Rightwing Film Geek

Georgia on My Mind

In a few hours, Scotland will play the game I have been dreading for the month since our victory over the perfidious French made qualifying for the Euro 2008 tournament a real possibility. It’s not the last game, at home against Italy. It’s a Wednesday afternoon game against one of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago.

But before I get to fretting, here’s the highlights from Saturday’s glorious victory over another of those ex-commie countries that didn’t exist 20 years ago. (Though I’m sad to hear the Hampden Park PA system playing that awful Proclaimers song.)

Anyway, this afternoon’s game is against Georgia in Tbilisi and it’s being touted, for example in the Guardian, with such headlines as “Scotland confident of overwhelming weakened Georgia.”

This is exactly the kind of game Scotland have historically screwed up. It’s a longstanding pattern — win heroically against the big boys and fall flat on our face against the teams we should beat. Maybe the most-fabled victory in Scotland’s history was a 3-2 victory in 1967 at Wembley over the England team that had won the World Cup on that very ground the previous year. But it’s for naught. UEFA made two years of the former Home International championship into a 1968 European Championship group, and the English go through because we lost one game to to Northern Ireland and drew another against Wales.

stalin.jpgRight after the Ukraine game, the Scotsman was reporting that Georgia plan to field an experimental side, with a lot of young players, get them experience, etc. The Guardian report above details three minors that Georgia plans to play. But still … we needed an 89th-minute goal to beat them 2-1 in Glasgow.

I fear the worst.

Keep in mind … this is a country whose two most-famous historical personages are Stalin¹ and Medea.²

Yes, we are a bunch of dour Calvinists. Remember that scene in THE 39 STEPS on a Scottish farm. That was fairly good.
¹ The only public museum and statue of Stalin in the world is in Gori, Georgia. My understanding is that Stalin is admired in Georgia not only on “local boy made good” grounds plus a traditionalist admiration for strongmen, but also on “local boy stuck it to the Russians” grounds.
² We should be lucky to get out alive. Let’s hope none of our players took along their kids.

October 17, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 2 Comments

Sports roundup


For Scottish sports fans, it’s hard to be a Calvinist right now, particularly for me since so much of the success has come at the expense of The Perfidious French. Here is what “Oor Wullie” says (fae “ma bucket“) has happened in the last few weeks

Celtic beat the reigning European Champions League holders, Rangers beat both the French and German Champions and the National Team sits proudly atop a qualifying group containing *both* World Cup Finalists

He actually understates Rangers’ achievement — the Huns beat the *6-time reigning* French champions. *Away from home.* The Stuttgart victory was good, but not entirely unexpected — at home against a team off to a bad start in its national league. But what kind of odds could you have gotten on the scoreline Lyon 0, Rangers 3. I didn’t see the game, but here are the highlights, from France’s Canal+ … one of the Rangers goals is scored by American DaMarcus Beasley.¹

rangerslyon.jpgLyon obviously had some hard luck with the post, but with marking (the second goal specifically) and defending that sloppy (the third goal specifically), it’s hard to have much sympathy for them.

Probably alone among Scottish-born Catholics, I do pull for Rangers when they play in Europe (Celtic gains via the UEFA rankings; I also have a Protestant father). Realistically, the Proddy-dogs need only to hold serve at home, and could probably even afford just an Ibrox draw against Barcelona, provided they beat Lyon at home. Ranger manager Walter Smith even admitted to the Daily Record after Tuesday’s win that his heart sank seeing the group his new-look team had been put into:

“I had no great ambitions about qualifying from the group – I was just hoping that we could learn from the experience of playing in there.
“After these first two games, we’ve given ourselves a better chance than Stuttgart and Lyon have at the moment.
“It’s now down to us but there’s a fine line between success and failure at this level. Hopefully we’ve got a chance now of getting through and of doing something in the home games especially. The aim is to try to grasp that opportunity.”

So what could Celtic do to match that? Beating the reigning European champions might count, and that was a game I DID see, at an Arlington sports bar (and was text-messaging G-Money throughout it). Here are the goals, Celtic 2, AC Milan 1:

owngoal.jpgYou see everything game-relevant in that video, including how both Celtic goals were really defensive errors on AC Milan’s part (the first was an own-goal, though it took multiple-angled replays to see that). Truth be told, though it was exciting as all hell, it was a pretty sloppy game technically, played through nonstop rain (suiting Celtic’s style and hobbling the Italian thoroughbreds). But Celtic created few chances and the red-and-black really only looked like world-beaters for the 6-minute span during which they trailed 1-0. I was sitting next to two AC Milan fans and they were stunned at how their team “woke up” and started playing well only when they fell behind.

But wasn’t doesn’t really come through was so appalling about the penalty call. There is no question that Celtic defender Lee Naylor was marking Massimo Ambrosini closely; you might even say “draped all over him.” But the ball was unplayable, and Ambrosini simply flopped — he was not pulled down. No way. I texted Michael: “Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever.”; “absolutely diabolical,” the commentator on that YouTube video says; on the ESPN2-Spanish feed the sports bar had, the commentators were referring to the referee’s call as “un regalo” (a gift). Even the two AC Milan fans on my left were embarrassed by it. The staidly objective Independent said the penalty “was awarded after some opaque offence, probably related to Lee Naylor tussling with Massimo Ambrosini while the ball was nowhere near.” Agence France-Presse report I saw later at work pulled fewer punches:

There appeared little wrong with Naylor’s challenge in the 68th minute, but [referee Markus] Merk saw what no-one else in the 60,000 crowd did and awarded Milan a penalty.
Kaka, playing his 50th Champions League game, wasn’t going to refuse the gift and he calmly sent Boruc the wrong way from the spot.

Worst. Penalty. Call. Ever. I was reminded (and it was not even the first time during the game) why I have such an easy time rooting against Italy and against Serie A teams. They are the worst “floppers,” i.e., dishonorable liars, in sport. And an even worse moment happened later. Celtic went up 2-1 in injury time, and I was going nuts in the bar, yelling “justice reigns,” referring to the bad penalty. Then came the moment that prompted all kinds of sidebar articles about “controversial circumstances” and “dampened joy” and investigations by UEFA, Celtic and the Strathclyde Police. A Celtic fan ran onto the pitch and had some contact with the AC Milan’s goalkeeper Dida. Here’s a separate video of just that, though you also can see it at the end of the highlight video I posted above.

fanhit.jpgWhat you see in both that video and this picture is that the fan only brushes Dida on the shoulder. Further, Dida clearly took several steps toward the fan, in “you wanna mess with me” mode, before crumpling onto the ground and play acting, like he was hit upside the head with a lead pipe. He then stayed on the ground for several minutes and was carried off the field on a stretcher. For a shoulder tap. I. Am. Not. Kidding. Again, even the AC Milan fans I was sitting next to were laughing at Dida’s play-acting, which would have gotten him laughed out of pro wrestling school. The Italian TV commentators were also laughing and an Italian magazine mocked the episode as “clowning worthy of Buster Keaton” (anyone read/hear Italian better than I?)

Regardless of the dishonorable actions of their goalkeeper, AC Milan as an organization, led by a good conservative man of honor, seem to be acting with class and accepting that the actions of the Celtic supporter had nothing to do with the outcome.

“We will not appeal. It is a decision that I have agreed with the president Silvio Berlusconi,” Milan vice president Adriano Galliani told Italian TV. “It is a decision we have taken because we are European champions and must behave like that.”


“When Dida went down it had nothing to do with the result anyway,” Milan coach Carlo Ancelotti said. “We made a mistake with the defence.”

Exactly, though one still wonders whether AC Milan would be sounding this tune if the video evidence of malingering weren’t so irrefutable. I think UEFA’s rules are ridiculously draconian about relatively minor things (fans invading the pitch was practically a tradition when I was growing up). But hopefully UEFA will do nothing more than fine Celtic. The game is not affected by a single nut’s essentially harmless act (and in a free society, there are limits on what can be done against fans) versus Dida’s sort of play-acting and game-spoiling (the players ARE acting under sanction of their clubs). And hopefully, the fan who could have jeopardized Celtic’s win will get smothered in Glaswegian kisses.

kicker.jpgSpeaking of Scottish victories over Italian teams in technically ugly but tension-filled games, there was also the Rugby World Cup at the weekend: Scotland 18, Italy 16, putting Scotland in the quarter-finals, where we’ll play Argentina this weekend. The Pumas beat France in France to win their group, so they’re not the pushovers they were when I was a boy. We haven’t beaten Argentina in a long time, but it’s always been close and I’d certainly rather play them than any of the three other group winners — New Zealand, Australia or South Africa.

But with the Italy game, my reaction was more relief than joy. I don’t think we should ever lose to Italy at rugby (though we have). And Scotland didn’t put the game away until the very end, giving up a penalty to the Italians with three minutes to play, and handing David Bortolussi a chance to go up 19-18, and I let out a cheer when the kick went just wide (no more than a few feet)

Like the Celtic game, this match was played in rain that never let up (and in St. Etienne, a stadium with bad memories for Scotland in World Cup group deciders). Like the Celtic game, the conditions forced a grind-it-out game with little offensive flair. In fact, Scotland never really came close to scoring a try for the whole game, and Italy only did the one time they did. Like Celtic, Scotland got their scores entirely from Italian mistakes near their own goal (in this case, giving up unnecessary and some outright-stupid penalties to a world-class kicker, giving Chris Paterson six shots, and all 18 needed points).

And like with the Celtic game, the Italians did some world-class flopping (and some dirty play too). Actually, they only did it once, but it really stood out because this is rugby. In fact the commentators, upon seeing the replay, said of the Italian writhing in pain: “he probably thinks this is Serie A or something” and then went on to say there also was an exaggerating Frenchman involved in a Namibian player getting sent off in their group game. But the thing about rugby is that the sport’s macho ethos (the “Give Blood; Play Rugby” bumper-stickers, e.g.) has long prevented “flopping for fouls” from becoming a problem. A potential malingerer would be laughed at, “get up, you wimp,” by his own teammates. I hope this disgraceful practice doesn’t infect another sport.

aberdeen.jpgUPDATE: In the interest of equal time, and the principle that all of your country’s clubs are one team in Europe … I note that Aberdeen in the UEFA Cup today did what Celtic couldn’t do a couple of weeks ago and the national team couldn’t do last year: go to Ukraine and get a result. The Dons travelled to Dnepropetrovsk, currently second in the Ukrainian league, and got a 1-1 draw, enough to see them advance on away goals into the UEFA Cup group stage.

I shamefully admit I had mentally written off Aberdeen after they got only a 0-0 draw at Pittodrie. I don’t think a Scottish club other than Rangers and Celtic had won a European tie in years … a few years ago, Hibernian got blitzed by the same Dnepro team and Dunfermline already had crashed out of this year’s UEFA Cup to a side from … gulp … the Swedish second division. But congrats to the Dons as well … Celtic and Scotland would both have killed for a 1-1 draw on their recent Ukraine trips.

¹ I wonder if Rangers fans still sing their song that ends with the line “I’d rather be a darkie than a tim” (“tim” = “Catholic”).

October 4, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 11 Comments

A baseball milestone in SanFran last night

Relief pitcher Chad Cordero saved his 100th game for (the franchise of) my hometown Washington Nationals, pitching the 9th inning and retiring the Giants 1-2-3 to hold onto an 8-6 win.

I watched the game at a sports bar last night, and the Nats made the game memorable by rallying from a 6-4 deficit with four runs in the eighth. And here’s the key call of the game — Felipe Lopez’s RBI double to the left-field corner, which gave the Nats a 7-6 lead.

August 8, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Speaking of sports and movies


From USA Today:

A roll of the drums, please. LeBron James is ready for his close-up.

From the AP Sports Digest (I don’t know whether this is online to the general public. It’s the nation’s leading wire service’s listing of “what we will have today,” varyingly also known as a “budget” or a “tout.” I have access to it in the ordinary course of working at a daily paper):

SAN ANTONIO – LeBron James is ready for his close-up. The superstar drawing comparisons with Michael Jordan leads his Cleveland Cavaliers into their first NBA finals against Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs, who are going for their third title in five years. By Tom Withers. Game starts 9 p.m. AP Photos.

My point isn’t plagiarism, but one of the annoyances of being a film geek and pop-culture omnivore that I see this stuff all the time and sputter … um, but, uh …

(Spoilers for SUNSET BOULEVARD. But if you haven’t seen it, shame on you. Get thee to a video store.)

My reaction when I read both these items was the same. This line is said by a woman who thinks she is about to shoot a closeup in her great comeback film with DeMille. But she is not because she has gone insane after committing a murder. The line both ends and sums up the greatest tragic delusionary in cinema, a once-grand heroine who is no more. But because life can be strangely merciful, the dream she had clung to so desperately had enfolded her.

But it is NOT a complimentary line. And it’s still less so to apply it to someone like LeBron James — young and with his best years ahead of him.

I had the same reaction when Bill, Hillary, Al and Tipper, mounted the Democratic Convention dais in 1992, while Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop,” a uncomfortably-autobiographical song about the singer’s past relationship hurts against the addressee. And when Rush Limbaugh plays the Pretenders’ “My City Was Gone,” a wail of union-Democrat rust-belt distress (though Limbaugh is smart enough to use the opening licks, before the lyrics begin). And, professionally, when I edited a meant-to-be-complementary feature that referred to its subject as “a modern major-general.”

Is it ignorance or is there really no text in this house?

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Too bad there’s no Latin word for “Spurs”


… cuz then it would be a lock-down cinch.

The NBA Finals start tonight, and its due compensation to me for my not getting an Ann Coulter book release on my birthday THIS year. And the Spurs have got a whole team of nuns praying for them and cheering them.

“We pray for them to win, but we also pray for them to continue their sportsmanship,” said Sister Sandra Neaves, head of the [Salesian Sisters] in the Western U.S.
“We make a lot of noise in that room,” laughed Sister Angelina Gomez.
The Spurs have embraced the nuns, hoping to harness the power of prayer during their attempt at a fourth NBA title. …
On Thursday, four of the nuns will attend the opening game of the championship series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. The tickets were a gift from the NBA.

The nun in the middle of the picture is a Hispanic lady, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she’s wearing a Manu Ginobili shirt. I think the Spurs are the only team in the NBA with two foreign players from the same country. With two players from the gold-medal country (none on the Cavs), how can you lose? And the Spurs will have the intercessionary prayer of the dead too.

Sister Filomena Conte, 86, was the most avid fan among them. She watched or listened to every game, praying for the team and corresponding with Coach Gregg Popovich.
Even as Conte suffered from a congestive heart condition and was ordered to bed during the regular season, she lay listening to the games on the radio. When she was ordered to a hospital, she had one question as she waited with another sister: “Am I going to have a room before the game starts?”
Conte died March 8, but the sisters have taken up her cause in cheering and praying for the Spurs.
If the Spurs win the championship, “I won’t be surprised if she had something to do with it,” Neaves said.

What do you mean “if”? I would be stunned if the Spurs lose more than one game. The Cavs Web site is playing regular-season highlights from November, as if that counts at all — remember when Dallas was gonna win 70 games and sweep through the playoffs? They were awesome.

The Spurs have got more than one reliable offensive option, a top-flight point guard to the Cavs none, and an unguardable center (unless Anderson Varejao’s hair gets in the way). Bruce Bowen’s obviously not gonna shut down LeBron totally, but the Spurs play good enough overall team defense that he’ll work for everything and the Cavs second and third options are not gonna be there (Larry Hughes and Daniel Gibson are streaky enough as it is, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas can’t create for himself). You obviously can’t bet against LeBron doing what he did in Game 5 against the Pistons, maybe the greatest single-player performance I’ve ever seen, made greater by the total lack of output from the rest of the team. But you can bet against it happening more than once.

Also, the particular matchup will do wonders for the ratings and the NBA’s profile, at least through the first three games — or longer, if the series is more competitive than it should be. I think another Spurs-Pistons matchup would have been a disaster, seen as the boring rerun of a bad show (great as games 5-7 were; 1-4 were snoozers). Rooting interest aside, I’d have loved to see Phoenix play Cleveland, and I’m enough of an Avery Johnson fan from way back to overlook that his winning a title would also mean Mark Cuban winning a title. But as it is …

I don’t know that I know any Cavaliers fans to win any bets off of, even among the Ohio residents I know (Stults? Father Fox? Rich?). But comments are welcomed from fans of loser teams like the Pistons, the Lakers (even erstwhile ones; no explaining some people), the Mavericks. Even from SoCal sports fans who dislike the Lakers (CQ on that one, Joe?) but who can at least celebrate a title in the other spring playoff sport. As long as these fans acknowledge that Tony Parker is only half-French.

June 7, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | 1 Comment

Muhammad Ali, senior citizen

Gawd, I feel old. My boyhood idol turned 65 today. Muhammad Ali obviously has been “old” for many years now, because of the Parkinson’s disease, but becoming Social-Security age is different. Particularly since if your boyhood idol is an athlete, what you value them for disappears with youth. Peter O’Toole can still get on the stage or screen at 75 and get all sorts of awards buzz. His age affects what roles he can play, sure, but it could still be meaningful to say that “O’Toole is as good as ever.” Not an athlete.

Ali in particular gave his fans a very painful reminder of advanced age in his last two fights — against Larry Holmes and Trevor Berbick. The objective effects of age are underlined by the contrast with what made Ali stand out even beyond his boxing skill — that brash persona; the Louisville Lip, nominating the rounds he would KO his opponent; the poetry. I can still give myself gits and shiggles with “You wanna lose your money / Bet it all on Sonny” and “It’s gonna be a killa, a chilla, a thrilla, when I get the gorilla in Manila.” And been known to give gits and shiggles to others with my imitation of Ali doing his boasting poetry. Joe Louis or Rocky Marciano may (MAY) have been greater fighters in the ring, but neither’s persona had the flamboyance that could be affected by age. They were already low-key, in other words.

But this is already feeling too much like an obit. When I was a boy, I wanted to be Muhammad Ali. The very fact that I was bookish meant that he represented the very opposite, everything I wanted to be because I wasn’t — the heavyweight champion of the world; the baddest man on the planet, etc. And he was brash and funny, too (that much I could at least reasonably aspire to). One of my most-treasured boyhood memories was watching Ali fight on TV and reading about him in books and magazines, even though I’m too young (born 1966) to remember Ali at his best. “His best” was probably this fight, in which he made short work of Cleveland Williams in an early title defense. Williams wasn’t Ali’s toughest opponent, but that fight was probably Ali at his absolute peak, cutting like a buzzsaw through Williams and making a legitimate contender and world-class fighter (whom Sonny Liston called the hardest puncher he ever faced) look like an overmatched schoolboy.

So, I only have boyhood knowledge of “late” Ali, though I’ve now seen most of his fights through endless reruns on ESPN Classic. But I remember like it was yesterday my experience of watching the “Rumble in the Jungle” between Ali and George Foreman in Zaire. The fight was on at about 1am or 2am in Britain. As I was only 8, I couldn’t stay up that late. But my father put me to bed early, and then got me up in time for us to watch the fight together. Here’s clips from WHEN WE WERE KINGS:

It’s easy now to think of Foreman as the avuncular fat guy hawking his hamburger grills with a smile on his face. At that time, Foreman was thought to be invincible, but my father was convinced Ali would win. He remembered the Sonny Liston fight and knew what Ali was capable of against this kind of opponent — the big-punching, clubbing bully who won most of his fights before the first bell rang through sheer intimidation. Who cause Howard Cosell to scream repeatedly in shock “down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!” But Ali won the Foreman fight through attrition and psychology. Making Foreman miss, taking the punches on the arms and elbows, and leaning back on the ropes. If you watch Foreman, you see how amateurish his technique was becoming as the fight wore on — swinging arm-punches like a novice amateur; flailing around, from a mixture of fatigue and frustration. Foreman himself has said that at one point, he landed a clean punch, and Ali said “that all you got, champ?” Foreman said he said to himself “yep” and the fight was psychologically over at that point.

The other great fight from that era was the third fight with Joe Frazier, the Thrilla in Manila. This one I didn’t get to see at the time. It was not shown on British TV, but only via closed-circuit at movie theaters. It was the same overnight-in-Britain-for-US-primetime hour, and I think my father went by himself, probably not wanting a 9-year-old out at 3am on the streets of Glasgow. I’ve now seen it several times — the whole fight is available at YouTube, one round at a time.

What’s remarkable about the Thrilla in Manila is its sheer brutality, most obvious when seen in contrast with the first Frazier-Ali fight in 1971. Then, Frazier was clearly at his peak, and Ali was at his body’s peak age (though Ali obviously had ring rust from his period in exile). Both men were also then-undefeated. Here, in 1975, both men had been beaten, and were in their 30s. Still great fighters, unquestionably, but they had both lost a step and could be hit more easily, and Joe’s swarming style was not quite so fast and thus “handcuffing” of his opponent’s offense (Frazier was a great defensive fighter only in the sense that a great all-pressure offense can be the best defense). Ali-Frazier I might have been a better technical boxing match; but Ali-Frazier III was the greatest “gut-check” long-fight in history. And it folded out so neatly into three acts, with Ali, then Frazier, then Ali again each dominating for a 4-5 round period, until the end, when Frazier could hardly see and his corner kept him in his stool. Ali said of the end of that fight “was a feeling close to death.” Before the fight, Ali and Frazier put a $1 million side bet from their purses on the outcome in their trilogy’s rubber match, as if to emphasize that this fight was as much for the heavyweight championship of each other as for some sanctioning-group’s belt. When reminded of that after the fight, Ali waived the bet: “Joe don’t owe me nothing. We’ve paid all the debts we’re ever gonna owe each other.”

And that was a side that wasn’t often obvious about Ali — that he had more class than his arrogant public persona would have you think. For example, in a coffee-table book that I had as a teenager about the world heavyweight champions, author Henry Cooper said that Ali hated to be introduced to his opponent’s family before a fight. Cooper said he knew of several cases where Ali learned that the other guy’s kids saw him take a beating at his hands and that he sought out the children to have a few words with them afterwards. In the book, Cooper, a former British heavyweight champion who fought Ali twice, called himself “an Ali man” and said all the boasts “were all for the box-office. Boxing has never had anybody like him for promoting his own fights.”

But by 1996, and the spine-tingling moment when a shaky-handed Ali lit the Olympic flame in Atlanta, he had become as universally beloved as any athlete alive. On two separate occasions, I asked conservative Vietnam veterans why they thought Jane Fonda was still, decades later, hounded by veterans groups over her trip to North Vietnam, posing on the anti-aircraft gun and all that; while at the same time it was as if Muhammad Ali had never said “I don’t have nothing against no Viet Cong. They never called me nigger” and had never become, as much as any individual, the public face of draft resistance. I said “you can make minor distinctions about the details of their conduct, sure, but that can’t explain the size of the gap between the hatred for Fonda and the love for Ali.” Neither man disputed my point that Ali was loved by vets, but they instead offered explanations that had the following common thread: “Ali had the courage of his convictions and paid for them (implicitly: Fonda didn’t). Ali stayed out of the ring for years, the years of his athletic peak and lost millions of dollars (implicitly: Fonda didn’t).” One of the two, elaborating on Fonda’s privileged background, added words to the effect that Ali was helped by the point of fact the Viet Cong never did call him nigger. The resentment in a case like Ali is obviously going to be less than one like Fonda.

January 17, 2007 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

The end of sports programming

I thought rock bottom on sports-programming had been reached a few months ago when I saw, when looking at one of the TVs at a sports bar, a football video game contest/tournament being shown as programming on ESPN (making a spectacle of a simulacrum — Baudrillard, where are you).

But my colleague Tim Lemke topped that with a Sign of the Apocalypse on Wednesday’s front page. Madden 07 has become a sports event in its own right. Complete with … get this … a pay-per-view special. $19.95 to watch basically an infomercial on how to play a video game? Yes. I am not making this up.

Tim once came over to my apartment to watch pay-per-view, but of a legitimate athletic contest — the John Ruiz-Roy Jones Jr. fight, if memory serves. I’d be the first to admit that video games left me behind (or maybe I just left them behind) in the late-80s — Galaga, Ms. Pac-Man. But I always thought the point of athletics as a spectacle, as a spectator activity, was to be wowed. To see people do stuff that popped your eyes out, that you couldn’t do, that involved an element of physicality.

But in the era of reality TV, that believes in the name of pig-headed egalitarianism that *anyone* can be a star/athlete — apparently not. Now, more and more of the programming on sports channels (the proliferation of them also undoubtedly accounts for some of this — they need to fill the hours somehow) is taken up by what can at best be called leisure activities. There always had been the fishing and hunting shows that were staples of Saturday mornings on the UHF channels, of course.

But in recent years, and in bigger venues, this has expanded to include card games, spelling bees, Scrabble/crossword and similar intellectual pursuits. So, everyone can be an athlete. Now the ultimate (as far as I can think of) — a computer representation of the game that can be seen at other times on the same channel, as itself.

August 10, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , | Leave a comment

Lance vs. France

My friend David Morrison (welcome back bud) is a bicyclist and a big fan of Lance Armstrong. He is also guilty of suspicious Francophilia, so these developments should concern him deeply.

While accepting the ESPY last week, Armstrong said of the French soccer team that “all their players tested positive for being assholes.” Prompting the French media to respond in kind. I wonder why Armstrong might have used the particular phrase “tested positive.” Hmmm

Armstrong has been hounded by charges of doping, and there is an element of French chauvinism-cum-wishful-thinking in trying to deny that the greatest cycler in modern times was … (sniff) … “un americain.” In the Washington Diarist in the latest New Republic (not available online best I can tell), Robert Messenger wrote:

Armstrong’s retirement hasn’t slowed the French press’s relentless effort to prove that his seven victories were tainted by doping. The murky evidence and legal intricacies of the investigations are all but incomprehensible, but L’Equipe, the French sporting daily, runs each vague allegation under a screaming headline like “the Armstrong lie.”

Of course, what is funny (or nauseasting) is that there actually have been “doping convictions” associated with the Tour de France. And guess what … with the exception of one Australian, all the riders were European. And not an American among them.

I think head-shrinkers call this “projection.” Moralists call it “double standards.” I just call it “French.” Nor is it something unknown in the French attitude towards Americans in other fields. Several examples come to my head — the vocal criticism by the French government and the French populace generally of tough US action against Saddam Hussein or Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah (and the Jews against their Arab enemies as well). But how does France act when theirs are threatened — as in, say, the Ivory Coast? Restraint?

July 18, 2006 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , | Leave a comment

Bad News Bears down the Bear


MIRACLE (Gavin O’Connor, USA, 2004, 6)

Do you believe in miracles … Yes!!! MIRACLES was actually a good movie in a genre that’s usually pretty dire (early-year Disney “Bad News Bears” template movie). I went with a work friend who is not the movie fan I am, but is much more of a hockey fan (he wore a Minnesota Wild jersey to the film); and we were both impressed.

The best thing about the film, the story of the 1980 US Olympic ice hockey team, is the hockey action sequences. To start with, all hail the casting director. The actors who played the US team looked like hockey players, both in terms of general build and gait, and in terms of none being pretty-boys, as opposed to guys who get crashed into boards or have 100 mph pucks reshape their facial features. Their nonstardom made them as anonymous as hockey players (I wouldn’t recognize Mats Sundin or Martin Brodeur if I saw them out of uniform, like I would Tim Duncan or Barry Bonds), and it also underlined one of the most amazing things about the 1980 gold-medal team and their victory over the invincible Soviet Union (um … I guess that’s a spoiler for those of my readers under the age of 20) — that the real-life team was made up of unknowns. And though they got the Wheaties box and all that, none of them went onto especially distinguished NHL careers, even coach Herb Brooks himself, the central character in MIRACLE.

I don’t *know* if the use of unknowns meant the filmmakers had looked to cast skaters or players first and actors second (as Stallone did when casting the opponent for ROCKY 3; he sought a tough, mean-looking guy whom he could train to act rather than an actor whom he’d have to train to fight). But for whatever reason, the game footage (all created anew … they don’t use archive images even for Al Michaels’ famous countdown) is very good and convincing. The actors are actually skating in the frame, and the camera gets on the ice along with them, and follows the action.

miracleskating.jpgOne of the things I hate about a lot of sports movies is that they never get the sport even passably right. Compare MIRACLE to something like BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM, where it was clear that director Gurinder Chadha didn’t even understand the game well enough to choreograph an actual scene of the sport or give any sense of a game’s flow. (I ‘loved’ the moment when the manager actually held up the score with his fingers after a goal, I guess to explain to those in the audience the intricate complications of soccer scoring.) Apart from the opening fantasy scene, there was not in BECKHAM a single moment of action, not even a shot, that was even marginally convincing. The keepers always dove the wrong way when the ball is kicked right at them, which looks good but has nothing to do with the game … like when a fighter’s head always snaps back vigorously and arms go flying every time he takes a punch to the head. The shots in BECKHAM were so short and the sequences so heavily edited, and with so much extraneous moving about [and helpfully obscuring in the foreground], that it seemed designed to hide the fact that BECKHAM’s actors had no chops as athletes. Not MIRACLE. Some of the individual moments *are* of the edited-together “he shoots, he scores” genre, but there were several shots that lasted long enough and they were framed sufficiently clearly that they resembled something like the flow of an actual hockey game. It felt like many lasted as long as 15 or 20 seconds, which doesn’t sound like much (and it isn’t, compared to the real thing, obviously), but compared to 3 or 4 seconds per shot, it *feels* so different in terms of verissimilute and “not cheating by editing.”

In addition, I wasn’t as bothered as I might have been by the sports-movie cliche of “Underdog David slays Goliath” (which is almost never the case; even when underdogs win, it’s usually “underdogs” at the same level, like the Marlins winning the World Series. Nothing like the raw talent gap as it was here). If ever there was a real-life sports contest that followed that template, it was this one. The Mike Tyson-Buster Douglas title fight is the only thing in my lifetime that comes close in terms of a sheer unexpected upset. And even there, nobody doubted that Douglas was a world-class fighter and a legit-contender in some abstract sense; it was just that Tyson was thought to be invincible. But at the same time, MIRACLE doesn’t go overboard. The team won because of strategy and hard work — as most teams do. There’s was a lot of the political backstory (the malaise speech, the second oil shock, Iran’s invasion of the US, and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan all came in the previous 12 months) as there has to be. But it isn’t presented as the reason they won, but rather and more-reasonably the reason their victory mattered (thanks, Bilge) — a momentous sports victory as a lifting of national morale.

miraclerussell.jpgThe always-underestimated Kurt Russell is also terrific in the role of coach Brooks. He nails the Minnesota accent perfectly (as my Minnesota-born-friend pointed out), but also got something a little more elusive. There’s a certain taskmaster hardness in the coach’s persona — the sorta tight-jaw-and-cheeks look. It’s so contrary to Russell in real life that it surprised me more that he got it right — it’s like he’s chewing on bubble gum with the texture of rubber.

MIRACLE is not a great film — in fact if you go in with too-high or the wrong expectations, you might be disappointed. The score is overbombastic and redundant, underlining all the significant moments with what it imagines as Aaron Copeland grandeur. It doesn’t really go anywhere you don’t expect (obviously, it couldn’t, but still …) We also get another example of the Wife Complaining About Being Neglected At Home But Is In The Crowd For The Final Showdown. This role cannot be played because it is thoroughly cliche and dramatically redundant. And I will not mention the way the malaise speech was used on account of I think Josh still reads this blog (and congratulations bud).

February 19, 2004 Posted by | Uncategorized | , | 1 Comment

In a Steel-Cage Death Match … Beavis vs. Butt-head


THE BACKYARD, Paul Hough, USA, 9

For the people who thought MTV’s two cartoon cretins were absurd caricatures too shallow, vulgar and thoughtlessly vicious to represent The Kids Today — I wish I had the power to force them to see THE BACKYARD when it comes out on video Tuesday. I saw it twice during its second-last theatrical engagement, and here is a documentary about kids (and, more importantly, adults) who seem like real-life versions of Beavis and Butt-head — ids shaped only by celebrity culture and a very high self-esteem quotient.

THE BACKYARD is like an anthropologist’s trek to a world, that of backyard fantasists putting on “pro wrestling” shows, that you have not seen and could not imagine existing. While the film’s appeal, the incredible number of amazingly funny sequences, is not dissimilar to that of a PT Barnum circus-geek show, it’s the kind of laughter that sticks in the craw. We’re not laughing at freaks, but at people who have willed themselves into freakdom. Which makes it both easier to laugh at them and easier to be angry at them. Everybody who’s ever put aside a childhood fantasy (I wanted to beat Ali and become heavyweight champion … stop laughing, people) will feel better about himself after seeing these amazing scenes of people who can’t let their dream go.

It made me decide that, besides the truly cheap and ugly-as-ass Digital Video, what I really hated about JACKASS (which this film obviously resembles in some ways) was the way it locked you into complicity with the jackasses and had a surrogate audience, the other jackasses, laughing onscreen as though this was so obviously funny, and I just began emotionally rebelling against the film. If Jeremiah had an ironic sense of humor (and movies had been invented in 7th Century Judah), he might have produced a Lamentation like this. It’s almost a time capsule of the vices of our time:

bb4backyard.jpgThe culture of fame, and the way fame even defines the behaviors of the patently unfamous and untalented. Everyone wants to become a pro wrestling star and they can talk the talk because they’ve been so saturated in its language — in one moment, a 17-year-old promoter (yes, that’s right) tells his troupe that other federations are coming into the hotbed of Modesto, Calif., and “we’re not gonna become the WCW of Backyard Wrestling.” Yet they can’t walk the walk — the shows look like the Max Fischer Players production of WWF Smackdown. Or any of Beavis and Butt-head’s school reports or projects. And are hilarious in that very same way, often *because* of their sincere pretensions. But that’s what they know. Lizard talks like he thinks his heroes do, but he can barely spit out a sentence without mispronouncing or mangling something: “I’m gonna walk in with very much confidence in my self-esteem.” The absolute cheesiness of these shows and the obviously sincere hunger for fame becomes sad with its combined the patent fact that there *is* a career path to being a professional wrestler, outlined by Rob Van Dam at the beginning, but which is basically a type of craft apprenticeship, and none of these people are on that track. I was reminded of Pauline Kael’s reaction to a young man who said he wanted to be musician. Then when he admitted he couldn’t read music and had no interest in learning how, he said “I just want to be creative.”

Me-ism and self-esteem run amock. Everybody in THE BACKYARD is confident that “nobody’s gonna get in the way of my dream”; “I have the dedication and drive,” and all the rest of the cliches of the therapeutic society that tells you that you can do anything, when nothing is farther from the truth, especially in this case. Practically the film’s very first image is of a guy, Lizard, lecturing to the camera (in a perfect poor imitation of “camera” talk, though the guy has about 40 cards in his deck) about how he’s gonna become heavyweight champion of the world. And you see him stripped to the waist, and, well … it’s kinda obvious that he certainly doesn’t have the needed physique and strength. It’s doubtful that his body shape would ever let him, but it would certainly take years of work. But he’s playing it straight, flexing his biceps and doing a bodybuilder’s “grrrr” pose. It’s not done for irony, like when Benny Hill talks about how sexy he is, so it’s finally pathetic.

backyardchew.jpgThe Peter Pan syndrome. One absolutely indelible scene shows a 26-year-old man playing in a room full of thousands of dollars worth of WWF dolls and souvenirs and “train sets,” while his 2-year-old daughter wanders in and out of the room. While her father is playing with dolls. Lizard tells us that his girlfriend, her parents, his mother all object to his fame-seeking, but it’s all water off a boulder. It’s at the same time incredibly funny and really, really sad. These guys are simply playing Xtreme Cowboys and Indians in the backyard. Except that most of us grow up, and these people are adults, risking (and suffering) injury and cutting themselves up — essentially for nothing (at least when Hulk Hogan takes a razor to his forehead, he’s getting appropriately compensated). One of the other wrestlers, Scar, gets a girlfriend who forbids him from doing backyard wrestling any more. Hooray for her.

Absent or toxic parents.
It’s hard to know what’s creepier or more disturbing in THE BACKYARD: the parents who refuse to be interviewed about why they let their (mostly) sons do this, those who do get interviewed, or those about whom we learn nothing. An early scene shows the mother of two Nevada sons, helping wrap the barbed wire around the ring where Bo and Justin will fight. She brags about how this gets her more involved with her sons’ lives than other parents. She’s proud about “it gives me a rush as a parent.” And then there are all the parents in upstate New York (this is not just laughing at the inbred hayseed states) who actively get involved in the organizing and planning and even (get this) the local school. Their rationalizations, inevitably: “it’s a lot worse than other stuff they could be doing”; “at least he’s not out doing drugs.” Which leads one to wonder what their standards are. (One hilarious moment involves reading out the list of promotions that the school put on, one being “Martin Luther King Day Destruction.”) There’s even one parent who is shown on camera refusing to sign a medical release form demanded by the 17-year-old promoter because her son has a knot in his head (“What if you get dropped on your head? Who’s gonna have to take care of you, feed you, wipe your ass? You think these guys give a fuck about you?”) Speaking as someone who could not participate in any contact sports after adolescence set in because of major leg surgeries to correct a dormant birth defect, these are very good reasons. Which makes what happens later even more repulsive. Another mother even says “we realized that it had to be his choice,” and that phrase about says it all. Choice is the God we mortals dare not question.

backyardweapon.jpgVicious indifference and contempt for social standards. We aren’t simply talking about people here who are misguided; we’re talking about people who are proud of their misguidedness and who, in the words of Bo and Justin’s mother “don’t care what people think” or, in the words of Chaos, “we don’t give a fuck what you think, this is for us” and “if you don’t like us, fuck off, cause we’re gonna stay here” (or idiomatically: “We’re here; We’re XXX; Get used to it.”) Backyard wrestling also seems to promote an aggressively self-infantilizing and morally indifferent culture. T-shirts are labeled “Most tasteless” and the two Nevada brothers wear Satanic pentagram T-shirts without ever once doing anything that would strike most anyone as Satanic in the usual sense. It’s as if even Satan, whom Milton could make grand and serious, is now just one more signifier. Beavis: “The real Satan doesn’t do videos. Unless maybe it’s for Danzig.” The Retarded Butcher wears a T-shirt reading “I put the ‘S’ in ‘Retarded’ “; and Chaos casually compares using some of the weapons to “going out gay bashing.” Both moments are incredibly funny, but again nauseating because it’s hard to know what could ever be said to souls like that, whether they mean their words literally or not.

Obsession with erasing the fakery/sincerity gap. Now here’s where I’m not sure THE BACKYARD knows what it’s doing. Or rather, all of what it’s doing. It’s patent that some of the violence is faked, and the “wrestlers” show they’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade (like setting on fire the underside of garbage can lid, but bashing the opponent with the other side of it, and “blading,” nicking themselves on the forehead with a razor to simulate a cut on the head from some blow). But for all they show the filmmakers, it’s also patent that some of it is not faked — we see the scars. After all, even the best professional wrestlers do sometimes injure one another (as all acrobats occasionally miss a mark or a tumble or whatnot). And these “wrestlers” are very far from experts, and the things like lightbulbs, mousetraps, tacks are playing with fire (and the real Fire does do this video). But by showing the fakery, it looks like a strategem to sow doubt about whether the other stuff is fake, too, and make it look like pro wrestling (which we all know is fake). But that has consequences, in that it makes it hard to know when anyone is being serious. So when the mother of the Retarded Butcher breaks up the match in the park (after going through about six rounds of DW Griffith heroine-like hand-wringing and lamenting) and says to the camera “to all the parents out there. Don’t let your kids do this,” you realize, if you’re a fan of pro wrestling at all, that this is a very common pro wrestling script. And the sound mix was suspiciously good for a woman being recorded on the other side of a field. But it could just as easily be real too. Making fakery transparent and then going ahead anyway makes it hard to tell when something else is *not* fake. (I remember hearing Tonya Harding’s boyfriend, the one who actually performed the hit on Nancy Kerrigan, say “it didn’t look like I’d really done anything until I saw the video.” A CLOCKWORK ORANGE has a similar line.)

All that is clear enough, but then we get to the end, we get the part I’m not sure how to take. Brothers Bo and Justin explain their “Three Stages of Death storyline”: 1) fight to a finish in a barbed wire ring; 2) battle to bury the other guy alive in the desert sands; 3) slam your opponent into a pit through a plank wrapped in barbed wire and then set aflame. They explain this as a cathartic ritual for one of the boys having been abused. In the arc of a conventional documentary, this is at the “revelation” moment, and could be taken as an attempt for pathos or at least something serious on the filmmaker’s part. But I didn’t feel a damn thing or any emotional involvement at all. The brothers do it in such self-aware, blandly positivistic language that it’s hard to take seriously as truly cathartic. “This pit symbolizes the mirror my father threw me threw me against and when I crash through it and walk through the fire, I’ll have left it behind,” he says. Is it really the case that you’re haunted by something if you can talk about it so casually and clinically? To readers of Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”: my reaction was very like that of Bloom to his Atlanta taxi driver talking about the various therapies he had undergone and how he was “trying out gestalt.” The clinical and self-conscious language completely locked and I sat stone-faced through the scene. And yet the fakery of everything else makes me doubt that this was intended to be “real” — and thus its miserable failure on those “straight” terms might be its method — it’s a storyline meant to be seen through. But I’m by temperament and longstanding ideological disposition ill-disposed to entering that hall of mirrors.

THE BACKYARD definitely has its problems, and second viewing persuaded me to drop it a couple of notches in the Year-to-Date Top 10. The main problems are 1) that it is filmatistically pretty undistinguished; 2) that we never get to see Lizard’s tryout with the WWE and because of a sloppy camera movement and focus pull, we even have to infer what happened offscreen; 3) a voiceover that, while not omnipresent, is never necessary or enlightening; and 4) I’m really not certain that the attempt at pathos near the end was actually not sincere. And indeed, even most of the film’s fans aren’t really sure how conscious the filmmakers are of what they have and what they’re doing. But maybe that’s irrelevant since the subject makes nonsense of trying to tell apart the real and the fake, the ironic and the sincere, in this milieu at least.

There is also one moral problem with the movie. It doesn’t particularly bother me, but some readers will disagree. THE BACKYARD, it has to be conceded, is what Eve Tushnet calls “purely negative” (THE ICE STORM also fits into this category, so sez she). It tells you how awful is a certain segment of the world that has lost its moral compass, and even if you think the film hilarious and sickening in equal amounts (as I do), it’s hard to claim that it gives you a vivid sense of what that world *should* look like. It’s not the most damning criticism of a film (even negative virtue is in short supply in these interesting times), but it is a true one.

November 17, 2003 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , | 1 Comment