Saturday, December 31, 2011

Well Mariners fans, what's next? Start by telling the writers to stick it!

It would be cliche to suggest that for Mariners fans, this is a winter of our discontent.  Yesterday the M's announced they'd finally signed George Sherrill, a LOOGY (Left-handed One Out GuY.)  Great, I'm excited.  George is a good guy and may help keep things close in our usual 2-0, 2-1, 3-2 games (note: Mariners are always the guys with the lower score.) but I don't think this does much to help our offense.  I know it's not even January yet, but it's difficult to see the parade of player transactions go by and see little action from Jack Z to improve our offense.  Yes, adding John Jaso as a backup catcher is nice.  But that's it. Even signing Munenori Kawasaki as a back up minor league infielder isn't a done deal.

It's actually pretty fun to watch Jeff Sullivan try to fill the day with his daily efforts to rally the troops and share his exasperation with the lack of action on the trade and free agent fronts. On the other hand, I find Geoff Baker's investigation into the Mariners' financial status, and their relative economic competitiveness  versus the rest of baseball strange and verging on hysteria. Dave Cameron's calls for patience seems to lack urgency and energy, and meanwhile there are no trades, signings, Prince Fielder sightings.  Nil. Nada. Nothing.

What's a Mariner fan to do?
Trade Felix Hernandez? Scoff, cough, harumph! Never-well maybe never.
One thing a Mariner fan has to do is endure the litany of articles written by a host of writers and bloggers urging the team to trade Felix Hernandez.  I always find these articles at once amusing and hateful.  Given the teams and players involved in said financial transaction, it's like the stories all originate from the same location, um, like the devil's asshole, and then with a few modifications they're printed as original thinking by Ken Rosenthal, Jayson Stark, or some other writer with time on his hands during the winter doldrums and no news to speak of.

The stories all start the same:  The Mariners could speed their rebuilding program by trading Felix Hernandez.  To the Yankees. Grr.  The Philadelphia and Kansas City Athletics traded good players to the Yankees, did it help them?  The St. Louis Browns anybody?  Last I checked their best players were Ned  Garver and Eddie Gaedel and the team was pulling up stakes and headed to Baltimore. I don't care whether the target team is the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies or whoever else is pouring money into players for their team, the Mariners are not a plantation for the big boys.  We can't trade away our best for another team's leavings.  Felix Hernandez is one of the five best pitchers in baseball, he's the most visible member of the team, draws fans to the ballpark, and he needs to remain a Mariner. 
The King's Court-An island of supporters in a sea of empty seats at Safeco Field.
What I especially love, however, is the players touted for such a trade. The "trade Felix" crowd regularly tout the Yankees (grrr) and the players they could offer.  First on the list is Jesus Montero.  A right handed catcher, who can't catch well, they argue Montero has the kind of power the M's need in the middle of their line-up.  Sure.  Montero has 60 major league at bats.  He's proven nothing.  If Montero is so good, why didn't the Yankees call him up earlier?  Pitcher, Ivan Nova is also a name included.  Nova had a great year last year, with a low ERA, showing his 18 wins weren't just because of Yankee offense. It will be interesting to see if he's able to put together back to back successful years.   Another player mentioned is pitcher Dellin Betances, who has pitched exactly two games in major league baseball.  Ken Rosenthal and David Schoenfeld graciously throw in minor leaguer Manny Banuelos, another pitcher, who hasn't pitched above AAA.  Some include Brett Gardner in such a trade.  I like Gardner, but he is still a role player, a table setter, not a transformational bat.  He'd bring speed and defense to the team, but wouldn't be able to drive himself in.
Hi, my name is Manny Banuelos and I may pitch for the Yankees some day when they let me out of high school.  Okay, that's not fair, he may be good, great or really suck.  He's just a prospect so we don't know. 
 See what's missing here?  Proven offense.  We're asked to trade the 2010 Cy Young Award winner, the 2009 runner up, a 25 year old with 85 career wins for prospects, mostly pitches.  With the exception of Nova, who may end up being quite good, they are guys who have proven nothing.  And how does this help our offense again?  Montero, by all accounts will not be a major league catcher.  He will be a DH.  A right handed DH at Safeco.  Now I also believe you can be a successful right-handed power hitter at Safeco because I've seen players do it.  Frank Thomas could hit at Safeco, maybe Montero could too, but we don't know if he could even be successful at Fenway because he hasn't done it.

What I don't like is the insinuation the Mariners should gamble here.  It's Felix, you won't be able to sign him so you've got to trade him to New York (grrr) where we all live and work (grrr) because frankly the Mariners just aren't worthy of having such a wonderful player.  This is plantation thinking-other teams must develop players to fill the needs of the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Phillies, or maybe the Angels, because they're the ones with the money.  We'll give you leavings, dress up the deal with lots of prospects and say it's all you deserve. Prospects are nice but in the end they're just prospects.  We already are playing a team that is almost entirely composed of prospects-Smoak, Ackley, Seager, Carp, Wells, Robinson, the bullpen and a couple of projected starters-they may be good, but they haven't shown anything yet. Would you seriously look at Justin Smoak and say with certainty he's the real deal?  Yes, but my fingers are crossed.

Hey wait a minute, writer/asshole how about giving us some proven talent?  I'm not above trading Felix, but give us somebody good as a centerpiece.  I'd take Robinson Canoe.  He makes about the same amount of money as Felix, and then we could move Ackley out to left field, which he played in college.  Curtis Granderson would fit in well with this team-he's a legit centerfielder with pop; that's a deal I could live with.  How about Texeira with your Manny dude?  Mark's fading a bit but plays a good first base and hits with power from both sides of the plate.  Don't tell me I'm lucky to trade one of the best pitchers in baseball for a bunch of question marks, give me (the fan, the team, the players) respect and trade straight across for a player who can help this team improve on the field now.

What? Trading Texeira puts a hole in your lineup?  Gosh, I hear that Montero guy can really hit, and it shouldn't take too much to make him a first baseman.  Your fans will understand.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review: The Last Gunfight: The Real Story of the Shootout at the O.K. Corral-And How it Changed the American West

While I was writing my last post, I downloaded Jeff Guinn's book, The Last Gunfight.  Known primarily for a series of Christmas books, Guinn preceded this debunking of the O.K. Corral/Tombstone legend with a debunking of the Bonnie and Clyde myth.

Guinn's purpose in writing the book was to show that few figures in the Old West were as bad or as good as we've come to portray them  The views we've had of Wild Bill Hickock, Buffalo Bill Cody or George Armstrong Custer was as we've come to accept them.  His view is that Wyatt Earp is an archetype of the western Good Guy, but that his story is chiefly a creation of his own, his wife, and others that profited from that story as well as the movies and television.

The story Guinn shares is almost like an alternate universe from that portrayed in the movies.  Earp, it seems, was never the only law in town, not in Dodge City and not in Tombstone. Rather he was just one of the deputies, working for the sheriff.  Described as a big hulking man, most effective at "buffaloing" or pistol whipping law breakers.  When Wyatt and his brothers took their families to Tombstone, again he was just one of the boys in the band, never the law in Tombstone. The movie that portrays this most effectively is Costner's Wyatt Earp. 

 Earp is also portrayed as someone who was always on the edge financially.  He primarily made his money gambling at cards.  He owned faro games and stayed out very late playing poker. Though he occasionally worked for Wells Fargo as a stage coach guard, he and his third wife Matty were often just scraping by.  Though Josephine Marcus is portrayed as rich in Tombstone, Guinn asserts she came from a middle class San Francisco family.  Together Josie and Earp had financial ups and downs in their marriage.  Mostly downs.  Earp died in poverty in 1929.
Wyatt Earp with Kurt Russell's mustache.  Wait, other way, right?

As a follower of the Tombstone movies, what interested me most is the context Guinn creates for the ultimate shootout at the O.K. Corral (which didn't even happen at the O.K. Corral, Guinn identifies it as  the fight on Fremont Street.)  Guinn takes pains to paint a picture of the mining interests as an economic engine for the San Pedro Valley.  The Earps, seeking access to power and success in Tombstone ran up against competing political interests that left them largely on the outside. Only Virgil was able to obtain a U.S. Marshall's deputy position, while the lucrative city marshal and county sheriff's position went to others. The town business owners, journalists and elected leaders were very active, very law and order and often withdrew their support at critical moments. 

 Guinn also gives credence to the existence of a loosely organized group of cowboys in eastern Arizona responsible for rustling cattle from Mexico, and likely a series of stage holdups. There is a difference however, between these cowboys and the Cowboys portrayed in Tombstone.  They lacked that kind of organization.  In addition, some of the key figures in that group pop in Guinn's history as well.  Curly Bill Brocius is a leader in the cowboys.  John Ringo, much less so. Ike Clanton seemed to be very much as Stephen Lang's clownishly drunken and vicious character as he appeared in Tombstone, and nothing like the sophisticated Robert Ryan character in Hour of the Gun. Guinn places Ike's actions as the catalyst that led to the Fremont Street gunfight.
Battle Map of the O.K. Corral or Fremont Street gunfight.
One other character of interest, who appears in Tombstone and Wyatt Earp is Johnny Behan, the county sheriff, who always seemed to work against the Earps and protected the cowboys/Cowboys. Portrayed by John Tenney in Tombstone and Mark Harmon in Wyatt Earp, Behan was actually much shorter and rounder.  Behan's was an elected position, and he was quite conscious of his standing with voters. Guinn's portrayal of Sheriff Behan is very much the same as he is portrayed in the movies-officious and ineffectual, often seeming to take the part of the outlaws.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of The Last Gunfight is the chronology of the conflict between the Earps and the the cowboys.  The gunfight occurred on a very cold and windy October 26, 1881.  The range was about six feet and about 30 shots were exchanged in 30 seconds, killing Tom and Frank McLaury and young Billy Clanton, and wounding Morgan and Virgil Earp.  Ike Clanton filed charges against the Earps and Doc Holliday, and the trial lasted 30 days, when Judge Spicer released the defendants due to lack of criminal intent.  The assassination attempt against Virgil Earp occurred on December 28th, and Morgan Earp isn't murdered until March 19th.  The movies all telescope the time to appear that these attacks on the Earp brothers immediately after the gunfight.

The Earp Vendetta Ride, which is portrayed in all the movies as Wyatt with a small band of followers riding around the countryside blasting the crap out of the cowboys, lasted from March 20th, the date he received federal warrants for the arrest of the offending cowboys until April 15th when Earp left Arizona territory.  In all, Earp killed four cowboys including Curly Bill Brocius with a shotgun blast. That's a few less than portrayed in Tombstone's "Wild Ride of Wyatt Earp."  After Earp killed Brocius, he did seek the help of Henry Hooker, a cattleman with a large ranch that traded sold beef to the U.S. Army and the nearby Indian reservation that housed the Apaches (Geronimo's folks when he was at home and not running off terrorizing the countryside.) Hooker disdained Behan and his posse of known cowboys, even offering the outnumbered Earp supporters the opportunity to stay and fortify his ranch against the sheriff and his men. Hooker only appears in Tombstone, and is ably played by Charlton Heston.

In all, Guinn's tale is very interesting and paints a complex portrait of Wyatt Earp, Tombstone, and the forces affecting the town's development.  Guinn is provides depth to the story we learn to the movies and in some cases turns what we know on its ear. The narrative never bogs down, and while packed with interesting detail, never bogs down on that which is too complex or unnecessary.  It's a great story well written.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Movie Review: The O.K. Corral-Four Movies, Four Gunfights

It's winter break, so I'm off for a couple of weeks.  I always have something I want to do, some game and/or painting project I don't have time for during the school year.  Painting also means movies to watch.  With my Netflix temporarily h'ors de combat I'm left to ponder my own collection of movies.  I was going to drag out all my westerns and have a kind of Western Week.  Instead I focused on four movies that cover the same ground-Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1956,) Hour of the Gun (1967,) Tombstone (1993,) and Wyatt Earp (1994.)  All of these movies deal, more or less, with the events surrounding the notorious shoot out in Tombstone, Arizona in October, 1881.

What I hope to do is share a bit about each of the movies, the good and the bad, make some comparisons and contrasts.  I confess to having little historical knowledge of this event, or of Wyatt Earp his brothers, or Doc Holliday.  The views I share are simply my reactions to the movies, largely based on portrayals and storytelling.  At the end I'll offer my views on the best of the four.

 Before I begin offering my review of each film, however, let me just say that all four of the movies have some things in common.  First, they are all good movies. None of these would be a waste of two hours (or more in some cases.) Some, in my view, are better than others and that's what I hope to sort out.  All tell the story of the O.K. Corral gunfight.  Some provide context leading to the shootout, others give epilogue, focusing on the events that ensued from that event, some movies do both.  All the movies focus on the relationship between tough lawman Wyatt Earp and John "Doc" Holliday, the consumptive, dissolute frontier gambler and notorious killer.  In some movies, the relationship softens Earp's hard edges, in other cases Holliday's illness, his drunken, cynical, violent behavior serves as a contrast to Earp's simple, moral rectitude . At times, Holiday is Jiminy Cricket, Wyatt's conscience, when he has strayed or is about to stray from the straight and narrow path of morality he has chosen.  Doc has seen Pleasure Island, and hopes to keep his friend away.

Each movie is rated on three areas: portrayal of Wyatt Earp, portrayal of Doc Holliday, and storytelling.  The ratings are 1-5 with 1 being horrible to 5 being excellent.  I'll also follow up with some tidbits worth knowing.  Here goes.

 Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. 1956. Producer Hal Wallis, directed by John Sturges
Burt Lancaster as Wyatt Earp.
 Wyatt Earp: Burt Lancaster Rating: 4  I confess to being a Burt Lancaster fan, and the man could really fill up a screen.  Lancaster's Earp is drawn as the incorruptible tough guy marshal.  Lancaster is solid and dependable, but linked to the irredeemable Holliday.  Big and tough, with his steely blue eyes, Burt was the right man for the job.  If anything, Lancaster is undone by the simplicity of the story which simply trots the Earp myth out for public consumption.  Good performance in a limiting role.
Kirk Douglas as Doc Holliday plying his trade
 Doc Holliday: Kirk Douglas Rating: 3 This movie is not Kirk Douglas' greatest moment, and it suffers in comparison to all other Doc Holiday performances.  In order to create a contrast between the saintlike Earp, and the utterly corrupted Holiday, Doc is written as simply violent, misogynistic, sick, drunk and somehow devoted to Earp.  Sadly, it's a one-dimensional portrait of Doc.  Douglas does the best he can with the material, but often seems to have a crazed, hateful look pasted to his face.

Storytelling: 3 This movie seems dated compared to all the movies that have come after.   The movie promotes the Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday mythology, and the suggestion that the Old West was all good guys and bad guys.  It does contain some traditional elements of the Earp story:  Earp's links to Dodge City, his evolving friendship with Holliday, Earp's ties to his family and their subsequent move to Tombstone, and the growing animus between the Earps and those forces in Tombstone including the Clantons, Johnny Ringo and others that resulted in the clash at O.K. Corral.  Unfortunately, the characters outside Wyatt and Doc are poorly drawn, serving only to strengthen those long-held myths about Earp and Holliday.  The movie ends with gunfight, when so much of the tale is left to be told.

Stuff you should know:  Of all the movies, this one may have the most interesting collection of minor supporting actors.  DeForest Kelly who played Dr. Leonard McCoy in the original Star Trek series appears as Morgan Earp, Wyatt's younger brother.  Lee Van Cleef, Martin Milner, and Dennis Hopper all very young, have significant supporting roles, especially Hopper, who portrays a conflicted Billy Clanton.  The gunfight is drawn differently than any other movie.  The gunfight is described as lasting only 30 seconds, and a blaze of gunfire at very close range.  Here it is portrayed more as an assault on a fortified position, pretty different, entertaining, but pretty different than the other examples. Finally, I cannot depart without noting the hideous score that goes with the movie.  Not the entire score, which is only mildly annoying 50's crap, rather Frankie Lane's sung portions.  They are simply vile. 
Not to be dismissed, Hour of the Gun provides a different take on the Wyatt Earp myth.

Hour of the Gun. 1967.  Produced by John Sturges.  Directed by John Sturges
Wyatt Earp: James Garner Rating: 3 In many respects this is the revisionist portrayal of Wyatt Earp, the opposite of Lancaster's version.  Transformed to a mourning, vengeful agent of the law, Earp is willing to bend every rule to kill all the gang that murdered younger brother Morgan. This is not a role that suits Garner. The likeable actor made his reputation as  the funny, talkative Brett Maverick, and would go on to other comedic portrayals, including the funny, talkative Jim Rockford.  This Wyatt Earp is silent, vengeful, menacing, and it requires an actor who is charismatic while remaining taciturn. This is a fascinating characterization of Wyatt Earp; one that takes a step past the incorruptible lawman to another that is profoundly altered by his grief and desire for revenge, and willing to use the law to get it. Garner didn't pull that off. Yes, he's quiet, yes he takes revenge, but he doesn't fill up the screen the way Lancaster and Kurt Russell do. Earp is completely dominated by Doc Holliday in this movie. 
Garner's Earp is too understated to pull off the revision director John Sturges hoped to achieve.  Just the wrong guy for the part.

Doc Holliday: Jason Robards Rating: 4 There is something about Jason Robards in the movies.  He is always smart, sometimes smarmy, often an acerbic cynic.  He brings all these to bear in his portrayal of Doc Holliday. In doing he is less a detested gunman, and more a world weary observer.  Alarmed at the transformation of his friend, he becomes Jiminy Cricket, Wyatt's conscience, albeit a murderous, drunken one, who knows the dark side of the mind his friend has entered. Unafraid to call him out on his use of the law, Holliday tells him the federal warrants Earp's received on the Clanton gang are merely "hunting licenses."  Powerful, emotional, Garner's Earp stands squarely in Holliday's shadow.
Sick and world weary, Jason Robards' Doc Holliday's cynical world-view simply overpowers Garner's underplayed Wyatt Earp

Storytelling Rating: 4 Sturges, who also directed the 1956 film, has created something altogether different here.  First, this movie begins with the gunfight.  We also learn about political conflict between the local rich guy, Ike Clanton, played well by Robert Ryan, and the Earps.  Clanton wants to control Tombstone with his money and through the vote, while the understated Earps want to hold on to what they have.  When the Earps and Doc Holliday are hauled into court by the prosecutors, under the control of Clanton, Judge Wells Spicer who dismisses the case for lack of evidence.  However, when Vigil and Morgan are both shot, Wyatt finds no succor through the courts and realizes he'll have to seek "justice" on his own.  Sturges tells a more complex story than even the 90's movies, which is interesting and makes the movie worth watching. 

Stuff you should know. The supporting cast, aside from Ryan, are strictly lesser lights, with the exception of a very young Jon Voight who plays Curly Bill Brocius. Very few women in this movie and only for brief appearances.  Of all the movies, only Hour of Gun devotes much energy to the trial that followed the shootout-Wyatt Earp does to a lesser degree.  The trial of the Earps was important to the story and lasted 30 days.

 Tombstone. 1993. Cinergi Productions. Directed by George Cosmatos.
Wyatt Earp: Kurt Russell Rating: 5 Without question, Russell's Earp is the best of this lot.  I confess I've never seen My Darling Clementine with Henry Fonda as Earp, which was supposedly a great portrayal of the lawman.  But Russell brings an intensity to the role that was lacking in all the other performances.  Except when he is with Josephine Marcus (Dana Delany), his Earp is taciturn, direct, demanding and ultimately ruthlessly vengeful.  We mostly remember him roaring:  "You tell 'em Ike.  I'm comin' and hell's comin' with me."  Yet, when he is with Marcus, both in the horse riding sequence and at the end of the movie, we see a different Earp: a person who is able to be a different man before and after the intervening catastrophe.  Russell plays his part as a man who knows what he wants, as a ferocious enemy, as a person closed to everyone, even his wife, except for Doc Holliday and Josie who manage to touch his soul.
The defining moment from Tombstone.  "You tell 'em Ike.  I'm comin' and hell's comin' with me." Kurt Russell as an avenging Wyatt Earp.
Doc Holliday: Val Kilmer Rating: 5 Kilmer's Holliday is interesting.  It is drenched in realism as Doc drinks, gambles, whores, shoots and knifes his way through the movie, while he is soaked in sweat, coughs up blood, and becomes incapacitated.  The movie shows him a ferocious enemy, quick to take a offense and deadly in his retribution.  Yet he manages to be endearing too,  as time and again he shows himself to be a reliable friend, both in the gunfight at O.K. Corral, and the final shootout with Johnny Ringo. In the end it is not Earp's wife, or his brothers that seem to understand Wyatt, it is Holliday.  Kilmer seems to play the role with the right combination of a secret understanding, southern charm, gallows humor, and deadly earnestness.  The final scene as he is dying and is visited by Earp is very poignant. Kilmer's  portrayal of Holliday is the most memorable.
Val Kilmer's Doc Holliday is smart, sardonic, and deadly.
Storytelling: Rating 5  Tombstone relies on context to help us understand the conflict between the Cowboys and the Earps.  Though the Cowboys were by no means the united criminals depicted in the movie, it was a great unifying element in the story.  The sort of a band of lawless anarchists that were a menace to all the good citizens provided a common point for rallying the Earps in bringing law and order to Tombstone.  It also largely supports the myth of Wyatt Earp, incorruptible good guy.  Yet, the story goes further to give a look inside the Earp family-the union of common law marriages, the intense desire to be somebody in the community without resorting to the tried and true law enforcement occupations.  If the story has a drawback, it is the focus on Earp as a relentless killer, with all the ridiculous images of Wyatt and his supporters hunting down all the red-sashed Cowboys.  Strictly overblown stuff.  Despite its flaws, Tombstone provides the most fully formed look inside the Earp legend at Tombstone,  and despite its exaggeration, misstatements and false interpretations, still provides an image of Wyatt, Holiday and his family that is multi-dimensional and interesting.

Stuff you should know. In addition to fine performances by Kurt Russell, this movie is buoyed by a plethora of solid work turned in by Sam Elliot as Virgil Earp, Bill Paxton as Morgan Earp, and Dana Delaney as Josephine Marcus.  In addition, the bad guys are also formidable with Stephen Lang as Ike Clanton, Powers Boothe as Curly Bill Brocius, and Michael Biehn as Johnny Ringo. Charlton Heston even makes an appearance as Henry Hooker, a neighboring rancher who provides some brief shelter for Earp and his men, and a place for Holliday to recover from his attack of consumption.   
Wyatt Earp is a beautiful, sprawling epic.  We don't see many like it.
Wyatt Earp. 1994. Produced by Tig Productions/Kasdan Productions.  Directed by Lawrence Kasdan
 Wyatt Earp: Kevin Costner Rating: 4  Because this movie is so different than the others, it is difficult to rate.  Earp is portrayed from his adolescence when he wanted to run off to fight in the Civil War with his older brothers to his trip to Nome on with his fourth wife Josephine during the Alaska Gold Rush.  Costner's portrayal of Earp seems to me a lot like Costner portraying Earp.  It's not bad, but Costner seems so much like an everyman sort of actor that it isn't strong and distinct.  Even so, Costner is behind Tig Productions, and though his performance and the movie are flawed, it is still a magnificent production and does many things well.  That's worth an extra half point. Costner's performance runs the gamut from his early grief from his first wife, Aurilla's, death, through his "I've been in a really bad mood the last couple of years," stage to his effort to move on by pursuing Josephine Marcus. I'm not sure Costner is convincing, but I appreciate the effort to bring complexity to Earp's life.
Costner's Earp is a bit too understated. 
Doc Holliday: Dennis Quaid Rating: 5 Quaid gives a a quality performance as Doc Holliday.  Looking tall and emaciated and effecting a rumbling southern drawl, Quaid provides a glimpse inside Holliday.  The performance is more measured, less sweaty, less over the top than Kilmer's.  It is more worldly and weary than Robards'.  It offers the same realistic view of the Doc as sick man as Kilmer's, the same deep friendship and loyalty toward Wyatt.  Quaid is great, but probably a half point shy of Kilmer's performance.
Quaid's Doc Holliday is worldy, weary, and Wyatt Earp's friend.
 Storytelling: Rating 5 While the other three movies are focused ultimately on the famous shootout, Wyatt Earp is a huge rambling trip through the famous lawman's life.  We meet his father, an important figure, who insisted that blood (family) was the most important thing, and that when fighting evil it was important to hit first and hit hard. Costner's Earp goes through plenty of hard times, the death of his young wife, his descent into lawlessness, and his eventual resurrection as a lawman.  Like Tombstone, Wyatt Earp provides a larger contextual portrait of Earp in his own time.  Like Tombstone, it doesn't quite succeed in freeing the man from the myth, which doesn't make it any less entertaining a movie. 

Stuff you should know: A bit less gritty than Tombstone, it also isn't quite as celebratory about the killings. Though it was generally panned at the time of its release, and didn't do real well at the box office, if you like westerns with some history to go with it, Wyatt Earp is a good movie. Warning: at 190 minutes it is by far the longest of these films. Huge supporting cast, with Gene Hackman as father Nicholas Earp, Catherine O'Hara, Mare Winningham, Jeff Fahey, Bill Pullman and a host of others.  None were particularly noteworthy.  For me, the best performance was Quaid's Doc Holliday.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Movie Review: The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

I treated myself today and ran down to the local Regal Cinema to catch The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.  I read the Stieg Larson novel and couldn't put it down.  I also watched the Swedish version of the movie complete with Noomi Rapace and sub-titles and quite enjoyed it.

 So how did the Hollywood version fare?  I think it did quite well.  Still set in Sweden with Briton Daniel Craig as disgraced writer, Mikael Blomqvist and American Rooney Mara as security expert Lisbeth Salander, the story largely sticks to the book.  With Blomqvist and eventually Salander commissioned to write a history of the Swedish company Vanger, controlled by aging magnate Hendrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer,) the writer is also engaged to investigate a murder in the Vanger family.  Harriet Vanger disappeared 40 years earlier, and the effort to learn her story leads through sordid family undertakings, violent misogyny, and murder.

This movie is actually a bit more complete than the Swedish version, as we see Salander wiping out Hans-Erik Wennstrom's bank accounts as she does in the books.  In many ways Mara's portrayal of Salander is more stark than Rapace's, much as I imagined her from the story.  Craig is fine in his role.  Christopher Plummer, Stellen Skarsgard, Robin Wright, Joely Richardson and others make a fine supporting cast.

There is one divergence from the book I didn't quite understand, however, and that is the location of Harriet Vanger.  Not sure for the reason she is found in England rather than Australia, and why it was necessary to knock off cousin Anita, but it is what it is.

A really good adaptation of the novel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Book Review: Baseball in the Garden of Eden

One upon a time, Harold Seymour wrote the first academic history of of the early years of baseball, not surprisingly, titled Baseball: The Early Years.  Actually there is some controversy whether Harold wrote more of it than his wife, Dorothy Seymour Mills.  Interesting dispute, but moving this review along, together they wrote a their ground-breaking narrative of baseball in the nineteenth century, leading up to the formation of the American League and the formation of modern baseball as we know it. Sadly it had all the narrative stylings of paint drying.  It is one of the few baseball books I've ever parted with. In all fairness, Seymour, and more importantly Mills, continued their research into baseball's past, and are worthy of your consideration in several volumes still in print or available inexpensively used. Ms. Mills is lauded for her pioneering work as baseball's first female historian in Baseball Prospectus
llustration by Homer Davenport in
Albert G.Spalding's America's National Game
Last year John Thorn, author of Total Baseball, published his examination of the origins of baseball, Baseball in the Garden of Eden.  While Thorn does provide a narrative outline of the professional game in the 19th century, that is not the chief purpose of the book.  Thorn's focus is on the efforts of leaders in the game to disguise the origins of baseball and weave baseball's creation myth out of whole cloth. 

Thorn's investigation begins with explorations into the nature of other bat and ball games including rounders, one-cat (including two-cat, and three-cat), town ball and the standardization of cricket's rules. More importantly, Thorn examines the rules, official and unofficial, of these games and where these games were played.  Without exception, Thorn offers evidence these games originated in England, and made their way across the Atlantic.  In addition, he is able to demonstrate these games were played in various parts of the country well before 1839, the year of Abner Doubleday's immaculate conception of the national game at Cooperstown, N.Y.
The Knickerbocker baseball club.  Alexander Cartwright is the middle figure in the back row.
What follows is an interesting discussion of the development of the "New York game," Baseball developed along two paths, in Massachusetts where the game was known as town ball, and in New York where the game was baseball.  In New York City the game began as gatherings of private clubs where two teams of seven to eleven players per side met for friendly exercise as their days ended in the late afternoon.  Thorn tells the story of the well-known Knickerbockers, as well as Alexander Cartwright's efforts to codify the rules of the game as the New York and New Jersey club scene evolved.

 Though Thorn devotes considerable ink to the history of the early years of professional baseball following the Civil War, the real hook to his story is the rise of Albert Spalding and his efforts to cast baseball as a homegrown American game.  Tracing the growing power and influence of Spalding, a ballplayer, an owner, and a sporting goods magnate, Thorn links him to the rise of the Theosophist Society.  The Theosophists became popular during the growth of secret societies, shrouded in mysticism that were quite trendy during the Victorian era.  The real joy of Thorn's narrative is his development of the conspiracy between members of the Theosophists, including Spalding, and other leaders to anoint Doubleday (a Civil War hero and leader of the Theosophists until his death in 1892) as baseball's godhead by the Mill's Commission in 1904. 
Al Spalding as a player with the Boston club.  He would later become extremely a powerful figure in the national game.
 Baseball in the Garden of Eden is a fascinating read.  Part baseball, part cultural and social history, part conspiracy investigation, I learned a lot about baseball's origins.  Written in a style that provides elucidation on the topic without being bogged down in detail, it is highly recommended.
Author John Thorn

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

On Greg Halman

I'm going to write very little about outfielder Greg Halman's murder, because I'm not sure I have a single word that can adequately capture his exquisite athleticism, the deep regard of his teammates, or the gigantic hole of potential his five tools might have filled for the Mariners or some other major league team. 

It is simply sad and senseless for his family, friends, teammates and fans.  Perhaps the best words were written by Jeff Sullivan over at Lookout Landing.

Prince Fielder savior?

The Hot Stove League beginneth.  After another 90+ loss season the M's face starting another year in search of success. The name being tossed around as though he represents the second coming is Prince Fielder, the slugging first baseman for the Milwaukee Brewers.  Fielder is a fine hitter and decent first baseman, and a lefty who could hit majestic homers into the Hit It Here Cafe.  He could be the anchor bat of a Mariners lineup for a decade.
Is Prince Fielder the left handed anchor to their lineup the M's have been waiting for?  Is he worth $250 million for ten years? 
If the M's are willing to spend about $250 million for ten years.  Scott Boras is his agent.  Fielder turned down $100 million for five years last year, and it's estimated it will take those kinds of numbers, dollars and years to sign him.

Do you do it?  Geoff Baker at the Seattle Times says yes.  The M's have the money to spend on Fielder and make the team better at other positions.  I'm not quite sure how the money works out, but maybe they do.  He is confident those opposing a Fielder signing are simply shell-shocked from past free-agent failures, bad signings in the first place, and are willing to accept mediocrity from their home town team.

Dave Cameron at USS Mariner has a different take.  The Fielder deal is simply too expensive for what you get.  Further, according to Cameron, the Mariners aren't cheap, they're just stupid, having made a plethora of bad deals since Bill Bavasi's hire as GM in 2003, which they are still crawling away from.

I confess, I am more in the Cameron camp than with Baker.  If the M's want to make a splash signing Prince Fielder fine, it's not my money (but they better not raise ticket prices dammit!) He's one guy in a position that is fairly easy to fill with a serviceable bat at a cheaper cost.  David Ortiz would do fine at Safeco and cost a lot less.

What really troubles me are those years.  If we were talking $25 million for five years, I'd say yes, snap it up.  But ten years, really?  I know Fielder is a vegetarian and takes care of himself, but he's a big man.  Every time I think of  him I think of Mo Vaughn, another big guy, another hitting prodigy, a MVP, who ended up broken early in his career.  And Fielder is 50 pounds heavier than Vaughn. The risk of injury over ten years is simply too great leaving aside questions about Prince's girth. We would have said the same thing about Grady Sizemore a few years ago.  A Seattle guy, great glove and bat.  He could have been our center fielder for a decade, right?  We'd be zillions in the hole and Sizemore would be in rehab.
Grady Sizemore would have been a great fit in Seattle, with his  defense and bat--three years ago.  What we'd signed him to a ten year deal? 
That leaves aside the the question of satisfaction for the player or the team.  Almost no pairing is happy in a contract for more than three or four years.  Adrian Beltre is a great example of that.  He was never quite the player we hoped he'd be in Seattle.  Never quite the player he hoped he'd be either.  I never questioned his desire.  He played hard and was a mentor to many of the younger Latino players on the M's, but when his contract was up it was clearly time for him to go.  And look what he's done since he's gone.  Beltre was awesome with Boston, and is an integral piece to a championship Rangers team.  I don't believe Fielder can be the only guy on a team struggling to find itself, any more than Beltre could and at a much higher cost.  I don't think he would be happy for a decade under those circumstances.
Adrian Beltre was a good guy and a great defender, but never the hitter we hoped he'd be.  It was time for him to leave after four years
Another reason to avoid the Fielder sweepstakes are the steps that must be danced in order to bring him aboard.  The Scott Boras dance, in which he floats as many rumors as possible about his clients to convince those few bidders that may have interest that every team really will pay any amount under the sun to have the privilege of Prince Fielder gracing their locker room. Aside from all the spin and bullshit that goes with the dance, is the time wasted in which teams, hopeful of signing Fielder, give up on players X, Y and Z that may fill important needs, and then lose out on the superstar sweepstakes.  Boras is not quite the social cancer of say Tim Eyman or Grover Norquist, but in terms of useless expenditure of time and money, he's right up there.

Finally, do you really want to be paying $25 million a year to any player when they are 38 years old?  The entire planet is all over Ichiro Suzuki at 38, struggling to live up to his career numbers making $18 million per year.  What makes a Fielder signing any more palatable?  What makes us think he'll continue to hit 35-40 home runs per year well into his decline phase?  And what will be saying in 2022 when we are looking back on this deal?  How stupid will Mariners management look then?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Book Review: An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of James Wilkinson

Many of my friends would charaterize my interest in American military topics as obscure.  No, let's be real, they'd call it weird, or, perhaps more charitably, fringe. I find the federal period of the U.S. Army fascinating  It was highly political, pinched by fiscal and philosophical conflicts.  The early army was also dominated by highly colorful characters, such as Secretaries of War Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton.  It also had two highly influential Major Generals, Anthony Wayne and James Wilkinson. 

Those who aren't attached to the period might know Wayne, Mad Anthony, because of his distinguished Revolutionary War career.  Wilkinson is a name less well known, however, a man flying under the mainstream historical radar.  James Wilkinson, also a Revolutionary War veteran, became perhaps the most important traitor in American history.  Though Wilkinson's duplicity was well known to me, a more complete picture of the man emerged in Andro Linklater's 2009 book An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Life of James Wilkinson.

Linklater paints a familiar portrait of Wilkinson.    Entering the army at nineteen in 1775 at the siege of Boston, Wilkinson was strictly a staff officer who engaged in the many political feuds of the Continental Army.  Never a combat commander, he resigned from the army to seek the life of a Pennsylvania country squire after marrying Ann Biddle, daughter of a wealthy Pennsylvania merchant. Wilkinson failed as a Pennsylvania esquire, far outspending his substantial resources in land speculation and entertaining.  Forced to give up his Bucks County estate, he followed many other land seekers into the Kentucky territory.  There, he also borrowed considerable sums hoping to strike it rich in land.  Instead he hopelessly mired himself in debt and in 1788, seeking a regular income, re-joined the Army. 
Anthony Wayne from a portrait in 1796 following his triumph at Fallen Timbers and the Treaty of Greenville.  Wayne was Major-General in the United States Army and Wilkinson's superior.  Wilkinson did all he could to undermine Wayne.
Wilkinson remained in the army for almost the rest of his life.  He came to dominate the era of his service as other Americans have done-Winfield Scott, Phil Sheridan, Nelson Miles.  He rose to be the senior general of the United States Army and was involved with most of the important events the army engaged in.

What emerges from Linklater's narrative are some important themes in Wilkinson's life.
Andrew Ellicott was hired by Congress to determine the boundaries of the new capital city, and, more importantly create accurate maps of the boundaries with Spain in the Floridas and Louisiana.  Wilkinson feared Ellicott would reveal his employment as a Spanish spy and slandered him. 
First, Wilkinson was utterly self-interested.  His status as a double agent in the pay of Spain was simply to pay off his ridiculous debts from land speculation.  This would be terrible enough, but Wilkinson went out of his way to smear the reputations of those he thought were close to knowledge of his treason .  His commander from 1794-96, Anthony Wayne, began to understand Wilkinson's connection to Spanish New Orleans, and Wilkinson began to undermine the general with his troops and in Congress.  Andrew Ellicott was appointed by Congress to survey the boundaries of the United States and Spain from 1794-96.  In his travels, the honest and earnest Pennsylvanian learned of payments to Wilkinson from Spain.  When it became clear that Ellicott would publicize this information, Wilkinson did his best to make the surveyor out to be under Spanish influence.  Wilkinson never forgot that he was the most important person in his universe.

For lack of a better word, Wilkinson was a drama queen.  He loved intrigue and was happy to participate in it throughout his life.  Wilkinson was an intriguer during the Revolutionary War.  As a staff officer, it seems he had nothing better to do than intrigue against Philip Schuyler, then against Benedict Arnold, then against his boss, Horatio Gates during the Conway Cabal.  He intrigued against Anthony Wayne during the Fallen Timbers campaign.  Perhaps his biggest intrigue was during the Burr Affair in 1806 when he seemed, as commander of American forces in Louisiana, to support Burr's plot for a breakaway republic in the Southwest, but finally withheld assistance and the plot failed.  Loving the stage, Wilkinson was also court-martialed as part of the Burr trial.  His opening remarks took three days to deliver. 
Portrait of Wilkinson in 1813 after his capture of Mobile and before his failure at Crysler's Farm

Despite these severe character flaws, Linklater does paint a three dimensional portrait of Wilkinson.  He was a devoted husband to his wife, Ann, who died of tuberculosis after 25 years of marriage.  He understood the nature of frontier soldiering, the isolation of frontier posts and their debilitating affect on soldiers and their commanders.  He was an active commanding general, regularly inspecting posts and demanding high levels of readiness from his troops. Linklater even details Wilkinson's sole success as a battlefield commander, capturing Mobile for the United States during the War of 1812. 

 However, the real strength in Linklater's story is the story of continuing contentiousness between Spain and the United States from 1788-1808.  The two former allies were constantly on the verge of war.  Chiefly it was conflict over the western boundaries of the United States, but it also had a great deal to do with Spanish fear the United States would step in and gobble up New Orleans before striking out for Santa Fe and silver-rich Chihuahua in Mexico.  For the Spanish, the Lewis and Clark Expedition, Zebulon Pike's second exploring mission were military missions aimed at discovering the defenses of New Spain.  They needed a man like Wilkinson-the ranking general in the U.S. Army-to inform of them of U.S. intentions.  That the Spanish hold on Mexico dissolved into revolution n 1810 only gives credence to their fears.

 Linklater's book is a good read.  It fills in a gap in America's military history and provides a fair assessment of this important figure in the U.S. Army

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Movie Review: Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam 20

I'm not a big fan of rockumentaries.  They've just just never interested me.  Music is something deeply personal for me, and I channel my reaction to a song, an artist, or a body of work through my own filters.  Films about music often try to portray an image, often not real, of a performer's work, so I always take them with a grain of salt.
Director Cameron Crowe, bottom center, with Pearl Jam. 
 Nevertheless, I've been really interested in seeing Pearl Jam 20.  Why?  It is a Cameron Crowe movie, and I really like his films.  From Say Anything to Almost Famous to Elizabethtown I've found something to like in all of them.  The other reason is because I like Pearl Jam.  No, I'm not a Pearl Jam junky that follows them from place to place, racking up hundreds of shows.  I confess I don't even know all their music, listening only intermittently after Vitalogy.  But I am Seattle born and bred, I saw them in Magnuson Park in 1992, and loved the raw energy they brought to that show.

Crowe's movie combines an almost Ken Burns-like approach to his documentary. Jeff Ament, Mike McCready, Stone Gossard, Matt Cameron, appear throughout the movie, but Crowe combines these with considerable archival footage, both in concert and interviews to create his narrative.  Surprisingly, or maybe not to others, Chris Cornell of Soundgarden also plays a major role in telling the Pearl Jam story.  Maybe a natural given his closeness to Mother Love Bone front man Andrew Wood, and his collaboration with Pearl Jam members on Temple of the Dog.
Mother Love Bone.  Stone Gossard left, Andrew Wood center, Jeff Ament right.

 Crowe begins by sketching a portrait of music in Seattle in the late 80's and early 90's of bands with guys who stayed inside and played a lot of music, making their way into the city's burgeoning club scene.  It seems to me that Pearl Jam had two important events that shaped their careers.  The first was Ament and Gossard's band Mother Love Bone and the death of lead singer Wood to drug overdose.  It profoundly shaped their musical experience and led eventually to the reconstitution of the band that would become Pearl Jam, gathering in McCready and eventually corralling a surfer guy from San Diego named Eddie Vedder.
Ament and Gossard back in the early days.
With the arrival of Vedder, success was not long coming to the band, first as Mookie Blaylock and shortly after as Pearl Jam.  And part of Crowe's story is how the band dealt with that success.  One of the most poignant moments of the movie is Cornell explaining that Vedder in particular did not want to explode on the scene as an overnight success.  Rather, he wanted to find fame incrementally, writing, working and performing without the explosion of exposure. The band went from playing small clubs on the West Coast to Lollapalooza and European festivals almost overnight  The challenge for them was to find a way to channel their success into  a path they could control.  We see them fighting Ticketmaster and dissing the Grammies, usually with Vedder speaking plainly and honestly, drawing the public fire on the one hand, while on the other seeking an artist's anonymity.
Crowe with with Gossard in Stone's home.

Bassist Jeff Amen plying his trade

Guitarist Stone Gossard doing what he does best.
The second event that plainly changed Pearl Jam's career arc is the Roskilde tragedy outside Copenhagen in 2000.  Nine spectators were killed at the huge, raucous festival in front of the Pearl Jam stage.  Ament explained the incident affected him in ways that nothing had since Andy Wood's death. It clearly prompted the band to ask, who are we, and what are we doing. What followed, and I assume continues, is the band's control over where, when and what they play.
Mike McCready:  "I'd like to think it comes from heaven, but I think it comes from inside  . . . the good stuff" said Eddie Vedder.

Eddie Vedder doing his thing

Crowe does a superb job of insuring that no one person is alone the limelight.  Vedder, outspoken, reticent yet charismatic, easily the most recognizable member of the band unsurprisingly gets a great deal of attention in live and archival interviews.  But each band member emerges from the movie fully formed.  Gossard is engaging, interesting and funny.  His remarks before Congress during the Ticketmaster anti-trust hearings are smart,  focused and rightfully scornful.  Ament is reflective and earnest.  Crowe's exploration of his Big Sandy, Montana roots may be the most insightful look inside the influences on any of the band members.  McCready seemed to have been interviewed while he was at home babysitting.  His memories and his observation are every bit as sensible and real as any other dad doing dad stuff. Crowe's conversations with Cornell and Vedder about McCready paint a picture of a guitarist capable of touching another plane of talent.

If Crowe's film has a failing, it is is that that it avoids a serious critique of the band.  Yes, those Eddie Vedder moments of don't-think-before-you-speak are there to see, and references to Roskilde, to internal stresses in the band, to moments of personal excess are made. Yet, there is no serious attempt to take a deeper look at them, to provide some analysis.  Perhaps it's an effort by Crowe to keep himself out of the film as much as possible, or trying to avoid a gotcha moment, but there are times when it seems he's missed the mark. 

Crowe does avoid the bombast, the party footage of other concert films.  He does create broad connections between Pearl Jam and the musical tidal wave that roared out of Seattle in the early nineties. Soundgarden and Nirvana are both included, mostly to broaden our understanding of what was happening here during that time.  But Crowe avoids promoting the Pearl Jam/Nirvana "feud." He dodges the silly stuff.  Though we see a few light moments with the band on stage, there isn't any staged goofiness, such as the Who's Keith Moon showing how to trash a hotel room in The Kids are Alright.

What emerges instead is a picture of a band that has come through the fire.  Crowe shows these men as talented artists that flew too close to the sun, only to find their way to self-preservation together and as individuals before their fame consumed them.  It is a great story.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Marching with Occupy Tacoma

Today I'm off to march with Occupy Tacoma.  I'm trying to follow the entire Occupy Wall Street movement.  I must say that while I completely sympathize with and support their effort, I confess a certain frustration with our local band in the City of Destiny.  I keep hoping they, as with the other Occupy movements throughout the country will lay out a plan supporters can get behind. 

Maybe that's just too much to ask. What I have learned is this:

1.  Americans across ideologies are frustrated, feel powerless, and are afraid of what the future holds for them, their children and grandchildren.
2.  With tens of millions unemployed and many millions more underemployed, families are hurting and despite their best efforts can't find work or are struggling to make ends meet.
3.  Elected representatives of both parties are unable or unwilling to take on the issue of continuing joblessness, preferring to fight partisan and ideological battles rather than governing in the peoples' interest. 
4.  Corporate interests, especially financial institutions seem to have profited despite the magnitude of the Great Recession, received federal financial aid, and their CEO's are making mega-bonuses despite the fact states find themselves in fiscal ruin, the unemployed are running out of benefits, and there's been no serious aid to those about to face foreclosure on their homes.
5.  The interests of entrenched wealth in this country seem to have the politicians' ear, the latter seem to act in the interests of the former, and nobody seems to be an effective advocate for working Americans. 

 These seem to be the chief issues the Occupy (name the city) are showcasing in their protest movements.  Yes there could be more, and there could be fewer, but ultimately they are those I could get behind.  I gave up my Saturday afternoon to march with son Patrick, his friends Rafael and Adam, and an estimated 400 fellow travelers from the Hilltop neighborhood and down into Tacoma. 
 Pre-Funk at People's Park

 Who are these folks?  Well, they defy description.  Yes there are a minority of young folks with their tattoos and piercings so disparaged by the eastern media, but honestly that's just a hallmark of generational identity like the long hair and love beads of my own generation.  Most seemed to be over 40 and approaching my own age of middle 50's. Lots of signs, lots of enthusiasm, lots of respect for authority and close work with the Tacoma Police Department.
A smattering of the signs displayed by marchers.

 The march left People's Park at 9th and Martin Luther King Way, and proceeded down 9th into downtown, with rallies at Wells Fargo Plaza (renamed Bailout Plaza for our activities) and the front of the federal courthouse on Pac Ave., before an ending hoo hah at Tollefson Park.  It was a nice day for walking.  It stayed cool from about 1-3:30 with the sun bursting out and warming things up at the end.  Lots of chanting-"We are the 99 percent," "Banks got bailed out, we were sold out," and the catchy "What does democracy look like? This is what democracy looks like?"
Folks Rally at the County City Building 

There was a certain 60's blind optimistic hokum to the entire affair, but I had a fine time.  The company was amazing, the weather cooperative and it was great to get hundreds of people together that believe there has to be a better way than what we have now.  I didn't hear any chants for nationalizing the banking system, for taxing the rich and feeding the poor until there were no rich no more, just that everyone needs to do their fair share and that bankers had gotten a free ride.  There were also calls for a single-payer health care system which is what I believe anyway. 
Occupation Park-are the police coming?
If there was any negativity to the march it was the announcement at the end that there would be occupiers of Tacoma.  Though some of the volunteers were experienced at acts of civil disobedience and quite willing to suffer arrest from their choice of parks at Pacific and 21st, others were less experienced and fearful.  I admire their dedication and wish them well.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

" By Rights We Shouldn't Even Be Here" The Lord of the Rings and the crimes of Peter Jackson.

I took a big chunk of our long weekend and watched the Lord of the Rings again.  I know what the headline says, but before I say another word I want to assure you I believe the three movies Jackson made not so long ago are very good.  I've seen the Rankin-Bass Return of the King, the Ralph Bakshi LOTR and they were godawful.  Jackson's movies were ambitious, exciting and usually followed the story.

Let me be clear, taking on a massive masterpiece like J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork is no easy feat.  It has a complex storyline, modeled on an alternate history with a huge number of characters and subplots that are almost impossible to make intelligible to a person who has never read the book a half dozen times or more. It's only natural the tale is simplified where possible.  Tom Bombadil and the Old Forest-gone. The conflict between the Moria orcs and the White Hand orcs reduced to a petty squabble.  Aragorn's raising of the coastal towns simplified to capturing the corsair fleet with the Army of the Dead.

In doing this,  Jackson was able to help us understand other important stories a bit better.  He lavished time on the tale of  Gollum/Smeagol, helping us to get inside his head a bit. He played out the story of Saruman and Isengard to better understand his role in the story and also bound the rise of his power to his depredations on Fangorn Forest.   A little artistic license on Jackson's part, but it furthered the story.

 However, in three areas Jackson exceeds the speed limit and rockets us off into places that don't further the story and simply left me scratching my head.
The winsome Ms. Tyler as Arwen. Unfortunately. Arwen has little mention in The Lord of the Rings.

First, there is the matter of Arwen and her story.  In the Lord of the Rings Arwen received about three lines in the 1200 pages of text.  One of those lines may actually be in the considerable appendices.  Was Liv Tyler short of work?  Did Jackson simply need someone to look lovely and mopey, or did the part call   for somebody who could speak perfect Elvish?  The Arwen and Aragorn story Jackson tells is made from whole cloth because certainly Tolkien didn't tell it, and it's a ridiculous distraction from the rest of the story.  We learn little from it regarding the struggle to control Middle Earth, and it doesn't enhance our understanding of other key parts of the story. Is Arwen's presence an effort to bring some gender balance to the story? Unfortunately, the Lord of the Rings is a tale largely about males.  Frodo and Sam.  Gandalf and Saruman.  Gimli and Legolas.  Aragorn and Sauron.  Only Galadriel and Eowyn stand out as female characters of note. It is inappropriate and outside the story to create this new subplot, one that isn't told very clearly or acted very well, and ask us to buy it.
I feel a bit of nausea coming on. 
Sam's comment at Osgiliath: "By rights we shouldn't even be here" may be the most unintentionally ironic in the The Lord of the Rings.
 My second complaint is the capture of Frodo, Sam and Gollum in Ithilien and subsequent removal to Osgiliath. The perpetrator of this crime is Faramir, captain of the rangers of Ithilien, son of Denethor Steward of Gondor, and brother of Boromir, the Steward's favorite son, killed by orcs at the breaking of the Fellowship.  Enough titles already.  This did not happen in the book.  Faramir, of all the characters, seemed to be the least ego-driven of all the men in the LoTR.  In the movie version of the Two Towers Faramir, driven by the insinuations by his insufferable father, discovers Frodo and Sam in the wilds of Ithilien and takes the hobbits to Henneth Annun, their secret hiding spot, learns of the Ring through mistreatment of Gollum, and carts the lot of them off to Osgiliath in order to turn the Ring over to Denethor as a way of earning his approval.  An attack on the ruined city by Nazgul changes his mind when Frodo, convulsed by the power of the ring nearly gives himself up to the Witch King and nearly slays Sam in the process. Sam waxes nostalgic stating the line "We shouldn't even be here."  Hell no Sam, you shouldn't be.  In the book Faramir turns Frodo and the boys loose, understanding the importance of the mission.  This needlessly sullies Faramir's image even if he eventually makes the right decision.  The fabulous footage of the Nazgul simply buries this faux pas. 
Nazgul at Osgiliath.  The awesome video vs. the awful truth.
 Jackson's last great crime is introducing elvish warriors to the defense of Helm's Deep.  This is simply wrong on so many levels and is the greatest of his crimes.  First, it wasn't in the book.  There's lots of goofy stuff around the defense of the fortress in the movie.  In the book Gandalf shows up with the remnants of the defenders of the Westfold-but that's a stretch for the casual viewer, so instead he shows up with Eomer's horsemen.  He leads a mounted charge down a hill impassable by any creature affected by gravity, into a mass of pikemen temporarily blinded by the morning sun.  It's okay; all in good fun. The elves, are another matter.  The most amazing aspect of Tolkien's or perhaps Sauron's War of the Ring is its dynamism: nothing happens in a vacuum.  At the same time our heroes are fighting at Helm's deep, Sauron is preparing to unleash his attack on Gondor.  Further east, Galadriel and Celeborn are defending Lothlorien from attacks out of Moria.  Even further east Legolas' father, Thranduil is defending his kingdom in Mirkwood from armies thrown at him from Dol Guldur. Where exactly did these elves come from?  We meet Haldir in Lorien.  How could they have released hundreds of defenders and marched them hundreds of miles from home in the face of an attack?  Not only this, but what does this do for the story?  The defense of Helm's Deep is still desperate.  The defenders still win.  In fact I would argue that despite the incredible visuals from the film the defense in the book is in many ways more eloquent.  Adding elves to the story is just silly.
Haldir and a wandering company of elves abandon the defense of Lorien to show up at Helm's Deep.  In Tolkien 's story the defenders win without you big guy.  You don't need to die.
  The books published in the wake of the movie releases created tremendous confusion for those following the story.  It substituted elements of the Jackson story for the Tolkien narrative.  This a crime.  While I admire Jackson's work, those dire deviations from the Tolkien story create problems for those who have not and never will read the book.  Which is the true version of Middle Earth?

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Spotify Treasures

I've been using Spotify now for about six weeks.  Often I'll just be wasting time on the computer so I have an excuse for listening to whatever comes to mind and explore whatever.  This week it's been the soundtrack to Cameron Crowe's movie 20, a documentary about Pearl Jam.  Great stuff.  Before that it was NWA's Straight Outta Compton.  I don't fancy myself a rap fan, but what the heck-and honestly it wasn't half bad.

Every so often however, I really have run across some great artists and great songs that set me to digging deeper and really enjoying what I found.
Florence Welch leads the Machine on the David Letterman Show
First off, I listened to the new single from Florence + the Machine, What the Water Gave Me.  I enjoyed it so much I promptly listened to their album, Lungs.  It's good stuff.  Sounds similar to other bands I've heard with Florence Welch as the awesome vocalist with a powerful, ethereal voice, thoughtful song lyrics and solid if unspectacular musicians in support.  Florence has attracted a lot of attention to herself and some have speculated she might go solo.  She could definitely pull it off, but the long and short of it is this band is good now and worth a listen.
Andy Stacks and Jenn Wasner of Wye Oak performing.
One of my former students sent on a cut from Civilian by Wye Oak, an indie folk/rock duo from Maryland.  Great vocals by Jenn Wasner and solid rhythms from drummer Andy Stacks with great lyrics make this band a great 2011 exemplar of the genre.  Thanks Kristin.
84 year old Tony Bennett collaborates with 27 year old Amy Winehouse on Duets II
I bought the first Tony Bennett Duets album when it came out a few years back.  It was nice, but they were mostly duets with the usual suspects:  crooner soundalikes Michael Buble and Josh Groban, Barbara Streisand being ridiculous.  A couple of weeks ago Duets II came out with the ageless Bennett and a bunch of new pairings.  Yes, Buble and Groban are back, but so is his recording with Amy Winehouse on Body and Soul.  I'm not a big Winehouse fan, but she was just great on this song, with voice reminiscent of Billie Holliday.  Another great song is The Lady is a Tramp with Lady Gaga.  For those of us who think Gaga is good but just too captured by the Weird Side of the Moon, prepare for a shock.  She is absolutely fantastic with a voice that would fit right in with the female jazz singers of the 40's and 50's.  I'm still poring through this album, but it's definitely worth your time. 

Of course I've also been mining the other stuff, artists I knew pretty well or at least knew of, exploring Radiohead, the Kinks, Sammy Hagar, and a host of others.  I'm off now to answer that age old question:  Who is better:  Bangles or Go Go's?