For those who have seen “Hoop Dreams”, arguably the best documentary about sports ever made, it should be sufficient motivation to see “Head Games”, a documentary about the link between sports-related concussions and permanent brain damage including early Alzheimer’s, simply by pointing out that they are both the work of director Steve James.
Opening yesterday at the AMC Empire 25 in N.Y. and the Laemmle in Los Angeles, as well as through video on-demand, the film is focused on the crusading work of Chris Nowinski, who played football at Harvard. They say that 9/10ths of the success of any documentary is based on the presence of a compelling personality. That being the case, Nowinski’s presence throughout the film should qualify it for an Academy Award. After graduating Harvard, Nowinski landed a spot on a TV reality show where his macho brawn and Ivy League degree served to make him a villain. After the show ended, he parlayed that into a career as a professional wrestler—a bad guy who taunted the crowds about his superiority. Professional wrestling turns out to be a dangerous sport despite the fact that it is fake. Nowinski explains that a headfirst fall to the mat—or worse to the concrete floor below—that is off by an inch can lead to a serious injury. After experiencing one such fall, he suffered a headache and dizziness that lasted for months. A visit to neurologist Robert Cantu revealed that he had suffered a major concussion.
Eventually Cantu and Nowinski teamed up to form the Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy at the Boston University School of Medicine that has been in the forefront of understanding the impact of sports-related concussions and agitating for reforms, particularly in the NFL. As anybody who follows professional football can attest, there have been major changes. For example, the N.Y. Jets’s star defensive back Darrelle Revis was required to sit out at least one game after receiving what was described as a mild concussion. In the past, the only way a player was kept off the field is if he suffered a blow that would have left him unconscious for a minute or so and transported off the field on a stretcher.
What “Head Games” reveals is that a revolution in sports rather than piecemeal meliorist reforms might be required. For one thing, there is a strong possibility that what can be described as “sub-concussions” can lead to brain damage just as easily. These are the dingers that leave a player woozy for a minute or so but not impaired enough to be sent to the bench. Some medical experts estimate that someone having played football from high school into the NFL might have suffered dozens of such blows throughout their playing time.
The other problem is that NFL type standards, including a physician assigned to look for the evidence of concussions at each and every game, do not apply to amateur sports. Most high schools can hardly afford to keep a team on the field nowadays let alone pay for the presence of a doctor. Furthermore, the risk of concussion does not just apply to male sports. Young women playing soccer risk injury simply by “heading” a ball.
I first wrote about Chris Nowinski back in January of 2010 after seeing him on Brian Gumbel’s HBO Real Sports program. It is worth repeating what I said then:
I also recommend that you take a look at Chris Nowinski’s website (http://www.chrisnowinski.com/). With his Harvard degree, he is not the typical jock. As a professional wrestler, he took time to speak out on young people getting involved with politics, particularly through registering to vote. You might also be aware that professional wrestling not only requires immense physical gifts; it also requires the ability to craft a persona for yourself. Initially Nowinski styled himself as a villainous snob from the Ivy League (not that hard to do!) and even used the ring name Chris Harvard. While it is difficult to figure out whether this was meant to shore up his villainous image in professional wrestling, Nowinski also assumed the role of “race traitor” akin to the hero of “Avatar”, as his wiki page indicates:
On the May 26, 2003 edition of Raw, Christopher Nowinski helped Rodney Mack defeat Bubba Ray Dudley in a “White Boy Challenge” and joined Theodore Long’s group “Thuggin’ And Buggin’ Enterprises”, a group of African Americans who worked a race angle in which they portrayed themselves as being victims of racism and being held down by the “White Man”.
A remarkable character, to say the least. Let’s hope that his six concussions do not eventually rob the world of his talents as spokesmen for the gladiator victims of the bread and circuses in today’s version of the Roman Empire.
“They Call it Myanmar: Lifting the Curtain” opened at Lincoln Center yesterday as well as theaters in Louisville and Santa Fe. Director Robert H. Lieberman’s film is not exactly what I would describe as leading edge politically or cinematically but it is worth seeing since it really does lift the curtain on a country that has been as isolated as North Korea in many ways.
Lieberman’s model seems to be the sort of show that you can see on the Travel Channel, especially Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations”. The format consists of a bemused visitor from the West visiting the boondocks and asking the natives “How come you like to eat raw rats?” Lieberman’s presence throughout the film revolves around two questions: “What is life like for you in Myanmar?” and “Why are you wearing that funny stuff on your face?” The funny stuff turns out to be thanaka, a powder made of ground bark that has a cooling effect on the face and arms.
That being said, Lieberman is a lot more intelligent and interesting than Anthony Bourdain. He came to Myanmar to train young Burmese how to make films rather than to taste raw rats. From the Cornell University website:
Robert H. Lieberman, a Cornell graduate and member of the physics faculty since 1980, directs the LSC Physics Help Center and its staff of 15 course assistants.
A recipient of the John M. and Emily B. Clark Award for Distinguished Teaching, he holds a joint appointment as a Senior Lecturer with the Physics Department and the Center for Learning & Teaching. Since 1990 he has been a Faculty Fellow at Cornell’s Risley Residential College for the Performing Arts.
In addition to his work in science, he is a novelist and film writer/director. His latest novel “The Last Boy” is a story that deals with the subject of Global Warming. His most recent films include the feature comedy “Green Lights” and the documentary “Last Stop Kew Gardens.”
Prior to joining the Physics Department, he was a professor of Engineering at Cornell. He has held two Fulbright Lectureships in film and creative writing. The most recent was in association with the Mowel Film Fund in the Philippines. Prior to that he was at the Academy of Performing Arts and Film in Bratislava. He presently serves as a Senior Specialist with the Fulbright Program.
Despite the concessions made to the Travel Channel prejudices of his ostensible audience, Lieberman does provide useful information on the country including its long history of despotic rule predating the Generals who ruled and ruined the country in the name of socialism. He points out that when Cyclone Nargis hit Myanmar in 2008, the Generals initially prevented outside aid for political reasons despite the fact that the storm would cost the lives of 138,000 of its citizens. Given the secrecy and isolation that typified its rule, Lieberman was taking genuine risks by interviewing its people, who for their own safety remained unidentified throughout the film.
Much of “They Call it Myanmar” consists of interviews with Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s Nelson Mandela. Filmed before the country’s thaw, it does not foreshadow her liberation from house arrest and return to politics.
U Thein Sein, a reformer who has given approval to her party’s re-entry into the electoral arena, currently leads the country. The N.Y. Times has urged the Obama administration to ease sanctions against the country in light of the progress that has been made.
While I can recommend “They Call it Myanmar”, the best film about the country so far remains “Burma Soldier”, a film I reviewed back in May 2011 that appeared originally on HBO and can be still be watched there on-demand. For those appalled by the crimes of Green “socialism” in Libya or Baathist “socialism” in Syria, it is a reminder of how that word can be so obscenely appropriated by those with nothing but a lust for wealth and power as I pointed out in my review:
General Ne Win, who came to a power in a 1962 coup, proposed a “Burmese Way to Socialism” that blended Marxist verbiage with outright nonsense. For example, the film describes his 1988 fiscal measures, taken on the advice of an astrologer. Win devalued the currency according to a formula: any monies divisible by the number nine were now invalid. So devastating were consequences for the poor and the working class that the seeds for today’s pro-democracy movement were implanted. Sometimes it is easy to forget that the main reason the Burmese people want the right to elect their own leaders freely is because that is a way to address economic exploitation, even that which occurs in the name of socialism. As a tarnished symbol of a degraded system, General Ne Win had much in common with Libya’s Qaddafi. Win claimed that his socialist system would mix Marxism and Buddhism, while Qaddafi’s recipe included Islam instead of Buddhism. In either case, you ended up with a despotic system that sparked a wholesale revolt.