Monday, August 18, 2014

Lost My Head in San Francisco

When I boarded a plane out of San Francisco on August 11, I had no idea anyone had died. I’d been in town for a pair of baseball games at Coliseum, just one BART stop away from the notorious Fruitvale Station, but I’d been too caught up in the moment to follow any news. My father and I were busy talking about our upcoming Blue Jays “home” game in Seattle; we were talking about next year’s planned trip to St Louis; we were talking about the electrifying Blue Jays game that we’d missed, which had actually extended longer than the A’s game we’d paid to see, despite starting three hours earlier.

Two people died within 50 miles of that airport. One was a man with whom I’d only ever had secondary contact: some former coworkers had watched Robin Williams sit quietly in a booth at some ritzy Yorkville bar in 2005 or 2006. I don’t know whether he was off the wagon at that point. Could be he was enjoying the company of some charming locals. Or just bored, rich and in the neighbourhood.

The other was a man who knew me from afar, but I don’t know that I’d trust him to remember my name. Brian Hendricks already had cancer by the first time I enrolled in a film class with him. In fact, he missed the bulk of that semester for treatment while his TA mentored the class. He was present for the rest of my academic tenure, but remote. In all four courses, his method of teaching was the same: show us a film – some obscure, some not-so-obscure –; spend half an hour proselytizing on the meaning of life; tell us to go be creative. There was no discourse and no academic standard to uphold. The rules were simple: if we turned in something spectacular, we got an A; if we turned in anything at all, we got a B; if we turned in nothing, we got an F. I got one A, one B, and two Fs.

                It was those Fs that rang in my mind when I heard about his death. Not as schadenfreude, mind you – just as a complicating factor. How do you memorialise someone who was occasionally inspiring, but often as not the opposite? I conceived a brilliant story in one memorable course, but the classes that didn't mean as much left me feeling cold and existential. Obviously my professor knew his personal road ahead was bleak, which is why, as I failed his last-ever course, he prepared to take his leave for the California sunshine. Every half-assed paper to which I might devote my time was only a reminder of how that time might be better spent enjoying the little moments of life on this earth – if anything, his teaching emphasized the ideal of not working.

                I remember the Robin Williams from my childhood probably not as well as I should. I must have seen Mrs Doubtfire and Hook at some point, but the ones I remember are Jack and Flubber. They surfaced a little later in my childhood, around the time I began to memorize ad campaigns. In retrospect, they’re fluff movies, stuff that should probably never have been made at all, but they are Robin Williams movies. With a few notable exceptions, prime Robin Williams was a most dominant actor in the sense that his movies were always about him. Even his serious and/or supporting roles seemed to possess not so much character traits within the universe of the film at hand, but character traits within the Robin Williams universe. The various Robin Williams iterations are mostly heavy on id and light on ego, which might explain why he appealed so often to children.

                I was half-asleep in my Seattle hotel room when I heard the news. “Who died?” I said aloud. Not out of unfamiliarity with the man, but because the name is so homonymic I thought I was mistaking him for the singer or some other similar-sounding human. Upon ascertaining that it was, in fact, that Robin Williams, I quickly assumed an overdose or something otherwise drug-related. But then his suicide seems almost more self-evident than some more direct symptom of drug abuse. The Wire showrunner David Simon articulates uncovering a deeply unhappy side of the man in his account of meeting Williams on a TV set; truly, Williams’ endearing mania always seemed somehow fundamentally unstable. Such effervescence must have its logical counterpoint. It’s easy now to look back through old photos and interview footage and find glimpses of the grimace that Simon references.

                This trip was a combination of my annual baseball sojourns: every year I make sure to get home to Toronto for a couple of games and annually my father and I hit up a different road ballpark. Traditionally, Toronto happens in early July and we go to the States for Labour Day, but this year they ran together: the Jays were home for my last three days in town, and we were to hit San Francisco and Seattle on my way back to British Columbia. Moreover, this year the games were to have meaning – in years past the Jays have been a longshot by July and running out rookies by early September. This year, by contrast, the early-August series pitted the second-place Jays against the first-place Orioles, and after our stop in San Francisco to see the league-best Oakland A’s, we were to see the Jays take on the suddenly wildcard-contending Mariners.

                Ah, but timing is everything, and the problem with meaningful games is that they hurt more than meaningless ones. My first Jays game of 2014 came on my birthday. It was awful. After closing within a game and a half of first place, the Jays had laid an egg against the brutal Astros and they came home limping. On JoseBautista T-shirt giveaway day, Mark Buehrle gave up 13 baserunners in just four innings, the infield made two awful misplays and Bautista meekly popped up both times he was given the opportunity to get the Jays back in the game. By the eighth, things were out of hand and I didn't even have the stomach to sneak into the front row for the last fifteen minutes. The Jays won the next night, but lost the series and any hope of gaining ground on first place. I left for San Francisco as they welcomed the stumbling Tigers in for a three-game set.

                And what a series it was! Friday night’s game featured stellar closer Casey Janssen blowing a 4-2 lead in the ninth. Saturday’s game saw the Jays tie it in the ninth and win it in the tenth. And Sunday was the game to end all games, the game referred in the opening paragraph of this article – in the words of ESPN writer David Schoenfield, “the best game of the year.” The Jays looked primed to lose in the ninth when Anthony Gose was caught stealing, but challenged the play, saw the call overturned and tied the game. They then played an entire extra game before the Jays finally walked it off in the nineteenth inning – about half an hour after the scoreboard had gone down at my west coast game.

                It was a great game to put an end to a stupendous series, but the Jays were exhausted by the time they met me in Seattle. The electric crowd of travelling British Columbians (a Seattle newspaper estimated 60% Jays’ fans in attendance, which seems low) seemed the boost them for three or four innings – they even built a 1-0 lead against the best pitcher in baseball, Felix Hernandez – but it was not to be. The Mariners offence exploded against an overmatched minor league call-up, and the game and series quickly turned into a laugher. In the course of six games over seven days, I’d watched the Jays tumble from holding a wildcard slot while contending for the division to 2 games out of the wildcard and 5 out of the division. The three losses on either side of that seven-game stretch painted an even bleaker picture – a reduction in playoff odds from around 56% on Aug 1 to less than 10% on Aug 15.
What most struck me about the fan base at the Coliseum was the palpable inferiority complex. Not its presence – every city that boasts two teams has its favourite and its also-ran – but its vocal intensity. It wasn't the domain of bored talk-show hosts, it was the defining feature of every A’s fan I encountered. They complained that Giants fans were the downtown crowd, people who didn't know anything about the rules of the history of the game. They complained about how nice the park was, how you couldn't get good seats. It didn't seem to matter that the A’s were the best team in baseball while the Giants were in the midst of a slow fade: to be an A’s fan was to be anti-hipster.

It’s not a perfect analogy for race relations – the A’s have been a powerhouse franchise for much of their history, with more overall championships than the Giants if none quite so recent – but it’s easy to see why being a Giants fan might seem more first-class. The Giants play in a beautiful modern stadium rather than a converted football field from another generation; they’re just steps from the harbour and a thriving downtown core; they even have a natural California rival that pre-dates California baseball altogether. The A’s have none of those things – the park is surrounded by industry and a parking lot and their most natural divisional rival is a former expansion team.
How fitting, then, in light of the Michael Brown incident, that St Louis was to be our next baseball destination? Racialism in America is a strange subject for me. Income inequality is not the same as institutional oppression, and while Canada has its share of the former I often idealistically imagine the latter to be a thing of the past. Racism in my world is the domain of hicks and dropouts, and both rich and poor come in all shapes and sizes. I saw the news coverage on the same day I heard about Robin Williams. Later, I read Rembert Browne’s first-person account of the aftermath. He describes going to the front lines in Ferguson on a lark, in part as a journalist, but also as a rubbernecker. He describes an environment shockingly peaceful until it wasn’t: tear gas, smoke bombs, rubber bullets, and journalists under arrest. I've seen similar over-enforcement only once in my lifetime, at the 2010 G-20 summit protests in Toronto. But while then I could empathize with my friends’ middle-class outrage at being thrown in jail without water or due process, I can never have true comprehension of Browne’s sudden revelation in the chaos that he was “just another black man in Ferguson.”

My most indelible memory of our baseball trip to Milwaukee was boarding a transit bus to discover I was the only white person on board. Major urban subways are more integrated, but it’s no coincidence that the film Fruitvale Station centres on the story of a black man killed by a white police officer. An early scene in The Shield depicts a white police officer killing someone while mediating a dispute between a black woman and an Arab man, and being told afterwards that it was a good thing she killed the right person so as not to incite a race riot. That episode may have been fictional, but the series of events that led to the conception of the show was not – a white police officer shooting and killing an undercover black officer.

That doesn’t touch on Rodney King, or 30 previous years of racial strife beforehand. It doesn’t touch on Trayvon Martin, or Eric Garner, or thousands of unnamed victims who survived police oppression or fell down a different type of rabbit hole. In isolation, any one of those events could point to an individual stepping over a line in a moment of extreme stress. Taken together, they underscore all the conflicts that can arise when racism and classism intersect with a culture of violence. While on the BART in San Francisco, I happened to overhear a conversation between a cluster of rich young (white) professionals. In between intense debate over which bar to hit and who they were[n’t] going to bang that night, one guy offhandedly recounted his buddies getting robbed at gunpoint in an alley. “Fools,” he said, condescending. It wasn’t the event that I found shocking – I've been robbed before – it was the cavalier tone of the storyteller. The occurrence didn't even warrant a true recounting. It was a joke.

                It was in a Brian Hendricks film class that I first discovered the work of Jim Jarmusch. At his best, Jarmusch specializes in what I would term “quiet absurdism.” They’re moments that don’t really make sense against the broader canvas of the film, but that do make sense if you understand the characters in question. Sometimes that means asking someone for a cigarette while the house is burning down. There’s an exchange in Stranger than Paradise where the protagonist buys a dress for a girl, and she tells him it’s ugly. The dress doesn't matter to the film; it’s the momentary subversion of our expectations of the character that makes the moment sing. Talking about death is like that. Sometimes there’s nothing at all to say about enormities. Just bizarre fucking moments to relive.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Blood Lust

I don't know if this film is quintessential Tarantino or if it just belongs to the weird 90s pastiche of murderous road movies, but then a lack of definability is exactly what has since vaulted Tarantino to his idiosyncratic strata of superstardom. True Romance is part violence orgy, part puppy love, and partly the reappropriation of cool as a concept. I feel like Tarantino makes a concerted effort at anachronistical "coolness," not unlike the teacher in high school who wore vaguely out-of-fashion clothing but got brownie points from the student body just for being aware that in doing so he was, by extension, commenting on their own fashion sense. And since it's Tarantino, there are a lot of convoluted plot lines that lead to an endless stream of bodies, and the adolescent concept of true love that gives the film its title and through line.

Aside from the obvious (Bonnie and Clyde, which I've never actually seen, and Thelma and Louise, which came out two years earlier and was directed by the other Scott brother), my main frames of reference for this film were Terence Malick's Badlands and Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers (to be honest, for the longest time I thought NBK and TR were the same movie). Badlands is a movie about a bored little girl on a farm who gets sweet-talked by a guy in his twenties to run away and live on the wild side for a while. The whole movie is undercut by a voiceover from that little girl about the meaning of life and her (inconsistent) reasons for doing what she did. From that voiceover, we get that, despite everything that happens, she's just a fucked up little kid looking for something that doesn't exist, and for that reason we feel something like empathy for a character who is morally on the wrong side of the tracks. True Romance cops the voiceover, as Alabama attempts to explain why she falls for Clarence, and why in the end she thinks he's "so cool" despite everything that has gone down.

But here's the thing: in Badlands, Kit was a bad guy, but the story belonged to that girl who followed him with deer-in-the-headlights eyes. True Romance is Clarence's own kung fu fantasy, and he doesn't come out as the badass he wants to be so much as an average dude in over his head, someone who wreaks a path of death and destruction that isn't so much his doing as it is fallout for his stupidity. He murders a pimp, which is asking for trouble, but he's never even confronted with the fact that his father takes the fall for it. By the end of the movie, I didn't care about Clarence's journey anymore: he would have been better off to stay home and play house with the pretty girl he already had in the bag. Hell, it was her that picked him up at the outset, and maybe that's one of the reasons her idolization occasionally rings false.

I don't really know how this movie compares to NBK, in many ways its bastard sibling. I vaguely remember hating NBK for what it wasn't, for its lack of insight. Of course, Oliver Stone isn't really one for introspection; his movies are more about values. And as bad people, I felt his protagonists(/antagonists) were in large part objectified. If there's ever an opportunity for moral ambiguity, it belongs in a movie about youth, angst and bloodlust, and as far as capturing the adolescent fantasy that spurs both movies, True Romance does a superior job. Tarantino and Scott do a brilliant job of describing how fun  it would seem to run to California with a suitcase full of coke, even if the bodies start flying before we have time to really revel in the hedonism.

In general, there were so many things to love about TR that I wished I'd enjoyed it more. For one, Gary Oldman. Holy fuck, Gary Oldman. Why couldn't this movie have been about your character?
What's that, James Franco? You want to play a sick, twisted, faux-black, dread-toting drug dealer with weird teeth? Alien is a housecat next to Drexl. Seriously. I haven't seen a lot of Oldman, but what I have seen feels like a callback to this amazingly frightening and devastating character who lasts far too short for the TR world. He's fast-talking, he's greasier than the underbelly of a Winnebago, and he absolutely emanates insanity.

In this paint-by-numbers script, Drexl is the inciting incident, the character who pulls Clarence from the mushy feel-good prologue (which could have made for an entirely different, smaller movie about the risks of falling in love with a prostitute) into the violence that will consume TR's world. But Drexl's appearance also the point where the film jumped the shark for me. Clarence spirits Alabama away and Drexl has no idea where she is. So why does Clarence go to Drexl? Why even go to the bank if you know you can't cash the check? Everything that happens in the movie is a direct result of Clarence knowingly walking into a bed of snakes, and when shit goes bad all I could think was...well, were you expecting a carnation?

Things gets weird. People show up. Some of them stick around, others don't. Plotlines return when they're needed. That creepy theme music invades your brain. A lot of people who were semi-famous in 1993 and are much more famous now get cameos. And then everybody dies.

And then...Pulp Fiction happened.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Identity Crisis

Well, that didn't take long. A month-and-a-half without a post and it's time to take a step back and decide: what is this blog? My previous site was specifically designated as a baseball blog, but that petered out as I realized there were a million others out there getting more exposure because they're infinitely better researched, or connected, or simply brought something to the table which was out of my ballpark. So I switched to this, something more amorphous. So what is this, then? Does it have a focus at all?

A while ago I stumbled across a site that was comprised simply of a guy sitting around and watching certain genres of old movies and sagely recapping how outdated they'd become (the internet in You've Got Mail, the cellphones in Annie Hall). It was a mildly hilarious blog and inspired me to watch several cringeworthy-yet-awesome 90's movies of the Can't Hardly Wait prototype (you know the ones I mean, the talky high school movies that pose as romcoms with a lot of geeks and a decent amount of John Hughes-Richard Linklater crossover). But the site has since been swallowed up by the internet and I'm not sure I'll ever find it again. Maybe permanently deleted, maybe paywalled, or maybe I just can't remember the stupid title.

Remembering that site, though - and how good it was - makes me wonder if I should turn this into a review site. It could be a structured one, where the website forms a kind of course outline to be determined in advance, or more loose-leaf, a general spot for me to recap whatever I just watched or what book I'm working through. Needless to say, they won't be pat critiques; what's interesting to me about a movie is how I relate to it, not how functional it is in the abstract. To be honest, I'm resistant to the structure of tying my writing to critiques at all, but I think I need some focus and the truth is that as much as I enjoy empty philosophising and relations about the strange people I encounter on a day-to-day basis, I get the sinking feeling that people don't enjoy travelling down my existential wormholes nearly as much as I'd like to think they do. Media is how we are taught to process our anxieties these days.

But I watch a lot of movies, and I read a lot of books. And while I primarily read or watch for value, sometimes I indulge in shit. And I don't necessarily mean shit like so-called "summer reading" or "blockbusters" (which are usually either terrific works of art in disguise or just awful), I just mean stuff that is surprising or weird. Picking up a book at Value Village that looks bad just to see if you can judge a book by its cover. Streaming a movie without IMDBing it first. 

Most recently, I read a nonfiction about the New York mafia in the 1980s. It wasn't a particularly great book, and I didn't feel like I came away from it with an intricate understanding of the subject matter or any great level of self-reflection. But it only cost a buck and I did enjoy it for other reasons - the light it cast on stock Hollywood mafia characters, the way the criminal underworld uncovered in the book reminded me of a similar underworld portrayed on The Wire (whether borrowed from fictions or a true-life underworld of its own accord), the external examination of a corporate system. But really, what I got from the book isn't worth a blog post on its own, and if I were to pose the question, "what would you like to read a review about?" I would expect John Gotti to wind up about 7,184th on the list. It was worth the hours of boredom it consumed on the plane, and the slight edification it provided for future endeavours...and that's about it.

On the heels of that, I watched Casino Jack, which is similarly about mobs, money and government corruption. Again, it was a true story, and like the Gotti book, the protag was hardly sympathetic, but I enjoy the film quite a bit less than the book. Basically, it's about a lobbyist who used his influence to swindle some people out of some money and invest in some offshore casinos, breaking some laws and some people in the process. While it's true that one of the hardest and most interesting things to do in fiction is to turn a bad person into your main character, the problems in the film ran deeper than that; not only was there no place to put your sympathies, there was no sense of continuity or structure, or, really, rising action at all.

(As an aside, can Kevin Spacey stop making these movies? At what point at the beginning of his career did someone decide that his average-suburban-dad was a perfect face for the mastermind villian in every caper movie ever? He's like classy Steve Buscemi, shmucky-looking schmucks who have carved out entire careers on being total assholes, when their best roles (Lester Burnam and Seymour, respectively) have come as the losers they looked like all along. I'm not saying I don't respect the niches they've carved out for themselves, I just think they need to do more arthouse stuff that shows their true abilities.)

The film was a sequence of bad people doing vaguely bad things related to purchasing casinos while alternating between being broke and flush, all culminating in a relatively unearned moralistic ending. While I get the analogy (dur, Jack was a gambler), the movie was missing the through line that would have put the dangerous game at the heart of the movie into some sort of life context, and maybe taken us along for the ride. There's a way to write a movie where the audience is hustled just as much as the marks in the film, even (and especially) if it leaves us with a sick sense in their stomach at the end; Casino Jack was (literally) sitting back and watching some jerkoff rationalize after he'd been caught with chips in his pocket. I would have loved to be drawn into the thrill of the scheme Jack was running, but he presents himself as a true asshole from the opening monologue and only finds any reprieve in comparison to his even filthier partner in crime (played by Barry Pepper, most memorable to me as the douchebag friend in 25th Hour, a slightly more sympathetic look at an asshole forced to sleep in a bed of his own making).

At their heart, both the movie and the book are reflections on the perversion of the American Dream; making it means busting heads and turning into the kind of monster who pays to get someone whacked in prison. Which is interesting in and of itself, and what it says about the world, but doesn't necessarily make for the most introspective reviewing. So what do people think? Should I review idle, picked-it-up-off-the-street junk like this? Or only the good/relevant/sage stuff?