This Week In Sports

1) I can never pass up a good defenestration story: it seems that an NFL player was hanging out with his girlfriend, a 19-year old cheerleader for his team, when things went somewhat awry.  Given that she was only 19, it’s not all that surprising that the two of them were in the TV room of her parents’ house — but what is surprising is that one of her jilted admirers broke into the house with a plastic bag over his head and started chasing them around the room and pistol-whipping them, yelling things like, “I can’t believe you’re with that guy” and even some witty action-movie repartee.  The NFL player escaped out the second-story window, suffering minor bruises, while the girl ran downstairs, got a gun, and exchanged fire with the intruder!  Fortunately, neither of them had very good aim.

Here’s a link to the full story, with some other details such as that the intruder also took a few swipes at the family dog, and that the team in question — the Jacksonville Jaguars — refuses to admit or deny whether the girl is actually their cheerleader (although she plainly is, or at least was).  As always, you can count on Florida to provide the weirdest stories.

2) For those who don’t know him already, Chad Ochocinco is a very talented NFL wide receiver.  He is also extremely outspoken, may have a personality disorder, and is famous for getting fined for his over-the-top celebrations after scoring a touchdown.  His name used to be Chad Johnson, but he went by the name “Ochocinco” because his jersey number is 85 (I know, I know, that’s not even how you say 85 in Spanish), and when the NFL wouldn’t let him put “Ochocinco” on his jersey , he legally changed his last name to Ochocinco!  That is dedication.

Anyhow, Chad appears in this edition of “This Week in Sports” because of an unfortunate mishap with a new line of cereal he is promoting for charity called, natch, “Ochocincos.”  Take it away,

“Charity-minded callers are getting intercepted by a sex phone line because of a misprint on Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Ochocinco‘s namesake cereal boxes.  The phone number is supposed to connect callers to Feed the Children, which benefits from sales of ‘Ochocinco’s.’ But because the box has the wrong toll-free prefix, they get a seductive-sounding woman who makes risque suggestions and then asks for a credit card number.”

The lucky sleaze merchant whose earnings just went up ten-fold had better make a big donation to Feed the Children.

3)  Finally — yet another Tour De France winner tests positive for a banned substance, leading to the inevitable question, “What is the point of a sporting event if the winner cheats every single year?”  This year’s cheater gets style points for his creative explanation: the “false” positive was due to some contaminated meat that he ate.

Let the (Fake) Games Begin!

Although I have never really gotten into a lot of the “traditional male” crap like cars and guns, I have been a committed sports fan for as long as I can remember.  And although I abandoned my home city of Boston a decade and a half ago, and in most respects hold very little (if any) allegiance to its provincial, bean-eating ways, I have continued to support its professional sports teams even as I’ve walked in the shadow of the valley of the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Lakers in my more recent homes of NYC and LA.  So I tend to view the beginning of the various sports’ seasons with excitement — it’s my opportunity to plunge, once again, into an oversimplified world of Right and Wrong, where many of the complexities and moral ambiguities of the real world melt away once my chosen gladiators step inside the lines of their field/court, and where acts of individual and team heroism and glory can be reasonably expected on a somewhat regular basis.  There’s a wonderful Seamus Heaney poem called “Markings” that describes, far more articulately, what I’m getting at: how the protagonist children marked out the field with four jackets, picked the teams, “and crossed the line the called names drew between us.”

Today marks the beginning of the National Football League season, so I sat down with my morning coffee and “aimed my browser” straight for some of the standard sports sites like to revel in the collective excitement over the start of the season.  But I ran into a disturbing problem, one that has been haunting me more and more of late: all anybody wants to write or talk about is their “fantasy leagues” — that is, an entirely distinct “game” in which people “draft” their own professional players from a mix of different teams, and then compete against other such fake “teams” based on the individual statistics compiled by the players they’ve drafted.  The appeal, I suppose, is that the person gets to be his own (and lets not even bother to pretend that more than 1% of these people are women) “general manager” by “drafting” these players, and then trading them with his “fellow general managers.”  But the whole thing has always really bummed me out.  Partly I think it’s the way that, by reducing the games to the individual statistics of individual players, it ignores the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts” aspect that often means the difference between victory and defeat, and which makes sports so particularly interesting to me.  But beyond that, it seems like the craziest folly to take these overblown spectacles that are themselves utterly divorced from the real world and its problems, and then derive from that something called “fantasy.”  The games themselves are already fantasy!  Isn’t it enough to be a fan of your team, and watch people who have actually made careers of this (whether as players, coaches, or team-builders) try to overcome your collective rivals?  Is it really necessary to create an extra layer of fakeness out of that in order to feel “in control”?

Good Times, 1660s Style

I offer this painting as a response to Dan’s recent “Good Times” post, to suggest that not a lot of progress has been made in invoking dissolute good times in the last 350 years. Here’s a blurb I found describing this painting by the Dutch painter Jan Steen, “The Dissolute Household.” The best part is that Steen used himself, his wife, his sons, and even his mother as the models for the figures.

This painting depicts a “Jan Steen household,” a standard by which all later family dysfunction may be measured. The lady of the house tramples a Bible while having her wineglass refilled. Her husband and the maid join hands in a gesture suggesting service beyond the call of duty. The boy in blue fends off a beggar at the door, thus recalling the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31), in which the more fortunate figure goes to hell. Fate hangs over the family’s head in the form of a basket holding a sword and switch (signifying justice and punishment), a crutch and can (forecasting poverty), and a wooden clapper (used by lepers and the plague-stricken). In this (sixteen-) sixties sitcom, Steen himself stars as the father, his wife Margriet van Goyen as mom, and their sons Thaddeus and (next to grandma) Cornelis as themselves.

Top that, Cointreau ad agency!

If Van Morrison is a Jerk, Does That Make "Brown-Eyed Girl" Any Worse?

I recently came upon this interesting interview with Greil Marcus where he talks about his new book on Van Morrison. I’ve always liked but not loved Van Morrison, so I’m not about to run out to buy the book, but I was very interested in how, in the interview, Marcus espoused a form of musical analysis that seems comparable to New Criticism, the old school (mid-20th century) style of literary criticism that they taught at Dan and my high school. In short, it was all about the close reading of texts as self-contained entities, with no regard whatsoever for the biography of the author or, really, any other context. It turned out to be a great way to be introduced to the study of literature, and I’ve always felt that the rigorous training in such close reading has served me well in various other endeavors, including my eventual career as a lawyer.

I no longer believe that such analysis is the end-point for understanding a given work of art, but I’ve puzzled for years over the question of how to determine the meaning of music, which, lyrics aside, is so much more abstract in “form” than any other sort of creative work.

So, anyhow, I was intrigued to see Marcus explaining, somewhat passionately, how he didn’t give a damn what was behind Van Morrison’s classic songs, and whether there was a real “Madame George” or not, and how basically irrelevant such context is to “true” appreciation of the music. I found myself drawn to this approach as a way of helping to explain how a song’s “feel” can be so powerful, even if the words are just “Sweet Thing” over and over again or whatever.

This topic was particularly relevant to Marcus’ work on Van Morrison, I gather, because Van Morrison is this legendary despicable, hateful guy – although to be honest, that doesn’t actually strike me as all that surprising given his music, although I can’t say exactly why.

But then a little bit later in the interview Marcus seems to contradict himself 100% without recognizing it. He talks about this long “dead period” where Morrison failed to produce any decent music, from about 1980 to 1997. And then he analogizes it to a similar dead period for Dylan, which he cites Dylan himself as identifying as stretching from his post-John Wesley Harding recordings (1968) all the way until the early ‘90s:

“Essentially, that entire period — that’s a long time — was worthless, was searching for something that would give him a reason to sing, faking it the whole time. Any Bob Dylan fan would say, ‘Oh, what about Blood on the Tracks or ‘Blind Willie McTell’, that great song he didn’t even release in 1983? I loved Desire, Under the Red Sky. How could you dismiss all that?’ Well, because he knew how he felt singing those songs, making those records.”

Notice the contradiction? Suddenly the “value” of the songs is very much tied up in how the author “felt” while making them – whereas moments before Marcus was espousing this New Critical, context-less analysis of the music. And he even goes on to say that when an audience embraces music that the artist “knows” to be phoney, “it can only breed contempt for the audience. If the people who supposedly care about your work can’t tell the good from the bad, can’t tell the real from the false, why should you have respect for them at all?”

So much for the professed disinterest in where the songs came from. I can’t say that I was really surprised by this turnaround – as much as I always loved Marcus’ ability to capture the “feel” of a song in words, his writings always seemed more about mythologizing the performers than about getting away from them.


Dan adds: I wonder if this New Criticism / Greil Marcus method of analysis can be applied to blogging as well? In particular, I hope it will be invoked to redeem the long “dead period” that I’m anticipating taking place in my own blogging between 2012- 2025.

Attacking and Defending

In the past few months I’ve delved into three new hobbies/fascinations: boxing (as a participant), chess (same), and soccer (as a spectator). Boxing is just totally new for me – I never really paid any attention to it, and I didn’t watch even the biggest and most famous matches (probably because you had to pay money to see them even on TV). But in recent months I’ve actually started to learn how to box, taking 2-3 lessons a week. I am probably about 1% of the way to being a capable boxer, but even the little I’ve learned has started to seep into my perception of the rest of my life/the world – I am constantly analogizing various circumstances with the “attack/defend” dynamic of boxing – a dynamic that exists in many other sports, but not with the directness of boxing, where you are either punching somebody, or trying to fend off punches, or both.

That's Dan keeping his cool on the left.

Then, a few months later, my father, who is a chess enthusiast, convinced me to play online with him, and now I’ve returned to chess after a literally 25-year break (indeed, the last time I played with any consistency was with Dan himself, during recess in third grade – I have very happy memories of these sessions, which probably says all that needs to be said about our social functionality in those days). And although I obviously knew the rules of chess as a child, it’s become very clear that I never knew, and still don’t know, the first thing about actual strategy (beyond the most basic tactical considerations). There is something really delightful about that steep learning curve phase of learning about something when everything seems new and confusing, and only slowly do the, ahem, pieces start to fit together. (Pawn structure? Control the center of the board? Material?! Tempo?!?!) And, of course, that same “attack/defend” dynamic momentum is present here, too, although in a far subtler and less obvious guise than in boxing – my problem so far is that whereas I can make reasonable decisions about how to defend against attack, and occasionally can turn the tables on my (thus far, always superior) opponents, I never know what to do with the “tempo” once I’ve regained it, and I quickly squander it.

Finally, there is the spectacle of the World Cup, which was just finishing when I started writing this post, which says about all that needs to be said about my blog posting lately. I also played soccer as a child, but I was always one of the worst players on the very worst teams in my youth soccer league, and it has tended to remind me of the sorts of experiences Dan and I were trying to avoid when we huddled around the chess board at recess. And, as with boxing, I’ve never paid the slightest attention to it as a spectator sport. This time around, I got drawn in enough to get up at ungodly hours to catch some of the games from the West Coast of the U.S. And although I really enjoyed the athleticism, teamwork, etc. of the play itself, I particularly loved being confronted with the intense level of mythology and history that accompanied each game, as the announcers spoke of matches in the 1950s as if they happened last week, and associated certain styles of play with certain teams/regions. And again, I’ve had a steep learning curve of picking up on the strategic and tactical considerations that affect the momentum of each game.

It is starting to seem like all of life is just a series of circumstances where the question is whether to press the advantage, or retreat and defend.

The Miley Cyrus Online Dance Battle Meme

A year or so ago, I was having dinner with a few friends, and one of them brought his new girlfriend, a 22-year old professional surfer. This gave me the opportunity to learn about “what’s new with the kids these days.” Being a semi-semi celebrity, this surfer seemed to hang out with other C-listers, and she told us a story about some guy named Adam, a dancer who appeared in “Step Up II: The Streets,” and who then “got in Miley Cyrus’ pants” by making a “dance crew video.”

I was completely bufuddled by this story, so I asked for more details, and the surfer pulled out her iPhone and called up a youtube video that blew my mind (see below). So far as I could tell, the story began with Miley and some friend of hers making a “webcast” that involved the two of them having sleepovers and, in at least one episode, dancing around. Then (and I probably have this completely wrong), Miley saw this Adam kid (who looks sort of like a young Joey Ramone) in “Step Up II” and got his number from somebody and left a mysterious message for him. He responded by getting together with some of his professional dancer pals and challenging Miley and her pal to an “online dance battle.” This challenge escalated into a war of youtube videos, with each side getting the aid of various celebrities (dancer and otherwise) to show up the other (and it may have culminated with a huge Beat It-style dance-off on the Teen Choice Awards). And, according to this surfer, the whole gambit helped young Adam “score” with Miley.

I have nothing insightful to say about any of this except that, more than anything else I’ve seen since I left the MTV “demo,” this both made me feel very old, and also sort of impressed with the lengths the kids go to these days. Here’s Adam and his crew’s “Round Two” challenge, featuring various Hollywood b-listers (including The Lohan) and some incredible dance moves:


This Movie Happened

The other day somebody sent me a link to a trailer for what appeared to be a 2003 movie starring Matthew McConaughey, Kate Beckinsale, and Gary Oldman. Those actors were all pretty big-time in 2003, so I was a little surprised that I didn’t recognize it — it was called Tiptoes. But then I grasped its premise, and I immediately concluded that this was some Funny or Die sketch. In Tiptoes (purportedly), Kate Beckinsale is pregnant with her fiance McConaughey’s child, and he reveals to her that he is from a family of dwarfs and has been hiding this fact from her — and it is very likely that her child will be a dwarf. And the kicker, which proved to me beyond any doubt that this was all a big send-up, was that Oldman, in “the role of a lifetime” as the trailer promises, played McConaughey’s wise-cracking dwarf older brother.

The tagline, “It’s the Little Things in Life that Matter” and the improbable “2004 Sundance Film Festival Selection” also seemed to be examples of the perpetrators getting a little carried away with the joke.

It literally didn’t cross my mind that any studio could have actually made this film, let alone that these three actors might have voluntarily agreed to be in it. Even my movie producer friend agreed that it was just not possible. So I did some googling to learn more…and I found more and more evidence that it was real. An IMDB page. A Rotten Tomatoes page. Random internet discussions of it. I soon concluded that this was one of the most elaborate hoaxes ever perpetrated. Only when my friend actually managed to download a full copy of the movie and, he claims, watch all 90 minutes, did I accept that it was real (although I am still pondering whether the gag might have extended to filming an entire feature-length movie).

I’m hoping this can become a regular feature on the blog. Dan, I challenge you to find a movie less likely to be real, but still real.


Dan replies: If I wanted to be a jerk about it, I would nominate Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up. Synopsis: In real life, a man named Hossain Sabzian insinuated himself into the lives of the movie-going Ahankhah family by pretending to be the noted Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Makhmalbaf’s colleague Kiarostami filmed the resulting criminal trial and then got Sabzian and the Ahankhah family to impersonate themselves and reenact the entire drama. Now that’s unlikely. It’s a jerk comparison, though, because Kiarostami’s movie is ‘unlikely’ in a deliberate artistic manner, whereas Tiptoes is just weird. What’s more, its a jerk move because Krafty introduced me to the film in the first place.

"Lost": That's Not Okay

The creator’s of ABC’s “Lost” won’t do much better for potential fans than me. I was hooked from its opening scene, when the place crashes over the tropical island and everybody runs around the wreckage screaming, and “John Locke” (they are not subtle on this show; there is also a character named Rousseau who is very much “back to nature”) sat amidst the wreckage with a very Zen, “I have something to do with all of this” look on his face. I love the full orchestra (extremely rare for a TV show — I’m not aware of any others that use one) playing a Bernard Herrmann-inspired score; the other liberal borrowing from Hitchock; and, most of all, the constant recurrence of my very favorite literary trope, “the rabbit hole.” Basically every epsiode our band of sexy, remarkably well-made-up Swiss Family Robinson plane crash survivors discovers a new mysterious hatch that leads to another world, or something much like it. I love that they at least try (see below) to participate in genuine philosophical debates, and I even can’t resist the retro-70s stylings of their Dharma Initiative world (not to mention the awesome 1000-foot tall ancient Egyptian-seeming statue that has some secret temple hidden in its base). This is a very weird show for network TV, and I like that they were willing to take all of these risks.

So, as you can see, there’s a lot I like. But really all that has done is make me much, much more disappointed at what a crappy job the creators have done at following through on all of these great ideas. It’s no secret that people complain about all of the unanswered questions in the show — but my beef a little bit different. I’m OK with the mystery and ambiguity about the world they’re in (“Is it the afterlife? Is it an alternate reality?” etc.) What I’m NOT OK with is the way in which the characters react to the mysteries to which they are subjected. Over and over again, a character is solemnly informed that he “must” do something like “journey to the temple” to find some mysterious figure, and nobody ever says, “Why?” And if they do, they always accept an answer like, “Because it is your destiny.” “It’s my destiny? All right then — let’s go murder that guy!” It’s utterly unreal, and even if you are one of those watchers, like me, who is willing to suspend disbelief as to the stuff that’s actually happening, I can’t get past the completely phoney reactions of the characters.

I get that the show wants to explore questions of free will and fate, and, again, I’m OK with a certain degree of ambiguity and abstraction as the trade-off. But this goes way beyond that — the writers are just really lazy (or incompetent). They have some nifty set piece in mind, and they don’t give a damn how they get there. It’s not unlike a show like, say, “24,” where plot developments are simply not possibly consistent with previous ones — but the problem is, “Lost” has this weighty, pretentious vibe as if it’s actually an intelligently-wrought show.

What really kills me, though, is that I am such a sucker for so many of the set pieces/imagery that I willingly submit myself to the completely phoney characters and their reactions to what’s happening around them. I actually sort of dread watching it, because i know how enraged it will make me, but I do it anyway. And it pains me that the creators had such a cool idea, and executed aspects of it in such an interesting way…and then just punted on the tough part, not only of tying it all together, but of conceiving character reactions that make any sense at all.

Hey, “Lost” That’s Not Okay.

The Band

This album — The Band’s self-titled second LP — was a fixture of my adolescence, but not because I ever listened to it. Rather, the LP itself was always lying around in a stack of records that belonged to my father and brother near my bedroom, and it became an emblem for me of a kind of “mainstream, bluesy, roots rock” style that I had rejected in favor of more esoteric punk rock and new wave. With just this image to go by, I probably thought that they were some coal mining banjo players from the 1930s, and I was not into it.

When I got to college, I lived with some Deadheads, and became familiar with The Last Waltz soundtrack, which was played over and over again at our parties — in particular, of course, “The Weight.” I can still see my crazed hippie roommate singing “Wait a minute Chester, I’m a peaceful man…” at the top of his lungs. But even as I developed a sort of acceptance and even appreciation for them, I never took enough of an interest to pursue them further on my own — and the version of The Band that I was getting familiar with was their late ’70s, already somewhat cheesy manifestation.

That changed with my recent discovery of The Basement Tapes, detailed in this prior post. Part of what appeals to me so much about the songs from these mythic 1967 sessions is how they fused traditional Americana folksyness with what is basically a soul-R&B sound, and a quick crash-course in The Band (and digesting of their most recent box set anthology) taught me why: prior to becoming Dylan’s first electric backing band (and therefore the cause of the “Judas!” chant and other renowned folkster heckling), they backed up Ronnie Hawkins, an Elvis-like crooner on the “Southern Chitlin circuit.” (I have a weird obsession with the Chitlin circuit, based on my belief in the possibly apocryphal story that Jimi Hendrix got so great by playing with “a different band on the Chitlin circuit” every night for years.)

So when Dylan found The Band, they were more or less a white soul backing band (indeed, when they first struck out on their own they considered calling themselves “The Honkies” and “The Crackers”), and it’s probably a safe bet that their blossoming into a rootsy, counter-counter-culture late 60s/70s touring behometh had something to do with the collision of those influences with everything Dylan brought to the table. There is an amazing scene in The Last Waltz (yes, the greatest living director made a documentary in 35mm of their final ever concert, featuring cameos from just about anybody you can imagine: Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Emmylou Harris, Eric Clapton, Ringo, Neil Young, etc. etc., and which is full of amazing interviews between Scorsese and members of The Band where all of them are obviously on a LOT of cocaine) where Levon Helm (the drummer and only true Southerner of the group — the rest of them were Canadian, amazingly) talks about the area around Memphis and the cross-pollination of different musical styles that went on there: “That’s kind of the middle of the country back there. So bluegrass or country music, you know, if it comes down to that area and if it mixes there with rhythm and if it dances, then you’ve got a combination of all those different kinds of music. Country, bluegrass, blues music.” Robbie adds, “The melting pot.” Levon adds, “Show music.” Scorsese then asks, “And what’s it called?” And Levon, with wide eyes, replies, “Rock and roll!” This perspective might lend itself to the conclusion that The Band, who paid their dues playing the blues like Johnny Ryall, and then embraced the Appalachian side of traditional American music, were the only truly authentic rock and roll band of the late ’60s/early ’70s (or at least the most authentic).

Listening now to their recorded output, it’s hard not to forget that, as with Gram Parsons’ music, what sounds very familiar today was just utterly weird when they were first doing it. But what is even more amazing to me is how some of their best work (which stretches, in my and I think most critics’ view, from their inception to the 2d album pictured above),still sounds weird and hard to place. I’ve read like a dozen descriptions of how shocked everybody was by the opening track of their debut album Music From Big Pink, Tears of Rage, in part because it flew in the face of so many conventions of the time, ranging from “start your record with a rocker, not a ballad” to the fact that this song (co-written by Dylan and Richard Manuel, The Band’s amazing pianist who eventually committed suicide), released at the peak of the hippie counterculture revolution, was sung from the perspective of parents who have been betrayed by their daughter who has “cast them all aside” in favor of “false instruction that we never could believe.” I can’t even imagine what it must have sounded like at the time, but what is so incredible to me is that even for somebody discovering this version of this song in 2010, after a lifetime of listening to so many of both their influences and the bands they influenced, it still sounds so alien and impossible to place.

As much as people celebrate The Band for helping to invent “country rock,” what really stands out for me, then, is that nobody has really sounded like them before or since. Their technique of having three or four vocalists all singing at just about the same level and separated in the mix still sounds alien to me, although I’m sure somebody could point me to later music that’s imitated this approach. It is also fascinating to me how quickly their sound devolved, almost certainly because of the success and drug addiction it spawned, into a sort of parody of itself, so that by the time Robbie Robertson broke up the band (although they would continue to tour without him throughout the ’80s and ’90s), they really did sound more or less like a cheesy, if still awesome, ’70s country rock band — in just a few years they became their own imitators in effect.