Friday, August 09, 2013

Another Helping of Talk


In 1995, my junior year of college, I was reading The New Yorker over lunch one day — undoubtedly an individual-size pizza in a cardboard box washed down with a Snapple, because health and adventurous eating have been my top two priorities from a young age — and for some reason I've never forgotten this particular issue's cover illustration: a simple glass of orange juice. (There was a murder trial of some type going on at the time.) In that issue, Anthony Lane reviewed "Before Sunrise." I already trusted his taste, but this review did a lot to solidify that. One weekend night, being the player that I was at the time, I enlisted my friend Deron to go see it with me. We drove to the only art-house theater in San Antonio, tucked into the corner of a giant mall. My reasons for liking the movie had a lot to do with what Lane gets at in this part of his review:
Think of the erotic clockwork that drives most Hollywood love stories: the initial meeting, maybe a couple more, then into the slushy kiss, the quick cut to discarded stockings lying on a bedroom floor, the camera traveling up to survey either the postcoital hug or the midcoital yelp. Now try the Linklater version: the long talk on a train, more talk in the city, another helping of talk, then a wonderful scene in the cramped listening booth of a record store, where both parties are aching to embrace but can't quite dredge up the courage, contenting themselves with looking terribly serious and swallowing hard, like fliers trying to adjust to high altitude — which, in a sense, is what they are. Still no kiss. 
Perhaps Deron's presence at the movie with me is all the proof you need that I wasn't doing an exorbitant amount of kissing at that time, and perhaps many of the previous entries in the life of this blog is all the proof you need that I'm susceptible to seeing talk and even un-dredged courage as more romantic than I should. I also sensed (OK, still sense) that talking, in addition to its own pleasures, was a parallel way of acting in the world, or even of building a simulacrum of the world, in which you could then live (this tends to work out increasingly less well over time; the world has a way of asserting itself). Lane again:
…what Linklater has managed to do is to pull us back into that wordy, pleasantly confused moment of youth when people have the nerve — the pretension, maybe, but also the wit — to envisage their lives as a kind of literature, to imagine themselves sauntering gaily, or grimly, through one short story after another.
Cut to about three years later (it felt more like 10), and I was on the couch watching "Before Sunrise" again, with a wordy girlfriend who hadn't seen it yet, and with whom I was living out a pretty good short story (a dramatic one, at least). It was my first time re-watching it, and though the pretensions of Jesse (Ethan Hawke) rankled a little more the second go-around, the girlfriend and I watched in silence throughout, both mesmerized, I felt sure, by the heady romance. The credits began to roll, and the girlfriend turned to me: "Now, why did you like that?" 

She was nearly 30 at the time, and I was 24 or 25. But in all the vital respects of human development, I was more like 13. Which is not to minimize my disappointment at her disappointment, but to partially explain it — there's no question I saw "Before Sunrise" at the right time; and though I'd like to think that an older me would have had the same reaction to it, a la Anthony Lane (all of 32 when he reviewed it), we'll never know. 


If nothing can ever recapture the charms of the first movie, this latest installment is probably the best of the three, because Julie Delpy and Hawke have both matured into better actors and have an ease around each other that perfectly mirrors the ease of the characters (the same way that the actors’ coltishness and unfamiliarity with each other in "Before Sunrise" served that movie's needs). "Before Midnight" keeps the trilogy firmly based in talk — four big, defined blocks of it: an opening drive in a car, an outdoor dinner scene with friends, a long walk to a hotel, and then a fight in the hotel room. 


Delpy is fantastic conveying Celine's nagging dissatisfaction, swinging easily between humor, tenderness and outrage, but I found Hawke's portrayal of Jesse even richer and more satisfying in the context of the earlier movies. In "Before Sunrise" and "Before Sunset," Jesse is in demand. His devil-may-care speech gets Celine off the train and into Vienna in the first movie. They may both be nervous, but it's his antics and charm that give them the opportunity to be. In the second movie, he's become a well-regarded novelist, and Celine tracks him down at a reading. He's married; she's doubtful of ever finding someone. In ways subtle and not, Jesse got to drive in the first two movies — and his blustery romantic shtick, even when it wore thin, got him through. The new movie makes fascinating use of that shtick. On the one hand, it's utilized much less frequently. Life's sediment has settled on Jesse, and it's hard to produce mushy verbal rhapsodies when you're busy helping your partner weigh the pros and cons of a job offer, or absorbing that same partner's uncomfortably pointed commentary about you in front of acquaintances. When he does resort to his old bag of tricks — most heartbreakingly and pathetically in the final scene — it's with the air of a creaky athlete trying to make it up and down the field. He gets more points for trying than for performing.


There's plenty to objectively dissect in these movies, but that's only after letting them wash over me. I've been roughly the same age as the characters in all three. I'm hoping they make another one every nine years, partly as a fan of movies and partly as someone who wants to keep these two as traveling partners.

Thursday, December 06, 2012

"Lite beer is not the great leap forward."

It's been so long that Blogger now uses a template for posts that is completely foreign to me. We'll see how this goes.

There might be a books-related year-end post or two (or three) coming up. This one is just to point to an interview with Joe Queenan I posted last week, about his new memoir "One for the Books." It's about his lifetime of reading the classics, the crap and everything in between. I think the whole thing is pretty funny, which isn't surprising. Several years ago, my dad and I were flying to Las Vegas from Dallas. On the plane, Dad was reading "Red Lobster, White Trash and the Blue Lagoon: Joe Queenan's America." And he was laughing really hard. Cut to a couple of days later in a casino, where a burly man comes up to Dad and says, "Hey, you were the guy laughing on my flight the other day. What were you reading, anyway?"

My favorite exchange with Queenan from this interview is below. I can't tell you how much I agree with his answer:

Me: One of your book’s biggest themes is the superiority of books to
 e-readers. Are you optimistic about the future of books on paper? And do 
you consider this book more of an early eulogy or a rallying cry?

JQ: The book is elegiac. Books, I think, are dead. You cannot fight the zeitgeist and you cannot fight corporations. The genius of corporations is that they force you to make decisions about how you will live your life and then beguile you into thinking that it was all your choice. Compact discs are not superior to vinyl. E-readers are not superior to books. Lite beer is not the great leap forward. A society that replaces seven-tier wedding cakes with lo-fat cupcakes is a society that deserves to be put to the sword. But you can’t fight City Hall. I also believe that everything that happens to you as you grow older makes it easier to die, because the world you once lived in, and presumably loved, is gone. As I have said before, when Keith Richards goes, I’m going too. Same deal with books.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Thoughts About Songs

My friend and fellow blogger "Dez" has taken to listing his 24 favorite songs; a "a core set of songs" that he returns to calling his favorites with "no hesitancy." He started out with a song I love, but the fun of lists like his are the head-scratchers. To each his own. The only thing that has really ruffled feathers so far (Dez's favorite thing to do) was his declaration that "Eight Miles High" by the Byrds (a song I like by a band I love) is "the greatest single of the 1960s."

This exercise has gotten me to thinking about not just my favorite songs but songs that are very good at what they do. I'm trying to come up with my own way of listifying all of this, and hope to start something truly time-wasting soon.

In the meantime, I suppose the never-ending movie list needs freshening, and I keep meaning to round up some of the work I've done at the Times in one post. So look for movies and Times material in the next 24 hours or so, and then songs sometime after that.

If this sounds like an attempt to kick-start things around here: maybe. But I won't jinx it by actually declaring it. I've been away so long that the Blogger apparatus has completely changed. I'm writing on a very blank white screen right now that looks more retrograde than updated, so I can't even promise that this post will end up being properly published.

More soon?

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Word From Whit

Whit Stillman's new movie, his first in a while, "Damsels in Distress," is out now. I might see it and report back sometime. (Maybe. I don't really go to the movies anymore, which is a long, silly story.) In the meantime, I was entertained by a couple of things he said in this interview in the Wall Street Journal:
I don't like the word "perfectionist" because it's self-flattering. It's tooting your own horn and implies that you actually can achieve perfection. I prefer "particularist."

My favorite summer spot is Mount Desert Island, Maine. It's far away—and seems it. There are two towns I particularly like: Southwest Harbor, which is workmanlike while relaxed; and the town of Bar Harbor, which some people decry as overrun with T-shirt shops. I have a "T-shirt-shop rule"—which is that any locality that can support such shops usually has great charm within a few blocks of the crowded area.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

My Whitney Song

Over drinks the other night, I was telling a friend that I didn’t know what it said about me that some of my favorite songs as a 12- and 13-year-old were sung by women and were about the impossibility of love. (Well, some of them were sung by, say, Jon Bon Jovi or the frontman of White Lion, but same difference.)

I didn’t say it the other night, but the first song I always think of in this vein is “Didn’t We Almost Have It All” by Whitney Houston, because I have very firm memories of listening to it on Z-100 or WPLJ late at night in my Long Island bedroom. The song was released the summer I was 13, an age when my inner life was a raging melodrama for absolutely no reason. My crush was on a 17-year-old lifeguard who couldn’t have picked me out of a lineup. I was a few years away from even kissing a girl. And the culture I was ingesting (Family Ties, Super Mario Bros., baseball) wasn't stirring too many deep thoughts. The friends I have now, at 38, were probably listening to the Minutemen and reading Nietzsche.

It’s terribly sad that Houston has died, but it’s not as shocking as it should be for a 48-year-old. Which just makes it sadder, maybe. I was never a huge fan of her music, but that one song, that one summer, made a serious impact. Listening to it now, my reaction then seems both ridiculous and totally understandable. One of the song's central lyrics is “the ride with you was worth the fall.” This was so far before I knew about rides. Or falls. Or anything else for that matter. In a way, this was one of the same essential powers as fictive literature, teaching about something vicariously by accurately recreating it in art. Her voice was indisputably something special, and in this song it starts somewhat restrained and gains more and more force, so that by the end it completely separates itself from the generic ’80s strings section beneath it.

It’s the one song of hers I currently own. I bought it for nostalgic reasons. But it’s better than that.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Kermit the King

I haven't seen The Muppets yet. At this rate, it seems that I will eventually see it on or from Netflix, which is what I say about almost all new releases now. And then, of course, I don't end up seeing most of them on Netflix. My Netflix queue currently has something like 400 movies on it, and I'm pretty sure I've had one disc out since about last February. So if I'm honest with myself (and I can be, for a two-hour block late every Thursday night), I may never see The Muppets.

That's just to say that I don't have the full context for Noah Millman's review of the movie, which I recently happened upon. It's hard to finally judge this review. The fact that it doesn't topple over into total poser-dom is a small miracle. Maybe the seriousness with which he addresses it is a joke, but it doesn't feel like that either. I guess I love the Muppets enough myself that I'm willing to go along with a lot of this. Yet there's also something so insane about the excerpt below. Visit yourself and make up your own mind. For now, that excerpt, with the bold italics most decidedly mine:
In virtually every scene – most especially in his emceeing of the show – Kermit seemed to me to be phoning it in. It’s partly a problem of character – this Kermit is exceptionally passive, never coming up with solutions for problems, always ready to admit defeat. But this could have worked brilliantly if it had built to a big moment of recognition that this is what he was doing, and he finally returned to his true self. (Kermit is the Aragorn figure of the movie, the true king in self-imposed exile because he doesn’t believe he is actually fit to be king.) But that moment of recognition never really came. We got the speech after the moment – the speech about not having really failed and how it doesn’t really matter if they lose the studio or their name. But we didn’t get the moment.

But it was more a problem of performance. Kermit, in his prime, was a great leading man, a blend of Humphrey Bogart’s rumpled integrity and Cary Grant’s barely-suppressed hysteria. (Sorry, I’ve been reading Stanley Cavell again.) This Kermit doesn’t seem like that character grown old – it seems like that performer going through the motions.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

From a Stovetop Far, Far Away




Not distant planets. Frying pans.

(Via Spot)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Movie List: 25-21

Where were we?

25. "It defeats its own purpose."

Raging Bull (1980)

Boxing offers archetypal plots that filmmakers can’t resist. The number of movies about boxers are out of proportion to even the sport’s heyday, which was a long, long time ago. Many of the sport’s giants have come from bad backgrounds, achieved great heights, and met ignominious ends. Many of its tomato cans are hard-luck studies in trying to flail your way out of a corner. The stories write themselves — or just about — which has led to the following, to name just a few: Body and Soul, Champion, Cinderella Man, The Champ, the Rocky series, Ali, Million Dollar Baby, The Boxer, The Fighter. Those are off the top of my head.

But Scorsese, being Scorsese, takes it to another level. First, as he always has, he got the best of Robert De Niro, who’s incredible here. And then there’s the composition, starting with the justifiably iconic title sequence, during which De Niro as Jake La Motta warms up in slow motion to a piece of music from Pietro Mascagni’s opera Cavalleria Rusticana. (You can hear cinematographer Michael Chapman discuss the popping light bulbs in that clip if you scroll down a bit here.) Chapman deserves a ton of credit for the film’s stark-but-lovely look.

There was a particular scene available on YouTube when I first started drafting this (in 1984), but it’s gone now. It’s at the public swimming pool, but Scorsese starts with the camera up high, then trails down a brick building, follows the path of a young black boy as he jumps into the pool, and then tracks across to De Niro. It’s a beautifully fluid motion, like reading. Raging Bull is like an unforgiving but lyrical novella; not exactly uplifting, but perfectly made.

24. “I swear, if you existed, I’d divorce you.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966)

Thinking about getting married? Or even just feeling affection for another human being? You might want to avoid this film adaptation of Edward Albee’s award-winning 1962 play. To understate it: Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor play a couple who don’t like each other. To properly state it: Take the angriest you’ve ever been. Take the drunkest you’ve ever been. Combine them. Multiply them by four. Add the most resentful you’ve ever been. Take one more drink. Now light yourself on fire. At that point, you might feel some fraction of what associate professor of history George and his wife Martha are feeling as they verbally assault each other.

Censors faced a string of impossible decisions, leading to outcomes like deleting the word “screw” from the film but leaving in the phrase “hump the hostess.” It’s easy to sympathize with their plight. The script certainly has its profane moments, but it’s more that the sheer intensity of the thing feels filthy. What do you make of a husband flatly saying to his wife, “There isn’t an abomination award going that you haven’t won”?

George Segal and Sandy Dennis are very good as Nick and Honey, the wispy young couple who are witness to the carnage, though the most unrealistic part of the movie might be that they don’t run screaming from the house after five minutes. Or less.

23. “Are you here for an affair, sir?”

The Graduate (1967)

22. “You’re not dying, you just can’t think of anything good to do.”

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986)

Some people grew up with the height of the French New Wave, others during the Golden Era of 1930s Hollywood. I grew up in the 1980s. This position in the time-space continuum was not by choice, of course, but it certainly heightened my enjoyment of John Hughes’ movie about a Chicago teenager playing hooky with his best friend and his girlfriend, which came out in 1986, when I was 12 and orders of magnitude less cool than Ferris. (It’s 2012, and the grayer and pastier Matthew Broderick gets, the more I feel like I’m catching up.)

I can’t imagine there’s much more to say about this movie, so I’ll share a couple of facts learned from my old friend Wikipedia: One is that David Denby, a critic for New York at the time, called Ferris “particularly awful,” and “a nauseating distillation of the slack, greedy side of Reaganism.” The moral of the story? Denby is as dependable a guide as he’s ever been. (Though Wikipedia does say that Hughes was a Republican.) I also learned that “Several notable people have called Ferris Bueller's Day Off their favorite motion picture, including Wolf Blitzer, Dan Quayle, Michael Bublé, Simon Cowell and Justin Timberlake.” I didn’t opt to place the movie at No. 22 on my list instead of No. 1 to avoid being lumped in with that group, but I can’t say I’m upset about the coincidence.

Here’s one of those banal facts that still manages to feel earth-shattering (or at least rapidly age-inducing) to me: It’s been 26 years since Ferris was released, and there were 19 years between it and The Graduate. Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock is vastly different from Ferris (he’s closer to Ferris’ fragile best friend, Cameron, who contemplatively sinks to the bottom of a pool in a scene that echoes The Graduate), but the protagonists do share one thing, which is a sense of coming to the end of something with no idea what comes next. Ferris might play the uncertainty much cooler than Ben, but these are movies about blind transition out of youth. As the years pass, I take points away from The Graduate for all kinds of things — Hoffman’s performance is one-note; I love Simon & Garfunkel, but the songs don’t really fit the movie; Katharine Ross’ character is a weaker element than I think she’s supposed to be (but oh, Katharine Ross). But I still love its look and much of its humor, as in the scene when Ben meets Mrs. Robinson at a hotel. The shot of him holding the door for the parade of elderly people is great.

The Graduate is often talked about as a generational snapshot, but I think it holds up because of its oddball tone and its cinematic qualities. The Time Out film guide says director Mike Nichols “couldn’t decide whether he was making a social satire or a farce.” They mean it as insult, but that might be what makes it work. A pure farce or pure social satire may have misfired in any number of ways. This sometimes uneasy combination gives it a winning personality all its own.

21. "From now on, I would like to be a good guy, and a good gambler."

Guys and Dolls (1955)

There are many people under the age of 50 or so who have never seen this movie, and there are many people of all ages who have seen it and don’t like it very much. Leave aside, for a moment, that the people who don’t like it are implying that Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra could appear in something together in 1955 and that thing could be bad. That’s faulty argument No. 1. It’s true that some of the singing is amateurish, and if you’re not fond of Damon Runyon’s patois, I suppose this variation of it could grate. (I’m a big fan. “The oldest established permanent floating crap game in New York.” Come on.) There are some things, though, that are argument-proof, and this clip is one of them:

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Friday, January 06, 2012

A Smiling Orange and Mr. Met

My friend T. has issued a challenge to his "friends and allies" to join him in blogging at least once a day for the next 30 days. And I'm not one to back down from a challenge. (This is not true; if you so much as look at me funny I'm likely to run screaming. More accurate to say that I'm not one to back down from this challenge.)

I'll start light because I'm a bit rusty, as you might imagine. So let's start the streak with two looks at one of my favorite subjects: mascots. This is from ESPN's account of West Virginia's 70-33 shellacking of Clemson in Wednesday night's Orange Bowl:
But safety [Darwin] Cook made the pivotal play by returning a fumble 99 yards for a touchdown to break the game open...

After Cook crossed the goal line, he gleefully leaped on mascot Obie, a smiling orange, and they both tumbled to the turf. Obie rose unhurt and resumed her duties.

Cook and Obie met on the field after the game and shared a hug.

"I didn't know you were a girl," he told the mascot. "I apologize."
Video of the incident, and the orange mascot pretending to vomit into a trash can on the sidelines afterward, is here.

And then this, from a New York Times piece today about Mr. Met, the mascot of the New York Mets:
The Mets maintain a “no comment” position about Mr. Met, apparently to maintain an aura about his life. They refused last week to discuss the precise size of his head or what it is made of; how many people have played him; or details of his endorsement work. A spokesman for Mr. Met declined to comment other than to say, “Mr. Met never speaks.”
The article is accompanied by a slide show, including an image of Mr. Met with Bill Clinton, and another with this caption: "Conan O’Brien’s late-night show performed a sketch in which the Phillie Phanatic gunned down a suicidal Mr. Met."

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Sunday, November 13, 2011

"I don't get close to people, or something. I'm weird, I guess."

Tonight I had occasion to reminisce with a friend about watching (separately) Later with Bob Costas, a show that ran from 1988 to 1994. (It continued with other hosts after Costas left.) It was a half-hour engaged conversation with one guest, something like Charlie Rose with a light source and an articulate host. We searched online for a few clips, and we found this interview Costas did with Mickey Mantle in 1994. This was an NBC News special, I believe, and not from Later. But we watched it tonight transfixed. The interview is often moving, and the pre-recorded profile is well-written and expertly put together.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

"I'm glad you've found a twee little game that doesn't tax you too much."

Just stopping by this wasteland to share an exchange on Slate that made me laugh. This is between two commenters — I abbreviate their handles to Fred and Taylor — and it appeared underneath a story about the red Solo cup, a plastic staple among partygoers and evidently the subject of a new Toby Keith song. The cups are also among the tools used for beer pong. Fred's attitude about the game's history is crystal clear below. Wikipedia would anger Fred. The site claims the current game of beer pong "evolved" from an earlier version that used paddles. (The site's entry on the paddle game is worth at least scrolling for the number of details about rules and variations of play.) Now, I'll hand things over to Fred:

Fred:
Also: That nonsense with the triangle of cups is not beer pong. It's a watered-down fluff activity for today's inconsequential college students. Beer pong uses a full table tennis table, paddles, one ball, and one cup per player. The fay triangle thing is to beer pong as wiffle ball is to baseball.
Taylor:
No, the triangle is beer pong, because beer pong is a drinking game, NOT an athletic activity. The goal is to show grace under fire (where grace is standing upright, and fire is approx a 6 pack of long necks). Now if you had to pound a boiler maker before each at bat in wiffle ball, I bet it would be a much more interesting game.
Fred:
Your brag about the longnecks suggests you don't understand that real beer pong involves drinking as well. What did you think we did, just play ping-pong with cups in the way? (For that matter, players also stand upright in both games. I'm not sure you know what you're talking about at all.)

Six longnecks? Wow, what time does dad want the Camry back? We used kegs. And there's nothing wrong with a drinking game that requires action and coordination. How can you show "grace under fire" if you're never under fire? (A ball zooming at your head is fire. A "toss" is not.) Sorry if you quail at the prospect of even a mild "athletic activity."

I'm glad you've found a twee little game that doesn't tax you too much. I'm just mystified to see that you had to steal another game's name for it. Let's agree from now on to call your triangle game "weenie toss," and leave beer pong to the ones capable of playing it.

Begin your next rebuttal with an accounting of what you were doing in 1986, if you were even alive. That's when I learned the game.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Scarebros

Via BuzzFeed, which says: "These hidden camera shots from Nightmares Fear Factory in Niagara Falls, Canada, tell me three things: 1. Bros love going to haunted houses together. 2. Bros are easy to spook. 3. We should call them 'scarebros.'"

These shots are incredible. Three below, but click here to see many more, most of them as good.



Sunday, September 11, 2011

Gallery 35


View of Lower Manhattan from Exchange Place, New Jersey, by Camilo Jose Vergara.

PBS and Slate have more of Vergara's photos of the Twin Towers, here and here.

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Thursday, September 08, 2011

Me and Philip

My friend Brad sent me this e-mail today, which I found highly entertaining, so I thought I would share:

If you went to the state fair and got a caricature drawn of you, and the artist working the booth was Diego Velazquez, I think the resulting portrait might look something like any of his portraits of King Philip IV.

Remember, I did say caricature. I do mean that he kind of looks to me like a comic impression of you, not you. He painted this dude a lot. Must’ve been a bigshot in Velazquez’s day. There are a lot of him when he was older that don’t look as much like you. Also, this is just a portrait. The “action” paintings are always of him hunting or riding a horse or owning a valuable dog — all things that I don’t really associate with you. But every time I see a Velazquez painting of Philip IV, I always think — there goes Diego painting Johnny again.

Hopefully this does not offend you. If you have to have an artist obsessed with your likeness, you can do a lot worse than Diego Velazquez...

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Mavs.

I don't think Dirk Nowitzki had anything left to prove. If the Heat had come back and won this series, what could you possibly say other than that Dirk is a great talent and a gamer? Still, it's incredible how sports will sometimes provide a story line like this one — incredible that five years after a brutal loss, Dirk hoists the trophy in Miami, to mirror the Heat winning the '06 title in Dallas.

And I've made enough bad predictions in my life (like everyone else) that you'll have to let me savor picking the Mavs in 6.

Unbelievable series. Let's do it again next year, shall we?

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Thursday, June 02, 2011

Dirk.

This is why you watch sports. Because 25 minutes ago, I was about to post something here about how it didn't look good (at all), but I wouldn't completely give up or stop watching the series. Because at least for the moment, the deep hope that this series might make up for a brutal loss in 2006 has been kindled in a way that almost perfectly mirrors that series. What an insane, unlikely comeback. And doubly sweet because I had seriously underestimated how much I might hate this Miami team. I know most of the country was there well before me, but I've always been a late bloomer. I've always liked Wade, and I've said before and will say again that he and James are the two best players in the league. But between James and Bosh and the almost Lakers-like Miami fans, I'm now far more invested in this thing than I should be. I'm 37 damn years old. Over the past three or four years, I've found my ability to get goofy-lost in rooting for a team seriously hampered. But I was just hopping around the living room like an idiot a few minutes ago. I really like and respect Nowitzki, and this Mavs team seems like the antithesis of the Heat in terms of attitude. I almost get the feeling Nowitzki won't be able to celebrate even if he does win a title, whereas BoshLeWade threw themselves a championship-caliber bash before the season even started. We'll see what happens from here. There have been a few stretches of both games where Dallas was more than able to hold its own. There are also stretches where they let up on defense and James marches to the hoop like Sherman to the sea. Heading back to Dallas, the Mavs should certainly be pumped up — if they can use that momentum and the home crowd to stay maniacally focused on defense, then this could be a classic series. They're still the less naturally gifted team (with Wade and James on the other side, you'd pretty much have to have Magic and Jordan to not be less naturally gifted), but they're still deeper and — possibly — tougher. But all of this is just the adrenaline talking. What a game, what a game.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Dirk Takes His Talents to South Beach

This has the potential to be a great NBA finals, both on the court and in terms of "story lines," which I normally dread in sports. The Mavs being here was considered by most to be highly unlikely, so we didn't have a lot of time to anticipate or get used to the idea of a rematch of the 2006 finals. But what a great rematch.

In '06, as everyone knows, the Mavs collapsed and lost four straight after being up 2 games to 0 and leading by double digits late in Game 3. The other story was — oh, wait, I think a ref from '06 just called someone else for fouling Dwyane Wade — the officiating. The Mavs totally blew their collective top and deserved to lose that series, but even neutral observers noticed the whistles. I can vividly remember, in Game 6 in Dallas, one play where, just before pulling up for a jumper, Wade nearly fully extended his arm into a defender, and the foul went the other way. Star treatment in the NBA is part of the game, but this was something different, something bizarre.

That series was gut-wrenching on so many levels. Game 4 was — almost inevitably, after the disaster in Game 3 — a blowout by the Heat. But in the other three Miami wins, the total differential was six points (including a 101-100 overtime Game 5). The next season, the Mavericks lost their first four games, and then played the next 78 as if each one could somehow erase the previous season's result, finishing 67-15, tied for the sixth most regular-season wins in league history. They then lost in the first round of the playoffs to the lowly — but quick and high-scoring — Golden State Warriors.

In terms of back-to-back bad exits, it's hard to imagine worse. And I don't mean hard to think of one that was worse, but hard to fictionally engineer one that could be worse. After the Warriors' series, Dirk Nowitzki went off to Australia for a few weeks, forgot about basketball, grew a giant beard, and became the NBA equivalent of Al Gore after the 2000 election.

There won't be any neutral observers in this series. There will be Heat fans, Mavs fans, and Everyone Else, who, in this case, will likely be rooting for Dallas. LeWadeBosh made sure of that.

Dirk went 2 for 13 from the field in Game 5 of that Golden State series mentioned above, and it's hard to believe anything like that could happen again, the way he's been playing for the past month. Dirk's the big key, since he's one superstar against two in this series. But I still think Dallas' depth, though it's being mentioned, is being underrated in a league with a lot of shallow teams at the moment. This is not to mention Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood, who, if the game plan is sound, should give Miami more problems down low than the East could. The 2-3-2 home advantage for Miami is huge. I don't like that at all, and I think it means Dallas has to win one of the first two to have any chance whatsoever. I've been predicting them every round (and not feeling crazy about it), so I'll continue: Dallas in 6. Dirk and Kidd's desperation and their supporting cast over two of the best players ever.

Enjoy it.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

“A thousand pages of ideological fabulism. I had to flog myself to read it.”

Following on my somewhat recent post about Ayn Rand and Atlas Shrugged, here's a clip of William F. Buckley talking to Charlie Rose in 2003. He discusses Rand, her influence, and a negative review of Atlas Shrugged by Whittaker Chambers that Buckley commissioned:



Chambers' review of the novel ran in the Dec. 28, 1957, issue of National Review, and it's well worth reading in full, partly because it's hard to imagine a widely read conservative publication making a case like this today. Here's a piece:
[Karl Marx], too, admired “naked self-interest” (in its time and place), and for much the same reasons as Miss Rand: because, he believed, it cleared away the cobwebs of religion and led to prodigies of industrial and cognate accomplishment.

The overlap is not as incongruous as it looks. Atlas Shrugged can be called a novel only by devaluing the term. It is a massive tract for the times. Its story merely serves Miss Rand to get the customers inside the tent, and as a soapbox for delivering her Message. The Message is the thing. It is, in sum, a forthright philosophic materialism. Upperclassmen might incline to sniff and say that the author has, with vast effort, contrived a simple materialist system, one, intellectually, at about the stage of the oxcart, though without mastering the principle of the wheel. Like any consistent materialism, this one begins by rejecting God, religion, original sin, etc. etc. (This book’s aggressive atheism and rather unbuttoned “higher morality,” which chiefly outrage some readers, are, in fact, secondary ripples, and result inevitably from its underpinning premises.) Thus, Randian Man, like Marxian Man, is made the center of a godless world.
(via Open Culture)

Sunday, May 08, 2011

The Big Sweep

[This post was started this afternoon, during the fourth quarter of the game, and finished late tonight.]

Well, the big story going into this round of the NBA playoffs was that Dirk Nowitzki had never faced Kobe Bryant in the postseason, which is crazy when you consider that they’re two of the best players for the last decade, in the same conference, on teams that make the playoffs every year.

The big story exiting this round of the NBA playoffs is that Nowitzki is 4-0 vs. Bryant in the postseason.

I’ve been giggling for the past 15 minutes, despite the fact that the punk-ass Lakers have been doing everything they can to effect Dallas’ fate in the next round by playing like it’s roller derby. It’s rare that you get a chance to revel in a basketball win for something like an hour while the game is still being played. Rare that you get to just laugh at Phil Jackson’s smug face as he takes in what’s happening to his team. (I actually like Jackson, but now’s not the time for diplomacy.) It’s 101-68 right now — sorry, did you not get that? 101-68 — and the last two fouls by the Lakers have been, in the accurate words of the announcers, “a disgrace.” It looks like the WWF out there.

So, before I get to the two points I wanted to make about this series (but was scared to write about until it was officially over), let me just wish Lamar Odom, the pouty Pau Gasol, and the overrated Andrew Bynum a very happy summer.

Now it’s 112-78.

OK: The first point I wanted to make is about fandom. As a kid, I was a Knicks’ fan, and it was soon after I moved to Dallas that New York played its epic but futile string of playoff series against Michael Jordan’s Bulls. I spent those series spazzing out in front of the TV, rooting for the Knicks in a way that’s completely lost when you reach a certain age. I was sometimes elated but also truly suffered through those games.

When I moved back to New York in 2000, the Knicks were starting what could very kindly be called a Lost Decade. From the management non-stylings of Isiah Thomas to the selfish play of Stephon Marbury to the perennial bench-riding of high-salaried black holes like Eddy Curry, the Knicks were not just a bad team: they were entirely unlikable. So it didn’t take me long to stop rooting for them.

This was also the time when the Dallas Mavericks were becoming consistently competitive, which was a shock after the 1990s, when they were less a laughingstock than just a nonentity. With the Knicks languishing and the Mavs rising, it wasn’t difficult to be drawn to Dallas. Plus — and this seems key — I tend to live (in my head) where I’m not (in body). The nostalgia I felt for Dallas didn’t manifest itself in other sports; the Mavs got all of it.

This year, I should have regained some enthusiasm for the Knicks. They finally turned things around enough to get a couple of stars on the roster and spark some hope for the future. But I felt nothing. I didn’t care at all whether they beat the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

The second thing to talk about is the result of the series itself. The way it happened is obviously shocking — the two-time defending champs being swept and completely humiliated in Game 4. But from the beginning, the prevailing wisdom was that the Mavs couldn’t win the series. That was silly. ESPN.com had 14 “experts” (their word) choose the winner of the series before it started. All 14 picked L.A. Not one person envisioned one 57-25 team beating another 57-25 team. One reason for this, I’ll get to below. But let’s stick with tangibles for now:

Bill Simmons said on Twitter during the game today: “This would be a stunning sweep. On paper, L.A. has 4 of the best 5 players in the series. Their 4th best player (Odom) would be #2 for Dallas.”

This misses the point on a couple of levels. The first is that it overrates Odom (and probably Bynum, too). As L.A.’s potentially second-best player, Pau Gasol could have been a difference in the series, except he didn’t show up. Past him, I think the talent gap at the top isn’t that extreme. But more importantly, look away from the top. Kobe put it simply at the press conference after the game: “Their depth hurt us.” Dallas has four or five guys off the bench who can contribute. Past Odom, the Lakers give significant minutes to Shannon Brown and Steve Blake. That’s rough.

It also ignores that there were specific areas where Dallas had a big advantage. One was Nowitzki, who presented a match-up nightmare (and does for most). Another was point guard. Yes, Jason Kidd is 503 years old (he’ll be 504 next March), but he’s also one of the best (and now “craftiest,” which is a much nicer way of saying “ancient”) point guards in the history of the league. His backup, J.J. Barea, is a bit of a magician himself. The Lakers countered with Derek Fisher, who shot 38% from the field and averaged less than three assists a game this year.

Lastly, the “choke” issue. This is the most obvious explanation for how 14 people could all pick the Lakers to win the series. The Mavs have been dogged by this ever since they lost the 2006 finals to Miami after almost going up 3-0. And the way they handled that series as it unfolded, yeah, choking was part of it. They got rattled. The next year, as a 1 seed, they lost to the Golden State Warriors. I could argue that wasn’t a choke, though it was horribly disappointing. Did the Spurs choke against Memphis this year, or were they just outplayed? Golden State was fast and high-scoring that year, and the Mavericks had played the regular season at an insanely high gear for the NBA. The most surprising thing about that series was that Golden State looked like the better team. Odd, yes. Choking, not necessarily.

But I think back to A-Rod in the 2009 baseball playoffs. Had he come up small in the postseason before that? Often. But you give a guy that talented enough chances, and he’s going to make something happen. Likewise, you add some key supporting talent to Dallas, and L.A. loses a step, and here we are. It’s not shocking, and I think the choking theory, for any relatively high-achieving team or individual, over time, is a bit lazy. Now, get back to me if they lose the next series in four.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Osama, Meet Obama

I was alone at home Sunday night when my younger sister called and told me that President Obama would be speaking momentarily about a national security issue, and no one knew what it was.

These were not calming words.

I don’t need to recite to you the litany of things that might be going wrong. (Yet I recite them to myself on a regular basis.) It was just a few minutes later when word about the subject circulated. Like everyone else, I reacted on a few different levels:

One level was sadness, just because anything that vividly takes me back to 9/11 and its aftermath is an inherently unhappy thing. Those were tough days, so I got choked up for a few seconds while waiting (interminably) for Obama to speak.

Another level — what might have been something resembling relief if bin Laden had been killed in, say, 2002 — was now more accurately described as weary satisfaction. In recent years, it already felt like al Qaeda was severely splintered (though not toothless), and that bin Laden was a mythic motivator rather than a real-life general. Capturing or killing him started to feel just as mythic — and more a Where’s Waldo?-like test of patience and vision than a top strategic priority. But of course, it was still good news. Mythic motivators are important. And so is justice, however long delayed. Bin Laden was not just a murderer, but a longtime, calculating, political one, so I see nothing wrong with him being killed in battle, as it were. It was his choice to make that one of his possible paths to the grave.

The resultant celebration was surprising to me. I have nothing against it, per se, though I’m more the type of person who would only gather and yell in public for something sports-related. When it comes to things like war — and a lot of other things besides — I’m more like the guy at left, who spent part of the night of bin Laden’s death mourning a loved one at the Pentagon memorial.

I didn’t lose anyone on 9/11, and I’m certainly not going to shed any tears for bin Laden, but overall I feel like this is one small, just event in a much larger string of incredibly sad events. And unlike V-E Day, to take one example, this is not a clear-cut finale to something. The battle we’re in (the world is in) is untraditional, and it can’t be stopped by one accomplishment.

I did take a moment to celebrate. One of the first things I did after hearing the news, being a 21st-century nincompoop, was happily post this video from the 1980s to Facebook and Twitter. But when I saw the celebration outside the White House, I was surprised by the size and demographics of it. So many of the celebrants looked like high school kids. Bruce Arthur, a Canadian writer whose work I’ve come to know through his entertaining Twitter feed, was in D.C. for it:
People climbed trees and lampposts, until they were asked to stop. Many were so young. . . . It was the primal hunger to experience history, to live a part of something bigger, to be on TV rather than watching on TV. They wanted to be the man swinging the hammer on the Berlin Wall, to be the Navy man or the nurse sharing a kiss in Times Square on V-J Day, to be the dancing crowds in Tahrir Square.
Arthur found a woman whose younger sister was killed at her desk in the Pentagon on 9/11, and asked for her reaction to bin Laden’s death:
“We were elated, but in the meantime we were also sad,” Monica said, “that someone’s life was taken. I would say that he deserved what he got. Can I say that? That he deserved what he got. Us being a Christian family, we’re supposed to learn how to love and forget, to forgive people. But it’s very hard.”
You can absolutely say he deserved what he got. Not being a Christian myself, but being quite nonviolent, I still think it’s a perverse extension of sympathy to waste much of it on someone like bin Laden. There are all kinds of people who do bad things who I can see deserving sympathy, even of the deepest, most radically Christian kind — people in terrible circumstances, otherwise decent people who do something awful in a fit of passion, stupidity, madness and/or panic — but he’s not one of them.

At the New Republic, Leon Wieseltier, who was also in D.C., offered another perspective on the crowd’s jubilation:
Almost everybody was Twittering their excitement. (A Twittering mob is a less terrifying mob.) A lot of beer was drunk and spilled. The scene was boorish, of course. Triumphalism is often not a pretty thing. But still distinctions had to be made. This crowd burned nobody in effigy, nobody’s flag, nobody’s books. It had assembled to celebrate an entirely defensible act, whose justice could be proven on more than merely nationalistic grounds. After all, Osama bin Laden killed even more Muslims than Americans, and represented one of the most poisonous ideas of our time: the restoration, by means of sanctified violence, of a human world without rights.
Well said.

My other thoughts that night mostly revolved around the mainstream media (which is just embarrassing on almost every level) and Obama. When my sister called, I turned on the TV, which was on NBC, to find Donald Trump earnestly addressing La Toya Jackson in the boardroom. Earlier in the week, I had seen a video clip of Trump getting huge cheers from a crowd by saying that the country has no leadership.