I have previously considered the subject of the common intersections of art and commerce in these parts, and two recent BBC art documentaries I’ve recently seen serve to further contextualize that discussion.
In The World’s Most Expensive Paintings, art critic Alastair Sooke (who also produced an illuminating documentary on British war art recently) presents a countdown show of sorts for the ten paintings that have fetched the highest prices at public auctions in the modern history of the art trade. Though the actual subject material of the program does not quite match its extravagant title (many works of art beyond all conceivable financial evaluation are held by public museums, and the undisclosed sums paid in private art sales are speculated to far outpace the publically-divulged auction prices), Sooke’s journey across the globe to reveal what he can about the art that costs its acquisitors so many millions of dollars is nonetheless an engaging odyssey into the secretive world of elite art collection.
The tone mixes wide-eyed aspirational envy of the mega-rich with mild rebukes of their splashy, ostentatious greed (much of the latter is reserved for bronzed billionaire Vegas developer Steve Wynn, who once owned Pablo Picasso’s La Rêve and boorishly put his elbow through the canvas in the process of selling it). Sooke cannot get near too many of the actual buyers of these hugely costly Van Goghs, Rothkos, Picassos, and Francis Bacons, settling mostly for conversations with their auctioneers, art consultants, and acquaintances as well as meetings with less flush collectors and contemporary art enthusiasts. Sooke is affable and knowledgeable when standing before a painting, pointing out its aesthetic valences and secret features. But he never does get terribly close to probing the exact nature of the relationship between art and money, as he promised. If anything, he demonstrates rather conclusively that art needs money. But why does money need art? Thorstein Veblen’s conspicuous consumption perhaps provides the only answer required to that question.
A more nuanced and informative exploration of these issues comes from Stephen Smith, whose BBC Four series Sex and Sensibility: The Allure of Art Nouveau delves into the defining visual artistic movement of Europe’s Gilded Age at the turn of the 19th Century. Art Nouveau was characterized by many of the defining features of major counter-cultural movements over years in the post-Enlightenment West. Its proponents in Paris, Brussels, Barcelona, England, and Vienna emphasized sexuality and sensuality in opposition to Late Victorian propriety, natural beauty and dedicated hand-craftsmanship in response to urban and technological expansion and increasing mechanization of production processes, personal expression in the place of the conventions of middle-class taste. It owes a considerable debt to Romanticism, directly inspired the Pre-Raphaelites and Art Deco, and its echoes could be felt in 1960s hippie psychedelia and the organic and artisanal pretension of 2000s indie DIY culture.
And yet Art Nouveau was a product of its own time as well; it defined that time, even, and Smith is clever in his exposition of how it did so. The focus on intricate, hand-crafted beauty in its products made them sought-after household decorative objects at the same time as it inflated prices. The very aesthetic philosophy that sought to set Art Nouveau apart from middle-class consumption therefore made it the preferred target of that consumption. Smith – amusing, self-deprecating, and more immune to Sooke’s species of hyperbole and platitudes – comes back to this part of Art Nouveau’s rich story again and again, dedicating a sizable portion of his episode on the movement’s legacy in Britain to toney London department store Liberty’s exploitation and mass-retailing of the work of artisans in the Arts & Crafts vein of William Morris and others. The store is the Urban Outfitters or Apple of its time, raking in considerable profits selling an image of enlightened consumption as much as a specific type of artistically-fashionable product.
Smith’s narrative benefits from the inherent drama of the lives of the movement’s principal figures. Prominent French designer Émile Gallé took an unpopular contemporary political stance against the persecution of Jewish army officer Alfred Dreyfus and lost many of his wealthy patrons in the process. Two of the movement’s shining lights in Britain suffered even more greatly: Oscar Wilde was prosecuted and imprisoned for homosexuality, while his friend and sometimes collaborator Aubrey Beardsley, a revolutionary draftsman and artist, died from tuberculosis before he was 30. Even the blazing successes of the Vienna Secession are darkly underscored by the fracturing of its members’ loose partnership over time.
But this latter group’s ostentatious motto “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” (“To every age its art. To art its freedom”) is a fitting epigraph to Art Nouveau. In seeking to give art its freedom, the practitioners of Art Nouveau gave their age its art, but it was an art of the age: a mere idealistic glaze of edgy Bohemianism applied to the cynical imperatives of industrialized mass-culture consumerism of the striving middle-class and the wealth-amassing elite. It is in this way that Art Nouveau should be most familiar to a modern world characterized by the prevalence of similarly-pitched subcultures, and to an art world as much in the thrall of exorbitant wealth as ever before.
There is little question of how success is generally measured in sports. More than anything else it might be, high-level athletic activity is a business of repetitive accumulation: of goals, points, home runs, touchdowns, awards, championships, stacked on top of one another to make a pile higher than the next. There may be moments of style and wonder along the way, but these are merely the cherries on top of the heaping sundae of amalgamated success. Unlike so many others walks of life, in particular our personal or emotional purviews, the terms of success in professional sports are undeniable and quantifiable. There are clear-cut winners and losers, champions and also-rans, statistical milestones to reach and even firm expectations to be fulfilled (or not). Sporting heroes may sometimes amaze with their acts of physical prowess, but they establish a legacy with accolades and achievements.
But what happens when an athletic star refuses to conform to the expectations of sustained, determined accumulation of success? What if a sports hero of sublime talent decides that following this path laid out for them will not fulfill their hopes and dreams, will not bring them personal or spiritual completeness? Or what if their particular ability is so galactic and outsized that it threatens the ideal of a lengthy athletic career? Do we have room in our considerations of sporting achievement for these kinds of figures, and if we do not, can we make room?
Three of ESPN’s 30 For 30 documentaries focus on stars who raise these questions. All of them are African-American, and all of them took high-profile hiatuses from the game they excelled at smack dab in the middle of their prime, albeit for idiosyncratic reasons. In You Don’t Know Bo, director Michael Bonfiglio examines the briefly blazing phenom Bo Jackson, who was a standout athlete in both the NFL and Major League Baseball before a freak hip injury cut off his astronomical potential. Clips of his exploits (including football runs both bruising and lightning-quick, 500-foot home runs, and ridiculous outfield throws) are interspersed with reminiscences from Jackson himself and those who played with and coached him, as per the standard sports doc M.O.
But where You Don’t Know Bo breaks with the standard assessment of the career of a tremendous talent that is cut short by injury is with its inclusion of the profusion of barely-believable, half-true folk tales that swirl around Jackson. Bonfiglio seems most interested in these stories, enlisting storytellers like Chuck Klosterman and Michael Weinreb to dub Jackson a mythical superhero, a larger-than-life figure whose aura transcended even his not-inconsiderable media and advertising hype.
Anecdotal tall tales pepper the film’s opening, visualized in comic-book drawn animation, lending Jackson’s narrative the contours of heroic folklore: his college baseball coach claims to have seen Jackson leap over a Volkswagen, rumours abound that he once got in trouble for killing either the local minister’s pig or a pack of wild boars by throwing rocks at them, that he could leap a 40-foot ditch or hit a scoreboard with a football. Even his career-shortening injury itself, his incredible momentum while running disconnecting his entire hip bone, fits into this epic framework. The core suggestion of this examination of Bo Jackson’s legend is implicit: championships and scoring records are one thing, but an athlete that astounds us, that seems to be practically super-human, is something special.
Another athlete that astounded sports fans with his feats while also accumulating stats and championships was Michael Jordan, perhaps the greatest basketball player ever. Like Bo Jackson, Jordan dropped out of the sport he dominated at the peak of his powers. Unlike Jackson, Jordan did it of his own accord. Ron Shelton’s Jordan Rides The Bus documents the Chicago Bulls superstar’s decision, after capturing his third consecutive NBA title and losing his father to a roadside murder, to leave basketball for baseball in 1993. Chasing a dream his deceased father had for his son to play baseball in the big leagues, Jordan was an underwhelming ball player for the Chicago White Sox’s AA club for one season before returning to the Bulls to grab three more championships.
Jordan Rides The Bus raises alternate, conspiratiorial motivations for not only his brief sport switch but also his father’s death (gambling, evidently, which the oft-lionized Jordan had an issue with, apparently). But it seems fairly clear that his stated explanation was genuine. Shelton’s film does a better job laying out the flow of events and the effect that a worldwide superstar’s presence had on a minor-league ball team in Birmingham, Alabama than it does interrogating Jordan’s mindset (the man himself does not appear except in archival footage, but does contribute voice-overs that sound like sports-cliche-ridden motivational speeches). But the simultaneous hubris and naivety of Jordan’s choice to swing a bat instead of dunking a ball is still striking. It must have come from a personal place, because otherwise, how does it make any sense at all?
In the company of practical living gods like Bo Jackson and Michael Jordan, former NFL running back Ricky Williams cannot help but look distinctly human, for all of his obvious athletic gifts. Wonderfully, what Sean Pamphilon and Royce Toni’s Run Ricky Run shows Williams to be is very distinctly human, with all of the oddness and inconsistencies that non-idealized humanity confers. Williams, a Heisman Trophy-winning running back for the University of Texas and flegdling professional star for the Miami Dolphins, retired prematurely like Jordan, but to follow a distinctive and much more ambiguous search for meaning and fulfillment, away from sports altogether.
As well known for his substance-abuse policy violations due to marijuana use as for his on-field exploits, the Williams that emerges from Run Ricky Run is a man misunderstood and misrepresented by cynical sports media conceptions that labeled him “troubled”. Employing intimate and revealing footage shot by Pamphilon during Williams’ hiatus from the game, a picture emerges of an open-minded hippie seeker trapped in the herculean body of a sports star. Williams reads philosophy and new-age spiritual literature, practices yoga, massage, and holistic medicine, has relationships (and children) with multiple women, and gradually opens up about and comes to understand his parents’ divorce as well as his own report of sexual abuse by his father that led to it.
Although all of these films provide compelling alternate possibilities to the previously-explicated terms of sports success, Run Ricky Run is both the most surprising and the most fascinating of the three. The possibility that Ricky Williams’ peculiar narrative presents is that essentially harmless personal eccentricity can have a place alongside the wealth, fame, adulation, and victorious glory that are the expected rewards of professional sports stardom. Success need not entirely trump personality, even if that personality rejects the typical demands of that success.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
Catching Hell (Directed by Alex Gibney)
Acclaimed documentarian Alex Gibney’s exploration of a memorable and troubling moment of recent baseball history is most notable not for the questions it answers but for the further questions it poses, namely about the terms and nature of sports fandom.
I’m sure it’s been said (though I can’t be sure of where) that the mass emotional investments in the fortunes of sports teams in modern capitalist society constitute nothing less than a substitution for the similarly intense association once felt for popular religion (and the two belief-system continue to unite in parts of America, in particular the Bible Belt’s mania for high school and college football). The sort of irrational tribal loyalties and inherited ideologies that characterize sports fandom as they once embodied institutionalized faith are nowhere more self-evident than in the orbit of clubs and franchises with a long history of futility, or at least of championshiplessness (new word!). And no franchise in North American sports has experienced a more infamously long run of futility than the Chicago Cubs.
Catching Hell focuses on a recent incident in Cubs futility (which stretches back over a century to 1908, when they last won a World Series title) that left particularly visible scars. In Game 6 of the 2003 National League Championship Series at Wrigley Field in Chicago, the Cubs had a lead over the Florida Marlins and were but a few outs from reaching the World Series (which would have been accomplishment enough for the club, not having been there since 1945). A fly ball into foul territory down the left field line seemed to portent one of those precious outs, and outfielder Moises Alou moved towards a key catch near the stands. As he leapt with his glove upstretched into the liminal no-man’s-land between field of play and fan seating, however, several fans in the crowd reached for the ball, too. One of them made contact, knocking the ball into the seats; Alou stomped in frustration at the missed catch. Boos began.
What happened subsequent to this – an eight-run inning from the Marlins and a victory for them in the NCLS and eventually in the World Series as well – had no direct line of logical causation to a simple missed catch on a foul ball. At the very least, the Cubs’ fall had no more direct line to that play than to a key fielding error or the poor relief pitching that also characterized the comeback rally. But once the Cubs had suffered another painful defeat, all the more excruciating for the cruel proximity to glory, it became clear to the Cub fan consciousness that this moment was where the psychic energy had shifted against the home team and another failure became inevitable.
The mob’s ire turned immediately, before the disastrous inning was even over, at the perceived culprit of their collective shame, or a simple scapegoat for it: Steve Bartman, a mild-mannered fan in a cap, turtleneck and headphones who was judged to have administered the fatal touch. Negative vibes and open threats were directed at Bartman as the Cubs fell further behind and in the days and weeks that followed the defeat, necessitating first his removal from the stadium by security and then his self-sequestering from the media and fan circus that subsequently ensued. Beyond that, the repeatedly televised image of Bartman after the play, alone, self-contained, and headphoned (he was listening to the radio call of the game while watching it) in the midst of an increasingly rabid crowd, when combined with his public silence, seemed to be a provocation to the popular anger. How could he not appear to be feeling the anguish that all Cubs fans were feeling, especially when he was the perceived cause of it? It was too much to bear (bear/Cubs pun not intended, though I now wish it was).
Gibney’s fascination with this incident stems not from a shared devotion to the Cubs, but from an analogous fan trauma. Like so many of America’s progressive artists, Gibney is a Bostonian, and therefore a loyal Red Sox fan whose youth was marked by several irruptions of the legendary Curse of the Bambino, the folkloric assurance of Red Sox futility in the championship arena supposedly tracing back to the club’s trading of baseball’s mythic Father Abraham, Babe Ruth, to the rival New York Yankees in 1920. As this so-called “Curse” was lifted after 86 years and several close calls by not only one but two recent Sox titles, Gibney can afford to be magnanimous in his sympathy for another fanbase’s collective anguish (although he holds them to account for the ugliness of their collective reaction, to be sure).
But he also related the Bartman incident to a similar endlessly-replayed moment in Red Sox lore: a ground ball trickling through Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner’s legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series, which allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run and, like the Marlins, eventually the title. Gibney wonders at why Buckner’s specific error, rather than the chain of mistakes by other Sox players that led up to it, was the focus of wrath, a question that transfers easily to the Bartman situation, too. Buckner himself appears, also wondering at the persistence of the wrath and displaying obvious emotion in recalling it, even though his place in franchise history has been rehabilitated post-championships.
Relying on archival television footage, video from the Cubs game taken by superfan and filmmaker Matt Liston, and interviews with other witnesses, observers, and sports media types (though not with Bartman, who has meticulously defended his privacy since that fateful moment), Gibney gives the incident as detailed and nuanced a treatment as he gives his more serious documentary subjects. But Catching Hell also suggests that there is a certain seriousness to the mentality of the sports fan as well, or at least a core of zeal surrounded by a sleeve of easily-frayed resentments and dire voodoo superstitions. Rationally-minded and/or statistically-rigorous fans balk at the run-of-the-mill fan’s belief in the fairy tales of curses and momentum, but an unswerving belief in the irrational motivates sport fandom as surely as it does any other segment of American society.
As the Bartman incident demonstrates, and as Gibney comes right up to the verge of saying without quite saying it, the demands of irrational beliefs can often push American subcultures into the mentality of the mob (even to the bloodlust of the lynch mob; Bartman did receive death threats, and may not have been physically safe from reprisals had he remained at Wrigley until the game had ended). This unsettling conclusion is what sets Catching Hell (what an apt and chilling title that is for this story) apart as a sports film: it suggests that sports, or rather those who watch and love them, can be dangerous, and it examines a nucleus of illogical and potentially violent negativity that lurks at the heart of even America’s most idyllic and popularly romanticized pastime.
Although they were direct basketball contemporaries, there seems initially to be little that links the starting lineups of the Yugoslavian national team of the late 1980s and early 1990s with the University of Michigan Wolverines of 1991-1993. The one obvious point of intersection is that two of their principle figures (Vlade Divac and Chris Webber) were pro teammates with the Sacramento Kings near the peaks of their respective careers. Furthermore, both teams played a skillful, unselfish brand of basketball and mostly dominated opponents in their respective sub-NBA spheres of international and U.S. college ball.
But for all of their on-court commonality, the cores of these teams, as depicted in the ESPN 30 For 30 documentary films Once Brothers and The Fab Five, came from vastly different circumstances and were sundered (as great teams always are, one day) by vastly different forces. In Once Brothers, director Michael Tolajian allows his camera to follow narrator/guide Divac through memories of his youth in the communist Yugoslavia, his joyful basketball triumphs with the national team and in the NBA, and the sectarian upheavals and personal traumas of the break-up of the Yugoslav state and the bloody internecine wars between its constituent nations which tore great rents in the unity of the team.
Divac, a Serbian, focuses in particular on his broken friendship with the great sharpshooting Croatian Drazen Petrovic. Fond international teammates and close friends and confidants after both joined the NBA, the two men fell out over an unwise but non-politically-intentioned act by Divac, who tossed away a Croatian flag that was brought on the court by a zealous nationalist fan after a major tournament victory for the team. Petrovic, a proud and driven man, resented the slight on his fledgling nation bitterly and never forgave Divac for it, a lack of forgiveness that became permanent when Petrovic died in a car crash in Germany in 1993.
This denial of closure with his departed friend unsettles and haunts Divac, even as he travels to Petrovic’s hometown of Zagreb (where Divac is concerned that he remains persona non grata due to the flag incident of 20 years ago) to speak with his teammate’s family and visit his monumental gravestone. Though Divac claims that old lingering ghosts have been duly scattered by these canned acts of filmed repentance and conciliation, it doesn’t quite seem to ring true. As with the wounded nations of the former Yugoslavia which they once represented, the greatest players of the Yugoslav War generation cannot quite overcome their regret over a painful past.
A more distinctly American sense of regret hangs over The Fab Five, in which director Jason Hehir documents the 1991 recruiting class at the University of Michigan that became a sports and cultural phenomenon on their way to two National Championship game defeats. The regret in this case is the lack of a title, especially in the ignominious manner that it was lost the second time (with the infamous mistaken timeout call). In addition, there is the consideration of the historic taint on their record that came from a booster corruption scandal which voided the school’s wins and accomplishments in those seasons (Hehir begins and ends in the school archives, where the Final Four banner are filed away in a bin, never again to be hung from the rafters). In a very real and official-record sense, the swagger, the image, and the cultural influence of the Fab Five is their remaining legacy, as the others have been wiped out by NCAA sanctions.
Featuring conversations with Jalen Rose (who exec produces), Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson but conspicuously not Fab Five centerpiece Chris Webber, the film displays a keen grasp of precisely what made the team special: they were the unmissable sunburst of edgy, streetwise African-American hip-hop culture into the mainstream sports (and popular) culture of their era. Racial and subcultural issues are paramount in the documentary, from clashes over on-court fashion (the baggy shorts of the Fab Five were not the first to be seen on a college court, but they were the most prominent and shifted the sartorial needle for good and all) to frustrations over the exploitative neo-slavery of American college sports (schools make millions off of players who are not paid a cent of the earnings their on-court exploits drive).
The ghetto-bred exuberance and attitude of these five young men has not faded as they have aged, and in the film, it sparks some of the amusing sound-bites that captured rapt media attention in their prime. Rose, in particular, provides some hilarious chatter, dismissing an off-season tour of Europe (“It ain’t Detroit!”) and revealing the off-colour nickname for conference rivals Ohio State (“Fuck-eyes!”). More controversially, he shared his youthful, chip-on-the-shoulder opinion of the African-American players (particularly Grant Hill) at powerhouse program Duke as being “Uncle Toms”. Without wading into the fraught debate over Rose’s comments, their valence of underclass authenticity as a prerequisite of African-American identity merges with the terms of the Fab Five’s image and cultural significance.
As different as Once Brothers and The Fab Five are in their contexts, then, they both crystallize operative social and cultural concerns in the journeys of sporting heroes. The fall of communism and rise of divisive, destructive ethnic nationalism in the Balkans in one case and the struggle of young African-Americans to establish their unique identities and agency in a system that mistrusts and discourages such expressions in the other, both united in the game of basketball. This game, whose boundaries are among the least hermetic in the sports world, reflects, resists, drives, inspires, and contradicts that which surrounds it and trespasses into it. And, like a knifing dribble penetration move, basketball trespasses into that world in its turn, and these two documentary films examine the varied ways that it does so.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the title to go to the review.
Note: I write regular album, television, and film reviews and occasional features for PopMatters, an online magazine of cultural criticism. I will be contributing several short entries to the Best of 2012 lists for film, DVD and television over the next couple of weeks. I’ll post links to these here at Random Dangling Mystery whenever they are published. Click on the titles to go to the list and each entry.
PopMatters Best Guilty Pleasure TV of 2012 Entries:
A new RandomDanglingMystery project will involve viewing and reviewing as many of ESPN’s 30 For 30 sports documentary films as is humanly possible and/or critically necessary. Check in for future reviews of these films.
9.79* (Directed by Daniel Gordon)
Like most unpleasant pieces of our history, Canadians have generally willed themselves to forget about Ben Johnson. The Jamaican-born 100-metre sprinter, who won the 1987 World Championship and 1988 Olympic Gold Medal in world-record form over heavily-hyped American rival Carl Lewis only to be stripped of both titles and records when he was caught doping after the ’88 race, is perhaps now less vital to the national memory. The gold-medal-and-world-record triumph of another Jamaican-born sprinter running for Canada (Donovan Bailey) over another cocky American (Maurice Greene, who did not even medal in the event) on American soil during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta (a tacky, over-commercialized, poorly-organized spectacle that left bad taste in the mouths of most dedicated Games-watchers) was a tailor-made slice of sporting-world redemption for the nation’s athletic imagination. If Johnson’s glory self-immolated before we could even begin to savour it, then Bailey’s victory was the more durable phoenix that rose from its toxic ashes.
With an American audience on ESPN at least partially being considered by director Daniel Gordon, 9.79* does not dig too deeply into the Canadian reaction to and the enduring legacy of Johnson’s win and subsequent disqualification. A prudent move, considering the junior-partner assumptions of anti-American sentiment that animate attitudes to the event north of the 49th down to this day. But the film does show how Canada first rejoiced in the victory and then pitilessly exposed every unflattering aspect of the cheat job with trademarked self-negating bureaucratic efficiency. Americans, so stereotypically quick to outrage, may not be able to grasp this reaction. When something goes wrong, Canadians don’t form mobs, they form government commissions.
Gordon’s interest in the course of events as revealed by his documentary reflects this procedural completeness. Much of 9.79* is concerned with how the doping happened, how it was detected, and how much more widespread it was among the 100m finalists in Seoul in ’88 than Johnson’s banning and villification made it seem. Appearances by various veterans of the era’s doping labs confirm that much was undetectable, and sometimes what was detected was not made public or did not lead to sanctions. Although nothing firm is ever pinned on anyone but Johnson from the time itself and none of the information coalesces into a pointed finger (the threat of libel suits seem to hang over every word one American tester in particular dares to utter), an image of a milieu of rampant unseen use of performance-enhancing drugs is definitely constructed.
Gordon also interviews every one of the race participants, and masterfully allows each and every one to tell their own story while allowing the film to tell the factual one, too. The facts are that the only race participants who never failed a drug test or admitted to drug use in their careers were eventual bronze medalist Calvin Smith of the U.S. (who seems a bit stung by the result still) and marginal competitor Robson da Silva of Brazil (who is unperturbed and happy just to have been there, but then if you were parasailing in Rio like he is shown doing, you’d be fairly laid back about things too).
This includes default golden boy Carl Lewis, who actually failed a test before the Games, but was allowed to participate by the United States Olympic Committee, who shared the persistent dollar signs in his eyes, no doubt. As it was for the race itself, Lewis and Johnson are the main event of 9.79*, and share the spotlight as uneasily as they did in their athletic primes. The more retired and internally-focused Johnson is inconsistent in tone, showing the camera his basement-banished boxes of medals and laurels in snowy suburban Toronto with a mix of defiant pride and mournful regret. He will as soon justify his doping as he will denounce it, and he does both and does not seem to register the contradiction; everyone else did it, so I had to do it, too, to summarize his every thought on the subject. He’ll also float conspiracy theories of sabotage gladly, namely the allegation that a comrade of Lewis’ from his California track club was mysteriously in the test room when Johnson gave his sample and may have tampered with it. Johnson speaks with the lack of caution of someone with nothing to lose, which he is.
As inconsistent and baldly unreliable as Johnson is, though, Lewis and his protectors are wholly unsympathetic to the point of insufferability. Gordon doesn’t quite play fair, showing clips of Lewis’ brief and unspeakably awful career as a recording artist to render him a ridiculous, self-promoting, wealth-and-famed-obsessed Ugly American figure before the contentious stuff even comes up. But Lewis presents himself in a way that suggests he pretty much is all of those things, and thinks that’s not only fantastic but also his god-given right, just as winning was.
That public opinion has generally gathered around the idea that Lewis was doping as well in the late ’80s (and Johnson was just the convenient sacrificial lamb to keep the croookedness of the sport quiet for a bit longer) has made his grandiose self-defences all the more overblown. His concern for the validity of his legacy in the wake of the BALCO doping scandal that felled U.S. track hero Marion Jones and many others on the national team has sparked not only furious defences but also the sort of groundless allegations that he scoffs at when they come from Johnson, namely his insinuations about lax Jamaican doping controls in the wake of current World’s Fastest Man Usain Bolt’s 2012 Olympic 100m/200m repeats.
What 9.79* achieves more than anything is the full contextualizing of that asterisk after the title. At least until the 30 For 30 series gets around to facing up to the cascade of asterisks that doping in professional baseball has unleashed (and it is yet to scratch that particular itch, despite the next film to be shown being the 50th in the sequence), or until Lance Armstrong’s drug-enhanced cycling achievements are far enough in the cultural rear-view mirror to permit the documentary treatment, this film will have to suffice as the standard-bearer of the ongoing and ever-expanding investigation into doping in big-time sports.
The question that such discussions always raise but never really answer, especially in endemically drug-laced sports like sprinting, cycling, or baseball, is whether accepting that performance-enhancing drugs are going to be used and regulating their application might be a solution. Maybe it isn’t (unless you make absolutely everything legal, the range of potential stimulants and modifiers would only share chemistry’s ever-diminishing limits), but 9.79* makes a wide-ranging if never entirely focused case that much cheating went on unnoticed or unpunished 25 years ago, and the same is likely to be true now. So what if the rules changed so that this cheating wasn’t cheating any longer? That’s a playing field that we perhaps do not wish to envision, and nor does this documentary.
The Amazing Race – Seasons 1 & 21 (CBS; 2001, 2012)
Viewing the most recent and the least recent installments of the veteran CBS reality competition program in succession has proven to be a revealing look into the structural development of a television juggernaut. The season that just concluded, won in a surprise result by upstate New York same-sex goat farming couple Josh Kilmer-Purcell and Brent Ridge after several near-eliminations and zero leg victories before the final and deciding one, represented 20 iterations’ worth of tweaks, adjustments, and refinements to a seemingly endlessly-repeatable formula.
Watching the first worldwide race unfold after extensive experience of fresher editions is a study in contrasts. Host and narrator Phil Keoghan (who looks every one of the ten intervening years younger in Season 1, complete with boyish haircut) simultaneously lays out the rules and developments with what feels like unnecessary detail and also appears much more seldom. He is supplemented considerably less by the informative subtitles adopted in later installments, which constantly update viewers on the current standing of the two-person teams respective to each other, give flight ETAs as they are set, and repeatedly remind us of the competitors’ names and relationship hooks. These changes smooth out informational wrinkles in the show’s fabric in a manner that both trusts audiences to process more important information more quickly and does not trust them to process the proceedings without making them painfully clear. The early legs of Season 1 unfold almost casually, the challenges more vaguely-defined but also a touch more difficult. The most recent season, in comparison, is a well-oiled machine delivered with an almost cold precision that is saturated with intrusive corporate sponsor product-placement (they won a Ford; we get it).
The Amazing Race‘s formula has also been refined in the casting of competitors. The team templates themselves have remained fairly regular: minorities (of the race, physical disability and sexual orientation categories) are well-represented, there’s nearly always male and female friends, parent and child, husband and wife, and requisite older contestants. Even as the personalities have largely retained their compelling qualities, the competition that once thrust relatively ordinary Americans into a whirlwind tour of the culturally-diverse globe has gradually sent out more photogenic pretty people and minor celebrities (especially CBS reality franchise crossovers) on that televised quest. Even as the televised product has generally become quicker, tenser, funnier, more efficient, and more self-aware, the profusion of contestants with public images to protect and to foster has reduced the feeling of panicked spontaneity and interpersonal conflict that the show originally encouraged.
This transformation can be seen most clearly when Season 1′s dwindling number of teams arrives in the chaotic, poverty-stricken social vivacity of India. Accustomed as I had become to the more recent Amazing Race standards of preening aspiring model-actors spewing paternalistic neo-imperialist platitudes about the plight of the poor in the developing world putting their own socioeconomic good fortune into perspective, this initial season’s clear-eyed approach of showing the setting in all of its complex nuances was striking. As the teams found themselves logistically and emotionally unable to navigate this unfamiliar locale without tremendous difficulty, The Amazing Race seemed, briefly, to be more than a hyper-touristic game show with occasionally tiffs thrown in for added tittilation. It felt, if only for fleeting minutes, like it was about the limits of American cultural saturation and about Americans who take that saturation for granted being confronted very directly (even painfully) with said limits. This is a far more challenging Roadblock than any that has been hidden in a yellow envelope, and the show has lost sight of that to its own long-term detriment.
Pregnant in Heels (Bravo; 2011-Present)
Pregnant in Heels might be the clearest demonstration of the abiding madness of the monied elites that current American popular culture has to offer. Worse yet, it shows with distinct disquiet that those same mad elites are breeding. The wise fool at the centre of this circus court is Rosie Pope, a self-styled “maternity concierge” (I think of Sherlock Holmes whenever I hear that employment title: “I’m the only one in the world, I invented the job”) who runs a toney Manhattan fashion and accessories boutique for expectant mothers and consults certain wealthy neurotics on how to overcome their self-absorbed personalities just enough to raise their forthcoming child.
Pope herself is a bit of a ridiculous figure. Her mania for children (she has three of her own) is considerable, and her famously bizarre speech intonations (roughly summarized as those of a Mid-Atlantic Valley Girl moments after accidentally biting her tongue) are endlessly lampoonable. Still, she is an anchor of sanity relative to her clients: recent episodes have included a viciously jealous lap dog assaulting baby stand-ins, a New Jersey couple that suspects their future nursery is haunted, and a South American trophy wife who considers acquiring a black market wet nurse. She does seem to help, but then it hardly takes maternity or psychological expertise to diagnose the disconnected mental malaise of the 1%. Pope even allows herself moments of borderline snark about her kooky clientele, although the safe harbour of melodramatic cliches is ever her final port of call. Despite this, the domestic portrait that Pregnant in Heels provides of New York City’s sheltered rich is sociologically valuable even while it falls firmly under the aegis of disposable trash television.
The Singing Detective (BBC; 1986)
Well-respected British writer and dramatist Dennis Potter’s career highlight wields a pen as sharp as a doctor’s scalpel or a knife in a dark alleyway. The Singing Detective features the future Dumbledore Michael Gambon as a writer of hardboiled detective fiction who suffers from a painful case of psoriasis (as did Potter himself). Philip E. Marlow is confined to a hospital ward full of sad bed-ridden cases, determinedly earnest but helpless doctors, and a pretty nurse (Joanne Whalley) who cover his whole afflicted body with soothing balm (the latter occasioning hilariously encyclopedic mental lists of unarousing things to keep erections at bay).
Gradually drawn out of his medical cage by lessening symptoms and by probing sessions with a Scottish shrink (Bill Patterson), Marlow nonetheless was escaping his condition long before through both memory and fantasy. He has flashbacks to his youth in wartime Gloucestershire as well as plays out scenes from the film-noir world of his fiction, following the titular gumshoe alter ego (also played by Gambon) in investigating the case of a mysterious, menacing bachelor (Patrick Malahide) who is the last person to see a Russian escort alive.
These three narrative frames reflect each other, and meld and trespass freely in the best post-modern tradition. The writing in the detective section is laced with the witty zingers and nocturnal intrigue of the genre, while the helpless pathos of both the hospital scenes and Marlow’s confused childhood is dramatically moving and quirkily funny in equal doses. The entire show is suffused with Freudian psychoanalytic assumptions to the point of being one heaping metaphorical symptom. Although most fiction, whether on the page or on the screen, seeks the implication and identification of its audience, The Singing Detective entertains with a highly singular and entirely personal set of psychological neuroses. For Potter, this series seems to have been the best cure.