Sunday, July 29, 2012

Why I Am Devoted to the Olympics

I know it's not cool to be an Olympics fanatic.  It's become fashionable to take a "too cool for school" attitude toward the Olympic games.  Part of this can be attributed to our postmodern culture--it's necessary to have a detached regard of anything iconic, and if it can't be avoided, it must be consumed ironically.  But part of it, admittedly is that the Olympics are in many ways ridiculous.  It has become commercialized and the original meaning has been overshadowed by big money and consumerism. (But then again, the same has been said about Christmas.  Maybe we should call Olympian-bashers "Olympic Scrooges").  Yes, the Olympics have the potential to promote jingoism.  Yes, television coverage can turn overly saccharine.  Yes, some of the events that people can win medals for border on absurdity. Yes, the theme music is overplayed to the point of annoyance.  But it's possible to poke holes in anything.  I'd rather focus on what makes the Olympics great.  There are four aspects of the Olympiad that make me compelled to tune in--not only tune in casually, but tune in whenever possible.

4. Variety/Diversity: I consider myself a big sports fan.  I love to watch unscripted competition.  But as a busy and responsible adult, living in a saturated media climate, I've got to pick and choose what sports to consume.  I've determined that I have time to follow the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NCAA football and men's basketball.  If there was a Milwaukee water polo team, or even a soccer team, I still wouldn't watch those sports regularly.  But I am casually interested in those sports--as well as badminton, field hockey, volleyball, women's basketball, handball, and rowing.  Actually, there is no sport that I am not casually interested in.  When I was in high school, I read an article decrying how we only pay attention to certain sports when they are contested under the Olympic rings.  I vowed to make more of an effort to pay attention to the results listed in the back page of the USA Today sports section, to take note of (for example) when World Cup skiing events were held.  That vow lasted about as long as most New Year's resolutions.  But I don't at all regret breaking it.  I make no apologies for being casually interested in most of these sports, and the Olympics give the casual sports fan the ultimate variety in entertainment.

3. Crazy Cultural Clashes: We've got a well-defined sports culture in America.  We take sports seriously.  We get upset when athletes "show up" the competition.  We don't believe in quitting.  We don't believe in throwing our teammates under the bus.  We value an ideal of "sportsmanship" over honesty.  Other cultures also value competition, but they might have different values leading to different folkways.  I always appreciate the candor that European athletes show in interviews. I found Usain Bolt's antics in the last Olympics frustrating (how fast could he have gone had he not been celebrating before he crossed the finish line?) but still entertaining.  I was bemused by the North Korean women's soccer team choosing to walk off the field (sorry, "the pitch") when they were insulted by a scoreboard display of the South Korean flag.  You'd never see an American team doing something like that, but that's one element that makes the Olympics fun.  You just don't know how the diversity of cultures will mesh together.

2. Crossover Appeal: I think one of the main reasons that I read comic books is because superhero adventures take place in a "shared universe."  When Superman and Batman get together it is always exciting.  I'm convinced the Avengers movie was so successful commercially in part because Marvel Studios was able to bring the comic book crossover mindset to the movie industry.  But the sports world is built on parallel tracks.  ESPN may cover sports as if it is monolithic, but it is rare that teams or athletes in different sports compete together as part of a shared bill.  The Olympics are that rare occasion when the barriers that separate individual sports are collapsed and we get everything under one umbrella.  When a men's beach volleyball player, a fencer, and a woman's tennis player march together in the opening ceremony, it's a little like Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman hanging out at the Hall of Justice.

1. A Fictional Ideal That Isn't Fiction: For everyone who is alive today, the modern Olympics have always existed (Besse Cooper of Georgia, the current oldest person alive, was born four months after the first modern Olympics were held).  Therefore, the Olympics are normal.  But it's crazy that such a thing exists.  The idea that virtually every country in the world would gather once every four years to compete against each other in 36 sports (for the summer games) in insane.  It's hard enough to organize a track meet for local high schools.  The concept and the scale of the Olympics is a bit of a historical accident. In the late 19th Century "World Expos" and "World Fairs" started to proliferate.  There was a sense that for the first time humankind had the ability to stage global events.  They really didn't, and the Olympics almost died in the early years (the 1904 St. Louis Olympics had 650 athletes--and 580 were Americans).  But somehow, the games survived and now people have lost sight of how unlikely they are.  I'd much rather live in a world with an overly commercialized and over-hyped spectacle like the Olympic Games than a world with no spectacle at all.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Why the Dark Knight Rises

This post contains many extreme spoilers for the movie Dark Knight Rises, and should only be read by those who have seen the film.  And everbody should see this film.

The critical consensus of Dark Knight Rises seems to be "Really good movie...but not as good as the last one."  The consensus on the villain Bane seems to be "Really scary dude...but not as compelling as Heath Ledger's Joker."  I'm on record as disliking the resolution of the previous movie, so it shouldn't be a surprise that I disagree with the critical consensus.  More than one review I read expressed disappointment in the lack of complexity to Bane's character, particularly his supposedly underdeveloped motivation for wreaking havoc.  Interestingly, this was also a charge that critics levelled at the Avengers' antagonist, Loki.  In both cases, I disagree.  I've previously established why I think Loki was effectively portrayed.  As for Bane--I actually think his motivations are more interesting to contemplate than the Joker's.

The Joker was simply a nihilist, one who was personally offended that anyone would invest in trying to build or maintain order in society.  Should anyone succeed in bringing order to society, that would mean either one of two things--the builder was engaging in a game of deception, or there really is meaning to existence.  If the former, the builder deserves punishment.  If the latter, the foundational philosophy of the nihilist is upset, his very identity is pulverized, and he must lash out in self-defence.  So there is a kind of cold logic that drives the Joker.  But because he claims to be an agent of disorder, he deconstructs himself.  In his hospital bedside speech to Harvey Dent, he railed against "schemers"...even though the movie begins with a portrayal of the Joker's elaborate bank heist scheme.  Really, the only thing that makes the Joker interesting at all is his theatrics.  There is nothing worth caring about in his speech.  By the end of the movie, one doesn't even care how he got his scars.

All of the other characters--heroes, villains, and supporting characters-- in Christopher Nolan's mythos are much more interesting because they are not nihilists.  And many of them are interesting because they are all driven by some kind of loyalty.  I would venture to say that this is not the case in most narratives.  It's easy to tell stories about people who are motivated by self-interest.  So most storytellers will concoct scenarios which will require people to make decisions in the name of self-interest, and then deal with consequences when their interests are at odds with someone else's.

In the Batman stories, though, few of the characters have any kind of self-interest.  Self-denial is such a staple of the trilogy that it begins with Bruce Wayne making a pilgrimage to Bhutan to train in what is essentially an ashram.  We are talking about a main protagonist who is a billionaire that doesn't care about wealth.  His entire identity is subsumed by his loyalty to his parents, to ensuring that their vision for Gotham City is realized.

And this is why the emergence of Talia al-Ghul as the ultimate villain of the trilogy is so masterful.  She is motivated by the exact same thing.  Like Batman, she takes on a false identity so that she can more faithfully execute her design--to ensure that her father's vision for Gotham City is realized.

The other supporting characters fall in line behind the wills of these two prime movers.  The supporting heroes--"Robin" and Gordon especially, are loyal to Batman's vision for Gotham.  Bane is loyal to Talia. Catwoman becomes a hero when she finally learns the art of self-denial and surrenders herself to a greater cause (a storyline that also plays out in the narrative arc of deputy commissioner Foley).

So in the end, the good guys and the bad guys are driven by the same character trait.  The only thing that separates them is what (or who) they are loyal to.  Batman had to learn some hard lessons along the way--his Machiavellian scheme at the end of Dark Knight rightfully blew up in his face.  Once you start sacrificing "truth" in order to promote "justice," you end up with neither "truth" or "justice," but with the faux peace that eventually leads to terrorist states like Bane's.  But like Bruce learned so many times in his life--we fall so that we might learn to better pick ourselves up.

And the final lesson of Dark Knight Rises is that once loyalties are properly assigned and a process of self-denial has been completed, there is space for self-affirmation.  The trilogy ends with Bruce Wayne not in an ashram, but at an outdoor cafe in Paris.  The Batman lives on, but so does Bruce.  The best of both worlds--a tantalizing promise which The Dark Knight Rises masterfully presents.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

I'll See Anything (Everything?) He is In

I have well over one thousand Bob Dylan songs on my ipod--everything he has released, with two exceptions, (plus a lot that he has never officially released) over the course of his 50 year career.   The only two released songs I don't own are an alternate version of "I Shall Be Free No. 10" recorded in 1964, and a version of "House of the Rising Sun" that included 1964 overdubs on a 1961 master recording.  These two songs can be found on a CD ROM that was released in 1995 (and now out of print).  I have found the other songs on this same release online, and someday I'll track down a used version just so I can say that I have every Dylan song.

Of course, it's more possible than ever before in the history of fandom to be an obsessive fan.  I would never want to go back to a world without the World Wide Web, but at the same point I'm really glad the Web didn't exist when I was growing up.  I was obsessed with baseball when I was younger.  I read every baseball book I could get my hands on, and I listened to a game nearly every day during the summer months (excepting the two or so days a week that a game was on television).  But there was a limit to how much I could engage with baseball.  I didn't get ESPN, which wasn't what it is today anyway.  I couldn't totally immerse myself with baseball the way I could have had websites been around.  And that forced me to develop other interests and learn about other things.

To be sure, there was such a thing as obsessive fandom prior to the invention of the Web.  There was such a thing as Star Trek Conventions.  Comicon was around.  Beatlemania was a real thing.  Movie studios realized years ago that they could acquire revenue from much more than just movie tickets.  Licensing and merchandising appealed to fans who weren't content to own simply a memory of having seen a motion picture.  Likewise, athletic teams realized that true fans would do more than just watch games--they would buy hats, shirts, and absurdly, replica jerseys.

There was such a thing as a superfan, but the fan was more limited in what he or she could consume.  Supply might not keep up with demand.  Distribution of merchandise was imprecise.  Someone who loved Bob Dylan might have acquired a lot of records, but owning every released song would have been possible only for a very select few (the 1%, if you will).  In one of those one thousand-plus songs, Dylan sings "I was standing in a line to see a movie by Gregory Peck.  I'll see him in anything."  No doubt Gregory Peck has had a lot of devoted fans, but I wonder how many people have seen everything that Gregory Peck was in.  I doubt that even Dylan, who has ample time to watch movies on his tour bus, has seen all 57 that imdb lists.

And yet...I've got to think that it is now more possible than ever before to see all 57 Gregory Peck movies, should one be inclined.  And it may not be too much of a stretch to envision owning all of them digitally.  The key question, though, is how many people are truly devoted enough to Gregory Peck to want to undertake such a collection.  My guess is that the generation of people who would be most drawn to Gregory Peck are conditioned by the time period that has formed them.  In other words, one could be devoted to Gregory Peck, indeed be willing to stand in line to see one of his movies, maybe even vow to see any movie he was in.  But there is a huge distinction between saying you'll see anything an actor is in and saying that you'll see everything an actor is in.  No sane person who grew up in the 20th Century would pursue such singularity in their fandom. There are plenty of good movies that don't star Gregory Peck, thank you very much.

But technology may very well form a generation that doesn't see such a pursuit as insane or even unreasonable.  On-demand technology and the access it has engendered has shifted the boundaries of normalcy--or it soon will.  The ease with which we can now consume an artist's entire canon can only lead to an expectation that this is what fandom will entail.  Now that I've taken my childhood obsession with baseball to the next level and delved into the world of baseball blogs, I already grow impatient talking about baseball with those who watch games occasionally and have never heard of sabermetrics.  I grow impatient talking about Bob Dylan with people who only know his radio hits.  And I suspect others grow impatient with me when I attempt to connect with them by talking about a subject that I have only a casual interest in.  I predict that technology will rear a generation that does not know what casual fandom is.  One will be either "obsessive" (by this present generation's standards) or apathetic.  And while our individual subcultures may form strong bonds within each other, our ability to relate across subcultural lines will weaken.

It's almost enough for someone to want things to revert to how they used to be.  But I don't want to give up all of my Bob Dylan songs.

Saturday, July 07, 2012

Click, Click, Boom

I realize that I have already wrote one blog post this summer inspired by music played at a high school sporting event.  But with (now) two young children, I don't get out much, anymore.  So, I'll have to take inspiration where I find it.

I've always been interested in the canon of music played at high school sports events.  Since the birth of rock and roll, there has been a notion that youth culture is the most relevant culture.  I'd argue that in our retro-obsessed archival age this is not the case anymore, but in a weird way, because we are obsessed with the way things used to be, we still pretend that high schoolers have the best taste in music.  I'd guess that youth have some input into athletic event playlists, but that the codified and commodified songs that are played are mostly radio influenced.  And contemporary radio is algorithm-based.  What gets played is the music calculated to most reliably deliver listeners.  This means that formulaic songs that don't offend are dominant.  Most people who listen to music on the radio don't really care about music.  To them, it is background noise that allows (an ever so-slight) diversion from their prescribed daily tasks.  What they are most looking for from a song is a slight push.  The American workday (or schoolday) requires intermittent caffeination, and music is a type of "energy hit."  This explains why the biggest rock bands today (Nickelback, Creed circa 2003) are masters of the riff heavy but also highly structured (and ultimately vacuous) three minute and fifty second song.

I thought of all this at a high school baseball game last week when I heard the 2001 Saliva song "Click Click Boom."  I was awfully surprised to hear it, but I shouldn't have been.  In the early 2000s I was still listening to FM radio when I was in my car.  The ipod hadn't been invented, CDs cost money and didn't give much variety, and XM satellite radio was still a few years away.  I had about eight FM stations on preset, and in a 20 minute car ride I was almost guaranteed to sample all of them.  "Click Click Boom" was inoffensive enough for me to not turn it off when it came on, but I would have been surprised to learn that it was still receiving airplay six months later, much less take it's place next to a Tom Petty song while 16-year-olds practice fielding grounders more than a decade on.

But the song is the very definition of formulaic.  Lyrically, it's a self-referential narrative about self-actualization through individuality and intestinal fortitude expressed in terms of self-affirmation.  The formulaic video in four minutes shows a protagonist moving from alienation and isolation to social ascendancy.  Most importantly, heavy riffs are balanced with momentary pauses and and breakdowns leading to clearly articulated lyrics, with the chorus accentuating a rhythm as if it were a melody.  Also, the band is named for a body fluid that manages to convey edginess without really being too offensive.  Take all this into consideration, and it's a wonder the song is not played at every sporting event.

But  while this song will always be welcome on various playlists seemingly in perpetuity, no one will ever get a "Click Click Boom" tattoo, in the same way that despite the millions of bottles of Five-Hour Energy being consumed, nobody has a "Five Hour Energy" tattoo (I did check Google Images in both cases just to be sure).

To be sure, it is definitely still possible to find music that doesn't conform to formulaic patterns.  It's just that high schools aren't where you can to go to hear it.