Saturday, August 27, 2011

Best Blog Post 2011

A couple days after I wrote last week's post, in which I declared the cover of Sports Illustrated to be irrelevant, the Milwaukee Brewers made the cover for the first time in 24 years. And just like that, my Facebook and Twitter feeds blew up with mentions of Sports Illustrated. Local media outlets reported on the occurrence almost as if the team had accomplished an objective level of success, not as if a national competitor had simply made an editorial judgment on what story would be featured that week. But for all that, I'm not about to retract last week's post. I still think the cover of Sports Illustrated is irrelevant. And I should know. I was in Who's Who of American High School Students four years running.

Wikipedia tells me that this publication ceased to exist in 2007. We always hear that our education system is in need of reform, but who knew there are no more noteworthy high school students in America? Or, a more likely explanation for the cessation of the publication: Google made it easy for people who receive notification of the award to realize that it was essentially meaningless, that it existed simply to sell books to proud parents. To call inclusion in "Who's Who" a "recognition" would be wrong, since a "recognition" requires a third-party to execute the verb.

But although the Who's Who may be an extreme example, in reality most awards, honors, and recognitions exist in such an arrangement. There is no shortage of plaques, trophies, and certificates of achievement in this world. And the vast, vast majority of them would be recognizable only to those who have ownership of them or those who feel that they should own them (though I suspect that a surprisingly large percentage of owners wouldn't even be able to identify their own hardware).

Some awards exist in order to help recipients pad resumes, some serve the legitimate function of determining who should have access to limited resources, and many are simply there in order to allow individuals to feed their egos. But the common threads among many are 1) like the Who's Who, the award serves the additional purpose of building the reputation (or the bottom line) of the institution bestowing the award and 2) after a minimal passage of time, very few remember who won the award. I'd say that if either of those criteria are present, it should serve to temper any enthusiasm for a recognition, or alleviate any frustration at not being a named recipient. In short, it calls into question the relevance of the distinction.

And this brings the discussion back to Sports Illustrated. No doubt in the future a fair amount of Brewer fans will remember when Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun, and Nyjer Morgan graced the cover in 2011 (moreso if the Brewers go on to experience postseason success). But fans of other teams? SI subscribers in general?

And, as is sometimes the case, the words of an anonymous Internet commentator can reveal a lot about a situation. A poster on Brewer fan site wrote: "Does anybody know where I can get a Sports Illustrated in the Milwaukee area?"

Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Rise and Fall of the Cover Image

In 1989, one of my prized possessions was a commemorative edition of Sports Illustrated, celebrating the 35th anniversary of the magazine's existence (and only in hindsight do I realize that this was a cynical cash ploy, that 35 is not a milestone that is typically celebrated--but when you have only lived 11 years, any anniversary that ends in zero or five really does seem significant). Anyway, this special edition contained an image of every cover of every SI ever published. I drooled over this thing like some pre-adolescents drool over Playboy. And though I lost track of it somewhere over the years and haven't seen it in a long time, a Google search confirms that I have a word-for-word recollection of a subhead on the title: "The Champ Ali Graces Our Cover for a Record 31st time." And the cover showed a then-contemporary picture of Muhammed Ali holding up a classic SI with himself on the cover.

Forget the cover jinx inanity--back then people talked about SI cover appearances as if it were a cultural currency. This special edition also had a table in back with the stats, so one could see in the pre-Wikipedia era which athletes had made the most cover appearances. (I noticed at the time that Jordan was gaining on Ali, and now he is far and away the leader all-time, with Tiger Woods also having passed The Greatest).

And I still remember when it was a big deal in 1992 when Bonnie Blair, Kristi Yamaguchi, and Kathy Ireland made the cover in successive weeks, marking the first time ever that women were featured on the cover three weeks in a row (though I think the fact that one of the above was a swimsuit model negates any claims that SI would have to progressivism). And this might have been the last time that I really thought about SI covers. But a couple years after that, in 1994, my attention turned to Time Magazine, accused of doctoring O.J. Simpson's mugshot to make him look worse.

It didn't help that Newsweek ran the same mugshot undoctored.

What all of these reminisces have in common is that they are from an era when weekly magazines shaped the way that we thought about the world around us. There was a daily media, but the place to go for thoughtful analysis and commentary, to take a step back from immediate events and try to put occurrences into context, was either the Sunday morning news shows or the glossy weekly magazines. But the latter offered something that the electronic media didn't have. Since TV was (and is) so ephemeral, even though it was a visual media, it was difficult for any television image to penetrate the national consciousness (interestingly, due to their repetitive nature, TV commercials were somewhat successful in this regard, especially the iconic political ads such as LBJ's little girl picking daisies and Dukakis in a tank). So it was cover images of magazines that often set the agenda for national conversations, that gave a concrete visual representation of abstract phenomena.

But ironically, because we are now in an era when media has made such representations exceedingly easy, they now proliferate and therefore lose their currency. The only way that a Newsweek cover can get traction anymore is if it is controversial on editorial grounds.

And that of course brings us to the Michelle Bachmann cover controversy. What intrigues me about this development is how many people probably first encountered this cover virtually. I wish there were stats on this; my guess would be that the majority of people who have seen this image have not seen the actual magazine itself. And this is ironic because the story has become viral on the basis that the cover depiction is supposedly important, that the decision that Newsweek editors make has some bearing on public perception of Michelle Bachmann. But, in another twist of irony, a Google search on "Newsweek" and "Bachmann" fails to locate the actual Newsweek story anywhere in the first five pages of results (I gave up looking after that).

It used to be that a handful of privileged editors would elevate certain images to the fore of public consumption. But we are fast approaching a world where no image will be automatically awarded a favored status. It will be up to the hive mind to determine what if any images will be seared into the minds of the masses...for better or for worse.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

O Captain My Captain

Captain America spoilers herein:

Making a movie about Captain America is a risky proposition. In the months leading up to the latest big budget high-profile release from Marvel Studios, media attention focused on the viability of a star-spangled hero in foreign markets--which are now crucial to a blockbuster movie's revenue stream. In the end, this largely proved to be a nonfactor. Despite the option given to overseas distributors to change the title of the film, few did, and the end result has been robust box offices and a Hollywood Reporter story with the headline "'Captain America' Surprisingly Loved by the World."

I personally was not surprised by the overseas reception. While audiences in other nations may have objections to policies of the American government, they haven't ever let that get in the way of their consumption of American pop culture. But I still had three concerns about how the filmmakers would execute the character's concept.

First, Captain America is an easy character to turn into a political marionette. When one is literally draped in symbolism, it can become awfully easy to view the character as a symbol to be manipulated. And of course, that is how the movie's Senator Brandt views Steve Rogers, turning him into a stage performer in order to rally the homefront. But the writers and director never stoop to this tactic themselves, never using the character to make a ham-fisted political statement (something which was done by the makers of the straight-to-video 1990 Captain America movie, which involved a villain motivated by anti-environmental interests and a direct appeal during closing credits for viewers to support the Environmental Protection Act of 1990). But even the Senator Brandt character, while shown to be wrongheaded and willing to exploit the Captain for personal political gain, has a degree of nuance. He wasn't wrong to assert that Cap could help build morale on the homefront, and it isn't totally unreasonable to assume that just one super soldier couldn't do a whole lot of good in military missions.

Second, anytime you portray fictional soldiers fighting a war, there is a danger of insensitivity to the reality of the horrors of war. Add Nazis to the mix and there is a further danger. What kind of commentary would it be if this revisionist history showed that a souped-up individual was necessary to beat Hitler, when in reality a U.S. and Allied military beat Hitler without the help of any superheroes? But the writers wisely used Hydra as a rogue offshoot of the Nazis, so that Captain America (and the unnamed Howling Commandos) could concentrate on eliminating this threat, while the rest of the war could presumably proceed as it actually did historically. As for the portrayal of soldiers, I think there are only two satisfactory outcomes for the hero of a war movie. The hero must either die, or must experience some degree of feeling of alienation upon returning to the civilian world. Anything else would cheapen the message of what war really does to people. The genius of the Captain America mythos is that we actually get both outcomes. He makes a heroic sacrifice at the end. Even though he had much to live for (symbolized by the "date" he makes with his "dying" breath), he realizes that it is more important to surrender his personal good for the greater good. But then when he awakens decades later, he finds himself in a world nothing like the one he left. And despite the efforts of others to ease the transition, he sees through the facade immediately. I find the subtext in the final scenes incredibly powerful. Even the post-credits scene where Nick Fury tells Captain America that his services are still needed strikes me as a subtle reminder of what today's soldiers go through, with their multiple tours of duty.

Finally, for as much mileage that superhero movies have gotten from the Joseph Campbell template, I was kind of hoping that Captain America would largely skip the hero's journey route. After seeing Spider-Man, Iron Man, Thor, Green Lantern, and even Batman and Smallville's Superman trod the path of "learning valuable lessons" that gives rise to heroism, I hoped to not see that here. I always thought that Captain America, like Superman, should be a fully formed hero from the outset. And in fact, the movie does a terrific job of portraying this. Steve Rogers is already a hero in the opening scenes. He is unrelenting in his attempts to join the military, but also is pointed in answering Dr. Erskine that he "doesn't want to kill anybody," that his motivation is not to kill Nazis, but to stand up to bullies. And when he shows a willingness to fall on a grenade to save his fellow recruits, we already get a glimpse of the man who would soon figuratively fall on a grenade in order to save the world.

With such a solid grasp of the character and the way in which the filmmakers were able to balance thematic sensitivity with a strong moral message and the requisite action, it's no wonder this film did so well both in America and worldwide. Now we only have to wait nine months to see Chris Evans' Cap interact with Robert Downey Jr.'s Iron Man. Avengers Assemble!

Sunday, August 07, 2011

Do Writers Still Matter?

"There was still a sense in 1986...writers around the world were in many ways at the center of the national argument, in a way we may feel is no longer the case....I don't know quite why it doesn't happen so much in America anymore. There was a time when writers like...Mailer and Sontag and Didion and DeLillo and Robert Stone...a whole generation of writers who very consciously looked for a public voice...I'm not sure who their equivalents today might be..."
--- Salman Rushdie at the 2011 PEN world voice festival.

I've thought much about what Rushdie is saying above, even well before I heard him say it. I've long had the suspicion that my generation is the first in centuries that has had no desire for literary spokespeople. Rushdie of course will be forever remembered more for fallout after writing The Satanic Verses than for anything else. Twenty-five years later, it is still not a stretch of the imagination to assume that an extremist Muslim leader would call for the assassination of someone for blasphemy against Islam. But I don't think it is as easy to imagine a scenario where a novelist would be targeted. Perhaps in a telling indication about a change in society, it was cartoonists who suffered in a more recent controversy.

So what exactly has changed to bring about a world where writers are less likely to face a fatwa, but also less likely to contribute to "national argument"? It's easy enough to blame technology, to assume that novelists have simply been superseded by tweeters. But I think there are a number of factors at work in diminishing the voice (and power) of the writer.

1) There was a time in the mid-20th Century that writers became rock stars. Kerouac and the beats, Wolfe, Kesey, Hunter S. Thompson and the like were lauded along with The Beatles and The Stones. Bob Dylan hung out with Alan Ginsburg. Rushdie himself made one of his rare public appearances during the fatwa at a U2 concert. So why aren't writers rock stars anymore? Perhaps because we don't really have rock stars anymore. I wrote three years ago that we have entered an "archival era," that creative innovation has largely ceased and now we are just unpacking all that is out there, rehashing when appropriate. So if the writers of the past actually still speak, what need is there for new ones?

2) A significant way in which 20th Century writers achieved prominence was through the academy. Literary scholars appointed a Faulkner or a Joyce to a position of artistic merit, and subsequent generations were trained to esteem them as well. But eventually, scholars turned to deconstructing the canon rather than building it. When Roland Barthes wrote an essay in 1967 called "Death of the Author" and Michel Foucault wrote "What is the Author?" two years later, the concept of a literary sui generis was cast into disrepute. Should it be any surprise that when kids in college learn that it doesn't matter who wrote a book, that they quit looking for insight from people who write books?

3) It's a cliche that "It's easier to tear down than to build up." But in the past, that hasn't necessarily been true. It wasn't always easy to acquire a platform from which to tear down. Robert Greene was a 16th Century English writer who would be completely forgotten today, if not for a pamphlet he wrote with a passage that appears to contain a jab at Shakespeare. This is noteworthy because there are few surviving documents from Shakespeare's contemporaries that reference The Bard, much less one that says something negative. But the document wouldn't have survived had Greene not had some degree of success himself as a writer, however modest relative to his immortal target. More recently, before Roland Barthes was a full-on poststructuralist committed to deconstructing authors, he was known as a master of semiotics, known and read by critics and scholars.

But now, thanks to the Internet, anyone can lob a stone and get a reaction. A couple of my favorite contemporary authors are Malcolm Gladwell and Chuck Klosterman. Both of them had surprising best sellers right before the explosion of the Web. They've written subsequent books in the "Web era," and while they have carved out highly successful careers and huge followings, they've got their fair share of detractors, who flourish on the Web. Recently Klosterman and Gladwell allied themselves with Bill Simmons' new website Grantland, which led to a particularly scathing critique from an anonymous blogger achieving some degree of notoriety.

I'm well aware of the danger of the implications (to say nothing of the hypocrisy) of asserting that only accomplished writers should be able to criticize accomplished writers. But at a certain point, when there is a culture of negativity, when it is infinitely easier to tear down somebody else's creation rather than to fashion one's own, we shouldn't be surprised when there is less supply or demand of writers that matter.

4) "One of the things I remember [about the 1986 PEN festival with Updike, Bellow, Sontag, etc]...which is really different than the PEN festivals we're having now is how bad-tempered it was, how all the writers were fighting with each other like cats and dogs"-- Rushdie

While conventional wisdom is that technology has caused a decline in overall civility in society, writers themselves are apparently getting along with each other better than they used to. But I'm not convinced this is something to be happy about. Writers have always tended toward the political left, but I get the sense that there used to be less of a codified dogmatism than there now exists. Christopher Hitchins strikes me as someone who is exceptional in his range of opinions--fervently anti-religious to the point of participating in organized debates with evangelicals, strongly in support of American interventionist policies in the Middle East including the Iraq invasion, and morally outraged about "enhanced interrogation techniques" to the point where he underwent waterboarding to bolster his claim that it is torture. But off the top of my head I can't come up with any more names of writers who have the ability to surprise with their opinions. Sure, a talented writer can still find a way to take a commonly-held idea and package and disseminate it in a compelling way. But once the content itself loses the edge of unpredictability and when style is the only thing that separates one writer from another, audiences will be less motivated to seek anyone out.

So whereas Shelley famously called writers "unacknowledged legislators of the word," maybe it is time to cut the last four words off of that quote.