Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Baseball books


In the spring, following a trip to Scottsdale to see some Cactus League games, I stockpiled books about baseball – books expressly (Bottom of the 33rd, by Dan Barry), literarily (The Great American Novel, by Philip Roth), or tangentially (The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King) about the game – for my summer reading.

This was a stupid idea, of course. I’ve spent more time with my nose in the handy digest Who’s Who in Baseball 2012, easily consulted during a game without missing a pitch, than with any of these books. There’s just too much baseball to watch, and too much entertaining sportswriting to read, competing for one’s time; the more fanciful, baseball-adjacent reading endeavors have to wait for November (or, at least, the All-Star break).

That said, before my book-reading attention was pulled elsewhere, I made it halfway through Bottom of the 33rd (by page count; it’s only the 10th inning) and entirely through The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training, by Josh Wilker.

Bottom of the 33rd is New York Times columnist Dan Barry's account of the longest professional baseball game yet played, an 8-hour International League contest in Pawtucket in 1981 that ended at three in the morning on Easter Sunday.

The entire book’s structure is reminiscent of the opening chapter of Don Delillo’s Underworld, as Barry roams the field and the stands, picking up the stories of the assorted minor leaguers, ballpark employees, and fans, before and during the game and, in some cases, thirty years later.

If Barry presses too hard for the mythopoeic in the early going, he settles down nicely long before the extra innings, and I look forward to picking up the book again.

The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training is a twenty thousand-word monograph on the first of the universally-dismissed sequels to the classic Walter Matthau-Tatum O’Neal comedy. It’s part of the intriguing “Deep Focus” series from Soft Skull Press: vest-pocket long-form critical views of crappy, secretly-great flicks from the ‘70s and ‘80s. (Other books in the series cover Death Wish, Heathers, and They Live.)

The author, Josh Wilker, is the proprietor of the terrific blog Cardboard Gods, documenting his obsession, then and now, with the baseball cards of his youth. He takes a similar, then-and-now look at the movie – what it meant to him at the time of its theatrical run, when he was a Little Leaguer himself, and throughout more critical viewings as an adult.

He also makes an interesting case for the movie as an unknowing vessel for the feeling in the country during the transition from Jimmy Carter’s America to Ronald Reagan’s. Cheap genre entertainments, like children, will absorb what’s in the air:

“Everyone best knows what his or her nation is as a kid because when you’re a kid, you feel it. Later on, as an adult, you have a better intellectual understanding, maybe, but the feeling isn’t as direct.”

This is an example of the sort of simple truth that woolgathering about the national pastime leads one to. It’s also precisely the sort of thing that sports fans who hate baseball hate baseball for, but who cares? No one writes books for those jerks.


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Ten matinees


Wanderlust starts well, heaping misery on Jennifer Aniston and Paul Rudd at a good fast clip; then it slows down, and becomes the story of how the residents of a present-day commune, all played by sketch comedy veterans, make Jennifer Aniston feel welcome, and the movie becomes a movie about Jennifer Aniston being in the movie. She stopped by our clubhouse, and she was so normal! But really she’s too big for the clubhouse.

***

Goon, a comedy set in the world of minor-league hockey, suffered the fate of a limited release, wandering, goon-like, into few theaters, for a single week, right in the middle of one of our nation’s periodic epidemics of hand-wringing over violence in sports, which is ironic, considering that Goon is very sweet, and the worst thing that happens is someone loses a tooth; meanwhile, in 21 Jump Street, now playing everywhere, it’s supposed to be hilarious when someone loses his dick in a gunfight.

***

When you’re young, it’s easy to feel you might be good at anything that interests you. Boundaries are for old people. If you enjoy movies, and you think you have an artistic streak, you might have tried making one at some point; or at least harbored the notion that you could, with little or no training, if you chose to try.

In the good old days, you might have turned out to be Sam Raimi.

In the bad current day, you’ll more likely produce movies featuring your friends drinking in their bathtubs, with a twee original score performed on a Casiotone keyboard.

Proof that I’d become an old person arrived a few years back, when I tried to watch a few of these movies, which critics saddled with the genre-name “mumblecore.”

What makes young, no-budget filmmakers think the lives of underemployed young people make for better cinema than dirt-cheap splatter flicks?

I held out some hope for the Duplass brothers, who tried to double-down with their meta-slasher-mumblecore-opus, Baghead.

Jeff, Who Lives At Home is the second film they’ve made with recognizable actors. The first was Cyrus, in which lonely divorced John C. Reilly starts dating the poorly-conceived character played by Marisa Tomei, only to run afoul of Jonah Hill, her horrible, horrible son. In that film, their handheld, point-and-shoot-and-crash-zoom aesthetic worked; it seemed like a natural fit with the story of a mollycoddled “genius”—as if Jonah Hill’s sociopath had shot the film.

But in Jeff, Who Lives At Home, that same aesthetic, combined with a cast of familiar television-comedy actors, a lighter tone, and a brief running time, just left me feeling like I’d been had – lured to the cinema to watch Must See TV.

***

The Cabin in the Woods is a hoot.

***

The meet-cute scene can tell you a lot about the romantic comedy you’re about to watch.

In The Five-Year Engagement, Jason Segel and Emily Blunt meet at a costume party in San Francisco; she’s made up as Princess Di, he’s a giant pink bunny. In Lockout, Guy Pearce and Maggie Grace meet (in a maximum-security-prison space station orbiting the Earth) when he brings her back from the dead with a chemical injection to the brain by way of a hypodermic needle plunged straight into her eyeball.

Needless to say, that Princess Di business is kinda creepy.

***

Marvel’s The Avengers is probably the closest a gazillion-dollar production will get to reproducing on film my experience of reading a twenty-five cent comic book under a shade tree in 1974.

How much you enjoy the effort should depend heavily on whether or not you consider this progress.

***

Built in the ‘40s as a movie palace, the State Theater had been chopped into a two-story four-screener by the time I started hanging out in Ann Arbor, in the ‘80s. When I moved to Ann Arbor, in the ‘90s, only the second-story screens were still in business, the ground floor having been sold to a clothing store. And so it remains to this day: you enter a narrow street entrance with a box office that’s often unoccupied (tickets at the concession stand), climb a winding staircase, and walk in confusion through a second-floor lobby with the haphazard d├ęcor of a bed-and-breakfast, to sit in one or the other red-velvet half of the former balcony, at a strange angle to the screen, fighting off vertigo until the lights go down.

When I was in high school, it was an inconspicuous place to sober up, on a Saturday night, before driving home: at the late show, watching the cinematic efforts of disreputable types like Harry Reems, Bo Derek, and Mel Gibson. (“How many penises does Harry have? Just the one? I’m okay to drive now.”)

After I moved to Ann Arbor, a housemate took a job at the State, so I stopped by a couple nights a week and got waved in to Farewell, My Concubine and The Addams Family Values and A Perfect World and Larry Clark’s Kids – any damn thing, really. Free movies at the State turned me into a moviegoer, always looking forward to my next trip to the cinema (even after the free part evaporated), going every week – rather than waiting for a draw, as I had in the past.

After years of absence, I saw Damsels in Distress at the State. I didn’t know what to make of the idea of a Whit Stillman movie without Chris Eigeman in it; after seeing Damsels, I don’t know what to make of the reality of it, either.

Part of the great charm of Metropolitan, Barcelona, and The Last Days of Disco was their specificity. They were time-stamped, and openly class-conscious, in a way few movies ever are, more like novels in that regard; is there another English-language film set in Barcelona? They were plotted more like literary novels than films, too.

Damsels, though, takes place in Cloud Cuckoo Land. The cuckoos are still pretty charming, and I felt won over by the final third, but the afterglow hasn’t lasted.

(Where was Eigeman? Acting in Lena Dunham’s “Girls.” Do I have to get HBO now? Damn you, Eigeman.)

***

 With The Dictator, Sasha Baron Cohen has finally made something that will age well. In fact, it may prove timeless. See it right away, though, because it’s really fucking funny.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Against the pantheon


On a recent episode of “30 Rock”, a character declared that there are three things nobody likes to talk about: soccer, jazz, and I forget what the third thing was, because the whole line was such a stupid, pandering joke – better suited to “Family Guy” than “30 Rock.”

People world-wide love to talk soccer…and jazz is a favorite straw man for lazy comics who, on the other hand, are happy to share with audiences their hilarious obsession with Beyonce, or maybe now it’s Rihanna.

Granted, there are a lot of people who don’t like jazz; but jazz, unlike Rihanna, is pretty easy to avoid. With a little effort, you can probably avoid hearing jazz for the rest of your life, so why the hostility?

***

If jazz has brought some of this acrimony down on itself – and it has – the fault lies with the pantheon of great jazz recordings.

Let’s say you grew up when I did – the 1970s. The acknowledged great days of jazz are over. Rock and roll is still going strong, and anyway, there’s nothing else for kids to listen to but rock and roll. So you listen to rock and roll radio, and then you get the notion you want to start buying records (or maybe 8-track cartridges). How do you decide to build your collection? Well, you don’t; you just start buying 8-tracks. You like “Slow Ride,” so you buy an album by Foghat.

The same is true nowadays for indie rock or rap or Top 40 or country or Christian – only the format has changed. (Well, that and the “buying” part.)

But, if you think you might be interested in jazz, or your child or niece or nephew might be, you have to confront the pantheon. For starters: Kind of Blue, Bitches Brew, A Love Supreme, Time Out – four albums I can live the rest of my life without hearing again.

If you give your jazz-curious nephew A Love Supreme, it could be you’re a sadist…or simply unrealistic. In any event, you haven’t done jazz or your nephew a favor.

***

The problem with every list of “essential” jazz recordings is that the albums listed are not entry points into the music. They’re always game-changers. What kind of listening experience is that for someone who doesn’t know the game yet?

The bulk of jazz recordings are blowing sessions from the fifties and sixties: the leader, most often a pianist or reed player, would throw together a small group – the ensemble determined by some combination of who the leader had gigged with recently, who happened to be in town, who wasn’t junk-sick or locked up, etc. – bring an original tune or two and arrangements of a couple standards and something currently popular from Broadway or a crooner on the radio, and record six or eight tracks in an afternoon session or two.

That off-hand quality is part of what makes jazz great. Let The Rolling Stones hidey-hole in Nice for two years arguing over every note of their work-in-progress; Stanley Turrentine can cut an entire record while Jagger decides what truffles to have with lunch.

Getting your hands on a bunch of these workaday recordings is a better introduction to jazz than the great deathless masterworks by Davis and Coltrane that are pushed on everyone and leave many (if not, apparently, most) feeling that jazz is just too hard to follow – or even ripe for hatred.

***
Here are a few titles from the (non-curated) pig-pile near my CD player. You could do worse, and Monk and Ornette will wait for you.

Just Wailin’ Herbie Mann (New Jazz, 1958)
Luminescence!  The Barry Harris Sextet (Prestige, 1967)
Good ‘n’ Groovy Joe Newman with Frank Foster (Swingville, 1961)
When Farmer Met Gryce Art Farmer and Gigi Gryce (Prestige, 1955)
McPherson’s Mood Charles McPherson (Prestige, 1969)
Forrest Fire Jimmy Forrest (New Jazz, 1960)
“Smack Up” Art Pepper Quintet (Contemporary, 1960)
We Three Roy Haynes/Phineas Newborn/Paul Chambers (New Jazz, 1958)
Jimmy & Wes The Dynamic Duo Jimmy Smith & Wes Montgomery (Verve, 1966)
Gerry Mulligan Meets Johnny Hodges (Verve, 1960)
Soul Station Hank Mobley (Blue Note, 1960)