Three Reliquary busts, circa 1530, thought to depict three of the eleven thousand virgin companions of of St Ursulaall eleven thousand of whom legend has it were martyred by the Huns in the third or the fourth or the fifth century. The Cloisters. New York City. Sunday. April 28, 2013.
Young Ken Mannion had a project to do for his Medieval and Renaissance History class that sent him down to the Cloisters today. His parents tagged along and the gang of us spent the early afternoon wandering among the tapestries, altar pieces, and sepulchers. A good time was had by all. The Gothic Chapel. The Cloisters. New York City. Sunday. April 28, 2013.
It’s no sin if you don’t love Les Miserables or even like it. I enjoyed it---Ok, it broke my heart from beginning to end---but I’m not sure I can separate the feelings the movie evoked in me from my love for the book which I think is one of the greatest stories ever told. I practically don’t even need an adaptation of the novel to have dialog, let alone singing, and except for a couple of songs, the music and the singing were all background to me, like a good soundtrack to any non-musical. What I’m saying is that I went to see the story of Jean Valjean acted out and that was enough for me. It may not be enough for you. But I will say this. You may not love it or even like it, that’s the way things go. But if you hate it, well, it’s a fact: The degree of your hatred is inversely proportional to your likelihood of getting into heaven.
It’s out on DVD and available to watch instantly. So it was our feature for Mannion Family Movie Night. I never wrote a formal review after seeing it in the theater New Year’s Eve but I did post about it. Seven times. Here are the links to my Seven Miserable Thoughts About Les Miserables.
Fourth Miserable Thought: The face of God. On the importance of the Bishop of Digne to the novel and the movie and how it’s odd that God seems to be always punishing us for not being mean enough to each other and never for not loving each other enough.
Les Miserables, directed by Tom Hooper, screenplay by William Nicholson, Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schönberg, and Herbert Kretzmer. Based on the musical by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schonberg. Starring Hugh Jackman, Russell Crowe, Anne Hathaway, Amanda Seyfried, Eddie Redmayne, Aaron Tveit, Samantha Barks, Sacha Baron Cohen, Helena Bonham Carter, and Colm Wilkinson. Now available on DVD and to watch instantly at Amazon.
April 22, 2013. Saw 42 yesterday and was planning to write a review today. But since I spent a good part of the day down in the basement sloshing about in water up to my ankles, I didn’t get to it. Tomorrow then, I hope. Meantime, for some Jackie Robinson lore to bridge the gap…here’s a post from March of 2005. The great sportswriter Roger Kahn was reading from his then new book Beyond the Boys of Summer: The Very Best of Roger Kahn up at a now gone bookstore up in New Paltz and he had some good stories to tell, including these three about his friend, Number 42:
March 12, 2005. Still letting Roger Kahn do most of the work on the page this week. If you're keeping count Kahn gave me, so far, this post,this post,this post, and this post. I'm about done riding on his coat tails though. After today, I think I'll get one more free ride out of him and that I'll have to go back to doing my own writing. Unless I can find some one else as good as Kahn to steal from.
When Kahn was covering the Brooklyn Dodgers in the 1950s, he became friends with Jackie Robinson. Robinson was a prickly character. He famously kept his temper on the field in the face of terrible taunts, insults, and out and out threatening behavior on the part of fans, opposing players, and even some sportswriters who openly rooted for him to fail and minimized his achievements when they wrote about him.
Kahn was one of the few writers Robison liked and trusted.
The other night Kahn told three stories about Robinson. Couple illustrate how Robinson could be prickly. One shows what he had to be prickly about.
One time Robinson was blowing off steam in the locker room, spouting about something that bothered him and arguing with Don Newcombe, Brooklyn's star pitcher and one of the first black players the Dodgers brought up after Robinson. Newcombe, who had a less volatile temperamnet than Robinson, lost his patience with him and shouted across the locker room, "Robinson you're not just wrong! You're loud wrong!"
Some writers, like I said, rooted against Robinson and disrespected him in their stories and columns. But others liked him and wanted him to succeed, either because they wanted the integration of baseball to succeed or because they wanted the Dodgers to win or just because they recognized that Robinson was a great player and they loved the game and when you love the game you love to see it played well. Still, Robinson's relationship with sportswriters even with ones who were on his side could be tense.
One day Kahn and Robinson were talking about this. Robinson wished things were different. Kahn suggested that it might help if Robinson showed some appreciation for the favorable stories written about him. "You could maybe thank some people once in a while," Kahn said.
Robinson fumed at that.
"Thank them? For what? I'm the one stole home! They wouldn't have anything to write about, I didn't do that!"
Now, here's the story those stories set up.
One time the Dodgers were playing the Cardinals in St Louis, which was, Kahn said, the heart of the old Confederacy as far as the integration of baseball was concerned.
The Cardinals are notorious because Enos "Country" Slaughter tried to lead the team in a boycott against the Dodgers in 1947, the year Robinson started with Brooklyn. It's one of the dark spots on Stan Musial's reputation that he didn't stand up to Slaughter and may even have been planning to go along with the boycott, although he later apologized to Robison for the episode and for the Cardinals' treatment of Robinson. St Louis was always one of the toughest places for Robinson, for his whole career.
So there they were in St Louis, in the mid 1950s, Robinson a long-established star at this point, clearly at the height of a Hall of Fame career, and in the middle of the game the Cardinals' manager, Eddie Stanky, stands on the lip of the dugout, dangling a pair of shoes by the laces, and calls out to Robinson who's out on the field, "Hey, boy, gimme a shine?"
Robinson, of course, kept his head and didn't respond. But after the game when he got back to his hotel, the colored hotel he and the other black Dodgers had to stay at when they traveled to St Louis, he called Kahn at his hotel, a white hotel, and asked him what he thought about what Stanky had done and said.
Kahn, who'd been up in the press box, hadn't seen or heard the incident. Robinson told him.
Robinson said, "I been in the majors seven years now. It's time for this shit to stop!"
Kahn said, "You want me to write it?"
Robinson, who could be loud right as well as loud wrong, yelled, "Course I want you to write it! Why the fuck you think I called you up?"
So Kahn wrote it.
And filed it.
And his editor killed it.
The editor told Kahn, "We cover sports here, not race relations."
Back to the future: As I said, I hope to post the review tomorrow. Without giving too much away about the movie, though, Eddie Stanky was with the Dodgers in ‘47 and it’s interesting to note the role he plays in the movie’s plot, in light of Kahn’s story.
The Mannion homestead has partially underwater the last couple of days. I'm not talking about our mortgage. I'm talking about our flooded basement and backed up drains. Plumber’s on his way to clean out the main drain. After he leaves I’m
off to Lowes to buy a new sump pump. If you like what goes on around here and
want to help keep this blog afloat, literally, today would be a good day to
consider making a donation.
This is why women need to watch the Three Stooges. The blonde has this adorable idea that if I ask either or both of our teenage sons for help, home repair jobs can be completed in twice or even three times the time with maximum efficiency and optimum results.
Clearly, the Stooges Factor does not enter into her thinking.
Now, if you’ll pardon me. I have to go down into our flooded basement.
Had a burger at the diner. But not an Alex Burger. Much as I would have liked winning a t-shirt, I could tell at a glance I was overmatched. Two pounds! Deep-fried bacon! I give! I give! Menu item. Broadway Lights Diner. Kingston, New York. Friday night. April 19, 2013.
Raining when I finish my burger and get up to leave. Out in the parking lot there’s another customer heading home. Tall old man on a bicycle, tails of his faded blue flannel shirt flapping behind him, one hand on the handlebars steering, the other holding an umbrella.
Young Ken's karate night. Lights are on at the little chocolate shop across from the dojo. Seems a little late for last minute customers desperate for homemade truffles. Maybe if you own a chocolate shop it pays to stay open for addicts and people with sudden cravings. And you know, if I owned any kind of shop I'd bet I'd have trouble making myself close up and go home. You never know when somebody's going to need a clean, well-lighted place to take refuge in. New Paltz, New York. Tonight around nine. Thursday. April 18, 2013.
Judging by the new trailer, it looks like Man of Steel might be a good superhero movie. Maybe even a good Superman movie.
What I can't tell is if Henry Cavill will make a good Superman.
Kevin Costner looks like he'll be a good Jonathan Kent.
Russell Crowe looks like he'll be a great Jor-El. In fact, now I want to see the Jor-El defeats Zod movie more than I want to see Man of Steel.
I can't tell if Michael Shannon will make a good General Zod, but I can see he's Michael Shannon so I take it as a given he will be good, especially when he delivers his inevitable "Kneel before Zod!"
Sadly, but not surprisingly, Amy Adams looks like she's going to make a fine Amy Adams.
Lois Lane? Not so much.
But I think whoever put the trailer together wants to keep us guessing about Cavill.
We don't get to see him really smile. He gives a hint or two of a smile and a bit of an amused grin. But no full on, joyfilled smile.
The smile will tell all.
It has to be Christopher Reeve's smile.
Reeve was Superman. Still is Superman. Probably always will be Superman, but who knows. I used to think there'd be no other Sherlock Holmes after Jermey Brett. Then along came Benedict Cumberbatch. But as it stands, it's Reeve's character, and every Superman who's followed him has had to find a way to incorporate Reeve into his own portrayal while avoiding falling into doing an imitation. Dean Cain and Tom Wellingmanaged it by finding the joy and the humor Reeve brought to the part. Poor Brandon Routh was forced to do an impersonation, except without the joy and the humor.
In the trailer, Cavill mostly looks somber and the only moment of pleasure we see is when he's about to take flight for the first time and then it seems to be the pleasure a soon to be ordained seminartian takes in contemplating the prospect of saying his first mass.
But we'll see.
The most Superman-esque moment in the trailer belongs to Dylan Sprayberry, the kid playing Clark Kent as a teenager. When appears framed in the door of the bus he's just pulled from the river, that's when I see...Superman!
I’m rarely the smartest guy in the room. In fact, I’m only the smartest guy in the room when I’m the only person in the room. But Thursday night I knew for a fact I was the dumbest guy in the room.
Note to ego: Never have dinner with scientists.
Thursday night I was Pop Mannion’s guest at a meeting of his Torch Club. Torch is a national organization that brings civic leaders and civic-minded local high achievers together now and then for dinner and discussion and a general sharing of ideas and convivial spirits. The make-up of a given chapter varies from town to town. Pop’s chapter, meeting in the home of General Electric, is made up mainly of scientists and engineers with some mere doctors and lawyers dragging the median IQ in the room down to around 240. Among the members at our table, was a pleasant and mild-mannered materials scientist and electrical engineer who’d taught at MIT, shuttling back and forth between Cambridge and Schenectady where he worked in GE’s Research Lab, who, incidentally, was also a cellist. Even if he’d been temperamentally inclined to try to impress me, a lowly English major, with his smarts, he wouldn’t have done it because he was busy going on about how impressed he was by the smarts of a fellow musician, a violinist with whom he played in a quartet sometimes back in Cambridge, Mildred Dresselhaus, who, incidentally, is also an electrical engineer, physicist, professor at MIT, and winner of, among other honors, the United States National Medal of Science and the IEEE Founders Medal for her work in nanoscience and nanotechnology.
I think that’s what the awards were for.
As you can imagine, I lost the gist pretty quick.
For most of my life I’ve struggled to keep up with the reading. I routinely read articles in the popular science magazines, gobble up books like The Particle at the End of the Universe by Sean Carroll and Chad Orzell’s How to Teach Relativity to Your Dog, and check in with the best science bloggers (Btw, if you’re on Twitter you really owe it to yourself to subscribe to my list That’s SCIENCE!), and while I’m reading the articles or the books or watching shows like Nova or listening to scientists talk in real life, I feel smart. I feel like I’m not just following but understanding the subject. I feel like I’m learning stuff! Lots of stuff! Important stuff! The big, grand unified stuff that answers all the questions about Life, the Universe, and Everything! Then, as soon as I finish the article, close the book, turn off the TV, or shut down the computer, it all goes right out of my head. If it was ever in there to begin with---and I feel dumber than when I started.
I had a good time, sitting there nodding along sagaciously, feeling alternately like a genius and a fool, and the dinner was good, and I’m real glad I went. So is Pop, who wanted me along not just for the company but because he thought the night’s presentation was right up my alley.
These Torch meetings feature an after-dinner speaker, usually a member of the club, giving a talk on a subject usually outside the speaker’s professional bailiwick. Thursday night, Walter Grattidge, a retired physicist (sample publication: “Thermoelectric electric effects in silver haldides,” and, no, I don’t think I’ve read that one.), spoke to us about Who Wrote Shakespeare?
Gratttidge, born, raised, and educated in England, had only recently learned that that was a question. Growing up he’d taken it for granted that Shakespeare wrote Shakespeare and had never had any reason to doubt it or even wonder about it. As a visual aid, he showed off a handpainted ceramic bust of Shakespeare that had sat on his family mantelpiece when he was a kid. He’d always thought of it as an important and valuable family heirloom, handed down from generation to generation, and when he left home he felt, as the eldest son, entitled to appropriate it, and it has accompanied him on his travels for the last sixty years. At one point, though, he learned that the bust was a souvenir from Stratford-on-Avon sold by the crateload to tourists circa 1900-1910 and when he had it appraised he was told it was worth a whopping 100 bucks. Still, it’s priceless to him, not just for sentimental reasons but because of his longstanding admiration of Shakespeare and his plays. So it came as a bit of shock to him when one day, on a visit to the local library, a helpful librarian, thinking that as an Englishman, fan of Shakespeare, and physicist he might be interested in a book by a fellow physicist, suggested he check out 'Shakespeare' by Another Name: The Life of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, the Man Who Was Shakespeare and Grattidge learned that there were people who refuse to accept that William Shakespeare wrote the plays and poems attributed him.
As Pop Mannion thought: Right up my alley!
Not only that but as Grattidge wrapped up and moved onto his Q & A with the audience, I realized that I was a whole lot better versed in the subject than he or any other member who asked a question did. Here I was in a roomful of scientists and for once I was the one who knew stuff!
Well, of course was.
This isn’t like a reversed situation in which for some lunatic reason I was giving a talk on the thermoelectric effects in silver haldides to a roomful of English professors and Grattidge happened to be in the audience. I’m not an expert, by any means. But Gittridge is new to the debate and he was recounting the beginnings of his own investigations while I’ve been following it for decades. I’ve been a committed Stratfordian---that is, charter member of the reality-based community when it comes to the authorship of the plays---since I was in middle-school when I learned that some people thought the plays were written by Sir Francis Bacon. When I first heard that, I scoffed and scoffed as only a precocious twelve year old can scoff at the grown-ups. The idea that Macbeth was written by a dull and dreary "natural philosopher" who was more comfortable writing in Latin than in English and not by an actor and poet was and is scoffable.
For the record, I enjoyed Grattidge’s presentation, which was filled with lots of juicy Elizabethan court gossip, even though I felt the urge to set him straight on a few things. His research, which has included one of my favorite books on Shakespeare, Contested Will by William Shapiro, has turned him into a skeptic. He isn’t ready to argue that any of the most popular alternative Shakespeares---Bacon, de Vere, or Christopher Marlowe---is the real author but he’s thinking that the real Shakespeare probably had a lot of help and the plays are works of collaboration not products of a single genius. Pop Mannion kept prompting me to ask questions just to help keep the discussion lively, but the only questions that occurred to me were ones that would have taken apart Gittridge’s main points and given me the opportunity to show off all the stuff I had in my head. It was his night and any way I have a classroom in which I can strut my stuff if I’m ever in the mood to be a pompous bore on the matter. On top of that, I never want to be one of those people. You know, the ones who take over a question and answer session to make speeches and ride their favorite hobby-horses. So I sat there, nodding sagaciously, answering the questions from other members of the audience in my head, feeling smug and superior and virtuous, confident that a good time was being had by all, thanks in no small part to my knowing how to keep my mouth shut, until…
Old Sneep made his presence known.
If you know the story of Lentil by Robert McCloskey, famous for Make Way for Ducklings, you know Old Sneep. The plot of Lentil revolves around the return of Colonel Carter to the small town where he grew up. Carter is a war hero, politician, successful businessman, and philanthropist who has given the town its library and hospital, so his homecoming is a big deal to the grateful townsfolk and they set out to make it a big celebration that will start with Carter being greeted at the train station by a big brass band. Sneep is an old schoolmate of Carter, who was never much impressed by him because he’s made a point in life of never being much impressed by anyone or anything. He decides Carter and by extension the whole town need “takin’ down a peg or two” and when Carter’s train pulls in and the band gets ready to play, Sneep appears on the station roof, loudly sucking lemons. This causes the all the members of the band’s mouths to pucker so they can’t play their instruments and so the day seems ruined until a boy named Lentil steps in with his harmonica.
One of my all-time faves.
But the point here is that the world is full of Sneeps, people who make a mission in life of raining on parades and taking others down a peg or two. And sure enough, there he was, Torch’s own Old Sneep, a political scientist who took advantage of the Q & A to break out the lemon and start sucking loudly.
“What does it matter who wrote the plays?” he demanded to know in a sour voice. We’ve got the plays and the plays are what’s important. It doesn’t make them better or worse if they were written by Shakespeare or by somebody else. The whole debate, he declared, is a big waste of everybody’s time, which, of course, amounted to telling Grattidge his presentation was a waste of everybody’s time.
My mouth didn’t pucker but my cheeks blazed and I was all set to jump in not just in defense of Grattidge but in defense of the idea that the debate is worth having. Although I think the question is settled and all the arguments that somebody else wrote the plays are scoffable, the scoffing itslelf can lead into interesting discussions of the plays, the times, and the nature of art and genius.
Fortunately, the members of the club know this guy for the Sneep he is and they’ve learned to deal with him with a mix of amusement and casual but tactful dismissal. Grattidge was affable and gracious in acknowledging Sneep may have a point and a dozen other hands went up, their owners ready with questions that eased the discussion onto other topics and I was saved from making a pompous bore of myself.
But I really would like to answer the guy. The questions are interesting and important. And I plan to make a stab at answering, because as you may know, not only do I have a classroom where I can make a pompous bore of myself, I have this blog. So there’s the subject of my next post.
Warning to my scientist readers: I know stuff, so watch my smoke!
Stopped in on the drive to Syracuse to order a sandwich for the road. Turkey and Roast Beef Combo on Rye with Russian and cole slaw, macaroni salad on the side. Gershon's. Schenectady, New York. Around five-thirty this afternoon. Tuesday. April 9, 2013.
Had dinner the Thursday night before last with a group of disability scholars, educators, advocates, and writer and poet-activists with disabilities. Talk around the table touched on many things, but kept coming back around to this story on NPR's This American Life, Unfit for Work: The Startling Rise in Disability in America, by Chana Joffe-Walt. What's “startling” to Joffe-Walt isn't that there's been a rise in the number of disabled Americans, but that there's been a rise in the number of people with "disabilities" collecting disability benefits instead of going out and earning a paycheck.
It's an exasperating piece, exemplifying much of what's wrong with elite journalism and for that reason will probably earn Joffe-Walt all kinds of awards, rewards, and plaudits from her peers. The consensus among my dinner companions was that it ought to earn her a place in hell or at least some remedial time in their classrooms.
Naturally, considering their conditions, situations, experiences, and interests, they were furious at the many ways they felt Joffe-Walt had failed to address real and serious issues regarding disabilities and had implicitly maligned all people with disabilities as cheats and layabouts.
They were in agreement that Joffe-Walt is a complete ignoramus on the subject of disability and they had lots of recommendations for books and articles she should have read and scholars and activists she should have spoken with. But most of them were academics and academics live on the belief that a little reading and a little education can do wonders.
Joffe-Walt isn't ignorant about disabilities or people who have to live with them.
She's completely uninterested in them.
Unfit For Work isn't about disabilities. It's about "disability".
It's a money story. And a too familiar sort of money story. It's a your money story. And your money stories have one of two themes. How you are not making as much dough as you should be or How you are being cheated out of the dough you do make.
Guess which one this is.
For Joffe-Walt’s purposes, disability isn’t a condition or impairment that makes work and life a struggle for individuals. It’s a classification of taxpayer money being funneled to people who don’t deserve it.
The Right Wing media are loving this. Not only does it give credence to a lie they’ve been pushing, they can count on it to help fuel the angers and resentments they’ve been stoking among the faithful for decades. Since even before Reagan, the Right’s driving idea has been that the problem with America is other Americans. Those other Americans. Joffe-Walt’s story is of a piece with the narrative by which the Right tells itself horror stories of Welfare Queens, the 47 per cent, anchor babies, the food stamp President, Social Security recipients taking lavish vacations in Europe, teachers unions protecting and promoting incompetents, and almost daily dreamed up new nightmares about how they are living it up on our dime.
Joffe-Walt makes the proper sympathetic noises to make sure we know she isn’t heartless, but for all the attention and emphasis she gives it, you might not know from her story that there a people on disability who can’t walk, can’t get around without a wheelchair, can’t breathe without oxygen, can’t see, can’t hear, can’t roam far from a dialysis machine, can’t regulate their bodily functions, can’t plan their week beyond their next round of chemo or radiation, can’t hold themselves together emotionally without medication, can’t stand for more than a moment or make a move without pain, can’t lift, can’t bend, can’t work.
You might not get the sense that she has any sense that many of these people could work, would like to work, but can’t work because they need accommodations and training stingy employers refuse to provide and because they face hiring prejudices based on outdated assumptions and attitudes about the capabilities of the disabled.
None of this is Joffe-Walt’s concern. What concerns her is that there are people who she believes could work and should work but aren’t working because they don’t have to work because they’re collecting disability instead.
Grudgingly, Joffe-Walt acknowledges that some of these people might have been temporarily incapacitated by aches and pains and other lingering effects of illnesses, operations, and injuries you’d think (that is, Joffe-Walt plainly thinks) they’d have recovered from by now or learned to live with. But they aren’t disabled by Joffe-Walt’s lights and it’s only due to their ingenuity at scamming the system with the help of overly-sympathetic doctors, indifferent judges, lazy bureaucrats, cowardly politicians, and shyster lawyers that they’re collecting “disability.”
“I have back pain,” Joffe-Walt tells us. Well, so do I. Somehow I suspect it’s not quite as intense as the back pain of someone who broke their back falling off a scaffold or having a tractor roll over on them.
“My editor has a herniated disc, and he works harder than anyone I know.”
Good for him. And if his job is ever pulled out from under him what sort of work is going to do next?
Operate a backhoe?
Joffe-Walt apparently thinks that anyone with any pride or self-respect should take any sort of job that comes along, whatever it pays, even if it’s only minimum wage, rather than collect disability.
It doesn’t seem to have sunk in for her that some kinds of aches and pains that are inconvenient and annoying when you’re doing your job from an ergonomic chair bought by the company and you’re lifting nothing heavier all day than a cup of coffee brought to you by an intern are debilitating, incapacitating, disabling when you’re washing cars, stacking boxes, waiting tables, pushing a mop, or standing all day at a cash register.
“There must be millions of people with asthma and diabetes who go to work every day,” Joffe-Walt exclaims. Of course there are. People with conditions like asthma and diabetes and arthritis and emphysema and cancer and herniated discs do go to work every day, dealing with the pain and the weakness and the frustration as best they can until…they can’t.
But Joffe-Walt isn’t really that concerned with how someone’s health might decide whether or not they can work. She’s concerned, oh so very concerned, with the economic reasons someone might be tempted to go on disability.
People who leave the workforce and go on disability qualify for Medicare, the government health care program that also covers the elderly. They also get disability payments from the government of about $13,000 a year. This isn't great. But if your alternative is a minimum wage job that will pay you at most $15,000 a year, and probably does not include health insurance, disability may be a better option.
Of course it’s a better option. The Medicare qualification makes it far better, all by itself. Not many minimum wage jobs come with anything like adequate health insurance plans. But it’s also a better option because the minimum wage is set way too low. And it’s not just the money going into pocket that factors into people’s decisions. There’s transportation. Child care. Sick days---if you have asthma you may be as determined to work any job you can find as Joffe-Walt thinks you should be, but there are going to be days when you can’t breathe, when you will have to call in sick or ask to go home or to the doctor and guess what usually happens to minimum wage workers who ask for those simple considerations. There’s also the cold, hard economic fact that these jobs have a way of disappearing overnight and people living check to check need to be able to count on the checks coming every week. You have to wonder if Joffe-Walt ever worked a minimum wage job in her life.
Joffe-Walt is also concerned that going on disability is bad for the soul.
But, in most cases, going on disability means you will not work, you will not get a raise, you will not get whatever meaning people get from work…
Ok, clearly Joffe-Walt doesn’t understand what work is for most people. Meaning from work? Most people don’t get meaning from their work. They get a living, if they’re lucky. Sentimentalists and moralists and working people just trying to keep their own spirits up will talk about how work in itself is ennobling. But what is ennobling about working most jobs is doing the work despite its being the very opposite of ennobling---degrading, humiliating, disempowering, soul-sapping, mind- numbing, dream-crushing, hope-killing, and back-breaking, and on top of all that it doesn’t pay enough.
Beyond that, Joffe-Walt hasn’t noticed or bothered to notice that one of the reasons for the rise in disability claims is that the Baby Boomers are getting old and they’re starting to break down the way older workers have always tended to do, especially those who work physically demanding jobs, it’s just that there happens to be a lot of them breaking down all at once, just as fifty and sixty years ago there were a lot of children entering grade school all at once. And a great many people in their fifties and sixties have been thrown out of work by the recession and the reason they won’t be going off disability (until they’re sixty-six and can collect regular Social Security) isn’t their moral degradation but the simple fact that employers don’t want to hire old people, particularly old people who can’t “pull their weight.” They cost too much. Joffe-Walt calls disability a form of welfare when she’s not calling it a form of unemployment. (Both terms resonate with Joffe-Walt’s indignation, collecting welfare and unemployment benefits both being as morally suspect as collecting disability in her view. Again: disability and unemployment are earned benefits not charity. We pay for them ahead of time, hoping we will never have to collect, with our payroll taxes.) But for older workers it’s a form of early Social Security. I would like to ask Joffe-Walt why she thinks it’s such a terrible thing that someone leaves the workforce at sixty-four because of a bum knee rather than hobbling through until they’re sixty-six working as a greeter at Wal-Mart.
Here Joffe-Walt has put herself in the position of lecturing people who have worked since well before she was born on the moral uplift that comes from earning a paycheck.
But when you get right down to it, the real problem for people with disabilities and people who are on “disability” and everybody else who just needs to work is that the work isn’t there. One of Joffe-Walt’s sources, a former mill worker who went on disability after a heart attack and a bypass would have gladly gone back to work at the mill if the mill was still there.
Joffe-Walt’s reaction to this is to wax indignant that some bureaucrat advised her source to “suck all the benefits [he could] out of the system” as if that was the reason the mill closed and wouldn’t be reopening. The problem doesn’t seem to be, in her mind, that there are no jobs for fifty-six year old former mill workers with heart conditions. The problem, as she seems to see it, is that the system is functioning as if there are no jobs for fifty-six former mill workers with heart conditions. The real problem, as it exists outside Joffe-Walt’s head, is that people are trying to deal with a problem they can’t fix themselves. Mass unemployment across the country.
Joffe-Walt isn’t completely oblivious. She is aware that unemployment is a problem. But she has a solution. The unemployed just need to deal with it.
Somewhere around 30 years ago, the economy started changing in some fundamental ways. There are now millions of Americans who do not have the skills or education to make it in this country.
Ah. Structural unemployment. This gives the game away.
Everything’s fine. The system is functioning. There are just some people who are, well, useless, and if they aren’t going to take the trouble to make themselves useful, there’s nothing we can do for them. Our job is to accept and make the most of the new economic realities.
One of those realities is that even though corporations and the richest of the rich are piling up money at an obscene rate we can’t afford to take care of our own anymore.
Beneath Unfit for Work is the voice of the austerity fetishist, the initiate into the Pain Caucus.
Austerity is failing on a grand scale in Europe. It hasn’t created jobs. It’s wiping out more and more every day. It hasn’t solved the “debt crisis” or the “deficit crisis” or the “crisis of confidence” or whatever “crisis” the Austerity fetishists claim they’re solving. But the fetishists in Europe persist in inflictiing pain on the poor and the working and middle classes and the fetishists here, in Congress and the Media and, depending on the President’s mood from week to week, the White House keep talking up the need for more pain.
Economists---and not just Paul Krugman, although his warnings ought to be enough---keep pointing out that unemployment here isn’t structural. It’s mainly due to a lack of demand or as Charles Pierce, no economist, just a man with his eyes open and his head screwed on straight, says every chance he gets, "People got no jobs. They got no money.” Put people to work, stimulate the economy, the economists and the people with their heads screwed on straight advise.
Oh, no, we can’t do that, say the fetishists. That would cause all kinds of trouble we can’t really define at some date way in the future we can’t really pinpoint. What we have to do is cut more! We have to tighten our belts and make more sacrifices.
We meaning, of course, you. Us.
The not rich who can’t pay out of pocket for what democratic governments supposedly exist to provide.
Krugman has wondered about the Psychological Roots of Austerity Mania and why the facts of economic life as indentified by John Maynard Keynes won’t sink in on the austerity fetishists who are proving Keynes right every day. Krugman is inclined to think the fetishists are seduced by their own vanity in being thought “serious”.
I’m inclined to think they’re just cruel.
Tea Party types bellow and bluster openly about how they---those others---are a pack of thieves and swindlers, stealing our benefits, making us hardworking taxpayers pay their way. The more vulgar Right Wing corporatists like Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan lecture endlessly about the moochers and the parasites, again those others who won’t work because liberals in government buy their votes with “free stuff”, using the money of virtuous and hardworking wealth-creators. But for both the Tea Party types and the corporatists the message is the same: They, those others, are what's wrong with America.
The austerity fetishists are more tactful. They don’t talk in terms of us and them. They are adept at the language of assumed virtue and their favorite pronoun is we and by its promiscuous use they fool themselves into thinking or, more likely, think they’re fooling the rest of us into thinking their only concern is the common good.
We need to do these things. We have to make the hard choices. We must accept the sacrifices and live with diminished expectations and a lower standard of living for our own good and the good of our children and grandchildren.
Again, of course, by we they mean you, as in the rest of us.
The simplest explanation is usually the best, and since the fetishists are mainly members of the owner class or willing and sycophantic servants and apologists for it, the simple explanation is that they see austerity as a method for creating their hearts’ desire, a desperate class of compliant and uncomplaining workers who will take whatever jobs they can get for whatever the bosses are willing to pay because what other choice do they have?
There’s much moral sniffing of snuff among the Wall Street and Washington elites about how we mustn’t create a culture of dependency. But what the owner class wants is a dependent class of workers, frightened employees who have to depend upon the charity, mercy, and forbearence of their bosses because they can’t depend on the responsible functioning of their government.
But I think there’s even more to it. They aren’t called the Pain Caucus for nothing. Pain isn’t an unfortunate side-effect of austerity. It’s the point. The fetishists want to make people hurt. For our, that is our as in us not them, own good. The intention is to enforce virtue (and to feel virtuous while enforcing it) but that’s a synonym for punish.
They intend to punish us, the mob, for having had the nerve to use government to try to live less desperate lives, for expecting more than we can pay cash on the barrelhead for---like good schools, safe streets, medical care for our children, security in our old age---for thinking that there ought to be more to life than working to make the rich richer, for not realizing we should be grateful that they, our betters, aren’t leaving us to starve and freeze even though they have the power and the right and even the moral obligation to do it, for acting as if we have earned some share in the wealth we’ve helped create with our labor, for demanding to be treated as if we are something more than costs to be controlled or resources to be exploited, for insisting we are human beings like them and that we matter.
For being right about that last one and thereby irritating their nearly atrophied consciences back into life.
My dinner companions were angry that Joffe-Walt didn’t write a very different story focusing on the real problems the disabled face in trying to join the workforce. But I’m not sure I’d want to read any story Joffe-Walt turned out on that subject. I’d be afraid that it would be cloyingly sentimental, all about the superhuman achievements of a few individuals who “succeeded” in overcoming their disabilities with the moral, Why can’t you other disabled people be more like these heroes?
She wouldn’t get far into it before she was wondering, sympathetically, if maybe as a society we are being too generous, if accommodation means coddling instead of helping, if the Americans With Disabilities Act puts too great a burden upon employers which costs the rest of us jobs, if it isn’t time we faced up to the fact we can’t afford all these “entitlements”, if it’s really worth the cost of taking care of our own.
And it’d be laced through and through with Joffe-Walt’s pity for the disabled, because pity is easy and easy to fake.
And it’s cheap.
My friend, colleague, and boss, the poet Steve Kuusisto, who is blind and who, incidentally, has a herniated disc like Joffe-Walt’s hard-working editor boss, was one of the hosts of that dinner. As you can imagine, he was less than indifferent about Unfit for Work. He’s written several posts on it. The one to start with is this one, Why NPR Doesn’t Understand Disability:
I am for instance a blind man with a graduate degree from the University of Iowa’s “Writer’s Workshop”. I teach at a major university. With a talking computer and a guide dog I can work productively. When my back aches from a herniated disc the university will provide me with a Herman Miller chair and pay for physical therapy. I have the same disability that keeps 70 per cent of the blind and visually impaired unemployed. My advantages? A combination of luck, education, and white collar privilege.
Here’s an interview the Washington Post’s Ezra Klein did with Joffe-Walt in which Klein does his usual too reasonable best to give Joffe-Walt her due while trying to get her to respond to critics of Unfit for Work, “I thought I knew what being disabled meant.”
Here’s an answering interview Brad Plummer did with Harold Pollack of the University of Chicago’s School of Social Service Administration in which Pollack explains that Joffe-Walt still doesn’t know what disability means or how disability insurance works, What ‘This American Life’ missed on disability insurance. Kathy Ruffing, a Senior Fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, specializing in federal budget issues, has more along the same lines. at Off the Charts Blog, The State of Disability.
…the explanation for this increase seems pretty clear -- the economy is down almost 9 million jobs from its trend growth path. People who would have otherwise been employed find themselves desperate for any means of support due to the inept economic policy that sank the economy. This is a simple explanation that doesn't require examining the moral turpitude of beneficiaries or evidence of corrupt or negligent administrators. Fix the economy and you would remove much of the burden on the program. It is also striking that the projections in the 2012 Trustees Report show the costs again falling below the level projected in 1996 once the unemployment rate gets back down to a more normal level.
All morning long I was racking my brains for the rest of that quote. The first line popped into my head as a defense against the implications of what I was about to do. Go to mass.
We’re at my in-laws and Old Mother Blonde expects us to go to church when we’re here with the same certainty of our complying as with her expectation that the grandchildren will pose willingly for a group portrait after dinner. It’s part of the holiday festivities. Not wanting to cause trouble, the grandchildren pose and even smile and I go to church. I even smile.
“When holy and devout religious Mannions…”
I refused to Google it. Somewhere in my mental attic I had it on file and it would come to me.
It didn’t. I went to church still stuck. And not smiling.
The mass was crowded. Easter Sunday, after all. Standing room only and I can’t stand these days, so I had an excuse to retreat to the back of the church and sit (on the floor) in a corner of the entrance hall where, as it happened, a statue of the risen Jesus smiled sadly down upon me with the same look mixing sadness and compassion he gave Thomas the Apostle when he offered the notorious doubter what he’d said he wanted:
While I was sitting there---not doubting because I don’t doubt, I know. It didn’t happen.---a young guy, maybe twenty, East Indian, very dark, with a thick thatch of black hair as neatly combed as hair that thick will allow itself to be before breaking the teeth out of the comb, tall, thin, in gray flannel slacks and white Oxford shirt, stepped up to the statue with his iPhone ready to take a picture.
He took a picture.
He took another.
He leaned back and turned the phone to the horizontal and took another couple of pictures.
And I asked myself, What the hell is he taking a picture of? By which I meant why is he taking a picture of this statue? It’s not an ugly statue but it’s hardly a great work of art.
Maybe, I thought, he’s about to text an Easter greeting to someone.
Maybe, I thought, he’s proving to a friend who’d bet otherwise that he actually did go to church.
Maybe, I thought, he also recognized that the sculptor was referencing the story of Doubting Thomas and found it as amusing as I did. After all, the statue greets everybody who comes into the church through the front doors with the same offer as He made Thomas and, for those who are up on their Scripture, the line, “Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.” Pretty ironic way to welcome the faithful to mass.
Maybe, I thought, he’s a blogger and has had an idea for a post.
Maybe, I thought, he just thinks it’s a pretty picture to send as a virtual post card.
Finally, though, I thought, Or maybe it means something to him.
By it, I mean all of it. The Crucifixion, the Resurrection, the doubt, the faith. Jesus.
And, Jesus, I thought, I miss that. That being it meaning something to me. I miss that. I miss coming into church on an Easter Sunday believing that it all happened. The Crucifixion. The Resurrection. Thomas’ doubting. Him.
I miss Him.
And it makes me sad to say that it would take seeing the print of the nails in his hands to make me believe again.
But there’s this consolation.
You don’t have to believe in Jesus to believe in him.
He had a pretty simple and straight-forward message that’s hard to argue with.
Love one another.
By the way…
It’s not Keats. It’s Shakespeare.
“When holy and devout religious men are at their beads tis hard to draw them thence, so sweet is zealous contemplation.”
Back at Barnes & Noble. Three artistic and intellectul looking women in their early twenties are discussing their flirtation techniques, telling horror stories, exchanging pointers. One, a brunette with long henna-ed curls and a striking profile, wearing a leather flight jacket, a brightly colored scarf that reaches below her waist, and clay-colored ankle boots with very high heels, says:
“I’m really bad at flirting. I feel like when I flirt with guys it either comes off like I hate them or I want to take them home and wear their skin.”
At Barnes & Noble. Heavy-set guy in his thirties with a grown-out goatee that reaches almost to his chest and a shirt that won’t stay buttoned over his belly. A computer programmer as it happens, judging by his conversation with two women and another man at the table by the window:
“Thanks to my foster brother, I’ll never be the bad son. I may not be the good son. That would be my other brother. But I’m not the bad son. I occupy a sort of happy middle ground. No one calls me up for favors, but they don’t sit there shaking their finger at me at Christmas.”
There’s a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork, greatest of Discworld cities.
At least, there’s a saying that there’s a saying that all roads lead to Ankh-Morpork.
And it’s wrong. All roads lead away from Ankh-Morpork, but sometimes people just walk along them the wrong way.
Poets long ago gave up trying to describe the city. Now the more cunning ones try to excuse it. They say, well, maybe it is smelly, maybe it is overcrowded, maybe it is a bit like Hell would be if they shut off the fires and stabled a herd of incontinent cows there for a year, but you must admit it is full of sheer, vibrant, dynamic life. And this is true, even if it is poets that are saying it. But people who aren’t poets say, so what? Mattresses tend to be full of life too, and no one writes odes to them. Citizens hate living there and, if they have to away on business or adventure or, more usually, until some statute of limitations runs out, can’t wait to get back so they can enjoy hating living there some more. They put stickers on the backs of their carts saying “Anhk-Morpork---Loathe It or Leave It.” ----from Moving Pictures by Terry Pratchett.
Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman), trying to decide if he’ll join the dwarves’ quest to recover their kingdom and their gold, reads the “standard” contract and discovers a clause absolving the dwarves of liability in case of incineration by dragon, in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of Peter Jackson’s planned three-part adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic novel.
I’m not sure how detailed a map of Middle Earth J.R.R. Tolkien had drawn in his head when he sat down to write The Hobbit or how deeply he expected to explore the terrain or how minutely he planned to chronicle its history. I believe he had the stories that became The Lord of the Rings percolating but I don’t know if he yet knew where he would take them or where they would take him. But The Hobbit is written as if he meant it as a one-off. And it’s written for a different audience than the trilogy would be aimed at. The Hobbit is a children’s book, with plenty of nods and winks to adults who might be reading along and aloud. In fact, the primary intended audience sometimes seems to be adults reading it at bedtime and Tolkien seems to be directing them on how to tell the story. At any rate, it’s meant to be read out loud (but not loudly), and that’s how I got to know Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf the Gray, Gollum, Smaug, Thorin Oakenshield, the Shire, the Lonely Mountain, and the less terrifying precincts of Middle Earth west of Mordor. One night, when I was ten and we were on vacation on Cape Cod, in a back room of the house we were renting, with the black ocean spreading out towards a chain of lights on the horizon that was all we could see of Provincetown across the bay, Pop Mannion started to read to us The Hobbit.
I can still hear Pop reading the song the dwarves sing as they clean up after helping themselves to a supper that cleans out Bilbo’s pantries, cupboards, cellars, and larders (and how Hobbit-like is it that Bilbo’s house must be described in terms of pantries, cupboards, cellars, and larders plural?) :
Chip the glasses and crack the plates! Blunt the knives and bend the forks! That's what Bilbo Baggins hates— Smash the bottles and burn the corks!
Cut the cloth and tread on the fat! Pour the milk on the pantry floor! Leave the bones on the bedroom mat! Splash the wine on every door!
Dump the crocks in a boiling bowl; Pound them up with a thumping pole; And when you’ve finished if any are whole, Send them down the hall to roll!
And because that song in Pop’s voice is still in my ears, I can tell you that that scene, where Thorin Oakenshield’s company takes over Bilbo’s house for the night, or at least that part of the scene, is one of the many things Peter Jackson got very right in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, the first installment of what will eventually be a three-part adaptation of Tolkien’s book.
Whether you’ll agree with me or not depends on how your father or your mother or your big brother or sister or your teacher or you read it to you.
Ok. It’s too long. Two hours and forty-nine minutes, and that only brings us to page 122 of my edition of the book. (That’s a spoiler. Don’t look it up.) It’s padded. It drags. The pacing is off. The editing is sloppy. Things that should have needed only a single shot, get five. If you remember the book well, you’ll wonder why things you know are going to happen are taking so long to happen. If you don’t remember from the book, you’ll wonder what everybody’s waiting around for. The first visit to Rivendell isn’t dream-like, it’s soporific. It’s good to see Hugo Weaving as Elrond again but Jackson asks nothing of Cate Blanchett making a return appearance as Galadriel but that she stand there radiating light while he seems to expect we’ll respond to this vision with more awe and reverence than Bernadette showed at Lourdes.
Scenes and images and lines of dialog meant to evoke and foreshadow episodes from The Lord of the Rings seem only to repeat them. Most of the dwarves are interchangeable. The stone giants look and fight like Rock’em Sock’em Robots. Worst of all, the trolls are a botch, their scene played for laughs that just aren’t there.
I loved it. My family had to drag me out of the theater or I’d have sat straight through it again. I can’t wait to go back.
Like I said, much will depend on what from your first reading of The Hobbit you still hear in your heads, but if you go and are watching anything on the screen instead of Martin Freeman, you aren’t watching the movie.
The first smart thing Jackson did in making The Hobbit was cast Freeman as Bilbo and he and Freeman together have taken a long first step towards making Bilbo not just the hero of this trilogy but one of the heroes of the next one. I should say the previous one, but I suspect in the future fans won’t think of them that way.
I think that there’s a good chance, assuming that the next two movies aren’t just more of the same, that Freeman will be to the Lord of the Rings what Ewan McGregor is now to the original Star Wars, a star presence both felt and missed. Maybe even more so. I think it’s the case that Obi-wan is now McGregor’s Obi-wan and he isn’t playing a young Alec Guinness in the prequels, Guinness is playing an old Ewan McGregor in the sequels. Bilbo is now Freeman’s Bilbo, and although I don’t think audiences mind at all that it’s Guinness as the old Obi-wan, in the future, poor Ian Holm will probably disappoint audiences by not being Martin Freeman in a white wig. I’m not sure what effect it’ll have on audiences’ feelings about Elijah Wood’s Frodo, but probably they’ll be saying to themselves, “Bilbo would have handled that one better.”
I don’t feel I’m expressing my admiration for Freeman glowingly enough. How’s this?
Freeman is on his way to being to fantasy-adventure epics what Daniel Day-Lewis is to historical dramas.
And Andy Serkis is his Tommy Lee Jones.
I’ll try to rein it in.
Freeman’s Bilbo is very much a hobbit divided against himself. Gandalf has volunteered him for the dwarves’ quest on the grounds that he is a Took on his mother’s side and from her has inherited a taste and a talent for adventure. But he thinks of himself as his father’s son, a Baggins of Bag End, and from that side of the family he’s inherited as a principle a love for staying at home and minding one’s own business. But we can see the argument between the two sides of him going on in his head. It’s there in his eyes, whatever he’s up to, a look of self-accusation coupled with self-doubt. The Took in him pushes him forward. The Baggins holds him back. But whichever side is winning at the moment, the other is there watching with angry disapproval.
It’s not just in his eyes. It’s in his whole body. When he runs, his legs, pure Took, are well-ahead of his Baggins shoulders and it’s a contest---is the Took going to pull him onward or will the Baggins haul him back? It turns out, both sides win, and that’s what saves him and his friends time and time again. The bold and adventurous Took in him takes him into situations where he’s needed to be a hero and the practical Baggins in him then figures out how best to get out of it. This makes him both brave and smart. He is the thinking-est Hobbit around and it’s why it takes four Hobbits to take his place in The Lord of the Rings. When Frodo or Sam or Merry or Pippin pick up a sword---or in Sam’s case a frying pan---it’s emotional. They’re reacting out of love or fear or outrage and there’s a desperate, forlorn hope to their charges into battle. But Bilbo never makes a move that isn’t intended to get him safely back to Bag’s End.
The roots of his heroism are his intelligence, his courage, and his complete and principled determination not to have to be a hero. Freeman’s Bilbo is a swashbuckler in spite of himself.
He’s also funny.
There’s much more lightheartedness and humor in The Hobbit than in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, which is a matter of course. But while there are plenty of jokes, wisecracks, and moments of slapstick, the wit and the truest laughs belong to Freeman. His timing is brilliant and he can put a spin on any line or find a bump or a groove in it and make it sound as scathing, as revealing, and as full of irony as Hamlet’s best one-liners, keeping in mind that Hamlet is Shakespeare’s best and most ruthless comedian and that I’m inclined to exaggerate for emphasis.
As was probably clear up above, The Hobbit is a special book in my memory because it’s also a special event in my life. And as such it lives in my heart apart from The Lord of the Rings, which I read on my own only a couple of years later, all three books in a week when I was home sick from school, which makes them a different, separate special event. If I’d never read a word by J.R.R. Tolkien after Bilbo handed Gandalf the tobacco jar, The Hobbit would still be as wonderful and important in my memory and I’d have no inkling I was missing out on anything or that my understanding of the story was incomplete. I would never have known that the most important scene---as opposed to the best scene, which it happens to be---was Bilbo’s pocketing of the ring.
This is an accident of circumstance, but it’s possible because The Hobbit doesn’t present itself as a prequel. It’s complete unto itself, without even an implied To be continued at the end. If the narrator knows he’s telling the first chapter of a much longer story to come, he doesn’t let on. So I would guess that this is where a lot of young readers have stopped, with Bilbo safe at home, his armor donated to the museum, Sting hung up over the mantle, and the ring a secret treasure put well out of the way, and it’s only adventurous readers with some Took in them who find their way back to the Shire to start reading The Fellowship of the Ring.
At least, I would guess this is the way it went until Peter Jackson came along.
The novel The Hobbit stood and can still stand on its own in a way the movie was never going to be able to. The primary audience for the movie is fans of Jackson’s trilogy. Jackson had to take into account that most of the people buying tickets for The Hobbit would be expecting to see a prequel. That didn’t mean he had to make it as prequel. He could have made it as if it was simply an adaptation of The Hobbit as Tolkien originally published it, as a story complete unto itself. But that’s not what he decided to do. The thing is, he apparently decided not to make it as a prequel either.
What he’s doing is finishing his Lord of the Rings movie by finally getting around to making the beginning.
A lot of what happens in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey isn’t there to advance the plot of Bilbo’s adventures but to set up the story and the themes of The Lord of the Rings. So, much of what feels like padding and is padding is intended as exposition and much of what looks like recapitulation is meant to be introduction. It helps, then, if you know where Jackson’s going but can make yourself forget you’ve already been there.
Note, I called Jackson’s Lord of the Rings a movie, singular. Remember he filmed them all of a piece and they can be watched---if you have the time and the endurance---all at one go. And Jackson intends that in the future the marathon will begin with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. At the moment most people are finding their way to The Hobbit by way of (a long way around now. It’s hard to believe The Fellowship was released eleven years ago!) The Lord of the Rings. But it won’t be long before most people are finding their way into The Lord of the Rings by way of The Hobbit: There and Back Again.
Jackson has set up some big challenges for himself. First, he has to compete with Tolkien again. But, second, this time out he has to compete with himself, a tough order, because there was no way he could top his most significant achievement in The Lord of the Rings, bringing Middle Earth to life on the screen. And here’s where I think Jackson has been very smart. He hasn’t tried to top himself here because he knows---or hopes---that future audiences will see him as topping himself in there, that is, in The Lord of the Rings.
I, seeing The Hobbit in 2012, might be a bit disappointed in Goblin-Town because I can’t help comparing it to the Mines of Moria, but my grandchildren in 2032 will see Moria as an intensification of what went on in Goblin-Town.
Then there’s the problem of style and tone. Tolkien’s Hobbit is a very different kind of book from his Lord of the Rings, and not just in its being a children’s book. The Hobbit is told as if it’s a folktale or a fairy tale and Bilbo’s literary brothers and sisters include Simple, Jack the Giant Killer, Aladdin, Snow White, and Belle. The Lord of the Rings is modeled on the great epics and romances. Aragorn is pretty much a reiteration of King Arthur. And, never mind the Brothers Grimm, fairy tales are comedies. They work their way towards weddings and “they all lived happily ever after” while the endings of epics and romances are usually something along the lines of “…and the good king died.”
And The Hobbit is a treasure hunt while The Lord of the Rings is a chase. Treasure hunts don’t always have happy endings, but most do and that makes them intrinsically hopeful. And while chases often end with the characters you’re rooting for to get away getting way, the possibility that they won’t gives the chases an air of dread. Jackson has set himself the job of being true to the spirit and story of Tolkien’s The Hobbit while making it fit together with his own version of The Lord of the Rings. He appears to be going about this by slowly blending the one into the other and we won’t know how well this is working until probably at least halfway through the next installment, The Desolation of Smaug. In An Unexpected Journey, it’s only just begun to be sorted out.
There’s one more problem Jackson’s inherited from Tolkien. There just aren’t enough interesting characters to fill out an epic. Besides Bilbo, there’s Gandalf, Gollum, and Smaug, and that’s about it. Unless you count the trolls, Tom, Bert, and William. I’ve never been a fan of Beorn but he’s not in An Unexpected Journey, anyway, and Smaug’s big scenes are yet to come. Which gives Jackson only a handful of performances to build his movie around.
Freeman carries the day, as I’ve said. But Ian McKellen’s Gandalf is a welcome, reassuring, and grounding presence. And Andy Serkis has done a fine job of showing us Gollum before he was changed by the loss of the Ring. Here he’s a more confident, happier creature---happy being a relative and subjective term---driven more by whim and malice and appetite than by obsession and hate. He’s less wheedling, less cringing, more clever in some ways but because he’s not focused on anything in particular except his next meal, more manipulatable than manipulative. Otherwise…
A little of Sylvester McCoy’s dotty wizard Radagast the Brown goes a long way and unfortunately we don’t get a little of him. Barry Humphries’ Great Goblin is amusing, to a point, but that point gets crossed quickly. And as I said, most of the dwarves are interchangeable. This might get fixed over the course of the next two films, but in this one Aidan Turner and Dean O’Gorman as Kili and Fili stand out only by being twin stand-ins for Legolas, Ken Stott’s Balin is the wise old man who has seen too much but still can’t help hoping, and James Nesbitt gets laughs as the company’s resident wiseacre, ironist, and happy-go-lucky fatalist.
No, I haven’t forgotten him.
Thorin Oakenshield, the leader of the dwarves.
It’s curious to contemplate, but Richard Armitage may be establishing himself as a romantic male lead by playing a character close to two feet shorter than he is in real life and a few hundred years older. As Thorin, he is bold, energetic, commanding, firm of purpose, dashing and even handsome in a grim and glowering way, every bit the king he was born to be, except in his lack of humility and in his being unable to separate his pride from his responsibility. And if the blending of The Hobbit into The Fellowship of the Ring is underway, it’s happening through Thorin, who’s looking to be the thematic precursor to Boromir, the heroic captain of Gondor who comes tragically close to betraying Frodo and taking the Ring from him. Boromir thinks he wants the ring to save his people. What he wants is the glory of having saved them. Boromir’s sin is mixing up duty with ambition. It must be remembered that the Ring doesn’t corrupt by putting ideas into anyone’s head. It corrupts by offering the ambitious the power to realize desires already at work corrupting them. Hobbits are resistant---but not immune---because they are naturally less ambitious than other folk. But ambition, vanity, and the desire for power are corruptions that don’t need the Ring to wreak their havoc. In An Unexpected Journey, the other dwarves are in a comic folktale. But Armitage makes us feel the gravity of his anger and ambition pulling them into his tragedy.
One of the themes of Tolkien’s The Hobbit is Bilbo’s resistance to that pull. It will be interesting to see how that works itself out in Jackson’s next two installments.
So…again, yes. There’s too much there there. Enough to make me wish that the DVD includes an un-extended edition. But amidst the clutter and confusion, what’s also there, in spirit and essence, is The Hobbit, mainly but not exclusively in the person of Martin Freeman, and that’s enough for me. It carried me back to the book and to the Shire and to that night on Cape Cod and to the moment when Pop Mannion began to read:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit hole, and that means comfort…
Only this time I know what’s coming and that the best scene, which is the best scene, is also the most important scene…
Viewers advisory: We saw the movie in 2D shown at the old-fashioned rate of 24 frames per second. 3D gives me headaches and there’s no IMAX version showing nearby. But from what I’ve gathered from reading reviews and comments elsewhere, I think the 2D version may be best. What about you?
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson, screenplay by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Guillermo del Toro, based on the novel by J.R.R. Tolkien. Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, James Nesbitt, Cate Blanchett, Hugo Weaving, Christopher Lee, Ian Holm, Elijah Wood, Barry Humphries, Sylvester McCoy, and Benedict Cumberbatch
Not exactly a spring-like morning here in Mannionville. 36 degrees and it’s not supposed to get much over 40. But it’s the fourth day in a row with sunshine. The snow from early in the week hasn’t melted away, but there are patches of grass here and there, and there’s nothing heavy predicted. Over in Massachusetts, though, things haven’t been near as mild. Winter just won’t give up. A friend of Uncle Merlin who lives on Cape Cod sent along this photo from yesterday morning. Orleans, MA. Friday. March 22, 2013.
Our guide at the Edward Hopper House Thursday was a sweet-voiced, bohemian-looking woman in a cardigan with a gray page boy. She was quietly determined that we would get the most out of our visit, despite the upstairs rooms being off-limits and there being not much left to see. Hence the tour of the bathroom. Not going to guess how old she was, but old enough that she knew Hopper, not well but well enough to say hello to in passing. She was on more familiar terms with Hopper’s sister, who actually owned the house, Hopper coming to town on visits. Hopper died in 1967 and she described herself as being “very young” then which I took to mean she was a teenager or even in her early twenties. Not a little girl, at any rate.
She was a little girl when she first met him though. She grew up in Nyack and used to see him coming and going all the time, although she only recalled one conversation with him for us.
People always called him an old grouch, she told us, but she never thought so. Hopper’s sister used to like to sit on her front porch with her Siamese cat and our guide would often stop when she was out running errands or heading over to a friend’s house to chat and pet the cat. One day while she was there Hopper came out of the house. I’d didn’t ask but I’d like to think this happened when she was still a girl so I can imagine the big, lugubrious, typically glowering Hopper, a large, less than jovial presence, towering over her. But he smiled and said hello and the three of them spent some time discussing their mutual fondness for cats.
After that, whenever anyone said to our guide that Hopper was a grump, she would smile and say sweetly, “Obviously, you never talked to him about cats.”
Photo of Hopper in his Greenwich Village studio circa 1939 courtesy of Carnegie Museum of Art via the Smithsonian Art Museum.