Beast For Business – SummerSlam 2014

SummerSlam2014PosterIn just a few days’ time, shrewd businessman and creative genius Vince McMahon’s troupe of fairly compensated independent contractors will put on their second-biggest show of the year.

Originating from its now-annual home, L.A.’s Staples Center, SummerSlam features a complete list of well-promoted matches.  I don’t think I can recall a non-WrestleMania show that included this many matches that had been given thorough, proper build-ups.

Maybe it’s the renewed focus wrought by bad financial news (or the pared-down roster that soon followed that news).  Maybe it’s better integration with the WWE Network that allows for certain characters to flourish.  Maybe it’s a better understanding of how to use the flagship show’s three-plus hours each week.

Whatever the reason, there’s no question that, for the first time in a long time, I can look at each of the eight announced matches on this card and remember compelling specifics about all of them.

Let’s get to the particulars:

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The Decline of the United States of America in One Chart

The New York Times Chronicle sub-site is a wonderful utility that graphs the frequency of words and phrases over the publication’s history.  Users can plug in whatever search terms they wish, and the engine instantly and amazingly checks over a century’s worth of content.

Keeping in mind that there are simply more articles today than there were in, say, 1878, it’s particularly interesting to see how certain concepts and ideas have become more or less prominent over the decades.

With that in mind, here, in one chart, is a visualization of the decline of the United States of America.

CompositeNYTChart

Ok, maybe two charts:

LawsuitNYTChart

 

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RAW in Richmond

Due to a last-minute offer of (excellent) tickets, I was able to catch Monday Night RAW in person at the Richmond Coliseum this week.  Here, in no particular order, are some observations and live impressions that I’ll jot down before loading up the television version from my DVR.

1. First and foremost—the crowd was excellent.  Richmond has been a hotbed for big wrestling shows for decades, and the audience was a great mix of young and old.  There was definitely a “multi-generation” feel.  Most importantly, Richmond crowds strike the perfect balance for wrestling.  The crowds here are very “hot” (loud and enthusiastic), unlike a typical crowd in, say, Phoenix.  However, they also don’t try to make themselves the show, like a crowd in certain major East Coast cities.  Richmond finds that sweet spot: An East Coast intensity with an old-school willingness not to be too-cool-for-school, contrarian dicks.  We cheer for faces and boo heels, here.  We enjoy wrestling unironically.  Imagine that!  (But see also #8 and #9 below)

RAW071414-08B

Absolutely perfect view

2. It’s been almost three years since I last attended a live WWE event.  The operation has been silky-smooth for years, but, incredibly, it’s even more impressive now.  Changes to the ring or set happen instantly as a phalanx of black-clad employees scurry to and fro during commercial breaks or backstage vignettes.  The amount of “moving parts” is staggering, but everyone seems to know exactly where to be and what to be doing at all times.  That’s even true when things don’t go as planned due to, say, an injury.

3. We were in a suite, the best part of which (aside from having our own bathroom) was the incredible sightline.  Even when I’ve had good or great seats in the past, the sightlines haven’t been as clean as Monday night’s.  The view of both the stage and the ring were completely unobstructed.  As a bonus, Roman Reigns entered through the crowd about 25 feet to our left.

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Untimely Movie Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

As the Warner Brothers 50 Film Collection moves into a new decade, the first movie from the 1950s is another story based on a play: Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (which I will refer to simply as Streetcar to signal my credibility to the readers!).

AStreetcarNamedDesirePosterStreetcar (see?!?) directed by Real American Elia Kazan, tells a very “small” story, reflecting its stage roots.  The crux of the plot is that a woman named Stella has a nutty sister (Blanche) who arrives in New Orleans to live with Stella and her abusive husband Stanley.  Blanche’s past is mysterious, and her behavior is odd—she needs frequent praise for her looks, a point her sister drives home more than once.  Blanche also perpetually asks questions about what people think about her.  The eventual revelations about her past are interesting, but not unexpected, given her strange conduct throughout the film.

Story aside, there are problems with the dialogue.  Jeepers, this dialogue.  It’s more music than words, for better and for worse.  The sounds portray the intensity and emotion of the scene, but nobody talks this way.  Not in 2014.  Not in 1951.

The lines sound exactly like what they are: Short, impactful doses of words designed to hold the attention of the couple in the last row of a playhouse.  Viewed with the scrutiny of a close-up on a large screen, they get silly very quickly.

Also note that we’re still in an era of acting that favored broad, melodramatic performances.  The fact that the source material is a stage production only ups that particular ante.  Vivien Leigh, funny and excellent in the 30s epic Gone with the Wind, now seems a little out-of-place in the 1950s, especially acting alongside Marlon Brando.

In fact, seeing Brando and Leigh together is a bit jarring.  It’s almost as if they’re acting in two different movies.  Or, more properly, Leigh is acting in a melodrama from the 1940s, and Brando is delivering something close to a “modern” performance.

Brando is acting.  Leigh is ACTING!

The contrast doesn’t do Leigh any favors, although she won another Best Actress Oscar for her performance.

Karl Malden and Kim Hunter swept the supporting role Oscars as well.  In fact—incredibly—Marlon Brando is the only primary cast member who didn’t win an Oscar for his performance in Streetcar.  Seen from a contemporary perspective, that seems quite odd.  I think it’s also probably surprising for people who only know this movie from the “STELLA!!!” scene to discover that Brando easily has the most subtlety and nuance.

But, again, that’s not entirely Leigh’s fault.  Some of her lines are a volcano of unnatural syllables, particularly strange to hear erupting from the mouth of a past-her-prime Mississippi schoolteacher.  However, there are also moments like (to pick just one) her reaction when Brando gives her the bus ticket back home that illustrate the broad tone of Leigh’s performance.

ACTING!!!

So we noticed.

In some ways, the character Leigh plays here is where we might imagine an older Scarlett O’Hara would wind up at the same age—alone, alcoholic, missing her erstwhile beauty and lost family estate.  The difference is that O’Hara, at bottom, had a resilient, capable spirit.  Blanche is a mess who just gets messier over the course of two hours.

Brando is the major selling point for me.  His is the first performance I’ve seen in this collection that wouldn’t have seemed bizarre 20 years later.  His popularity coupled with his different approach to acting would help usher in a shift toward a more natural, realistic approach to the craft.

This is ultimately a story about two very flawed people (and one who loves and tolerates both of them).  Brando is great.  Leigh’s effort won her an Academy Award, but was the sort of performance whose days as Oscar-winning were numbered.  Hunter and Malden fall somewhere in-between.

Streetcar was rated as one of the 100 best films in movie history by AFI.  One of the 50 best, in fact.  As always, there’s a risk of a disconnect watching it for the first time more than a half-century after its initial release.  However, I don’t think it merits that level of acclaim.

That’s not to say it isn’t a good film.  Of course it is.  But I just can’t get past the unnatural stage dialogue or the antiquated performance of Leigh juxtaposed with Brando’s must-see naturalism.

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Fun with Offensive Trademarks

For no particular reason whatsoever, I thought it might be worthwhile to take some time to poke around the USPTO database.  I wanted to see what potentially “disparaging,” “immoral,” or “scandalous” trademarks and service marks are still live in 2014.

Here’s a very small sampling of what I found.  The marks are listed in no order, and include the good or service for which it was registered:

“Guadalahonky’s” — Salsa and prepared Mexican food items.

“Dago Red” — Apparel.

“Roundeyes” — Automotive lighting.RoundeyesLogo

“Fuck You” — Athletic apparel.

“Asshole Repellent” — Novelty.

“FagOut!” — Apparel items (hats, etc).

“Heeb”Magazine publishing.

“Queer Beer” — Beer.  Obviously.

“Creepy Ass Cracka” — Bumper stickers, apparel.

“Pay Per Jew” — Jewish-themed TV and radio programming and associated apparel.

“Functioning Retard” — Clothing, coffee mugs, bumper stickers.

“White Trash Racin'” — Apparel, especially hats and t-shirts.WhiteTrashRacin

“Fuck the Cool Kids” — Athletic apparel.

“Fag” — Technical lubricating oils and greases.

“JewButt” — Underwear.

“Homo-A-Go-Go” — Entertainment services.

“Retardipedia” — Humor-themed website.

“The Beaners” — Entertainment in the form of TV shows and cartoons.

“Figgas Over Niggas” — Dancing apparel and athletic apparel.

“Trannyshack” — Nightclub and entertainment events.

SmokinJoes

“Jewdoku” — Downloadable game.

“Tardglish” — Humor-themed website.

“Perma-Chink” — Synthetic mortar.

“Kracker Koalition” — Apparel.

Smokin Joes — Cigarettes, ammunition, and various other products.

Plus 250 marks that include “Redneck.”

Personally, I’m happy that all of these marks are still in use.  Are at least some of these objectively offensive?  Absolutely!  But, once the government confers a benefit of some type, it shouldn’t be allowed to withhold that benefit based on “offensiveness.”  In traditional First Amendment terminology, that practice might properly be called impermissible viewpoint discrimination.

Even putting the relevant (and possibly unconstitutional) portion of the Lanham Act entirely aside, I would hate to think that we would prefer to leave it up to the government to tell us what is “too” offensive, especially on an inconsistent or selective basis.

Certainly, we can—and should—collectively decide for ourselves what is too offensive to support.

Right?

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Untimely Movie Review: The Treasure of the Sierra Madre

TreasureOfTheSierraMadrePosterThe last of the three Humphrey Bogart films in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection is The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, from 1948.  This is an older, more grizzled Bogey, partially due to simple aging, and partially due to the role.  Unlike Sam Spade or Rick Blaine, Bogart’s Fred C. Dobbs is a downtrodden mess.

I said that The Maltese Falcon was based on a book, but felt more like a play, and that Casablanca was based on a play, but felt more like a book.  Well, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre was based on a book, but feels more like an episodic television show or serial.

Directed by Falcon‘s John Huston (who has a small part, and whose father Walter co-stars), this movie happens in a series of phases that can almost be separated out into discrete bundles of activity.  I’ll explain that in more detail in a moment, but this is what the episode guide for a television show based on this exact story would look like:

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This is How You Heel

JerichoJacketThree weeks ago, I discussed the looming problem the WWE has in light of its use of heels with face-like qualities.  Summarizing, the WWE has embraced the “smart” reaction to effective heels, essentially turning any heel who gets over into a confusing quasi-face.  This creates storytelling difficulties, as the narrative structure begins to break down when bad guys act like good guys, and good guys are often treated like bad guys by the crowd.

After writing and publishing the article, I happened upon Sam Roberts’ interview with Chris Jericho from last fall.  I hadn’t seen it previously, but Jericho describes the essence of his latter-day heel work at the 16-minute mark.

As you’ll hear in the interview, his total commitment to the role is what stands out: Specifically, his desire for every person in the arena to hate him, his old-school insistence on selling the character at all times, and his refusal to allow WWE to sell new Jericho merchandise during that heel run.

Why?  Because he didn’t want the “smart” fans to wear his shirt or cheer him.

I said last time that I believe The Miz is the solution to this problem at present.  Playing an arrogant, anti-“smart,” Hollywood heel could get him over like no other full-time WWE wrestler is in 2014.  I would love to see him get another run at the top of the card, especially against Daniel Bryan, who represents the opposite of all of those elements.

The Miz can play the kind of heel Jericho discusses in the clip above.[1]  Whether it’s because modern performers are too “scared” to take on that kind of heel heat, or whether guys like Bray Wyatt aren’t established enough and financially secure enough (as Jericho was) to commit to a character who doesn’t want to sell t-shirts, that kind of attitude is sorely missing today.

My philosophy might be summarized as “the faces sell t-shirts, but the heels sell tickets.”  What I mean is that a great character, even in a vacuum, might sell merchandise, but it’s that well-crafted conflict that makes people want to pay to see the next chapter in the story.

A company that has run out of heels will eventually run out of conflict.

________

[1] Make no mistake, though.  The future belongs to someone else.  And his name is Dean.  I don’t state this lightly: Dean Ambrose’s ceiling is “rich man’s Roddy Piper.”  That’s saying a hell of a lot, but I mean it.  The current storyline with Rollins, HHH, Orton, etc, needs to play itself out.  That will probably take several months—meaning that Ambrose needs to stay face for at least that long.  But, when he does turn heel, a feud with John Cena could be a latter-day Hogan / Piper.  And I want to reiterate that I don’t say that lightly.
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Untimely Movie Review: Casablanca

CasablancaPosterThe last of the films in the Warner Bros. 50 Film Collection released before the end of World War II is 1942’s Casablanca.  The Humphrey Bogart / Ingrid Bergman drama followed Mrs. Miniver in winning the Best Picture Oscar.  Both movies are films about World War II that were produced and released during the war.  Compared to its Best Picture predecessor, Casablanca is much more enduring.

The film is in some ways the flipside of The Maltese Falcon, released a year earlier.[1]  Bogart is back, not as the swaggering super-detective Sam Spade, but as Rick, a broken man, if not a reluctant hero.  Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet, both of whom had memorable roles in Falcon, return here to help populate a larger cast that is indicative of the bigger scope of Casablanca.[2]

As indicated by the title, the movie takes place in the Moroccan locale of Casablanca.  Morocco was then controlled by the French (except for a small, Spanish portion on the Mediterranean), but also recall that France had surrendered to the Nazis in 1940.  French Morocco, like France proper, was under the control of a Nazi puppet regime in the late 1941 in which Casablanca is set.

A recurring theme in my reviews of these older films is how some of them have trouble holding up to modern scrutiny.  While Casablanca definitely has bits and pieces that are unmistakable 1940s filmmaking, the pieces that endure do so stunningly.

What impressed me most about Casablanca was how well the dramatic tension persists right up until the final thirty seconds of the film.  That tension flows along several different plot points, from the question of whether Rick will help Laszlo or try to rekindle his love with Ilsa to the issue of whether anyone will even survive at all.

The pacing is terrific.  The supporting cast, from Claude Rains to Dooley Wilson, are excellent.  The story is modern for a 1940s drama in the sense that the main protagonist doesn’t get the happiest possible ending—due to his own sacrifices.

CasablancaThere are times when I say of these films something like, “If you consider yourself a film buff, you have to watch this movie.”  The implication is that you’re watching the movie because of historical significance, not because of actual, intrinsic greatness that still exists today.

Casablanca is not such a film.  Everything about it is worthwhile.  And the little touches—like the “La Marseillaise” scene—can surprise even a modern audience.

This is one of the greatest films ever made.  If you’ve never seen it, watch it.  If you have, watch it again.

____

[1] The Maltese Falcon was actually supposed to have a sequel, but John Huston’s asking price skyrocketed after the success of Falcon, and the delay in getting everyone signed back up for the second installment led directly to many of the principles (Bogart, Greenstreet, Lorre) signing on for Casablanca instead.  A Bogart Falcon sequel obviously never happened.
[2] I said in my review of The Maltese Falcon that it was a claustrophobic movie that felt like a play, but was based on a book.  This is the opposite: A movie that has the sweeping scope of a novel, but was based on a play.  Odd.
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“Case Closed” on “Redskins” Rationale?

On Olbermann last night, host Keith Olbermann delivered a powerful anti-“Redskins” commentary tied both to the team’s ill-advised #RedskinsPride hashtag campaign, as well as a recent discovery that the team’s name was not chosen partially to honor head coach “Lone Star” Dietz.  Olbermann cited the July 6, 1933 edition of the Hartford Courant, which included an AP report on the name change.  The AP quoted Marshall as saying:

So much confusion has been caused by our football team wearing the same name as the Boston National League baseball club, that a change appeared to be absolutely necessary.  The fact that we have in our head coach, Lone Star Dietz, an Indian, together with several Indian players, has not, as may be suspected, inspired me to select the name Redskins.

Olbermann, as is his unfortunate wont, then went on to declare that not only was the team not named to honor Dietz, but that anyone who persists in making the argument that the nickname is intended to honor Native Americans is either stupid or lying.

I should pause here to point out that the myriad, always-too-long articles I’ve written on the topic of the Redskins’ nickname here or elsewhere haven’t mentioned Dietz.  I’ve never seen the Dietz story as particularly important to the arguments I’ve made about the name, which revolve around the etymology of the word, the intent behind its usage, and the context in which the word is used and understood.  I simply don’t believe that the arguments on either side of this issue fail—or succeed—based on the Dietz connection.[1]

Having said that, I absolutely agree with Keith Olbermann that this discovery, contemporaneous with the 1933 name change, is relevant to the Dietz-related point that many others—including the team itself—have made in the past.

So, I did some thinking about the origins of the name change.  Any die-hard Redskins fan knows the relationship to the Braves and Red Sox that Olbermann correctly highlighted.  I’m pretty sure I have a 25-year-old book collecting dust on a shelf somewhere that repeats much the same story.

But was the specific link to the players and coach of the team simply latter-day revisionism?  Was it a story cooked up to garner credibility and deflect criticism once people started to question the nickname at some point a few decades ago?

I decided to do a little research of my own.

I surfed over to a great website to which I subscribe called NewspaperArchive.com.  There, I began to unearth some of the reports on the team’s name change.  I couldn’t find the quote that Olbermann cited, but that’s only because NewspaperArchive doesn’t have a complete set of every newspaper in the country.  The Courant is one of the missing papers.

I did find a lot of newspaper accounts of the change, however.  Most of the reports I saw from July 6–8 were short, like the Courant account.  Many had no quotes at all.  For instance, the Lowell (MA) Sun said the following on page 2 of its July 6, 1933 edition: “BOSTON—George Marshall, owner of the Boston professional football team, changes its name from Braves to Redskins.”  That was also an AP report, but that represents the entirety of this particular version.  The UP account of the story was similar, appearing as part of a brief article on NFL expansion.  That piece also had no quotes.

Salt Lake Tribune - July 6, 1933

Salt Lake Tribune – July 6, 1933

Some of the reports were slightly longer and did have a quote from Marshall.  For example, on page 15 of the July 6, 1933 edition of the Salt Lake Tribune, the paper included what appears to be a nearly identical version of the story to the Courant version, except that the quote ends with “. . . absolutely necessary,” and does not include any of the language regarding Dietz or the players.

More interesting are a couple of reports on the name change that I found from a few days later.

Portsmouth (OH) Times - July 18, 1933

Portsmouth (OH) Times – July 18, 1933

These articles are more fleshed out than the original AP wire story.  The shorter of the two is from the July 18, 1933 issue of the Portsmouth (OH) Times.  There, Marshall attributes the change in part to the confusion with the Braves, as he had when the original, shorter story appeared.  Here, though, the article also says directly that Marshall had stated that the team’s name change was connected specifically to Dietz, as well as to the Native Americans (calling them “six real Indians”) that the team had signed.

Again: This is July, 1933.  Just a matter of days after the date of the Courant quote, Marshall appears to be contradicting himself entirely.

Things get even more intriguing when we look at the Chester (PA) Times.  There, on page 10 of the July 18, 1933 edition, is a lengthy interview with George Preston Marshall himself, conducted by none other than Damon Runyon.[2]

Chester (PA) Times - July 18, 1933

Chester (PA) Times – July 18, 1933

The interview is fascinating on a number of fronts, not the least of which is Marshall’s admittedly self-serving but nonetheless correct prediction that pro football would eventually be wildly popular.  He references massive expansion to the West Coast in the form of a “winter league,” as well as a huge championship event for professional football that would rival the World Series.

Runyon stops Marshall at one point, however, to ask him about the name change.

Marshall repeats the same line about name confusion as he had previously, but he immediately adds, “Besides my coach, Lone Star Deitz [sic], I’ve got half a dozen Indian players signed up, and I’m going to have them wearing Indian war bonnets, and blankets, and everything.”

Now, whatever else one might think of that quote when read with the perspective of someone living in 2014, it seems fairly clear that Marshall himself was tying one of the reasons for the name change directly to his coach, players, and Native Americans generally.

I think the question of whether the July 6 quote was an aberration or the “real” truth is an open one.  It’s possible that the quotes from a few days later were a post-hoc rationale, but the timing of such diametrically-opposed comments seems odd.  Over and above that, there is also some well-founded and (now) well-publicized skepticism about whether Dietz was even an actual Native American at all.

What is undeniable is that Marshall was connecting the name change to Dietz and Native American players before the newly-christened “Redskins” ever took the field.

________

[1] For example, although the team has cited the Dietz story in the past, last Friday’s Bruce Allen letter to Senator Harry Reid laid out several bullet points, none of which refer to or rely on the Dietz rationale.
[2] A PDF of the full Runyon interview with Marshall may be found here.
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“Make sure ‘MOUTH’ is in all-caps”

“Hey, remember Pop Rocks?  Kids like those, right?”

“Well, sir, they’re still around, but they aren’t quite as popular as . . . “

“I loved them when I was a kid!”

“Right, I was going to say they were extremely popular in the 1980s, but, in the last 15-20 years, they haven’t been . . . “

“Kids love them.  Ok, so, why don’t we make giant Pop Rocks?”

“You mean make a bigger version of Pop Rocks?”

“Bingo!  Bigger is better!  And we’ll call them ‘Giant Pop Rocks.'”

“Sir, I’m not sure we have that trademark.”

“Come on.  We’re Kraft!  We have every trademark.”

“I’ll have to research the . . . “

“Pffft.  Watch, I’ll show you.  (*picks up phone*)  Hey, Susie?  Pop Rocks—that’s us, right?  That’s what I thought.  Thank you. (*hangs up*)  It’s us.  Toldya.”

“Well, sir, I’m not sure there’s enough of a demand for Pop Rocks to justify creating a larger version of the same underselling product.”

“No, no, no, I love this idea.  End of discussion.  You might be right about the brand, though.  Let’s piggyback it onto something that sells.  You know, just to make sure it works.  Giant Pop Rocks is happening.  Just accept it.”

“You mean, like, incorporating these large Pop Rocks into an existing property?”

“Exactly!”

“Something like . . . putting the Pop Rocks . . . in Macaroni & Cheese?”

” . . . Are you being serious right now?”

“Uh . . . yes?”

” . . . . . . . Honestly?”

“You don’t like the idea?”

“WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH YOU?  IS THIS WHY WE PAY YOU . . . OK, I DON’T KNOW HOW MUCH WE PAY YOU, BUT, EVEN IF IT’S TEN DOLLARS AN HOUR, IT’S TOO F@#$ING MUCH.  I DON’T CARE THAT YOU HAVE A LITTLE IVY ON YOUR DAMN FANCY-PANTS DIPLOMA—IF YOU EVER TOSS OUT AN IDEA LIKE THAT AGAIN, I’LL TOSS YOU OUT OF THIS COMPANY ON YOUR ASS!”

“I apologize, sir.  What did you have in mind?”

(*laughs maniacally*)

[EIGHT MONTHS LATER]

PoppinPebbles

 

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