Friday, August 22, 2014

It's always someone else's fault

I'm going to do a horrible thing to my fellow Michigan fans. I'm going to bring up The Horror. Not because the Rematch That Only an Idiot Would Schedule is a week away, but because of this article on The Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™ was kind enough to offer another litany of excuses about the expected sparse attendance at next week's soiree and, per usual, blame everyone and everything but the most obvious factors (i.e. those connected most closely to him.)

"The biggest shift was in the student section. There was a big decline in level of interest, and we've seen historically there's a lot of correlation between success the previous year, strength of schedule and level of excitement. And television does such a great job covering games that younger people are more comfortable getting content in digital fashion on a screen."

Yeah! Those damned kids these days! No responsibility. No tradition. No willingness to get kicked in the face and come back for more! I mean, really, Dave. It couldn't be because you've treated them like ATMs and are charging them the highest student ticket prices in the conference (the nation?) for a declining product and an awful home schedule, could it? No!

"But it's a one-year transitional situation. I don't like it any more than anyone does. It was not my idea to play at Michigan State two years in a row."
No, it wasn't. But it sure as shit was your idea to schedule Appalachian Fucking State. I mean, it probably seemed like a lark to you, didn't it, Dave? You'd roll in here, pick your genius successor to RR and, coming off the undoubted conference title and Rose Bowl win three years later, we'd exorcise the demons of debacles past.


No one really wanted to revisit that debacle except App. St. fans and MSU fans who still count that as their greatest sporting memory from their years at State. I can go out on a limb here and speculate that almost no Michigan fans wanted to be seeing the greatest upset in the history of the game every day on BTN for the next week. (I know that ESPN likes to claim that the Stanford upset over USC (JBC!) was somehow bigger because it was on their network and the spread was bigger, but there's only one team in college football history that has gone from a top 5 ranking in the polls to out of them in a single week and, uh, that's Michigan. Because they lost. To Appalachian State.)

"Combine that with what he expects will be a great year with young talent and you'll see a bigger response from the student section next year. At that point, he said, they want to make sure those tickets are available to them.

That, of course, puts pressure on Brady Hoke and this year's team to win at a high level."

Uh-huh. You see, I was at that game in 2007. I picked up a couple tickets for free because, well, there were a lot of them available, just like this year. No one wanted to see a game against App. St. then, when Michigan was coming off an 11-2 season with one of the most dominant defenses of recent memory (albeit with a season-ending duo of losses to both OSU (again) and USC in the Rose Bowl (again.)) Michigan was ranked in the top 5 with seniors aplenty, but there were gaps throughout the crowd from the opening kick to the miserable ending. So, as long as you're insisting that people's TVs are what's keeping them from attending games and not the ridiculous prices ($65 face for App. St. this week), you're likely to keep being mystified and blaming everyone else 3 or 4 years down the road, too.

"I've been able to get to a couple practices, and I can tell you the pace and the tone and tenor are different than what I've seen in the past. Everybody is extremely focused, understand this is a real important season we have ahead. There's a lot of disappointment people remember from last year, and we want to fix it. The best way is to achieve great things. I'm excited about the season and can't wait to get it started."

I've been to a practice, too, and I can say that it looked pretty much like every other practice I've seen over the past 40 years. Everybody spouts the same bullshit in between seasons that didn't end "successfully". They're always going to be "more aggressive", "more focused", and "more intense". The problem here is that they're also "more expensive" and the first game is against an opponent that most Michigan fans would like to forget about and which the rest of the football world simply deems forgettable. And no one scheduled them but you.

"I don't go into any season with any coach laying out standards by pulling a record out of the air. Too many things can happen over the course of the season in any one sport that create variables. We can't predict the future. My expectation is like anybody else's. We're going to play like Michigan plays football. We have a lot of great talent coming back on defense, a fun and exciting defense to watch, and it will be really interesting to see the work Doug Nussmeier is doing with the quarterback and offense, how we can clean up some things that led to last year's disappointment … we just want to see continuous improvement."

Funny, because what you're saying is indicative of why people aren't buying tickets this year. So, you don't have a guideline for Coach Dante's ("He's not even supposed to be here today!") success, but it sure is important to be more successful because, otherwise, people will gladly stay home and watch... their... TVs? Hey, if the team really is bad and/or the opponent really is unappealing, what makes you think that people are going to bother to watch the game on TV? "Continuous improvement"? Yeah, that's be great. Is that just within this season with the awful schedule or is that a brand-new philosophy that you coined right there in front of Balas, because looking back at the last three seasons under your hire, I see 11-2, 8-5, 7-6. Something doesn't seem right about those numbers...

"I like the recruiting pipelines, the quality of student athlete Brady and staff bring in to program. I like all the things I hear from players about growing, and believe the program is going in the right direction despite the second half disappointment. That' spilled milk. What we're focusing on is the future."

Dave Brandon, Creating the Future™.

Oh, and don't forget that part of the scheduling problem is that stadia might be used for other events.

Anybody getting married? Head to the App. St. game and be reminded 7 or 8 times where you can hold it...

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

My sympathy equates to zero

A short article appeared in the Newspaper of Record today about the changes coming in the college athletics (mostly football) landscape as a result of both the O'Bannon ruling and the NCAA's change that gives the top 5 conferences (mostly football) more leeway to decide how they want to conduct business. As with many Times articles, the reaction to anything new or different is viewed through a prism of general distaste and trepidation for anything that might disturb The Way Things Have Been. The paper doesn't have the nickname "The Gray Lady" for nothing.

My reaction to the article is simple: Yeah, life is rough makin' millions, isn't it?

You want to pay your coach $1.4 million and another 3/4 of a million in bonuses? Pay your players for the money they generate that enables you to do that. You want an athletic center that costs $6.7 million? Pay the players that are spending more time there than they would at a full-time job, in addition to their schoolwork. You want to play with the big kids while a reporter says that your "relative isolation in California's vast Central Valley" gives you a big fanbase? Pay the players that attract that fanbase.

It's just like major companies bitching about raising the minimum wage. You say it's not worth it to do business in the area anymore? Fine. Seeya. I'm quite certain that a smaller, local business will gladly step into the shoes you left and do quite well for itself because you didn't feel like your employees were worth a living wage. The examples of that are prevalent.

If all of this is an extended whine about how you won't be able to attract the best players because of the costs involved, I'm afraid you'll have to remind me of the last time Fresno St. attracted the best players. Oh, right. That would be never. Also, there's only so much room on the rosters of Stanford, USC, and UCLA, so anyone that wants to play big-time ball that doesn't make those rosters will probably still come to Fresno St., providing that you're willing to do those things that the Times is currently bitching about on your behalf: like stipends so they can travel home or their families can travel to see them play, or health insurance post-college for injuries they incur while making you that money, or access to people who can represent their best economic interests, etc. You know, all of that stuff that means treating them like any other person in any normal economy who's trying to extract value from their talents and skills.

The galling thing is that people like (now former) FSU athletic director, Thomas Boeh, even refer to what they do as an "industry" and then somehow gloss over the fact that the workforce of that "industry" is about one step above indentured servitude (they get room and board and a degree that's worth less and less every day and are denied mobility and any access to the real value of their abilities, from their employer or anyone else.) But if you bring this topic up to most NCAA or university officials, they'll insist that it's about "education". So, which is it?

So, no, I have no sympathy for FSU's desire to keep up with the USCs and UCLAs of the world. The only reason that Fresno St. is even in the conversation is because of the millions that institutions like ESPN have been willing to throw at the school to show its students risking their bodies on the field for money that they won't see a cardinal red nickel of. Until now. It's a brave, new world out there, filled with rights and moneymaking opportunities that other workers claimed a long time ago. Feel free to start crying me a river anytime, Mr. Boeh. It may be the only way you can build a new aquatic center if you still want to pay your football coach more than most Americans will earn in 30 years...

Friday, August 1, 2014

Lost in the cosmos

So I saw Guardians of the Galaxy last night and was fairly underwhelmed by it. Critics are raving (92% on RT), Charlie Jane has suggested that it’s spiritually redeeming on i09, and everyone that I went with (a group of 8 other people) basically loved it. I feel like I’m missing something essential here but I’m not quite sure what it is.

The movie is intended to be a comedy, even with the darker overtones of the backstory in the Marvel Cinematic Universe™. The main character, Starlord, is pursuing an orb (MacGuffin) that also happens to be one of the Infinity Gems in the long lead-in to the Thanos saga (we’ve seen two of the others in the form of the Tesseract (typically known in the comics as the Cosmic Cube, which was wasn’t an Infinity gem) from Thor and The Avengers and the Aether from Thor: The Dark World.) In the course of his efforts, a small group of criminals, misfits, and outsiders ends up banding together to essentially save the galaxy; hence, the ‘Guardians’ title, which ends up being more appropriate in this context than the original team could ever aspire to.

The original team was created in 1969 by Arnold Drake and Gene Colan and was part of the surge in sci-fi topics surrounding the success of the Moon landings and the release of 2001: A Space Odyssey. It was a pretty straightforward story of Earthlings and Earth-colonials banding together against an evil reptilian race known as the Badoon. They appeared off and on over the decades until the early 90s, when Jim Valentino helmed a regular series for 62 issues. The membership has changed over the years to more closely resemble the group from the film but, last I knew, when I flipped through a couple issues at Vault of Midnight a few years ago, Dan Abnett was still playing them pretty straight. Yes, even with the talking raccoon wielding the big gun.

This film doesn’t do that. It’s clearly meant to be sort of slapstick, especially when one notices that the best and funniest lines come from Rocket (the raccoon), voiced by Bradley Cooper, who is constantly disgusted or bemused by the “stupid humans” all around him. In fact, the best part about the film was the dialogue, as the story was completely linear and loaded down with the usual tropes of intro-crisis-resolution in clearly delineated acts, the love interest, the heroes winning through with not a scratch on them, etc. Combine that with the fact that the characters were pretty shallow and the acting ranged from bad to adequate and it’s really hard for me to recommend the film to anyone. From my perspective, it’s the poorest offering by Marvel Studios in the modern (post-2000) era, largely because it’s a couple explosions away from being a Michael Bay film that most critics would rightly savage. It’s a lot of flashing lights with a few characters that I’m familiar with, which makes it something I’m fine with sitting through rather than walking out of, but that's about the best thing I can say.

And, yet, everyone else loves it.

Now, you could assume based on how well you know me, that I’m just not a fan of the absurd or chaotic and this kind of action comedy simply doesn’t play to me… and you couldn’t be more wrong. Before we went to the theater, several of us were sitting in a local restaurant, drinking and cackling hysterically about old Venture Bros. episodes. That show, along with AquaTeen Hunger Force and Archer, are some of the greatest cartoons ever made and they’re all in the same vein as Guardians. The one essential difference may be somewhat subtle: Venture Bros. is designed to be a parody of well-worn sci-fi/adventure tropes, specifically Jonny Quest. Archer is similarly a spoof of Bond/Bourne stories and ATHF is just a trip into the strange, but still loaded down with cultural cues from the geek world (like the Mooninites.)

The difference, of course, is that I go into those cartoons expecting the absurd. I’m entertained when things go awry for the characters in the weirdest possible manner. I didn’t go into Guardians with that mindset and, even though it was apparent by the trailers that this was going to be more of a frolic than a fight, I still wasn’t sold. The easy contrast is with The Avengers from 2012, which had all the makings of a “serious” superhero drama, and the story of which was equally shallow in relative terms. But I loved that film both because it was non-stop action and because it was done so well. They highlighted the “heroes meet for the first time and beat the crap out of each other” trope and you could tell it was being presented as a trope because people expected it. In other words, the audience was kind of in on the joke. Do people really expect the paint-by-numbers plot of Guardians? Are they disappointed when it doesn’t happen? If Gamora had never come close to kissing Peter Quill, would there have been howls of outrage that there was no “love interest” in the film, even though that demeaning role for women should have been completely annulled by the fact that the screenplay was clearly written to present Gamora as vastly more dangerous and capable than the lead male, Starlord?(Putting aside the notion that women should be presented as more than just "interests" of the male leads to begin with...)

Granted, sometimes you play to the capabilities of your actors. Comparing Guardians to Avengers once again, it’s obvious that there’s far more ability in a cast of Robert Downey, Jr., Tom Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Evans, Chris Helmsworth, Scarlett Johansson, and Jeremy Renner, among others. Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Lee Pace, and the voice of Bradley Cooper just can’t quite keep up when it comes to watching people do interesting things on a screen. That stuff matters to me when I’m watching a film and one can argue that the personal talent and gravitas of someone like Downey keeps the one page plot of Avengers moving along, whereas Pratt doesn’t quite have the cachet to do the same thing for Guardians. Strong actors can work with weaker material and make it into something worthwhile. Not-so-strong actors often can't.

But, again, here I am attempting to make my case in technical terms when everyone else seems to “get it”, without question. I’m pretty far removed from the superhero days, as I haven’t regularly read anything of that sort other than Astro City (which is only barely a “superhero” comic) since the early 90s. Part of why I gave up on most of it was because they weren’t showing me anything new. When I could read a story in 1993 that instantly recalled something I’d read in 1978 because it was essentially the same plot, I start getting bored or I feel like I’ve passed the point where that stuff will ever be interesting and they’re just pandering to the new, younger audience which clearly doesn’t include me. By the same token, I’m still willing to watch most of what Marvel produces on the screen because it’s kind of dredging up that excitement and hope for exactly what I’m seeing from 20 and 30 years ago. I always wanted to see Iron Man on film and the first one was a great film; not just a great superhero film, but a great film, period. The ones that followed were not so much, but I’m still willing to see most of those classic characters in the theater because of what I’d read as a kid and an adult. I didn’t read about Rocket Raccoon 20 years ago (even though he first appeared in the 70s.) Is that the disconnect? I have a hard time believing that just being more familiar with the characters would have convinced me that the plot wasn’t complete boilerplate and Zoe Saldana could act her way out of a paper bag (even though I enjoyed her performance as Uhura in the first Star Trek reboot; again, it's possible that it was just the shallowness of the characters that was the main impediment.)

I guess there is something to be said for simply kicking back and "enjoying the ride" and I'm fine with doing that if the story intrigues me at all, but this one simply didn't. So, what am I missing? What is it that the vast majority of both public and critics seem to see in this movie that I simply don't get? This is far from the first time this has happened (see: Forrest Gump and Titanic), but it's the first I can recall where I was as baffled (I know precisely why I think those latter two sucked, but that's another post.)