ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series finally peaks following Simmons’ departure

At some point in the last fifteen years, ESPN, as a brand, became uncool. I described this transition at length here, pegging 2003 as the beginning of the end of the Worldwide Leader’s cool cache. The ongoing creep (some would say, “dash”) toward faceless, nameless on-air talent and lowest-common-denominator content has not infected every corner of the four-letter network’s offerings, and the conventional wisdom was and remains that the weaker a program’s ties to Bristol, Connecticut, the higher its quality. That physical remoteness from the corporate jackboot seemingly allowed things like Bill Simmons’ Los-Angeles-based Grantland and the itinerant College GameDay to flourish.

Simmons also took a leading role in ESPN Films’ 30 for 30 series, a universally praised series of sports documentaries. After Simmons and ESPN parted ways in the spring of 2015, Grantland died, but 30 for 30 lived on. While I’ve enjoyed every 30 for 30 film I’ve caught flipping around on the television, none ever has been appointment viewing.

Until now.

Nearly two years after Simmons got himself kicked out of ESPN, the network will air what undoubtedly will be received as the best 30 for 30 entry ever: “This Was the XFL.” From the press release:

A bold challenge, a fearless experiment and ultimately, a spectacular failure. In 2001, sports entertainment titans Ebersol and McMahon launched the XFL. It was hardly the first time a league had tried to compete with the NFL, but the brash audacity of the bid, combined with the personalities and charisma of Ebersol and McMahon and the marketing behemoths of their respective companies — NBC and WWE — captured headlines and a sense of undeniable anticipation about what was to come.

Bringing together a cast of characters ranging from the boardrooms of General Electric to the practice fields of Las Vegas, “This Was the XFL” is the tale of — yes — all that went wrong, but also, how the XFL ended up influencing the way professional team sports are broadcast today. And at the center of it all – a decades long friendship between one of the most significant television executives in media history and the one-of-a-kind WWE impresario. This film will explore how Ebersol and McMahon brought the XFL to life, and why they had to let it go.

Both of these films (plus exclusive bonus features) will be available for streaming on WatchESPN immediately following their premieres.

I’m not much for fantasy football, but I played fantasy XFL, still love the ideas behind this league, and remain on vigilant watch for the emergence of subsequent examples of its ilk. The XFL improved the NFL, which now is in need of another shakeup. Here’s hoping that the release of this movie, slated for three days prior to the next Super Bowl, will rattle the NFL’s cage.

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Related
Pre/Postmodern football fans rejoice: The SPFL cometh

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The Baseball 88

Today, Banished to the Pen hosted a remembrance of the 1988 baseball season, to which I contributed a review of the movie Bull Durham, which was released that year. The ’88 season was a big one for baseball: lights at Wrigley Field, Kirk Gibson’s famous World Series home run, and Jose Canseco becoming the first player ever to hit forty homers and steal forty bases in the same season.

The full post is available here.

Studio Jam

This one is pretty self-explanatory, if non-compositional in the contextual sense. Somewhat interestingly, though probably unsurprisingly knowing the evolution of the place and its people, or maybe the state of modern music, the Black Keys weren’t super keen on their experience recording Brothers there (it seems the feeling was, to some extent, mutual). It also drives one to wonder to what extent a given studio is in any way important to musicians today. Still, the house band forever will be enshrined in lore, thanks to their neighbors to the Florida, and the music made there is some of the best of all time. In case you’d forgotten:


HT: Steve Winwood

Ken Burns’ Old Mississippi

Ole Miss feels a lot like the most literary team in all of college football, and while I can’t put my finger right on the reason for that, I don’t think it’s just because of Faulkner, although there is that. It’s been more than a year since we all noted what I thought was the final chapter of Ole Miss’ mascot tale, although that story’s had an extended epilogue, which probably isn’t surprising. I think “Mississippi” was the first word I remember learning how to spell.

In our America, of course, all great literary things get the film treatment, and the best of them get the Ken Burns treatment. Arguably proving my above-stated thesis, Ole Miss is no exception.


(HT: SB Nation)

Hit Bull, Win Steak: A meaty review of Bull Durham

I was in Durham earlier this month, and my gracious hosts sent me on my way with a copy of Bull Durham, the 1988 baseball film shot on location and starring Kevin Costner, Susan Sarandon, and Tim Robbins, and featuring William O’Leary, and I’m glad they did.

I don’t watch enough movies to make for a legitimate writer of movie reviews– a sketchy draft writeup on Slap Shot has been gathering e-dust since my first viewing last fall– but I know enough to know an enjoyable movie when I see one, and Bull Durham is that. Keep reading…

Salaaaaam

Nearly two weeks ago, I touched down in South Africa for a 6-week field school (alternately known as a way to do some international research on my graduate institution’s dime). Most of the time thus far has been spent in a tour bus, seeing various parts of Cape Town and the surrounding Cape Flats. Today, however, was different. We pulled up at 7:30 am to a high school in a township notorious for its high incidence of gang violence, dropout, and teen pregnancy. We were there to speak with some students about their thoughts on the school, their community, and what might inspire their peers to stop showing up (which approximately 75% of them will do by the time they reach Grade 12). My final set of interviews was with two 13 year old girls, who happened to still be on campus because they had softball practice. For the next 30 minutes, they told me about their experience of growing up in the surrounding community and at the school. Their stories were heartbreaking, but more importantly, their attitudes were inspiring. They distinguished themselves from their surroundings, aspiring to graduate, enroll in university, and pursue careers (of bank teller/author and fashion designer, respectively). Throughout their narratives, they continuously returned to the roll that softball had in their day-to-day life. For them, it was way more than a sport, but a safe place, a collective of like-minded peers, and a way to be young and have fun, something that is not often acknowledged as a luxury.

Upon reflection, their stories correlated with that told by David Fine’s documentary debut Salaam Dunk. I must admit on the front end that the director was one of my college roommates, so perhaps I’m biased. Now that we’ve got that out of the way, if it comes to your city, you’ve got to see it. The film spotlights the women’s basketball team at the American University of Iraq in Sulaimani and their American coach. While it could very well have documented the strife of growing up a young woman in northern Iraq during a time of national unrest, it instead focuses on the resilience of the young women. The surrounding context is exceptional, but in many ways, the girls’ experience on the team is similar to that of anyone who played (and truly loved) a sport at any time in his or her life. Of course, I blubbered (both with pride and at the story line) at multiple points. However, I walked away feeling great.

If you live in New York City, please go catch this film this weekend at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. It’s just so good. I flew to San Francisco for a showing in March, and it was just phenomenal (if you don’t believe me, ask friend of ALDland, Alice Wheat and various other unaffiliated sources, such as Variety, ESPN, etc.). And while you’re there, give Buddy David a big ole hug for me.

Silent Film Series: Virgil “Fire” Trucks (Detroit, MI 1956)

I’m sort of cheating with the second featured film in ALDLAND’s Silent Film Series, because a) it already is a silent film and b) its selection largely has to do with the music indirectly associated with it. Still, I’m guessing most artists would be willing to cheat a little if it meant avoiding a sophomore slump, so I don’t feel bad at all.

And this short (7:23) movie really is kind of beautiful. It’s amateur footage shot on 8 millimeter film by members of the Capurso family depicting an outing to see the Yankees play the Tigers on a sunny summer afternoon at old Tigers Stadium on August 4, 1956. It opens with scenes of downtown Detroit as the family heads to the ballpark, where the Tigers would win a game that featured home runs by both Mickey Mantle and Al Kaline.

Of greater interest to me is the Tigers’ pitcher that day, Virgil “Fire” Trucks. He’s the great uncle of guitarist Derek Trucks and was no slouch on the mound. From a Peter Gammons profile piece:

Virgil Oliver Trucks was born on April 26, 1917. He won 177 Major League games from 1941 until he retired in 1958. Ted Williams once said he might have been “the hardest throwing right-hander I ever faced.”

He is one of four pitchers who threw two no-nos in a single season and he finished fifth in the American league MVP race in 1953 for the White Sox (he started that season with the Browns). And back when the Tigers won the 1945 World Series, Detroit’s great staff was called “TNT” — Dizzy Trout, (MVP) Hal Newhouser and Trucks were three of the best in the game.

Go back to the beginning. Andalusia of the Alabama-Florida League. 1938. Including the playoffs[, he] struck out 448 batters.

448. That, Sweet Melissa, is the most strikeouts ever recorded in an organized professional baseball season.

And for the full season, he was 25-6, with a 1.25 ERA and two no-hitters.

After a strong 1939 split between Alexandria and Beaumont, in 1940 he pitched for Beaumont in the Texas League and threw another no-hitter, in 1941 threw another no-no for Buffalo in the International League and by the time he made his debut on Sept. 27, 1941, he had four Minor League no-hitters on his resume.

Somewhere along the way, they tried to figure out how hard he threw. “They found an old Army gun,” says Trucks. “It read 105 miles an hour.”

Gammons’ piece is full of stories about Virgil, including how he helped the Tigers win the World Series after taking two years off to join the war effort, how he nearly became the only pitcher ever to throw three no-hitters in one season, how he’d add two more World Series rings to his total, and how he decided, after meeting with Derek– who keeps one of Virgil’s baseball cards on his Gibson– and learning that his great nephew is considered one of the best guitarists who ever lived, that maybe he ought to start listening to the Allman Brothers Band (the 95-year-old former pitcher’s nephew, Butch Trucks, was a founding member of that band, with which Derek now plays).

The younger member of the Capurso family who uploaded this added some generic classical music from the London Metropolitan Orchestra, but I maintain that it’s best experienced silently, the original audio being lost to technology, and the music of Virgil’s descendants yet to be born.

(HT: @DerekAndSusan) 

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Previously
Silent Film Series: Baron Davis (Oakland, CA 2007)

Related
Album review: Tedeschi Trucks Band – Revelator

Silent Film Series: Baron Davis (Oakland, CA 2007)

The writers and readers of this site tend to be employed or otherwise disposed during the day such that watching video clips on full volume usually doesn’t happen. If there’s something I really want to hear, I save it for lunch or the end of the day, and I suspect a lot of people do the same thing. This means that there are a lot of us watching a lot of videos– the general tenor of the internet being what it is– on mute. Conventional wisdom suggests that this practice detracts from our experience of these videos. Conventional wisdom also suggests that you never get involved in a land war in Asia, but is Afghanistan even in Asia and anyway that’s not what we’re talking about because the fact is that conventional wisdom can be wrong about videos and about wars (but not about videos of wars), which is why we’re introducing the ALDLAND Silent Film Series.

The concept is simple: some videos are better without sound. Whether they’re made that way or are seen that way for some variation on the modern reality alluded to above, this addition-by-subtraction effect is very real.

The Series’ inaugural feature comes from Oakland, California in 2007. Yesterday afternoon, Amos Barshad included the clip in his possibly prescient (given the Knicks’ loss in Miami last night) contingency plan for the end of Linsanity. It stars a somewhat (i.e., five-years) younger Baron Davis in his role as point guard for the Golden State Warriors, and it comes in the final minutes of a 20+ point win over the visiting Utah Jazz.

I neither am nor aspire to be Chuck Klosterman: a second-by-second analysis of this video hardly seems necessary. Instead, as you watch it (sans audio!, of course), appreciate the silent cinemagic of every shot of Davis, his teammates, Andrei Kirilenko, the fans, and the referee. Sound can improve these visuals in zero ways.

A Thanksgiving tradition for over 30 years

If there’s one thing upon which all of us can agree, I think it’s The Last Waltz at Thanksgivingtime. The following is from an invitation I’ve sent to friends in years past when I was living elsewhere:

On Thanksgiving, 1976, at Winterland in San Francisco, the Band gave its final concert: The Last Waltz. The group was in top form, playing all of their best songs from their multi-decade lifespan with their best friends and influences there to help them. From early mentors and collaborators like Ronnie Hawkins and Bob Dylan to Canadians Joni Mitchell and Neil Young to bluesmen Muddy Waters and Eric Clapton to songsmiths Neil Diamond and Van Morrison and many more, this was a one-of-a-kind event, captured and beautifully preserved by Martin Scorsese.

A true landmark, both in the worlds of music and cinematography, The Last Waltz has been a part of my Thanksgiving observation for years now, and I would like you to take it in with me. 

Wherever you find yourself this year, the 35th anniversary of the event, grab a copy of the movie, give thanks, wear something nice, and above all else, remember,

Movie review: The Rum Diary

Hot wings do not a dinner make, and, typically, the work of a good author does not a good film make. And yet, last Sunday night provided an experience to the contrary on both counts. Sort of. A dozen wings and double that in Budweiser fluid ounces, alone, will not commend anyone to longevity or short-term comfort, but the film adaptation of Hunter Thompson’s early, long-unpublished novel, The Rum Diary, is a success.

Johnny Depp reprises his role as a Thompson protagonist/stand-in from 1998’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas to portray Paul Kemp, a mainland American journalist and aspiring novelist who lands in Puerto Rico in 1960 looking for some money and, he hopes, his voice as a writer.

Not quite a comedy, not quite a romance, not quite a political drama, not quite a history, The Rum Diary has everything and nothing all at once. I tried reading the book once, in Iceland, but I couldn’t finish it because it didn’t seem to have a plot. I later realized that I hadn’t understood it, but, having borrowed the book the first time around, I never finished reading. It isn’t unlike Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises as an account of what it was like to live in a place and a culture at a certain time, told from a particular perspective of a semi-outsider who largely took an observational posture but also wanted something for himself.

There’s no need to get pretentious about this, though– indeed, that’s pretty much the opposite of the point– even if the author of the underlying work was writing a book about writing that same book. The movie version of The Rum Diary had the Sunday-night audience paying attention, laughing, and enjoying the vistas– scenic and human– and well-crafted dialogue, even if they weren’t too terribly informed about the story’s origin.* Highly recommended.

* As the cameras are pulling back from the puertorriqueño scenery and just before the closing credits roll, the screen shows something like “In memory of Hunter S. Thompson 1937-2005,” to which the young gal behind us asked, “Is that a real person or something?” A good question.