Hollywood B.O.: Paranormal Jackass Saw Red
I went to the movies twice last week, Tuesday and Friday, both times at the Uptown Cinemas in lower Queen Anne. For the Tuesday night show, “A Film Unfinished,” a documentary analyzing a Nazi propaganda film about the Warsaw ghetto (review up tomorrow), there was only one other person in the audience. For the Friday evening show, the Chinese film “Aftershock,” a melodrama about a family torn apart by the Tangshan earthquake of 1976, the theater wasn't so crowded. It was just me. Seriously.
This is what everyone else was going to see this weekend:
- An estimated 2,830,200 moviegoers saw the sixth installment of a horror franchise in which a maniac makes victims saw off parts of their own bodies to survive.
- Two million people saw the second installment of a horror franchise involving security cameras and the supernatural.
- More than 1.3 million people went for an action-comedy about four elderly CIA agents who come out of retirement to kill the vice-president of the United States.
- More than a million people went for a TV comedy/documentary in which amateurs do crazy stunts and hurt themselves.
- Around 795K tried a drama in which the dead help the living get on with their lives.
- 637K saw a family film about a 1970s racehorse touched by God.
- Half a million went for a drama about the founding of Facebook.
- Half a million saw a romantic comedy about a man and a woman who don't like each other but who have to raise an orphaned girl together.
- A quarter million went for a drama about the romance between a bank robber and a bank manager.
- Finally, a little over 200,000 moviegoers saw a based-on-a-true-story drama about a woman who puts herself through law school to help her imprisoned brother.
And all this time I thought I was at odds with my country politically.
The sad totals here.
Of the above movies that I haven't seen, I'm only interested in “The Town” (no. 8), and maybe “Conviction” (no. 10).
The movies I recommend? “The Social Network” and “A Film Unfinished.”
What about you? See anything this weekend? Any recommendations?
Review: “Tangshan dadizhen” (2010)
XIAO XIN: SPOILERS
I knew going in that Xiaogang Feng's “Tangshan dadizhen” (“Aftershock”) focused on the Tangshan, China earthquake of 1976 that killed 240,000 people. I knew the movie set the all-time box-office record in China this year. And that’s about all I knew. So I spent much of the movie trying to figure out what the movie was about.
It begins well. We’re told it’s July 27, 1976 in Tangshan City, a train goes by, and it’s followed by a dragonfly. Then two. Then thousands. The people waiting at the railroad crossings are freaked, astonished, puzzled. “Daddy,” a little girl in a truck says, “why are there so many dragonflies?” The father tilts his head out the window. “A storm must be approaching,” he says.
That’s not bad.
There are early touches that reminded me of early Spielberg. We follow this family, the Fangs, whose two kids—a boy (Fang Da), and a girl (Fang Deng), twins—noisily request popsicles, fight and run from bullies, and share, with mom, the benefits of a new electric fan on a hot, summer day. I'm not sure my mind would’ve turned to Spielberg without knowing this movie set the box-office record in China, but at the least there’s a broadly drawn cuteness here that would’ve fit just as easily into an Arizona suburb.
That night, or early morning, as the kids are sleeping, and as the mother and father, at his late-night construction job, make love in the back of his enclosed truck, there’s more ominous foreshadowing. The sky turns purple and the little girl’s fish jump right out of the fishtank. Then the earth moves. The Tangshan earthquake registered anywhere from 7.8 to 8.2 on the Richter scale, and its death toll makes it the most disastrous earthquake of the 20th century. Pipe mains burst, buildings give way, heavy objects—boom—crush people indiscriminately. It’s brutal. People run, but from what? To what? There’s no safety. Mom and Dad struggle to make it back to the kids. At the window, the little girl cries for her mom. Mom cries back: “Lie-le!” (“I’m coming!”) But the father spins the mother out of the way, and to relative safety, just as the building collapses with the kids in it. Pretty horrific. We see them go down like Leo in “Titanic.” The special effects aren’t Industrial Light & Magic, but they’re not bad.
An earthquake can only last so long, though—Tangshan’s lasted 23 seconds—and we’re just 10-15 minutes into the movie. At this point I’m wondering: “What is this film going to be?”
When the dust settles, both kids and father are trapped, but alive, so I thought, “Oh, this will be about the struggle to get them out. It’ll be like ‘World Trade Center.’”
Then aftershocks hit and the father dies. The twins are still trapped beneath opposite sides of the same concrete slab, and the mother begs neighbors and workers—those small Chinese men in boxers and flip-flops who can lift refrigerators on their backs—to get them out. To lift the concrete slab, unfortunately, the weight has to go on one side. One child will be crushed in order to save the other and the mother has to choose: Which child do you save? Which child do you kill? It’s an impossible choice. But as the men are about to leave to help others, she shouts, suddenly, and then says, quietly, horrified, “Jao Di Di” (“Save little brother”).
“Oh,” I thought. “So it’s like ‘Sophie’s Choice.’ A mother has to live with the consequences of sacrificing one child in order to save another.”
A moment later, the mother carries her daughter’s broken body and places it next to the father’s broken body. Then she and her chosen son, the only two members of the family to survive, make their way, with other survivors, out to relief stations set up by the Chinese army, who are making their way into the devastated city.
Except the girl is not dead. A rain falls and she rises, blinking one eye. (The other is swollen shut as if she’d just gone 15 rounds with Apollo Creed.) I’m not sure what to make of this resurrection. Her death was greatly exaggerated? Her father’s spirit somehow revived her? We do know that while the concrete slab apparently didn’t crush her body, her mother’s choice, which she heard from beneath the rubble, crushes her spirit. The vivacious and mouthy little girl we knew for the first 10 minutes of the movie is gone, replaced by a blank, mute girl. Ultimately she’s adopted by two officers of the Chinese army, and they rename her Ya Ya, but, speaking up for the first time since Mom’s choice, she insists on being called “Deng,” even as she’s willing to give up the “Fang.”
The boy, meanwhile, has lost his left arm, and he’s about to lose his mother. In one of those really Chinese cultural moments, the mother of the now-dead husband, the grandmother, insists, in that roundabout Chinese way, of raising the child herself, while the boy’s actual mother, with apparently no rights in the matter, acquiesces. But just as the bus is pulling away, the grandmother’s daughter, the boy’s aunt, finally speaks up and shames the grandmother. At this point we see it all from the mother’s perspective. The bus rumbles down the dirt street. Then it stops. The doors open. And out comes little Fang Da running towards her. It’s a hokey moment but hokey works. I choked up.
Of course I’m waiting, with everyone, for the twins to reunite. But suddenly it’s 1986 and Deng is going off to med school while Da is starting a pedicab business; and then it’s 1995, and Deng has an out-of-wedlock child, a daughter, whom she couldn’t abort because of her own mother’s choice to, in essence, “abort” her, while Da is married and running a successful business but dealing with conflicts between his wife and his mother, the original Chinese martyr. “Oh,” I thought. “This is a decades-long melodrama. Like ‘Giant.’”
And it continued. The movie takes us from the Tangshan earthquake of 1976 to the Sichuan earthquake of 2008 (8.0; 68,000 dead), where the twins, both volunteers, finally reunite (interestingly, off-screen). The movie is about how this family is broken and how it comes together again. It’s also about how Tangshan is broken and comes together again. Reduced to rubble in 1976, it is, by the end, a glittering metropolis. Could it finally be about how China is broken and comes together again? The 1976 section ends with Mao’s funeral, with China reduced to economic rubble, and takes us to today, with China a world economic power, and with all of our main characters, with their heavy heartaches, living in relative comfort. Even broken, they have risen.
And that’s when I finally got it. “Oh,” I thought. “It’s the national story told as one family’s soap opera. Or the national soap opera told through one family. It’s ‘Gone with the Wind.’” Thus its popularity.
At the same time, setting “the all-time Chinese box office record” doesn’t mean much these days. The record it broke, “Avatar’s,” was set earlier this year, while the record that one broke, “2012,” was set in 2009, while the record that one broke... etc. Box-office records are broken all the time in China now for a reason. More theaters are being built, and more Chinese have the leisure time and disposable income to see filmed stories that solidify national myths: I.e., this is a story about how we got to the point where we could waste our time watching this.
Welcome to the party, pengyoumen.
Jon Stewart's Funny, But...
I finally saw the interview with Pres. Obama on “The Daily Show” the other night and thought the president continued to do what I want him to do. He explained, articulately, about the slow business of governing. I was happy at the end. I thought he came off well.
I should say “read,” in quotes, because I can only get so far into these things. Their assumptions are not my assumptions. Neither is Jon Stewart's, for that matter. He's had a lot of fun these past two years juxatposing the high rhetoric of politicking with the slow process of governing, but in doing so he comes off as a spoiled shit. He wants it, and he wants it his way, now. I'm a little tired of that attitude. Which increasingly seems to be the American attitude.
“The Daily Show” has it both ways. When the Obama administration plays politics, Stewart calls them on it—as he should. But when they don't play politics, when they tell uncomfortable truths, Stewart calls them on that, too. (E.g., “Dude, that's not the way you play the game.”) So “The Daily Show” wins either way. No matter what the Obama administration does, Stewart can make comedy out of it.
Listen to Milbank on the appearance:
Stewart, who struggled to suppress a laugh as Obama defended [Larry] Summers, turned out to be an able inquisitor on behalf of aggrieved liberals. He spoke for the millions who had been led to believe that Obama was some sort of a messianic figure. Obama has only himself to blame for their letdown. By raising expectations impossibly high, playing the transformational figure to Hillary Clinton's status-quo drone, he gave his followers an unrealistic hope.
A messianic figure? Who are these people?It's not me. Is it Milbank? Is it Stewart?
Again: Obama is doing what I want him to do. And he's doing it in the face of the strongest internal propaganda campaign a sitting president has had to endure (from the right), and dopey liberals, or at least the perception of dopey liberals, who wonder why he hasn't made all the bad things go away (from the left).
Here's more from the Post:
President Barack Obama barely cracked any jokes during an appearance Wednesday on “The Daily Show” despite host Jon Stewart's attempts to draw out the president's humorous side.
Is that criticism?
Look, I'm happy that Stewart is holding his rally to restore sanity and/or madness today. I think we need it. I think too many people are buying into too much right-wing propaganda. Plus, who doesn't need a laugh?
I'm just tired of Obama being criticized for being the only adult in the room at a time when we desperately need adults in the room. Not spoiled shits.
I'm writing a piece for my alumni magazine on a campus organization dedicated to the Marx Brothers, the Marx Brotherhood, which I belonged to in the late 1970s—before I was in college—and so rewatched some of their movies. They still make me laugh.
But one of the more startling moments came in an otherwise throwaway scene in “Horse Feathers.” Zeppo, playing Groucho's son, is about to visit “the college widow,” Connie Bailey (Thelma Todd), with whom he's having an affair, but runs into her maid, Laura, beforehand. They exchange pleasantries and Zeppo takes the breakfast tray from her and brings it to Connie himself.
What's startling? The maid is played by a pretty black actress, Theresa Harris, and contains none of the stereotypes associated with the era and the role. The performance, as small as it is, seems decades ahead of its time:
Apparently Theresa Harris was born in 1909, appeared in 81 movies, including “Baby Face,” “Jezebel,” and “Cat People,” and stopped acting in films just after Montgomery and just before Greensboro. She died of natural causes in 1985.
Has anyone written a book about her? A quick Internet search (Google, amazon) reveals bupkis.
Why Can't I Quit Michael Cieply?
I always seem to be about a week behind in what I want to post about.
This piece, for example, “Longing for the Lines that Had Us at Hello,” showed up in The New York Times a week ago today, and it's been stuck in my craw, wherever my craw* is, ever since.
(*craw (n.): a pouch in many birds and some lower animals that resembles a stomach for storage and preliminary maceration of food)
One, it's by Michael Cieply, who's been a bit of a bete noire for me for the past few years. My site has a search function now, and if you search for “Cieply” you get 10 hits, most of them bitching about this or that now-forgotten article.**
(**My favorite of these is “Two Face,” from July 2008, in which Cieply's April prediction that “The Dark Knight” may underperform at the box office—because it's too gloomy at a time when people want to escape gloom—is juxtaposed with colleague Brooks Barnes' after-the-fact analysis that “The Dark Knight” did well at the box office because its gloominess reflected the national mood. Escape/reflect. Nice when the Times gets it both ways.)
Three, the Times' headline plays a bit with the text. Cieply's main argument, or thought, is: Where have all the good movie quotes gone? He doesn't mention longing.
Mostly, though, elitist that I am, I think the movie quotes that everyone quotes (“Show me the money!”) aren't as interesting as the movie quotes that movie lovers quote (“Takin' em off here, boss”). ***
(***Cieply also confuses the categories, putting “The Dude Abides” in the former when it's really the latter. “The Big Lebowski” kinda bombed on first viewing. It took years before quotes about the Dude started coming.)
Here's the brunt of Cieply's argument:
Sticky movie lines were everywhere as recently as the 1990s. But they appear to be evaporating from a film world in which the memorable one-liner — a brilliant epigram, a quirky mantra, a moment in a bottle — is in danger of becoming a lost art.
I could argue that “Stupid is as stupid does” is not art, lost or otherwise. I could argue that sticky movie quotes get annoying fast. But there's really only one thing to say to Cieply at this point:
Why so serious?
What about you? What movie lines from the past 10 years do you quote? Feel free to put 'em in the comments field below.****
(****Shout-out to Joe Posnanski, from whom I got the idea of footnoting within the text of a blog post.)
Cool Hand Me
Last Friday night a group of us went to Sitka & Spruce for our friend Paige's birthday, where the following photo was taken:
That's Paige on the left, Patricia on the right, me with the shit-eating grin in the middle.
Something about the photo, particularly the lucky bastard in the middle, the way he's leaning, a little bit of the charlatan in him, seemed familiar somehow. Today it finally hit me:
I guess if you have to model yourself on someone...
Review: “Hereafter” (2010)
WARNING: UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY SPOILERS, FROM WHOSE (JASON) BOURN NO TRAVELER RETURNS
“Hereafter” needs a subtler touch than director Clint Eastwood brings. Eastwood has a nasty habit of choosing sides. His is all good, the other is all bad, and doubt and ambiguity are for saps (or, in Eastwoodian, “punks”). This is true if the subject is a San Francisco cop, a lady boxer, or the most important question human beings can ask:
What happens when we die?
Every religion in the world, and half the charlatans, promise to answer that question. Eastwood, and screenwriter Peter Morgan (“The Queen”; “Frost/Nixon”), now do. Without doubt or ambiguity. You got a problem with that...punk?
We get three main storylines. In the first, a pretty French TV journalist, Marie Lelay (Cecile de France), finds her career, and life, sidetracked after she is swept up in a tsunami and dies for an unspecified amount of time. This tsunami is monstrous and terrifying and the best part of the film. After getting knocked out, Marie drifts in the water while a toy bear, floating above her, stares down. We hear a heartbeat until we don’t. The screen goes dark. Then we get blurry images, silhouettes, and mumbling. It’s like that scene in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” when the aliens emerge from their spaceship. Are these silhouettes the living, whom she is leaving, or the dead, who are greeting her? At first I assumed the latter, but then two silhouettes move towards us, and one gives us a sense of resuscitation, and, voila, suddenly we’re back, with someone on a rooftop giving Ms. Lelay mouth-to-mouth. Enjoy that scene. The movie is called “Hereafter” but this is the last glimpse of the hereafter we’ll get.
The second storyline follows George Lonegan (Matt Damon), who, as a child, had a near-death experience, and ever since, whenever he touches someone, zap, he can communicate with this person’s deceased loved ones.
(BTW: Do the communicatees have to be “loved ones”? And are they the deceased who mean the most to this person or the deceased for whom this person means the most? Might George touch my hands, for example, and suddenly be talking with someone I barely knew but who secretly loved me and is just, you know, hanging around? Are there stalkers in the hereafter?)
George’s older brother, Billy (Jay Mohr), a businessman, wants to exploit this talent—he’s developed a website and everything—but George wants to ignore it completely because the after-effects are somewhat deleterious. The connection isn’t immediately broken and he seems not quite there, floating in this middle kingdom, listening to dull radio fully-clothed in bed. “A life about death is no life at all,” George tells his brother. So he’s trying something else: a working-class job at the C&H plant and a once-a-week Italian cooking class to meet people. Mostly, though, he’s alone. Eastwood does alone well but he does it too often here. I think we get three shots of George eating by himself while a guitarist on the soundtrack picks out a few lonely chords.
If that’s not pathos enough, there’s the London storyline, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), twin boys who save their pennies, or maybe their ha’ pennies, to pay for a self-portrait for their mum, who, alas, is a drug addict. It’s like something out of a silent melodrama: They care for her with one hand while fending off social services with the other. One morning she sends Marcus on an errand, but at the last instant, Jason, the more talkative, baseball-cap-wearing brother, goes, and I immediately thought, “OK, he’s dead.” It reminded me of the anxiety accompanying the first scenes of the HBO series “Six Feet Under”: Who’s going to die and how? Here we know who; it’s all about how. Ah, bullies: Eastwood’s favorite trope. No wait, Jason runs from the bullies. So he’ll run right into an oncoming car, right? Wrong. It’s an oncoming truck.
Those are our three storylines—all related to death and the hereafter. One assumes they’ll connect eventually. And they do—eventually—but Eastwood's 80 now, and like any 80-year-old he takes his time getting there.
In the meantime: Lelay takes a leave of absence from her weekly news-magazine show to write a revisionist bio of former French president Francois Mitterrand, dead now 10 years, but turns in three chapters on the hereafter instead. She’s shocked that her publishing house isn’t interested, and shocked again when her weekly show, and accompanying Blackberry ads, go to a younger, Asian-y woman. She was so proud of those ads.
Lonegan begins a flirtation with a cute woman in his cooking class, Melanie (Bryce Dallas Howard), in which each’s interest in the other is obvious. But during prep for a home-cooked meal, his secret, his superpower as it were, is slowly revealed; and when she insists he try it on her, he finds out things she doesn’t want revealed. And there goes that. He’s back to eating alone while the guitarist plucks a few lonely chords.
Marcus, meanwhile, is put into a foster home with well-meaning parents, but he’s quiet, and wearing Jason’s baseball cap, and doing whatever he can to communicate with Jason. This includes visiting charlatans who claim to communicate with the dead.
In this way, each character deals with a perhaps culturally specific response to their association with the hereafter. Marcus gets British charlatans. Lelay, who definitely experienced something when she died, gets the French, the center of modern, progressive culture, who definitively know nothing happens. We just die. C’est tout. And Lonegan definitely communicates with the dead, but instead of treating this as the greatest discovery in the history of mankind, which it is, his brother treats it as a way to make a coupla bucks. So American.
Eventually (there’s that eventually), all three converge at a convention for a dying industry (books) in London. Marcus is with his foster parents, Lonegan, who loves Dickens, is attending a Derek Jacobi reading of “Little Dorrit,” and Lelay is shilling her book in stilted English.
Lonegan, lonely boy, is of course enamored of Lelay, chic Frenchwoman, but does nothing with it. (Welcome to the party, pal.) Marcus, meanwhile, recognizes Lonegan and convinces him to use his superpower to communicate with Jason.
This is the fourth example of communication with the hereafter we have in the film. The first, Lelay’s, is visual but vague, while Lonegan’s two previous encounters—with his brother’s neighbor and with Melanie—are more about helping the living with their personal issues. The dead are so understanding that way. The neighbor’s dead wife encourages him to marry again, to her former nurse, June, with whom he was secretly in love. Melanie’s dead father apologizes for sexually abusing her. None of the living ask the obvious question: Hey, what’s it like to be dead?
Marcus has a bit of Dr. Phil in him, too—he tells Jason to stop wearing his baseball cap and get on with his life—but, bless him, he at least gives us a glimpse of what it means to be dead. Quick answer? It’s fun. “You can be all things and all at once,” he says through Lonegan. “And the weightlessness!”
That’s the shame of “Hereafter.” It posits that none of us, except a chosen few, are interested in what happens when we die, when all of us are interested in what happens when we die. We’re just tired of the answers we keep getting. Including, now, Eastwood’s.
Death is apparently like this, but with smaller heads.
The Fall of the 2010 New York Yankees
When $55 Million > $207 Million
So the Texas Rangers and their $55 million payroll beat the New York Yankees and their $207 million payroll to advance to their first World Series rather than the Yankees’ 41st.
Sometimes there’s something approximating justice in the world.
I didn’t watch the game live. I would’ve watched it live but it was a friend’s birthday, and a bunch of us went to Sitka & Spruce on Capitol Hill for a lovely dinner interrupted only by me repeatedly checking the score on my iPhone. (Mlb.com has a good app; Espn.com, not so much.) At one point, I attempted to get deeper into the play-by-play, and the comfortable score I’d been looking at (5-1, Texas, in the 7th: Yay!), suddenly shifted to the horror of a 6-5 Yankees lead. (WTF!?!) It took a moment before I realized I’d click into the scores of all six games of the ALCS, and “6-5, Yankees,” was the final score of Game 1. Scrolling down, I hit the “5-1, Texas” score again, clutched my chest, breathed a sigh of relief, and decided to stay put. Moving around was apparently bad luck. Even when it wasn’t.
So I didn’t see it live. But I did DVR the game and watched it when I got home. My perceptions of the game are thus colored by foreknowledge.
I knew, for example, that when the Yankees tied it up in the top of the 5th, the Rangers immediately responded with 4 runs, so I was excited, practically rubbing my hands, when the bottom half began.
This is what I saw: infield single, groundout, groundout.
“Really?” I thought. “They get 4 runs out of this? A man on third and two outs?”
But then the Yankees intentionally walked Josh Hamilton, who was having a great series, to get to Vlad Guerrero, who wasn’t. And Vlad impaled them. He doubled over Granderson’s head in deep center to plate two.
But it was still two outs, man on second. “Really?” I thought. “They get 2 more runs out of this?”
Then Joe Girardi went to the ‘pen and brought in David Robertson. And Nelson Cruz promptly unloaded one into the seats for two more. And there’s your 4 runs.
Question: Do these two moves by Joe Girardi seem inconsistent to anyone else?
With the first move, the intentional walk, he seems to treat ALCS numbers as if they matter more than regular season numbers. He avoids the guy who’s having a great ALCS (Hamilton) to face the guy who isn’t (Guerrero), even though this means putting the first guy, who’s got speed, on the basepaths. Admittedly Hamilton had a great regular season, too, and Vlad’s not getting any younger. Plus the move worked in the bottom of the 3rd inning. But I doubt in a similar situation during the regular season—two out, man on third, bottom of 5—Girardi would’ve treated Hamilton as the second-coming of Barry-Bonds-on-steroids. It’s just not a situation where you intentionally walk a guy. Unless you think ALCS numbers matter more than regular season numbers.
Girardi’s move to go to Robertson, meanwhile, seems the opposite of this. It seems business as usual. In Game 3, in the top of the 9th, with the Rangers leading by 2 and a man on second, Girardi went to Robertson, who promptly gave up a single, a single, a strikeout, an intentional walk, a single, a single and a double, before leaving with the game out of hand: 7-0. Now if you’re treating ALCS numbers as if they matter more than regular season numbers, as Girardi did with Hamilton, you wouldn’t have gone back to Robertson in a similar situation. But Girardi did. In almost the exact same situation: the Rangers leading by 2 with a man on second. And Robertson promptly gave up a homerun and a double before leaving with the game nearly out of hand: 5-1.
So Girardi feared facing the Ranger who was having a great ALCS (SLG: 1.000), but didn’t fear putting in the Yankee pitcher who wasn’t having a great ALCS (ERA: 19.29). Feels like a contradiction in there somewhere.
After that, the Yankees seemed to deflate. They had 12 outs left and sent 14 men to the plate. Lance Berkman hit a two-out triple in the 7th, Brett Gardner drew a two-out walk in the 8th. Nothing else.
They looked old, too. Even Mariano looked old. He came in in the 8th and got ‘em out 1-2-3, but the balls were hard hit. It was also odd seeing him on the mound with the Yankees down by 5. It was like seeing the guy who normally plays Hamlet playing Guildenstern.
Jeter looked really old. He looked like he was ready to leave. After Gardner walked in the 8th, he struck out flailing. Everyone is going to focus on that final A-Rod at-bat to end the game, the series and the season for the Yanks, but their season truly ended with that final flail from Jeter. Worse, in his final two games, he didn’t even get the ball out of the infield. In Game 5: He ground out to short three times, walked, and reached on a grounder to the pitcher. In Game 6: He ground out to short, to third, to the pitcher, and struck out. Flailing. The captain went down with his ship.
39 More Reasons Why the Yankees Suck
I'm hoping around 8:30 tonight, Pacific Time, the Texas Rangers will add their name to the following list:
- Seattle Mariners
- Cleveland Indians
- Arizona Diamondbacks
- Anaheim Angels
- Florida Marlins
- Boston Red Sox
- Anaheim Angels
- Detroit Tigers
- Cleveland Indians
These are the teams, the Legion of Honor, the Justice League, who have eliminated the New York Yankees from postseason contention since 1995. No team has done it since midges attacked Joba Chamberlain during the calm of a Cleveland evening three years ago (oh, that was fun!), because 1) in 2008 the Yankees didn't make the postseason, and 2) last year they won it all. After Game 4, I was hoping Texas would crush the Yankees in New Yankee Stadium, which would've been sweet, a la Boston in '04, and we could've seen Yankee fans, so-called, streaming out of their $1 billion stadium like rats from a sinking ship for the third night in a row. But... not to be. We'll see what the next two days brings. If it doesn't bring victory tonight it brings Cliff Lee tomorrow. It'll also bring Andy Pettite, who, though his name means “small,” tends to play big in October.
I'm currently adding to my list of Reasons Why the Yankees Suck, which was written nearly 10 years ago and includes 10-year-old gripes, but haven't decided yet whether to update the original or write a whole new report. In the meantime, here are some of the contenders. Feel free to add your own in the comments field:
- Killing the hopes of Twins fans everywhere (2009, 2008, 2004, 2003)
- Killing the hopes of Mariners fans everywhere (2001, 2000)
- Killing the hopes of Rangers fans everywhere (1999, 1998, 1996)
- Killing the hopes of Royals fans everywhere (1978, 1977, 1976)
- Killing the hopes of Dodgers fans everywhere (1978, 1977, 1956, 1953, 1952, 1949, 1947, 1941)
- “He'll look good next year in pinstripes.”
- A-Rod—swatting a baseball.
- Derek Jeter—“hit by pitch.”
- Robinson Cano—“hitting a homerun” (2010).
- Derek Jeter—“hitting a homerun” (1996)
- Yet another article about where Jeffrey Maier is now.
- GMS patches
- That Steinbrenner monument—dwarfing the monuments of Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio and Mantle.
- “Win one for the Boss.”
- 1998: The last year the Yankees didn't have the highest payroll in baseball. (They were second to the Orioles).
- That monthly New York Times column wondering when the lastest small market superstar (Mauer, Greinke, Lee) will become a Yankee.
- “Got rings?”
- Ken Burns interviewing no Pirates or Pirates fans, only Yankees and Yankees fans, about the Pirates' thrilling, come-from-behind victory over the Yankees in the 1960 World Series.
- Ken Burns interviewing no Diamondbacks or Diamondbacks fans, only Yankees and Yankees fans, about the Diamondbacks' thrilling, come-from-behind victory over the Yankees in the 2001 World Series.
- Roger Clemens' 15-strikeout, one-hit performance against the Seattle Mariners in Game 4 of 2000 ALCS.
- Manager Joe Torre saying of Clemens' performance, “It was total dominance.”
- Clemens' total dominance revealed to be steroid-enhanced.
- David Cone complaining about light-throwing Jamie Moyer's “brushback pitches” against Paul O'Neill.
- David Cone complaining about Edgar Martinez swinging at 3-0 pitches “when they're up by about 10 runs”...when in fact they were up by 4.
- Tom Veducci attributing this “Speech of Lies” to turning the Yankees' 1998 season around.
- Lance Berkman striking out on a fastball down the middle in Game 2 of the 2010 ALDS.
- The pitch being called a ball.
- Berkman hitting a double on the next pitch.
- The Yankees in the postseason 15 of the 16 years since 1995.
- This success attributed to keeping together a core group of players—Jeter, Rivera, Pettite, Posada—unlike other, lesser teams, who let their best players go.
- The Yankees keeping together this core group of players only because they don't have to worry about the Yankees taking them away.
- Joe Posnanski: “The Yankees are not a big-market team. They DWARF big-market teams.” (More here.)
- Jim Caple: “We don't need another World Series with a team so rich and smug that the New York mayor announced two weeks ago that he already was planning its world championship parade route.” (More here.)
- The fact that any Yankee postseason victory by definition removes magic from the world.
- A payroll $45 million higher than any other team in Major League Baseball (2010).
- A payroll $52 million higher than any other team in Major League Baseball (2009).
- A payroll $72 million higher than any other team in Major League Baseball (2008).
- A payroll $85 million higher than any other team in Major League Baseball (2005).
- “I'm tired of all this bitching about the Yankees buying championships.”
- A Nirvana retrospective at EMP on the 20th anniversary of “Nevermind”? I'm there. Next spring.
- It's always good to have a little Bob Dylan in the middle of the day. Or the beginning of it. Or at 2 a.m. when you can't sleep. “Yes, and how many ears must one man have/Before he can hear people cry?” That song doesn't get old, does it?
- What makes Will Ferrell laugh? Now you know.
- Peter Knegt over at IndieWire on 10 underdog acting noms this year. I'm including him here because he includes two I've touted: Pierce Brosnan in “The Ghost Writer” and John Hawkes in “Winter's Bone.” We'll see what the rest of the year brings, but those two are at the top of my list, followed by Tom Hardy in “Inception,” and, if you want to go broad or get into comedy (and why wouldn't you?), Mickey Rourke in “Iron Man 2” and Michael Keaton in “The Other Guys.”
- Over at flick philosopher, Maryann Johanson attempts to define “the female gaze” by what it isn't, “the male gaze,” then lists off lame (“Marmaduke”) or disgusting (an unnamed gossip site) versions of the latter. She only gets back to the female gaze at the end (“Bright Star,” “The Runaways”) but not in a revelatory way. I still don't know what she means. Are there no variations in the male gaze or female gaze? Why dismiss the homosexual male gaze, for example, as she seems to do? (Off the top of my head: Gore Vidal, Tennesee Williams, Merchant-Ivory.) Since most gossip sites attract women, to what extent is that unnamed gossip site a female gaze? Her post is a good second draft, though.
- Somebody, in this case “The Independent,” likes “Restrepo,” the Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington documentary about a platoon in Afghanistan in 2007-08, as much as I did. Hell, they go further. They ask: Is it the greatest war movie ever made?
- The M's have a new manager! Former Indians manager Eric Wedge! I know. Can he hit? Jerry Brewer calls the announcement cheerleading at a wake.
- The Coolest Asshole of the Week is Bobby Knight, who takes on the God-in-sports question deep in the heart of Texas.
- Speaking of Texas: Here's Joe Posnanski's beautiful column on Cliff Lee's beautiful pitching performance in Game 3 of the ALCS: striking out 13 New York Yankees.
- Speaking of New York: those fans in the Bronx can't keep their sticky fingers off the playing field, can they? This time, at least, it didn't affect the outcome of the game.
- Finally, one of my first posts, way back in February 2008, was about that tension between saving and letting go. My friend Kristin says it better here.
Review: John Rabe (2009)
After nearly 75 years of ignoring the topic, two films about the Rape of Nanjing, one Chinese and one German, were released in 2009. Both suffer the same melodramatic impulse. It’s not enough to show atrocity, we have to show uplift. The music has to well. Good people have to march onward even as what they leave behind is so unspeakable as to shatter faith in God.
The Chinese film, “Nanjing! Nanjing!,” is reviewed here.
The German film, “John Rabe,” focuses, no surprise, on the German, John Rabe (Ulrich Tukur of “Seraphine”), a member of the National Socialist Party (NaSi or Nazi), who, at the start, has spent years in Nanjing building a dam for the German company Siemens. It’s his pride and joy.
But it’s December 1937. The Japanese have attacked China and are approaching Nanjing (literally: southern capital), and anyway Rabe’s been recalled by Siemens to Germany. He and his wife are to leave in two days.
Rabe is not exactly a warm figure here. He calls the Chinese “good for nothing” and “children,” he has made no effort to learn their language, and he assumes he’s safe from the Japanese. “After all, they are allies of the Reich,” he says. When Japanese Zeros begin to bomb his compound, he unfurls a large Nazi flag and has everyone hide beneath it. That night he writes in his diary: “The Japanese are indeed good allies. They hold their fire as soon as they see the flag. Very honorable.”
This is one of my favorite parts of the movie. It’s so easy, in historical dramas, to make protagonists more cognizant of future events than their peers, and most filmmakers can’t resist the impulse (see: Michael Corleone in “Godfather Part II”), so it’s nice when they do. The present’s messy and uncertain. We know we’re watching a movie about an unimaginable holocaust, but unimaginable holocausts are unimaginable. No one thinks they’ll live through one today, tomorrow, or next week.
Unfortunately, we begin to get intimations of something warmer about Rabe. He’s certainly a nicer man than the Siemens exec, Werner Fleiss (Mathias Herrmann), who’s been sent to replace him. Fleiss berates Rabe for allowing a portrait of Hitler to be covered up, and for not flying his huge Nazi flag—literally and figuratively. Then he lowers the boom. He’s not just replacing Rabe: Siemens is shutting down the project. All Rabe’s hard work—gone. “The dam,” Rabe tells his wife, “would’ve been my legacy.”
To which we think: Ah, but he’ll have a different legacy.
In a stiff ceremony, Rabe receives an award as “a hero to the Chinese people,” which is greeted with catcalls from a drunk American, Dr. Wilson (Steve Buscemi), who thinks little of the Nazi businessman. He mocks him. “Hero to the Chinese people,” he says sarcastically.
To which we think: Ah, but soon he WILL be a hero to the Chinese people.
As the Japanese move into Nanjing, an international contingent, including Valérie Dupres (Anne Consigny of “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly”), a woman with whom Rabe has a subtle flirtation, attempts to establish a “Safety Zone” for both themselves and their Chinese workers. Against Rabe’s wishes, he’s made its president. The music wells up heroically. A day later, Rabe attempts to flee. At least that’s what the others fear, since they see his name and the name of his wife on the passenger list of the last ship leaving Nanjing. They rush down to the dock. There’s tension. Then they see him and his wife making their way through the crowd. It’s true! He’s leaving!
Except there is no tension. We know he’s not leaving. Otherwise we wouldn’t be watching the movie we’re watching.
His wife gets on the ship, yes, but he stays behind, absurdly holding a bird cage, and standing on the top step of the elevated stairs as the ship pulls away. A moment later, Japanese Zeros strafe the ship. He screams her name. For some reason, in this crowded port, no one is near him. He’s all alone watching this attack. Because they couldn’t afford extras? Because it suggests how alone he is now? It’s China, kids. No one is ever alone.
First he loses his legacy, then he loses his wife. This is a big moment in the film. How does he pick himself up? We don’t know. He just does. You could argue he’s on a suicide mission. Medical supplies, including insulin, are low or nonexistent in the Safety Zone, but he tells no one he has diabetes. He simply channels his German efficiency into helping the Chinese rather than Siemens. Instead of building a system to hold back water, he’s building a system to hold back the Japanese.
The horrors get worse. Executions of Chinese men are rampant. Chinese girls cut their hair to seem like boys to prevent rape. Nanjing 1937 is, in fact, one of the true horrors of he modern age, and we should get a sense of these few foreigners propping up the last bit of sane ground in an insane world. But we don’t. Instead we get subplots. Rabe and Wilson bond over drink. Dupres confesses to Rabe she’s housing a whole platoon of Chinese soldiers in a secret room. Rabe and Wilson and Dr. Georg Rosen (Daniel Bruhl of “Inglourious Basterds”) argue over protocol. There are even intimations of romance between Rosen and a Chinese girl. He leaves her a dress. She puts it on. They talk on a couch. Seriously? We need a love story? Are we that pathetic?
There’s one great scene. While Rabe and the others are hat-in-hand at the Japanese embassy, Rabe’s driver, Chang (Ming Li), walking around his car and smoking, is confronted by an angry Japanese guard, who demands, in Japanese, that he stay in his car. But Chang doesn’t speak Japanese. When Rabe leaves the compound, Chang is nowhere to be seen. He searches for him, yells his name, finds him in a fenced-in area with other Chinese who are in the process of being decapitated. It’s a contest sponsored by a Japanese newspaper: What honorable Japanese soldier can decapitate the most Chinese? Rabe tries to get them to stop, to rescue his driver, but Chang is decapitated before his eyes. A Japanese official later says the driver wasn’t following the rules. “He didn’t stay in the car?” Rabe answers. “His head was cut off!” To compensate him for his loss, Rabe is allowed to choose 20 Chinese to take with him, but this is a Faustian bargain. He has to decide who lives and dies. He does it with German efficiency and something like horror in his eyes.
This scene is a rarity, though. Too often, writer/director Florian Gallenberger gives over to melodrama. Near the end, the Japanese want to clear out the Safety Zone and remove evidence of their atrocities before an international contingent arrives, but Rabe and the others stand in the way; they stand in front of more Chinese who are about to be killed. The Japanese begin to go through with the executions anyway: “Ready... aim...” Then the deus ex machina: the sound of the ship arriving with the international contingency. Rabe wins but the movie loses. God, ex machina or otherwise, should not show up here.
The ending is even worse. Rabe is forced to step down as president of the Safety Zone and return to Germany, and, as he makes his way through a throng of grateful Chinese, they chant his name and shout good-bye: “Tzi jien! Tzi jien!” At the other side of this throng, just outside Nanjing, a walled city, stands his wife, still alive, and he rushes to greet her, and they embrace, and a cheer goes up from the Chinese throng. Yay! The German guy is back with his wife! Yay! We’re all about to die! Yay!
How much more effective, how truer, if, after all the good he’d done, he’d left unceremoniously, as alone as he’d been at the port. What group of people recognizes individual good as it’s being done? Don’t we need historians to piece things together? Hell, I’m even cynical about that proposition.
And cheering him? Wouldn’t the remaining Chinese have clawed at him to get him to stay? Or to take them along? Or to take their babies with him so they wouldn’t be skewered by the Japanese?
Instead the Chinese act as audience for this German couple in a story that is about the atrocities that happened to them.
The Rape of Nanjing is a horrific story worth telling. We just keep telling it wrong.
Hollywood B.O.: America Loves “Jackass”
Yes, “Jackass 3-D” was no. 1 at the box office this weekend. Yes, it set a record for September/October by opening with an estimated $50 million. Yes, that's the best opening weekend since “Inception”'s in mid-July. Yes yes yes.
I'm more interested in this number: 38. That's the percentage difference between the number of Rotten Tomato's top critics who liked “Jackass 3D” (29%) and the overall critics who liked “Jackass 3D” (67%).
That's a huge discrepancy.
How huge? The difference for “Red,” which opened in second place with $22 million, is 10% (70% for all critics, 60% for top critics).
The difference for “The Social Network,” which fell only 28.8% for another $11 million and third place, is 3% (97% for all critics, 100% for top critics).
In fact, among the top 10 films, the largest discrepancy for a film other than “Jackass”'s 38% is “Easy A”'s 11% (86% from all critics, 97% from top critics).
“Jackass”'s huge discrepancy may be due partly to the small sample size. There are usually 100-200 reviews for a film opening wide. As of this morning, there are only 45 for “Jackass.” Paramount didn't screen it for critics because it didn't have to. Critics just get in the way of these kinds of things.
Besides, if you're a critic, what do you say about a movie like this? That it's stupid and disgusting? That it loves groin shots and midget bar fights? And poop geysers? (Best line I've read comes from Kurt Loder, who, according to RT's system, gave it a thumbs up: “Most of us think of a penis as having two purposes. But as we learn in Jackass 3D, this is a narrow view.”)
Either way, “Jackass” seems the 38th parallel of movies: forever dividing top critics, who want story, and online critics, who want.
I'm also intrigued, in an offhand kind of way, with which of these two groups goes higher for which film. The expectation is for top critics to be more discrminating than all critics, but, among the top 10, that's not nearly true. Top Critics gave lower numbers to only four of the 10 (“Jackass,” “Red,” “The Town,” and “My Soul to Take”), but gave higher numbers to the other six (“The Social Network,” “Secretariat,” “Life As We Know It,” “Ga'Hoole,” “Easy A” and “Wall Street”).
Mostly, though, I know the $50 million open means we'll not only get another “Jackass” sequel in a year or four, but copycat “Jackass”es from other studios.
The sad totals here.
Review: “Red” (2010)
WARNING: COMPANY SPOILERS
How far have we fallen as a country in the last 30 years? Here’s how far.
Our movies about the CIA used to be this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the president of the United States! Oh my god!
Now they’re this: The CIA is trying to assassinate the vice-president of the United States! Yay!
The assassins in this latter case, in the movie “Red,” are, to be sure, rogue agents, or retired agents, who have been forced out of retirement because this vice president, with war crimes to hide, has targeted them. So our heroes are less “the CIA” than individual agents. They’re soldiers. Support the troops, man.
But it’s still odd and disheartening.
Our fear used to be Frankensteinian in nature. The monster we created, the national security agency, had turned on its creator, the U.S. government, and through a rogue agent (“In the Line of Fire”), or with the help of the entire agency (“JFK”), was trying to remove the democratically elected president of the United States. The CIA, created to protect the people, but unaccountable to the people, was subverting democracy.
Now? In “Red”? The agency still sucks because it’s a bureaucracy and bureaucracies suck. But democracy sucks, too. The vice-president needs to be assassinated not only because he’s immoral but because he’s running for president—he has the money and the organization—and we have no faith that we the people won’t see through the money and organization, and we’ll elect him anyway. We are, in a certain sense, the movie’s unnamed villains. Democracy, a good idea in its day, doesn’t work with people as stupid as us.
When the movie opens, Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is dealing somnabulantly with retirement. He gets up at six, pads downstairs in his robe, drinks coffee, works out. He’s a retired CIA agent—we know that going in—but he’s like someone in the witness protection program. A neighbor says hi, he says hi back, then notices all the other houses have Christmas lights up. So he buys some. He’s just trying to fit in with these people.
The one bright spot in his day, or his week, is talking on the phone with Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), a customer-service rep whom he contacts when he doesn’t get his retirement check. He gets it all the time but he keeps tearing it up so he can talk to Sarah. It’s a small life.
One morning, though, he wakes up at 3:30 a.m. and can’t get back to sleep (I know the feeling), so he pads downstairs. In the darkness, three men wearing ninja clothes, infrared goggles, and carrying high-tech weapons, silently follow him as he walks into the kitchen. Then they shoot up the kitchen. But he’s not in the kitchen, he’s in a nearby room, and he takes them all out. They’re just the first wave of the assault team. The second wave turns his house into swiss cheese with automatic weapons fire but by this point he’s safe in the basement; and when the second wave enters the house he takes them out, too, then leaves while part of his house crumbles. He doesn’t look back.
He’s on his way to Kansas City and Sarah. He assumes the CIA hit squad was targeting him because he had been talking to her. So they must be targeting her, too.
Sarah is the typical civilian in these kinds of stories. She dates badly and reads thrilling adventure novels to make up for the boredom in her life. Nothing ever happens to her. Until Frank shows up at her place, or in her place, and freaks her out.
Some good comedic bits here. “Did you vacuum?” she asks, looking around her apartment. “It was a bit messy,” he admits. Later, as they drive away, he talks about how he imagined it would be different the first time they met. Cut to: her, tied up in the back, duct tape over her mouth.
Moses is a man on the run trying to figure out why he’s on the run. He visits other retired agents: Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman) in New Orleans and Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) in Florida. Joe has a bit of a good speech: “I never thought this would happen to me,” he says. “Getting old.” For a moment we identify; then we realize he’s talking less philosophy than lifestyle. “Vietnam. Afghanistan. [pause] Green Springs Retirement Home?” Marvin, meanwhile, is nutso. He thought they were feeding him daily doses of LSD, and, Moses admits, they were, for 11 years. He’s the kind of anti-government paranoid that used to be associated with the left but is now wholly associated with the right. Libertarians are beating anarchists in the battle for nutjobs everywhere.
So why is Moses being targeted? I alluded to it earlier. Seems he and some others—all of whom have died over the last year—were part of a CIA extraction team in Guatemala in the fall of 1981. They were extracting a war criminal, the son of a rich man, who became Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon: Dr. Doom from “The Fantastic Four”), the vice president of the United States. Stanton is now running for president, and he, or someone backing him, doesn’t want any skeletons. Moses doesn’t want to be a skeleton. Thus the conflict.
I wonder how these movies play abroad. Are they accurately translated? There’s a moment, for example, when the young CIA buck, William Cooper (Karl Urban), enters the archives in Langley, Virginia, watched over by Henry the Record Keeper (Ernest Borgnine), to check out the file of Moses, the man he’s been ordered to kill. He opens it up... and almost everything is redacted. There’s nothing to read. It’s a good bit, worth a laugh. Karl then talks up Moses. How he was the best. How in his day he took out drug lords and terrorists. “Hell,” Henry says with a bright smile, “he toppled governments!”
Really? That’s the kind of thing that used to cause major moral qualms in this country. We’re toppling democratically elected governments? I thought we were the good guys. Now it’s a throwaway line said with pride. It’s what our heroes do.
You know that scratchy, sickly feeling you get in your chest and throat right before you get a cold? How you can’t pinpoint it but you know it’s an indication something worse is coming? That’s how I felt walking out of “Red.” It’s a movie that demonstrates how sick we’re becoming.
Coming From Ahead: A Yankees Suck Report
I couldn't sleep last night.
Walking home from a movie in downtown Seattle, Patricia and I, just outside of St. James Cathedral a few blocks from our place, heard the screech of brakes and turned to see a car stop short and an elderly woman fall. Had she been hit? We couldn't tell. The elderly woman said she'd been hit, the woman driving the car said she didn't think she hit her, but we stuck around for the fire-department ambulance, then the other ambulance (AMR? American Medical Rescue?) and finally the cops. The men from the fire department were particularly impressive. The other witnesses, or non-witnesses (nobody had really seen what happened), were impressive as well. Most were nurses and they knew what to do and did it. Patricia and I were largely superfluous but we stuck around because we weren't sure how superfluous we were yet. We waited for the cops to dismiss us.
But that's not why I couldn't sleep.
When we left dinner at the sushi place at 7:00 to go to the movie, the Texas Rangers were leading the New York Yankees in Game 1 of the American League Championship Series 5-0. The Rangers looked young and tough, the Yankees looked old and bad, C.C. Sabbathia looked like he was feeling every bit of his 300 pounds. I still assumed the Yankees would win their 41st pennant, just as I assume the candidate with the most money will get elected to office regardless of the message. Money talks. But for a moment life was good.
Then I got home and navigated to ESPN.com and saw the final score of the game. “In a New York Minute,” I read. “6-5, Yankees,” I read. You're fucking kidding me, I thought.
That was the reason I had trouble sleeping. I didn't see the last half of the game, and I only glanced through Rob Neyer's report of the bad decisions made by Texas manager Ron Washington (see: Darren Oliver), but, as I began to drift to sleep, images in my subconscious welled up. Brett Gardner just barely beating a throw to first. Derek Jeter stroking a double to plate him. Nick Swisher and Mark Teixeira doing whatever they did. (I didn't read far enough to find out.) The Yankees coming from behind to steal another victory.
That's the part that really pissed me off: “Coming from behind.”
A team with a $207 million payroll plays a team with a $55 million payroll; and somehow they “come from behind.”
The Yankees never come from behind. They always come from ahead. They're ahead by $70 million or $100 million or, as in this case, $150 million. But they're always ahead. Coming from behind is just an illusion.
So at midnight I got up, had a glass of wine, read. It helped a bit. I was finally able to get to sleep. But even in the morning light the news is sad and bitter. The Yankees up 1-0 means business as usual. It means money keeps talking. It means a little bit of magic that would've been in the world with a Texas victory is gone. The Yankees are good at that. They kill magic.
Help Me Update 61* Reasons the Yankees Suck
Tonight is Game 1 of the 2010 American League Championship Series. While some of my baseball-watching friends are shrugging their shoulders, unable to support a team like Texas, which is affiliated with a former president like George W. Bush, I know who I'm rooting for. In particular I know who I'm rooting against. I have three favorite teams: the Mariners, the Twins, and whoever is playing the New York Yankees. One of these teams, unfortunately, is still alive in the post-season.
Nearly 10 years ago, for the Mariners alternative program The Grand Salami, I wrote a piece listing off “61* Reasons Why The Yankees Suck.” I'm going to update it soon but suggestions are welcome. (You can always check out the “Yankees Suck” section of this blog.)
I'll probably begin similarly:
- They win: 40 pennants and 27 World Championships in the 90 years since 1921.
- They spend tons more money than any other team to ensure that they win.
- They keep in place a system that allows them to spend tons more money than any other team to ensure that they win.
Look at that: 40 out of 90. Nearly half our time we're watching the Yankees in the World Series. Nearly a third of the time they win it all. In a rigged world, in which sports like baseball are supposed to provide a level playing field, they play a rigged game, then act like they've done something special when they win.
How rigged is it? I'll probably list off the following, too:
- A payroll $45 million more than any other team in baseball (2010)
- A payroll $52 million more than any other team in baseball (2009)
- A payroll $72 million more than any other team in baseball (2008)
That gap is shrinking but it's still a Snake-River-Canyon-sized gap. Even Evel Knievel would have trouble jumping it. Put it this way: the 2010 gap between the Yankees, at no. 1, and Boston, at no. 2, is almost the entire payroll of the team the Yankees are playing in the ALCS: the bankrupt Texas Rangers, who have a $55 million payroll. Maybe that's why baseball is our national pastime: it's as unfair as any other aspect of American life. Rooting for the New York Yankees is like rooting for Goldman Sachs.
Other thoughts for the list:
- That sense of entitlement
- Steinbrenner's monument
- GMS patches
- “Got rings?”
- “He'll look good in pinstripes next year.”
That last one is the one that really pisses me off. It's an acknowledgment of the Yankees' real power, money, even though the Yankee fan saying it, or taunting another fan with it, will dismiss the monetary argument by bringing up the Mets or Cubs: teams that, yes, spend a lot, but a good $60-75 million shy of what the Yankees spend. They don't spend enough, in other words, to make up for their own stupidity or bad luck, as the Yankees do.
Looked at a certain way, though, no matter what happens in the next few weeks, we can't lose. The Yankees are Goliath, strutting around and beating their chests against baseball Davids. If they win, it's hardly news. If they lose, it's delicious. And Yankee fans, toadies to the last, supporters of illicit gains and rigged pastimes, will never know that feeling.
5 Things The Atlantic Gets Wrong in Their Post
“5 Ways to Revive the 'Superman' Franchise”
Read their article here.
- “Superman is a part of our culture. But the America he protects in 2010 is a far cry from the one he protected in 1932.” Or 1938, the year he was created.
- “Snyder should follow the examples of Batman Begins and Iron Man: find a young, charismatic lead for your hero, and pad the rest of the cast with respected veteran character actors.” Did writer Scott Meslow mean young OR charismatic? Downey, Jr., brimming with charisma, was in his early 40s when Iron Man began, while Christian Bale, in his early 30s with Batman Begins, is hardly Mr. Charisma. And even early 30s isn't exactly young.
- “Keep the John Williams theme song.” Even in 1978, this thing seemed too “Star Wars” to me.
- “Speed through the origin story” and “Do everything Chris Nolan says”: Don't these contradict each other? Meslow writes, “Nolan masterfully revived the Batman franchise with Batman Begins”... in which he didn't speed through the origin story. It took more than an hour before we even saw Batman as Batman. Compare with Tim Burton's “Batman” (1989) in which we saw Batman as Batman in the first three minutes.
- Suggestions 1-5: These thoughts are either obvious (cast, Nolan) or wrong (speed the origin) or, as above, contradictory. And none get to the heart of the Superman dilemma: We're interested in him because he's all-powerful but being all-powerful is dramatically uninteresting. So we need to either push toward or pull away from his power: weaken him to create a feasible drama, or keep him as is and make his all-powerfulness the drama. I'm inclined toward the latter.
- You know what I like about Tim Gunn's “17 Films That Shaped Tim Gunn”? It's a truly personal list. I can't imagine anyone else in the world—in the world, mind you—who would include on their list “Waterloo Bridge” and “Valley of the Dolls” and “Keeper of the Flame.” Hell, I can't imagine anyone who would choose both “Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf” and “Pee Wee's Big Adventure.”
- Speaking of Tim Gunn: He also made one of those great “It Gets Better” videos for GLBT kids. Powerful in its honesty and directness.
- Have you seen the recently released footage of “Back to the Future” with Eric Stoltz, the original Marty McFly, doing the bits that Michael J. Fox made famous? Heavy. Director Robert Zemeckis and proudcer Steven Spielberg decided to replace Stoltz five weeks into the shoot because the laughs weren't coming. Judging from the clips, they were right.
- Really? We're doing this, women? You're complaining about the portrayal of women in “The Social Network”? You somehow think the women in “The Social Network,” the ones seen as prizes, and who see themselves as prizes, are representative of all women? Are you arguing that this doesn't happen? Are you arguing that all the women in the movie are like this? Are you arguing that the men in the movie—dweebs and assholes and rich bastards—are representative of all men? I'm so tired of this conversation. I really am. I've been having it for decades and it just gets dumber. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin responds more diplomatically than I do.
- Now Pat Goldstein weighs in on the misogyny controversy. Goldy is apparently and legitimately shocked that some men treat women as sex objects, and some women acquiesce, or thrive, at being treated as sex objects by men whom they have objectified in terms of wealth and status. We're all as naive as we want to be, I guess. Or is this hypocrisy? Goldy seems concerned about the “disturbing misogyny” depicted in the movie but ignores, or can't be bothered with, the difference between his own headline and URL. The former (the stolid face the L.A. Times presents to the world): “Aaron Sorkin on 'The Social Network's' problematic depiction of women.” The URL (the way the L.A. Times drums up business): “aaron-sorkin-on-why-women-are-such-slutty-sex-objects-in-the-social-network.html.”
- This is a simple, helpful site about what's coming out this week in film, books, music, DVDs, video games.
- Hilarious! A History Channel 3000 look, a thousand years back, at the Beatles: John, Paul, Greg and Scottie. As always with YouTube, please don't read user comments. You'll only get depressed.
- Nathaniel over at FilmExperience apologizes his way through this look at the youngest best actor nominees, but he didn't need to. I love this stuff. And I agree: Eisenberg should get a nom.
- I missed “The Simpsons” episode Sunday night, because I never watch it anymore, but thanks to, you know, this Internetty thing, I got to see it here. First, though, I read Joe Posnanski's take. Why was Posnanski blogging about it? Because it was about baseball. More than baseball, it was about Sabrmetrics, and included special guest voice Bill James (“I made baseball as much fun as doing your taxes!”), and Posnanski was actually at Bill James' house for the episode. Read on, read on, teenage queen.
- Via my friend Vinny: Hyberpole and a Half's look at CAKE. The protagonist in this hilarious story reminded me of no one so much as my cat Jellybean.
- I like the tone in this short, personal story from Jerry Grillo.
- Did you know Hanoi, Vietnam just turned 1,000? My friend Andy blogs about the event from a three-foot hole in the sidewalk.
Jellybean would like some cake, too, please. Also cookies, crackers, corn on the cob, broccoli, edamame, chicken, tuna...really whatever you're having.
Review: “Cardboard Gods” by Josh Wilker
“Cardboard Gods,” Josh Wilker’s coming-of-age memoir as revealed through his baseball card collection, should have immediate resonnance for the following groups:
- Baseball lovers.
- Baseball card collectors.
- Folks who grew up in a dysfunctional family.
- Folks who grew up in the 1970s and remember what it was like when the more anarchic elements of the counterculture lapped up to your front door, and then inside, and then washed away your world.
That first group isn’t as big as it used to be, but if you’re 1), and you’re a boy, you were probably 2). The fourth group is obviously tied to a specific time. It’s the third group that’s the mother lode. That’s most of us.
Wilker hit the jackpot with me. I’m all four—with the proviso that I collected baseball cards in the five-year period before Wilker did: Topps 1970-1974, rather than Topps 1975-1980. We’re almost a tag team. Just as I got done, he started.
Question: Does this make me an easy mark? Or a tougher sell?
The latter, I think. Rob Neyer pushed the book on his ESPN blog, and he has a to-die-for blurb on the front cover (“Josh Wilker writes as beautifully about baseball and life as anyone ever has”), but I still picked it up with skepticism. What does Neyer know? What can Wilker tell me about my times that I don’t know?
That skepticism died on page 9.
Wilker’s subtitle is “An All-American tale told through baseball cards,” and the first chapter is called simply “Topps 1975 #533: Rudy Meoli,” and includes what we used to call an “in action” shot of Meoli at the plate. Wilker writes:
Behold the uniformed maestro at the center of everything, his head thrown back in awe, his arms outspread as if to proclaim: Behold.
We look back at the card to see if we’ve missed something, to see if we’ve misread what’s going on there. We haven’t. Five-year-old Josh Wilker has. The adult Wilker writes:
For a long time, I lived in an angelic state of stupidity and grace. ... For a long time, years, I didn’t understand that I wasn’t witnessing the occurence of something magnificent in Rudy Meoli’s card from 1975, my first year of collecting. I didn’t understand that all I was looking at was some little-known marginal who’d just squandered one of his rare chances to reveal any previously undiscovered magificence by hitting a weak foul pop-up, the easiest of outs.
But the writer in him doesn’t end with the adult mea culpa; he pushes on toward an angelic state of understanding and grace:
Even to this day there’s a faint residue on my inability to interpret the blatantly obvious in this picture. On some level, perhaps the only level of any importance in this life, I still think of Rudolph Bartholomew Meoli, a backup infielder with a .212 lifetime average and more career errors than extra base hits, as one of the most thrilling performers of his era, a superstar in the reign of happiness and confusion.
That was the moment when I thought, “OK, this is going to be good.”
Baseball cards turn out to be a brilliant framing device. Not because Wilker’s childhood was idyllic. Because it wasn’t.
His parents were more-or-less happily married until his mother took a bus from their home in Willingboro, N.J., to attend a peace rally in Washington, D.C. in 1969 and wound up falling for her hippyish seatmate, Tom, who, by 1973, had moved into their home. He was, in fact, sleeping with the mother while the father took a smaller room down the hall. In his own home. In which he paid the bills.
What baseball card could possibly represent such family trauma? A 1976 Mike Kekich card. That year, Kekich was with the Texas Rangers, and he would end his career a year later with the nascent Seattle Mariners, but he’s famous, or infamous, as one of two 1973 Yankees pitchers—Fritz Peterson is the other—who traded entire families: wife, kids, dogs. After several weeks, Kekich tried to call off the switch, but by then Peterson and his wife were cozy and wanted to make the switch permanent. Peterson basically told him what we kids told each other when we wanted a baseball-card trade to be permanent: “No backs.” Kekich wound up in the metaphoric smaller room down the hall. Hell, he wound up with the Seattle Mariners.
Wilker’s story gets worse before it gets better. His mother and Tom, dragging along five-year-old Josh and his more aware, older brother Ian, moved to backwoods Vermont expecting paradise. They wound up in a shitty home surrounded by shitty neighbors. They wanted to live off the land but the land was harsh. They tried to start a non-competitive school, which only increased the contempt of the neighbors. The family was isolated and ostracized, and poor Josh could barely make it down to the grocery store and back without being picked on. That’s part of the reason for the baseball cards. He needed something certain. He needed big men he could hold in his hand. He needed cardboard gods.
Wilker frames this chapter on social experiment gone awry with “Topps 1975 #407: Herb Washington,” that great baserunning experiment of Charley O’Finley’s that went awry: the professional pinch-runner who was caught stealing more than half the number of times he stole. The adult Wilker remains understanding. In the face of a more affluent acquaintance named Wendell who scoffed at the idiocy of the family experiment, Wilker writes:
Whether the useless innovation of Herb Washington signaled the apotheosis of the A’s dynasty or foretold the team’s impending descent at champion-sprinter speed into abject late-1970s suffering is beside the point. The point is that life is not to be methodically considered and solved like a math equation. Life, fucking Wendell, is to be sprinted toward and bungled beyond recognition.
In this manner, the book continues. Wilker’s childhood confidence falters and there’s Mike Cosgrove with a face full of faltering confidence. Girls make him self-conscious of his clothes and there’s the 1977 Chicago White Sox team card, the players wearing collared shirts and shorts, the most embarassing uniform in a decade of embarassing uniforms. He discovers death and there’s Lyman Bostock.
Because Wilker is a Red Sox fan, one anticipates the one-game playoff with the hated New York Yankees in 1978. Yet for some reason the representative card is “Topps 1975 #299: Bucky Dent,” back when Dent was with the Chicago White Sox. Wilker explains, sympathetically:
...here’s the tragic figure of Bucky Dent, the mildly promising, light-hitting young Chicago White Sox shortstop who after being named to the Topps All-Star Rookie Team in 1975 was killed in a horrific wood-chipper accident.
Sure, Wilker says, there’s that odd rumor that Dent didn’t die during the ’75 off-season; that he was eventually traded to the Yankees, and, in that one-game playoff, came to the plate with two on and the Yanks down by two, and after a delay, and after a new bat, he hit a homerun over the Green Monster in left field to put the Yankees ahead, and the Yankees would go on to win the game, the ALCS and the World Series, all on the back of the puny Dent, who, himself, would become a shirtless pin-up boy and lousy TV actor (see: “Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders”). But then Wilker writes reasonably:
Clearly, the stronger Bucky Dent theory is the one in which Bucky Dent was tragically chopped into pieces, then minced into bits, then pureed into a mush of flesh and feathered hair and eye black by a ravenous, extemely efficient wood chipper before he was ever able to make any significant impact on baseball history or on the innocence of, say, a ten-year-old Red Sox fan in East Randolph, Vermont on October 2, 1978.
Wilker is particularly excellent on that childhood. He watches “The Incredible Hulk,” tags after Ian, yearns for Yaz. “Go with me, Josh!” young girls ask and he thinks “Go where?” Bullies descend:
“Hey, doofus,” the second one, Denny, said. “How many hours in a day?”
“Hey, yeah,” Muskrat said. “How many days in a week?”
“He doesn’t know. They don’t know shit.”
“Hey, how do you spell dog? How do you spell cat?”
“Why is your hair so curly and long?” Denny said. “You must be a woman.”
“Why are you a woman?” Muskrat said.”
He is less excellent on his dissolute twenties and thirties, but that’s a tougher sell. Children are powerless and thus sympathetic. By the time you hit 25, if you can walk and talk, you need to get a life. Wilker, the character, doesn’t even sprint towards his bungling as his parents did; he wanders, shuffles, meanders. One loses patience with him, as he does with himself. But in that wandering, drop by drop, comes the wisdom to write this book.
My own baseball card collection is long gone, sold to Joe Roedl in sixth grade for a few dollars, but I can’t see any of the Topps series from that period—or, more, from the coveted period preceding mine, particularly the 1965 series with the team name embedded in a pennant in the lower left corner—without a yearning to have. Those cards look the same—as immortal as gods. But I’m 47 now, not 8, and the places I bought baseball packs, Little General and Salk’s Drugs on 54th and Lyndale in south Minneapolis, don’t even exist anymore. We said it to each other when we were trading baseball cards back then but time says it better to us: No backs.
Hollywood B.O.: The Few, the Proud
I'm glad “The Social Network” won the weekend again. It's a good movie, possibly a great movie, that deserves a wide audience.
I'm also glad the new wide releases, “Life As We Know It,” “Secretariat,” and “My Soul to Take” all tanked. Both the first and the third look like crap movies (28% and 6% on Rotten Tomatoes), while the second is a crap movie, a pile of non-horse crap (since we don't see much of the horse), which somehow garnered a...WTF? 65% rating on Rotten Tomatoes? And 75% from TOP critics? Is the world insane? One critic, Jenna Busch of Huffington Post, while applauding the film, counsels caution: “...but I'm not sure the Oscar buzz is appropriate here.” That's like telling baseball fans that MVP buzz for Willie Bloomquist isn't quite appropriate. You only have to make such a statement in a world where B.S. and P.R. rule.
Here's my cautionary statement: Last weekend was still the second-weakest weekend of the year: $92 million overall.
And comparing this weekend, the 41st weekend, to the same weekend in other years? Not good. Every 41st weekend since 2001, except for 2005 (remake of “The Fog”), grossed better numbers. That's undadjusted for inflation.
Adjust, and you have to go back to 1995, with the top draw another David Fincher film, “Seven,” for lower numbers.
But so what, right? I'd rather have fewer people show up in the theaters for “The Social Network” or “Seven,” than 10 percent more show up for the likes of “Beverly Hills Chihuaua” (2008) or “Couples Retreat” (2009).
The happy totals here.
Marion aime “The Social Network,” a film with legs.
I'm sure this has been done elsewhere but what the hell.
Here are the career stats, regular and postseason, of a current Major League player. We'll call him Player A:
The postseason numbers are remarkably similar to the regular season numbers. A little more pop. Otherwise, almost identical.
And here are the career stats, regular and postseason, of another current Major League players. We'll call him Player B:
Again, remarkably similar. A little less pop in the postseason than in the regular season, but still more pop than Player A—in either the regular or postseason. In fact, even with the power dropoff, he's exactly .100 percentage points better in OPS than Player A in the postseason. Nothing to sneeze at.
Who are they?
Player A is Derek Jeter, who is known as one of the greatest postseason clutch performers of his era.
Player B is Alex Rodriguez, who is known as one of the great postseason chokers of his era.
Overall, Alex has played about a third of a season in the postseason (57 games, 210 at-bats), while Jeter has played almost an entire season in the postseason (141 games, 573 at-bats), so he's had that many more chances for memorable clutch performances. And he's certainly delivered. The catch in the stands, the shovel pass to nab Jeremy Giambi, the homerun on Nov. 1st. Was that all in 2001? All in a losing effort, ultimately.
Alex also suffers because his greatest postseason, until last year, was in 2000, when he was off-stage, as it were, with the Seattle Mariners.
The numbers, looked at one way, support those who believe there's no such thing as clutch performance. Given enough time, the players put up the numbers they always do.
Looked at another way, both of these guys seem clutch, since, even facing what one assumes is the superior pitching of postseason teams, they put up the numbers they always do.
Where the numbers leave no doubt? The rep of Derek Jeter as an October hero, and the rep of Alex Rodriguez as an October goat, are both greatly exaggerated.
Review: “Secretariat” (2010)
WARNING: I GIVE IT UP TO CHIC ANDERSON WITH THE SPOILERS
There are entertainments I associate with my mother’s mother, Grammie, who lived in Finksburg, Maryland, and watched shows on a heavy, RCA console television set with a lace doily and ceramic figurines of cherubic children on top. Think of these shows as one part “Lawrence Welk,” one part “Hee Haw,” and one part ceramic figurines of cherubic children. Characters were both ploddingly obvious and oddly foreign, huge swaths of time seemed to envelope moments between dialogue, and the overall effect was so airless and enervating that as a child, watching them, I grew vaguely nauseous. Alexander Payne captured these entertainments perfectly in “About Schmidt” with whatever late 1960s Bob Hope/Phyllis Diller comedy Warren Schmidt was watching after his wife died. These are shows for people who are no longer quite alive, who are set in their ways, who are now as stubbornly unmovable as Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top.
Walt Disney’s “Secretariat,” the new film from screenwriter Mike Rich and director Randall Wallace, is that kind of entertainment.
The movie begins with a voiceover from Diane Lane quoting scripture: that moment in the Old Testament when God basically tells Job, “Who the hell are you to question Me?” then iterates all the stuff He, and not Job, has done. Including:
Do you give the horse his strength or clothe his neck with a flowing mane? Do you make him leap like a locust, striking terror with his proud snorting? He paws fiercely, rejoicing in his strength, and charges into the fray. He laughs at fear, afraid of nothing. ... In frenzied excitement he eats up the ground; he cannot stand still when the trumpet sounds.
Cut to: a nice suburban home in Denver hardly suffering the deprivations of Job.
It’s 1969, a year of social turmoil in America, but in this home, the Tweedy home, standards are maintained. Mom’s hair is expertly coiffed as she serves breakfast, Dad (Dylan Walsh), a lawyer, reads the newspaper in his business suit, the teenage girls are rebellious in the manner of teenage girls (they’re putting on an anti-war pageant), while younger brother holds his rambunctiousness until he’s outside. Then the phone rings, Penny Tweedy, nee Chenery (Diane Lane), answers it, and a second later she drops a bowl on the floor. Does anyone really drop dishes when they hear bad news? It’s like a conceit out of films from the 1930s.
Penny grew up on a farm in Virginia, where her father, Christopher Chenery (Scott Glenn), bred thoroughbreds. But now Mom’s gone (that’s the bad news) and Dad’s suffering what one assumes is Alzheimer’s (it’s never mentioned: standards need to be maintained), so Penny has to make sense of all this. She has to figure out what to do with the family legacy, which includes two pregnant mares, one of whom, Somethingroyal, bred to Bold Ruler, will give birth to our title character.
Secretariat may be the title character, but this is Penny Chenery’s story: how she broke into the old boys’ club, saved the family farm and kept Secretariat, the horse with whom she had a special, if vague, and wholly undramatic bond.
It’s a story of a woman breaking into the old boys’ club the old-fashion way: with the help of the old boys: Bull Hancock (Fred Thompson), and Ogden Phipps (James Cromwell), the richest man in America, both of whom are amused and impressed by this gal’s genteel pluck.
Arrayed against her? Her husband and brother (Dylan Walsh and Dylan Baker) who want her to sell the farm.
Because her father’s trainer turns out to be a jerk and a thief, she hires another, the French Canadian Lucien Laurin (John Malkovich), who, one character says, “dresses like Super Fly,” even though he really dresses like a color-blind Bing Crosby, and even though in the actual world “Super Fly” won’t be released for another three years. Lucien is a respected trainer who carries losing press clippings in his wallet. That’s why Penny hires him. She knows he wants to win as much as she does.
In her corner, she also has her assistant, Miss Ham (Margo Martindale—“Paris je’taime”’s Colorado postal carrier), who names the horse and keeps Lucien in line, and groom Eddie Sweat (Nelsan Ellis), a Negro with magic hands, whose dialogue (“You ‘bout to see somethin’ you ain’t never seen befo’!” shouted to the Kentucky morning) is like a conceit out of films from the 1940s.
So Secretariat is born, stands almost immediately, and then is off and running... somewhere. How does Lucien train him? We don’t know. How does Big Red get along with stablemate Riva Ridge, the ’72 Derby winner? That’s not even mentioned. Penny Chenery just has too much to worry about.
First: Can she keep up the farm? (Yes.) Then: Will Secretariat win as a two-year-old? (Yes.) Then her father dies, the feds want their damned estate taxes, and she, wife to a lawyer, sister to a Harvard economist, can’t afford them....unless they sell Secretariat, possibly to Ogden Phipps, who had his choice between two colts in 1969 and opted for the one that wasn’t Secretariat. Meanwhile, no one, no one, thinks her horse can win. Even when he wins he’s the underdog. Because apparently that’s the only kind of sports drama that Hollywood, and Disney, and you and I, can understand.
The movie is based upon a book by William Nack, played in the film by Kevin Connolly of “Entourage,” who wears fedora and moustache with as much conviction as a kid in a sixth-grade play. Nack also wrote a 1989 Sports Illustrated article about Secretariat called “Pure Heart,” which was chosen by David Halberstam for the compendium “The Best American Sports Writing of the Century.” It’s worth reading for itself and as a corrective to the movie. One Baltimore handicapper, for example, a former prizefighter named Clem Florio, was so enamored of Secretariat, that, after his first victory—his first—he predicted Triple Crown. Then he got into a fistfight with a New York handicapper who questioned his judgment. Penny Chenery was hardly alone with her predictions of greatness.
Nack also gives us this:
Secretariat was an amiable, gentlemanly colt, with a poised and playful nature that at times made him seem as much a pet as the stable dog was. I was standing in front of his stall one morning, writing, when he reached out, grabbed my notebook in his teeth and sank back inside, looking to see what I would do. “Give the man his notebook back!” yelled Sweat. As the groom dipped under the webbing, Secretariat dropped the notebook on the bed of straw.
Great scene. Nowhere in the movie, of course. Nothing even close to it. “Secretariat” is a horse racing movie without much horse or much racing. It just tosses up obstacles—including, in the third act, Sham’s trash-talking owner, Pancho Martin (Nestor Serrano)—for its poised, almost brittle heroine to genteelly step over.
Has Diane Lane ever been this bad? She sells none of the film’s awful lines. Malkovich provides good comic relief, and Martindale is sturdy, but everything else feels as false as Kevin Connolly’s moustache.
What a shame. Secretariat is the perfect horse for Hollywood because he always came from behind to win—as he does in the Derby and the Preakness. Then we get the Belmont Stakes, the final and longest leg of the Triple Crown. Can Secretariat last? Will he fade? That’s the concern in the film.
My concern was different. Confession: I actually watch this race about six times a year on YouTube, usually when I need cheering up, so in the audience I wondered: Will they screw up dramatizing one of the greatest races ever run? For a moment I was hopeful when I heard, “I give it over to Chic Anderson with the call.” Anderson’s call is legitimately famous. He really didn’t have a race to call, he had a blowout, but he was up to it:
They're on the turn, and Secretariat is blazing along! The first three-quarters of a mile in 1:09 and four fifths. Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!
But the movie doesn’t give us the Chic Anderson call. It gives us someone doing the Chic Anderson call. And correcting it. Secretariat was so far in front of the other horses that Anderson couldn’t calculate his lead, so he had him winning by 25 lengths when he actually won by 31. In the movie, they get it right and miss the point.
Worse, and unforgivably, at the final turn, they suddenly cut the sound and go to slow motion. Then we hear, once again, Lane’s “Book of Job” voiceover. God, you see, has touched this horse in a way that He hasn’t touched you or I. He’s given him powers beyond those of mortal horses. That’s the only implication for such a monumental victory. God.
Unless one reads William Nack. “Pure Heart” begins in 1989 with Secretariat’s autopsy, when it’s discovered that the horse’s heart was twice the normal size. “It wasn’t pathologically enlarged,” the doctor tells Nack. “All the chambers and the valves were normal. It was just larger.” If there’s a whisper of this in the movie you can’t hear it over the Jesus chorus. And I mean Jesus chorus. This is the song we get when Secretariat bolts down the stretch at Belmont to become the first horse in 25 years to win the Triple Crown:
Oh happy day
When Jesus washed
He washed my sins away
See the connection? Neither do I.
“Secretariat” is a movie that’s been scrubbed clean of life. It’s a movie without shit or sweat or intimations of sex. It’s as if these things don’t exist in this airless world. Neither, really, does war, since we think our kids are silly to protest it, and neither, really, does inequality, since, if Negroes know their place, and pretty housewives charm rich men, everyone can just get along. It’s a movie made to be watched on Grammie’s heavy, RCA console television set with the lace doily on top. It’s for people who like the lie.
- I'm usually a fan of Joe Posnanski but he takes a long time to come around to the obvious on this Ichiro post.
- But that was in the regular season. In this post on Roy Halladay's no-hitter against the Reds, and Tim Lincecum's 14-K gem against the Braves, Posnanski is back in post-season form.
- Did you know that George Steinbrenner has been immortalized in Monument Park at New Yankee Stadium? Did you know that his plaque is bigger than any other? Bigger than Ruth or Gehrig or DiMaggio or Mantle? This is the funniest thing I read on the subject.
- Bad news for Billy Crystal: All nine innings of Game 7 of the 1960 World Series, the Bill Maseroski game, the game that caused Crystal to say in the Ken Burns doc, “I still hurt,” has been found. In Bing Crosby's basement. I'll be shown this winter on the MLB network. Fire up the popcorn.
- I like the lead in this Guardian.UK piece, tying the documentary “Waiting for Superman” with the fact that Superman fans have been waiting for Warner Bros. to figure out what to do with Superman since 1993, but it's still a shallow piece that doesn't get to the heart of the Superman dilemma.
- A week later, of course, Warner Bros. finally made a move and tapped Zack Snyder (“300”; “Watchmen”) to resurrect the Man of Steel. Not my first choice. Or second. Or 50th. The bigger question is who will be tapped to play Supes. I'm hoping unknown, that's the way to go. To be honest, Brandon Routh has grown into his face a bit and would make a better Superman at 31 than he did at 26, but I doubt a studio will take the chance.
- Speaking of not taking chances: Nextmovie.com lists off 50 remakes being planned by Hollywood. 50! Some seem like perennials (“The Three Musketeers”), some seem like no-brainers (“Footloose,” “Meatballs”), some are merely U.S. remakes of foreign properties (“Battle Royale,” “El Orfanato”). But a few seem insulting. “All Quiet on the Western Front”? “My Fair Lady”? Why not “Singin' in the Rain” and “Citizen Kane” and “Seven Samurai.” Oh, forgot. The last has been remade, lamely, with guns.
- This is a great, humorous story from Roger Ebert, via Walter Matthau, about Tony Curtis and Yvonne de Carlo (above).
- Andrew Sullivan calls out Bill O'Reilly. O'Reilly, as far as I've heard, hasn't taken up the challenge. Of course not. Like all bullies, he's a coward at heart.
- Bill Gates, Sr. argues for the next generation, and against his own wallet, in this ad in favor of Washington state's Initiative 1098. My kinda rich guy.
- Have you heard about Dan Savage's “It Gets Better” series, aimed at gay/lesbian teenagers who are being picked on in school? They can be aimed at almost everyone in high school, since high school is a nightmare for almost everyone. My favorites: Dan and Terry; Dave Holmes; and a cop and Marine. Each one is a lesson and a joy.
- Great Op-Ed a few weeks ago by Ron Chernow on the Tea Party and the Founding Fathers. Upshot: You can't say you're following what the Founding Fathers wanted since they didn't even agree with each other. Not even close.
- Finally, and most importantly, a story on my own father and his second career: tour guide at Target Field. If you're in Minneapolis, and want to see the park, make sure you ask for him by name. Bob, by the way, not Jerry.
Goliath Beats David
Yankees Suck but it sucks to be the Twins and their fans right now.
This is the fourth time in seven years the Yankees have eliminated the Twins in the post-season—always in the ALDS, lately in a sweep—so, inevitably, I'm reading how the Twins “choke” in these games. I've read how the Yankees get in the Twins' “heads.”
This would make sense if the Twins beat the Yankees during the regular season. But they don't. In six games this year, the Twins won two, the Yankees four. And this was a good year for the Twins.
Sure, in previous division series, the Yankees, with the best record in the American League, hosted the Twins, who had the worst record among division leaders, while this year the Yankees were the wild card, giving the Twins home field advantage. But the Yankees still had the better record—95-67 to 94-68—despite playing an unbalanced number of games in the Eastern Division, the strongest division, against the Rays, Red Sox and Blue Jays. That's where the money is and that's where the wins are. The Twins, in fact, had a winning record against every team in the American League but four: the Rays, Red Sox, Blue Jays and Yankees. Put the Twins in the East and they probably wouldn't even have contended.
The Twins had the 10th highest payroll in the Major Leagues, $97 million, which isn't bad, but it's not even half the Yankees payroll, $206 million, which is $45 million more than the next highest payroll (Red Sox) and $60 million more than the third highest payroll (Cubs). In terms of money, the Yankees are in another league. They can spend as much as they need to, and do. The playing field isn't level, and hasn't been for some time.
You need to know this going in. You can't fool yourself about what you're up against.
Twins manager Ron Gardenhire, I think, fooled himself. In the first inning of the first game, his lead-off hitter, Denard Span, lined a single to left. What did he do? He had the next batter, Orlando Hudson, bunt. He sacrificed. He gave up one of his 27 outs to put in scoring position a runner who didn't score. He thought small, played small ball, even though he was going up against a team that averaged 5.3 runs a game, the most in the Majors. And in the three games of the Division Series? The Yankees averaged 5.6 runs a game. The same, more or less. You can't fool yourself about what you're up against.
The Twins front office fooled itself. By May, everyone knew the Seattle Mariners weren't contenders, so everyone knew their pitcher, Cliff Lee, a free agent at the end of the year, would be on the trading block. Lee wasn't just a good pitcher, he came with a pedigree: He beat Yankees. In the World Series last year, the Philadelphia Phillies only won two games against the Yankees, the two games Cliff Lee started, so if you were looking ahead to the post-season and a possible rematch with the Yankees, Cliff Lee was exactly the guy you wanted. Hell, the Yankees nearly got him. Instead he went to the Rangers. For not much, really. Couldn't the Twins afford not much? You grab your chances when you have them, and the Twins have chances now, but they didn't grab them. They let Cliff Lee go. They fooled themselves about what they were up against.
The New York Yankees represent a monstrous unfairness in the national pastime. They are the wealthiest team by far, rich enough to make up for their mistakes, and they carry a sense of entitlement. They think it's theirs. This makes it delicious when they're defeated but hardly news when they win. Yesterday was hardly news.
Boys of Winter
Time to bitch again.
If the World Series goes to a Game 5 this year—that is: if one team doesn't sweep—it goes into November. If it goes to a Game 7 it lasts until November 4th. Assuming no rainouts. Or snowouts. In which case it'll go longer.
Boys of summer, indeed.
No one wants this but everyone accepts it as a fait accompli. “We have an extra tier of playoffs now.” “Nothing can be done.” “It's baseball.”
But it's not baseball. We're only reaching this point because the post-season is being scheduled in a different way than the regular season.
How many days off did the Yankees have in September? Three: September 9, 16, and 30. All the other days they played. Because that's what baseball is. “Don't worry, kid,” Earl Weaver told a young Tom Boswell. “We do this every day.”
If the Yankees make it to the World Series, how many days off—at minimum—will they have between the end of the regular season (Oct. 3) and the start of the World Series (Oct. 27)? Eleven. That's at minimum. That's assuming the ALDS and the ALCS go to the max. They'll play 12 days and rest 11. That's what's built into the schedule.
What does this mean? It means they can rest older players. It means they can ignore lesser bench players, and relief pitchers, and fourth and fifth starters. It means the game they played for 162 games—the whole reason they're here—is not the game they're playing now.
It also means, every day they don't play, the further we get into October and November. The days grow shorter and the nights grow colder and the game becomes less like the game they played for 162 game—the whole reason they're playing now.
So what can be done?
Easy. Eliminate off days.
Season ends Sunday, Oct. 3rd? Start the post-season on Tuesday, Oct. 5th. For all eight teams. Yes, baseball fanatics, this means there will be a scheduling conflict. Boo hoo. That's what DVR is for.
Then play through—as teams do during the regular season. No off days. In this way all Division Series will end, at the lastest, on Saturday, Oct. 9th. Take Sunday off. Start the Championship Series on Monday, Oct. 11th. Play through. In this way the LCS ends, at the latest, on Sunday, Oct. 17th.
Start the World Series on Tuesday, Oct. 19th. That's eight days before it's scheduled now. Because I'm eliminating eight off days they have scheduled now. Because I'm making the most important baseball games more like baseball.
This is not rocket science, Bud.
If the problem is the networks, then you screwed up by allowing the networks to schedule your games. Your games. Work it during the next negotiations. Work it like a used car salesman.
This is baseball. Make it like fucking baseball.
Moses Speaks; Goldstein Scribbles
Patrick Goldstein needs to work on his follow-ups.
In this post, he begins well. He notices that Ron Howard's film, “The Dilemma,” with Vince Vaughn, Kevin James, Jennifer Connelly and Queen Latifah, opens in January—the traditional dumping ground for crap movies. He wonders: Has a Ron Howard film ever opened in January? He answers his question: Nope.
So he goes to Universal Pictures, Howard's longtime studio, and asks why they're dumping “The Dilemma” in January.
Michael Moses, Universal's co-president of marketing, tells him: “We really believe that there are 52 good opportunities a year for the right movie. It's gotten to the point where you can have success in virtually any month of the year, if you position the film correctly.” Then he points to the success Universal had in 2009 with “Fast and Furious” (April) and “Couples Retreat” (October) as examples.
Quick quiz: What's the follow-up question? Here a a few off the top of my head:
- “Even so: Why 'The Dilemma'? Why not another Universal pic?”
- “Yeah, but 'Fast and Furious' wasn't a star-powered film and 'Couples Retreat' wasn't funny. Both are B- or C-grade films, and it makes sense to push a B- or C-grade films into weaker months. Is that what's going on with 'The Dilemma'? Is it just not very good? Is it tracking badly?
- ”Would you ever open a tentpole film in January?"
Instead Goldstein asks...nothing. He has no follow-up. In the post, he accepts what Moses says as gospel; as if it came from the other Moses.
Well, he does have a few follow-ups. Unfortunately, they're asked of his readership:
So what will become the new dump month? With the Oscars moving up, could it be February? With global warming increasing each year, could it be August? If anyone wants to nominate a deserving new month, I'm all ears.
All ears. I remember when writers were more than that.
Some of the great, great films that were positioned correctly last January.
Bottom of the 10th
I still can't decide if the second half of Ken Burns's “Tenth Inning” doc, about the 2000s, made up for some of the problems in the first half, about the 1990s, or if, because the aughts corrected some of the '90s excesses (performance enhancing drugs; Yankees world championships), such a turnaround is inevitable.
What Burns does works. But he's still presenting the narrative of the time (“Wow, look at all these homeruns!”) with only a bit of foreshadowing (psst: chemicals may be involved). John Thorn still says with a straight face: “You can forget about the debate... the greatest pitcher in the history of baseball is Roger Clemens.” Tom Veducci still says of Barry Bonds: “This is the most feared hitter who ever lived.” The metaphor I brought up last time still works. It's as if Burns is reveling in the Cincinnati Reds amazing upset over the Chicago White Sox in the 1919 World Series before coughing and adding the historical perspective: “Oh, by the way: the Sox were paid to lose.”
None of the talking heads are angry enough about steroids, either. The record books are meaningless now. Trust in the game is meaningless. There's a discussion at the end about the asterisk next to Bonds' homerun record, the career one, 762 homeruns, and most of the talking heads—not wishing to sound like Ford Frick on Roger Maris—say of course not, no asterisk, before adding that, yes, there is a metaphoric one. “The asterisk is whatever exists in the minds of fans,” Dan Okrent says (dismissively?). Yes, it is. But it's not just with Bonds' record; it's with the entire era. The last 20 years of baseball has an asterisk. What's legitimate and what isn't? What counts and what doesn't? Albert Pujols has the best first five seasons of any player ever. Is he juiced? Jose Bautista, this year, at the age of 29, hits 54 homeruns, when his career-best had been 16. Do alarm bells go off? Did anyone in the pre-steroid era make such a leap? The tragedy isn't Barry Bonds, it's all of baseball. Everything is tainted. And the taint ain't over.
For a time I thought Burns's narrative should've focused on the great players who didn't partake (Ken Griffey, Jr.; Frank Thomas), and who were subsequently overshadowed by those who did (McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, A-Rod), but of course we're back to the impossibility of proving a negative. We don't know that Griffey and Thomas didn't partake; we just assume it from their career trajectories.
But if they didn't, isn't that the tragedy? The overshadowing of the legitimate by the illegitimate? The doc says the inflated players were a reflection of the inflated times (stock market; housing market) and excuses them. That's a cop-out. Baseball should not reflect the worst of our society; it should be an oasis from the worst in our society.
- The hyperbole: Pedro Martinez “made himself into one of the greatest players the game had ever seen.” Mariano Rivera became “the most successful closer of all time.” Randy Johnson was “the most feared left-hander of all time.” The Yankees were led by Derek Jeter, “one of the most popular and respected players in baseball history.” It's not that I don't agree with some of these statements; it's that they're a) hard to prove (and thus meaningless), and, b) a bit much when strung together. It feels like lazy writing.
RJ: feared. Pedro: great. Jeter: respected.
- Turning the New York Yankees into underdogs: Here's Tom Boswell on the 2001 World Series: “Johnson and Schilling are more dominant now than anyone in the history of baseball. And that's what the Yankees are up against.” I suppose this could go under hyperbole, too. (More dominant than Koufax/Drysdale?) But it's worse than the average hyperbolic statement because it's turning a team that has won three World Championships in a row, and 26 overall, and has the highest payroll in baseball, into the underdog.
- Turning the New York Yankees into “America's team”: Voiceover on the 2001 World Series: “The New York Yankees, the team much of America was rooting for, had lost.” Another narrative of the time that I didn't buy at the time and don't buy now. Where's the evidence? Maybe among the general population, maybe among non-baseball fans—the kind of people who only know from Willie Mays and Derek Jeter—sure, why not? Post-9/11, with all the NYPD caps and NYFD caps and shots of Rudy G. sitting in the stands, the Yankees were probably less hated than normal. But among baseball fans? Who had just suffered through three years of Yankee celebrations and 26 in all? Who suffered through Yankee fans talking up rings as if they owned them? I remember bottom of the ninth in Game 7 when Mark Grace led off with a single and David Delucci pinch-ran for him and then Damian Miller laid down a fat bunt in front of Rivera who opted to go for the force at second. Delucci came in hard, safe, and Jeter, covering the bag, grabbed his ankle, which was already injured. And I got up close to my TV set and yelled, “Writhe, Jeter, writhe!” Admittedly I'm a special case. But America's team? Only in the way that Goldman Sachs is American's investment bank: big and bloated and known and despised.
- Turning the spectacular losses of the New York Yankees into tragic events: Burns did this in his original doc with the 1960 World Series. Bill Mazeroski hits one of the most famous homeruns ever hit and who do we hear from? The Pirates and their fans? No. We hear from the Yankees and their fans. Billy Crystal: “I still hurt,” etc. Same here. On 2001, do we hear from the Diamondbacks and their fans about this improbable, beautiful, spectacular, bottom-of-the-ninth-inning victory over Mariano Rivera and the New York Yankees? Nope. Cue Billie Holliday's “God Bless the Child” and cut to Joe Torre saying, “That night was about as sad as it gets.” Oh, boo hoo, motherfucker. Just four rings in your pocket instead of five. If Ken Burns, a supposed Red Sox fan, doesn't realize that every Yankees loss is a moment for celebration then he shouldn't be baseball's documentarian. I mean: Billie Holliday? The song's about poverty, Ken. God bless the child that's got a $200 million payroll.
- VORP? OPS? One of the biggest stories of the 2000s was the acceptance, after decades of knocking at the baseball door, of Bill Jamesian stats, by Oakland GM Billy Beane and others, which helped transform the game. It's part of the reason why the Yankees stopped winning and the Red Sox started; and it's part of the reason why the Yankees began to win again. Brian Cashman did his work. He read Moneyball and changed his ways. So why not an interview with Bill James, Rob Neyer, Michael Lewis? Why not Billy Beane or Theo Epstein or Brian Cashman? Instead we get Jon Miller channeling Sid Dithers. Vas you talkin' to me? It's like Ron Paul explaining why big government is necessary.
- “The popularity of the sport is just enormous.” This is Commissioner Bud Selig, one of Burns's talking heads, trotting out his company line. And measured by attendance, sure, there's some truth in it, but that's only because baseball has been turned into a family event. The appeal is as much the mascot and the fireworks and the various races (hydro/presidents/sausages) as the game itself. Maybe it's more than the game itself. The answer to his comment is in World Series ratings, which drop and keep dropping, in a way that, even in this fragmented, internetted age, the ratings for the Super Bowl don't. The Super Bowl is still central to our culture. The World Series isn't. In baseball, fans root for their team but not for the game, and that's part of the problem. Maybe that's the whole problem.
- “Bonds hits it high! He hits it DEEP! It is...outta here!” I didn't need to hear this as often as I heard it.
But the doc got right that dispiriting, record-breaking 756th homerun. “The whole thing was a joyless march toward the inevitable,” Bob Costas says. “Baseball powerless. Selig with his hands in his pockets...”
It was smart tapping ESPN's editorial director Gary Hoenig as a talking head. He had great comments throughout but my favorite was on Mark McGwire's testimony before U.S. Congress: “And you could just see him deflate like a giant balloon in a Thanksgiving Day parade...”
And it got right the sheer, magical joy of the Red Sox thumping the Yankees in the 2004 ALCS. “It was,” announcer Keith David intoned, “the greatest comeback in baseball history.”
And for once, that wasn't hyperbole.
Hollywood B.O.: Waiting for Zuckerberg
I've been a bit lax with this column for reasons of travel, sickness, and September box-office blues, along with some aspect of hosting Sunday-night get-togethers to watch HBO's “Boardwalk Empire” (are we the only ones doing this?), but thought I'd post tardily on “The Social Network” weekend anyway.
First, kudos to Sony/Columbia for opening the film in more than 2,000 theaters. The first weekend in October is the weekend Warner Bros., in 2007, opened “Michael Clayton”—another well-reviewed film with Oscar potential—but in only 15 theaters. A week later, they opened it wider but it finished fourth, and floundered from there, never finding its audience until DVD when it didn't matter. No doubt the subject matter of “The Social Network” (internets!), and the average age of its stars (young!), helped Sony push it wider. Is that where we're going now? We can only get smart dramas in theaters if they star kids?
Thankfully “TSN” and its 97% Rotten Tomatoes rating won the weekend, grossing more than twice as much ($22m to $10m) as runner-up “Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole,” in its second weekend, and far ahead of new releases “Case 39” and “Let Me In,” which finished 7th and 8th respectively.
All good. Except last weekend's overall take, $94 million, was the second-worst of the year, behind only the $81 million from weekend no. 37 (the “Resident Evil” weekend). Every other weekend this year has grossed between $100 million and $220 million.
One might blame the time of year. It's all apple-picking and football-watching now. Except the first weekend in October in 2009, 2008, 2006, 2005 and 2004 all did better—even unadjusted for inflation. Only 2007, the weekend both “The Heartbreak Kid” and “The Seeker: The Dark is Rising” opened and bombed, saw worse numbers.
On the plus side, “The Social Network” seems to be getting good word-of-mouth. Its Sunday and Monday percentage drops were less than every other film in the top 10.
My concern, though, is that many moviegoers are like my friend Vinny, who saw the trailer and thought, “That looks like a rental.” They'll wait until it comes out in DVD. When it won't matter.
“If you guys wanted to see 'The Social Network,'
you'd have seen 'The Social Network.'”
My Regular Season
Quick impressions of the 2010 baseball season:
- In mid-April I trotted out my postseason predictions based solely upon payroll. So much for that. Only three of my eight made it (Yankees, Phillies, Giants) while the others (Angels, Tigers, Red Sox, Mets and Cubs) finished 3rd, 3rd, 3rd, 4th and 5th. Rob Neyer, who actually, you know, worked on his predictions, got three of the four right in the A.L. (missing only the Rays), and two of the four in the N.L. (Phillies, Braves), but went with the Rockies in the West and the Cards in the Central.
- In terms of opening-day payroll, the post-season teams are all over the place, ranking 1st (Yankees), 4th (Phillies), 9th (Giants), 10th (Twins), 15th (Braves), 19th (Rays), 20th (Reds) and 27th (Rangers). Really? The Rangers had a $55,000 payroll at the start? I guess bankruptcy will do that to you.
- The Mariners ranked 14th in payroll and last in every offensive category in the Majors. That includes teams in the N.L., where the pitchers bat. We scored 74 fewer runs than the next-worst-team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. We were last in hits, doubles, triples, homers. We were the only team in the Majors with an OBP below .300 (.298), and we were 23 percentage points below the next-worst team (Houston) in slugging percentage, winding up at .339. Ick.
- Ichiro led the league in hits for the 7th time, tying Pete Rose's record, but he had a .300/.300/.300 season: .315/.359/.394. That adds up to the 86th-best OPS in the Majors. Yet, no surprise, he was the best offensive player on our team.
- But it was still a better season than Derek Jeter had, who wound up with a .710 OPS: 115th in the Majors.
- Then again, Jeter did beter than Franklin Guitierrez, who started out so strong in April (.326/.378/.483), but wound up with the mark of the beast: an OPS of .666. F-Gut, we hardly knew ye.
- Awards picks? I assume the BBWAA will go with Josh Hamilton for American League MVP, but, to me, he's the second-best pick. I'd go with Miguel Cabrera, even though his team, the Tigers, finished third in the A.L. Central. Hamilton got injured in September, playing Pete Reiser in the outfield. Cabrera kept going. He finished 1st in: Runs, RBIs, OBP. He finished second in: batting average, slugging, OPS. He finished third in homeruns. Basically: He and Hamilton had comparable percentage numbers but he had 26 more RBIs and 16 more runs scored. That's why I'd vote for him.
- N.L. MVP? Joey Votto. The only other argument is Pujols, but Pujols has won it three times.
- A.L. Cy Young? King Felix. The only other argument is David Price.
- N.L. Cy Young? Roy Halladay.
- Dialogue of the year? Jim. From an M's game in April after Griffey, starting from first on a double, got thrown out at home by 10 feet after being waved home:
Jim: Do you think if we were given enough time during spring training we couldn't do that?
Jim: Be a third base coach. I've often wondered. It looks like not much.
- Welcome back, Ken Burns.
- Fun reading about you, Willie.
- So long, King George.
- Hello, Target Field.
- Keep going, Daddyo.
- Good-bye, Junior.
Review: “The Social Network” (2010)
STATUS UPDATE: SPOILERS
There’s such a joy of intellect in Aaron Sorkin’s scripts that he’s almost unAmerican. He makes brains and articulation seem like a superpower. He makes them seem cool.
The people in his stories have so much to say that they can’t stop to say it; they have to keep moving. You could say Sorkin was made to write the script for “The Social Network,” the story of the founding of Facebook, because it, too, is about supersmart, superarticulate people who are perhaps so smart and so articulate that they speak before they should. This goes not only for the character of Marc Zuckerberg, played in an Oscar-nomination-worthy performance by Jesse Eisenberg, but also Larry Summers (Douglas Urbanski), the then-Harvard president, who, when confronted by the Facebook phenomenon, scoffs at this “million dollar idea.” And he should scoff. To quote Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) channeling Dr. Evil later in the movie: It’s not a million dollar idea; it’s a billion dollar idea.
The movie begins with one of the best conversations I’ve heard in the movies (or anywhere) in a long time. Zuckerberg and his girlfriend, Erica Albright (Rooney Mara—the new Lisbeth Salander), talk around and through each other over beers at the Thirsty Scholar Pub at Harvard University in the fall of 2003. He brings up the topically relevant but factually doubtful factoid that there are more genius I.Q.s in China than there are I.Q.s in the U.S., while offhandedly bragging about his SAT scores (1600) and worrying over which Harvard “final club” (off-campus social club) he should pledge. She tells him he’s obsessed with final clubs, pronouncing them “finals clubs,” which he corrects. The deeper into the conversation they go, the more each says something that implies more than it says. She asks which final club is the easiest to get into (implying he needs “easy to get into”) and he says, when she pleads homework, that she doesn’t have to study because she goes to B.U. (Boston University: i.e., with the rest of the yokels). She breaks up with him on the spot, then delivers the crushing blow. She tells him he’s going to go through life thinking girls don’t like him because he’s a nerd; but, really, they won’t like him because he’s an asshole.
Cue opening credits.
Wow. Now that’s my kind of open.
The bang-bang doesn’t stop. In his dorm room, he grabs a beer and blogs out his anger on livejournal.com. “She’s not a 34 C; she’s a 34 B—as in 'barely anything there,'" he writes. There’s something quaint about the founder of Facebook using a site as pedestrian as livejournal.com. Although according to some measures, it’s still one of the top 100 sites on the Internet. Facebook? It’s no. 2. After Google.
On the same night, Zuckerberg gets an idea for rating the women of Harvard, hacks into dorm records to gets their photos, borrows an algorithm from his business-major friend, Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield—the new Spider-Man), and goes live. Within hours, and in the wee hours, there’s so much traffic it crashes the Harvard servers. There’s pride all over Zuckerberg’s face. Then a sense of ... oops.
He’s put on academic probation for six months, becomes even more of an outcast with women (“u dick,” one note reads), and gets the attention of some upperclassmen, the Winklevoss twins, Tyler and Cameron (both played by Armie Hammer), tall, strong, stars of the crew team, who recruit him to update their Web site concept harvardconnection.com, a place where Harvard students can meet each other online. But they make a couple of mistakes in the overture: 1) they only let him enter their club as far as the bike room, and b) they imply his reputation needs rehabilitation, even though it’s obviously that rep that drew them. So with seed money from Eduardo, he begins creating his own Web site where Harvard students can connect. He calls it “The Facebook.” When it goes live and proves remarkably addictive, the Winklevosses, or Winklevi as Zuckerberg calls them, are furious.
Throughout, scenes are juxtaposed with two future depositions: one brought by the Winklevosses, the other by Eduardo. In each, particularly the former, we get Zuckerberg’s stubborn insistence that he never stole any of their code. Where is their code? he repeats. It’s a legally bogus argument that reveals so much. To Zuckerberg, code is the only intellectual property—the only language, really—that matters.
So at this point, now that he’s got Facebook created, what’s the story? What’s “The Social Network” about?
Essentially it’s a love triangle: Zuckerberg and Eduardo are the lovers, or the partners anyway, and Timberlake’s Sean Parker, the founder of Napster, is l’homme fatal: the man who comes between them. At their initial meeting, he quickly (too quickly?) impresses the usually unimpressed Zuckerberg, while Eduardo’s face reveals a different emotion—one that most of us in this zippy, broadband world can relate to: the fear of being left behind.
Eduardo and Zuckerberg wind up clashing over what to do now that Facebook is taking off. For Eduardo the answer is easy: make money; sell ads. For Zuckerberg the answer is easy: let it become what it’s meant to become without the impairment of ads. The site has to be cool and ads aren’t cool.
Zuckerberg moves near Stanford (and Parker) for the summer, then for the following semester. Facebook expands to other Ivy League schools, then other schools across the country, then across the pond, and they’re doing it all on Eduardo’s original $19,000. But poor Eduardo is acting like a salesman now, a Willie Loman, pushing his product in Manhattan offices to people who just don’t get it. He’s being left behind.
More even than the Winklevosses, who have something sturdy and noble about them, Sorkin and director David Finch make Parker the villain here. At a hip, west-coast club, over a thumping beat, Parker tells Zuckerberg that his is a once-in-a-generation, holy shit idea, and adds, for confirmation, “Look at my face.” I had been looking at his face. In the hot lights of the club, it was glowing as red as the devil’s. Plus, for most of the movie, it’s a surprisingly unattractive face, seeing that it belongs to Justin Timberlake. It’s as if they gave the singer the flu so he could play the part.
Betrayals are made all around—first Eduardo, then possibly Parker—but how culpable is Zuckerberg? Is he truly that vindictive or is everyone else truly that paranoid? The longer the movie lasts the less we know him. That’s criticism of a sort. Throughout the depositions, Zuckerberg often asks questions of a pretty, two-year associate, Marylin Delpy (Rashida Jones), and she seems sympathetic to this boy genius, this solitary, disconnected man who connected the world, and offers, at the end, a comment that bookends Erica Albright’s at the beginning: “You’re not an asshole, Mark. You’re just trying hard to be one.” That, unfortunately, is one of the weaker lines of the movie. I don’t believe a two-year associate would say it under those circumstances. And I don’t believe it’s true. He is an asshole. That’s part of why he is where he is.
There are a couple of other moments that, at second glance, lose their luster. Sean Parker is introduced in a great scene in which he and a Stanford co-ed introduce themselves after a one-night stand. She accuses him of not knowing her name, but he does. Yet she doesn’t know his. Only after another half-minute of conversation does the other shoe drop. The Sean Parker? Of Napster? It’s a great intro, but, once we get to know him and his self-aggrandizing ways, it’s hard to picture him entering any party where he might meet such a co-ed without letting everyone know who he is.
There’s also the implication that Zuckerberg did all he did for Erica Albright, the girl who rejected him in the beginning. Many critics have already compared the film to “Citizen Kane”—less for form than content: the rise and fall of a scoundrel; the Xanadu loneliness; the betrayal of the last, best friend—but, in the scheme of things, a sophomore-year girlfriend is hardly a childhood sled. It reveals little that we don’t already know about the man. Or the boy.
My criticisms are mild, though. This is a smart, fun, hugely relevant movie. The final scene, where Zuckerberg finds Erica on Facebook and sends her a friend request, then sits refreshing her page over and over again, is a scene for our time. This thing has been sent out into the ether and we need something to come back. We need to be filled, constantly filled, by the online world, because, for social animals, connecting online is like the thirsty drinking salt water. We keep doing it and it’s only making us thirstier.