Whither the NFL?

February 9, 2010

As a contrarian and New Yorker I have to take issue with much of the post-Super Bowl chatter that I’ve heard.  Though there was a decent narrative (local wunderkind Peyton Manning takes on his hometown team, a franchise representing a beleaguered city) I do not believe it was a great game.  The NFL has continuously approved rule changes that favor the passing game.  Not only does this cheapen certain benchmarks (10 NFL QB’s threw for 4,000 plus yards this season) it brings a great imbalance to the game.

I have great respect for Drew Brees’ efficiency and the highly cerebral approach and rigorous preparation of Peyton Manning.  I also recognize that there great skill is required to protect these passers as well as these offensive linemen do.  Quick: think about the number of sacks and relative pressure in this Super Bowl; now compare that to how the Giants rattled Tom Brady’s cage two years prior.

But getting quick leads on opponents because of big passing plays leaves a sour taste in my mouth.  Watching a team march down the field consuming yardage and game clock like a pack of ravenous animals is true victory.  It is disheartening for a defense to be pushed backwards – it requires a psychological victory that the passing game simply does not.  While I recognize that Peyton Manning has revolutionized the position and I have tremendous respect for his ability to process, analyze and disect a defense in roughly 40 seconds, I’m not as impressed by the fact that “there’s no defense for a perfect throw”.  Watching a 300 guard pull block or a big halfback get out to the next level and take on a middle linebacker is not as aesthetically pleasing to the untrained eye, but it’s what football’s always been about to me.

“Smart bombs” and aerial bombing campaigns do not give us actual victory or any real sense of a “mission accomplished”.  Territorial acquisition is control.

Predicting the outcome of sporting events is hard work. Nonetheless, your ever humble Saladeers have managed to be correct exactly fifty percent of the time, predicting that the Chicago Bears would lose last year’s superbowl and the Colorado Rockies would lose the World Series. Of course, these predictions have to be balanced with our predictions that the Indianapolis Colts would lose and the Boston Red Sox would also lose. Sure one could argue that Yesterday’s Salad has the moral convictions of one Mitt Romney, changing positions whenever its advantageous. But such an argument would neglect the fact that America is ready for CHANGE and only a Washington outsider like Yesterday’s Salad can deliver! Besides, prognosis depends upon gnosis, and YS, after the supreme disappointment of Matrix Revolutions, decided to renounce gnosticism once and for all.

So in the name of normative religion, let us now praise famous men and the fathers that begat us, and give voice to the reasons that New York will not stand to fight another day.

1. Nation, Narration, Landedness: Where do the New York Giants come from? What are the origins of this strange identity? This past week, the New York Times printed two articles (shades of the sushi scare) about the Giantss actual home, East Rutherford New Jersey. One focused on the differance of East Rutherford, on the way its status as Giants hometown is elided by the media. As the article put it, “Any TV watcher knows that when the Giants play, the networks usually sprinkle in shots of the Manhattan skyline and Times Square, not the low-slung shops on Paterson and Park Avenues, which is where Noel Figueroa, a hair stylist, can be found.” But this article is relatively friendly compared to the Times’ other piece on the political implications of the Giants’ situation. The article begins with the regional politics (the New Jersey governor claim the team for his state/Ed Koch refusing to recognize the “foreign” players) before situating the conflict in its geo-political context. Not only does the article detail the way the first Gulf War impacted the team (with the outbreak of Operation Desert Storm no celebration was held for the Giant’s Superbowl victory), it likens the situation to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis: “So, yeah, this New York Giants business gripes some people on the West Bank (of the Hudson).” It would seem there are some parallels; the giants lay claim to another “New York” from the periphery. At best it can be said that the New York Giants form a kind of imagined community, and it remains to be seen whether or not a stateless team can defeat a stated one.

2. Mobility: Prior investigation has revealed that the city with the superior transit system is more likely to win than the city that largely relies on internal combustion engines. While conventional wisdom would posit that the NYC Subway is vastly superior to the MBTA, it is clear that more inquiry is required. For argument’s sake, let’s try reading against the grain. The claim that the New York City subway system is superior is largely based on reactionary pastism, the fact that the current system is the largest in the world (as based on track mileage). But what if we direct our view towards the future? What we see is not so pretty: the excellent transit blog Second Ave Sagas has recently documented countless problems with the MTA’s largest capital projects. The MTA has had to scale back their ambitions, decapitating the Fulton City Transit Hub, and removing a track from the Second Ave. Subway. Echoes of past second ave failures abound, and this correspondent can’t help but worry that the line will never be built. Meanwhile, politicians continue to bicker over congestion pricing while Bostonians are finally reaping the benefits of the big dig, and political pressure may force the Patrick administration to actually bring the T to medford and East Somerville. If we reverse Benjamin’s Angel of History and direct its focus towards the future, the blows we call progress are surely more damaging on the New York side. [Ed. Note: YS does not actually believe that the MBTA is superior to the MTA, in any regard except theme song.] More damningly, if we change our mode of transport to air travel, we see that New York is responsible for 75%(!) of the Nation’s air travel delays. Advantage Boston.

3. The Tom Brady Factor: While Eli Manning continues to suffer from the Anxiety of Peyton Manning’s influence, Brady has almost violated the immutable law of genre. Brady has transcended the definition of Football Star and become a media star like no other athlete. Not only has he become a staple of Celebrity gossip, he has changed the nature of that gossip: TMZ now reports on possible injuries to Tom Brady rather than his dalliances. It is hard to imagine how this unprecedented situation can manifest in anything other than a Pats victory. Read the rest of this entry »

Watching the State of the Union tonight last night, I realized just how arbitrary our units of measurement are. Why should the President address the country every year? Why should he do so with such pageantry? Now, when this last year is so insignificant, with this president appearing so bereft of ambition, is their any good reason that he should be given such a forum for his increasingly diminuted ideas? Especially when he has the right to interrupt all regularly scheduled programming whenever he sees fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense if he only addressed America immediately after an election? (Please, no one suggest the constitution as an answer.)

We spend a lot of time talking about this year‘s Best Picture, but one year is just as arbitrary a time-span when evaluating movies as it is with evaluating presidencies. Nothing points out this arbitrariness like foreign movies. With different release dates in different countries, it’s not uncommon to see some foreign movies nominated in different years. The most recent test case for this is The Lives of Others, which was nominated at the Bavarian Film Awards in 2005, the German Film Awards for 2006, last year’s Academy Awards, and this year’s BAFTAs (more on this great movie in a minute). In the art world, the best works are frequently displayed at a Biennale, (or Biennial if you refuse to inflect your English with loan words. Mon Dieu!) and other exhibitions are self contained and last only for short periods of time. The reason I bring this up is our bizarre appellation of some movies as “Art Movies.” While this mostly refers to their stylistics (often disparagingly), it begs the question, do these movies have a qualitative connection to art?

It goes without saying that, as a mass produced object, movies lack the uniqueness of art. As Geoffrey Hartman wrote in his autobiography modern movies also lack the eventness of art:

For all my adolescent years…the movies remained a special treat, a near-festive occasion like somone’s birthday…Now, every day, every hour, I can surf several channels as well as visit the big screen. The result is indifference to what used to be a magical occasion, a typical blunting toward the often frenetic realism of the medium, so that little of an early eagerness is left.

It is no great claim to say that movies exist on that boundary between “high” art and popular “low” culture. Or, that their very existence probably proves that there are no such categories.

I ask the question because The Diving Bell and the Butterfly insists. The movie’s cinematography and bravado editing demand that we consider the film as art. It consistently plays with questions of color, perception, and placement and the artist-director Julian Schnabel described the film by saying,

“It seems to me the issues that come up in this film are issues I’ve been thinking about my whole life — death, claustrophobia, the limits that are put on people, what seeing is, what unconsciousness is, observing observation,” he says. “How do you escape the ordinariness of your life and what does it mean to make art?” (source) Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not every day that the world discovers the new evil threat, the one poised to ruin civilization once and for all. Who could this specter hovering over the West be? you ask. Is it a restored Caliphate? High taxes? Perhaps those evil Vampire-Zombie hybrids from I Am Legend? The world seemed poised to live in the dark of these clandestine machinations. But, thankfully, some investigative muckraking by The New York Times has EXPOSED the sheer evil, and the pernicious, nefarious nature of Sushi has been laid bear for all to see!

I’m not belittling their findings. I’m quite sure that all Tuna, even sushi grade tuna, has high levels of Mercury. Such are the dangers of living in the modern industrial world. I’m just not sure why The Times keeps making such a big deal out of it. Not only did it make the front page, there was also an accompanying editorial. Then, after no one cared, the Times decided to publish an article about the fact that no one was paying any attention to their warnings. One would imagine that the silliness would have stopped there. Instead, the Grey Lady decided to turn this into an election issue, and asked the candidates their opinions about the Sushi conspiracy. Here’s the their justification for printing so many Sushi stories:

The stock market has gone through more gyrations than an Elvis impersonator. The governor and the mayor announced budget plans that are based on revenue assumptions that may be as flimsy as a striking screenwriter’s bank account. The death of Heath Ledger was, of course, sad and unsettling.But nothing rattled some New Yorkers more than the news that high levels of mercury were found in tuna sushi sold in Manhattan stores and restaurants. Sushi is such a staple here these days that it’s almost as if the entire city has declared war on fish.

Really? The economy isn’t a bigger concern right now? Heath Ledger’s death doesn’t occupy a more prominent place in the actualia? I’m speechless.

One can only hope that the Times gets back to reporting real news. But in the meantime, I’m wondering about the story behind the story. Has someone on their editorial board been stricken with Mercury poisoning? Is the Mad-Hatter running the show? If only the Post would get to the bottom of that story.

I was bound to like this movie. A bonafide gunslinger whose plot involves making it to the station on time for the eponymous Yuma-bound local, starring two of the best actors in Hollywood, featuring excellent cinematography and mis en scene, AND based on an Elmore Leonard short story? This was a movie made for Yesterday’s Salad. But no matter how much I expected to like it, I wasn’t expecting it to be this good, nor this interesting. 3:10 to Yuma played no small part in this year’s Western revival, which I hope sticks around for a while. Indeed, with movies as good as this year’s crop, it’s hard to understand why the genre stopped being relevant in the first place.

There’s nothing new in saying that the Western is an integral part of American mythology, if not the dominant myth. But there was a time when this was unacknowledged, and Robert Warshow, one of America’s great lost intellectuals, deserves much of the credit for its acceptance. Warshow, on the way to becoming one of America’s most important film-critics, died of a heart attack at 37. Thankfully, he was relatively prolific and we have the wonderful collection The Immediate Experience. In his essay, “Movie Chronicle: The Westerner,” Warshow asks what the westerner fights for:

“The Westerner himself, when an explanation is asked of him…is likely to say that he does what he “has to do.” If justice and order did not continually demand his protection, he would be without a calling…What he defends, at bottom, is the purity of his own image–in fact his honor. This is what makes him invulnerable…he fights not for advantage and not for the right, but to state what he is…and the movies which over and over again tell his story are probably the last art form in which the concept of honor retains its strength.”

I’ve been trying to decide whether or not 3:10 to Yuma fits Warshow’s paradigm. What do people fight for in this movie? Russel Crowe’s Ben Wade fights for money above everything else, and then psychological domination second. He is a master manipulator, who revels in driving others under his sphere of influence; he is not Warshow’s ideal “Westerner,” though most of his goldlust is directed at the equally immoral railroad, so he isn’t all bad. He may be fighting for his image, but he is not the Hero. Most of the other characters fight for money, even the reluctant Christian Bale. Warshow tells us that money in Westerns is not so much money as it is a quantification of morality. On that front, Bale is the only one who can be said to be moral. He is fighting not for money, but everything that was taken from him.

This includes his manhood. The first half of the film is in many ways an investigation of the concept of manhood. Russel Crowe tells Christian Bale that he’s not a man because he doesn’t reach out and take what he wants. And, sure enough, Bale is impotent: he lost a leg in the war (Warshow tells us that all Westerns seem to take place in some sort of imagined “1870”), and though he carries a gun, he doesn’t fire it during the first half of the film. Instead others take everything he has, including Wade who tries to take his wife (the lovely Gretchen Mol). Bale’s character arc is the story of recovering his manhood, while Crowe’s, not surprisingly, is redemption, the rediscovery of his moral code. This was bound to happen. Wade’s manipulations are so attractive that we want him to succeed. Indeed, it’s not surprising that Wade’s top lieutenant, ably played by Ben Foster, appears to be in love with him. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s hard being away from the Salad for more than a day or two. It’s actually really easy, and nice to get away sometimes, but staying away too long makes you depressed and nutty. Thankfully, things are finally quieting down at my “day job,” and I can get back to my true love: Academy Award prognosticating! (I should say, however, that notwithstanding Notwithabang’s post earlier today, traffic is actually down slightly over the last week. Though I’m sad to see traffic go down, I can only assume my absence has a direct correlation. I’m flattered; now come back.) So, for today, here are my pics for Best Picture and Best Director, and tomorrow we’ll get back to reviews. (coming soon: 3:10 to Yuma, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, and maybe Into the Wild)

Last night’s Golden Globes and today’s Producers’ Guild awards settled nothing. Though it may seem impossible, this thing looks even harder to predict than the upcoming Kucinich-Clinton battle royale in Michigan. Here are the current standings according to my algorithm:

1) No Country, 6.198

2) There Will Be Blood, 3.412

3) Michael Clayton, 2.992

4) Into the Wild, 2.426

5) Diving Bell, 2.163

6) Juno, 1.803

7) Atonement, 1.549

8) American Gangster, 1.225

9) Sweeney Todd, 1.22

10) Hairspray, .906

11) 3:10 to Yuma, .706

12) Eastern Promises and The Great Debaters, .549

Let’s start with what we know: No Country, and There Will Be Blood will be nominated for both Best Picture and Best Director. Everything else is still undetermined. We can also write off 3:10, Eastern Promises, and The Great Debaters. Eastern Promises and The Great Debaters were Golden Globe nominees and didn’t appear on anyone else’s radar. Seeing as the Globe’s decided to honour 7 films this year, it’s pretty safe to say that these were the odd two in. 3:10 was the beneficiary of a SAG nomination for its cast. The SAG awards have the lowest correlation between their nominations and the oscars of the Guilds. This is largely because they have a different focus. The movie with the best overall cast is not necessarily the best movie.

1) Hairspray, Sweeney Todd, and Juno: These three movies are all fighting for the musical/comedy slot. Hairspray was a SAG nominee and nominee for Comedy/Musical at the Globes, but has the weakest critical support of the three. Juno seems to have lost its momentum, going from beloved-little-movie-that-could to backlashed-blockbuster faster than you can say Little Miss Sunshine. Last night it sure seemed that Juno peaked too soon as it got shut out of the Globes; today it got nominated at the Producer’s guild. Then there’s Sweeney. Incredible reviews, but no love from the DGA for Tim Burton. It won last night for Comedy/Musical, but that award doesn’t have the best record. I can’t help but get the feeling that Sweeney was hurt the most by the Writer’s strike. Juno had lots of talk-show promotion, and Sweeney almost none. It never got that publicity push to separate it from the pack. Chances: Juno 50%, Sweeney 40%, Hairspray 10%

2) American Gangster and Atonement: I’m positive that Atonement is this year’s Cold Mountain, a big portentous epic that YOU CANNOT MISS because IT WILL BE NOMINATED, then isn’t. In theory, it should be a lock after last night, the GG/Drama winner going on to get nominated for Best Picture 11 out of the last 11 years. But the only people who seem to really like this movie are the Hollywood foreign press. I’m not sure how it can get nominated without any guild support. Then again, it should appeal to old people and it’s an old-fashioned epic in a new-fashioned year. American Gangster, on the other hand, has a number of things holding it back: 1) The Departed won last year; 2) Denzel’s performance was obscured by The Great Debaters; and 3) it probably came out too early. If it had been released to great box office and great reviews in December things would be different. Atonement 60%, American Gangster: 15% (note: these do not add up to 100)

3) Into the Wild, Michael Clayton, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly: Two of these movies will be nominated for best picture, and the other one will likely be nominated for Best Director. Unless Atonement sneaks in; in which case look for a 3/5 picture director match instead of the customary 4/5. Got that? All these movies have good guild support and good critical support. The first two are being held back by their box-office as both did disappointing business. The last has almost no commercial expectations. Diving Bell has lots of momentum, while Michael Clayton as the three pick should be safe. Then again, that’s the slot Dreamgirls was in last year. Into the Wild 60%, Michael 45%, Diving Bell 35%

Final Predictions:

Picture: No Country for Old Men, There Will Be Blood, Atonement, Juno, and Into the Wild (SAG has to be worth something).

Director: The Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Sean Penn, Julian Shnabel, Tony Gilroy

Catching up with some friends home from abroad, we decided to give “No Country For Old Men” a try. As it has been discussed elsewhere in Yesterday’s Salad, my synopsis will remain brief. The movie was beautifully shot, and accordingly, the portrayal of violence in the film is both sudden and gruesome. That the carnage feels horrible rather than stylized is a distinction that few films can make.

The epicenter of this bloody spectacle is hitman Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), who is unerringly unnerving throughout; apart from his vacant stare and mysterious hair, he punctuates conversations with sudden bursts from his bolt gun or silenced rifle, straight into his interlocutor. However, the grim consistency with which Chigurh dispatches everyone in his path eventually becomes so grating, that you begin half-listening to otherwise innocuous conversations, worrying that any pause might end in gunfire. To the directors’ credit, a scene about a third of the way through this movie plays with our uneasiness to considerable comic effect.

Tommy Lee Jones’ Ed Tom Bell, the local sheriff, couldn’t be farther from Chirgurh, both in terms of characterization and his location throughout the film. While the amoral Chirgurh resembles the Terminator in his vicious hunt, Bell is a fine match in his unrelenting willingness to sit back and see how things turn out, which Bell assures us, will be a bloody, awful mess. Most of this is chalked up to how unbelievably grizzled he is, as in one exchange with his deputy:

Wendell
That's very linear Sheriff.

Bell stares at the fire. 

Bell
Well. Old age flattens a man.

In fact, Bell turns down almost every chance he gets to investigate, saying that he has every expectation that things will be awful, and that they’ll still be awful after some more coffee and pie. Although the movie ends with him reflecting on being a law-man and the interplay of dreams with his past, these elements are never developed to a point at which they provide a satisfying way to interpret the film.

Needing to feel clean once more, we slipped into a theater showing “Juno,” another movie that you’ve probably heard plenty about. As has been noted elsewhere and in this publication, the movie can be too quick with its cleverness, particularly in the opening scene, wherein a drug store clerk abuses newly pregnant teen Juno (Ellen Page) with rhyming mockery:

JUNO  I remain unconvinced.
Rollo pulls the bathroom key out of reach.
ROLLO   This is your third test today, Mama  Bear.
Your eggo is preggo, no doubt about it!
ROLLO
So what's the prognosis, Fertile
Myrtle? Minus or plus?
JUNO
(examining stick) I don't know.
It's not...seasoned yet. Wait. Huh.
Yeah, there's that pink plus sign
again. God, it's unholy.    She shakes the stick desperately in an attempt to skew the
results. Shake. Shake. Nothing.    ROLLO
That ain't no Etch-a-Sketch. This
is one doodle that can't be undid,
homeskillet.

Thankfully, the rest of the film remained clever without the rhyming couplets. While it was precious at points, the characters were well-developed and believable, and Juno’s considerable quirkiness seemed appropriate to her character, seeing as she is just a teenager, rather than an adult in a Wes Anderson film. Without cataloging the rest of the film, in many ways it was the perfect anecdote to “No Country For Old Men” – it was cute, refreshingly linear, and the only unstoppable thing chasing people was Michael Cera in track shorts.