Monday, January 31, 2005 

Why I Love Sports

Actual quote from Sammy Sosa, soon-to-be-former-Cub:

"I thank God for the ability to, uh, thank God."

Socrates himself could not have said it better.

 

Elvis Never Saw 'The Wire'

Everybody knows the story about Elvis shooting out his television when Robert Goulet appeared on it. (Hell, at that point in his life, maybe E thought Goulet was in it.) And yeah, when it comes to TV, his approach is usually the right one. I've pretty much tapped out on the moronic done-in-one cop/procedural show--the CSIs, the Law and Orders, the Cold Cases, the Medical Investigations, the Numb3rses. I've had it with the way these shows clearly start with a scientific premise--did you know individual sheets of paper have their own individual "DNAs"?--and then clumsily wrap some kind of crime around it. From a storytelling perspective, they give zero thought to anything that gets in the way of laying out the plot, brick by clunky brick. (And though I don't let the munchkins anywhere near the tube when these shows are on, I've had it with the rampant misogyny and child endangerment that are the stock-in-trade of these shows.)

Damn, that sounded bitter and curmudgeonly. Probably the reason why I'm so tired of these stupid shows is the same reason why I stopped eating crap like Patio burritos and Tombstone frozen pizzas--I realized there's something better out there. Quick list of a few shows worth watching:

--The Wire--Okay, it's over now, and may not be back at all. But this HBO series about drug runners in Baltimore and the cops who tried to catch them was absolutely as good as television got--so intricate and multilayered that the "Previously on The Wire" segments lasted three full minutes. And drug lord Stringer Bell was simply one of the best television characters ever created--he treated his empire like a business, taking college classes in macroeconomics and running his cartel meetings according to Robert's Rules of Order. (Which led to immortal lines like "Sitcho punk ass down until you got the floor, bitch.") Stringer and Deadwood's Al Swearengen could each pull Tony Soprano apart by his neuroses.

--Las Vegas and Tilt--One's pure cotton candy; the other's a grimy highball glass of scotch. Las Vegas is just good dopey fun, and it revels in the fact that it's a stupid freakin' show. I like that. Tilt, on the other hand, has Michael Madsen--who could scare you just by reading you his grocery list--and although its morality is as simplistic as Las Vegas's, it has a touch of a smoky edge to it.

--The West Wing--Back from the dead. Like ER, this show ran the regulars and their typical setting into the dirt last season. Unlike ER, this series doesn't seem content to stagnate into "disease-of-the-week" (which I guess would be "legislation-of-the-week" here). And Jimmy Smits and Alan Alda are both solid, reliable additions to the cast. Yes, this is white-folks tv, but it's pretty good white-folks tv.

--Lost, Arrested Development, and 24--There are plenty of goofball fan sites dedicated to examining the minutiae of these shows. I ain't gonna do that. I just like the fact that these shows reward the constant viewer. With TiVo (or BitTorrent), it's easy to keep up--and the little plot revelations in every episode are that much more enjoyable.

--Nip/Tuck, Deadwood, Rescue Me, The Shield--I absolutely love all four of these shows, but since they're all in the offseason, nothing new to write. But the singular moments from each--Sean's girlfriend committing suicide to "Rocket Man" in Nip/Tuck, Dennis Leary standing terrified in the lobby of the World Trade Center in Rescue Me, Al Swearengen sending a preacher to his just reward in Deadwood, Lemonhead burning stolen money and reclaiming his soul in The Shield--this is the kind of astonishingly good television that redeems a decade's worth of reality tv, sitcoms, and cheap drama.

So with all this in mind, here's a moral question for you...is downloading TV shows wrong? Not pay TV like HBO or even FX--but free TV. How's it different from taping a show and watching it later? If the networks had a bit of sense, they'd start offering downloads of their shows for $1.99 a pop--they could head TV piracy off at the pass and get a sweet new revenue stream while they're doing it. An interesting concept...

Sunday, January 23, 2005 

Flickadaweek: Welcome to Sarajevo

Watched Welcome to Sarajevo this afternoon...it's not a great MOVIE, but it does have a great IMPACT. It's about the Bosnian conflict circa 1992, and follows a group of television journalists as they try to wrap their hands and minds around this absurd ethnic war. The film shows the majesty of Sarajevo in the 1984 Winter Olympics, then jump-cuts to those same stadiums blown to bits by war. The plot is fairly thin--a British journalist sneaks out an orphan by dubiously legal means--so much of the film's impact comes from the images we see--emaciated concentration-camp victims in the 90s, not the 40s; flames licking out of the burning Yugoslavian national library; a group of men tied together, stood at the edge of a wall and executed one by one; a tiny child taking delight at the simple act of eating an orange. My old Larry Flynt co-star Woody Harrelson's in it, and he's good; the guy is one top-notch script away from becoming an A-lister. And I'm always a fan of movies about wartime journalists; one of my dream projects is a book on the war junkies of Vietnam. But back to the movie--if, like me, you've always kind of heard about this Bosnian thing but never really investigated it, this movie'll light a fire under your fat comfortable American butt. See it.

 

Recommended Reading: I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe

Banged my way through Tom Wolfe's latest doorstop, the 675-page college-based monstrosity that is "I Am Charlotte Simmons." It's the story of a young Ca'alina guhl named Charlotte Simmons who attends the tony Ivy League school of Dupont, and finds herself up to her purty little eyeballs in smut and filth and nastiness. Three men vie for her affections--the jock, the nerd, and the frat guy--and alas, they're all about as well-drawn as that description. Did I like it? Yeah...in pieces. Here's the thing. Wolfe's an incredibly observant guy, but there's still a difference between observation and immersion. It's the difference between describing what a tangerine tastes like, and actually eating a tangerine. Wolfe gets all the details of college life right from an architectural/sociological/anthropological perspective, but the characters...it's like hearing sour notes in the symphony. It just mars the entire work. Guys don't call ladies "dude," for instance, and real college students don't talk in the hyper-self-aware, underline-Wolfe's-thesis kind of language that they do here. I KNOW he's trying to prove a point, but when that point is that college students like sex, well...it's like trying to demonstrate that water is, in fact, wet.

Wolfe does have some good points--I truly enjoyed his descriptions not only of the Dupont campus, but of the various backgrounds and motivating desires of many of his characters. And he puts Charlotte and others into situations that are scarily familiar from my own college days--but maybe that's the problem. Maybe I'm projecting too much of my college life on this book and making it out to be more than it really is. Charlotte, for one thing, is a neurotic little bitch, and based on the way she acts in the last forty pages of the book--where the action FINALLY gets going--she f'ing deserves all the crap she gets in the first six hundred thirty. And no way ANYBODY is as naive as she is...and why doesn't she change MORE at the end...and on and on.

Anyway, it's a fun book--provided you can bring your own college experiences to the table in reading it. Otherwise, it's a long slog following a heroine who really needs to get smacked in the head with a chicken leg.*



*--Note that I do not condone violence against women in any way. This is a reference to one of the funniest things I've ever seen in my life, when a hallmate of mine threw a fried chicken leg across the entire cafeteria and hit another hallmate in the side of the head as he was standing in line. Holy crap, John Elway his own damn self never threw a pass that well.

 

Much Afoot...

Been holed up the last couple weeks banging out the last of the three scripts to "Sundown," my upcoming Western horror miniseries. Official announcement of publication date should be coming within the next couple weeks. I've also been asked to write a screenplay of same, so that'll be an enjoyable challenge. On the mag front, two sports articles on tap--a profile of Chicago Cubbie HOF'er Ryne Sandberg and a feature on the 84-85 Memphis State Tigers basketball team, which went from the Final Four straight to hell. Just turned in a first-person piece on Atlanta's tennis scene, which was a hell of a lot of fun to write...maybe too much fun. I haven't yet heard if my editor liked it or not...

Official announcements/links/images coming soon. Till then, more multimedia.

Oh, and while somebody still needs to teach Mike Vick how to connect on passes that are between 1 and 10 yards, I don't feel all that bad about the Falcons' season ending this afternoon. It's like the Braves in '91--there are still many more tomorrows than yesterdays to this dynasty.

Thursday, January 06, 2005 

Hype: "The Fight Junkies" in Digital Webbing Presents #23



Okay, you know what Fantasy Football is, right? Replace football players with superheroes and you've got "The Fight Junkies," my six-page story in the comic book anthology Digital Webbing Presents #23, out in March. (Cover above.) Full color, great art by my bud Reilly Brown, and one of those "ooooo..." twist endings. Click here to find out how to land yourself a copy.

 

Hype: Chicago Sports Review

Got a new article published in the Chicago Sports Review--click here--about the Chicago origins of NBA stars Dwyane Wade and Antoine Walker.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005 

Soprano Prehistory--Cop Land

Just watched the '97 movie Cop Land today. Don't know how this one managed to escape me for seven years--it's a damn good cop flick, with shifting moralities and hard choices and an unbelievably good cast--DeNiro, Keitel, Stallone, Michael Rapoport, Leo McGarry from the West Wing, Ray Liotta...as each character comes on screen, it's one of those "damn! HE's in this too?" moments. (Even Janeane Garofalo as a deputy--wha?--can't screw this up.) The plot--cops in NYC have moved their families across the river to a town called Garrison, New Jersey, where they can live in peace. Problem is, it's a who-watches-the-watchmen situation, as the cops grow increasingly bold in their own lawlessness. The sheriff of Garrison is Stallone, worlds away from Rocky and Rambo, trying hard to find his courage where he'd be better off just keeping his mouth shut. Stallone's character never made the NYPD because of deafness in one ear, and the shots of him staring across the Hudson at the NYC skyline are haunting. The plot's actually got too much crammed into it--this is a novel shoehorned into a two-hour flick--but it's well worth renting.

A side note is that this film looks like it could be a lost episode of The Sopranos. It's not just that half a dozen Sopranos characters appear in it--from Carmela herself to Tony's steak-throwing mistress to Tony's sporting-goods buddy whose gambling debts got him in trouble to the white-haired mob muscleman who spent Season 5 trying to ice Steve Buscemi. No, Cop Land seems almost to take place on the exact same working-class Jersey streets and neighborhoods as The Sopranos, and the same sense of grim fatalism grips those streets. You get the feeling that the mob guys the movie mentions but never shows might just go by the names of, say, Tony, Silvio, and Paulie.

Monday, January 03, 2005 

Everything Old Is New Again--Top Tunes of 2004

Every year since 1986, I've picked my favorite song of the past 12 months (way back then, it was Van Halen's "5150," a selection that will not come as a surprise after you read this year's picks.) Here's this year's winner, along with another 20 or so that make up my favorites of the year. Yeah, it's as mainstream as pepperoni pizza, even if it includes everybody from Ludacris to Martina McBride to James Hetfield. I'm long past the point of needing to claim I like obscure bands; I'm gonna be listening to guitar-bass-drums rock till I'm dead.

Song of the Year: "Slither," Guns n' Ro--er, Velvet Revolver. Yeah, it's got Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland doing vocal duties between rehab stints, but Velvet Revolver--and especially this tune--is mainlined GnR, minus the Axl. The sinister bass, the arena-rock drums, Slash's hillbilly-Stones guitar romp--man, this is as good as rock gets.

Album of the Year: "America's Sweetheart," Courtney Love. Man, I love Courtney--you can doll her up with fake boobs, collagen-jacked lips, and enough botox to smooth the Rockies, and the psychoslut within still forces its way to the surface. This album is Courtney writ digital--like her good-twin Gwen Stefani, Courtney's brought on board a bunch of producers to sauce up her sound, but it still sounds like she's going to freak out and toss a chair through a window mid-song. The lyrics revolve around the usual themes of faded glory, fractured love, and vanishing fame; Courtney's voice is triple-tracked but she still has trouble staying within shouting range of the right key. A glorious trainwreck.

Other sweet tunes of 2004, in no particular order:
"Yeah," Usher--This song's like aural syphilis; once you hear those four notes, you ain't never forgetting 'em. We're going to be hearing this and "Hey Ya" (last year's top song) for decades.

"Let's Get It Started," Black-Eyed Peas--I spent a lot of time covering NBA games this year, and this song was omnipresent at every one. Unfortunately, once the Atlanta Hawks got it started, they couldn't get it out of reverse.

"C'mon, C'mon," Von Bondies--The theme to "Rescue Me," one of the best shows of the season, and a kicking little rocker all its own. Points off because Von Bondies lead singer got his ass kicked by smug little wraithlike White Stripes guitarist Jack White.

"Vertigo," U2--It's Bono's anthemic chants and creepy asides. It's the Edge's stadium-filling whipsaw chords. It's just a damn good song, that's all.

"Ch-check It Out," "Triple Trouble," Beastie Boys--Like U2, these guys aren't breaking a whole lot of new ground anymore, but throwing out lines like "Like Miss Piggy/Who, moi?" and the Cockney-accented "Kickin' lyrics roit to y'brain/When y'hear this saund y'be roit as rain" from these two hit the bullseye.

"Just Lose It," Eminem--Em's the musical equivalent of Kobe Bryant--you might justifiably hate the guy, but you can't deny his talent. This is one of half a dozen songs off "Encore" that combine verbal dexterity, clever lyrics, and crafty music into an addictive little package--Starbucks on CD.

"Word Up!", Korn--A cover of the old Cameo tune, underlain with Korn's trademark gothic rolling thunder bass. Damn, I'm spending a lot of time looking in the rear view mirror here, ain't I?

"99 Problems vs. One Step," Jay-Z and Linkin Park--Most of the current mashups are goofy messes--the combination of Eminem's "Without Me" and Paul McCartney's "Silly Love Songs" comes to mind--but this is the rare combination that improves on both originals.

"Sunset Strip," Courtney Love--Courtney's epic, soaring tale of Southern California dreams turned to dust. Someday this is going to make for a hell of a soundtrack selection.

"American Idiot," Green Day--This is actually one of the weaker songs off the "American Idiot" album, in which Green Day--against all odds--grows beyond three chords and a sneer. 'Bout time, too--these guys are a little old to still be singing about getting caught jacking in the bathroom.

"Spare Me The Details," Offspring--These cats are quietly putting together a Hall of Fame career, and my favorite cuts off their albums are the quirky acoustic numbers. This one, in which a poor bastard keeps getting reminded of the night his girlfriend drank seven shots of Jaeger and ended up in the sack with another guy, just begs to be sung 'round the campfire.

"Button My Lip," Elvis Costello--Another glorious mess. Elvis went down South and hooked up with Northern Mississippi blues musicians for this album, and the result is funky and creepy and Brit-wry all at once.

"It's About Time," Van Halen--I firmly believe that Eddie Van Halen hasn't listened to any music except his own since the Reagan administration. Every major musical movement of the last twenty years, from Guns n' Roses to Nirvana to gangsta rap to hip-hop to electronica, has had exactly no effect on Van Halen's sound. This tune came out in 2004, but its whomp-rock intro, wee-diddly-diddly solos, and duct-taped verse-chorus-verse sounds like it's straight from 1987...and dammit, I love it.

"You Gotta Move," Aerosmith--Back in the springtime, Aerosmith and Eric Clapton both released blues cover albums on the exact same day. But while Clapton froze every bit of soul out of the classics and left them sounding like lounge tunes, Aerosmith yoked them to its signature sound and turned out a sinister, sex-drenched CD. It's like seeing your mom's friends dress up nasty--and realizing they're hot. Okay, maybe not like that, but still pretty cool.

"Don't You Think This Outlaw Bit's Done Got Out Of Hand," James Hetfield--Further proof that the South will one day rule the earth--Kid Rock started in Detroit hardcore rap. Metallica's Hetfield started in San Francisco speed thrash. And both have ended up in the same mulleted place--outlaw country, a la this cover of an old Waylon Jennings tune.

"1000 Miles," Vanessa Carlton--I have no idea whether this tune's ever been on The O.C. or another teen drama, but it sounds like it ought to have been. Pure cane sugar.

"Trip Around The Sun," Jimmy Buffett and Martina McBride--I'm getting old. How else to explain the effect this maudlin tale of growing old gracefully has on me? There'll probably be more of these on future lists as I mellow. Axl, come back quick!

"Light & Day," Polyphonic Spree--If the Spree's dopey-grin big-sky sound, which pelts you with something like two dozen different instruments at once, doesn't make you smile and nod your head, then my friend, your heart is two sizes too small.

 

Recommended Reading: Faithful, Bringing Down The House

Read a couple decent nonfiction books over the holidays, but both suffered from the same problem in the end--insufficient vision to take their stories from the merely fascinating into the realm of the epic. First up--Stewart O'Nan and Stephen King's "Faithful," a tale of the Boston Red Sox' memorable 2004 world championship season. Since it was published about a month after the Red Sox recorded the final out in the 2004 Series, it necessarily suffers a bit from rushed production, but it's still a damn good recap of the marathon that is the baseball season. Don't know how much post-Series editing the guys did on their work, but the prescient touches, like wondering how badly pitcher Derek Lowe will screw up (he didn't, ending up winning all three playoff-clinching games) are interesting minor ironies. This is mostly a book for hardcore Sox fans, and I'll admit to skimming through some of the dog days of August in here--everybody knows how the season's gonna end anyway, so why not jump to the good stuff? Of the two writers, I preferred King's analysis, which was generally more big-picture than O'Nan's, which tended to focus on minutiae like Nomar's ability to go to his right or Kevin Millar's tendencies at the plate. Interesting for Sox fans, but for the rest of us--not so much. Still, I do want to read more from O'Nan. Really, the only place where the quality of the writing suffers is after the big wins over the uberchoking Yankees and the Cards--it's as if both writers just didn't try hard enough to capture the astonishing feel of these epic moments and just punted. Still, a good read--the literary equivalent of a ballgame on in the background on a summer evening.

Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House is the absolute embodiment of the airplane book--an interesting story delivered in rapid-fire, surface-level prose. Here's the story--a bunch of MIT kids (the cover says six, but I counted about twelve at various points) use a variant of the traditional card-counting system to win at blackjack and reap millions from casinos. It's an interesting exercise in could-I-do-that?, but the problem is that there's nothing really at stake here. Worst case scenario--you get caught with your system and you're asked to leave the casino. That's it--no "Casino"-style vises to the skull or desert burials, not even a selling-grandma's-wedding-ring-and-turning-tricks-for-dockworkers-to-pay-off-gambling-debts scene. The characters have an amazing run, get found out, get bounced from casinos, and turn around and invest their winnings in more reputable enterprises. The author also has an annoyingly unnecessary habit of injecting himself into the story, interviewing associates and members of the gambling team to unrealized purposes. The moments when the players are sitting at tables and catch sight of pit bosses headed their way are suspenseful, but when it ends up that the bosses are only coming to ask them to take their action elsewhere--where's the payoff? It's an interesting plane read, but one that'll probably be mostly forgotten after you stow your tray tables and return to the upright and locked position.

Bio

Jay Busbee runs Yahoo! Sports' NASCAR Blog From The Marbles, Atlanta Magazine's Atlanta sports blog Right Down Peachtree, and the Southern sports/humor blog Sports Gone South. He also writes for damn near anybody who'll throw him a buck and a byline, and he's at work on the books The Quiet Dynasty: The History Of The Atlanta Braves' Championship Run (2009, Sports Publishing LLC) and God Is A Bulldog: Georgia, Florida, And The Greatest Play In College Football History (2010, Sports Publishing LLC). Click below for more info on his novels, articles, and comics.
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