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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Bohemian Rhapsody: Right tone, wrong timeline

Stephen H. Provost

Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?

The opening lines of the Queen song Bohemian Rhapsody are also the question viewers are left asking after seeing the film of the same name. At least this viewer.

This this is the kind of thing that happens when the fan and the historian are the same person. You love a movie that paints a triumphant picture of your favorite band, but you hate the fact that it paints outside the lines to do it: especially when it messes with the chronology.

Granted, Queen and frontman Freddie Mercury painted outside the lines all the time. It’s part of what made them great, and band members Brian May and Roger Taylor did produce the movie, so ...

Bohemian Rhapsody is epic. I loved it. But it’s also wrong, and what’s troubling about that is that it exposes something about propaganda in general: It gives us not the whole truth, but what we want to believe. The truth on steroids, which is, in the end, not the truth at all. What we end up with is what’s convenient to the storyline, and history be damned.

In an era when politicians rewrite history – without apology – for their own exaltation, that’s even more worrisome.

The Real Rio

The moviemakers decided to make Queen’s inspiring Live Aid performance the lynchpin of Freddie’s life. The film begins with him about to step on stage at Wembley, then ends with the band whipping the massive soccer stadium crowd into a frenzy. That moment was a kind of magic, no question. Queen stole the show. You couldn’t imagine a greater triumph if you tried.

But the film does try. Too hard. Sometimes, it seems like it doesn’t want to be a Queen biopic, but Rocky VII. To create an epic comeback story, it has Freddie quit the band (something that didn’t happen), and posits that he found out he was HIV-positive just before that epic performance. The truth? He wasn’t diagnosed until two years later.

Reality check: Queen released an album called The Works the year before Live Aid, and toured in support of the album after that. That record-breaking Rio performance, depicted in the film as happening sometime in the seventies? It actually took place during this tour, in 1985. The band hadn’t even performed in South America before that. This was during the time the movie suggests Queen was “broken up,” but the Rio show was part of a tour that ended just two months before Live Aid.

Broken up? I don’t think so.

Freddie as Rocky Balboa

None of this is a problem for me as a moviegoer. I happen be a sucker for “Rocky” movies, and the story, as told by the movie, was inspiring. But as a Queen fan and history buff, it made me cringe: The movie should have carried the tag “based on a true story,” because it fudged so many things. Yes, I know Hollywood does this. But that doesn’t mean I have to like it.

When Ron Howard made Cinderella Man in 2005, he didn’t add to the drama by having Jim Braddock knock out Joe Louis in the final scene. He didn’t have to. Braddock’s shocking win over Max Baer was epic enough. The fact that Braddock lost to Louis in his next fight was no shame, especially when Braddock knocked down the greatest heavyweight of his era in that fight. (There were, to be fair, a few inaccuracies in that film, too; most notably, Baer was portrayed as a jerk, when the real Baer was apparently a teddy bear.)

Some of the historical inaccuracies in Rhapsody don’t add to the drama, but seem wedged in where they don’t belong for no particular reason.

Why, for instance, does Queen play Fat Bottomed Girls on a tour that supposedly took place years before that song was released? And why does the film show We Will Rock You being conceived after Crazy Little Thing Called Love was a hit? Contrary to what the film would have you believe, WWRY came out two albums earlier, and Freddie was not sporting his famous mustache at the time. There’s just no reason to do this sort of thing. Even casual Queen fans will know you’ve gotten it wrong.

What’s there, what’s not

Others have had different problems with the film. Some, for instance, say it glosses over Freddie’s hedonistic lifestyle. I’m OK with that, because the movie made it quite clear that he loved to party and have casual sex. Sometimes, inference is a lot more effective than hitting someone over the head. I don’t need to see one sex-and-drugs scene after another paraded in front of me to get that point; if the movie had done so, it would have bogged down the narrative. I think the moviemakers took the right approach to this one.

They also got the casting right. Rami Malek doesn’t look as much like Freddie as I had hoped, but he makes up for it with a standout performance. And the rest of the band? Gwilym Lee and Ben Hardy are dead ringers for May and Taylor, respectively, and Joseph Mazzello looks a lot like the real John Deacon, too. The hair stylist deserves a shout-out for getting Deacon’s oft-changing coiffures dead-on most of the time.

(If you’re wondering, the photo above shows the three-quarters of the real Queen – Deacon, May and Mercury – on tour in 1977. Notice Mercury does not wear a mustache.)

The film’s lighter moments, such as the argument over Taylor’s tune I’m In Love With My Car, are a lot of fun, if perhaps a bit too few.

The film misses a few gems. David Bowie, whose memorable duet with Freddie on Under Pressure was the best thing about Hot Space, doesn’t make an appearance, and the film also fails to mention that Queen snagged its first Top of the Pops appearance because Bowie had canceled out 24 hours earlier. (Another connection: Queen’s first tour supported Mott the Hoople, whose biggest hit was penned by Bowie.)

Fans love this sort of trivia, but the movie was created for a mass audience, and it’s probably too much to ask that such minutiae be squeezed into 2 hours and 14 minutes of screen time.

And mass audiences seem to love the film. As of this writing, they’re giving it a 94 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes, while less enthusiastic critics have it at 59 percent. As is often the case, I’m with the fans on this one. To reiterate, I loved the movie.

I would have loved it even more if the fictional Queen had played We Will Rock You in 1977 and Fat Bottomed Girls in 1978, the way the real Queen did.

Was that really too much to ask?

A point-by-point rebuttal to Kavanaugh's WSJ op-ed

Stephen H. Provost

Breaking down key excerpts in Brett Kavanaugh's Wall Street Journal op-ed, headlined "I Am an Independent, Impartial Judge," with my point-by-point response:

"I was very emotional last Thursday, more so than I have ever been."

More than on your wedding day, more than at the birth of your children. This is troubling, especially since you go on to say how important your family supposedly is to you.

"I might have been too emotional at times."

Saying you "might have been" is a hedge. It means you realize others think you were, and you don't agree with them, but because you want to save face, you're going to pretend they might have a point. Instead of taking responsibility for your actions, you’re seeking to minimize them, in the same way you sought to minimize your excessive drinking and bad behavior in high school and college. No wonder you were grounded so often on that calendar of yours.

"I know that my tone was sharp, and I said a few things I should not have said.:"

Minimizing, again. “Sharp?” Try rude and belligerent. "A few things?" Many, things, some of which were distortions, others of which were simply false.

"I hope everyone can understand that I was there as a son, husband and dad."

This has nothing to do with your ability to be an impartial judge, . In fact, impartiality demands that you set aside personal biases. This is not evidence of your ability to do so, but the exact opposite. If this is the kind of logic you use making legal arguments, I'm amazed that you were even considered for the bench, much less the highest court in the land.

"I testified with five people foremost in my mind: my mom, my dad, my wife, and most of all my daughters."

No, you didn't. You testified with yourself foremost in your mind. This is clear from the testimony itself. You're using your family as human shields in a war against, how did you put it? Democrats who hate Trump and are seeking revenge for the 2016 election? You certainly didn’t have the sexual assault victim who says you were the perpetrator foremost in your mind - either then or now.

“Going forward, you can count on me to be … hardworking, even-keeled, open-minded, independent and dedicated to the Constitution and the public good.”

Let’s take this one at a time. Hardworking? Except when you’re getting drunk at frat parties that make “Animal House” look tame by comparison. Even-keeled? After Thursday’s hearing, you really expect me to believe that? Open-minded? When you respond to an allegation of sexual assault by calling it a “calculated and orchestrated political hit” on behalf of the Clintons and blaming your opponents instead of expressing even a shred of empathy for survivors? Independent? In light of your history working in a political capacity for Republican politicians (whatever happened to separation of powers?) Dedicated to the Constitution: The same document prohibits slavery and involuntary servitude. News flash: Sexual assault is an attempt to subject another person to exactly that. The public good? More like your own ambition, ego and reputation.

“As a judge, I have always treated colleagues and litigants with the utmost respect.”

As a judge? The implicit admission here is that, in other facets of your life, you don’t accord such respect to others. Again, this is supported by your behavior in high school, college and at Thursday’s hearing. Always? Not on Thursday. Or don’t you consider senators to be your colleagues in upholding the Constitution you claim to hold so dear?

"I have been known for my courtesy on and off the bench. I have not changed."

Your angry, defensive and sometimes belligerent behavior during Thursday's hearing suggests otherwise. Or maybe you HAVEN'T changed. Maybe you were a discourteous jerk all along. Your behavior in high school and college would seem to confirm precisely that.

Oh, and one last thing. This op-ed piece? The Fox interview? The words “protest too much” come to mind. On top of that, any good lawyer will tell you it’s a bad idea to act as your own defense attorney. But then, you’re not a very good lawyer, are you, Mr. Kavanaugh? You’re just an insecure overachiever who has risen to the top on the coattails of political hacks who want to use you for their own purposes. Being used by others shouldn’t make you feel good, Mr. Kavanaugh, but if you’ve done it yourself, you probably don’t have any room to complain.

My paradox: being responsible ... and hating it

Stephen H. Provost

Most people see me as responsible. Dependable. I excelled in school. I’ve always met my deadlines, and in the years before I got laid off, I consistently got great performance reviews at work.

But here’s the thing you might not realize: Just because someone is responsible, it doesn’t mean they like responsibility. Actually, it might be just the opposite, as it is with me, and I’d be willing to bet I’m not the only one who feels this way.

It sounds like a paradox, but it’s not.

I’ve never been ambitious. I’ve never gone out of my way to seek more responsibility. I’ve done just the opposite: I meet (and usually beat) deadlines because I wanted to get that crap out of the way, so I could get to the good stuff.

That’s not to say I did a half-assed job. My fear of failure ensured that wouldn’t happen. I just figured out how to do the best possible job in the least amount of time. I worked out a system, fine-tuned it and became successful.

This probably explains why I never got into upper management. I saw all the bullshit that goes on there, and I couldn’t figure out a system to beat that, so I settled for middle management, which suited me just fine.

My own boss

What suited me better, though, was being my own boss. This has happened a couple of times, when I ran the sports department in Tulare and when I worked as managing editor in Cambria. Each time, supervisors thought I was doing a good job and took a hands-off approach. It was only when the corporate ownership or climate changed, and new chefs were brought in to reheat the stew, that I stopped enjoying it.

That meant more oversight, more micromanaging, less freedom. Here’s what it comes down to: When people watch me work, they invariably try to make me adopt their system. Remember junior high? Remember that teacher who deducted points even if you got the right answer, because you didn’t “show your work”? It’s like that.

If I’m allowed to work in peace, folks are usually pleased with the result. But if those folks insist on looking over my shoulder, I won’t meet their standards. Either I will refuse to follow their system, which pisses them off, or I’ll try to do so and won’t be as good at it as they are – even if I practice for a long time, because it’s not my system. It might come naturally to them, but not to me.

Some might think I’m being stubborn and inflexible, but I disagree. I observe the world around me, listen to others’ ideas and improve my system by incorporating what fits. But I’m not about to scrap my entire way of doing things and start from scratch. Nope. Sorry.

I’m my own boss now, and I might seem ambitious. I’ve released had six books released in the past 12 months, and I’m nearly done with No. 7. But that’s not because I’m being responsible or ambitious or any of that. It’s because I enjoy what I’m doing. I like to write, so I do that. I’m not doing it to “get it over with.” It’s the place I was trying to get to all these years.

The layoff

So why did last spring’s layoff hit me so hard? There’s a simple answer to that, and it goes back to how I approach responsibility.

I’ve always saved the best for last. When I was eating Thanksgiving dinner, I’d eat the turkey first, because I liked it the least, then work my way through the mashed potatoes, then the yams, and finish off with my favorite, the stuffing! Oh, and then there was the ultimate reward: pumpkin pie.

I applied the same principle to homework. I came home and got it done so I could turn my attention to what was more important to me. My time. I didn’t crack the books because I “valued a good education.” It was a means to an end. (Don’t get me wrong: I do love learning things. But I like doing so on my terms: Even though I graduated summa cum laude, I’ve learned a lot more through my own observation and independent research than I ever did in school).

Some of this independence doubtless stems from the fact that I’m an only child. Working alone has always been more comfortable for me than collaboration. Hence, my perfectionism: If I could “get it right” on my own, no one would have any excuse to throw their meddling monkey wrenches into my system.

Delayed gratification

But when I got laid off, however, that was one huge monkey wrench. My system had been set up to work until I was 65 (or older) and then enjoy the fruits of my labor. When I was laid off, I faced with the prospect of looking for a job in a moribund industry, or retraining myself for an entirely different field. Creating a new system from scratch.

I applied for a few jobs, didn’t get anywhere, and decided maybe that was for the best.

I don’t need a conventional job, so why should I go out of my way to pursue one? Certainly not because I’m craving responsibility. Fortunately, I had the ability to retire early and do what I always wanted to do: write books.

That was my original plan, anyway. I would earn a steady paycheck as a journalist while working as an author on the side.

But then I got lazy. I enjoyed journalism more than I thought I would and developed a system that worked, at least for 32 years. During that time, I’d put in an eight- or 10- or 12-hour day, after which I didn’t have much energy left to write for myself. I worked on precisely one book, which took me 10 years to finish, and that was it. (The result was my two-volume opus on the development of Western religion, “The Phoenix Principle.”)

Other than that, I put off my dream of becoming an author until the journalism industry started tanking and I got laid off the first time. I caught on with another newspaper a year later, and that gig lasted six more years before I got laid off again. Both times, I lost my job before I was ready: before my plan said I should.

But both times it gave me the opportunity to start writing more, so I did.

Now, I don’t have any excuse to delay my dream. I don’t have anyone looking over my shoulder. I’m not going to get laid off again, and the sky’s the limit. So maybe, just maybe, I’m right where I always wanted to end up: Free of responsibility but working like hell ... because I like it.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

Moral of the story: Enjoy that pumpkin pie while you can. If you’re diagnosed with diabetes, it won’t be on the table at all.