Initial Impressions: The Promise

HBO’s rockumentary The Promise: The Making of The Darkness at the Edge of Town aired last night and I caught the second half of it.  I hope to make time to see the whole documentary, and to write about it here, but I was struck at the narrative about an album that flows through the film.

These days, my students rarely own albums.  As has been the case for nearly 15 years, college students download (legally or otherwise) singles.  Early on, there was push-back from Radiohead and others about the decontextualization of an album that iTunes’ 99 cent downloads wrought.  Combined with a flurry of concept records in the early 2000s (from The Flaming Lips, Bruce Springsteen, The Fiery Furnaces), it seemed like indie artists would resist the sovereignty of the single.  But that seems like a long time ago.

The films story of the artistic struggle of producing a record – as a whole – is a compelling argument for the notion of an album.  While vinyl sales are strong among young people, I fear that the core viewing audience for the film are the same folks who subscribed to Tracks.  Nevertheless, Bruce and the band’s negotiations, struggles, aspirations, and tensions are on full display, speaking not only to the poetics of cultural production, but also providing historical roots for discussions of thumbing ones’ nose at industry trends.

The Best Call Ever

Baseball is countercultural.  At a conjuncture filled with instant gratification and the perfection of all things, baseball is different.  It is a pastoral game, a slow endeavor, and asks fans to enjoy the process of the game: the pitching; the pauses; the conferences; the warm-ups; and the nuances.

In some ways baseball is the perfect game.  With the bases 90 feet apart, and the pitching mound 60’6” from the plate for decades, and even as players have become faster and stronger, the measurements and chances of the game remain coherent and consistent.  It’s rather remarkable.

But it is also imperfect.  The mistakes that fielders make – errors – spill out of players in front of everyone.  When a player strikes out, he heads back to the dugout, head held low in shame.  Mistakes in basketball or football are mostly covered up by quick action.  But in baseball, they stand out.  Flaws are right there, with long pauses surrounding them – laid bare for all of us to linger upon.  And we learn to live with them.  Its part of baseball.  Sometimes, the mistakes serve as the elements we enjoy most or find the most meaning or drama from.

Umpires make mistakes too.  That’s what makes baseball interesting.  Baseball is not about absolute perfection.  It is a human and humanistic game, and respectfully allowing umpires to be the human arbiters of the game is at the core of its relevance.  Understanding that people who have judgment roles make errors is an important lesson we all learn.

So, when Jim Joyce blew a call at first base to “cheat” rookie pitcher Armando Galarraga out of a perfect game – well, that’s part of the beauty of baseball.  The way Mr. Joyce, Mr. Galarraga, and the fans of Detroit responded is one of the best moments in the sport.

Just as the genteel game reminds us of our pastoral and more patient past, Joyce’s call reminds us that we do the best we can, and just like the players, we sometimes get it right, and sometimes get it wrong.  Because of this reminder, it may be the best call ever.

OK. Ice Dancing is Pretty Awesome

So, after my snarky post about judged events yesterday, I found myself captivated by ice dancing later that evening.  What caught my attention was the performance of Tessa Virtue and some guy she danced with with, and their graceful, classy, rather beautiful performance.  He did have a Seinfeld “pirate shirt,” but by and large, they looked fantastic.  And their movement was swan-like (helped along by Virtue’s lovely bare back).

The next performers left us laughing out loud.  If Virtue and her man represented what ice dancing could be, the following acts served as parodies of themselves.  The costumes from the Americans and Russians, who earlier achieved a cultural-wardrobe-malfunction by appropriating first peoples in a crude way, represented a mix of Mad-Max, Fraggle Rock and a 1976 vision of the future.  They couples could have walked off the cover of a drug store romance novel:

Grace wins.  We all win.

Competing and Crying at the Olympics

As I usually watch Winter Olympic coverage between 10 and 11pm, I am thrilled by the performances and unintentionally humored by much of the goings-on.

There’s something about the sleek uniforms and body motions of speed skaters, downhill skiers, and ski jumpers that suggests modernism and daring, sharp risk-taking.  The uniforms have relied more uniformly on a smart assemblage of colors, and less on gaudy graphics.  Even the curlers look rather smart, especially the British in their black-pants-white-shirt down-to-business attire.  By the way, I could watch curling all day.

In general, I dislike any event that is judged for artistic flair.  There are some judged events, as in the spirit of gymnastics, that require judges to monitor the successful completion of a remarkable athletic move.  Some of the snowboarding tricks might warrant that (I’d like it more if they were in sleek, modernist space suits rather than their faux-flannel and jeans get-up). Some ice skating feats warrant it.  But music and make-up is where I draw the line.  Most judged events cause me serious eye-rolling. Freestyle skiing, ice dancing, figure skating, etc.  I’m interested in games, not drama.

But clearly, given the broadcast and cable networks’ reliance on judged reality programs and viewers passive acceptance of such programing, it makes sense that NBC loves the judged aesthetic olympic events.  Todays Times as a great piece about crying and figure skating. It provides a little history of the “kiss and cry” area that’s been facilitated, if not purposely constructed, by networks.

broadcasters like NBC, which will cover the ice dancing free skate Monday and the women’s final Thursday at the Winter Games, are happy to capture the moment. No doubt it has played a role in figure skating’s status as a ratings powerhouse for the Olympics.

“For the skaters, it could be a few minutes of torture,” said David Michaels, a senior producer for NBC’s Olympics coverage and the network’s director for figure skating. “It’s good for us.

“It’s such a big part of our coverage now. It’s gone from a blue curtain and a bucket of flowers on the side to plastic ice sculptures and crazy sets. It’s become a big design element that everyone works hard to figure out.”

Michaels said that the event organizers were in charge of designing the kiss-and-cry area, but that NBC reviewed those plans. The network often adjusts the lighting to make it look more realistic and less like a TV set, he said, adding that one of NBC’s cameras is attached to a small crane that swoops into the kiss-and-cry from above.

When the Olympics were first televised worldwide in the 1960s, the set was much simpler, with no formal place for skaters to wait for their scores. A reporter and a camera operator would often catch them as they stepped off the ice.

At the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., the off-ice area was spruced up with foliage, producers said. By the 1984 Sarajevo Games, a formal area with a bench appeared. The 1988 Calgary Games unveiled a major set, with a designed backdrop and lights.

Though different producers have different recollections of the way the kiss-and-cry area got its name, the gist of it is that someone at a network said: ‘This is the place where the skaters kiss, this is the place where skaters cry. It’s the kiss-and-cry!” By the early ’90s, the name had stuck, said Doug Wilson, the longtime producer and director at ABC who orchestrated that network’s figure skating coverage for more than 40 years.

As if figure skating needed more emasculation.  I imagine figure skating without costumes, hairspray, or music – just the athleticism that’s already there under the soon-to-be-smudged make-up.  It could be thrilling.  But it also might bring smaller audiences here in the U.S.  Evan Lysacek’s coach is quoted with a memorable line:

“I kept wanting to say, ‘Stop it, just stop it,’ ” his coach, Frank Carroll, said. “I’m very stoic in a way, very disciplined, and I think, when the ski jumpers, when they win, they don’t start to cry. Let’s put it this way: I don’t like figure skaters to cry.”

I want to stay “stop it” to NBC.

Housing Problems

In a regular feature, today’s Times’ “Week in Review” included stories about the economy from around the country.  One of the stories stood out in my morning perusal, as it was about housing.

In the piece, Marc Fitten, an editor for the The Chattahoochee Review, tells a familiar story about how his home purchase has caused so much trouble. The good thing about this piece, is that he states right away, and in common sensical terms, that he did everything he was supposed to do:

I WAS a good little boy and did everything I was supposed to do. I went to college and graduate school. I took a job with mediocre pay but good stability. I kept my nose to the grindstone, saved a little, avoided credit-card debt and about five or six years ago I took out a low, fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage for a reasonably priced house in the suburbs of Atlanta…

In 2007, when I had the house appraised, we celebrated at having built substantial equity. It was working! We were “amassing wealth” that would one day help pay for my son’s college tuition. We had it all figured out. I put my faith in a proven, tried-and-true, red, white and blue economic miracle.

But then 2008 came and the bottom fell out. America suddenly felt as if it was on the brink of becoming a banana republic. During and after the collapse, my mortgage was sold twice as the companies that held the note went belly up.

Mr. Fitten’s is an effective cautionary tale about the promises built into consumption.  Like many industries, the housing industry (real estate, banks) constructs itself as having the interests of buyers and sellers – their clients – as their primary concern.  And more often than not, we buy it.  But like so many for-profit industries, the housing debacle has laid bare the motives of of these operators. They make promises, build assumptions that fall in line with their own assumptions, and lay out a path for progress that leads directly into their bottom line.  And we’re left feeling used.

Often, we are.

Could ’10 Mustang Sequential Indicators Cause Seizures?

Perhaps not as annoying as Mary Hart’s voice, but the new Ford Mustang “sequential” turn signals are distracting.  I was running errands in the car today, and a Mustang came up on my right, and I was confused by this flashing of lights.  I couldn’t quite figure it out in my peripheral vision.  I looked in the drivers’ side mirror, and he was staring right at me, with a creepy Mustang-driver-pointy-mustache.  Then I figured he must be indicating a lane change.

I wonder what kind of studies Ford did that would indicate that this kind of flashing indicator would be effective, safe, and useful in the flow of traffic.  It doesn’t help that the three light panels are separated by white reverse lights, which interrupt the “sequential” flow.  It looks like a disco dance floor.  And how might one discern the difference between a fully charged turn indicator and the tap of the brakes?

This seems like classic wiz-bang marketing.

If engineers still designed cars, rather than marketers, a single, bright, orange indicator light works best.  They should be mandated.

The Best & Worst of Star Wars

In 1977, I watched Star Wars in silence, with my mouth agape, according to my mother.  It was the first film I saw in a movie theater, and I was about 4 years old.  Like many people my age, it defined my childhood play.  Even when I saw Jesus of Nazareth the week before Easter at my Catholic elementary school, I was making parallels between the Roman soldiers and the Imperial stormtroopers.  It was the only video game I would put quarters into for quite some time, and as I look at the screenshot above, I can hear the game soundtrack in my head.

I recall in the 4th grade, after Return of the Jedi came out and we all went to see it, sitting around the lunch table and listening to the kids talk about something like this:

Kid 1: “You, know, Darth Vader is half robot.”

Kid 2: “How did he get that way?”

Kid 1: “He fell into lava.”

For most of us, that was an intriguing theory, and I don’t know where this kid got his information.  It turned out to be pretty good.  But this mystery was one of those dark, contemplative mysteries.  So, after I saw the “prequel” films, now in my 20s, and with old high school friends Brian and Gary, the degree of our disappointment was difficult to put into words.  We agreed that while George Lucas made a great film with American Graffiti, and intrigued children everywhere with Star Wars, he was not a good director.  Our feelings were solidified through the serial drama that unfolded in the second two “new” films.

But maybe it was different viewing contexts of 1) childhood naiveté and 2) the wry sarcasm of ones’ 20s that lead to our dissatisfaction.  I’m not sure. But there is a good and bad with Star Wars.  I think the worst, most merchandising-driven example was the 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special, which is nearly excruciating to watch:

The best, in my opinion, is the various forms of fan fiction, re-mixing, and reappropriation of the original concepts that has unfolded over the last three decades.  I love this video of IG-88 in particular.  The bounty hunters, featured in a very short sequence in the best of the films, The Empire Strikes Back, have always attracted fan interest and references in popular culture.  Mostly because of the mystery that surrounded them.  Boba Fett was the epitome of cool until we learned about his background in the newer films.  The more we learned about him, the less interesting he became to me. The other bounty hunters, their biographies still unexplored except for a sentence or two on the back of an action figure package, might elicit curiosity 30 years later. IG-88 is one of my favorites.  Who was this droid, who lashed out on his own and started a little bounty hunting business? We find out a little more about him in this great video. Enjoy: