(Hat tip to Ken Burns documentary that started this evening on PBS.)
April 12, 2016
April 8, 2016
“Havana Motor Club” is a vastly entertaining documentary about the underground drag racing scene in Cuba that is also about as informative a take on the social and economic reforms being pushed by Raul Castro as you can find anywhere. It opened at the Village East theater in NY today and is by far the best documentary I have seen thus far in 2016. (Also available on Amazon and ITunes.)
In 1959 the triumphant Cuban revolution declared that since automobile racing was decadent, it must be abolished along with prostitution, gambling and other vices associated with the Batista dictatorship. Even before the dictator was toppled, the rebels struck a blow against car racing by kidnapping and holding for ransom Juan Fangio, the Argentinian who was the greatest racer in the world and regarded by some as the greatest ever. When I was at Bard College, I was part of a circle that was heavily into racing and as such worshipped Juan Fangio. I remember the night in 1961 when we showed Juan Fangio racing films in the school gym where we burned Castrol motor oil, a British brand that was favored by professional racers. The distinctly pungent scent of the burning Castrol gave the film showing authenticity.
Fangio was in Cuba to compete in the 1958 Cuban Gran Prix. Because of the kidnapping, another driver substituted for him at the last minute. During the race a Cuban competitor skidded off the track and plowed into a crowd, killing 10 and injuring 40—an event that is seen in “Havana Motor Club”. So Fidel Castro had two reasons to ban auto racing. It was a plaything of the rich as well as dangerous. As for Fangio, he issued a statement after being released: “It was one more adventure. If what the rebels did was in a good cause, then I, as an Argentine, accept it.”
The film begins with a look at the racing scene in Cuba when director Bent-Jorgen Perlmutt arrived with his crew. There were no Ferraris, but merely the antique cars that dot Havana’s streets today but with an important difference. The engines were souped up in order to compete in illegal drag races on the Cuban back roads. In a drag race, two cars compete against each other with the goal of reaching the finish line first. In the USA drag racing is a highly popular sport in which speeds of over 300 mph can be reached under 5 seconds routinely down a quarter-mile track. In Cuba, it is doubtful that the fastest cars can reach speeds of more than 140 mph. Despite that, watching Cubans race a ‘55 Chevy or a ‘62 Ford can provide ten times more excitement than an American drag race, especially when you understand the challenges that faced them.
Not only was the sport illegal, it was difficult to get parts such as a supercharger that is essential for racing. One of the drivers featured in the film has a friend in Miami who comes to Cuba frequently to help his Porsche compete. It is not explained how a Cuban could have gotten his hands on a Porsche but we can assume that his friend had something to do with it. The film focuses on the competition between the Porsche that is equipped with an oversized Chevy engine and a highly modified 1955 Chevy that belongs to a garage-owner nicknamed “El Tito” and is driven by his son.
The ingenuity some drivers show in procuring parts is awe-inspiring. When a boat that was being used to smuggle people into Florida breaks apart near the beach in Havana, a scuba diver goes beneath to salvage the engine that is then used to soup up a ’51 Ford, one called the “Black Widow”. It is not hard to imagine that once the barriers to such items are lifted, the Cuban economy has the possibility of soaring to new heights. Maybe those possibilities have finally persuaded Jose Madera, the owner of the Black Widow, to finally remain in Cuba after 5 unsuccessful attempts to reach Florida by raft.
One racer, who competes with a ’56 Ford, is a perfect symbol of the Cuban revolution today. He resents the government’s refusal to lift the ban on drag racing but appreciates the benefits that socialism has brought, including the free medical care that allowed him to receive treatment for cancer that not only left him alive but capable of doing what he loved most—racing.
In the course of the film, the government lifts the ban on drag racing as part of the reforms being spearheaded by Raul Castro. Just before a big race is scheduled, it is suspended because the barricades necessary for crowd control (they remember the 1958 disaster) are being used for the Pope’s visit. When racers become discouraged, one remains hopeful. He says that the government will see its way to seeing the benefits of a sporting event that can go against the grain of capitalism that he admits is calling the shots everywhere in the world today. Cuba will take an institution that serves capitalism and show how it can be transformed into benefiting the people.
The film concludes with an official race sanctioned by the government that pits the Porsche against El Tito’s Chevy. I won’t tell you which car wins.
Despite his name, director Bent-Jurgen Perlmutt is a Brooklynite who became interested in Cuba as a college student. He enrolled in a study program there in the spring of 2000 just before the Elian Gonzalez custody battle took place. His take on that confrontation will give you a good understanding of how he was able to see Cuba in such a balanced fashion:
This incident piqued my interest even more in this “axis-of-evil” nation and its contentious relationship with the United States. In order to learn more about Cuba/U.S. relations from a Cuban perspective, I started taking research trips to Cuba on my own. This led me to develop several different film projects over the years, all focusing on how Americans live and survive in a country that (since recently) has been officially off-limits to most of them. HAVANA MOTOR CLUB is the culmination of all my work in Cuba over the years, and I intend it to shed light on the conflicting sides of the changes happening in Cuba today.
With Havana in a kind of timewarp, its streets looking like the year 1958 preserved in amber, there are obvious reasons why many people would enjoy returning to a less complicated time. We learn that as part of the reforms, the Cuban drag racers are now permitted to take tourists around town for a fee. If that’s the kind of capitalism that is overtaking Cuba today, I for one would be amenable to it especially since I was just another 13-year-old in 1958 with a passion for the same kinds of cars.
On a Friday night in the late 1950s after the movie let out in South Fallsburgh in upstate NY, we stood on the sidewalk in front of the Rialto Theater and took in the same kind of illegal drag racing you see in “Havana Motor Club”. The cars would not exactly compete with each other since it was a two-lane road heading out of town but they would line up in front of the traffic light and rev their engines until the light turned green. Watching a ’57 Chevy or Ford tearing up the street was a way to get the testosterone flowing.
My car racing circle at Bard included a student named Paul Gommi who was the typical Bardian of that time, which is to say an atypical American youth. Paul used to compete in a drag races in a class that was designated for modified sports cars like MG’s or Triumphs, popular at the time for people on a budget. Reading the fine print in the regulations, Paul discovered that it would be possible for him to compete with a 1932 Ford Phaeton that he had equipped with a bored and stroked English Ford engine. Over the years he has developed versions of this combination that have earned him accolades. This is a recent example as featured in a Hot Rod Network magazine article:
His latest creation is this original American ’32 Ford DeLuxe V-8 Phaeton (only 974 produced). He set about improving its performance exactly like he would have in 1955, using all pre-’55 parts, materials, machinery, tools, and even methods.
According to Paul, “A hot rod is all about the engine. Modifying the engine is the greatest improvement you can make in performance.” He chose a ’37 Ford 221ci 21-stud Flathead engine. For performance, he took a ’49 S.Co.T. supercharger and adapted the 21 studder by designing and making all the pulleys, drive, and modifying the manifold with the help of his friend Tom Taros.
Paul was an art major whose 12 feet tall paintings of drag racers lined the walls of the dining commons in 1965, done to fulfill the Senior Project required of all Bardians for graduation. Paul told us that he was done with art at that point. It was ready to move on to full-time racing and car-building as a profession.
In 1989 Paul’s drag racing career came to an end as his car spun off the track and resulted in a serious accident that nearly cost his life.
All I can say is that when the film shows officials warning the crowds at Cuba’s first drag racing race to keep a safe distance from the track, they had ample reasons to stick to their guns. Unless the people stood back, the race would be suspended. They surely understood the dangers of a car hurdling toward a crowd at over 100 miles per hour can pose. The top man representing the Cuban government in this emerging new sport is 72 years old and had vivid memories of the 1958 bloodbath. Whatever flaws the Cuban government has, neglect of the safety and health of its citizens is not one of them.
October 24, 2014
The other day I saw a couple of films at the Sony screening room that were being released through Sony Picture Classics, an autonomous division catering to the “art-house” market. Both were very good.
“Red Army” is a documentary about the legendary Russian hockey team of the pre-Perestroika era that reflected the USSR at its best and worst. It consists mainly of interviews with Viacheslav “Slava” Fetisov, arguably one of the greatest hockey players of the past half-century as well as an extremely witty and insightful interviewee as deft before the camera as he was with a hockey stick.
Director Gabe Polsky was using the fate of Russia hockey as a symbol of Communism’s contradictions and how they were unsuccessfully resolved in the favor of capitalism. Clearly Polsky has learned from Werner Herzog, having served as his producer on the 2009 narrative film “The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans”. The two men obviously have the same off-kilter view of the world based on this new film for which Werner Herzog returned the favor, serving as co-producer. Like Herzog, Polsky includes some elements that guarantee that the audience will understand that something is being filmed, in his case showing some of his assistants setting up gear and including Fetisov’s admonitions to stop filming since he has to take a phone call. For documentaries, it is the equivalent of breaking through the “fourth wall”.
The film will appeal to people who are still trying to figure out what happened to the Soviet Union and the nature of Putin’s Russia today, as well as hockey fans. In fact the film, which opens on November 14 at the Empire 25 Theater in NY, will have a nationwide rollout in January that will be pitched to sports fans. It has been many years since I watched hockey but followed the NY Rangers in the early 70s when it was led by Rod Gilbert, a speedy forward who turned up as a fellow resident of my high-rise on the Upper East Side.
The film begins with Fetisov reflecting on the state of Soviet Russia when he was a 9-year-old boy trying out for the Russian Army youth team. He tells Polsky that 25 million of his countrymen were killed and that most of the country was destroyed. (Stock footage depicts the horror.) When the country began rebuilding, the new apartment buildings were barely sufficient. It was normal for 3 families to share a 400 square foot apartment. Despite that, Fetisov said that he was happy. There seemed to be enough food to eat, even if you had to stand on line. Of course, once markets were introduced the lines disappeared but hunger became widespread.
Fetisov was a protégé of Anatoli Tarasov, the coach of the Red Army hockey team and the man widely considered the father of Russian hockey. Fetisov joined the team in 1976 at the age of 19, playing defense and learning the skill of passing, something Tarasov saw as fundamental to the game. For Tarasov, hockey as a kind of chess game in which sharing the puck was fundamental.
Indeed, when he was demonstrating to his players how to move forward on the ice, he often illustrated with chess pieces. He was also convinced that ballet exercises could make his players more nimble on the ice, as the film demonstrates from archival footage. By the time that Fetisov began playing on the Red Army team, Tarasov had acquired a huge beer belly. Watching him demonstrating some steps to his team is like watching the hippopotamuses dancing in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.
Despite losing to an inferior American hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics, a loss that inspired the chauvinistic chant “USA, USA” that has tainted every game since including table tennis, the Red Army team rolled over every professional hockey team that they faced over the years. Tarasov’s goal-sharing methods were superior to the individualistic style of the West. Although the film is far too subtle and skeptical about socialism for that matter to point out that the collectivist culture might have something to do with that, you can’t help drawing such a conclusion.
After Perestroika, it became possible for Russian hockey players to turn professional in the West. Fetisov and other Red Army superstars took high-paying jobs but were not shown to their best advantage since the teams were all based on the individualist model.
It was only when the Detroit Red Wings recruited Fetisov and a cadre of ex-Red Army players that they were able to cash in, winning the Stanley Cub in 1997 and 1998.
I can’t recommend this film highly enough. It is a very sharp analysis of the Communist experience by a director who not only studied at Yale but also was on their hockey team. As the son of Russian immigrant parents, he has just the right background for drawing all the human drama out of the Red Army story. His statement in the press notes indicates the outlook that was clear to me but one that he did not want to beat over the audience’s head:
When I was at Yale, I studied politics and history and learned about the unusual role sport played in the Soviet Union. The Red Army team was designed as an instrument of propaganda to prove the superiority of the Soviet system. The country’s investment in the team’s success was massive. The demanding lifestyle and oppressive circumstances under which the players trained were a reflection of broader Soviet society. It became clear to me that the Red Army’s style of play, too, was significantly informed by the country’s ideology. Much like Communism, there was little emphasis on the individual. Those who became heroes earned as much money as teachers. Priority was placed on serving your teammates and your country, and expressing individuality or questioning authority was forbidden.
“Wild Tales” opens on February 8th. It is an Argentine narrative film directed by Damián Szifron that he described in the following terms:
I frequently think of Western capitalist society as a sort of transparent cage that reduces our sensitivity and distorts our bonds with others. Wild Tales presents a group of individuals who live within this cage without being aware of its existence. But at that point where most of us would repress – or get depressed – these people shift into gear.
Although I loved the film, I don’t think it had much to do with “Western capitalist society”. Basically it is a dark comedy about people going to extreme lengths to destroy each other in the fashion of classic Warner Brothers cartoons but without any hero like Bugs Bunny to cheer for. Instead it is like watching Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd trying to blow each other’s brains out with shotguns.
The film consists of six chapters, each one set up as elegantly as an O. Henry short story and an ending that serves as poetic justice for the miscreant characters. In “Road to Hell”, road rage turns into an elemental battle for survival pitting an Audi-driving yuppie against a hulking rural bumpkin who refuses to allow his wreck of car to be passed on a mountainous road. Not long after the yuppie passes him by, making sure to curse him out as he passes, he gets a flat tire next to a bridge over a mountain stream. When the bumpkin catches up to him, all hell breaks loose, including him taking a dump on the Audi’s hood. As the violence escalates, you will not be able to keep your eyes off the action. It is akin to not being able to avert your eyes from a highway accident except one that is far more entertaining.
I will only add that the final chapter, titled “Till Death to Us Part”, is about a Jewish wedding party that will remind you of the great Michael Douglas-Kathleen Turner vehicle “War of the Roses” with bride drawing almost all the blood. It is obvious to me that the guests are Jews even though this is not a point made specifically. Since the director (and screenwriter) has a last name that is a dead giveaway for his Jewish origins, this is a conclusion I feel safe drawing.
Both films are worth putting down on your calendar.
October 13, 2014
For the past few months, there has been a steady barrage of news reports on the moral failings of football players with a tendency to put the blame on those in positions of responsibility both in the professional and amateur realms. But as you might expect, there has been an utter failure to put football into a broader social and political context, something I hope to do in this essay.
In early September, Baltimore Raven running back Ray Rice knocked out his wife and then dragged her unconscious body from an elevator in an Atlantic City hotel:
Roger Goodell, the CEO of the National Football League, then suspended Rice for two games—a decision that led to widespread disgust with both Rice and himself. Goodell has to walk a tightrope in such cases and other cases involving NFL accountability, such as the widespread incidence of brain damage in veteran players. He has to convince the media and the fans that he is for the integrity of the sport while making sure that the cash keeps flowing into the owners’ pockets. Ultimately he is responsible to them and not to society.
Ironically this balancing act was not much different than the one carried out by his father Charles Goodell, a Republican Senator who understood that NYers would not vote for someone too far to the right.
Not long after the Ray Rice incident broke the news, another scandal involving a NFL running back took place. Adrian Peterson, a Minnesota Vikings superstar, was arrested for beating his four-year-old son with a branch he tore from a tree. Why, you ask? Apparently the kid pushed his brother while he was playing a video game. TMZ broke this story, just as it did when it published the Ray Rice video. Here’s the police photo of the child’s whipping marks.
Ray Rice was a star football player at Rutgers. This school was in the news a couple of years ago for the bullying behavior of its basketball coach who routinely called his players “faggots”, “motherfuckers”, etc. when he wasn’t throwing the ball at their head for mistakes made during practice. Apparently the football team had the same sort of culture. David Cohen, the defensive coordinator, was accused of bullying by defensive back Jevon Tyree who told the Daily News that Cohen called him a “pussy” and threatened to head-butt him.
I don’t know if there was much of a bullying problem at the University of Oklahoma but Adrian Peterson’s alma mater was host to a kind of Hells Angel clubhouse under coach Barry Switzer in the late 80s. In January 1989 cornerback Jerry Parks shot offensive lineman Zarak Peters in the chest during a drinking bout, only missing his heart by a couple of inches. When the players weren’t trying to kill each other, they were out terrorizing women. One week after the shooting sophomore running back Glen Bell, sophomore offensive tackle Nigel Clay and junior tight end Bernard Hall gang raped a woman on campus. Afterwards Switzer said on local television, “You can’t speak in general terms and say that these players are out of control. That’s totally ridiculous.”
This kind of behavior is fairly typical for the powerhouse football teams like the U. of Oklahoma and Florida State that got profiled in a long investigative piece that appeared in the NY Times on October 11th. Florida State first became part of the national dialogue on football criminality when its superstar quarterback Jameis Winston got kid gloves treatment by the local cops, their campus colleagues and the administration after a female student charged him with rape.
The Times article describes a widespread pattern of thuggish behavior sanctioned by the cops, who were major fans of the football team and benefited from part-time jobs at the arena, as well as malign neglect from the administration:
The cops received a 911 call in January:
“You just need to get someone out here right away because it is really bad,” the caller said, adding that the man was “punching” the mother and “grabbing the little baby around the arm.”
But when the cops discovered that the man was a member of the Seminole football team (a name that dishonors the indigenous peoples just as much as the Redskins), they decided the charge of domestic violence was “unfounded”.
In June the cops got another call. Jesus (Bobo) Wilson had stolen another student’s motor scooter that supposedly he had permission to ride but whose last name he did not know. The cop decided not to arrest him because “he cooperated, showed no signs of guilt and provided a plausible story that needs to be investigated.” A report surfaced today that cops are likely to kill a Black youth 21 times more frequently than a white. I guess the one way to avoid a bullet or an arrest is to get recruited to the Seminoles.
The team has a favorite form of recreation to relieve the stress that goes along with drills on the field and big-time games with other powerhouse teams. Players arm themselves with bb guns and ride around campus shooting at windows or students for target practice. When I was 11 years old or so I got shot in the leg with a bb gun. It won’t kill you but it hurts like hell. Also, you don’t want to get shot in the eye even if it amuses a jock.
The article also reported on how Jameis Winston is holding up to the rape charge:
Most recently, university officials suspended Mr. Winston for one game after he stood in a public place on campus and, playing off a running Internet gag, shouted a crude reference to a sex act. In a news conference afterward, his coach, Jimbo Fisher, said, “Our hope and belief is Jameis will learn from this and use better judgment and language and decision-making.”
A search of his public Instagram page would have turned up a similar display. Amid photos of himself with his coach, the comedian Will Ferrell and the former N.F.L. quarterback Archie Manning, Mr. Winston posted a video clip in February in which he and a teammate, mimicking a viral music video, jokingly sang a line from the song “On the Floor” by the rapper IceJJFish, which celebrates men not taking “no” for an answer from women:
“She said she wants to take it slow, I’m not that type of guy I’ll letcha know, when I see that red light all I know is go.”
If the NFL is at the top of the food chain and the college is in the middle, then high school is where the minnows can be found. In a scandal that has New Jersey and the northeast doing some soul-searching, seven members of the Sayreville high school football team were arrested for sexual assault as NJ.com reported:
It came without warning.
It would start with a howling noise from a senior football player at Sayreville War Memorial High School, and then the locker room lights were abruptly shut off.
In the darkness, a freshman football player would be pinned to the locker room floor, his arms and feet held down by multiple upperclassmen. Then, the victim would be lifted to his feet while a finger was forced into his rectum. Sometimes, the same finger was then shoved into the freshman player’s mouth.
Sayreville is one of the state’s football elites, sending players to Rutgers and other Division One colleges on a fairly regular basis. It is 67 percent white and a home to many working class ethnics who love their football. Commentators have asked, “Where were the authorities” when all this was going on. I strongly suspect that the coach knew about it and might have even encouraged it as a way of “toughening” up the players. Isn’t this in line with what happened to Miami Dolphin tackle Jonathan Martin? Richie Incognito might not have stuck his finger up his ass but he degraded him in other ways like calling him “my nigger” and warning him that he was going to go to his house and rape his sister.
In fact this pattern of abuse between players, between coaches and their players, and the players and innocent bystanders walking to class, is absolutely fundamental. This is a sport based on aggression. It is no accident that every Super Bowl is a Nuremberg rally for the American military.
If we ever have a socialist revolution in the USA, the first thing that should happen after the nationalization of the banks and the commanding heights of industry is the abolition of football, both professional and amateur.
A couple of months ago, Steve Almond’s “Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto” was published. It includes a chapter “All Games Aspire to the Condition of War”—that should give you an idea of where he is coming from. I am not sure if I will have time to read Almond’s book but would if I did based on an article that Almond wrote for the Village Voice a while back, one of the few worth reading in this putrid newsweekly.
The irony, of course, is that sports — and football, in particular — is no longer simply a form of entertainment. It has become something closer to a national religion, a form of devotion that shapes the emotional lives of millions of men and women and unites us as no other cultural activity can.
It is my own view, as a fan, that football weds the essential American virtues (courage, strength, perseverance, sacrifice) to our darker national impulses (conformity, militarism, competitiveness, regenerative violence). It is a brilliantly engineered athletic drama that offers us narrative complexity and primal aggression.
At the same time, football has become the nation’s most prominent growth industry. Commissioner Goodell — a man paid nearly $30 million in 2011 — has made no secret of his financial ambitions. The NFL reported revenues of about $10 billion last year. Goodell’s stated goal for the league is to generate $25 billion annually by 2027, which would put the NFL in the company of global behemoths such as Nike and McDonald’s. College football has followed the same eye-popping trajectory, which has, in turn, led to the rampant commercialization of the high school game.
As might be expected, this popularity has been reflected in the volume of media coverage the sport attracts. In an era of dwindling resources for straight news, football has become a dependable cash cow and a driving force in the expansion of the ESPN brand and sports punditry, in general. The most popular radio programs are now broadcast live on television.
Read the full article: http://blogs.villagevoice.com/runninscared/2014/08/against_football_author_steve_almond.php
June 2, 2014
In January 2013 I reported on an encounter with Brin-Jonathan Butler, a young writer and boxing trainer (a throwback to Hemingway) whose Salon.com article on a Cuban boxer named Guillermo Rigondeux triggered a reflex action on my part to spring to the Cuban government’s defense largely on the basis of Salon’s heading: “I came to Havana to film a documentary about a local boxer — and found a country by turns beautiful and terrifying.” After sending off a rude email to Butler, I learned that his views on Cuba were far more nuanced that I had given him credit for. After two or three email volleys, we decided to get together and exchange ideas.
In the course of our conversation, I learned that he was working on a book about Guillermo Rigondeux, who had defected to the U.S. in the expectations that the streets would be lined with gold. The goal of the book was to show that neither Cuba nor the U.S. could fulfill the hopes of an athlete who was forced to operate in one of the most exploitative sectors of professional sports. By comparison, the NFL is a paragon of virtue compared to the multiple boxing associations that view its gladiators as commodities to be exploited mercilessly. I was reminded of this by a poignant interview on WFAN with John Florio, the author of a new biography of Michael Spinks and his brother Leon who never received a penny of the $3.75 million he was supposed to receive for his rematch with Mohammed Ali. For his efforts, Ali was rewarded with Parkinson’s disease even if his earnings allowed him to enjoy a comfortable life. For Leon Spinks, the life after boxing included a job at McDonald’s and early dementia.
Last week I got word from Brin-Jonathan that “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey: Guillermo Rigondeaux, from Castro’s Traitor to American Champion” had finally become available. The early reviews are quite stunning:
Butler’s prose is “eviscerating… elegant… amusing” with “a storyteller’s ability to put these humanizing details into a bigger picture… Remarkable.”—The Ring magazine
“This is something very special.”—Leon Gast, Oscar-winning director for When We Were Kings
“A subtle and powerful examination of Cuba, as seen through the eyes of its most celebrated boxers. Filled with memorable characters caught in the middle of an existential struggle.”—Steve Fainaru, Pulitzer Prize–winning coauthor of The Duke of Havana: Baseball, Cuba, and the Search for the American Dream
“[A Cuban Boxer’s Journey] is a nuanced, deep, compassionate study of a subject too often boiled into simplicities, too often seen in black and white, too often used to forward agendas—left and right—that too often ignore the crushing human costs. Brin-Jonathan Butler’s story does just that by traveling, interviewing, and critically eyeing Cuba’s boxers at home and in the States, methodically unpacking the loss-imbued choice they all face. It is an invaluable document.”—S. L. Price, author of Pitching Around Fidel: A Journey into the Heart of Cuban Sports
There’s an excerpt of “A Cuban Boxer’s Journey” at http://www.sportsonearth.com/article/77478026/cuba-boxer-guillermo-rigondeaux-journey-defection-fidel-castro that will give you an idea of Butler’s viewpoint. I found this paragraph particularly revealing:
Only a few months before, I had heard that the new captain of the Cuban national team, since Savon had stepped down, two-time Olympic gold medalist Guillermo Rigondeaux, had attempted to defect in Brazil with teammate Erislandy Lara and had been arrested. This amounted to the highest profile boxing defection in Cuban history, unavoidably symbolizing a massive turning point in not just Cuban sport, but Cuban society on the whole. Rigondeaux’s attempt at escape had become an international news item and a national soap opera regularly appearing on Cuban television. Castro himself had personally spoken out in the state newspaper calling Rigondeaux a traitor and “Judas” to his people. “They have reached a point of no return as members of a Cuban boxing team,” Castro wrote in Granma. “An athlete who abandons his team is like a soldier who abandons his fellow troops in the middle of combat.” Compounding the significance and ambiguity of Rigondeaux’s situation was boxing legend Teofilo Stevenson, probably the second most famous Cuban in the world for the fortune he turned down to leave, defending Rigondeaux. “They are not traitors,” Stevenson declared. “They slipped up. People will understand. They’ve repented. It is a victory that they have returned. Others did not.”
Brin-Jonathan Butler has published an EBook through Amazon.com that can be purchased for a mere $3.79. As you are probably aware, Amazon is locked in a battle with publishers, Hachette in particular, over the giant’s determination to low-ball them to the point of bankruptcy. As loath as I am to recommend purchasing anything from Amazon, I will continue to be a Prime account holder and to urge you to buy Butler’s book. If Guillermo Rigondeux would discover upon making it into the American Dream, it is much more of a nightmare. Someday the advanced technology of Amazon will be wedded to a society that produces for human needs rather than private profit. In that future world, people will be able to play baseball or box without worrying about where their next meal is coming from. Until then, we do what we do to survive—in essence the story Brin-Jonathan Butler has ably told.
May 11, 2014
April 27, 2014
This week there were blatant signs that America was not yet a “postracial” society. First we were treated to the spectacle of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, hailed by the libertarian right for his stand against a federal government he deemed non-existent, telling a NY Times reporter that Blacks abort their young children and put their young men in jail “because they never learned how to pick cotton.”
Fast on his heels, Donald Sterling, the 81 year old owner of the Los Angeles Clippers, a basketball team with a Black coach and star guard who also happens to be the president of the players’ union, was caught saying over the phone to his 38 year old girlfriend—of mixed Latino and Black ancestry—that she should stop showing up at his arena with so many Blacks. Quoting Sterling:
It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?
You can sleep with [black people]. You can bring them in, you can do whatever you want. The little I ask you is not to promote it on that … and not to bring them to my games.
I’m just saying, in your lousy fucking Instagrams, you don’t have to have yourself with, walking with black people.
…Don’t put him [Magic Johnson] on an Instagram for the world to have to see so they have to call me. And don’t bring him to my games.
This was all on a tape that his girlfriend released to TMZ, a gossip website.
This story has burst through the seams of sports and become a hot topic on television news and the newspapers. In today’s NY Times, William C. Rhoden, a Black sports reporter, wrote:
The more compelling question for the league’s players is whether they will speak out — or act out — against Sterling. And what about the league’s other owners? How will they respond? Will they remain silent? Will they issue a collective statement? Or will individual owners like the usually vocal Mark Cuban, who declined to address the Sterling issue, send their own messages?
Mark Cuban has a reputation for being one of the more progressive-minded owners (his Dallas team, like Sterling’s, is in the playoffs). He also owns Magnolia Pictures, a prime distributor of hard-hitting documentaries including one based on the the March 2006 rape, murder, and burning of 14-year-old Iraqi girl and the murder of her parents and younger sister by U.S. soldiers.
But I am not that surprised he declined to comment on the Sterling affair. Cuban is a diehard libertarian and as such views property rights as sacrosanct, just like the Nevada rancher.
In digging into Sterling’s past, I made the discovery that he was born to Jewish immigrants surnamed Tokowitz. Like many men getting off the boat, his father made a living as a peddler just like my grandmother. Sterling’s father peddled fruit while my grandmother pushed clothing.
Sterling started off in Los Angeles as a divorce lawyer but soon switched to real estate cases. That led in turn to a full-time real estate business that included properties in Black and Latino neighborhoods. This is where his racism first reared its ugly head. Dave Zirin, a radical sportswriter for the Nation Magazine, details his sordid past:
Sterling is also the Slumlord Billionaire, a man who made his fortune by building low-income housing, and then, according to a Justice Department lawsuit, developing his own racial quota system to decide who gets the privilege of renting his properties. In November of 2009, Sterling settled the suit with the US Department of Justice for $2.73 million, the largest ever obtained by the government in a discrimination case involving apartment rentals. Reading the content of the suit makes you want to shower with steel wool. Sterling just said no to rent to non-Koreans in Koreatown and just said hell-no to African-Americans looking for property in plush Beverly Hills. Sterling, who has a Blagojevichian flair for the language, says he did not like to rent to “Hispanics” because “Hispanics smoke, drink and just hang around the building.” He also stated that “black tenants smell and attract vermin.”
One of my earliest memories was visiting “Tante Leya” in New York with my mother—I must have been 10 years old or so. This was most likely my grandmother’s cousin who spoke no English. After spending two of the longest hours in my life as Leya and my mother chatted in Yiddish over tea and cookies, we finally left to go downtown—probably to see the Radio City Christmas show or something like that. In the elevator, my mother turned to me and said,”Leya is a slumlord. She buys buildings and rents the apartments to Negros who complain about rats and broken boilers.” That was the first time in my life I heard the term slumlord.
At 81, Sterling’s values were a lot closer to Tante Leya’s than mine. This was a man who worshipped money not “Jewish values”. When a Satmar Hasidic slumlord was killed a few months ago, I was reminded of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express”, a case in which Inspector Poirot was stymied by the fact that a multitude of people had motives to kill the victim. The Satmar was such a crook and so callous in his dealings with Black tenants that it was impossible to figure out who killed him. If Donald Sterling ever ends up with a knife in the back, the cops will have the same problem.
A Sports Illustrated profile on Sterling from 2000 analyzes his cheapskate behavior as a reaction to childhood poverty. Michael Selsman, his former publicist, told SI: “As a kid, Donald never had enough of anything. With him, acquiring great wealth is a crusade. He’s psychologically predisposed to hoarding.” Not every Jew who lived through the Great Depression ended up in quite that manner. My mother complained bitterly about my father’s reluctance to buy a house in the roaring 1950s but understood it as a reaction to childhood poverty. That being said, my father—like most Depression era men—had no ambition to build an economic empire over hapless victims, particularly Black people.
Perhaps taking the advice of another publicist concerned about his shitty reputation, Sterling got involved in a project to benefit Los Angeles’s enormous homeless population but like everything else the billionaire gets involved with, it was nothing but a scam. The Los Angeles Weekly reported in 2008:
These days, though, Sterling’s vow to help the homeless is looking more like a troubling, ego-inflating gimmick dreamed up by a very rich man with a peculiar public-relations sense: Witness his regular advertisements proclaiming another “humanitarian of the year” award — for himself. From homeless-services operators to local politicians, no one has received specifics for the proposed Sterling Homeless Center. They aren’t the least bit convinced that the project exists.
“He uses every opportunity to have it announced somewhere,” says Alice Callaghan, an Episcopal priest who runs the Skid Row day-care and education center Las Familias del Pueblo. “But it sounds like a phantom project to me.”
Like many other scumbags who made a fortune (George Steinbrenner, Fred Wilpon, James Dolan) in some other type of business, Sterling decided to buy a professional sports team at the top of his game. In 1981, he bought the Los Angeles Clippers, a franchise that was nowhere near as prestigious as the Los Angeles Lakers (Kareem Abdul Jabbar’s team) but a bargain at twice the price. His initial 12.5 million dollar investment is now worth a half-billion.
The SI profile captures a man who would make Scrooge McDuck look like Lucky Jim Fitzsimmons. He suggested to coach Paul Silas that they could save money if he taped the players’ ankles.
Nobody ever bothered to challenge Sterling until the superstar Elgin Baylor became general manager. Baylor was committed to making the team competitive even if it meant demanding that his boss open up his wallet. After 22 years of fighting a losing battle, Baylor was probably relieved to be fired in 2008 but not so much so to prevent him from filing a racial discrimination case against Sterling. The LA Times reported:
In the original lawsuit, Baylor said that Sterling had a “vision of a Southern plantation-type structure” for the Clippers and accused the owner of a “pervasive and ongoing racist attitude” during long-ago contract negotiations with Danny Manning. The lawsuit also quoted Sterling as telling Manning’s agent, “I’m offering you a lot of money for a poor black kid.”
Baylor alleged Sterling said he wanted the Clippers to be “composed of ‘poor black boys from the South’ and a white head coach.”
It should of course come as no surprise that Sterling was a sexist pig as well as a racist. ESPN, a sports magazine similar to Sports Illustrated, Jason Easly recounts his scandalous abuse of women. Christine Jaksy, a former employee, sued Sterling for sexual harassment in 1996. ESPN states:
Jaksy first worked for Sterling in 1993, as a hostess at one of his “white parties,” where guests dressed Gatsby style at his Malibu beach house; she eventually went into property management. Jaksy testified that Sterling offered her clothes and an expense account in return for sexual favors. She also testified that he told her, “You don’t need your lupus support groups I’m your psychiatrist.” Jaksy left her job in December 1995, handing Sterling a memo that read in part, “The reason I have to write this to you is because in a conversation with you I feel pressured against a wall and bullied in an attempt to be overpowered. I’m not about to do battle with you.” She carried a gun because, according to her testimony, she feared retribution.
One of the most shocking revelations about Donald Sterling was the NAACP’s decision to present him with a Lifetime Achievement award this year. (Of course, they also decided to give a Man of the Year award to the snitch Al Sharpton.) Even though they made the decision to present the award before the phone call tape was released to TMZ, they must have been aware of all his other anti-Black words and actions. What prompted them to overlook this was his handing out of from 2 to 3 thousand tickets to Black youth for home games of the LA Clippers. They have since rescinded the award.
Professional sports fascinates me both as a fan and as a critic of American society. What makes it unique is the tension between private ownership and the public’s sense that it is “their team”. Toward the end of the NBA season, New Yorkers planned to stage a protest against owner Jim Dolan in front of Madison Square Garden. They were sick and tired of his meddling in the team’s business, making decisions that undercut the team’s fortunes. Apparently nervous that the protest might lead to more escalated forms of action such as a boycott, Dolan hired Phil Jackson, a basketball legend like Elgin Baylor, to run the team and promised to not interfere.
When you listen to sports fans calling in to WFAN or the ESPN station in New York, they sound more informed about the team than Jim Dolan. Unlike their generally passive acceptance of whatever Chase Manhattan Bank has up its sleeves to screw the working person, the sports fan is ready to take to the barricades in order to win a championship. In the documentary “Manufacturing Consent”, Noam Chomsky states:
Take, say, sports — that’s another crucial example of the indoctrination system, in my view. For one thing because it — you know, it offers people something to pay attention to that’s of no importance. That keeps them from worrying about — keeps them from worrying about things that matter to their lives that they might have some idea of doing something about. And in fact it’s striking to see the intelligence that’s used by ordinary people in (discussions of) sports (as opposed to political and social issues). I mean, you listen to radio stations where people call in — they have the most exotic information and understanding about all kind of arcane issues. And the press undoubtedly does a lot with this.
If and when that passion becomes devoted to challenging the corporate system as a whole, we might finally see the possibility of realizing that old-time vision of a Socialist America.
March 4, 2014
“Particle Fever” would be compelling enough in its own right as a you-are-there documentary that follows the leading scientists of the Large Hadron Collider project as they move inexorably toward the experiments that will reveal whether the Higgs Boson (the God particle) exists or not. But when you factor in that the film was produced and directed by nuclear physicists with uncanny filmmaking abilities, including a knack for including graphics and animation that makes the most fearsomely abstract things concrete, you are in for a rare film-going experience, as exciting in its own way as the class trip I took to the Hayden Planetarium when I was in junior high school.
A hadron is a composite of subatomic particles (quarks) that have mostly been identified, except for the one that is at the hub: the boson. It is commonly referred to as the Higgs boson, after the British physicist who theorized its existence back in 1964. Don’t ask me to try to explain this (as if I could) but the boson is viewed as the critical sine qua non for the creation of the universe. As the film barrels along at an exciting pace, we learn that if the experiment fails to prove its existence, some physicists will conclude that reality consists of multiple universes each with its own set of discrete laws of physics. While that sounds like a good plot for a Star Trek episode, some of the physicists interviewed in the film—including uber-physicist Nima Arkani-Hamed, who is a multi-universe adherent, fear that it will make the task of a unified theory of matter impossible.
The film explains that there are two kinds of physicists, theoretical and experimental. Both came together to make the Hadron Collision work. The collider itself is one of the greatest engineering feats of modern history, consisting of a seventeen mile magnetized tunnel in a seven-story building beneath the ground in Switzerland that is designed to hurl subatomic particles through the tunnel in opposite directions like greyhounds on performance enhancing drugs until a switch is turned on to make them collide in four separate locations in the tunnel to be examined by high-powered computers networked around the world.
The film consists largely of physicists at work either in the US or in Switzerland putting the finishing touches on the eagerly awaited experiments and explaining to laypeople like us in the movie theater what it is they are trying to accomplish. Their sense of excitement is infectious, especially so from Monica Dunford, a startlingly young woman who works on the experimental side. You see her with a hardhat on her head tightening bolts and connecting wires on the mammoth collider in the final stages before countdown. When she is not at work, she is off running marathons or mountain climbing. Leave your stereotypes of nerds at the door. All of the principals are exceedingly well adjusted and don’t take themselves too seriously.
One of the key interviewees is David Kaplan, a 56-year-old theoretical physicist who held research positions at the U. of Chicago and Stanford’s Linear Accelerator Center. He looks about 30 years younger and wears his hair in a ponytail. He is also the producer of the film.
The director is Mark Levinson who has a PhD in particle physics from U. Cal Berkeley. He was the producer/director/writer of a narrative film titled “Prisoner of Time”, about the lives of dissident artists after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
As compelling as the interviews are, the film reaches an even higher level with the graphics and animation developed by MK12, a studio that did the FX for “Stranger than Fiction”, a comedy starring Will Farrell. Their talents are served better here.
When asked how he made the transition from particle physics to filmmaking, Levinson replied in a way that reminds us of how inadequate CP Snow’s notion of “Two Cultures” was:
The transition actually seemed remarkably straightforward to me. What entranced me about physics was the profound beauty and elegance of the theories, and the magic and mystery in the fact that abstract symbols encoded deep truths about the universe. I made the transition to film when I recognized an alternate avenue for exploring the world around us, in the human dimension, that also seemed mysterious and magical. For many years, I harbored the hope that I could find some project that could weave together the two seemingly disparate strands of my life. The start-up of the Large Hadron Collider provided the perfect combination of both a profound scientific and human endeavor. One of the characters in Particle Fever speculates, “Why do we do science? Why do we do art? It is the things that are not directly necessary for survival that make us human.”
“Particle Fever” opens tomorrow at the Film Forum in New York.
Like “Particle Fever”, “The Iran Job” benefits from an appealing protagonist—in this case a 28-year-old journeyman (as he frankly describes himself) basketball player from the Virgin Islands named Kevin Sheppard who was not good enough to make to the NBA but good enough to work professionally overseas, including Iran.
He has signed a contract to play for Shiraz AS for one year on a tryout basis. If he produces results, they will renew his contract. Since American basketball players are so highly regarded, they will pay him double the going rate. He and a 7-foot Serbian named Zoran “Z” Milicic, hired to play center, are the maximum number of foreign players allowed on Iranian professional basketball teams.
The style of “The Iran Job” is almost DIY and consists mostly of the filmmakers following Sheppard around as he practices, leads the team as a point guard as they advance their way toward the playoffs, and develops a friendship with three young Iranian women who chafe at the restrictions put on them by a paternalistic clerical state. When they are sitting around Sheppard’s apartment making small talk and teasing each other, the women have to go to the bathroom and hide whenever there is a knock on the door since they might be arrested for un-Islamic behavior. When they drive around with him, they risk getting busted by the morality police who have the power to investigate whether they are up to no good. They also had to put up with a temporary ban on women attending sporting events. No wonder the three women became activists in the Green Movement.
Throughout it all, Sheppard remains an extremely likable and self-effacing character, exchanging high fives with a merchant who says he likes Black people and used to smoke pot when he lived in the US. Without being prompted, the merchant breaks into “’Everythings Gonna Be Alright”—a Bob Marley song.
The film is an eloquent statement about the need to stop demonizing Iranians and to finally put an end to a system that is as restrictive toward women in its way as foot binding. During one of their bull sessions, one of the women insists that Islam has nothing to do with keeping women in their place. It is a clerical dictatorship speaking in the name of Islam that is at fault.
As an indication of what a gifted filmmaker is capable of, director Till Schauder (his wife Sara Nodjoumi, an Iranian-American, produced) told Indiewire how he filmed under obviously difficult conditions:
Journalist visas were denied so we had to shoot under the radar. We decided it was safer for me to go on my own, entering as a German tourist. I packed an HDV camera – small enough for an unassuming backpack. If I got into trouble I could say I’m just a tourist filming the sites. I used that line a few times until (before the presidential election) I was detained. Shooting like this was challenging. I didn’t have the best equipment, nor a crew. But it was a blessing in disguise, and crucial for building trust and intimacy with the film’s subjects.
It is so interesting that someone who has something to say can be ten times as interesting using a camera that probably cost less than one minutes worth of production on some of the offal that earned prizes on Sunday night at the Academy Awards.
“The Iran Job” is available from http://www.filmmovement.com, the Netflix for the cognoscenti.