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Month: February, 2012

Day 36 – Film #9: Moneyball

The premise of the Bennett Miller directed, Brad Pitt produced and acted in Moneyball sounds like a direct challenge to what cinema should be used for. Take baseball, perhaps the most cinematic of all sports (watch a Little Big League/Rookie of the Year double-header!), but make it about math. Likewise, build the whole story around a team that bombed out in the ALDS (TWINS!), and don’t really focus on the games at all. Against all odds, somehow, Moneyball does succeed in being an entertaining and cinematic work.

The success of the film rests in the performance of Brad Pitt. He does an amazing job turning Billy Beane into an interesting character. Certainly, Aaron Sorkin and fellow scriptwriter Steven Zaillian recognized that the film needed something beyond baseball analytics. They’ve added a sub-plot involving Pitt and his daughter that does enough to break up the baseball sequences. While it feels more necessary than natural, they do an excellent job of working these sequences in an even, natural way. Although it’s shoehorned, it’s not too shoehorned. We also get flashbacks to Beane’s (not played by Pitt in these sections) decision to turn down a scholarship and instead sign for the New York Mets. The plot between Beane and his daughter works because it is done in such a genuine, natural way that it doesn’t feel overly sappy, at least not until the end, and it is fun seeing Beane out of the clubhouse. The flashbacks don’t work as well because they feel like a forced explanation for Beane’s move towards “moneyball”.

Sorkin’s characteristic snappy dialogue really carries the most interesting sequences in the film. In particular, the Trade Deadline scene had me giddy. Watching Pitt sitting at his desk, working the phones, ordering his secretary to place calls, forcing snap judgments out of Peter (Jonah Hill) offers the best that cinema can do. It is tense, funny, confusing, and fresh. There is a momentum to the simple direction and rapid fire dialogue in this sequence that I would have liked to see more of. The film works best when Beane is wheeling and dealing with other teams, his players, and his obstinate manager, Art Howell (Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Although I wasn’t always sure what was happening, I still enjoyed the hell out of it.

Much has been argued that the film unfairly diminishes the quality of the 2002 A’s team. They were loaded at pitcher and they had All-Star caliber talent in Miguel Tejada and Eric Chavez. Perhaps it is disingenuous. Because the film focuses so much on Beane, we never really  learn anything about most of the team. I suppose I’m okay with that. Beane, as a GM, is disconnected from the team, and this is, ultimately, a film about him. A true representation of this A’s team would have further complicated an already uncinematic plot. The filmmakers were struggling to find tension, and focusing on the three key sabermetrics guys was crucial to the general theme of the movie.

Ultimately, this is a baseball fan’s movie. As Beane repeatedly says, “How can you not get romantic about baseball?” The baseball sequences indulge in this romanticism. Miller goes heavy into slow-mo; the sequences are beautifully shot; we’ve got plenty of establishing shots of the crowd, players, and scoreboard to slow down the action and raise the tension. For Lizz, it was too much, but she’s an un-American fascist who hates the National Pastime. I thought they worked, and more importantly, I thought they fit naturally into the film.

If anything, I wish the film would have been more baseball centric. I wanted it to dig more into the nerdiness and minutiae of the sabermetrics. Really, Jonah Hill is underused. I really like him in these types of roles, but he is mainly silent set-decoration for much of the film. Perhaps opening the film up to more seasons than just 2002 would have given them more space to explore the weird world of moneyball. But, as a film, I fully understand why they chose to tell the story they did. The audience for this type of film is already small, why make it even smaller?

Day 35: Truly Awful Film Watch – The Double

A fairly recent trend in my viewing habits is the off-the-cuff need to watch a truly terrible, aimless, fluffy film. Sometimes you get pure gold and sometimes you just get pain. And frequently you just get confusion.

The Double stars aging Richard Geere and aging, but still baby-in-the-face Topher Grace. Frankly, this is one of the worst screenplays I’ve ever seen. It is almost complete non-sense from start to end, and not in the fun way. It isn’t zany, it isn’t over the top, its just stupid. After a US Senator is killed in a dark alley, the CIA is convinced that legendary Soviet assassin Cassius is back. Martin Sheen, playing some guy high in the CIA, convinces Cassius expert Paul (Richard Gere) to come out of retirement. He is quickly teamed up with FBI field agent Ben (Topher Grace) because Ben wrote a Master’s Thesis on Cassius. Yes, he was hired by the FBI based on a Master’s Thesis. Not a doctoral thesis. Not a book. A Master’s Thesis (I say this having written one myself. If anyone hired me based on that they’d be insane). We have the obvious real world vs. book world experience clash until we find out SPOILER ALERT Richard Gere is Cassius (is this really spoiling anything? Look at the title..and it is revealed after like 20 minutes).

To say this is where the film breaks down would perhaps be giving the opening 20 minutes too much credit. Cassius starts killing everyone involved with the case for absolutely no goddam reason. Although the film tries to convince us that he was a legendary, master assassin, he makes the worst, most obvious decisions. First, we never even come close to finding out why he killed the Senator and, although on its face it seems like he is wasting people because they have some connection to him, no one had ever seen him, even people he worked with. There was ZERO chance of him being caught before he started acting like a moron.

We are also given every generic spy-thriller/serial killer convention available. The opening titles are in that digital readout formula, Ben uses a giant wall to tack up every crime scene photo, each one connected with colored, symbolic yarn. We even have a brilliant sequence where Ben’s friend teaches him how to create a “null hypothesis” to “re-think” the case. Ben’s stunning idea, that is never explained, is that the killer watched the crime-scene work after his killings. So, obviously, he should be present in every crime-scene photo. So his null hypothesis that he LITERALLY WRITES ON A PIECE OF PAPER: Paul is NOT the killer. Then, after seeing Paul in every photo, he scratches out the NOT with a stunned look on his face! This changes everything!!!!

If there was any question as to why you haven’t really seen Topher Grace in anything but In Good Company since That 70’s Show, The Double gives a pretty compelling reason: He’s awful. Sure, the paint-by-numbers script certainly did not help him, but he comes off as such a do-gooding moron that the whole film just breaks down. He plays his FBI field agent like a 10 year-old trying to solve a rash of Sunday morning newspaper burglaries. Gere isn’t much better, and Martin Sheen just disappears after his opening importance. Overall, total trainwreck from start to finish, so definitely, you know, check it out.

Day 34 – Film #8: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

I keep forgetting to screencap these, but I got this 'un.

Sometimes a title makes the subsequent review irrelevant: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas. That is really all you need to know, but if you persist in continuing, here we go (how much can I truly say about this film?).

Truth be told, I didn’t watch this in 3D, so I’m probably unqualified in discussing the film with the necessary critical depth. But it was clear that they used the 3D in the Arrested Development, throwing things directly at the camera style rather than the more subtle, depth-of-field Avatar way. The film never pretends that 3D is anything more than a gimmick, which is refreshing in a way. I have no idea whether they pulled it off, but one sequence in particular made me wish I had the goggles: as Harold & Kumar attempt to steal a Christmas tree from a mobster’s apartment, shots ring out and a bag of cocaine explodes in the air. Director Todd Strauss-Schulson slows down the framerate and goes full-bore 3D (its clear in 2D when you are missing out) as the cocaine rains down like snow and the duo dodge bullets and exploding debris. It was actually a fantastic action scene.

Harold & Kumar has survived to its third iteration because it is fully self-aware of the expectations of its genre: it beautifully mixes high and low, grotesque and subtle, action and comedy. This one works more for me because it cuts down on much of the weed humor of the first film (never saw Escape from Guantanamo, which surprisingly, left me kind of confused in parts). Sure, it replaces it with a baby on drugs mini-plot, but they handle it amazingly, and, because it isn’t belabored, it actually becomes one of the funniest things in the film. I just don’t like stoner-comedy.

And let’s give it up for Amir Valerie Blumenfeld. Really, he is the reason I rented this. His  short College Humor show Jake & Amir is one of my favorite internet escapes. He’s got fantastic timing, no shame, and he fits right in here, although it seemed like a real missed opportunity keeping him, Thomas Lennon (also generally underused), and the drug-baby locked in a closet for like an hour of the movie. I wanted them more involved in the overall plot.

The nature of comedies these days is to throw as many bits as possible onto the screen and hope more of them stick than don’t. One problem with this tendency is that we are seeing an abundance of one-upsmanship in terms of zanniness and insanity that has almost eliminated subtlety from the equation. This is why The Hangover is such a boring film. The ridiculousness is what is supposed to be funny, but it is just exhausting. This film certainly suffers from similar pitfalls. For example, although I love him, the Neil Patrick Harris section just isn’t as awesome as it was in White Castle. It is predictable, even if they attempt a creative turn to the character. But some of the ridiculousness really works because it is uniquely handled. After Harold & Kumar are drugged, the film turns into increasingly bizarre claymation for 5-10 minutes. It is a fantastic sequence. It works seamlessly in the story and the payoff it off fantastically. Luckily, there are more of these types of sequences than not.

In the end, it boils down to this: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas.

Day 33 – Film #7 The Ides of March

I love political thrillers. Alan J. Pakula’s entries are some of my favorite films of all time. Done well, they hit all of my cinematic sweet spots. Heck, even political thrillers done just-ok will get me interested, like Absolute Power or Murder at 1600. George Clooney’s The Ides of March definitely leans to the more cerebral side of political thrillers, relying on words rather than guns. He allows great actors to dig into their roles and provides a rather brutal, unflinching portrait of modern politics.

Stephen (Ryan Gosling. Yes, this is the last of his 2011 movies I needed to see) plays campaign strategist to Democratic rising-star, Bara…er Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney). He quickly enters a fling with intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and finds out that the man he is working for and believes in whole-heartedly is a jerk. He also gets caught in an unscrupulous game of political wrangling between Morris’s campaign manager Paul (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and the manager of the rival campaign, Tom (Paul Giamatti). The whole thing is sufficiently convoluted and complicated to properly qualify as a political thriller. What Clooney and fellow script-writer Grant Heslov (who wrote Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck) do exceptionally well is play against expectation and show Morris essentially as Clinton. I think there was a lot of expectation that this was going to be a soap-box, liberal rallying cry based on Clooney’s reputation. And certainly, on the political level, Morris is something of a dream candidate for those on the left. But it is precisely the antagonistic mixture between politics and personal ethics that makes Gosling’s position within the film so interesting. He is political idealist, which makes his ultimate decision more difficult than it seems like it should be.

The Ides of March is a thoroughly engaging film. It puts its characters in complicated positions and forces them to make difficult choices. The real joy of this film is watching talented actors dive into well-written, wordy scripts. Phillip Seymour Hoffman was made to be in this type of film; he destroys these morally ambiguous, ethically shady characters that do damage with their words. And Clooney, although fairly non-present, plays Mike Morris in similarly ambiguous fashion. Gosling, for his part, well..he’s the Goz. There are aspects of the film that are rough around the edges and Clooney is still not a polished director. All of his films lack finesse or a real sense of visual composition. But, they are generally low-budget, semi-independent productions that deal with ideas. I suppose, and I’m shocked I never realized this before, George Clooney is this generation’s Clint Eastwood. Beloved, handsome actor who slowly transitions behind the camera and through sheer exposure to the medium is able to craft solid, if not excellent, films.

Day 32 – Research Paper Rough Draft

My students have their rough drafts due today, which means my rough draft is due today. There is a lot I want to change, much I want to cut down, and some I want to remove altogether. That is the beauty of a rough draft.

Soccer in America (I like catchy titles, what can I say?)

            The New Jersey Meadowlands was packed to capacity. Fans clad in green walked to their seats, beginning their songs long before opening kickoff. As the teams entered the field, the stadium rocked as the cheers and singing overwhelmed the  announcers. It was a thrilling game decided in overtime. But these 80,000 fans were not there to see the New York Jets or Giants play football, but Mexico and Guatemala square off in the semi-finals of soccer’s CONCACAF Gold Cup. Meanwhile, the United States, in the same tournament, played in front of nearly 1/3 of the people that had shown up in New Jersey. For the entirety of the tournament held in American stadiums, Mexico’s games continually saw higher attendances and were held in higher capacity venues than those of the Americans. Although the attendees of these games were primarily Latin immigrants finally able to see their home teams on American soil, the disparity in support highlights the difficulties soccer has had in gaining the attention of the American public. While soccer is overwhelmingly the most popular sport in most European, African, and Latin American countries, it has failed to attract similar popularity in America and lags far behind other team sports like football, basketball, baseball, and hockey in terms of attendance, revenue, media attention, and success. Soccer’s inability to find the level of support and popularity in America that it does abroad can be traced to the very development of the sport here. The cultural, regional, and ideological roots that have made soccer so popular abroad have failed to take root in America and the game continues to be seen as a “foreign” enterprise.

The sport America now calls soccer has been existed in England in some form since the Middle Ages. For centuries, it was played in a variety of styles until the London Football Association (LFA) finally agreed upon a standardized set of rules in 1863. In 1870, the first International soccer match was played between England and Scotland, in 1871, the first FA Cup tournament was held, and in 1888, the first English Football League began play (Szymanski and Zimbalist). Surprisingly, soccer has an equally long, and sometimes longer, official history in America as well. The first recorded competitive American game was held in 1869 between Princeton and Rutgers, although what was played only superficially resembles the sport as it exists today and many people also claim it as the first competitive American football game (Van Rheenan). Ironically, America even had a professional soccer league before the British after the American Football Association (AFA) formed in 1884, and the nation’s longest running cup, the National Challenge Cup (now the U.S. Open Cup) began competition in 1913 (Wangerin).

Although it shares a history as old or even older than the sports that currently dominate the American consciousness, soccer has been plagued by a series of false-starts and dead ends. The AFA quickly fell apart to be replaced by the equally unstable American Soccer League (ASL). The league enjoyed modest success through the 1920s by luring foreign players with lucrative contracts, and the sport, it seemed, was on its way. But political infighting, poor organization, and the onset of the Great Depression destroyed any chances the league had to rival baseball, America’s most popular pastime (Wangerin). Soccer continued primarily as an amateur sport, with leagues like the San Francisco Soccer and Football League enjoying modest, local success with teams comprised of primarily recent immigrants (Van Rheenan).

The next significant development in American soccer was the creation of the North American Soccer League (NASL) in 1968. In the mid-70s, the league saw enormous success as teams like the New York Cosmos signed some of the most famous players in the world, most notably Brazilian legend Pelé. For a while, the team regularly played in front of 70,000 fans, but as Ian Scott notes, “the NASL was relying on an increasingly superficial audience for an increasingly superficial existence” (842). After Pelé’s retirement in 1977 and the league’s failure to renew its television contract with ABC in 1982, support dwindled and the league eventually collapsed under a weight of political infighting and bankruptcy (Scott).

In the wake of 1994 World Cup hosted in America, there was yet another attempt to professionalize soccer domestically. Major League Soccer (MLS) began as a 10 team league in 1996. Today, there are 18 clubs in th United States and Canada, with more being planned (Scott, 844). Like the NASL, the league has attempted to bolster popularity by recruiting famous players like David Beckham and Thierry Henry to play in the waning years of their career. But unlike the NASL, the league has managed to overcome significant hurdles to maintain and even grow its fanbase. The MLS has done well to place its roots firmly in domestic player development, individualized stadium construction, and an equalizing draft system. As a result, after 15 years of play, the MLS is only growing in popularity (Scott). But this success must remain in context. Soccer is nowhere near as popular as the other major American sports. Its attendance, television and advertising revenue, and journalistic coverage still lag far behind baseball, basketball, football, and arguably hockey. Despite its historical roots in America, soccer is still treated as a “foreign” sport.

The perception of soccer as a “foreign” sport has been the largest stumbling block to it becoming a popular American pastime. While modern commentators continue to make this claim, it has actually been present since soccer began in this country and the United States has a long history of “Americanizing” foreign sports. David Wangerin writes, “Virtually from the time of the first organized games, the United States has been much more concerned with establishing its own existence and playing by its own rules than in joining any international fraternity” (16). When the AFA formed in 1884, baseball was the most popular sport in America. Baseball itself was a derivation of the British game cricket. Unlike the leisurely, aristocratic British game, baseball was played at a faster speed, the rules were simplified, and a greater emphasis was put on manliness and strength (Szymanski and Zimbalist).

In many ways, soccer underwent a similar transition. The first version of the game played in America was really a mixture of soccer and rugby. Players could catch the ball and even run while holding it. At the time, the game was played primarily in colleges, and Harvard was at the forefront of athletics. In 1874, they scheduled a match against Canadian school McGill University. An adaptation of the sport called the Boston Game was played which involved much more physical contact and handling of the ball. Wangerin writes, “From that moment on, American football never looked back.” They quickly set up matches against local schools and “Yale agreed that the handling game was much more hardy and scientific and, unable to resist the allure of a regular encounter with its nemesis, soon gave up on soccer.” For soccer, this was a tragic blow. Wangerin continues, “With two of the nation’s most influential institutions converted, it was only a matter of time before others followed” (21). Sure enough, the Americanized sports like baseball, football, and basketball did indeed leave soccer behind.

The decision of Harvard and Yale to abandon soccer also highlights the ideological difficulties the game had in establishing a foothold in America. As Wangerin notes, football was seen as a superior sport because it emphasized physical strength and scientific calculation. Each play was a new chance for the strategy and physical acumen of one team to overwhelm the other. Soccer, on the other hand, is an amorphous, liquid game that can go long spells without “anything” happening. Brian Phillips arguesthat soccer has more chaos and intangibles than any other sport, which leads to long periods of boredom.  American sports, on the other hand, attempt to minimize this chaos at all costs. In football, each play is followed by a short regrouping period. Teams are also given strict regulations: ten yards must be gained in four plays or the other team gets a chance themselves. Baseball emphasizes one on one confrontation between the pitcher and batter that is also governed by the strict, limiting rules of balls and strikes. Even basketball, which seems on its face to be the most soccer-like, enforces a strict shot-clock that governs how long a team can hold on to the ball. In soccer, a team could theoretically hold on to the ball for the entire game without ever even attempting to score.

The potential outcomes of a soccer match also fly in the face of most values Americans hold dear. Even those American commentators who support soccer have a difficult time accepting the possibility of a tied result. Rick Reilly, popular sports writer for ESPN, wrote of the World Cup, “In the NFL in the past 10 years, there have been two ties. As of Tuesday Morning, in the first 11 games of this World Cup [2010[, there have been five ties. You will not see more ties at a J.C. Penney’s Father’s Day Sale. I hate ties. Doesn’t anybody want to win in this sport?” A tie flies in the face of the most fundamental American and free-market beliefs: there are winners and there are losers. The better man (or product) will succeed. Just as no company wants to break even, no sports fan wants to see a tie. American sports, for their part, have worked to ensure this does not happen. Of sports played in America, only soccer and football allow for draws. Football, though, generally avoids ties by way of the possible permutations of its score lines and a sudden death overtime period (a tie has only been accepted as a possibility in football because of the dramatic threat of injury in extended games).

In soccer, ties have been accepted for a number of reasons. First, most leagues award a champion based on total accumulated points over a season (38 games in many top-flight leagues). A draw is awarded one point and thus adds to the overall score. For favored teams like Manchester United or Real Madrid, a draw is seen as a loss. For lower teams like Wigan or Osasuna, a draw against these teams is seen as a massive win. Second, draws are seen as crucial in opening up the tactical possibilities of the soccer. They allow physically outmatched teams to adopt a gameplan that can still achieve a successful result. Although they might not have the technical skill to threaten the opponents goal, if they are defensively solid and unified, they can still earn a point.

The importance of draws in soccer highlights a fundamental disagreement in how America and the world views competition. A draw gives smaller clubs a greater chance in achieving success while also creating a much smaller margin of error for teams with realistic chances of winning the title. For example, in the 2009/2010 Premier League Season, Chelsea and Manchester United both won 27 games, but Chelsea’s five draws to Manchester United’s four were the deciding factor in who was crowned Champion (similarly, in 2008/2009, Liverpool only lost twice, but there eleven draws to Manchester United’s six left them four points behind first place) (“League Table”). Unlike the NFL which sees a 9-7 team squeak in to the playoffs and ultimately win the Super Bowl, soccer ensures that each game plays a significant role in the ultimate outcome.

The concept of a draw also feeds into a larger operating model of promotion and relegation that soccer uses around the world, something that has been rigorously avoided in America. Most leagues around the world (with the MLS as a notable exception), employ a system in which a country does not have merely one professional league, but a series of leagues that are hierarchically arranged into one system. In these countries, there is a system of promotion and relegation whereby the bottom three (or four) clubs in one league are demoted to the next league down on the totem pole. Likewise, the top 3 clubs from the lower league are promoted to the next higher league. What results is a fluid system by which small clubs, through hard-work, strong results, and adept player selection can see themselves move up into new echelons of competition, visibility, and profitability. Likewise, even large clubs can, through poor personnel decisions, underperformance, and even bad lack, find themselves demoted to lower leagues with lower profit potential, player recruitability, and prestige.

This system has also dramatically affected the business models of most clubs in world soccer. According to Szymanski and Zimbalist, “Promotion and relegation increase competition and decrease the long-term monopoly power of the big clubs […] It is a hypercompetitive system in comparison with a closed system [American leagues], and it shows in the relatively high profitability and low frequency of financial failure in the US majors than in the top European soccer leagues” (47). American sports like baseball have established themselves as closed systems that deter new entrants and emphasize the profitability of the brand. Clubs are treated like businesses, are owned by businessmen, and, through the consistency of the product and brand, have all but assured profitability. Furthermore, the draft system ensures that poor performing teams have first choice in the addition of new players which allows them to address weaknesses quickly. For example, the Detroit Lions went an unprecedented 0-16 in 2008 but were granted the first selection in the next draft. Now, just three seasons later, they earned their first trip to the Playoffs since 1999. In soccer, demotion to a lower league does not only affect prestige but also dramatically affects the profitability of the club. With television contracts and ticket prices, the difference between playing in the Premier League and the next-lower Championship can mean tens of millions of dollars. As a result, many clubs over-spend to keep themselves in their present league which has led to massive debt issues throughout world football.

The ideological battle between profitability and competitiveness is perhaps the single largest hindrance to soccer becoming as popular in America as it is around the globe. In America, sport has become a matter of profitability, whereas in soccer it is a matter of competition. The system of promotion and relegation speaks to this significance. The stability of American sports’ leagues assures continual income sources while the relegation/promotion system (and the added level of European competitions like the Champion’s League) keeps soccer clubs in a constant state of economic unpredictability. In addition, American sport franchises are, with few exceptions, located in large urban centers that can assure owners profitability. Owners have the ability to re-locate clubs to places that are more economically viable if they see fit. This does not occur in soccer. As a result, soccer clubs are much more intimately tied into their location. Unlike American sports franchises that are begun by owners, “most European clubs were not run by a single individual or corporation as they are now. They were run as associations with member’s dues and board elections. The members of a club wished to control the club’s affairs rather than allow the economic elite to manage them” (Benoit 535). Many clubs, as a result, became to represent the places where they were located, not only in terms of membership dues, but in terms of ethnicity, religion, politics, and ideology.

The ideological basis for many soccer clubs can account for the unrivaled, and to many Americans, off-putting passion of soccer fans. Macon Benoit writes that “the club became a symbol of importance for much of the local population. Support for the team was an expression of loyalty, and was construed to be support for the territory and the people who lived there” (535). Many clubs, as a result, were formed along very strict ideological lines. In Scotland, for instance, Celtic was formed as a Catholics-only football club by Irish-Scots, and Rangers was formed as a Protestants-only, Native-Scots football club. As a result of these ideological antagonisms, the rivalry has become one of the most passionate, violent, and contentious in world football. For Benoit, “the domestic game fed religious particularizing, political partisanship, and ethnic rivalry throughout Europe” (535). These ideological underpinnings help explain the perilous economic position of many teams in soccer. Because success is representative of the people themselves, profitability is often seen as a hindrance towards competitiveness and success. Clubs will do whatever it takes to win.

Regional allegiance to teams only intensified as the sport made itself international. America has only recently begun active exportation of its home-grown sports, which means, in general terms, that America still dominates those games on an international stage (many failures of American teams in these sports on an international stage can be accounted for by the use of amateurs [baseball] or other participation issues [basketball]). Soccer, on the other hand, was used by the British to open up and create allegiances in its colonial project. Szymanski and Zimbalist write, “[British ex-patriots] saw their sport as embodying the virtues of the nation and their class, and saw the spreading of their game as a kind of missionary work” (53). The simplicity of the game assured that even impoverished countries would be able to easily play the sport. In addition, “Soccer […] is sufficiently simple that it can admit to any number of styles of play, each of which can become the distinct property of a particular culture” (51). These styles of play then come to represent the ideological underpinnings of the nation itself. Brazil is known for their flare; Germany is known for their work-rate and organization; the Spanish are known for their intricate, artistic passing.

In the lead up to World War II, international matches became loaded with political significance. In one famous instance, the England Foreign Office forced the English team to perform the Nazi salute before their match with Germany in May of 1938. It was supposed to be a signal of peace and respect, although many players argued against the move. As tensions rose throughout Europe, “The national team ostensibly came to represent the entire nation, while the pitch became a surrogate battlefield on which mock war was waged, bringing citizens of a state together in victory or defeat” (Benoit 536). These allegiances only served to double the passion of most fans throughout the world.

Because of its historical, cultural, and ideological formations, soccer has became an integral part of daily life for much of the world. In America, these roots will never be able to be established. Our long isolation in terms of sport not only assures that it will be difficult to create a similar rivalry system in the sports we do cherish, but it also assures that a “foreign” sport like soccer will continue to play a marginalized role in the American sports landscape.

Works Cited

Benoit, Macon. “The Politicization of Football: The European Game and the Approach to the Second World War.” Soccer & Society 9.4 (October 2008): 532-550. Print.

“League Table.” Premier League, Premier League. 2011. Web. 9 February 2012.

Phillips, Brian. “Soccer’s Heavy Boredom.” Grantland, ESPN. 17 January 2012. Web. 9 February 2012.

Reilly, Rick. “World Cup Buzz Kill.” ESPN, ESPN. 15 June 2010. Web. 9 February 2012.

Scott, Ian. “From NASL to MLS: Transnational Culture, Exceptionalism and Britain’s Part in American Soccer’s Coming of Age.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44.4 (2011): 831-853. Print.

Szymanski, Stefan and Andrew Zimbalist. National Pastime. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2005. Print.

Van Rheenan, Derek. “The Promise of Soccer in America: the Open Play of Ethnic Subcultures.” Soccer & Society 10.6 (November 2009): 781-794. Print.

Wangerin, David. Soccer in a Football World: The Story of America’s Forgotten Game. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2008. Print.

Day 31 – The Phantom Menace

Lizz and I have been watching trilogies, and we recently finished the original Star Wars (IV, V, VI). It was kind of perplexing. First, A New Hope is painfully, laughably terrible. Obviously, it is a product of its time and place and I suppose, perhaps, it is understandable why it was such a pop culture phenomenon. The Empire Stikes Back is better, but The Return of the Jedi is also basically painful to watch, including one of the worst sequences I have ever seen. Lizz loved the Ewoks, which is perhaps indicative of why it was so bad. But overall, regardless of quality, they are entertaining. They are fun films. But they don’t deserve the Holy Grail status they hold with nerds.

While we were watching, the one thing I was thinking was how much better I thought the newer films were and how ridiculous it was for people to get outraged by the remakes when the originals were so bad. So we watched The Phantom Menace. This had always been one of my least favorites, and sure enough, it wasn’t good. Jar Jar deserves all of the shit that he has been given. In my mind, Chewbacca is equally annoying but he doesn’t overtake scenes like Jar Jar. He is awful with no redeeming value whatsoever. But, it is Star Wars; it is fun, it is frivolous, it is entertaining.

But George Lucas is a terrible filmmaker. That is the lasting image I have from this movie. And not in terms of story, character development, or how poorly he manages actors (it is sad when the most nuanced character and performance in ALL of the films comes from R2D2 who can only speak in bleeps and bloops). What makes him terrible is his basic lack of artistry or efficiency in scene composition and editing. There were multiple moments in Phantom Menace where I was straight up confused about what was happening because the editing made no sense. The most prominent is the sequence in which Qui-Gon and Anakin first encounter Darth Maul (who is basically cool enough to carry the entire movie, which again proves how stupid George Lucas is for killing him off in the first film…).

The sequence begins with Darth Maul landing on Tatooine after the Sith trace a message sent from Qui-Gon and the Queen (of course, you can GPS locate a transmission to within 5 miles across the depths of space…).

The three lights above are robotic probes sent into the city to search for signs of Amidala and the Jedi. This is followed by Qui-Gon and undercover Amidala wandering around and running into Anakin. We find out about his enslavement, how precocious he is, and how awesome he is at building things.

As the film transitions into the podrace, we get a quick shot of one probe wandering through the alleys of the city. It is fundamental that this is the LAST time we see the probe before it returns to Maul.

After Anakin wins the podrace and unknowingly wins his freedom, he must say goodbye to his mother. Lizz cried, blah blah blah.

Now we are shown the reverse shot of Qui-Gon and Anakin CASUALLY walking away. Even as they were walking to Ani’s home, it was slow and relaxed. Then, Lucas does his patented wipe cut to this:

A probe returns from the city to Darth Maul who has presumably been chilling in the desert and building sandcastles with his mind. There were three probes, so we have no clue which one this was. Presumably it is the one seen wandering through the streets, but we have no idea. More importantly, we have no clue what is has seen. Given what happens next, it seems like Lucas forgot to show a scene of the probe finding Anakin and Qui-Gon. It says something unintelligible in robot squawk and then we get…

Darth Maul hopping on his cruiser and racing towards the city. Another wipe cut…

Qui-Gon and Anakin are now sprinting across the desert like they are being chased. Literally two seconds after the cut to this shot, we are given the following reverse shot:

Darth Maul is like 10 yards behind them! How the hell did he get there? Lucas throws us into the middle of a chase sequence with absolutely no context whatsoever.

Qui-Gon tells Ani to duck, Darth Maul backflips of his cruiser, and the two briefly duel it out before Qui-Gon force jumps into the Queen’s escaping ship like a little baby.

Altogether, it is just lazy filmmaking. There is absolutely no continuity between shots and even the composition of the shots is misleading. For example, it is never clear where in the desert the ship is parked, so Darth Maul racing off to the city doesn’t really make sense. Likewise, it seems clear that the crew parked the ship far away from the city, which only confuses how Maul was actually able to find them. Since they are on foot and he’s on a cruiser, he presumably hasn’t been chasing them from the city. But that only raises the question of how he found the ship because we only ever see a probe wondering through the city itself.

There were multiple sequences like this in the film where Lucas would window-wipe to a new scene and I had absolutely no clue how the characters had arrived there or how they ganged up with those they ganged up with. Unlike Leonard Maltin’s arguments that the Driver’s skillset is illogical (when it isn’t), The Phantom Menace is internally confusing in the way it is shot, edited, and presented.

Day 30 – Film #6: Drive

I’ve been raving about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive since I saw it in theaters last September. I have a lot to say about it even if I’m not exactly clear on what it is that will fill that “a lot”. For one, I have had a hard time actually verbalizing what I enjoy so much about the film. I first saw the film at the right time of day, in the right setting, after the right meal; it is a tone thing for me. I can remember so vividly the sensations of that evening. I was so affected by the film that I drove aimlessly around the city cranking the soundtrack from Refn’s previous film Bronson. Sure, it was probably clichéd, but who cares? That is the beauty of film, that you can be made to feel something that you might feel silly about later.

For my initial approach, I have responded point-by-point to a review by Leonard Maltin. Sometimes the best way to clarify what you think about something is to come into contact with someone who believes the exact opposite. That’s what I’ve done.

Drive arrives with its credentials of cool all set: a hot star (Ryan Gosling) in the lead, a smart supporting cast, a Best Director prize from the Cannes Film Festival, and a stylish retro-noir look. These assets may hoodwink some audiences who don’t stop—or want to stop—to explore the emptiness of the movie or its incoherency.

Maltin reveals his hand early here. Drive is a con, a ruse, a film designed to “hoodwink some audiences” into thinking it is a deep, philosophical piece. He argues that it is empty and incoherent. As we will see, his claims of incoherency are themselves incoherent and unfounded. The more interesting claim is that the film is empty. The problem is not necessarily that he claims the film is empty when it is not (although, what does a “full” film look like? How can a film be empty?), but rather that empty is a coded phrase for morally and thematically bankrupt. It is a value judgment on what the film says, as if it must say something in the first place.

Danish director Nicolas Winding Refn has chosen style over substance.

Again, Maltin is indebted to the idea of substance. It is a loaded term that he assumes we understand so that he doesn’t have to explain it. What does he mean by substance? Presumably, he means that the film itself means something. We are supposed to get something from the film beyond pure entertainment. He also seems to imply that substance is some form of lesson. The film, in the end, should evaluate and judge the actions of the characters. It isn’t enough to simply present the Driver killing someone, we must be told how to interpret or judge his actions. Was he justified? Should he be punished? Should we be appalled?

The beauty of the film is that it never attempts to judge its characters or hand out a lesson. It is a film about inevitability, and things occur as if they couldn’t have been any other way. How are we to assign value or substance to the actions of the Driver when it is clear that he doesn’t make decisions? Once he has fallen in love (and it is key to break up the film pre- and post-contact with Irene), he acts and reacts on a primal, affective level. In fact, no one is operating on the level of rational thought because they are playing a rigged game. Once Gino decided to steal from the East coast mob, the rest of the film was destined to happen and it couldn’t have been any other way.

The screenplay (by Hossein Amini, from a novel by James Sallis) would have you believe that its main character is existential when it seems to me he’s —just not very bright. In an early, expository scene, Gosling explains to a customer on the phone how he works as a getaway driver and what he requires. After that, for reasons unexplained, he seems incapable of uttering a complete sentence.

This claim is puzzling for a number of reasons. First, we are given absolutely no indication that the Driver is stupid. If the first “chase” sequence is any indication, he is in fact quite brilliant. He has matched great skill as a driver with a tactition’s mind (I might break down this chase on its own in a future post) which enables him to elude the police through positioning, not speed. This on-the-spot tactical movement is intimately related to a more long-range plan he devised in advance of the caper. An idiot would have escaped the police through speed, daring, and force; the Driver does it in exactly the opposite way.

Second, Maltin links the Driver’s supposed stupidity with silence. What would we have gained by hearing the Driver speak more? For Maltin, it seems, more dialogue from the driver would have provided insight into the causes and motivations that underlie all of his actions. These explanations would do nothing to actually explain the violence we see on screen (which really seems to be Maltin’s motivation here. He can’t stand the violence because he doesn’t understand how the Driver is capable of it). If the Driver was abused as a child, it does nothing to explain the level of brutality we see in the elevator. The violence is violent, simple and plain. It is also important that the person we hear speaking the most, Shannon, is also the most clueless. Clearly, speaking has no relation to intelligence in the world of this film.

He is also presented as an innocent—after we see him ferrying a pair of burglars from the scene of their crime.

This is pure non-sense. Presumably Maltin thinks he is innocent because he didn’t directly commit the crime and he doesn’t carry a weapon. When have we ever equated this with innocence? It seems just as easy to argue that the Driver loves crime and simply enjoys driving more than the actual robbery. Perhaps he doesn’t carry a gun because he knows he will not be able to not use it.

Later, he displays a daunting, and also unexplained, skillset with a variety of deadly weapons. Don’t ask for logic when a movie looks good.

This is maddening. Apparently, Maltin normally watches films with the director and screewnwriter sitting directly next to him, holding his hand the entire time and whispering sweet nothings into his ear. Does every action film also need a training sequence so that we understand why the main dude is so good at using a gun? We never see John McLane being trained in how to kill evil Germans, but is it unclear to us how he is actually able to waste them in Die Hard? The Driver is a freaking criminal, end of explanation. But I can’t stop. “Variety of deadly weapons”? Really, Leonard Maltin? He beats one guy with a hammer, one with his foot, and one with a car. The only “weapons” he uses are a shotgun, from point blank range, and a knife, after he himself has been stabbed. He isn’t headshotting guys from 50 yards with ninja stars or building trip mines from used car parts. He’s an animal savagely using the tools he has lying around.

Even extreme, painfully graphic violence is OK, it would seem, if it’s done so operatically that it matches the film’s stylized approach. So be it.

This is so loaded with Maltin’s own misguided philosophy that it is almost worth skipping. First, he assumes that the film sees the violence as OK simply because it shows it to us. Second, he implies that if violence is to be shown, it must also be condemned. But does the film do this? The most important scene occurs in the elevator. The Driver is riding down with Irene and notices that the other passenger inside is carrying a gun. Recognizing the threat, he turns to Irene and gives her a long, passionate kiss and then quickly drops the other passenger to the floor and smashes his head to pieces with his foot. Yes, it is “painfully graphic violence”, but it also marks the end of any potential the Driver had with Irene. As Refn lingers on Irene’s shocked face, it is clear that the Driver has been punished for this action; he can’t be with her because she has seen his nature, which, it appears, is much darker than her convict husband’s. The reverse-shot of his face shows this recognition.

Where others see artistry, I see pretentiousness: in Gosling’s blank stares and the staging of scenes in appropriately seamy L.A. locations. The costarring cast is strong, including Carey Mulligan, Ron Perlman, Bryan Cranston, Christina Hendricks, Oscar Isaac, and the always-welcome Albert Brooks as a well-spoken, well-heeled goon.

I don’t think the film aspires to be anything more than it is: a genre film with European sensibility. And this sensibility isn’t in terms of content or message, but style. As Refn and Gosling have explained, the film is supposed to be a fairy tale. Fairy tales are written for children, and as such, are simple in their construction. They deal in absolutes. The messages for this film are simple and basic: love leads us to do insane things and for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction; cause and effect.

Vintage film noirs didn’t have to work so hard to get their points across, visually and verbally. For me, Drive is all attitude, punctuated by unpleasant bursts of violence. If that’s what passes for cutting-edge filmmaking, or storytelling, we’re in trouble.

It is unclear what “vintage film noirs” Maltin is referencing here. Does he even understand the genre? Film noirs are fantastic because the basic plot is a given and it provides a template to do interesting things both visually and sonically. The greatest noirs are highly stylized, almost painfully so, and that is what makes them so fun. Likewise, it is insane to, on the one hand, bemoan the lack of dialogue from the lead, and on the other, to accuse the film have working too hard verbally to get its point across. For me, the Driver’s silence is the reverse of Marlowe’s verbosity. Both create interesting and ultimately entertaining dynamics and neither is an example of filmmakers trying too hard.

Day 29 – Annotated Bibliography

The next big step in the process of writing a research paper is compiling the annotated bibliography. Here’s mine.

Benoit, Macon. “The Politicization of Football: The European Game and the Approach to the Second World War.” Soccer & Society 9.4 (October 2008): 532-550. Print.

            Benoit traces the politicization of football as fascism spread across Europe before World War II. Domestic clubs had already formed around political, religious, and ethnic lines. Germany’s usurpation of many domestic leagues only strengthened this. Likewise, in the build-up to WWII, international matches gained a new importance. Previously, these matches had been fairly casual affairs with animosity at a minimum. But as the war neared, the matches added a new dimension. For Fascist powers like Italy, the performance of the Italian National Team signified the strength (or weakness) of the State. Likewise, a match between Germany and England became more about national identity than common sport.

            This essay will be extremely useful to me because it marks the transition from soccer as domestic pastime to international religion. It highlights how allegiances were solidified and the importance of the sport in national identity. Because America doesn’t have an equivalent of this in its major sports, we don’t see the same type of identification with sport. Likewise, the community allegiance to teams does not necessarily have a mirror in America which explains the type of fan each sport enjoys.  

Brown, Sean. “Fleet Feet: The USSF and the Peculiarities of Soccer Fandom in America.” Soccer & Society 8.2/3 (April/July 2007): 366-380. Print.

            Brown’s essay attempts to highlight the difficulty American soccer has in navigating between differing fanbases. On the one hand, participation in the sport is high. But these participators rarely turn into spectators. Most spectators of the sport are from urban centers and are generally first or second generation immigrants. As a result, he argues that the USMNT has difficulties scheduling games on American soil in which they won’t face a hostile crowd. In response, fan groups like Sam’s Army have organized to support the sport within America and to create a kind of fan that is both knowledgable, respectful, and loyal.

Brown’s essay will be useful for me in the way it highlights the complicated position the sport has in gaining “native” support in America. Although the argument feels incomplete to me, I think his analysis of support groups will be helpful in supporting my argument that the sport remains “foreign” and that many fans within America still hold to their native identities, which hampers the growth of the sport within the country.

Markovits, Andrei S. “Sports Fans Across Border: America from Mars, Europe from Venus.” Harvard International Review 33.2 (Summer 2011): 17-22. Print.

Markovitz argues that America’s sporting culture is significantly less violent, racist, and anti-cosmopolitan than Europe’s football culture because it has eliminated racist language as socially acceptable, sport’s teams are geographically dispersed which reduces tension, and sports teams are more closely aligned with business than political or social movements. He argues that as a result of the Civil Rights movement in America and the predominance of minorities in professional sports, the US has virtually eliminated racist chants and racial violence from stadiums. In Europe, the close proximity of clubs intensifies rivalries and leads to an increase in anti-Cosmopolitan (racist, xenophobic, classist) rhetoric. Additionally, America sports is so closely tied to business that it has been difficult to recreate the social and political identities that many European football clubs have.

Although my own paper will not be addressing violence in American or European sports, the root causes of this violence, as Markovits notes, will be useful. In particular, I think there is a clear connection to be made between the geographic location of clubs and the increased intensity of support. This was already a point I wanted to make. Likewise, the distance between American franchises means that even the most popular sports don’t enjoy the type of fan support that European clubs do. I think Markovits also does a good job of explaining just how intimately tied football clubs are to their location, not just in terms of sport, but economics, politics, and social movements. American sports can’t reproduce this, especially in soccer. If these types of things do happen with US soccer teams, it usually comes from enclaves of immigrants support (Chivas).

Scott, Ian. “From NASL to MLS: Transnational Culture, Exceptionalism and Britain’s Part in American Soccer’s Coming of Age.” The Journal of Popular Culture 44.4 (2011): 831-853. Print.

Scott argues that, although it will never achieve the same domestic success as baseball, basketball, and football, soccer in the United States has finally adopted a system that can become self-sustaining and even competitive internationally. He traces the history of the sport in America, particularly focusing on the demise of the NASL in the early 80s. For Scott, the NASL failed because it attempted to Americanize soccer. By sensationalizing the sport through superstars and neglecting up-and-coming domestic players, the league assured that soccer would only be a fad. The MLS, in contrast, has succeeded by minimizing its expectations, establishing firm roots in development (the MLS draft, competition), and adopting many foreign attributes that previous incarnations of the sport avoided because of American exceptionalism. The result is a league that continues to expand its popularity while managing expectations.

This source will be useful because it highlights the pitfalls soccer has fallen into in America. In particular, it notes the fact that soccer initially failed to collectivize itself which set it behind other American sports from the get-go. Likewise, it continued to be seen as “foreign” which marginalized its potential. By highlighting how soccer is finally starting to take a hold in America, he actually highlights what has made the sport so successful around the globe. This can highlight the roots of soccer globally and support my own position.

Van Rheenan, Derek. “The Promise of Soccer in America: the Open Play of Ethnic Subcultures.” Soccer & Society 10.6 (November 2009): 781-794. Print.

            Van Rheenan argues that, although still largely unpopular, soccer has a long and diverse history in America. The major tendency of those promoting the sport in America has been to “Americanize” the game itself, which actually led to the fall of the NASL. But, in small leagues like San Francisco’s Soccer Football League, the sport has provided an opportunity for immigrant ethnic groups to both insulate themselves and ultimately open up to multiculturalism. Here, the desire to win led once insulated clubs like the Greek-American Athletic Club to open their ranks to a variety of ethnicities and nationalities.

Van Rheenan’s article will be useful to me for a few reasons. It highlights the sense of soccer as an imported sport. Although he does mention many Americans who played, most of the clubs he talks about have been associated with immigrant populations. In addition,  it speaks to the insulated nature of soccer in the US. Although the Greek-American AC was one of the most successful in California and the country, most people have never heard of them. I had never heard of them, and I love soccer and even follow it domestically. So, I will really be using Van Rheenan against himself. While he argues that soccer helps immigrants integrate, he also seems to highlight the relegated nature of the sport in this country.

Day 28 – Film #5 Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Lizz and I had been hearing a lot of good buzz around the prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes by Rupert Wyatt. It was supposed to be a smart(er) summer action movie. Plus, it has James Franco, who is awesome. But was the movie awesome? Eh…

Apes ascending the evolutionary chain and sticking it to self-obsessed, destructive humanity should be a fool-proof premise. But it only works if the artist also recognizes that it is a ridiculous premise. The reason Rise of the Planet of the Apes fails to achieve the level of awesomeness that most human vs. monster films do is because it takes itself so damn seriously. Will (James Franco) works for a sinister pharmaceutical company and is attempting to cure brain related illnesses. In fact, it just so happens that his father Charles (John Lithgow) is suffering from dementia (yep, they went there), which pushes Will to ignore the Scientific Method and push forward with his new serum. If the pathos drenched “young man desperately working to save his father” storyline isn’t enough, the film begins with the murder of a scared ape and Will’s secret retrieval of her newborn baby, Caesar. No, we’re not in for a lot of laughs here.

What follows is a story of humanity’s hubris. The film wouldn’t have worked if the apes took up arms and through tactical genius were able to destroy humanity. Instead, the writing crew do a good job of making the “rise” of the apes come as a direct result of humanity’s stupidity. It isn’t that the apes are smarter than the humans. Rather, humans continually underestimate their opponent. In this way, this serves as a realistic, logical prequel to Planet of the Apes. It sets up that film in as believable a way as you could hope, and the nods to the ’68 film are smart and natural (minus the echoing of Charlton Heston’s most famous line).

The film becomes tiresome as it preaches against the enslavement of animals angle. The filmmakers did this to presumably side us with Caesar as he rounds up his army, but it fails because he is faced with horrible, one-dimensional, annoying characters as foes. These types of characters work in a campy, ridiculous film, but not in this type of strained serious action piece. Yes, the story is supposed to get us to reconsider our manipulation of the world around us, but you can’t have total idiots exemplifying those traits. Tom Felton proves that his terrible performance as Draco Malfoy wasn’t a fluke and his Dodge is one of the worst characters in recent memory (almost topped by his boss played by Brian Cox). I hated just about everyone on screen. Even Franco was incredibly unlikable, although I understood why I shouldn’t hate him, even if the filmmakers did a terrible job of getting it across. They even managed to make the cute monkey unlikable. Caesar comes off like such a blow-hard ideologue that it is difficult to root for him. He’s always stoically posing with a menacing look on his face, but all I could imagine was a really angsty 14 year old who has been told that he can’t sleep over at the friend’s house.

Ultimately, I don’t understand why you treat this material in such a deadly serious way. Although I don’t like Charlton Heston’s Planet of the Apes, it at least understands that it is a ridiculous film. It is camp through and through. Rise could have been an immensely entertaining film if it let loose and embraced the ridiculousness of its premise.

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