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