Archive for March, 2009

Deconstructing a Corey Stillman Deflection

images6In the Philadelphia Flyers loss last Thursday night to the Florida Panthers, I watched the Panther’s Corey Stillman score a goal that spoke to a level of eye-hand coordination that approaches the miraculous. Stillman was a major contributor to the Carolina Hurricanes team that won a Stanley Cup in 2006.

In the first period, with the Panthers attacking in the Flyers zone, the puck bounced out to the Panther’s left point defenseman, Radek Dvorak who walloped a slapshot toward the right side of the net defended by Flyers goalie Marty Biron. As Biron moved to his right to stop the incoming puck, he, of necessity, opened space on the left side between his left shoulder and the frame of the net.

In the instant that Dvorak’s shot began whistling toward the net, Corey Stillman raised the blade of his stick to intercept that 90-plus miles-per-hour puck. Within that same instant that the puck hit Stillman’s stick, he directed it into the open side of the net to the left of Biron. The goaltender never had a chance. The entire wondrous sequence of events described above took place in a fraction of a second.

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Elegy For A Season

images-13Suited up and carrying my board, I walk toward the gate where a bundled-up attendant aims his electronic zapper at my lift ticket. We exchange “how you doings,” And I continue walking out to the edge of the slope while skiers already mounted into their bindings zip on past me.

There’s a bench at the cusp of the downgrade, but several snowboarders have claimed it to buckle in. My new rig includes the latest in step-in bindings, so dropping the board with a resounding “thwack” onto the crisp and freshly groomed surface of the snow, I step my front foot into the maw of the binding, raise the back riser and engage the locking clamp. A safety strap to keep the board from getting away unattached is snapped to the top of my boot. One foot in, one to go. The back foot is a repeat of the first, minus the runaway strap. If the board is not on nearly perfectly level ground, it will begin to move downhill the instant the rear boot is clamped into the binding. But I am ready to go, and with a slight jump, I position the board into the grade and begin to slide into the slope, slowly at first. I find it difficult to believe that I am seventy-one years old.

The laws of gravity, friction, adhesion and a host of other dynamics I barely understand all come into play, and I am quickly accelerating down a wide swath of sunlit snow. Around me others on snowboards and skis are doing the same. This is a “Green Circle” run, a Novice or Beginner’s access run that leads to a cornucopia of ski trail options. Near the bottom of the run, a turn to the left will open to an extended easy run of gentle switchback turns all the way to the bottom of the mountain. A turn to the right, however offers a choice of several Black Diamond or advanced runs. It’s my first run of the day and my inherent conservatism usually dictates an easy start. But what the hell, I am already carving effortless arcs on the green, so let’s go for it, right from the start.

Cutting away from the pack of snowplowing skiers and nervous looking beginning boarders, I let my board run flat and zoom toward the sign marked with a large black diamond and the words “Midway, Advanced Skiers Only.” The surface of snow ahead of me seems to come to an abrupt end. As I approach the edge, I check my speed, sliding laterally across the slope to the point of the drop-off that begins the Black Diamond or “expert” run. Pivoting on the edge of the slope, I turn the nose of the board directly into the line of least gravitational resistance, the “fall line.”

I am looking down a white wall, and the sense of acceleration is immediate. A rush of adrenaline hits me as I turn my right shoulder to my left, my hips automatically follow my shoulder, and with my knees flexed and my toes pushing on the edge of the board, the entire organic mechanism that is me and the snowboard begins to turn across the face of the hill. It all takes place in a fraction of a second, and as the sharp, steel edge of the board cuts and digs into the surface of the snow, my acceleration is arrested. But because of the severity of the grade, the slowdown is not much noticed. I am fucking flying.

Immediately leaning forward, I throw my shoulder back into the direction from whence I came. This time I’m turning back across the slope, but now it’s my heel edge that biting the surface, and in a counter-weight to my forward velocity, I’ve dropped into a crouch with my butt hanging back into the grade of the hill and out over the snow. This is all taking place in real time, at high speed and with no time to actually think about what has to be done. My interior landscape is a precarious balance of intense concentration and near complete relaxation. The air is rushing past my ears and the sound of the edges of the board fighting for a grip on the surface rises like the screaming of fast freight on a curving track. One bad move, a single lapse of focus, one misjudgment in a nearly infinite mix of factors and there are consequences that can approach the life threatening. You do not want to make any mistakes.

The degree of the descent eases and the run opens out into a wide bowl, allowing me to aim myself up and around the rim of this saucer-like indentation in the side of the hill. The turn up into the bowl immediately has a dampening effect upon my speed, and at very top edge of the cup, I execute a sharp cutting turn back into the fall line, down and out of the bowl and into the next drop in terrain.

It’s at this point that the trail merges into a wider and steeper run from the top of the mountain. It’s a little like a mixing bowl of lanes on the Jersey Turnpike near the George Washington Bridge. On a weekend, there can be throngs of skiers and boarders all flying downhill and all seeking ways to share the space. There are no lane markers, but theoretically, the uphill person is responsible for the safety of those below. That theory always seems to get wobbly in the heads of too many of the hormone-charged adolescent males whose only mode of riding is flat out down the fall line. I am very careful on merging trails, more so on those rated “Advanced.”

The rest of the run is just variation on all of the above, and too quickly it seems, I find myself at the bottom queuing up in line for the chair lift or gondola that will take me back up to the top where I can choose another of the always interesting and exciting ways to work my way back again to the bottom. Standing in line reflecting upon the preceding moments of riding, I realize that riding a snowboard is akin to entering a closed system, one that combines in varying measures, pure bliss, borderline terror and an ever-present possibility of experiencing a sense of kinetic grace otherwise granted only to the Barishnikovs and Nureyevs of this world.

And now it’s over once again for another nine months.

You Had To Be There; 1951 and “A Place In The Sun”

t12633pzoe21Watching the Turner Classic Movies’ presentation of 1951’s blockbuster hit “A Place in the Sun,” with three other pre-war WW II-vintage friends, my own deconstructions of how the film had not aged all that well over the intervening fifty-eight years, raised some hackles with one of my fellow viewers. She had loved the movie in 1951, and did not appreciate hearing the ironic delight as we pointed out the now campy, corny and embarrassing aspects of the production.

Great art supposedly can transcend time, but a popular movie like “A Place in the Sun,” it picked up six Academy Awards, like almost all commercial art, ends up trapped within its context, within its moment. That’s not to say it’s not a good movie, maybe it’s a great movie, but whatever it is, it’s embedded irrevocably within the conventions, assumptions and the craft of movie-making as they existed in a time and a place. It is difficult to watch “A Place in the Sun” without being reminded constantly that it was made in Hollywood in 1951.

Think of the carpet-chewing performance by Raymond Burr as the prosecuting D.A., or of the sound track that telegraphs every emotional transition, and there’s the pre-feminist, pre-pill “American Tragedy” underlying the screenplay goes back to a 1906 novel. Best of all, try and look into the gorgeous gauzy face of a pre-Nicky Hilton Elizabeth Taylor without thinking of what’s yet to come in her life, or gaze upon the terminal handsomeness of a Montgomery Clift, and forget that he’s as yet still in the closet. It’s impossible to deny knowing all that’s been learned since 1951 and watch a movie like this in innocence. That doesn’t mean it can’t be enjoyed, but In its presentation, the picture is so heavily laden with its own time and place that it almost necessarily distracts current viewers in a way a well-made contemporary movie can’t; but certainly will, given enough time.

Watching old movies, and I do love to watch them, I am forced by the distance between then and now, to watch on multiple levels, something I don’t or can’t do with contemporary films because the distances are as yet too close. Old movies, movies removed from the zeitgeist of their making, no matter how good, nearly always become artifacts whose incidental details can overwhelm a later viewer from what the creators of the piece were trying to do. I am told that occasionally a movie becomes timeless. I wish I could think of even one, but I keep coming up empty.

Life Imitates Art: Suburban Surrealism

images5The Surrealist movement of the early to mid-twentieth-century has not held up very well. It’s all come to seem and feel rather quaint; the soft clocks, the agoraphobic landscapes and supposedly jarring juxtapositions. The avant-garde aspects of life as it’s now experienced has rendered the entire idea of “surrealism” irrelevant.

Living in a near to mid-suburb of a major American city, I’ve had reason to revisit the concept of the surreal. The gym I frequent is a few minutes drive from our house. With one car in the shop, I decided to walk that short distance, an easy fifteen minutes stroll.

All was well for the first five or so minutes down our deserted tree-shaded street. Coming out onto an arterial four-lane township road, things immediately began getting weird. A continuous flow of high-speed traffic and the absence of a sidewalk made the enterprise boderline hazardous.

Making it safely to the major intersection where a county highway, another crowded four-lane raceway, I watched the maze of overhead traffic signals for the break I needed to reach the sidewalk on the far side of the highway. There were no concessions at all to foot traffic.

From my crossing point, the rest of the walk was easy, but that’s where things got really strange. In my half-hour afoot, coming and going, there were probably hundreds of cars within my field of vision. And yet, I saw not one other pedestrian, not one other human being who wasn’t inside a buttoned up car.

It was like one of those post-apocalyptic science fiction movies, where a world is filled with activity, but no signs exist of other human beings. I drive this very stretch on a daily basis and think nothing of it. But on foot in what I thought was my own intimate environment, I begin to feel myself, very much a stranger in a strange land.

John Prine On Sabu’s Visit To The Twin Cities

images2The movie wasn’t really doing so hot
said the new producer to the old big shot
it’s dying on the edge of the great Midwest
Sabu must tour or forever rest.

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south toward Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone… John Prine

You get a lyric like that spinning the hamster wheel in your head, and you’ll find yourself grinning at the most inappropriate times.

images-11Prine’s sly take on American popular culture in the nineteen-forties, maybe early fifties, nails the boundaries of Hollywood exotica in those times. But at least “Sabu the Elephant Boy” was relatively close to the real thing.

Worse was the oblivious casting of blatantly Caucasian actors when a leading Asian, or for that matter, any minority adult role had to be filled. Think of Ira Gershwin suggesting Al Jolson for the original Porgy. Charlton Heston wore a shoe polish facial gloss to play the Mexican detective in Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil.” Charlie Chan was split between Warner Oland and Sidney Toller, both of whom probably did on occasion eat in Chinese restaurants. Sam Jaffe was Gunga Din, and when a bloodthirsty redskin was required, more often than not, the call went out to a guy named Mike Mazurki.

But the thought of a song, moreover a song that works, about Sabu touring the Upper Midwest in winter to promote some awful “B” movie, seems a measure of the gentle genius of John Prine. In the final verse, he sings:

His manager sat in the office alone
staring at the numbers on the telephone
wondering how a man could send a child actor
to visit the land of the wind chill factor.

Sabu was sad, the whole tour stunk
the airlines lost the elephant’s trunk
the roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu…

Hey look ma
here comes the elephant boy
bundled all up in his corduroy
headed down south towards Illinois
from the jungles of East St. Paul.

A Hopper Moment

images1In the Arts and Leisure Section of today’s New York Times, a case is made for the influence of Edward Hopper upon the course of American photography. Seems like a no-brainer. 

As it was for many Americans, my own “Aha” moment in terms of coming to art in any kind of meaningful way began with Hopper. In the Spring of 1952, I was fourteen years old and had a newspaper route that included delivering a weekend edition early on Sunday mornings. 

One afternoon, daydreaming my way through another high school afternoon, absentmindedly flipping through my English Lit. text, I happened upon a full-color reproduction of  Hopper’s classic urban scene, “Sunday Morning.” In an instant, I knew that I was looking at the real thing. Implicit in my reaction to that angled early morning sunlight on those so familiar, though never before seen storefronts, was an understanding that this, and not cherubs, not crucifixion allegories, not genre painting of noble peasants, was what art was about. For the first time in my life, I saw that the reality of human existence, my own included, could be presented in terms that granted some measure of transcendence.