Thursday, September 24, 2015

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns, PBS

Yogi Berra

I discovered the joys of baseball fairly late in life: The crack of a bat on a summer evening, lanky young men loping around the grass making each catch and toss look effortless, excited kids wearing their mitts, sitting in the outfield bleachers scuffling with each other, trying to snag the occasional foul ball or home run.

Summer is winding down, now, and our local minor league team has finished up their short season. Major League fans are looking forward to baseball's World Series, which begins October 27th. The seasons of and around baseball provide a thread that runs through the American calendar.

Famed Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, died yesterday. Berra was 90 years old, and has been a baseball constant, through the decades. Well-loved announcer Vin Scully tweeted: "As long as people talk about the game, whenever they mention the name Yogi Berra, they will smile."

Ken Burns' tremendous eleven-part documentary Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns covers the sport in magnificent detail from its earliest incarnations as played before the American Civil War, through the beginning of this millennium. Burns talks about teams, about the game itself and the evolution of rules, customs, and strategies. He talks about great players, tragedies, and triumphs over the last nearly two centuries of this quintessentially American game. The documentary includes nearly 24 hours of footage, interviews, stills, and commentary, and the end result is an absolute work of art. I've watched the entire thing from beginning to end at least three times, now, and every time I see it, I appreciate the attention to detail and obvious love of the game lavished on every single moment of Burns' footage.

"Say it ain't so, Joe..."
Burns discusses team names — like the Brooklyn Trolley-Dodgers, later to become just the Dodgers. He looks at great players — players like Yogi Berra —and great scandals, like the alleged Black Sox fix of the 1919 World Series. He examines the evolution of equipment and techniques. He nods to the early Robber Barons of baseball and today's swashbuckling free agents.

Baseball is an unabashedly sentimental game, steeped in tradition and superstition and proud of its beginnings. This is a game where the players remove their caps and hold them over their hearts for the playing of the National Anthem. Small boys hanging over the fence can get a nod from a world-class player on his way to the dugout. No matter how far the game has evolved, it remains quintessentially steeped in nostalgia. To go to a local game is, in some ways, to take one's place in an unending stretch of American tradition. If you hold your breath and close your eyes, you could be listening to a game Anywhere, Anywhen. The gentle rhythm of the game itself as well as the cold beer in paper cups, the hotdogs sharp with the tangy smell of mustard, belong to more than a century of baseball custom. Burns captures that sense of the game, and the customs surrounding the game, with intensity and eloquence.

[caption id="attachment_55993" align="alignleft" width="203"]Yogi Berra, record ball We'll miss you, Yogi[/caption]

Ken Burns has given us a remarkable gift, in this documentary. When the season is over, and winter sets in, we can cozy up at home and watch it again and again, dreaming of spring, when it all begins again.

And regarding Mr. Berra? I can only agree with Ken Burns: "Yogi Berra was one of the greatest HUMAN beings to play the game. I will miss him terribly."

So shall we all.

Baseball: A Film by Ken Burns is available streaming on Amazon Prime, for sale as a boxed DVD set, and can be rented via Netflix.

(Ken Burns, PBS, 2010)

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Bagna Cauda and Babylon 5

I've been re-watching Babylon 5 episodes on Netflix streaming, in part because of this Making Light thread from Abi Sutherland. In the fourth episode of season 2, "A Distant Star," Michael Garibaldi has a birthday. In honor of his father Alfredo Garibaldi, who always made Michael's favorite dish for him on his birthday, Michael makes bagna càuda.

Bagna càuda is a traditional dish from the Piedmont region of Italy; essentially a fondue, it's made with olive oil, butter, garlic and anchovies, heated and melted together. Diners dip vegetables into the sauce, and eat them with a carefully positioned pice of bread to catch the drips, and then they eat the bread, as they do on the Babylon 5 episode. Alternatively bagna càuda may be served over pasta. There are a couple of variations on the basic recipe; here's the most traditional take on bagna càuda, and yes, it's a traditional Christmas buffet item in much of northern Italy. Bagna càuda is particularly festive when served with roasted peppers for dipping. There's a lovely article about bagna càuda on the New York Times site that places bagna càuda in the context of Craig Claiborne's position as the New York Time's food editor in the sixties.

I couldn't find the actual bagna càuda clip from Babylon 5, but Mac said to post this one instead.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Star Trek OS: Ke$ha "Tik Tok"

The really sad thing is that I recognize every single clip, and know the episode it came from.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Star Trek TNG: Datalore

This episode, and the one following it, "Angel One," are two that I've been dreading reviewing. They both made me wince, but for slightly different reasons, albeit the writing on both is absolute wretched. The horrible truth about "Datalore," which revolves around the ancient Indo-European "divine twins" myth, is that Brent Spiner's kick-ass performance as Data and as Data's brother Lore is phenomenal, and the episode is absolutely worth watching for that, but the script is mind-numbingly poor. It's got to be difficult to be an actor and handed a script like this, and know that you're pretty much powerless to change it.

The basic plot is fairly simple. The Enterprise is returning to the outpost where thirty or so years ago, Data was found, outside, naked and covered with dust. The planet was, at that time, an agricultural colony, with over a hundred settlers, all of whom contributed their memories to Data's embedded store. Yet the planet is completely barren of all life; human, animal or vegetable. Near the spot where Data was found, LaForge, with the aid of his visor, discovers a concealed lab, which, it turns out, belonged to Data's creator, Dr. Noonien Soong. Inside the lab they find a carefully preserved disassembled copy of Data.

Data of course, wants to take the parts home and reconstruct the android, which he does with the able assistance of Dr. Crusher and Chief Engineer Argyle—in the process, explaining the location and function of his "off" switch to Dr. Crusher. Lore turns out to be an Evil Twin. He lures an intelligent and voracious crystalline entity, the same entity he lured to devour all life on the planet, to the Enterprise, and slips Data an unknown poison via champagne, then pretends to be Data. Wesley, unlike the bridge crew, isn't fooled, announces that Lore is Evil and not Data, and is roundly criticized by Picard in what is now a third-time-motif, in that Wesley is of course absolutely right. Lore attacks Worf, threatens Wesley, is stopped by Data, and beamed out to the Crystalline Entity by Wesley. I have, of course, skipped lots of stuff, and even more truly bad writing and bogus dialog, but you can read all about it here.

Lore, as An Evil Twin, fucntions much like the Welsh brothers Nisien and Efnisien in the "Branwen" branch of the Welsh Mabinogi, or any number of others. There's a sub-motif in the myth that involves the sacrifice of one twin; in the mabinogi of Branwen, it turns out the Efnisen "not peace," the Evil Twin, ultimately chooses to sacrifice himself, while Nisien ("peace") lives. It doesn't work quite that way in terms of Lore and Data, but you'll have to watch the entire run of TNG to discover the twist. Interestingly enough, it was apparently Brent Spiner who suggested the "evil twin" twist for this episode.

Wil Wheaton's somewhat scathing but perceptive and funny review of "Datalore" is here. I suggest that before reading it, you watch his performance at PAX reading it, here.

The official trailer for "Datalore"

The previous episode was "The Big Goodbye"; the next episode is "Angel One."

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Star Trek TNG: The Big Goodbye

"The Big Goodbye" was the twelfth episode of the first season of Star Trek The Next Generation, and first aired January 11, 1988. It won a Peabody award, the only TNG episode to ever win the Peabody, and an Emmy for Best Costuming.

This is one of the first of what will become a standard feature; a holodeck episode. In this instance, Picard is required to execute an elaborate and formal greeting to the Jaradan, an greeting that was so poorly performed in previous attempts that the Jaradan felt insulted and refused to acknowledge the Federation for twenty years. Picard is under considerable stress. In an effort to relax, and on the advice of Ships's Counselor Lt. Troi, Picard retreats to the Holodeck to enjoy a Dixon Hill "holo novel" set in the twentieth century. Picard is eventually joined by Dr. Crusher, Data, and a historian, Whalen, all in costume, on the holo deck.

Unfortunately, there's a bug in the program, and the holodeck is malfunctioning, which means that "safeguards" are off, bullets are dangerous, and they can't exit the program—or the holodeck. The historian Whalen is killed as the crew members are held hostage by the mafia-esque thug Cyrus Redblock, who wants an "item" that Picard (as the private eye Dixon Hill) is supposed to have. Wesley manages to figure out the problem, and suggests resetting the holodeck—which briefly exposes the actual crew deck to Cyrus Redblock, who, visions of an entirely new universe to exploit, attempts to enter the deck, only to rasterize as he exits the holodeck. Picard manages to arrive on the bridge just in time to properly greet the Jaradan, and all is well. For the gory details, see the plot summary here.

"The Big Goodbye" is essentially a film noire pastiche, written for an audience with a passing acquaintance with the Maltese Falcon and not much else. The idea of a detective story on the holo deck was Roddenberry's; the execution of the story was writer Tracy Tormé's. This is generally perceived as the first true sign of what TNG would become. Wil Wheaton is quite enthusiastic about the episode. Despite the awards, older Trek fans frequently make scathing references to "The Big Goodbye" as a sort of reprise of the Original Series episode, "A Piece of the Action"; they share little more than a historic back drop in early twentieth century gang folklore. The emphasis on Picard learning the Jaradan greeting from Counselor Troi in the first act is, well, idiotic. They would presumably have a ship's linguist, a recording, a phonetic transcription, something, that would be more intelligent than Picard learning it from someone else who may not have any more of a clue than he.

The official trailer for "The Big Goodbye"

The previous episode was "Haven"; the next episode is "Datalore."

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Whedon, Rimbaud, and Cicero: Introduction to the Angel Rewatch

Moi ! moi qui me suis dit mage ou ange, dispensé de toute morale, je suis rendu au sol, avec un devoir à chercher, et la réalité rugueuse à étreindre ! Paysan !
Arthur Rimbaud, Adieu, Une Saison en Enfer

Before we talk about the pilot episode of Angel, I want to consider a couple of keys that I think help unlock the character Angel's place in the milieu of Joss Whedon's Buffyverse. But first, a Very Brief Discussion of the history of literature, especially as it relates to the Gothic and horror genres.

Gothic literature was profoundly influenced by Romanticism, and the philosophical search for meaning, elevation of imagination as a virtue, humanity's eternal quest for perfection, and the perpetual struggle to overcome our own darkness and internal failings. It's no coincidence that we associate the Romantic movement in literature with an age of political revolution. The Romantics were greatly motivated to explore and present nature as theme and as metaphor. A Romantic writer, then, was more concerned with capturing the beauty of the butterfly outside the window, and riffing on that butterfly as an elaborate metaphor, than he would have been concerned with catching, pinning, and dissecting the poor little bug, then drawing elaborate diagrams and writing detailed descriptions—which would have delighted the Neoclassicists, just previous.

From the Romantics evolved the Decadent movement, particularly in France. Oscar Wilde might be the best-known English representative of the Decadent movement, though, if (like me) you don't spent a lot of time reading late 19th century French poetry. These were the poets and writers personifying sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll in their lives and art. Marked by cynicism, self-loathing, paradox, artifice, excess, fascination with death, self-indulgence, shock value, and really fabulous costumes, Decadence was simultaneously a parody, an exaggeration, and a rejection of the more naive age of Romanticism from which it grew.

Moving right along, because we've now pretty much exhausted everything I know about late 19th century French poetry, the same way gothic literature evolved from Romanticism, the contemporary horror genre owes much to the Decadent movement. The horror genre especially grows directly out of the 19th century Decadence movement and its obsession with artifice over nature, and an increasingly urban population's rejection of and alienation from the simplicity and rustic ideals of Romanticism in favor of embracing carefully-staged perversions, taboos, and shocking excesses. Writers like Edgar Allan Poe, Mary Shelley, and Guy de Maupassant directly informed Bram Stoker's Dracula. Published in 1897, Dracula essentially defined the contemporary concept of vampires; in turn, the novel directly influences and informs Whedon's Buffyverse. That, finally, brings us to where we'll begin discussing Angel.

BtVS and Angel are a contemporary take on ( and a particularly American take, at that) Gothic and horror storytelling. (You won't catch me saying "post-modern" because mostly the term just kind of pisses me off for reasons I won't bore you with, here.) We can make a natural connection between the Buffyverse and previous writers of gothic or horror literature and film; from that connection, then, there's a clear lineage from the Decadent poets in general, leading us to poet Arthur Rimbaud, in particular. Indeed, Angel will make specific reference to Rimbaud repeatedly later on in season one. I cheated and watched ahead, so I know this to be true.

Rimbaud wrote an extended prose poem called A Season in Hell dealing rather bitterly with most of the over-arching themes we've seen Angel grappling with throughout his appearances in BtVS, and we might reasonably expect to see further developed in Angel. By the time Angel opens, we've been introduced to the Angel/Angelus dichotomy during season 2 of BtVS. We've also been introduced to Angel's agonized and tiresome soul-searching and perpetual brooding about his own essential nature. Season 3 of BtVS is Angel's final season, so we're going to look back just briefly at what we've been told about the character, before he apparently has the ultimate mid-life crisis at nearly 300 years old, leaves Buffy, buys a convertible, and moves to LA.

The central question informing the character of Angel is asked during season 3, first in the episode "Amends."  Angel's been having really bad dreams. Except they're also teh sexy and over-the-top with all the blood and pain and dying and the—wait for it—decadence of Angel's sordid past. So a suicidal and tormented Angel asks Buffy (BtVS, season three, "Amends"), "Am I a thing worth saving, huh? Am I a righteous man?" (You can watch the BtVS free streaming episode "Amends" online, here, until July 1, 2010.)

There are a couple of immediate associations with "righteous man" that are dead easy for us to make, from our seats here in the cheering section. First, since we're already thinking of decadence, there's Rimbaud's "The Righteous Man" and then by association the deeper exploration of what it means to be a tortured man in his famous "A Season In Hell."

The second association is rather more contemporary, and that's the Pulp Fiction fake-quote atributed Ezekiel 25:17, delivered by Jules (played by Samuel L. Jackson):

Jules: The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

Then, if you've seen the movie, blam blam blam, blam blam blam, the guy tied to the chair—the guy Jules is talking to—gets shot to rags., leaving us to conclude that the righteous men are the ones with the biggest handguns and wittiest dialog.

Now, there are a great many time-honored stories about violent men who are also, paradoxically, righteous. Cú Chulainn, Gawain, Arthur, Natty Bumpo, and more recently, Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. This brings us right to where we can begin to consider Angel without the lens of Buffy's teenaged crush on him; we can now consider the ongoing question: Is Angel a Righteous Man? Just what constitutes goodness is a central question to Western literature and philosophy, famously posed in quite straightforward fashion by Cicero, who argues that goodness is defined by a combination of careful attention to duty and personal virtue.

So next post, when we approach the pilot episode of Angel, Season One, "City of Angels," it's with the question of what constitutes a righteous man firmly in mind, and with an eye out for various genre conventions related to soul-searching, violence, decadence, romance, and great clothes.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Watching Angel - Ten Years Later

Yep. I'm finally getting around to watching Angel. Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a revelation for me, in terms of modern retelling of mythology and archetype, and I watched Buffy about ten years after the fact, too. (Confession: I still haven't made it all the way through poor, painful, limping, suckitudinous season seven, in spite of the DVD boxed set sitting within arm's reach.) Angel is available streaming on Netflix, so it's painlessly accessible just when I really need something to write about, too.

Any memorable show needs memorable theme music, and we get that with Angel. It's actually one of the very few openers I don't just automagically skip, because it's moody, evocative, and well-suited to the overall tone of the show. Also, I just like it.

I like it so well, in fact, I went out and found the full-length version to share with you!

Whee! Angel! Vampires! Darkness and shadows and streetlights reflecting off pavement!

To be dead honest, I'm sort of predisposed to be a little resistant to Angel. I found the character mostly tiresome, in BtVS; whiny and melodramatic and maddeningly inclined to withhold important information. People I like and trust to have good judgment keep telling me that it's well worth watching, though, so here we go.

You, you lucky three souls, are cordially invited along for the ride.

Links potentially of interest: