Monday April 30, 2012
Hollywood B.O.: Avengers Assembled! ... Overseas
Over the weekend I 'liked' Box Office Mojo's Facebook page and one of the first status updates I saw was its query, “What did you see this weekend?” It was a rather drab weekend at the box office—“Think Like a Man” won for the second weekend in a row with $17.6 million, yawn—but “Think Like a Man” wasn't the most popular answer from FB users. Neither were any of the debut movies: “The Five-Year Engagement” ($10.6 million), “Safe” ($7.8 million) and “The Raven” ($7.2 million).
No, the most popular answer, by far, was a movie that grossed $178 million over the weekend.
Wait. $178 million? I thought you said “Think Like a Man” won with $17.6 mil?!?
I did. And it did. In the U.S.
But overseas, “The Avengers,” that All-American group (well, Black Widow, Thor), debuted in 39 countries, and rocked 'em and socked 'em. It set opening weekend records in Mexico, Brazil, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. It killed in Australia and the UK and France. Its $178 million overseas gross is the ninth-best ever. And that's what all those international FB users were talking about. They were raving about “The Avengers.” Because they'd all seen it. Elsewhere.
In the U.S.? Sloppy seconds.
Among the FB comments:
- Wow, it actually got some pretty good reviews too here in Finland. The reviewer for the national broadcasting company YLE gave it 4/5 stars. This is pretty impressive for a comic book-movie.
- Really good movie, I saw it two times already in Dominican Republic! Really good 3D!!
- So glad Whedon is finally getting his due with the mainstream.
- How do people in Iran get to see Avengers before U.S.?
- Jealous much, americans?! :P
We assemble Friday. 'Nuff said.
That's right, Cap: You can be seen in the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Lithuania, New Zealand, Norway, Philippines, Romania, South Africa, South Korea, Taiwan and the UK ... but not in America. Yet.
Monday April 30, 2012
Quote of the Day
“I guess some of this mad right-wing love comes from the idea that in America, anyone can become a Rich Guy if he just works hard and saves his pennies. Mitt Romney has said, in effect, “I’m rich and I don’t apologize for it.” Nobody wants you to, Mitt. What some of us want—those who aren’t blinded by a lot of bullshit persiflage thrown up to mask the idea that rich folks want to keep their damn money—is for you to acknowledge that you couldn’t have made it in America without America. That you were fortunate enough to be born in a country where upward mobility is possible (a subject upon which Barack Obama can speak with the authority of experience), but where the channels making such upward mobility possible are being increasingly clogged. That it’s not fair to ask the middle class to assume a disproportionate amount of the tax burden. Not fair? It’s un-fucking-American is what it is. I don’t want you to apologize for being rich; I want you to acknowledge that in America, we all should have to pay our fair share. That our civics classes never taught us that being American means that—sorry, kiddies—you’re on your own. That those who have received much must be obligated to pay—not to give, not to “cut a check and shut up,” in Governor Christie’s words, but to pay—in the same proportion. That’s called stepping up and not whining about it. That’s called patriotism, a word the Tea Partiers love to throw around as long as it doesn’t cost their beloved rich folks any money.”
--Stephen King in a must-read, fun-to-read column, “Tax Me, for F@%&’s Sake!” on The Daily Beast site
Monday April 30, 2012
Howard Lincoln and Some Part of a Horse, Midstream
I came across this quote in Jon Well's book “Shipwrecked: A Peoples' History of the Seattle Mariners” and wanted to throw the book across the room. I often want to throw his book across the room. Jon's a friend, and it's a good book, but it keeps reminding me just how much I despise the M's front office: how blithely incompetent M's CEO Howard Lincoln and president Chuck Armstrong have been over the years and yet how long they've kept their jobs; how there's just no accountability there. There's just ... waste. A vast waste of opportunity and possibility and talent and time.
In the quote, Lincoln is talking about retaining then-manager John McLaren and then-GM Billy Bavasi. I've got nothing to say about the former but the latter is surely the worst GM in M's history. I assumed it was impossible to surpass the sluggish ineptitude of Woody Woodward but Bavasi managed it with his brand of energetic ineptitude. You wished Woody would get off the golf course and work the phones. With Bavasi, you wanted him on the golf course. Put down the phone, Mr. Bavasi. Please. Don't make any more deals.
Anyway, here's the quote. It's from September 26, 2007:
“I don't like to change horses in midstream. I didn't want to do it last season and I think the decision I made last season to stick with Bill and Mike proved to be the right decision. I think the decision to remain with Bill and John will turn out to be the right decision.”
He'd made a similar quote the year before, on September 29, 2006:
...there was “no sense changing horses in midstream,” Lincoln said.
- “Horses in midstream” is the idiotic campaign slogan of a corrupt president in David Mamet's political satire “Wag the Dog.” It was discredited long before Lincoln kept uttering it.
- If the end of the season is “midstream,” what isn't?
More to come.
Sunday April 29, 2012
IMDb's Trivial Problem
On IMDb.com, if you have someone writing your bio for you, as someone named Larry-115 apparently did for Paris Hilton, then on your credits page you'll have a link reading “See full bio,” which will lead you to, in this case, Larry-115's bio of Ms. Hilton and all relevant material, such as nicknames, height and “That's hot.”
If you don't, as acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Jafaar Panahi doesn't, you'll simply have a link reading “See more trivia.”
As a result, Paris Hilton's pampered, celebrity life is considered “a bio,” while Panahi's arrest and conviction by Iranian authorities, which has been protested worldwide by every filmmaker and filmmaking body, as well as heads of state, is considered “trivia.”
A micro example of a macro problem. Two macro problems, actually: automation isn't concerned with nomenclature; and modern culture has turned on its head what is significant and what is trivial.
Saturday April 28, 2012
Quote of the Day
“There’s just something about Sarah Palin that upsets me. Sometimes you can’t argue with a stupid person. It’s like a toy super villain absorbing your firepower—you point out their mistakes and it makes them stronger.”
--Barry Blitt in the online article: “New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See.” I also like Blitt's Monica/Hilary cover and Art Spiegelman's Lady Justice.
Saturday April 28, 2012
Here's Looking at You, Kid: Clara Darko Compiles Movie Stars Looking at Us
I love this cinema montage, put together by Clara Darko (who has put together a ton of cinema montages), of actors breaking the fourth wall and looking right at us.
OK, not always at us. More often, we're momentarily the POV of a character in the film, and the actor is interacting with that character: Saying hey to Harry Potter, hugging Benjamin Button, etc. How good an actor do you have to be to do this? To greet the camera like it's your baby? Impressive.
So who's looking at us? Definitely Superman, and Eddie Murphy in “Trading Places,” and Amelie about to talk creme brulee. Both Kyra Sedgewick in “Singles” and Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas” are telling us stories. So, obviously, is Woody Allen in “Annie Hall.” So is Anthony Perkins at the end of “Psycho,” one of the great wall-breakers of all time.
Darko's whole video makes me happy. I'm happy to see “Un Prophete” in here, and “Come and See,” and “400 Blows.” The song is Manic Street Preacher's version of Frankie Valli's “Can't Take My Eyes Off of You.” I love how it first hits on the rousing chorus, “I love you, baby!,” the moment we see Audrey Tautou in “Amelie”: surely a cinematic moment in which the world sang that to an actress.
The montage is a bit of a lie, of course. It's not the world's movie stars who can't take their eyes off us but the other way around.
Friday April 27, 2012
Quote of the Day
“'She was funny and lethal right up to the end,' said Craig Seligman, a speaker at Pauline Kael's memorial service. 'One day when she was near death and I was trying to divert her with chatter about working as an editor, I said, ”It never ceases to amaze me how many people who call themselves writers actually can't write.“ And she said — very weakly — ”Yes, they say things like 'It never ceases to amaze me.'“'”
--from “Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark” by Brian Kellow, which the old man, Bob Lundegaard, is currently reading. Thanks, Dad!
Friday April 27, 2012
Movie Review: Footnote (2011)
This is some Old Testament shit right here.
The trailers make “Footnote” seem like a lighthearted romp, but there’s nothing lighthearted about it. It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s a comedy like the British version of “The Office” was a comedy. Laugh-out loud moments are rare because we’re often struck dumb with embarrassment and anguish.
Uriel Shkolnik (Lior Ashkenazi) is a professor of Talmudic studies in Israel, as was his father, Eliezer (Shlomo Bar-Aba), before him. The younger Shkolnik is celebrated, the elder not, and, as the movie begins, the father is a reluctant audience member at another ceremony in which his son receives another honor, and gives another speech honoring his father. He talks about how, in third grade, asked for his father’s occupation on a school form, he wanted to write “professor,” since that’s what he was, but his father insisted upon the plainer and—to him—more meaningful word “teacher.” When the speech is over, everyone stands and applauds. The last to stand and applaud, and the first to stop and sit, is Eliezer, who is lost in his own bitter world. Later, in bed with his wife, the son reveals that that childhood moment wasn’t so lighthearted. His father forced him to write “teacher” by grabbing his hand hard. His hand hurt for days.
Eliezer’s tragedy, his long-stewing resentment, is that his life’s work was usurped by a lucky break by another scholar, Prof. Grossman (Micah Lewensohn), who, a month before Eliezer was set to publish, simply found what Eliezer’s 30 years of careful, scientific study was attempting to point towards. His entire career is now seen as unnecessary and vaguely ridiculous. His one solace: a great scholar once mentioned him in a footnote. Every year, too, he applies for the Israel Prize, the most honored of honors, but never wins.
This year, that changes. He’s walking to the library, as always, to continue his pointless research, when he receives a phone call from the committee chair congratulating him. He sits back on a nearby rock, stunned. We wonder what he’ll do. Whoop it up? No. He continues on his silent way; but at the library, bursting, he can’t do research, and instead he and an elegant older woman head outside. From a distance, we, and eventually his son, see them talking. He says more to her than he does to his family.
But there’s a wrinkle. The committee called the wrong Prof. Shkolnik. The honor is supposed to go to the son.
When Uriel discovers this, and, worse, discovers that the committee, with Prof. Grossman as its chair, wants him to tell Eliezer of the mistake, he’s distraught. He declines, then thinks about it, then declines, then thinks about it, then flatly refuses. “It will kill him,” he says. “It will bury our relationship.” He wants the committee to honor his father, as it should have done years earlier. He voices his father’s bitter complaints. Does Grossman hold a grudge against Eliezer? Uriel accuses him, shoves are exchanged, and Grossman, the distinguished, elderly professor, whose forehead has the deep folds of a shar pei, winds up on the floor with a bloody nose. In the end, Grossman acquiesces. On two conditions: Uriel must write the judges’ considerations; and Uriel must never again submit for the Israel Prize. The highest honor will thus be denied him forever.
Each section of the movie is given a chapter title—“The most difficult day in the life of Prof. Shkolnik” is the first, for example—and the next chapter is titled “The revenge of Prof. Shkolnik.” And who is this revenge against? His son.
You know that great juxtaposition scene in “The Godfather” when Michael becomes godfather at his nephew’s baptism as he become mafia godfather by taking out his enemies? The dual baptisms scene? It now has a rival. Writer-director Joseph Cedar cuts between the younger Prof. Shkolnik praising his father’s work in the faux judges’ considerations while the elder Prof. Shkolnik trashes his son’s work as unscholarly and unscientific to a visiting journalist (Yuval Scharf). As his son creates a triumphant fiction out of his father’s tattered career, the father trashes the son’s scholarship as fiction. It’s brutal stuff.
So what now? To save his father, Uriel has sacrificed some part of his reputation, which his father, triumphant, has now trashed from the high perch on which his son placed him. He can’t lash back. That would defeat the whole purpose. He can’t go back, either. Grossman’s in the way.
Both men live with long-suffering women. Earlier in the movie, Uriel’s wife, Dikla (Alma Zack), informs her husband , during one of his many complaints about his father, that Eliezer is at least true to himself and says what he means, while he tends to avoid confrontation. He’s certainly done that with the Israel Prize. Eliezer’s wife, meanwhile, hardly says a word. She merely exudes the pain of living with a silent, bitter man for nearly half a century.
So what now? Two things happen. At a production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” Uriel tells the truth about the Israel Prize, in a whisper, to his mother, and we immediately hate him for it. It’s a small, cowardly act—yet wholly understandable. If the universe won’t know the good he’s done, at least his mother will. But why burden her with this knowledge? Isn’t she burdened enough? Does he hope she will tell the father, who will recant his public criticisms of the son?
Moot point: Eliezer figures it out himself. He shows us what a true scholar he is by realizing the word “fortress” in the judges’ considerations is a word Grossman never uses but his son overuses. His research confirms this. He flashes back to the phone call, and how he was supposed to receive the formal letter the next day but didn’t receive it for several days. It all clicks. His son was supposed to get the honor but honored his father instead.
At the great hall where the ceremony takes place, we watch Eliezer watch dancers rehearse a surreal number, and for a moment we wonder whether he’s dreaming. But then it all becomes too ordinary for a dream. We get Uriel in the audience, suffering in silence as his father suffered in silence, estranged from his son as his father had been estranged from his son, not communicating with his wife as his father had not communicated with his wife. He spies the elegant older woman he’d seen with his father. What’s her deal? What’s their deal? Is it an affair? The movie doesn’t say. Things are unknowable. His father is unknowable. The ways of God are unknowable while the smallness of man is overwhelming. We’re all footnotes.
In the end, Eliezer, silent and bitter, waits to go onstage to receive his honor, just as, in the beginning, he sat in the audience, silent and bitter, waiting for his son to receive his honor. We wonder: Will he go through with this charade? Or will he remain true to himself, and to science, and to scholarly research? He listens to the accolades being told about him, the fabrications and fictions, and at that moment, as he’s about to be introduced, the movie ends. It cuts off, goes dark, rolls credits. The movie ends with Eliezer doing what he’s always done: waiting in the wings.
Talk about brutal—and for the audience this time, too. Because we’ll never know. My guess? Everyone goes through with the charade, and everything that isn’t said poisons what remains. The fiction Uriel creates to save his relationship with his father destroys his relationship with his father. But that’s just my guess. The ending remains unknowable. It’s a Jewish ending, an Old Testament ending. It recalls the Yiddish proverb: Man thinks, God laughs. “Footnote” is a comedy for God.
Thursday April 26, 2012
Another Example of Why You Should Never Quote Someone for Only One or Two Words
M's GM 'surprised' by injury to Yankees' Pineda
Although maybe the headline was written by a Yankees fan.
Thursday April 26, 2012
'Battleship' Opens Abroad Five Weeks Before U.S. Debut: Has Already Grossed $141 Million
I'm used to good foreign films showing in my city, Seattle, weeks or months after the big boys in NY and LA get it.
I'm still not used to U.S. films showing in most foreign countries weeks or months before the U.S. gets it.
That could become more common, though. According to The Hollywood Reporter, both “Thor” and “Fast Five” opened abroad a week earlier last spring. This spring? Universal’s “Battleship” is opening abroad five weeks before its U.S. debut.
Here's a list of the countries where the Hasbro-inspired flick is already playing:
|COUNTRY||RELEASE||OPENING||TOTAL BO||AS OF..|
|Serbia & Montenegro||4/19/12||$10,387||$14,515||4/22/12|
|United Arab Emirates||4/19/12||$929,818||$929,818||4/22/12|
It opens in the U.S. on May 18.
Rihanna fights aliens trying to sink her battleship.
Thursday April 26, 2012
Lead Me on Twitter
Jerry Seinfeld always did a great bit on standing ovations:
“There's always a few people who don't really want to do it. I've seen those people, they're always like [pantomimes sitting, looks glumly left and right], 'Are we doing this now?' [reluctantly stands, slowly applauds].”
Here it is:
That's me with new tech. I'll wait out Laser Discs for DVDs. I'll wait out MySpace for Facebook. I'll look around glumly. “Are we doing this? Really?” Then I'll go. I'm the last man standing. The uncool version.
Which is a roundabout way of letting you know I've finally joined Twitter.
When I first heard about Twitter with its 140 characters and dweeby name that recalled “Monty Pythons” skits, I assumed it would go the way of Laser Discs. Instead it's thrived, and people keep telling me I should get an account. “If you're going to have a website,” they say, “you need...”
Unfortunately being last means playing catch up, which is what I'm trying to do now. Twitter calls them followers but to me they're leaders: folks who can show me the way. So if you'd like to be one of my leaders, please follow me on Twitter:
Because apparently we're all doing this.
Wednesday April 25, 2012
Movie Review: Batman Begins (2005)
BAT WARNING: SPOILERS
Bruce Wayne should’ve truly hated Gotham City. As a young man returning from Princeton, he should’ve voiced his hatred for the city that took away his parents, calling it a cesspool, a place of hopeless corruption. He should’ve flown his Travis Bickle flag and talked about a real rain coming and washing away all the scum off the streets.
If he did, Ra’s al Ghul’s offer to destroy Gotham would’ve had weight. Ghul (Liam Neeson) would’ve handed Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) what he’d wanted since he was a boy, since he saw his parents murdered before his eyes; and in that moment, Bruce would’ve discovered that what he’d always wanted wasn’t what he wanted:
Ra’s al Ghul: You know Gotham is dying. It’s dying from the inside. It’s a cancer. It’s time to put it out of its misery so more good people like your parents won’t die. Are you strong enough for the task?
Bruce Wayne: I... My hatred of Gotham came from the weakest part of me. I see that now. But I’m stronger now. Thanks to you.
Thus Ra’s al Ghul would’ve trained a man to do a task for which the very training made him ill-suited. The filmmakers could’ve worked this into a major theme: that the desire for destruction is borne of weakness, the desire to save comes from strength. And Bruce Wayne was strong now. He was Batman.
Instead we have what we have. Bruce Wayne carries a hatred for Joe Chill, the two-bit mugger who killed his parents, but not for Gotham, the city that created Joe Chill. Ra’s al Ghul’s offer is the offer of a madman. It’s treated as such. None of it resonates.
Carmine Falcone, we hardly knew ye
The last time we saw a cinematic Batman, in 1997, he was saddled with Robin, Batgirl, erect nipples, camp villains, and a lead actor who emanated the absurdity of playing a caped crusader. “Batman Begins” is, as the kids say, way better. It’s Batman modeled on Frank Miller’s dystopian vision rather than William Dozier’s camp vision. It’s dark and moody and realistic.
So why is it curiously unsatisfying?
I blame the relentless direction of Christopher Nolan, who pushes the story along with the same speed and tone throughout. Every scene has the same weight, the same growling intensity: dining, talking, fighting, falling, fighting again. There are no peaks and valleys. It’s a flat-lined film.
There’s also a problem with the villains.
We don’t see Batman until an hour into the movie. The first hour is all about training to become Batman so Bruce can take on the Carmine Falcones of the world. Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), the leader of the Gotham underworld, is a nasty piece of work. He’s the one who has Joe Chill killed; and he’s the one who sends Bruce on his mission. He tells him:
You think because your mommy and your daddy got shot you know about the ugly side of life, but you don't. You've never tasted desperate. You're Bruce Wayne, the Prince of Gotham. You'd have to go a thousand miles to meet someone who didn't know your name. So don't come down here with your anger, trying to prove something to yourself. This is a world you'll never understand. And you always fear what you don't understand.
That’s good. And it’s why Bruce goes on his seven-year trek: to find those who don’t know him; to understand the underworld; to face his fears. He does all of this. And he brings it all back to Gotham to face Carmine Falcone ... who is dispatched in like two minutes of screentime.
Really? That’s it?
Turns out Falcone, for whom we’ve waited an hour, is just a pawn. The greater power lies with Dr. Jonathan Crane (Cillian Murphy), AKA the Scarecrow, who, with his magic powder and scary mask, makes Falcone mad.
But Crane, too, is a pawn. The greater power lies with ... wait for it ... Ra’s al Ghul, the man who trained Bruce Wayne in the first place. The man who made him Batman.
Batman is thus a product of criminals. Joe Chill gives him the thirst for revenge, Carmine Falcone sends him on his mission, and Ra’s al Ghul trains him to be Batman.
But that’s not the problem with the villains. The problem with the villains is that we wait an hour for an encounter with Carmine Falcone, and, poof, he’s gone. Falcone is more interesting than Ra’s al Ghul, too. That speech above is brilliant. It’s savvy. Ghul? He spews vaguely eastern nonsense.
- “The training is nothing!” he tells Bruce Wayne ... as he trains him.
- “What you really fear is inside yourself. You fear your own power.”
Can I answer that one? I’m not sure about Bruce, but the last thing I fear is my own power. Probably the last thing you fear, too.
Guhl’s logic, as the head of the League of Shadows, is bizarre stuff. Cities are dying so let’s kill them off. He mentions three: Rome, London, Gotham. He says:
The League of Shadows has been a check against human corruption for thousands of years. We sacked Rome, loaded trade ships with plague rats, burned London to the ground. Every time a civilization reaches the pinnacle of its decadence, we return to restore the balance.
But Rome survived. So did London. So will Gotham. Shouldn’t someone have mentioned this? “Restore what balance, you self-important twit?”
Most classic superheroes were created by young men in the 1940s, or by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the early 1960s, which means there’s always room for improving their origins. Modern movies usually oblige. That’s not an “S” on his chest but a Kryptonian family crest (“Superman: The Movie”). “A weak man knows the value of strength” (“Captain America: The First Avenger”). “I missed the part where that’s my problem” (“Spider-Man”).
Nolan and screenwriter David S. Goyer introduce two improvements, or complications, to the classic origin of Batman. Back in 1939, Bruce chose a bat as his symbol because “criminals are a cowardly lot”; Nolan’s Bruce chooses a bat because he is a cowardly lot. As a boy he fell down an abandoned shaft and startled the bats in the caverns under Wayne Manor. It led to a lifelong phobia. As an adult we see him overcome this phobia, standing tall as CGI bats flit all around him. It’s a cool scene but... Doesn’t it recall, a bit much, Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy? It’s bats instead of rats, but both phobias are overcome with willpower. Bruce Wayne just doesn’t grill and eat his.
The second complication borrows from Spider-Man’s origin, which—alley oop—borrowed from Batman’s.
Batman was the first costumed hero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime. He saw his parents killed before his eyes and is out for revenge. He wants to get the bastards. Twenty years later, Spider-Man was the second superhero to have a psychological motivation for fighting crime, but Stan Lee added a twist. When Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben is killed by a burglar, Spider-Man, seeking revenge, gets the bastard, then realizes the killer is a petty crook he had the opportunity to stop days earlier. So Spider-Man fights crime less for revenge than from guilt. He’s trying to cleanse himself as much as society.
Nolan borrows this idea for “Batman Begins.” The Waynes leave an opera early because young Bruce is afraid of the bat-like characters on stage, and they wind up in a nasty back alleyway where the mugging/killing occurs. If Bruce hadn’t been afraid, he realizes, they wouldn’t have left early. If they hadn’t left early, his parents would still be alive.
Except Nolan doesn’t do much with this. Alfred (Michael Caine) soothes young Bruce’s guilt; and as a young man, training in the ninja arts in the Himalayas, Bruce tells Ghul, “My anger outweighs my guilt.” That’s about the only time the word “guilt” or “guilty” is even spoken in the movie.
Batman is a character obviously associated with anger rather than guilt so I’m not sure why Nolan even introduces the concept. Besides, Nolan’s notion of guilt is Catholic rather than Jewish. He thinks it can be cleansed. Stan Lee (né Stanley Lieber) knew better.
The ghost of William Dozier
So Bruce Wayne spends seven years abroad learning about the underworld and ninja arts, returns to Gotham as an avenger, creates a bat persona, and slowly, with the help of Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman), the weapons developer for Wayne Enterprises, arms himself. “Where does he get those wonderful toys?” the Joker (Jack Nicholson) asked in the 1989 version. That Batman created his own. Nolan’s outsources.
Some traditions are kept: Bruce still slides down the batpole to the batcave, where the batmobile still resides. The batmobile is now like a tank with big wheels, and after one of the best scenes in the movie—Batman’s descent through the bats at Arkham Asylum—we get one of the worst: an extensive chase scene around Gotham. It’s the kind of car chase, common to Hollywood, where the chased performs impossible stunts (literally driving over church rooftops; literally chewing the scenery) only to find several police cars right on his tail. If Gotham cops were really that good, Batman wouldn’t be needed in the first place.
The entrance to the batcave is improved upon. It’s now hidden by a waterfall and a chasm, which requires jet propulsion to leap over, all of which beats the flopping vehicle barrier of the ’66 TV show. But surely any interested party could follow the tire tracks? Hey, they lead here. Hey, it’s under Wayne Manor. Hey, maybe Batman is Bruce Wayne. No matter how gritty and realistic they try to make these guys, there’s always some absurdity sticking out. The biggest absurdity being, of course, a man who wears a bat costume to fight crime.
Second-half plot? In his effort to “restore the balance,” Ra’s al Ghul imports Dr. Crane’s crazy powder to Gotham, where minions pour it into the water supply. The plan is to use a microwave emitter, stolen from Wayne Enterprises, to evaporate the water and cause everyone to go nuts and tear each other apart. Dark and gritty but ... a bit of a William Dozier vibe, no? I can see the ‘60s version of the microwave emitter: silver, with knobs and an antennae, wheeled in by a middle-aged, hipster-dressed minion, while Ra’s al Ghul (Roger C. Carmel) rubs his hands together and whoops it up. There’s also the problem of Ghul reappearing and burning down Wayne Manor. It’s poetic justice, yes, since Bruce burned down Ghul’s Himalayan hideout, but Ghul handles Bruce so easily here it feels a trifle convenient. I get another Dozier vibe. Will Wayne Manor burn to the ground? Can Alfred return from his mission in time to get Bruce out from under the heavy log beam?
There’s a girl. I haven’t mentioned her yet. Rachel Dawes (Katie Holmes), Bruce’s childhood playmate, who grows into a tall, girlishly attractive, forever threatened assistant D.A. She’s disappointed in young Bruce (slaps him when he talks about killing Joe Chill); she’s disappointed in playboy Bruce (“It’s not who you are underneath,” she tells him, in the movie’s most famous line, “it's what you do that defines you”); but after Batman saves her from Dr. Crane, and after he reveals his true identity to her, she shows up in the ashes of Wayne Manor and says she’s never stopped thinking of him. Then she kisses him. Yay! But no. We get this exchange:
Rachel: Then I found out about your mask.
Bruce: Batman's just a symbol, Rachel.
Rachel [touches Bruce's face]: No, this is your mask. Your real face is the one that criminals now fear. The man I loved—the man who vanished—he never came back at all. But maybe he's still out there, somewhere. Maybe some day, when Gotham no longer needs Batman, I'll see him again.
What the hell? Throughout the movie she’s been bitching that Bruce doesn’t care about Gotham the way she cares about Gotham. Now she finds out he cares more, now she finds out that the man she loves is the true avenger of the city she loves, and she still blows him off? And I thought I had problems with women.
The above dialogue might’ve resonated if Bale, as Bruce, had seemed hard, cold and distant around Rachel, but his face and voice actually soften when she’s around. He’s constantly revealing his true face to her. She just doesn’t see it. Neither does Nolan.
Good cast, though. Bale is tall, dark, good-looking, and plays intense and off-kilter well—probably because he’s intense and off-kilter. Still, he’s a straight man here, so, as with 1978’s “Superman: The Movie” and 1989’s “Batman,” you surround him with talent: Freeman and Caine and Wilkinson and Murphy and Gary Oldman, wonderfully plain as Jim Gordon. That’s a lot of Brits. Too many? Who isn’t British in this thing? Batman is. So is Alfred, Ducard, Gordon, Crane, Falcone, Finch, Loeb, Joe Chill, Judge Faden, and Thomas and Martha Wayne. Americans are allowed Fox, Dawes, and Flass (Mark Boone Junior), this movie’s Lt. Eckhardt. “Hey, we need a fat, scummy cop.” “What do we have in Yanks?”
“Batman Begins” is acclaimed among fanboys, and currently has an 8.3 rating on IMDb, but to me it’s mid-range stuff. We push aside interesting villains for dull ones, twiddle our thumbs during car chases, and wait for a girl who isn’t worth it. Nolan misses opportunities even as he maintains a pace that’s overly relentless. It beats erect nipples but it hardly makes my nipples erect.
Still, the Joker card at the end set up the sequel well. Wonder how that went?
Tuesday April 24, 2012
Quote of the Day
“I hate America very deeply. The economic repression of the masses—institutionalized. Even Lenin couldn't foresee the extent of that.”
--Bill Haydon (Ian Richardson) in the 1979 BBC-TV miniseries, “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” based upon the novel by John le Carré.
Bill Haydon, Soviet spy and traitor, with George Smiley (Alec Guinness) in the foreground.
Tuesday April 24, 2012
Why Mitt and Ann Romney are Just Like You: Scrimping By with a Seven-Bedroom Colonial and a 5,000-Foot Lakefront Vacation Home
Now that Ann [Romney] is using the details of her domestic life for political purposes, journalists and Obama supporters are sure to focus on parts of that existence that might reflect less well on her and her husband. For example, she has said that when Mitt was in college, the two of them were so financially strapped that they had to liquidate some of their stock portfolio to get by. At the time Mrs. Romney said that she was engaged in a “struggle” to bring up her children, the family was living in a seven bedroom, six-and-a-half-bathroom mock-Colonial mansion in Belmont, Massachusetts, while spending summers at their five-thousand-square-foot vacation home, which sits on eleven lakefront acres in New Hampshire.
It'll be interesting to see if the GOP, working with the mainstream media, who love to turn a mouse into a lion (because reporting what we already know is so boring), can turn Mitt and Ann Romney, rich beyond our wildest dreams, into ordinary Americans. There's no amount of BS we can't lap up.
And it is BS. It's all beside the point. The point is the economy, and what to do, and what each candidate's plan is.
Monday April 23, 2012
A Tale of Two Posters
Here are the two posters, French and English, for the 2011 film “Les Hommes libres” (“Free Men”), which I reviewed earlier today. Check out the differences.
The French emphasize Michael Lonsdale (top), an actor I could watch forever, and various religious aspects of the story. They don't shy from Islam but they hide the gun.
The U.S.? We emphasize the handsome lead, Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete.” We also emphasize Paris (which, thanks to Woody Allen, is big again among movie marketers), the Algerian flag (or at least a star, which is always big) and the gun, which has ruled Hollywood forever.
To be honest, neither poster captures the true feeling of the movie.
Monday April 23, 2012
Movie Review: Les Hommes libres (Free Men) (2011)
Most movies about civilian life in Nazi-occupied Europe are pretty straightforward, whether they’re set in France (“La rafle”), the Netherlands (“Oorlogswinter,”), or Poland (“Katyn”). The Nazis are occupying your country. They’re rounding up Jews. They’re killing your friends. Everyone knows who to root for and against.
“Les Hommes libres” (“Free Men”), directed by Ismaël Ferroukhi, focuses on Algerian Muslims living in occupied Paris, and thus adds a twist. The country that has occupied your country for more than 100 years is itself now occupied. So is the enemy of your enemy your friend?
Younes (Tahar Rahim of “Un Prophete”), a black marketeer, begins the film as the classic disinterested protagonist, a kind of less-connected, rootless Rick Blaine. His cousin, Ali (Farid Larbi), a communist, tries to involve him in union issues. “We’re getting organized,” Ali says. But Younes sticks his neck out for nobody. “I’m not interested,” Younes responds. He says he wants to “make my pile and go home.”
Then he’s fingered—by Ali?—and the authorities swarm in, take his goods, put him in jail. There, L’inspecteur (Bruno Fleury) offers him a deal. He’ll let him go if he hangs out at the Grand Mosque of Paris and reports back what’s going on. Younes, conflicted, accepts.
Younes, we’re told, is an amalgamation of several World War II-era Algerians, but two of the folks he meets at the Grand Mosque are based on historical people: Si Kaddour Ben Ghabrit (Michael Lonsdale), the founder of the Mosque, and a French loyalist; and Salim Halali (Mahmud Shalaby), an up-and-coming Algerian singer with Elvis sideburns and amazing eyes. To the latter, Younes sells, for 800 francs, an Algerian drum he had acquired for two packs of cigarettes. For a moment, as he calculates his profit, he’s a happy man.
The authorities are watching the Grand Mosque because they suspect—rightly—that the Muslims are harboring Jews. The number of Jews Ben Ghabrit’s Mosque saved is debated these days, but both sides agree it’s somewhere between 500 and 1600. That’s Oskar Schindler territory.
Younes discovers all of this but feeds the authorities harmless information. He discovers Salim is part Jewish but warns Salim rather than telling the authorities. Ben Ghabrit actually makes short work of Younes’ snitching activities by complaining to a German official with whom he’s friendly, Major von Ratibor (Christopher Buchholz), that the Vichy French have sent in spies. Word gets back to L’inspecteur, who grabs Younes off the street, threatens his life, but ultimately lets him go. Younes is now free from that double life, about to enter another one.
The more he hangs out at the Mosque, and the more he sees the fiery-eyed Leila (Lubna Azabel), the more he’s drawn into the resistance. At first he reluctantly goes on errands. Then he volunteers. By the end, he’s a part of it rather than apart from it. He’s a leader.
In this way Younes is similar to Malik, the role Rahim played in “Un Prophete”: the loner who becomes a leader for his people after being co-opted by the enemy. Both characters never seem particularly strong, smart, or calculating, and yet, because they’re underestimated, they come out ahead. Rahim is an interesting actor. He exudes calm rather than intensity. I like his small gestures. The surprise on his face when he witnesses Salim kissing a French girl (“You can do that?”). Asked how he’s doing after being let go by the authorities, he gestures, without heat but vaguely annoyed, at the scar on his cheek. You feel his shame as a snitch and his awful grogginess waking up from his first hangover.
This is French drama so there’s less force driving the narrative; there’s a randomness that feels real. Younes saves two Jewish kids during the Vel’ d’Hiv round-up but we only see them again at the end. He begins a flirtation with Leila but she’s rounded up before their first date. As she’s being led away in the back of a military vehicle, their eyes lock, and in those few seconds their eyes say everything that time and circumstances won’t allow.
So why the Hollywood moments? The rain falling on Salim after the cemetery subterfuge; the look the Jewish girl gives Younes after he guides her to the getaway boat on the Seine; the unnecessary introduction of Salim’s homosexuality; the emaciated cheekbones of the Gestapo agent.
“Les Hommes libres” is a good film but no more. There’s a simplicity and economy to the story, an almost conscious attempt to avoid histrionics and melodrama—which is appreciated after the recent spate of melodramatic World War II fare: “Le Rafle,” “City of Life and Death,” “John Rabe.” The movie ends after D-Day and liberation, but a better ending might have been the moment Younes, again by the Seine, takes out Omar (Zakariya Gouram), his original black-market source, and a true snitch. It’s Younes killing the man he might have been.
Sunday April 22, 2012
Photo of the Day
Heading to Bainbridge Island and the Olympic peninsula: April 21, 2012
Sunday April 22, 2012
Humber Humber Throws Perfect Game* Against Some Team
My friend Jeff asked me to the M’s game last Sunday, April 15, but I was a little under-the-weather and still had taxes to do and begged off. But as I did my taxes, I checked the score occasionally. I wanted the M’s to win, certainly, and they did, beating the A’s 5-3, but more, I wanted to make sure it wasn’t a no-hitter for either side. I’ve never been at the ballpark for a no-hitter, of which there have been 272 in Major League Baseball history, and would’ve kicked myself for missing that one for something as silly as taxes.
Yesterday, a rare sunny day in Seattle, I went with Patricia and Ward to celebrate a friend’s birthday in Port Townsend, Wa. We were driving back around 9 pm when Ward checked his smartphone and came back with news. Apparently someone had pitched a perfect game against the Seattle Mariners.
“You’re kidding,” I said, immediately uncomfortable. “A perfect game? Who was pitching?” We were playing the White Sox, I knew, but did I know even one White Sox pitcher anymore? Mark Buehrle, who pitched a perfect game in 2009, was now with the Miami Marlins.
“You know how rare this is?” I asked the car, which didn’t care. “I think there have only been like 21 ever.”
“Humber,” Ward read. “Philip Humber.”
A nobody. “Crap,” I said.
“It was the 21st perfect game in baseball history,” Ward read.
“Crap crap,” I said.
I wasn’t bummed about missing the game. I hadn’t thought about attending and no one had asked. I’m part of a season-ticket package but scaled back to only five games this year because I ate too many tickets last year, and I picked no games in April. Weather is usually lousy in April and if it wasn’t I knew I could always do the walk-up. Tickets are to be had in Seattle these days.
No, I was bummed it was my Seattle Mariners, my up-and-coming Seattle Mariners, against whom a perfecto had been thrown. Last year or the year before, when they finished last in the Majors in almost every offensive category, sure, I might’ve expected it. But we were getting younger and better now. We were banishing the ghost of Bill Bavasi. Weren’t we?
I thought up excuses. The sun was in their eyes. We’re not used to sun in Seattle. I thought, “Where’s Jim Joyce when you need him?” referring to the first base ump whose blown call upset a perfect game for the Tigers’ Armando Galarraga in 2010. When I got home I even tweeted that, thinking myself clever. Turns out, because the last out was a disputed call, a checked swing by Brendan Ryan on a 3-2 count that should’ve result in a walk and no perfect game, everyone and their brother had already tweeted something similar.
“Crap,” I said.
I looked up the box score. The M’s are better than last year, with more upside, but we still began the game with only two starters with OBPs above .300—Dustin Ackley and Ichiro—and we ended it with no starters with OBPs above .300. As my father wrote yesterday:
Will Humber's perfect game go in to the record books with an asterisk because it was against the Mariners?
I looked up Humber, or “Humber Humber,” as I began to think of him. He was a former No. 1 draft pick with the Mets. Traded to the Twins. Picked up on waivers by the A's and then the ChiSox. Second-fewest career wins for a perfect-game winner.
Articles were already proclaiming him a member of an elite club that included Cy Young, Sandy Koufax, Randy Johnson, Catfish Hunter and Roy Halladay. Yes, I thought, and Len Barker and Tom Browning and Dallas Braden.
It’s called the 21st perfect game in Major League history but to me it’s the 19th. Not sure how you can count the two from 1880, when foul balls picked up on a hop were considered outs, and the losing teams were named the Worcester Ruby Legs and the Buffalo Bisons.
Here are the 19 perfect games of the modern era:
|Date||Winning team||Losing team||Pitcher||Catcher||Umpire||Ks|
|1||5-May-1904||Boston Americans||Philadelphia A's||Cy Young||Lou Criger||Frank Dwyer||8|
|2||2-Oct-1908||Cleveland Naps||Chicago White Sox||Addie Joss||Nig Clarke||Tommy Connolly||3|
|3||30-Apr-1922||Chicago White Sox||Detroit Tigers||Charlie Robertson||Ray Schalk||Dick Nallin||6|
|4||8-Oct-1956||New York Yankees||Brooklyn Dodgers||Don Larsen||Yogi Berra||Babe Pinellli||7|
|5||21-Jun-1964||Philadelphia Phillies||New York Mets||Jim Bunning||Gus Triandos||Ed Sudol||10|
|6||9-Sep-1965||LA Dodgers||Chicago Cubs||Sandy Koufax||Jeff Torborg||Ed Vargo||14|
|7||8-May-1968||Oakland A's||Minnesota Twins||Catfish Hunter||Jim Pagliaroni||Jerry Neudecker||11|
|8||15-May-1981||Cleveland Indians||Toronto Blue Jays||Len Barker||Ron Hassey||Rich Garcia||11|
|9||30-Sep-1984||California Angels||Texas Rangers||Mike Witt||Bob Boone||Greg Kosc||10|
|10||16-Sep-1988||Cincinnati Reds||LA Dodgers||Tom Browning||Jeff Reed||Jim Quick||7|
|11||28-Jul-1991||Montreal Expos||LA Dodgers||Dennis Martinez||Ron Hassey||Larry Poncino||5|
|12||28-Jul-1994||Texas Rangers||California Angels||Kenny Rogers||Ivan Rodriguez||Ed Bean||8|
|13||17-May-1998||New York Yankees||Minnesota Twins||David Wells||Jorge Posada||Tim McClelland||11|
|14||18-Jul-1999||New York Yankees||Montreal Expos||David Cone||Joe Girardi||Ted Barrett||10|
|15||18-May-2004||Arizona Diamondbacks||Atlanta Braves||Randy Johnson||Robby Hammock||Greg Gibson||13|
|16||23-Jul-2009||Chicago White Sox||Tampa Bay Rays||Mark Buehrle||Ramon Castro||Eric Cooper||6|
|17||9-May-2010||Oakland A's||Tampa Bay Rays||Dallas Braden||Landon Powell||Jim Wolf||6|
|18||29-May-2010||Philadelphia Phillies||Florida Marlins||Roy Halladay||Carlos Ruiz||Mike DiMuro||11|
|19||21-Apr-2012||Chicago White Sox||Seattle Mariners||Phillip Humber||A.J. Pierzynski||Brian Runge||9|
Remember the name Ron Hassey for potential bar bets. He’s the only guy on this list whose name appears more than once. No one has even umped two perfect games. Perfection is singular, with the exception of Hassey.
So what’s to account for the spate of perfect games in the post-1961 expansion era? Dilution of talent? I thought strikeouts maybe, since it’s easier to keep players off base if they’re not hitting the ball in play; but while Ks have generally gone up, they haven’t necessarily gone up during perfect games. Much.
Looking over the list, I began to see a kind of parity, or karma, in which one year’s victim (1908 ChiSox) became another year’s victor (1922 ChiSox), or vice versa (’84 Angels/’94 Angels). Crunching the numbers further, I realized there was no parity. The Yankees are 3-0 in perfect games, the Phillies and Indians both 2-0, the Twins and Rays both 0-2. In fact, only six teams have been on either end of a pefect game:
|Perfect Game Teams||Wins||Losses|
|New York Yankees||3||0|
|Chicago White Sox||3||1|
|Los Angeles Dodgers||1||3|
|New York Mets||0||1|
|Toronto Blue Jays||0||1|
|Tampa Bay Rays||0||2|
And was it my imagination or did more perfect games happen early in the year?
|Month||No. of Perfect Games|
Not my imagination. And did more of these games happen in American League?
Yep. Even in the DH era, when NL teams should be an easier mark for imperfectos, the AL leads 7-4, with one interleague game in the mix. (The Yankees bolster their numbers with interleague games.)
I was curious: How did losing teams wind up doing the season they were imperfected? The M’s have no shot, of course. But do they have even less of a shot than the no-shot they had before?
|Date||Losing team||Team's final record
|5-May-1904||Philadelphia A's||81-70, 5th of 8 teams|
|2-Oct-1908||Chicago White Sox||88-63, 3rd of 8|
|30-Apr-1922||Detroit Tigers||79-75, 3rd of 8|
|8-Oct-1956||Brooklyn Dodgers||93-61, lost World Series, 4-3, to Yankees|
|21-Jun-1964||New York Mets||53-109, 10th of 10|
|9-Sep-1965||Chicago Cubs||72-90, 8th of 10|
|8-May-1968||Minnesota Twins||79-83, 7th of 10|
|15-May-1981||Toronto Blue Jays||37-69, 7th of 7|
|30-Sep-1984||Texas Rangers||69-92, 7th of 7|
|16-Sep-1988||LA Dodgers||94-67, won World Series, 4-1, over A's|
|28-Jul-1991||LA Dodgers||93-69, 2nd of 6|
|28-Jul-1994||California Angels||47-68, 4th of 4|
|17-May-1998||Minnesota Twins||70-92, 4th of 5|
|18-Jul-1999||Montreal Expos||68-94, 4th of 5|
|18-May-2004||Atlanta Braves||96-66, 1st of 5, lost LDS, 3-2, to Houston|
|23-Jul-2009||Tampa Bay Rays||84-78, 3rd of 5|
|9-May-2010||Tampa Bay Rays||96-66, 1st of 4, lost LDS, 3-2, to Texas|
|29-May-2010||Florida Marlins||80-82, 3rd of 5|
Most of the post-’61 perfectos have resulted from bottom-feeding: ’64 Mets, ’81 Blue Jays, ‘99 Twins. These are some of the worst teams in baseball history.
The Dodgers are an intereseting subset here. For being on the wrong end of three perfect games, they’ve done fairly well for themselves in those years. Obviously the ’56 perfecto happened during the World Series, which they lost, 4-3, but the ’88 Dodgers shook off that ‘88 perfecto and actually won the World Series. The ’91 team won 93 games. They give hope to the imperfected.
One positive out of all this? The White Sox are now 3-1 in perfect games and thus have as many perfectos as the New York Yankees, who are a dastardly 3-0. Isn’t it time those bastards wound up on the wrong end of one of these? Now that would be a perfect game. That would be the perfect perfect game.
Humber Humber admires his perfect game against some team or other: April 21, 2012
Saturday April 21, 2012
Sharing a Birthday with Hannibal Lector
Thanks to FlavorWire's infographic on the birthdays of famous (and not-so-famous) fictional characters, I know now I share a birthday with Hannibal Lector. We'll be serving fava beans, a nice chianti, and... not sure what kind of meat yet. No worries, though. Our butcher gets the freshest cuts.
Via the same infographic: my father gets MacGyver, which is so wrong (the show is schlock and Dad can hardly change a lightbulb), my Mom gets Jean-Luc Picard (whom I'm sure she's never heard of), while Patricia, poor Patricia, hardly a sci-fi fan, winds up with lesser sci-fi: Daniel Jackson of “Stargate SG-1.” Even *I* don't know who that is.
Nephews Jordy and Ryan share days with, respectively, Dr. Watson and Captain America. (That's more like it!) Grown-up nephew Casey gets Martin Riggs of “Lethal Weapon.” My sister Karen? Rick Peterson, “East Enders.” (Got nothing.) My brother Chris probably gets the best birthday companion: The King of Earth from “Time Stranger Kyoto.” I don't know who that is but it sounds impressive.
Time for the birthday cake, Clarice.
Friday April 20, 2012
Alex Rodriguez has now passed Ken Griffey, Jr. on the all-time homerun list. He hit his 631st in Boston today. He's now in sole posession of fifth place. Only Mays, Ruth, Aaron and Bonds are ahead of him.
I remember when Junior and A-Rod were on the same team—my team. I remember when they batted second and third in the order. Griffey was the heir apparent but the girls screamed for A-Rod like he was Sinatra. I remember one girl holding a homemade sign, a placard, about how heaven must be missing an angel. That was sweet back then. How far that angel has fallen.
I still think Junior got a raw deal. If he was clean, then he had his thunder stolen by the Mark McGwires, Sammy Sosas, and Alex Rodriguezes of the world. Junior was the heir apparent and got trampled on his way to 61, which he never quite made: 56 in ’97, 56 in ’98. In single-season numbers, that’s tied for 16th all-time with Hack Wilson. Of the 15 seasons above him, we can give a pass to all the pre-1990s guys: Maris, Ruth (twice), Foxx and Greenberg. And of the remaining 10? How many are clean?
- Barry Bonds: 73
- Mark McGwire: 70
- Sammy Sosa: 66
- Mark McGwire: 65
- Sammy Sosa: 64
- Sammy Sosa: 63
- Ryan Howard: 58
- Mark McGwire: 58
- Luis Gonzalez: 57
- Alex Rodriguez: 57
Seriously, who isn’t suspect on this list? Only Ryan Howard. Everyone else is or feels tainted. If Junior was clean, then he was doing something no one else was doing legitimately. He should’ve been all alone up there. Instead it was like December 23rd at O’Hare Airport. Even single-engine planes like Brady Anderson were getting in his way.
So hat-tip and all, but like most of us I have no love for A-Rod. Even if he hadn’t tested positive for PEDs, even if he didn’t always act like the head of public relations for Alex Rodriguez, Inc., even if he didn’t abandon the Seattle Mariners for all the big bucks in Texas, his homeruns were never things of beauty. He muscled a lot of pitches over the opposite-field wall. He’d hit it and you couldn’t believe it would go out… then it would. With Junior, after his perfect swing, the only question was second or third deck.
Friday April 20, 2012
Misspelling of the Day
From a keyword search that wound up at my site the other day:
+OLDEST PICTURES/BEFORE JAMIE MOYER
Unless he meant Dorian Gray.
Friday April 20, 2012
Book Review: I Never Had It Made by Jackie Robinson
During the baseball strike of 1994-95 I read a lot of books on baseball, then wrote reviews of what I'd read. I did that all the time back then. I wanted to remember why I felt something rather than just what I felt. I suppose it's led to what I do here. This review, which I came upon while researching potentional Jackie Robinson Day posts, was written in April 1995, just as Judge Sotomayor was telling the boys of summer to shake hands and play ball already...
Don’t purchase I Never Had It Made, Jackie Robinson’s autobiography, expecting to read a lot about baseball. He’s retired before we’re halfway in. The 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers are given less than a page. I understand he wants to be known as more than just a ballplayer, but, let’s face it, working at Chock Full O'Nuts isn’t exactly why Jackie Robinson is an important figure in American history.
And where’s the famous fire? Recounting the race-baiting from the dugout of the 1947 Philadelphia Phillies, which included racial epithets, black cats thrown onto the field, and the Phillies players leveling their bats at Jackie and making machine gun noises, Jackie comments thus: “It was an incredibly childish display of bad will.” That same year, Dodgers pitcher Hugh Casey, losing a poker game, said to Jackie, “‘You know what I used to do down in Georgia when I ran into bad luck?.... I used to go out and find me the biggest, blackest nigger woman I could find and rub her teats to change my luck.’” The reader expects an explosion but it’s as if Jackie, the writer, is still trapped in 1947, and turns the other cheek. “I don't believe there was a man in that game, including me, who thought that I could take that,” Jackie writes. “Finally, I made myself turn to the dealer and told him to deal the cards.” Really? That’s it? What was your relationship like with your teammate after that? How could you play on the same team? Did you seethe watching him pitch? Anything?
Not only is little said about his baseball life, but little is said about how his baseball life affected African Americans. Maybe he worried such a chapter would seem self-serving.
Instead we get advertisements for Chock Full O’ Nuts:
Soon Bill Black was in the restaurant business offering a limited number of rapidly prepared items at reasonable prices and with swift and polite service.
We get press releases for politicians:
The Nelson Rockefeller personal charm and charisma had now become legendary.
We get the bourgeois existence of Jackie and Rachel Robinson. They buy a house in Connecticut. Their children have problems with fame and drugs. Rachel, trying to establish her own identity, denies that she's married to Jackie Robinson, which so worries her she consults a psychologist.
For the most part Jackie seems to be justifying his post-baseball actions. Why did he support Nixon in 1960? Why did he support Nelson Rockefeller? How can he live in Connecticut? Wasn't he involved in a takeover at Freedom Bank?
Perhaps this is why the book seems unfairly weighted towards his post-baseball life. His baseball life needs no such justification.
--April 18, 1995
Thursday April 19, 2012
Quote of the Day
“Anyone who reads advice books about romance has one problem to begin with: bad taste in literature.”
—Opening line of Roger Ebert's review of the new movie “Think Like a Man.”
Thursday April 19, 2012
Movie Review: Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2012)
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is an inspirational movie but not in the way most movies are inspirational. Most movies, if they inspire us, inspire us to dance, to fight, to do whatever the protagonist is doing. “Jiro,” the documentary, and Jiro, the man, inspire us to keep plugging away at whatever it is we’re doing.
“Once you decide on your occupation you must immerse yourself in your work,” Jiro Ono, the 85-year-old master sushi chef tells us early on. “Never complain about your job. You must dedicate your life to mastering your skill. That’s the secret of success.”
At least that’s the secret to his success. Which , thanks to documentarian David Gelb, isn’t much of a secret anymore.
“Only one can be best; I buy that one.”
Jiro’s been working with sushi for 75 years. He’s called an artist, a symphony conductor, a maestro. He runs a nondescript countertop restaurant that seats eight in a Tokyo subway; but it’s a two-month wait to get a seat for a sushi meal that costs ¥30,000. (About US$369.) His is the only counter joint that has a three-star Michelin rating. Other sushi chefs tremble in his wake.
And he hasn’t perfected it. He’s still working at it. Hell, he works at it at night. He dreams of sushi. Thus the title.
We watch his methods in action. His sushi is bought fresh every day. He buys only the best tuna, only the best rice. Most octopus tastes rubbery so Jiro has his octopus massaged for 45 minutes. It used to be 30 minutes but he kept improving it. “If 10 tuna are for sale, only one can be best,” says his tuna guy. “I buy that one.” Then Jiro buys it from him.
He strives for simplicity and balance: just the right wasabi, the right sauce, the right pressure—like holding a baby chick—as the sushi is assembled. He used to serve appetizers but no more. He wants nothing to get in the way of the flavor of the sushi. The meal ends with tamagoyaki, a kind of small omelet, and we hear an apprentice talk about how he was finally allowed to make the tamagoyaki after 10 years of service. Even then he made it wrong. Only after 400 tries did Jiro nod and tell him he’d succeeded. That success, he said, made him want to cry.
Sacrifices are made, obviously, but one gets the feeling Jiro doesn’t see them as sacrifices. “Jiro dislikes holidays,” says Yamamoto, a food critic prominent in the documentary. “They are too long for him.” One of Jiro’s sons recounts how, when he was a small boy, he saw his father sleeping on the couch and called to his mother about the strange man sleeping in the living room. Does Jiro regret it? So little time spent with his kids? We’re not sure. His mask in this regard is old-school and inscrutable. “I wasn’t much of a father,” he admits, but adds, “I let them graduate high school.” How nice. Both sons are now in the family business. The eldest, Yoshikazu, 50, fetches the fish at the morning market on his bicycle and basically runs things. The youngest, Takashi, knowing the restaurant would be bequeathed to Yoshikazu, started his own sushi place at a nearby mall. Both are successful men but both live in Jiro’s long shadow.
That’s part of the drama of the doc: What’s it like to follow in that wake? A former apprentice sympathizes with or pities Yoshikazu. How awful to not have your own place at 50, he says. How awful to live in that shadow. He doesn’t think Yoshikazu will ever get out from under it. “Jiro’s ghost will always be there, watching,” he says. But Yoshikazu seems less haunted than this former apprentice. Indeed, at the end of the doc, we’re informed that when the Michelin food critics were served, it was Yoshkazu serving them. It was his sushi that earned the three-star rating.
The doc has holes. What did Jiro do during World War II? What did he think? Do we see his wife? Is she mentioned? Is she alive?
More, the secret to Jiro’s success—find the thing, keep doing the thing, keep perfecting the thing, until you die—are justified because, well, he’s a success. There is reward for his hard work. There’s recognition and honor and customers. There’s this doc. But how was he recognized? How did it become known that his was the best sushi in Tokyo, in Japan, in the world? We don’t get that. How long did Jiro toil without recognition? And during this time, did he have doubts? Did he ever feel like he was wasting his life focusing on this one thing?
In this way, Jiro’s story feels like the flip-side of Anvil’s, those middle-aged, Canadian, heavy-metal rockers profiled in another excellent documentary, “Anvil! The Story of Anvil,” from 2008. Those guys kept doing the one thing, perfecting the one thing, but, after a time, they were no longer able to make a living at the one thing. They had their fans, almost like a cult, but never broke the way you need to break. They kept on but they had to get other jobs, and struggled, and kept trying to break through at an unseemly age. You left the theater wondering whether they were inspirational or delusional. You left feeling slightly sick to your stomach.
You don’t wonder this with Jiro. The mood of the doc is of a life well-spent rather than a life wasted. The soundtrack is classical, Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto in D Major, Opus 35, rather than hair metal. It feels timeless and proper. I’m sure Jiro is a better artist with sushi than Anvil is with music. I wouldn’t be surprised if he tried harder, too, and gave up more. But the secret to his success isn’t necessarily a route to success for others. Doing the one thing, over and over, guarantees nothing.
“Jiro Dreams of Sushi” is still worth seeing. It’s a tonic for a certain kind of American moviegoer like me, since it celebrates patience, and experience, and the pursuit of perfection. It celebrates things that are given merely lip service in my increasingly loutish and cruddy country.
Wednesday April 18, 2012
Jamie Moyer Keeps the Aspidistra Flying
From 1998 to 2002 I wrote the Seattle Mariners player profiles for The Grand Salami, an alternative (which is to say: good) program and scorecard sold outside Safeco Field. Here's what I said about a 38-year-old Jamie Moyer for the June 2001 issue:
Jamie Moyer (50)
Position: Starting pitcher
Height: 6'0,“ Weight: 175
Throws: Left, Bats: Left
Born: 11-18-62 in Sellersville, PA
Signed thru: 2002 season
Family: wife, Karen, and four children: Dillon, Hutton, Timoney, and Duffy
Major League Debut: June 16, 1986, with Chicago Cubs (victorious starting pitcher against the Phillies)
Acquired: from Boston, in exchange for Darren Bragg (July 30, 1996)
Quote: ”My job is to get another ground ball and get out of the inning."
When Jamie Moyer wins his 10th game this season he'll pass Mark Langston for second on the all-time Mariners win list with 75. If there's one thing Jamie Moyer knows how to do, it's win ballgames. Since he arrived in our evergreen state in the middle of the 1996 season he's gone 6-2, 17-5, 15-9, 14-8, and 13-10. Even this season, with his strikeout-walk ratio a not-so-hot 23-14, and his ERA an unhealthy 5.28, and the ball flying out of the yard at an alarming rate (11 dingers in 44+ innings pitched), he's still standing tall at 6-1. Which is fine, but we fear some of the other numbers might catch up to him. Has he healed completely from his shoulder injury last April? Is it age? He still worries us. As for becoming the winningest pitcher in Mariner history, well, that'll take some work yet: RJ holds the mark with 130.
Is-it-age. I've got my nerve.
Jamie won 20 that year and 21 two years later. By the time the M's traded him to the Philadelphia Phillies in August 2006 (for Andrew Barb and Andy Baldwin: Thank you, Bill Bavasi!), he'd set the team record for wins with 145, innings pitched with 2,093 and games started with 323. He was second in strikeouts to Randy (he's now third, after Felix), with the lowest walks-per-9-innings-pitched ratio: 2.25. That holds.
Jamie holds. He just won a game for the Colorado Rockies at the age of 49. He's the oldest pitcher to ever win a Major League baseball game.
Forty-nine. That's my age. He's actually two months older than me. Stunning. I've got no words.
Well, I've got these words: Keep the Aspidistra flying. That's a novel by George Orwell, describing an Asian flowering plant, but it might as well describe Jamie Moyer's fluttering, floating change-up.
I should add: I have a friend who's familiar with a lot of the players that have come through the Seattle Mariners locker room, and she's says most of those players are what you'd expect from highly skilled and pampered professional athletes. But two, she says, are class acts and gentlemen: Raul Ibanez and Jamie Moyer. Both are still in there.
Keep the aspidistra flying, Jamie.
Wednesday April 18, 2012
What's the Sweet Spot for Nostalgia: 20 Years? 40? Or Is It All About the Boomers?
I got some smart reaction to the post the other day about Adam Gopnik's “Mad Men”-inspired 40-Year Golden Rule on nostalgia. I basically argued for 20 years.
From Larry Rosen:
Ridiculous thesis statement by Gopnik. The sweet spot for nostalgia moves at exactly the same pace as baby boomers age.
From Chris Knapp:
I agree with your rejoinder to Gopnik on the nostalgia cycle. Twenty years is the primary lookback because nostalgia is typically about recapturing a feeling of innocence or wonderment — and so for most creators it means looking back to when they were 11-12 (maybe 13) years old. MAD MEN is the exception rather than the rule, because it is not looking back at Matthew Wiener's “age of innocence” but at the apex (and subsequent erosion) of American credulity. In that sense MAD MEN is not really a nostalgia tale but fits more in the genre of tragedy.
Joan wants to know what you think.
Wednesday April 18, 2012
New Yorker Magazine Paints Ted Nugent as Funny and Unfiltered
Here's what Ted Nugent said at an NRA convention last week:
If Barack Obama becomes the president in November, again, I will be either be dead or in jail by this time next year.
Here's what Reeves Wiedeman writes on the New Yorker site today:
This second-act version of Ted Nugent may seem manic, but on inspection it’s clearly more rehearsed. I doubt anything Nugent said to me was something he had never said before. His answers are so print-ready (and, let’s be honest, often pretty funny), that it seems unlikely he’s freestyling. I suspect Nugent’s comments this weekend were not off the cuff, but meant squarely for the audience he was addressing. Whether this is simply ignorant and depressing, or actually dangerous, depends on your view of the power of rhetoric. (If the President can’t convince people of something, can Ted Nugent?)
Not only is Nugent's comment dumb and dangeorous, so is New Yorker's commentary. Obama is trying to convince a majority, or a supermajority, of people. Ted Nugent needs to convince only one.
Wednesday April 18, 2012
Guns Guns Guns: An Overview of Jill Lepore's BATTLEGROUND AMERICA Article
Have you read Jill Lepore's article, “Battleground America: One Nation, Under the Gun,” in the latest New Yorker? You should. It's necessary reading. It details one way our country has gone insane since the 1970s. We keep bowing to the wrong people: Grover Norquist, Rush Llimbaugh, the NRA. They're ruining our country. We're letting them.
Lepore visits a firing range, the American Firearms School, near Providence, R.I. She visits the biggest gun show in New England, in West Springfield, Mass. She delves into the history: how state after state in the 19th century adopted laws against concealed weapons. She quotes the Governor of Texas in 1893: The “mission of the concealed deadly weapon is murder,“ he said. ”To check it is the duty of every self-respecting, law-abiding man.” Yes: Texas.
She reminds us that the NRA was once a gun club. It was about firearms safety. Then there was a coup in the late 1970s in Cincinnati and it became what it became: a loud, angry, lobbying organization that fueled paranoia among its members. She reminds us how the Second Amendment was once interpretted by the U.S. Supreme Court: How, in 1939, in U.S. v. Miller, FDR’s solicitor general, Robert H. Jackson, “argued that the Second Amendment is 'restricted to the keeping and bearing of arms by the people collectively for their common defense and security.' Furthermore, Jackson said, the language of the amendment makes clear that the right 'is not one which may be utilized for private purposes but only one which exists where the arms are borne in the militia or some other military organization provided for by law and intended for the protection of the state.' The Court agreed, unanimously.” Those were the days.
Some facts worth noting:
The United States is the country with the highest rate of civilian gun ownership in the world. (The second highest is Yemen, where the rate is nevertheless only half that of the U.S.) No civilian population is more powerfully armed. Most Americans do not, however, own guns, because three-quarters of people with guns own two or more. According to the General Social Survey, conducted by the National Policy Opinion Center at the University of Chicago, the prevalence of gun ownership has declined steadily in the past few decades. In 1973, there were guns in roughly one in two households in the United States; in 2010, one in three. In 1980, nearly one in three Americans owned a gun; in 2010, that figure had dropped to one in five. ...
Gun ownership is higher among whites than among blacks, higher in the country than in the city, and higher among older people than among younger people. One reason that gun ownership is declining, nationwide, might be that high-school shooting clubs and rifle ranges at summer camps are no longer common.
Because the NRA is too busy lobbying.
A positive: NRA members appear to be less nuts than its leadership:
Gun owners may be more supportive of gun-safety regulations than is the leadership of the N.R.A. According to a 2009 Luntz poll, for instance, requiring mandatory background checks on all purchasers at gun shows is favored not only by eighty-five per cent of gun owners who are not members of the N.R.A. but also by sixty-nine per cent of gun owners who are.
Its history is also more tempered than we've been led to believe:
The National Rifle Association was founded in 1871 by two men, a lawyer and a former reporter from the New York Times. For most of its history, the N.R.A. was chiefly a sporting and hunting association. To the extent that the N.R.A. had a political arm, it opposed some gun-control measures and supported many others, lobbying for new state laws in the nineteen-twenties and thirties, which introduced waiting periods for handgun buyers and required permits for anyone wishing to carry a concealed weapon. It also supported the 1934 National Firearms Act—the first major federal gun-control legislation—and the 1938 Federal Firearms Act, which together created a licensing system for dealers and prohibitively taxed the private ownership of automatic weapons (“machine guns”). ... In 1957, when the N.R.A. moved into new headquarters, its motto, at the building’s entrance, read, “Firearms Safety Education, Marksmanship Training, Shooting for Recreation.” It didn’t say anything about freedom, or self-defense, or rights.
Then in the 1960s our leaders were killed. JFK. MLK. RFK. Gun control became a common conversation. Here's a nice irony:
Gun-rights arguments have their origins not in eighteenth-century Anti-Federalism but in twentieth-century liberalism. They are the product of what the Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has called the “rights revolution,” the pursuit of rights, especially civil rights, through the courts. In the nineteen-sixties, gun ownership as a constitutional right was less the agenda of the N.R.A. than of black nationalists. In a 1964 speech, Malcolm X said, “Article number two of the constitutional amendments provides you and me the right to own a rifle or a shotgun.” Establishing a constitutional right to carry a gun for the purpose of self-defense was part of the mission of the Black Panther Party for Self-Defense, which was founded in 1966.
The NRA picked up on the Black Power rhetoric:
In the nineteen-seventies, the N.R.A. began advancing the argument that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to carry a gun, rather than the people’s right to form armed militias to provide for the common defense. Fights over rights are effective at getting out the vote. Describing gun-safety legislation as an attack on a constitutional right gave conservatives a power at the polls that, at the time, the movement lacked. Opposing gun control was also consistent with a larger anti-regulation, libertarian, and anti-government conservative agenda. In 1975, the N.R.A. created a lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, headed by Harlon Bronson Carter, an award-winning marksman and a former chief of the U.S. Border Control. But then the N.R.A.’s leadership decided to back out of politics and move the organization’s headquarters to Colorado Springs, where a new recreational-shooting facility was to be built. Eighty members of the N.R.A.’s staff, including Carter, were ousted. In 1977, the N.R.A.’s annual meeting, usually held in Washington, was moved to Cincinnati, in protest of the city’s recent gun-control laws. Conservatives within the organization, led by Carter, staged what has come to be called the Cincinnati Revolt. The bylaws were rewritten and the old guard was pushed out. Instead of moving to Colorado, the N.R.A. stayed in D.C., where a new motto was displayed: “The Right of the People to Keep and Bear Arms Shall Not Be Infringed.”
Ronald Reagan was the first NRA president and he was shot two months after he took the Oath of Office. The irony was lost on everyone. The act of John Hinckley seemed to make the NRA stronger:
In 1986, the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment achieved new legal authority with the passage of the Firearms Owners Protection Act, which repealed parts of the 1968 Gun Control Act by invoking “the rights of citizens . . . to keep and bear arms under the Second Amendment.” This interpretation was supported by a growing body of scholarship, much of it funded by the N.R.A. According to the constitutional-law scholar Carl Bogus, at least sixteen of the twenty-seven law-review articles published between 1970 and 1989 that were favorable to the N.R.A.’s interpretation of the Second Amendment were “written by lawyers who had been directly employed by or represented the N.R.A. or other gun-rights organizations.” In an interview, former Chief Justice Warren Burger said that the new interpretation of the Second Amendment was “one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special-interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Between 1968 and 2012, the idea that owning and carrying a gun is both a fundamental American freedom and an act of citizenship gained wide acceptance and, along with it, the principle that this right is absolute and cannot be compromised; gun-control legislation was diluted, defeated, overturned, or allowed to expire; the right to carry a concealed handgun became nearly ubiquitous; Stand Your Ground legislation passed in half the states; and, in 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled, in a 5–4 decision, that the District’s 1975 Firearms Control Regulations Act was unconstitutional. Justice Scalia wrote, “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia.” Two years later, in another 5–4 ruling, McDonald v. Chicago, the Court extended Heller to the states.
All of these victories mean nothing. The NRA remains a paranoid organization. They're paranoid about Pres. Obama. “If this President gets a second term, he will appoint one to three Supreme Court justices,” says David Keene, 66, the N.R.A.’s current president. “If he does, he could reverse Heller and McDonald, which is unlikely, but, more likely, they will restrict those decisions.” Keene is worried about losing any ground. He's standing his ground. Actually he's moving forward. He's advancing on us. Yes, Lepore also writes about Trayvon Martin, and Chardon High School outside Cleveland. She doesn't write about Ted Nugent seeming to threaten the life of the president of the United States, for which he refuses to apologize. He's standing his ground, too. No, he's advancing on us. Mouth flapping. Waving something.
Keene and Nugent are paranoid about the wrong things. They see enemies where there are none. Their true enemy is themselves. The dwindling number of Americans who own and use guns is their fault. The NRA used to be a gun club, about gun safety, but they decided to spend all their time lobbying instead. So now we have what we have: laxer gun laws than at any time since the early 19th century, and fewer and fewer people utilizing them. Crazy people get to carry concealed weapons.
Lepore is right. We're a nation under the gun. Our society is sick. It doesn't know how sick:
One in three Americans knows someone who has been shot. As long as a candid discussion of guns is impossible, unfettered debate about the causes of violence is unimaginable. Gun-control advocates say the answer to gun violence is fewer guns. Gun-rights advocates say that the answer is more guns: things would have gone better, they suggest, if the faculty at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and Chardon High School had been armed. That is the logic of the concealed-carry movement; that is how armed citizens have come to be patrolling the streets. That is not how civilians live. When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.
A gun show in Houston, which are, like classified ads for gun sales, unregulated.
Tuesday April 17, 2012
Guillen & Loria: The New Abbott & Costello
“It’ll never be boring with him.“
-- Miami Marlins' owner Jeff Loria, about manager Ozzie Guillen before the ”I love Fidel Castro, I respect Fidel Castro“ controversy that led to his five-game suspension last week. The above quote is taken from the April 9th New Yorker article ”Old Fish, New Fish: The Marlins get a Miami makeover,“ by Ben McGrath.
At one point in the article, just before Loria says the above, he and Guillen engage in what sounds like an Abbott & Costello ”Who's On First" routine. It's really someone rational trying to follow the logic of someone who is ... less so:
Guillen: If I get this man [Loria] to where he should be, it gonna be a raise.
Loria: The World Series?
Guillen: Oh, no, that’s up to them. [Nods toward players on field.]
Loria: Oh, so they should get the raise.
Guillen: I get paid to win World Series.
Loria [impatient]: O.K. So just do it.
Guillen [nods toward players again]: They gonna do it. My job? Hey, listen, if I get involved in the game more often, that means we’re horseshit. See, I stay away from them? That means we winning.
The full article, worthwhile, can be read here.
Guillen and Loria practice their routine earlier this year.
Tuesday April 17, 2012
Adam Gopnik on 'Mad Men' and Nostalgia: Is He Off by 20 years?
I'm a fan but hackles were raised early in Adam Gopnik's New Yorker piece, “The Forty-Year Itch,” about nostalgia and “Mad Men.” He writes that...
...it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.
My immediate thought: Shouldn't that be the 20-year rule? In the 1960s, “Hogan's Heroes” and “Batman,” which was a satire of the 1949 serial “Batman & Robin,” “Happy Days” and “Grease” in the 1970s, and “That '70s Show” in the 1990s. The 20-year gap seems primed to allow for kids to grow up and attain a position of creative power, from which they render their childhood for everyone else. It allows the culture a period from which to grow up (or down), and miss (or disparage) what once was.
But Gopnik marshalls his 40-year arguments:
- 1940s: “Meet Me in St. Louis,” “The Magnificent Ambersons,” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” all set during the first decade of the 20th century.
- 1950s: “The Seven Little Foys” and “A Night to Remember”: weak arguments.
- 1960s: Apparently there was a series called “The Roaring Twenties”? Musically, though, you had “Westminster Cathedral” and the '20s pastiche numbers of a Beatles-era Paul McCartney: “When I'm 64,” “Your Mother Should Know,” “Honey Pie,” etc. But that's Paulie more than the culture, isn't it? Please don't tell me, Adam, that your argument hinges on the oddities of little Paul McCartney.
- 1970s: “The Sting” and “Paper Moon” and... that's it. A better argument is “Star Wars,” which, though it took place a long ago, was like a compressed 1930s serial with better special effects. A better argument: “Annie” on Broadway.
- 1980s: “Raiders of the Lost Ark” (which Gopnik mistakenly places during World War II rather than 1936), “Hope and Glory,” “Empire of the Sun” and “Biloxi Blues.” But didn't the greater WWII-era nostalgia come about in the late '90s/early '00s with Brokaw's book, Spielberg's movie, and HBO's “Band of Brothers.” So is that the 50-to-60 year cycle?
- 1990s: a '50s-era love for Hush Puppies and Converse All-Stars? Plus skinny ties? I'm not feeling it. It wasn't like the greaser love we had in the blow-dried 1970s.
And that brings us to the '00s and “Mad Men.”
Further down, Gopnik admits that the 40-year nostalgia cyle...
...carries epicycles within it: the twenty-year cycle, for instance, by which the forty-somethings recall their teen-age years, producing in the seventies a smaller wave of fifties nostalgia to dance demurely alongside the longing for the thirties.
A smaller wave? From where I sat in the 1970s, which was generally on the floor watching TV as a teenager, the '50s boomed: “Happy Days,” “Grease,” Sha-Na-Na, and ultimately “Diner,” which was early '60s, but was released in the early '80s. Twenty-year cycle again.
The bigger point, which Gopnik doesn't delve into, is whether the 20-year or 40-year set piece is true nostalgia (a wish for a pristine, simpler time) or anti-nostalgia (mocking that earlier, dopier time). The first season of “Happy Days,” for example, never felt particularly happy to me. It was only later, with the rise of Fonzie, that the ostensible lead, Richie Cunningham, came out ahead at the end of each episode. Before that, the “Happy Days” title always felt a trifle ironic to me: an antidote for those who doted on the '50s.
“Mad Men” is even stronger in this regard. The show is advertised nostalgically (when men were men and women were curvy and more easily fondled) but presents such a horrific vision of chauvinism that even a semi-chauvinist like myself longs for women's lib to come along and right the damn ship. The show, beloved for its early '60s fashions, which are about to disappear in a haze of pot smoke and long hair and hippie, bearded naturalism, seems as much a comment on our times as its times. Think of that early scene when Sally Draper plays spaceman with the dry cleaner bag over her head and her mother warns that the clothes that were in that bag better be in good shape, young lady. Modern audiences laugh: “She's not concerned her daughter will suffocate!” At the same time, deep down, we know we're overconcerned. Back then, adults were adults and kids seemed unbreakable. Now there's something childish about us even as we treat our kids like fragile objects: carrying them from playdate to playdate.
In the end I think there's nothing golden about Gopnik's 40-year rule. And better to concentrate on what the nostalgic piece says about us. Do we think we're hipper now (which is how we got “Batman”), too complicated (which is why we needed “Happy Days”), without national purpose (thus “Greatest Generation”), or uptight (why we long for “Mad Men”)?
There's always something wrong with the present; there's always something good somewhere in the past.
“Mad Men”: Buttoned-up but revealiing our modern uptightness.
Monday April 16, 2012
Movie Review: Iron Man (2008)
In “Iron Man,” we learn that one man can make a difference.
No, not Iron Man. I’m talking Robert Downey, Jr., who turns one of the most boring Marvel superheroes into one of its most engaging. That frenetic, super-intelligent quality Downey had way back in 1987’s “The Pick-Up Artist”—mouth unable to keep up with mind—has, by this film, been disciplined and tempered. He’s less wild-eyed. There’s a stillness to him as he talks to and over people. His lines are free of bullshit and niceties. They’re lean and clever. “Give me a scotch,” he tells a bartender, “I’m starving.”
Here he is in Afghanistan before the shit goes down:
Soldier: Is it cool if I take a picture with you?
Stark: Yes, it's very cool.
[Soldier poses with a peace sign]
Stark: I don't want to see this on your MySpace page. Please no gang signs.
[Soldier lowers hand]
Stark: No, throw it up. I'm kidding. Yeah, peace. I love peace. I'd be out of a job for peace.
The soldier says the first line, Stark the next three. It’s monologue as dialogue. Iron Man flies rings around people but it’s not nearly as fun as watching Tony Stark talk rings around people. “Iron Man” is a superhero movie, and thus wish fulfillment, but, for me, the wish fulfillment is less the power of Iron Man than the quick wit of Tony Stark. What I wouldn’t give.
Is he too engaging? He makes a great change in this movie—from weapons manufacturer to weapon; from worry-free, playboy billionaire to worried, playboy billionaire—and we like him on either side of this chasm. Worry-free, he tells a Vanity Fair reporter, “Peace means having a bigger stick than the other guy,” and it makes sense. There’s something horribly cynical in Stark Industry’s “Freedom Line” of missiles but it barely registers against Downey’s great line readings:
Stark: That's how Dad did it. That's how America does it. And it's worked out pretty well so far.
Until it doesn’t.
His most indelible partner
In Afghanistan, Stark’s humvee caravan is attacked and he’s taken hostage. The scenes are chilling and familiar: the captured, helpless westerner; the gun held to his head; the shouted demands.
Stark loses consciousness clutching at his chest, against which a pool of blood is slowly spreading, and he wakes up in a cave with wires coming out of his chest and hooked up to a car battery. Nearby, a tall, thin Afghani calmly washes his hands. “What have you done to me?” Stark demands in a kind of “Kings Row” moment. Saved you, it turns out. The shrapnel is inching toward Stark’s heart. The battery keeps the shrapnel in place and Stark alive.
Throughout the movie, Downey plays well with others—Rhodey (Terrence Howard), his military buddy, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his gal Friday, and even Jarvis (voice of Paul Bettany), his household-wide computer system—but his most indelible partner is really this tall, thin Afghani. Yinsen (Shaun Toeb), another captive, not only saves him physically but spiritually. The lines he says to him are lean and existential.
First, he gets him going again:
Stark: Why should I do anything? They're going to kill me, you, either way. And if they don't, I'll probably be dead in a week.
Yinsen: Well then, this is a very important week for you, isn't it?
Then, as they work on what’s supposed to be the new “Jericho Missile” for the terrorists, but is really the Iron Man suit to combat the terrorists, Yinsen makes him realize the emptiness of his life:
Stark: You got a family?
Yinsen: Yes. And I will see them when I leave here. And you, Stark?
Stark: [quiet] No.
Yinsen: So you're a man who has everything, and nothing.
Finally, Yinsen sacrifices himself so that Stark, and Iron Man, may live. Stark creates a powerful arc reactor for his chest, which keeps his heart going and powers the Iron Man suit. But the bad guys are closing in, the progress bar is taking its own sweet time (as progress bars in movies do), so Yinsen creates a diversion that lets Tony suit up. Of course Yinsen’s shot. Of course he dies. Dying words in movies are usually lame, but Yinsen’s are poignant:
Stark: Come on, you're going to go see your family. Get up.
Yinsen: My family is dead, Stark... and I'm going to see them now.
Then he gives Tony his raison d’etre: “Don’t waste it.” Afer that, Iron Man, in that clunky original outfit, goes out and wastes him some terrorists.
The incredible shrinking brain of Pepper Potts
A Yinsenian question: Does the movie waste its stellar beginning? “Iron Man” is one of the great superhero movies as of this writing (Spring 2012), but it’s not without its problems. And its two biggest problems are both from the second half.
Here’s the first: Pepper Potts gets stupid.
What happens? She’s so smart initially. “Taking out the trash.” “I hate job hunting.” Then, in the last half hour, she begins to act all flustered and female and running-around-on-high-heels dumb.
After captivity, Tony returns demanding a cheeseburger and a press conference, and while eating the former at the latter he tells the assembled that Stark Industries isn’t making weapons anymore. He’s got his new raison d’etre from Yinsen, he’s seen American soldiers killed with his weapons, and he wants no part of it anymore. Others, notably Obadiah Stane (Jeff Bridges), attempt to wrest control of the company from him, but Tony, even as he creates a newer, better IM suit, stays the course. At one point, suiting up, he tells Pepper, who already knows he’s Iron Man, “I’m going to find all my weapons and destroy them.” She says, “Well, then I quit.”
Really? Does she like Stark Industries as is? Does she like making her living off of weapons that kill millions of people?
But that’s not her rationale. She says, with a loud, tremulous voice, “You’re going to kill yourself, Tony. I’m not going to be a part of it!”
She cares. About him. The millions who die because of his weapons? Whatever.
Don’t even get me started on the push-the-damn-button-already finale:
Iron Man: [under fire] Time to hit the button!
Pepper: You told me not to...
Iron Man: JUST DO IT!
Pepper: YOU'LL DIE!
Iron Man: PUSH IT!
Seriously, you think with his money he could get better help.
The sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane
That’s the first big problem of the second-half of the movie. Here’s the second: the sudden omnipresence of Obadiah Stane.
He’s a background figure for most of “Iron Man” ... until it’s revealed that he’s its main villain. The attack on Tony by the terrorists? He orchestrated it. He wanted Tony gone. He didn’t like being in the shadow of this 40-year-old wunderkind who created all the weapons that made him rich and famous. He tries to kill his golden goose. We’ll leave that one alone.
But not this one. Suddenly he’s everywhere. Here’s what he does:
- He goes to Afghanistan, stuns the Ten Rings terrorist leader, and orders him and his men killed and their camp destroyed.
- Then he shows up in LA, where Pepper is downloading his secret “ghost” computer files that reveal all. (Cue progress bar again.) By the time he goes after her, she’s already hooked onto Agent Coulson of S.H.I.E.L.D. (Clark Gregg, in a great, recurring role), and that’s that.
- Instead he goes to the lab and berates his scientists for not coming up with the necessary components to make his own iron suit. A great line-reading here from Bridges: “Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!”
- At which point we cut to Tony Stark’s place, where someone is coming up behind him. We assume it’s Pepper with a warning. But it’s Obadiah with the paralyzing doohickey. After which he takes the arc reactor from his chest, taunts him a bit, and leaves him to die.
You’re free to ask, as I did, where the hell Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson are during all of this. Writing reports? In a debriefing? I assumed when they left Obadiah’s that they were going to secure Tony’s place. Instead, they’re driving around town, on what errand, and send Rhodey to meet up with Tony. Rhodey shows up late. Tony, heartless, saves himself.
Basically Pepper and Coulson leave the Stark Industries building only to return to the Stark Industries building, by which point Obadiah has managed to, 1) berate his scientists, 2) get the arc reactor from Tony’s chest, and 3) make the Iron Monger suit operational. Basically Pepper and Coulson do what adults do when racing children: they take baby steps. Otherwise the story wouldn’t have its slam-bang finale.
The CGI battle between Iron Man and Iron Monger goes on too long for me, but I know I’m in the minority. I would’ve ended the fight with “How’d you solve the icing problem?” It’s Tony winning through smarts. Instead he wins with luck.
But the movie ends on a high note: “I am Iron Man.” Can’t get much better than that.
Homage to Stan and Jack and Don and Jerry and Joe and...
Overall, “Iron Man” works as well as it does because it’s got something for everyone. It’s got explosions and CGI fights for those folks, and it’s got wit and energy for me folks. It’s got three gigajoules worth of energy.
But let’s talk smart for a moment. One of my favorite lines is during the scene when Obadiah paralyzes Tony and takes his arc reactor and leaves him to die. Here’s what he says as Tony lies paralyzed:
Obadiah: You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?
It’s my assumption that one of the screenwriters, Mark Fergus or Hawk Ostby or Art Marcum or Matt Holloway, and/or director Jon Favreau, meant this as an homage to Don Heck, who helped create Iron Man back in 1963, and to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, who created almost every decent superhero in the Marvel universe in the early 1960s, and to Jerry Siegel and Joe Schuster, who started the whole thing with Superman in the 1930s, all of whom never owned their own characters. They had ideas that never belonged to them. The line is a sly, winking homage to all of those salaried, ink-stained writers and artists, wretches all, who did the work and created the heroes and then saw the companies they worked for make millions and billions off of these ideas while their creations were taken away from them; while they were given take-it-or-leave-it offers; while they were pushed aside.
“You think just because you have an idea it belongs to you?” If intentional, that’s one of the great smuggling jobs in movies; if not, it’s still wonderfully resonant. The villain says it to the hero as he’s taking life from the hero, but he’s just restating the bottom line of corporations like Marvel Comics and DC Comics and Paramount Pictures, all of those logos you see before the movie starts. In this context, these entities are the villains. We know who the heroes are.
Sunday April 15, 2012
Quotes of the Day: Jackie Robinson Edition
“Remember how he used to agitate on the bases? You never knew what he was going to do... So I decided I had better switch over and work from a stretch position. But you can see right there what happened—Robinson had broken my concentration. I was pitching more to Robinson than I was to Hodges, and as a result I threw one up into Gil's power and he got the base hit that beat me.”
“Carl Furillo got all the headlines the next day, and he deserved them, because he did the job. But I knew that it was Robinson who had distracted me just enough to get me to hang that curve.”
--Gene Conley, pitcher, Milwaukee Braves, most likely talking about a game, May 2, 1955, in which, in the bottom of the 12th inning, with one out, Robinson walked and Furillo followed with a 2-run, walk-off homer to beat the Braves 2-0.
It's stories like these, both from Donald Honig's oral history, “Baseball: Between the Lines,” which must give any sabremetrician pause about their ability to quantify every aspect of the game. Some stuff just doesn't show up in the stats.
Jackie Robinson, in 1955, breaking concentration
Sunday April 15, 2012
Eighty-Sixed: Remembering Jackie Robinson's No. 42
I wrote the following for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer on the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier. He did it on April 15, 1947, this piece appeared in April 1997, and 15 years later only one MLB player still regularly wears No. 42: Mariano Rivera of the New York Yankees, who may retire after this season.
Of course you can see No. 42, along with other retired numbers, in every ballpark across the country. You can see it on every ballplayer every April 15, when they all wear No. 42. It's also the working title of a Jackie Robinson biopic, starring Chadwick Boseman, currently in pre-production. But I still feel retiring No. 42 was a mistake. It's a hollow tribute to a great man...
Some friends and I were at the Kingdome a couple of years ago for a game between the Seattle Mariners and Boston Red Sox. We sat on the first base side and had a pretty good view of first baseman Mo Vaughn as he held a runner on. Specifically we had a good view of Mo's monumental back. And it made us wonder.
Did Mo wear No. 42 because of Jackie Robinson?
We began to notice the number on other ballplayers: Mariano Rivera of the Yankees, Tom Goodwin of the Royals, Seattle's own Mike Jackson. I admit that I assumed that the ballplayer shared the fan's sense of baseball history and chose the number for a reason; that everyone knew what it meant.
In no other sport are numbers so sacred. To the baseball fan, 3 means Babe Ruth. 7 Mickey Mantle. 21 is Roberto Clemente, 24 Willie Mays, 44 Henry Aaron. I wrote a short story once, a revisionist look at the Garden of Eden, which began, “On the 29th day, Adam and Eve were bored silly.” My writing class came up with various highfalutin reasons why I chose “29” but eventually I owned up to my pedestrian reasoning: it was Rod Carew's number. That's what 29 means to me. That's what 29 will always mean to me.
Similarly I associate 42 and Jackie Robinson.
Now it's gone. Major League Baseball, in attempting to honor the man who broke the color barrier, has retired the number across the board. No one will ever be issued No. 42 again. Players currently bearing the number can keep it for the time being. But once they're gone, it's gone.
This is true of clubs that weren't even around when Jackie Robinson played. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays don't even exist yet but they already have a retired number.
It's as if No. 42 is being erased from the game.
This wasn't true of the first retired number. That one belonged to Lou Gehrig, who, in the midst of a magnificent, gentlemanly career, was cut down by the disease that now bears his name. The circumstances were so heartbreaking that something special was required. But it wasn't Major League Baseball who retired No. 4; it was the New York Yankees. In effect, they retired his uniform. They were saying that no one else, no matter how good they are, will be fit to wear Gehrig's uniform. And they were right.
Number 4 for the Padres isn't Lou Gehrig. It may be Gehrig's number, it may even be a player wishing to emulate Lou Gehrig, but it's not Lou Gehrig. But at least the number, particularly on a good, stocky first baseman, will remind us of Lou Gehrig--the way that Mo Vaughn reminded us that day of Jackie Robinson.
This is what's so awful about the banishment of 42 from baseball. A link to baseball's past is being cut off. When Ken Griffey Jr. glides back to catch a ball, he evokes images of Willie Mays not simply because of his grace but because of the number on his back. Any number 44 sending one deep reminds us for a moment of Henry Aaron.
Listen to Mo Vaughn on the subject. He has been described by Rachel Robinson, Jackie's widow, as the modern player who most fully keeps her late husband's legacy alive. He is as ferocious on the field as he is charitable off it. So when Butch Huskey of the Mets, who also wears 42 to honor Robinson, asked what to do about pressure from the Players Union to stop wearing it, Vaughn told him to ignore them.
“Keep the legacy alive as long as you play,” Vaughn said.
Keep the legacy alive. Because once they stop wearing the number, the legacy is...dead?
Is this how Major League Baseball pays tribute to Jackie Robinson? With a hollow homage that prevents players from honoring Robinson in their own way? Some honor.
Sunday April 15, 2012
Hollywood B.O.: How Hunger Games Ranks with Lord of the Rings, The Dark Knight and Avatar
“The Hunger Games” has now done something only three films since 2001 have done: ranked No. 1 at the box office for four or more consecutive weeks. The other 21st-century movies to manage this feat are: “The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” which lasted four weeks in 2003-04; “The Dark Knight,” four weeks in the summer of 2008; and “Avatar,” seven weeks in 2009-10.
Here are Box Office Mojo's early estimates for the April 13-15 weekend:
|Rank||Movie||Wknd BO||Thtrs||Avg||Total BO|
|1||The Hunger Games||$21,500,000||3,916||$5,490||$337,070,000|
|2||The Three Stooges||$17,100,000||3,477||$4,918||$17,100,000|
|3||The Cabin in the Woods||$14,850,000||2,811||$5,283||$14,850,000|
|7||Wrath of the Titans||$6,905,000||3,102||$2,226||$71,251,000|
|8||21 Jump Street||$6,800,000||2,735||$2,486||$120,565,000|
|10||Dr. Seuss' The Lorax||$3,020,000||2,112||$1,430||$204,483,000|
Remaining No. 1 at the domestic box office for four weeks used to be fairly commonplace. How commonplace? Here are some of the less-than-stellr movies that managed it in the 1980s and '90s: “Never Say Never Again,” “Police Academy II: Their First Assignment,” “Uncle Buck,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Hot Shots,” “Hook,” “Basic Instinct,” “Under Siege,” and “Indecent Proposal.” Another multiplex in hell.
It was a yearly phenomenon, and generally a several-times-a-year phenomenon, until 2001. Then the game changed. Movies began opening wide, wider, widest. No more lines around the block. You went when you wanted, and most moviegoers wanted opening weekend. Movies became a “wham bam, thank-you, ma'am” phenomenon. They roared for a week, two if they were lucky, before dropping to a whisper, and then just dropping. I wrote about all of this back in 2006 for MSNBC.
Now it takes a truly stellar film, a repeat-viewing film, to remain on top more than two weeks.
So is “Hunger Games” in the same class as “Lord of the Rings: Return of the King,” “The Dark Knight,” and “Avatar”? Or is something else going on here?
The movie has certainly had help from its March release date. The others were released in July and December, prime movie months, and went up against huge blockbusters. Katniss and company have had to fend off relatively weak competition: “Wrath of the Titans,” “American Reunion,” and “The Three Stooges.”
Even so, “THG” is already at $337 million. Its opening weekend was in “Spider-Man 3” territory ($152m vs. $151m for Spidey), and its second weekend fell off by a similar percentage (61.6% vs. 61.5% for Spidey), but since then it's held stronger. “Spidey 3” deservedly plummeted: down +50% in its third and fourth weekends, while Katniss has fallen only 43% and 35%. Its descent keeps slowing. It's got a golden parachute. Maybe from a sponsor.
Can it make $400 million? Do you want to bet against Katniss?
Katniss, taking aim at titans and stooges.
Saturday April 14, 2012
Batman's Pal is ... King Joffrey?
I never liked that kid in “Batman Begins.” He's supposed to represent the innocent of Gotham who are being crushed by corruption, but who believe in Batman and will be saved by Batman, but it's a dull conceit, too obviously constructed, and requires, as the boy keeps showing up in the storyline, too many damned coincidences. Plus the kid is too wide-eyed and thin-lipped for me. He looked easily crushed. He's not a tough Gotham/NYC kid but, I don't know, something else. Something pampered and vaguely British.
Recently rewatching “Batman Begins,” I had an even greater aversion to the kid. It took a few beats before I placed him: He's the same actor, Jack Gleeson, who plays King Joffrey, the most insufferably pampered and British of boy-kings, in HBO's “Game of Thrones.”
At least they got him in the right role now.
Saturday April 14, 2012
The Symbiotic Relationship between the GOP and the Mainstream Media
It's pretty simple.
The mainstream media is interested in news, i.e., what's new, or, a la Slate.com, what's contrary to what we currently believe.
The GOP, particularly since the ascension of Karl Rove, has no scruples in discrediting its opponents.
So the GOP presents contrary images of Democrats, over which the mainstream media has a feeding frenzy.
Pres. Obama is somehow involved in a war on women, John Kerry's decorated Vietnam War record is suspect, Al Gore makes huge mistakes. Al Gore's mistakes are actually tiny, George W. Bush's are huge, but we all know Bush isn't that smart so that's not news. But Gore: He should know better.
Democrats attack Republicans for what they are, which isn't news. Republicans attack Democrats for what they are not, which is. It's the only way the GOP, with its platform (supporting the rich few against the many), can thrive.
Indeed, the GOP attacks Dems for what it, the GOP, is actually guilty of: being anti-women, avoiding service, fudging economic numbers. As I've stated elsewhere, this is the ultimate in propaganda.
Supporting the troops: In the 2004 election, the record of John Kerry, who served in Vietnam, was questioned, while George W. Bush, who sat out the war in Texas and Alabama, mostly received a bye.
Friday April 13, 2012
Bullshit of the Week: the Hilary Rosen Fiasco
I hate having to do this. I hate having to write this. I hate having to wade through the bullshit of the week because other people aren't doing their jobs.
The bullshit of this week is that somehow the Obama camp is against women, or housewives, because Hilary Rosen, a Democratic strategist, who is not part of the Obama campaign, said that Ann Romney, Mitt Romney's wife, who is apparently advising her husband on economic matters, “never worked a day in her life.”
So the GOP is doing what it can to connect “Never worked a day in her life” with the idea that “Democrats look down on housewives” with the idea that “Obama looks down on housewives.”
Let's clear away the bullshit for a moment.
The initial discussion on CNN was about how the Romney camp was pegging Obama as “anti-women” because the economy still isn't going gangbusters, and women, more than men, are out of work.
If Rosen had simply said “Ann Romney hasn't had to look for a job since she got married” we wouldn't be here. We would be some other stupid place, just not this stupid place.
Here's the transcript of what Rosen said. The key line is in the second paragraph. The video is below:
With respect to economic issues, I think actually that Mitt Romney is right, that ultimately women care more about the economic well-being of their families and the like. But he doesn't connect on that issue either. What you have is Mitt Romney running around the country saying, 'Well, you know my wife tells me that what women really care about are economic issues and when I listen to my wife that's what I'm hearing.'
Guess what? His wife has actually never worked a day in her life. She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and why do we worry about their future.
So I think that, yes, it's about these positions and yes, I think there will be a war of words about the positions. But there's something much more fundamental about Mitt Romney. He just seems so old-fashioned when it comes to women and I think that comes across and I think that that's going to hurt him over the long term. He just doesn't really see us as equal.
The GOP focuses on the second graf, second sentence. Rosen's true meaning is in second graf, third sentence:
She's never really dealt with the kinds of economic issues that a majority of the women in this country are facing in terms of how do we feed our kids, how do we send them to school and why do we worry about their future.
The Romneys are rich. You and I are not.
I don't know about Ann, but Mitt Romney has never been poor and unconnected. He doesn't know what that's like. Just as most of us don't know what it's like to be as rich and connected as Mitt Romney has been all of his life.
I don't know about Ann, but Mitt Romney doesn't know what it's like to scour the Want Ads and see nothing that says “you,” nothing that says “hope,” nothing that says “possibility” or “I have a chance.”
Everything else about this discussion is bullshit. The mainstream media is always looking for a different story and the GOP is always ready to give it to them to distract everyone from the real story.
Friday April 13, 2012
Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (2010)
WARNING: RELEASE THE SPOILERS!
Has there been a more truncated heroic cycle than “Clash of the Titans”? Our hero is a baby cast adrift, then he’s a son gazing at the horizon, then he’s an adult orphan bent on revenge, and with a mission, which takes one, two, three, four steps, after which he kills the big monster and banishes the big villain (for the sequel), and kisses the girl, and ... and that’s it. We ... are ...outta here.
This is the way we do things now. Our need to get on with the story reveals our contempt for the story. Maybe because we already know the story. “Tell us that one again, Daddy.” We’re adults now but we act like kids.
The story being told here is one of my least favorite for being so ubiquitous in the 21st century: the One; the Chosen One. It plays on our id, our early years, when the world revolved around us, when we were all chosen ones. When everything had a reason.
“You were saved for a reason,” Spyros (Pete Postlethwaite), Perseus’ foster father, tells a newly adult Perseus (Sam Worthington), as Perseus stands on the prow of the boat gazing longingly at the horizon. “And someday that reason will take you far from here.”
I’m so tired of this conceit. Should we turn it around? Hey, Fatso. There’s a reason you’re in this theater stuffing your face with an extra large tub of popcorn with extra butter and watching this crap. And someday that reason ...
Stop making no sense
In “Clash of the Titans,” which contains no Titans, the Gods create man but can’t live without man’s worship. That makes no sense. A group of humans from Argos, intent on worshipping King and Queen, tear down a statue of Zeus (Liam Neeson), invoking the wrath of Hades (Ralph Fiennes), who secretly despises Zeus. That makes no sense. After attacking the upstart Argosians, he kills, as a freebie, two innocent bystanders, Spyros and Marmara (Elizabeth McGovern), which makes no sense, but it enrages their son, a young Perseus, giving him his raison d’etre, revenge upon Hades, which he’ll forget in the second movie.
Despite this display of God power, the Argosians are determined, more than ever, to not worship the Gods, which makes no sense, and Cassiopeia (“Rome”’s Polly Walker) brags about the beauty of her daughter, Andromeda (Alexa Davalos), bringing down an even greater wrath. Hades shows up again, turns Cassiopeia to dust, disperses the Argosian soldiers, and promises to “release the Kraken,” a horrific monster, if Andromeda is not sacrificed for her mother’s effrontery. But Hades finds he can’t kill Perseus and immediately knows why: Perseus is a demi-god, the son of Zeus. He’s special.
Of course Andromeda’s father doesn’t want to sacrifice his daughter, so he sends his men, led by the stalwart Draco (Mads Mikkelsen), away from Argos, on a mission to kill the Kraken. This, too, makes no sense, since the Kraken is going to show up in a few days anyway. Why send your best men away from the city? Why not wait him out?
Right. Because “waiting him out” isn’t a story.
Zeus, half-son revealed, now has mixed feelings about the whole thing. He wants the Argosians punished, sure, but he doesn’t want to kill his half-son to do so. So he sends him a winged horse named Pegasus and an enchanted sword to protect him. But Perseus’ hatred for his absentee father is apparently greater than his hatred for the killer of his foster parents, and, initially, he refuses both gifts. He thinks he can get by without them. He’s an idiot without a personality. He’s an idiot only idiots can like.
Love? Fear? Release the Kraken!
Around this time we learn that Zeus lives off the love of man while Hades lives off their fear. So shouldn’t Hades be more powerful than Zeus? Isn’t fear more prevalent in us than love? At the least it’s worth a debate, a mention, a passing line or two. Here. Let’s trade two giant scorpions for 30 seconds of debate.
Nope. On we trudge, stupidly, to get the head of Medusa with which to beat the Kraken. Battles are engaged, soldiers fall, until we’re left with just the main dudes, the ones who have names. But all of them, even Draco, buy it in the underworld. Only Perseus, looked over by a kind of angel, Io (Gemma Artetron), who’s kind of hot, triumphs.
Of course, back in Argos, the people, led by a religious nut (Luke Treadway), are rightly worried about Zeus, Hades and the coming Kraken, so they grab Andromeda and tie her up on the cliffs above the sea, as an offering, and because it’s sexy. But at the last minute Perseus appears on Pegasus and yadda yadda. Hades appears and yadda yadda. Then Perseus and Andromeda kiss and ... Wait. He winds up with Io, not Andromeda. That makes no sense. Isn’t she a guardian angel? It’s like dating the tooth fairy.
So most everything that happens in “Clash of the Titans” is expected. The only unexpected moments are the nonsensical ones.
“The oldest stories ever told,” Io tells us in the beginning, “are written in the stars.”
Or in Hollywood.
Thursday April 12, 2012
Quote of the Day
“The written rules were rigid and righteous, while the real rules were often wide open and dirty.”
--Eliot Asinof in “Eight Men Out,” his great book about the 1919 Chicago White Sox/Black Sox scandal.
Eight men who got caught, and punished, so we wouldn't know the written rules weren't the real rules.
Thursday April 12, 2012
Fred Wenz Reaction
Some nice comments on the Fred Wenz post from last Friday.
Josh Wilker, the voice of the mathematically eliminated, and author of the “Cardboard Gods” book and website, was nice enough to post the link on his Facebook page, which, I pointed out to him, had exactly 714 fans, and to which he responded, “I've also noticed the long tribute-like pause at 714 fans. Maybe a link to your piece will finally be the Al Downing fastball needed to get to 715.” Whatever the cause, by the end of the day he was at 715. Wilker's book is much recommended. So is liking it on Facebook.
I also heard from a few folks who suffered the same kind of Fred Wenz blues I did. My friend Dan:
I too was victimized by multiple Fred Wenzes in the summer of '71. And Chico Salmons, Wade Blasingames and Jose Laboys. Not exactly prime trade bait.
Bob, who grew up near LA, wrote:
The very first pack of baseball cards I ever bought was in 1971. My mom gave me a dime and I went over to the liquor store, the Cork 'N' Bib, next to the supermarket. My brother Tom helped me buy the pack. The very first card I saw when I opened the pack was Fred Wenz.
Mark explained away some of the mystery on the Cardboard Gods' FB page:
One of the tricky things about baseball cards in that period is that they were released in series. So the first series, which came out in April when everyone was excited about the new year and the new cards, included Wenz (card #92). If you were looking for Killebrew, he did not come out until series 5 (#550) probably in July or August when many people had stopped collecting for the year. Most kids (like me) did not really fully grasp what was happening at the time.
After 41 years, the clouds parted. So not a conspiracy at all but, what, poor planning? Excellent business model? Super annoying? Poor Dick Drago, #752. Did anyone get his card? Is it worth more now as a result?
Still doesn't explain why we kept getting Fred Wenz (#92), instead of, say, Willie McCovey (#50) or Reggie Jackson (#20). But it does explain Wade Blasingame (#79).
All Fred Wenz, all the time.
Wednesday April 11, 2012
Quote of the Day
“The moment you start preaching in a film, the moment you want to teach your audience, you are making a bad film.”
--Douglas Sirk (1897-1987), film director. I first heard this quote in Martin Scorsese's documentary “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies,” a must-watch for anyone who cares about film.
Wednesday April 11, 2012
Movie Review: Le gamin au velo (2011)
Has there been a more misleading movie poster in recent years? After the movie was over I assumed the U.S. distributor pulled a Weinstein to draw in American crowds but the poster is the same abroad. We all want that happy, breezy, leggy image. We all want to see that kind of movie.
Which isn’t this movie.
It begins with Cyril Catoul (Thomas Doret), 10 or 11 or 12, on the phone, listening with a worried brow, and being told by an unseen adult to hang up. He doesn’t. He clings to the phone like it’s a lifeline, which it is, and accuses the adult of misdialing. The world is not right, he knows that much, and assumes it’s this adult’s fault. So the adult lets Cyril dial the number himself, and they put it on speaker phone, and we hear those three annoying tones—which apparently are international—before the equally annoying message, which doesn’t sound any better for being in French: “The number you have dialed is no longer in service...” But Cyril continues to hang by the phone as if to will a different response. When the adult, an educator at an orphanage or “youth farm,” tries to guide him away, Cyril attacks, runs away, is chased, caught, brought back.
This scene is repeated throughout the movie in different ways. Cyril is a boy in perpetual motion. He’s a kid who’s running away from the truth. He’s also running toward the truth.
A month earlier, his father, Guy (Dardenne brothers’ staple Jérémie Renier), placed Cyril in the orphanage, telling him he’d be back for him within 30 days. Those 30 days are now up but he hasn’t returned, hasn’t called, and his home phone is no longer in service. When Cyril bolts the youth farm and makes his way back to their old apartment building, he’s told, through the intercom, that his father doesn’t live there anymore. He sneaks inside the building anyway, is chased, grabs onto the nearest adult, a local hairdresser named Samantha (Cecile de France—smart kid), and refuses to let go until he’s allowed inside the apartment. But it’s like with the phone all over again. The apartment is empty. He inspects each room carefully, looking for evidence but really looking for a different reality. At this point he refuses to believe any adult, any evidence, because the truth is too painful. It means his father abandoned him. It means he’s alone.
Back at the youth farm, Samantha shows up with his bike. Cyril had accused another kid of stealing it, but the father of the kid claims he bought the bike off Cyril’s dad, so Samantha simply buys it back. Cyril refuses to believe this story but he does show Samantha some stunts: how long he can stay still and upright; how long he can pop a wheelie. He flits around her car, almost dangerously, but even when showing off he never loses his dour, pinched expression. The movie will be half over before we see him smile.
His father had his own bike, a motorcycle, and Cyril, widening his search with the bike, keeps asking for a man with “a golden helmet.” It’s great image. It brings to mind Greek gods.
In a sense, that’s what Cyril is searching for but he finds the fallen kind. His father now works prepping food in a restaurant in a small town, and, when Cyril shows up, Dad acts distracted and claustrophobic around him. I was going to write he’s uncaring, but that’s not quite it, even though he obviously doesn’t care. Put it this way: there’s no guilt over what he’s done. On Cyril’s part, there’s no anger, either. Around his father he affects the nonchalance of boys. “C’est pas grave,” he keeps saying, even though it’s all grave. He clings to his belief in the man with the golden helmet. Eventually Samantha steps in and demands that Guy tell Cyril the truth to his face.
Three times during the movie we get a noticeable, almost distracting blast of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto, and each blast seems to follow a moment of realization for Cyril. The first blast comes shortly after Cyril learns about his father.
So what happens to a fatherless boy? He looks for substitutes. In this case, substitutes come looking for him. Another boy, a different boy, steals his bike, and Cyril chases him into the woods, where he meets Wes (Egon di Mateo), a local tough who admires Cyril’s tenacity, calls him “pitbull,” and takes him under his wing. Do we trust this guy? He gives off a bad vibe. In his room, he gives Cyril a sodapop and lets him play his PS3, and Cyril, unsmiling, feigning his usual nonchalance, is nonetheless captivated by this new father figure. It never shows in his face—the way it would in a Hollywood film—just in his actions. It’s heartbreaking the lengths he’ll go for Wes’ approval. He winds up fighting Samantha, with whom he’s staying weekends, and who’s the only good thing in his life, in order to commit crimes for Wes. When things go awry, Wes refuses his money, which Cyril then takes to his father, who also refuses it. Neither is particularly magnanimous in their refusal. They just don’t want to get caught. They leave Cyril holding the bag. Cue second blast of Beethoven’s piano concerto.
Thomas Doret, I should add, is heartbreaking and annoying and completely believable in the title role. After the father revelation, Samantha tries to comfort him and he jerks his shoulder violently away from her. When he first enters Wes’ cramped room, with the bed the only sitting option, he seems awkward and confused, out of either etiquette or fear. For much of the movie, he keeps pursuing the wrong path even though the right path is right there. In this, he’s like most of us.
Most people will have two questions after watching “The Kid with a Bike”:
- Why does Samantha care so much about him?
- What’s with the end?
Cyril raises the first question within the movie but the movie smartly doesn’t answer. Most movies would give us a facile rationale for her actions: oh, she can’t have kids, or she was an orphan, too, or she lost her brother when he was 10. Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, the Belgian writer-director brother team (“La Promesse,” “L’enfant”), are smarter than that. They leave it unknowable to us, and to Cyril, and maybe even to Samantha. Much of life is like this. We don’t know why we do what we do.
It’s the third act that’s weak. Cyril, with Samantha’s help, finds the right path, and he’s riding on it, when stuff from the wrong path—in the form of the father and son he attacked for Wes—appears before him. The boy attacks him, chases him into the woods and up a tree, and throws rocks at him. One rock finds its mark and Cyril falls. Motionless. Dead? After the son retrieves the father, Cyril recovers. He wakes up groggily, makes his way back to his bike, gets on, rides off. We get our third blast of Beethoven. The end. It’s a very European ending but I didn’t find it meaningful or resonant. The past always catches up? The right path doesn’t mean a clean path? What?
“The Kid with a Bike” is an honest movie with a dishonest poster and a weak ending. I wanted to like it more.
Tuesday April 10, 2012
Quote of the Day
“You get Ingrid Bergman giving you a certain look in a movie and everyone thinks you're gorgeous."
Tuesday April 10, 2012
The Most Oft-Portrayed Character on Film Isn't Santa Claus But...
Last October I wrote about the most filmed character ever, and, via IMDb, came up with Santa Claus. Here are the rundowns:
- Santa Claus: 814
- Jesus Christ: 350
- God: 340
- Dracula: 274
- Abraham Lincoln: 263
- Sherlock Holmes: 246
- Hamlet: 198
Subsequent investigations based on reader response brought up:
- Napoleon: 337
- Hitler: 335
But no one close to Santa. Then last Friday I was talking with a friend at work, mentioned this thread, and back at my desk, for some reason, I tried another guess:
From Georges Méliès in 1896 (“The House of the Devil”) to Billy Zane this year (“Dark Star Hollow”), from Lucifer to Satan to Mephistopholes to Lord of Darkness to Mr. Scratch, the Devil keeps on keeping on. This is the Bible-born Devil, so no “Hades,” and thus no Ralph Fiennes. Also no Al Pacino. Odd. His character in “The Devil's Advocate” is called “John Milton” but he's obviously the Devil. Yet he's not among the 848.
Even so, the Devil's cinematic preeminence makes sense. Despite all the pseudonyms, he's a specific character rather than an archetype like “Angel” or “Clown,” which IMDb correctly divvies up. He's the fallen angel not a fallen angel.
Plus, though Bible-born, he shows up in our secular stories. I suppose it's a consequence of modern living that you don't have to believe in God to believe in the Devil. Or maybe the Devil simply interacts more often with human beings than God does. Every story needs a conflict, and unless you're Job or Christopher Hitchens, you'll find it more easily with the Devil. God has big things to do but the Devil can spend time, say, attacking a group of people in an elevator (“The Devil”), stealing the soul of a stuntman (“Ghost Rider”), or inhabiting the body of a little girl (“The Exorcist”). He thinks small. He's trying to knock us off one by one.
Plus, in our more spiritual films, such as “The Tree of Life” or “Of Gods and Men,” God isn't personified. He's not part of the cast list. Indeed, in the latter film, he's not even singular.
Which is why the Devil wins. At least thus far. There may be another character out there more oft-portrayed than Satan. It would be cool if IMDb allowed us to see such a list, or sort such a list, but they don't. Their response, in total, to my query asking for this feature:
I am afraid we do not have this feature, sorry.
The Devil wins again.
Three of the 848 cinematic incarnations of the Devil: John Huston, impish, in “The Devil and Daniel Webster” (1941); Tim Curry bellowing in “Legend” (1985); and Elizabeth Hurley, just being herself, in “Bedazzled” (2000).
Monday April 09, 2012
Baseball News: Miguel Cabrera On Pace for 162 HRs and 432 RBIs; Seattle Front Office Still Sucks
Helluvan opening weekend, MLB. Any opening weekend that starts with the Yankees 0-3 has got to be good.*
To be truthful, I didn't watch much baseball this weekend. Friday night I was at F.X. McCrory's in downtown Seattle for Jon Wells' book signing, “Shipwrecked: A Peoples' History of the Seattle Mariners,” which coincided with the M's U.S. opener, in Oakland, against the A's. I left after the M's scrimped together a few runs. They won 7-3, then won again, 8-7, on Saturday. With the games in Japan, they now have a 3-1 record, which is three wins better than I thought they'd be at this point in the season.
Oh, and check out Jon's book. It's nice, cheap and necessary. It's a reminder, as if we need it, of all the eff-ups the M's front office have given us over the years, their astonishing commitment to not winning.**
Saturday, I only caught highlights; Sunday, after an afternoon walk, I was able to catch the last innings of the Tigers/Red Sox game ... which Miguel Cabrera tied with a three-run homer in the 9th, and, after the Red Sox went ahead in the 10th, Alex Avilla ended it, with 2 outs and 2 strikes, with a 2-run homer in the bottom of the 10th. Wow. To paraphrase St. George: Baseball's back, baby!
Tigers could be fun this year. They obviously can't be this fun, otherwise Miguel Cabrera would hit 162 homers and drive in 432. But at this point, they look like the real deal.
Meanwhile, the Red Sox are 0-3, the Yankees are 0-3 (both teams haven't started 0-3 since 1966), and the Twins, my Twins, are also 0-3, against the Orioles, of all teams, which doesn't bode well.
But if there's any indication that the season's young, it's this: Mariano Rivera is 0-1, with a 54.00 ERA.
159 to go.
Ball? Meet launching pad.
* Except for the last time the Yankees started 0-3, of course, which was 1998, when they went on to win 114 games and sweep the Padres in the World Series. According to Joe Torre and Tom Verducci in their book, “The Yanke Years,” they owe it all to a David Cone/Kingdome rant about 1) a Jamie Moyer beanball, and 2) Edgar Martinez swinging on 3-0. Exactly. Edgar being too ungentlemanly and Jamie's 79-mph “beanball.” Cone always was such a baby.
** As if to help prove Jon's point and boost sales, last week the M's front office even objected to Chris Hansen, a hedge-fund manager in the Bay area, spending $300 million of his own money to build an NBA arena located near Safeco Field:
“The proposed Sodo location, in our view, simply does not work,” wrote team Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Howard Lincoln, in a letter Tuesday to Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, King County Executive Dow Constantine and members of the Seattle and King County councils. “It would bring scheduling, traffic and parking challenges that would likely require hundreds of millions of dollars to mitigate.”
Local officials seem to disagree with the M's rationale:
County spokesman Frank Abe said Wednesday it's too early to draw any conclusions about transportation impacts, but noted “that after an extensive process the city zoned this area of SODO for stadium uses. Of the potential sites the Mariners suggest, Sodo is the only one served by high-capacity rail, not to mention access by ferries, buses and cars,” he said.
That hasn't stopped someone from engaging in push-polling to change public opinion:
Over the weekend, some local residents received telephone calls that seemed designed to erode support for an arena, said Brian Robinson, the head of ArenaSolution.org. Robinson, whose group has sought the return of the Seattle Sonics since they were moved to Oklahoma City in 2008, said some of his supporters received polling calls asking whether they would support a sports arena over public schools, or a sports arena over low-income housing.
“The Mariners have emerged as the No. 1 opponents to the new arena,” he said.
Monday April 09, 2012
Jordy's Reviews: Kid Icarus: Uprising (2012)
My 10-year-old nephew Jordy gives us his latest video-game review...
This is the game people have been waiting for for 20 years.
Little backstory, “Kid Icarus” was released for the NES in 1987 and “Kid Icarus: Of Myths And Monsters” for the original Game Boy in 1991, and the series was never heard from again until, in March 2012, “Kid Icarus: Uprising” for the 3DS was made, and, I have to admit, it was pretty good.
First of all, like EVERY video game, it went to the 3rd dimension, except this game did it in two ways. One, a 3D environment, and two, actual 3D. The game has changed from a sidescroller with platforming and RPG elements to a third person shooter. Wow. But, surprisingly, the game works. I love the 8-Bit references that they have in both the soundtrack and the graphics. (Anybody check Google maps on April Fool’s Day?) Also, Pit, the protagonist, references video games a lot, which is nostalgic for old gamers and funny for kids.
Speaking of speaking, Nintendo FINALLY made a game with voice acting in it. (You better be taking notes, Zelda!) The voices are fine, and the script is also fine, however, the games characters will keep talking until the end of each chapter, and this can be a little annoying to some people. You can just turn down the volume all the way, but this would make you miss out on the game's awesome soundtrack. The music is just so great, all you have to do is look up a YouTube video or download the music, and your ears will be blown away.
The game’s story is all right: Medusa and her army are resurrected and try to destroy the world, and Pit and Palutena have to kill the bad guys. Along the way there are a few unexpected things that happen and are actually much better than most stories nowadays. The graphics are actually pretty good, and look better than most graphics nowadays, just proving that most games nowadays are stinking in the graphics department. This game has a ton of content. It has unlockables in the form of treasure hunts, which is basically just a bunch of stuff you can do in the main story mode, idols to collect, and the online mode, which we will get to later. The controls are fine. I played the entire game without the circle pad pro and, being a lefty, I had to adjust the controls to moving with the buttons, shooting with L, and moving the cursor with the circle pad. These controls worked fine with me, and made me have a lot of fun, both with air battles and land battles. The land battles are not nearly as fun as the air battles, which are surprisingly harder than the land battles. The gameplay is so much fun, also, and I’m just glad that the controls are good, because in a game like this, controls have to be great. The biggest problem for me is that even though there are nine different weapons, the only thing it changes is the speed. Not the gameplay. The speed. Also, there are a few glitches in the game. The games multiplayer is fun, especially the online mode. However, I felt that they should have added more game modes, although free for all and light vs. dark are fun.
Overall,this game was very fun, and I recommend it to anyone that has a 3DS.
93% Okay For 10+
Saturday April 07, 2012
Izzy Iskowitz, Heavyweight Champ, 1977
YouTube is increasingly killing me. I can lose whole mornings on the site now, mostly with comedic stuff: Louis CK, Ricky Gervais, old Eddie Murphy. I'm not sure how I came across this but it's a bit from “The Tonight Show,” July 11, 1977 when Rob Reiner, of all co-hosts, was co-hosting, and late in the program he brought on Harry Shearer and Billy Crystal who did a Tom Snyder/ Muhammad Ali bit. Apparently Ali was changing his name and religion again; he was now going to be Izzy Iskowitz. The whole thing is so well-done and smart. “Portnoy's Complaint” is even referenced:
But my favorite part is when Muhammad/Izzy/Billy talks up great Jewish athletes and mentions Rod Carew. “He's going to hit .400 this year,” he says, “but for you .395.”
The past isn't even past. It's on YouTube.
Friday April 06, 2012
Where Have You Gone, Fred Wenz? Reflections on the 1971 baseball card you never wanted but always got
In the 1950s the Topps company began using baseball cards to sell bubblegum, rather than vice-versa, but by the time I began collecting in 1971, at the age of 8, the gum was an afterthought: a thin, pink rectangle, sometimes coated with powdered sugar, increasingly not, with corners so sharp the thing could be used as a ninja weapon. Whenever I popped it into my mouth—standing in the parking lot of our local minimart, Little General on 54th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis—I’d let it soften before chewing to avoid scraping the insides of my cheeks. Just as often I’d toss it in the air and watch it shatter on the asphalt. It’s not like I didn’t want gum. I’d pay five cents, half the cost of a baseball pack, for a long rope of purple Bubs Daddy. I just didn’t want that gum. I didn’t know what gum was but I knew it wasn’t supposed to shatter.
If modern baseball cards were an accident of marketing they were a brilliant accident. They appealed to boys on so many levels
- They represented something we admired.
- We got to collect them.
- Since we never knew what we were going to get, there was mystery and anticipation.
I anticipated and coveted Minnesota Twins in particular: Harmon Killebrew, Tony Oliva, Cesar Tovar, Rod Carew. Even the lowliest of Twins (Tom Tischinski, Bill Zepp) had a magic that future Hall of Famers (Jim Palmer) did not. Something about that Minne/St. Paul patch on the sleeve. Something about the crossed “TC” on the cap. When a Twin showed up behind a Dennis Menke or a Jerry McNertney, it was like the sun making an appearance from behind a bank of clouds.
There were 756 cards in the 1971 Topps series, so the odds of getting one of those 25 Twins in a pack of 10 were pretty slim. But one player kept worsening the odds.
I’m not sure when my friend Dave and I noticed we kept getting Fred Wenz but we definitely noticed. At first it was annoying. Then it got funny. Finally, and possibly for the first time in our lives, we were left with nothing but conspiracy theories. We talked about how the Topps company trucked all the packs with Fred Wenz to Minneapolis and all the packs with Harmon Killebrew to Philadelphia. We talked about how Topps manufactured 10 times as many Fred Wenzes as Harmon Killebrews to keep us buying. We talked about how Fred Wenz was probably related to the president of Topps. What else could explain his ubiquity? Because there he was again!
When I finally turned over his card to see if there was anything worthwhile about him I was startled to find ... pitching stats? Wasn’t Fred Wenz a catcher? On his card he was certainly crouched like a catcher. This merely added to his absurdity. Didn’t Fred Wenz know which position he played?
His career stats were pretty skimpy: 31 games, 42 innings pitched. A box in the middle of the card muddied rather than clarified matters:
FIRST YEAR IN PRO BALL — 1959
FIRST GAME IN MAJORS — 1968
Since I didn’t differentiate between “Pro Ball” and “Majors,” I tried to wrap my 8-year-old mind around a player who spent nine years on Major League rosters without ever getting into a game.
Then there was the absurdity of his name. Just eight letters, two syllables, boom boom and out. It’s the cup of coffee of baseball names. So is Mel Ott, I suppose, but “Ott” ends on the hard consonant and feels strong. “Wenz” ends with a kind of soporific collapse. Wenzzzzz. Other players had musical names (Cesar Tovar), or stolid and majestic names (Harmon Killebrew), but Fred Wenz, who kept showing up, was stuck with this limp noodle of a name. Could a crappy player ever be named Harmon Killebrew? Could a great player ever be named Fred Wenz?
I don’t think we planned to do what we did. I think we were just goofing around, as boys do after a baseball-pack-buying binge at Little General, and somehow wound up on the Bryant Avenue bridge overlooking Minnehaha Creek. We were probably still chewing the hard, pink gum that came with the packs, and by this point, particularly in the cold weather, the gum was probably getting a little tough. So we spit it out toward the creek 100 feet below. Most of the creek was still frozen and snowed over, but there was one small patch, an ice hole, where we could see the dark waters rushing by. We tried to spit the gum into this hole.
Then it became a game. We grabbed what we could find—twigs, pebbles—and tried to drop them into the hole, too. But it was early spring, most everything was still covered with snow, and projectiles were hard to find.
Then Dave came up with a brilliant idea: Fred Wenz.
This would be trickier than pebbles or gum. This would require dexterity. Dave took off his gloves, leaned over the cold metal railing, and flicked the Fred Wenz card like a Frisbee, so that it arced away from and then back toward the ice hole. Missed! It stuck at an angle in the snow.
My turn. I was two years older than Dave, shorter, and more afraid of heights, so I probably didn’t lean out as far as he did. I didn’t come as close, either.
Fred Wenz began the game but I don’t think running out of him ended the game. I think we went with back-ups: the Wade Blasingames and Gene Brabenders and Dick Suches of the world. I hated the Baltimore Orioles, who were forever sweeping the Twins in the playoffs, so a few Orioles probably sailed off the bridge, too. Did Frank Howard? He was often second on the “A.L. Home Run Leaders” card to Harmon Killebrew. But on the 1971 card he had actually surpassed Killebrew. So long, Four Eyes.
Before long the creek was studded with baseball cards but we never managed a hole-in-one. The hole was obviously too small. So for a time we tried to widen it with snowballs and ice chunks and anything else we could find. Soon the creek, snowed-over and pristine when we arrived, looked like a battlefield, and afterwards, in my bedroom, I felt bad about all of those cards lying stuck in the snow. I had a fear of breaking through the ice of Minnehaha Creek and being swept away. Wouldn’t this happen to the cards once the ice melted? They’d get swept over Minnehaha falls, into the Mississippi river and down to the Gulf of Mexico. Forgotten.
The real Fred Wenz got swept away that spring. Before the season even started he was cut by his team, the lowly Philadelphia Phillies, and no one else picked him up. The year we kept getting his card was a year he never even played.
Is that why he’s smiling on the card? Was it the smile of a guy who had nothing to lose? Had he told the teammates “Maybe I’ll make the team as a catcher,” and smiled at their laughter, just before his photo was taken?
Fred Wenz remained an in-joke between Dave and I long after we stopped collecting baseball cards, a metaphor for the thing we never wanted but always got, but I’m older now and I identify with the man more. He spent nearly a decade making it to the bigs but at least he made it. He remained there for three years, head barely above water, with Boston and Philly. He appeared in 31 games, pitched 42.1 innings, struck out 38, walked 25. He was 3-0 lifetime, with a 4.68 ERA.
When we’re young we throw things away but as adults we just try to keep our heads above water. Once a promising prospect with the nickname “Fireball,” it came down to this: spring training in Florida, crouching in the sun for the Topps photographer, a brave smile.
Thursday April 05, 2012
Quote of the Day
“They just came back and said, 'You're fired.' I really didn't say anything. It was like — God, I can't lose my job. I got to have my health insurance.”
--Jennifer Owens, who worked in an Amazon.com warehouse, called a “fulfillment center,” in Campbellsville, KY, in the article, “Intense Pressure on Warehouse Floor,” the fourth of The Seattle Times' four-part series on the online company.
Thursday April 05, 2012
Imaginary Conversations with Justice Scalia
SCENE: U.S. Supreme Court Building, March 2012. EL, friend of the court, and, really, lots of folks, tells the court an individual mandate is essential for the health insurance market to work.
JUSTICE ANTONIN SCALIA: Why do you define the market that broadly? Health care. It may well be that everybody needs health care sooner or later, but not everybody needs a heart transplant. Not everybody needs a liver transplant. I mean. . . Could you define the market? Everybody has to buy food sooner or later...
EL: Some of us sooner. Some of us more often.
SCALIA: ...so you define the market as food, therefore, everybody is in the market. Therefore, you can make people buy broccoli.
EL: “But you can't make them eat it.” I believe George H.W. Bush said that.
SCALIA: Is that a principled basis for distinguishing this from other situations? I mean, you know, you can also say, well, the person subject to this has blue eyes. That would indeed distinguish it from other situations. Is it a principled basis?
EL: There's a more principled basis for distinguishing the health care markets from other markets than there was in distinguishing Florida from other states in Bush v. Gore, but some institution or other, which shall remain nameless, did that very thing. Here are some words from that decision: “Our consideration is limited to the present circumstances.” Does that help you with this case? Now eat your broccoli.
Thursday April 05, 2012
It's 3 A.M.: Do You Know Where Your Affordable Care Act Is?
I awoke in the middle of the night thinking of the Affordable Care Act. Such are the times we live in.
No matter what the U.S. Supreme Court decides in the next few weeks, I'm still of the mind that the health insurance industry should not be a for-profit industry. It's not just the amorality or immorality of making a profit off of people's health. It's the shaky capitalism of it all. The goal of the insurance industry is to sell to whose who don't need its product and reject those who do. Its market efficiency leads to this vast product inefficiency. It wants to sell us something we'll never use. If there's a chance we'll use it? It doesn't want to sell it to us.
Are there other products or services like this? Not broccoli, certainly.
Tuesday April 03, 2012
Quote of the Day
“I'm just trying to get along without shoving anybody, that's all.”
--Henry Fonda as Tom Joad in John Ford's “The Grapes of Wrath”
Tuesday April 03, 2012
Opening Day 2012
Opening Day was actually last week, in Japan, when Dustin Ackley hit a homer and a double, Ichiro Suzuki had four hits, and the Seattle Mariners, my Seattle Mariners, beat no one's Oakland A's 3-1 in 10 innings.
But Opening Day on U.S. soil is Wednesday night. As per the tradition, my tradition, here are the active leaders in various batting and pitching categories. (I've included all-time rankings in parentheses.)
A lot of ex-Mariners on the list. Too many. It's sad. It's been nearly two decades since we traded Omar Vizquel and he's still playing. It's been more than a decade since Alex Rodriguez left us and he's still playing. It's been nearly six years since we traded a 43-year-old Jamie Moyer to Philadelphia and the dude's still fucking playing. At 49. That's actually a great story.
BTW: What's up with Baseball-Reference.com? Do they wait for a year of inactivity before de-activating a player? Because they have Jamie Moyer inactive, even though he made the Colorado Rockies' starting rotation this spring, and they have Tim Wakefield active, even though he announced his retirement this winter. Get with the program, dudes. Quit automating shit.
OK, here we go...
- Games: Omar Vizquel, Tor: 2,908 (13th)
- At-Bats: Omar Vizquel, Tor: 10,433 (17th)
- Hits: Derek Jeter, NYY: 3,088 (20th)
- Doubles: Ivan Rodriguez, ???: 572 (20th)
Teamless I-Rod hasn't announced his retirement yet so he's still up there. The KC Royals either have or haven't expressed interest in case, depending on your source. But if you want someone with an actual team, the active leader in doubles is ... are you ready? ... Bobby Abreu. Never would've gotten that.
- Triples: Carl Crawford, Bos.: 112 (T-118th)
- Home Runs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 629 (6th)
- RBIs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 1,893 (11th)
- Runs: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 1,824 (15th)
With his second home run of the season, A-Rod will pass former teammate Ken Griffey, Jr. and move into fifth place on the all-time list. He's 32 HRs from Willie Mays and fourth. After that, it's trickier.
- Walks: Jim Thome, Phi.: 1,725 (8th)
- Strikeouts: Jim Thome, Phi.: 2,487 (2nd)
Thome is a mere 110 Ks from tying the once invincible Reggie Jackson. A-Rod is second active, and seventh all time, with 1,916 Ks. I warned him.
- Stolen Bases: Juan Pierre, Phi.: 554 (16th)
- Caught Stealing: Juan Pierre, Phi.: 190 (8th)
Phillies ain't getting any younger, are they? Both Thome and Juan Pierre. Surprised they didn't keep Jamie Moyer. Pierre has led the league in caught stealings the last two seasons. Maybe he can learn something from new teammate Chase Utley, who has the best lifetimes stolen-base percentage ever: 89.4%. Pierre's is 74.4% and 176th.
- Batting Average: Albert Pujols, Ana: .328 (33th)
- On-Base Percentage: Todd Helton, Col.: .421 (17th)
- Slugging Percentage: Albert Pujols, Ana: .617 (4th)
- On-Base-Plus Slugging: Albert Pujols, Ana: 1.037 (6th)
Last year, all four of these categories belonged to Pujols'. Then he had an off year. For him. Will be fun to finally see him play in person.
- Offensive WAR: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 106.8 (15th)
- Defensive WAR: Andruw Jones, NYY: 23.7 (2nd)
- WAR for Position Players: Alex Rodriguez, NYY: 104.6 (20th)
My problem with WAR? There's no standard yet. There's still a war among WARs. BR has theirs, others have theirs. That said, A-Rod added 1.8 to his offensive WAR to surpass Rickey Henderson. Next up, Joe Morgan. Andruw Jones didn't change much. He's second to Brooks Robinson. And does A-Rod's lower PP WAR mean his defensive WAR is negative? That doesn't seem right.
Uncle Albert's signature moment. Now he's coming to the A.L. Bienvenue.
- Games Started: Jamie Moyer, Col.: 626 (16th)
- Innings Pitched: Jamie Moyer, Col.: 4,020 (40th)
- Wins: Jamie Moyer, Col: 267 (36th)
- Losses: Jamie Moyer, Col: 204 (T-42nd)
- Hits Allowed: Jamie Moyer, Col: 4,156 (33rd)
- Homeruns Allowed: Jamie Moyer, Col: 511 (1st)
- Walks: Jamie Moyer, Col: 1,137 (T-65th)
- Strikeouts: Javier Vazquez, Fla.: 2,536 (29th)
It's been all Jamie Moyer so far. That's what happens, kids, when you can play a boy's game at 49.
- Complete Games: Roy Halladay, Phi: 66 (T-644th)
- Shutouts: Roy Halladay, Phi: 20 (T-244th)
- WAR for Pitchers: Roy Halladay, Phi.: 61.8 (40th)
Anyone who doesn't think complete games is the lifetime record least likely to be broken needs to look at the parentheses above. Halladay, the active leader, is 644th on the lifetime list. Every other category, save shutouts and triples, is in the top 100. Put it this way: Jamie Moyer has started fewer games (626) than Cy Young completed (749). In fact, only three pitchers have started as many games as Cy Young finished: Young, of course (815), Nolan Ryan (773) and Don Sutton (756). Right now, it would only take Halladay, the active leader, another 144 years to tie Young. Etc.
- Games: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 1042 (9th)
- Saves: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 603 (1st)
- WHIP (Walks/Hits per Inning Pitched): Mariano Rivera, NYY: 0.998 (2nd)
- ERA (5 yrs. minimum): Mariano Rivera, NYY: 2.214 (13th)
- Adjusted ERA: Mariano Rivera, NYY: 204 (1st)
Is Mo retiring after this season? There's been talk. He's hinted. He's got five World Series rings, the lifetime record for saves, the lifetime record for adjusted ERA, the second-lowest WHIP in baseball history (to Addie Joss). What more could he want? Except... he keeps getting better. His WHIP has dropped every year for the last four years. His ERA has dropped every year for the last four years. He wants to get out on a high note but he's still singing an aria. The question isn't whether Mariano Rivera is the greatest closer of all time. That's a done deal. The question is how far up do you want to place him, a non-starter, among the greatest pitchers of all time?
Last year to see the likes of which we shall never see again?
Monday April 02, 2012
SCENE: Yesterday on the Wenatchee ferry during the 4:35 PM run from Bainbridge Island to Seattle. A middle-aged man, quiet but charming, and devastatingly handsome, is hanging on the prow of the boat by himself, in the sun, and attempting to ignore the cold winds buffeting his windbreaker. He looks around toward the rest of the boat, and then up, where, on the level above him, another middle-aged man, less quiet and not quite so charming, and certainly not devastatingly handsome, is hanging with his wife. He yells down at the more charming man.
LESS QUIET MAN: You're supposed to spread your arms wide like you're in that “Titanic” movie! “King of the World!” [Laughs]
[More charming man looks up at the man, back at the prow of the boat, then back up at the man.]
MORE CHARMING MAN: Isn't there supposed to be a girl?
LESS QUIET MAN'S WIFE: That's right! [Laughs]
MORE CHARMING MAN: You get me a girl who looks like Kate Winslet and I'll do that 'King of the World' thing for you.
In truth, I was surprised we were still making 'King of the World!' jokes on the Wenatchee ferry in 2012, but I guess the movie did just get a re-release. But I had a nice ride over to Seattle. Kate Winslet did not show up.
Monday April 02, 2012
Yes, Virginia, it's 2012 and the Yankees Still Suck
Are any sports fans as blinkered as Yankees fans? Is any major publication more willing to print their obtuse thoughts than The New York Times?
Yesterday in the Times, in a kinda sorta baseball-preview sports page, obit columnist Bruce Weber reflected on entering his second half-century of Yankees fandom with a bit of a ho-hum. He certainly likes the current team's “gallant old stars,” such as Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera, and never liked George Steinbrenner, whom he calls “egregiously self-aggrandizing and vulgar,” but he admits the Yankees in the post-Steinbrenner era are a little dull.
Then he makes the kind of vast presumption only a Yankees fan could make:
It’s no longer possible, as it was in Steinbrenner’s heyday, to rail against the Yankees as the evil empire that dominates the game because of its financial advantage.
Weber reminds us there are several other wealthy teams (Red Sox, Phillies, Angels) who regularly write big paychecks to stars. He reminds us that the team to vastly overpay A-Rod the first time wasn't the Yankees—they did it in 2007—but the Texas Rangers in 2000. He adds:
So if I’m not having as much fun rooting for the Yankees as I used to, I imagine it can’t be as much fun to disdain them as it once was, either.
No, Mr. Weber, it's still fun. And I still seethe.
True, last season, the Yankees' $30 million advantage in payroll over the second spendiest team, the Philadelphia Phillies ($202m to $172m), was, for a change, actually less than the entire payroll of the least spendiest team in baseball, the Kansas City Royals, which had a $36 milliion payroll. This hasn't happened since 2002. Check out the chart below. The second column is the Yankees' payroll advantage over whomever the No. 2 team is. The third column represents how many teams' payrolls this difference is greater than:
|Year||> No. 2 Team||> MLB Payrolls|
Look at 2004-06. There were years when the difference between the Yankees' payroll and the second-largest payroll was greater than the overall payrolls of more than half the teams in Major League Baseball. You think that's forgotten and forgiven, Mr. Weber, just because the Yanks in 2011 had a mere $30 million advantage over the next spendiest team?
You think because they haven't won the World Series since way back in 2009 that all is forgotten and forgiven?
You think 27/40 is forgotten and forgiven?
You think we've forgotten Jeffrey Maier and A-Rod's slap and Jeter's “hit by pitch” and GMS patches and Steinbrenner monuments and Wade Boggs on a horse and Paul McCartney in a Yankees cap and “fat pussy toad” and “He'll look good in pinstripes”? You think Twins fans have forgotten 2009, 2008, 2004 and 2003, and Mariners fans have forgiven 2001 and 2000, and Rangers fans have forgiven 1999, 1998 and 1996, and Royals fans have forgiven 1978, 1977 and 1976, and Dodgers fans have forgiven 1978, 1977, 1956, 1953, 1952, 1949, 1947 and 1941?
You think our hatred knows bounds?
Looking forward to a little more of this in 2012.
Sunday April 01, 2012
Quote of the Day
“[Early French filmmaker George] Méliès was non-stop women. He loved the ladies, married often, had 150 mistresses if not a thousand. Méliès in a nutshell. Méliès died poor—the fate of all those who pursue something out of love.”
--Henri Langlois in the documentary “Henri Langlois: The Phantom of the Cinematheque.” Langlois died in 1977, aged 62, and poor.
Langlois, who pursued film.
Sunday April 01, 2012
Lust and Wil Wheaton at the 2012 Emerald City Comic Convention
The 10th annual Emerald City Comic Con (ECCC) at the Convention Center in downtown Seattle on Saturday was my first comic convention in 35 years. I don't know what I expected. But the last thing I expected was to get turned on. Hopelessly, adolescently turned on.
It's not just that more women attend comic conventions now. (Up from about zero in 1975.) It's not just that they wear skimpier outfits. It's that they tend to wear the skimpier outfits of my first sexual fantasies: Star Trek mini-skirts and Batgirl costumes and Catwoman costumes. For every fat Capt. Kirk there was a svelte Black Widow. Some of these women were obviously nerds. Others looked like models. I was reminded of an early “Kung Fu” episode:
SCENE: Young Caine (Radames Pera) sits in the audience of a burlseque show with Master Kan (Philip Ahn). His face looks both amazed and stricken as he watches a woman performing on the stage.
Master Kan: How do you feel, Grasshopper?
Young Caine: (long pause) Uncomfortable, Master.
The place was packed. Packed. I've never seen the Convention Center so crowded for anything—and I pass by it almost every day. It was a relief, after four hours, to come up for air.
I didn't expect Wil Wheaton to be so entertaining, either. Friends and I sat through his 90-minute show and he did recent bits from his blog: a humorous take on spam email; a “Robocop as bad '80s sitcom” script; a STFU PSA ad. All easy targets, and, save for the PSA ad, all posts I would've ignored after 15 seconds. But he performs them well. Then he did a bit from a post called “life imitates art (or: I don't know much about brain scans, but I'll help you fix your computer),” in which—true story—fellow “Star Trek” cast member Jonthan Frakes' email was compromised, Wheaton, the tech-nerd, helped him fix it, and, during the back and forth, Wheaton and Frakes used the language of the show: “I'm giving it all I can, Captain!” and “Run a level-five diagnostic” and the like. Wheaton concluded with this:
This was funny to me, because we're two Star Trek guys (with magnificent beards), making contextually-relevant Star Trek jokes with each other. More significantly, though, is that we did this using handheld computers which were inspired by the show we were on twenty-five years ago.
Wheaton was even better during the Q&A:
Fan 1, recounting her childhood: When I was growing up, liking science wasn't cool.
Wheaton: Welcome to America.
Fan 2, recounting an early affiliation with the early “Star Trek--The Next Generation” episodes: At that age, I wasn't able to recognize bad writing in the episodes.
Wheaton: Neither were the writers.
My other great adolescent lust was for the comic books. Thirty-eight years ago, at the Dykman Hotel in downtown Minneapolis, I bought a dog-eared copy of “Fantastic Four #2” for $10 and was ecstatic for years. Now the dealers seem an afterthought, relegated to the back of the main hall. Even so, seeing a huge wall with nothing but polybagged, Silver Age, Marvel comics on it—early “Spider-Man” and “X-Men” and “Fantastic Four”s—was like seeing a woman dressed as Batgirl. All I could think was: I want, I want, I want. I wound up buying three '70s-era Captain America comics, numbers 153-155, the ones with the crazy, McCarthyite Captain America from the 1950s returning to take America back. That Captain America never really goes away, does he? He'd be on FOX-News now. He'd be running for office on the Tea Party ticket. He'd be asking for Pres. Obama's birth certificate.
The front of the hall is for newer books and strips and artists. They're remaking “Peanuts.” Did you know that? They've hired new writers and artists to keep it going, as they hired new writers to keep James Bond going. The artist creates into popularity and the corporation recreates into oblivion.
To be honest, I didn't recognize half the outfits folks were wearing. I didn't recognize the names of the shows, either. It's not my world anymore. But it was nice to visit. Nice and ... uncomfortable.
The crowds at the ECCC 2012...
... were enough to make you cry ...
... or call for help.