Saturday, February 23, 2008

It was 40+ Years Ago Today

On January 24 I referenced the Maharishi on this blog, and less than two weeks later he was dead. But if I were Herschel Walker, I wouldn't be too worried. I think the fact that the Maharishi was 90 had more to do with his death than the fact that I happened to mention him. And I'm inclined to believe that his death got more attention than Bobbie Fischer's. In any event, I think one of the tributes I ran across gave him a little bit too much credit for supposedly revitalizing the Beatles. The commentator remarked that John Lennon was in a lyrical funk before going to India, and as proof cited the fact that a couple of his Sgt. Pepper efforts were based on mundane encounters: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" came from an old circus poster, and "Good Morning" was supposedly inspired by a cereal box.

While it has become fashionable in critical circles to mount a backlash against Pepper in recent years, I still maintain that it is the finest Beatles album (and if "Strawberry Fields" and "Penny Layne" had been included, I don't think there would even be a debate). Setting aside the music, it stands to me as an important cultural monument--the first thoroughly post-modern artifact to achieve popular success. The cheeky irony that pervades the album, from the iconic cover to the high-pitched whistle at the end (that only dogs can hear), from the self-referential elements to the repetitive groove (that sadly is lost in the translation to digital formats), is enough to make it noteworthy. The melodies, as with any Beatle album, are sufficiently potent to use as a basis for claims of greatness. But far from being great in spite of lyrical content, I assert that it is because of the lyrics that the album is a tour de force.

Although the Beatles critical reputation rests upon their revolutionary impact on music (and pop art in general), and in spite of my previous assertion that Pepper accomplished something new in the pop realm, it is actually a re-connect with a great English poetic tradition that allows the album's lyrics to become transcendent. Taken as a whole, the album is a new Lyrical Ballads. When Wordsworth described good poetry as a "spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings from emotions recollected in tranquility," he could never have envisioned how uniquely situated the Beatles were in 1967 to do just that. When they quit touring after the unfathomable whirlwind of Beatlemania, the lads were in a place that allowed for just what Wordsworth prescribed. Somewhat amazingly, their gaze at this point didn't turn inward, but outward. Many critics have marvelled that the Beatles were able to completely re-invent themselves after the "moptop" phase and revitalize pop culture for a second time. What is amazing to me isn't necessarily that they invented new artistic vistas, but that they didn't become the prototype for British emo and navel gazing. By all rights, Sgt. Pepper should have been Weezer's Pinkerton.

Yet instead of bemoaning his fate of becoming one of the most recognizable faces in the world, Paul McCartney chose to meditate on the possibilities offered by senior citizenship. And "When I'm 64" is the most introspective song on the album! In further contrast to what one would expect to find, George Harrison's lone contribution is about how when "you've seen beyond yourself...peace of mind is waiting there."

Yet the fact that the Beatles weren't singing about themselves has somehow turned into fodder for critics. I suppose this would be a valid criticism if what they were singing about didn't have value. But once again, I think the content of the album does have value because of its Wordsworthian elements. They were able to find the romantic and the grotesque in the mundane, in the everyday. In "Being From the Benefit of Mr. Kite," Lennon manages to simultaneously venerate and mock the spectacle of the circus, creating the kind of tension that critics like M.H. Abrams would laud in the Romantic poets. And though the vast majority of the words may have been lifted from a poster, it's the subtle and ingenious way in which Lennon delivers them that conveys this tension. (Also, I'm particularly fond of the ironic use of "of course" in "of course Henry the Horse dances the waltz.")

McCartney's ironic detachment shines in a song like "Lovely Rita," which brilliantly mocks the kind of lyrics the group was writing only a few short years before, but crouching that mockery in a kind of celebratory exploration of the bourgeois lifestyle they had left behind. His "Fixing a Hole" invokes the kind of stolid, noble, and pathetic hero that Coleridge sometimes depicted. His darkly comedic and clueless narrator in "Getting Better" is nicely (and once again ironically) juxtaposed with John's cynical backing vocals. "She's Leaving Home" might come close to bathos, but I believe it is redeemed by the detached double-consciousness with which Paul delivers the lyrics. Although the lyrics on the page seem to privilege the runaway daughter, the plaintive vocal delivery casts doubt and blame all around, and the end result is to inspire multiple emotions in the listener. The album's title track, in tandem with Ringo's turn at the mic, is yet another instance that conveys an ironic double-consciousness: they somehow manage to acknowledge and dismiss their importance in shaping the cultural zeitgeist, all while creating enough space (in assuming an alternate guise) so as to not seem self-indulgent.

The Lennon contribution "Good Morning" would be an adequate ending to the album. It successfully encapsulates the record's main theme by finding poetic ambivalence in the everyday. Yet the lyric "I've got nothing to say, but it's O.K," belies the strength of the record in two ways. First, the admission that he has nothing to say draws too much attention to the fact that he knows he is expected to say something. The rest of the album (save the George contribution perhaps) succeeds in distracting the audience from this expectation, all the while managing to "say" something anyway. Once he acknowledges the burden of expectation, rather than escaping it, he finds himself compelled to actually say something, and under this burden, can manage nothing more than a hollow re-assurance.

Fortunately, "Good Morning" is not the last song on the album. Sgt. Pepper would be great even if it were, but the Beatles were able to top off their masterpiece with their greatest song of all. Next Week: an analysis of "A Day in the Life."

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Why We Aren't Searching for Bobby Fischer

Last week I discussed Herschel Walker as a potential gauge for assessing how our culture regards mental illness. It occurs to me that another figure can be an interesting case study. The other person I speak of has, like Walker, been profiled in the pages of Sports Illustrated. Unlike Walker, his sport is of a more cerebral nature. I speak of former chess great Bobby Fischer.

Having been born after Fischer's initial rise and fall, I became aware of him in the early 1990s when there was publicity surrounding his comeback. When I first saw news of his death a month ago as a scroll on ESPN, I expected another, final round of publicity for the one-time icon. It never came. Granted, stories with a strong Cold War subtext don't necessarily make for compelling drama anymore, but the memories of Cold War rivalry seem to linger longer when recounting athletic (or otherwise competitive) contests. Since the Cold War never became a hot war, the sites that Americans and Soviets engaged in symbolic combat take on added cultural significance. Witness the somewhat random 2004 release of the movie Miracle. One would think that Fischer's victories against the Soviets on the chessboard would guarantee the same continued fascination that the 1980 hockey team continues to enjoy (or, for all I know, the 1972 Soviet basketball team may enjoy over on the other side of the world). Why is it that movies with Bobby Fischer's name in the title aren't even about Bobby Fischer? Of course, there is a big difference between Fischer and Herb Brooks or Mike Eurozione.

Or rather, there are three big differences. The first is that Fischer was likely mentally ill. I'm not a professional, and even if I were, diagnosing someone through third-hand accounts wouldn't be standard protocol, but I think it's fairly obvious that Fischer's paranoia wasn't compatible with a rational mind. So given the lack of attention to his death, we are confronted with the possible hypotheses that he wasn't acknowledged because we are uncomfortable with confronting the power that mental illness has in taking a national hero and turning him into a disgrace. The problem with this hypothesis is that as a culture, we are fascinated with the archetype of the mad genius. In fact, google the term "mad genius" and you do get at least one account of Fischer's death in the first page of hits. You also get a mention of Poe, one of the progenitors of this archetype in modern literature. A crazy chess genius who beats evil Communists along the way before falling into an abyss of his own making is the stuff of modern myth, and there must be something more than the "craziness" itself to warrant a suppression of the myth.

This leads to an exploration of the second major difference between Fischer and the 1980 hockey players. Fischer was a racist. We are a culture that is intolerant of intolerance, and rather than reward Fischer's anti-Semitic rants, it seems the most mature response would have been to ignore them, and in the process ignore Fischer altogether. And while I would agree with the assertion that some things are not worth dignifying, I don't think this is what led to Fischer's obscurity. Just ask Michael Richards or Don Imus if offensive racial or ethnic statements tend to be ignored.

So my conclusion is that it must be yet another difference that set Fischer apart and removed him from the pantheon of fallen legends. We might pity (or even glamorize) the mentally ill, we might punish and rebuke the intolerant, but we reserve a special punishment--oblivion--for the turncoat. While Benedict Arnold's name lives in infamy, no one knows the particulars of his biography. When he renounced his country and his citizenship, Fischer also renounced his right to become a myth.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Herschel Walker, Shakespeare, and the Joker

While a few brave souls may have predicted a New York Giants Super Bowl win or a John McCain GOP nomination, I'm not sure anyone predicted that Herschel Walker would be a news story in 2008. Aside from University of Georgia fans, who remember the way he dominated college football, or Minnesota Vikings fans, who may try unsuccessfully to forget him, he has been outside of the public consciousness for years.

And though we know very little about his autobiography, which will go on sale this summer, what we do know has resulted in his name briefly re-emerging into the public sphere. The revelation that he will claim to be a victim of multiple-personality (or disassociative identity) disorder is one that has been met with shock and skepticism. Considering the increasing rate of diagnoses of this disorder, it was only a matter of time before the first celebrity came forward with the claim of having the condition. I am quite interested in seeing how the book is received, whether the concept of MPD is explored more in the media, and in general how the public discourse of the subject will play out.

While the late 20th Century saw a re-examination of the way that fiction has traditionally portrayed women and minorities, more recently I've noticed a backlash against the way that mental illness is portrayed. Explorations of what we now call "mental illness" have been around for centuries. It's interesting to consider if Shakespeare would have become the central writer in the literary canon if he had not been allowed to portray what was then called "madness." Not only is mental illness critical to our reading of plays such as Hamlet, MacBeth, and King Lear, but his use of insanity even crops up in many places as a comical device, as audiences presumably thrilled to characters who spouted non-sequitors and violated proprietary social conventions.

In the modern acting pantheon, the actor who stands out as the embodiement of mental instability is Dennis Hopper, who once said:

by the time I was 13 to 18, I did Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego, a replica of the famous Globe Theatre, built for the World Fair. And the great roles that you want to obtain in Shakespeare are Macbeth, Hamlet, King Lear, Iago, Othello all the leads, all the great parts in Shakespeare are almost all mad men, insane murderers. These are the parts I've grown up wanting to play, so it's not terribly different for me to be drawn to the parts that I play now.
So after he had a well-established niche portraying derangement, the marketing wizards at Nike no doubt thought they were on to something by building a mid-1990s ad campaign around Hopper as a deranged football referee, culminating in a bizarre Super Bowl ad that received criticism for its portrayal of the mentally ill: (it starts about two minutes in):

More recently, the upcoming Batman film started to build an ad campaign heavily around the insanity of the Joker, a character created decades ago and portrayed in comics and films for decades as a psychopath's psychopath. In fact, the entire Batman mythology has been built around characters exhibiting extreme mental illness--when he defeats his enemies they are not sent to jail, but to Arkham Asylum. Critics have speculated that Batman himself is mentally ill, and certainly the Frank Miller version of the character qualfies. This summer's Batman flick will likely be a huge hit, but a vague discomfort with some of these subtexts is entering the public conversation, aided in part by the death of Heath Ledger, who played the Joker. Although insensitive and reckless, there have been many on-line posts speculating about the possibility that the role contributed to Ledger's death. The basis for these speculations are comments Ledger made about the mental toll of playing a psychopath.

Re-examination of media representations of mental illness coincides with an awareness that biology and brain chemistry are powerful determinants into the cause of these disorders. Previously, when character flaws were supposed to account for mental disease, it was rather easy to create fictional characters who exhibited a tenuous grip on reality because they chose to break from reality. As it becomes apparent that there is less choice involved than previously thought, it becomes increasingly unlikely that another Dennis Hopper will ever emerge, or that another Hamlet will ever be written (though in the latter case, if it hasn't been achieved in 400 years, there was little liklihood that it would have happened anytime soon, anyway).

However, the one mental illness that has only proliferated in fiction in recent years has been MPD, as evidenced by this Wikipedia list. Even when MPD is not being expressly depicted, it has been hinted at in many other media, such as the recent Todd Haynes Dylan film (in which Ledger and Christian Bale, the Joker and Batman respectively, played different sides of Dylan). The reason for this proliferation seems rather obvious: we live fractured lives and present different identities to different people. Take that concept to the extreme, and you have unlimited narrative potential. The question is whether we will continue to regard the disorder largely as just that- a fiction that is a useful exagerration of our everyday condition. Or will we come to regard it as we do other mental illness- a sensitive topic that must be carefully considered before given fictional representation? And who would have ever thought Herschel Walker would help us to work through this question?

Saturday, February 02, 2008

How One Word Changed the (Sports) World

One of the prevailing philosophies in academia today is that language creates culture, rather than the other way around. I'm not sure if this is the case across the board in every aspect of human life, but I realized this week that there is a good example of this being the case in the world of sports.

A year and a half ago I wrote an essay about sporting cultural differences between America and Europe. If Plaxico Burress were a European soccer player, nobody would have cared that he predicted that his team would win a game. While you could analyze a number of cultural variables as to why American football players have this taboo but European "football" players don't, I think it comes down to one thing: Joe Namath was born in America. And it's not that Joe Namath predicted his team would win. Had he said "I think we are the better team and we will beat the Colts" on that January day in 1969, our American sports culture would be fundamentally different today. But he said "We're going to win the game. I guarantee it."

And just like that, for the last 40 years, that word has been a specter that haunts every athlete who is asked to assess his team's potential in any game. The word is almost tangible during Super Bowl week. When Rodney Harrison made the mistake of "guaranteeing" that the Patriots wouldn't play as bad as they did in their Week 17 victory against the Giants, media reports suggested that he was making a "roundabout" guarantee of victory.

Ever since Namath backed up his guarantee, there have been numerous "guarantees," all of them generating attention. For one example, back in 1994, a Falcons/Rams regular season game got more scrutiny than it ever would have because Andre Rison guaranteed a Falcons win (he backed it up, as it were).

What is often overlooked is that the word as applied to these athletic contests is a misnomer. Nobody is going to give fans a refund if their "guarantee" isn't uphold. Since there are no negative repurcucions, it should hardly be called a guarantee. Yet tradition is a strong force in sports, perhaps only second to mythology. Namath's quote immediately became part of the latter.

Or more accurately, it didn't immediately become myth. He had to win the game first. Even then, the only thing that made it myth was that it took the place of existing myths. The vast majority of Greek myths are constructed around a simple formula: a person gets too enamored with themselves and their abilities, and they are punished. When Namath wasn't punished for his hubris, and in fact was rewarded for it, it was irreconciable with the moral lessons Western culture had inculcated for millenia. This created a tension, but also a demand for the circumstance to be repeated. It seemed to good to be true. It would have to be tested again and again. Never mind that returns are diminishing. There can never be a "guarantee" as powerful as the first, but as long as games are played, there will be an attempt to replicate it. And when you have two weeks to kill between the conference championships and the Super Bowl, it's irresistible for the culture makers (in this case the sports media) to not try to re-animate the myth.

As for Broadway Joe himself, after changing the course of an entire culture with one utterance, he should have quit while he was ahead. "I want to kiss you" just doesn't have the same potency.