Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Tragic Hero of Ghostbusters

         The movie Ghostbusters epitomizes three central features of Reagan era America: greed, the benefits of trickle-down economics, and disdain for government regulation. The film begins with our three intrepid scientists, Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd), Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis), and Peter Venkman (Bill Murray) being kicked out of a prestigious university for failing to produce any meaningful research. The dean informs Venkman that “Your theories are the worst kind of popular tripe, your methods are sloppy, and your conclusions are highly questionable. You are a poor scientist, Dr. Venkman!” Dr. Venkman, however, is the perfect 1980s businessman. 

         With their university grant gone, the three "scientists" decide to establish “the indispensable defense science of the next decade; professional paranormal investigations and eliminations.” In order to do so, Stantz agrees to take out a third mortgage on his house at 19% interest. Venkman eases his conscience by pointing out “everyone has three mortgages nowadays.” Spengler notes that his interest rate payments in the first five years will total $95,000. Here is our first example of the excesses of the Reagan years. The bank hands out a predatory loan to three men who should have never received one in the first place. But if they fail to pay, then the bank will recoup its money by seizing Ray's house. 

         Next the Ghostbusters purchase a dilapidated firehouse for their headquarters. Ever the voice of wisdom, Spengler details how the building has, “serious metal fatigue in all the load-bearing members, the wiring is substandard, it's completely inadequate for our power needs, and the neighborhood is like a demilitarized zone.” Stantz, meanwhile, is impressed by the fire pole and demands they buy the place immediately. Here, the force of greed at work is the real estate agent, sensing the Ghostbusters’ desperate need for a place of business. She seizes the opportunity to unload an undesirable property. By the time, the Ghostbusters business fails, she’ll have collected her fees and someone else will have to deal with the fallout.  

         Once they open their doors, the Ghostbusters become as predatory and greedy as the bank and real estate agent. They charge the manager of the Sedgwick Hotel five thousand dollars for trapping and storing the establishment’s pesky poltergeist. This price does not include the thousands of dollars of damage the Ghostbusters caused to the 12th floor of the hotel and the main ballroom (not to mention the loss of the future business of Mrs. Van Hoffman whose event was ruined by their actions). As their fame soars, the Ghostbusters dart around Manhattan battling supernatural forces and dancing the night away in famous clubs. They grace the covers of magazines, appear on television, and become celebrities in their own right. The exploited have become the exploiters. 

         As the Ghostbusters fame and workload grow, we see trickle-down economics in action. They hire the film’s only African-American character, Winston Zeddmore (Ernie Hudson)—he’s also the first man to come through the door. When asked by the company secretary if he believes in the paranormal, Zeddmore replies, “Ah, if there's a steady paycheck in it, I'll believe anything you say.” As an African American seeking employment from an all-white firm in the 1980s, Zeddmore knows that if he wants the job, he needs to keep his mouth shut. The Ghostbusters are, according to the principles of Reaganomics, letting their success trickle down. They hire from the local community. Zeddmore, once unemployed, now has a job. He will soon have money in his pocket to inject back into the economy. As the Ghostbusters profit, so will he. As the company expands, they can hire more local residents. The resulting rising tide will lift everyone’s boat. Little did Winston know that he was proof of the genius of Reaganomics. 

         Ghostbusters also highlights the Reagan administration’s hatred of regulation. While Gozer the Gozerian is the film’s ostensible film, Walter Peck of the Environmental Protection Agency is a close second. Peck arrives at the Ghostbusters headquarters and asks to view the containment facility for the ghosts. Since the Ghostbusters only trap the ghosts, Peck wants to see where they are held. Venkman denies him entry. Venkman, now a successful self-interested businessman and capitalist, recognizes that Peck represents a threat to the Ghostbusters’ growing and profitable business. So he throws Peck out. 

         Peck’s subsequent attempts to interfere in the Ghostbusters’ business offers further proof the dangers of regulation. When Peck expresses skepticism about the company’s methods and shuts off power to their storage facility, his actions have unintentionally disastrous consequences. Turning off the protection grid releases all the ghosts who then go and terrorize Manhattan. Peck then confronts the Ghostbusters in the office of the Mayor of New York. The Mayor, however, like any callous politician, acts in own self-interest. He believes that the Ghostbusters plan of fighting the impending arrival of Gozer the Gozerian will lead to his own re-election. Now that the Mayor has hired the fox to guard the henhouse, Peck is left to wander the streets of New York City. He witnesses the destructive rampage of a gigantic Stay Puft Marshmallow Man (conjured from the imagination of Ray Stantz). Peck suffers a final indignity for attempting regulate big business. After the destruction of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, through some dubious luck of crossing the streams and the door swinging both ways, Peck is buried in a cavalcade of marshmallow. The Ghostbusters, due to dumb luck and their own exploitative actions, receive all the credit for saving the city. Meanwhile the man who tried to protect the public, Walter Peck, receives nothing but scorn and derision.

         So the next time you watch Ghostbusters don’t think of it as the classic comedy that you know and love, but rather as the paean to Reaganomics that it truly is.         

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Back to Future

        The Back to the Future movies are a staple of 1980s. Millions of millennials grew up watching and quoting the films. Doc Brown and Marty McFly have become enduring lexicons in pop culture. Revisiting the films today, they reflect the era in which they were made and also remain supremely entertaining. 

         The plot of each film has a similar structure. At the beginning of Back to the Future Part 1, Marty McFly listens to his mother, Lorraine, explain how she met George, her husband, an event that Marty interferes with shortly thereafter. In Part 2, Marty and Doc head into the future, but then must travel into the past to fix the broken timeline. As soon as Doc Brown mentions his affinity for the Old West he winds up living there. The films also share similar touchstones; chase scenes, Marty getting knocked out, and a member of the evil Tannen family covered in manure. Each successive scene echoes the previous ones but are never carbon copies of one another. 

Back to the Future offers clearly defined villains who always pay for their crimes. Biff Tannen and his relatives, Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen (his great-grandfather) and Griff (his grandson) harass the McFlys across generations. Biff is first shown bullying George after crashing George’s car. Biff exclaims, “I can’t believe you loaned me a car and didn’t tell me it had a blind spot!” After George knocks Biff out in the new 1955, Biff cowers around George, but flashes his anger at others. The alternate 1985 shows Biff operating with impunity. He admits to Marty that he murdered George in order to marry Lorraine and reminds him, “Kid, I own the police!” 

         In 2015, Griff and his gang terrorize the downtown of Hill Valley while attempting to kill Marty. Only after Griff and gang crash into the courthouse do the police attempt to interfere. 

         Buford “Mad Dog” Tannen, featured in Back to the Future Part 3, is similarly violent. He’s quick to anger, attempting to kill Marty after being called “Mad Dog.” He’s dumb, forgetting how to count to ten. The Tannens, however, always seem to get their cosmic reward, landing in a pile of excrement and screaming, “I hate manure!” 

Biff Tannen 

         The product placement and depictions of future technology within the trilogy reflect the cultural values and concerns of the 1980s. The films present consumerism as quintessentially American. Marty McFly always orders (and receives) a nice cold Pepsi. Texaco will fill your car with gasoline in 1955 and havoline in 2015. A fresh Pizza Hut pizza—hydrate level 4 please—is only seconds away in your Black & Decker food hydrator. Mattel skateboards and hoverboards keep the youth of America entertained. Marty sports stylish Nikes, communicates via AT&T, and his son relaxes by watching six channels at once. In 2015, Marty works for a Japanese firm, typifying the 1980s concern about Asian economic supremacy. Marty hangs out in the CafĂ© 80s, a nostalgia driven restaurant. There are fax machines in every room. The people may change, but American brands endure.  

         The trilogy’s treatment of Marty’s girlfriend, Jennifer Parker, is also problematic. Jennifer appears in the beginning of Back to the Future Part 1 in the role of supportive high school girlfriend. At the end of the film, Doc demands Marty and Jennifer come with him to the future. Jennifer naturally has a lot of questions about her future, although most are stereotypical and demeaning towards women. She wants to see her wedding dress! Her house! Her kids! Immediately annoyed by Jennifer, Doc Brown drugs her and leaves her in an alley so he and Marty can get to the business at hand—saving Marty’s son. 

         Doc insists that Jennifer will be fine, as anyone left unattended in a strange alley would be. Doc then disappears to intercept Marty Jr. and then goes to pick up his dog, Einstein. So why couldn’t he keep Jennifer in the car? After thwarting Griff, Doc and Marty have to go rescue Jennifer after she’s discovered by some 2015 policewomen. They naturally assume she might be in need of aid—after all she’s been drugged and left passed out amongst a pile of garbage. Marty then returns her to 1985 and she remains out of sight until Marty returns from the Old West. 

All the product placement 

         In Part 1, Marty’s plan to reunite his parents involves him making unwanted sexual advances towards his own mother. After interfering in the original meeting between George and Lorraine, Marty is now the object of his mother’s desires. He agrees to take her to the “Enchantment Under the Sea Dance” where she and George kissed for the first time. To make sure that George will take his rightful place as Lorraine’s love interest, Marty proposes to become sexually aggressive with her, allowing George to interfere and play the hero. This entire plot also reveals Lorraine’s total lack of agency in deciding her own future. She is apparently fickle enough to fall in love with just about anybody (except for Biff). Even though the plan is his idea, Marty recognizes that there’s something deeply disturbing about putting the moves on his own mother. Biff Tannen, however, interrupts their liaison and  has no qualms about attempting to rape Lorraine. George, however, arrives and knocks Biff out, rescuing her.  

In an ordinary world, Dr. Emmett Brown would raise red flag after red flag. First, in order to power his time machine, he steals plutonium from a group of Libyan nationalists, who had hired him to build them a nuclear bomb. How Brown came into contact with a terrorist group certainly raises some questions. Why he thought that stealing their plutonium was a good idea is even more troubling. The Libyans demonstrate their willingness to kill anyone who double crosses them, gunning down Doc in the parking lot of the Twin Pines Mall. 

After Marty purchased Gray’s Sports Almanac to win some money on the side, Doc chides him about using the time machine for personal gain. Yet the entire premise of coming to 2015 was for Marty’s personal gain—preventing his son from going to jail.  Only after Marty’s girlfriend Jennifer runs into her future self, Doc decides that he needs to destroy the time machine. In all the years of constructing a time machine Doc never considered its implications. He notes that “The risk is just too great as this incident proves. And I was behaving responsibly! Just imagine the danger if the time machine were to fall in the wrong hands!” Worse than a scientist who collaborates with terrorists and uses time travel to fix the family of his teenage best friend? To top off his temporal irresponsibility, after swearing off time travel forever, Doc builds a second time machine to return to 1985. His purpose? To give Marty a picture and to pick up his dog. In the alternate 1985 Doc Brown had been institutionalized, maybe the real 1985 should have been too.  

         After returning with a note from the future, Jennifer asks Doc why it’s been erased. He implausibly, but persuasively states the thesis of the entire series. He tells Jennifer that “Your future hasn’t been written yet, no one’s has. So make it a good one.” 

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Infinite Jest

Alas, poor Yorick! I knew him, Horatio, a fellow of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy. 
He hath borne me on his back a thousand times, and now, how abhorred in my imagination it is!
(Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 1) 

        The genius of David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest is in its understanding and sympathy for human beings. It is deeply human and humane, exploring the significance of emotional connections and what happens when those connections break down. It is somehow also fitting that the text is incredibly frustrating, like our attempts to forge emotion connections, to read as Wallace intentionally interrupts the text with numerous digressions. 

         Infinite Jest—the title is taken from Hamlet’s eulogy of Yorick quoted aboverevolves around three main groups of characters and a host of ancillary and memorable ones. The first is the Incandenza family: deceased patriarch, James, a man who made a fortune in optics before becoming a filmmaker and founding the Enfield Tennis Academy outside of Boston; matriarch Avril, who runs the academy along with her sometime lover and step-brother Charles Travis; sons Orin, an NFL punter with a penchant for sleeping with young mothers; Mario, born with a deformity and a budding filmmaker; and finally, Hal, a burgeoning tennis prodigy with an intellect rivaling that of his father. 

         Next, there are the various councilors and drug addicts at the nearby Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House. Finally, there are a group of wheelchair bound Quebecois separatist assassins searching for a copy of James’s last (and legally banned) film, Infinite Jest. Infamously, any person who watches the film only yearns to keep watching it until they die. The Quebecois seek the film as a weapon against O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations). After O.N.A.N., a merger between the United States, Canada, and Mexico, turned a section of the Northeastern United States into the Great Concavity, a gigantic hazardous waste dump, and forced it upon Canada. 

         Wallace’s ability to depict human psychology is the greatest strength of Infinite Jest. As he bounces back and forth between drug addicts, adolescent teenage tennis players, wheelchair bound terrorists, Wallace describes shame cycles, teenage anxieties, love, and depression in frighteningly realistic terms, coming across as intimately and deeply real to anyone who has experienced these things for themselves. His description of depression is particularly evocative:

It is a level of psychic pain wholly incompatible with human life as we know it. It is a sense of radical and thoroughgoing evil not just as a feature but as the essence of conscious existence. It is a sense of poisoning that pervades the self at the self's most elementary levels. It is a nausea of the cells and soul. Itis an unnumb intuition in which the world is fully rich and animate and un-map-like and also thoroughly painful and malignant and antagonistic to the self, which depressed self It billows on and coagulates around and wraps in Its black folds and absorbs into Itself, so that an almost mystical unity is achieved with a world every constituent of which means painful harm to the self. Its emotional character, the feeling Gompert describes It as, is probably the most indescribable except as a sort of double bind in which any/all of the alternatives we associate with human agency — sitting or standing, doing or resting, speaking or keeping silent, living or dying — are not just unpleasant but literally horrible. (695-696) 

While most of the characters in the novel explore their feelings, Hal Incandenza does not. He may be brilliant and a gifted tennis player, but he is unable to feel emotion of any kind. Hal, Wallace writes, “hasn’t had a bona fide intensity-of-interior-life-type emotion since he was tiny” (694). The causes of his malady range from his damaged upbringing in the Incandenza household to eating mold as a child to his marijuana addiction. The novel suggests that James, the only person to recognize Hal’s emotional emptiness, made the film Infinite Jest  to emotionally draw out his son out. As Aaron Swartz wrote, “Hal moves outwardly but doesn’t feel inside; victims of the Entertainment feel—something—inside but don’t move outwardly.” In a novel about emotions, the protagonist is someone searching for the ability to feel, making it the characteristic that most clearly defines our humanity. 

Wallace also uses dark humor to highlight the search for emotional connection. James Incandenza, Hal’s father, commits suicide by sticking his head in a microwave. Hal relates the discovery of James’s body in darkly humorous way that highlights his emotional emptiness. When describing where James killed himself, Hal tells his brother Orin, “The microwave, O. The rotisserie microwave over next to the fridge, on the freezer side, on the counter, under the cabinet with the plates and bowls to the left of the fridge, as you face the fridge” (248). 

One of the funniest and most memorable scenes in the book is when the tennis players at Enfield play an intricately complex game called Eschaton. Played on the school’s tennis courts with tennis balls serving as nuclear warheads, Eschaton, involving complex linear regressions and game theory, simulates the realpolitik of international diplomacy. The game, under the supervision of game master Otis Lord or O. Lord, however, quickly devolves into childishness with hilarious results. Wallace seems to suggest that despite our best efforts to bring order and rules to the world, we are all just children on a playground. 

Infinite Jest is also a deeply frustrating and, at times, difficult read. Wallace packs the book with 388 endnotes consisting of 96 pages of additional text. Some of the endnotes have footnotes in them as well. Apart from an occasionally funny joke—the best was a description of James’s movies—they’re mostly a place for Wallace to show off his knowledge of pharmaceuticals or indulge in asides or further conversations he left out of the main text. They often interrupt the flow of the narrative and frustrate the reader. 

Infinite Jest is a mammoth text, a testament to Wallace’s prodigious talent and his keen understanding of the human psyche. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Updated Saints TV Bingo

Last year, we introduced our Saints TV Bingo board, a convenient guide to all of the lame cliches announcers use when talking about the New Orleans Saints. In light of everything that has happened since last season--Drew Brees's broken thumb and the NFL's utter incompetence when it comes to officiating spread out over multiple crews across multiple months (enough incompetence to make the sanest man go mad)--we decided to update the TV Bingo for the rest of the season.


Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Bye Bye Baby Cakes & What Comes Next

            The New Orleans Baby Cakes, the AAA affiliate of the Miami Marlins, played their last home game at the Shrine on Airline on August 29. They lost 8-5. The loss marks the end of professional baseball in New Orleans—at least for the time being. The Baby Cakes are moving to Wichita, Kansas. Currently, there is no new tenant for the Shrine on Airline for next season. 

            The Baby Cakes arrived in New Orleans in 1993, when they were known as the Zephyrs. The Zephyrs arrival returned professional baseball to New Orleans for the first time since 1977 when the New Orleans Pelicans left town after 90 years in New Orleans. While the Zephyrs came from Denver, their name had local roots as well. The Zephyr was a famous rollercoaster at the Pontchartrain Beach amusement park before it closed in 1983. In 2017, the team rebranded as the Baby Cakes following the trend of other minor leagues who sought quirky nicknames—see the Hartford Yard Goats, the Akron Rubber Ducks, the Rocket City Trash Pandas, and the El Paso Chihuahuas. 

            The reasons for the Baby Cakes departure are myriad. The name change was never popular amongst locals. While ostensibly named after the baby found in king cakes, there is no such thing as a baby cake. Additionally, the mascot (pictured below) looks like the villain of a low-rent Stephen King novel. It’s something that would haunt your fever dreams rather than get you to cheer for the local sports team.  

The Shrine on Airline is also in need of desperate repair. SMG, the firm that manages the stadium, and the Louisiana Stadium and Exposition District (LSED) would have to raise the millions of dollars necessary to cover the upgrades. There is at least $3 million available in funds from the state, but that is only about half of the estimated cost of overhauling the facility. An SMG representative said, “It likely would be a significant improvement for whoever is in there. If there's an opportunity to have a team replace the Baby Cakes that could be successful in the market, we would like to understand what that team would need to be successful.” When the Baby Cakes announced they were leaving at the end of 2018, team officials were hopeful of bringing in a AA Southern League franchise as a replacement. No such deal, however, has materialized.  

Additionally, the Baby Cakes have yet to void their lease for the Shrine on Airline for next season. Their new home in Wichita is not complete and isn’t expected to be finished until January. So there remains a small chance that the Baby Cakes will be back in 2020. But local officials don’t seem too happy about the prospect. It is hard to sell a new franchise on taking over the stadium when the old team hasn’t left yet. The chairman of the LSED has written to the team asking for a departure date.  As he wrote, "Unfortunately, the team’s inaction has created a great deal of uncertainty and … has resulted in the loss of potential revenue for LSED." 

With the Baby Cakes set to leave, whenever that may be, there may not be an appetite for professional baseball in New Orleans. The LSED has explored whether to convert the Shrine on Airline for soccer or rugby use. Attendance for the Baby Cakes has declined for the last few years and there’s plenty of college baseball—LSU, Tulane, UNO, and Delgado—for local fans. August 29, 2019 may have been the end of professional baseball in Louisiana for the foreseeable future. 

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Saints 2019: Biggest Questions

            The New Orleans Saints begin their 2019 season next Monday night in the Superdome against the Houston Texans. After last year’s division title and trip to the NFC championship game, expectations in the Big Easy are high. As quarterback Drew Brees enters his age-40 season, it’s now or never for the Saints to bring home another Super Bowl title. 

            The leading projection systems are in line with fan expectations. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects New Orleans to go 10-6 with a 73% chance to make the playoffs. The Saints have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl (12.3%) behind the Kansas City Chiefs and the New England Patriots.  Football Outsides gives the Saints the best chance of winning Super Bowl LIV at 13.5%. 

            Rather than do a traditional preview, let’s look at the big questions confronting the Saints this season. The answers will determine whether New Orleans will have to add another parade to the already busy Mardi Gras season or go home again without a Super Bowl title. 

Will Drew Brees bounce back? 

            At first glance, Brees had a typical year for him—32 TD passes to only 5 INTs, a 74.4 completion percentage, and nearly 4,000 passing yards. But over the last three regular season games (Brees didn’t play in Week 17) and the Saints two playoff games, Brees was far from his usual self. His yards per attempt fell to 6.95, well below his seasonal average of 8.16. He only threw 2 TD passes against 2 INTs in 3 games. The Saints average points per game fell from nearly 30 to just over 20. In the NFC championship game Brees threw a crucial interception in overtime that resulted in the Rams victory. 

            The question facing the Saints is will Brees bounce back or was this the beginning of the end? The aging curve for 40 year old quarterbacks isn’t pretty. Remember what happened to Peyton Manning in Denver or Brett Favre in Minnesota? But look at Tom Brady in New England who is entering his age 42 season and shows no signs of slowing down. And even a diminished Brees is still better than most other quarterbacks in the NFL. In other words, who knows which Brees will show up on Monday night, but the Saints' Super Bowl hopes ride on #9. 

Will the defense be good again? 

            After years of languishing at the bottom of the league in team defense, in 2018, the New Orleans defense had their second good season in a row. In total, the Saints finished 11th in Football Outsiders DVOA defensive rankings, with the 3rd best run defense but 22nd ranked pass defense. The 2018 Saints flipped their defense ranking from 2017 when they finished 8th overall with the 5th ranked pass defense and 23rd ranked run defense. Over the last few years, New Orleans has invested significant draft capital on defense including first round picks on Sheldon Rankins, Marshon Lattimore, and Marcus Davenport and second round picks on Marcus Williams and Vonn Bell. 

            Defensive performance, however, varies significantly from season to season. Additionally, the Saints were remarkably injury-averse in 2018, finishing 6th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Games Lost. Backup cornerback Patrick Robinson was the only significant defensive player to miss time. Injury luck also doesn’t hold over from season to season. The Saints defense may look good on paper, but if Lattimore or star pass-rusher Cameron Jordan miss time, then it will be difficult for the Saints to replicate their defensive success from past years. 

Can the Saints keep winning close games? 

            In 2018, New Orleans went 5-1 in games decided by six points or less. Performance in one score games varies from year to year because it depends on just a handful of plays to break one way or another. Against Cleveland in Week 2, Will Lutz hit a 44 yard field goal with 21 seconds left in the game to win the game for the Saints 21-18. Against Atlanta in Week 3, the Saints had to drive down the field and tie the game 37-37 with 1:15 left in regulation before winning in overtime. Only a missed extra point by the normally reliable Ravens Justin Tucker prevented a 24-24 tie that would have likely gone to overtime. Against Pittsburgh in Week 16, Brees led the Saints on a game winning TD drive and left the Steelers with just 1:25 left on the clock. This season, all those plays might not go the Saints way.  

            Last season, the Saints went 13-3, had homefield advantage in the NFC, and hosted the NFC title game. In order to reach that point, a lot had to go right for the Saints—a good defense, health, and luck mostly—and New Orleans will need those to happen again to give Drew Brees, Sean Payton, and the people of the Crescent City their second Super Bowl title.  

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Car in the Canal!

New Orleans relies on a system of drainage canals to keep the city from flooding during heavy rainstorms. In July, residents in the Mid-City neighborhood experienced some particularly nasty flooding, prompting the city to inspect the Lafitte drainage canal. Inside they found at least one car. Take a look at the story, that can only happen in New Orleans, below.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The All-Louisiana MLB Lineup

            A while back we looked at the best baseball players ever to come out of Louisiana. So today, we thought we’d revisit that premise in a different way. So we’re going to look at the best players at each position from Louisiana. 

Without further ado, let’s get into it. 

Bill Dickey
Will Clark
Connie Ryan
John Peters
Oliver Marcell
Albert Belle
Reggie Smith
Mell Ott
Rusty Staub

Born in rural Bastrop, Louisiana in 1907, Bill Dickey eventually made it all the way to New York City. Making his Major League debut at the age of 21 in 1928, Dickey quickly became the starting catcher for the New York Yankees. Between 1928 and 1943, Dickey made 10 All-Star games and won seven World Series championships. He was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1954. Nicknamed “The Man Nobody Knows” Dickey later managed the Yankees and helped teach Hall of Famer Yogi Berra the finer points of catching. 

Bill Dickey in 1937 

            Former San Francisco Giants first baseman and New Orleans native Will Clark never quite fit the offensive profile of a first baseman. Generally, first baseman are supposed to be big, lumbering power hitters. While Clark had some power—he hit 35 home runs in 1987—he was better known for his discerning batting eye and his ability to hit doubles. In 1988, he lead the league with 100 walks and only 129 strikeouts. 

Connie Ryan had a lengthy career in Major League Baseball. The New Orleans resident attended LSU before appearing in 1,184 games in 12 seasons. Throughout his career, Ryan played second and third base. He had 58 career home runs and 988 career hits. Ryan spent much of his career with the Braves as they moved from Boston to Milwaukee to Atlanta. After retiring, Ryan worked as a coach and scout and had two brief stints as a manager for the Braves and the Texas Rangers.

John Peters, a New Orleans native, played for five different teams in his ten year career. He first reached the majors in 1874 with the Chicago White Stockings. In 1876, Peters had the best offensive season of his career, hitting .351/.357/.418 good for 3.3 wins above replacement.

Oliver “Ghost” Marcell played third base in the Negro Leagues from 1918-1928. Known for his abrasive temperament, Marcell fought with umpires and opposing players and apparently retired from baseball after having his nose bit off in a fight. The Thibodaux native, however, was also a fantastic fielder and hitter. His contemporaries claimed that Marcell was the greatest third baseman in the entire league. He played in two Negro League World Series for the Bacharach Giants.

            Mell Ott, a Gretna native, played his entire career for the New York Giants. He appeared in 12 All-Star games and won the World Series in 1933. In that World Series, he hit two home runs, drove in four runs and had a .389 batting average. In his career, Ott hit 511 home runs and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1951, just four years after he retired. 

Reggie Smith, a native of Shreveport, was a hard-throwing outfielder who throughout his 16-year career played for the Boston Red Sox, St. Louis Cardinals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco. While Smith was a strong defender in right and center field, he also could hit. In 1977, he led the league in on-base percentage. He averaged 26 home runs per season over the course of his career and twice led the league in doubles. The seven time All-Star also won the 1981 World Series with the Dodgers.

Albert "Corky" Belle 

            Cleveland Indians left fielder and Shreveport native Albert Belle hit 381 home runs and anchored the lineup of the 1990s Indians, Belle had a rather checkered career in the major leagues. In 1994, Belle was suspended for using a corked bat. Belle then convinced a teammate, Jason Grimsley, to climb through a ceiling panel in order to steal his corked bat out of the umpires’ dressing room and swap it with a different one. Belle had a reputation for destroying clubhouse equipment and being rude to teammates and the media. 

            Besides having a great name, New Orleans native Rusty Staub was primarily known for hitting home runs and doubles. He was a part of the first Montreal Expos team and became that team’s first star player. He still holds the Expos record for career on-base percentage, .402.  The six-time All-Star was nicknamed “Le Grand Orange” by Expos fans for his red hair.   

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Star Wars Machete Order

         The Star Wars Machete Order, as introduced by blogger Rod Hilton, addresses some of the major problems of watching the prequel and original Star Wars trilogies. It calls for watching the films in the following order: A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith, and finishing with Return of the Jedi. For the numerically inclined, it looks like this: 4, 5, 2, 3, 6. 

But what about Episode 1: The Phantom Menace? The film introduces a young Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Star Wars universe in general. You can safely skip over the entire film without significantly detracting from the rest. Qui-Gon Jin? Only ever mentioned two more times as a throwaway line and an excuse to explain why Obi-Wan becomes a force ghost. All of the stuff about Anakin on Tatooine? It’s all re-introduced in Episode II. When Anakin first meets with Padme, she fondly recalled their earlier adventures. Anakin makes it abundantly clear that he’s been lusting after her in the ensuing years, but Padme still seems him as the young boy she once knew.  The quick re-introduction provides all the background for their relationship that you need—especially as his infatuation blossoms into some seriously stalker-ish behavior later in the film. Anakin similarly mentions that he left his mother behind when he joined the Jedi order and he still misses her. This presages his nightmares and desire, later in the film, to find her back on Tatooine. The film even introduces a new villain, Count Dooku, and a new threat, galactic civil war, to replace the groan inducing trade negotiations of Episode 1 (millions of nerd voices cry out in terror every time they are mentioned). Nute Gunray appears in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, but is largely shunted to the background. The Machete Order also blessedly removes Jar-Jar Binks as a prominent character. Instead of the bumbling idiot of The Phantom Menace, he becomes a member of Padme’s entourage. In this limited background role, the features that made Jar-Jar so annoying in Episode 1—his stupidity and horrible accent—are dramatically reduced. His reintroduction to Anakin and Obi Wan is brief and merely indicates that he too shared in their previous adventures. Removing The Phantom Menace doesn’t detract from the Star Wars saga in any meaningful way. 

The greatest strength of the Machete Order is that it keeps the focus of the movies on the story of Luke Skywalker. His story drives the narrative arc of the original trilogy. He goes from a frustrated moisture farmer—all he wanted to do was go to Toshi Station to pick up some power converters—to Jedi knight and a hero of the Rebellion. Luke’s character is very clear from the beginning. He’s a conscientious, hard-working young man who dreams of a better life for himself. He constantly puts the needs of others ahead of his own. He has remained on Tatooine to help his uncle on his moisture farm while all his friends have left. He risks his life to save Leia, a woman he has never met. InEmpire, Luke cuts short his Jedi training to save Leia and Han, even though he knows he’s walking into a trap set by Darth Vader. Along the way he meets up with his long lost sister, Leia, a roguish smuggler, Han Solo, and a big walking carpet, Chewbacca (who thanks to the death of the Extended Universe no longer dies being crushed by a moon).  There are space battles, lightsaber duels, and some gorgeous cinematography along the way. 

The Machete Order cleans up your mess George!

The Machete Order also preserves the truth of Darth Vader’s identity until he reveals it to Luke at the end of Empire. Watching the films chronologically diminishes the surprise of Vader’s revelation. (Note I’m writing here in terms of preserving the dramatic tension, everyone and their mother knows about the Luke-Vader relationship.) Until this moment, Vader has been the unquestioned villain of Star Wars. He relentlessly pursues Leia, the rebels, and finally Luke. The revelation that he is Luke’s father adds a shade of complexity to the character. By following Empire with the second and third films, the new trilogy serves as an extended flashback, comparing the different paths taken by father and son. In Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith, Anakin’s path towards the dark side of the force is clearly laid out. Traumatized by his experiences in slavery and the death of his mother, he seeks to protect himself and his loved ones, whatever the cost. He becomes increasingly obsessed, especially in Revenge of the Sith, with his own desires. He wants to become a Jedi Master and is incensed when the Jedi Council refuses to promote him. He wants to protect Padme, his wife, even at the cost of every other Jedi in the universe. Anakin speaks of bringing order to his empire. What began as a desire to protect his loved ones becomes all about himself. 

This order of the films also makes it abundantly clear that Anakin is not particularly bright. He places incompetent officers, like Admiral Ozzel, in positions of authority, killing them when they predictably fail. He is easily manipulated by Emperor Palpatine, makes impulsive decisions, and his incredible powers with the force lead him to be overconfident in his own abilities. He duels with Count Dooku only to lose an arm. He’s easily goaded into killing Dooku by Palpatine—immediately noting “I shouldn’t have done that.” In scenes featuring Palpatine or others in positions of authority, Anakin frequently stands to the side staring—the Palpatine-Mace Windu confrontation or when the Emperor is shooting Luke with force lightning are two prominent examples. Only the pleading of his own son reawakens the humanity within him. It is Luke who finally pushes Anakin to kill the Emperor. Using these two films as an extended flashback also sets up Anakin’s redemption in Return of the Jedi as we see what drove him to the dark side and what brought him back. 

In the Machete Order, Palpatine’s brilliance at manipulating Anakin, the Jedi, and the Galactic Republic becomes abundantly clear. He’s playing chess while the rest of the Galaxy is sitting on the ground eating dirt. The new trilogy shows Palpatine’s ability to enact several plans at once, allowing them to develop, and then picking the one that is most advantageous to him. In Revenge of the Sith, he sacrifices Count Dooku, until then his most powerful ally, in order to bring Anakin over to the Dark Side. He controls both sides of a galactic civil war and kills the leaders of the Separatist movement, who had followed every one of his orders in order to consolidate his own power. Palpatine successfully manipulates the Rebel Alliance into attacking the presumably unfinished Second Death Star. At the end of Return of the Jedi, he seems ready to either have Vader kill Luke and eliminate the biggest threat to his own power or have Luke kill and then replace his father as Palpatine’s puppet. Only Luke’s pleas to the little goodness left within Anakin foil Palpatine’s plan. For all of his foresight, he couldn't imagine Darth Vader tossing him down a conveniently located ventilation shaft. 

The Jedi, meanwhile, come out looking rather badly. Episodes 2 and 3 highlight their glaring incompetence in perceiving the Sith threat and Obi-Wan’s utter failure as Anakin’s teacher. Obi-Wan spends more time trying to be Anakin’s friend than his instructor. Anakin frequently disobeys Obi-Wan’s instructions, but gets away with it because his superior skills overcome his initial stupidity. As Anakin becomes increasingly encased in the web of Galactic politics, the Jedi fail to recognize his vulnerability to the powers of the Dark Side. He is frequently angry, frustrated, and desirous of praise and promotion. After refusing to grant Anakin a promotion to the rank of master, the Jedi Council attempts to cajole him into spying on Palpatine, not realizing they’re playing exactly into the chancellor’s hands. Only when it is far too late does Mace Windu sense a plot to destroy the Jedi. Once they realize their mistake, Yoda and Obi Wan attempt to turn the tide—not recognizing that it’s too late. They flee, waiting for another opportunity this time to use Anakin’s children to overthrow the emperor. By hiding Luke’s true parentage from him, Yoda and Obi Wan repeat the same mistakes they made with Anakin while trying to settle a twenty year old score. Luke, however, cares more about others, especially Leia and even his father, to be seduced by the Dark Side. His desire to confront the Emperor and belief in the goodness of his father wins the day over Yoda and Obi Wan’s cynicism about Vader’s true character and motivations. 

The Machete Order represents the best that the Star Wars films have to offer. It features an appealing lead character, a complicated villain, space battles, and charming rogues. It blends the two trilogies together, using them to enhance the story of Luke Skywalker and brings thematic order to George Luca’s cinematic empire.