Thursday, June 30, 2005

Roush-Hendrick Dominance

I'm getting a little tired of all the whining about the current Roush-Hendrick dominance of NASCAR. Some fans seem to be worried that NASCAR will turn into an F-1 type situation, where Ferrari has dominated for the past few years. Of course, that overlooks the fact that it took a while for Ferrari to build its teams up to the point where they were winning consistently AND it also overlooks the fact that Ferrari isn't winning this year.

In racing, dominance comes and goes.

Here are some fun facts that all the folks complaining about Roush and Hendrick's success should think about:

-In 1975, one driver--Richard Petty--won over 1/3 of the races.

-In 1976, two drivers--David Pearson and Cale Yarborough--won just about 2/3 of the races.

-In 1978, three drivers--Cale Yarborough, Darrell Waltrip, and Bobby Allison--won over 2/3 of the races.

-From 1976 to 1978 only one driver--Cale Yarborough--won the Cup Championship.

-In 1981, two drivers--Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison--won over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1982, two drivers--Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison--won 2/3 of the races.

-In 1985, two drivers--Bill Elliott and Darrell Waltrip--won 1/2 of the races.

-In 1987, two drivers--Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott--won over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1993, three drivers--Rusty Wallace, Dale Earnhardt, and Mark Martin--combined to win over 2/3 of the races. And one of those drivers--Rusty Wallace--won 1/3 of them all by himself.

-In 1996, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Rusty Wallace--combined to win just under 1/2 of the races. Hendrick drivers--Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte--won over 1/3 of the races.

-In 1997, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Dale Jarrett--combined to win over 1/2 of the races.

-In 1998, two drivers--Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin--combined to win almost 2/3 of the races. The Roush and Hendrick teams combined to win over 2/3 of the races.

-In 1999, three teams--Hendrick, Roush, and Gibbs--combined to win over 2/3 of the races.

What to make of all this?

Well, there have been dominant drivers and teams in the past, but those periods of dominance--Waltrip and Allison from 1978 to 1982, for example--are surrounded by periods of greater competition--the 1988 to 1992 seasons, for example. Chances are other teams will rise to challenge and in a few years people will be complaining about Roush-Childress dominance or Hendrick-Gibbs dominance. These things happen in cycles.

I also think the griping about Roush-Hendrick is really just covering some people's disappointment about the poor performance of the drivers that they are fans of. I mean, it's easy to look back at the early 1980s and talk nostalgiacally about the amazing rivalry between Darrell Waltrip and Bobby Allison, but it seems to be a little harder for some people to get enthusiastic about the exciting rivalry that's shaping up between Greg Biffle and Jimmie Johnson.

If anything, the multi-car teams of Roush and Hendrick make it less likely that a single driver will become as dominant as Darrell Waltrip was in the 1980s or Jeff Gordon was in 1990s. Roush is likely to have three championships in three years with three different drivers. On a driver vs. driver basis, things are just about as competitive as they've ever been.

My question for the teams gunning for Hendrick and Roush:

A while back, the media made a big deal out of how DEI's restrictor-plate dominance was partly due to the special arrangement between DEI, Childress, and Andy Petree Racing. If there was any truth to this, why don't some of the struggling, smaller teams enter into similar information-sharing arrangements? Wouldn't it make sense for Evernham's Dodges to get together with Ganassi's Dodges and figure out a way to make the Charger work a little better? These wouldn't have to be permanent situations, but it could help some teams get back on track.

Spielberg's New War

The new War of the Worlds shows Steven Spielberg at his best. It's the only one of the summer's blockbuster's so far that has teeth and guts: underlying its impressive fx-driven set-pieces is a genuine emotional core.

I thought that Spielberg's middle-class, crowd-pleasing sensibility was particularly unsuited for the "dark" sci-fi material of A.I. and Minority Report, but in War of the Worlds he successfully combines the apocalyptic, doom-laden tone of those films with the comic-horror approach of Jaws. As in Jaws, Spielberg has woven a hard-boiled sense of humor into what is otherwise a truly terrifying movie.

Another problem I've had with a lot of Spielberg's recent movies is that they have weird subplots or rather sub-themes about (absent) fathers and sons. Spielberg has a kind of obsessive fixation with bringing up father-son issues in all his movies, whether or not the movie really needs them. It makes sense to deal with bring this up in a movie like A.I., which riffs on the Pinocchio story, but the father-son stuff in Catch Me If You Can, Minority Report, and The Terminal seems out-of-place and forced. Spielberg is a master of a wide range of filmmaking tricks and techniques, but it sometimes seems like the only way he knows how to add emotional and psychological complexity to his characters is to give them a father-son issue to deal with.

The father-son stuff is back War of the Worlds (although it has become father-son & daughter), but here it works perfectly, probably because it's now the focus of the movie and not just a sub-theme. I figure if you're going to deal with an issue, it's probably better to tackle it head on than to leave it sitting uncomfortably off to side.

Playing the father character, Tom Cruise is pretty darn good. I'm not sure why, but Cruise is a lot better when he's playing opposite children than he is playing opposite adults.

One problem with casting Cruise, though, is that it's almost impossible for the audience to react to him as an "everyguy". It doesn't ruin the movie by any means, but it sometimes gets in the way of what Spielberg is trying to do and ends up undermining some of the intensity and suspense.

A bunch of quibbles and spoilers follow...

I thought War was really good up until the third act, when things don't go wrong exactly, but they do stop working at the high level of the first 2/3rds of the movie. Spielberg tips his hand too early when he introduces the Tim Robbins character. And Robbins's over-the-top style is completely different from that of every other actor in the movie.

And Spielberg seems to have run out of ideas for big set-pieces at this point, so he starts ripping himself off: there's a sequence that's right out of Jurassic Park and other scenes and images that are taken from A.I. and Minority Report. All this stuff works okay--better, in fact, than it does in the earlier movies--but I wasn't exactly thrilled to see it again and I wish he had come up with something new.

As Steve Sailer pointed out, the ending, while faithful to H.G. Wells, is a little anti-climactic. But, more than that, it's kind of lackluster sci-fi. The aliens in the movie are selectively dumb--not as dumb as the aliens in Signs, but they're close. They can travel through space and build super-weapons and plan a huge world-destroying invasion, but they haven't figured out how to analyze water samples for harmful microbes. (I suppose this makes sense if you see the movie as an allegory that invading armies will be undermined by the pre-existing conditions in the places they invade, but, again, as sci-fi, it's pretty weak).

Finally, Spielberg can't resist having as unambiguously a happy ending as possible. Cruise's son, who we assume is dead, turns up alive and safe at the end of the movie. Spielberg's issue with endings deserves its own post. For now though, I'll just say that he really makes it hard to respect and remember all the genuine, wrenching emotional stuff that happens during his movies when he's so willing to provide cheap, not to mention unbelievable, Hollywood endings.

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

3 Movies at the Asian Film Festival

The New York Asian Film Festival is probably my favorite film festival. The folks at Subway Cinema do a pretty good job at running a hassle-free festival, that is, it's hassle-free for the audience, at least. The movies on the program tend to include a nice mix of art house fare, fanboy-geeky stuff, and genuinely popular, crowd-pleasing flicks. The downside is that not all the movies are going to appeal to everyone and it helps to do a little research before buying your tickets. For example, this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls is a lot different from this movie about the friendship between two teenage girls.

I skipped all of last week's screenings, which were held down at the Anthology Film Archives on East 2nd Street, but so far this week I've seen three movies at the ImaginAsian theater on E 59th Street (which is a little easier for me to get to) and I'll probably see a few more before the festival ends.

As usual, I liked only one out of the three movies I saw, but .333 is a pretty good average for a film festival. What's not so usual is that the film I did like, I liked a hell of a lot: in fact, it's probably my second favorite movie of the year, after Carrol Ballard's Duma which I saw at the Tribeca film festival earlier in the year, and should really get around to blogging about. Other than Duma, it's the only movie that's on my tentative "year end favorite list" so far in 2005.

Anyway, here's the films I saw, starting with the ones I didn't like so much:

R-Point is a Korean horror/war picture. It's set during the Vietnam War and has a message about how it's a bad idea to go to war in foreign countries. (I didn't know that the South Koreans had troops fighting in Vietnam with the US until I read the movie's description on the Film Festival website). Actually, this is a pretty good concept, but the execution left me severely underwhelmed. I probably would have walked out, but I was sitting in the middle of a row, and I didn't want to disturb my neighbors. Instead, I spent the time brainstorming the NASCAR/IRL essay I posted this morning.

The movie's main problem is that it was never really scary. And because it basically flat out states its theme and premise, there's no excitement or discovery for the audience as we work out the symbolism. Almost any "straight" Vietnam movie has more genuine horror.

Kekexili: Mountain Patrol is very well made, but it really wasn't my cup of tea. It is one of those movies that tells a true story by dramatizing a journalist's efforts to tell the story. In this case, the movie follows a reporter from Beijing who has gone up into the Tibetan wilderness to report on a Tibetan militia group that has formed in order to stop poachers from driving the Tibetan antelope to extinction. Most of the militia members end up dying (of various causes) during their anti-poacher expedition.

I had a major problem with the movie:

The movie is really too intense to be boring--the scenes in the second half of the movie make up a fairly gripping catalog of the different ways you can die in the Tibetan highlands--but it is monotonous, in the strictest sense. Each scene is pitched at exactly the same level, each shot is composed in almost exactly the same way, the tone never really budges for an instant.

But because the filmmakers use a kind of distanced, objective style, most of the human dimensions of the story are incomprehensible. For example, we never find out why the reporter--the movie's central character--is drawn to tell this story. Nor do we find out what has motivated the militia members to take up arms against the poachers. In fact, the poachers--who are in it for the money--have the only understandable motivations of anyone in the movie, even though they're kind of the bad guys.

The filmmakers are also weirdly ambivalent about some of the actions the militia takes. For example, the militia members shoot one poacher outright and send another group on foot through the wilderness--presumably to their death. Also, the militia raises some of its money by selling the antelope pelts that they confiscated from the poachers. I think we're meant to see these scenes as examples of the lengths the militia will go to in order to stop the poachers, but it makes it seem like we're watching one group of criminals going after another. Actually, that might be a pretty good way to sum up a lot of "law enforcement" in the "developing" world.

This movie won China's version of the Academy Award for Best Picture, and I can kind of see why--it deals with a serious subject and is filmed in a serious style--but it never really starts to work on a human/moral level. I left the film wondering if it was really worth all those human lives in order to save the antelope, but the filmmakers never really address this issue, which seems to be staring them in the face.

Hana and Alice is not a great movie. But I think it's a very, very good one. As I already hinted, this is my second favorite movie of the year. It's one of the kinds of movie I like best but don't get enough of anymore: a meandering, episodic movie with a really soft touch. It's kind of like a light comic version of The Makioka Sisters.

Hana and Alice is about the ups and downs of a friendship between two high-school girls in present-day Japan. The two main characters don't really have any big, dramatic moments of self-discovery like the characters in Ghost World or Sideways and the movie never really adds up to being more than the sum of its parts--the scenes don't build on each other as much as they bounce off each other--but those parts are pretty damn good. Just about ever sequence in the movie is exquisitely made. More impressively, each sequence is slightly different in tone and mood (although the style generally stays the same) which keeps things pretty lively and almost makes up for the lack of a strong, dramatic throughline. Ideally the movie should have been about 15 minutes shorter: the lack of any build-up or pay-off wouldn't have mattered as much.

In my favorite scene in the movie, Alice spends the afternoon with an older man, who we quickly figure out must be her father--her parents are divorced and, up until this point, we've only seen her somewhat shallow mother. Her father keeps trying to say what he must think are the kinds of things fathers should say to their children, but he's too self-conscious--too unfamiliar with the role--to really bring it off. What makes the scene kind of magical is the way Alice seems to get this and she keeps trying to make it easier for her father, even though she doesn't really seem to know what to do either. It's a touching, sad scene whose tone reminded me of that of Edward Yang's Yi-Yi.

Hana and Alice is playing again at 6:00pm on Saturday, July 2 at the ImaginAsian theater. Check it out if you're in the New York area.

Star Problems: Danica Patrick and Dale Jr.

Some fans of open-wheel racing are getting annoyed at the amount of attention given to Indy Racing League rookie Danica Patrick for merely average achievements, like finishing in 10th place and a few laps down at Richmond last Saturday.

I sympathize with these fans, but I can understand why the IRL and its friends in the media are pushing Danica's story with such gusto.

The reality for the IRL is that, right now, the only driver anyone but the more hardcore fans care about is Danica. The folks who run the IRL probably feel they have a small window of opportunity to turn Danica into a big-time, pop icon-style sports star, and that if she becomes this kind of star, she’ll somehow pull the IRL up with her.

I don’t think its a very sound plan (for a number of reasons), but I can understand why the IRL thinks it might work. When it comes down to it, Danica is probably better raw material for the star-making process than anyone else in motorsports today: she's attractive, she's media savvy, and she beats (some of) the guys on the racetrack. And another thing the IRL loves about her is that she's American.

However, there are a couple of big problems here:

(1) I've written this before but I get a little queasy at the thought of Danica--playing the lovely, spunky young heroine-of -a-feel-good-sports-movie role--getting a concussion, chipping her spine, or worse. It's one thing for the Indy Racing League to use Danica's sex appeal to sell a product, but it's another when the product that they're trying to sell could maim her (considerably hurting said sex appeal).

And if Danica ever did crash and suffer a severe injury, not only would all the new fans she brought in disappear, but the IRL would suffer a major, and perhaps irreversible, PR catastrophe.

(2) I'm not sure that Danica's fans-of-the-moment will turn into regular IRL fans. Sure, some people will tune it to watch Danica but will end up falling in love with the borderline insanity of the best IRL races. But somehow, I doubt this will happen, especially when guys like Dan Wheldon and Helio Castroneves--two great drivers that no one in America actually cares about--keep winning races.

(I'll have to check on the exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure that not very many of the people who started watching golf because they were Tiger Woods fans ended up becoming long-term, dedicated PGA fans. And Woods is a genuine, winning sports superstar, whose greatness showed from the very beginning of his career. Danica Patrick, on the other hand, is, at best, a promising rookie.)

The people running the IRL are trying to make up for a decade's worth of bad PR decisions by turning Danica into a star, but this is really just a stop gap solution and doesn't really address the real problem: namely, the best American drivers continue to follow the money to NASCAR. Instead of putting all their effort into turning Danica into a big-time sports star, the IRL would probably be better off paying an obscene amount of money to lure guys like Kasey Kahne and Carl Edwards away from NASCAR. (It would have to be an obscene amount, because IRL racing is so much more dangerous than NASCAR). Or they could start my paying a slightly less obscene amount to bring a bunch of decent, second tier NASCAR drivers (like Brendan Gaughan, say) over to the IRL. Finally, they could try to make sure no more of the best American open-wheel drivers end up in NASCAR.

But all that would take money that the IRL and its teams just don't have.

Of course, this year NASCAR is facing its own "star problem". Dale Earnhardt Jr., the sport's most popular figure, will very likely not make it into the Chase for the Championship, a system that was set up, in part, to stop the most popular drivers from falling out of competition towards the end of the season, thus taking their fans with them. The idea being that all those Junior fans are less likely to tune into the final races of the season if Junior really has no chance of winning the title.

Already there are rumors that the folks at NASCAR are going to change the rules in order to get Junior into the Chase if he's unable to get in by performing well on the track.

All this worrying over Junior points to one of NASCAR's weaknesses: for all the talk of the "Young Guns", NASCAR has done a pretty poor job at turning any of the new crop of drivers into stars. Even though Kurt Busch won the Championship last year, I met a bunch of casual but longtime fans at this Spring's NASCAR race in Atlanta who didn't know his name.

Who are the genuine NASCAR stars? (I mean the guys that even casual fans know about).

-Older drivers who've built up a fan base over the years, like Rusty Wallace, Mark Martin, and Dale Jarrett. These guys have not only been around for a while, but they've often been with the same team for a while, which makes it much easier to follow their careers.

-Junior, who inherited many (if not most) of his fans from his father.

-Jeff Gordon, who earned his fans throughout the 1990s by winning lots of races, filling the role of the "Anti-Earnhardt", and by being one of the all-time great NASCAR drivers.

-Tony Stewart, who has filled the role of the "Anti-Gordon". (Stewart's main problem, though, is that I always get the sense he'd rather be open-wheel racing. He semmed more excited after winning Turkey Night in 2000 than he did after winning the Winston Cup in 2002).

But that's about it. Guys like Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman have really failed to make an impression. There are more casual fans who know who Jeremy Mayfield is because of a funny commercial that he appeared in than there are casual fans who know who Bush and Newman are.

The Fox and NBC broadcast teams have spent far too much time yammering on and on about all the great "Young Guns", but they haven't managed to turn these talented drivers into stars.

Now, NASCAR is facing a Chase for the Cup that will leave out its two most popular drivers. Right now, the biggest star eligible to compete for the Championship is Rusty Wallace, who's racing his final season.

Some of the reasons for this "star vacuum" are the same as those of the "talent vacuum" discussed in this article. (Hat tip: Full Throttle).

But paradoxically, the lack of stars might have to do with the sport becoming too competitive. Jimmie Johnson has come the closest of any driver in being consistently dominant over the last few years. Most other young drivers though have had good streaks or even good years, but have been unable to string together truly impressive seasons, back-to-back.

Another way to put it is that NASCAR, though media manipulation alone, cannot create new stars. This means they're probably going to do whatever they can to make sure the stars that they do have will make it into the Chase. (If they don't change the rules for this year, they will almost certainly do so for next year).

My advice for making new stars:

(1) Have drivers stay at one team, with one sponsor, in basically the same car for as long as possible.

(2) Make sure that when you give a young driver a ride you are making a long term commitment.

(3) Choose drivers who might actually be able to win a lot of races.

(4) If the drivers aren't Jeff Gordon (i.e., winning tons of races), allow them to express their personality and don't try to turn them into cookie-cutter corporate spokesmen.

Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The more things change: George Romero's Land of the Dead

I like George Romero's original Dead trilogy quite a bit. I have an especially fond place in the part of my heart reserved for post-apocalyptic zombie movies for Day of the Dead, the third film in the series, which is generally considered the least of them. It certainly has its problems: although it was made over fifteen years after the groundbreaking Night of the Living Dead, well into Romero's professional filmmaking career, much of it looks like the work of a bunch of amateurs:

Most of the actors give the kinds of performances you see in those cheesey 1980s sci-fi/fantasy movies ridiculed on MST3K, like Space Mutiny. After the opening sequence, the intensity level stays flat for most of the picture, which works against creating the kind of bunker-mentality-type atmosphere Romero seems to be going for. The middle section of the film stumbles from one badly-acted scene to another: it never really drags, but it never quite focuses either. Partly because of the bad acting and partly because of the lack of focus, the tone of the movie is way off: it seems hokier than it should, certainly hokier than the first two Dead movies.

But then there's that ending.

Day of the Dead's zombie apocalypse ending is lurid and gorey and over-the-top, but it has the same kind of transcendent effect on me that great religious art does. The kind of religious art that deals with hell and suffering and man's frailty, of course.

I was kind of hoping that we'd get more of this in Romero's latest zombie picture, Land of the Dead. I suppose I was looking for the zombie movie equivalent of Kon Ichikawa's Fires on the Plain--something like Kinji Fukasaku's oddly spiritual sci-fi disaster movie Virus (also known as Day of Resurrection). Alas, instead of transcendent horror, Land of the Dead gives us ham-fisted social commentary.

Overall, I had a decent time at Land of the Dead. Mainly, I was glad to see a genuine B-Movie, with a B-Movie plot and B-Movie values, rather than what I normally see at the multiplex, which are B-Movies dressed up to look like A-Movies. I liked the way Romero substituted inventiveness for a budget while designing the movie. I liked the dead-pan, flat performances, especially Dennis Hopper's. And, most of all, I liked all the zombie effects and all the funny splatter-stick moments.

What I didn't like so much was the movie's conventional, boring, and safe Anti-Rich White Guy message. But it isn't just a case of having heard it all before, in the context of the movie, Romero's political and social points don't make any sense.

Some mild spoilers follow...

In the conventional zombie movie, the arrival of the zombies heralds the end of the pre-zombie social structure. In a zombie-filled world your status doesn't depend on what you did in the old world, but rather how well you can deal with the zombie threat. Usually this means that characters in a zombie movie have to throw away their prejudices and preconceptions if they want to survive.

Land of the Dead is about what happens next: it attempts to show what the communities built by the remaining living humans might look like. But what Romero comes up with isn't very interesting: his post-zombie society looks an awful lot like the paranoid fringe left-wing view of America. Dennis Hopper plays a rich white man who is in control of the entire city. He's responsible for all the crime and vice among the lower-class, and he has his enemies secretly assassinated.

Hopper rules the city from atop Fiddler's Green, a completely self-contained condominium/shopping mall complex that only the rich white people are allowed entrance into.

The rest of the population lives in a slum surrounding Fiddler's Green.

But the community in Land of the Dead isn't at all believable, at least by the conventions of the zombie movie genre and by the rules of basic economics.

Romero wants us to believe that a post-zombie world would still have a cash economy. While it might be possible to get one up and running, it would (a) probably take a long time and (b) probably be pretty small scale. But when John Leguizamo's character blackmails Dennis Hopper he asks for cash money, even though he intends to leave the city, never to return. Wouldn't it make more sense to ask for a bunch of useful stuff, like gasoline and bullets?

Likewise, people have to supposedly pay their way into Fiddler's Green, but how exactly would cash money be useful to Hopper? He's in charge of the only human settlement any knows for sure exists. Again, it would make more sense if he wanted useful stuff or useful specialized knowledge in return for residency.

But the people living in Fiddler's Green look like they don't do anything but have lunch. Romero's idea seems to be that they don't actually do any work and live off the lower-classes, but it's never made clear why this is a good idea on Hopper's part.

I could go on with the nitpicking, but the gist is that Romero engages in some pretty lazy-ass world-building. Instead of starting with the conventions of the genre and building a believable post-zombie community, Romero starts with the political points he wants to make and his top-down structure has no foundation.

When Romero's not trying to be political, his direction is spot-on. There a quite a few really nicely done set-pieces. Unfortunately, the incoherence the plot and theme end up undermining the movie and making it feel like a lot less than the sum of its parts.

Friday, June 24, 2005

More Movie Trailer Fun

During the trailer for Stealth, the new Rob Cohen opus, Sam Shepard says something like: "You wanted to be on the cutting edge? Well, this is the cutting edge." I couldn't help thinking: "Huh, the cutting edge is a cross between Short Circuit and Top Gun?"

Through the good old IMDB, though, I find that Stealth was penned by W.D. Richter, who wrote the Invasion of the Body Snatchers remake, the underrated, screwball comedy All Night Long, AND one of the all-time great tongue-in-cheek action pics, Big Trouble in Little China. He also directed one of my favorite "cult" movies, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.

Somehow, though, I doubt that Richter's sense of humor will be all that noticeable in Stealth.

More NASCAR: On Sonoma

I'm not sure what's particularly "old school" about dissing road courses in NASCAR, unless it's that in the olden days the road races were pretty boring. But ever since Steve Park's upset victory at Watkins Glen in 2000, the road course races have been among the most exciting Cup events NASCAR has put on. In general, the NASCAR regulars have gotten a lot better at running these tracks, so there's at least some chance someone named Gordon won't win.

Why I like the road races:

(1) They don't last as long as the oval track races. This means that even a boring road race is, minute by minute, more exciting than a boring oval race.

(2) I like having a bunch of road course "experts" show up--and then get smacked down by Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon.

(3) There are a lot more opportunities for drivers--usually someone like Robby Gordon or Boris Said--to attempt truly insane moves. Generally, the highlight from a road race is something like an amazing three-at-a-time pass, whereas the highlight from an oval race is almost always a wreck.

Incidentally, I think they should add another road race to the NASCAR schedule, but not before they scrap this ridiculous "Chase for the Cup" format. And that might happen sooner than I thought it would...

Wednesday, June 22, 2005

Sometimes a Little Autocracy is a Good Thing

The big news in motorsports from last weekend was the debacle at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis. Fourteen cars refused to race on Sunday, because their tires--provided by Michelin--were unreliable on the high speed section of the course. Of the six Bridgestone-shod cars that did race, only two--the Ferraris of Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello--were serious, 1st-rate contenders.

There were a number of possible solutions to the tire problem brought up before and after the race:

(1) The FIA (F1 governing body) could have allowed Michelin to break the rules and fly in new and presumably more reliable tires for its teams. But the FIA didn't want to do this.

(2) After the FIA refused to allow the new tires, the Michelin teams asked the FIA to install a chicane on the track which would reduce speeds and, thus, reduce the likelihood of dangerous tire failures. The FIA balked at making a decision and turned it over to the teams. All of the teams agreed to the chicane except for Ferrari, who saw their momentary tire advantage as their best hope of winning this season. So no chicane.

(3) And though I didn't hear about this too much as the controversy (and race) was going on, another "solution" has been floating around: the Michelin teams should have raced, but just kept their speeds down. Personally, I think this is an unsatisfactory suggestion. Would it really have been that much better to have 14 cars on the track if they weren't able to run competitively? And if they all were still in danger of having a dangerous tire failure? I suppose it would have looked a little better and it wouldn't have been such a PR nightmare, but part of the fun of Formula 1 is watching the greatest cars in the world go really, really fast. It just doesn't seem to be as much fun if you know that the drivers aren't pushing their cars to the limit.

I've noticed that most of the press and internet commentary is focused on assigning blame. Tony George, who runs the Indianapolis Speedway, issued a press release minutes after the race ended which basically said, blame FIA and Michelin, not Indy. Some people have attacked Ferrari for not compromising about the chicane and a lot of people have suggested that Michelin is to blame because they brought bad equipment to begin with.

I have a hard time seeing how any of this is Ferrari's fault. True, they didn't compromise, but why should they? It makes sense to me that they would take advantage of any opportunity they can to get an edge on the competition. After all, they have yet to win a race this year, and they need all the help they can get.

I suppose you could make a case that Ferrari should have thought more about the long term health of Formula 1 racing and less about its own short term success, but I just don't think its Ferrari's job to worry about Formula 1 as a whole. That of course begs the question: "Whose job is it to worry about Formula 1 as a whole?" But before I answer that, let me deal with the Michelin bashers.

Michelin did drop the ball. The Michelin teams did not show up prepared to race competitively. However, once you make that point, there's nowhere left to go. The same thing could still happen again because Michelin (or Bridgestone) could be caught off guard again.

I think the real focus should be less on who's to blame in this particular instance and more on the underlying factors that let the debacle happen.

For me, it all has to do with the FIA and its relatively weak position within the sport it is supposed to govern.

Let's compare the FIA to NASCAR:

The NASCAR governing body has complete control over the sport. The various teams and manufacturers have some politically power, but, at the end of the day, NASCAR is going to do what it wants to do. For example, I'm not sure that big teams like Roush Racing and Hendrick Motorsports were all that excited about the change to a play-off-like, Chase for the Championship format, but NASCAR wanted the change, so it happened.

NASCAR's complete control over the sport has led to some boneheaded (and borderline unfair) decisions, but, all in all, it means that it has tight control over its product and can more easily ensure quality racing. Sometimes, NASCAR has changed the rules the morning before a race. This drives the teams crazy and probably means that some teams get shafted, but NASCAR doesn't care if it feels its decisions are in the sport's overall best interest. And because the buck stops with NASCAR, there's really can't no situation where NASCAR would blame the individual teams for the embarrassing outcome of any given race.

Now, it should be the FIA's job to make sure that it has a quality product. However, in Formula 1, the FIA has to play power politics whenever they want to get something done. And, in Formula 1, there are more power players: the teams, the manufacturers, even the tire suppliers are all able to push the FIA around.

It is embarrassing and pathetic that the FIA left the chicane question up to the teams. If this were NASCAR, the governing body would have made an executive decision that would have ensured the race went on with as full a field as possible. And if big, important teams like Hendrick Motorsports complained, NASCAR would basically tell them, "Tough titty."

Another (somewhat related) question raised by the tire debacle: "Is it really a good idea to have competing tire manufacturers?" NASCAR decided on having only one tire supplier for all its teams, because it didn't want tire manufacturers to push the envelop and end with tires that were dangerous to race on. Let's say that Michelin had been the only tire supplier and they had brought lousy tires to a race. In that case, bringing in different tires or adding a chicane or two wouldn't be controversial, because all teams would be equally affected. I realise that this undermines some of the competitive engineering aspects of Formula 1, but putting on competitive races is a lot more important when you're trying to expand your fanbase.

This whole thing reminded me of when CART was unable to put on a race at the Texas Motor Speedway (back in 2001), because the speeds the cars were running turned out to be way too fast for safety. That foul-up was one of the major factors that changed me from a CART fan into an ex-CART fan. CART should have put more time and money into testing whether or not its cars would have any problems running on a track they had never run on before.

It's one thing when a half-assed organization like CART drops the ball like that and another when the FIA makes a similar mistake. Formula 1 is supposed to be the premiere racing series in the world. These are supposed to be the best drivers in the best cars. Unfortunately, the FIA seems unable or unwilling to put on the best races.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Dale Junior's Attitude Problem

During FOX's broadcast of last Sunday's NASCAR race at Michigan two Dale Earnhardt Jr.-related moments caught my attention.

The first has been widely commented on: Darrell Waltrip, who usually sticks to the company line and tries not to be controversial, suggested that Dale Jr. needed to take responsibility for his team's lousy performance this year. Waltrip was really quite polite about the whole thing, even though many Dale Jr. fans got bent out of shape over this mild criticism of their idol.

The second came during Chris Myer's silly (but generally entertaining) pre-race "5 Questions" segment. In the "word association" part of his interview, Kurt Busch instantly answered "Dale Jr." when Myers served up the word "Partying".

Putting this all together, it seems there's a growing concern that Junior needs to get his act together.

There are a couple of big problems though, and they all touch on issues that NASCAR, many NASCAR fans, and most NASCAR pundits prefer to ignore. But Junior's really awful performance this year is making it difficult to look the other way.

Dale Jr. is NASCAR's most popular driver. Conventional wisdom holds that if he doesn't make the cut for the 10 race Chase for the Championship (by either being in the top ten or within 400 points of the leader after the 26th race of the season, for those of you who aren't big NASCAR fans) it will be bad for NASCAR. Cynical NASCAR fans, like me, have even been known to insinuate that NASCAR adopted the Chase for the Cup format--creating a "play off" type situation among the top ten drivers during the final 10 races of the season--in order to help Dale Jr. stay within striking distance of 1st place all season long.

(Supposedly the Chase for the Cup format came about because watching Matt Kenseth run away with the title in 2003 was so boring. But I'm pretty darn sure that NASCAR would have been perfectly happy to watch Dale Jr. run away with the title. Instead of all the talk about the "boring" 2003 season, the story would've been about how inspirational and exciting it was to see Junior live up to his true potential. He would have been praised for his "consistency", a word that was used to damn Kenseth with faint praise.)

And Conventional Wisdom is probably right: NASCAR went through all this trouble to set up a points system that favored inconsistent, but popular, teams like Junior's and the guy can't even get it together enough to stay in the top 15. Michael Waltrip--Junior's teammate--is, at best, an average Cup driver, but he's 14th in points and heading in the right direction. At this point in the season, with 11 races to go before the Chase, Mikey is far more likely to make the cut than Junior is. If the Chase starts up and Junior isn't in it, no doubt his fans will be pissed off and that might translate to fewer viewers and less money for NASCAR.

And here's where we get to the stuff that NASCAR folks don't like to talk about:

Jeff Gordon, NASCAR's second most popular driver, earned his popularity by winning lots of races.

But Junior inherited his popularity (and most of his fans) after his father died.

And Junior simply isn't as talented a driver as his father was. Not only that, there's at least a half-dozen current Cup drivers who are more talented than Junior.

But talent isn't everything in NASCAR. I don't think Greg Biffle is half the driver Jeff Gordon is, but Biffle more than makes up for his talent deficit with drive, determination, teamwork, good sense, maturity, and, most of all, hard work.

Junior is at least as talented as Biffle, but he's not nearly as disciplined. He doesn't have the right attitude to be a consistent contender. He responds to a challenge by doing worse, while Biffle has responded to a challenge by digging deep and figuring out a way to beat it.

In this case, I think it helps that Biffle knows that his continued employment by Roush Racing depends on his performance. When there was talk at the end of the 2004 season that he was just a journeyman driver, warming a seat for the next Rousch wunderkind, he responded to his critics by winning a bunch of races.

But Junior is in no danger of losing his job. If he performs badly he doesn't face unemployment (although his crew might), but merely embarrassment.

Now, don't get me wrong. I think Junior is a pretty good driver. And there are certainly other pretty good drivers that are having a bad season--like former champs Kenseth and Bobby Labonte. But Kenseth and Labonte combined aren't close to being as popular as Junior is. There's a built-in instability in having so much of NASCAR's popularity tied up in a driver like Junior, who's good, but not that good.

Monday, June 20, 2005


I can't help comparing Batman Begins to Tim Burton's two Batman movies, Batman and Batman Returns.

The Burton movies have a greater sense of style and design, blending German expressionism, Art Deco, and Comic Book Gothic.

And, as a director, Burton brings his own idiosyncratic sensibility to bear on the material: the movies have a quirky, melancholic, grandly operatic tone. Like all of Burton's best movies, they make the strange and wonderful more attractive than the mundane. This gives these movies a genuine emotional core, a soul if you will, that is missing from many other comic book-inspired movies.

And so, visually and atmospherically, these movies are all-of-a-piece: their Gotham City is its own little dark fantasy world, populated by bizarre, touching, and terrifying creatures.

Batman Begins, on the other hand, is done in what has become the standard Big Budget Action Movie style, with the neo-noir trappings and dark color palette of a movie like Minority Report. It looks perfectly fine, but it simply does not feature the kind of near-virtuoso visual design of the Burton films. And, where the tone and mood of the Burton movies is rich and complex, the tone of Begins is straightforward Hollywood seriousness.

Begins is too much of a "grown-up" movie to feature anything as surreal and playful as the gang of circus-freak performers or the Penguin's army of missile-laden penguins from Batman Returns. The Burton movies embraced Batman's somewhat disreputable comic book origins (its easy to imagine a scene from a third Burton Batman movie set on a giant typewriter), while Begins tries to cover them up. It stays far away from anything resembling silliness or camp--mainly because of the two disastrous Joel Schumacher-helmed follow-ups to Burton's movies--but, in doing so, it also stays pretty far away from the farther-out aspects of the Batman mythos. Compared to Burton's movies, Begins feels lacking in inspiration and imagination.

Similarly, Burton's pacing is stately, almost relaxed when compared to that of today's summer Blockbusters, and he directs the action sequences with elegance and restraint. This is probably so audiences can better appreciate all the little details of design and performance and so they can better soak up all the weirdness. But Batman Begins, like most contemporary action movies, is going full-out from the get-go. The action sequences are purposefully rushed, choppy, and confusing--a technique which worked a lot better in last year's The Bourne Supremacy. Begins doesn't have time for quirky, slow scenes like Bruce Wayne's dinner with Vicki Vale in Batman. Because of this, Begins lacks the emotional depth of the Burton movies.

Tim Burton's career has had its ups and downs, but he is really one of the few "Auteurs" working on big budget Hollywood movies over the last twenty years. Whether or not he's working on a personal project like Ed Wood or a studio project like Batman his movies represent his vision of the world. Even when his movies are utter failures--like Mars Attacks--you can see his fingerprints all over the place.

Christopher Nolan, on the other hand, seems like a competent, although somewhat anonymous, filmmaker. David Denby wrote that in Memento Nolan created a "new syntax for movies", but that seems to be a ridiculously overblown claim. Memento's major strength is its virtuoso trick screenplay. Where The Usual Suspects got its twist from Dashiell Hammett stories and The Sixth Sense got its twist from Rod Serling, Memento gets its twist from dorm-room bullshit sessions: "So what's it all mean?" "We can never really know, you know?" "Whoa."

But, as a piece of filmmaking, Memento is, ironically, pretty straightforward. It's done in a standard neo-noir style, but it lacks both playfulness and emotional depth, at least one of which is needed to make neo-noir palatable (to me, at least).

I think Nolan did a pretty good job with Batman Begins, but if the movie had been directed by Paul Greenglass--another filmmaker who turned an indie hit into a job directing big budget action movies--I think it would probably have been almost exactly the same movie. Nolan doesn't bring a personal vision to his Batman movie in the way Burton did.

However, with all that said, I liked Batman Begins the best of all three movies.


First, I appreciate Nolan's anonymity. He gets out of the way of the story. At no point did I think, "Hey, Christopher Nolan has a neat take on Batman," because the movie felt more like the result of judiciously picking and choosing elements from the comics rather than one person's singular take on the character. Nolan and David S. Goyer--the two co-wrote the screenplay--manage to piece together a coherent, yet jammed packed, genuinely epic Batman origin story, which alludes to a number of the greatest Batman comics, without following any single one too closely. The screenplay balances fanboy-pleasing details, like drawing on Frank Miller's characterization of Jim Gordon from Batman: Year One, with a solid, compelling-to-everyone storyline.

Second, despite all the nice things I said above about Tim Burton's Batman, the movie is ruined for me because of what I call its "Villain Problem". Now, I don't want to sound like some kind of fanboy crank, but Batman's version of the Joker is ridiculously lame. He is a psychopathic, bad-ass killer who undergoes a horrible accident which turns him into... a psychopathic, bad-ass killer. Jack Nicholson's performance doesn't help much: he starts the movie off playing Jack Napier as a deranged, dangerous sociopath, and, then, he plays the Joker as a slightly more deranged, slightly more dangerous sociopath. Moreover, having the Joker be the hood who killed Bruce Wayne's parents is flat out stupid, turning the final battle into a grudge match. Nolan and Goyer's screenplay deals with the whole getting revenge vs. serving justice thing with a lot more sophistication.

Third, despite all the nice things I said above about Batman Returns--which, on the whole, I like a heckuva lot, preferring it by far to the first Batman--it also has a screenplay problem in that it really doesn't go anywhere. Batman Returns seems to set itself up for a sequel that never came off. The whole movie seems a little lacking in structure, too. It can be slow at times because Burton often sacrifices forward momentum for reveling in the movie's weird, freakshow atmosphere. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, in itself, but, like sharks, big budget spectacles need to keep moving forward in order to stay alive. Otherwise, they tend to get weighed down by their own excess. Batman Begins is twenty minutes longer than either of the other Batman movies, but its near-relentless pace makes the extra running time hardly noticeable.

Fourth, there are good performances in the Burton movies, especially from Michael Keaton, Robert Wuhl, and Michelle Pfeiffer, but, for the most part, the supporting cast is pretty thin. Begins, on the other hand, is chock-full of terriffic actors in well-thought out parts.

Finally, the biggest reason for my preference for Begins might be that it is a movie designed for fans of Batman comics, specifically, Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli's Batman: Year One. In purely cinematic terms, Begins may not be as impressive as Burton's movies and it may even lack their soul, but, in purely Batman-ological terms, it features a much better Batman story than the ones in the Burton movies. Though the craftsmanship behind the movie is anonymous, the content of the movie is a more compelling and interesting exploration of and introduction to the Batman mythos.

Friday, June 17, 2005

More on Raunchy Sports Movies

I left something out of my mini-rant on Charles Taylor's Slate piece on The Bad News Bears. Taylor blamed the demise of raunchy sports movies like Bears, M*A*S*H, and The Longest Yard on Ronald Reagan. He argued that these disreputable sports movies were replaced by schmaltzy, inspirational movies like Field of Dreams and Seabiscuit because of America's turn towards conservativism. I thought this argument was pretty silly, mainly because (1) the most popular sports movies are goofy parodies like The Waterboy and (2) the Reagan-Bush era gave us two of the smartest, most cynical, and best sports movies of all time--Bull Durham (1988) and White Men Can't Jump (1992). What I forgot to bring up was that when it comes to the death of the raunchy sports film, there's a much better culprit than Ronald Reagan and conservatives: namely, the political correctness movement.

I know that the charge against Howard Stern has been led by right-wing Christian family-values-boosters, but it was left-wingers who attacked Larry Summers for comments that were far less sexist than some of the stuff in M*A*S*H, where, by the movie's climatic football scene, Sally Kellerman's hard-as-nails, ultra-competent nurse is reduced to being a blithering, ditzy-blonde cheerleader, who can't even tell when her own team is scoring.

And I doubt that some of the lines in The Bad News Bears--especially the one Taylor quotes in his essay--would fly today even on a die-hard politically incorrect show like South Park.

I should also point out that you don't have to be a Reaganite or a conservative to find these kinds of movies crude and offensive, which was the gist of Pauline Kael's pan of The Longest Yard.

Slate on Summer Movies

I enjoyed some of Slate's "Summer Movie" features this week--especially this piece on the folly of starting a film festival by Grady Hendrix, one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival (probably my fave film fest--it starts today: check it out)--but most of them struck me as being kind of bizarre.

For example, this piece, by Rebecca Onion, asks the question, "Why haven't there been any good shark attack movies since Jaws?" Which is sort of like asking the question, "Why haven't there been any good melancholy aging-rodeo-star movies since Junior Bonner?" I.e., the "Shark Attack" genre is pretty limited to begin with and Steven Spielberg really covered all the bases, so what else do you want? I do think Ms. Onion is a little too harsh on Renny Harlin's "smart shark" thriller, Deep Blue Sea, which, despite being an incredibly stupid movie, is fairly enjoyable and does have one classic scene.

A better question, keeping to Slate's recurring Spielberg vs. Lucas motif, might be, "Why haven't there been any good space operas since Star Wars?" (One answer might be: there has been, but it took a while, and it's on TV.)

And then there's this piece on The Bad News Bears by Charles Taylor, which starts off pretty well, arguing that the disreputable Bears is a good antidote for those inspirational sports movies that lay it on so, so thick. This is certainly true, but Taylor isn't content to just talk about what makes The Bad News Bears so great, he needs a villain--someone responsible for the death of the lowdown, anti-sentimental sports movie. A Mr. Big, if you will. And he finds one in the third paragraph: the Gipper, himself--Ronald Reagan.

Huh, what? Yes, Charles Taylor blames Ronald Reagan for movies like Seabiscuit, Cinderella Man, and his personal least favorite, Field of Dreams. He writes:

The nadir of schmaltz came the year after Ronald Reagan left office, with Field of Dreams, in which '60s veterans sure did regret all that trouble they caused by rocking the boat, and baseball was held up as the one thing that could make America great again.

Now, Field of Dreams is a sappy, goofy, new-agey movie, but attacking it because it doesn't toe-the-line politically is a little much. Taylor seems to misread the movie as well: if I'm remembering correctly, Ray Kinsella's issue isn't that he regrets the "trouble" he caused in the '60s, but rather that his father died when there was still bad blood between them.

But even if Taylor is right about Field of Dreams, his overall argument--that Ronald Reagan ushered in an era when sentimental, inspiration sports movies replaced down-and-dirty disreputable sports movies--is belied by the facts on the ground. The highest grossing sports movies tend to be goofy parodies of inspirational sports films, like Adam Sandler's The Waterboy and Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.

And the best sports movies have been made in the years since The Bad News Bears. One of my personal favorite, Ron Shelton's White Men Can't Jump, came out in 1992. And the year before Field of Dreams Ron Shelton gave us Bull Durham, arguably the best baseball movie of all time. Bull Durham isn't sappy or schmaltzy, although it is a little sentimental. And that's because a lot of folks who love sports (including Ron Shelton) do get sentimental about them. Folks who don't like sports might find this sentimentality silly, but its actual, real world existence is a more likely cause of all the sentimental, inspirational sports movies than Ronald Reagan is.

The rest of the Slate pieces are pretty wonky.

Matt Feeney's "reconsideration" of Steve McQueen reads like it was translated from Film School-ese:

McQueen cultivated his own mythology through a strenuously aloof style of acting that is not without its critics. David Thomson, for one, observes a certain "dullness" about McQueen. Perhaps, but it was an especially radiant sort of dullness. With McQueen, it's hard to decide whether you hardly notice him, or you hardly notice that you never take your eyes off of him.

I think I will always treasure the phrase "an especially radiant sort of dullness."

And Christopher Kelly seems to think there's something wrong with independent filmmakers who want to make movies that actually appeal to audiences.

I do recommend Tom Shone's gossipy piece on Speilberg and Lucas's friendship, which reminds me that I should blog about the time I hung out with George Lucas in the VIP section of a NASCAR race.

Finally, Slate was promising a "debate" between David Edlestein and Joe Morgenstern over whether or not Steven Spielberg and George Lucas destroyed the "Golden Age of American film." However, Morgenstern has yet to show up and answer Edelstein's thoughtful opening remarks.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

Defending Brad Pitt

I had a pretty darn good time at Mr. and Mrs. Smith, a silly, shallow, summer action movie, made with skill and good sense. The audience I saw it with really seemed to enjoy it, and I wasn't surprised that it ended up being a hit.

I was somewhat surprised that critics panned it as much as they did. It struck me that if this was a silly, shallow, summer action movie from Hong Kong, with Andy Lau and Zhang Ziyi instead of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, it would have received the rave reviews of something like Kung Fu Hustle, a silly, shallow action movie that everybody but me seemed to adore.

However, this post is meant to address a handful of critics who liked Mr. and Mrs. Smith, but damned Brad Pitt's performance with faint praise, pointing out that, hey, he's okay, but he's just not in the same league as Angelina Jolie.

For what it's worth, I agree. Angelina Jolie is a high-octane performer. She dives into a role, makes it her own, and the only thing stopping her from being a genuine movie star is that until this movie she hadn't really had a big hit.

On the other hand, though Brad Pitt is closer to being a genuine movie star (in that his presence alone is better able to ensure that a movie "opens big"), he doesn't really bring that much to the table, compared to a movie star/big time actor like Russell Crowe or a movie star/big time entertainer like Will Smith.

Generally, Pitt has three things going for him: (1) he's good looking, (2) he can play "cool" pretty well, and (3) he has a sense of humor about (1) and (2). This has been enough to make him a pretty enjoyable presence in movies such as True Romance and Ocean's Eleven. But he's been almost unbearable in movies that have actually required him to give a performance. In general, the harder Pitt works, the worse he comes off.

But the reason I titled this post "Defending Brad Pitt" and not "Slagging Brad Pitt in a More Roundabout Way" is that in Mr. and Mrs. Smith he does something rather clever with his performance that I haven't seen many critics mention. Mr. Smith not only discovers that his wife is secretly in the same business--professional high-tech assassination--as he is, but that she's actually a lot better than him at it. What I found funniest about the last half of the movie, was the way Pitt played Mr. Smith's shifting reaction to this discovery: one moment he's woozy with admiration for her hela-cool hit-man moves and the next he's fuming at her because he feels emasculated by her prowess.

I'm not sure if the idea of Mr. Smith having this ambiguous/conflicted reaction was in the original screenplay or if Doug Liman, the director, thought it up or what, but it's one of the best ideas in the movie and Pitt brings it off with style. And the whole thing is made even funnier because, yes, as performers, Brad Pitt is outclassed by Angelina Jolie. I'm not sure it would have worked as well with someone who could have really gone toe-to-toe with Jolie, like Russell Crowe.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

New Idea Needed

Yesterday afternoon at Borders, I flipped through The Grand Slam, Mark Frost's newish biography of golfer Bobby Jone, who, according to the flap copy, almost single-handedly lifted the low spirits of Depression-era Americans through his perseverance and triumph on the links. But last night at UA Kaufmann/Astoria multiplex, I found out it was actually boxer Jim J. Braddock who was responsible for lifting the low spirits of Depression-era Americans through his persevance and triumph in the ring. And what makes me really confused is that prior to yesterday, I was sure it was actually Red Pollard and Seabiscuit who were responsible for lifting the low spirits of Depression-era Americans through their perseverance and triumph on the track.

Monday, June 13, 2005

Random Thoughts on MOCCA's Comics Festival

I had a pretty good time at the MOCCA Comics Festival yesterday. Here are some of my random thoughts/observations:

1) A lot of the exhibitors I talked to said something along the lines of: "This is so much better than a normal comic book convention." MOCCA definitely has a different atmosphere than the big Super Multi-Media Event Comic Cons like San Diego or the Old School Low Rent Back Issue Bonanza Cons like NYC's own Big Apple Con (by "different atmosphere" I mean almost everyone at the festival seemed to have showered and put on clean clothes before showing up). No doubt the MOCCA people refer to their event as an "Art Festival" partly in order to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill comic conventions. (I can't quite bring myself to call it an "Art Festival", so I am going to compromise by referring to it as a "Comics Festival", which seems to be accurate and distinctive enough).

But what struck me as semi-interesting was that I got the "This ain't your father's comic con" line from people whose work has nothing whatsoever to do with the kind of super-hero stuff featured at Wizard World and San Diego. I suppose this is kind of normal--a lot of people who make art house movies are explicit about not making multiplex movies--but I couldn't help feeling that the whole thing was still a little bit too much like a normal convention.

Don't get me wrong: MOCCA had hardly any of the "Not Comics" crap that fills up cons like Wizard World--there were no pro wrestlers making personal appearances, no fantasy art babes, no toy dealers. And there were probably more women (and couples) at MOCCA than there were at the last 5 Big Apple Cons combined. But I got the sense that the desperate-geeky-super-hero-fan vibe had been replaced by a desperate-geeky-art-student vibe.

Which brings me to...

2) Some of the exhibitors annoyed me with their "hard sell" shtick. I understand they want to move books and promote themselves, but the whole set-up of a cartoonist sitting behind a table watching you while you decide whether or not to spend money on this comic that they've (presumably) put a lot of time and effort into is awkward enough without the sales-pitch. On the other hand, I didn't feel at all guilty passing up on mediocre work by the guys who took the aggressive approach. I felt a little but guilty ever time I passed up mediocre work by nice, pleasant folks. I left the Festival wondering how many book had been bought out of pity or to avoid slight social embarrassment.

3) There were a number of cartoonists whose work looked interesting from a distance, but which turned out to be pretty bad when I actually flipped through their books. Quite frankly, I thought there were too many cartoonists there who had put much more thought and effort into their promotion and packaging than into making their comics, or, perhaps more importantly, learning to make their comics. I kept thinking of all of those essays Don Simpson has been posting on his blog which make the controversial argument that cartoonists should learn to write and to draw before they start charging strangers for their comics.

I was also reminded of Tim O'Neil's essay about how American cartoonists have a bias against collaboration, which he removed from his blog because Tom Spurgeon made a good argument against it. I wish Tim hadn't done that, partly because I really do think he was onto something. Now, it's true that no one criticizes Harvey Pekar because he doesn't draw his own comics and no one criticizes Peter Bagge for getting inking and coloring art assists. It's also true that there's an economic factor in play: collaborators have to split the pay-off. However, I still think it's kind of strange that out of all the weird, experimental comics on display at MOCCA, none of the artsy-literary cartoonists had decided to experiment with collaborating with a writer. I picked up a number of well-drawn/visually interesting books that turned out feature really lousy, sub-undergraduate-writing-worskshop writing. These books would be greatly improved if their creators would either learn to write or get someone to write it with them.

I realize that an absence doesn't make the best evidence, but it seems to me that if the bias towards One Creator Comics didn't exist (as Tom Spurgeon suggested) then we'd actually see a few collaborative comics at an event like the MOCCA Festival.

Saturday, June 11, 2005

The Right Way

After complaining about those lousy movie previews that give too much of the plot away, it's only fair that I point out this trailer, which, as far as these things go, is just about perfect. I've seen this trailer at the cineplex and audiences really go wild over it.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Middle Eastern Super-Hero Comics

Via NeilAlien, an article on AK Comics' Middle Eastern super-hero comic books:

While the [Egyptian] company says it only wanted to fill an ethnicity gap in the comic-book market, it's ended up also challenging gender roles in the region by drawing butt-kicking female leads. Plans to first introduce their characters to the rest of the Middle East hit a snag recently when censors in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait said that while AK Comics' two crime-fighting male superheroes were a welcome change, Jalila and the company's other female character, Aya, a North African Princess of Darkness, were unwelcome.Aya, who's described as "a vixen who roams the region on her supercharged motorbike confronting crime wherever it rears its ugly head," might have been particularly shocking to readers in Saudi Arabia, where women aren't allowed to drive.

A couple of things I find interesting:

(1) The comics are actually drawn by Brazilian artists, who would have liked to make the comics "much racier." I wonder if this is because it's cheaper to farm the work out to Brazilians, or if there're just not many Egyptians who can draw in this style, or if there're just not that many Egyptians who want to draw in this style. I try to keep up with the news about political cartoonist who have been jailed in North Africa and the Middle East, and I have about a half-dozen CDs of Arabic pop music, but I really don't know much at all about Egyptian pop culture, in general.

(2) Supposedly, 40% of AK Comics' readership is female. In America, the super-hero comics audience is predominantly male, and many women are offended by the way that super-hero artists draw female characters (and sensitive male super-hero fans tend to be embarrassed by these kinds of "cheesecake" depictions). I wonder if in Egypt, though, it's more of a case of "You Takes What You Gets": here in America, there's enough pop culture that caters to women that they don't have to piggyback on nerdy, adolescent male fantasies.

Here's another article (from last December) about AK Comics that includes an interview with its founder, Ayman Kandeel, an Egyptian economics professor (proving, I guess, that nerdom knows no ethnic boundaries). And here's AK Comics English website, where you can find previews of their comics. (They look pretty much like American super-hero comics).

Thursday, June 9, 2005

Art School Rock

I did something quite out-of-character two nights ago and went to a rock-and-roll concert at a "hip" New York venue with a dear old friend (thanks again, Coz). I went to rock shows all the time in college, but since then my tastes have tended towards mellower music and a more laid-back nightlife. Over the past half-dozen years I've seen lots of folk, country, bluegrass, jazz, blues, and classical performances, but the closest I came to a rock-and-roll show was when I saw Jonathan Richman. However, even though I was out-of-practice, I ended up having a damn good time. The only not-quite-enjoyable part of the evening was listening to the opening act, but at least that was interesting in an "At Least I Can Blog About This" way.

The openers were a hip-looking instrumental trio (with a cute girl on bass, 'natch), who performed in near darkness. I suppose they were so hip-looking they didn't really feel the need to have the audience actually see them. They introduced themselves and started to play. At first, I thought they said their name was "Paint", but after a few minutes listening to their music I thought I must have misheard them and that the real name of the band was "Pain", but that turned out to be too obvious. When I got home, google helped me discover that their name was actually "Paik", named after the Korean video-artist Nam June Paik. They performed what my friend assured me was "psychedelic" music and what a googled CD review described as "space rock". However you want to label it, Paik's music failed just about every category on my personal Rock Checklist:

(1) I tend to like a little showmanship with my rock-and-roll, but the performers in Paik said not a word and moved hardly at all the entire show. I suppose this is a kind of anti-showmanship that is meant to signify that they are Artists and that It's All About the Music, but I've seen people suffer strokes from taking themselves this seriously.

(2)Other things I appreciate in my rock-and-roll are songs, catchy tunes, and cool riffs. Paik was more into droning waves of sound, with a little guitar noodling in the background. They made use of a lot of noise fx, too.

(3) I know rock-and-roll is meant to be loud, and, generally, I don't mind loud as long as it is combined with "energetic" or "exciting" or "upbeat". But Paik was not only really, really loud (they sounded, to my untrained ears, a good two-or-three times as loud as the headlining act), they were also aggressively depressing. They seemed like they wanted to punish the audience, rather than give them an enjoyable musical experience.

In other words, though I had done nothing wrong, I found myself subjected to a good 30 minutes of Art School Rock.

The Art Rock and Prog Rock of the 1970s was made by musicians who fused rock-and-roll with ideas from jazz and classical music and fueled it all with high-falutin' literary ambitions. In many ways, it was the continuation of the kind of things the Beatles were doing with Sgt. Pepper's. It pissed off a lot of rock-and-roll purists and a lot of it was pretentious, but, when all was said and done, it was still basically rock music, and most of it would've sounded perfectly at home on a Classic Rock radio station.

Art School Rock is a completely different beast, owing more to avant-garde art music than to Rubber Soul.

Not surprisingly then, as Paik's performance went on, I noticed that I was listening to it the way I listen to a lot of minimalist-style art music: only kinda-sorta paying attention to the general droning, letting myself be pleasantly surprised by the itsy-bitsy variations, and then zoning out again. Though I can't say that I ever want to hear anything like it again, by the end of their set I was semi-digging it. While I, and most of the other people at the show, probably would have had a better time listening to Paik if they were a Led Zeppelin cover-band, I couldn't help but admire their dedication to making music that is so willfully awful, unappealing, and solemn. Good for them that they have been able to find a small measure of success and artistic fulfillment.

Wednesday, June 8, 2005

The Myth of Liberal Moviemaking

It isn't online, so you'll have to pick up a copy of the new issue of The American Conservative at your local Borders in order to get Steve Sailer's article on the truth about Hollywood politics. It should be required reading for amateur film buffs and professional film critics alike. My favorite line:

Many of the right-wing attacks on Hollywood stem from it not toeing the pseudo-conservative line of worshipping some of the less conservative forces in history, such as war, laissez faire, and George W. Bush.

Some of Sailer's older movie reviews are online, here.

Tuesday, June 7, 2005

Too Much?

The internet mojo working its stuff: three semi-related pieces on the problems facing American consumers.

First, a blog posting from Michael Blowhard on overabundance:

Perhaps life in a consumer utopia has its dark sides. We live in a culture that's much more responsive, at least materially, to what we want -- or at least to what we think we want and say we want -- than it once was. Yet does getting what we say we want always turn out as well as we hope it will?

Second, one of Terry Teachout's readers worries that we now have too much art:

In other words, is the demand for new art diminishing--not because we are a soulless culture obsessed with celebrity and real estate--but because there's more than enough great stuff out there to consume, and we don't have nearly enough time to enjoy it? There seems to be such a glut of everything artistic these days. In jazz alone, I could go on listening to new and already-heard stuff from the same 1940s and 1950s period until I dropped dead at 100 without running out, and that's jazz alone. Meaning, I really don't need any more jazz to be produced. It's all on disc. I don't need any more cabaret singers singing Cole Porter, or young guys in suits playing Fats Navarro, etc.

And, finally, Virginia Postrel assures us that all this "too much of a good thing is a bad thing"-talk is all wrong:

Since different people care intensely about different things, only a society where choice is abundant everywhere can truly accommodate the variety of human beings. Abundant choice doesn’t force us to look for the absolute best of everything. It allows us to find the extremes in those things we really care about, whether that means great coffee, jeans cut wide across the hips, or a spouse who shares your zeal for mountaineering, Zen meditation, and science fiction.

Postrel makes some good points, but, on a gut level, I sympathize more with Michael and Mr. Teachout's correspondent. I'm reminded of a bit from Greg Egan's sci-fi novel Quarantine, where Axon--a kind of futuristic self-help company that manufactures nano-tech "serums" that instantly make their users smarter, better able to deal with people, more successful, etc--is advertising a new product: serums which give their users a sense of purpose. The ad goes:

"For more than twenty years, Axon has been helping you to attain life's riches. Now we can help you to want them!"

And this gets at what Postrel seems to miss: our modern consumer society gives us all these choices, but eats away at the sense of purpose necessary to make making choices meaningful and fulfilling.

More on Indy vs. NASCAR

Here's another reason why I don't buy Robert Weintraub's argument that Danica Patrick was only able to place 4th in the Indy 500 because she was racing against a diluted field.

Weintraub is right that a lot of the best young American open-wheel racecar drivers have gotten jobs driving stock cars in NASCAR instead of competing in the Indy Racing League. Now, if the IRL was filling its cars solely with second-tier young American open-wheel racecar drivers, Weintraub would have a slam-dunk case. But, in fact, over half of the drivers in the Indy 500 field were foreigners. And I'm not sure that there's any evidence that a 2 time Indy 500 winner like Helio Castroneves isn't as skilled and talented a racecar driver as NASCAR star Tony Stewart. After all, Helio did beat Tony when they raced against each other in the 2001 Indy 500, and Helio has won two-out-of-five of the Indy 500s he's started and Tony is, alas, zero-for-five.

Weintraub writes:

The circuit used to be dominated by boldface names like Mears, Rahal, Fittipaldi, and Unser. I'll forgive you for not remembering that some guy named Buddy Rice won Indy last year. And by this time next week, you'll have forgotten all about Dan Wheldon.

He's suggesting that the reason we haven't heard about the current top IRL drivers, like Wheldon and Helio, as well as Tony Kanaan and Dario Franchitti is that they're not as talented as Mears, Rahal, and Unser. But the real reason American audiences aren't interested in these drivers is that these drivers are not American: 8 of the last 10 Indy 500 winners have been foreigners, and their dominance of the event has driven away TV viewers.

And that's too bad, because these guys are good drivers and they do put on good races. The IRL race at the Texas Speedway is almost always more exciting than any of the NASCAR races on similar 1.5-mile ovals. However, I can understand why American audiences prefer to follow the careers of talented young American drivers like NASCAR's Kasey Kahne instead of talented young British drivers like Dan Wheldon.

Sunday, June 5, 2005

Spoiled!--The Trailers for The Island and Flightplan

This post contains spoilers of the soon-to-be-released Michael Bay sci-fi extravaganza The Island and the not-so-soon-to-be-released Jodie Foster psychological thriller Flightplan. I haven't actually seen either of these movies, but I have seen their trailers, which seem to give away their movie's major plot twists.

Based on the trailer, The Island looks like a cross between contemporary sci-fi action spectaculars like The Matrix and old-fashioned 1970s "messagey" sci-fi movies like Soylent Green. Ewan McGregor and Scarlett Johansson are even dressed in jumpsuits that look like the ones from Logan's Run. Its premise is that the characters who seem to live in an overcrowded futuristic city, hope to win a state sponsored lottery where the reward is a chance to live in a utopian paradise called "The Island". The movie's twists--which are both revealed about halfway through the trailer--are that (1) "The Island" doesn't really exist (funny thing about those utopias) and (2) the main characters are actually clones of people living full, happy lives in the "Real World".

The trailer for Flightplan waits until it is about 2/3rds of the way through before it gives away the movie's big twist. This movie's premise is that Jodie Foster and her 6-year-old daughter are flying on the maiden voyage of a brand new, super-duper, double-decker passenger airplane (that Jodie's character designed, 'natch!). Jodie and the kid get in their seats and decide to take a nap. When Jodie wakes up, about halfway through the flight, her daughter is missing. Jodie asks around, and everyone else on the plane, including a creepy air marshal played by Peter Sarsgaard, tells her that, "No, sorry, your daughter was never actually on this plane, in fact, she died six days ago!" At this point, the trailer seems to promise one of those is-she-crazy or is-it-a-ghost or is-it-some-kind-of-evil-scheme movies that keep the audience guessing right to the end. Whoops, no need to guess. The trailer then reveals one of the movie's plot points--Jodie discovers physical evidence that the daughter was indeed on the plane--which proves conclusively the "evil scheme" hypothesis. (Incidentally, the "discovery of conclusive evidence of an evil scheme" moment is almost exactly the same as a similar scene in the underrated, overlooked David Mamet conspiracy thriller Spartan.)

Now, I know this isn't a brand new phenomenon, but I can't help wonder: what does it mean when a studio is willing to give away practically the entire story in the trailer? I kinda/sorta get it in the case of The Island: it's a big, fx-driven sci-fi flick, and so maybe the studio figures no one really cares about the plot all that much. This fits in with my theory about Philip K. Dick adaptations: studios like to take a clever little sci-fi idea and wrap a big, noisy action picture around it. They aren't really interested in the kernel of an idea at all, though: it's just kind of an excuse for all the violence and explosions. I suppose it makes for better interviews if the actors can tell the press that they wanted to make the movie because it tells an interesting story about what it will mean to be human in a future where cloning/memory implants/precognition is possible instead of telling them that they wanted to make the movie because noisy sci-fi fx pictures attract big audiences.

Even so, one of the things that made the original Matrix movie such a success was that no one really knew what it was about until they were actually watching it. It gave audiences a kick to experience all the twists and turns of the plot without knowing where the story was going. It was this feeling of excitement that people took out of the movie with them, and then they told their friends to see it quickly, before they learned enough about the movie to spoil the surprises.

What I really don't get, though, is why the people who made the Flightplan trailer decided to give it all away. Flightplan doesn't seem to be aimed at the male adolescent, fx-junky crowd, but rather at adults looking for a smart, creepy movie--after all, Jodie Foster isn't exactly all that big with the kids these days. Flightplan looks like a Hitchcock-Twilight Zone-Sixth Sense-style psychological/supernatural thriller, and one of the big conventions--if not the big convention--of this kind of movie is "There's a Big Exciting Twist That the Audience Doesn't Know About". Letting the audience in on this twist before they've even seen the movie seems like poor form.

It's kind of a bummer, because Flightplan looked pretty interesting, but knowing, in advance, one of the major plot twists in a thriller really undermines the suspense. And what's the point of going to see a thriller that's had the suspense drained away by an over-explicit trailer?

"The Sad State of Indy"

Robert Weintraub makes a few good points in this Slate piece designed to get the Danica Patrick backlash rolling:

Patrick competes in a racing series that has been watered down to the point of irrelevance. While beating men in such a macho domain is laudable, it should be noted somewhere--OK, here--that her accomplishment represents less of a cultural shift than a reflection of the sad state of affairs at Indy.

This is certainly true: the Indy 500 is simply not as competitive a race as NASCAR's major event, the Daytona 500. However, I did find some things to nitpick in Weintraub's argument: he tends to stretch some facts and leave others out in order to score points against Patrick.

Take the comparison Weintraub makes betweeen Patrick and Shawna Robinson:

If you think Patrick's talent and charisma would have been enough to win her a top ride in any era, just take a look at NASCAR's Shawna Robinson. Like Patrick, Robinson is strikingly beautiful and has loads of talent—she sat on the pole in a Busch Series race (the rung just below NASCAR's major leagues), the only woman ever to do so. But Robinson isn't a star. Since NASCAR is stocked with talent, she's been stuck on a small team with iffy sponsorship support. Racing for a second-tier team led to second-tier results, and Robinson lost her regular ride earlier this season. Had she gone into Indy racing, she'd be a legend by now.

There's a couple of problems with this. First, winning a pole requires driving well for about 2 laps (3 miles at Atlanta, where Robinson won her pole). That's a little bit different than finishing 4th in a 500 mile race. Even so, the year Robinson won a Busch pole (1994) her best finish was 10th place in a 150 mile race.

Second, in 1994, the Busch series (and NASCAR in general) was not as competitive as it is today. Moreover, Weintraub is making an assumption that Robinson is as talented as Patrick, and there's really no evidence to back that up.

Finally, Weintraub is simply ignoring the difference between open-wheel racing and stock car racing. True: drivers who grew up racing open-wheel have had real success racing stock cars in NASCAR--Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart, for example. But there's no evidence that has shown success at racing stock cars has led to success racing open-wheel cars.

(Even though drivers are more likely to follow the money to NASCAR than walk away from the money by going to the IRL, if it were at all easy to go from stock cars to open-wheel racing, I would think that we'd have seen an examples of at least one second-tier NASCAR driver who decided to cross over to the IRL in order to have a better chance of being a star.)

While Patrick probably would do pretty poorly if she competed in a NASCAR event, there's no evidence that someone like Kevin Harvick, a NASCAR star who has raced stock cars exclusively, would fare any better if he were to take place in a top level open-wheel race.

Weintraub's biggest problem is that he has a blindspot when it comes to the way American open-wheel racing has been hurt by its "diversity". He writes:

No one has been interested in the Indy 500 for a decade. The vehicles that greats like Foyt and Andretti raced to glory are called Indy cars. The series they raced in was called CART, and until the mid-1990s it was the dominant domestic motor-sports franchise. But in 1994, Tony George, the president of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, announced the formation of the Indy Racing League. George wrapped himself in the flag, claiming the move was designed to promote American drivers and sponsors. In reality, it was a blatant power grab.

CART owners responded by boycotting the Indy 500 and running the swiftly forgotten U.S. 500 in its place. While the media waited for one series to establish dominance, fans and sponsors burned rubber toward NASCAR. Ratings bottomed out, attendance declined, and the next generation of talented drivers stopped dreaming of running at Indy—except at NASCAR's Brickyard 400. CART went bankrupt in 2003, but the IRL hasn't capitalized.

(Let me get Weintraub's mistakes out of the way: USAC and not CART sanctioned the Indy 500 and the interest American audiences had in open-wheel racing was already declining at the time of the IRL-CART split.)

Now, Tony George was certainly making a power grab, and he was looking out for himself more than anyone else, but his central point was valid: American audiences want to watch American drivers. As more and more foreign drivers entered CART, more and more of American open-wheel racing's audience moved to NASCAR. This started a viscious circle: NASCAR started getting more money, which they were able to use to woo American drivers away from open-wheel racing, leading to fewer Americans actually caring about open-wheel racing, which led to more money for NASCAR and less for CART and the IRL. Tony George was unwilling or unable to spend the money necessary to keep the best American drivers in the IRL, and so, 10 years later, the series is filled with foreign drivers who aren't good enough to compete in F1 and American drivers who haven't been offered rides in NASCAR.

Weintraub writes:

If we're searching for an analogy for Patrick's achievement, imagine if Annika Sorenstam placed fourth in a PGA Tour event after the top golfers broke away to form their own tour. Instead of besting Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, let's say that Sorenstam knocked off Ty Tryon and Billy Andrade. A milestone in women's sports? Sure. A feat that's slightly tempered by the diluted level of competition? Most definitely.

This isn't quite fair, because the difference between the IRL and NASCAR is more signifcant than that between rival golf leagues--open-wheel racing simply isn't the same thing as stock car racing--but it's close enough to the sorry truth.

(More Danica Patrick commentary from yours truly here...)

Saturday, June 4, 2005

Enough is Enough

Out of all the stylish, artsy revenge movies I've seen over the last year or so--including Man on Fire, Kill Bill, and Sin City--the widely-praised Oldboy is the most unpleasant, the most pretentious, and the most preposterous. And that's saying something because Man on Fire, Kill Bill, and Sin City set pretty high bars for, respectively, unpleasantness, pretentiousness, and preposterousness. Although the biggest problem with these movies is probably that they're all really dull: they can't even manage to be unpleasant in an interesting way. And, again, Oldboy earns top honors: though its opening is promising--setting up a compelling Takashi Miike-does-Twilight Zone premise--it quickly turns into a substandard entry in the Convoluted Asian Action Film sweepstakes, throwing in badly choreographed fight sequences in between completely nonsensical plot points.

Worst of all, Oldboy builds to a "shock" ending whose impact relies on the audience buying into all the nonsense. If the movie had made sense up to that point, the ending might actually have had the emotional resnance and deeper meaning the movie's admirers see in it. But the movie doesn't make sense, or rather, even though on a basic A-follows-B-follows-C level the movie is semi-comprehensible, at no point in the movie can you imagine that any actual human beings would ever behave the way the characters in the movie do. Ever.

And so, watching the movie's shocking, intense, highly-charged ending, I felt that someone had tacked the end of one of Euripides's plays onto the end of one of Johnny To's goofy, slapdash action comedies. The lead actor, Min-sik Choi, who has been relatively appealing throughout the movie, suddenly starts over-acting--he writhes and emotes with such fervor that he makes Sean Penn and Toshiro Mifune look like masters of restraint--and the only sane response an audience member can have is to ask, "Wha'?" I assume the filmmakers expect you to leave the theater pondering the nature of revenge, of guilt, of justice, but I left the theater wondering why I should care about characters that are so obviously contrivances and a plot that is so obviously constructed to make a point.

Some fans of the movie seem to argue that the story's preposterousness is part of its meaning: the movie doesn't need to make sense because revenge itself doesn't make sense; the characters' motivations are nonsensical because revenge itself is a nonsensical motivation. But it's entirely possible to make a movie about the emptiness of revenge and still populate it with characters whose motivations are understandable, if not applaudable. Anthony Mann and Jimmy Stewart did it in a bunch of westerns, for starters.

And I think at this point I've had enough of the Artsy Revenge Fantasy genre, in general. I understand why certain filmmakers like to make these kinds of movies: the revenge plot is a basic template that lends itself to be gussied up with pop culture in-jokes, super-stylized visuals, and nihilistic philosophizing, while still allowing for the visceral kick of action-packed retribution. Audiences can get their thrills and the flmmakers can maintain the illusion that they're doing something more important and meaningful and transgressive than a standard action-movie blockbuster. (It makes sense that Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns--the greatest Artsy Revenge Fantasies and the inspiration, directly or not, for most of these new ones--are among the shallowest of all great movies.) And it's that central dishonesty that has really soured me on this kind of movie.

These movies aren't really any deeper than a crowd-pleaser like Independence Day, except that we leave them feeling as if we've been kicked in the teeth. That's probably one of the reasons certain film critics--usually sensitive film critics of the male persuasion--who loathe rousing, Rambo-style revenge pics and standard Schwarzenegger-style macho bullshit, love these kinds of movies: they can get their fix of sadistic violence and then take their punishment for enjoying something that they know they shouldn't like.