Go, Recession, Go!

Let’s be honest—our economy never really recovered from the last recession. Remember that one? It started around 2000 when pets.com shut down and suddenly every broker in the Financial District realized what every teenager on Geocities already knew: having a website didn’t mean you were about to receive piles of money.

However, a little article buried on the front page of nytimes.com this evening officially announced the beginning of a new recession.

Though most of us have probably already been working under the assumption that the recession started months ago, President Clinton’s Treasury Secretary is among the first and highest-profile public figures to go from saying, “A recession is possible” to saying, “Oops! We’re in a recession.”

I find interesting the up-front acknowledgment that there is a difference betwixt the “economic growth” that America has been experiencing for the last five years and the “real economy,” which is measured by the financial health of the majority of American families. Near the end of the article, they call President Bush’s tax cuts “regressive,” which they are.

I’m just starting out in my life and in my career, and I’m sure that our economy will eventually find its way back to stable health, but I don’t think that on this side of the resurrection I’m ever going to see the same buying power per dollar that my parents saw while I was growing up. More manufacturing and technology jobs are being shipped overseas for less money, but any benefit that would have for people in unrelated industries is more than offset by the fact that many foreign currencies are gaining on the U.S. dollar. (Even the Canadian dollar has surpassed the U.S. dollar lately. Seriously? The Canadian dollar?)

Conventional wisdom would tell you that now is the time to buy some real estate or invest in some stocks that you know are going to rebound, but my portfolio is pretty much tied up in food, shelter, and the new R.E.M. CD.

I hope this recession ends soon, because I don’t want to have to sell my food.

Clinton Tax Returns

An interesting commentary on the “revelation” that Hillary and Bill Clinton have made a lot of money in the last few years.

Have a good weekend!

I’m Watching Sports Night on CSC, So Stick Around!

Maybe it’s because I recently had to write four different reviews of Aaron Sorkin’s latest play, or maybe it’s because I recently encountered someone who reminds me of the whole Josh Charles/Teri Polo storyline and makes me hear that blasted Neil Finn song, but I revisited Sports Night this evening. As expected, I laughed (okay, more than expected), but I was not prepared for how raw, honest, and complex some of the key exchanges were.

A few years ago, there was a book printed called 100 Things to Love and Hate About Television. The West Wing was in there, but another entry in the book called Sports Night “Aaron Sorkin’s real gift” to popular culture. After hundreds of hours of The West Wing, the entire run of Studio 60, and a month dwelling on The Farnsworth Invention, I have to say that I agree with the book. For as witty, inspiring, incisive, or just flat-out entertaining as his later projects have been, none of it has made me think and feel as much as Sports Night did tonight.

This is not just because of the writing, although it is probably the most emotionally honest and self-consciously stylish Sorkin has ever produced. It is because here, the actors bring a painful humanity to their roles. Most scenes seem haunted by the specter of the fact that every character participating has been pursuing their careers at the expense of their real lives. That the actors can underline even superfluous control-room chatter with a stifled desire for a balanced human life makes the witty banter something more–an attempt to hide their unstable selves.

“I’ve done enough rotten things to women in my life–there’s no question I’m going straight to hell,” Josh Charles’ character quips to a female correspondent who has repeatedly accused him of having slept with her and then not calling. “I really don’t need you padding the ballot box.” This is indicative of the attitude most of these characters take to their flaws and to their dis-satisfactions–they can’t deny them, but they can’t face them. So, they hide behind their “superior wit and guile.” Whether that’s all on the page or not, the cast plays it well.

So, when Felicity Huffman’s character confronts Brenda Strong’s and the two let loose with a flurry of cutting verbal attacks and vulnerable confessions with no attempt to use wit to hide themselves or soften the blows, it’s not only interesting and gripping, it’s unsettling. We’ve seen these characters say things that are true, but this is the first time any of them allow themselves to be honest.

I didn’t think I could still be surprised by Sorkin, and was sure that I couldn’t ever be surprised by Sports Night again.

Thankfully, I was wrong. This is why I’m lucky to be able to write.

Farnsworth Redux

This is the second of two reviews I’ve written of The Farnsworth Invention. Both were written for the same publication (The Redeemer Arts Greenhouse Newsletter) and I don’t know which they’re going to run; I’d prefer that they run the first, because I think it’s better and I’d rather have the better one in my portfolio lookin’ all pretty and printed.

The Farnsworth Invention
Directed by Des McAnuff, Written by Aaron Sorkin

“Do you know who Philo Farnsworth was? He invented television. I don’t mean he invented television like Uncle Miltie—I mean he invented the television! In a little house in Provo, Utah, at a time when transmitting moving pictures through the air would be like me saying I’ve figured out a way to beam us aboard the Starship Enterprise. He was a visionary, and he died broke and without fanfare.”

At least, that’s the angle of the historically-debated story that Aaron Sorkin wrote nine years ago on an episode of his much-acclaimed, little-seen Sports Night. It’s also the perspective on history he ultimately espoused in his recent historical fiction The Farnsworth Invention, which played at The Music Box Theatre through March 2. 

The play follows Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson) and RCA head David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria) as they race to develop the invention that would end up dominating mass communication in the 20th century.  Sorkin’s drama plays fast and loose with historical facts, but that doesn’t matter. What matters to Sorkin, who has made a career out of not-so-subtly voicing his opinions on politics, the media, and social values through the mouths of his characters, is what the invention represents to each man. Sarnoff expects it to “end ignorance, end illiteracy, end war.” Farnsworth, drowning in alcohol and hiding in his research to avoid coming to terms with his son’s death, declares, “One day, a man will walk on the moon. And everybody will get to see it on television.”

These aspirations are far less partisan than Sorkin’s usual fare—in a show about sportscasters, for example, he wrote an episode about one character’s views on legalizing marijuana; a series about sketch comedy actors featured a three-episode arc about premature troop withdrawal from Afghanistan and a series-long sub-plot about the social impact of the religious right.

Whether he shares his character’s political leanings or not, he is a singular talent when it comes to writing dialogue. It is that panache which brought viewers of all stripes to The West Wing and which won his short-lived Sports Night a devoted following. (Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, on the other hand, never gained a strong fanbase.)

To anyone who has watched a season of any of those shows, The Farnsworth Invention may have a familiar feel. To someone who has watched every season of those shows, multiple times, it feels like a low-rent cover band. The songs are the same—the characters are arguing with unrealistic fluency about artistic and journalistic integrity, addiction, workaholism, and social responsibility—but the rhythm section feels off-measure. The play only really excels when Simpson and Azaria (whose characters are also our dueling narrators) stop talking to the audience and start talking to each other. The two leads find a rhythm and naturalism in the dialogue that makes the scenes they share gripping. Sadly, too many members of the supporting team can’t quite keep up.

After the fictionalized argument between Sarnoff and Farnsworth that constitutes the play’s climax, Sarnoff soliloquizes about the importance of his work. Taking a monologue directly from a West Wing episode, he declares, “We came out of the cave, and we looked over the hill, and we saw fire! And we crossed the ocean, and we pioneered the west, and we took to the sky. The history of man is on a timeline of explorations and this is what’s next.” If that seems a little awkward and grandiose, it should—the monologue was originally written about deep-space exploration.

But Azaria makes it work.

What’s Your Story?

Hello, to the three or four people who have probably ever read this, and who have, by now, given up waiting for an update. I’m going to try to carve some time out of this busy week/weekend to give you some more to read, but first I’m giving you a chance to prime the pump.

Thoreau said that most men lead lives of quiet desperation. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I’m loathe to admit it, but even if it’s true, I put more stock in what Hollywood hack Richard Curtis said about the story most people live out: that everyone you see is playing some role in living out a love story. Maybe it’s the gospel influence that makes me see love as more intrinsic to the human heart than desperation, even if desperation is the appropriate response to the condition in which we find ourselves.

Anyway, what’s your story? I know, the topic is lame and a month late, but I’m desperately trying to avoid doing real work. Give me a few things to read, and I’ll come back with stories about Ninja Nuns and how F. Scott Fitzgerald led me to Jesus.

The Farnsworth Invention

The Farnsworth Invention, playing at The Music Box Theatre through March 2, is about two men with obsessions. The first is David Sarnoff (Hank Azaria), president of RCA and a fledgling media mogul. At the start of the play, Sarnoff is incensed at one of RCA’s affiliates for selling blocks of advertising time during their “informational programming.” The broadcasters will lose credibility, he argues, if the weather man is also being paid to sell the audience umbrellas. Sarnoff sets off on a crusade to ensure that his company isn’t licensing its patents out to any affiliates who aren’t using the technology to promote good taste and the public good.

The other man is Philo Farnsworth (Jimmi Simpson), a boy genius raised on a potato farm. At fourteen, Farnsworth thinks up a way to transmit moving pictures through the air, and in his 20’s he finally gets the funding to build a lab and test his theory.

When Sarnoff learns that Farnsworth’s ragtag team of researchers is on the cusp of creating the first working television technology, he wages a furious campaign to gain control of the invention and all of its patents. He pours money into RCA’s own research and development department, but when they are hindered by some design flaw that the play tries to explain clearly but can’t, he resorts to the most congenial case of industrial espionage ever dramatized.

The story plays fast and loose with historical facts, but that doesn’t matter. What matters to playwright Aaron Sorkin, who likes writing about smart people arguing over high ideals (A Few Good Men, The West Wing), is what the invention represents to each man. Sarnoff expects it to “end ignorance, end illiteracy, end war.” Farnsworth, buried in his research as a way of avoiding coming to terms with the death of his son, declares, “One day, a man will walk on the moon. And everybody will get to see it on television.”

These aspirations are, of course, both funny and poignant. But the play spends too much time trying to get us to understand the technology that Farnsworth is inventing, and so the humor, hope, and humanity of the characters can get lost.

Ultimately, the play is just witty and entertaining enough to be worth your time, but only really excels whenever Simpson and Azaria—whose characters are also our dueling narrators—stop talking to the audience and start talking to each other. The two leads find a rhythm and naturalism in the dialogue that makes the scenes they share gripping. Sadly, too many members of the supporting cast can’t quite keep up.

In the climax, a fictionalized argument between Sarnoff and Farnsworth following a patent trial, Farnsworth recognizes that the invention they’ve been fighting over isn’t being used as the utopian tool they had both dreamed it would become, and takes Sarnoff to task for it.

“Once you’re good at delivering consumers to advertisers,” Sarnoff laments, “you’ll never be good at anything else.”

For No Good Reason

Good Fences…

There is a tradition in Judaism called “building a fence around the Torah.” The general concept is that the people of God, having been given His law, should follow a stricter set of rules in order to keep from breaking His law. These stricter rules, called gezeirah, are instituted and canonized by the rabbis.

An example: scripture says not to “boil a calf in its mother’s milk.” Anyone who knows someone who keeps Kosher knows what the fence is around this law: Orthodox Jews do not eat meat and dairy within several hours of one another.

The practice has been compared to building a fence around a garden so as to keep from trampling the flowers, and is seen as one of the key functions of the “Oral Law” (which, according to Jewish tradition, was passed down to Moses at Sinai in order to help Israel understand and keep the written law). This is seen in the beginning of Sayings of the Fathers:

They said three things: Be deliberate in judgement, stand up many students, and make a fence for the Torah.
Avos 1:1

Many Christians reject the very concept of the “oral traditions” or the “Oral Torah” outright, calling them extra-Biblical. This is plainly not the place for a deep theological discourse on the law and the Word, but while reading scripture the other night, I noticed something that got me thinking about the fence around the Torah.

I found that, while not expressly advocated, building a fence around the Torah is at least demonstrated in the Bible. In Genesis. Chapter 3.

And the LORD God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it. And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.”

The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat fruit from the trees in the garden, but God did say, ‘You must not eat fruit from the tree that is in the middle of the garden, and you must not touch it, or you will die.'”

Now, while there is plenty of debate about some of the specifics–did the serpent shake a piece of fruit from the tree and bite it so that the woman could see “that the fruit of the tree was good for food?” Was it simply his cunning argument that made her see that it was “desirable for gaining wisdom?”–we all know what happened next.

The fence metaphor given by the oral tradition assumes that Israel was capable of damaging God’s law, of literally breaking it. They weren’t. When they transgressed against God’s law, they broke themselves. The law would not be damaged by our transgressions any more than a stone wall would be damaged by a child running into it.

Not only did the first “fence” chronicled in scripture not do the job of keeping God’s rules from being broken, but it would actually have limited the ability of the man and woman to actually obey God: how can they tend to a tree they don’t allow themselves to touch? The attempt to add to the law in order to preserve it is just an attempt to earn the unearnable, reach the unreachable, and put God into a position where He owes you something.

I’m not advocating hedonism. The law is important, as it teaches us how to relate to God and gives us a jumping-off point for understanding a few ways in which our values make us a distinct, counter-cultural community. But ultimately, the law is supposed to show us our sin–I don’t think fences protect the law from people, they protect people from the law.

I really wanted to work a Robert Frost reference in here, but it’s late, so here’s a URL:

Now, I’m off to bed. I’ll try to write about Terminator 2‘s role in the post-Cold War American psyche this weekend.

…Gravy Boat?

Welcome to my undeveloped musings on the fields that constitute my career(s) and passions: politics, communications, writing, film, literature, and faith. I can’t promise that the things I write about will seem relevant or interesting to anyone other than myself, but I’ll try.

I started this blog at the suggestion of a good friend named Joe and the encouragement of another friend named Kristen. If you get mildly frustrated with it, let me know–I’ll pass your sentiments on to Kristen. If you think it’s insipid and that the world would have been better off had the idea for it never been planted, let me know–I’ll pass your sentiments on to Joe.

What better way to kick off a blog that will probably be mostly musings on politics, faith, art, and the intersection of any two or more of the above than a passage from a novel that’s not really about politics or faith by a talented author who I don’t like as much as my friends do? (Home Land by Sam Lipsyte, in case you were wondering.)

“Gravy boat! Stay in the now!”

I remembered my father barking those words one Thanksgiving years ago, my mind wandering as it was wandering now, making its maybe-not-so-beautiful-nor-extraordinary connections while a row of aunts and uncles waited for me to pass what wasn’t technically a gravy boat but more on the order of a mason jar filled with pan-spooned turkey juice.

While at art school studying fiction writing and film criticism, I became a Christian. After I graduated, the Lord led me into political communications. None of those things happened very long ago, and I’m still working out the exact direction of my calling, finding the place where it intersects with my talents and my joys.

As I explore these paths, I have thoughts and make connections that are maybe-not-so-beautiful-nor-extraordinary. Those are what I’m using as fodder for this blog. I’m sorry that it’s topically messy, that there will probably not always be a clear connection between any two posts, but I needed an excuse to keep writing recreationally and keep my expository writing and critical faculties sharp.

If it helps you to cope with the inevitably scattershot nature of some of the upcoming posts, think of the blog as what Hitchcock called “pure cinema”–that is, little strips of unrelated film juxtaposed against one another to create a different meaning or carry a greater message than they would denote on their own.

Or just blame Joe.