4/23/18

Victoria and Abdul a Bad Second Act

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VICTORIA and ABDUL  (2017)
Directed by Stephen Frears
Focus Pictures, 111minutes, PG-13
½


Someone should make a film about how Queen Victoria was more than a puritanical prude during her 63-plus years on the British throne (1837-1901). Oh wait, somebody already did that twenty years ago. Is it time to do it again? Nope!

Victoria (1819-1901) was just 18 when she was crowned and had not reached 22 when she married her first cousin, Albert of Saxe-Colburg, in 1840. Theirs was a loving and fruitful marriage that produced nine children before Albert died suddenly in 1861, shortly after traveling to Italy to admonish their eldest child, Edward (“Bertie”), who was engaged in a scandalous dalliance with an actress. The queen never forgave Bertie and spent the remaining 61 years of her life in resentment and mourning. In fact, she came to thoroughly dislike all of her children, whom she saw—with considerable merit­—as pampered, conniving, and amoral. History labels the latter half of the 19th century the “Victorian Age,” and associates it with dour temperaments, moral rectitude, social scripting, and affected seriousness.

Not surprisingly, Victoria’s private life wasn’t entirely up to code. She had confidants and particularly enjoyed spending time in royal residences outside of Greater London, especially Scotland. After Albert’s death she found comfort in John Brown, her Scottish footman, who served her from 1863 until his death in 1883. There were even rumors that the two were lovers, but these seem to have been circulated by her family and courtiers jealous that Victoria paid them little heed. Those who’ve seen director John Madden’s acclaimed 1997 film Mrs. Brown with Billy Connolly as Brown and Judi Dench as Queen Victoria know this story.

In 1876, Victoria also became Empress of India, courtesy of British imperialism. In Victoria and Abdul, Dench reprises her role as Victoria. Stephen Frears’ film is basically a sequel to Mrs. Brown—just not a very good one. It opens in 1887, when two Indian Muslims travel to England to present Victoria with a ceremonial coin commemorating her 50th year on the throne. By then Victoria had grown zaftig, tired, bored with the throne, and disgusted with the hangers on at court. Small wonder she found Abdul (Ali Fazal) exotic in all the right ways; he was tall, kind, polished, and in awe of Her Majesty. We see the two grow together as friends, with Victoria appointing him her “Munshi” (teacher) for lessons in Urdu and the Qur’an. She even contemplated giving him a knighthood. The court was scandalized.

This really happened. Perhaps it would have made a good movie. But Frears has essentially taken the kilt off John Brown, put a turban on his head, and replaced the brogue with Southeast Asian-accented English. All the elements are there from Madden’s film: sniveling patronage seekers, a playboy Bertie, upper-class snobbery, and racism.

As for the racism, it often seemed as if the entire point of imperialism was to conquer new peoples the English could despise and belittle. You can easily imagine what people who racialized the Irish and Scots thought of the dark-skinned Abdul and Muhammad, who accompanied him, or Abduls’ burqa-wearing wife and mother-in-law. Still, one of the many problems in Victoria and Abdul arises when Frears populates the picture with deplorables: Bertie (Eddie Izzard), Sir Henry Ponsby (Tim Pigott-Smith), Lord Salisbury (Michael Gambon), Dr. James Reid (Paul Higgins), Baroness Churchill (Olivia Spencer), and on and on. There are just two sympathetic individuals: our titular characters. Others probably were this awful, but under Frears’ misdirection our antagonists are mere twits with less depth than cardboard cutouts.

Frears compounds the problem by striking an unneeded semi-burlesque tone. Aristocracy has a way of lampooning itself without the addition of freighted clownish demeanors that invite bemusement rather than outrage. Frears adds other puzzling touches. What was he thinking when he cast Simon Callow as Puccini and then uses him solely to set up Dench’s atonal attempt at a few measures of Gilbert and Sullivan? Such light-hearted moments serve mainly to blunt the full force of things we’re supposed to take seriously: Britain’s plunder of India, Abdul’s personal burdens, the anachronistic nature of monarchy, ethnocentrism…. In essence, Victoria and Abdul plays like any of a number of British East-meets-West comedy/dramas that proliferate like midges.

Frears doesn’t even seem to know how he wants to portray Abdul—as an exotic, a sycophant, a mesmerist, a tragic victim, or just another schemer who’s better at it than English lickspittles. Oh, I forgot; Abdul also plays travel agent. Be prepared for your Wikipedia lesson on the Taj Mahal. The whole film is as boring as English noble nabobs. Like most second acts, Victoria and Abdul is vacuous and forgettable.

Rob Weir     

4/20/18

Fugitives, Brooks Dixon, Rusty Young, Iain Matthews, Canty, Strawn


The Fugitives, The Promise of Strangers

I think I've figured out why I like Canadian music so much: the market is smaller and creative folks up that way feel less pressure to play to formulae. Add The Fugitives to your list of performers that are just flat-out amazing. They don't so much transgress the boundaries between folk, rock, bluegrass, and other genres as treat them as non-existent. This creates infectious melodic structures that sound both familiar yet unique. This Vancouver lineup is built around Adrian Glynn, Brendan McLeod, and a bunch of folks who cycle in and out. They are a mostly acoustic lineup, but when they hit on all cylinders their energy is as powerful as any indie rock band.  Glynn has a voice like an angel and I'm talking Art Garfunkel levels of celestial glow. Let's start with "No Words," which was penned the day Leonard Cohen died (11/7/16). I can't imagine a better tribute. It begins Cohen-like spare and builds to a gospel chorus with long pauses into which the air seems filled with the spirit of the departed. Try to stay in control as Glynn's voice cries out I have no words/I think he took 'em all with him/I have no voice/To shout from the ground. Watch the video—recorded in a resonant church—as it's simply more moving than my words can convey. Now watch this band do "Better Than Luck," whose melody is built around a balalaika, and is where breakdown bluegrass meets folk rock. Want a dose of nostalgia? "London in the Sixties" captures that zeitgeist. Need something sentimental? McLeod and Glynn pay tribute to their moms in "My Mother Sang," which tells us, my mother sang/but she could not sing and we know exactly what they mean. Or how about a pretty love song? Try "Northern Lights." There's even "Come Back Down," which they describe as a "tubular bells-gang party," which makes no sense at all until you listen to it. This fabulous record makes me want to shout, "O' Canada!" ★★★★★

Brooks Dixon, White Roses

We need Ancestry.com to do some serious blood work in the ridges and hills of the Carolinas as I pretty sure that James Taylor's ancestors dumped their DNA into local wells. It's stunning how many male singers have that same warm, slightly reedy, lacking-in-vibrato baritone voice. When you hear someone like Brooks Dixon you can't help but think he has to be a close cousin. Like Taylor, his repertoire favors a folk/pop/soft rock blend that's sweet without being cloying. "Aeroplane" sashays down the runway and its pleasures are magnified by winsome fiddle that invites you to traipse across the room. "Roses" has more of a country feel, including just a splash of pedal steel. My favorite new track is "Anymore," which is introduced with a spray of bright electric guitar notes and becomes that rarest of things: a cheerful break-up song. More to the point, it's the giddy moment you realize you've turned the corner and are over the heartaches. The melody will stick in your head (in a good way). White roses symbolize purity and charm. I'm not sure I'd want to saddle anyone with purity, so let's call this one a charming release. ★★★★


Rusty Young, Waitin’ for the Sun

Does the name Rusty Young ring any bells? No—he’s not kith and kin to Neil, though you might wonder when you hear the giddy-up guitar and world-weary voice on “My Friend.” Maybe it will resonate if I tell you that that song references some guests on the album: Timothy Schmidt and Richie Furay. Yep, this the Rusty Young who was a mainstay in the folk-rock band Poco; that’s Young on pedal steel on “Kind Woman,” one of Poco’s many hits. At age 72 and after 28 Poco releases, 24 singles, and 30 compilation albums, Young has released his first solo recording and it’s a treat! The title track has a Beatles-like background swirl. “Heaven Tonight” is also evocative of the Fab Four, “Crazy Love” is a classic country/folk not-over-her ditty, “Honey Bee” has more bounce than sting; and “Gonna Let the Rain” has been aptly labeled rock ‘n soul. Young sounds great, the instrumentals are solid, and the music is nostalgic but never throwback stale.
★★★★

Matthews Southern Comfort, Like a Radio

Everyone knows Joni Mitchell wrote "Woodstock," right? But do you remember that it was Britain's Iain Matthews—he was Ian back then—who took it to the top of the pop charts? From 1969 into the late 1970s, Matthews was a key figure in the folk rock scene and few could rival his vocal combination of gentle but poignant. Matthews even moved to LA for a time, but by the 1980s, his career had cratered. But he never stopped worked and it might surprise to know that he has more than 50 recordings to his credit. In 2000, Matthews relocated to Amsterdam and his band Southern Comfort is Dutch. Like a Radio is a new release and a very good one. At 71, his voice has lost some of the candied tones of his youth, but listen to "Bits and Pieces" and you'll hear instantly that it retains heft and expressiveness. The song, by the way, is a reflection on his rolling stone vagabond ways. The title track has a Byrds-like shimmer as filtered through touches of cool jazz. Among the fifteen tracks are also classics such as "Something In the Way She Moves" and a particularly gentle and lovely revamp of "Darcy Farrow." Don't call this a comeback album, though. Matthews has gotten around, but he never went away. ★★★

Caitlin Canty, Motel Bouquet and Sampler

Caitlin Canty's newest CD has just breached and she released a sampler of back catalogue material along with a preview song from the new record: "Take Me For a Ride." It has a misty, dreamy feel in which vocals meld into a mix dominated by guitar and reverb. It has a nice feel, but Canty has a small voice and it seems like too much production. The Proctor, Vermont-born Canty has lived and recorded in Nashville for the past two years. It's hard to judge based on a single track, but I hope she avoids overly slick production. When I hear older material like "Get Up," you can feel the urgency when she sings: Get up get get up/Before the road pulls you under. Similarly, we are drawn into the tale of "Still Here" in which Canty imagines herself as an older man who never strayed far from home: There are those who go/There are those who stay/You cannot have it both ways. Canty sometimes draws comparisons to Lucinda Williams, but she's not; her voice is much closer in register to someone like Aoife O'Donovan. Nothing wrong with that, but songbirds with fragile, pretty voices run the danger of getting drowned out if too much is happening behind them. I want to reiterate I've heard only one track, but a caution flag is raised when older material shines brighter. ★★★  

Ben Strawn, At Sunset

Ahh, to be young! There is just one way to enjoy this debut EP: take all your cynicism, hang it in the dark recesses of the closet, and walk away. Ben Strawn is a recent college grad, has a lovely wife, and a dulcet voice. Listening to a song such as "How Sweet It Is (To Come Home to You)" is like donning a cozy fleece and sitting down to warm caramel for dinner. There's nothing real complex about songs like "You Don'tMind" with its repeating chorus: I don't deserve your love (3x)/You don't mind. Bit it says all it needs to say and tosses in a wee bit of pedal steel to make it sound a bit more country-like than in "It Don't Rain." He rocks out a little on "Woman with the Wind," but if I wanted to nitpick I'd say Strawn's songs need more variety. I'm content to let these gentle songs wash me down. My only gripe is that I think the LP ought to be called At Sunrise; it's more suitable for a guy with a bright future ahead. ★★★ ½

Rob Weir

4/18/18

Score Shows Us How Movies Sound!

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SCORE: A FILM MUSIC DOCUMENTARY (2016/17)
Directed by Matt Schrader
Gravitas Ventures, 93 minutes, PG
★ ★

Years ago I got to be one of those names flying by on the fast scroll at the end of a movie: I was a music consultant for a Florentine Films project. My takeaway from that experience is that there sure is a whole lot that goes into a movie soundtrack. When it comes to sound, filmmakers frequently think in terms of seconds not minutes and when it works, it’s magic. Perhaps the best example of this is that quick burst of frantic violin in the shower scene of Psycho. Take away the strings and the horror quotient drops precipitously.

The documentary Score looks at some of those who compose, orchestrate, direct, and mix for the Big Screen—multi-million dollar projects, not the shoestring project in which I was involved. It is, to be sure, a self-serving and self-praising project in which everyone in it declares his or her competitors to be geniuses. Well… yes and no. As one who generally sits in front of the screen, not in the editing room, my standard is that a great score fits one of two standards: either the music integrates so well that you don’t think of it as a soundtrack, or it’s so artfully done that it becomes an earworm long after the film is over. Let’s say, for example, you haven’t seen the original Star Wars in over a decade. If I asked you to storyboard the film, you’d probably falter. But what if I asked you to hum a few bars of John Williams’ theme for the movie? Bet you could do that!

The major virtue of Score is that it shows just how complex it is to merge movie and music harmoniously. Some of the biggest names in the industry pop up: Williams, Danny Elfman, Quincy Jones, Moby, Randy Newman, Thomas Newman, Rachel Portman, Hans Zimmer …. Altogether, sixty talking heads appear. It’s fascinating to observe the stylistic and work habit differences between composers and orchestrators. Some work meticulously to craft the music slice by slice, others look for an inspirational vibe and the music flows, and still others are akin to a band leader who starts preparations for the spring concert in October. We also observe how those like Williams or Zimmer think in grandiose terms; in essence, they dramatize through sound. Their opposites are the techno-geeks who create layered sounds on their computers, and the junkyard artists who squeeze sounds out of everything imaginable—from rain drums to castoff machine parts.

Two things stood out for me—okay three if we count Hans Zimmer’s outlandish socks—the first being the extraordinary pastiche that makes up the score, both the music that comes at us a few seconds at a time and the big themes and/or songs that play for several minutes. Even more impressive are those who sit at mixing boards and computer screens and manipulate what we hear by nano seconds and experiment with the levels at which we will hear each instrument. You might even gain an understanding about some of the elements that make movies so expensive to make. That includes the duds. Some of the screen faces have scored movies you’ve never heard of or which you hadn’t. 

Again, though, this is an industry kind of film and I surely wouldn’t label all of these folks ‘geniuses.’ In fact, I’d venture to say that a good third of the films I see have dreadful soundtracks. How often have you had your intelligence insulted by music that telegraphs what will happen next? Or reached for a barf bag because the music is sickeningly maudlin and manipulative? Like I said earlier, the key is to harmonize movie and music.

That reservation aside, Score is well worth watching, as are most documentaries that take us inside the making of a film. Watch it and then think of all the other elements: lighting, script, editing for continuity, acting, directing, special effects, cinematography, and so on. Movies have been compared to painting with light, but when I see projects such as Score, I think movies are more like feeding the multitudes by sending them through the chow line of the world’s largest delicatessen.

Rob Weir

4/16/18

Planetarium is Mess, Yet Fascinating

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PLANETARIUM (2017)
Directed by Rebecca Zlotowski
Ad Vitam Distribution, 106 minutes, NR. In English and French.
★★

Planetarium is a pre- and post-Holocaust film. Almost no reviewers got that.  But for once it’s not because they’re ethnically insensitive; it’s because the script—written by Director Rebecca Zlotowski and Robin Campillo —is a shambles. The film scored badly among audiences and I’d agree it’s often a head-scratcher. Yet I also recommend you might want to try it, so hear me out.

The disjointed narrative centers on sisters Laura (Natalie Portman) and Kate Barlow (Lily-Rose Depp). They are spiritualists on a not-so-successful barnstorming tour of southern France in the late 1930s. It’s a pretty slick act, though, and film director André Korben (Emmanuel Salinger) is beguiled by the Barlows—Laura for her mesmerizing perfect-for-the-screen countenance and Kate because she might really be spiritually gifted. Korben soon has both sisters ensconced at his seaside mansion, casts Laura in a movie, and has private (and unknown-to-Laura) séances with Kate to connect him to his deceased wife. I will say only that sometimes those séances are exceedingly pleasurable and other times André feels as if he is being choked to death.

Korben has another agenda: his film empire is hemorrhaging money and he is aware that the French, who invented cinema, have not only surrendered the market to Hollywood, they have also lost their ability to astonish or enlighten. Zlotkowski simply lacks the skill to connect these two threads, so let me flash two keys. The first comes when Laura detects a slight hint of an accent in Korben’s French; the second comes in the observation that ghosts need the living, not vice versa. You can probably connect the dots if I remind you that after Germany conquered France in 1940, it was divided in two: Hitler’s armies occupied the north, and the south—led from the city of Vichy—set up a government that collaborated with the Nazis.

Please forgive the history lesson. It’s necessary because Planetarium doesn’t explain (or anticipate) any of this. If you know what comes next, the camera angles exaggerating physical features, words scrawled on mirrors, and haloed vignettes presage the coming roundup of French Jews. You’ll then realize this isn’t just a run-on-the-mill film about paranormal things that go bump in the night. You might also come to suspect that when it comes to storytelling, neither Zlotkowski nor Campillo know what comes after “Once upon a time….”  

If I also tell you that it will be a while before we should use Lily-Rose Depp’s name in the same sentence as the word "actress" and that the film’s title is only tangentially relevant, you’ll probably wonder what could possibly redeem Planetarium. One thing, surely, is Natalie Portman. Not only is she fully bilingual in her role, she so thoroughly transforms herself into the very essence of a 1930s film star that one reviewer suggested she was born 75 years too soon. She even looks a bit like blend of Marlene Dietrich and Ava Gardner.  

Let’s stay with how the film looks, because the other true star of the film is cinematographer George Lechaptois. It is truly one of the more fascinating films of recent memory insofar as its moods are delivered visually. It might make little sense, but to my eyes Planetarium was like a mash of Cabaret, A Ghost Story, a gauzy dream, and a live action graphic novel. The character of André Korben is based upon that of real-life director Bernard Nathan, a very controversial figure who was nonetheless an innovator. It is tempting to think that Zlotkowski’s scattershot narrative is a backhand nod at what happened to French film after World War Two: "New Wave" directors emerged who emphasized visual impact over narrative coherence.

Then again, I may be giving far more credit than is due. Even if this was Zlotkowski’s intent, no one will confuse her with Goddard, Resnais, or Varda. Still, there are wonderful possibilities embedded within Planetarium struggling to come out. It dazzles the eyes, Portman is amazing, and—as bad as it was—I mused over it for a long time. As we watched, my wife asked me several times if any of the move made sense. Each time I replied, “I’m not sure, but it’s fascinating.” I admit that’s an odd recommendation. My only defense is that stimulating and profound things sometimes emerge from botched efforts.

Rob Weir    


4/13/18

New Boy a Powerful Adaptation of Othello


NEW BOY (2017)
By Tracy Chevalier
Hogarth Shakespeare, 204 pages
★★★★

It is its own sad commentary that a play written in 1603 is as relevant today as it was in the Elizabethan Age. I refer to Othello, William Shakespeare’s powerful tragedy of race, jealousy, backstabbing, and hatred. Tracy Chevalier is one of our era’s finest writers, but she didn’t need to draw deep from her creative well to imagine the parallels between Shakespeare’s Moorish protagonist and modern day African Americans. She does so, however, with considerable panache.

Although some of my closest friends shake their heads in disbelief when I say it, I often enjoy modern adaptations of Shakespeare more than the Bard himself. My excuse is that I don’t speak Elizabethan and don’t know anyone not swaddled in stage garb that does. I also find it flat out weird that so many “modern” Shakespeare adaptations dress actors in non-Elizabethan clothing that invites us to think outside the 17th century, yet retain old Billy’s original language. I say if you’re going to adapt, go for it. Chevalier does and it works for me.

She transports Othello to a suburban Washington, DC elementary school playground in 1970. She set it then for many reasons, not the least of which, as another bard put it, the times they were a changin’. But think of new worlds being born, not ones fully grown. The civil rights movement caused racism to wobble, but it did not fall. What better place to examine social strain than a playground shot through with bubbling hormones and Lord of the Flies power dynamics? Tween romances emerge and run their course in a single day, pacts are forged and broken during a kickball game, and only foolish teachers imagined themselves in control of the kids or their own moral centers.

Into this world comes the eponymous new boy: sixth grader Osei Kokote, a Ghana-born black child who thinks he knows the drill of being in still another new school. As the son of a top-level diplomat, Osei has lived in many places and is far more intelligent and worldly than his new peers. But he’s also the only black child in the school and his plan to lay low is undermined when fair-skinned Dee offers mentorship, friendship, and girl crush romance. As you no doubt surmised, Osei is Othello and Dee a pre-adolescent Desdemona. Our cast will also sport a Cassio named Caspar, a Bianca (Blanca), a Rodrigo (Rod), an Emilia (Mimi), and a dangerous Iago (Ian). A racist teacher serves as a sort of composite Doge/Brabantio. Chevalier shows her clever hand by literally infantilizing Shakespeare’s tragedy and replacing his props with those of childhood: cafeteria food, jump rope rhymes, pencil boxes….  

Some reviewers have criticized New Boy for what they see an unrealistic precociousness on the part of its eleven- and twelve-year-old cast. I suspect some of them would be shocked if they ever spent playground time with tweens, but never mind. In a more fundamental sense they miss the point. After all, Shakespeare’s characters were equally unrealistic—unless you think 1603 London was overrun with 15th century Moors and Venetians. Othello was a tragedy, but it was also an allegory of power, ambition, covetousness, betrayal, and race.

This brings us full circle. We need not imagine ourselves in the 15th or 17th century; nor does it matter if we recall 1970. New Boy works for the same reason Othello works: the allegories are contemporary sociology. That, folks, is the very essence of what makes Othello/New Boy truly tragic.

Rob Weir

4/11/18

The Children Act: Superb Older Ian McEwan Fiction


THE CHILDREN ACT  (2014)
By Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 224 pages
★★★★

Although I didn’t like Nutshell, Ian McEwan’s most recent novel, there is no mistaking his talent. He is, after all, an author who has given us such gems as The Comfort of Strangers, Atonement, and the Man Booker-winning Amsterdam. I recently picked up The Children Act, which was published in 2014, and found it an astonishingly great read for a slim volume that can be devoured in just a few sittings. It reveals something rare: an unvarnished look at overlapping dilemmas so soaked in moral ambiguity that any decision one makes is little more than a bet-the-house single roll of the dice.

Our central character, Fiona Maye, is a British High Court Judge specializing in family law. You need nothing more about British jurisprudence except that high court judges are akin to appellate court judges in the United States, but with an added power: their decisions are usually final in the adjudication of thorny cases that rest on conflicting precedent. The book’s title refers to a 1989 Act of Parliament that favors keeping at-risk children with their parents, but empowers agencies to act contrary to parental wishes if a child’s welfare is endangered. McEwan also uses it in a literal sense—as in a “child” taking matters into his or her own hands. I put child in quote marks, because McEwan challenges us to define that term. When does a child become an adult? What is to be done with adults who do childish things?

High Court judges have high status in Britain and big salaries to go with it. Fiona and her husband Jack are both around 60, reside in a sequestered part of London*, and enjoy high-powered professional lives filled with classical music, literature, gourmet dining, and formal parties. They’ve comfortably settled into their childless, privileged, and considerate-but-passionless lives. Fiona is a fine musician herself and, as a judge, has a well-earned reputation for her Solomonic judgments. Of course, judgments are easier to render when they’re not personal. How would you decide if, at 60, your spouse asked for permission to engage in sexual congress with a younger person to replace the sex you’re not having?

Fiona must ponder this simultaneously with a case that Solomon himself might have declined: that of Adam Henry, who has leukemia, is months from turning eighteen, and is a Jehovah’s Witness encouraged by his parents and minister not to accept blood transfusions that would save his life. Under the law, he remains a child, but when Fiona visits him in the hospital, she finds him precociously intelligent, aware that he will probably die without treatment, and at peace with that potential fate. She also finds Adam to be sweet and gifted—a budding poet, a voracious reader, a first-rate scholar, and talented enough to be in the process of teaching himself how to play the violin in the unorthodox setting of what might be his hospice bed. In many ways, Adam is the son she never had. Surely his death would be beyond tragic, yes? This is magnified in song. As she sits with Adam in his room, he plays and she sings “Down by the Salley Gardens,” a William Butler Yeats poem that was set to music in 1909 and has since become a staple of Irish folk song. Key line: She bade me take life easy, as the grass grows on the weirs/But I was young and foolish, and am now full of tears. How would you rule?

Two choices and each could be seen as Sophie’s Choices; that is, however Fiona decides, it boils down to accepting one bad outcome over another as damage has already been done. This short book is an ice water in the face dose of how life often works. Which overrides, faith or science? Autonomy or a literal reading of the law? Morality or pragmatism? Youth or wisdom? Passion or propriety? And once you have decided, what is the proper amount of follow up, nurturing, and support? What a book! It sheds light on at least one lie so seductive and seductive we choose to believe it: “You can have it all.” If only.

Rob Weir

* In Britain, High Court judges sometimes live in “inns” comparable to how top professors live at Oxford or Cambridge. Their lodgings and law chambers are there, as is a collegiate setting of other top lawyers. One must be a “member” to live or work there.



4/10/18

#MeToo Versus #ButYet





This morning I read that my beloved UMass Amherst approved a policy that forbids consensual faculty/student dating. In theory, I favor the policy; in practice, I'm ambivalent and not the only one. Such a measure failed on three previous occasions and the press release spoke mostly of UMass getting in line with other colleges. There wasn't much righteousness peeking through the seams.

Lest you are tempted to snatch the pitchfork from your garden shed and fire up your torch, let me state categorically that there is no excuse for non-consensual relations.  That's called rape and we rightly impose strict punishments for that heinous crime. I'll go further and grant that it's almost always a terrible idea for someone in a position of authority to have intimate relations with an underling. I'm also on board with policies that ban relations between instructors and current students—the threat to academic integrity is simply too great. And I certainly share the outrage of women who have been treated like sex toys by arrogant and powerful men.

My hang-up is that the response to the current surge of sexual harassment complaints is typical of how poorly Americans address problems. We generalize then we one-size. In a very palpable way we've gone from anything goes to all is forbidden. Such attempts ignore root causes—like the place of women in a society that has never passed an ERA and categorizes women as The Other. Still, one-sizing lacks nuance. As much as I admire the #MeToo Movement, I wish there was a #ButYet counterbalance. Sexual harassment should be like rape; we need clear standards that differentiate between abuse and mutual bad decisions.

Let me get personal. I was a high school teacher, then a professor for 35 years. Did I ever stray with a student? Nope. Did I have opportunity? Yes. Some friends accuse me of being an old moralist with a Puritanical streak. Not so. The Book of Sin is a thick volume from which I've sampled, but not the student/teacher page. Maybe I was lucky to have struggled to find a teaching job. I hit the market during the 1970s recession and ended up working in social work for four years—an experience that left me with a deep (over?) suspicion of human nature that made me cautious as a teacher. If I put aside purity pretenses, I didn't want to jeopardize the very thing I had wanted to do since college: teach. On the cost/benefit scale, brief delights of the flesh were not worth jeopardizing my marriage, career, or reputation.

Here's the #ButYet part of it. Teachers and students at the high school where I taught did have sex—a shocking amount, actually. Today's self-proclaimed moralists would want teacher heads and probably mine for not turning them in. We often view teachers and students as different orders of being yet often, the age difference between them was just shy of that of the average marriage and far short of the average of seven in relationships for those 40 or older. Those high school relationships were morally compromised, but my own dirty (not so) secret is that I'm nearly four years older than Emily, and she was, technically, a minor when we first dated. (Even then she was wiser and more mature!) Although she was never my student, ours shattered conventional relationship standards. My retort is that next month we celebrate 40 years of marriage and my marriage is the single best decision of my life.

Let me toss in another #ButYet. I personally know numerous professors who had mutually agreeable relations with students. Quite a few went on to marry and, by all accounts, have sustained long and loving lives together. So when any movement or moralist tries to impose blanket condemnations for such relationships, my first reaction is a big MYOB.

Monica Lewinski's in the news again, which raises still another #ButYet question. Hold your denunciations of Bonkin' Bill Clinton; I uttered them myself a few decades ago. The man had the morals of a rabbit in breeding season, but Lewinsky was neither a child, nor a victim; she was a foolish young adult. Her affair lasted until she was 24 and Clinton was close to 50. That's a huge age gap, though I know at least three couples with larger ones. Call her experiences sad, sordid, or stupid—but they weren't illegal, and neither were most of the hookups that took place at my high school. Where does personal choice factor into these matters?

For that matter, how do we define adulthood? Not very well, actually. States set the "age of consent" and, until 2001, it was as low as 14 in some places. Now most states set the bar at 16 and a couple as high as 18, but nearly all make "exceptions" for "close in age" relations.  In all other matters, 47 states define an "adult" as a person 18 or older. Legally speaking, college students over that age are adults. Colleges, in fact, make much ado about treating students as independent thinkers, not as "children."

Adulthood comes with the power to make one's own decisions, a right that extends to making bad ones. Lewinski may have a case for employer power abuse, though evidence for that is pretty slim. Her sexual relations with Clinton appear as buyer's regret from the POV of one whose starry-eyed adulation has worn off. Clinton remains an egoistic boorish oaf, but he's probably not a candidate for the Harvey Weinstein Trash Barrel. There are legions of women (and some men) who have had similar distasteful relations like Lewinski's. That's very sad, but you'll notice I used the terms "women" and "men"—those above the age of majority threshold. Is there any point in cataloging the total number of bad decisions the average adult will make in a lifetime?

My hope for everyone is that the good decisions ledger is much longer than the bad decisions list. But to get back to sex, I worry that no-exceptions rules like that of UMass lack room for common sense to prevail when it should. I know too many happy people who would be unemployed outlaws under today's overly draconian rules. Let me say it one more time: There is no excuse for coerced or abusive relationships. Zero. None. Zilch. But we sorely need #But Yet to defend the right of adults to make both stupid and mutually supportive choices.