Saturday, September 24, 2011

"It is designed to break your heart."

March 11th, 2011; Florida Auto Exchange Stadium, Dunedin, FL; NY Yankees at Toronto Blue Jays: I’d never been to Spring Training before; I wanted to see the Detroit Tigers, but I was in Florida for just a few days, and this was the game I could attend. Dunedin is a pretty little town on the Intracoastal, and it feels far too small to host as major an attraction as a ballpark, but there it is, right next door to the public library. The Yankee team was a split squad: Nick Swisher, former Tiger Curtis Granderson, and a bunch of boys who wouldn’t see the Bronx this year. The crowd was everything you want the crowd at a spring training game to be: leathery, silvery, overfamiliar. “Nice try!” the old ladies, half in their cups, called to the young men returning to the dugout after failing to get a hit…and they really meant it. Toronto Blue Jays 10, New York Yankees 3

May 12th, 2011; AT&T Park, San Francisco, CA; Arizona Diamondbacks at San Francisco Giants: I flew to San Jose for Game 7 of the Red Wings-Sharks series, arriving late morning on the day of the game, and thought, Why not spend the afternoon at the Giants’ game? I’d been to San Francisco before, but not AT&T Park. The view from the upper deck has to be the most beautiful sight in all of baseball. Out in the Bay, Treasure Island disappeared and re-appeared throughout the afternoon, just like the Giants’ offense. (I wonder how many times that’s been written.) SF Giants 3, Arizona Diamondbacks 2

June 19th, 2011; Jingu Stadium, Tokyo, Japan; Chiba Lotte Marines at Tokyo Yakult Swallows: If you visit Japan during baseball season, you can watch live broadcasts of Seattle Mariners (Ichiro Suzuki) or Los Angeles Angels (Hideki Matsui) night games on TV. Because of the time zone, you’ll be watching during breakfast. They are shown commercial-free; during the American TV timeouts, the cameras roam odd corners of the stadiums, or find Ichiro or Matsui stretching or just sitting in the dugout. There’s no commentary, just the ambient sound of the ballpark, slightly muted. It’s eerie and magnetic, but relaxing. In contrast, attending a Nippon League game is exhausting. It is a three-ring circus, with the game itself rarely in the center ring.

The stands are divided into Home and Visitors sections, like a college football stadium. The home team has a cheerleading squad, twenty strong, which takes the field between sides; fans sometimes accompany them onto the field between innings, raggedly performing the cheers alongside the squad, or playing catch with their own children. In the stands, meanwhile, beer girls, dressed much like cheerleaders or, given the uniform caps, stewardesses from the golden age of air travel, climb up and down the steps, dispensing beer into plastic cups from SCUBA-like tanks worn on their backs. (There is a different uniform in a different bright color for each kind of beer each beer maker sells.) When the home team is at bat, each player has their self-picked entrance song, played over the public address system, just as in American baseball (auto-tuned dance-pop), but they also have their own unique crowd chant, accompanied by its own unique rhythm – banged out on souvenir hollow-plastic bats (sold in pairs) by the crowd – and a few distinct notes played by trumpeters seated here and there among the crowd (fans? employees? I couldn’t tell you) and, in some cases, the syncopated raising and lowering of parasols in team colors. The crowd chant continues for the entire at-bat.

Wladimir Balentien, from Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles, a former top MLB prospect who played two seasons with the Seattle Mariners, was a huge crowd favorite, with the most pleasing and best-choreographed crowd chant: “Home run, home run, Balentien!” But he twice hit into inning-ending double plays with the bases loaded. Chiba Lotte Marines 7, Tokyo Yakult Swallows 1

July 2nd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: Driven from the best seats I’ve ever had at a ball game (ten rows behind the visitor dugout) by a lashing rain. Left for home during the rain delay, something I’ve never done before, but the sky was genuinely terrifying. Never before had I seen a sky like that in life. In Ghostbusters, maybe. SF Giants 15, Detroit Tigers 3

July 3rd, 2011; Comerica Park, Detroit, MI; SF Giants at Detroit Tigers: As beautiful a day as you will ever see in Detroit. With two on and one out in one of the middle innings, the hilarious old man seated behind me asked: “Who’s up?” Old Man’s Relative: “Brennan Boesch.” Old Man: “Well, he’s due.” (Boesch had 3 RBIs already.) Tigers 6, Giants 3

August 9th, 2011; National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Cooperstown, NY: On June 2nd, 2010, Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga seemed to touch first base with his right shoe to get the 27th straight Cleveland batter out for a perfect game. Umpire Jim Joyce called the runner safe, although he later apologized for having “kicked the call.” Galaragga retired the 28th batter and accepted his near gem with extraordinary sportsmanship.—text of card on display with Galarraga’s shoes.

September 10th, 2011; Michigan Stadium, Ann Arbor, MI (via national broadcast); Notre Dame Irish at Michigan Wolverines: Yeah, football. Historic first night game at Michigan Stadium. First instance this year of a Tigers game being brushed aside, or treated as an hors d’oeuvre – in the middle of the pennant race! – because of a football game. It won’t be the last. September is a hard month for baseball fans.

September 13th, 2011; The Art of Fielding: This debut novel by Chad Harbach, set in the world of college baseball, received a lot of press and sounded hard to resist, even though I’ve been disappointed by the big new literary doorstops for some years now, especially when there was a sports element that seemed to promise to keep the thing wedded to story: there’s apparently a lot of tennis in Infinite Jest, but not in the first 200 pages (not that I remember, anyway); the hunt for Bobby Thompson’s home run ball didn’t make Delillo’s Underground less of a slog. I needn’t have worried about The Art of Fielding, though. Don’t you worry either. Just pick up a copy. “It is designed to break your heart,” the late Bart Giamatti, former MLB commissioner, said of baseball; the quote would make good copy for this book.

September 16th, 2011; Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum (via FoxSports Detroit broadcast); Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics: the Tigers clinch the American League Central Division Title for the first time in 24 years. Tigers 3, A’s 1

September 23rd, 2011; Moneyball: Inexplicably bombing at the box office in Japan while I was there was a film titled Moshidora, starring the country’s sweetheart, Acchan, making her move from pre-fab teen pop idol (as an “elected leader” of the group AKB48; its ubiquity is nearly impossible to exaggerate) to solo artist (billboards for her first single were stuck to the side of every other building in Tokyo) and lead actress. Her first film role found her cast as the manager of a high school baseball team, who turns the team’s fortunes around when she discovers the writings of Peter Drucker. I am not making this up. If I spoke Japanese, or if the film had been subtitled in English, or even if I just could have snuck off on my own and none of my friends been any the wiser…I would have seen the movie; but I don’t feel I have to have seen it, or Moneyball, to say the following with authority: Brad Pitt is no Acchan.

September 24, 2011: What time is the next show of Moneyball?

October, 2011: I have tickets for the first game of the American League playoffs in Detroit…and I’ve registered to buy tickets to a World Series game. Here’s luck!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Ratted out

Possible spoilers ahead, for those interested in reading/watching the following: Drive by James Sallis; Drive (directed) by Nicolas Winding Refn; Charley Varrick (directed) by Don Siegel; Reservoir Dogs (written & directed) by Quentin Tarantino; Queenpin by Megan Abbott; No Country For Old Men (directed) by Joel Coen; Thief (directed) by Michael Mann

The new movie Drive is based on a short novel by James Sallis, from 2005. I read it that year or the next, then pretty much forgot about it. That statement, in and of itself, isn’t so much a dismissal of the book as a consequence of the ridiculous number of books of its kind I was reading at the time – two or three a week. There was something of an explosion of neo-noir crime fiction writing around the middle of the oughts, along with dozens upon dozens of reprints of long-unavailable paperback originals from the post-war noir boom. I’d always been drawn to the genre and wanted to figure out how to write in it, and I was grateful for the opportunity to read the old stuff, and I was curious to see if I could tell whether the wave of cynicism recently attendant to the War on Terror would inform this new writing in the manner that cynicism about the idealized America that the veterans of World War Two found themselves returning to informed the moral landscape of the crime novels of the Gold Medal paperback era. Whew. Well, in a word, no. With the exception of a few major talents, most notably Megan Abbott and Jason Starr, the writers of the new noir seem like a bunch of kids whose sense of the genre’s history begins and ends at Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, and even the best of their writing is similarly an exercise in style, with little consideration for much more than being “cool.” They pretty much treat the hard-won cynicism of their literary forebears as if it were something you can buy at a tattoo parlor.

It’s hard to say where Sallis fits in. I’ve read nothing else by him, but the bibliography at his official website includes a private detective series, three books on jazz guitar, an “experimental” novel, a translation of Raymond Queneau, work as a science fiction editor, and books of poetry. There’s nothing that says your basic polymath can’t also be a credible noir writer, but Drive just isn’t very good. Here’s the opening:

Much later, as he sat with his back against the inside wall of a Motel 6 just north of Phoenix, watching the pool of blood lap toward him, Driver would wonder whether he had made a terrible mistake. Later still, of course, there’d be no doubt. But for now Driver is, as they say, in the moment. And the moment includes this blood lapping toward him, the pressure of dawn’s late light at windows and door, traffic sounds from the interstate nearby, the sound of someone weeping in the next room.

The story is but one paragraph old and I’m already confused. Much later, later still, but for now: Are we in the Motel 6 at paragraph’s end, or not? Are there two motels and twin pools of blood, one lapping toward him in his memory? How’s about Writer being, as they say, in the moment? Leaving the whole “pressure of light” business unparsed, it’s pretty important, in a thriller, to know the basic journalistic facts about the action at hand; it’s difficult to feel any tension if you have no idea what’s at stake, and it’s impossible to know what’s at stake when the logistics of the situation are indiscernible. (This is the same reason that most action scenes in contemporary films, with their splintered editing, leave no lasting impression.) Poets needn’t be clear thinkers, but someone turning their hand to noir had better be. The paragraph above unintentionally reads like Phillip K. Dick at his worst: with a head full of amphetamines, and the rent past due.

The film adaptation opens with more promise, with a pre-credit sequence that’s controlled and tense. After laying out the terms of his employment over the phone (“You don’t need to know the route…I’m the one driving…that’s all I do…you have five minutes inside…”etc.), Ryan Gosling exits an anonymous room in L.A., wordlessly retrieves an inconspicuous-looking, souped-up Chevy from chatty garage owner Bryan Cranston (“No one’s going to be looking at you in this car, kid”) and pulls up in the dark outside a chained gate in an industrial area. He straps a wristwatch to the steering wheel as two men in ski masks cross the street carrying bolt cutters. He tunes in the Clippers game on the car radio and the police band on a small portable. The men break open the gate and enter a warehouse through a loading dock door.

Up to this point, the director, Nicolas Winding Refn, seems to have the patience of a spider, and he maintains it through the getaway that follows – a sequence of Gosling evading, rather than outrunning, the police – that’s  smarter and more exciting than…anything in the rest of the movie, unfortunately.

Having established Gosling’s character as a smart, cool loner, the film introduces his neighbor Irene, played by Carey Mulligan, to start the process of rendering him stupid and uncool and lonely. Irene has a husband in prison and a young son, who looks up to Gosling; a chaste romance has barely begun when the husband is released, returns to the apartment, and puts his family in jeopardy – unless Gosling helps him out. He does, but everything goes pear-shaped, and Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman, as criminal associates of the aforementioned Bryan Cranston, need their bag of cash and their pound of flesh, in no particular order.

That’s it for the plot; it’s been done before, perhaps definitively in the great Don Siegel film Charley Varrick, with Walter Matthau, Joe Don Baker and John Vernon. That, at any rate, was the movie I kept thinking about as I sat in the theater watching the second half of Drive. Joe Don Baker is terrifying in that movie, and he manages it without covering himself in blood; Walter Matthau stays a step ahead of him by not losing his cool. Unfortunately, Ryan Gosling’s character never saw Charley Varrick, so we are treated to the sight of him stomping on a man’s face until the man’s jawbone scuttles across the floor, revealing a penchant for savagery that makes no sense (nothing has prepared us for it), and from which the movie never recovers.

(An aside: there is a scene with very similar violence in Megan Abbott’s novel Queenpin, and it is tremendously effective. You might think the major difference would be that one is shown on the screen, and the other only described on the page, but the scene in Abbott’s book is harder to read than the scene in Drive is to watch. The major difference is that everything in Abbott’s book before that scene builds toward it, and everything after it is slowly backing away. In other words, everything has prepared us for it, yet it is still shocking. If it were a film instead of a novel, it would be in black and white, but that one scene would be in color.)

It’s true that it’s been many years since I saw Reservoir Dogs at the Michigan Theater and half the audience walked out in the middle of the scene when Michael Madsen cuts off the captive policeman’s ear, even though the evisceration takes place off-camera. I have a feeling that Nicolas Winding Refn would defend the gore in his movie as merely staying abreast of what people have come to expect in horror movies and video games, and by people we both would mean the 15 to 25 year olds who are the target audience for most movies. But there’s a huge audience for Drive that was lured in by the ridiculously-beautiful look of the trailer, and the footage of Albert Brooks saying “Whatever plans or dreams you might have…you’re going to have to put them on hold…for the rest of your life”…as if he was realizing a lifelong fantasy of playing the Kirk Douglas role in Out of the Past. That audience didn’t object to being shown what it was shown in Saving Private Ryan, but it must wonder what place charnel house imagery has in a stylish little noir.

How can this sort of story be filmed effectively, then, without blinking, while still seeming contemporary? As a recent example, think of the conclusion of the scene in No Country For Old Men when Josh Brolin shoots the pit bull that’s been pursuing him on the river: the dead dog he pushes off his chest is an obvious prop, without a drop of blood in sight; it diminishes the thrill of everything that’s come before not one iota.

Worse, to me, than any viscera in the film is what seems to be the idea behind it: an idea about purity. Gosling the loner loves Mulligan (and her child) with a purity you and I cannot understand, the film seems to say, and, to defend her, he has to say goodbye – which gives them permission to share the lone kiss they share – and turn himself into an animal. You are primed from the early scenes in the movie, and from all the movies of this type you’ve enjoyed in the past, to watch Gosling use his skill for outwitting cops against his fellow criminals, but, when his dream girl is in danger, he has to get down and roll around on the killing floor, ruining his pretty silk jacket.

And what of this pure love? Refn allows his stars to do little more than make eyes at each other, shyly, as if they were pre-teens. (In Michael Mann’s Thief, thirty years ago, James Caan courts Tuesday Weld by showing her the childish collage he made in prison, from magazine clippings – but Mann allows them to marry.) Would letting them take things any farther make Mulligan a bad mother? Would it make Gosling’s desire to protect her questionable somehow? This is the kind of old Hollywood morality that noir originally came into existence to cure, the kind of thing those WWII vets looked at and said, “Give me a fucking break.” 

Saturday, September 17, 2011

A trick of memory

I was hired as a bookseller at the original Borders store in Ann Arbor in 1994. If you asked the townies, Borders was already finished by then: Tom and Louis Borders had betrayed their longtime employees when they sold the company to Kmart, two years earlier; we were corporate drones now. In truth, Kmart was hands-off, but the townies had a point. The Ann Arbor store had just moved to a larger building, to accommodate the addition of music and video departments and a café. More locations were opening, diluting the experience for faithful customers who had always made pilgrimages to Ann Arbor. The company was poised to go public and begin its near two-decade suicide.

It didn’t feel that way at Store #01, though. The original manager was still running the shop, still doing the hiring. The famous book test was still handed out to anyone who asked for a job application. Copies of the Sunday NYT Book Review and the New York Review of Books were complimentary for staff. A glance around the break room would typically find employees reading The Odyssey, say, or The Master and Margarita, or working the NYT crossword in ink. The closing shift often moved en masse to one of the nearby pubs. We rented houses together, stayed at the store for two or three years, left for law school. Only a dark night of the soul caught us referring to what we did as working in retail.

My lasting regret is that I didn’t become a bookseller there a decade earlier, because my first few years at Borders are probably my favorite years of my life. A trick of memory has had me mourning Borders’ demise as if those days at Borders were the sum total of my experience with the place, because the people I met then render dull most everyone I’ve met since, and the business of bookselling makes the duller, more-remunerative work I’ve done seem duller still.

The truth is more complicated, but not by much. I left Store #01 after four years, to open a second Ann Arbor location on the other side of town, in a new big box at an old shopping center along the interstate. It was just as sexy as it sounds. Customers pushed shopping carts from the pet supply next door through our narrow, carpeted aisles. The display space in stores was now sold to publishers, who increasingly threw all their marketing money at celebrity books. The famous book test was gone, and a visit to the break room would find the unspeakably-young staff watching television. It was, undeniably now, retail work. I fled back to the downtown store, where the good fight was still being fought, as soon as possible. But life led me away from Ann Arbor, and I quit in 2002.

And then…what? A decade of ill feelings. I can’t say I was much of a customer any longer; it had never bothered me greatly in childhood when a shoebox-sized Little Professor didn’t have the book I wanted, but to walk empty-handed out of a store the size of Borders, where I’d once been able to find anything, passing floor stacks of Glenn Beck’s latest on my way to the door, made my blood boil. Worst of all, when the life that led me away from the bookstore became intolerable, there was nowhere to retreat to – what once felt like home was now unrecognizable.

Now it’s over, and the idiots one expected to gloat are gloating, and eleven thousand more Americans are out of work (with more to follow). The only real lesson to learn from the story is perhaps the one Americans never seem ready to learn: Small may not be ideal, but Big is Crazy. Doesn’t anyone think eleven thousand is a lot of souls to be working in bookstores? And that’s only half the field. For comparison, there are less than fifty thousand UAW workers at General Motors.

I feel bad for everyone involved at the end, but I feel the worst for my friends, for my younger self, and for the store in Ann Arbor. For years, it was the best bookstore in the world; then it was reduced to a skeleton by ignorant suits, and now it’s gone. I’m not sure what was gained. A woman who gave many more years of her life than I did to the place recently posted on Facebook that this great experiment helped lead to a better-informed, more tolerant country. I rushed to agree with her, but the voice in my head said Yes. Isn’t it pretty to think so?