Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Sunday

For breakfast: bulletproof tea to start. I wanted to use up some of the Birch Benders gluten-free pancake mix, which we didn’t find nearly as tasty as the Kodiak Cakes mix. But it turns out if you add frozen blueberries to it, they are pretty good! Then top it off with a couple of fried eggs, and that’s a pretty good breakfast. The glycemic index isn’t too bad since the main ingredients are cassava flour, coconut flour, and almond flour. And it’s dairy-free, while the Kodiak mix isn’t.

Afternoon: got a little writing done, including organizing some articles to talk about in the podcast. Busted open the new box of printer paper from Costco and finally I can print, although the printer drum is all screwed up and it really needs a new one (but they are expensive).

I got a check from E*TRADE: the account I had for years to receive a small monthly annuity payment from my mother’s estate, over the course of the last ten years, is now closed and I took out the last of the money. It’s $134.70. That will probably go towards paying off the laptop I’m using for writing.

Grace and I recorded the podcast. It didn’t go too badly, although I’ve been tired and feeling stressed. I wound up doing most of the talking on this show since I picked out the “lightning round” topics and had a little more time to highlight bits to talk about. Just as I was finishing up, I realized that I had forgotten a big topic that I had wanted to talk about. I wanted to talk about the start of the Iraq war 15 years ago, and quote some of my blog posts from that time.

The kids were not really ready to drive to Mass, despite laying out the schedule very clearly; most of them were in the car but Benjamin was still in the house, two were lacking coats, etc. So we were late to Mass again. At Mass, we sat in the vestibule and several of them were really on their absolute worst behavior. It was appalling. It was so bad that afterwards I was not willing to take them to a restaurant. So we ran an errand, dropping off some food for Grace’s friend. While she was doing that, I sat with the kids in the car and they spent 15 minutes screaming. Their behavior was just horrible on Sunday. I think this may have to do with what they’ve been eating. Not that they never fight or yell in a normal day, but this was off the charts.

We drove around for a while, while Grace and I engaged in a low-key argument about plans and expenses and the kids. We finally made them wait in the car while we got some takeout food from Haifa Falafel. The food was OK, but only mediocre. They are more of a chicken shawarma sandwich lunch place than a dinner place.

After we got home and ate our takeout, Grace joined me in the basement studio for about 30 minutes and I read some of my blog posts from March 2003. Then she went back up to get the kids on to bed and I started working on producing the show. I used backing music from my old song “Leaving Ann Arbor,” which gave me a chance to listen to the tracks again. I can tell that I was rushed, because there are some parts where I had to reuse clips of ukulele and guitar, and they aren’t quite the best. But that was just the nature of trying to write and record the whole thing in just a few days: you have to lay something down, get it as good as you can in those few hours, and then just move on. But at the risk of bragging, I’m still really impressed with some of the sounds I achieved. The vocal parts, heavily pitch-corrected, sound pretty bad. But the bass, guitar, and ukulele hit some really nice moments, when they blend.

I exported a backing track without vocals, but realized I should have also muted the kazoo at the end. With the kazoo, I had to start the clip I used for the podcast outro after the kazoo ended, which left very little time. It’s something I would have liked to fix, but it was already almost midnight and I had to get the thing uploaded. I finished it all up about a quarter to one. I realized also that I had left off links to the old blog posts. That, at least, I can fix pretty easily. If I get a little quiet time, or can steal it, I will fix the outro music to use a longer clip.

Monday

I was pretty exhausted last night and so did not get out the door until about ten minutes to nine. I didn’t make tea for Grace or eat anything. I’m not feeling great today. But I did manage to bring a container of leftover Indian food, which Grace was kind enough to pack up for me last night while I was finishing up the podcast. So I’ve got that going for me. I might take a trip to Meijer at lunch to deposit the check from E*TRADE.

Dinner was stuffed peppers and salad. The cleanup took so long that we didn’t have time to watch a video or have a story. Before bed Grace trimmed my beard and mustache so I no longer look quite so much like Karl Marx.

I posted a “retroblog” post—one of my 2003 posts about the start of the Iraq war. Many of the original links were broken, but between Google and the Internet Archive I managed to find replacements for most of them, which I put in footnotes. Some seem to be just gone. The URLs were just article numbers in some cases and I don’t always have even a title and author to search on, in the hopes that the original article lives on at a new address. But still, it’s encouraging to be able to find most of the linked articles. It’s interesting to look back at juts how much, and what, I was reading in 2003. Not all of it was online; I had shelf-feet of books, and magazines, and a lot of audio interviews. Unfortunately I have long since thrown out most of it for space. It would be neat if I had put the whole archive in boxes and been able to keep it like a time capsule.

Tuesday

Breakfast was a bulletproof tea Grace made for me. I had the last of the almond butter biscuits and I’m eating a little Barbacoa Sabor beef jerky. For lunch I have half of my leftover curry from yesterday. Today at work I have my annual review. I’m a little jittery about that. Months of illness haven’t helped anything. I’m supposed to come up with notes and my mind is pretty much a blank.

Grace and I will go to a talk on campus tonight. It’s so easy if you live there, and so hard if you have to drive in.

Update: my boss rescheduled my annual review. I’m all caffeinated and prepped and feeling like I need to take a walk around the block.

Wednesday

Last night Grace drove out to meet me after work and then she drove us over to central campus to attend a talk by Prof. Elizabeth Anderson. Her topic was “private governments” in the workplace. I found her thinking on government and workplace to be fresh and interesting. It was a good talk. On the subject of prescriptions to increase workplace democracy, things get a bit difficult and complicated. This shouldn’t be surprising; there’s a lot of “path dependency” and there are some pretty hard boundaries on just how far a system will allow itself to be changed by working within it. I took a few pages of notes. I think we’ll probably be talking about the talk on our podcast. She mentioned that she’s been a guest on other podcasts, so if we can come up with some good questions, or read her book, maybe we’ll invite her on ours and see if we can explore some of her ideas further.

After the talk we got dinner at Carlyle’s, so I have some leftover pizza today. It’s a pretty odd pizza: a “chef’s special,” made with Thousand Island dressing, sauerkraut, and corned beef. It normally comes with swiss cheese and that sounded very tasty, but I didn’t want to be reacting to dairy. Grace got their poutine, made with braised short ribs and a fried egg, but she had them hold the cheese curds. Both were quite tasty. I had a pint of Newcastle brown ale to go with it, and it was just about perfect.

When we got home, the kids had eaten dinner but not bothered to put away any food or finish cleaning up the kitchen, because they were so obsessed with spending time on the computer. So they ignored Benjamin when he sat at the leftover chicken pot pie and picked off all the crust. They left it out, and also left out the leftover stuffed peppers. Those had been sitting out so long that I had to throw them away for fear of giving people food poisoning. So at 10 p.m. or so I had to do a round of kitchen cleanup before I could get on to bed. It’s disheartening, and wasting food is, to me, something more than just wasteful or obnoxious; I think of it as “sin,” and I give my children sermons about this particular sin all the time. So part of my frustration is that the kids don’t seem to have internalized this value. Or, maybe they just care about Scratch more.

I got up and out and had breakfast at Harvest Moon Cafe and got to work about 9:20. Today I have my rescheduled review.

The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump, Continued

I have read a little bit more of The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump and I have a few more thoughts on the book so far. The first is that this really isn’t a book. At least, it isn’t really a monograph. The authors feel, and rightfully so, constrained by the Goldwater rule, and so the professionals can’t really offer diagnoses of our 45th president. And I don’t believe they really had enough information to do so; in my view it’s difficult to tell where 45 the person ends and 45 the reality-show star begins; how much is personality, and how much is persona?

The book is well-padded with tall line spacing and pages of footnotes after each chapter, so it’s a pretty quick read. The chapters so far are more interesting for what they say that isn’t all about 45. I’ve mentioned the first chapter, that talks about time perspective theory. The second chapter talks about the history of the Nixon administration. Nothing in it was really new to me, although it might be of interest to people who are younger or who know less about that famous presidency. The third chapter is by the ghost writer of The Art of the Deal and it’s also pretty slight, as far as surprising new insights offered.

So, I think this book might be of interest, and even of value, to people who are younger than me, or who have spent little time reading and thinking about politics and psychology. But if you’re already a political news junkie or know much about the history of recent presidents, I think you’ll find this to be pretty lightweight: not a monograph, not very deep. But I’ll continue reading, since this is a compilation. Maybe there are some essays later which are insightful enough to cause me to revise my opinion of the whole book upward. But I think that’s unlikely.

False Choices

I think I may have failed to mention one of the books I’ve drawn on repeatedly in recent months: False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone. This is (obviously) a polemical book, a collection of essays written before the election by a number of feminist writers with quite different perspectives on Hillary Clinton. Different, but critical.

There’s an review (and discussion with the editor and contributors) in Current Affairs here. In it, Margaret Corvid says:

In my own circles I have a lot of liberal friends, people who are saying to vote for Hillary and are extremely excited about this—representation is important to them. But I think the focus on representation is even worse than nothing at all because it closes out opportunities for us to say that feminism is about something more than representation. It’s about systemic structural change that gives women from all areas, races, classes and nationalities more opportunities to be safe, more opportunities to have a good life and have their human rights respected. And so you can talk about Hillary being the first woman as a major nominee, but besides her gender, nearly everything else is against women.

She’s talking about what Grace calls the “cynical abuse of identity politics”—identity as a cudgel to force voters to fall in line because of her identities and the identitarian ideas she promotes, while her actual policies and record were completely discordant with these ideals. It’s real, and people all across the political spectrum felt this way about Clinton. And so Democrats who didn’t vote for her are blamed for Trump, but I still believe it makes more sense to blame Democrats who refused to nominate Sanders.

You can find the publisher’s page on the book here.

I have not read the book from front to back or given a full review, in part because I just don’t think of it as that kind of book. I think of it as a resource to dip into, a source of critical ideas on Clinton and Clintonism and neoliberalism, organized roughly by issue (for example, the carceral state, abortion rights, etc.) So I’ve been more interested in some of the contributions, and less interested in others. But I think all the contributions are worth reading and in general this book is more challenging, better grounded in matters of actual public record and policy, and a more worthy addition to the discourse, than The Dangerous Case.

Both books run the risk of dating badly, but I think False Choices makes a better case for relevance because the centrist-feminist-Democrat movement, aka “Clintonism,” doesn’t seem to require Clinton. Whether “Trumpism” is even a coherent thing still, I think, remains to be seen, but I don’t think it is; sheer narcissism and unpredictability doesn’t amount to a school of thought or policy, and corporatism behind different veneers is already the order of the day.

Thursday

Grace is down with a cold and Sam is apparently getting it too, so the family did not go out for Maundy Thursday Mass and our plans for Easter dinner and Easter Mass are hanging by a thread.

I have been feeling just a bit like I am fighting a virus, too, although it isn’t too bad.

I stopped at Arbor Farms to buy some different kinds soup, and we had soup for dinner despite a refrigerator full of leftovers. It’s getting colder and it is supposed to stay colder for several days. The predicted low next Wednesday, April 4th, is 21 degrees.

I lounged around with Grace and Elanor and watched music videos on my iPad and talked about covers. For example, “The Ghost in You,” with covers by BT and Robyn Hitchcock. And what it would take to play a cover of a song and then incorporate it into a podcast episode. I know what sites I would use to pay the appropriate license fees, but I don’t yet know what the cost would be for one song.

Part of the difficulty is that I have to estimate downloads. I don’t really track podcast downloads. YouTube shows a play count, for all 31 current episodes in video form, of 129. A few of those plays are probably me. As for the MP3 files from our DreamHost server—well, I just tried to view site statistics, and coudln’t even log in, so I’ll have to play with that. I don’t know what they currently offer.

After dragging the kids all into the room and trying to get them to stop arguing and running around, I read them the first half of the first chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring. Of course I have read this several times before, and they are very familiar with the Peter Jackson film trilogy, but I have never tried reading the whole 6-book, 3-volume novel to the kids from beginning to end. Chapter 1 of The Hobbit is called “An Unexpected Party.” Chapter 1 of The Fellowship of the Ring is called “A Long Expected Party.”

We talked about the carefully constructed parallels between The Hobbit and The Fellowship of the Ring. I had not, I think, previously noticed Tolkien’s elaborate construction of parallels between Frodo and Gollum, going back to this very first chapter. Consider: we learn that Frodo’s parents, Drogo Baggins and Primula Brandybuck, drowned in a boating accident.

Sandyman the miller says, of the accident, “…I heard she pushed him in, and he pulled her in after him.” But Hamfast Gamgee (the Gaffer) reminds the hobbits that “boats are quite tricky enough for those that sit still without looking further for the cause of trouble.”

So we are primed to consider that there might be a murder in Frodo’s past. This sets up a One Ring-shaped hole to be filled later, when we learn of the “cause of trouble” in Sméagol’s “boating accident.” It was of course the Ring, found by Déagol, which led Sméagol to murder Deagol, a primal Cain and Abel-style jealousy killing, which led to Sméagol’s expulsion from his community. Sméagol was eventually driven into the caves beneath the Misty Mountains, living in secret among the Orcs.

We learn that Frodo was raised as an orphan in Brandy Hall:

…there was this Mr. Frodo left an orphan and stranded, as you might say, among those queer Bucklanders, being brought up anyhow in Brandy Hall. A regular warren, by all accounts. Old Master Gorbadoc never had fewer than a couple of hundred relations in the place. Mr. Bilbo never did a kinder deed than when he brought the lad back to live among decent folk.

So both Frodo and Gollum’s lives were profoundly changed by an excursion in a boat, and a murder (or at least a suggested murder); they both grow up in “warrens,” and Bilbo is responsible for changing the direction of both their lives. Gollum and Frodo are both ringbearers, with Bilbo in between; Bilbo is able to give up the Ring, but it continues to drive the fates of both Gollum and Frodo.

And then of course there’s the ironic setup for Samwise. The gaffer goes on:

_‘Elves and Dragons!_ I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him. And I might say it to others,’ he added with a look at the stranger and the miller.

“Getting mixed up in the business of [his] betters” is, of course, exactly what Sam does, when he eavesdrops on the conversation between Gandalf and Frodo.

Who is the stranger, described as “a visitor on business from Michel Delving in the Westfarthing?” I think this hobbit may be on an errand to return Bilbo’s mithril mail shirt, loaned to the Michel Delving Mathom-house (museum). Later in the book, in Rivendell, Bilbo shows Frodo:

…a parcel which seemed to be rather heavy for its size. He unwound several folds of old cloth, and held up a small shirt of mail. It was close-woven of many rings, as supple almost as linen, cold as ice, and harder than steel. It shone like moonlit silver, and was studded with white gems. With it was a belt of pearl and crystal.

Bilbo tells Frodo:

I got it back from Michel Delving before I started, and packed it with my luggage: I brought all the mementoes of my Journey away with me, except the Ring.

So that’s my theory: the stranger from Michel Delving is in Hobbiton to return Bilbo’s “mementoes.” But I admit there’s not much detail in the text to support it. The text is in fact full of loose ends like this, that aren’t entirely tied up. This is part of the way Tolkien gives the impression that we are in the midst of a convincing world. Later, Sam will report that the Gaffer was talking to a “stranger” who has “come up the Hill.” That stranger might be part of Bill Ferny’s network of informants, or he might not. We just aren’t sure.

Friday

I woke up feeling, still, a bit like I might be fighting a virus, but I was not obviously feverish and not coughing or sneezing, so I went to work anyway. I might make it a short day. I got paid, and I have to make a trip to Costco tonight, and that’s about it.

At work, I’m trying to get up to speed with LabVIEW. I had some training in LabVIEW back when I worked briefly at Dow in Midland, but I didn’t wind up using it for a real project, and so don’t consider myself an expert. And now I’m trying to patch up a legacy program written in LabVIEW 6, which makes elaborate use of a database. It’s not working and I’m being reminded of why I don’t really like LabVIEW very much. The visual paradigm is cool. I can imagine that it might be a nice way to learn programming. It’s a quick and effective way to build user interfaces. But the paradigm becomes pretty unwieldy when you are working with large programs that use a lot of library calls.

It’s as if you were writing a Pascal program with every function in a separate file. You can set breakpoints, but it’s hard to see what is happening; you have to probe each “wire” to see what data is arriving on that wire, the equivalent of which parameters are being passed to a function. And the “call stack” (or hierarchy of “virtual instruments”) can get quite complex. Threading error-checking through every call level is just as awkward in LabVIEW as it is in a language like Pascal or C. There’s no equivalent of exception-handling or “maybe” monads; everything must be explicitly built in to the code that’s in your face as you debug. And in 2018 you still can’t zoom in on the diagrammatic representation of a VI. I’m staring at tiny dots, and icons with text drawn on them to label sub-VIs.

It’s honestly pretty ridiculous that this is still the LabVIEW state-of-the-art. But I suppose people could say that about my use of C as well.

Tonight I went to Costco after work and spent $264.08 on groceries. That included a Blu-Ray, The Last Jedi, which the kids are watching now, and a set of books by Roald Dahl, 15 paperback volumes for $25.00. Dinner was salmon, some of the new Lundgren organid short-grain brown rice, and a salad kit that includes baby kale and shredded brussels sprouts. Very good. With the rice, I added cashews and sriracha, which is the best way to eat brown rice even invented.

Grace is still fighting a nasty cold, so she’s taking a long soak in the bathtub. It sounds like we probably are canceling our Easter plans, at least most of them.

I brought my acoustic guitar up from the basement and tuned it up and I’m working on Billy Bragg’s song “Between the Wars.” The transcriptions I’ve seen are in G, but it sounds like he plays it with a capo way up at the 7th fret, which would bring it up to D. I think it works a little better with my voice if I put the capo on the 5th fret, which puts it in C. But I’m still experimenting. I can still finger these basic chords pretty well, but my fingertips are very soft, so they are getting sore quickly.

I ate all the rest of the salad, which no one else seemed to want to finish.

Saturday

I made breakfast: bacon, hash browns, pancakes, tea. Grace and a couple of the kids are still sick. Joshua’s feverish. Grace canceled all of our Easter plans. So we’ve had a very low-key day. More guitar practice. This evening I’ll be trying to come up with a podcast topic, although I’m not sure if we are going to get it recorded in the studio. If Grace is not up to it, I might just bring a portable recorder upstairs, and we can sit in bed and talk. We’ll see.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Bandy X. Lee et al.
  • False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton, edited by Liza Featherstone

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, March 31st, 2018

Monday, March 26, 2018

Retroblogging the Iraq War: March 12, 2003

Et Tu, Daddy? (March 12, 2003)

Note: this article lived for many years on a Bloxsom-generated page here. Many of the original links are broken. I have left the broken links untouched in the text, but at the bottom there is a list of links I’ve been able to reconstruct using the Internet Archive and other sources. This is a time-consuming endeavor, but I’ll work on these old posts as I am able.

I’m having a bad day: not enough sleep, a cranky son who didn’t want to get up to go to school. So you may notice that I’m giving up my pretense of civility today. It seems to me that politeness isn’t working; it’s time to get cranky. Howard Zinn writes of “the emergence of new voices, unheard before, speaking ‘inappropriately’ outside their professional boundaries… 1500 historians have signed an anti-war petition. Businessmen, clergy, have put full page ads in newspapers. All refusing to stick to their ‘profession’ and instead professing that they are human beings first.” It gives me some hope. Something else that will give me hope: major demonstrations in every city. Walkouts. A national strike. Anything but business as usual, because this isn’t.

One thing is making me feel a little better: I’m not alone. George W. Bush is probably having a pretty bad day too. His own father is warning him against the danger of completely alienating the international community: Times Online story. Bush Senior said “The Madrid conference would never have happened if the international coalition that fought together in Desert Storm had exceeded the UN mandate and gone on its own into Baghdad after Saddam and his forces.” And in 1996 he told the BBC “to occupy Iraq would instantly shatter our coalition, turning the whole Arab world against us, and make a broken tyrant into a latter-day Arab hero.” (See the Counterpunch essay.) Will Bush Jr. listen to his father and ease up on the cowboy rhetoric?

Maybe if we gave him a certificate signed by the world’s leaders acknowledging that yes, he’s the man with the biggest dick, and the French can’t take that away from him, he would breathe a sigh of relief and settle down to the business of running the country. He wouldn’t feel threatened by the existence of “french fries” and “french toast” (renamed at the House office building cafeterias by Republican lawmakers; see the CNN story here.

But I’m not very hopeful: according to a Reuters story the U.S. is already lining up contractors to reconstruct “health services, ports and airports, and schools and other educational institutions.” And, of course, how could these companies, which include a subsidiary of Cheney’s former company Haliburton, get on with the business of earning $900 million dollars for rebuilding, unless we get on with the business of demolition? And they’ve got just the thing to do the demolition: this 21,000 pound bomb, billed as “the mother of all bombs,” to be employed for “psychological operations.” Maybe this will change some minds in Iraq… or at least puree them. Of course, $900 million could do a lot of good here, repairing “schools and educational institutions,” such as… say… this one.

If you’re wondering whether I can possibly be cynical enough to suggest that the U.S. would deliberately spend hundreds of billions of dollars, and put Iraqui and American lives at risk, in order to provide a few hundred millions of dollars for its favored friends, let me be clear: yes, I am just that cynical, and sick at heart. (2018 addendum: from the perspective of the past 15 years, it’s much more clear how the weapons industry scams and the reconstruction industry scams get ’em coming and going.) These organizations probably did not even ask for this largesse. According to Reuters, “Sources at the companies said the invitation was unusual in that USAID did not ask them to set a price for defined services but rather asked them to say what they could do for $900 million.” Of course, this is a drop in the bucket, or rather the barrel, compared to the economic factor staring us in the face: the assurance of continued access to cheap oil. Is it so obvious we can’t believe it could be that simple?

Is there any limit to our duplicity? The Observer reports a leaked American plan to conduct “aggressive surveillance operation, which involves interception of the home and office telephones and the emails of UN delegates in New York.” See the article here. Haliburton already has the contract to put out the burning oil fields we set on fire. And there’s more forged and planted evidence of Iraq’s supposed attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.

What is the goal, again, exactly? In other words, just what can Saddam do to avoid bombing, invasion, and massive casualties? Fred Kaplan in Slate points out that there are no clear steps Saddam can take; our American policy doesn’t even give him a standard to comply with. Lots of people are spouting off about how Iraq could have avoided all this and gotten out of the sanctions doghouse – but, in fact, this [was never the plan]([http://www.commondreams.org/views03/0309-09.htm]. The U.S. had no intentions of lifting sanctions; Madeline Albright in 1997 said “We do not agree with the nations who argue that if Iraq complies with its obligations concerning weapons of mass destruction, sanctions should be lifted.” So we’ve never, in fact, given Saddam Hussein any real incentive to work hard to comply with U. N. resolutions. And now we’re giving him a serious incentive – the massive buildup to invasion and bombing – to comply – and we’ve raised the bar. Ari Fleischer said “To avoid war… Saddam must not only disarm totally but step down from power.” What kind of U.N. resolution mandated that?

What kind of a precedent does it set for one sovereign nation to demand that the leader of another, operating within its own borders, and arguably complying (albeit barely) with U.N. resolutions, must “step down?” Even Tony Blair believes that’s not something we can reasonably ask. See the Boston Globe’s Editorial:

Bush’s inconsistency on this point – disarmament or regime change? – undermined the early case for war. That it reappears now, obliterating Powell’s argument of a month ago, is fatal to the moral integrity of the prowar position.

It’s not surprise that our own allies are ready to veto us.

Of course, there are some credible threats out there: Iran is apparently close to nuclear capability. Then there’s the minor matter of North Korea, with whom we’re apparently not speaking. Perhaps we could just demand disarmament and regime change all over the goddamned place. Of course, we could consider getting our own house in order.

And happy fucking Easter.

Links (some are reconstructions or broken links, some are old links that still work, but I’ve annotated them to help me find them if they break in the future):

¶ 1 “I’m having a bad day…”

¶ 2 “One thing is making me feel a little better…”

¶ 3 “Maybe if we gave him a certificate…”

¶ 4 “But I’m not very hopeful…”

¶ 5 “If you’re wondering…”

¶ 6 “Is there any limit…”

¶ 7 “What is the goal…”

¶ 8 “What kind of precedent…”

¶ 11 “Of course, there are some…”

¶ 12 “And happy…”

Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Sunday

Sadly, Grace and I actually missed recording a podcast on Sunday. Here’s what happened instead. After another bad night’s sleep, I got up and cooked a pan of bacon, then pancakes. We are trying to stay off the carbs, so Grace and I ate a couple of fried eggs instead of pancakes.

Internet filtering has become an urgent problem to solve; we have given up on trying to use some sort of honor system to keep our kids from wasting all their time online. I settled on trying to set up a proxy server. I was hoping to do this using a Raspberry Pi, so I went to Target in the hopes of buying a Kano kit, which runs Raspbian, and would (I think) let me just plug it in and set up the squid proxy server from the command line. Although the Kano web site suggested Target was the nearest store to carry the things, Target didn’t have any Kano kits. So I came home and decided to bite the bullet and just set up my old server PC. It’s a homemade box with a Xeon processor that I assembled in 2010 to use as a software build server, back when I was working for Lectronix. I haven’t used it for very much since I decommissioned it a few years back. Years ago, I experimented with a couple different versions of Linux but never wound up using it on a daily basis.

So I first opened it up, and used an air duster to blow some dust out of the box. It’s not as clean as I’d like it, but at least it doesn’t look like one of the cat hair- and grease-filled machines one sees on the tech support gore subreddit. I wiped the boot SSD and installed the latest Debian Linux, then installed squid. That was quick except that Debian still makes you do some confusing hand-configuration to get sudo working. Then I was getting errors about the Cinnamon desktop running in software rendering mode, so I switched to Xfce. (I don’t really care much about the desktop environment on this machine, since mostly I’m just running terminal windows).

Then I had to start working out exactly how to configure our router, running a build of OpenWRT, and how to configure squid. I gave the PC a wired Ethernet connection to the router, and configured the router to give the PC a fixed IP address (and even that pretty simple thing took some confusion and several tries, since I’m not really familiar with some of the quirks of the OpenWRT web interface).

Then I struggled for a while with the squid configuration file. I tried following several very simple tutorials, but apparently squid defaults and configuration file syntax have changed repeatedly over the years, so several of the basic tutorials I found including this one just didn’t work, and squid’s error messages aren’t always very helpful. The configuration examples in the squid documentation are generally for making it do things that are far more complex than what I’m trying to do, while the documentation is not all that helpful. The documentation page on ACLs just says:

acl aclname src ip-address/mask ...    # clients IP address [fast]
acl aclname src addr1-addr2/mask ...   # range of addresses [fast]

It’s almost working. The whitelist works, but when I combine the whitelist functionality with the IP address functionality, it blocks all the machines. I think maybe it’’s been so long since I’ve done this sort of thing that I forgot how subnet masks work, and I was trying to specify a wildcard mask instead. But reading a little more, it looks like squid also allows CIDR notation even though this is not mentioned in the documentation. So I will try that, as it should be unambiguous. That may just fix the problem.

There’s a bigger problem, which is that with this setup, the Windows 7 machines have to be configured to use the proxy server, and that setting isn’t locked down. In Windows 7, the proxy server is a Windows setting. Chrome honors it, but other browsers like Firefox use their own setting. So I’ll need to do something else to configure the router somehow so these machines can only access web sites via the proxy server. I’m not quite sure how to do that. I know I can make access rules that apply to these specific machines by MAC address. I know I can probably block ports, or maybe forward ports. But I’m not sure if this will be sufficient to really lock them down. My kids are pretty smart and I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to find them working around my security, mining bitcoin on a Tor exit node in Estonia, or influencing the next election, or some such, if I can’t get it tight enough. I may have to ask for help, since this just really isn’t my area of expertise.

We made it to Mass, only about fifteen minutes late (hey, for us, that’s a victory). Then we had to decide how to get through the remainder of our evening. I was really tired. We didn’t have a dinner plan. We decided to go look for somewhere to eat that wasn’t Maiz Mexican Cantina, and not to try to record and produce the podcast last night. We tried a Middle Eastern place that Grace had heard good things about, but it was about 7:30, and they had just closed their dining room. So we wound up at Palm Palace. I have not been there in many years. The food was very good, although I had to grit my teeth a bit because it is quite expensive. I had hummus with lamb, salad, and roasted vegetables. It’s one of my favorite Middle Eastern dishes. All the food was quite good.

They supplied us with a big dish of Toum. It’s basically garlic mayonnaise without eggs, and involves a lot of raw garlic, oil, lemon juice, and not much else (maybe some salt). It’s one of my favorite things, period. Raw garlic also seems to really help my lungs feel better, for reasons I’m not entirely clear on. Although I suspect the people I wind up breathing on may not appreciate it as much as I do.

When we got home, I sadly posted a note that we wouldn’t be getting a podcast out. For a bedtime story, I read The Hobbit chapter 18, “The Return Journey.” In this chapter, Bilbo says goodbye to Thorin, who has been mortally wounded in the Battle of Five Armies. He also learns that Fili and Kili have been killed. So the Peter Jackson movie is true to the book on at least those facts, although just about everything else it shows in the battle sequence is invented. These deaths are much more moving in the movie and in the 1977 animated movie. In the book, because Thorin and the other dwarves have gotten so little character development, we don’t get especially attached to them.

In the book, Gandalf’s arm is in a sling after the battle, as he’s been injured. I don’t think this happens in the movie, although I may have forgotten it. Also, Thorin is buried with the Arkenstone, which is a nice touch, given that he never got to hold it in life.

Monday

Elanor actually slept much better Sunday night, so I got a reasonable night’s sleep! Although it was a little truncated, since we got to bed pretty late.

I have news, which I’m going to recount more fully in the podcast. When we got back from our walk on Saturday, I had mail from Alpha-1 Foundation. I sent them a card with a blood sample, as part of my participation in a study. The letter contained my test results. I’ve learned that my alpha-1 genotype is PiMZ, which means I have a mutation that makes me mildly deficient in alpha-1 antitrypsin. This makes me a “carrier,” instead of someone with the more severe PiZZ genotype, which can produce severe disease. That term, “carrier,” is a bit misleading, though, because a mild deficiency is still associated with some increased risk of various lung and liver problems.

I am relieved in several ways: first, because it isn’t a “worst-case scenario.” Second, because it fits very well as an explanation of why I’ve had a cough and related symptoms for months. And finally, I’m relieved because it suggests what I should do next, as far as treatment. If this test had come back telling me I had a normal genome, I’d have been relieved but also frustrated, as it would not help explain any of this, or suggest another course of action, other than trying to go back to my regular doctor and complain that I’m still sick.

My kids will need testing. Given the genetics of this condition, I don’t think any of them could have the severe deficiency, but there is a chance some of them could have my version.

We put some thought into deciding whether or not to go public with this information, as it is health information. But I think I have a duty to try to help get the word out. Maybe my reports can help inform some other folks.

Tuesday

I made chili last night, although it wasn’t quite “real” chili. We used up a sort of ratatouille that we had in the fridge along with ground turkey and garbanzo beans. The result was a mild meat and vegetable stew with tomatoes and beans. It tasted pretty good so no one complained that it wasn’t “real” chili, and we used up some leftovers.

I tried to fix my squid configuration, as mentioned in yesterday’s entry. I wasn’t able to put much time in it, but I confirmed that there was nothing wrong with my subnet mask. Switching from specifying 192.168.1.0/255.255.255.0 to 192.168.1.0/24 made no difference at all. The test machine with IP address 192.168_1.143 was blocked, and I don’t understand why.

I thought my whitelist rule was working, but it turns out that even with no filtering by IP address, the whitelist rule fails to allow any clients. Is my syntax for referring to the whitelist file incorrect?

I tried turning on full error-logging, but it produces a river of output. The output contains lines that say that the clients are failing the acl tests, but they don’t say why.

I suspect there may be a configuration option in the squid.conf distribution for Debian that the examples don’t take into account. Perhaps it was added in a recent revision. I don’t know. All the online examples claim this is easy to do, and show changing just a handful of lines in the squid.conf file.

I’m poking around looking to see if there is a simpler alternative to squid for this kind of whitelisting. If I have time, I’ll look at it again tonight. I want to try applying the following advice from this site:

If ACLs are giving you problems and you don’t know why they aren’t working, you can use this tip to debug them.

In squid.conf enable debugging for section 33 at level 2. For example:

debug_options ALL,1 33,2

Then restart or reconfigure squid.

From now on, your cache.log should contain a line for every request that explains if it was allowed, or denied, and which ACL was the last one that it matched.

If this does not give you sufficient information to nail down the problem you can also enable detailed debug information on ACL processing

debug_options ALL,1 33,2 28,9

Then restart or reconfigure squid as above.

From now on, your cache.log should contain detailed traces of all access list processing. Be warned that this can be quite some lines per request.

If I can’t make any headway, I’m going to assume there has been some change to the default squid.conf, or there is some other configuration issue with squid on Debian that I’m not aware of. Maybe I’ll see if I can get better results with a simpler proxy server. Maybe I’ll try tinyproxy for Debian stretch. Tinyproxy lives here. If I can’t get that proxy server working either, the problem may have something to do with the OpenWRT router.

Wednesday

I got the squid proxy server working.

I was specifying an ACL like so:

acl WHITELIST dstdomain parameters("/etc/squid/whitelist.txt")
http_access allow WHITELIST

Where the text file contains the domains I want to allow. This doesn’t give any errors when squid parses its configuration, but it fails; the domains specified in my text file aren’t allowed. If I write it like this instead:

acl WHITELIST dstdomain "/etc/squid/whitelist.txt"
http_access allow WHITELIST

It works fine.

I came across the “parameters” syntax in the squid release notes. It’s mentioned in this document.

My squid version seems to be 3.5.23. I have no idea why this syntax doesn’t work and even less idea why it doesn’t work by silently failing to match whitelist entries. It smells like a bug to me. But the other syntax seems to work fine. Maybe I’ll see if there’s a good way to ask the developers about it.

After dinner I went downstairs and finished up this week’s podcast, which was about 48 hours late. We had a little time before bed so I watched an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation with the kids. By that I mean that I watched the episode, and the kids hung out with me in the family room either reading or clustered around a laptop messing with Scratch, since I enabled access to Scratch.

I’ve been asking for a list of what to put in the whitelist, but so far they haven’t given me that list yet.

Breakfast this morning was bulletproof coffee, three fried eggs, a container of guacamole, and some corned beef. Lunch is leftover fake chili and brown rice. My breathing and coughing have not been bad today although I’ve still got a bit of this “hollow” cough and some white froth to cough up, and my chest just doesn’t feel normal. My lungs were not crackling noticeably when I woke up, which was nice. The baby has been a bit more settled for the last couple of nights, so I had better sleep. Better sleep, but still not quite enough of it.

I signed up for the “squid-users” mailing list because that’s where I am supposed to discuss possible bugs. I sent a message asking about the “parameters” issue. My experience asking for help in open-source projects has, generally, not been very positive, but hope springs eternal.

Update: I got a politely worded note back, effectively confirming that yes, the squid configuration parser is broken.

This has been my experience with a number of open-source problems: download a package, try following the instructions, find that things are clearly and obviously broken. Very often the parsers are a mess, and no one wants to touch them, because they mostly work, and changing anything would be very likely to break existing deloyments.

And after a look at the source, I realize that fixing it would be an enormous job; there’s really no “ride in on a white horse” thing I could do to quickly make myself useful. And as much as I’d like to take on another project, then I have to ask myself what I’d be willing to drop to free up the time to work on something like this, in addition to my paid work. And so it kind of peters out there.

Thursday

Busy day. Leftovers for dinner! We thus were able to clean out a lot of space in our refrigerator. Grace and I are trying to get ahead of the podcast curve a bit and plan topics, and also plan meals for the weekend. We’re having a friend over for dinner on Saturday and planning to make Indian food, so Saturday will be, in part, a cooking party.

We finished The Hobbit. Finally. Veronica would not join us for the last chapter.

Am I crazy, or in Tolkien’s black-and-white illustration called “The Hall at Bag-End, Residence of B. Baggins Esquire,” did he give Bilbo his own face?

Friday

Egg salad sandwich (from the Coffee House Creamery) and cold brew for breakfast.

Grace arranged an appointment for me with a new doctor. They want paperwork by fax. I need to call them and see if there is some way I can e-mail it instead. If not I will have to go to an office store to send a fax.

Saturday

Saturday was a big, exhausting day, but pretty rewarding, too. Bulletproof tea for breakfast. Then I took Sam with me and went to Bombay Grocers on Packard to pick up some more spices for making garam masala. I started brown-frying 7 cups of onions (about 40 minutes), chopping ginger and garlic, and then getting spices ready for garam masala. That involved picking apart about 90 green and black cardamom pods to get the seeds out. Very tedious, but they smell wonderful. Grace started roasting some oxtails at 275 in the oven, then ran out to return some meat to Kroger that didn’t look very good. It unfortunately took her two and a half hours to run a couple of errands and I was only expecting her to be out an hour, or 90 minutes at the longest. I was stressing because I needed her help to get three Indian dishes made, especially to make sure that the curry had enough time to simmer and rest for its best possible flavor.

We made 3 dishes, all from Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking: a meat curry, a cabbage dish, and eggs in spicy sauce. We used bison steaks for the meat, but bison is pretty lean, so we roasted some oxtails for a few hours to get the fat and flavor out, simmered the curry with the oxtails in it, then scraped the remaining meat off them and took the bones out before finishing up the dish.

Ideally after browning the meat (you want a good sear!) and bringing everything together to a boil, it would simmer for a couple of hours without the potatoes, then cook for about 30 more minutes with the potatoes, then rest for about two hours with the heat off, then you’d bring it back up to a simmer and toss in the coriander leaves and serve. We had to cut that down since we didn’t get it all assembled until about 3:30. So it simmered for about 90 minutes, then cooked with the potatoes for a half hour, then rested for about another hour. It might have been a bit better if it had sat for the whole recommended cooking time, but it was pretty fantastic. Meanwhile Grace cooked the cabbage in a wok, which is not exactly Indian but it worked very well, and made the spicy eggs using eggs we cooked for one minute in our Instant Pot (not counting steam-up and cool-down time). Everything came out great.

I fried a couple of big platters of papadums, and we served it all with some sauces (pre-made date sauce and mint chutney). We also opened up the last few bottles of wine we had remaining from Thanksgiving and Christmas: 2016 Greywacke Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand, 2015 Arcturos Late Harvest Reisling from Black Star Farms, and Chateau Fontaine Cherry Wine. With spicy Indian food you want something sweet, so we started sampling the Sauvignon Blanc while we finished up the cooking, then had the sweet Michigan wines with the meal. Our friend Scott brought apple and cherry pies and ice cream, which finished up the feast very nicely.

There’s quite a bit of leftover meat curry so I will have some very nice lunches this week. The curry actually gets better after it sits for a while. I don’t have a really good explanation for why that is. I suspect the meat fibers continue to break down so the meat gets even more tender, and maybe some of the fat-soluble flavors from the spices gradually dissolve further into the gravy. Maybe oxidation is actually a factor. I don’t really know, but I’m looking forward to some great leftovers.

It seems odd but I’m convinced that eating a large amount of onions or garlic, especially something like Grace’s green onion pesto, helps with the irritation and infection in my lungs. It hasn’t cured it, but it definitely helps. So I’m still seeing a doctor in a few days but meanwhile, I’ll be eating my green onions. I am noticeably tired. The big meal yesterday was a lot of work, and so it would be normal for me to be fatigued by the end of the day, but I was more tired than normal, which I attribute to the ongoing breathing problems. So I’m really looking forward to getting some help with this.

A couple remaining notes from the week: Grace ordered a copy of Galaxy Quest on DVD, so we should be watching that in a day or two. It’s Sunday and I’m working on notes for the podcast. With luck we should be able to get the show finished today and not have the problem we had last week, where we had to record the show on Monday night and I had to stay up late and edit it on Tuesday night.

Sam is done with it, so I started reading a book Scott loaned me, The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Bandy X. Lee et al. I’m still thinking over how I feel about a bunch of psychiatrists essentially diagnosing a public figure without actually offering a literal diagnosis. I think we may wind up talking about that on the podcast. However, I was interested in the first chapter, which argues that Trump has an extreme case of “present hedonism,” when his behavior is considered using time perspective theory. Time perspective theory is something new to me, which is not surprising given that all the writing on the subject seems to date from long after I last took psychology classes.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • Classic Indian Cooking by Julie Sahni
  • The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump: 27 Psychiatrists and Mental Health Experts Assess a President by Bandy X. Lee et al.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, March 24th, 2018

Saturday, March 17, 2018

The Week Ending Saturday, March 17th, 2018

Sunday

(This space unintentionally left blank).

Monday

Well, I didn’t get anything actually written on Sunday. It’s a bit of a blur, sir, although I don’t think I punched the bursar. Breakfast was bacon, toast, and pancakes. I took Veronica and Sam to a Socialism 101 program hosted by the Huron Valley DSA. Then it was some rushed podcast prep; Grace studied a couple of articles and I wrote a rough detailed review of A Wrinkle in Time. We made it to Mass, only fifteen minutes late or so (that’s a victory for us, honestly), and then came back to a Sunday dinner of roasted chicken with a sweet pepper sauce, green beans, and rice. After dinner I sedated the kids with Doctor Who DVDs: “A Christmas Carol” (the Matt Smith Christmas special from 2010) and Series 7, Part 1.

I went down into the basement and started messing around with a Rode NT5 microphone from my matched pair, setting it up to see if I could figure out a good way to add a live guitar track to the podcast. I didn’t get very far with that, but I have an idea of how to do it. I might be able to use the Tascam US-2000 live mixer functionality and send input 3 to the monitor outs, and run the monitor outs into the FA-66. Audio quality may be questionable, since I run this into the unbalanced RCA inputs of the FA-66. Right now I’m just trying it out with one of the microphones. I might try both microphones in a stereo pattern if this works OK, and see if I think it sounds more natural.

I don’t think there’s a single setup that will let me do Skype/Google Hangouts and live guitar simultaneously, but I will have to think about it further. Using a second computer would make this considerably simpler.

I might also consider running all the live inputs into the Tascam and using the FA-66 as the “secondary” interface for remote guests. That could work well if it turns out the Tascam’s microphone preamps and analog to digital conversion sound better than the ones on the FA-66. I don’t know if that’s true. It would also allow me to avoid using the unbalanced RCA inputs on the FA-66. It could ultimately simplify my setup, but it would require a completely reconfigured Logic project, so it will take some time and thought. It would be nice to use the zero-latency mixing in the Tascam for a control room mix, rather than creating the control room mix in Logic. But that might not work because I’m not sure I would get the separate “mix minus remote” mix to send to the input of the FA-66 for routing to the Skype call or Google Hangout.

It’s all something I could probably work out with a few hours free to reconfigure and test it, but I rarely get time to do that. This past weekend was particularly difficult and busy. Between losing an hour, working most of the day on Saturday, and taking the kids to a movie and Mass, and the work on the podcast, there just wasn’t a lot of free time.

Our podcast recording session was a bit of a marathon—another two-and-a-half-hour show. I was working on the show until about 1:30 a.m., and got to sleep about 2:00 a.m. My alarm was set for 7:00. The time change is always unsettling to my system. I feel pretty tired and spaced-out, and slightly queasy, today. But I feel like we did a pretty good show. It’s definitely not of interest to most people, but I feel like we are slowly growing an audience. I hope that’s not just self-delusion.

At work today our production staff assembled the last prototype unit. I was dismayed to discover on testing that this box was triggering more odd failures in the demo code, failures that didn’t show up on the box I tested with on Saturday (because it has a slightly different set of parts missing). I found and fixed a long-standing firmware bug, then a couple more issues with the LCD screen firmware. That box will go out today to serve as a demo. I also spent a little time wrestling with a giant Dell server. I am hoping for a low-key evening and early bedtime to help unscramble my sense of what time it is. It is often the case that after a bad night’s sleep, I feel worse on the second day after. We’ll see.

If I get a little down time and a burst of energy I’ll try to turn my notes on A Wrinkle in Time, written for the podcast, into a full review.

Tuesday

I had a headache and was feeling a little nauseated when I got home last night, and so we did mostly have a low-key night. There were some messes, though. I found that Benjamin had torn some keys off one of the kids’ loaner laptops. Another one wouldn’t boot, and instead just dropped into GRUB. I didn’t even know that GRUB was installed on those laptops. This probably indicates that the Windows boot partition has been trashed, although I don’t know how; either that, or the hard drive is failing.

I hear that the kids insisted on reinstalling Roblox. I spent most of a weekend a while back cleaning up those laptops and so I’m kind of dismayed that they keep installing garbage. I have configured our router to block a few of the sites that we don’t want them to access, but it will not allow me to configure access via whitelist rather than blacklist, so this is a losing proposition. I could set up a proxy server, but honestly the last thing I want to do in my evenings and weekends is more network administration. So we’re just not sure what to do. We want the kids to have access to some online educational resources, but they won’t police themselves and we don’t want to have to become internet cops, and can’t put a lot of time and money into it. So for now they get broken computers.

We ate a shepherd’s pie from Costco, and watched a couple more Doctor Who fan edits. The first was Revenge of the Cybermen, a Tom Baker serial from 1975. This one features the cybermats. Cybermats are small fish-like creatures, either robotic, organic, or some combination, that have been used in a few stories. Their exact shape and behavior has been reimagined a number of times. In this serial, they seem to be mostly robotic. They can be controlled by remote-control devices. The leap onto people (which looks pretty laughable) and deliver a bite which immediately infects them with a visibly glowing venom.

The fan edit certainly makes this one more bearable, but it is pretty confusing. Voga is a small planet that contains a lot of gold. Apparently the Cybermen are vulnerable to gold, for some reason, and so they want to destroy Voga, so no one can weaponize its gold against them. There’s a race of people on Voga with giant plastic heads. Overall, the action is pretty incoherent, but there are some funny lines and some entertainingly cheap visual effects. According to Wikipedia the serial was partly shot in Wookey Hole Caves, which makes it a little more visually interesting than one of the usual rock quarries. Sarah Jane pilots a little motorboat briefly in one scene.

There’s another companion character, Harry, played by Ian Marter. Marter wasn’t a companion for very long, appearing in only eight serials, but he went on to write novelizations of a number of Doctor Who serials. And, as Ian Don, four volumes of Disney’s Gummi Bears children’s books, adaptations of a TV show I never knew existed. Apparently that show ran for six seasons. Marter, though, sadly died of a heart attack at age 42.

In this serial, the Cybermen have little stun guns on the tops of their helmets, and I kept thinking that it must have been painful to wear those costumes all day while little pyrotechnic charges were firing off from your helmet. That seems like a recipe for a migraine and ringing in the ears for sure. But maybe due to my own headache, I just had headaches on the brain. I kept asking the kids to quiet down.

We had a little more time so I decided to watch another fan edit, Silver Nemesis, a Sylvester McCoy serial from 1988. Wow. This one seems to have a fairly high budget, at least for explosions, but the story is extremely hard to follow. The fan edit is only about 30 minutes long, but since it’s so hard to follow, I can’t really recommend it. This is the last old Doctor Who serial to feature the Cybermen until they showed up in the rebooted show in Rise of the Cybermen, a David Tenant Tenth Doctor story from 2006.

We have watched almost all the old Cybermen stories. I think the only ones I’ve never seen are The Five Doctors and The Wheel in Space. I’m going to listen to the audio fan edit of The Wheel in Space today. I’ve seen The Tomb of the Cybermen before, but not in fan edit form. I don’t think I can get the kids interested in listening to audio-only shows, but we’ll probably watch the fan edits of The Tomb of the Cybermen, Earthshock, and The Five Doctors. Maybe later we’ll work our way through all the old Dalek stories.

I managed to get a reasonably good night’s sleep and felt considerably better this morning. I had coffee, toast, fried eggs, and avocado for breakfast at home. My cough is mostly better, but still frustrates me a little. I want to be completely better. I’m not coughing up green goo morning and night. In fact I haven’t seen any evidence of infection for a week or two. But I still wake up with my chest crackling when I inhale. Heathline says:

Crackles occur if the small air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid and there’s any air movement in the sacs, such as when you’re breathing. The air sacs fill with fluid when a person has pneumonia or heart failure.

Well, my chest x-ray was clean, and I don’t have any other symptoms of heart failure. And the crackling sound goes away after I’ve been up and moving around for a little while. I can’t afford a gym membership right now, but I’m wondering if a treadmill routine would help.

I’ve been trying to stay off my albuterol for a few days to see if I notice a difference, and I do. It’s not dramatic, but it is a bit harder to fully exhale. Am I going to need albuterol indefinitely? And why did I never need it before now? I’m going to have to talk to another doctor. I want to find some kind of a treatment or daily regimen that will allow me to get back to being symptom-free, if possible.

We had light “bursts” of snow this morning. My commute was very slow. On I-94 there was a long traffic backup because a sedan apparently slid right off a straight and otherwise unremarkable stretch of road and flipped on its side. So while we drivers crept by, we were looking at the bottom of that poor schmuck’s car, thinking “wow, I’m glad that wasn’t me.”

Wednesday

I’m writing this on Friday. I wound up spending all my scarce bits of writing time for Wednesday and Thursday working on what has turned into a monstrously long review of the movie, A Wrinkle in Time. It was very prominent in my thoughts this week. I wound up working quite late. When I left, Grace asked me to pick up some pies so we could have pie for dessert, to celebrate pi day (3/14).

I think we ate leftover pork medallions with rice with salad for dinner. I wanted to watch an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, called “Masks.” I’m pretty certain I’ve never seen this episode, and the description makes it sound so awful that it promised to be deeply entertaining in that “oh my God, this makes no sense, we’re watching a train wreck!” way. But as soon as they were done eating, the kids put on another episode of Doctor Who, a Matt Smith episode from the second half of series seven. So there wasn’t time. I still haven’t seen “Masks.” Maybe this weekend.

It wasn’t a good night’s sleep; Elanor was very cranky and active for some reason, and kept waking up, bellowing.

Thursday

Aside from waking up with crackling lungs, and having to sit in backed-up traffic, Thursday was a pretty good day. Having worked late a couple of nights this week, I decided to leave work early. I went to Nicola’s Books to pick up a book that I had special-ordered for Joshua, and ordered one for Veronica. I drove through town to get home, which always takes forever, but still got home just before 5:00, which never happens.

I took grace to see a 7:05 showing of A Wrinkle in Time, so that I could see it again, and so that she could see it, and so that we could talk about it. At this point I had just finished draft 4 of my long review, and decided to hold off posting it.

In my second viewing, I had a much different reaction to the movie.

Knowing what was going to happen, I was much better able to appreciate the movie as a piece of storytelling distinct from the book, rather than a badly botched adaptation of the book. It became clear to me that apparently I was very, very attached to the book. If you had asked me, before I saw the movie for the first time, if I was open to seeing an adaptation that did not stick close to the book, I would have said “of course I am.” The book was something I loved in childhood, a “book that wrote me,” but I felt that I could be objective.

Apparently I couldn’t be. And so in retrospect, most of my review was me working out my dismay and, yes, anger at what DuVernay and her writers had done to the book. To that end, I came up with a lot of very elaborate justification. By draft three, they amounted to over 9,000 words (fourteen pages printed).

The only way out is through, so I’m going to write draft four, in which I talk about seeing it twice, and including the text of my first review, and then adding in a second review, after seeing it a second time, and having a chance to let me feelings about it settle.

It’s still a flawed movie, but after a second viewing I can see it as a mostly-successful “small story,” rather than a mostly-failed “big story.” I still think that, basically, DuVernay and her writing team didn’t understand or appreciate the complexities of the book. Nor did they care to appeal to fans of the book. Instead, they pulled out a much-simplified story and told that.

That simplified story is not a bad story, and it works pretty well, emotionally, although I still wouldn’t consider it completely successful.

I’ll comment on this at more length (as if I could stop myself from doing so even if I tried) in my finished review.

After dinner we brought home food from King Shing, further up Carpenter road. We had their wonderful ribs again, along with sesame balls, orange chicken, sesame beef, and dumplings. No complaints. I think we’ve figured out our favorite things from their menu. We’ll probably try some additional dishes, but I can’t imagine going there and not getting a large order of ribs.

Last night I read the kids chapter 16 of The Hobbit, the chapter called “A Thief in the Night.” Things are moving again after some fairly slow chapters. Bilbo sneaks out to the encampment of the elven-king and Bard, and gives them the Arkenstone so that they have a bargaining chip to use with Thorin. It’s one of the most important and fascinating parts of the story. Bilbo is watching the dwarves deteriorate into madness and greed and dragon-sickness, especially Thorin. He has to do something to try to prevent a seige and a war, even if it means giving up his share of the treasure.

It occurs to me that this is what it meant to be middle-class. Bilbo doesn’t need his reward to survive, so he’s free to make moral choices without putting his future ability to put bread on his table at risk. In this sense, he’s “disinterested” in the dragon-hoard (not “uninterested.”) In our historic wars, we have people like Nicholas Winton who organized homes for 669 children as part of the Czech Kindertransport. He was not a government official. He was able to do this kind of work because he had the time and money available to take on such a project without risking his personal safety.

Since the war, it seems to me, almost the entire preoccupation of the American economic elites has been to destroy the middle class’s ability to perform left-wing, dissident activity such as this, by destroying their economic security and making them beholden to employers for their daily bread and for their health care.

Bilbo doesn’t prevent a war, but he’s done what he can. And he finally meets Gandalf again, although only briefly.

Friday

Again, I didn’t get anything written for the weekly post yesterday. After work, I went to Costco for a huge grocery run. We were out of a lot of things. Grace was at a meeting, so we had dinner without her. We ate salmon and salad; the kids had rice, but I have been trying to cut down on carbs.

Later, we watched the fan edit of Terror of the Autons, a Doctor Who serial from 1971 featuring John Pertwee as the Third Doctor. The fan edit makes this serial fairly entertaining. It’s dumb in parts, but fun. The early color actually looks quite good in restored form. The original color videotapes were junked, and so some of these early Third Doctor episodes required elaborate restoration:

Although the BBC wiped the serial’s original 625-line videotapes for reuse, they kept 16mm b/w telerecording film prints. In 1993, these prints were combined with the colour signal from an off-air 525-line NTSC domestic videotape recording, resulting in relatively high-quality colour masters for a VHS release.

The story has some strange elemements. At one point, The Doctor is visited by another time lord, in a suit and bowler hat, who materializes to talk to him without, apparently, arriving by TARDIS. I don’t know if this time lord is ever used in the show again. Roger Delgado as The Master is particularly fun to watch in this serial. I’ve watched this one before in its uncut form, and the fan edit, which I believe includes some added music, is much more fun to watch.

Grace and I didn’t get a very good night’s sleep Friday night; Elanor was all stuffed up, so she kept waking up to complain (which she does by bellowing at the top of her lungs).

Saturday

It’s Saturday night and I finally, finally, finally finished my long review of A Wrinkle in Time.

Breakfast was an open-faced omelette topped with leftover salmon, and toasted English Muffins. We got out of the house for a great walk at Rolling Hills Park. It was sunny and almost 50 degrees today, so I desperately wanted to get out. I tired myself out carrying Elanor on my back for a few miles, but it feels good. It’s supposed to be good weather tomorrow, too, so maybe we can get out again.

For dinner the kids had frozen pizzas and Grace and I had stir-fried cabbage topped with sliced corned beef. It’s sort of an Irish-Asian fusion dish, I suppose.

We’re not very well-prepared for the podcast. I guess we’ll have to figure something out tomorrow. Maybe we’ll succeed in making a shorter show tomorrow.

I think tonight I’m reading the kids another chapter of The Hobbit. We’re almost done!

Winter will soon be over!

I think I forgot to describe the audio fan edit of The Wheel in Space, from 1968. I listened to it earlier in the week. The fan editor did a nice job, adding music and tightening up the show. It’s largely a pretty basic Doctor Who story involving the Cybermen. There are some interesting little science-fictional ideas about mind control, but overall it seems to be mostly notable for introducing Zoe, one of my favorite companions. I’d like to see this one in video form. It would be terrific if video was found. But barring that, I think this one is a good candidate for an animated reconstruction.

Books, Music, Movies, and TV Mentioned This Week

  • The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
  • A Wrinkle in Time (2018 movie)
  • Revenge of the Cybermen (1975 Doctor Who serial)
  • Terror of the Autons (1971 Doctor Who serial)
  • The Wheel in Space (1968 Doctor Who serial, in audio form)

Ypsilanti, Michigan
The Week Ending Saturday, March 17th, 2018

A Wrinkle in Time (Watched It, March 17, 2018)

Last night, I had just finished revising the third draft of my review of A Wrinkle in Time. It ran to a bit over 9,000 words—14 pages when printed out. I decided to hold off on uploading it until I had seen the movie a second time, and could double-check a few things. I took my wife Grace with me. She’s been patiently listening to me rant about the movie. She had read the book in childhood, but didn’t consider it to be one of “the books that wrote her.”

Something interesting happened. Because I knew what was going to happen, I didn’t react so hard to the ways in which the movie diverged from the book. I can’t say I was able to be completely objective about it, or approach it like someone who never read the book. But I feel that I was able to evaluate it a little more fairly on its own merits as a distinct piece of storytelling, rather than a badly botched adaptation.

It’s become clear to me that I was apparently very, very attached to the book—more than I thought I was. If you had asked me, before I saw the movie for the first time, if I was open to seeing an adaptation that did not stick close to the book, I would have said “of course I am.” The book was something I loved in childhood, a “book that wrote me,” but I felt that I could be open to a less-literal adaptation.

Well, apparently I couldn’t be, at least not at first. And so in retrospect, my first review consisted, largely, of me working out my dismay and, yes, anger at what DuVernay and her writers had done to the book. I even titled my first review “More in Anger than in Sorrow.” To justify my gut-level anger, I came up with a lot of very elaborate justifications. After a few days to cool off, and a second viewing, I don’t think I said anything that was entirely wrong, but I think the degree to which I threw myself into making these arguments is unfair to DuVernay.

As they say, the only way out is through, so I’ve now written a second review. It contains many of the ideas I expressed in the first review, but is, I hope, a little more balanced. I have removed a lot of material about the book; you can always read the book yourself. One can’t actually have one’s second thoughts first. But maybe I can at least present my second thoughts first, while still preserving my first thoughts.

Be aware that both reviews contain a lot of spoilers.

You can hear me discuss this movie with Grace on our latest podcast episode. This review is an expanded version of the notes I wrote for that discussion, bringing in some ideas that came up while recording, then trying to hammer it into essay form. I’ll probably bring it up again, and Grace and I will probably discuss it further on the next podcast episode, which we’ll record this weekend. But with the publication of this review, I think I will get the whole thing off my chest, and perhaps won’t feel compelled to keep puzzling over the movie and my reaction.


More In Sorrow Than in Anger: My Second Review of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, Presented First

I’ve now seen Ava DuVernay’s movie A Wrinkle in Time twice, and after the second viewing, I feel that I can be a bit fairer to the work. It’s a flawed movie, and one which takes an unusually large number of liberties with the source material. This will automatically render it a controversial adaptation for fans of the book. I’m one of them.

Christians are outraged at the movie’s surgical excision of any mentions of God or Jesus. The book has been under a constant barrage of criticism from the evangelical Christian community for promoting New Age values, because Madeleine L’Engle’s vision of Christianity was and is a radically ecumenical, even universal, vision.

This adaptation will stand as a proxy for the book in the minds of many people for years to come. It’s a bitter irony of this adaptation that it makes the story into exactly what evangelical critics have claimed the book is, successfully getting it banned from schools on the basis that it is a touchy-feely, wishy-washy, vaguely spiritual story in which children are taught to worship New Age “spirit guides” instead of God. And so this movie will probably help evangelicals gain ground in their decades-long battle to ban the book.

I’m not outraged as a Christian, personally, but outraged on behalf of Christians, and L’Engle, and her family. I believe the removal of God and Jesus from this story is a textbook example of neoliberal intolerance in the guise of tolerance. And paradoxically, a tolerant society demands that we express intolerance for this kind of intolerance. Christianity is erased on the one hand, and Asian culture and religions are appropriated. I’m much less qualified to talk about the latter than the former, but I think the latter is also troubling.

Much has been made of the movie’s bold stand for representation of people of color in film. As an example of such representation, the movie succeeds remarkably well. The cast is diverse and the performances are excellent. But as a feminist document, the movie fails, falling into superficial feminist tropes that are actually reactionary. The numerous revisions that DuVernay and her screenwriting team made to the original work suggest that their overriding ideology is support for neoliberal capitalism.

Even accepting all these changes, the shrunken story contains a beautiful emotional arc, and is at times quite moving. At the same time, it is clear that DuVernay and her writing team did not particularly understand or approve of the book. They excised almost wholesale the entire story of Camazotz as an allegory on conformity.

Perhaps they felt that it just wouldn’t be possible for one movie to be about both one girl’s journey to self-esteem, and also take on suburban conformity. Personally, I don’t believe a movie of this magnitude needed to be about just a single thing. In fact, limiting the movie so much, in my view, weakens, rather than strengthens it.

Still, it’s a movie worth watching, especially for members of the target audience—adolescent girls of color. There’s much to admire and appreciate in DuVernay’s stripped-down story. There’s an even smaller, play-like adaptation inside, half-buried under the visual weight of the Disney blockbuster. It took a second viewing for me to see its shape more clearly.

Representation

It’s been trumpeted in the press that this is the first movie with a nine-digit budget ($100,000,000) to be directed by a woman of color. That’s a significant milestone, but Bill Gates has a saying: “Measuring programming progress by lines of code is like measuring aircraft building progress by weight.” A hundred million dollars is a stack of one-dollar bills 6.79 miles tall. Were all those dollars spent on the right things to tell the story? I don’t think there is a direct correlation between budget and quality of the final product in movie-making. And often, I see an inverse correlation, because the people behind large investments like conservative choices, and conservative choices rarely produce a really great movie.

I think what DuVernay has done with the casting is, largely, pretty great. She’s taken an unabashed, unapologetic stand for representation of people of color in movies. The original book isn’t really about the races of the characters, and so this ought to be uncontroversial. For some, it is. But I think Storm Reid does a great job as Meg Murry. I think her acting in this film is beyond criticism; it’s truly impressive. She was a great casting pick. And Deric McCabe (who is Filipino, although I didn’t really notice that until I read about it) also does a great job as Charles Wallace Murry. Some critics have described being unhappy with him, but I think they are really feeling unconvinced by his character rather than the actor, and to that I will say that his character is supposed to be an awkward, oddball, black-sheep-of-the-family. Gugu Mbatha-Raw also does a great job as Dr. Kate Murry, Meg’s mother, although unfortunately her character has a fairly small role in the finished film.

It’s a bit strange that DuVernay makes Charles Wallace adopted, because in the book Charles Wallace is a genius because he’s the even-more-brilliant progeny of two geniuses. If it makes some adopted child happy to see representation of an adopted character in this movie, that’s great. I think the movie tries to make something of this towards the end of the film, when Charles Wallace is possessed by “the It,” and tells his adoptive father “you’re not my real father,” but it isn’t well-developed.

I’m less pleased with the trio of “misses” or “witches,” played by Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon, and Mindy Kaling. In my original review I pointed out that in the book, L’Engle seemed to reference the triad of female archetypes, “maiden, mother, and crone,” and was unhappy that the movie did not seem to do that, reducing the three “misses” to some sort of airbrushed, ageless middle-age. Watching it again with Grace, she noticed that Witherspoon apparently is supposed to be the maiden, as she arrives wearing white bedsheets, looking like a bride on her wedding day. Kaling is resplendent on Uriel in a variegated gown that emphasizes her hips, creating a mother archetype, and Oprah’s carbon fiber and steel outfits together with gray and white hair and silver lips suggest the gray or white hair of the crone.

I don’t think this entirely works, because Witherspoon doesn’t look particularly young, and Winfrey doesn’t look particularly old. They are heavily made up. This is part of what I mean by describing the movie’s feminist messages as “fake.” No one is allowed to look old. The real Oprah Winfrey is sixty-four years old. In the film she’s not allowed a single wrinkle (except when she wrinkles time, I suppose). Really, it seems like DuVernay is allowing these three different women to express their individuality, but in surprisingly similar ways.

It’s also the case that it’s very hard to see Oprah, in this movie, as anyone other than Oprah. She plays, essentially, a self-help guru, which seems to me an awful lot like her talk-show-host. Her character certainly has almost nothing to do with Mrs. Which in the movie; the only thing they have in common is that the movie Mrs. Which also has some difficulty materializing completely, and so her legs tend to be translucent.

After the movie last night I listened to some other viewers talking in the theater. A woman was talking to her daughter about how she found Oprah unconvincing in this role, even though she knew Oprah could act, because she’s done some excellent acting in other movies. I agreed entirely. Oprah is in this movie because she’s famous; she’s a big draw. She may be in this movie for “representation,” too, although I don’t think she was needed for that. And so her presence in this movie is more distracting than helpful.

The other two “misses” just don’t have enough lines to show much character development, and unfortunately they don’t seem to have any particular chemistry together, as my wife Grace pointed out, as a trio. They don’t really play off of each other; they mostly stand in a semicircle and take turns reading their lines. And Witherspoon in particular seems “off” as Mrs. Which, because she is strangely hostile to Meg. This seems odd given that so much of what the “misses,” and the movie, are doing serves to build up Meg’s confidence.

Zach Galifianakis as the Happy Medium is an odd choice, and I’m not going to hazard a guess as to why he was chosen. He is inoffensive in this role. The Happy Medium was a woman in the book, but there’s no strong reason why she has to be. I was a little puzzled by the comedic bits. The Happy Medium is a partially comic character, but it seems to undercut the sense of reality of the movie when he refers to himself as a “weirdo living in a cave.” I don’t think this helps viewers retain their suspension of disbelief. Still, his character shows a lot of empathy with Meg, and so I can’t really complain about this casting choice.

Next up, I need to talk about one of the movie’s biggest failings: its failure to maintain a convincing sense of place.

What We’re Looking At

When I showed up for my first screening, I was expecting that the “tesseract” effect might look any number of ways. I expected it might look a bit like the famed watery event horizon effect from the Stargate franchise. I thought it might look like a Star Trek transporter effect. I thought it might look like Tony Shalhoub traveling by “gel pod” in Galaxy Quest.

I wasn’t really prepared to see, or rather not see, Meg blundering around in near-complete darkness, smothered by sheer fabric. I’ll say this: DuVernay definitely achieved something different here. If film is the art of painting with light, in these bits DuVernay was instead painting with darkness. It wasn’t until my second viewing that I felt like I could make sense of this. (Who could have guessed that a special effect shot mostly without any light would be hard for the audience to interpret?)

At first I thought it was a reference to the scene in the book where the children materialize on a two-dimensional planet and are squashed flat; the “misses” have to tesser them away immediately, realizing that the children can’t survive in two dimensions. But that isn’t it at all. Then I thought this might be a reference to the scene in the book where Meg tessers through the “dark thing” and is nearly frozen to death. But no, that isn’t it either. (DuVernay really confused the crap out of me here, I must say).

Meg simply has trouble tessering. In the movie, this is apparently she doesn’t love herself enough; she isn’t fully comfortable in her own skin, and doesn’t feel much desire to return to normal existence as herself. I think many of us can identify with that. And so this is why, the first few times she tessers, she doesn’t see anything, she feels smothered in darkness, and winds up lying on the ground stunned by the shock of returning to her own body.

This realization helps make sense of Meg’s final tesser, in which we see her, in slow motion, lit by soft colors, floating through scrims of fabric, face filled with rapture. After defeating “the It,” she’s also defeated her own self-loathing. She’s able to enjoy tessering, and floats across billions of light years like a thistledown on a spring breeze.

In my first review I called out this dramatic inconsistency as a confusing failure. But it actually makes sense. It’s the same theatrical, arty travel effect every time; it’s just that in Meg’s first few tries, we can’t see anything. I can see now what DuVernay was going for here; I’m just not sure it really works very well, at least not without a second viewing. The warping of reality as the tesser starts seems over-done, while the actual travel by tesseract seems under-done.

When we meet Mrs. Who, she’s in a “haunted house,” filled with impossible teetering stacks of books. These stacks look bad. They are quite obviously glued or bolted together to keep the stacks from falling over. Right off the bat I felt that the filmmakers in this scene were announcing that they had no respect for books and would damage and destroy them to make amusing props. It seemed like Mrs. Who was sculpting with the books, not reading them. That seemed an ominous sign for a movie conspicuously based on a beloved book. Let’s hope they were fake books created for the movie.

The planet Uriel, with the color-graded grass and floating flowers, is pretty. Mrs. Whatsit’s flying lettuce leaf is pretty. But the outdoor scenes feel stitched-together, with little convincing sense of place. Especially on the Happy Medium’s planet, it’s painfully clear that the actors are walking across a green screen.

When Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace ride on lettuce-leaf Mrs. Whatsit’s back, they throw themselves up into the air and fly themselves, flying along on their own, a few feet above her. Now, I don’t expect everyone who works on a movie to have a background in physics, but this is ludicrous. Let’s say you find yourself riding on top of a plane, holding on for dear life. You decide to throw yourself up into the air, letting go of the plane. What will happen to you? I think even a child would find this unconvincing.

I find a lot of the sets unconvincing. The scenes inside the Happy Medium’s cave place Meg, Charles Wallace, Calvin, and all the “misses” on crystals, balancing themselves to keep from falling into unknown depths. This is a bit hard to swallow. Do all the people who visit the Happy Medium have to take their lives into their hands? Does he risk death to move around his own home? If this is his drawing room, what does his bathroom look like? Even for a weirdo who lives in a cave, that seems a touch unbelievable. And the crystal cave looks bad. This scene looks like it was filmed inside a dusty diorama you might find in a natural history museum.

There’s little sense of how much time is passing between scenes, and little sense of how much time is passing back on Earth while the characters are elsewhere. No one mentions this, except for the way that Meg’s father is shocked to realize that four years have passed on Earth while he’s been away. But it never seems to occur to the characters to wonder what is happening back on Earth and how long they will be gone. Because of this, there’s little sense of urgency to the story at all. This kills any possible “edge-of-the-seat” feeling completely dead.

Camazotz

When Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace arrive on Camazotz, they materialize in a cornfield, which immediately turns into a forest. Then the forest is immediately assaulted with some sort of giant tornado-like vortex. The changing landscape, and this giant storm, have no basis in the book at all. This giant storm, uprooting and throwing trees in the air, has no explanation in the movie. It exists to provide excitement, apparently, and to give Meg something to show off; she convinces Calvin to trust her and climb inside a tree stump, which is then thrown through the air and lands safely away from the vortex. They emerge completely uninjured.

It’s about as convincing, physics-wise, as the scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in which Indy survives an atomic blast by hiding in a refrigerator. (And this movie’s about physics).

In the book, Camazotz is a planet, populated by humans. The planet Camazotz is ruled by “IT,” the giant brain. Camazotz is under the influence of a vague, faceless evil spreading throughout the universe, called “The Black Thing” or “The Dark Thing.”

The movie muddles these things somewhat. “IT” is called “the It” throughout the movie, which seems like the ultimate unnecessary change. In the book, on Uriel, Mrs. Whatsit, in her angelic shape, shows the children a spreading, cancer-like shadow:

What could there be about a shadow that was so terrible that she knew that there had never been before or ever would be again, anything that would chill her with a fear that was beyond shuddering, beyond crying or screaming, beyond the possibility of comfort? Meg’s hand holding the blossoms slowly dropped and it seemed as though a knife gashed through her lungs. She gasped, but there was no air for her to breathe. Darkness glazed her eyes and mind, but as she started to fall into unconsciousness her head dropped down into the flowers which she was still clutching; and as she inhaled the fragrance of their purity her mind and body revived, and she sat up again.

The shadow was still there, dark and dreadful.

Calvin held her hand strongly in his, but she felt neither strength nor reassurance in his touch. Beside her a tremor went through Charles Wallace, but he sat very still He shouldn’t be seeing this. Meg thought. This is too much for so little a boy, no matter how different and extraordinary a little boy. Calvin turned, rejecting the dark Thing that blotted out the light of the stars. “Make it go away, Mrs. Whatsit,” he whispered. “Make it go away. It’s evil.”

In the movie, Mrs. Who calls this spreading darkness “Camazotz.” This has a lot of repercussions—it means that Camazotz is no longer clearly a planet, and so has no shape, or sense of place. A lot of the vagueness of the story follows from this decision. Before the children tesser to Camazotz, the action takes place on what are recognizably specific planets. After that, things get vague. The transformation from cornfield to forest, and the sudden arrival of the giant, unexplained tornado, suggest that things are illusory, and changing. After the children arrive in the suburban neighborhood, things start to transform in earnest.

The children no longer walk from “place” to “place” while “on” or “in” Camazotz, even though they have just apparently spent quite some time walking through fields and woods. Instead, from this point on, the children mostly stay in one place and Camazotz changes around them. The suburban homes start to fold up, as if they are being put away until they are needed again. But there’s nothing at all in the book to suggest that the cul-de-sac homes of Camazotz are false, or illusory.

There’s no justification for this in the original story at all. In the book, Camazotz is full of people living in a totalitarian state. In the movie, Camazotz is actually populated by only “the It,” Meg’s father, and the man with red eyes, who isn’t fully real, but some sort of puppet. Because the people aren’t real, there’s no solidarity needed or available. There’s no collective fight against “the It.” There’s only one person to save. That certainly simplifies the story, but it entirely removes the inverted-totalitarianism, dystopian aspect of the story. Even on a second viewing, I kept thinking of what a great opportunity DuVernay and the screenwriters had, to link Meg’s struggle for adult identity with the story of enforced conformity under “the It.” It still seems like a huge missed opportunity.

If we’re in a computer simulation, or an entirely magical world that can change at a whim, if anything at all can happen next, then there’s little significance to what happens. The movie starts playing tennis with the net down. The stakes are lowered. Our viewing become passive, because as modern audiences we’re accustomed to wild visual effects, and with no sense that the story is real, we have only dull curiosity over what special effects the filmmakers are going to show us next.

When Meg defeats “the It,” something happens—it’s not clear what happens, or how. But Meg and Charles Wallace are left standing… somewhere, watching streamers of light. The streamers of light might be comets; they might be the neurons of “the It,” burning up. There’s light getting in to what was darkness, and so the “misses” can tesser in, and Meg can tesser out. But she’s standing on a stage; there’s no sense of place at all. This again, to me, simplifies and abstracts the story beyond recognition, and removes the emotional impact from this sequence. We’re suddenly watching, rather self-consciously, a play instead of a movie. If it had been a play all along, we could very well be deeply invested, emotionally, in the story at this point. But the transition is jarring.

In my first review, I rambled on at some length about how the movie deletes some elements while keeping others, and the stray elements they keep no longer make sense. I cited two specific examples: the audible “beat” of Camazotz, which shows up first in the scene where the children are bouncing basketballs, and the reference to “Aunt Beast.” I’m not going to belabor these things further here; read more about it in the first review, below, if you care to. But I’ll just say that this “incomplete deletion” remains puzzling for those who haven’t read the book, and annoying for those who have. Valuable screen time is wasted on story elements that are “orphaned,” and don’t connect up to anything else.

Erasing Calvin

Calvin (the white male character) has his role considerably diminished; he becomes stupider. He doesn’t get very many lines. Almost his entire role in the movie is to stare, goggle-eyed, at Meg, and to tell her how amazing she is, and that he loves her hair. That’s “empowering” for girls, I suppose. His character achieves nothing else.

You might argue that this is exactly how most female characters in typically sexist books and movies work. I agree with that entirely. But is the solution to two-dimensional, sexist characters really to simply “flip the script?”

Calvin’s difficult relationship with his family is profoundly changed. In the book, Calvin’s family is poor. Calvin is the third child of eleven children, who are neglected. Calvin is rapidly growing and his family can’t afford clothes for him, so his pants are often too short for his legs. There’s a bit of back-story in which the school principal actually purchases new shoes for Calvin, but scuffs them up before giving them to him, so he can claim they are a used pair. It would have taken only a minute or two of screen time to set up more back-story for Calvin.

Through the character of Calvin, the book demonstrates class consciousness. In the movie, Calvin has a troubled relationship with his family, but all we learn of it is that his father is domineering and demanding. This effectively deletes just about all class consciousness from the movie; everyone seems comfortably upper middle-class, with the exception of one older black man, who is shown as a victim of bullying and torment.

Destroying Dad

The movie “Disney-fies” Meg’s father; that for her to grow, he has to shrink. This is in keeping with television shows like iCarly and Hannah Montana. I consider this to be a serious problem with Disney’s portrayal of parents in general. Do any Disney films ever feature a competent parent?

Despite her enormous love for her father, early in the movie, near the end of the movie Meg perceives him as a selfish coward. Throughout the film so far, Meg has maintained great pride in her father: in his genius, and in his work. But at the end of the film, and a confusing moment, she seems to require him to apologize for leaving her.

Did her father do something wrong? Was his desire to “shake hands with the universe” a form of selfishness? Aren’t these the very qualities that help make him heroic, an inspiration?

It feels to me like the movie had to make him look selfish and weak, because the movie is so profoundly about Meg, and her needs, that it must literally make everything “all about her.”

Never mind that Meg’s father was trapped on or in Camazotz, held hostage against his will. Did we require the American hostages in Iran to apologize to their families when they were finally returned home? I forget.

After Dad’s abject apology, Meg seems to be willing to allow herself to love him again, but it feels like it’s a profoundly weakened kind of love.

If DuVernay didn’t intend this, then something went badly wrong with this scene. If she did, then it’s a disturbing choice which should have been more carefully thought out. It doesn’t seem to fit with Meg’s father’s character as portrayed either in the book, or in the movie up to this point.

No one ever holds Meg to account for her unreasonable demands here. This is so profoundly Meg’s story that her faults can only be seen as virtues. I don’t think that’s really a good way to help her develop.

Glittering Prize

In my first review, I wrote at length about the “misses” and their makeup and costumes. After my second viewing, I feel a bit less critical of this aspect of the movie. This is because I noticed something I missed the first time. The three witches all have glittering eyeshadow. Mrs. Which (Winfrey) also has glittering lip-gloss. In my first viewing, I found this to be overly silly. I also griped about how, in Meg’s final tesser, she has confetti and glitter blowing into her face. I watched this scene more closely the second time, and realized that there’s a visual pun going on here. The eyes of the “misses” are glittering because they literally have stars in their eyes. When Meg finally lets herself go and is able to tesser freely, the glitter collects against her closed eyelids. So Meg winds up with stars in her eyes, as well.

I still think that near-constant costume changes are a needless distraction, but at least I’ve found a point to the eyeshadow and glitter.

The witches are interesting in the book in part because they don’t seem supernatural, until they are revealed to be beings of enormous power. Making the witches exotically beautiful and elaborately coiffed and dressed from the get-go discards the idea that Meg has to learn to understand that they are not just weirdos, but beings “through whom God extends his Grace.” They are unpreposessing in the book, initially, but the children discover that they are actually angels.

In the movie adaptation, the witches start out as powerful beings. They aren’t angels, because there is no God in the movie. They are New Age figures, spiritual warriors. And not necessarily peaceful, or non-violent warriors. We don’t see them fighting evil with violence, but in the litany of great lights, Jesus is removed, but Nelson Mandela—not a non-violent activist—is added.

This is profoundly disconnected from L’Engle’s Christian vision of the witches as angels. And so, in several ways, the story as presented in the movie now embodies the things that evangelical Christians have long criticized the book for. And so in a way the adaptation actually slanders the book.

There’s even a bizarre moment in which Charles Wallace, flying on lettuce-leaf-Mrs.-Whatsit’s back, runs his hands along giant Oprah’s face, feeling her flawlessly smooth skin. It’s an act of worship. In the book, there’s a moment in which, when Mrs. Whatsit changes into her centaur-like form, Calvin falls to his knees and begins to worship her. She tells him specifically not to do this, and orders him to stand up, because she’s pointing Calvin at God, not to herself. But in the movie, with no God in the picture, there’s no reason in the movie why the kids shouldn’t worship them. And they don’t discourage this form of attention.

With Liberty and Neoliberalism for All!

I want to be clear: I think the changes made in adapting A Wrinkle in Time are changes made as part of a neoliberal agenda: to break down families, and get kids to believe in the culture of individualism, success, and personal empowerment over all traditional solidarity, family and religious values. And the feminist values embodied in the movie are the values of a feminism entirely corrupted and co-opted by neoliberal capitalism.

Everything about the changes made to A Wrinkle in Time, adapting it to film, serve to make it slide neatly into the neoliberal value system. Believe in yourself; invest in yourself. Get a degree in a STEM field. Be empowered. Lean in. God isn’t necessary. We worship the market, and sometimes Oprah (it’s a bit vague, but whatever, as long as “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.”)

We’ve got a black woman directing a hundred-million dollar movie. We’ve got a young woman of color in a leading role. This is wonderful. We’ve got a rainbow of women as the “misses.” It’s exciting. Young black women will see themselves represented on screen in a positive way.

Yes!

And also, no.

I believe, I think, in everything the director Ava DuVernay claims to be trying to achieve, in this movie.

In telling the “small story,” she’s achieved a pretty good movie. It’s got some great emotional beats, and some beautiful scenes, although it is muddled and confusing here and there, and so the sum is often less than the parts.

But what she’s actually done to the book, and to L’Engle’s message and legacy, I really don’t like very much at all. After my second viewing, and a lot of thought, I don’t feel as angry about it, but I still feel very dissatisfied.

DuVernay’s made a movie from the belly of the capitalist beast—Disney. It’s “diverse.” It’s “anti-racist.” It’s also anti-Christian, anti-feminist, anti-male, neoliberal propaganda. It takes almost everything interesting from the beloved book it is based on, and muddles, misunderstands, dilutes, deletes, or destroys it. It’s frustrating to review this movie, because parts of it work on an emotional level. Many people who saw it have found themselves tearing up at the tear-jerking scenes between Meg and her father. I did as well. But the strange failures in storytelling, undercut it at every turn.

If you think I’m exaggerating when I say that perhaps DuVernay didn’t really understand or care all that much about the source material, preferring to co-opt the enormous popularity of the original to tell the story she wanted to tell, consider this interview in Vulture:

“Throughout the film, we tried to take what Madeleine L’Engle intended and push it even further in terms of a contemporary context,” said DuVernay, who cast the young actress Storm Reid as Meg, the biracial daughter of two scientist parents played by Chris Pine and Gugu Mbatha-Raw. DuVernay’s Meg continues to shrink within herself if anyone so much as mentions her curly hair, but her self-image in this fantasy film is subtly informed by the reality of being black and female. “Hair is a big deal for black women,” said DuVernay. “There’s the European standard of beauty that we’re all exposed to and bombarded with that says, My hair needs to look like a Caucasian woman’s hair: straight.”

I’m married to one black woman and the father of another. As the guy who has to pay for their salon visits, and hear them argue and complain about their hair, I’m at least dimly aware of how fraught hair is, to black women. And so I don’t think it’s a misstep to have Calvin appreciate Meg’s hair a couple of times during the movie, and to have Meg gradually able to accept the compliment. But I don’t think it is fair to the source material to make this almost the only function the character of Calvin serves in the movie. I don’t think that actually “pushes even further” what Madeleine L’Engle intended. It flattens Calvin into the second dimension, and as in the book, he can’t survive this sort of treatment.

The same article continues:

DuVernay mentioned a key scene in the film where Meg holds out her hand to Calvin and asks her to trust him, and the young man does, following Meg into the face of danger. “Tell me where you’ve seen that before,” said DuVernay. “If half of the executives and crew members in this town saw that as a boy, maybe they wouldn’t doubt so much that a black woman could lead. It feels slight, but we know what images do and we know the power that they have.”

Again, that motive doesn’t seem wrong to me. But does she need to manufacture the disjointed tornado scene completely, with no justification for it in the original book, and laughable physics, in order to create a place for this scene to happen? (There are lots of points in the story, especially on Camazotz, where a similar sequence could have fit naturally into the story).

Continued the filmmaker, “There’s all these seeds I wanted to plant. I don’t have children; I’ll never have children by choice. But to be able to say something in this film to children of all ages…” DuVernay trailed off, then found her voice. “It was irresistible to me,” she said.

DuVernay used A Wrinkle in Time to tell the story she wanted to tell, not the story L’Engle wrote. The chance to do this was “irresistible.” She had good motives, she had mostly a positive agenda. But in the process she damaged the reputation of the book, distressed fans of the book, damaged the reputation of the book’s author, and told a somewhat confused and muddled, although touching, story.

And in the process she made, and by extension Disney made, one of my absolute favorite books, a book I read again and again as a child and loved, and read again, as an adult, to my children, into a movie that really wasn’t made for me.

She’s pretty clear about this, in this interview in Collider:

This film is for 8 to 12-year-olds. That’s the sweet spot for it. Hopefully, other people will go out and enjoy it, but that’s who I made it for.

I’ve had a bit of a hard time coming to grips with that. Because I really don’t think it had to be that way. The original wasn’t so narrowly targeted. See this article in Smithsonian Magazine:

Wrinkle received the Newbery Award, a prestigious children’s literature award, in 1963. But L’Engle herself said that she didn’t understand the difference between a children’s and an adult novel.

“People underestimate children,” she said during a panel of children’s writers. “They think you have to write differently. You don’t. You just have to tell a story.”

And in this interview for Scholastic, she is asked “if you had to choose between writing for children and writing for adults, which would you pick?” She answers:

I don’t see any difference. I write exactly the same—the best I can. If a book is going to be marketed toward children, the main character is usually a child. But the writing is the same. Some people think that writing for children is easier, but it isn’t. In some ways it’s harder—children are very complex. And you have to be absolutely faithful to them—you can’t cheat.

DuVernay chose to tailor the story to children—to simplify it. She didn’t have trust in her audience that L’Engle did, and it shows. In fact, L’Engle believed that not only should she not “dumb down” her stories for children, she should trust them with her most challenging ideas. In L’Engle’s obituary from 2007, The Guardian reported that:

Increasingly she [L’Engle] found that she preferred children as an audience, saying, “When I’m asked why I write at least half of my books for children, especially since my first books were for adults, I answer, truthfully, that when I have something to say which I think is going to be too difficult for adults, I write a book for children.”

It was this trust and confidence that L’Engle placed in her audience that made the original book so well-loved by children like me. And I think L’Engle’s story of universal love and compassion was big enough to contain the parts of Meg’s story that DuVernay wanted to tell, and more, if not all, of the story that L’Engle wrote. I don’t think they actually needed to be in conflict. L’Engle’s story was inclusive enough, ecumenical enough, and open enough that there was no need for conflict.

Where DuVernay finds conflict, it seems to me that it is because DuVernay’s intolerant, parochial neoliberalism would not stretch to encompass L’Engle’s beautiful, expansive story. Lacking faith in her audience, DuVernay targeted the movie narrowly, and in doing so, she shrank L’Engle’s story. And so she took from it what she wanted to take, leaving most of what I love about the original book behind, and made that big, generous story into something small. This is what it means when we say that an artist doesn’t have faith in her audience. L’Engle had it, and DuVernay doesn’t. L’Engle’s work was ground-breaking, and still is; but apparently the world still isn’t ready, or at least DuVernay and Disney didn’t think the world was ready, for an adaptation as big and awe-inspiring as the book.

I’m a fifty-year-old white male. My generation is not important, as far as audience share goes, any more. The movie may work reasonably well with the target demographic. My daughter Veronica is 13 years old and multi-ethnic. She enjoyed it, and she’s clearly square in the middle of the target demographic. But she said she felt like there were scenes missing, and that important stuff must have been cut out.

There’s evidence that the movie’s creators knew they had a mess on their hands, and so felt the need to prepare the audience. So the movie actually opens with the director introducing herself and showing some “making of” footage with group shots of all the production crew, as if to say—hey, these are some of the wonderful people who worked so very hard for you to make this movie. You wouldn’t want to hurt them, now would you?

I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way. The movie must stand or fall on its own. That form of argument is a logical fallacy, called “special pleading.”

There will probably be a Director’s Cut, there will probably be commentary, and probably at least a few deleted scenes. I’m really quite curious about those, and what they might reveal about how this movie came to be the way it is. If DuVernay ever wants to tell that story, I’d like to listen. If she goes full Hillary, blaming the movie’s poor reviews on everyone except herself, I’m much less interested. So perhaps it’s best not to care too much what she has to say about it, and wait to see what she makes next. I really hope it’s better.

My original review follows, for anyone interested enough to read both and see how my thinking changed after re-watching the movie.


More in Anger Than in Sorrow: My First Review of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time

I finished this review just prior to seeing the movie for the second time. After watching it again, I felt compelled to write a second review. Read the second review first.

It’s a laughable cliché for people like me—a white male member of Generation X—to complain about a modern adaptation of a work that we loved in childhood. I believe one whiny phrase is “they ruined my childhood.”

For the most part I believe that great books are, ultimately, impervious to such “ruining.” A bad movie adaptation may lodge in the minds of its viewers and to some extent displace the original, but the original is still there, waiting to be discovered again by every new generation.

But this blog is called “The Books That Wrote Me,” and in it I’ve written about hundreds of books, albums, movies, and even television shows that I believe shaped my values and world view. And I would be hard-pressed to name a single book that I felt was more formative of my early values, and especially my aspirations and longings, than A Wrinkle in Time. So I’m going to risk sounding like that guy.

The director Ava DuVernay, and writers Jennifer Lee and Jeff Stockwell, have made a concerted effort to destroy the reputation of A Wrinkle in Time. They have slandered Madeleine L’Engle. They have at ever step made egregious decisions to weaken and undermine the messages of the book. They have damaged L’Engle’s legacy.

In the days I’ve been working on this review, I’ve become aware that the estate of Harper Lee is suing the producers of the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird.

The lawsuit was filed after estate representative Tonja B. Carter read the script of the play written by Aaron Sorkin.

The estate says that some characters are altered. This includes protagonist Atticus Finch, the lawyer who defends a black man falsely accused of rape.

I think it is unlikely that this lawsuit will succeed, and I don’t think it should succeed—this would certainly have a chilling effect on adaptation. But I think it very well may true that that the estate has a strong moral case against the producers, because making egregious changes to the characters of the novel could in fact reflect badly on the intentions of the author.

Before seeing A Wrinkle in Time, I don’t think I would have been nearly as willing to imagine that such a lawsuit may, in fact, be reasonable and justified.

Then I saw A Wrinkle in Time.

Most mediocre movies don’t really inspire me to think about them all that much. They quickly fade from my memory. I might write a review, make a few comments, or have a few conversations. But a week or two later, I likely won’t be thinking about the movie anymore. A good example is Thor:Ragnarok. It’s a flawed movie, and I could talk about it more, but there’s not much point, because not all that much thinking went into it. I had fun watching it, and my daughter had fun. That’s all we hoped for.

In the case of A Wrinkle in Time, I find myself unable to simply let it go until I’ve worked out more fully what I think about it. When I left the theater I felt genuinely confused. I was moved by the movie; I found myself welling up in tears in a couple of the more touching scenes. But there were so many problems. The text, it seemed to me, was more disrespected in this adaptation than just about any other I can think of. And the more I rethink it, the more the adaptation seems not just fractally bad: bad at different magnification levels—but pernicious, an act of sabotage or vandalism.

I didn’t feel this way about Peter Jackson’s adaptation of The Hobbit, even though that beloved children’s story was cynically bloated out to a giant turd of a trilogy, stuffed with violence and inventions nowhere to be found in the original. That, it seemed to me, was simply an ordinary money grab. This seems like a piece of—yes, I will say it—propaganda.

It’s going to take me a while to unpack this, so settle in for a long read. Or close your browser tab now and write me off as a crank; I don’t particularly care.

The Book

A Wrinkle in Time is a relatively short book, but deeper and more complex than one might expect given its length.

The main characters can be roughly broken down as “unhappy, nerdy, awkward, and easy to relate to” (Meg), “good-hearted, more of a jock than a nerd, with a troubled family life, but still easy to relate to” (Calvin), and “extremely nerdy, and hard for most people to relate to” (Charles Wallace). I think this was an important feature of the book, as it allowed a variety of different young readers to identify with one or another of the characters.

Meg is indifferent to school:

At school Meg was tired and her eyelids sagged and her mind wandered. In social studies she was asked to name the principal imports and exports of Nicaragua, and though she had looked them up dutifully the evening before, now she could remember none of them. The teacher was sarcastic, the rest of the class laughed, and she flung herself down in her seat in a fury. “Who cares about the imports and exports of Nicaragua, anyhow?” she muttered.

Calvin has “compulsions” that tell him what to do. He’s an unusually empathic kid:

Calvin tried now politely to direct his words toward Meg as well as Charles Wallace, “When I get this feeling, this compulsion, I always do what it tells me. I can’t explain where it comes from or how I get it, and it doesn’t happen very often. But I obey it. And this afternoon I had a feeling that I must come over to the haunted house. That’s all I know, kid. I’m not holding anything back. Maybe it’s because I’m supposed to meet you. You tell me.”

And Charles Wallace is… well, Charles Wallace is nearly unique in literature. In modern parlance, you might call him an “indigo child.”

“Charles Wallace understands more than the rest of us, doesn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“I suppose because he’s—well, because he’s different, Meg.”

“Different how?”

“I’m not quite sure. You know yourself he’s not like anybody else.”

“No, And I wouldn’t want him to be,” Meg said defensively.

“Wanting doesn’t have anything to do with it. Charles Wallace is what he is. Different. New.”

“New?”

“Yes. That’s what your father and I feel.”

The book is not Christian allegory precisely, but it is inspired by L’Engle’s inclusive Christian vision about light fighting against darkness played out across the whole history of the universe. The book mentions Jesus and includes quotations from the bible, but it’s been frequently banned because Christians objected to the inclusive, even universal, ecumenical liberalism of L’Engle’s Christianity:

“…some of our very best fighters have come right from your own planet, and it’s a little planet, dears, out on the edge of a little galaxy. You can be proud that it’s done so well.”

“Who have our fighters been?” Calvin asked.

“Oh, you must know them, dear,” Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who’s spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, “And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.”

“Jesus!” Charles Wallace said. “Why, of course, Jesus!”

“Of course!” Mrs. Whatsit said. “Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They’ve been lights for us to see by.”

“Leonardo da Vinci?” Calvin suggested tentatively. “And Michelangelo?”

“And Shakespeare,” Charles Wallace called out, “and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!”

Now Calvin’s voice rang with confidence. “And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!”

Jesus is at the top of the list, but that’s apparently not enough for some critics who aren’t comfortable with the other “lights” being associated with the light. And it’s stated that this fight extends throughout the universe—which brings up the theological question of whether life on other planets needs, and/or has, its own savior, or whether it shares ours. That’s not a question I want to tackle today, and apparently one that a lot of evangelicals would prefer to avoid as well; hence, the book gets banned.

And as I will discuss below, the Christian elements in this book are apparently also controversial for DuVernay and the movie’s writers, who took startling liberties with the source material.

You can read about a case in which this controversy played out for teacher Cathy Smith here. She was forbidden to teach the book:

Having enthusiastically taught A Wrinkle in Time twice, I was dismayed when the Education Committee and Board of my school removed this novel from the curriculum because of concerns expressed by parents over its alleged New Age content. Hurt and angry, especially because this book had been my preferred choice and had been approved only two years earlier, I tried to fight back. I marshalled my literary and theological defenses. The result was a mere skirmish. After a polite hearing, it was over.

But let’s look at some of the objections that have been raised about the book. Smith writes:

The inclusion of witches in A Wrinkle in Time is another aspect of the novel that arouses suspicion in the eyes of some readers. The witches have been compared to New Age spirit guides. But clearly the witches are images of angels. On the planet Uriel Calvin attempts to bow down and worship Mrs. Whatsit as she transforms her physical appearance. She warns, “Not to me Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”

And:

L’ Engle is highly opposed to Christians being judgmental about how and through whom God extends his grace, something Meg must learn, too. The beasts, whose outer appearance is revolting, are actually good and kind. The witches are really angels. Much as we would like matters to be black and white, they are not always so in this fallen world, as Jesus himself points out when he leads his disciples to see that the widow’s mite is a worthier contribution than the hefty donation of the rich man.

I’m going to come back to these ideas, below.

Instantaneous travel is possible in the book, achieved by taking a shortcut through a higher dimension, using a “tesseract,” or “tessering.” L’Engle did not invent the word “tesseract,” although I think she is probably responsible for verbifying the noun. A tesseract is a geometric, mathematical object: we imagine that we have four spatial dimensions instead of three, and then imagine what a four-dimensional cube might look like. We can’t really see the fourth-dimensional extension of this cube, but we see a “shadow” of the cube in three dimensions, similar to the way a three-dimensional cube has a two-dimensional shadow.

Reading A Wrinkle in Time as a kid got me into studying higher-dimensional mathematical objects and ideas from topology. I can’t say it was the single thing that got me interested in these topics, but it was sure one of them.

The 3 “witches” that appear in the book are eventually revealed to be stars that have sacrificed themselves, deliberately blowing themselves up to fight evil. They are billions of years old, and they have given up their stellar bodies, although they still exist as spiritual beings who can take human form (with greater or lesser degrees of success). This idea, that they were once stars, doesn’t make it into the film, although we do learn that the “witches” are billions of years old.

The TV show Andromeda borrowed some of these ideas for the character Trance Gemini, who is also a star in humanoid form. In Andromeda, her ability to fold time and space is even called a “tesseract.” That series becomes disastrously bad and muddled, so I can’t really recommend it, but just mention it only to give an example of how L’Engle’s ideas have been borrowed by other writers

The planet of Camazotz is an allegory of the post-war suburban build-out, and the culture of conformity in these suburbs. A Wrinkle in Time was written in 1959-1960 and published in 1962, and so the post-war suburbia was still a pretty new development. To get a little sense for the culture, consider how it was portrayed in the first few episodes of Mad Men, but take it back a few years, so realize that L’Engle’s world view and concerns were somewhat different from a 2018 world view in ways that might be a bit difficult to understand.

The Trailer

A few years back I saw the 2003 film adaptation. It was not impressive, although I recall that it had some neat visuals. I was excited to see the trailer in the theater, a few months ago; I had not heard that the movie was in development. There’s a scene where Meg explains the tesseract to Calvin, using an “ant walking along a string” analogy, and the dialogue in that scene is almost straight out of the book. There’s a clip of the children bouncing basketballs in rhythm in the suburban cul-de-sac on Camazotz that looked like it was a very straightforward rendering of the scene in the book. They looked good! I was encouraged to believe this might be a good movie and a reasonably faithful adaptation.

However, my skepticism was triggered, too, for several reasons: first, it’s a Disney production, and so I had to immediately assume that it would be dumbed down, robbed of emotional weight, and otherwise “Disney-fied” into blandness. Disney is not known for quality portrayals of female characters, and they have a tendency to represent parents badly.

Second, the invisible staircase sequence inside a giant ping-pong ball suggested that they were going to set scenes in abstract or simulated places, which doesn’t seem to be in keeping with the tone of the book

Then, there were the three witches. In the trailer, we see Oprah with jewels glued to her forehead, bleached blond hair, and sparkling silver lip gloss. We see Reese Witherspoon with green lips and orange hair wearing… a bunch of leaves, maybe? And Mindy Kaling, also heavily made up. And… Zach Galifianakis, in some kind of yoga pose, wearing eye shadow and a shirt with one sleeve, saying “do I look like I’m kidding?” while Kaling and Witherspoon smirk at each other.

Oh, no.

Then we see the witches in more outfits, which vary, ostentatiously, from scene to scene. And then, the now-infamous giant flying lettuce leaf, which I have to admit, I found intriguing; I liked the idea of a flying plant creature that looked like it had been painted. And in the trailer, there was a version of the song “Sweet Dreams” by Eurythmics—a favorite of old people like me. And there was some kind of cataclysmic tornado, knocking down trees—what? And we saw, briefly, the man with red eyes, which looked cool as hell.

So, I was both curious and a little dismayed, but I thought I’d probably take the kids to see the movie. One of the hardest lessons I’ve had to learn as a parent is that there isn’t really any may to simply imprinting my aesthetics on my children; they enjoy what they enjoy, even things that I don’t enjoy. But I thought, given the source material, they probably would enjoy the movie, even if it wasn’t a great movie. I probably wouldn’t hate it. We could talk about it. And it would probably get them to re-read the book.

It turned out to be, for me, more complicated than that.

My thoughts upon leaving the theater were swirling and murky. There were many things I liked about the movie, and many I didn’t.

Representation

…is important.

Wikipedia tells me that with “a production budget of $100 million, the film became the first live-action film with a nine-digit budget to be directed by a woman of color.” That’s a nice milestone, although I don’t think there is a direct correlation between budget and quality of the final product in movie-making. And often, I see an inverse correlation, because the people behind large investments like conservative choices, and conservative choices rarely produce a really great movie.

Right off the bat, we know that Ava DuVernay has made some unconventional choices with the casting, and is making a stand for representation of people of color in movies. That’s all well and good, and I have no objections to it whatsoever. The original book isn’t really about the races of the characters.

Let me just make this as clear as possible: Storm Reid does a great job as Meg Murry. She was a great casting pick. And Deric McCabe (who is Filipino, although I didn’t really notice that until I read about it) does a great job as Charles Wallace Murry.

It’s a bit strange to make Charles Wallace adopted, because in the book Charles Wallace is a genius because he’s the even-more-brilliant progeny of two geniuses, but it’s not a big element in the movie, and if it makes some adopted child happy to see representation of an adopted character in this movie, that’s great.

Actors Versus Characters

A number of reviewers have complained about McCabe as Charles Wallace. For example, in this podcast from Slate, the reviewers are unkind to McCabe.

I’m here to defend the actor. To clarify: that doesn’t mean I think his character is always fun to watch, but I want to make sure we distinguish here between actor and character. I think we need to stand up for child actors, including Levi Miller as Calvin O’Keefe, and say that if we want to call ourselves the adults, we owe them our support; a lot of child actors have indecently short lives, their fame only resulting in misery.

With child actors especially, they need careful direction and good lines. I think most of what people are reacting to is the character of Charles Wallace as written for him, not the skill of McCabe, and I agree with them to some extent. Charles Wallace even in the book is a difficult character to believe in; child prodigies are always seen that way. And the lines they give him, especially early on in the story, really don’t help. Think of how reviled Jake Lloyd is for his portrayal of Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones. But recall that Jake Lloyd did not write the line “I hate sand. Its course, and rough, and irritating. And it gets everywhere.” And Jake Lloyd did not direct Jake LLoyd to be whiny and insufferable throughout that movie.

What we’re meant to learn in the early scenes with Charles Wallace is, I think, that Charles Wallace is confounding to the adults around him. He is smarter than all of them—they aren’t actually able to contradict him on this—but you’re not supposed to say that. He has no tact, because he has no experience with social niceties. But he is a staunch defender of his sister, even if his “stanch defense” in front of teachers and other students is a cringe-worthy moment for Meg.

What We’re Looking At

The movie looks cheap and very visually inconsistent. It looks like it cost ten million dollars to make, not ten times that much. It looks like it was shot as a personal project over the course of a number of years with a changing set of art directors and visual artists. Scenes like the Happy Medium’s crystal cave looks bad. This scene looks like it was filmed inside a dusty diorama you might find in a natural history museum. The outdoor scenes feel stitched-together, with little convincing sense of place.

When we meet Mrs. Who, she’s in a “haunted house,” filled with impossible teetering stacks of books. These stacks look bad. They are quite obviously glued or bolted together to keep the stacks from falling over. Right off the bat I felt that the filmmakers in this scene were announcing that they had no respect for books and would damage and destroy them to make amusing props. It seemed like Mrs. Who was sculpting with the books, not reading them. That seemed an ominous sign for a movie conspicuously based on a beloved book. Let’s hope they were fake books created for the movie.

When Meg, Calvin, and Charles Wallace arrive on Camazotz, they materialize in a cornfield, which immediately turns into a forest. Then the forest is immediately assaulted with some sort of giant tornado-like vortex. The changing landscape, and this giant storm, has no basis in the book at all. This giant storm, uprooting and throwing trees in the air, has no explanation in the movie. It exists to provide excitement, apparently, and to give Meg something to show off; she convinces Calvin to trust her and climb inside a tree stump, which is then thrown through the air and lands safely away from the vortex. They are completely uninjured.

It’s about as convincing, physics-wise, as the scene in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull in which Indy survives an atomic blast by hiding in a refrigerator. And this movie’s about physics.

The way things happen in sets is very confusing, even down to the way the perspective changes between shots in a scene. Many of the sets look quite bad. The viewer rarely has a sense of place, and how places are connected. The children don’t travel from scene to scene on Camazotz; instead, they stay still and Camazotz changes around them. The suburban homes start to fold up, as if they are being put away until they are needed again. But there’s nothing at all in the book to suggest that the cul-de-sac homes of Camazotz are false, or illusory. There’s no story justification for this. If we’re in a computer simulation, or an entirely magical world that can change at a whim, if anything at all can happen next, then there’s little significance to what happens. The movie starts playing tennis with the net down. The stakes are lowered. Our viewing become passive, because as modern audiences we’re accustomed to wild visual effects, and with no sense that the story is real, we have only dull curiosity over what special effects the filmmakers are going to show us next.

That scene I saw in the trailer, with Meg explaining the “wrinkle in time” using a piece of string in a toy ant? Deleted. So there’s no explanation given, except in a strange scene in which Meg’s father makes a fool of himself at a presentation in a science conference, and is laughed at an humiliated.

There’s little sense of how much time is passing between scenes, and little sense of how much time is passing back on Earth while the characters are elsewhere. No one mentions this, except for the way that Meg’s father is shocked to realize that four years have passed on Earth while he’s been away. But it never seems to occur to the characters to wonder what is happening back on Earth and how long they will be gone. Because of this, there’s little sense of urgency to the story at all. This kills any possible “edge-of-the-seat” feeling completely dead.

When Meg tessers back to earth, having finally learned how to do it properly, we see her flying through not stars, planets, and galaxies, but a softly lit, slow-motion space of billowing cloth, sparkles, fog, and confetti. I found this baffling. I was reminded of Jean-Luc Godard’s Alphaville. In that film:

There are no special props or futuristic sets; instead, the film was shot in real locations in Paris, the night-time streets of the capital becoming the streets of Alphaville, while modernist glass and concrete buildings (that in 1965 were new and strange architectural designs) represent the city’s interiors.

In that film, Lemmy Caution drives his Ford Galaxie through “sidereal space”—just a freeway, and it’s just called a spaceship. It makes a virtue of the low budget. You get used to it, watching Alphaville, and it’s amusing. It’s not the case, though, that in some parts of the movie the filmmakers worked hard to create exotic sets and visual effects, and in some parts they didn’t, because the inconsistency would be very confusing.

This scene looked like something you would see in a low-budget stage production. Portraying tessering in that abstract and beautiful way would have been an interesting artistic choice, had the movie used it elsewhere. I suppose what I’m saying is this movie could have worked very well as a low-key art film. But it wants to have it both ways. Why do this theatrical thing, only in this one scene? I suspect it might have been a late addition, and maybe there wasn’t any more budget for computer-generated imagery, the rest of it having gone to makeup artists.

Honestly, I feel ridiculous talking about the visual language of film. I’m hardly qualified to discuss it. But Ava DuVernay and her screenwriting team ought to know something about it. This movie doesn’t offer anything to convince me that they do.

Deleting the Beat

To give an example of how the movie references, but wastes, elements from the book, let’s talk about one aspect of the original story: the psychic and audible “beat” of Camazotz.:

Below them the town was laid out in harsh angular patterns. The houses in the outskirts were all exactly alike, small square boxes painted gray. Each had a small, rectangular plot of lawn in front, with a straight line of dull-looking flowers edging the path to the door. Meg had a feeling that if she could count the flowers there would be exactly the same number for each house. In front of all the houses children were playing. Some were skipping rope, some were bouncing balls. Meg felt vaguely that something was wrong with their play. It seemed exactly like children playing around any housing development at home, and yet there was something different about it. She looked at Calvin, and saw that he, too, was puzzled.

“Look!” Charles Wallace said suddenly. “They’re skipping and bouncing in rhythm! Everyone’s doing it at exactly the same moment.”

This was so. As the skipping rope hit the pavement, so did the ball. As the rope curved over the head of the jumping child, the child with the ball caught the ball. Down came the ropes. Down came the balls. Over and over again. Up. Down. All in rhythm. All identical. Like the houses. Like the paths. Like the flowers.

Everwhere Meg and her companions go on Camazotz, there is an insistent sort of psychic “heartbeat.” Sometimes people walk or play to the beat, and it is audible.

“How can they do it?” Meg asked wonderingly. “We couldn’t do it that way if we tried. What does it mean?”

Allegorically, it’s the beat of conformity. Non-conforming children who can’t stick to the beat are dragged off for reprogramming. Even the paperboy delivers newspapers to an inhumanly perfect beat:

…as with the children playing ball and jumping rope, there was something wrong about it. The rhythm of the gesture never varied. The paper flew in identically the same arc at each doorway, landed in identically the same spot. It was impossible for anybody to throw with such consistent perfection.

Charles Wallace, as the most sensitive one, feels this psychic pressure of the “beat” most strongly:

Charles wore his listening, probing look. “They’re not robots,” he said suddenly and definitely. “I’m not sure what they are, but they’re not robots. I can feel minds there. I can’t get at them at all, but I can feel them sort of pulsing.

There’s a moment where he is trying to blot it out, so he tries saying multiplication tables. This strategy fails, though, because it’s too easy to fall into saying the multiplication tables in time with the beat. When Charles Wallace is captured and is overwhelmed by “it”, his eyes “twirl” in rhythm with this psychic “beat.” Then, at the climax of the movie, there is a confrontation with “it.” “It” is the power running Camazotz—a giant brain, literally throbbing. The throbbing of this brain is the “beat” of this pressure to conform.

In the movie, we see the kids bouncing balls and Meg mentions feeling the pressure of this insistent beat in her mind for a few seconds, but it keeps slowing down and speeding up—which makes no sense. Then the kids travel to a different scene and the movie doesn’t ever mention this “beat” again. When Charles Wallace meets the man with red eyes, he gets Charles Wallace to say his multiplication tables but there’s no connection made with the “beat.”

When they finally meet “it,” they are inside some kind of giant blackened brain (Charles Wallace calls it “the darkest mind in the universe”), and they don’t do anything at all with the concept of this “beat.”

Since the movie doesn’t hook this idea up to anything—why introduce it?

The director is using these as offhand references, tossed in to appeal to fans of the original. That’s it. It would have been better to not even use it, if the movie wasn’t going to make it part of the story, because this kind of thing just makes the movie seem disjointed, throwing out ideas that don’t build into anything.

The filmmakers just completely fail to develop a concept of what is going on, on Camazotz. What is going on is fascism in the guise of neoliberal freedom, enforced conformity in the guise of freedom from want, selling illusions.

Why do you think we have wars at home? Why do you think people get confused and unhappy? Because they all live their own, separate, individual lives. I’ve been trying to explain to you in the simplest possible way that on Camazotz individuals have been done away with. Camazotz is ONE mind. It’s IT. And that’s why everybody’s so happy and efficient. That’s what old witches like Mrs. Whatsit don’t want to have happen at home."

It makes me wonder—did DuVernay and the writers think that the theme of imposed conformity in the book wasn’t important, and wasn’t worth featuring? Do they think a critique of cultural conformity would have been too offensive, or too controversial? What could possibly justify throwing out such an important aspect of the story?

Deleting the Beast

In the scene with the Happy Medium, he shares a vision where of a planet where there are big furry creatures walking on stilt-like legs. Someone says “there’s Aunt Beast!” And then it’s gone.

That’s a reference to a character in the movie that was filmed, but was deleted late in the production process. “Aunt Beast” is Meg’s name for a gentle but bizarre-looking alien that nurses her back to health. It’s a memorable episode from the book, but I agree that it isn’t strictly necessary for the story the movie wants to tell. I don’t object to deleting it; movie adaptations of novels almost always require significant deletions from the source material, if only to avoid becoming too long.

But since the scene it refers to is gone, it doesn’t work for characters to reference something that happened, but that the movie audience doesn’t get to see. Like the references to the “beat” and the multiplication tables, it exists now as sort of an offhand wave to any viewer who has read the book. It’s as if the director was saying to us “Hi! We know you’re watching! Wasn’t that part of the original story great? But we’re going not going to show it to you!”

If Peter Jackson had done this in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, there would still be no scenes with Tom Bombadil, but the hobbits would briefly mention him later. That would (rightfully) be ridiculed as a major continuity error. There’s no reason this should have been left in the movie; it serves only to puzzle people who haven’t read the book, and annoy people who have.

Erasing Calvin

Calvin (the white male character) has his role considerably diminished; he becomes stupider. He doesn’t get very many lines. Almost his entire role in the movie is to stare, goggle-eyed, at Meg, and to tell her how amazing she is, and that he loves her hair. That’s “empowering” for girls, I suppose. His character achieves nothing else.

You might argue that this is exactly how most female characters in typically sexist books and movies work. I agree with that entirely. But is the solution to two-dimensional, sexist characters really to simply “flip the script?”

Calvin’s difficult relationship with his family is profoundly changed. In the book, Calvin’s family is poor. Calvin is the third child of eleven children, who are neglected. Calvin is rapidly growing and his family can’t afford clothes for him, so his pants are often too short for his legs. There’s a bit of back-story in which the school principal actually purchases new shoes for Calvin, but scuffs them up before giving them to him, so he can claim they are a used pair.

Through the character of Calvin, the book demonstrates class consciousness. In the movie, Calvin has a troubled relationship with his family, but all we learn of it is that his father is domineering and demanding. This effectively deletes just about all class consciousness from the movie; everyone seems comfortably upper middle-class, with the exception of one older black man, who is shown as a victim of bullying and torment.

Destroying Dad

The movie “Disney-fies” Meg’s father; that for her to grow, he has to shrink. This is in keeping with television shows like iCarly and Hannah Montana. Do any of them ever feature a competent parent?

Despite her enormous love for her father, early in the movie, near the end of the movie Meg perceives him as a selfish coward. Throughout the film so far, Meg has maintained great pride in her father: in his genius, and in his work. But at the end of the film, and a confusing moment, she seems to require him to apologize for leaving her.

Did her father do something wrong? Was his desire to “shake hands with the universe” a form of selfishness? It feels to me like the movie had to make it that way, because the movie is so profoundly about Meg, and her needs. Never mind that Meg’s father was trapped on or in Camazotz, held hostage against his will. Did we require the American hostages in Iran to apologize to their families when they were finally returned home? I forget.

After Dad’s abject apology, Meg seems to be willing to allow herself to love him again, but it feels like it’s a profoundly weakened kind of love. If DuVernay didn’t intend this, then something went badly wrong with this scene.

In my initial viewing, it seemed like Meg, on her return to earth, was holding her father responsible for abandoning her and Charles Wallace. Meg’s father’s “crime” in the movie is to want to retreat and regroup, to plan strategy and come back to rescue Charles Wallace after they’ve figured out how they might defeat It, which is called “the it” in the movie for some reason. Meg sees this desire to organize to achieve this goal as a sign of weakness, believing that her father is failing Charles Wallace.

Earlier on in the movie, when the Witches (or Misses as they are called in the movie) realize that Meg’s father is on Camazotz, they intend to make a strategic retreat to Earth to come up with a plan. Meg will not agree to this plan, and the three children wind up on Camazotz because of her defiance and refusal to return to earth. But she doesn’t wind up enraged at the witches. She doesn’t turn on them. She doesn’t judge them to be weak and cowardly.

So there’s a strange double-standard going on here, in her response to her father’s plan. It demonizes the men, because the movie’s version of feminism doesn’t allow the women to be in solidarity with the men, and it reinforces the patriarchal values that men have to be brave, even suicidally brave.

It seems like this is a deliberate choice as part of the politics of the movie, but I don’t think the way to liberate women of color in film is to start applying a negative double standard to a white male character for the same behavior.

Deleting Madeleine L’Engle’s Inclusive Christianity

Sometimes the changes feel as if they were intended to offend. Remember that scene in the book, in which the children rattle off the name of Jesus, and the others, who stood for the light? The movie doesn’t simply delete that scene. We get a similar scene, but Jesus is deleted.

Really? The complete removal of Jesus from a movie adapting a book built around a deeply and fundamentally Christian story? That’s a bridge too far for me. The people that made that choice deserve ridicule. I just don’t think there’s a case to be made that the Christian themes are an unimportant and disposable component of the book. I feel grateful that L’Engle is dead, and not alive to see this. And I hope they paid her family a hell of a lot of money.

There’s no intolerance like the intolerance exercised in the name of tolerance.

Instead of including Jesus, the movie extends the list to include Nelson Mandela.

You might consider Mandela a hero, but even if you do, you might acknowledge that he is a different kind of hero. Specifically, he was not a non-violent activist. So he sticks out like a sore thumb. This seems, again, like part of a neoliberal agenda, to rebrand people like Mandela as non-violent activists; it’s like the neoliberal rebranding of Martin Luther King as a capitalist who would like to sell you a truck.

Mark Shea’s commentary in Patheos concludes:

It would be nice if there could be some kind of diversity training for Hollywood, so that the folks there could learn how to at least imaginatively enter into the world of Christian believers rather than just blindly pave it over with the spiritual goop of Affirmations, Feels and Intuitions that tends to be what passes for “spirituality” these days.

On the other hand, given the grotesque witness of what currently passes for Christianity in the US today, one can scarcely blame non-Christians in Hollywood for not wanting to dive into the septic tank on the off chance that they may find a diamond.

But it is heartbreaking that L’Engle’s Christianity, which is not hard to find or understand, was not merely ignored, but buried.

The movie takes the general structure of the source material, but discards the Christian elements completely. I’m not sure why the director thought that was necessary, because L’Engle’s Christianity was not exclusionary or narrow at all, and so it’s hard to see it as anything other than hostility to Christianity on the part of DuVernay, or atheistic screenwriters.

I realize that might make me sound like a Christian crank, and it feels strange to think that, because I haven’t ever really ever considered myself to be that. I don’t proselytize. I’m not evangelical. I barely consider myself a Christian. If I am one, I’m a pretty lousy one. I’m barely even a theist. But I do believe in attempting to live the values of the Gospel. And I believe that tolerance towards theism in general is important, as world religions present, when they are doing things right, a compelling case against hatred and the rampaging destructive force of capitalism, when worship of money replaces any other form of worship.

Philosophically, this kind of thing intolerance presents a conundrum; Karl Popper identified it as the “paradox of tolerance.” Christians must be tolerant of non-Christians, in order for society to maintain the capacity to be tolerant. But it seems that the director and writers of this adaptation simply could not tolerate L’Engle’s Christianity, which deeply permeates the original work. And because of Popper’s paradox, this intolerance is not something I believe we should tolerate, at least not without calling it out.

Fake Feminism

In the movie, the three witches, called the “misses” in the movie, don’t vary in age to reference the classic archetypes of women at different ages (maiden, mother, crone); now they’re all “mothers” (middle-aged). It’s 2018 and the female leads can’t be elderly. They are also all heavily plastered with foundation; it’s 2018 and the female leads can’t have wrinkles. These are profoundly anti-feminist elements to find in a move that allegedly promotes a feminist vision.

In the movie, as Reese Witherspoon (Mrs. Whatsit) changes into her flying lettuce leaf shape, her clothes fly off, and Calvin briefly sees her naked. That is so far out of keeping with the tone of the book that I find it hard to believe it went into the movie; it’s also odd for this bit to be present in a Disney movie.

But the biggest change to the “misses” is that, in the book, they were eclectically dressed, or shabbily dressed:

“My, but I wish there were no wind,” Mrs. Whatsit said plaintively. “It’s so difficult with all these clothes.” She wore her outfit of the night before, rubber boots and all, with the addition of one of Mrs. Buncombe’s sheets which she had draped over her. As she slid off the wall the sheet caught in a low branch and came off. The felt hat slipped over both eyes, and another branch plucked at the pink stole. “Oh, dear,” she sighed. “I shall never learn to manage.”

They weren’t flamboyantly dressed. They weren’t elaborately made up. In the movie, not only are they exotically costumed and made up, but their costumes and makeup change from scene to scene. In fact, their costumes and makeups are so aggressively “active” in the movie that they force themselves on you; you can’t get used to them in the first few scenes and then focus on the characters.

It’s distracting. Every time Oprah Winfrey (Mrs. Which) shows up, I spent the first minute or two staring at her wildly elaborate, metallic costumes; they look like armor. In one scene she’s wearing what looks like a wire cooling rack for baked goods. The gems on her forehead change. Honestly, these costumes look like they are out of Flash Gordon, except more modest; they don’t expose much skin, and they aren’t form-fitting. They’re still nonsense.

We’re being sold a bill of goods. With all the failures of storytelling I’ve outlined, it’s clear that DuVernay cared more about the costumes than the story and characters. One got lavish attention; the others were brutalized and neglected.

Oprah Über Alles

I’m not opposed to the idea that Winfrey, Kaling, and Witherspoon would appear in a movie, and have elaborate costumes and makeup. But the magic of the book, to me, is about the shocking mixing of the extraordinary science-fictional elements right into the mundane elements of Meg’s life; it’s about the universe breaking through into a frustrated girl’s life not just to rescue her, but to recruit her to a higher calling.

The witches are interesting in the book in part because they don’t seem supernatural, until they are revealed to be beings of enormous power. Making the witches exotically beautiful and elaborately coiffed and dressed from the get-go discards the idea that Meg has to learn to understand that they are not just weirdos, but beings “through whom God extends his Grace.” They are unpreposessing in the book. They are “The Women Men Don’t See”, as the short story by James Tiptree Junior (Alice Sheldon) describes them; in that story, Ruth says:

What women do is survive. We live by ones and twos in the chinks of your world-machine.

Remember Cathy Smith’s lines I quoted above:

The inclusion of witches in A Wrinkle in Time is another aspect of the novel that arouses suspicion in the eyes of some readers. The witches have been compared to New Age spirit guides. But clearly the witches are images of angels.

Well, guess what. In the movie adaptation, the witches are “New Age spirit guides.” In this way, the movie embodies one of the strongest criticisms evangelicals made about the book. It’s embraced the untrue thing that Cathy Smith’s school banned the book for, and made them true. That’s what I mean when I say that this adaptation slanders the book.

When the witches show up and they are 40 feet tall, exotically costumed and made up, there’s nowhere to go. There’s not much to gradually reveal. It’s a different kind of story; it’s a garish, showy story from the first scene with the “misses.” And given the way their appearance is constantly changing, it’s a distraction. With the Christian elements deleted, the “witches” are not revealed to be serving a higher power. Sure, they’re fighting a war on the side of good, but should that require so much glamour?

No, the “witches” are actually supposed to represent a tween girl’s vision of adult beauty and power. We’re looking at a fantasy look that, not coincidentally, many stores at her local shopping mall would be happy to help Meg achieve. The witches have gone from being secret angels to overt New Age superheroes.

With these changes, and others, the movie becomes a story almost entirely about the self-esteem and empowerment of Meg, using tropes of the self-help movement that are not in keeping with the language of the book.

There’s even a bizarre moment in which Charles Wallace, flying on lettuce-leaf Mrs. Whatsit’s back, runs his hands along giant Oprah’s face, feeling her flawlessly smooth skin. It’s an act of worship. Remember one of the other passages from Cathy Smith I quoted above?

On the planet Uriel Calvin attempts to bow down and worship Mrs. Whatsit as she transforms her physical appearance. She warns, “Not to me Calvin. Never to me. Stand up.”

With no God in the picture, and the “witches” looking like they are ready for a fashion shoot, there’s no reason in the movie why the kids shouldn’t worship them, especially Oprah. They don’t discourage this view.

Honestly, I can’t tell the real from the parody anymore.

With Liberty and Neoliberalism for All!

I want to be clear: I think the changes made in adapting A Wrinkle in Time are changes made as part of a neoliberal agenda: to break down families, and get kids to believe in the culture of individualism, success, and personal empowerment over all traditional solidarity, family and religious values. And the feminist values embodied in the movie are the values of a feminism entirely corrupted and co-opted by neoliberal capitalism.

In her essay “Arguing With My Father About Hillary Clinton’s Ruthlessness,” Catherine Liu writes:

…Hillary Clinton’s platform has expropriated the political power of feminism to promote her presidential candidacy as the realization of more than a century of political struggle for women’s rights. What does Hillary Clinton’s political progress tell us about contemporary politics in the United States? We cannot understand her presidential race and possible presidency without understanding how she and her husband have been able to consolidate a powerful strain of neoliberal ideology. They have successfully reframed the political project of the Democratic Party as a series of highly rationalized, new media- and new technology-friendly protocols of “personal responsibility,” self-improvement, accountability and assessment regimes, and, failing those, punishment.

Everything about the changes made to A Wrinkle in Time, adapting it to film, serve to make it slide neatly into the neoliberal value system. Believe in yourself; invest in yourself. Get a degree in a STEM field. Be empowered. Lean in. God isn’t necessary. We worship the market, and sometimes Oprah (it’s a bit vague, but whatever, as long as “the spirit in me honors the spirit in you.”)

We’ve got a black woman directing a hundred-million dollar movie! We’ve got a young woman of color in a leading role! This is wonderful! We’ve got a rainbow of women as the “misses!” It’s so exciting! Young black women will see themselves represented on screen in a positive way!

Yes.

And also, no.

I believe, I think, in everything the director Ava DuVernay claims to be trying to do in this movie.

But what she’s actually done, I don’t like.

Catherine Liu again:

Clinton represents a powerful political brand: She can lay claim to an aura of progressiveness that masks the reactionary attitudes that she and her wing of the Democratic Party hold. Her candidacy promulgates the fiction that America is always getting more progressive: We just had a black president and now we are getting a woman. A comforting story, but such stories not only mask the reality of neoliberalism, they also help to sustain it.

And this movie portrays a young black woman finding her place in the world, but it’s a world without solidarity, without family, without a coherent story to it, and even without God.

Liu one more time:

To consolidate her political position, Clinton never hesitates to call upon her record of anti-racism to cement her progressive credentials… “multiculturalism” and “diversity” were cosmetic concepts, strategically promoted by liberal institutions.

DuVernay’s made a movie from the belly of the capitalist beast—Disney. It’s “diverse.” It’s “anti-racist.” It’s also anti-Christian, anti-male, neoliberal propaganda. It takes almost everything interesting from the beloved book it is based on, and muddles, misunderstands, dilutes, deletes, or destroys it. It’s not just bad; it’s misguided and misbegotten in nearly every possible way, with the exception of that positive representation, and some excellent acting on the part of Storm Reid and Chris Pine—which I appreciated, but it can’t save the movie.

I guess this is what will have to pass as a victory for representation in film.

It’s frustrating to review this movie, because parts of it work on an emotional level—on some levels, and in some scenes. Many people who saw it have found themselves tearing up at the tear-jerking scenes between Meg and her father. I did as well. But the strange failures in storytelling, undercut it at every turn.

I think this makes it interesting to talk about because it makes me want to understand what went wrong. So I didn’t feel that watching it was a complete waste of time, but some people might. I’m an older white male. The movie may work reasonably well with the target demographic. Our daughter Veronica is 13 years old and bi-racial. She enjoyed it, but she said she felt like there were scenes missing, and that important stuff must have been cut out.

There’s evidence that the movie’s creators knew they had a mess on their hands, and so felt the need to prepare the audience. So the movie actually opens with the director introducing herself and showing some “making of” footage with group shots of all the production crew, as if to say—hey, these are some of the wonderful people who worked so very hard for you to make this movie. You wouldn’t want to hurt them, now would you?

I’m reminded of the people referring to Hillary Clinton as the “popular vote president.” But I’m afraid it just doesn’t work that way.

There will probably be a Director’s Cut, and commentary tracks, and deleted scenes, and I’m really quite curious about those, and what they might reveal about how this movie came to be the way it is.

Ypsilanti, Michigan
March 16, 2018