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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Time Stand Still"

Old men, making better music than you and I ever will or likely ever could. "Experience slips away"? I doubt it, sir.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Blackbird"

Continuing with the Beatles theme, here's Paul, from a long time ago, with his guitar, doing what he does best. I love the crowd's respectful, quiet absorption of his singing.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Here Comes the Sun"

What happens when a wise old New York troubadour sings, with the humblest of arrangements, the Beatles's greatest English folk song (of which they recorded, if you think about it, more than a few)? This is happens, my friends.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Still Great, Half a Century On

So, will you be huddled like sheep around the television set (or the laptop, though I'm not it'll be live-streamed) watching CBS this Sunday night, watching the 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles and their ground-breaking appearance on the Ed Sullivan show? I will be, and so should you; I mean, for heaven's sake, if the Eurythmics can get back together for this one show, you can sacrifice a Sunday evening. And honestly, aside from all the predictable retrospective commodification, it's still a big deal: the Beatles revolution may have begun three and a half years earlier, and wouldn't hit it's peak for another year or two, and they'd be burned out less than a half-decade after that...but, their arrival in America, and their wonderful set on one of America's biggest television shows, was a landmark nonetheless. Don't believe me? Just watch the original showing for yourself.

Tuesday, February 04, 2014

The Ron and Hermione Problem

[Fan art by keerakeera]

Okay, I didn't plan on writing anything about this, and there's no point in explaining anything to anyone who doesn't already know everything that's going on, so let me sum up. Over the weekend, in a leaked snippet of an upcoming interview between J.K. Rowling and Emma Watson, Rowling said this (ignore the headline; it's inaccurate--just stick with the actual words):

"I wrote the Hermione-Ron relationship as a form of wish fulfillment. That's how it was conceived, really. For reasons that have very little to do with literature and far more to do with me clinging to the plot as I first imagined it, Hermione ended up with Ron....I know, I'm sorry, I can hear the rage and fury it might cause some fans, but if I'm absolutely honest, distance has given me perspective on that. It was a choice I made for very personal reasons, not for reasons of credibility."

This has, predictably, spawned a huge range of reactions from the many and rival Ron-Hermione and Harry-Hermione fans out there amongst the millions of lovers of the Harry Potter books and films. (Those of you who delighted in Rowling's world solely because Harry's adventure was funny and thrilling and moving, and skipped all the subplots, can move along now.) As one who has been fairly obsessed with HP over the years, I have my own opinions. They are, in short: A) I'm a big fan of the Ron-Hermione pairing, and actually think it makes, in the context of the wizarding world Rowling created, good--if, admittedly, also somewhat complicated--psychological, romantic, and even moral sense; B) still, as it is legitimate to take seriously authorial intent and opinion, we should wait until the full interview is released so we can understand the context of the quoted comments and give it our full consideration; C) in the meantime, it's just a reality that all authors' understanding of their own works change over time, and this is obviously especially the case for those who, like Rowling, have invested years in seeing their stories adapted and transformed into film and media other media; D) to the extent that those of us who liked the Ron-Hermione subplot have to accept B) and C), we have some recourse in remembering that Steven Kloves, the screenwriter of seven of the eight Harry Potter movies, always tended to make Hermione out to be a super-woman, rather than the flawed individual of the books who needed her friends just as much as they needed her; and finally E), let's keep in mind the wise words of Nerd Fighter, geek book god, and YouTube sensation John Green, who simply tweeted in response to the leaked interview: "Books belong to their readers."

If you need more, you can read this thoughtful reflection on how Rowling implicitly treated love throughout her whole story (and why the pairing of Ron and Hermione is a persuasive reflection of that treatment). If you find the whole thing just funny (and maybe have a small Harry-Hermione hankering within you), well, enjoy Stephen Colbert's take:

And finally, if after all that you want more, may I suggest you do what I do: trust the best and most thoughtful and consistent fan fic writers, because who really exhausts the canon of a story better than they? St. Margarets, a great writer (and, perhaps not coincidentally, the one writer who made Harry-Ginny seem persuasive to me), finds Rowling's comment about Ron-Hermione being "wish fulfillment" rather bizarre: after all, what else are we doing when we write stories that actually have a conclusion, to say nothing of a "happy ending," then engaging in one kind of wish fulfillment or another? She then tartly imagines what other authors might have had to say about their perhaps "non-credible" pairings:

LM Montgomery regrets shipping Anne and Gilbert since she first wrote them during her long engagement to Ewen Macdonald when she was hopeful that she was marrying her intellectual equal to whom she was also physically attracted. (That had been an issue from her broken engagement to Edwin Simpson– she writes in her journal that she was repulsed by his “affections.” ) Ewen and LM were apart for most of their engagement, so LM did a lot of projecting. Anne and Gilbert were her ideals – friends who could talk non-stop for hours and then hop into bed – just what she hoped for during her five-year engagement. Unfortunately, LM Montgomery’s marriage/subsequent life was marred by her husband’s mental illness, her health problems, her money problems and her disappointment in her wild-oat-sowing son. Now that she knows just how difficult marriage would be, she wouldn’t pair Anne up with someone that unrealistically nice.

Louisa May Alcott regrets shipping Jo with Fritz Bhaer and having them run a boys home where everyone learned at their own pace and all lived in communal harmony. This idea was based on her father’s short-lived commune. The wish fulfillment part was that Jo and Fritz were equal partners in their relationship and they had food (unlike the grinding poverty of the commune). Louisa never married and she had to put up with her father’s tyrannical nature until he died. So Jo and her well-fed boys were totally unrealistic. (She does not regret, however, giving Amy a drama llama for a husband, mediocre artistic talent and a sickly daughter since Amy burned Jo’s manuscript.)

Charlotte Bronte regrets shipping Jane with Rochester – one, because it’s highly unlikely that the lord of the manor would take notice of a mousey governess (Charlotte, a one time governess, eventually married her father’s curate) and two, tragically, few in her world would live long enough to suddenly come into a family legacy and wait out Rochester disposing of his first wife for the happy ending. (She lost three immediate family members in the 8 months after Jane Eyre was published.) Charlotte died at 38 from pregnancy complications.

Stephenie Meyer regrets shipping Edward with Bella and having Jacob obsess over her – Wait. Stephenie Meyer regrets nothing! She’s laughing all the way to the bank.

Well said!

Monday, February 03, 2014

Wrong Case, Wrong Reasoning, Right Principle

Late last week, the state of Kansas officially joined Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. by filing an amicus brief in support of the Hobby Lobby's effort to use the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to exempt itself from the requirement under the Affordable Care Act to provide contraception coverage as part of their employees' health insurance. Our state attorney general, Derek Schmidt, says that the lawsuit is entirely about "religious liberty" and is "as American as apple pie." I think he has the right idea--but the way he's expressing it, by joining the case which he has, gets that idea terribly wrong.

I've touched somewhat indirectly on my opposition to the contraception mandate which was included in the ACA via a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services a couple of times before. To put it very briefly, it strikes me as both constitutionally invasive and frustratingly complicated, and hence something which just underlines the fundamental philosophical problems with both employer-based health insurance and the ACA itself in its attempt to work towards a fairer health care system in the context of that lousy arrangement, however defensible (and I do defend it!) the ACA may be in general. Hence, it's not a huge deal-breaking issue for me, a symptom rather than a cause. But of course it has become a issue upon which many are directly all their anti-ACA efforts (over 100 lawsuits have been filed), and thus not surprisingly, I've gotten strong push-back from friends who defend the act, challenging me over the arguably undeniable sexism or conservatism of my position. I've appreciated that push-back. Given my communitarian and democratic disposition, which in this case leads me to be generally supportive of collective expressions of culturally grounded dissent from certain broadly applicable laws, their arguments have made me think about whether defending organizations which seek religious exemptions--such as this one to the contraception mandate--aren't themselves doing real civic harm to the broader community. So, while laying out what I see as wrong with Attorney General Schmidt's decision, let's see if I can express some distinctions.

While there are dozens of particular differences to the many cases which have been filed against the government in regards to the contraception mandate, basically, as I see it, there are about three categories of complaints here:

1) For-profit businesses whose owners see the commercial activities they oversee as inextricably entwined with their own personal sense of religious duty or ministry, who see the public provisioning of contraception coverage for women as an evil in light of their own beliefs about the morality of birth control, and who thus believe that their religious liberty is threatened if they or any of their employees can be legally involved in any way whatsoever by the ACA with that provisioning. This is essentially the argument which the state of Kansas has joined by choosing to stand alongside Hobby Lobby when it gets its time before the Supreme Court this March.

2) Organizations (including some for-profit businesses, but mostly consisting of various religiously oriented non-profits and schools) who argue, on the basis of the same moral beliefs about contraception mentioned above, that the ACA entangles the mission of their organization in something they consider to be evil, and that they ought to be exempt from such entanglement. This is the position the University of Notre Dame and many other similar institutions.

3) Organizations (again, mostly religious non-profits, but including a few for-profit business entities) who argue, going beyond the issue of entanglement, that any state involvement in the provisioning of contraception coverage will implicate them, since even if they are allowed to excuse themselves from being involved in its provision to their employees, they will essentially be obliged to authorize some one else to do so for their employees, and that makes them complicit in the evil all the same. This is the position, as best I can figure out, being taken in the highly convoluted lawsuit filed by the Catholic charity, The Little Sisters of the Poor, among others.

In categories 2) and, to a lesser degree, 3), I continue think there is--despite the doubts pressed upon me by the challenges of others--an important principle that needs resolution here. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed (thankfully) by Congress and signed into law by President Clinton in response to the SC's decision, Employment Division v. Smith, which --in my view, anyway--did real harm to the religious freedom which previous had been enjoyed (if not always consistently) by distinct religious individuals, bodies, and organizations. Smith--which was authored by conservative hero Antonin Scalia--made it very difficult for people and groups to make a case for their right, under the First Amendment, to be religiously exempt from, what he called, "neutral laws of general applicability."

Obviously there is a great deal of gray area here; religious liberty may be a "foundational freedom," as AG Schmidt puts it, but in a pluralistic society with both great religious diversity and guarantees of equal treatment, the opportunity for discrimination and harm posed by allowing too broad religious exemptions is very real as well. The position of the Little Sisters of the Poor strikes me as ultimately almost perverse (so if they sign a form which states that, rather than obeying a law, a third party will obey it on their behalf, it's the same as if they've embraced the law itself?), while Notre Dame, by contrast, has remained focused on the larger problem of their self-defined mission becoming "entangled" in principles they are doctrinally opposed to, and has in the meantime gone along with the government's proposed "accommodation" of religiously affiliated non-profits. If Kansas had aligned itself with Notre Dame's lawsuit, winding its way through district and appellate courts, I would have no complaint.

But no, Schmidt has committed our state to category 1), the Hobby Lobby lawsuit, which is simply a terrible move. Terrible because, to signal support for a commercial establishment's ability to operate independently of generally applicable, neutral laws, is to essentially sign on to a profoundly unequal reading of the First Amendment. Business and other for-profit corporations have significant social power in society; they are, after all, who most of us work for, and they supply most of what we need to live our lives. Broad religious exemptions granted to such entities thus puts them in a position to discriminate against individuals, which is absolute not what "religious freedom" ought to mean.

For example, if someone--in accordance with democratically determined, generally applicable laws--obtains a business license to run a commercial hotel, and then builds that hotel, and then puts a vacancy sign out, thus encouraging commercial traffic at their hotel, they cannot then say, to any otherwise law-abiding adult person who has the money to pay for an available room at that hotel, "no wait, you can't stay here, because I don't rent rooms to Jews." Civil rights legislation--driven by decisions like Heart of Atlanta v. U.S.--has made it clear that private business may be privately owned, but they, within certainly clearly defined limits, must adhere in their operations to public requirements. And, as multiple scholars have argued in anticipation of the Hobby Lobby case, unless you are talking about a small, closely-held, commercially limited, private corporation--which really doesn't describe a mega-store franchise like Hobby Lobby at all--religious beliefs should not be allowed to trump the ordinary commercial operations that every adult citizen should have equal access to.

My suspicion is that Hobby Lobby, and others, are actually more opposed to President Obama personally and the Affordable Care Act in general than this one particular element of it. But if they--and the state of Kansas--really are willing to die on this hill, let's be clear about something: contraception is legal in the United States. Hence, it may be uncomplicatedly considered as an element of health insurance packages, which in turn may be subject to democratic debate and, if appropriate legislation allows, public provisioning. I'm happy to defend, or at least seriously consider, religious exemptions which genuinely reflect the ministerial and cultural missions of non-profit and charitable organizations; I think that is important to a kind of civil religion worth having in the U.S. But to give an out to a general law for the sake of the religious conscience of owners of a business that is obviously obliged to (and economically ought to want to!) treat its male and female equally anyway? Famed federal court judge Learned Hand's quote is appropriate here: "The First Amendment gives no one the right to insist that in pursuit of their own interests others must conform their conduct to his own religious necessities." Derek Schmidt needs to learn that.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Five Essential Philip Seymour Hoffman Film Performances

By now, everybody who is on the internet today knows: Philip Seymour Hoffman, the brilliant stage and screen actor, the first (and here I'm stealing a tribute from Jacob Levy) Generation Xer to gain undisputed membership in the critical Hollywood pantheon, is dead of a drug overdose. And I should be--and on a certain level, truly am--moved by a sorrow and empathy for his own struggles and for those family and friends and loved ones who will feel pain and loss at his death most deeply, I have to admit it: my primary feeling here is frustration. Idiot!, I want to cry: look what the world of stage and screen has lost!

Well, that's my hang-up; for the moment, the best thing to do is pay tribute to an immensely talented man. I never saw him live, though I have friends who did, and said his command to the stage was tremendous. What I can do, though, is show off his command of the screen. He was called a "character actor," which too often is a kind of back-hand compliment, the sort of thing you say about a journeyman performer who will take on, invest themselves in, and bring to life small roles, primarily because they aren't good-looking enough to ever be given a starring role. In response to that, let me suggest five performances of Hoffman's that every fan of great film acting ought to see. Some are big roles, some are small, but all, in one way or another, made this man a star. The one thing they have in common is that they are all conversations--Hoffman's character talking, arguing, challenging, insulting, inquiring with other actors, communicating both what is being said, and what isn't. Tremendous, tremendous stuff. In chronological order:

As Scott J. in Boogie Nights (1997), a confused, self-loathing, yet also innocently hopeful gay man:

As Lester Bangs in Almost Famous (2000), the lonely rock critic who is, as both the protagonist and the audience realize almost too late, the moral center of rock and roll:

As Dean Trumbell in Punch-Drunk Love (2002), the only man who has the balanced fury capable of actually shouting down and intimidating Adam Sandler in the midst of one of his patented rants.

As Truman Capote in the glorious character study Capote (2005), playing the title character whose wit, style, subtlety, and reputation is so inoffensively awesome, that he can that he can get anyone to eat out of his hand.

As Father Brendan Flynn in Doubt (2008), a man in a struggle with personalized forces of contempt (in the form of Meryl Steep!) that invades both his sense of responsibility and his pride.

Philip Seymour Hoffman, RIP.

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Follow You Follow Me"

Genesis, live in London on the Duke tour in 1980, at pretty near exactly the moment that the band stopped being one rather amazing thing, and become another equally impressive (but very different) thing. Good stuff all around, though.