Friday, July 29, 2011

The Real Reason He's Gone

Separated at birth?
In this era of relentless commercial cross-marketing and film- and television-tie-ins, it should come as a surprise to no one that Bob Bradley has been let go as the coach of the United States' Men's National Soccer Team. After all, with the release of the final installment of the phenomenal Harry Potter film series, and the elemental demise of He Who Must Not Be Named, clearly Bradley's usefulness for product-placement services has come to an end as well.

No doubt the powers-behind-the-scenes at the United States Soccer Association are already deep in negotiations with several studios about a replacement, searching for just the right person: a man who can assemble a reasonably successful squad of soccer players and provide a marketing link to the next outrageously successful film franchise.

I wish them luck.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Like Superman in Middle Earth

directed by Kenneth Branagh
starring Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Hiddleston and Anthony Hopkins

At the beginning of this movie, the famous warrior Thor enters Odin's great hall in Asgaard, and, I swear to God, all the elves who stood by the Rohirrim at the battle of the Hornburg in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers have gotten cast as extras for this film. They're probably computer-generated, but it sure looks like the same group, surrounded by all the same Gaelo-Norse frippery and martial décor. Well, one could do worse than honour that masterful cinematic achievement. 

But if this film hoped to be compared favourably to that, or any other, great action movie, then it would have been well to treat the characters as what they were in legend, rather than as what they became in the care of Marvel Comics. This movie attempts to tell an epic saga in half a movie, the other half being devoted to a love story involving one mortal and one immortal. (Gee, where have I seen that before?) In the end, it succeeds in telling the story in a sort of outline form that any 20th-Century college student will be familiar with from their note-taking. That's fine if all you want to do is be reminded of the ideas and themes to be studied, but it leaves the movie viewer dissatisfied.

So consider this movie as just an action flick. There are plenty of computer-generated special effects, and they run the full gamut from exciting to clever to ordinary to cheesy. The "Destroyer," a sort of cyborg come to do its master's bidding, is sometimes 30 feet tall, sometimes 12. The discrepancy rankles, as do some of the non-computer-generated special effects, with model buildings and cars succumbing to destruction in footage that would have been astounding in the 1960s, but today seem almost laughable.

Overall, Thor is something of a disappointment. The plot is well-imagined but unevenly realized, and the movie's makers' inability to develope the substance of either story line, the classic or the contrived, means that the greatest disappointment of the show comes at the end, when the names of the director and stars come on the screen. To think that the man who gave such brilliance to Shakespeare could produce such a frivolous, half-assed film, using to modest effect the great talents of such bright stars as Hopkins and Portman (who do their best, with some success, to avoid out-shining their co-stars), was the saddest part of this failure of a film.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Orchard Bar & Grill
571 Highway 63
Baldwin, Wisconsin

Just north of Interstate 94, in the small farming community of Baldwin, Wisconsin, stands a large restaurant called the Orchard Bar & Grill. The building was formerly a nursery; the bar in the main dining room is built around the base of an old silo. Except for the unavoidable television sets, the room holds a sense of elegance that, set against the fields and (actual) orchards visible through the large windows, gives diners the slight sensation of being Lord of the Manor. If only there were some serfs plowing in the distance....

The waitress turned out to be a former student of one of our group (no surprise, really; it's an area where everybody knows everybody else), so every time she came by we had a few minutes of reminiscences and gossip to listen to. Amusing to the others of us, since we're not from this part of the world, but such tidbits are the mortar that holds our society together, even if they're about people we don't know. Once heard, they give us the feeling we do know the people, after all. Because they're just like us.

The service we got was very good; the gossip and chit-chat made it even better. It was easy to see that others in the restaurant were equally pleased with it, even if they didn't get the who-done-what narrative with their food.

We started off with a round of drinks, followed up with an appetizer of New Glarus cheesebread: "Spotted Cow cheese blend" melted on a sliced baguette. New Glarus Brewing Company, located in southern Wisconsin, uses a spotted cow in its logo. It seems to be a local icon, but honestly I neither know nor care what the connection is with the cheesebread at the Orchard. It didn't taste of beer; it tasted more like pizza. Good, but not great, and in retrospect I could have done without it. I'd've had more capacity for the highlights of the meal.

The first highlight was the soup. The onion soup was well made in the thoroughly traditional manner, and was loaded with cheese over caramelized onions in a deep, dark beef stock, with a slice of the same baguette that was used for the cheesebread. The sweet potato soup was thick, slightly warm, and tasty. I might have been happy with just a big bowl of that, but I had already ordered an entrée.

My friend's blackened New York strip steak was grilled perfectly and liberally covered with sprinkles of bleu cheese. You might expect cheese in Wisconsin to be extraordinary, but this, I'm told, wasn't quite to that level. It was merely very good. Since I don't like bleu cheese myself — I try to stay away from rotten food, whether the rot is considered desirable or not — I have to take his word for this. My coconut shrimp stir-fry was right up there in the food standings, too; maybe not a champion but definitely a contender.

All this, though, was but prelude to the deserts: Wisconsin cherries with vanilla ice cream, and turtle pie. Cherries are, to my way of thinking, only good at all when they are very fresh, as when found at a roadside stand at the height of their season. These cherries may have been acquired in that fashion, as they were perfectly ripe, perfectly tart, and perfectly juicy. The vanilla ice cream was as good as one can expect from a state famous for its dairy industry. Good as that dish was, the turtle pie was even better. It was heavenly, with the perfect texture in all its makings. If I were rating only the desserts, there'd be another chili pepper on the board.
The Orchard Bar & Grill on Urbanspoon

Women's World Cup TV Ratings

According to Soccer America, the best, yet still mediocre, American soccer publication around, the semifinal match between the United States and France last Wednesday got the highest-ever rating for a weekday Women's World Cup match. All those adjectival qualifiers — "weekday"; "women's"; "world cup" — made me wonder how the US-France game stacks up among other soccer matches.

In women's soccer, the all-time ratings leader by a huge margin, with 18.5 million households, is the 1999 WWC final between the United States and China. In that year, the organizers and sponsors of the tournament — the first Women's World Cup held in the United States — did a fantastic promotional job. Those of us who count as soccer fans still remember the ads from back then: "I will have two fillings."

The quality of play back then wasn't all that great. Most of the women's national programs in the world were newish things, with minimal organizational and financial support, but the '99 Women's World Cup was none the less a turning point for women's football, and not just in America. Here, though, ratings for three of the games were more than encouraging. The United States's come-from-behind win over Germany in the quarterfinal match was watched by two and a half million households; the semifinal romp against Brazil on the Fourth of July drew nearly twice that many, just shy of five million households. And the final against China six days later ... well, you know.

Two games from this year's Cup have broken into the all-time top five. The quarterfinal against Brazil, a much-anticipated match-up played last weekend, drew just under four million households to become the third-most-watched women's world cup match of all time; and the semifinal against France on Wednesday slides in just behind that, with about three and a quarter million households tuning in.

It's surprised me, how many people I know that have been watching these games. These are people who don't much give a hoot about soccer, and will take back a hoot over women's soccer, but they're following our national team now, and finding out how exciting a game it can be when played at this level.

So how does it compare with men's soccer in America?

Well, that 1999 Women's World Cup Final is still the leader in the TV ratings. More Americans tuned in to that match than have watched any other soccer match in history, men's or women's.

Coming second, with 14.5 million households, is the 1994 men's World Cup Final between Brazil and Italy, a tight match that was eventually resolved through penalty kicks. I suspect the game was widely watched not because of great intrinsic interest in soccer per se, but because it was being played in the United States and had been hyped out the wazoo after Brazil had barely beaten the upstart host team in an earlier round. That earlier match, which had Brazil squeaking by against our men, drew 13.7 million households and is the third most-watched soccer match.

Next, with 12 million households tuning in, is the 2006 men's World Cup final between Italy and France, famous mostly for being the final — and most ignominious — national-team appearance of Zinedine Zidane, the greatest player of his day. (Personally, I didn't watch that game. I had been so put off by the obtuse machinations of FIFA's officiating policies that I entirely quit watching the '06 World Cup halfway through the group stages.)

And rounding out the top five televised soccer matches is last year's US-England match, a so-so display of bare competence that drew 10.8 million households.

It would be pointless, I think, to deny that women's soccer is a much weaker draw than men's soccer — and men's soccer isn't all that great a draw in this country either, where Monday Night Football can routinely draw 17 million households, no matter how lame a match-up is promised. I'm sure that a lot of the difference in popularity between men's soccer and women's soccer is due to an ignorant assumption that women can't be as skilled as men at team sports.

And a larger part of it is probably due to that lack of organizational and financial support I mentioned. Most countries in the world still don't provide any real backing to their potential female athletes, in soccer or any other sport. In most cases, it's understandable: there are barely enough resources to back one national team, and men come first. (Whether it should be so is beside the point.) I don't see Somalia becoming a force in women's football any time soon; certainly not before they improve that nasty little starvation problem they've got going on.

But even countries that do provide support to their women's teams — and you can basically look at who's in this year's Women's World Cup to see who they are — provide that support at a much lower level than their men's teams. It's a function of popularity, and so a vicious circle.

The effect of that lack of support — the reduced training that it entails — explains one of the main differences between top-level men's games and top-level women's games. I've noticed in this world cup that, with a very few exceptions, female players are more likely to cluster around the ball like teenagers, a habit counterproductive to smooth, effective soccer. Young men on the path to professional clubs have this inclination trained out of them, but women's training, it seems, has not yet reached that point.

There is another fact that must be dealt with. While female athletes can be as technically skilled as male athletes — and some are; just look at the Japan-Germany match the other day — they aren't as physically strong or as fast as their male counterparts. We are still far, far away from the day when the best women's national team can beat a mid-table men's national team, or when the WPS champion can compete with a team like NAC Breda or Lyngby BK.

But then, they don't have to be as strong as men; they only have to be competitive with other women to make the contest interesting. Speed, though, is a slightly different proposition. The speed difference between male and female players is fractions of a second, but over the course of a 90-minute game, those fractions of seconds add up and make the women's game seem slower than the men's game.

There is a simple, if partial, fix for this situation. The rules of the game provide that the field of play can be anywhere from 100 to 130 yards long, and anywhere from 50 to 100 yards wide (provided that the length be greater than the width). Men's teams tend to make their fields as large as the stadium will accommodate, but if women's teams will mark out a field that is narrower, and maybe a little shorter, then the extra fractions of seconds that it takes a female player to gather in a ball, or close down an opponent, will disappear, and the game will be as fast-paced as that played by men.

Apologists for women's sports will decry that solution, saying that the fault lies not with the field but with the ignorant potential spectators. There is some truth to that, as I've already acknowledged. But if women's soccer is to grow into a commercially successful spectator sport, it will at some point have to cater to the prejudices of those potential viewers. It will have to take advantage of existing rules to make the game more entertaining, just as tennis requires less of its female players (and, I might argue, makes women's tennis more entertaining than men's).

Heather Mitts, for example...
And let's not overlook the fact that sex sells. Certainly the French know that; some of their players, I understand, have posed nude for publications in that country. (I haven't seen the pictures, but I'll just bet you there are some strategically placed soccer balls that keep you guessing.) The American team, for example, has some real babes playing on it, but mentioning that on television is like using the N-word. It's just not done. Too bad: a lot of guys might just tune in if they realized they were going to see some hot chicks sweating. And then maybe they'll get wrapped up in the sport instead of the players

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The sleazy British tabloid, News of the World, has published its last libel.

After years of lowering standards for reportage around the world, this maven of irresponsibility has lost its century-long race for circulation numbers in the most cynical fashion possible: by going out of business with a bad public apology, not for what it did, but for what it got caught doing. In its final publication, it pats itself on the back and speaks of its pride at 168 years of wallowing in muck. The spin is all about the good things the paper did, but I see no mention of what it was intended to do. It was intended to increase the fortunes of its owners and managers, regardless of the cost to public decency, private lives, and journalistic standards.  

To its friable apology, I say, "Good riddance" to the newspaper that earned the nickname, "News of the Screws." The only sad thing about its demise, besides its own unredeemed attitude toward its behaviour, is the certainty that other sleazy papers will take its place, and will hire all the villains of the piece. I hope instead they are all, individually, subjected to the same kind of intrusive, perverted treatment that they so routinely subjected others to. 

It's bad enough that they slithered around the ankles of Britain's royals and celebrities. To some extent, those people have to expect a certain amount of abusive treatment. But to hack the phones of crime victims, and their families, and the families of soldiers killed in combat .... That is low, even for the serpent in the crib. It reflects a moral gangrene that should infect not just the immediate actors who performed illegal acts — only two so far, but counting — but also those within the organization who allowed, ignored, or acquiesced in those acts. Right up to the very top of the compost heap. They should be pariahs who never live down the shame of what they have done.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

London Pics Available On Line

One of the photos that didn't make the cut. 
A selection of the pictures we took last month in London are now posted in an album on Picasa. Click here to view them.