Further proof that CBS’ in-the-works Sherlock Holmes reboot will take the iconic franchise in a radical new direction: The network has cast Lucy Liu as Watson!
Nothing radical about it. In a not as awful as I feared TV movie in the late 1980s, Margaret Colin played Watson to Michael Pennington’s Holmes.
Ok, she was Jane Watson, Doctor Watson’s great-grand-daughter. Holmes was Holmes, waking up after an 80 year nap---he’d had himself frozen. I forget exactly why. Something ridiculous involving Moriarty. But the effect was the same after you got used to the gimmick and his calling her Watson.
Watson became a woman, and what did it add to the story? Some mild sexual tension. How radical.
Also, there was a movie I loved when I was a kid but I’ve never seen again since, They Might Be Giants, with George C. Scott and Joanne Woodward. They weren’t really Holmes and Watson. He was a madman who thought he was Sherlock Holmes and she was his psychiatrist. But over the course of the movie the line between delusion and reality blurred and by the end they’d become pretty much who he thought they were.
TV Line also reports, breathlessly, as if amazed by the producers’ audacity:
Another key change: Sherlock and Watson now live in New York City.
Guess where the TV movie was set.
But it’s not that the idea of a female Watson is not new now, it’s that even back then, when the TV movie aired, it was second-hand. The Return of Sherlock Holmes was itself a knock-off of 1979s Time After Time with Pennington as Holmes replacing Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells and Margaret Colin standing in for Mary Steenburgen and a cryogenic sleep chamber doing the work of a time machine. And it was an attempt to capitalize on the popularity of the Jeremy Brett Sherlock Holmes series and Remington Steele and Moonlighting.
And not only is a female Watson not a new idea. These days it’s practically retrograde. The pairing of an eccentric, unorthodox, or at least unconventional genius male detective (or detective manque) with a tough, no-nonsense, more by the book female detective is a TV staple. Castle. The Mentalist. Law and Order: Criminal Intent. Monk. Chuck. Warehouse 13. They all work this conceit. Bones flips it and puts the woman in the role of Holmesian eccentric and genius, which is at least a little more unexpected. This “new” Holmes series will be able to call itself a radical departure if it resists having its Holmes and Watson become romantically involved and who wants to bet that will happen?
One of the beauties of Sherlock, the BBC series CBS’ Elementary is trying to cash in on, is that in moving the setting to 21st Century London nothing essential is changed. Holmes and Watson are still Holmes and Watson. The inside joke turns out to be that there’s no need to modernize them, they always were modern. They didn’t know they were living in the past. They thought of themselves (that is, Conan Doyle presented them) as living on the cutting edge of the future. If anything, they were ahead of their time, in their attitudes as well as in their reliance on the latest in science and technology. What makes the stories what they are is the relationship between Holmes and Watson and that has not changed. That’s what sells the series. It’s also what sells the Robert Downey-Jude Law movies. Both are doing variations on the theme, but it’s still the same song.
It also helps that the casting is superb. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are each excellent on their own, but together they are the best Holmes and Watson team ever, and I’m still a big fan of Brett and Edward Hardwicke and Brett and David Burke.
Many writers have proven that Holmes can be Holmes on his own. It doesn’t belittle Watson’s importance to say that he can be left out of an adventure, because it turns out he often is. But if you put Watson in it, then he should be Watson or else the fundamental relationship changes and you don’t have Holmes and Watson. You have Holmes and some other sidekick and that’s not new either.
It’s not a bad thing. It can be a very good thing. But it’s not a new thing.
Of course, if your Watson isn’t Watson, your Holmes might as well not be Holmes. You can call him any other name you want. And then you can begin to do some truly new things with that character.
You can call him Adrian Monk or Bobby Goren or you can make a pun and call him House.
…that’s both been done to death and is essentially irrelevant: Palin is a PR phenomenon and McCain will never be president. They’ve both returned from whence they came.
By contrast, the story of how President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton regarded each other in the buildup to and during the 2008 campaign, and how they came to be partners rather than enemies, is both directly relevant to ongoing events and a much richer story than that of John McCain’s taking a flyer on his VP selection.
Rosenberg thinks it might have been due to how hard it would have been to cast a compelling and convincing Barack Obama. Could be. Although, off hand, I think if they’d asked Denzel he’d have been glad to give it a shot.
My guess why Palin and McCain rather than Clinton and Obama? Ratings. Soap opera outdraws a civics lesson.
Also, Julianne Moore in a short skirt and boots vs Meredith Baxter in a pants suit.
Let’s leave aside the fact that by the time Sarah Palin prompted her first, “Sarah Who?” Hillary had been long out of the picture. It would have been hard to do the whole book and it makes sense that the producers would have chosen to focus on the most crucial part of the election campaign---the election.
As a pure story, what went on in the McCain campaign is just far more dramatic and filmable.
It’s stunning on the face of it that Palin could have been placed that close to becoming President. (Which, by the way, wasn’t really that close. McCain picked her because he was desperate and he was desperate because he knew he was going to lose.) It’s horrifying to realize just how unsuited she was for any public office, never mind the highest in the land.
But here’s the thing. Last year, when the project was greenlighted, Sarah Palin wasn’t irrelevant. Far from it. There was still the real possibility that she would not only run for the Republican nomination but win it. Game Change could have been airing at about the time Palin was wrapping up the nomination. All those supposed Not-Romneys who have come and gone, were really We Want Sarahs. The Radical Right is deciding the nomination and she is still their darling or she would be if she hadn’t jilted them. It’s astounding how quickly she made herself irrelevant to this election season.
And that fall from grace is part of a fascinating story.
It’s a story that might be better told in a novel, and it’s too bad Sinclair Lewis isn’t around to write it.
But here’s the other thing. Sarah Palin will never be President, now. But she is still relevant and will be relevant for a while longer (a short while, I hope), not in herself, but because of what she represents.
Liberals and the very few sane conservatives who are left can’t believe anyone could think Sarah Palin was fit to be President. But no one was going to vote for her to be President. They were going to vote for her to be their hero-queen.
She was their anger embodied. Their bitterness, their hatreds, their resentments revenged. She was to be their righteous rage let loose upon all those Others who made them feel afraid, insecure, cast aside, and irrelevant.
They weren’t going to vote for her to govern the country. They were going to vote for her to get even on their behalf.
They being mostly middle-aged white men and youngish white men feeling themselves slipping into premature obsolescence and impotence.
And they haven’t gone away.
And they’re not going to go away, not before November at any rate. They’re in the process of deciding the Republican nomination and with it the Presidential election---even if Romney runs off Santorum, they’ve so crippled Mittens by making him pander to them, at the cost of his losing the independents and even more women, that they’ve effectively ensured the re-election of the Other they most fear, loathe, and despise. But that’s the only good news. They are still going to decide the make-up of the Senate, the House of Representatives, and a whole bunch of state houses and the insanity is going to continue and get worse wherever they win.
Sarah Palin is terribly, terrifyingly relevant to their story.
To tell the truth, I don’t think I’d be interested in a TV movie about the Clinton and Obama campaigns. Two hours of scenes of Barack Obama strategizing with David Axelrod and David Plouffe alternating with scenes of Hillary Clinton strategizing with Mark Penn? No, thanks. I’m just relieved there isn’t one about John Edwards’.
As far as casting goes, I don’t know who’d have made as good an Obama as Moore is said to be a Palin and Harris a McCain. But I get a real kick out of the fact that they cast Austin Pendleton as Joe Lieberman.
Yep, it's my birthday. I'm a hundred and twelve today. Or something that feels close to that. Know what I'd like for my birthday? Gas. For the car. I'm not kidding. I've got a lot of driving to do this week. If you can swing it, please donate a gallon ($3.50 is about the national average these days.). It would be a big help and much appreciated.
Thanks very much to everyone who has donated. A big thank you to all of you for reading the blog.
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 was a rousing finish to the movie franchise, but nominating it for Best Picture would have been stretching a point, I think. It’s really half a movie. Unlike The Return of the King or, to name a few fantasy-adventure movies from the past decade that should have been nominated and would have been if the Academy wasn’t hell-bent on making itself even more irrelevant by refusing to consider fantasy-adventures (not to mention comedies), which is to say, movies people want to see, Batman Begins and The Dark Knight Rises, and Spider-Man 2, it doesn’t stand on its own. Those others, even though parts of a series, do. And while Michael Gambon, Maggie Smith, Robbie Coltrane, Ralph Fiennes, and especially Alan Rickman gave wonderful supporting performances over the years, only Fiennes had much to do in Deathly Hallows 2 and that wasn’t all that much. The series and its supporting cast deserved awards but the Academy would have had to invent a special category. Of course that it didn’t think to do it is part of what’s gone so wrong with the Oscars. Like I said, the Academy seems to have a prejudice against movies people like. But the fact that they didn’t find a way to have Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, and Rupert Grint stand together on stage last night is a pretty persuasive indicator that in ten or so years no one will be watching the Oscars.
Still, I wouldn’t make the case that Deathly Hallows 2 was “overlooked,” let alone “snubbed.” On the other hand, don’t get me started on Captain America: The First Avenger, which I think was every bit as good a piece of moviemaking with as fine a lead performance (Chris Evans) and deserving a supporting actor (Tommy Lee Jones) as Moneyball and The Descendants.
Ok, last night’s Academy Awards was kind of a sad affair. It was made sadder by Billy Crystal, apparently unwittingly, recreating his character from Mr Saturday Night. Crystal is turning 64 in March. When you’re one year away from becoming eligible for Medicare, it’s probably not a good idea to make jokes about other actors’ advanced ages, especially when at 82 (Christopher Plummer) and 84 (Max Von Sydow), respectively, they look better than you.
Man or a Muppet should win Best Song, but I wish this one had at least been nominated, if only so they could have recreated the production number on the show tonight. With Billy Crystal as Cap, of course.
And I think Tommy Lee Jones should have been nominated for Best Supporting Actor.
Kilroy is here in Paradise. George Clooney making a fool of himself brilliantly as cuckolded lawyer Matt King spying on his comatose wife’s lover in Alexander Payne’s The Descendants.
The Descendants presented the blonde and me with a rarity in our many, many years of going to the movies together. A movie we disagree on. She liked it. A lot. I liked it. A little.
The little I liked included the beautiful Hawaiian scenery and the performances of George Clooney---except for the scene where he cries---and Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters and Nick Krause as their not as stoned as you take him for tagalong friend and most of the supporting cast, especially Beau Bridges paying homage to his brother Jeff as the Dude in retirement.
The lot I didn’t like I didn’t hate. I just felt an emptiness at the heart of the story.
Clooney plays Matt King, a workaholic lawyer whose wife is in coma after suffering a head injury in a boating accident. In voice-over narration, Matt tells us that before the accident he was a failure as a husband and father, distant and neglectful, thinking that all he needed to do for his family was be a good provider and leaving it up to his wife to take care of the rest.
Matt isn’t being hard on himself about his failure as a father. He did fail his daughters by failing to pay attention to them. He took them for granted and he took it for granted that they were being well-looked after and well-taken care of and well-loved by their mother. Things were more problematic with his wife, Elizabeth.
Matt took her for granted too, but worse than that, he left the raising of their daughters solely to her without noticing she wasn’t any good at it.
At first glance, The Descendants appears to have the plot of a Lifetime TV movie. How is a family to cope when the person holding them together can’t be there to do it? That’s the question Matt’s asking himself when the movie opens. He doesn’t believe he’s up to the task he took it for granted Elizabeth was doing. So, expectedly, a lot of what happens in The Descendants is Matt learning---or at least trying hard to learn---how to be the kind of good father and good man he should have been all along. But it quickly becomes clear that he’s not filling in for Elizabeth. He’s replacing her, in the nick of time.
Matt calls himself the back-up parent. As in back-up quarterback. He expects that when (if) she recovers she’ll take over again as the family’s star and starter.
It doesn’t occur to him that she needs to be benched.
Elizabeth was a neglectful mother and unfaithful wife. Matt kept himself distracted with work. Elizabeth distracted herself with play and with playing around.
Elizabeth wasn’t just a domestic failure, like Matt. She doesn’t appear to have been a particularly admirable or even likable person. Objectively, her loss to the family wouldn’t be a great one and might possibly even be a blessing.
The actual question the plot asks is What happens when a family realizes it’s better off without one of its members?
A hard but intriguing question. The emptiness I felt at the heart of the movie was that there isn’t even an attempt to answer it. The film seems aware of itself, as films directed by Alexander Payne always seem to be, and it seems to know the question is there to be raised. But it refuses to confront it and seems to expect us to ignore it, as well. The Descendants ambles amiably along, as if it doesn’t matter that Elizabeth was on her way to removing herself from the family well before her accident took her out of the picture and good riddance to her.
There’s one scene in which Alexandra, the Kings’ eldest daughter, who is angry at both her parents, with good reason, comes close to admitting she doesn’t want her mother back (which is not the same as wishing she won’t recover) and forcing Matt to consider that he might not want her back either. But the movie immediately veers off into screwball comedy and when it finally returns to the domestic tragedy it started with, all has been forgotten if not forgiven and the tears flow.
It’s ironic that the plot puts us in the position of rooting for Elizabeth to wake up for the sake of Matt and her daughters while making us suspect that, whether or not she recovers, either way, one result will be the same. The family will lose her.
What perplexed me is that we’re not given a rooting interest in Elizabeth getting better for her sake.
In real life we would care that children were facing the loss of their mother without thinking that the mother in question wasn’t much of a loss as a mother. We would care that a real young woman might die or spend the rest of her life in a coma or brain-damaged and only partially herself ever again, regardless of how unlikeable we might find her if we knew her. But this is fiction. We can be callous about the fate of fictions without guilt. Elizabeth isn’t a character we miss while she’s not able to take an active part in her own story or that we expect we’ll miss if she doesn’t come back into it.
I’m not saying it would have been better if she’d been written as a saint. It might have been more pleasant---or I might have been less put off---if the question had been taken off the table by her having been made an averagely nice and decent person, but Elizabeth could have been an even more problematic character and that would have been fine with me too. In fact, it might even have been better as we’d have had to worry about how much trouble her recovery might cause. We can’t imagine what place this woman would have in this family as it’s reformed itself in her absence and it would be interesting to wonder how she would go about trying to fit in and if her husband and daughters could or would even try to make room for her.
Payne has a history of making movies---Citizen Ruth, Election, About Schmidt, Sideways---about difficult characters he manages to make sympathetic despite themselves and their bad behavior. But, as far as we can tell, Elizabeth isn’t that difficult. Just the opposite. She’s rather easy, to figure out and dismiss, one of those types friends call free-spirits in order to excuse their frivolousness, selfishness, and irresponsibility.
To be fair, she has no one to make a case for her. She can’t speak for herself and her family has little to say on her behalf. Matt has spent so much time in his office that he has almost no idea what was going on at home. Alexandra knows only a little more because she was shipped off to what looks like the most lackadaisically run prep school in America and that little she does know she doesn’t want to tell Matt or, really, admit to herself she knows. And Scottie, the other daughter, is too young to know what she knows. She loves her mother and thinks the world of her because she is her mother. But she has no insight into her mother’s character.
This leaves it up to four people to defend her and tell us what she was like and none of them are particularly admirable or likable themselves. Her bully of a too doting father. Her slightly ditzy and enabling best friend whose husband should be alarmed at how vicariously thrilled she is by Elizabeth’s cheating on Matt. Her boat racing buddy, a forty-something surfer dude with a chemically-enhanced mop of sun-blonded hair. And her lover, who besides being a cheat of a husband himself, is also a scheming realtor who may have been sleeping with Elizabeth in order to get useful inside information on a land deal Matt and his cousins are trying to work out, raising the possibility that Elizabeth might have in on the scheme to swindle Matt herself or that, because this creep is so obvious, she was something of a dope. These people are not the most persuasive advocates. The best they have to say about her is that she could be nice and was fun to be around when she was having her own way. Otherwise, she seems to have been as shallow and self-centered as they are. One way or another, they all accuse Matt of failing Elizabeth by not spoiling her the way she deserved to be spoiled by showering her with money to spend on her hobbies and taking her on expensive vacations.
What this means is that we're given scene after scene of characters we do like and care about breaking their hearts over a character it’s hard to feel is worth their trouble. This would have made for an interesting problem comedy or an ironic tragedy. But, to continue my initial complaint, the movie moves through these scenes as if it’s telling a very different, more conventional and sentimental sort of story, leading up to the what ought to be infamous rather than lauded crying scene.
I thought those tears rolling down Clooney’s cheeks stained what is otherwise a brilliant comedic performance.
The Descendants is at its best when it isn’t about what it’s supposedly about, when it puts aside what’s happening with Elizabeth and takes up subplots in which her injury and the question of her recovery are irrelevant: Matt’s delicate negotiations with his many cousins as they try to figure out what to do with a prime piece of real estate they’ve collectively inherited. (This is where Bridges doing his sly impersonation of his brother Jeff comes in.) And Matt’s sudden, mad, obsessive quest to track down Elizabeth’s lover and confront him in order to…in order to…he doesn’t know what, but something.
It’s in these scenes that Clooney gets to do what he does best, move.
Clooney always carries himself well. But that often means carrying himself awkwardly or goofily or---never mind the overdone comparisons to Grant and Gable---with excessive grace like Chaplin, like Keaton, like Groucho, and like…well…Grant.
There are several key moments to pay attention to the man in motion.
The first is when, after learning his wife has had an affair, he runs to her best friend’s house to demand the details, trying to put on his shoes as he goes and not quite getting them on so that his stride is thrown all off and he skips and half-hops dorkily down the winding street.
The next is another running scene, this time it’s Matt jogging on a beach. It’s a deceptively simple and superficially meaningless shot but Clooney has Matt chugging along in a stiff, regimented way that tells us this a non-athlete who has learned everything he knows about exercise from a book. He looks foolish until he passes Elizabeth’s lover jogging the other way and then he looks exactly how he must have looked to Elizabeth after she fell for the realtor, smaller, weaker, older, and foolish.
The third is when he’s tracked down the lover and attempts to spy on him and the wife and small children Matt’s surprised to learn the man has from behind a tall hedge. Clooney raises and lowers his head to Kilroy-like levels but it’s not just the image he presents that’s funny, it’s also the perfectly timed and exquisite slowness of the raising and lowering.
And the fourth is when, after having finagled his way into the lover’s house and unexpectedly hitting it off with the man’s wife, Matt impulsively kisses her. It’s a desperate move, all he can think to do to get a little bit of revenge, and he regrets it immediately, while moving in for the kiss. Matt tries to pull back but inertia carries him forward and he winds up more or less punching her in the mouth with his mouth. But what Clooney lets us see is that not only has Matt made the wrong move, he wouldn’t have known how to pull it off even if it was the right move or if his conscience hadn’t tripped him up. Matt is a man who doesn’t know how to kiss anyone except his wife and he’s out of practice doing that. Basically, Clooney convinces us that although he looks like George Clooney, Matt is no George Clooney. He’s an average guy who has loved one woman in his life.
In addition to those moments, Clooney deadpans and double-takes with the best of them. In my review of The Ides of March I wrote about Clooney’s penchant for playing weak men. The specific weaknesses and the sources of those weaknesses vary from character to character. In The Descendants, Matt’s main weakness is that he isn’t emotionally equipped to handle the catastrophe that has shaken his family nearly to pieces. But he’s hobbled as well by his not having the information he needs to deal with things. He doesn’t know how to be a good father to his daughters because he doesn’t know them. He doesn’t know exactly how he failed Elizabeth or how he’ll go about doing better by her if and when she recovers because he doesn’t know what she was thinking and feeling before her accident. Consequently, he’s continually slammed with information he should have had as a matter of course but which now takes him completely by surprise and leaves him (that is, has Clooney) staring hilariously stunned and speechless at the just about every turn.
Besides Bridges, the small but effective supporting cast includes Matthew Lillard as Elizabeth’s smarmy and craven lover, Judy Greer as his sweet and wounded wife who is clearly the kind of wife and mother whose loss would be a terrible blow to her family and who in a few brief scenes with Clooney and Woodley has us wondering if the real tragedy here is that the wrong set of spouses met first, and Robert Forster who as Elizabeth’s father demonstrates how skilled Payne is at making us sympathize with difficult and unlikable characters without hedging on how difficult and unlikable they are.
Miller is a natural as Scottie, the budding artist and determined eccentric. And I really liked Krause as Alexandra’s sweetly goofed-up friend Sid whom Matt naturally suspects of hanging around in hopes of sleeping with his daughter but who turns out to be there because he’s a good friend and being there in times of sorrow and trouble are what friends are for.
But my favorite was Woodley as Alexandra King, the seeming rebel who discovers, to her terror and amazement and eventual satisfaction, that her natural place in the family had been blocked by her mother’s presence and now the way is clear for her to assume it. (There’s that unacknowledged irony again.) She’s the caretaker and her father’s competent and reliable right hand. It’s amusing to watch Woodley and Clooney develop their rhythm as Alexandra and Matt fumble their way towards an understanding. What eventually happens is that Woodley becomes Clooney’s straight man. This requires her to keep up and keep in step, figuratively and literally, and she does beautifully. They move very well together.
Alexander Payne talks about something else I liked---a lot---about the movie, the final scene, in an interview with NPR.
How sorry you think Jonah Hill is that he did 21 Jump Street now? Hill is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Moneyball. Brad Pitt is up for Best Actor. And Moneyball’s contending for Best Picture. Three reasons for re-posting my review from the fall as part of Oscar Week in Mannionville.
Brad Pitt as Oakland Athletic’s general manager Billy Beane alone with his thoughts and his ghosts in Bennett Miller’s movie adaptation of Michael Lewis’ account of Beane’s struggles to guide the A’s back to the playoffs after losing their best players to free agency, Moneyball.
Although set during the Oakland Athletics’ 2002 drive for the American League West’s division championship, Moneyball is no more about baseball than The Social Network is about social networking, Charlie Wilson’s War is about, well, Charlie Wilson’s war, A Few Good Men is about life as a United States Marine, or---to add a film that wasn’t written by Aaron Sorkin---The Ides of March is about politics. Like those other movies, Moneyball is a character study of a not particularly heroic or exceptional man faced with what appears to be an insurmountable challenge.
That challenge---creating a billion dollar business out of thin air and in thin air, arming a small guerrilla army fighting a proxy war against the Soviet Union, building a championship ball club that can compete with the New York Yankees with a payroll less than a third of the Yankees’---may be interesting in and of itself, but for the purposes of the movie it matters mainly in the way it put stresses on the protagonist and reveals his strengths and weaknesses.
Brad Pitt stars as the A’s general manager Billy Beane who, after three of his team’s best players say goodbye to Oakland to sign on with richer, more competitive teams for bigger bucks than Oakland can afford to pay, has to figure out how to replace their bats and their arms on the cheap.
The A’s just don’t have the dough to go after stars in the free agent market. Those three departed players---slugger Jason Giambi, potential superstar outfielder Johnny Damon, and star closer Jason Isringhausen---have signed with new teams for a combined salary that’s only five million dollars less than Oakland’s entire payroll! The team seems doomed to fill in with journeymen and farm hands.
But then Beane has a chance meeting with Peter Brand, a recent Ivy League grad with a degree in economics who’s working as an assistant to the assistant general manager of the Cleveland Indians. Brand (played straight by a surprisingly adult Jonah Hill) shoots down a deal Beane has worked out with the Indians and Beane corners him and wants to know why. Brand turns out to be a computer geek and a wizard with numbers and he explains that most baseball insiders---scouts, coaches, general managers---consistently look at the wrong things when judging players. An in-depth look into the statistics will often reveal strengths and weaknesses that insiders overlook or undervalue. The A’s, Brand says, don’t need to replace Giambi or Damon. They need to replace the runs Giambi and Damon produced, and since there are a lot of different ways to score runs, there are a lot of different types of players, a lot more players, worth signing, including, and considering Oakland’s financial constraints, most helpfully, players every other team has written off.
The trick is identifying the right players, but all Beane needs to do, Brand says, is look at the numbers.
Beane hires Brand on the spot to look at the numbers for him.
And that is about the end of baseball as baseball’s place in the plot of Moneyball. From here on out, the focus is on Beane himself facing down demons from his past, facing up to past failures, personal and professional, and, although working as hard as he can to make his plan work, readying himself for the likelihood that he’s going to fail, again.
Beane is a former major leaguer himself, a once upon highly-touted prospect, drafted by the New York Mets in the first round in 1979, who was unable to live up to his potential. There was a simple reason for that. He had no potential.
He had reached his peak as a baseball player during his junior year in high school. He had never learned to discipline himself at the plate. He had never learned to discipline his temper. He was emotional and easily carried away, qualities that later helped wreck his marriage. His weaknesses, as a ballplayer and a person, were there to read in the numbers.
No one looked at the numbers.
The scout who signed Beane admitted he hadn’t looked at Beane’s stats from his senior year.
The Mets expected more, sooner, of Beane than they did of another outfielder they’d drafted ahead of him the same year.
Beane played major league ball for five full seasons and parts of two others. He bounced from the Mets to the Twins to the Tigers to the A’s, finishing his career in Oakland with a lifetime average of .219.
Having failed as a professional ballplayer, failed as a husband, half-convinced he’s failing as a father to his precocious and sensitive daughter, and so far unsuccessful in doing the job he believes he was hired to do, put together a pennant-winning ballclub, Beane is beginning to wonder if he’s been kidding himself and everybody else all along. He’s suspecting that he’s a cheap fraud.
All these years later, questions still nag at him. How could the scouts have been so wrong? Were they wrong? Had his coaches failed him? Or had he failed himself?
And just what does he think he’s doing now? Has he learned from his past or is he trying to make up for it?
These questions are part of an argument he’s having with himself and he keeps it mostly to himself. From time to time Pitt lets it creep into his voice and into his the attitudes towards other characters, but mainly he lets us see it taking behind his eyes.
Pitt’s Billy Beane isn’t the same sort of career-defining performance as George Bailey was for Jimmy Stewart or Doug Roberts was for Henry Fonda. But it’s the first in which Pitt shows that such a performance is in his near future. It’s his first as a certifiable adult, responsible for the younger characters in his charge and therefore responsible for the younger actors playing them. It’s the first movie he has had to carry on his own. Almost always in the past, Pitt has been paired with another star, often a bigger star, or he’s been part of an ensemble and not always the main character in that ensemble.
And he’s without a convoluted or gimmicky plot to hide in and has to do without the eccentricities of character he has relied on to distract audiences from how beautiful he is and make them pay attention to his character as a person apart from the movie star playing him. He’s there on the screen as just himself---well, as a regular guy who happens to look and talk like Brad Pitt---with nothing but Sorkin’s dialog and his own intelligence and talent to protect him, and he does just fine. It’s a deft, smart, understated, and admirably modest performance. He’s comfortable within himself in a way I don’t recall him ever quite being before, which is ironic because one of the things he does very well here is show how uncomfortable Beane is within himself.
Pitt’s Billy Beane has no self-importance. What’s happening to him matters to us because it matters to Beane and Pitt has us liking and rooting for him, and one of the things we like about him is that he keeps things in perspective. Beane is under no illusions that he’s curing cancer or bringing about world peace, or even revolutionizing baseball, which is to say that Pitt doesn’t allow any self-righteousness or special-pleading to creep in and carry him away. Beane is doing his job in the only way he can think of to do it successfully, but he’s well aware that if he’s saving anybody by doing it, it’s only himself. The immediate consequence of his failing will be he’ll get fired and that’ll be the end of his career in baseball, a very big deal to him but not to anybody else, not even to his daughter or Brand. They’ll be sad for him but they’ll get along just fine. Nobody else will care. Beane knows that and he doesn’t expect them to. A bigger concern for him is that he may not care himself.
This is the central question of his life at the moment, whether or not he’s worth caring about.
Pitt has Beane turning this over in his mind, ruefully, wistfully, but with hardly any self-pity, and what could have been a cliched portrait of a overgrown boy in mourning for his lost youth Pitt turns into a portrait of a once upon a time lost youth with no time to waste mourning his lost youth because he has to do his damn job as a grown man.
That’s why I say Moneyball isn’t about baseball. It’s a workplace dramady about a decent and well-meaning boss, quietly coming to the end of his rope, who has to steer his little ship of fools through a storm he’s accidentally sailed them into and has to take a desperate gamble to bring them safely to shore. Pitt could be playing any one with a small crew to skipper, a lawyer, a doctor, a police sergeant, an army lieutenant, a firehouse captain, the owner of a department store, or the captain of a boat.
It’s a little odd how Moneyball makes being the general manager of a major league baseball team look like an ordinary middle-class white collar job.
But even though it isn’t about baseball doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot of baseball in it. Director Bennett Miller captures the atmosphere of the game and the business almost off-handedly but surely. The actors playing his ballplayers not only look and act like ballplayers they can play. That’s because many of them were and are ballplayers. Former major league shortstop Royce Clayton plays the free-swinging All-Star Miguel Tejada. Stephen Bishop who plays the aging slugger David Justice spent time in the Atlanta Braves farm system where he was known as Young Justice because in looks and style of play he resembled Justice. And Miller does a skillful job of blending simulated plays and events with clips from the real deal.
And of course the question that drives the plot---Are Beane and Brand right in trying to build a winning ballclub the numbers?---is a baseball question.
It’s not just his own self-doubts Beane has to overcome. His ideas and decisions are resisted within the A’s organization, first, and most vocally by Beane’s team of scouts---a hilarious Greek chorus of old baseball hands, some of them actual major league scouts, who seem to be holding a contest to see which of them can spout the most and most hoary baseball cliches. But his most serious opponent is the A’s manager, Art Howe.
Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking more like a real baseball manager---and more like Art Howe, for that matter---than the real Art Howe, plays Howe with a self-satisfied smirk and a malicious glint in his eyes that, if it’s possible for an expression to be an act of libel, ought to have the real Art Howe suing Hoffman, Miller, and the movie’s producers.
In refusing to start the players the numbers have told Beane to acquire or play them the way the numbers say they should be played, Howe seems to be deliberately sabotaging the team’s chances to make the playoffs. Neither the script nor Hoffman’s performance tell us if this is what Howe’s up to or why he’d do that. We can’t tell if it’s a gambit in contract negotiations. Howe is looking for an extension of his contract. We can’t tell if it’s a matter of pride. Beane is Howe’s boss but there’s an understanding in baseball that general managers leave the handling of the players and the day to day managing of games to the manager and his coaches. We can’t tell if it’s that Howe just doesn’t agree with Beane and trusts his own judgment more than he trusts computer spreadsheets. We can’t tell if he’s just not smart enough to follow the plot. Hoffman plays him, cagily, as a guy who’s maybe too cagy for his own good.
What matters is Howe as symbol of the old guard determined to hold onto their game.
There’s not enough of Hoffman in the movie. Some people would say there is never enough of Hoffman in any movie he’s in. But I suspect that he was able to film all of his scenes in one day and may have done it as a favor to Miller who directed him to his Academy Award in Capote.
There is, however, almost enough Jonah Hill. There are some people who would say there is always way more than enough Jonah Hill in any movie he’s in. If that’s true, it’s because his directors have a habit of overusing him or using him in ways that show up his weaknesses and not his strengths. They need to look at the numbers.
As Peter Brand---who is based on a real-life person who asked the producers to change the name, not because he was offended by the way he was portrayed, but because he was concerned that people he had to deal with in real life would expect him to be like the character in the movie---Hill plays his first certifiable grown-up. He’s a young man, but still a man not a boy, and his endearing insecurities, flubs, hesitations, and self-imposed humiliations are funny but not because they make him a loveable goofball but because we’ve been there. Brand is a smart, ambitious, talented young man who has to get older in a hurry and learn on the run. He stumbles because he’s running fast, uphill, over terrain pitted with hidden mole holes and bumpy with rocks and riven by gullies and streams he has to leap without breaking stride. No wonder he falls flat on his face so often. But he’s learning the whole time and Hill lets us see that.
Hill’s importance as a supporting actor is in playing the one person who believes in Billy Beane. But Brand’s importance as a character is established by Beane’s believing in him, and Hill makes it clear why Beane would.
With luck, Moneyball will convince Hollywood to stop using Hill as a minor clown and start casting him as a serious actor who, among other things, can do comedy.
Hugo’s another one like The Artist, an Oscar-nominee I’ve heard almost nothing but glowing things about but haven’t seen and probably won’t get to see before Sunday night. Nobody in this house wants to go with me to see it and I just can’t bring myself to go alone. Anybody need a movie date?
Scorsese is still Scorsese, and he hasn’t become an old softy. Still, Hugo glows with the deep love that comes from cherishing one thing or one person over the lengthening years. More than that, it’s about age and youth reaching out to each other. The film flatly rejects the notion that movies cease to speak to us after the passage of too much time, even after more than 100 years. In doing so, Scorsese also answers anyone who was wondering why, after making so many films depicting adults at their harshest, he would suddenly tackle a kiddie movie.
I can’t do justice to the way the Siren’s done justice to the film, so you’d better just go read her whole post.
Caveat from the Siren: “The Siren herein discusses Hugo in great detail, so if you haven't seen it yet, you are warned.”
PS I think Marty would actually like it if the Siren called him Marty.
The story, by John Rogers, looked at some of the reasons behind this, although taking the usual business reporting tone of “These things happen, what are you going to do?” as if the financial collapse that wiped out retirement savings was an act of God and not the result of a massive act of collective theft, fraud, and criminal incompetence and as if there’s no government that could do anything to salvage things, which, effectively, there isn’t, but still. That was annoying enough, but then, in surveying the decline in manufacturing that has taken place throughout the Boomers’ working lives, Rogers wrote this:
At the same time, companies began moving other jobs overseas, to be filled by people willing to work for far less and still able to connect to the U.S. market in real time.
Did you catch that phrasing?
“…filled by people willing to work for far less”
And far less? As in how far less? Subsistence level wages? Starvation wages? Essentially no wages, only rudimentary bed and board?
How about telling it as it is, like this:
Companies began moving as many jobs as they could overseas to places where people were so desperate they would work for pretty much slave wages, to countries where people of all ages, including children, could be forced to work till they dropped.
And like this:
At the same time, corporations at home decided it wasn’t worth the money to expand, innovate, or retool when they could increase profits by laying off workers, keeping wages down, shuttering factories, buying up the competition, with the goal of eventually cannibalizing themselves or selling themselves off to other cannibal corporations.
If the words Bain and Mitt just popped into your head, good.
Now maybe Rogers was just being lazy and not thinking about his phrasing or maybe he was being over-fussy in an attempt to be “balanced” and acknowledging that not every job that leaves the United States goes to China.
But I hear something else in that paragraph. The voice of the collective wisdom of the corporate elite and their flunkeys and apologists in Washington and the political press corps.
That voice speaks in a condescending and accusatory tone and says:
Shut up and stop whining. It’s your own fault anyway.
You’re the ones who bought houses you really couldn’t afford. You’re the ones who didn’t save enough. You’re the ones who didn’t invest in yourselves by going to college. You’re the ones who took jobs that didn’t make you rich and that you should have foreseen we were going to decide were inessential. You’re the ones who demanded benefits that are just not worth paying you.
Blaming the poor for their poverty is an old, old trick of the aristocracy. But because it sounds harsh and because it admits that there is such a thing as poverty, another trick is to guilt-trip the poor in a different way by telling them to count their blessings.
Look at how well off you are, comparatively. You could be living in one of those countries we’ve moved your old jobs to where you’d be wearing rags and living in squalor. So be thankful for your flat screen TV and your one dinner out a month at McDonalds. There are children working themselves into an early grave in China who would think you’re rich.
Like I said, I don’t know if Rogers was just being sloppy or over-fussy, but intentionally or not he echoes the voice of the 1%. That voice doesn’t shout, but it doesn’t mumble. It speaks in smug, confident tones it thinks are reasonable and persuasive but have the unmistakable sound of the lord of the manor lecturing the village folk on how they need to remember their place. And more and more lately that voice isn’t just directed at the poor. The middle class have been coming in for a scolding as well.
The Boomers’ big mistake was trusting their future to a system they expected to do for them what it had done for their parents and grandparents (although, because it was Morning in America, at less cost) but which had been reprogrammed by a greedy and conscienceless few who believed other people exist only to be used to serve their needs and increase their wealth.
That’s just the way it is, these things happen, nothing to be done about it, and if it means that most of us have to spend our golden years pushing brooms or bagging groceries, well, at least we have the consolation of knowing we’re not as bad off as those children in China and we can stop off at McDonalds on our way home from work we’re damn lucky to have to pick up a Value Meal to eat while watching the flat screen TV that only has ten payments left on it until it’s ours.
From the Department of Great Minds Thinking Alike.
Regarding the political press corps’ obsequious habit of flattering Rick Santorum’s vicious religiosity as simply a sincere devotion to his Catholic faith, here’s me, Saturday night on Twitter and then again right here on this stage Monday:
Santorum’s a “devout” Catholic only in the same sense Torquemada was a “devout” Catholic.
[Santorum] is presented as a model Catholic. Torquemada was, in that sense, a model Catholic.
I hadn’t read Wills’ post and I’m pretty sure he doesn’t follow me on Twitter, but the Torquemada reference isn’t mere coincidence. It’s a natural analogy that would occur to any Catholics who’d studied the history of their church. Santorum talks more like an Inquisitor than like the guy who founded the faith.
But I wonder if Wills had to stop himself, as I did, from adding this to his post:
Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo showing a lot of face in The Artist.
More fun for Oscar Week in Mannionville.
The Artist has finally turned up in theaters in these parts, but I don’t think we’re going to be able to see it before Sunday. Odd thing, though. I’ve heard almost nothing but glowing things about it, but the longer I’ve had to wait and the more glowing things I’ve heard the less I’ve wanted to see it. I think there’s a point where when you’ve heard a movie talked about a lot you begin to feel as though you’ve already seen it, several times, in a bad mood, with a headache.
The trailer has put me off a bit too. Too much face. Everybody has too much face. John Goodman, too much face. James Cromwell, too much face. Penelope Ann Miller, Berenice Bejo, the dog. Jean Dujardin, way, way too much face. The camera gets in too close and at a disconcerting angle or maybe it’s the way they’re lit. But the only person in real life who ever presents you with that much face is your dentist.
That’s just me. Word is that The Artist is likely to pick up the Oscar for Best Picture and deservedly. But Karina Longworth, film editor for LA Weekly and Village Voice media critic, thinks it’s going to win and when it does it’ll be because there might be something else behind it besides an appreciation for good movie-making fun.
Like Singin' in the Rain, a film to which it's often compared, The Artist is an example of the kind of mythic history Hollywood tells about itself in order to promote its own survival in times of trouble. When Rain was released in 1952, studios were struggling to adapt to both a 1948 court order that forced the studios to give up ownership and management of movie theaters, and the growing lure of television. The Artist has been released into a similar period of transition, as celluloid technology is being replaced by digital, and theater attendance is threatened by the habits of a new generation born into an on-demand world. If the Oscars truly are Hollywood's way of telling us what it's thinking about itself, then the dominance of The Artist reflects the paranoid uncertainty of a contemporary movie industry barreling toward an uncertain future, and looking to the past for reassurance.
Yep. I’m still having fun with Coming Apart, Charles Murray’s new and soon-to-be-forgotten book on how the liberal elites, having ruined the lives of generations of African-Americans, are now busy corrupting working class white people, once upon a time the heart and soul of mainstream America, and the silly quiz that went with it.
As I’ve been saying, the book and the quiz don’t mean much to me. It’s the assumptions behind the questions on the quiz that have gotten me riled up, mainly because they’re based on a conventional image of a “Real America” that’s of course pushed by Republicans, because it’s their base or how their base like to think of themselves. But it’s also pretty widely accepted without thought among reporters and pundits who cover national politics and so it drives all our discussions of what Americans think and want. For that reason, I think it’s helpful to look at those assumptions and try to see through them to the real Real America.
So, let’s consider this. Today’s the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Which makes today what?
The conventional image of Real America is that it is a Protestant place.
Mardi Gras is not a Protestant holiday.
Or it wasn’t, originally.
In fact, it was the kind of holiday Protestants, especially Protestants of the sort Real America is supposed to be mostly made up of, Southern and Midwestern evangelicals and fundamentalists, despise---lots of Papists dressing up (mostly by undressing) and getting all sexy.
Mardi Gras is now celebrated all over the place, mainly in bars, but in the U.S. of A. it’s associated with one city in particular. That city is in a Southern state, and Southern states are presumed to be more Real-ly American than Northern states. But New Orleans isn’t exactly a typical Southern city.
It’s not a Protestant city, that’s for sure.
And it’s not a white city.
It’s whiter since Katrina, but that’s another sin of the Bush Administration we still need to atone for and repair.
And yet I defy anyone to argue that the Mardi Gras parade is not as American as baseball, apple pie, or Chevrolet.
Same for St Patrick’s Day Parades, Columbus Day Parades, Chinese New Year Parades, Cinco de Mayo Parades, Easter Parades, and the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. None of which seem to figure in the thinking behind this question:
12. Have you ever participated in a parade that did not involve global warning, gay rights, or a war protest?
I got a kick out of answering yes to this one, because the last parade I marched in was at Occupy Wall Street.
You know who else could answer yes to the question as phrased though?
Of course, like me, some Illinois Nazis have probably marched in many parades in their lifetimes.
I’ve marched in Little League Parades, St Patrick’s Day Parades, Christmas Parades, Cub Scout Parades, Fourth of July Parades---when I was little my grandmother organized an Independence Day Parade at the trailer park up the lake where she and my grandfather spent their summers and I got to lead it!
Every spring back in grade school, I marched in a May Day Parade. Not the commie sort of May Day parade. Crown the statue of the Blessed Virgin with flowers May Day parades. I went to Catholic school.
And note that the question doesn’t ask if you’ve marched in a parade. It asks if you participated in one. As far as I’m concerned, and I think the refs will back me up on this, it counts as participating if you’ve stood on the sidewalk along the parade route and cheered the bands and waved to the kids on the floats.
Our little town holds three big parades every year, a Memorial Day Parade, a Halloween parade, and a St Patrick’s Day Parade. I’m out there clapping and cheering every time. The St Paddy’s Day Parade is the major one and everybody turns out, although our town isn’t all that Irish. We don’t even have a corner bar, unless you count the one in the Chinese restaurant. But then on St Patrick’s Day, everybody’s Irish.
So, I’d have thought everybody’s answer to the question would be, “Yes, who hasn’t?” Which would have made this one of the questions put on the quiz so that nobody scores a 0.
But I forgot that the point isn’t primarily to let some of us flatter ourselves that we’re in touch with Real America. It’s mainly to force some of us to identify ourselves as being hopelessly out of touch, which is to say to out ourselves as liberal elitists of the kind that are ruining Real America for Real Americans.
The assumption is that liberal elitists disdain parades because they’re hokey and vulgar and celebrate All-American virtues and values liberal elitists hold in contempt, like patriotism and the music of John Philip Sousa and fat old men in fezzes driving miniature Indy cars in circles around each other. (A highlight of Fort Wayne’s Three Rivers Festival Parade. You haven’t seen life until you’ve seen a Shriner diving from his miniature Indy car as it flames out.) Liberal elitists don’t participate in parades unless they make good liberally elitist political points. All other parades they boycott for politically correct reasons.
As objects of boycotts is the only way St Patrick’s Day and Columbus Day parades figure in the assumptions behind that question. But here’s the thing. Parades are regular events in two kinds of places. Small towns and cities. There aren’t many parades in the suburbs because suburbs tend not to have roads that can be turned into parade routes or, just as important to holding a parade, sidewalks where people can safely stand and cheer and wave.
Americans love a parade.
Lots of parades take place in American cities.
Therefore the people who live in cities must be Americans.
What’s missing from the conventional idea of the Real America is that most Americans live in cities or in metropolitan areas. What’s also missing is that many of the parades we love celebrate our collective ethnicity. We are all descended from people who came from somewhere else. Even Native Americans. The American Experience is a lot of different things, but one of the things it is is an Immigrant Experience.
New Orleans is a French invention. The reason there are so many St Patrick’s Day parades is that the Irish took over and built so many cities. And not just towns like New York and Boston and Chicago, me boyos. Kansas City and Charleston, South Carolina and Butte, Montana are more Irish than Dublin too. Irish Channel doesn’t make New Orleans an Irish city, but it didn’t get named Irish Channel for the hell of it.
Murray’s book is subtitled “The Decline of White America.” Implicit is the the notion that Regular America---Real America---is White America. And I think a lot of people---white people---accept that without even knowing they accept it. Hard-core racists know they accept it. But lots of racists don’t know they’re racist and lots of people who aren’t racist accept ideas that are racist---and I know, the case can be made that that makes them racist, but for the sake of argument…---and lots of those people are journalists and pundits who cover politics blithely unaware that they treat African-American and Latino voters as if they don’t count.
We’re on the verge of becoming a tan country, but the reason we’ve remained a white majority country for so long is that we’ve kept revising the definition of white. When we started out, white was short for White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. Germans and Irish Catholics didn’t count. Then the Italians began to arrive and they didn’t count. Then Eastern Europeans didn’t count. At the moment, most Latinos don’t count but some are beginning to qualify. (Cf. Marco Rubio.) Asian-Americans and East Indian Americans have achieved a kind of honorary whiteness.
The reason the definition has been so flexible is that white-ness is an arbitrary and stupid distinction that really doesn’t describe anybody, not even white people who want their white-ness to matter the way they think black people’s blackness and brown people’s brown-ness matter. What they’re missing is that they possess a something-ness that already matters that way. It’s their cultural heritage. White Southerners are Southerners before they are white, although unfortunately for too many their cultural heritage tells them that their whiteness matters first. We are an ethnically and culturally diverse country, and we all share in each other’s diversity. Regular Americans---Real Americans---are mutts.
It should be noted that once upon a time most of the population of New Orleans did not count as white, even the citizens who were decidedly pale. One drop of “colored” blood colored you, and folks were generous with their bloodlines. New Orleans was founded by the French but it is a Creole city. On St Patrick’s Day, every Real American is Irish. Tonight every Real American is French, Creole, black, whIrish, Catholic, and a sinner.
In case you're unfamiliar with the genre, EVERY horse movie is about a plucky young person forming a special bond with an otherwise difﬁcult and unruly horse. Because that's the dream, for a wild creature to totally trust you and become your buddy. It's the ultimate ﬂattery. It's also the ultimate disappointment when you take riding lessons and your horse doesn't care about you and tries to rub you off on a tree.
Devout Catholics follow all the Church’s teachings, not just the weirder and and most twisted ones on sex.
Also, devout Catholics do not thump their bibles to make even theological points, never mind political ones. We cite saints and the nuns who taught us. Catholics don’t expect public policy to be “bible based.” We don’t want it to be bible-based because for one thing we recognize that the bible is a very mixed up and self-contradicting document, and for another the bible that’s likely to be used to base policies on would be a Protestant bible.
You might want to educate yourselves on the differences between Catholics and Protestants, particularly on the subject of “good works.”
Devout Catholics are more likely to wish that public policy was based on the teachings of St Francis of Assisi. If there’s a part of the bible we’d like to see enshrined into law it’s the Sermon on the Mount. Where in the public blatherings and political posturings of Rick Santorum is there anything remotely like the Beatitudes? Where in his biography since he entered politics is there even a hint that he’s modeled himself or his politics on St Francis’s life and works?
Finally, beware the layman who rattles his beads more loudly and insistently than any nun or priest. He’s trying to hide something.
PS. Also, you should also stop referring to Santorum’s “working class roots.” MBA-lawyer sons of clinical psychologists aren’t exactly Teamsters.
He thinks Gary Oldman’s nomination for his performance as the mild-mannered and enigmatic spycatcher George Smiley and the nominations Tinker, Tailor… picked up for best adapted screenplay and musical score were “well-deserved,” but…
For gaffe squadders who enjoy those fits of righteous indignation that only award nominations can truly provide, let me suggest that the most egregious oversight in this year's Oscar batch is the lack of acknowledgment for "Tinker Tailor" in the categories of best picture, supporting actor (anyone), supporting actress (Kathy Burke), cinematography, art direction, editing, costume design, and so on down the line.
As much as I liked the movie, in another year I wouldn’t have touted it as a Best Picture nominee, but compared to The Descendants? Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close? Moneyball? War Horse? Mark Strong is the only one of the supporting actors who might have a---I’m sorry, I’ve got to---strong case that he was robbed, although John Hurt, Benedict Cumberbatch, and Tom Hardy were very good too. Otherwise, I agree, especially about Burke and, as Twitter pal Tom Combe said, the real stars of the movie were whosever “job it was to make everything look authentically 70s and lived-in.”
I’m talking dimensions here. Length. Width. Depth. It’s a slender book of a size and weight that are familiar to my hands.
Not as heavy as a hymnal. Not as compact as missalette. Not as thick as my edition of the New Revised Bible. It’s slightly bigger than my grandfather’s collection of Emerson’s essays he won in high school. Slightly larger than a primer on relativity my father saved from college and that I tried to read in eighth grade and gave up on less than a third of the way through, sadly convinced that my future did not lie in the sciences.
A hymnal, a prayer book, scripture, the musings of a transcendentalist sage, a scientific text. That’s the power of suggestion driving these comparisons. I could as easily and accurately say it’s the size of those old Modern Library editions of the classics but the resonances aren’t there. Mr g is a delightful tour de force about the creation of the universe as told by the creator himself. Ontology, cosmology, theology, philosophy, quantum physics, these are the subjects under discussion and the objects of jokes.
I entered the new universe and took stock. Matter. At that moment [the universe] contained only pure energy. But my two symmetry laws already guaranteed that matter could be created from energy---in fact, required it---so all I needed to do was specify the parameters of a few basic particles. This one spins this much, that one spins that much, this one responds to this force, that one to that force, and so on and so forth. Done.
Immediately, matter appeared! In fact, matter exploded. Matter burst into being with a vengeance, as if it had been languishing in a frustrated state of potentiality for eons of time and was finally given the opportunity to exist. Electrons and muons and taus, top quarks and bottom quarks, squarks, gravitrons, photons, neutrinos and neutralinos, gluons, W and Z bosons, axions, photinos, winos, and zinos. And with matter, of course, came antimatter: positrons, antimuons, anti quarks, et cetera and anti et cetera.
At every point in space, the hillocks and basins of energy gushed forth with matter. Some of this matter instantly annihilated with antimatter to create energy again, which in turn spit forth new matter, so that there was a continual give and take between the two. Energy begat matter which begat energy which begat matter. It was a spectacle.
Religion and science get delightfully mixed up in Mr g. Lightman mischievously plays games with the expectations of believers and skeptics, which is part of the fun but not the point. Mr g is a novel, a story, then, about a character in conflict. Remember the three conflicts from high school English class? Man against God, Man against Nature, Man against himself. All three are at issue in Mr g, with the second two being versions of the first, since Nature and Man are extensions of their creator---or reflections of his mind, he’s not sure. The conflicts are existential and internal, as God has to face the questions about his own existence. What is he doing? What has he done? Why has he done it? Is he glad that he’s created the universe? Did he do a good thing?
The photons in particular sometimes took the form of an oscillating wave of electrical and magnetic energy. I decided to call such a thing “light.” Where photons flew about in abundance and collided with other matter, there was light. Where photons were absent, there was darkness. Thus, when I created matter and energy, I also created darkness and light, and I decided that these things were good, although I was not sure at the moment what they were good for.
The opening chapters parallel and allude to the creation story in Genesis, the first creation story, the one told in Genesis 1, the one that can be read as a poetical summary of the history of the creation as science has come to lay it out for us, not the fable featuring Adam and Eve in Chapter 2. God, pausing after each step, looks upon his day’s work and sees that it is good. But Lightman’s Mr g is not the Biblical God. This is God as he might be if he created the universe according to the laws of physics and mathematics we know underlie and give order to the whole ball of wax and which many people see as making a creator unnecessary. He looks upon his works and is pleased to see that they…work. And that they work without him, without his having to continually “tinker” with them.
Bound by causal necessities, requiring not a single touchup or tinker from me, events…proceeded on their own with an impressive inevitability. As the universe continued to expand, its material contents cooled further and further. The brilliant displays of light slowly dimmed. And the attractive force of gravity began to dominate and reshape the terrain. Whereas before, small condensations of matter would quickly evaporate under the high heat, now they grew larger and denser. Lumps of material, most of it hydrogen gas, began to condense here and there. In the past history of the universe, matter had been rather evenly spread about, but now there were ridges and valleys, arches, amorphous aggregations, all bunching themselves up into ever denser bulges as each particle of mass gravitationally attracted other particles. The smooth, almost fluid topography of matter before had been beautiful, but these architectural constructions were even more beautiful. There were linear filaments. There were sheets. There were hollowed-out spherical cavities. There were ellipsoids and spheroids and topological hyberboloids. Great clouds of hydrogen gas swirled and flattened and spun out spiral wisps and trails. And within these spinning galaxies of matter, smaller knots of gas formed, collapsed on themselves, and grew hotter and denser---in opposite fashion to the rest of the universe, which was thinning and cooling.
Lightman’s God is a scientist. I kept picturing him as looking like the scientists in Sidney Harris’ cartoons, a little younger and thinner, but just as rumpled and with the same air of distraction, prematurely balding and wearing a turtleneck under his sport coat with patches on the elbows, one hand digging into his jacket pocket to fumble nervously and abstractedly with a piece of chalk. Creation is an experiment that’s going well, a theory that’s proving itself. But he doesn’t know if it’s good, because, for one thing, good is besides the point---beautiful is the point and beauty is a result of function, of the math being right---and for another, he doesn’t know what’s going to happen, specifically, with it or to it or because of it. He knows what could happen and what’s likely to happen, because everything in it will follow the rules he put in place at the outset. But because one of the things he’s created is quantum physics, probable variations are nearly infinite to the point that they might as well be infinite---it’s not worth the effort to foresee and follow them all to their logical ends to figure out which one will definitely come about. Lightman’s God is not omniscient because omniscience is a headache and a colossal waste of the divine’s time.
So the act of creating leaves him wistful and whenever he’s faced with an outcome he’s always left wondering if that was the best outcome. When looking upon his creation, he can’t help asking himself, Did I do that right? and Might I have done it better?
And he has another problem. The act of creation has changed him in ways he can’t quite put his finger on. It’s changed his aunt and uncle too---Yes, God has an aunt and uncle. No mother or father or other relatives, and definitely no son. It’s not explained where they came from. They just seem to have always been, like Mr g himself. They aren’t gods themselves but they are supreme intelligences and they are immortal. They can’t create but they can suggest. They can advise. They can nag and wheedle. And he respects them and defers, sometimes, to their judgment. He’s not sure exactly how they’ve changed, except that they seem to have become more themselves. And that seems to be the case with him too. He is aware of himself as a self, which vexes him with the question of what that means? What is he supposed to do about being him?
More irksome is the way others take it upon himself to tell him. His aunt and uncle. A certain stranger who strolls into the Void apparently uninvited. All of the intelligent animate matter in the universe that evolved to the point of being aware of itself as a self. That last group, made up of trillions of beings, in becoming aware of itself has become aware of something else---it dies. And it objects to this.
All those beings seem to think Mr g goofed when he didn’t make them immortal and they spend a lot of time and energy explaining that mistake or explaining it away to themselves---and to him, although they don’t know it’s him they’re talking to. Their minds aren’t big enough to comprehend him, so they’ve invented scaled down and simplified versions of him to talk to. Which is to say they’ve invented religion to comfort themselves. Mr g understands but he resents, mildly, their attempts to define him because it makes him feel defined and responsible.
Mr g creates many universes right off the bat. When he creates quantum physics billions more pop into existence. But at his aunt’s urging he decides to concentrate on one at a time and so he and the book focus on just that one. The thing is we don’t know if that one is this one. We don’t know if it’s ours. All we know is that it is built on---built out of---the same laws of physics and mathematics as ours.
Because of those rules, similarities, recapitulations, and distinctions without differences are bound to occur and do occur over and over again. The universe teems with intelligent creatures very much like us---and with intelligent creature very much not like us---but Mr g never deals with any creatures who might actually be us or, if this is our universe, to be aware that there is an us. Given all he has to look at, all there is to capture his attention, there’s a good chance he hasn’t noticed us and never will. In fact, there’s a chance that we came into being, lived out our collective lives as a species, and died off without his ever knowing we were here. Mr g, being immortal and able to exist outside of time, to an extent, experiences time very differently than his creations. Eons can pass while he’s walking up a single flight of stairs. He steps out of the universe for what to him is just a quick moment and when he returns whole star systems have winked into and out of existence. What this means is that if we are “here”---or were here---it doesn’t or didn’t matter to Mr g because we didn’t or can’t catch his attention.
This, of course, is the big and key difference between religion and science, between Genesis 2 and the Big Bang theory. Science tells us that the universe wasn’t created with us in mind. We are far from the point. The universe existed and went about the business of continuing its existence for billions of years without us and it will go on about its business and working its way towards its extinction for billions more years after we’re gone. If there is a God, what does that tell us about him and about us?
The intelligent self-aware animate material beings want more. They pray. They plead with him, flatter him, excoriate him. That he never answers adds to their fear and their sorrow. Their evanescence breaks their hearts. His indifference drives them to despair.
Mr g feels accused of creating their sorrow. He objects. It’s the nature of matter to decay and he expects intelligent matter to understand and accept that. Still, he can’t help feeling sorry for his creatures and and he concedes that he may have made a mistake, at least in not foreseeing the problem. Like I said, he feels responsible and this presents him with a temptation. Yes, God is tempted. He’s tempted to interfere.
He resists. Interfering would violate his rules. It would destroy the beauty of the cosmos that is the result of those rules at work. It would cause a mess. And it would be arbitrary and random.
This is grossly and cruelly unfair. Why him and not her. Why you and not me? Why us and not them?
Because I felt like it? Because it amused me? Because I did the divine equivalent of rolling dice?
Mr g does not play dice with the universe.
That’s the devil’s game.
That stranger I mentioned, he’s the devil, maybe. Not the devil we know as Lucifer. And definitely not Satan. He’s more like the adversary from the Book of Job who tempts Yahweh into testing Job. He seems to appear out of nowhere, introducing himself to Mr g by the name of Belhor.
Belhor, Lightman tells us in a note at the end of the book, was a demon from Hebrew and Christian mythology who also went by the names of Beliar, Baalial, and Belial.
The novel’s Belhor isn’t very demon-like. In fact, he’s rather personable, even charming. And he cuts an attractive figure, if you can overlook his habit of growing taller and skinnier with each appearance. He stretches out and thins out like a ribbon unspooling in a breeze. He weaves and wafts about the Void. A good description of his motions and manner would be, although Lightman doesn’t use it, serpentine.
Actually, rather than having biblical antecedents, Belhor seemed like a figure out Roald Dahl’s James and the Giant Peach or Norman Juster’s The Phantom Tollbooth. Actually, the whole book reminded me of The Phantom Tollbooth, in tone, in its playfulness, in its calm acceptance of its own surreality.
There’s more than a touch of Alice in Wonderland too, although I wouldn’t recommend it as bedtime reading for children, even precocious ones who can handle the math.
We don’t know how Mr g’s aunt and uncle came into existence, but we can make a guess as to how Belhor got here. Mr g tells us that when he created quantum physics
…all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many.
Since Mr g is in essence a product of his own thought, the same thing happened to him, he bifurcated into a duality. Belhor is able to tempt Mr g because he is Mr g or he’s implied by him, the way on is implied by off. Belhor likes to wander about the universe, getting involved.
Belhor drops obvious hints that is involvement is often malicious and he enjoys causing trouble and pain. But of course he’s bifurcated too and implies his own opposite. If he can interfere for the worse, why can’t Mr g interfere for the better? Why won’t Mr g interfere for the better, Belhor asks. Why won’t he step in and undo Belhor’s mischief? Is he heartless? Is he cruel? Does he approve of what Belhor has been up to? Does he simply not care?
Belhor is clever, though. His method of temptation, which you’d think would be too blatant to fool God, is reverse psychology. He implores Mr g to promise not to interfere.
Mr g isn’t heartless or callous. He’s just by inclination, by temperament, by necessity, and on principle detached. Finally, though, the temptation to involve himself grows strong enough that he brings his attention to bear on one of his intelligent creations, a girl who is sinking into a life of remorse and despair because of a small crime hunger and poverty forced her to commit. This girl, by the way, may be human, biologically---although she may not. Mr g doesn’t describe her in detail. Girl might just be his word for a young female of any self-aware collection of animate matter. She appears to be bipedal and have opposable thumbs. Whatever she is, though, she isn’t an earthling. She lives in a star system that has only three planets. Still, she is human in her feelings and in having a heart that is breaking. And Mr g is tempted to help her. The tempter this time, however isn’t Belhor.
Do something for her, Mr g’s uncle pleads. Mr g’s uncle is more sympathetic and far more sentimental than Mr g.
Mr g is at a loss. What should he do?
Take away her suffering, says his uncle. Give her life meaning. Let her see herself as mattering.
Make her immortal.
Make them all immortal.
Or at least give them souls that are immortal.
Along with being a novelist of note, Lightman is a physicist on the faculty at MIT. But as far as I can tell, your knowledge of math and physics doesn’t have to be extensive or very sophisticated in order for you to enjoy what Lightman’s up to and follow along. But then I don’t know how much I know. My transcript contains only one college course in introductory physics and another in astronomy. But Pop Mannion started out as a physicist before he moved over to computer science and then veered off into politics, so I grew up hearing this stuff discussed over dinner and trying to read books Pop liked and said were probably not too far over my head---sometimes I succeeded. And I’ve kept that up. Routinely I impress myself by almost understanding popular works of science journalism and books like Sean Carroll’s From Eternity to Here and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Physics to Your Dog and its soon to be published sequel How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog. So I’d say a (not very deep) grounding in college-level physics and cosmology and a habit of watching Nova and shows like Through the Wormhole would be enough. But the science writer Tom Levenson, who is Lightman’s colleague at MIT and a big fan of Mr g has assured me that a good high school level physics course will do the trick.
You don’t need any specialized course work to appreciate that Mr g is beautifully written. Just a good ear and wide-open inner eye.
I did not tell Uncle and Aunt about all of my visits…Or of the many things I saw. Once I hovered invisibly in a city that arched over a hill. The planet was a one of a dozen orbiting an ordinary star, the smallest planet in the system. It was a quiet world. Oceans and winds made scarcely a sound. People spoke to each other only in whispers. I floated above the city and looked down at its streets and inhabitants. Corners of buildings rusted in the air, billows of steam rose from underground canals. I spotted two men passing each other on a crowded walkway. Complete strangers. In the eight million beings living in the city, these two had never met before, never chanced to find themselves in the same place at the same time. A common enough occurrence in a city of millions. As these two moved past, they greeted each other, just a simple greeting. A remark about the sun in the sky. One of them said something else to the other, they exchanged smiles, and then the moment was gone. What an extraordinary event! No one noticed but me. What an extraordinary event! Two men who had never seen each other before and would likely not see each other again. But their sincerity and sweetness, their sharing an instant in a fleeting life. It was almost as if a secret passed between them. Was this some kind of love? I wanted to follow them, to touch them, to tell them of my happiness. I wanted to whisper to them, “This is it, this is it.”
And then, while still meditating, I decided to create quantum physics. Although I keenly appreciated the certainty of logic and clear definition, I also felt that the sharp edges of existence needed some rounding. I wanted a bit of ambiguity in my creations, a measured diffusion. Perhaps quantum physics invented itself. It was gorgeous in mathematical terms. And subtle. As soon as I had created quantum physics, all objects---even though objects at that point existed only in my mind---billowed out and swelled into a haze of indefinite position. All certainties changed into probabilities, and my thoughts bifurcated into dualities: yes and no, brittle and supple, on and off. Henceforth, things could be hither and yon at the same time. The One became Many. And a great softening blanket of indeterminacy wrapped itself over the Void. My breathing slowed to a sleepy imperceptibility. Listening carefully, I could hear a billion tiny rattles and tinklings from all over the Void, the sound of new universes waiting to be. With the invention of quantum, each point of the Void had developed the potential to become a new universe, and that potentiality could not be denied. My creation of time, and then space, had made a universe possible---and that possibility alone, nestled within the quantum foam of the Void was sufficient to bring into being an infinite number of universes. Soon, new universes were once again whizzing through the vacuum. I revised my earlier decision that there should be only One. Or, more precisely, my creation of quantum physics necessarily required the Many. Peering out into the Void, I tried to find my original universe, the first one I’d made. But it was hopelessly lost among billions and billions of others flying about, throbbing spheres, distended ellipsoids, gyrating cosmoses thrashing with energy. The Void trembled with rumbles and shrieks and sharp popping noises.