Archive for March, 2010

NBA vs. NCAA

March 21, 2010

Yet another buzzer-beating clutch shot in the NCAA tournament to serve as a reminder why this tournament can compete with a gorgeous weekend after a miserable winter (this time it was Michigan State over Maryland at the buzzer – a shot by a man named Luscious!).   The highlight reels from this tournament can hardly keep up with themselves, though Hubie Davis and Dick Vitale can probably agree that Ali Farokhmanesh’s 3 pointer to finish off Kansas is maybe the most stunning moment so far. Or maybe it is St. Mary’s Matthew Dellavedova and Mickey McConnell’s equally impressive and improbable 11th hour shots to upset Villanova.  And maybe the best  moment hasn’t happened yet.

In trying to figure out why I am so drawn to March Madness but have no real interest in the NBA, while many others  prefer the NBA, I’ve realized it’s all about suspense. The same thing that has driven me to watch every British police show and most horror movies ever made is also what keeps me addicted to this tournament. You just never know what is going to happen. It is also why I almost never find baseball boring, even if nothing seems to be “happening,” because like any true fan knows, in baseball especially, anything can happen at any moment, and it might be something you’ve never seen before. Baseball is nine (or more) innings of tense, pregnant pauses. And it is why hockey is mesmerizing – it is one long, fast paced hustle you have to keep up with that might surprise you at any moment.

I assumed this was a universal reason to love sports, but I’ve been discovering the last few years that this is not the case.  For some, watching professionals with superior, near super-human skills, is paramount, and more engaging than any suspense or natural enthusiasm and energy of an amateur March Madness game.   But the NBA always seems so sluggish to me, there is no real hustle, there is no living and dying with every shot. It is possible I am jaded and have lost interest because the Knicks have been who they are for the last decade. I certainly lived and died with the Knicks in the late 90’s.  Recently some brilliant person decided it would be a great idea to recapture the best moments of those  years in a movie about Reggie Miller. I will not be watching it.  So, maybe the Knicks and I have changed but the NBA has not, it is certainly possible.

I am open to coming back into the NBA fold, and maybe having the Nets play down the street in a few years will help that.  Especially if the new stadium complex isn’t too hideous (please Mr. Ratner, learn from your Metro Tech & Atlantic Center mistakes).  And LJ’s 4-point play in 1999 against, of course, Reggie Miller & Co., is one of my most vivid emotional memories (yes, ever). But March Madness provides those in spades. When Christian Laettner made his famous shot against Kentucky in 1992,  he gave just another example, albeit an exceptional one, why this tournament  is so completely seductive.

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Russia Redux – Image is Everything

March 16, 2010

Russia has a very special relationship with its past. All nations have a selective memory when it comes to serving their nationalistic needs, but Russian revisionism is an art form Leni Riefenstahl must have envied. The Soviets mastered it and modern Russia is certainly reviving this creative spirit.

Last spring, taking the lead (or the order) from Putin, President Medvedev created a History Commission, to counter any unfair or untrue appraisals of Russian history, especially during WWII. And the revisionism is not only top down. As part of what seems like an effort to strengthen and reassert Russian society, Russians themselves appear especially eager to rehabilitate even their most ruthless villains (the ruthlessness is undoubtedly part of the charm). In a nationwide contest last year for “Greatest Russian,” Stalin fared frighteningly well, third from the top, ahead of Pushkin and Catherine the Great (Alexander Nevsky beat him and Pyotr Stolypin by a small margin).

But as Leni Riefenstal, Sergei Eisentein, and the clever men they served, well understood, it is images that are most effective at recreating reality, at impressing a more a agreeable and convenient version of past and present. Especially in a nation reared on religious icons and Socialist Realism posters, the savvy manipulation of images has always gone hand in hand with effective state control.

In this month’s ARTnews, Konstantin Akinsha writes about the evolution of the portrayal of two of Russia’s oldest and holiest heroes — Saints Boris and Gleb, depicted countless times over the centuries in gorgeous gold-plated icons. The two achieved martyrdom in the 11th Century by refusing to preempt an assasination plot by their fratricidal brother to claim the throne. They accepted their fate without a fight. This legacy can be seen in icons from the few centuries subsequent to their death, where they stand side by side, peacefully. However, by the war-scarred 15th century, this serene, somewhat fragile depiction did not suit Russian ambition and reality – newer, more appropriate depicitions made warriors of the brothers – now depicted on horseback, ready to lead their men into battle.

Boris & Gleb

With the resurgence of the Orthodox Church as part of Russia’s reassertion of its identity as strong and fearless, iconography of its martyrs and saints has regained importance. A current show at the Louvre called “Holy Russia,” provides ample proof, including the fact that the director of the Louvre sought the church’s blessings and support for the exhibition (even though nearly all of the objects were borrowed from public museums).

Seizing on the power of the image and the power of the church, Putin’s tinkering with the legacy of Boris and Gleb should then come as no surprise. According to Akinsha, last year during a visit to the studio of a famous Russian artist, Putin set his sights on an image of Boris & Gleb and declared, “We have to fight for ourselves, for our country, but Boris and Gleb sacrificed themselves without a fight. They can’t set an example for us.”

Sin City (Oscars Postscript)

March 10, 2010

So which is Hollywood’s greater sin — rewarding cheeseball blockbusters with serious praise, or rewarding itself for its political awareness with equal seriousness?

The critics tore into “Avatar” for its simplistic political allegory about the environment and corporate greed that portrayed the noble savage as both white man’s burden and salvation. But in his essay in the current New York Review of Books, Daniel Mendelsohn wonders why the critics concentrated on the political and ethical issues of the story rather than on whether or not it was original.  Why decry the use of antiquated stereotypes for ethical reasons but not artistic ones? It does seem that the latter is accepted and forgiven (and probably expected) while the former is not. The two are not equally offensive, and perhaps they shouldn’t be.

But the critics seemed to have missed the point completely with the other cheeseball movie that won significant praise last Sunday night: “The Blind Side.” And “The Blind Side” doesn’t have the gorgeous, exuberant 3D world that made the  plot of “Avatar” easy to accept and sit through. While the critics did slam “The Blind Side” for its heavy-handed and sappy delivery of a true story, they neglected to take it to task for its much larger problem. It was a sappy and heavy-handed movie about a rich white woman in the South with an earthy take no prisoners attitude (whom Sarah Palin undoubtedly adores) who decides to take in a black boy and save him from what would surely have been a less privileged life.  That he ends up a successful professional football player seems to only thicken the problematic plot. While it is based on a true story (one that I was kind of shocked to learn was written by Michael Lewis) and the real life family are undoubtedly wonderful, generous people, it is a bit bizarre that the major critics didn’t find fault with the story of a poor black boy finding salvation through white people and through football. When I saw the preview I actually could not believe  this movie was produced and then could not believe its trajectory. Best Picture nominee? Best Actress Oscar? 

The Academy seems to have awarded Sandra Bullock the Oscar for her role as America’s New Sweetheart, and that’s nothing new,  Julia Roberts won the America’s Sweetheart Oscar for her earthy heroine role in “Erin Brockovich.”  But usually that type of Oscar is awarded for a role that is pseudo-political in a very uncontroversial way, or is a fun somewhat cinematically serious romp (like Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line” and Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shakespeare in Love” ). This movie seems to fall into the pseudo-political uncontroversial camp, but it really isn’t. While individual moral actions are probably more important than one’s politics, the tone of the story seems to have more of a Tea Party appeal of “real America” and individual action as a way to buck the broken system.  The critics stood up for the Navi by criticizing  the antiquated stereotype of the noble savage  but did not find  fault with “The Blind Side” where real people in a real America are portrayed.

At a roundtable discussion on Charlie Rose before the Oscars,  that included A.O. Scott from the New York Times and several other prominent movie critics from Slate and Salon, this issue did not arise once.  Actually A.O. Scott predicted that “The Blind Side” might be the dark horse for best picture (!) . Of course that does not equal endorsement but he also didn’t qualify his prediction and did not find fault with the movie on this level in his review in the Times

“The Blind Side” is perfect  for trying to decide which sin is greater — rewarding a  hammy script and hammier acting vs. Hollywood praise and self-congratulation for a movie that is actually ethically and politically kind of appalling. That the Academy considers itself “liberal” and “progressive” underscores how out of touch it seems to be and creates perfect fodder for people like Andrew Breitbart — canny conservatives who pounce on the easy targets of the politically naive and self-righteous folks on the left.  It’s ok to be a celebrity with a cause, it’s actually probably even a good thing, sometimes a great thing. But really? The Blind Side?