[The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States’] opposition to same-sex marriage took a significant and startling turn on September 20th with the issuance of a letter from New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) to President Obama in which Dolan urges the President to end his administration's "campaign against DOMA, the institution of marriage it protects, and religious freedom."
In the course of the letter, Dolan emphasizes that he is not alone in his disappointment with the President. He writes, "The content of this letter reflects the strong sentiment expressed at a recent meeting by more than thirty of my brother Bishops who serve on the Administrative Committee of our episcopal conference. I know they are joined by hundreds of additional Catholic bishops throughout our nation." His implication is that if the President does not reverse his stance regarding DOMA, he can expect the bishops to campaign against him when he is up for re-election. There are 430 bishops who lead 195 dioceses, or districts, in the US.
So the bishops will campaign against Obama, will they? To elect which Republican as President then?
The one who had his record of remorseless executions cheered at the debates? The Church is against the death penalty, supposedly.
That would be Rick “The Executioner” Perry, whose front-runner status has gone wobbly in the knees after several stumbles, not the least of them being that his stand on immigration is not as heartless as the Right Wing base of the Republican Party requires its heroes’ to be.
The Church’s stand on immigration is supposedly that the nation needs to be more open, welcoming, tolerant, and inclusive.
I need your help getting the word out on Rick Perry. Right now Perry is the Republican frontrunner for president– we can’t let him win! When it comes to immigration the man is George W. Bush’s clone! If Perry gets to the White House we’ll be back to fighting massive blanket amnesty for illegal aliens. You can count on it!
Tancredo used to be a Catholic but he left the Church and turned against it because he was seeing too many brown-skinned people who didn’t speak English in the pews around him.
Tancredo’s a racist and the Church holds that racism is a sin, but Dolan’s not writing any letters to Republicans running for President warning them not to listen to racist demagogues like Tancredo that I’ve heard about.
Poverty in the United States is on the rise and the Church has strong views on what governments are supposed to do about helping the poor which boil down to help them. But it’s the Republicans who are demonizing the poor and working from all directions to cut off all government aid. The plan is to increase the number of poor people, particularly old poor people, old poor sick people by ending Medicare and Social Security, but along with them are already being added many children who are getting kicked off state Medicaid rolls. If the Church is really looking for something to threaten President Obama and the Democrats over it should be that they’re not doing enough to oppose this.
I don’t know where to begin to get into the Church’s stand against the kind of corporatist capitalist Randian economic utopianism all good Republicans champion these days---“Selfishess is the greatest virtue!” isn’t the lesson of any of Jesus’ parables the nuns taught us in grade school. Ayn Rand despised religion generally, Christianity in particular, and she didn’t spare Catholicism her contempt. Her chief disciple in Congress is Paul Ryan, who is Catholic! Has he received any letters from his bishop?
Have Scott Walker and John Kasich and any of the other union-busting Republican governors heard from Dolan?
New Jersey Governor and National Press Corps darling Chris Christie has pretty much taken himself out of the running for the Republican nomination by making it clear he doesn’t feel like cravenly tying himself up into political knots like Mitt Romney, repudiating the good things he’s managed to do, renouncing beliefs he’s held all his life, and swearing he’ll support nonsense and insanity in all GOP-approved forms to get the nod. Statements like this won’t help him with the Right Wing base:
I’ve always believed that people are born with the previous disposition to be homosexual…So I think if someone is born that way it’s very difficult to say that it’s a sin…I believe we can have civil unions that can help to give the same type of legal rights to same-sex couples that marriage gives them.
Chris Christie is Catholic, so Dolan has more grounds for expecting him to care what the bishops think, and so I expect that if Christie does lose his mind and decide to get into the race, Dolan will write him a letter, one adding that “Besides your needing to toe the Church line on homosexuality, you must also repudiate your own party’s platform on the issues of torture, immigration, poverty, and the death penalty.”
I won’t hold my breath.
Of course, this isn’t about anything but the American bishops’ hatred of sex of any kind that isn’t intended to get women pregnant and their desperate need to scapegoat homosexuals for the crimes of the child molesters the Church hid and protected for decades.
I’m writing my own letter.
Dear Archbishop Dolan,
May I respectfully remind you you’re the archbishop of New York, one of the most Catholic states in the nation. You can’t throw a cruet in any direction without hitting a Catholic, and what can gay people do in New York that they can do in only a few other states?
For a bunch of reasons, but mainly this week because it’s Banned Books Week and as he is every year Batocchio is on top of it.
In this post, he gives the overview, with useful links, deals with the banning of books by two authors in particular, Aldous Huxley and Sherman Alexie, and provides a round-up of posts by other bloggers on banned books, banning books, and Banned Books Week.
Eleven years ago, Dave and Rose Levitz welcomed me into the Congregation Knesset Israel family.
Like so many other families, we'd gather just a handful of times every year.
We'd meet every autumn for the High Holy Days.
The falling rainbow leaves would blanket the simple white structure at the intersection of a back country road on the border of Sullivan and Ulster counties. The inside was half cozy and worn and half dusty and musty, offering little air during the Indian summers and occasional warmth if the furnace decided to cooperate. Often, the first prayer would be to God to give us heat.
There was just enough room for some half-dozen benches and an altar the size of a broom closet.
The congregation was founded in 1922 by members of the Jewish Farmers of Ulster Heights. In later years, they’ve had to scramble to assemble a minyan for the high holy days. This fall they’ve given up.
It was later said that he came under bad influences at this stage. But the secret of the history of Edward d’Eath was that he came under no outside influences at all, unless you count all those dead kings. He just came under the influence of himself.
That’s where people get it wrong. Individuals aren’t naturally paid-up members of the human race, except biologically. They need to be bounced around by the Brownian motion of society, which is a mechanism by which human beings constantly remind one another that they are…well…human beings. He was also spiraling inward, as tends to happen in cases like this.
At Lawyers, Guns and Money, djw has a post following up on a post by Erik Loomis about the pullback from robocheckers by grocery stores, something Erik is glad to see happening, because the point of robocheckers isn’t customer convenience or savings; it’s putting money in corporate pockets by putting people out of work.
It’s rare that we so obviously see how corporations seek to lay people off. It’s even rarer that the capitalist plan to employ no one doesn’t advance. So this is a good thing.
I don’t use the automatic checkouts anywhere---I avoid ATMs when I can too---partly because I agree with Erik, but also because I enjoy dealing with store clerks, bank tellers, and, well, other human beings. I also don’t like it that robocheckers require me to do for free work stores used to pay people to do.
But YMMV. Many people like the automatic checkout and, going by the comments on djw’s post, some people who do like it because it’s bringing us one step closer to the day when they’ll never have to interact with another human being when they go shopping. I suppose, ideally, they will never have to go shopping. They can order their groceries online already. Now what they need are robots who will deliver them to their doorsteps.
What's funny to me, though, is how many of these commenters have no idea what going grocery shopping is like for most people.
These guys---most of them are guys; in fact, I’ll bet even the ones I can’t tell if they’re male or female by their handles are guys---seem to think that everybody uses grocery stores the way they do, dashing in and out on their way to or from somewhere more important to pick up one or two things they need right away. Even if they’re aware that that’s not the way most people shop, they seem to think that stores should be set up to cater primarily to their needs anyway.
And one of those needs is the need not to have to acknowledge the existence of other human beings.
The idea that for most people shopping is a welcome social experience gives them the heebie-jeebies. One guy objects to having to get all “touchy-feely” just to pick up a loaf of bread, as if taking a few seconds to say things like “Good morning” and “Unusual weather we’re having” and “How ‘bout them Sox?” and “Thank you” was as self-revelatory and fraught with embarrassment as a trust exercise in group therapy instead of just a matter of common courtesy.
But clearly these guys don’t look around them whenever they are forced to risk contact with the riff-raff to see who else is in the store with them and what those people are doing. (The first thing that ought to strike their notice is that most of the other people shopping are not guys.) They don’t notice, except to be irritated by it, that people go shopping in order to talk to other people or that shopping, real shopping, is difficult to do without having to talk to other people. Shoppers don’t just need to talk to store employees, though. They need to talk to other shoppers, and not just to pass the time of day. They exchange information, some of it immediately useful---“Is this on sale?” “How long does this keep?” “Have you ever tried this?”---some of it still useful but not right here in the store---“There’s a meeting when?” “The town wants to do what?” “She said that?”---and they rely on running into friends, family, neighbors, and acquaintances while they’re out in order to get that information.
They also enjoy the company.
It’s true that they can get a lot of that information online these days. And increasingly, through social media, people are finding all the company they need online. But here’s the thing.
Most normal people don’t spend a lot of time online.
They don’t like it. They don’t need to. And they can’t afford to---most people do not have jobs where they get to sit at a desk in front of a computer out of sight of their bosses with lots of downtime in their days during which they can goof off by surfing the web. Grocery store clerks, for instance.
And when they get home from work, most people don’t rush right to their computers.
My point is, that those guys, like me, and like most of you, are not normal.
It is a very weird thing to spend hours and hours of every day staring into a computer screen.
(Unfortunately, it is not all that weird to spend hours and hours of every day staring at screens of some kind. It’s just that most of those screens are television screens, and that’s a different question and a different problem.)
This is changing. It is becoming less weird, although I believe that humans being social animals and therefore made for society (Thank you, Thomas Jefferson), most human beings will continue to seek out and enjoy the society and physical presence of other human beings in preference to staring into computer screens. But right now, most people live their lives offline and are happy with that.
And this is something those of us who are happily wired need to keep in mind. I don’t mean just the cyber-utopians looking forward to the day when Second Life and real life are the same things. Those of us here on the left side of the bandwidth who pride ourselves on being part of the “NetRoots” and like to believe that we’re taking part in the public square and influencing the debate while snug at home or wasting time at the office have a tendency to forget that most people aren’t paying attention to us because most people’s first impulse when something excites or outrages them isn’t to reach for a keyboard…
unless it’s the keypad on their cell, in which case they are usually about to arrange some actual physical contact with another human being.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to run out for some milk, I’ll be going to the convenience market down the road. They don’t have an automatic checkout there but one of the clerks doesn’t like me and maybe she’ll be working so I won’t have to talk to anyone.
Photo by intrepid Mannionville Daily Gazette photographer Lance Mannion. Taken Wednesday, September 28, 2011.
We give a condemned man a choice of last meal…because we’re better than the condemned. On the last day of his life, we’re extending the little niceties of civilization as a way of showing the man about to die what he rejected. We let him meet with a clerical representative of his choice to show we live by the values we kept and he rejected.
Not any more. Enjoy your macaroni and cheese.
I’m sorry to have to note that this change in policy was instigated by a Democrat.
Skim this article by Jessica Pressler in New York Magazine until your eyes light on this, and you might think what you’re reading is an old review of Carl Hiaasen’s Strip Tease:
“I was pretty surprised, to be honest,” says one former dancer, whom we’ll call by her former Scores name, Heather, since she’s now married to a doctor and living in a small Christian town in the Midwest. At the same time she was dating Starr, Passage was dating other wealthy, eligible men, including a record producer and a celebrity chef. “But I guess Ken was kind of her knight in shining armor that was going to give her a better life,” Heather says. “I mean, you can’t dance forever.”
A former stripper married to a doctor and now living in a “Christian” town in the Midwest? Come on, Carl. That’s pushing it.
But it’s not Hiaasen. It’s not fiction. It’s real. Part of the story of Diane Passage, a former dancer who married a high-rolling money manager with a speed dial list of celebrity clients on his cell and went from shaking it at bachelor parties to mingling with Hollywood royalty at Oscar parties. Passage, whom Pressler describes as:
one of those people that it feels like New York invented, though they thrive wherever male egos and dumb money coexist. She’s the kind of woman who is able, through physical charms, nifty tricks of persuasion, and sheer gall, to inspire men to pay for … well, everything. She’s like Holly Golightly, if Holly Golightly had to kick a guy in the nuts when she went to the powder room. Which, in postrecession New York, she might have…
was living the life of “Cinderfuckingella” until:
…federal agents showed up at their apartment and arrested Starr. The SEC and the U.S. Attorney’s office had charged him with conducting a massive Ponzi scheme. “It’s a mistake,” he told her, after the cops dragged him out of the bedroom closet. But it wasn’t. Documents showed Starr had embezzled $33 million from clients. Passage was named as a co-defendant, and her bank account was frozen. It was as if her fairy godmother had suddenly reappeared and said, “Sorry, wrong girl.”
In the days after Starr’s arrest, the tabloid reporters camped outside the Lux heard an agonized wail coming from inside. “I’ve done nothing,” said the female voice. “Now I have nothing.”
This March, Passage, now 35, sat in a courtroom and listened as a judge with glasses and Janet Reno hair pronounced her husband guilty. “He seemed to have lost his moral compass,” the judge said, “partly as a result of infatuation with his young fourth wife.”
Slowly but surely I'm working through my notes from the Clinton Global Initiatve and turning them into posts. The two most recent, All these people have to come from somewhereand The archbishop's laugh, are just a short scroll down. I was lucky I was able to get down there twice this year. Thanks to those of you who helped make that do-able. Thank you post cards are in the mail. New York's not as close as I need it to be and what with gas, tolls, and parking on Tuesday, and train fare Wednesday, the travel costs add up. If you can swing it and would like to contribute for this trip and upcoming trips down to review plays and other events for the blog or if you just like what goes on here and want to help keep the blog chugging along, please consider making a donation. It'd be greatly appreciated.
The city of Wuhu, Anhui Province, People’s Republic of China, population 2,263,123 and counting. One of 120 cities in China with more than a million people living in them. Photo courtesy of Cultural China.
Tuesday night at CGI. The panel Gavin Newsom was part of, Megacities, Mega challenges included Yang Jiechi, China’s Minister of Foreign Affairs. Naturally, Yang had a lot to add to a point that Newsom raised in passing, that China has 120 cities with populations of more than one million, and those cities are growing and other, at the moment smaller cities are also growing.
All those people have to come from somewhere.
Many somewheres. Somewheres on their way to becoming nowheres.
The farther I drove across northern China, the more I wondered what would become of all the villages. The cities were easy to predict, at least in terms of growth---their trajectory was already laid out in tracks of cement and steel. In the countryside, though, it was impossible to imagine who would be living here in a generation. Often I stopped in a village and saw only the very old, the disabled,and the very young, because migrants left their children behind to be raised by grandparents. Workers still didn’t feel settled in the cities, although inevitably that was bound to change; it seemed likely that in the future they’d find some way to have their families closer to work. for many of the northern villages this might be the last generation where a significant number of children were still growing up in the countryside.
An hour west of Jingbian, I stopped to visit the Great Wall near the village on Ansi. This region had been a major defense point for the Ming, and people told me that that there were particularly impressive ruins near Ansi. The name means “Temple of Peace,” and when I pulled over in the village I saw only one adult. He was disabled, with a pair of rough-hewn wooden crutches, and he was minding a flock of children. In rural China, that’s become an archetypal scene: little kids dancing around somebody who can hardly walk.
That’s from Country Driving: A Chinese Road Trip by Peter Hessler, a travel book about Hessler’s explorations of the Chinese countryside north and west of Beijing. He travels mainly by car, following the Great Wall as much of the way as he can. That’s the frame. Country Driving is really about this accelerated urbanization of China as seen from the parts of the country emptying out as young people flock to the cities and about its effects on individuals left behind or who’ve chosen not to follow.
As you can imagine, it’s a sad, wistful book. Sadder because it’s a reminder that the same thing is happening here. Not as quickly, and people aren’t leaving their children behind. [Editor’s note: But see the update below.] When we talk about immigration here, we usually talk about how immigrants take jobs most Americans don’t want to do. We should also talk about how a lot of those jobs are in places where Americans no longer want to live.
But while it’s sad to think about what happens when these places empty out, how poverty increases, how communities shatter, how people grow lonely and lost, I don’t think it’s such a bad thing that more and more people are moving into cities. I’m a fan of cities, as long their growth can be planned for and controlled and as long as there are actually jobs and decent places to live for people moving in.
Planning and controlling the growth was the subject of the panel, of course, so I shouldn’t have been surprised that Newsom and Yang and the others didn’t talk about cities as places to live so much as engineering projects to be managed.
Just about everybody on the panel sees this urbanization as a good thing but they seem to it from a purely technocratic point of view. As they put it, one after the other, cities are good because they are useful for delivering goods and services efficiently. As far as I could tell from what they all said, the point of a city is mechanical--- a city is a machine for producing a well-fed, well-clothed, healthy population of workers who need to know where to park their cars. Hardly any of them talked about how cities might be fun and exciting places to live.
They all tended to sound like Newsom or like New York City Transportation Commissioner Janette Sadik-Khan, who said:
We have eight point four million people [in New York City]. We’re going to have a million more by Twenty-thirty. What are we going to do so that when we open the door in Twenty-thirty we’re going to like what we see. So [Mayor Bloomberg’s] strategy was to look at what that meant, and that meant reducing the environmental impact on the City of New York and it meat improving the quality of life, which had some really profound implications for transportation . So we worked really, really hard to prioritize people* in our transportation network, and so building out more places to walk, which is really important for business, building out more effective ways of getting around by buses, which can be done at low cost very quickly, rather than very expensive rail and commuter rail projects which can take decades and generations to build; engineering new mobility onto our streets with bike lanes, which are great also for pedestrians, because injuries to all users go down every time we put down these lanes….We closed Broadway, made it much better for people to walk around and that turned out to be much better for business. Times Square, for the first time in history, is one of the top retail locations on the planet.
*Note to bureaucrats and politicians: If you use the phrase “prioritize people" you probably aren’t really thinking about people and their priorities.
At any rate, in talking about managing the project in China, Yang got into something in broad, technocratic terms something that Hessler reports on in Country Driving at a more human level. The Chinese government is working hard to slow the migration to the cities, particularly to the fast developing and increasingly prosperous coastal cities. One of the things its doing is making the smaller cities outside the megacities more attractive to people. Yang talked about the thousands of kilometers of roads and rail lines being built to make them easier to reach and commute in and out of. Hessler describes how the seeding of these less than mega-cities with industries that don’t yet exist has resulted in scenes like this:
Wuhu is located on the banks of the Yangtze River, about five hours from Shanghai, and it’s one of the new frontiers of the southern economic boom. When we drove through the city’s industrial zone, it was still in the early stages: roads had curbs, sidewalks, and even street signs, but few people were outside. Most factories were still half-built shells behind high walls and impressive gates, all of them waiting for the machinery to be installed. In an odd way, it reminded me of the villages I’d driven through in northern China In places like Smash the Hu and Slaughter the Hu, everything had been surrounded by massive fortifications, but most residents had already left. Here in the development zone, it felt similar: big walls and gates, lots of structures, few people. If you were transported directly from a northern village to a fledgling factory strip, you’d wonder, Where is everybody? But that’s the nature of a country in transition: something is always being abandoned while something else is always being built. The people are in constant motion---on trains, in buses, on boats. They stand beside rural roads […] looking for a ride south. In half a year this Wuhu factory strip would be finished, and after that the young people would arrive in droves.
That scene from Wuhu struck me as ghastly and nightmarish when I read it the first time. But then I thought, where are there scenes like that here and how can we create more of them.
Tomorrow, President Obama is coming here to speak. Word is he’ll have something to say about that.
Sadik-Khan was able to break the techno-speak habit from time to time and translate herself into plain English. Making the case that cities can be environmentally friendly she said:
New Yorkers have one third the carbon footprint of the average American, so, really, if you want to save the planet you should just move to New York.
Update. Me: “…people aren’t leaving their children behind.”
Here in Pocahontas County WV, there quite a few children being raised by grandparents or other relatives. Some of the kids are "left behind" by parents who can't find stable work, while others are sent "back home" because the urban workplace communities are unsavory. This is the case in the farming community where I grew up (southwestern Iowa) as well.
It's not as obvious as what Hessler describes, but it means that children are being raised on Social Security income, disability benefits, and pensions. They're growing up in an environment where they don't see many people working for a living, and the school system finds the grandparents under-engaged in the education process. In a way, it's a ghetto with fresh air and trees.
A hundred years ago, this was a boom town full of loggers. 60 years ago, people left for Detroit on the Hillbilly Highway hoping for good union jobs. These days, the destination is unclear.
Wednesday morning at CGI. Arrived in the press room to be greeted by smiling face of Archbishop Desmond Tutu on the monitors telling me what God wants of me.
According to the Archbishop, God wants me to be a lot nicer than I've been. Hope he doesn't expect me to be as nice as Tutu. Never gonna be that good.
Tutu is having a fun time talking with Charlie Rose and Aung San Suu Kyi, General Secretary of the National League for Democracy. Rose and Tutu are upstairs in the hotel ballroom. Suu Kyi is speaking by a live video feed from Burma.
Suu Kyi is the leader of the pro-democracy forces in Burma. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991. Last November she was released after seven years of house arrest.
The archbishop and Suu Kyi confess to having a mutual admiration society. The two Nobel laureates are cracking each other up.
Tutu has a wonderful laugh, half-cackle, half-giggle, all merriment.
Thor is our feature for Family Movie Night, but that's not the main reason I'm reposting my review. Ken Levine, writer-producer-director of Cheers and MASH and other TV shows, has posted his review and it's eerie how closely his parallels mine, except that HE HATED THE MOVIE!
Since I liked Thor, I respectfully disagree with Ken, but I thought his review was funny. A bunch of his readers weren’t as amused.
Also, Facebook pal, college professor and chicken wings connoisseur Chris Galdieri found a post he figured I’d like, and he was right. Turns out that some things I thought should have been included in the movie were included in the movie---like Thor doing a little more to prove he’s learned his lesson and Loki being more mischievous. They got cut. But some of these deleted scenes are on the DVD.
Anywho…for your re-reading and chicken wing and pizza dining pleasure:
Chris Hemsworth as Thor prepares to bring the mighty while Tom Hiddleston as Loki practices his best trick of achieving a Linus Van Pelt level of sincerity in a scene from the new movie based on the Marvel Comics adventures of the Norse thunder god.
Not enough Loki making mischief. Not enough Don Blake doing good deeds---serving one plate of pancakes shouldn’t be enough to earn your way back into Asgard. And not enough Kat Dennings.
As the Norse trickster god Loki, the Mighty Thor’s not as mighty but a lot slipperier brother, Tom Hiddleston comes close to walking away with the movie. If he’d been given a little more to do, audiences might even have forgotten Anthony Hopkins was in it, never mind Natalie Portman. But I think director Kenneth Branagh and his team of screenwriters should have taken the risk. Compared to the first Iron Man, which so far is the best of the series of movies based on the Marvel Comics heroes who will eventually assemble together as The Avengers, Thor, the movie, is somewhat lacking in a sense of humor and a sense of fun. That’s in keeping with the spirit of the comic books when I was a kid. That’s no longer the case, I’ve been informed by current fans, especially since the addition of Thor’s merry band of swashbuckling sidekicks, the Warriors Three, who, happily, are in the movie, making merry, buckling their swashes, and providing some of the fun and humor. And I’d better be clear. Thor isn’t humorless or without fun. I just think there could have been more and Hiddleston and Loki represent an opportunity missed.
Branagh and company count too much on our knowing Loki’s role in the myths. We’re told Loki’s a trickster and we believe it because Hiddleston looks like he’s capable of all kinds of mischief, with his best trick his ability to look as sincere as Peanuts’ Linus about to tell us what Christmas is all about. I would have liked to hear him deliver a speech on the true meaning of Yule. But maybe the filmmakers were afraid a couple more witty speeches and a couple more scenes of Loki reaching into his bag of tricks for the sheer mischief of it and the movie would have had to have been re-titled Loki.
As I said, I think they should have risked it and I think they’d have gotten away with it, because, good as Hiddleston is, I don’t think he could have taken the movie away from its star, Chris Hemsworth.
Hemsworth handles the mighty-ing well, with the requisite amount of thundering and storming and hammer-throwing. What’s surprising is how well he handles the charming.
Charming? Thor? Definitely not in keeping with the spirit of the comics when I was a kid. But, again, my in-house experts inform me, things have changed. Still, a charming thunder god is a novelty to us old-timers.
We expect Thor to be a natural when it comes to battling frost giants and---after he’s lost his hammer and his divine powers---mixing it up with agents from S.H.I.E.L.D. We don’t expect him to be a natural at whipping up a batch of pancakes and graciously playing waiter to set of mortals who are pretty clear that they don’t believe he’s a god and think he’s a nutcase. We don’t expect him to understand and sympathize with a young scientist’s devotion to her vocation or share her enthusiasm for her theories or be able to follow her thinking and even help her solve some problems. We don’t expect him to be able to do the science and the math and have fun while he’s at it. And we don’t expect him to treat her middle-aged mentor with kindness and respect and to understand that the man’s irritation and resentment and suspicion are signs of his fatherly concern and affection or see him instinctively make an effort to draw some of the older scientist’s fatherly feelings towards himself.
Hemsworth handles all this, including the plate of pancakes, with intelligence and wit and infectious good-humor, and even when he’s not fighting he moves with an old-fashioned movie star’s grace. You can think Errol Flynn but you should and can also think Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Gary Cooper as well. Hemsworth has more than a touch of the swashbuckler and acrobat and he’s got a bit of the roguish song and dance man in him and some cool cowboy to boot.
If you’ve read the comic books or seen the trailer, you know the set-up, but even if you don’t I’m not spoiling anything by telling you that through his “arrogance and stupidity" the vain and rash young thunder god nearly starts a war up in Asgard, the Norse gods’ home and the Vikings’ heaven. To punish him, Odin, Thor’s father and Asgard’s king, (Hopkins, pulling the same trick he pulled in The Mask of Zorro of coming across as cooler and deadlier than the movie’s actual young hero), strips Thor of his godhood (Basically, he takes away his superpowers.) and exiles him to earth where he will have to learn humility, self-restraint, and how to use his head and consult his heart before acting if he’s to earn his way back into heaven.
Thor’s time on earth include some of my favorite scenes in the movie, but I wish there’d been a little more done with them, not just for the fun of it, but because Thor seems to have too easy a time of it learning his lessons.
The movie suggests that Thor has the heart and the decency to adapt himself to his situation, that is, he knows how to be polite, he knows how to put people---and presumably gods, elves, and dwarfs too---at their ease. He’s been to Midgard (earth, to us non-ancient Scandinavian pagans) any number of times and it might have been fun and amusing to know when, where, and why. Whenever it was, it wasn’t recently, and wherever it was it wasn’t the United States. Thor likes humans and has insight into what makes us tick, but he isn’t well versed in the manners and mores of 21st Century America. He has a few things to learn about how to deal with the traffic---obey the lights and use the crosswalks---and the proper way to compliment the coffee at the local diner and ask for another mug---hint, you shouldn’t literally need another mug---and that pet stores aren’t stocked to equip banished Norse deities who need to ride heroically to the rescue at a moment’s notice---few pet stores sell giant eagles large enough to carry a six-foot seven inch thunder god.
But Thor needs to learn that a side of himself he takes for granted to the point of forgetting it’s there is actually his best side. That’s where Don Blake could have come in.
Old school fans of the comic will remember that Odin didn’t just make Thor human, he made him live as a human and as a particular human, a doctor named Don Blake. The movie makes an inside joke out of that. Time and plot constraints meant that the movie couldn’t delve deeply into that part of Thor’s origin story. But more could have been done with the Don Blake idea. It goes without saying that Thor is a great warrior, even without his hammer and superpowers, but in order to become a superhero and mankind’s protector, he needs to learn how to be protective.
Of course, Thor feels kindly and protective towards the young scientist. For one thing, she’s played by Natalie Portman and who wouldn’t feel kindly and protective towards Natalie Portman (besides Darren Aronofsky)? But she’s also the love interest. And it follows that Thor would feel kindly and protective towards her friends. What we should see is Thor feeling kindly and protective towards strangers.
It wouldn’t have taken much to show that, just a couple of scenes of Thor not just pretending he’s a doctor named Don Blake but actually having to act as if he is Doctor Don Blake. I don’t think they’d have needed to take it so far as to show Thor delivering a baby, but a we should get the idea that Thor has to spend some time as Don Blake doing good deeds and getting to like it, both doing the good deeds and being a decent human being.
What Thor finally does to win back his godhood is fairly convincing, on the mythological level. It would have had more of a pay off on the dramatic level if we’d seen him working towards redemption in a more human way so that his moment of truth, while a win for him as a god, is a loss for him as a man, and a loss for us too. As much as we want Thor back as Thor, we should miss having him around as Don Blake.
Ok, so not enough Loki making mischief, not enough Thor as Don Blake. Now about not enough Kat Dennings.
As Darcy Lewis, the young scientist’s less than helpful student assistant (Older scientist: “I thought you’re a science major.” Darcy, with an unspoken duh at the end: “Political science.”) Dennings is adorable and funny. She’s smart about not being smart. Darcy’s not a ditz, but she’s lazy. She’s paying attention with only half her mind. The rest is…elsewhere. Nowhere in particular, just otherwise engaged. The part of her that’s here would rather not be. Darcy’s a character it must have been tempting to go to for easy laughs, and I guess it’s good Branagh resisted. It’s probably better to have just not enough of her than just a little too much.
In her short interactions with Hemsworth, Thor treats Darcy with kindness and amusement and with the kind of adult respect she has to grow up a little more to actually deserve, and Dennings lets us see that really does need to grow up and that she might actually manage to do it…someday.
And she wears her glasses very well, in a way that makes you jealous of whoever’s going get to be the one who takes them off for her.
But the best thing she does is give Natalie Portman something to play off of.
Portman is the clear favorite to replace Julie Roberts as America’s movie sweetheart. But that puts her in danger of having happen to her what happened to Roberts. Roberts is a good actress whose fans and directors stopped expecting to act. They were happy if all she did was smile her way winsomely through a movie and too often that’s all she did. Portman does a lot of winsome smiling in Thor, most of it around Hemsworth. It’s around Denning that she gets to act.
As Jane Foster (originally Don Blake’s nurse in the comic books, an astrophysicist here), Portman stars as her first bone fide grown-up. Her doctor character in No Strings Attached is really some screenwriter’s wistful memory of the theater major he couldn’t get up the nerve to ask out back in college and her ballerina in Black Swan is most definitely a daughter. Jane is a fully-fledged, independent, self-reliant, competent adult. Portman doesn’t have to strain to pull this off or reach for any actor’s tricks to make us forget the manic pixie side of her. She can even smile winsomely whenever a winsome smile is called for. All she has to do is field whatever Dennings tosses at her and lob it back gently. As worked out together by Portman and Dennings, grown-ups are the people who teach the Darcys of the world how to be grown-ups, mainly by example, but also by expecting them to act like grown-ups while at the same time being quick to understand and forgive them when they don’t.
A grown-up, as Portman plays one, is kind and patient and protective towards those who aren’t yet as grown-up as she is, which makes Jane as good an example for Thor as she is for Darcy.
Thor is the fourth in the series of movies that will center around next year’s The Avengers. The other three are Iron Man, The Incredible Hulk, and Iron Man 2. The fifth, Captain America: The First Avenger, comes out in July. As I said, Iron Man is the best so far and the best by a long shot. But Thor is a solid second. It’s intelligently and heartfeltingly directed by Branagh, who seems to have been inspired more by King Lear and his own film adaptation of Henry V than by the comic book or the myths. But he maintains a light touch and doesn’t try to oversell the high drama or the potentially tragic. Thor is a well-made and exciting action-adventure movie whose hero happens to have superpowers, and what makes it good is that Branagh never forgets that all the fighting and chasing and blowing things up, along with all the attendant special effects, are meant to serve the story, not the other way round. (I especially liked it that he gets the required embedded ad for the video game out of the way in the first twenty minutes instead of using it for the movie’s climactic battle, which is what happens in The Incredible Hulk and Iron Man II, turning the endings of both those movies into great big noisy messes.) Branagh keeps his focus, and ours, on his actors and their characters.
And he doesn’t just rely on the fine work of his leads. Branagh gives the whole of his attention to his talented and likable supporting cast too.
Stellan Skarsgard plays Jane’s mentor and surrogate father with the a nice mix of paternal indulgence and professional detachment. He’s affectionate without getting sentimental, irritable without losing sacrificing any of the affection. Ray Stevenson, Tadanobu Asano, and Josh Dallas as the Warriors Three, along with Jaime Alexander as the warrior goddess Sif (in the myths an enigma, in the comic books Thor’s lady love, here more of a spunky kid sister), make a formidable team, playing with and off each other nicely. Colm Feore sparkles icily with wicked intelligence through god knows how many layers of make-up and cgi as the king of the frost giants. And Idris Elba is suitably stentorian and immovable as Heimdall, the guardian of the Rainbow Bridge of Asgard where the booming heavens roar and we behold in breathless wonder…whoops. Sorry. Got carried away there.
Only Rene Russo, as Thor’s mother, the goddess Frigga, isn’t given much to do. So that’s one more thing there’s not enough of, Russo swinging her sword and slicing and dicing frost giants.
Special mention has to go to Clark Gregg in his third go-round as S.H.I.E.L.D Agent Coulson whose job here is the same as it was in the two Iron Man movies, which is to keep a spoiled brat superhero in line. Superheroes don’t impress Coulson. They’re amateurs. If it weren’t unprofessional, he’d let himself get irritated by their childish and selfish misbehavior. But he’s good at keeping his feelings under wraps and settles for talking to them with a stern patience as if after enough repetition it will sink in that they’ve all got some serious work to do and while showing off one’s superpowers is fun in the proper time and place, now isn’t that time and this isn’t the place.
Coulson gets of a good zinger at (an offscreen) Tony Stark/Iron Man’s expense that pretty much sums up Coulson’s feelings. In Iron Man 2, Gregg established that Coulson’s ideal superhero is Captain America, and it’s too bad Gregg wasn’t in The Incredible Hulk and can’t be in the Captain America movie, unless it’s as Coulson’s grandfather---it’s set during World War II---because Gregg is now the connection tying the first four movies to Captain America by being, essentially, Cap’s representative. Captain America is, after Spider-man, who is his own show anyway and so maybe shouldn’t count, the Marvel superhero. The point of the Avengers as a team is that it brings together Marvel’s most arrogant, self-centered, and go-it-alone heroes---Iron Man, Ant-Man, Thor, and, sometimes, the Hulk---to make them all better heroes and better people/gods/monsters by their having to follow Cap’s lead and example.
Which brings me to poor Chris Evans who’s playing Captain America in the series.
Evans was going to have a hard enough time holding his place on screen next Robert Downey Jr. as Iron Man.
Now he’s not only got to deal with Downey, he’ll have Chris Hemsworth charismaticking all over the screen. If Evans can still make himself the star of The Avengers, as he should be if they’re doing the movies right, he’s mightier than Thor, more invincible than Iron Man, and more incredible than the Hulk.
Viewers’ advisory: As fans of the movies have learned, you need to stay all the way through the credits!
3D vs 2D and Mannion vs. Ebert: We saw Thor in 3D. We had no choice. I don’t like 3D. It gives me a headache and adds nothing to most movies. So I was going to recommend you see it in 2D if you can. But Roger Ebert saw it in 2D and he hated it! It’s like he saw a completely different movie. Weird.
Also: Wev McEwan has a few choice things to say about certain people’s problem with the casting of Elba as Heimdall, and a few things to say that I should have said about Dennings and Portman’s scenes together, and she agrees that Branagh wasted Rene Russo in her Thor Thread.
Real life astrophysicist Adam Frank blogs about the convergence of myth and science in Thor in a post for NPR.
And, because I brought it up and I don’t want to be the only one with it stuck in my head---
Tuesday night at CGI. Oliver Mannion has been helping me prep for my review of Grant Morrison’s Supergods. He’s already read it and he’s keen that I do the right homework before I write about it. Before I left for the City this afternoon he asked if I was going to bring along the two volumes of Seven Soldiers of Victory we’d just picked up from the library.
“I don’t think President Clinton’d appreciate it if he looked up and saw I was reading a comic book while he was talking,” I said.
Then I got an inspiration.
“Although,” I said, “Who knows. Maybe Bill’s a fan.” And I launched into my Bill Clinton impression, which is better than my Humphrey Bogart impression but not near as good as my Peter Lorre or Dustin Hoffman. I also do a great Andrew Jackson, but who would know? Channeling the Big Dawg I said:
“I see you’re a fan of Grant Morrison. I greatly admire his work. All-Star Superman is my absolute favorite. Animal Man is a real hoot too, although I have to say I was seriously disappointed with his New X-Men. I think he screwed up the continuity. Hillary disagrees, but she and Chelsea really like Doom Patrol. Have you read the Action Comics No. 1 reboot? I haven’t had the chance yet. I’m thinking of slipping out of here and heading down to Forbidden Planet, would you like to go with me?”
Oliver smiled indulgently.
I could bring the books when I come back tomorrow and President Obama wouldn’t know. It’s a big auditorium and I’m going to be stuck at the back with the journalistic and blogging riff-raff. But the reason President Clinton would have noticed tonight is that he and and I would have been close enough that he could have read the lettering in the dialog bubbles.
I was invited to take part in a roundtable discussion with Clinton and some journalists and other bloggers.
I wonder what they’re all doing now that he’s had to cancel on us.
Me, I’m just sitting here sulking in the press room, thinking I might shoot on down to Forbidden Planet by myself.
Thursday night not at CGI. Had to hold off posting this because I was asked to keep the roundtable secret until it came off. It was rescheduled for today. I was invited back but there was no way I could make it. I doubt any of the bloggers who did asked him about comic books.
Wednesday. It was funny, and fun, to see President Obama and President Clinton onstage together. They’re both pretty tall, did you know that? We’ll never know till the biographies get written how much they really like each other, but they sure do get a kick out of each other’s company. And being good politicians, which means being good showmen who understand the value of stagecraft, they know the effect the sight of the two of them together have, both as a commanding image and as a flag for the troops to rally round.
But something interesting occurred to me as they were verbally patting each other on the back and kidding each other about President Obama’s Secretary of State, while of course being very complimentary of her: This is only the second time in American history that I can think of when a sitting President could count on the support and political friendship of a former President.
Just go back over the last century. Taft and Theodore Roosevelt started out allies at the beginning of Taft’s term, but by the end TR was ready to run against him. Hoover never got over his bitterness towards FDR, although that didn’t stop him from pitching in from time to time. I think he never had much to say to Truman or Eisenhower. Ike wouldn’t have called on Truman. Truman had prickly relationships with JFK and LBJ, although as a good Democrat he wanted both to succeed. Johnson was the only living former President during Nixon’s six years in office and he didn’t live long, not that he’d have been eager to help Nixon. Ford and Carter would just as soon have pretended Nixon didn’t exist. Reagan distrusted and disliked the man. Reagan of course was in no shape after he left office to advise or aid any of his successors. Carter and the first George Bush got along, warily, but Carter and Clinton didn’t. Clinton seems to really like the man he defeated but their humanitarian collaborations really got going after Clinton left office. George W. Bush didn’t want help from anybody and under Dick Cheney’s influence kept even his own father at a distance.
Few of the 19th Century Presidents lived long enough after they left the White House to be of any help to their successors. Few of them lasted in office long enough to take advantage of any help that might have been offered. A lot of those guys were one-termers and less than one-termers. Martin Van Buren had an…interesting…relationship with the man he served as Vice-President and I suspect that when he was President Andrew Jackson felt less than kindly towards John Quincy Adams. I’m not sure how close Monroe was with Madison.
So, the nearest analogues in time to Obama and Clinton are James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, only one of whom was tall.
This afternoon President Obama called President Clinton “our Do-Gooder-in-Chief.” He meant it as high praise and it sounded to me like it was full of admiration and affection.
Gift shop. Seventh Avenue. New York City. September 21, 2011.
Seriously, though. the President is about to speak. I’ll be trying to follow along on Twitter. Trying because the wireless connection is temperamental. Embarrassing for CGI, I think, since they just got Microsoft to commit a whopping big pile of money to increasing broadband access for poor neighborhoods and schools.