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Beware of sports writers who pretend to mastery of the facts. I come across a different version of these people in academia - they can recite a bunch of dates, or quote Hegel, and for this reason they seem to think that they've figured it all out. The ones who listen, however, who have a good sense of humor and know how to hold contradiction in their head without trying to resolve it - those are the ones who are most likely to say something interesting, something insightful, something new.

More often than not, sports pundits are writing with the certainty of hindsight, finding in what they've just seen evidence of what they already know.  (The one genre in sports writing that seems to escape this problem is the live streaming match report, an emerging art.)

Reader, beware of the sense of mastery which comes at the cost of a sense of wonder.  Who can say why Gyan missed his penalty, or that "any player" would have done as Forlan did? Who can say why Iniesta can find his shot under so much pressure, how he can make that look like the easiest thing in the world? Why would we want to know these things, anyway? These qualities are unquantifiable, the events are inexplicable, and this is why they fascinate.

-- Jennifer Doyle, “Sports Writing Blues

what i watched last week

Cutter’s Way. This is the kind of movie that is forgotten. It flies under the radar in its initial run (in this case, it had two “initial” runs). It gets respect from critics, and many of the people who see it, like it. But over the years, it never quite reaches cult status. Fast-forward 29 years (the movie was released in 1981), and you’ve got a forgotten film that a lot of people might like if they saw it today. I know I was looking forward to finally seeing it after all these years. Except … I wasn’t all that impressed. I could see why it has its champions, but I’m not one of them. Its rambling nature didn’t work for me, and while John Heard as Cutter offered an impressive piece of work, it was more “give me an acting award” impressive than anything else. Someone out there still likes it: it is #921 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 6/10.

Drag Me to Hell. When I first saw this last year, I loved it, and wished my wife had seen it, too. So tonight I watched it again, this time with her. She rolled her eyes as she usually does when I proclaim some movie an “all-time classic,” so her rating, as always, is probably lower than mine. Me? I see Sam Raimi’s career in two parts, the supreme junkmeister who made the Evil Dead movies, and the poor fellow that got handed a gazillion dollars to make Spider-Man movies. Drag Me to Hell is a top-notch horror comedy, but I give it an extra point for returning Raimi to his better years. This movie is a lot closer to Evil Dead than it is to Spider-Man, and thank god for that. 8/10.

random friday, 1992 edition: pete rock & c.l. smooth, they reminisce over you (t.r.o.y.)

Jefferson Airplane was my favorite of the 60s San Francisco bands. I particularly liked the experimentalism of After Bathing at Baxter’s, and wore out my copy of Bless Its Pointed Little Head thanks to the astounding rush of Jack Casady’s bass playing. At the time, I believed in Volunteers. In the end, though, like so many, I found a special place in my heart for Surrealistic Pillow. It had iconic singles (“Somebody to Love” and “White Rabbit”), crunching rockers (“3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”), an acoustic guitar classic (“Embryonic Journey”), and it introduced Grace Slick to the world at large. It also offered Marty Balin at his most romantic, and since I spent a lot of time that summer making out while the album played in the background, that romanticism went over quite well. Looking back, though, I seem to have lost my taste for fey balladry. So a song like “Today” brings back great memories, but it’s only the fine arrangement and Balin’s heartfelt vocal that prevents it from falling into a pool of sappiness.

Here’s a live version from the Monterey Pop Festival … the cameraman seems to be crushing on Grace:

Tom Scott was not my favorite musician. He had chops and taste, but “pop-jazz” doesn’t exactly blow me away. He worked regularly as a session musician while releasing albums under his own name; his band backed up Joni Mitchell on a mid-70s live album that is … well, buy the studio versions of those songs. Back when he was 19, in 1967, Scott released his first album, The Honeysuckle Breeze, featuring cover material and a singing group called The California Dreamers. One of the covers on that album was “Today” … if you thought Marty Balin was a bit sappy, you ain’t heard nothing yet.

So, what does this have to do with hip-hop in 1992, or with Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth? The duo released a debut EP in 1991 that got people’s attention … they were a perfect team, with Smooth’s delivery matching his name while Rock was already one of the top DJs and producers ever. In 1992, they came out with their first full-length album, Mecca and the Soul Brother. “They Reminisce Over You (T.R.O.Y)” was a tribute to Trouble T Roy, a dancer for Heavy D and the Boyz who died accidentally. There is nothing sappy about this one … Smooth spends the first verses reminiscing about his childhood, then gets to Trouble T Roy at the end.

How did Pete Rock come up with the musical backing for the song? Wikipedia cites a Village Voice interview with Rock:

I had a friend of mine that passed away, and it was a shock to the community. I was kind of depressed when I made it. And to this day, I can't believe I made it through, the way I was feeling. I guess it was for my boy. When I found the record by Tom Scott, basically I just heard something incredible that touched me and made me cry. It had such a beautiful bassline, and I started with that first. I found some other sounds and then heard some sax in there and used that. Next thing you know, I have a beautiful beat made. When I mixed the song down, I had Charlie Brown from Leaders of the New School in the session with me, and we all just started crying.

When I heard Tom Scott’s version of a Marty Balin song, I heard sap. Pete Rock heard different. You never know.

bobby thomson addendum

Bobby Thomson was a fine hitter early in his career. Between 1948 and 1952 he made three All-Star teams, received MVP votes in three seasons … he even led the league in triples in 1952. In 1953, he played in every game, and knocked in 106 runs.

In the off-season, Thomson and a backup catcher were traded to the Braves for Johnny Antonelli, Don Liddle, a backup catcher, a prospect, and $50,000. (Antonelli stuck with the Giants long enough to pitch three seasons in San Francisco.) Unfortunately, Bobby broke his ankle in spring training. His replacement was a rookie named Henry Aaron. Thomson was never the same hitter after that … he had turned 30 in 1954, and while he played another two-and-a-half seasons for the Braves, he didn’t return to the heights of his years with the Giants.

In the middle of the 1957 season, he was traded along with two other players for Red Schoendienst. His new club? The New York Giants.

The next year, the Giants moved to San Francisco, but just before the start of the season, he was traded to the Cubs, and thus never played for the Giants in their new home. He had a good year for the Cubs, played another year for them, squeezed in a few games in 1960 with the Red Sox and then the Orioles, and was finally released by Baltimore in late July.

Thomson played 15 seasons in the big leagues for 5 different clubs, but he’ll always be remembered as a Giant. He played longer for them than for all the other teams combined, and, of course, he hit that homer.

He was a Giant from 1946 through 1953, and then again in 1957.

Since 1934, the Giants have only won the World Series once. That year was 1954 … the year Thomson was traded away. 1951 was the only Series he ever played in, and the Giants lost that one to the Yankees. He came thisclose to a championship ring. Fans of the 1962 and 2002 Giants can appreciate that.

bitterness and bobby thomson

Bobby Thomson hit the most famous home run in Giants’ history. It’s probably the most famous home run in baseball history, as well, although if I had a vote for greatest homer ever, I’d give the nod to Mazeroski in 1960.

Giants fans still get choked up listening to Russ Hodges’ famous call. But it’s a bittersweet feeling. Since the team moved to San Francisco in 1958, they have fulfilled Hodges’ rabid chant by winning the pennant only three times (it’s hard to know what a pennant is, anymore, but I’ll treat it as winning the league). That’s three World Series in 52 years and counting: 1962, 1989, and 2002. And I’m sure I don’t have to remind the asshole fans in Los Angeles and Oakland that the Giants did not win the Series in any of those years.

I’ve watched my local teams have great, championship seasons. The Warriors won the NBA title in the mid-70s … hell, I have a tiny memory of when Cal won the NCAA. The 49ers, of course, were one of the dominant NFL teams of the 80s and early-90s. Even the marginalized San Jose Earthquakes won two MLS titles before they were moved to Houston.

I’d trade every single one of the above for just one Giants World Series triumph.

So yes, I get emotional when I think of Bobby Thomson. Yes, Russ Hodges brings a lump to my throat. And, even when I don’t care who wins or what sport I am watching, when I watch a team win a championship, and I see the fans join the players in celebration, I am moved. I think, one day that will be me.

That day never comes. Which is why, in the end, Bobby Thomson’s home run just makes me feel bitter. Because I know one day I will join Bobby Thomson in Giants Heaven. And we can talk about how our team never won it all. Because even an historic figure like Bobby Thomson shares this with SF Giants fans: his team never won a World Series.

weeds season premiere

OK, I admit it. I broke down and watched the season premiere of Weeds. For some reason, I am compelled to keep watching, even though it’s not much good anymore. Kinda like that other Showtime series, The L Word, except the latter wasn’t much good from the start. I guess I never realized how much I love Mary-Louise Parker … I’ll stick with her show just because she’s on it. Her eyes are what does it to me. There are brown eyes, and there are dark brown eyes, but Parker has black eyes. It looks like her pupils and irises are the same color (this is when I wish I had a better handle on the vocabulary of physiology). The effect is give her eyes a depth that doesn’t exist in most of us. The eyes are perfectly cast as Nancy Botwin, who is always slightly astonished at her various predicaments. Over the years, though, the predicaments have gotten sillier, even as the general tone has moved from comedy-with-drama to drama-with-comedy.

Like many shows that outlive their usefulness, Weeds offered us a perfect final episode, only to continue onwards for several more seasons. While I am one who believes Buffy the Vampire Slayer kept most of its greatness until the end, the best place for that ending to occur would have been Season Five, which ended with Buffy’s sacrifice (“She Saved the World. A Lot.”). Weeds should have ended with Nancy burning her house down at the end of Season Three, but here we are, starting Season Six.

Was the premiere encouraging? Did I get the feeling the show is back on track? Not really. Will I watch again next week? Probably.

what i watched last week

Heathers. Its high points are very high indeed, but ultimately, it lacks the courage of its convictions. The ending is a copout, although Winona looks great covered in soot, cigarette hanging from her lip. That’s part of the problem: Heathers doesn’t reject the concept of cool, it just redefines it. This would be a better movie if they used the ending from Rock and Roll High School. None of this is meant to reduce its status as a cult classic. 7/10.

The Ghost Writer. When Roman Polanski made his greatest film, Chinatown, he was 41 years old. It was not the only example of Polanski’s brilliance at the time … it was preceded by such classics or near-classics as Knife in the Water, Repulsion, Rosemary’s Baby, and Macbeth (well, I thought the latter was a classic, anyway). Directors don’t necessarily follow the career trajectories of rock stars … older directors have made some of the finest movies of all time. But I have a feeling that most director’s careers are like Martin Scorsese’s: his best films came in the 70s (yes, I know I’m setting myself up for ridicule from the Raging Bull and Goodfellas fans). Critics love Scorsese, so a movie like Gangs of New York is praised far beyond its moderate pleasures. Polanski’s later career is pretty erratic, to be sure, but a film like The Ghost Writer doesn’t just remind us of his past triumphs, it is very good on its own. Not bad for a guy in his late-70s. Plus, if Wikipedia is right, I am right, too, for at the end of the movie, I told Robin that I bet the novel on which the movie is based had a different ending, which it does. The movie’s ending is v.Polanski in that Let’s Use My Ending for Chinatown way. 8/10.

Salt. Quite a few critics I respect have announced their love for this movie, and I can’t really argue with their reasons. Angelina Jolie is great in the title role as an ass-kicker supreme, and the action scenes take up a good 90% of the film, always a good idea when they are inventive. But somewhere in the middle of the movie, I realized that I thought it was about the stupidest thing I’d seen in quite awhile. And even the folks who like the film recognize that the plot isn’t exactly the point here. So Your Mileage May Vary and all that, but I’m only giving it 5/10.