The Theory of Everything a Romantic Triumph: Color Me Surprised

Directed by James Marsh
Focus Features, PG-13, 123 minutes
* * * *

Let me start with a confession. Had I been in the producers’ room when writer Anthony McCarten pitched a script for a love story based on the life of astrophysicist Stephen Hawking I would have walked out muttering, “Are you freakin’ kidding me?” That’s one of the reasons I’m not a producer—that and the lack of tens of millions of dollars of gambling money.  A bit like the film’s protagonist, The Theory of Everything succeeds despite the odds against it. To add to its improbable triumph, the film is skillfully (if a bit straight forwardly) directed by James Marsh, whose previous credits consist mostly of made-for-TV films, documentaries, and the offbeat Wisconsin Death Trip (1999).

The story begins at Cambridge University in 1963, where the brash and carefree Hawking (Tom Prior for young Stephen, then Eddie Redmayne) is making his mark through a combination of bluster and brilliance, the latter mostly half-baked until structured by don and mentor Professor Dennis  Sciama (David Thewlis). Hawking is what you might expect of a physics geek—gawky, socially gauche, and prone to pretension. That begins to change when he meets future first wife Jane Wilde (Felicity Jones) also brilliant, though a faithful Anglican studying Romance languages and literature. The sequence is chronological: courtship, early onset of ALS, marriage, care giving, family, fame, marital strain. By the time the Hawkings’ second (of three) children is born in 1970, their romance is unconventional to say the least. ALS is a horrendous degenerative disease that renders its victims increasingly unable to control basic motor functions such as walking, writing, speaking, or swallowing. Most stricken with ALS suffer their first symptoms when they are older than 50 and most pass within three years—remarkably, Hawking (72) has now lived with ALS for 50 years.

The Theory of Everything references Hawking’s desire to explain the beginning of the Universe. As such, the film touches upon his theories of singularity, black holes, radiation, and gravitational singularity. Hawking is renowned for his marriage of Einstein’s general theory of relativity and quantum mechanics. But don’t worry—you won’t need a Ph.D. in physics to get any of this. One of the film’s virtues is rendering complex scientific ideas in lay terms. Plus, the key to Hawking’s thought centers on how he factored time into his equations. Time, in fact, is an un-credited actor in this film. If the Big Bang created the Universe, the mechanics and mathematics of time suggest it will end much the same way. But this film is about the microcosm not the macro, and we watch as Stephen’s relationship with Jane moves more toward a final whimper, not a massive explosion even though the disintegrating impact of Stephen’s illness appears as an inevitable arc. In like fashion, Jane’s romance with good-hearted Jonathan Hellyer-Jones (Charlie Cox) and Stephen’s for caregiver (and second wife) Elaine Mason (Maxine Peake) unfold languidly in ways that parallel Hawking’s doubts about his earlier conclusions about the Big Bang. The film’s wonderful ending sequence similarly makes us rethink how time unfolds.

All of this is to say that The Theory of Everything is a romance, not a science film. At times you’ll wonder if the Universe is lubricated with schmaltz, but luckily these excesses are few in number. Mostly we muse upon the age-old question of what any of us would do for love, and the film certainly takes some of heroic/angelic luster from Hawking. His disease is to be pitied, but not his bouts of superciliousness, his egoism, or his horn-dog Hustler-induced love of pornography. The film is very well acted. Critics have, of course, praised Redmayne’s performance and he rightly deserves props for the sheer physicality of portraying a man who is losing his own. In my view, though, Ms. Jones gives a superior performance as she must convince us she is a simmering volcano that will not allow herself to explode. As in all British productions, all the secondary and minor characters are filled by skilled actors rather than shiny faces. Special praise goes to Thewlis, a much underappreciated actor, and to Cox, who plays the man-in-waiting to hangdog perfection.

Just so you know, this is another “based on a true story” tale that isn’t literally true. Jane, for instance, did not abandon her career to be Stephen’s nurse; she lived in London during the week, finished her Ph.D., and is now a professor. Nor did Hawking find his soul mate in Mason—the two quietly divorced in 2006. Take this film for what it is—a romance that, even when it goes over the top, makes us contemplate love as more than swelling music and unalloyed bliss. –Rob Weir


Alexander Calder: See the Exhibit in Salem Before January 4

Calder and Abstraction: From Avant-Garde to Iconic
Peabody-Essex Museum, Salem, MA
Through January 4, 2015

Want to start an instant argument? Ask a group of people to name the most influential artists of all time. How does one even begin to frame such a debate? Does one judge by what art critics say? Probably not; many of them wax rhapsodic over classical works that bore modern viewers or conceptual pieces they ignore. By the highest values obtained on the open market? Surely not–unless one values art as a mere commodity. Heaven forbid it would be by the number of pieces sold. By such reckoning Vincent Van Gogh was an utter flop and Thomas Kinkade is a master. But if we frame the question according to a standard of lives affected, surely Alexander Calder (1898—1976) must be considered in the top tier.

Think I exaggerate? Is there an infant born in the Western world after 1932 who did not have a mobile hanging over his or her crib and playpen? Calder's art or, more accurately, the idea of art he first unleashed has been the first impression of art that nine (and counting) decades' worth of children ever saw or thrilled over. Calder's idea was at once simple and complex: liberate sculpture from its earthly anchor. In times B.C. (Before Calder) sculptures sat squat; in the A.C. era they could move. It was Marcel Duchamp, a man who also liked bending convention, who dubbed them "mobiles," a French double pun that translates as both mobile and motive. Duchamp may have suspected Calder's motive was commercial, but it's fair to say that Calder liberated more than wallets.

Mobiles are a simple idea, but as a show at the Peabody Essex Museum (PEM) in Salem reveals, any erstwhile Calder wannabe had better know a few things about mathematics and physics. The same generations that grew up with Calder also contains legions of frustrated crafters who learned the hard way that unless one knows about weights, counterweights, ratios, and balances the line between imagination and ineptitude is far broader than one of Calder's delicate wires. The PEM has several of Calder's sketches framed by his creations and each shows that there's much more to a mobile than choosing a few cool shapes and stringing them on tiered axes.

The PEM show is small, but choice. It is one of the better-lighted exhibits I've ever attended, the curators keenly aware that the interplay of shape, shadow, and dynamism is part of Calder's magic. The chosen shapes evoke geometry as imagined by surrealists, but also frequently suggest birds or leaves. As well they should because the real show is the shadows they cast while in motion. Calder's mobiles are at once compositions and decompositions. I stood transfixed before one larger work whose shadows suggested a city crumbling, then rebuilding in time to collapse anew. In fact, my only criticism of the PEM show was that more air circulation in the gallery would have increased the inherent malleability of Calder's pieces.

Wadsworth Museum, Hartford
There were, toward the end of the gallery, a few of Calder's stabiles as well. These struck me as relatively uninteresting after witnessing the fluidity of light, shadow, shape, and air inherent in the mobiles. I must confess, though, that I've never been particularly drawn to Calder's stabiles. They give color to public spaces such as the courtyard of Hartford's Wadsworth Athenaeum but, to me, their industrial solidity serves mainly to call my attention to how oddly out of sorts they seem to be with their staid surroundings. But oh to dance with the wispy shadows…

This show is closing in January and the PEM is its only East Coast showing. It's worth making the trek to Salem to see it. You can wile away the cold by walking behind the museum and taking a one-block stroll to the A&J King Bakery for a coffee and amazing pastries. It's a nice way to spend an early winter's morning, if you ask me.  Rob Weir


U.S. Military A Poor Investment: I Want My Tax Money Back


Imagine a scenario. You're looking for a new home and a realtor shows you one that's shiny, beautiful, and thoroughly modern. The price seems steep, but it appears to have all you want, plus the realtor assures you that this house will be updated every year you own it. Now you're suspicious, so you ask, "What's the catch?" The realtor hems and haws and then admits, "Nothing in the house works very well, so each year you have to spend at least the purchase price to rebuild and reequip." You'd be out of there in a New York minute.

So explain to me why every year since 1950 U.S. taxpayers have shelled out at least $100 billion (inflation-adjusted) dollars and up to $570 billion for military spending. Do not tell me it's to protect my freedom or to save me from some external buy guys. That's not true. I'm not being cynical; I'm being historical. As it turns out, the U.S. military isn't very good at protecting us–since 1945 it has unambiguously won exactly one skirmish of any consequence–the 1983 conquest of Grenada and it's hard to get juiced about defeating a foe with less firepower than the Massachusetts State Police. In global terms the U.S. military is like our World Cup soccer team––there's enough potential that it could surprise you, but only a fool would bet on it to win more than a round or two.

Blame whomever or whatever you wish–presidents, desk chair commanders, Congress, over-reliance on technology, hippie peaceniks––but the end result is the same. Our military forces are roughly as bad on the battlefield as the service academies are on the football field. Let the record show the following:

Enemy Result
Communist North Korea
Stalemate; 36,516 US dead; more than 20,000 troops still stationed there; border remains a hotspot; $341 billion spent

Attempt to intervene in internecine struggle
6 US dead; temporary clam but Lebanon returns to civil war 1975-90; US returns 1982; Lebanon riven by factions; build distrust in region
Communist North VN 58k dead; $738b spent; ignominious defeat; downfall of Laos & Cambodia as well
Dominican Republic
Help prop up dictatorship against perceived leftists
44 US dead; DR has another 30 yrs of junta governmen
Iran 1980
Islamic fundamentalists
Attempt to rescue US hostages aborted; 8 die in desert crash; worsened already bad situation

El Salvador
Secret war vs. leftists guerillas
21 dead; prop up junta that had one of worst human rights records on earth

Lebanon (redux) 1982-83
Attempt to restore stability

266 US dead; utter failure and withdraw 1984

Grenada 1983-84
Alleged leftist govt. + endangered US medical students
Students not in danger; 19 dead; dubious W on inconsequential foe; big victory parade though!
Panama 1989
Remove drug kingpin Noriega from power 40 dead; new leader put in place, though Noriega had been a US operative
Gulf War I
Saddam Hussein & 'liberation' of Kuwait
294 US dead; $102b cost; Saddam remained; Kuwait made safe for monarchy

Intervene in civil war
43 dead; utter failure; warlords take over
Bosnian Intervention
Serbs 12 dead; limited impact as Bosnia already in tatters
Gulf War II 2003-11
Saddam and WMD 4,488 US dead; Saddam removed; no WMDs; Iraq a disaster; utter waste of $784b
Taliban, Al-Qaeda, history 2,229 and counting US dead; no end in sight and no one has yet to win in Afghanistan; $321b spent & rising

Sure, there have been a few successful evacuations here and there, but do you detect a pattern from the above? Does it make you confident if we decide to commit ground troops against ISIS in Syria? Do you see anything that justifies the staggering costs in money and casualties?  Since 1950, over 109,000 US soldiers have died on foreign soil. Are we spending a half billion bucks a year for military bands, air shows, bad sports teams, and victory parade over Grenada?

Here's a better idea: Let's go back to having a defense department, not an offense department. We're pretty good when provoked and we don't think about nation building, but we stink at preemptive actions. One thing the military seems to do right is racial balance. How about deploying here instead of over there?  Recent events in Ferguson and Cleveland make me think that maybe we ought to let troops train on American streets. How about we save some cash by dismantling corrupt urban police forces and let the US military patrol America's mean streets Italian carabinieri style? It would be nice to get something back from all the dough we're wasting on bad wars and military funerals.  Barring that, I want a tax refund. Cry as many star-spangled tears as you want, but the U.S. military as currently constituted wouldn't past lemon laws muster.