Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Seeing Stars

In his first book Seeing Stars: Sports Celebrity, Identity, and Body Culture in Modern Japan, Dennis J. Frost examines the creation of Japanese sports stars, how their malleable images suit diverse agendas, the societal values behind their creation, and how sports celebrity is related to public self-perception.

“History of sports celebrity is also history of media,” said Dennis Frost, the Wen Chao Chen Assistant Professor of East Asian Studies at “K” College in an interview. Fan or not, socially constructed sports celebrity images permeate social ideals, body culture and self-understanding.

As a graduate student, Frost encountered numerous sports references while studying Okinawan youth politicization during the post-World War II American occupation. He reshaped his doctoral research to the formation of Japanese sports celebrities, a topic no scholar had probed outside the Euro-American framework.

Frost outlines the Japanese sports star paradigm through analyzing sumo wrestler Hitachiyama, female track star Hitomi Kinue, baseball player Sawamura Eiji, and boxer Gushiken Yoko. The Japanese sports celebrity narrative stresses filial piety, hard work and sacrifice above all else.

The book argues that Japanese sports star social construction is an original and co-constitutional process, not a Western imitation. The award for the top pitcher in Japanese professional baseball is named after Eiji, which was created before the American equivalent Cy Young award.

Although the text is a historical monograph, its cohesive structure, clear arguments, and sufficient background information make the book accessible. The book’s straightforward yet layered structure is effective.

While researching, Frost created charts with concentric circles to determine how these athletes overlapped and differed. The common sports celebrity elements fostered narrative flow between chapters, while offering Frost flexibility to demonstrate different elements of a shifting Japanese society.

The structure allowed him to investigate related topics such as gender, national strengthening, and regional identity as they pertain to particular stars. By chronologically organizing his book, Frost tracked the technical progressions of media platforms. Twentieth-century mainstream media expansion allowed the Japanese public to understand athletes’ heights, weights, and achievements in newfound ways, which defined national body culture.

Frost assigns the book for his History 283 course titled “Faster, Higher, Stronger: Sports in East Asia.” He uses the chapter on Eiji in History 285 “Modern Japan” because it explains the nation’s World War II total mobilization effort.

Sports celebrity can’t be divorced from modern life—more scholars will expand on Frost’s research to understand sports stars in a non-Western context. Frost’s book opens an invaluable window into Japan’s modernization, remaining accessible for those with little knowledge of Japanese history or sports.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

"Queen of Versailles"

Timeshare mogul David Siegel cried during Miss America, flaunted the brightest sign on the Las Vegas strip, and refused to disclose his campaign contribution to George W. Bush. His sly smile and Gatsby-like belief that money can define one’s identity disappeared when the Great Recession of 2008 hit and he fired 7,000 employees.

While most of us can’t relate to losing a yacht or private jet, Lauren Greenfield in her 2012 documentary “Queen of Versailles” connects the Siegel family’s misfortunes to ordinary Americans affected by the evaporation of easy credit. The Siegel decline is the story of every American family, sprinkled with neon glitz, plastic breasts, and the construction of a 90,000 square foot Versailles replica in Orlando—the largest single family home in the United States.

Greenfield paints harsh portraits of David Siegel, his wife Jackie, and their eight children. Their garage cluttered with scores of new bicycles, the raw Americana of eating Chicken McNuggets in a limo, and pet neglect intermix self-absorption and incompetence in new money’s melting pot. Jackie’s disconnect crescendos when she inquires at an airport car rental desk about chauffeurs.

Filming techniques in this documentary are not ambitious, as Greenfield represents this couple’s normal; she primarily uses interviews and simple subject tracking. Because characters’ “me-first” obsessions lead to meaningful reflections, her subjects contextualize the family’s struggles within the economic downturn. The lack of a musical score and spartan editing techniques make the family’s struggles feel genuine.

The starkest contrast is between Siegel’s opulence and his Filipina housekeeper’s ruptured family life. He commissions paintings of himself on horseback while she sends remittances to the Philippines. She hasn’t seen her son in 19 years and missed her father’s death.

The domestic worker is a device to highlight Siegel’s emotional indifference toward his family, as he voluntarily neglects his wife and kids amidst significant financial turmoil.  David’s eventual alienation evoked Charles Foster Kane in Orson Welles’s 1941 masterpiece Citizen Kane.

Greenfield’s image of the Siegel family elicits discomfort. Strained finances often lead to strained family relations, which the documentary captures. For everybody, tougher decisions and higher stress have changed the national family fabric since the 2008 downturn. Even if you find Jackie’s $10,000 ostrich feather Gucci pants repulsive, this film explains Recession stress and convoluted family dynamics in a humorous and relatable manner.

For Celtics, 100-98 Double Overtime Victory Over Defending Champs Remains Pyrrhic

            A snapped six-game losing skid, seamless defensive rotations, and Paul Pierce’s triple double—17 points, 13 rebounds, 10 assists—only left Celtics fans with mixed emotions after a hallmark 100-98 win over the Miami Heat.

Team doctors announced Rajon Rondo, the enigmatically brilliant Celtics point guard and NBA assist leader, suffered a season-ending ACL injury. With nine new players on this season’s roster and a five-game cross country road trip after the All Star break, Boston’s hold on the Eastern Conference’s eighth playoff seed is tenuous.

Heat shooting guard Ray Allen returned to Boston on Sunday afternoon, where he played from 2007-2012 and won the 2008 championship. The all-time NBA leader in three point field goals made was greeted by pre-game boos, a diplomatic round of applause after a video tribute in the middle of the first quarter, and a subsequent stream of gruff clapping. His 21 points on 7 of 17 shooting and 5 rebounds in 38 minutes were a spark off the bench.

LeBron James was otherworldly against the aging Celtics. He dissected Boston’s zone defense with precise passes, attacked the rim with vigor, and guarded every position on the floor. His 34 points, 16 rebounds, 7 assists and 3 steals on Sunday were transcendent, echoing his 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists performance to stave off elimination against the Celtics in Game 6 of the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals.

James hit a three point shot to tie the game with 7 seconds left in regulation and displayed great intensity throughout both overtime periods. In the first overtime, he drew Celtics defenders and made a perfectly-timed pass to Allen coming off a baseline screen. Later in that period, he drew a Boston double team trap and filtered the ball to forward Chris Bosh for an uncontested layup. His late-game heroics proved insufficient against a tightly-organized Celtics defense.

The Celtics defense switched between a 2-3 zone and man-to-man defense. Their fierce strong side pressure and passing lane disruptions forced 20 turnovers. Defensive rotations were crisp and Boston consistently pestered Miami combo guard Dwyane Wade at the perimeter. Wade, who had been averaging over 30 points in his past 3 games, was held to 17 on Sunday. Boston double teamed Wade in the waning seconds of the second overtime period, which led to a panicked pass to small forward Shane Battier and a missed off-balance three point field goal attempt.

            Boston’s Kevin Garnett was the anchor of a stalwart interior defense: his masterfully-timed rotations and help defense prowess were instrumental factors in the team’s win. A smooth mid-range jump shot disorganized the Heat’s defensive spacing, as Garnett scored 24 and grabbed 11 rebounds.

            Another bright spot for the Celtics was Paul Pierce’s offensive confidence, notably his willingness to take the game-winning shot in double overtime. Pierce is mired in one of the worst shooting slumps of his career, and was shooting below 35% from the field before his victory stroke. His 13 rebounds were all defensive, and it would serve Boston well if Pierce played off the perimeter and closer to the basket.

            Controversy did not lack on Sunday. Miami’s Rashard Lewis tangled himself up with Boston rookie Jared Sullinger, wrapping his arms around the ball and behind Sullinger’s neck. The scuffle resulted in a technical foul for both players. In the second half, Celtics veteran Jason Terry pushed Miami’s Norris Cole into Ray Allen. Terry was likely irked by Miami targeting him in their pick and roll sets, as the former Dallas Maverick lacks the on-the-ball speed to maintain pace with the much younger Cole.

            Boston’s signature win of the 2012-2013 season is bittersweet. Rondo’s hyperextended right knee injury was reclassified as a torn ACL midway through the game. The point guard was the motor of an aging Celtics core and his presence will be sorely missed as the team embarks on the second half of the season.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mark "Sunk-Cost" Sanchez

An isolation of linebacker Bart Scott on the outside, an offensive lineman's rear end-induced fumble, and a kickoff return fumbled for a touchdown: over the span of three plays and fifty-two seconds the New England Patriots dispatched the New York Jets to a 49-19 Thanksgiving loss, erasing any doubt who were the turkeys that night. In this 2012 Jets season where "rock bottom" was less of a finite point than a spectrum, the delay of quarterback Mark Sanchez's eventual benching befuddled league analysts and former players. It more than once forced this fan to hurl projectiles at his television screen in frustration.

Mark Sanchez's woeful play was not bad enough to force a benching until the tail end of the season. Because the Jets had awarded him with a $20 million guaranteed contract extension in March 2012, management was willing to live with his NFL-leading 26 turnovers (18 interceptions and 8 lost fumbles).

The article "That Sunk-Cost Feeling" by James Surowiecki in the Jan. 21 issue of the New Yorker uses Sanchez's abysmal 2012 campaign as an example to illustrate the economic reality of why organizations stick with bad investments, even when it would be much more prudent to pull out after poor initial returns and lack of turnaround potential. The article's diverse examples of Sanchez's absurdly unjustified contract, the Concorde airplane, and sitting through a terrible movie after paying for a full-priced ticket explain this economic and behavioral phenomenon.

Surowiecki's piece reads like Malcolm Gladwell's 2000 bestseller The Tipping Point. Both works present complex behavior and social trends in a straightforward, intelligible manner; the overarching messages can be extracted and applied nearly universally.

In the business sphere, patient managers and investors are praised for "sticking the course." Across multiple industries, leaders investing large sums of money would rather stick to a failing project than admit defeat, acknowledge their company's lack of alternative plans, or publicly recognize the organization's strained and misallocated resources. Using Surowiecki's criteria, the 2012 New York Jets are a blueprint of incompetence.

Reputation is a major factor behind companies mismanaging their funds as fear of peer criticism forces companies to stick with their bad decisions. Surowiecki's ability to deconstruct a widespread behavior and economic trend and phrase it in simple language is well-received, especially for this disgruntled Jets fan.

"Lincoln" Review Revised Draft

A limping Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) returns home, takes his wig off, and hands the 13th amendment voting record to his black lover. As the two climb into bed, the Radical Republican asks his lover to reads the document aloud. Indeed, reading the amendment's text aloud is the closest any black character gets to creating political change in Steven Spielberg's historically skewed "Lincoln."

The film centers on President Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) campaign to pass the 13th amendment in the House of Representatives, which outlawed slavery in the United States. Through corruption, persuasion, and patronage, Lincoln is able to get the Constitution amended. Spielberg stresses unity for a fractured nation whose 112th Congress failed to repeal Obamacare thirty-three times, blocked a U.N. disabilities protection treaty, and delayed voting on the Hurricane Sandy relief bill.

The screenplay by Tony Kushner features snappy dialogue and the sense of loneliness that Lincoln experienced as Commander-in-Chief during the Civil War. Verbal political sparring and President Lincoln's humorous anecdotes are particularly poignant. Kushner's writing stresses the emotional turmoil in Lincoln's mind as he grips with moral decisions on the future of the peculiar institution, particularly his conversations with Secretary of State William Seward, and howling sessions with his wife, Mary Todd.

The sets balance Lincoln as a political leader and as a father: the grandeur of the White House generates hope in American republican ideals, while rooms in the executive mansion remain familiar enough to hold intimate family conversations. The costumes maintain historical accuracy, particularly Lincoln's elegant-yet-Kentucky-simple outfits. 

The acting in this film inspires faith in the American democratic process. Day-Lewis masterfully depicts the torment of a divided nation while helping the country achieve higher ideals. His unwavering belief in permanently eliminating slavery outside of a war measure context expresses American egalitarian ideals. 

Mary Todd Lincoln's (Sally Field) struggle to maintain hope sharpens the nation's fragmentation. During hollow social functions, she creates empathy by putting on a brave face as First Lady. Her conversation with Rep. Stevens when she told him the public would never love him as much as her husband was cutting and brilliant.

Aesthetically, this film does a wonderful job recreating mid-19th century division and anxiety; but lack of black political participation remains problematic and perpetuates an inaccurate historical narrative. For all Spielberg's historical celebrity dropping (Ulysses S. Grant, Robert E. Lee, Seward), Frederick Douglass remains a glowing omission.