Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"You Back That Queen Again, You Son of a Bitch, and I'll Blow You Right Up That Wildcat's Ass!"

So I was at Jockamo this past Sunday for lunch, with Amy and Jackson and some of the youth group peeps from her church, and somebody mentioned college basketball. Then Amy joked that maybe she should separate me from the dude who was sitting across from me, since he was a Kentucky fan and I’m an Indiana fan. Apparently those two don’t get along, or some shit. I gave the empty chuckle I reserve for a somewhat polite response to an attempt at humor that doesn’t even come close, which is the only way I have found that I am any longer able to react to people who think they are going to get my blood up with some kind of college basketball rivalry nonsense. I used to get hot and bothered about that shit when I was a kid; but when I was a kid, I was an idiot. I’m not sure exactly when I gave up on rivalry as something that could get under my skin, but the catalyst for it had to be the Indiana-Purdue game in Bloomington during the Spring 1994 semester. I didn’t have a ticket for that game in the six-pack I got when I turned in my claim card. One of my friends—that’s how long ago it was...I actually had some friends!—gave me her ticket. Glenn Robinson dropped 39 points on Indiana, but the Hoosiers won anyway. Then all of us who went to the game stayed behind in our seats, just hanging out and talking, while the Assembly Hall emptied out—and then the pep band drummer ripped into what I remember being a kickass drum solo. That was a pretty sweet end to a pretty sweet game—and it was a pleasure to watch Glenn Robinson play that night. You don’t often see a big guy who can shoot as well as the Large Pooch. He may be one of the best pure shooters ever to play the 4 in college.

Nowadays, I don’t care about the rivalries like that anymore. I love Indiana, and I hope that they win. When I root against other schools, it’s only because a loss for that school would help Indiana. It doesn’t matter which school we’re talking about; and most of the time, I don’t care anyway. I just want Indiana to win. The only niggling bit of rivalry that still bothers me has to do with Duke, because of The Shot. That’s the turnaround fadeaway that Christian Laettner hit from near the top of the key to beat Kentucky in the regional finals of the 1992 NCAA tournament. The winner of that game would go on to play Indiana in the Final Four, and I was hoping that Indiana would get Kentucky in that game, because I seem to recall thinking that Indiana would have a better chance of beating Kentucky than of beating Duke; but Duke won that game, because of the Christian Laettner shot (which has gone on to achieve something on the order of cult status, as one of the most replayed college basketball highlights of all time), and then beat Indiana in the Final Four, en route to their second consecutive national championship. If Indiana had played Kentucky in the Final Four, and beaten them, I think Indiana also would have beaten Michigan in the title game. So while there is no way to know for sure, of course, I still sometimes wonder if that one shot was the only thing standing between Indiana and their sixth national title; and I still smile a little anytime I see a college basketball scoreboard that shows a Duke loss. On the other hand, that does not mean that I do not respect their program, or their players, or their head coach, Mike Krzyzewski.

I didn’t explain all this to the dude Amy thought she should separate me from, but I did say that I don’t dislike Kentucky. He said that that was “refreshing,” which probably means that he gets shit from pretty much every other Indiana fan whenever the topic comes up. I went on to say, however, that I do dislike John Calipari. His daughter piped up with something to the effect of, “Everybody says that!” Then I proceeded with my reasoning, but failed to make a good argument, because I had forgotten most of the details of the two NCAA rules incidents at Calipari’s former schools, apart from the result of each investigation, which was that the first two Final Four runs by John Calipari-coached teams were vacated by the NCAA. The dude I was sitting across from said, reluctantly, that that was a “true statement,” but that those vacated Final Four runs were not due to anything that John Calipari had done.

I didn’t have an answer for that, and pretty much wilted under the confidence of his response. Later that day, I went back and re-read some of the material on the two NCAA incidents at Calipari’s former schools (Massachusetts in 1996, and Memphis in 2008). It’s true that Calipari did not overtly have anything to do with Marcus Camby accepting improper benefits from an agent, or with Derrick Rose’s SAT being invalidated by ETS (for which Memphis ultimately had its entire 2007-08 season vacated, not just the Final Four run, which ended with Memphis losing to Kansas in the title game). Calipari left each school for greener pastures, before the NCAA had a chance to come calling. But he failed somewhere along the line at Massachusetts, by not ensuring that Marcus Camby knew to stay well away from agents, even if he was thinking about going pro. Calipari did not commit the violation himself, but if he had had good control over the program, the violation probably would not have happened.

Same thing goes for Derrick Rose at Memphis, except that this one is way more shady than what went down at Massachusetts. Rose was never eligible to play at Memphis, and the NCAA report (PDF) implies that the school knew he wasn’t eligible, but let him play anyway. Rose would also have been ruled ineligible, even if his SAT had passed muster, because someone at Memphis allowed Rose's brother to travel with the team and to stay at the team hotel—benefits that are not against the rules by themselves, but which become violations when they are paid for by the school, which was the case on several occasions that Rose’s brother traveled and lodged with the team. Calipari was subsequently summoned by the NCAA to provide discovery on this matter, although the letter summoning him (PDF) made it clear that he was not “at risk,” with respect to the Rose issue. That letter reached him at the University of Kentucky, and was dated April 27, 2009—approximately one month after multiple sources reported that he was leaving Memphis for Kentucky.

It stretches the limits of credulity to claim that Calipari was unaware of Rose’s eligibility issues. Calipari’s experience at Massachusetts establishes a pattern that these kinds of things take place on his watch. He may very well not have done anything overt in either situation; but it’s patently clear, especially with respect to Rose and Memphis, that he could have done much more to make sure that no rules were broken. They’re sins of omission rather than commission; and if it happens once, you can almost call it a fluke. It’s happened to Calipari twice, though—and he didn’t hang around to defend himself either time. He hit the free agent market, with his gaudy “record” of recruiting superstars and turning formerly lifeless programs (a bit of an exaggeration with Memphis, though if you cancel out all of the NCAA tournament success brought about by rules violations, you basically have a lifeless program) into national title contenders, and landed on his feet at Kentucky, where he has already won a national championship—which has yet to be vacated by the NCAA!

And on top of all that, he runs NBA factories, recruiting kids he knows are only going to stay one or two years before making the jump to the NBA. I don’t know how much that hurts your recruiting, since you’re winning instantly and reloading the very next year; but it sends a terrible message to the kids who are watching all of this on television, and following it on the Facebooks and the Twitters: College is no longer seen as important, or even valid, when you are perceived to have the talent necessary to go right to the NBA after high school. But what happens to the kids who absorb that message, and then bet everything on their jump shot, only to be overlooked by the college scouts or the NBA? What do they have to fall back on if they shoot the moon on the Coach Cal Game Plan and it turns out they don’t have the skeelz? What does John Calipari teach the rest of us when he skips town at the first sign of trouble? Maybe that’s just the way they roll in Graceland, I don’t know. Nobody cared about UMass before John Calipari, and nobody cares about them now. But Kentucky is one of the great programs in college basketball.

As any Indiana fan will tell you, it’s horrible when someone sails into town with the NCAA at his back, and then starts breaking all the same rules in a new place. Part of the problem at Indiana was the legacy of Myles Brand, who abused his position of power as president of Indiana University to unfairly fire head basketball coach Bob Knight, which allowed Brand to shoehorn himself into the presidency of the NCAA; and part of the problem was another former university president, Brand’s successor, Adam Herbert, who, as a minority, probably felt like he had to replace a fired minority coach (Mike Davis) with another minority coach (Kelvin Sampson); but Sampson was running from the NCAA when he departed Oklahoma, and he finished the job Brand had started when he brought down the basketball program at Indiana. It would be terrible for college basketball, to say nothing of the fans and supporters of the University of Kentukcy, if Calipari were given free rein to manage to do in Lexington what Sampson managed to do in Bloomington. Sampson was brought in at Indiana because he had a proven track record of winning—which we later learned was due at least in part to flagrantly breaking NCAA rules. Calipari, with a history of very cleverly avoiding personal direct sanction by the NCAA, was brought to Lexington because he had a proven track record of winning. Indiana came to regret the hiring of Sampson. Hopefully, the same thing will not happen to Kentucky, despite the fact that everything about Calipari’s history suggests otherwise.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Zero Dark Thirty

Documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney wrote a very fine article for Salon that strongly criticizes director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal for the way they depicted torture in Zero Dark Thirty. His argument is extremely persuasive, and now that I have seen it, I am hard pressed to contend that the film does not present a causal link between torture and the success of the operation to kill Osama bin Laden. (I’ve tried to write this several different times since I started this piece, and I’m still not sure it’s right.) Gibney goes on to criticize Bigelow and Boal for presenting the film as quasi-journalistic without making any mention of the overall failure of the use of torture in the so-called “war on terror.” His conclusion is that the film irresponsibly and falsely depicts torture as an effective means of getting information.

And yet he also concedes that “dramatists compressing a complex history into a cinematic narrative...must be granted a degree of artistic license.” He also stipulates, by proxy, that torture played “an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.” His sentence is a little bit awkward, so I want to quote it in full: “But as we know from the Senate and former CIA Director Leon Panetta, who wrote McCain in May 2011, that EITs did not play any more than an incidental role in the discovery of UBL.” Gibney has clearly done his homework, having won a documentary feature Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side, which looked at the very same practice of torture that Bigelow and Boal address in Zero Dark Thirty; and for that reason, I’m hesitant to say that he’s missing the point here. But I sort of feel like he’s missing the point here.

And the reason I think that is because I also think that Zero Dark Thirty very effecitvely conveys just how “incidental” a role the use of torture played in the long process of hunting down Osama bin Laden. Bigelow and Boal probably spend too much of their time on torture—the only real quibble I had with the film was the running time, and that was so minor a quibble as to be completely inconsequential in the end; but if you think about what Maya (Jessica Chastain) and Dan (Jason Clarke) ultimatley glean from the torture inflicted on one particular detainee (the name of a person believed to be a courier for bin Laden) and then consider that one piece of information in the context of how much more work it takes to get from the name of the courier to the compound in Abbottabad, you just about have to acknowledge that even if torture worked—which it patently did not—there was so much more involved in finding bin Laden that any conceivable causal link between the two absolutely evaporates.

Gibney is also not entirely correct when he says that Zero Dark Thirty never acknowledges the failure of torture. It doesn’t spend much time acknowledging that torture failed, and it only does so obliquely, in a scene where a CIA blowhard—effectively standing in for the impotent buffoonery of the entire Bush administration—dresses down his team over the fact that all the time and money spent on stamping out al Qaeda had yielded, to that point, the elimination of only four senior members of the group. Could Bigelow and Boal have spent a little more time on that point, and a little less time on the sometimes graphic depiction of torture? Yes, they probably could have done. The Bush administration could also have spent a little more time acknowledging its many massive mistakes and a little less time pursuing an illegal course of action, “a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” I think that’s an important parallel that has been overlooked in the outpouring of criticism of this film.

There was probably no way to make this film without rubbing someone the wrong way. It’s probably difficult to make any film without rubbing a few people the wrong way, never mind one that deals so directly with a subject that continues to provoke such a visceral reaction in so much of its intended audience. Opening the film (immediately after fading in to the sounds of the recorded telephone calls of 9/11 victims and responders over the brief opening titles) with a scene of torture, perpetrated by just the kind of American you’d think would perpetrate it, if you were given half the chance to describe a stereotype for a police sketch artist, pretty quickly draws the line between what happened to the United States that day and what has happened to the United States since.

Bigelow addresses the depiction of torture in an article for the Los Angeles Times: “Torture was, however, as we all know, employed in the early years of the hunt. That doesn’t mean it was the key to finding Bin Laden. It means it is a part of the story we couldn’t ignore. War, obviously, isn’t pretty, and we were not interested in portraying this military action as free of moral consequences.” With those sentiments in mind, I can barely conceive of the fortitude it must have taken to get up each morning and press on the with the making of this film. Bigelow and Boal did not just press on with the making of any old film, though. They patiently and meticulously crafted a thought-provoking study of the horrors of a war without borders. They also managed to make one of the most exciting action films of all time, and to coax a difficult and brilliant performance out of Jessica Chastain, who might be the finest actress of her generation.

Chastain plays Maya, a covert CIA agent, recruited right out of high school, who has spent the entirety of her adult life hunting Osama bin Laden. She is present during that opening scene of torture, which has Dan attempting to get information from a detainee called Ammar (Reda Kateb). She does not participate in the torture, but she also does not ask Dan to stop the torture. It’s clear by her situation in the scene and the expressions on her face that she is bothered by what she has to witness, but that discomfort does not stop her from questioning Ammar when the time comes. As she stockpiles information over the course of the story, she responds to those who question the fact that she has yet to prove anything by explaining the manner in which patterns of information over long periods of time reveal shades that indicate where someone or something should be. This is how she tracks bin Laden’s personal courier. The discovery of the courier ultimately leads to bin Laden himself.

Chastain delivers this performance with fierce confidence, and with a species of macho bravura that both affirms and subverts the Alpha Male perception that I imagine a lot of people have concerning CIA operatives. Maya kowtows to no one, including the director of the CIA (James Gandolfini, whose character is never named, but bears an eerie resemblance to a badly bloated version of Leon Panetta). Her relationship with fellows operatives Dan and Jessica (Jennifer Ehle) evolves by slow turns as the film progresses. When you realize that Maya and Jessica have become close friends, you start to ask yourself when that happened—and then it occurs to you that their conversations have gotten progressively less tense as their work has dovetailed over the years. The same can be said for Maya’s relationship with Dan. What feels almost like sibling rivarly in the opening torture scene evolves into a situation where the big brother wants to look out for the little sister as much as he can—except that Maya can take care of herself perfectly well, thanks.

Bigelow and Boal move through events in the film with the same slow evolution they use to develop their characters. The pacing is methodical, but the film is so smart that you don’t feel the suspense as it builds. Everyone knows what happens at the end, so the payoff for this film can’t be the reveal. Instead, we get the information on how we got to that reveal—we get the procedural. The trick to extracting suspense from a story with a known ending is to do the very best you can to make the audience understand how close the known ending came to not happening. You take as many steps back as necessary to illustrate just how complex was the web of paths from point A—9/11—to point B—the death of Osama bin Laden. I think that Kathryn Bigelow and her cast and crew have done that. Did they adhere strictly to the truth? Of course not. They never pretended that they were going to, they never claimed that they did, and they could not have done even if they had promised to. This is a narrative film, with actors and a script and an editor. It is a work of fiction, regardless of how much of it was based on actual events. It is a remarkable work of fiction that confronts emotions, asks hard questions, and provokes—yes, provokes—serious thought.

Zero Dark Thirty is a masterpiece.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

First Baby Tooth...Gone!

Jackson has been working his first loose tooth for a couple of months now - and then it finally came out while he was on the bus last week. The rest of these are just randoms from 2012, because regularly updating the ol' photo page just doesn't get done, no matter how much I think that I want it to get done.

500 Festival Parade (May 26, 2012)

500 Festival Parade (May 26, 2012)

At Yogülatte, after the parade (May 26, 2012)

Indianapolis Zoo (May 30, 2012)

Broad Ripple Park (October 12, 2012)

Sunday, February 17, 2013

In a Dog's Brain, a Constant Buzz of Low Level Static

I never thought that I would read a reasoned piece on guns on the opinion page of the right-wing Indianapolis Star, but I found this one a couple of days ago—and it was written by a person who teaches at a Catholic university. It’s almost as though the sky is falling. (To reassure yourself on that score, check the ESPN college basketball scoreboard. Indiana won on Saturday, and Duke lost. All is right with the world.) It’s much more likely to find something progressive and intelligent about guns in the Boston Review. What is doubly interesting about this piece, then, is that it was written by a former gun owner.

I don’t know how to make the right understand how wrong they are about guns. I hope it doesn’t take any more Sandy Hooks. Even puppies learn not to shit on the rug if you rub their nose in it enough times. Dogs are pretty stupid, though.