increasing the talent pool.’ When the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson, they didn’t sign ‘a black guy.’ They signed ‘a superstar.’ More female writers and directors will result, ipso facto, in more great movies. Which, frankly, I want to see.

So many women I know, so many former students, so many colleagues, so many talented artists I have worked with in the past have come forward lately, post-Weinstein, and said, quietly, honestly, eloquently, “Me too.” It breaks my heart. It disgusts me as well. The Harvey Weinsteins of the world disgrace my entire gender, and my entire life-long profession. Yes, as a matter of fact, directors and producers are in a position of power. But you’re also doing something important and valuable and beautiful. You’re creating works of art, collectively, everyone working together. Why would someone want to profane that, turn it ludicrous and disgusting, for no reason? Katy Tur knows. “Guys.”

To all of you, let me say this. I am so sorry. I am horrified, I am appalled, I am sickened. Thank you for coming forward. Thank you for telling the truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant, so let’s start disinfected, root these attitudes and approaches out and destroy that entire power-mad mindset. Because this is about the abuse of power. And it’s repugnant.

Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 2018

Let’s talk about something more fun.

2017 has been, in my humble opinion, a complete armpit of a year, what with the toxic politics and mass shootings and ill health and family tragedies (the last two are idiosyncratically mine). Let’s look forward to 2018. And, as it happens, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has announced the latest candidates for induction. So let’s argue about something meaningless, for a change. As always, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s choices are quite illogical, and at times, completely insane. And we’ll also never agree. That said, here are my choices.

Bon Jovi: Isn’t Bon Jovi kind of the perfect rock band? For one thing, they’re from New Jersey, did the whole high school friends/garage band thing. They have a cool-sounding band name, and yet all they did was pick the last name of their lead singer, Jon Bon Jovi. If they’d gone with the name of their lead guitarist, they’d still have a cool-sounding name: I’d listen to a band called Sambora. Old school rock and roll, with a big enough sound to fill arenas, plus they do stuff like build houses for poor people. Are they actually, you know, good? Good enough, I’d say. I’m a yes for Bon Jovi.

Kate Bush: A lot of people have declared Kate Bush a token pick, an attempt to address the R&R HOF’s ‘women problem.’ As in, there aren’t a lot of women in the Hall. It would be a shame to dismiss an artist as innovative and imaginative and unusual as a token pick, though. She’s as much a performance artist as she is a singer, and I love that about her; love how uncompromising her commitment is to her own vision. I’m voting for her, despite not actually liking her music all that much.

The Cars: I was ‘no’ on the Cars last year, and I’m voting ‘no’ again this year. I just don’t think they’re all that good. They’re not particularly innovative, not particularly influential, and their career was relatively short. They just had a few hits. No.

Depeche Mode: I don’t like Depeche Mode. I find their sound uncongenial. i do have to admit that Martin Gore is a terrific songwriter, and I love some of their songs, mostly when covered by other people. They’re certainly influential; unfortunately influential, to my mind. So I cling stubbornly to my ‘no’ vote. They’re probably getting in, though.

Dire Straits: This is the first year Dire Straits have been nominated, and it’s about time, in my opinion. Mark Knopfler is one of the great guitarists, and an outstanding songwriter. Just listen to the throw-away riffs in ‘Sultan’s of Swing,” or the urgent passion of that final solo at the end of “Brothers in Arms.” Just sublime. A heart-felt ‘yes’ to Dire Straits.

Eurythmics: Annie Lennox has one of the great voices in the history of popular music, let alone rock and roll. And with a multi-instrumentalist/producer/songwriter like Dave Stewart, she found her perfect collaborator. Their collaboration was relatively short-lived, but there was some amazing music over the years. An easy ‘yes.’

The J Geils Band: Sorry, but no. Look at their hits. “Freeze Frame.” “Love Stinks.” “Centerfold.” Essentially two novelty songs and a song built off one catchy riff. I know, they did more than that, but that’s what I know them for, and it’s just not good enough. A hard ‘no.’

Judas Priest: Rob Halford is an excellent rock and roll singer, and their guitarists, Glenn Tipton and K. K. Downing are both first rate. They’re very good heavy metal musicians. There are lots of bands like that, and I don’t know that Judas Priest really distinguishes themselves from everyone else. So: No.

L L Cool J: Certainly an important and influential rap artist. I don’t know his work very well, and therefore it’s easy for me to say ‘no.’

MC 5: Or rather, the Motor City 5. If punk music is meant to be political, these guys are proto-punk pioneers. But their career was very very short, and I wouldn’t include them among the most important bands in the early history of punk. Just not important enough, and didn’t last very long. No.

The Meters: A tough call. Certainly, they were funk pioneers. In a way, it’s absurd to say that Sly and the Family Stone and James Brown and Funkadelic belong in the R&R HOF, but the Meters don’t. But much of their career was spent as back-up musicians for people like Paul McCartney. Their music is great fun, but, for this year at least, I’m voting ‘no.’

The Moody Blues: See, this is what happens when you let Yes in the R&R HOF; the riff-raff start showing up. I shouldn’t call them riff-raff. I have lots of friends who loved them. I just don’t think they’re the prog musicians that should go in first. Let ELP and Jethro Tull and King Crimson and Gentle Giant in the Hall. Then we can talk about the Moody Blues. No.

Radiohead: This is their first year of eligibility, and yes, they absolutely have to go in. It’s like the baseball HOF; we spend a lot of time arguing about guys like Tommy John, but when Derek Jeter becomes eligible, the vote’s pretty much unanimous. Radiohead is an easy call. Great band. Yes.

Rage Against the Machine: Punk and metal and politics. They’re ferocious partisans of a whole bunch of political causes that I, sort of, support. But purity of motive doesn’t necessarily lead to great music. No.

Rufus Featuring Chaka Khan: Again, if you like funk (and I do), they’re important. I just think Chaka Khan should go in by herself, as a solo artist, before Rufus gets in. So, a reluctant no.

Nina Simone: certainly she was a great jazz singer. And she was a magnificent singer period. But her soul music was only a small part of her career, and I’m just not sure she was ever particularly rock and roll. So: no.

Sister Rosetta Tharp: First of all, yes, she should be in the HOF. She recorded a song called ‘Rock Me’ back in 1938. A gutsy black woman singing gospel music, accompanying herself on an electric guitar; she was a rock and roll pioneer. I just think she should be inducted by the HOF equivalent to the Veteran’s Committee. No, in this format.

Link Wray: certainly an important influence on future musicians. He really should have been inducted 30 years ago. Again, pass him on to the Veteran’s Committee.

The Zombies: Immensely important early rock and roll band, one of the most important British Invasion bands of the late 1960s. But they only put out two albums. A reluctant no.

So, those are my choices. Really, I think Link Wray and Sister Rosetta should be inducted too. This fan vote is largely a popularity contest. Love to hear your feedback!  And here’s a link to the website, and your chance to vote.


Politicizing tragedy

Sunday night, a sixty-four year old accountant named Stephen Paddock smashed two windows in his luxury suite at the Mandalay Bay hotel, and, using automatic weapons, opened fire on a crowd enjoying a country music festival. So far, 59 people are dead, and over 500 injured. It’s not being called a terrorist attack, presumably because it doesn’t seem to have had an ideological motive. In fact, no one knows precisely why Paddock committed such a horrific act. What police are discovering is that this guy owned a great many weapons, large quantities of ammunition, and a sizeable amount of explosives. And it appears, at present, that all those weapons were acquired legally.

As usual, political leaders gave voice to their feelings of shock and horror, sending the usual ‘thoughts and prayers,’ and expressing gratitude for the heroic efforts of first responders. Also, as usual, conservative lawmakers urged liberals not to politicize this event. It’s unseemly, they suggested, to exploit the suffering of victims and their families to push for changes in gun laws. This tactic–and it is a tactic–seems to have worked. It’s okay to politicize tragedy to oppose gun control, unseemly to politicize it to support gun control. And the status quo remains unchanged.

We know how this will play itself out. There will be a renewed push for gun control legislation, which will go nowhere, and accomplish nothing. A few weeks will pass, and passions will subside. Nothing will be done. The NRA will see an increase in membership, and gun manufacturers will experience a bump in sales. And the Onion will run the same story they always run during these tragedies. The headline: ‘No way to prevent this.’ says only nation where this regularly happens.’  Also this: “Americans hope this will be last mass shooting before they stop on their own for no reason.”

The power of the gun lobby is truly formidable, and a reluctance to exploit human suffering is normal enough. Still, it is absolutely essential that these tragedies be politicized. In the last twenty-four hours I’ve seen interview after interview with law enforcement officials addressing the issue of hotel security. How was this guy able to bring seventeen high powered guns into his hotel room? Why don’t hotels check your luggage? What can be done to prevent this in the future? It’s quite absurd; the push now seems to be to make the task of checking into a hotel as unpleasant and fraught as the task of boarding an airplane. And yet, of course, people want to discuss how this kind of tragedy can be prevented in the future. Why is it okay to use this event to push for an increase in hotel security, but not to disarm Americans? If we’re trying to prevent future acts of gun violence, why is one possible solution okay, but the more effective and obvious one not okay?

But there’s another factor. There’s a reason why this is such a contentious issue. Pro-Gun guys tend to feel more passionate about this issue than gun control advocates do. I wish that weren’t the case, but it is. People who love their guns, absolutely love their guns. The rest of us tend not to care that much, until events like this most recent one prove us right.

When I was thirteen, I went to my first Boy Scout camp. I loved it. There were so many possible activities I could involve myself with! I was there to earn merit badges, to be sure, but also there to learn the skills that would result in merit badges. I was immediately drawn to watersports, and earned merit badges in canoeing, rowing, swimming, lifesaving.

The camp had a rifle range, and shooting was a popular activity. The instructor was an older man who clearly loved his job; he was a good teacher, and his rifle range was a safe space. It was a ‘well-regulated militia.’ I tried it; everyone tried it. I wasn’t very good at it, and didn’t pursue the shooting merit badge (I don’t remember what it was called). Instead, I gravitated over to archery. It was a lot cheaper, and I didn’t have a lot of money, plus, I don’t know, I just liked it more.

But some guys, man, they absolutely lived at that rifle range. It was the only thing they wanted to do.

Have you ever talked to a pro-gun person? Some of these guys, this is, like, the most important thing in their lives. And they’re convinced that owning a gun makes them safer, that the best response to bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. All that stuff. Plus, of course, they insist that the Second Amendment gives them an absolute right to own any and all firearms they want.

Me, I’m indifferent to guns. Their existence means as much to me as it did back in Scout camp. Ban them all, and it would zero impact on my life, aside from making it a little safer. I just don’t think about them all that often. And I think I’m like most Americans in this regard. I’m aware that some people like to shoot recreationally, and that seems harmless enough, and that other people like to go hunting–which I have never done, and can’t imagine ever wanting to do–and that’s fine. It would be the height of hypocrisy for me to raise moral objections to hunting, enjoying a good burger, as I do. I’ve shot a .22 rifle a few times, enjoyed it well enough. I’m not congenitally against guns. I just think we could save a lot of lives if fewer guns were in circulation. In fact, that’s obviously true–most other countries on earth have much stricter gun laws, and way fewer gun casualties.

So I don’t think about guns much. I don’t obsess over them. But come on; there are 88 guns per every 100 Americans, and that’s ridiculous. Every year, there are 33,000 deaths due to guns, more or less, and that’s way too many. As for the Second Amendment, the most preposterous Supreme Court decision of my lifetime, District of Columbia v. Heller, finally, for the first time, made the ridiculous assertion that the Second Amendment, rather than be about militias, gave ordinary citizens the right to privately own firearms. As silly as Heller is, though, it never says that guns can’t be regulated.

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms. Miller’s holding that the sorts of weapons protected are those “in common use at the time” finds support in the historical tradition of prohibiting the carrying of dangerous and unusual weapons.

So, yeah, Congress can absolutely pass national gun control legislation without doing violence to the Constitution. But Congress won’t do it. Too many congressmen get way too much money from the NRA. And the people who oppose gun control care way more about it than those of us who just want to bring some logic and factual accuracy to the discussion. Generally, most Americans support sensible gun control legislation. But we’re not all that passionate about it, unless we’ve lost someone to gun violence.

So, yeah, let’s be honest. We need to politicize gun violence. We need to raise the issue now. We need to push for legislative relief, and do it now. Because, let’s get real. 59 dead at a country music festival is just ridiculous. And 33,000 deaths annually is 32,900 too many. A lot of good people, enjoying music in a public space, were murdered on Sunday.

And, really, isn’t it true that any Congressman beholden to NRA campaign contributions is, to some degree, complicit? You want to feel better about yourself? Do your job.


Roy Samuelsen, 1933-2017

My father had terrible toes. They were badly misshapen, gnarled and twisted. He wasn’t particularly embarrassed about it; when someone noticed and said something, he’d laugh. He had “Hitler toes,” he’d say. Or “Quisling toes.” They were an artifact of his childhood, a reminder of the Nazi occupation of Norway.

My Dad was seven when the Nazis invaded Norway, twelve when the Germans were finally defeated. And as a child in Norway, it was simply impossible to get new shoes. Any leather that might be used to make shoes was reserved for German soldiers. A Norwegian kid had no chance at all. I suppose that a quisling–a Norwegian traitor–might have gotten on a list somewhere; a Norwegian Nazi might have gotten shoes to match a child’s growth. But my grandfather and great-uncles all were in the Resistance; all were fiercely anti-German. Bestefar, my wonderful grandfather, worked at the glass factory in Moss, making glass for German airplanes and jeeps and warplanes. It was the only time in his life he was bad at a job. Like all Norwegian patriots, he worked slowly, inefficiently, delivering glass of the poorest quality, and sabotaging shipments whenever possible. And then, evenings and weekends, he’d ride a bicycle for miles into the countryside, looking for farmers so he could buy or barter for milk for his kids.

And during air raids, my father would sing. Just a little kid, but he was a natural entertainer even then, as a child, and even then, he sang exuberantly, cheerfully. He loved the folk songs his grandfather taught him, but even more, he loved American songs, especially cowboy songs. At his funeral, my son played Home on the Range on the guitar. Dad loved that song from an early age, and could bang it out on the guitar and sing it at high volume. Everything, with Dad, was high volume.

Because that was Dad. An opera singer, a Wagnerian baritone, and a somewhat hammy but effective singing actor; he was above all, an entertainer. And he loved it. He loved everything about it, singing, acting, performing. He was never more alive than when he was singing.

At his funeral, my brothers and I knew we needed to hear his voice again. That, for me, was the hardest part of his death; the thought that that voice had been silenced. So we played this:

“I love life.” Nothing captured Dad better. Really, I never knew him to be down; never knew him to have the blues. He loved to sing, yes. But he loved all of it. He loved waterskiing, and hiking, and tooling around Lake Monroe in his boat. He loved playing catch with his boys, loved playing basketball with us, loved tossing a football around. He wasn’t much of an athlete, but that didn’t matter; he’d come home from a hard day teaching–or rehearsing or coaching–and he’d see us out playing. He had to join us.

And he loved to travel. He and Mom visited every continent–yes, including Antarctica–and everywhere he went, he took his camera. He was an outstanding photographer, with a great eye for composition and color and contrast. His skills with a camera are shared today by my brother, Rob; two terrific nature photographers. Dad also loved to work with his hands. He could build anything, and loved it, a good carpentry project. And what he build, lasted. My brother Rolf is currently working with his sons to renovate a home; again, my Dad’s legacy continues.

And what about me? Because I was always the odd man out, I thought. When we’d take the boat out, I brought a book; I’d rather read. I had no carpentry skills whatsoever; I really, genuinely, can’t fix things, or build things, or imagine ever wanting to. I liked to sing, but we all sang; you couldn’t be a Samuelsen and not sing. I fancied myself an intellectual; my Dad was an academic, but hardly any kind of scholar. His publications were all performances. My Dad was the ultimate extrovert, outgoing and charming and greatly beloved. As I said at his funeral, he probably had more close personal friends in Iceland and South Korea than I have total. My Dad was larger than life, a booming, friendly, lover of life. He was also a man of immense kindness and charity. I think I’m fairly outgoing, and certainly try to get along with people. But in many respects, we were different people, and we struggled for mutual understanding. We clashed at times; I regret that more than I can say.

But then I think of Dad’s toes. And how little they mattered. They probably hurt when he walked; he never mentioned it, though, and wouldn’t have cared. He had a heart attack; he also had a stroke. Neither slowed him down. Yes, he was tough. But more than that, he couldn’t let minor health problems get in the way. There was too much life to experience, too much of the world to see.

Within Mormonism, there’s a rhetorical stance in which we’re urged to reject the world and worldly values. I don’t altogether understand it. I love the world; I really do. I don’t mean that I love nature, or the planet, or pretty scenery. I mean, I like scenery too, but mostly, what I like about nature is keeping it out of my house. No, I love the world. I love art, and performance, and good theatre. I love opera, and musicals, and dance. I love comedians and comedy, musicians and music. I love movies. In fact, I won’t even say that I love good movies. I love all movies, indiscriminately. I think the world is amazing. I want to live now, on the earth today, with wifi and air conditioning and dentistry and antibiotics.

I remember Dad in a Priesthood class once. The lesson was on humility, and Dad raised his hand. And Dad said, “look, I’m an opera singer. I can’t do what I do unless I’m pretty sure that I’m good at it. I’m grateful that I’ve been blessed with certain talents. But I do have those talents. I’m a great singer. I have to know that, or I can’t do it.”

And so my Dad embraced the world. Oh, he didn’t like all of it. He never did understand rock music, for example, and was appalled by a lot of recent opera stagings that he saw. He’d call me from time to time, and he’d say ‘did you see that performance? It’s exactly the approach that you like. And you’re wrong, and here’s why.’ And we’d talk it out. It amused me, that he’d get on me for potentially liking a performance I hadn’t actually seen. What I now realize is that it probably amused him too.

But he was a wonderful Dad. He may not have always completely understood me, but he never stopped trying, and he never stopped loving me, and he never stopped telling me how much he cared. And I never stopped loving him. Heavenly Father gave me Roy Samuelsen, as a mentor, teacher, father and friend. I am so immensely grateful. And miss him more than I can possibly say.