Monday, April 8, 2013

Shockers: Believe again

I'm sad that Wichita State, my alma mater, won't be playing for the NCAA championship tonight. It was a heartbreaker, but my sadness is mitigated by the fact that they played their hearts out. The Shockers played mean, with no let-up, right to the end. They owned the court for most of the game.

In the end, the only thing standing between the Shockers advancing toward the NCAA championship game was a controversial call by a ref in the final six seconds of the game. At that moment, the die was cast. Up to then, a Shocker championship was a real possibility. What seemed unrealistic at the start of the season was, near the end, plausible. The loss was a close shave.

I'm so proud of the Shocks. They never let their fans down. Their rise from obscurity to national prominence and the eyes of the world this season was miraculous. They lost most of their starters and scoring power from last year, they were undervalued, underrated. (They were picked fourth to win the Missouri Valley Conference.) They didn't even win the conference, yet they came back to prove the "experts" wrong at every turn. Beating a no. 2 ranked Big 10 school -- Ohio State. Beating no. 2 seeded Gonzaga!

I remember when upstart school, George Mason -- an urban school much like WSU --made it to the Final Four in 2006. Who were they? And to think, this year it happened for WSU. Was afraid I'd never see this again.

When I was a kid, my parents took me to see the Shockers play at the old Henry Levitt Arena during the Shockers old glory days of the late '70s-early '80s. There were all these dry years afterward, but now the Shockers are seeing a new renaissance. It's actually better because the coach Greg Marshall is really of a higher caliber than the old Shockers controversial coach Gene Smithson of some 30 years ago.

Marshall is a class act. Read up on his record. All the Shocks are upstanding, hardworking guys and they deserve all the love, all the praise they are getting from the community -- all the respect they have earned from their competition and the nation.

My son told me to calm down as I yelled at the TV, but it's all right. We got home from his Pinewood Derby tournament just in time to see the game. Gotta go to a Scout meeting now. Love my boy. Love my friends. Wish I'd been watching the game with my buddy Adam. Wish my old journalism instructor Les Anderson was here, but it's all right.

Life is sweet. It's time to believe again.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Play angry

Busy morning. Getting tight here. Time drawing near. Writing and re-writing. Wife's coming home from Dallas today. Gotta take my boy to the district Pinewood Derby race. Registration by 1 p.m. Have to be back to watch the Shockers play at 5 p.m. For any non-WSU alum or readers not up on sports, they are playing Louisville.

In Atlanta! My friends and I have fb messaging back and forth: "Final freaking 4!" "Un frickin' believable!" "Wild!"

They're on a Wheaties box and the cover of (damn!) Sports Illustrated. Oh I bought that thing. This may never happen again. It's a keepsake.

So much I want to say, but I gotta get my ass 'outa here. A lot to do, but I'd be remiss not to put something up here before the big game tonight. I do want to say, though, that the Shockers have earned everything they've got. They have worked, sweat, cried, sacrificed -- individually and as a team. They have earned the right to be where they are.

I'll be back. Go shocks!

P.S. Here are some articles from the Eagle. Enclosing an interesting article on former Shocker coach Mark Turgeon who turned the then-faltering Shocker basketball program around in the late '90s and '00s.

At the movies with Ebert

I was on flat Kansas highway, too close in propinquity to where the damn road started for me, when it came over my car radio -- via Robert Siegel and All Things Considered -- that Roger Ebert died. The day prior I'd read on social media that the cancer was back and he was taking a break. It's the kind of announcements celebrities make right before the inevitable. Gene Siskel made such an announcement 14 years earlier before dying of his own cancer.

Had I never watched an episode -- had Siskel and Ebert at the Movies never existed -- I would have nevertheless discovered and played in the art of film criticism somewhere, but it would have come harder. As is life, from cradle to the hearse, the road's had a lot of potholes and drop-offs anyhow.

I was elated to win awards for film review writing on my campus newspaper at Wichita State University (Go Shocks!). My editor friend Mary -- a talented review writer who considered pursuing a PhD in film studies -- encouraged me. Like Ebert, who considered his newspaper columns his identity, Mary and I both caught that sickness unto death like it was yellow fever. "It gets in your blood," she said of reporting and newspapering. Unlike Ebert, always original in his critical style, Mary did like Blue Velvet.( "Heineken! Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!") Of course, Mary, myself and our contemporaries are as far away from Ebert's raw talent as a coke-addled 1970s Dennis Hopper was removed from reality. We're unfit for many things, the least of which --- kissing Roger Ebert's ticket stub.

Tributes to Ebert have been falling over cyberspace like the papers rolling off the presses and on to the sidewalk newsstand at the opening of every Siskel and Ebert show. He generated respect, while alive, as evidenced by his Twitter followers and the readers of his blog. But it was respect acquired over time, deadline stress and tears.

"The skinny guy's all right sometimes. I can't stand the fat guy."

That's the kind of thing my classmates in the community college theater department would say about those two guys on TV who (gasp) dared to dis top Hollywood stars and the money making crap they squeezed out.

"I think they were no-talents who couldn't make it as actors so they have to tear everyone down," the young thespians would say.

Actually, the only real thing Siskel failed at was his plan to become a lawyer. Ebert? He never got that English lit doctorate. Damn.

Back then, the only one of my friends who shared my appreciation for these film reviewers was my fellow writer-and-cigarette-smoking friend Steve. When I mentioned to Steve that I liked watching Siskel and Ebert, he replied, "I love 'em." We respected these astute critics for one reason:

They could back up everything they said.

Steve and I would sit in front of the TV at 10:30 p.m., Sunday nights and critique the critiquers.

"I hate reviews like that," he said, feeling their review of Naked Lunch was wishy-washy. "Be definitive. Make a damn statement."

On a special At the Movies, in which they discussed "guilty pleasures," Ebert admitted a fondness for a maudlin Bette Middler movie, Stella about a feisty, uncouth singer and single mother, tending bar and trying to give her daughter a better life. Not my thing.

In a regular episode of the show, Siskel gave Rocky IV thumbs up and said, "I can't wait to see Rocky V". No Gene. Should've stopped after one.

What I now realize is that we were studying Siskel and Ebert and they were teaching us to become informed, critical thinkers and consumers of film art. From them, we learned that reviewing a movie -- or anything -- is much more than saying, "That movie rocks! That sucks." Judging a film's merits entails evaluating the dialogue, scenery, camera angles, writing, film editing, direction, plot believability...more than a critic can summarize into one review. It's the writer's role to discern the most salient points to mention.

Siskel and Ebert called the Hollywood Establishment to the carpet, when they felt it was warranted. These guys weren't taken in by celebrity, weren't like "insider political reporters" getting drunk on the power of a cocktail party. They were critical of the pomposity, prejudices and politics of the Oscars academy.

It's appropriate that non-actors and non-filmmakers scrutinize movies. We're buying their mansions, dishing out a ridiculous $10 a ticket, paying for the Netflicks and the damn popcorn. Probably what I've most taken from Siskel and Ebert, is that as an audience member I don't want to be taken for granted.

Around 20 years ago, Sly Stallone made a sorrowful action comedy, Stop or My Mom Will Shoot. One look at the trailers and I was saying Siskel and Ebert are 'gonna slam this." A week later I saw them on Letterman with Ebert calling it "the worst movie of the year."

And it probably was. It was laziness. It was Mr. Hollywood Superstar saying, "Hey, you love me. You're 'gonna pay to see me. I wrote my brilliant Rocky script in the '70s. I don't have to work for your love anymore." So he --- you know the formula. Mr. Action Star shows his softer, comedic side with some hackneyed, rehashed storyline about the perfunctory Tough Cop who's secretly a mama's boy. This Big Boy meets his match when diminutive spitfire Mom Estelle Getty comes to town and we're supposed to laugh when Little Miss Golden Girl takes down the criminals herself, while babbling about her little boy's diaper rash.

I'm calling bullshit. I'm offended, pissed off, when cynical Entertainment-Complex types insult my intelligence like that.

Apparently I owe a big thank you to a guy like Roger Ebert. He helped me see outside the Entertainment-Blockbuster-Complex box. A film about two guys having a conversation from across a table might be more entertaining than something chockablock with fight scenes and explosions. A documentary about a pig farmer or kids gearing up for a spelling bee might be riveting. If not for Ebert and his skinny rival, would I have written a review of a foreign film, Cinema Paradiso? Not at 20 years of age, not for an English assignment, I'll tell you that. I learned that if I were to watch a documentary about black drag queens in Paris and give it a thumbs up, I wasn't going to turn queer. (It was much more homophobic times 20 years ago.)

So yes, Ebert, like any gifted writer would, enlarged my mind. As his online columns of recent years have shown, his own mind was wide open. Along with his reviews, Ebert also weighed in on social issues like the Tea Party, racism, gay marriage and right-wing textbook revisionists. Not surprisingly, he was liberal. You can't be a puritanical social conservative and be an evaluator of art as he was. It'd be impossible.

Ebert's worldview complemented his approach to watching movies. As I listened in my car, NPR played archived audio of an old Ebert interview. He said through watching a great movie "I can see what it feels like to be a member of a different gender, a different race, a different economic class, to live in a different time, to have a different belief."

It's happened in my lifetime. On occasion, a great film has prompted me to question, change or modify a particular view. Watching for and noting such things is part of what makes film review an art form.

The form been devalued in recent years. In the 1980s, my metropolitan area newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, had two film critics. Now it has none. Local TV stations will sit two bubbleheads on stools and they banter about how many boxes of popcorn to give a movie without any substantive explanation why. Critiquing is a craft and not everyone has a talent for it.

At the Movies jumped the shark after Siskel died and somewhere in Chicago, a balcony is closed forever. But when talking about Ebert's death, think about saving the art of film comment in our clickety-ADHD generation.

Loved it when they would fight.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Pungent air and piss

Maria, her brother Matt and I were gone --- a narrow, torturous road stuck in place camaro-hot purgatory. Road was a narrow staircase of crude tar patches. No shoulders to wake you up when you get slit-eyed at the wheel. No warning before that long drop into the dry weeds of this time forgotten,

Nothin' like driving south with the one you love. Oklahoma, baby. That's where our salvation awaits. The poker and blackjack tables. Slot machines. Lucky Ducky. Liberty 7. Kingdom Cash. Maria would go gravitating toward that thing before the night was over -- a game. Just stick it right in the slot. Nothin' like an electronic device called Girl's Best Friend. Yeah, I got your best friend right here, baby.

We never made it to one of the swanky gaming houses in the more prosperous of Indian nations. But the place wasn't complete confederate flag trash either. A moderate level above low life, I'd say. Classy crowd. People were there to gamble, not get drunk. Air was a zeppelin-like cloud of tarred nicotine bearing over a puddle of piss.

Maria lost $20, got $15 back. Matt won $20, lost $50. It's the nature of casinos. People win and lose a dollar, a five here and there. Once in a while some smart, lucky or cheating sonovabitch hits pay dirt.

The woman screamed ecstatically, breasts bobbing up and down as she jumped with unbridled joy. She placed a dollar at Mr. Moneybags and here she hit a jackpot of -----

Six thousand dollars!!!

Because there is no love and happiness like material possession. Especially the kind you lucked into. She was all over her husband, gropin' and scopin', kissin' and a-huggin' as the tears drew black mascara down her face like it was erosion. It was an emotional moment. Probably a relief. Why not let it out? Why hold back?

She was so excited she (I couldn't believe it. My mouth went agape.) undid her jeans and dropped trou right there. Head still cackling with laughter as she squatted her big ass over the tile floor. She must've pissed the Cimarron River over that floor.

By the way, April Fool.