March 31, 2016

William Henry Harrison


The ninth president of the United States was William Henry Harrison. He died on April 4. I know this thanks to a big billboard on State Street that I've been driving by for the past couple of months.

Brett Hein/Standard-Examiner.

Curiosity got the best of me and and I looked up the URL. As the Ogden Standard Examiner explains,

Visitors to 9thpresident.com find the methodology of the four-phase study, which, simply put, randomly surveys people asking them to name the ninth President of the United States at different intervals of time after the billboards were placed. As a control, survey participants are also asked to name the Utah Lieutenant Governor (Spencer J. Cox).

In short, the site is part of a marketing study for Reagan Outdoor Advertising. A pretty ingenious one. Frankly, a better experiment than most published studies in the social sciences these days.

The problem is, I remembered a billboard about William Henry Harrison because the whole history thing intrigued me. Off the top of my head, I couldn't tell you the content of any other billboard on State Street. You have to be interested in what the ad is selling to be sold on the ad.

On this point, Rush Limbaugh is exactly right when he insists that he doesn't tell his listeners what to do think. Rather, he articulates what they already believe or want to believe (an effort  harder to sustain than most people imagine). Hence the popularity of both Sanders and Trump.

But now that I've got your attention, William Henry Harrison was the last U.S. president born a British subject and the first president to die in office, from pneumonia. Having served only 32 days, his term remains the shortest in the history of the Republic.

Alas, Harrison wouldn't be around to appreciate his contribution to constitutional law. But his death resulted in the "Tyler Precedent," named after his vice-president. Over a century later, the process of presidential succession was finally codified in the 25th Amendment.

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March 24, 2016

The Big Windup!


I apologize for casting ill-informed aspersions, but when it comes to pastimes, football, baseball, and golf (and sumo) are more watchable ways of passing time than basketball, soccer, and hockey. The latter three are hampered by the wearying back and forth and back and forth that makes tennis boring too.

It's too stupidly easy to score in basketball, too stupidly difficult in soccer and hockey (soccer and hockey are what happen when human beings attempt to illustrate Brownian Motion).

What sets football, baseball, golf (and sumo) apart is the pacing. The punctuation. The pauses. The paragraph breaks. Winning depends on more than fine-tuned twitch responses, which, while demonstrating impressive physical prowess, make for a lousy narrative structure.

Granted, I rarely watch any sports event all the way through. Not even the Super Bowl (unless there's nothing else better on). But I will watch a sports movie all the way through. Especially a decent baseball movie.

The structure of baseball, the strategy of the game, the timing and pacing, allow it to become the drama itself. This is hardly news in Hollywood: The Natural, The Bad New Bears, The Sandlot, Bull Durham, The Rookie, and For Love of the Game, to start with.

And it's no less true of the sports drama in Japan, where baseball constitutes its own wide-ranging subgenre. And it is certainly applies to The Big Windup! based on the award-winning manga by Asa Higuchi.

As with many baseball stories, The Big Windup! concentrates on the "battery," the combination of the pitcher and catcher. It's a setup that brings to mind Bull Durham, with Tim Robbins as the cocky young pitcher and Kevin Costner as the veteran catcher showing him the ropes.

Except that Higuchi starts this game with a screwball, giving us a protagonist who's an emotional basketcase. Ren Mihashi, the starting pitcher, is well-nigh pathologically insecure. Imagine the Tim Robbins character instead played by Woody Allen. Seriously.

As it turns out, Ren has no pitching speed but does have exquisite control, a skill that's gone unappreciated. Catcher Takaya Abe is certain he can use it to great effect--if he can keep Ren from dissolving into an angst-ridden puddle before getting to the mound.

Yes, this could become monumentally annoying, but Higuchi knows better than to deliver the same pitch over and over. Having established a character trait, he doesn't pound it into the ground. Because this is, first and foremost, a sports melodrama.

The opening episodes consist of putting the team together, tossing in a couple of dumb teenage jokes, establishing the school as the underdogs (an all-freshman team), gearing up to face the overwhelming favorites in the regionals of the Summer Koshien tournament.

After that, it's all baseball, baseball, baseball. In fact, the entire first season consists of two games--that go on longer than would the actual games.

The Yankees should hire her.
The only comparable example I can think of is For Love of the Game, which documents a single game in near real-time. In that case, though, Kevin Costner fills its 137 minutes doing a lot of ruminating about things that have nothing to do with baseball.

The players in The Big Windup! think about nothing but baseball.

Now, I have a hard time believing that professional athletes think that much while they're playing the game, let alone high school freshmen. And yet this deconstruction of the sport at practically the atomic level works for a non-sports nut like me.

If you want to comprehend the egghead appeal of baseball, The Big Windup! is the perfect tutorial.

To be sure, this focused attention isn't monomaniacal. There are cute extraneous touches, like the baseball moms huddled together in the stands. And despite her ridiculous proportions, part-time manager Momoe is never depicted as anything but an excellent baseball tactician.

Even the quirky cheerleading culture in Japanese baseball gets its due (it's pretty much that way in real life too, only louder and more annoying).

Along the way, The Big Windup also clarifies the substance of dramatic conflict. There's more to a plot than how the tale ends. According to Nicholas Christenfeld and Jonathan Leavitt, "stories are not spoiled by spoilers." Knowing the ending can enhance enjoyment of a story.

So it could be that once you know how it turns out, it's cognitively easier--you're more comfortable processing the information--and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story.

As somebody who has only a glancing interest in who wins most sports contests (spoiler: Nishiura High wins), I can confirm that the difference between an interesting Super Bowl and a boring Super Bowl (the majority, it seems of late) has nothing to do with who wins.

It's all about how the game is played.

Related links

The Big Windup (Hulu Netflix)
The national Japanese pastime
Play ball!

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March 17, 2016

The national Japanese pastime


It's March, and that means it's time for--no, not basketball--the National High School Baseball Invitational Tournament, also known as Spring Koshien. Together with Summer Koshien, the bigger open tournament in August, it is the sporting event in Japan, a cultural (and television) institution.

Courtesy Japan Times.

The last twenty years of economic malaise took a lot of the air out of golf, though Japanese golf players have become competitive internationally. Soccer has recently rocketed past baseball in terms of sheer popularity. Sumo has the historical deepest roots (albeit now being dominated by Mongolians).

But baseball has truly become a Japan's "national pastime," occupying the same cultural and social space as football does in the U.S. (and particularly in states like Texas).

Baseball came to Japan in the mid-19th century with the opening of Japan and caught on quickly. Babe Ruth toured Japan with the American League All Stars in 1934. The first national high school championships were played in 1915, and moved to Hanshin Koshien Stadium in 1924.

The Koshien baseball tournaments equal the popularity of NCAA "March Madness" and the football bowl games. The summer tournament is open to every high school baseball team in the country, so at the beginning of every season, every baseball-loving Japanese kid can dream of going to Koshien.

And with American baseball teams using Japan as a kind of super-minor league system, every baseball-loving Japanese kid can dream of playing in the Majors as well.

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March 10, 2016

Play ball!


Hollywood cranks out a big sports movie every year or two, Kevin Costner and Dennis Quaid starring in about half of them. But sports is less commonly the primary focus of U.S. television series, Friday Night Lights being an exception that proves the rule.

In Japan, though, the sports drama is a hugely popular manga and anime genre (often adapted to live action). And no athletic endeavor or game gets left out.

From Captain Tsubasa (soccer) to Yawara! (judo) to Hikaru no Go (go) to Kuroko's Basketball to Free! (swimming) to Ashita no Joe (boxing) to Haikyu!! (volleyball) to Prince of Tennis to Princess Nine (baseball) to Over Drive (bicycling) and Initial D (street racing), and even Chihayafuru (the poetry-based card game of karuta).

We're barely grazing the surface. The My Anime List website dug up over 500 titles in anime alone. These series are certainly products of their times, both reflecting and arousing interest in their area of interest. As a case in point, each broadcast episode of Yawara! included a countdown to the Barcelona Olympics

Ashita no Joe debuted in 1968 and defined the boxing drama in the public imagination eight years before Rocky. In 1981, Captain Tsubasa presaged the huge popularity of soccer today. Basketball is interesting, in that Japan remains noncompetitive at the professional level outside Japan. But Kuroko's Basketball (2008) is a massive hit.


"Even if it's just for a moment,
I'm gonna burn so bright it'll dazzle everyone.
And all that'll be left is pure white ash."

If real sports don't strike your fancy, there's always Angelic Layer, a futuristic version of Rock'em Sock'em Robots. And Eureka 7, in which jet-powered hoverboarders save the planet. Bizarrely enough, Girls und Panzer somehow manages to turn armored war games into a high school extracurricular activity.

And yet no sport can match the enduring popularity of baseball. The roots of baseball's appeal in Japan go deeper than the simple cinematic appeal. Even more than home-grown sports like judo and sumo, baseball is woven into the fabric of modern Japanese society. The reason is high school. More about this next week.

Related links

Chihayafuru (CR)
Eureka 7 (Netflix)
Free! (Yahoo CR)
Girls und Panzer (Yahoo)
Hikaru no Go (Netflix Yahoo)
Haikyu!! (Yahoo CR)
Initial D (Netflix)
Kuroko's Basketball (CR)
Princess Nine (CR)
Yawara! (Netflix)

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March 03, 2016

Lucifer


I have a fondness for movies about the end of days like, well, End of Days. The world doesn't necessarily have to end. But the devil does have to shown up to get his due. Call the genre "Miltonesque" because, as they say, Milton gave the devil all the good lines in Paradise Lost.

These are often the smartest movies about religion, even when dancing right up to (and over) the edge of camp. It's one thing to posit "evil" as a mindless Manichean force like gravity or radiation. But if the devil is going to argue his case on screen and in person, he's going to have to make sense.


Pointing to performances by Ray Wise in Reaper, Peter Stormare in Constantine, and Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate, I argue that what makes them such compelling devils is that "they're bad with reasons, motivations, and no apologies."

Much in the same way that the structure of the police procedural disciplines the storytelling, tackling the big philosophical questions in an accessible, story-driven manner disciplines the dialectic. And now to the above list we can add Welsh actor Tom Ellis as Lucifer Morningstar. Yes, that Lucifer.

The devil, you see, is on a sabbatical from hell, and has camped out at a posh nightclub in Los Angeles. There he meets Detective Chloe Decker (Lauren German), who is investigating the murder of one of his patrons. It doesn't take long for Lucifer to conclude that solving crimes is a simply brilliant way to pass the time here on Earth.

So now we have the eschatological police procedural.

Meanwhile, Mazikeen (Lesley-Ann Brandt), Lucifer's demonic chief-of-staff, and Amenadiel (D.B. Woodside), a bounty-hunting angel, form an uneasy partnership in order to get Lucifer back in Hell where he belongs. Lucifer is in no mood to comply, despite discovering that he's slowly becoming mortal, an alarming fact he treats with fascinated delight.

Lucifer hearkens back to Angel (before Whedon cluttered up the cast and the storylines) and the Spike-centric episodes of Buffy. It's also the theme of Hellsing. Alucard (that's Dracula spelled backwards) joins forces with Van Helsing largely because modern evil is so boring.

It should come as no surprise that Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg have creation and writing credits, from the characters they developed for the DC Comics series The Sandman. Gaiman knows his British apologists (C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, G.K. Chesterton, to start with), or maybe he just breathed it all in growing up.

The penultimate scene in the first episode has Lucifer getting his partner shot because he doesn't want her to kill the bad guy. This echoes the conclusion of Screwtape Letters, in which death is seen by the tormenting demons as a defeat for the devil.

As far as Gaiman's Lucifer is concerned, death is a cop-out. He wants the wicked to suffer. He wants the punishment to fit the crime in the most exacting terms imaginable. After all, he explains, he doesn't perch on your shoulder exhorting you to sin. That's all the work of human free will, not him.

And yet he gets all the blame. Well, then, the sinners deserve all the punishment.

The devil as the supreme legalist also hews nicely with Mormon theology, according to which God and the Devil differ not so much in ends as means. The real question is not salvation, but the cost to the soul. And the question on Lucifer's mind is the cost to his own.

Being that this is L.A. and no preacher will get anywhere near him, hopefully the answer will come from his shrink (Rachael Harris). With some backroom coaching from Amenadiel, the result in episode 6 is a counseling session worthy of the King Follet Discourse.

When he's not debating whether the unexamined life is worth living as an actual human being, Tom Ellis plays Lucifer as Ferris Bueller on his day off from Hades. The lovable rouge, the bad boy constantly surprising himself by doing the right thing.

He and Lauren German cook up the kind of chemistry we see between Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu on Elementary, where the sparks can fly without the risk of veering into rom-com territory. When she calmly parries his seductive entreaties the first time they meet, he leans in and peevishly asks, "Did my father send you?"

There's a whole lot of theology packed into that question.

Woodside and Brandt's uneasy relationship mirrors that of the leads. They dominate the screen whenever they take over a scene. In particular, Woodside's commanding presence versus Ellis's devil-may-care attitude is a great illustration of opposites that are different sides of the same coin.

Lucifer is currently scheduled for a 13 episode run on Fox. At this point, the "morality" arc seems to be working its way towards an inexorable conclusion. While I expect Lucifer to get his wings back and not end up a literal fallen angel, I couldn't spell out how this is going to happen or what might come after that.

Even if nothing comes after that, Lucifer will still make a great one-and done, sporting a metaphysical heft too rarely seen in a prime time genre series.

Related posts

Christianity is cool
Constantine
Devil of a role
Hellsing
Lucifer (Fox) (Hulu)

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