Posted in Baseball, Books

The Art of Baseball

It was a beautiful day for baseball.

Several months ago, after Johan Santana pitched his no-hitter, when David Wright was still hitting .365 and the Mets—the Mets!!!—looked like they had an honest-to-God shot at the wildcard, I bought tickets to the last home game of the season. I figured even if they didn’t make the playoffs, it would still be fun to be at Citi Field just to be a fan on a September day.

Then there was the All-Star Game. And then they tanked. At this point there’s no use revisiting the second half of the Mets’ season. Despite their yearly “Eureka! We’ve solved it!,” management still has so many needs to address in the team roster that even the most devoted fans do not expect miracles.

But what never failed to cheer us this season was the performance of R.A. Dickey, he of the wizard knuckleball. I saw his two back-to-back one-hitters, with one batter after another flailing at his pitches as the strike-outs piled up. All the sports writers and announcers seemingly agree—Dickey has basically re-invented the pitch. He’s got a soft knuckleball, a fast knuckleball and one that seems to drop like a stone. The man is 37 years old,  he’s leading the National League in strike-outs as I write this, and if he doesn’t win the Cy Young Award, there’s something seriously wrong with the universe.

Yesterday I was at Citi Field when he went for his 20th win of the season. Though the weatherman predicted rain, the sun was shining when R.A. threw the first pitch. The fans were totally into it—he got an ovation when he walked in from the bullpen, and every time he took the mound, the chant began: “R.A. Dickey [clap, clap, clapclapclap].” It was by no means a masterpiece—the knuckleball didn’t always knuckle in the second, third and fourth innings, and he was let down a couple of times by players out of position (I’m looking at you, Josh Thole and Andres Torres). But Dickey got stronger as the game went on, and by the time he left in the top of the eighth inning, he had 13 strike-outs and a 6-3 lead. The game, which included a phenomenal catch by Pirates right-fielder Travis Snider and a three-run homer by David Wright, ended with Dickey getting that 20th win, the first Met pitcher to do so since Frank Viola in 1990.

What a way to end the season at home.

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What’s the measure of a good book? I’ve always thought it was how long it took you to get into another. If after finishing a novel you find yourself with a discard pile of five or more rejects and you’re still scrounging, I’d say the author of the work you’ve just finished has done his or her job. Such was my experience with Chad Harbach’s “The Art of Fielding.”

Let’s get something out of the way first: yes, it’s about baseball, namely college shortstop Henry Skrimshander. But it’s also about that college’s president, Guert Affenlight, who at the age of 61, finds himself falling in love with a man (a student, no less) for the first time in his life. It’s also about that college president’s daughter, Pella—former prep school drop-out and teen bride—who leaves her four-year marriage and moves in with the father she barely knows. Not to mention two other students—Mike Schwartz, the team’s catcher, talent scout and fierce motivator, and Owen Dunne, the object of the college president’s yearnings, a scholar and third place hitter whom his teammates call “Buddha.”

Most of all, “The Art of Fielding” (which is also the title of a work penned by Henry’s major league idol) is about gifts—talent, love, life and the game of baseball—and how these characters deal with them.  It’s by no means a sunshiny book—there’s an incident that sets many things in motion, not the least of which is Henry’s developing a monumental case of the yips and how it affects those around him. It’s been a while since I’ve read a novel with a set of such engaging characters, and even though there are times you might want to bang their heads together, they stay with you. I highly recommend it.

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Posted in Television

“We All Got Guns,” or Why Cable Delivers

Last Sunday’s episode of “Boardwalk Empire” proved once again that even with an hour devoted almost exclusively to exposition, the quality of what’s available on cable consistently exceeds that of network shows by an incredibly wide margin. The care in character development, the detail presented and most importantly, the manner of storytelling, not only better the broadcast product—they’re easily more absorbing than what you can see at your local multiplex.

In “Spaghetti and Coffee” we catch up with two characters missing from BE’s season premiere: Eli Thompson and Chalky White. Emerging from 16 months in prison for killing Hans Schroeder (Margaret’s first husband) Eli is so diminished that quite honestly I did not recognize him in the promos. Things go from bad to worse when he’s greeted by a welcoming committee of two—Mickey Doyle and his giggle—and he learns what the lost time has done to his family. As equally desirous as Eli to secure a decent future for his children, Chalky finds to his dismay that his eldest daughter romanticizes his rather shady life as far more “interesting” than that promised by the young medical student who’s courting her. Both plots were wonderfully set in motion—Chalky’s sit-down with Maybelle was as intricate as his negotiations with Nucky, and Eli’s redemption when Owen Sleator, Nucky’s new right hand, turned to him, not Mickey, for advice, was a quietly satisfying pay-off (as was Shea Whigham’s marvelous inflection on “What’s your pleasure….Boss?”).

Having suffered from Bobby Cannavale fatigue after this past season of “Nurse Jackie,” I was not looking forward to watching him week after week in “Boardwalk Empire.” However, he brought a welcome tongue-in-cheek presence to this episode. The diner scene was an instant classic—Gyp sitting primly at the counter with his hands folded, asking the waitress to describe spaghetti and meatballs, wincing oh-so-slightly when she offered the dish with butter in place of red sauce, and exchanging pained looks with his henchman over this WASP take on pasta. When Gyp and his pal finally dug into their blue plate specials and he opined “Better than Momma’s, huh?,” I fell off the sofa laughing.  Calling himself “D.L. Collingsworth” and doing the “I got a gun, he got a gun” routine was just icing on the cake.

Sunday can’t come fast enough.

Posted in Brain Bits, Movie Reviews, Observations, Television

Brain Bits on a September Saturday

Are critics a herd of sheep? I sometimes think so, especially after sitting through ten previews and the two hours and 17 minutes it took to unspool “The Master” yesterday.  Granted, Paul Thomas Anderson, the director and writer of this time burner, has made some good films (I really liked “There Will Be Blood” and “Boogie Nights”), but why in the world are film critics tripping all over themselves to bestow such praise on this mess?

Due to incessant drum-beating, I’m sure you’re aware that “The Master” tells the story of Freddie Quell, an alcoholic World War II Navy veteran (Joaquin Phoenix) who crosses paths with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), philosopher and proponent of “the Cause,” which he touts as a new direction for living. The time is 1950; the place of their first meeting is San Francisco, and as a result the critics’ tongues are hanging out because they think Anderson is taking on L. Ron Hubbard and Scientology. If he is, you could have fooled me.

Both the film and its content should have been left in the oven a lot longer. In no particular order: Freddie Quell is an inarticulate drunk whose brain is already fried from the time we see him drinking torpedo juice on V-J day. Neither the writing nor Joaquin Phoenix, who seems to be channeling Montgomery Clift on a really bad day, do anything to make the character sympathetic, so being forced to spend time with him becomes progressively more painful. As far as Lancaster Dodd is concerned, there are more questions than answers. It’s strange to see Dodd accused by a skeptic of fostering a cult, because all he seems to be doing is providing parlor entertainment for a few rich sponsors. His “philosophy” is an amalgam of past lives, hypnosis and whatever else he can pull out of thin air. Why Dodd and his wife (brilliantly played by Amy Adams) are so insistent on keeping Freddie in the fold is a mystery. Is it just a power trip? Is it because he can be a surrogate id for Dodd? We end up not really caring because all we see of Freddie is a dumb animal of a human being with a compulsion to attach himself to others—to Dodd, to the 16 year-old girl he writes to back home during the war.  What makes it worse is that Anderson omits any real threat from the film—he doesn’t show us the consequences of expulsion from Dodd’s inner circle and what that might mean to any follower, let alone Freddie.

“The Master” is frustrating because what could have been a great story remains untold. Plus it’s self-indulgently looonnnggg to no purpose whatsoever—there’s a void where a plot should be, there’s zero character development and the lack of insight is astonishing.  The 1950’s setting is wasted, the actors behave anachronistically (Dodd’s daughter shouts “Good job!” to Freddie) and the whole thing winds up as one hot mess. Do yourself a favor and give this one a pass.

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It’s been an incredibly busy week at Betty’s Brownies. First my post, “‘Boardwalk’ Walking” was Freshly Pressed, which brought a slew of new readers to my site. Many, many thanks to all who have taken the time to read, comment and/or follow my blog. I’m doing my best to check out all of your blogs, too, and slowly but surely I’m making the rounds. All I can say is that you’re extremely talented, and I’m enjoying the wide range of interests that each of you write about.

Yesterday I learned to my surprise and delight that Elizabeth and Liz, who writes one wickedly good “Mad Men” blog, nominated me for the “One Lovely Blog Award.”  Now as I understand it, this comes with rules and obligations, which I’m more than happy to comply with (I know, I know—spoken like a true attorney). So here goes:

1. Shout-out to the blogger who nominated your blog.

Mille grazie, Liz!

2. Share 7 things about yo bad self.

Well, OK:

1) I cry at movies, TV shows, operas, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”—I well up at the drop of a hat. When I saw “Porgy and Bess” at the Met, I literally had to bite my knuckles at the end to keep from sobbing.

2) My all-time favorite novel is “The Great Gatsby.”

3) My career ambition in high school was to become chief music critic of the New York Times. Where did I go wrong?!?

4) The most beautiful sky I ever experienced was at night at the foot of Mt. Kilamanjaro, when I saw the Southern Cross for the first time in my life.

5) I always dream in color.

6) If I had a time machine, I’d like to spend a day at the 1939 New York World’s Fair.

7) I’m a New Jersey chauvinist and proud of it!

3. Nominate 15 of the baddest bloggers in the game for the same lovely award.

This is a bit unfair because I haven’t had a chance yet to visit the blog of everyone who’s spent time reading mine. So far, though, I’m really enjoying:

1) Jump for Joy which is my daily smile.

2) Lonnie Dawkins: Making pictures–People, places things: wonderful work, and those waffles look luscious!

3) Quite Novel: a terrific readers’ blog.

4) Polentical: Progressive politics and regressive entertainment: a light touch is all.

5) Lizzie Borden: Warps and Wefts:  everything and more about that gal from Fall River.

6) Writer Talk: because I frequently write in my jammies, too.

So if nominated, all you need to do to earn your One Lovely Blog Award is:

  1. Thank the person who nominated you.
  2. Tell the whole wide world 7 things about yourself.
  3. Nominate 15 bloggers you feel have one of the best, most wonderful blogs on the entire interwebs.
Posted in Television

Boardwalk Empire: Resolution

The season openers of returning shows often deflate the spirit. There’s always a lot of hype, and rebuilding momentum is tricky. This is especially so when there’s been a major game change, such as  the elimination of a leading character. So I had my fingers crossed when “Boardwalk Empire” aired its third season opener on Sunday. I saw, I mulled it over, I rolled it around in my brain a bit.

I’m here to report that “Boardwalk Empire” is definitely back.

What a brew we’ve got going now. Nucky has a new antagonist in Gyp Rossetti, who, after beating a poor schlub to death with a tire iron, steals his cute wire-haired terrier and later manages to insult every gangster attendee at Nucky’s basement pow-wow (I loved when he called Nucky “a breadstick in a bow tie.” Very descriptive). Gyp is pure id, but at least he’s an equal opportunity ethnic slurrer, even in the face of Arnold Rothstein’s put-down smirk (Michael Stuhlbarg, will you marry me?). What a set of conflicting impulses—at least he gave the pooch to Margaret for the kids, because God knows what he would have done with it otherwise.

Nucky and Margaret. Verrrry interrresting, as Arte Johnson used to say. I wasn’t at all surprised he has a new mistress, but it seems he and Margaret aren’t even living under the same roof anymore, at least not full-time, since he appears to have moved back into the Ritz-Carlton. And Lillian “Billie” Kent, the new gal in town, is going to be fun to watch. She’s got that great flapper look, and she knows which end is up—she’s no Lucy Danziger. By the way, I loved the “Old King Tut” number that she and Eddie Cantor performed at the New Year’s Eve party (choreography by Broadway veteran Patricia Burch). Tut-mania was definitely in full swing after the 1922 discovery of his tomb, and would be influencing pop culture well into the next decade.

The plots this episode managed to set spinning are absolutely tantalizing. I’m so glad we’re seeing Dion O’Bannion taking on Al Capone, and even looking to become Van Alden’s boss. Talk about a sales career doomed to failure: how would you feel if you saw Nelson’s kisser on your doorstep? Shudder. Nucky will soon have problems on a number of fronts in addition to Gyp Rossetti, what with his Washington connection, Harry Daugherty, about to go down for Teapot Dome, and his top money-maker, Manny Horvitz, wiped out by an avenging Richard Harrow. I can’t see Nucky putting Mickey Doyle in charge of his booze business—maybe Chalky White or even Eli?

And lest we forget: Gillian and Richard. Now there’s a combination guaranteed not to end well. Granted, her high-class bordello, in the Commodore’s old mansion no less, would need a bouncer, but this arrangement raises more questions than it provides answers. The business is evidently owned in Jimmy’s name since that’s how she’s signing checks, but does she honestly think he’s still alive, or is this just a fiction to help her run things? At least she’s paid for Richard’s new mask—no more doggy teeth marks from his suicidal visit to the woods—but we’re already aware that the price may be too high. Despite her not-so-veiled threat, he’s not going to forget Angela and you wonder how much Jimmy filled him in about life with Momma. The ending will rival grand opera, I’m sure.

Once again, the show-runners got all the little things right: the crystal set Chez Thompson, the heroics of fictional aviatrix Carrie Duncan, the New Year’s Eve return of the same little people who wanted more pay to work as leprechauns at the St. Paddy’s gala in Season 1. The continuity is excellent: Angela’s haunting portrait, shown by Richard to Tommy, is the same one she was hanging when she asked him to pose for her in Season 2. And every sighting of George Remus, he of the third-person reference, makes me giggle like mad.

I was not disappointed in the slightest.

Posted in Television

“Boardwalk” Walking

This is a big week for “Boardwalk Empire”–its second season just appeared on Blu-Ray/DVD, and this Sunday will see the premiere of its third season on HBO. I’m curious as to the direction the show will take at this point, after the murder of one of its leading characters. Jimmy Darmody was no hero, but we saw much of the “Boardwalk” world through his eyes. He’s not easily replaced.

When my Season 2 set arrived from Amazon, I immediately cued up the most notorious episode the show has aired to date: “Under God’s Power She Flourishes,” when all is revealed—and then some—about Gillian and Jimmy’s relationship. What a heartbreak this is, from the very beginning when we hear Angela’s “Jimmy, I’ve got to leave,” as if in a dream. And then to see Jimmy as a teen-ager, before his service in World War I, before all the killing we’d already seen him commit. If you’d like to know what a fine work “Boardwalk Empire” really is, watch this episode again, this time with the excellent commentary of among others, Gretchen Mol (who for the record was as icked out as the rest of us by Gillian’s behavior). Then go back and watch Season 1 from start to finish, and you’ll find that the show’s creators were amazingly consistent in character development with respect to Jimmy, Gillian and Angela. I suspect they had “Under God’s Power She Flourishes” in mind from the inception of the show, but waited until just the right time to pull that rabbit out of the hat.

Watching Season 1 again is seeing Jimmy lose his humanity, bit by bit, over the course of time. He’s genuinely contrite—he even has tears in his eyes—when he apologizes to Nucky about the booze robbery in the woods gone wrong that left five Rothstein accomplices dead.  After he flees to Chicago and sees his favorite prostitute have her face cut up by a rival gang member, he starts his slide. For the remainder of Season 1, Thug Jimmy and Compassionate Jimmy alternate. He beats the boardwalk photographer, Dittrich, unmercifully while Angela and Tommy look on in terror, yet he takes Angela back after her abortive attempt to run away with Mary Dittrich. Throughout this season and the next, we’re constantly reminded of what the war did to Jimmy, and when we ultimately learn the full extent of the damage his mother caused, it’s no surprise to see him welcome death at Nucky’s hands.

After Season 1, “Boardwalk Empire” lost a good deal of its social scope—no more WCTU, suffragettes, the original Ponzi scheme, incubator babies or those Margaret Sanger pamphlets on birth control. Season 2 saw Jimmy’s murder and the loss of an intriguingly complex character whom we could alternately sympathize with and be repulsed by. These are important subtractions from a show that can easily become just a Jazz Age version of “The Sopranos.” “Boardwalk Empire” needs to go back to what made it so intriguing in its first season—the character development against a strong social and political backdrop. The good news is Chalky White is still on the scene, hopefully along with more discussion of the significant African-American presence in Atlantic City. I’d like to see more politics, especially since the new season skips ahead in time to 1923, when the Teapot Dome Scandal breaks and Nucky’s friends in Washington are about to go down. Don’t get me wrong—I could watch Michael Stuhlbarg as Arnold Rothstein outsmart everyone for hours at a time—but I’d like to see more of Atlantic City in its hey day. In other words, more Eddie Cantor, fewer blood baths.

I’ve got my fingers crossed for Sunday’s premiere. I hope I’m not disappointed.

Posted in Brain Bits, Cats, Movie Reviews, Music

Brain Bits on Back-to-School Day

It’s that time of year again—the school bus armada has hit the road, proud parents are taking photos of their kids at bus stops, new backpacks are on parade, and the silence is golden for those of us who work at home, at least between the hours of 9:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m. It’s an odd, sort of in-between time: the calendar says September, but the weather is still late August. In fact, today we’re expecting a typical hazy, hot and humid afternoon, well into the 80’s. But the signs are there—the days are shorter, the mornings are cooler and apples are beginning to evict peaches from my local farm stand, though my favorite Macouns won’t be appearing until the end of the month. There’s nothing like the transition into autumn, as fall foliage, the World Series and Halloween are just around the corner. Pure heaven.

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One of the funniest videos around, “Henri 2, Paw de Deux,” just won first prize at the Internet Cat Video Film Festival. Now, you may think pet videos are idiotic and/or cats are for crazy people (watch it, buster!), but this is one clever little gem that amuses on so many levels. The bad French accent, the world-weary intonation of the narrator, the maudlin piano track, the existential subtitles and most of all, the expressions of Henri—utter perfection. I’m hoping we see more of Monsieur Le Tuxedo in the future, along with “l’idiot blanc.” Well done, Will Braden, even if Henri has dubbed you “the thieving filmmaker” on his Facebook page.

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Do you think you have a good musical ear? If so, I’ve got a great skull buster for you—it’s been known to humble even professional musicians, at least those who haven’t played the piece or cheated by sneaking a peek at the score. Without further ado, I’m talking about the instrumentation of Maurice Ravel’s “Bolero,” that absolute marvel of orchestral color.

The game goes like this: grab a piece of paper and a pen (or your iPad or whatever), cue up any recording of “Bolero” and list the instrument or instruments you hear every time the theme is repeated, in sequence. It’s harder than you think, even during the first part of the piece when one solo follows another—the sound alone may not always be indicative of what is being played. There’s also a trick situation of sorts, what I call a “sneak-in.” One instrument begins the theme, which is finished by another, entering unobtrusively to finish the phrase because the notes are below the range of the original soloist. And when Ravel begins to combine instruments, the layers of sound make it even more challenging—there’s one combination I never get, no matter how many times I try. The best hint I can give you is to remember that timbre can be changed by external means. Which unfortunately may confuse you even more. To see how accurate your list is, check out the solution here .

Unfortunately I can’t find a decent “Bolero” recording on Youtube that isn’t a video, which would of course give the game away. What I did find, though, is even better—a clip from the movie “Bolero,” that 1934 cheese-fest starring George Raft and Carole Lombard, which appeared on the scene long before Bo Derek’s “10,” and Torvill and Dean. I haven’t seen the full movie in years, but if I remember correctly, they’re a dance team that split when he went off to fight in World War I. He’s gassed during combat and is presumed dead, she marries someone else (Lord Whoever), and they meet again to dance once more. Only now he has a bum ticker, so this turns into his dance of death, complete with pounding drums:

Sigh. They just don’t make ’em like that anymore.