Friday, February 25, 2011

On The Best Picture

I haven't seen The King's Speech. I'm sure it's a perfectly fine film, with a perfectly fine cast and a perfectly fine message about life. I'm sure I will see it and think, "This is a perfectly fine moviegoing experience," and then I will go home and forget all about it.

I have seen The Social Network. I have mixed feelings about Aaron Sorkin, but I thought his script was hard-edged and unsentimental and it spoke to an American moment, which is why I hope everyone who spends their time prognosticating about awards shows is right and it doesn't win the Oscar.

There are two reasons for this: The first is that it's just far more interesting when a film like The Social Network stands outside the mainstream...even if, in this case, "standing outside the mainstream" means it is actually the second most-honored film of the year. The second is that the movies that tend to get snubbed for Oscars are, approximately 75 percent of the time, more likely to be culturally relevant in the long-term than the films that win. This, I suppose, is because Oscar voters are comprised of such a large cross-section of Hollywood that their consensus is almost always going to be watered down by sentiment and facile thinking. Which is why, dating back to the rise of the modern studio era in Hollywood, the most relevant pictures are usually the ones that don't win.

1977--Winner: Annie Hall.
Most Relevant Best Picture Nominee Today: Annie Hall is probably one of my six favorite films of all-time, but Star Wars is the most relevant film of the past thirty-five years.

1978--Winner: The Deer Hunter.
MRBPNT: The Deer Hunter (if only for the Russian roulette).

1979--Winner: Kramer vs. Kramer.
MRBPNT: I watched K vs. K a few years ago; if not for the lead performances, it's basically something you'd see on Lifetime Women. Whereas Apocalypse Now is probably not.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me

1. I understand the Nets are taking a risk by trading for Deron Williams without (as far as we know) any real knowledge of whether or not they can re-sign him, but two things seem relatively obvious: A.) If I had to choose between a pure scorer like Carmelo Anthony and a dynamic point guard like Deron Williams, I will choose the point guard every time, and B.) If anything, people are probably underestimating the lure of both Brooklyn and a team owned (at least in part) by Jay-Z. I've covered high-school basketball in Brooklyn, and even that realm is ridiculously intense. If this team is any good at all, it could be far bigger than most people imagine it to be.*

2. I have no idea if Steve Lavin is a good coach, but the fact that St. John's is a completely different team this year as compared to years past seems like proof that in college basketball, coaching can change things in radical ways. In fact, it almost seems unfair that St. John's has one of the greatest coaches in Division I history as an assistant. It will be difficult not to choose St. John's as an early-round sleeper in my yearly experiment in self-immolation, just as it will be difficult to pick against Wisconsin, which seems to do more with a gang of pale slow Aryan-looking youngsters than anyone since Aaron Sorkin.

3. This is the greatest piece of self-satire Deadspin has ever published. In fact, they should have splashed across their new "front page" and Tweeted about it endlessly, and Craggs should have written a brilliantly crafted 1,200-word screed about why Oddibe McDowell's water bill is proof that the conventional wisdom about the water bills of ex-Texas Rangers is completely misguided.

*This piece is a fun read today. Zoinks!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

On Carmelo: A Rough Notebook of Ideas

I. I cannot recall ever knowing more details about a trade in which I had no real rooting interest--and not even a great deal of interest, period--than this Carmelo Anthony deal. There are several reasons for this. First, the team acquiring Anthony, the New York Knicks, has degenerated into one of the more dysfunctional franchises in professional sports, and happens to be based in the largest media market in America. Second, Anthony himself (and his representatives) accomplished the bizarre feat of telegraphing precisely where he wanted to wind up long before he got there, which has happened in the past but never quite like this. These factors led to a third reason, which is that the media, already kineticized by The Decision and the proliferation of Twitter and recognizing the rampant dysfunction on both sides, felt obligated to report every single rumor and supposition in real time, for fear that, given the parties involved--and the continued meddling of a Drago-esque Russian billionaire only contributed to further weirdness--anything could potentially be true.

This is why it seems like the Carmelo thing has been going on since the Pleistocene era; because since it began, it's never really stopped. And since I am only a casual NBA fan (at least until the playoffs commence), I will leave it to others to debate the merits of the trade for each respective franchise. I think the bigger question here is what it says about the future of the NBA.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Inconsequential Things (and One Consequential Thing) That Matter To Me

1. I wrote a couple of short pieces for GQ's new NBA package, one of which--on the NBA's new villains--can be found here. But you should check out the whole thing, if only because that Oklahoma City Thunder illustration is hyperawesome. 

2. I was going to write something about this mind-boggling piece* on the Huffington Post, but then Stephen Colbert said everything that needed to be said right here. Seriously, this is the most innovative website in the modern** history of the Internet.

3. Years ago, when I was a cub sportswriter in Akron, I took a phone call from a man named Pat Williams, who was looking for someone to help him write a book about his mentor, a baseball owner named Bill Veeck. I did not know much of Pat Williams' past history, beyond his remarkable role as an NBA lottery good-luck charm--I certainly did not know that he had once wrestled a bear--but I agreed to do it, and I was glad I did, if only because it acquainted me with two of the more fascinating people I'd ever come across. Pat is a force of nature, so relentlessly positive that I often had trouble believing he actually existed, and I have little doubt that if anyone can wrestle bone cancer into submission, it's him. And I don't normally do this, but if you happen to have the means and you'd like to make a donation toward a cure for what sounds like a truly nasty disease, here's a link.

*My favorite part is when he writes that the content written by HuffPo staff is the "most widely read" and is "the primary driver of everything else." Read that paragraph, then cast your inches two inches to the right and consider how many of the "top stories" on the site involve photos of a pantsless Jessica Simpson or video of an animal wreaking havoc.
 **Meaning, "the past 48 hours."

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

On the Grammys, Jethro Tull, and Those Freaking Canadians

" matter how dominant and predictable something might be in your world, it is still a weird, marginal thing to most everyone else."--Nitsuh Abebe, Vulture

A confession: I have trouble letting go of my cultural predilections. I will continue to watch a television show long after it has gone sour,* and I will continue to consume the discography of a decaying rock band if only to complete my collection**. That's the way I am, and I can do nothing to stop it: Once a piece of the culture belongs to me, it belongs to me, and I feel I have an obligation to follow it until the end. I've never understood how the ratings of a serialized show like Lost would ebb and flow: Either you watched it, or you didn't watch it, and there was no in-between. Consumption, in my mind, is a commitment, and I stick to my commitments, and if they fall outside my purview, then I tend to devalue them completely. For two years, I didn't watch Breaking Bad because Bryan Cranston was on Malcolm in the Middle and I never watched Malcolm in the Middle because that little kid always seemed like an obnoxious attempt to manufacture a real-life Bart Simpson. That*** was one of the more stupid decisions of my recent existence.

This, I suppose, is human nature. If it doesn't exist in my world, then it might as well not exist. If I haven't seen an award-winning movie that happens to win an award, then I have to imagine it is not as deserving as the movie I have seen.****And this explains the backlash to the Grammys, an awards show that has always done an unbelievably inept job of attempting to pander to everyone by pandering to no one. Remember when Jethro Tull defeated Metallica for best rock album? Given that my friends were hard-core metalheads, that was an event tantamount to Chernobyl. We were upset, even though it meant nothing, even though the Grammys had long ago marginalized themselves to the point that it was almost better, if you wanted credit as something more than a mainstream pop artist, to not be associated with them. In that way, I assume Metallica's loss was one of the greatest things to happen to that band.*****

Anyway, these are the two points of view that Nitsuh Abebe attempts to reconicle in his excellent piece on New York magazine's culture website, Vulture. It was a moment that pitted people like us--the self-aware Brooklyn hipsters who grew tired of the Arcade Fire hype in 2005--against the masses who tend toward pop music, who measure accomplishment in terms of mainstream fame and feel just as insulted as we do when their views are invalidated.

You might think this is a problem. You might find it bothersome that there are so many people who are angered by an unassuming Canadian rock band winning an award over a pedestrian pseudo-country band, a rapper who did his best work more than a decade ago, a woman who regularly dresses like breakfast and another woman who manages to dispense whipped topping from her cleavage. And maybe it is. Maybe these divergent paradigms explain why half the politicians in America appear to be speaking a completely different language. Maybe it explains why there is so much misunderstanding, and so much hatred. But it also proves that I live in a weird, marginal world, in a borough of a city where the percentage of people who have heard of the Arcade Fire is probably higher than anywhere else south of Windsor. And I happen to like that, just as I'm sure the people who dig Lady Antebellum's vibe happen to believe she (they? it?) got hosed on Sunday night. 

The larger problem, as Abebe notes, is not that we believe different things. It's that we have trouble imagining a world that exists beyond our cultural purview. It's a problem I'll admit I've had for years, and finding a solution doesn't mean I have to like your music, or that you have to like mine, or that you have to like my politics, or I have to like yours. It only means that we have to accept that these things exist.

*This explains why I continue to DVR Californication.
**This explains why I briefly had myself convinced that Oasis' Heathen Chemistry was actually not so bad.
***Neglecting Breaking Bad, not Malcolm. Though I've never seen Malcolm, so I have no idea. I know several intelligent people who insist The Big-Bang Theory is funny, too.
****Except in the case of Crash. And Million-Dollar Baby. I saw those movies. They just empirically sucked.
*****And perhaps even prefigured their own turn toward the mainstream.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter to Me (Thoughts While Ill Edition)

1. Every time I contract a cold or a sore throat or something resembling the flu, I'm reminded that Michael Jordan's flu game has to be the greatest single performance in the history of modern sports. I mean, Jordan was 34 years old during that game; I'm now 38, and I find it hard to imagine departing from my sofa when my temperature creeps past 99. I hate being sick. I hate being sick so much that I need all of my energies to focus on how much I hate being sick. I realize that Jordan is a pathological lunatic, but I still have no idea how Jordan was able to do that.

2. It makes me sort of sad that the guy who starred in Whit Stillman's Barcelona has been relegated to making appearances in Time-Warner cable advertisements--for that matter, it makes me sad that anyone has to make appearances in advertisements for a company that I consider tantamount to Al Qaeda--but at least it's not Chris Eigeman, who appeared in one of the great cancelled television programs of the 1990s, who essentially made Whit Stillman's career, and who starred in perhaps the funniest film of the 1990s. If there were any justice in moviemaking, Chris Eigeman would be a three-time Academy Award winner and Paul Haggis would be best known for exposing scientology.

3. I don't entirely disagree with this column.* But having spent the past couple of days consuming several hours of sports talk at a time, I do think this may be the most idiotic "controversy" of the past six months.

*Though in a way, I kind of do. I'd much prefer to watch a college football game than pretend national signing day existed. I think Pearlman missed a major point, which is that there is far too much rote arguing and pedestrian rumor-mongering about sports, and there is virtually no effort made to put these oft-inconsequential stories into some larger perspective.

Monday, February 7, 2011

On Super Bowl XLV, The Day After: XXV Random Thoughts

I. I agree with Joe--if Rodgers doesn't make that third down throw, the Steelers probably win. Then again, if Mendenhall doesn't fumble, the Steelers probably win. And if Roethlisberger doesn't throw that pick-six, the Steelers probably win.

II. And yet there was never a moment where it felt like the Steelers were going to win.

III. The most surprising thing about the final drive is not that the Steelers didn't score. It's that the drive fizzled out. Given the situation, you would have figured the Packers would give up underneath routes, that Roethlisberger would find a way to deliver first downs, that the game would be decided in Green Bay's red zone.

IV. That it wasn't was both curious and anticlimactic.

V. Because of the way it ended, I doubt I will remember much of anything about this Super Bowl in five years. Unlike the past few years, there was no single, defining play. Which means the Super Bowl is far better than it used to be. Which means we've actually grown to expect a decent Super Bowl.

VI. Wasn't there a time when ESPN would show the NFL Films highlights package from every Super Bowl, back to back?

VII. I seem to remember a brief period in my life when I could recite the winners of every single SB from memory. It's kind of sad that there are too many now, that we can't do this anymore, that there are no longer as many kids who grow up knowing who Max McGee is because John Facenda taught them.

VIII. XTina's bungling of our national hymn only makes it seem more absurd that Roseanne generated such raging controversy for mangling a tune that even professionals can't get right.

IX. It's either The Star-Spangled Banner or America the Beautiful. Not both. Decide.

X. A record number of people watched this Super Bowl, which is kind of astounding.

XI. And yet it's more astounding to me how many people choose not to watch the Super Bowl.

XII. I mean, is the Puppy Bowl really that compelling?

XIII. Let's say 25 percent of the population professes no interest in football, or in pervasive cultural events. That still leaves an additional 30 percent of American households with televisions who were not watching the Super Bowl at any given moment.

XIX. That said, I was actually driving through the backwoods of South Carolina, on assignment, when the Giants defeated the Patriots a couple of years ago. It's weird, listening to a Super Bowl on the radio--it's almost like the game never happened.

XV. I was also in England for a Super Bowl once, which was even stranger, because A.) The game kicked off after midnight, and B.) No one in the entire country seemed to care about the single most popular television event in America.

XVI. Which I suppose is how transplanted Europeans must feel about our disdain for virtually every sport they actually seem to like.

XVII. Charles Woodson has had an undeniably great professional career, and is almost certainly a Hall of Famer. And yet he was so dynamically awesome in college--there were moments when Woodson, playing both ways, looked like he might actually alter the paradigm--that he almost seems like a disappointment to me.

XVIII. The Darth Vader kid was the only ad that didn't seem heavily burdened with either "epic" imagery, talking animals, or borderline misogyny.

XIX. When exactly did Eminem become a spokesman for mainstream America?

XX. As someone at my apartment happened to mention, how far down the celebrity endorsement list did Groupon have to go before they landed on Timothy Hutton?

XXI. Was Tim Matheson occupied?

XXII. Chimpanzees are so 2007.

XXIII. So is beer.

XXIV. So are automobiles.

XXV. So is America. 

Friday, February 4, 2011

On The Super Bowl and the Return of the Great American Bacchanalia

Part II of my Super Bowl week "series." You can find several pieces I've written about football here.

Of the hundreds of empirical measurements used to determine the health of the national economy, none speak in such a quintessentially American way as a stripper shortage. That's what Dallas is experiencing this week, according to the exotica experts at TMZ, who breathlessly reported that the city is in search of ten thousand nublile females—STAT!—to satisfy the whims of that slim faction of citizens who can actually afford to attend a Super Bowl.

But it's not just perfumed sex kittens who are at a premium amid the expanse of glass and silicone known as the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex. Parking spaces are reportedly going for up to $1,000, the average online ticket price is north of $4,000 (up considerably from last year), and sold-out passes for something called the Party Plaza, which affords one the opportunity to stand in the general vicinity of Cowboys Stadium and watch the game on a supersized television, are being offered at as much as four times their $200 face value.

Unless you happen to own a parking garage in which exotic dancers scalp second-hand tickets, this may all seem inherently disquieting. In fact, to everyone outside of Jerry Jones and Grover Norquist, I have to imagine that the sheer capitalistic scope of the Super Bowl must be a little disturbing, especially when the country is slowly emerging from a crippling recession. That it is taking place in a city that lives up to every sordid cliche about itself, and in a stadium built by a narcissistic billionaire who installed an HD Jumbotron the size of Skylab, only heightens the instinct for revulsion. But maybe this is all a good sign.

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Thursday, February 3, 2011

On Inconsequential Things That Matter To Me (Quickish edition)

1. Books

I'll be reading (briefly) with an all-star cast of sportswriting characters this evening in Manhattan, at Gelf's fifth annual Varsity Letters event. You can read the interview with me--and with all the others--here. And I highly recommend Dan Shanoff's new site, Quickish--it's like a hybrid of a sports blog and a well-curated Twitter feed, without all the peripheral nonsense. 

2. Bo

Somehow, Bo Jackson is only receiving one percent of the vote in this poll of GQ's Coolest Athletes. Also, a surfer is in first place. Please help remedy this injustice immediately.
3. Punks

Following up on yesterday's McMahon story, the folks at Bodog came up with this graphic. Though given McMahon's injury (and social) history, there are several other body parts they could have pinpointed as well, for various reasons.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

On The One Super Bowl Week That Wasn't a Bore

I wrote this piece for

In commemoration of the most ostentatious and overhyped seven days in American sports, let us hearken back precisely twenty-five years, to a time that was both more and less innocent, to a moment when, thanks to one man, Super Bowl week overcame its stultifying reputation and became, ever so briefly, a tabloid bonanza. Let us recall the apostate known as the Punky QB, who strode into the holy land of New Orleans and, over the course of a few short days, rendered the Super Bowl his own personal bacchanal, a montage of drinking and fighting and mooning replete with plot twists involving a rogue acupuncturist, Bob Hope, public urination, and a controversial radio interview that never actually took place. It was so tacky and improbable that even the producers of Entourage would question the plausibility of it all.

Of course, the Super Bowl, at least since Joe Willie Namath's overhyped guarantee of victory, has always been more "event" than event. Few men could rise above it. For years—with the exception of a cocaine-addled Dallas Cowboys linebacker named Thomas "Hollywood" Henderson questioning the intelligence of the Steelers' Terry Bradshaw*—the week leading up the Super Bowl, post Namath, had been positively boring. And then came the Bears, who were already national icons, who had already recorded a pulsating rap song proclaiming their intention to win the Super Bowl, whose gap-toothed defensive lineman was guzzling Big Macs and scoring touchdowns and reveling in his girth, whose blustery coach had been arrested for drunk driving after getting toasted on the team plane, and whose quarterback had gone on Letterman and declared he had no intention to pay a fine levied by the commissioner for wearing a headband bearing the logo of a German shoe company.
James Robert McMahon Jr. was the quarterback's name, and despite the significant contributions of sidemen like Ditka and William "Refrigerator" Perry, Jim McMahon was the frontman for the Bears' short-lived pop-cultural explosion.

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