Saturday, March 26, 2016

Book Review: Summer of '68: The Season that Changed Baseball and America Forever by Tim Wendel

Tim Wendel's nostalgic book Summer of 68 looks at that historic year through the lens of a baseball fan.  The tensions of the decade came to a crashing head with the Vietnam War, racial tension, and political assassination dominating the headlines.  Baseball in the words of Terrence Mann from Field of Dreams, remained the only constant in American life.

The 1968 season was the end of an era (for lack of a better term).  The NFL and NBA began to overtake the baseball in popularity.  Football and basketball were much better suited for television because they were fast paced and seemingly made for the instant replay camera.  Meanwhile, baseball seemed seemed slow . . . and boring.

Even the style of the game in 1968 looks archaic by today's standards. Pitchers were still obligated to bat and were not relegated to pitch counts.  Most games were still played during the day  And there was no extended post-season as we know it today, the best two teams from the American and National League advanced immediately into the World Series.  Free agency still loomed on the horizon, as players usually remained the property of their owners.

Baseball historians remember the 1968 season for one thing: dominant pitching.  Bob Gibson (St. Louis Cardinals), Luis Tiant (Cleveland Indians), Don Drysdale (L.A. Dodgers) put up record breaking statistics.  Denny McClain won 30 games for the Detroit Tigers.

Wendel brings all these personalities to life.  Bob Gibson finished with a 1.12 ERA and struck out 17 batters in Game One of the World Series.  Wendel wrote of Gibson's World Series heroics:

For there is something in the way Gibson pitched that perhaps wasn't simply directed at the hitters he faced, but rather at the world in general . . . Gibson unleashed pitches as if he were a man on fire.
Gibson fires a fastball.

Wendel devotes most of the book to the 1968 Detroit Tigers, a motley group who ended up winning the World Series against the powerful St. Louis Cardinals.  Starting pitcher Mickey Lolich, who served in the National Guard during the 1967 riots, won three games for the Tigers, including the climatic Game Seven.

The heroics of the Tigers helped assuage a city on the edge. Baseball gave everyone in Detroit a much needed respite from the challenges their city faced.

Weidel's writes with a novelist touch, providing a acute perspective. An educational trip back in time for any baseball fan.

Friday, March 18, 2016

Book Review: Better Living Through Criticism: How To Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth by A.O. Scott

In Better Living Through Criticism A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, makes a case for the validity of criticism.  Scott examines lofty questions of beauty, interpretation, and aesthetics - sometimes to the point of ad nauseam.

Scott relates a twitter exchange he had with actor Samuel L. Jackson over his review of The Avengers.  Jackson tweeted "A.O. Scott needs to get a real job" in response to Scott's sarcastic review. A flurry of twitter hate came down upon Scott, poster child for the elitist and out of touch critic.

Mutual disgust between artist and critic goes way back. Artists often label critics as failed artists, ever resentful of those who make a living off their art. Artists believe they go to a place critics could never understand.

Scott sees it differently; in their own way critics are also artists of a sort:

It is my contention here that criticism, far from sapping the vitality of art, is instead what supplies its lifeblood; that criticism, properly understood, is not an enemy from which art must be defended, but rather another name - its proper name - for the defense of art itself.

He goes on: 

Criticism is art's late born twin.  They draw strength and identity from a single source, even if, like most siblings, their mutual dependency is frequently cloaked in rivalry and suspicion.

Many figures have blurred the line between art and criticism.  T.S. Eliot's contribution to modern literature extended to poetry and critical essays.  French New Wave filmmakers Godard and Truffaut began their careers as critics and progressed into making their own movies. Quentin Tarantino famously gorged himself on movies as a video store clerk, film school on the cheap.

I wish Scott had focused more on his own vocation of film criticism.  Instead, we get a dissonant history of art.  Some of the chapters are self-indulgent with strained analyses of culture wars, tensions between art and commerce, and post-modernism. Neither is Scott averse to placing himself among the critical masterminds of history (at one point he points out - see, I'm writing like David Foster Wallace here!)

Scott also ignores how the internet changed everything.  There's little on the bloggers who write extensively about movies.  No mention of a number of the innovative podcasts that are reinventing film scholarship and criticism. Most of these folks do the work for free, inspired by their own passion. Scott's musings wreak of the Ivory Tower, he seems to have no use for the amateurs. 

However,I do agree Scott's premise: criticism should matter.  Critical thinking about art, politics, culture are desperately needed - especially now.

Critics don't matter.  They matter more than ever.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

George Martin: An Appreciation of the "Fifth Beatle"

Tonight I got the news George Martin, the producer of nearly every Beatles album, passed away at the age of 90.  While the story of the Beatles is an often told tale, it never seems to to get old.  Many individuals played a pivotal role in the Beatles career, but few are as integral as Martin.

A longtime producer at EMI records, the Beatles came to know Martin as a producer of "The Goon Show", a popular comedy show starring Peter Sellers. 

In 1962 Martin began working the Beatles as a producer on their initial hits such as "Love Me Do" and "Please Please Me."  In the early days Martin worked closely with the group and encouraged them to write their own material.

In time John Lennon and Paul McCartney surpassed Martin and they took on more of the producing responsibilities (the only advantage Martin had over them was that he could read music).  

Martin arranged many of the orchestral arrangements for the group, including 'Yesterday" and "Eleanor Rigby."  Some of the most sublime moments on Beatles records feature Martin.  His piano solo on "In My Life" comes to mind; my favorite moment on Rubber Soul.

The high point of Martin's collaboration with the Beatles was during the making of Sgt. Pepper in 1967. He admired the group's interest in experimentation and never stood in their way, never told them to stick to a formula. I recall a moving interview when Martin recalled the making of "A Day in the Life." He watched John perform the song for the first time and added a wistful reflection, "Even in this early take he had a voice that could shivers down your spine."
Photo from Sgt.Pepper sessions.

Martin continued to work the Beatles on their final records.  During the making of the epic "White Album" Martin grew disenchanted with the band's increasingly erratic approach to recording and often expressed his dislike of the double album for its sloppiness.  He returned to produce the Beatles final effort, Abbey Road. I suspect the lavish and poignant production on side two of Abbey Road owe much to Martin.

He went on to work with a number of other artists and continued to work with McCartney, most notably on the James Bond soundtrack Live and Let Die.

Over the years many referred to Martin as the "Fifth Beatle" and I am inclined to agree. He began as their mentor and evolved into an important collaborator on their road to immortality.  Martin witnessed all those magical moments in the studio; a guiding hand to some of the most creative music of the 20th century.

RIP George Martin (1926-2016)