Saturday, September 24, 2011

The Problem with Moneyball

I loved Moneyball (the book, that is), but have always found it seriously flawed. I tried to explain why for Slate.

Moneyball doesn't just espouse principles. It also tells a story. And that story is, well, kind of bullshit. "I wrote this book," Lewis says in the preface, "because I fell in love with a story. The story," he continues, "concerned a small group of undervalued professional baseball players and executives, many of whom had been rejected as unfit for the big leagues, who had turned themselves into one of the most successful franchises in Major League Baseball." Obviously, the question raised by this story is: How did they do it? The book's answer, which is echoed in Bennett Miller's movie: By thinking differently than other teams, relying on numbers instead of scouting, and finding unappreciated gems like Scott Hatteberg (a catcher Oakland converted into a first baseman) and Chad Bradford (a side-arming relief pitcher; he and Hatteberg each get a chapter of their own in Moneyball). Those were smart things to do. And they helped around the edges. Bradford was a solid reliever; Hatteberg acquitted himself well at first base.

But the main reason the A's were successful in the early 2000s was that four of the high draft picks they were awarded after lousy seasons in the late 1990s all turned fairly quickly into top-notch players.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

All about the Coen Brothers

Last week, Slate published three pieces I wrote about the films of Joel and Ethan Coen: first, an essay about my path from initial fandom to mild hostility to a more thoughtful (I hope) devotion to their work (accompanied by a slide show of some of their favorite motifs); second, a brief write-up, with clips, of their short films and advertising work; and third, my personal (and tentative) ranking of their fifteen feature films, with links to the many rankings others have done over the last few years.

Then on Monday I wrote a post for Brow Beat, the Slate culture blog, reflecting on the results of a poll Brow Beat blogger Nina Shen Rastogi put up asking readers what their favorite (and least favorite) Coen brothers films were. I also wrote in that post about the many enjoyable responses generated by the pieces published the week before (I learned, among other things, which Coen brothers film Judd Apatow prefers to the rest, something I did not think to ask him about last fall).

This is not the first time I have written about the Coen brothers for Slate: in 2008, ten years after the release of the The Big Lebowski, I considered the politics of Walter Sobchak.

Friday, June 03, 2011

Deep Focus

If the author had not been Jonathan Lethem—award-winning novelist, brilliant essayist, recipient of a “genius grant” from the MacArthur Foundation—I might not have opened They Live, a slim critical monograph published last year concerning a late-1980s science-fiction-horror film I had never seen. When I did open it, I found epigraphs from Roland Barthes, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mystery Science Theater 3000, and short, suggestive chapters with titles like “Note on Diegesis and Ideology and Peek-A-Boo” (on the film-theory terms Lethem finds indispensable) and “The Black Guy and the White Guy, Together Again for the First Time” (on a certain casting cliché in late-20th-century Hollywood action movies). I found shrewd and funny insights concerning the movie's key device, “a pair of sunglasses that reveal yuppies as alien ghouls.” And I found a way of thinking about movies that was thorough, thoughtful, populist, and personal, all at once.
My appreciation of the Deep Focus series published by Soft Skull is up at the Barnes & Noble Review. Read the rest.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Bleak House

I reviewed Blake Butler’s new novel There Is No Year for Bookforum. Here’s how the review starts:
In an interview published in the winter 2010 issue of the Paris Review, Jonathan Franzen said to Stephen Burn, “I’ve never felt less self-consciously preoccupied with language than I did when I was writing Freedom. Over and over again, as I was producing chapters, I said to myself, ‘This feels nothing like the writing I did for twenty years—this just feels transparent.’” Franzen added that this struck him as “a good sign”—an indication that he was “pressing language more completely into the service of providing transparent access to the stories I was telling and to the characters in those stories.”

Blake Butler is the opposite of that.
Read the rest.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

On the strange stardom of James Franco

I’ve attempted a semi-unified theory of James Franco for the London Review of Books. You can read the first paragraph here, register for free to read the whole thing here, and check out a couple key paragraphs below:
Acting with James Franco and Erased James Franco didn’t shift public perception of the actor much: the former was a lark and the latter shown only in museums (there are a few minutes on YouTube; they’re enough). But in 2009, Franco embarked on a more public project. While discussing a new film with Carter, in which he was set to play a former soap opera star who has retired because of mental illness, Franco thought that it might be fun to star in a soap himself. He proposed the idea to the producers of General Hospital, America’s third-longest-running television drama, and the oldest still on air. Franco wanted his character to be both crazy and an artist. They created ‘Franco’, a one-named, pseudonymous graffiti artist who now sells crime-scene re-creations in galleries for good money. Shades of Banksy – though ‘Franco’ is actually a deranged killer who is terrorising the fictional town where General Hospital is set. Franco persuaded the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles to let them film there. In that episode, ‘Franco’ has a one-man show (‘Francophrenia’) at MOCA, and a detective – who has formed an unlikely partnership with a mob killer in order to track ‘Franco’ down – shows up to arrest him. In the climactic showdown, ‘Franco’ falls to his death from a third-storey balcony in the museum, while Kalup Linzy, an artist who draws on soap opera iconography in his own video installations, performs a musical number.

Franco has said that this piece of ‘performance art’ (his own description) was intended to make people ‘ask themselves if soap operas are really that far from entertainment that is considered critically legitimate’. The episodes are full of half-baked dialogue on aesthetics. In one, ‘Franco’, eyebrow arched, asks a magazine editor how she knows something is a work of art. ‘Everyone says so,’ she tells him. ‘Then it must be,’ he replies. These exchanges fall with a thud. What is interesting about the endeavour is what it says about Franco as an actor and as a celebrity, and what it might suggest about the nature of celebrity, now, for actors. ‘I disrupted the audience’s suspension of disbelief,’ Franco wrote in a piece about the project for the Wall Street Journal, ‘because no matter how far I got into the character, I was going to be perceived as something that doesn’t belong to the incredibly stylised world of soap operas. Everyone watching would see an actor they recognised, a real person in a made-up world.’ The phrase ‘real person’ jumps out here. His General Hospital castmates are real people, too. Franco means that people watching the show know who he is. But people watching movies always recognise the stars. Once upon a time, that recognition would not have made them seem ‘real’, but grand – maybe even, in the case of someone like James Dean, mythic. Franco’s ‘star power’ is remarkably diminished: he jumps out from his surroundings because of their littleness. ‘Franco’ is ‘mysterious’, but Franco is not.
Read the rest. (Pictured: Franco channeling Bruce Nauman.)

Monday, January 24, 2011

Yan Lianke’s nightmare

I’ve written a review for The National of Yan Lianke’s grim, moving novel about blood selling in China, The Dream of Ding Village. Here’s the last paragraph:
Both of the books by Lianke which are available in English were banned in China. Perhaps it was this very censorship which inspired Western publishers to make them available. I hope, of course, that both books—and especially The Dream of Ding Village—will eventually be published there, so that Lianke’s own countrymen can read them. But I also hope that his other books—some of which have won major Chinese literary prizes and received wide acclaim there—will be translated and published abroad, so that those of us outside the country can discover whether they, too, are as compassionate and engaged as the ones we have, so far, been able to see.
Read the rest. As I mention in the review, Lianke has said he censored himself (removing references to senior officials and downplaying his critique of China's rush to development); the government banned the book anyway.

(Photograph of Yan Lianke by Jonathan Watts.)

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

“There’s no sound people make when drama’s working.”

Another online addendum: New York magazine’s culture website, Vulture, has put up a longer version of my conversation with Judd Apatow. I liked this answer of his in particular:
Funny People seemed to show that influence in terms of writing about your own experience, even when it’s dark, and still being funny. Are you working on anything now that is moving in that direction?

We’ll see. Sometimes you make a movie and your intention is to make people deliriously happy. And when you’re working on a movie like that you understand the rules: The 40-year-old virgin needs to get laid, and when he does, the audience should be happy. And you’re trying to make every scene as unique and funny as you can. You know, with Funny People, I was trying to get big laughs, but also talk about issues which are not usually talked about in a comedy, and some of it is not meant to be entertaining as much as thought-provoking. And it’s a very different experience to try to walk that line than to make a movie where the final judge of every moment is, “Did it get a laugh?” There’s no sound people make when drama’s working. I wish there was. At a preview for the movie, maybe every time a dramatic moment’s working they could make a sort of squeal-y noise. But they don’t … I found that to be a very fulfilling experience, but it’s also painful because you’re really putting your heart into something and putting yourself out there. There are people who really take to it and see what you’re going for, and there are people who say, “Why isn’t it funnier?”
Read the rest. Above: Apatow again (a couple of times).