Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Trip to Italy - a review

In 2005, Michael Winterbottom made the first of three films starring the comedic actors Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Coogan and Brydon always seem to play, we are told, some version of themselves. That first film, entitled Tristram Shandy: A Cock and Bull Story, was about a film crew making a film about Tristram Shandy. Whether Winterbottom was playing with some postmodern notion of simulacrum or what, the idea of a film within a film made no sense.  It was deadly dull and instantly forgettable.

The second film in the Coogan/Brydon series was called The Trip.   Originally a TV sitcom, the conceit was that a newspaper would pay Coogan to make a foodie road trip and write up his restaurant experiences for the paper, and when Coogan’s girlfriend dropped out, Brydon went along instead.  The film received mixed reviews.  Netflix only rates it two and a half stars, i.e., between “liked it” and “didn’t like it,” but Rotten Tomatoes gave it 89% positive. Roger Ebert gave it four stars out of five and Coogan won a Best Male Comedy performance award.  

There was no shortage of viewers calling it empty and tiresome, but apparently Winterbottom thought it was worth doing a third time (i.e., extend the TV series a second season).  He repeats the travelling food and wine conceit, this time in one of the most gorgeous settings imaginable. It’s the yuppie notion of paradise, zipping along the breathtaking coastline of Liguria and Amalfi in a Mini Cooper and popping in and out of some of Italy’s most exclusive hotels and restaurants with a budget that takes the food and wine in stride.

For a while, the banter is quite funny, the food is appetizing, and the scenery alone is worth the price of admission.   But it quickly wears thin.  Some have compared the frenetic energy of Coogan and Brydon to Robin Williams – David Denby in The New Yorker, for example – but that’s way off.  They’re not even close in wit and intelligence, much less human sympathy.  Denby likes the hostile banter, finding the English bromance “a triumph of the lean British comic style over the maunder and the mush” of the American variety.  I find these guys infantile.  They don’t know anything about food, and their ignorance and immaturity are supposed to be funny.  It doesn’t take long before it begins to cloy and the endlessly repeated impersonations of Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Roger Moore, Richard Burton and other famous voices aren’t actually all that good.

Winterbottom makes much of the fact that these modern-day Englishmen are tracing the steps of the Romantic poets Keats, Byron and Shelley.  They visit their graves, recite their poetry and pay homage to their sensibility.  Or try to.  It’s like watching a girl walking around in her mommy’s high heels.  They come across as clueless. 

Which is not to say they are unsympathetic.  Grasping at life and aware of how swiftly it seems to be getting away from them, their reflections on aging and dying should resonate with anybody of a certain age who has the courage not to look away from such thoughts, even if done with clumsy humor.  The juxtaposition of the Romantic notions of beauty and death are the heart of this film, and for me the choice of the last of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs to accompany the scenes of sailing on the Mediterranean, was perfection.

That last song, Im Abendrot (At Sunset), is a poem by Germany’s Romantic poet Joseph von Eichendorff, a contemporary of Byron, Keats and Shelley.   Eichendorff writes of embracing death with calm and quiet acceptance.  Strauss does with music what Eichendorff does with words, so the meaning will very likely come across to English viewers without their awareness, a powerful example of the importance of musical accompaniment in film.

The problem is Winterbottom thinks if a little is good, a lot has to be better. He allows the impersonations to go on far too long. And then he pushes the Strauss through seemingly endless repetitions. Takes a heart-stopping moment of beauty to the eyes and ears and hits you with it again and again.

Go see the film for the scenery and the moment when you first see the sailboat move against the background of this exquisite Strauss piece of music.

Then forget the film, and add the Renée Fleming version of Im Abendrot to your repertoire, if it isn’t already there.  Here she is, at Carnegie Hall.  With English subtitles.

photo credit

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Religion is not the problem

I’ve been thinking the past couple of days about a discussion on my friend Bill Lindsey’s blog not long ago. Bill Lindsey is a Catholic theologian. He writes a blog which he calls his “Bilgrimage.” He’s married to another Catholic theologian. Both of them have been slapped hard by their church for being gay, losing their jobs over the sexual orientation they were born into, and Bill spends much of his time calling the church hierarchy on what they claim to be Christian virtues and he feels are vices. Like Hans Küng, and the majority of Catholics in the pews, they know their church to be something other than what the hierarchy conceives it to be.

I like the church he describes. Admire the people who engage in the uphill climb to make their church look more like the image of Christ in the Gospels. Left up to me, I’d say, give it up. It’s a lost cause, this church of yours. I gave up my Christian faith in my early 20s and to this day celebrate the freedom that comes from that unshackling. We don’t share religious convictions, Bill and I.

But we do share friendship. And a common moral code. If we wanted to, I’m sure we could build a great believer/non-believer support group analogous to all the many gay/straight alliances popping up everywhere. Because I like his ideas and admire his ability to engage in this sisyphean task of his, I read his column regularly and often find myself wanting to engage with his other readers in the commentaries.

Here’s what popped up that set me off on this preoccupation. One of his readers asked why it is that so many fundamentalist type Christians put their focus on the Old Testament, where the image is of an angry God, instead of on the Gospel, where Jesus’s values of forgiveness and love are on display. The Old Testament God is all about law and order, vengeance and punishment. God is a disciplinarian. God in The New Testament view is more of a caretaker. Are these people really Christians, the commenter wondered. Or are they better described as some kind of “weird New World Hebraic cult?”

I like that question. It reveals the folly of taking the scriptures literally, closing your eyes, picking out a passage, and taking it at face value, without processing it through the mind first. When I was a kid, I was presented with one of those bibles where the words of Christ were printed in red. I still have it. And nowadays I find such irony in the fact that the people most likely to present you with a bible with the words of Christ printed in red seem to be unaware that those words include the Beatitudes. “If a man asks you to walk a mile, walk with him twain... Give him your cloak as well as the coat he asks for... Forgive him... Love him….” Why are these folk still stuck with all that fire and brimstone stuff? All that sin? All that vengeance? Check the beam in your own eye.

The answer is not hard to find. The believers in our midst - the fundamentalists especially - hold beliefs passed on to us by some pretty psychologically disturbed people. You know the jokes about the Baptists - that they avoid sex because if they were caught at it somebody might think they were dancing. Or the definition of Puritans as people who live in fear that somebody somewhere might be having a good time.

Even bigger than the divide between believers and non-believers, I think, are the American Protestant and Catholic literalists who see sin as central and lose sight of charity and humility much of the time. The Protestants focus on the scriptures, the Catholics on rigid church teachings, but the end result is the same. Religion, to the closed people, becomes all about guilt, shame and fear. To open people, religion offers hope, inspiration, possibility.

Most mainstream Christians in America hold that the Jewish and Christian scriptures are limited by their historical context, and it behooves us to read them more as poetry than as rules for living our lives today. Back in my believer days, I too accepted the argument made by these mainstream Christians that the Old Testament was largely irrelevant except as evidence of God working his wonders before the time of Christ and setting the scene for Christ’s work to begin.

It never occurred to me what a terrible disservice we were doing to Jews. It was sort of saying, well that SOB of the Old Testament is your problem, not mine.

It was George Lakoff who put me straight. If you are not familiar with him, he’s a linguist who has done his major work on metaphors, those rhetorical figures of speech that create mental images by means of association. More recently he has extended his work to politics, hoping to persuade Democrats that they need to frame their arguments more persuasively. Challenge the Republicans, who currently have the edge. Just look at how they seized the Affordable Care Act, for example, and made people forget it was largely about eliminating such things as not being able to get medical insurance because of a so-called pre-existing condition. Consider how often when the left and right debate, the left has to fight off claims they are inviting socialism, a notion many Americans are unable to distinguish from communism - which routinely still gets defined here as pure evil. How did we let the Republicans seize the right to frame the argument that way? Dumb.

The Lakoff lecture I’m referring to was held in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, an important venue for all kinds of lectures and concerts that have nothing to do with religion. This particular night, if I remember right, Lakoff was urging his largely democratic audience to recognize the importance of language when designing political strategies. One woman who had wandered in, evidently thinking since this was a church it must be a church-event, had a question for the speaker. “What suggestions do you have for getting our fellow Christians to pay more attention to the New Testament and stop dwelling on things in the Old Testament?” she asked.

You could hear a pin drop. Most people knew George Lakoff and knew that he was Jewish. How was he going to handle what most Jews would surely perceive as an insult?

Lakoff didn’t skip a beat. “You know, when I was young, and I was going to Yeshiva and studying the Talmud,” he said… All eyes were on the woman to see how long it would take the lights to go on. “I remember a heated discussion with a rabbi about why God would ask Abraham to slay his son, Isaac.”

“Can’t you imagine the conversation that must have gone on between Yahweh and Abraham?” Lakoff asked. “Can’t you just see Yahweh saying, ‘Abe, I gave you a brain and I expect you to use it! Do you seriously think I would promise you the world and then have you slay your first-born son? I was clearly just testing you, you shmuck!”

Several things happened at once in that moment. I’m guessing this brought home to the woman that she was talking to a Jew and disparaging the Old Testament was probably not the coolest thing she might have done. She was also presented with a view of religion that takes the scriptures as guidelines to be interpreted in a larger context, not holy writ to be taken literally. A non-literalist’s view. A thinking person’s view. Someone who began his approach to religion by thanking God for giving him a brain. Free will. Choices to make.

I learned something too. I realized how like that probably well-meaning woman I was. How I too had focused too much on the folly and lack of sophistication of the fundamentalists and missed how many religious folk there were gathering information at the broadest possible level and subjecting language to analysis and interpretation. And I was selling short the possibility that Jews, no less than Christians, could handle this psychopathic deity that slays innocents, punishes children for the sins of their fathers, and pretends to give you free will but tears you to pieces if you make the wrong choices as a creature in the mind of folk from another time and place. Some Jews can, at least. They are able to see a bigger picture and not stumble over secondary issues. To folk who understand metaphor, and who think their way through an ancient text, it's not the raw words on a page that matter, but how one reads things in context. And this is true as much for the Old Testament as for the New.

In the end, although I can see how one might comb the bible for the poetry of love, and leave the other stuff, I still cannot reconcile the notion of a god of love, with a god, even one read metaphorically, who would set you up in a garden, demand that you remain stupid but tempt you with knowledge, and then punish you, your children and your children’s children for all time because you succumbed to the temptation. And then demand a blood sacrifice. And then present himself as the victim to be sacrificed. What a god-awful bloody story. What an astonishing thing that so many people picked this story up and took it in. And what was this sin, anyway? A desire to know things? We are all cursed, the bible tells us, for having the desire to eat of the tree of knowledge. And god will punish not just us but our grandchildren for this weakness that is intellectual curiosity. Until the time of the blood sacrifice.

Not my cup of tea, this.

I am also bothered by the simplistic black and while notions of good and evil, and the idea that there are demons out to get you. That powerful Irish movie, just out, Calvary, is about this kind of thing. A guy comes into the confessional, tells the priest he was abused as a child and intends to get back at the church by killing him, the priest hearing his confession, a week later. The movie then takes you through the priest’s interactions with the villagers during that week building up to the question of whether he’s actually going to die. And as Mick LaSalle, the movie critic at the San Francisco Chronicle, put it, the movie only makes sense if you accept that all the villagers are possessed by demons.

My point is only that religion, with all its unseen forces (whether gods or demons, it doesn’t matter), makes no sense to me. But since I’ve observed a number of people of good will do manage to make sense of it, I accept that it’s probably here to stay. And I can make the important distinction between people who live with these fictions but don’t insist on running the world by them, and people who do. Christians, Muslims, Jews, it hardly matters. It’s the fundamentalists, the absolutists, the ones convinced they hear the voice of God and you don’t. Those are the dangerous beings, not the demons who “roam throughout the world seeing the ruin of souls,” in the words of that prayer to St. Michael Catholics used to say after the mass.

There is a delightful Christian evangelical singer named Vicky Beeching who has recently come out as a Lesbian. I saw her on a video recently debating homosexuality with that sad confused fellow evangelical, Scott Lively. Speaking of monsters. He’s the monster who encouraged the folks in Uganda to pursue their homophobic witchhunt (although he now denies he had anything to do with the death penalty laws there). You want to see the power of religion for evil? Just take a close look at this man who believes, contrary to the the testimony of millions of gay people and others, that sexuality is chosen, not revealed to be part of one’s nervous system.

And if you need help drawing the line between benign and malign religionists, watch the video of these two evangelicals talking to each other.

Slowly, but surely, we’re learning to dismantle the walls that separate us to no good purpose - the walls between religious and non-religious people, specifically. And to reach across the gap to build unions between people of good will.

I once bought into the notion that the Christians had the right idea about God and the Jews the wrong one - all you had to do was set the New Testament up against the Old. Today, I join hands with believers and non-believers alike, concerned only whether they are open, and of good will. I once thought the fact that fundamentalists preached one could rid oneself of homosexuality by “coming to Jesus” meant that believers were on one side, gays and lesbians on the other. Today, I note with respect that gay people are working inside their churches to expose that as a false dichotomy.

And, even as a non-believer, I find that to be a very good good step forward.

photo credit

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Come on in, your money's good

Some years ago, back in the 70s, I went to Great America in Santa Clara (California) on a weekend night when it was reserved for gay people. It was built by the Marriott family business and I remember wondering how this former president of the Mormon Church managed to justify to himself sponsoring such a thing as a gays only day when gays could come in and roam around and even hug and smooch without getting dirty looks. I decided my memory must be faulty. It must have been after Marriott sold Great America off to the city of Santa Clara who, I think, sold it to somebody else. But then I come across this picture of two handsome men with legs for days in a Marriott hotel ad urging gay folk to join Carlos and Jared, come to Marriott, slip between their sheets and swim in their pools. So yes, Marriott, turns out, is both a leader in the Mormon church and gay-friendly.

Should I be surprised to learn that Mr. M can preach homophobia from the pulpit on Sunday but assure himself a healthy cash flow the rest of the week? Or is it that Mr. M's sons who now run the company have decided with the majority of Americans it's time to shelve the scripture-based demonization of gay people? I can't be sure. It's hard to keep up with the changing scene and it's always useful to recognize how easy it is to let your assumptions run away with you.

The holdouts, of course, are still fighting marriage rights state by state even as one court after another throws out bans on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. They don’t get thrown out, actually. The repeals get put on hold so that these folks get even more time to make the case that allowing gay men and women to tie the knot with each other signals the end of civilization. (Why, I’d like to know, are we bending over backwards to allow these folks even more time to prove the sky is falling? Why don’t we just say to them, “Look! Marriage between members of the same-sex has been going on for years now in a whole bunch of places. Go get me some evidence that civilization has screeched to a halt in Iceland. Or Argentina. Or Holland or Spain. Or Massachusetts or New York, for that matter. There is no damn argument! What do you people want?)

More than twenty federal and state courts have now ruled against the bans. That’s an unprecedented run of victories for same-sex couples. Because the decisions have gone 20-0 in favor of same-sex marriage, many are now claiming the writing is on the wall - it’s all but over. But there is still the Supremes. If the latest decision - the one by the 6th District Court in Cincinnati - keeps the ball rolling and makes it 21 to 0, the Supreme Court can sit on its hands and claim the issue is working itself out. But if the 6th Court goes the other way, and stops the run of victories by disagreeing with the vast majority of their judicial peers and declaring this is not a constitutional issue, but a decision to be made by a majority of voters, the Supreme Court will have to step in sooner to resolve the difference of opinion.

There are three judges making the decision in Cincinnati: two George W. Bush appointees and one Bill Clinton appointee. One of the Bush people is assumed to be anti-same-sex-marriage and the Clinton person is assumed to be pro-same-sex-marriage. That leaves the other Bush person a swing voter, and he was heard to ask, “I’d have thought the best way to get respect and dignity is through the democratic process.” Which is the view that this is not a constitutional issue, but one where the majority should rule. Whether he would have opposed women’s rights or civil rights for blacks back in the day, he does not sound persuaded by the argument that justice delayed is justice denied.

Fine. Let the 20 to 0 go to 20 to 1, and let the Supremes do their thing. They are highly unlikely to oppose same-sex marriages already performed. My guess is the most damage they might do is force gay men and women to continue to have to travel out of state to marry. To treat them as second-class citizens, in other words.

Think about that. Could they really do that?

The courts are not the only place, of course, where gay rights are working themselves out in America. There is also the marketplace. Which raises an interesting question. While we're celebrating the fact Marriott hotels are increasingly gay-friendly, what are we to make of the fact that they are likely to turn those gay dollars over to Republicans? Mitt Romney's first name is Willard. He's named after J. Willard Marriott, who, together with his brother Richard, gave 1.5 million dollars to Restore Our Future in the last election, Romney's SuperPAC.

If you don't want to stay at Marriott, at least you can go out and buy Coke. Five teaspoons of sugar in a can. Removes your toilet stains. You know. The vanguard of American economic imperialism. That Coke. One of the writers at The Advocate has an article today on several companies, including Coca Cola, now supporting gay rights, and asking us to remember who our friends are.

A mark, a yen, a buck or a pound. Money makes the world go around.