Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Comprehensive Review of the Henchman and Heavies of Ronin


Ronin, the John Frankenheimer espionage and car chase thriller, came out nearly twenty years ago.  The film features an impossible, incoherent plot, inscrutable geopolitics, and De Niro grasping at the final straws of his late middle age action movie career.  But the most important thing to take away from this movie is that is populated by an amazing assortment of henchmen, and the rest of this post is a comprehensive review of all of them.

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 Even in a film stacked with malevolent, leather-clad henchman, this is the most aesthetically pleasing heavy in Ronin.  He's bald with bulging eyes and a murderous leer; all of the other henchmen seem to know him because he's the ur-henchman of post-Cold War Europe, like how the Kurt Russell character in Death Proof was known among the stunt person community as "Stunt Man Mike" even in exclusively stuntmen milieus.  "Sergi" (as he is listed in the credits) has a brief cameo in the movie.  He skulks around with his nameless henchman associate, smartly dressed in the let's do crimes ensemble of leather jacket and black beanie, looking as suspicious as possible before wreaking absolute havoc upon a bevy of innocent tourists in an ancient Roman coliseum.  This is an absolute tour-de-force henchman performance, pleasing to the eye, in action and in lurking around looking menacing.  


One of the most delightful things about Ronin is that Frankenheimer fills the movie with spycraft by characters who are at all times acting as conspicuously as possible.  None, though, have as much panache as this top-notch henchman (listed in the credits as "Dapper Gent" just an unbelievably pure henchman character name) who has gone above and beyond by wearing an overcoat without putting his arms through the sleeves.  Surely there is a person who has done this in real life, a man who has decided that the conventions of modern overcoat technology are beneath him and that he must wear his coat as a makeshift cape even knowing that a stiff breeze could blow it off him and down the street as people run out of shops and scream at him "you could have prevented this by using sleeves" but I have never seen this done except in movies.  Look at how brazen this is.  He's sitting at a cafe, sipping on a tiny mug of espresso, carrying a briefcase, and sidling his way over to a fucking van.  Even in the screenshot, look at all of the people staring at him making his big exit while posed like a classical Renaissance painting called The Nefarious Exchange.  This guy meets one of the gorier ends in the movie after being unnerved by another bad guy's gambit to fire a gun that looks exactly like the transformer Megatron randomly at children.  I love everything about this guy and I would definitely watch an entire prequel about him once MGM gets around to launching the Ronin Cinematic Universe.



Stellan Skasgard's Gregor is an excellent villain because he never expresses a single human emotion, all of his plans involve firing guns at innocent people, he tactically covers his eyes every time he's about to shoot a lock off a gate or a briefcase handcuffed to a henchman, and he says things like "I'll find a place to tilt the field to my favor."  But the absolute best moment for Gregor is when he makes a daring escape from De Niro by leaping off a fence and doing some Tom Cruise-ass running while dressed like a disgraced community college accounting professor.


Frankenheimer really lays down the gauntlet henchman-wise in this first tense encounter.  Here he unleashes the Car Henchmen. The first, a fast-talking arms dealer who could not be more suspicious if every single one of his lines ended with the phrase "I assure you, I will not try to murder you" is listed as "Man at Exchange" in the credits, a real tribute to the art of naming disposable henchmen.  But the real innovation is his colleague, who appears in a tunnel dressed exactly like a member of an order of Evil Shriners who attack hospitals in miniature monster trucks.  This encounter takes place in a seedy dock on the Seine-- there is absolutely no way that any human being witnessing an assemblage of these characters: the Homicidal Jazz Pianist, the Reverse Beefeater, and a crew involving Jean Reno, Sean Bean, and Robert De Niro who spends the entire movie looking as nonchalant as a spy infiltrating an Iron Curtain checkpoint with false papers, and not immediately recognize it as a den of criminal iniquity.  These two, along with their entire crew including a bridge sniper, meet a predictably violent end, but Frankenheimer really sets up the world of Ronin as one that involves daring gun battles against a gang that looks like this and then no one remarks on it again for the rest of the movie.


The moment pictured above is the greatest triumph for Mikhi, a disappointing heavy.  Here Mikhi allows for a brief moment of levity as he flees with a precious case in the chaos after the assassination of his girlfriend, a world-famous figure skater played by Katarina Witt who is shot with a sniper rifle in the middle of a performance during some sort of ice capade in the most ludicrous ice rink related climax to a '90s action movie that does not involve Jean-Claude Van Damme impersonating a hockey goalie to prevent the Chicago Blackhawks from inadvertently blowing up Pittsburgh.  The one thing we know about Mikhi is that he dotes on his ladyfriend; to watch him so callously allow her to fall victim to a public execution and then do some Buster Keaton passport comedy undermines his whole bit. He's fine, but is not up to the admittedly impossible standard set by the bald guy, the overcoat guy, and the bespectacled fur hat guy that we've already seen plotting and waving guns around.


Ronin saves its shittiest heavy for the main villain.  Jonathan Pryce is always revealed to be in a crowd, hiding, because his character is on the run as the mastermind of some sort of Super IRA.  Ronin wants you to make sure that you know that he is a ridiculous Irish stereotype because he talks in a cartoonish brogue ("YA STUPID SHITE," he screams at De Niro in their climactic confrontation), slugs whiskey, dresses like an extra in a period-accurate attempt to stage one of the sex plays in the middle of Ulysses, and his name is Seamus O'Rourke.  It's a tribute to the insane geopolitics of Ronin that his death (that occurred in the aftermath of the a high-profile figure skater assassination) is the final piece of the puzzle that allows the United Kingdom and Ireland to come to the Ronin version of the Good Friday Accords because presumably Seamus would be able to stop it by using the case to disrupt the meetings with an array of hearts, stars, horsehoes, clovers and a red balloon.  Pryce does a good job here, but Ronin really needed a better villain than an anthropomorphic accent.  Stellar eyebrows.


Sean Bean here really raises a central question when it comes to the art of henchman review.  It's impossible to rate a henchman by effectiveness since all heavies, goons, and toughs will, by definition, be blundering oafs who die by gun, fist, explosion, and rotating helicopter blade.  And even by that standard, Sean Bean (his character is "Spence" but let's be honest, like Jean Reno and De Niro, there's no point in naming him) is an inept fraud who has no idea how to buy guns from Car Henchmen, how to set up an ambush without killing everyone involved, or what color the boathouse is at Hereford.  But that's his job in the movie-- to be the skittish nincompoop filled with unearned bravado to contrast with De Niro's cool competence and for that he is unassailable.  The one aesthetic problem is that all inept henchmen deserve a glorious death, this one especially since he is played by cinematic death magnet Sean Bean.  Instead, the character is sent away and warned not to speak of his exploits.  We can take comfort in the fact that there is no way that this doofus could possibly go the rest of his life without discussing an arms deal derailed by a bridge sniper and that Seamus would certainly find him and kill him by punching him to death in a posture identical to the Notre Dame logo.


The wheel man is known as Larry, one of the most bizarre henchmen in the Ronin universe.  He's not menacing at all, he doesn't seem capable of skulking and lurking, and while he's the driving specialist, virtually every other character with a speaking role also gets to demonstrate that he or she can drive a car through four lanes of oncoming traffic while only managing to kill a few dozen other motorists when they swerve to avoid them and their cars all instantly explode.  Larry looks like an affable galoot; unlike the henchmen populating this film whose entire esthetic can be described as ostentatiously criminal, he resembles last guy on the substitute teacher call sheet.  His greatest skill is making the ridiculous Mike Tyson's Punch Out face shown above when it's time to ram a car.  Larry meets the most grotesque and violent end of anyone in the movie and you feel sad for him, the henchmen who didn't want to hurt anyone except the innocent people that perish wrapped around concrete pillars while he's driving an Audi at 70 miles per hour through a city designed to repel Visigoths.


Spectacular henchman.  Bald, in sunglasses, and wracked with terror as his car is rammed and chased through narrow streets. "The Target," as he is credited, really gives you everything you need for the guy handcuffed to a briefcase.  The car chases in Ronin are incredible because they are all for the most part real stunts-- according to the commentary on the DVD, the scene where De Niro blows up a car with a rocket launcher involved actually rigging up some sort of explosive under a car and having a stuntman just get sort of safely blown up and then coast around a twisting mountain road upside down coasting on the roof.  During this car chase, Frankenheimer gives a brief establishing close-up of a fishmarket seconds before like twelve cars plow through it because he knows exactly the movie he is making. 

The fish market scene must have been where Frankenheimer planned to insert Ron Jeremy (credited as "Fishmonger" and billed as "Ron Hiatt") to amuse and titillate viewers who wanted to see a squat, mustachioed porno actor gesticulate angrily at a small convoy of high-performance sports cars who have made his mongering impossible, but we will never know because Frakenheimer cut him out.


The discerning reader might question why Jean Pierre here (played by Michael Lonsdale) is included in a henchman and heavy review.  If anything, he is at best henchman-adjacent-- providing sanctuary for a wounded De Niro, performing extremely amateur bullet removal surgery, becoming a magical source of information to allow the heroes to instantly track down everyone they need to, and clumsily explaining the title of the movie via elaborate Samurai miniatures.  But I needed to include him here only because Michael Lonsdale was also in the BBC version of Smiley's People as a bumbling Soviet agent who eerily resembles Crystal Skull-era Dan Akroyd.


Monday, January 1, 2018

Music City Bowl Review: Pre-Overtime

“I think the kids wanted to go for it. They wanted to try and win it and I don’t fault the effort at all…They deserved the opportunity to have it in their hands,” is what Kentucky's Athletic Director Mitch Barnhart said about coach Mark Stoops's decision to go for two at the end of the game.  But I prefer to think that Stoops knew that he did not want to go to overtime against Northwestern, a team that does nothing but allow teams to go into overtime, to watch the scoreboard hit zero and to win games in a vortex where linear time no longer has meaning, where the game could stretch into infinity and there's no clock to manage, and that Stoops had stayed up all night reading a monograph entitled Schroedinger's 'Cats: Quantum Mechanics and Northwestern's Inexplicable Nine-Win Season and the implications were terrifying enough for him to do anything he could to end things in regulation.  Also it was cold and the game had already entered its nineteenth hour.
 
Opposing coaches go to overtime against Northwestern 

The Franco-American Music City Bowl ended on an exciting last play, but will be best remembered as an all-encompassing descent into madness.  There were bizarre coaching calls on all sides-- Stoops's decision to go for two, Fitzgerald's disastrous trick plays dreamed up after a pregame meal of hot chicken spiced with psilocybin mushrooms, and the takeover of the game by a Maniac Referee who entered the field dressed in a cape and headdress made of writhing snakes.

The program said that the referee crew came from the Pac-12 Conference, but my guess is that a group of wilderness raiders drove up on the referee's vehicle, seized it in a daring heist using balancing poles and grappling hooks and numerous bellowing guys with Aron Baynes haircuts and leather armor, and impersonated the crew with the goal of sowing chaos. 
 
The Pac-12 Conference sends its officials to a Bowl Game

That would explain the reason why the first half took more than two hours to complete because they sent every call to a grotesque carnival parody replay crew, why they ejected Paddy Fisher for targeting a receiver with his arms, and why, when Kentucky running back Benny Snell lightly brushed against a grasping official, they had him thrown into a pit beneath Titan Stadium.
The Nortorious Benny Snell begins his reign of terror against innocent referees

Northwestern's win prevented the bowl from becoming a complete debacle after they carted Clayton Thorson off the field.  The Wildcats then turned to veteran backup Matt Alviti, a senior who never started a game and whose major contribution to the anticipated game plan involved growing a spectacular mustache.  Alviti didn't make mistakes and moved the chains with a quarterback rushing attack Kentucky would have never seen coming unless they dusted off their Kain Colter tape.  Alviti's heroics were bittersweet for Northwestern fans who had been rooting for him for years and were hoping he'd have a chance to get into a game and apparently made those wishes known to the nearest monkey's paw.

Northwestern won the same way they managed to win all year-- a stout defense against the run (though it helped that Snell got ejected, Northwestern's rush defense battled without Nate Hall and without egregious ejection victim Paddy Fisher whom I hope spent the second half commiserating with Snell in that fancy ice cream place on Broadway), a timely interception from turnover hero Kyle Queiro, and of course Justin Jackson.  Jackson finished his Northwestern career with 157 yards on the ground, two touchdowns, a second consecutive bowl MVP trophy, and a mind-melting bevy of records including virtually every record at Northwestern, third all-time in Big Ten rushing yards, and an ascent to the top ten in rush yards in major college football history.  Even Jackson's records and accolades don't fully explain how good his career has been at Northwestern; the Wildcats' offense for four years has hinged on Jackson or the threat of Jackson causing teams to use the entirety of their scholarship players to try to stop him and allow Northwestern's quarterbacks to throw the ball to open receivers, many of whom are also Justin Jackson. 
 
Justin Jackson the Trophy Carrier

The Music City Bowl managed to be the apotheosis of Northwestern's bizarre season.  They got stuck in a perilously close game, battled through heart-rending late comebacks, persevered through a truly bizarre array of fourth-down decisions and ludicrous trick plays that Wile E. Coyote would scoff at as unnecessarily complicated, and managed to hang on to a win.  The egghead football statistics guys say that close games decided by a touchdown or less not to mention overtime are toss-ups completely dependent on luck; Northwestern won every single one of them and did so in a fashion that seems to defy science and mathematics and gets into metaphysical realms that turn into religion.  The 2017 Wildcats were an excellent football team and one that also seemed buoyed by a series of football miracles. 
 
Game-saving Two Point Conversion Preventer Marcus McShepard 
defends the pass with an Unholy Incantation

By the time that Stephen Johnson's pass floated through the fingertips of a heretofore unstoppable Tavin Richardson, it was no longer possible to root for Northwestern as a football team but necessary to do so with robes, orbs, candles, foam hats in the shape of wildcat heads, and other miscellaneous religious implements as they watched another pass fall incomplete to the ground and Pat Fitzgerald bellow from the sidelines in an otherworldly tongue and the band launch into its ancient hymn "U Northwestern Rah" into the ashen faces of the fans of the Apostate Wildcat fleeing into the freezing Nashville air and back into the arms of their true religion because did you see the score of the Louisville game.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Decadent, Inferior Wild Cat

We're in the middle of Bowl Season as dozens of fans trek out to a series of impossible and ridiculous locations to watch their teams battle the dregs of the Sun Belt under the watchful eye of sponsors like Dr. Lawnmangle's 50% Louder Mowing Equipment, American Ninja Knife and Nunchuk Expo '98, and the United States Armed Forces and Northwestern will be joining them soon.  They've been chosen through the arcane and nonsensical bowl selection procedure to play in Nashville's Music City Bowl against Kentucky for the greatest prize of them all: the Cardboard Football Trophy.

The Music City Bowl trophy was doodled by a bowl committee executive 
on the back of a grocery bag and then taken to the Extremely Literal Bowl 
Trophies and Stonehenge Prop Company

Anyone covering this game has already noted the most exciting part of this matchup: Northwestern and Kentucky have the same mascot, the Wildcat.  Kentucky even got their nickname the same way, according to their Wikipedia page, when a group of students decided they had fought like Wildcats (for Northwestern, it was a Chicago Tribune headline).  This origin has raised questions about how common it was to witness or fall victim to wildcat attacks in the early twentieth century, as college students could hardly walk three feet without one of them springing upon them and gnawing at their spats while they futiley whack at them with walking sticks while yelling things like "I say back off, you vile vermin, with your claws and teeth and line-backing."

Another Wildcat team, Kansas State, defeated UCLA in the Cactus Bowl 
with the help of their mascot, a prop from the Lars Van Trier film "Antichrist"

Kentucky's Wikipedia page claims that the school has three mascots: Blue, a live bobcat who lives in a state preserve; The Wildcat, an anthropomorphic wildcat like Northwestern's Willie; and Scratch, a "more child-friendly version of the Wildcat" who "wears his hat backwards, drinks Mountain Dew, and loves to party," a description so perfectly ridiculous that I am halfway convinced it was conjured up by a cackling Louisville fan with Wikipedia editing privileges.

The Wildcat and Scratch, whom I would describe 
as Divorced Poochie

The most insightful thing anyone can say about this matchup is that the game will be played with NCAA regulation rules.  Kentucky has a worse record, worse advanced stats, and are underdogs by more than a touchdown.  Northwestern won nine games with the help of three overtime victories, which have turned the fanbase into an overtime cult donning robes and headgears while staring vacantly at the scoreboard as the timer goes to zero.  

The Northwestern Wildcats are looking for a ten-win season, an unprecedented consecutive bowl win, and an opportunity for Justin Jackson to make mincemeat of an opponent for the last time.  Kentucky has an excellent running back that will try to test Northwestern's impossible rush defense.  But there are no guarantees in bowl season.  The game will be in a cold, wind-whipped, and half-empty stadium between two teams listlessly vying for a shitty trophy sponsored by a mortgage company between two teams who have not played since the signing of the Kellogg-Briand Pact.  In other words, it is the apotheosis of the unnecessary, packaged, nonsensical Shitty Bowl Experience, and I hope that the bowl brings in the Wildcat sound effect for both teams and just leaves it on after every play, an endless Wildcat yowl echoing through the streets of Nashville and on every television tuned to ESPN2.

I INSIST ON MOSCOW RULES

I spent the past week coughing, turning my nose into a craggy, kleenex-ravaged scab, and immobile on a couch watching the BBC adaptations of Tinker, Tailor Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People and falling asleep to incoherent cough syrup-fueled fever dreams about Soviet agents and Cold War mustaches.

The BBC adaptations are slow and talky and set in dingy hotels, bars, and conference rooms, especially when compared with the 2011 version whose dinginess and 70s beige was achieved through extravagant expense.  The 2011 film rests on bravura acting from an all-star cast and interlocking flashbacks, but the film suffers from the impossibility of compressing Le Carré's sprawling narrative to feature length and renders it nearly incoherent.  The 2011 movie is also pitched higher-- there's more yelling, more nerves, more tears, even from Tom Hardy's tough-guy Ricky Tarr who talks like a more or less normal person because Hardy had not yet developed the power in the movie industry to demand that he use the insane Bane voice that Tom Hardy now uses more or less constantly.

My favorite part of the trailor for Hardy's double-role 
crime opus Legend is when you hear Hardy's voice in the 
trailer and you think oh that's a normal person voice 
before he appears as a twin brother immediately starts 
screaming OI ROIGHT COCKNEY BANE 'ERE

The BBC's versions of Smiley are better though because they have Alec Guiness.  Guiness's Smiley resembles Gary Oldman's Oscar-nominated version-- both are old, tired, melancholy, and angry at being pushed out of the Circus at the hands of rivals that Smiley considers lesser and at the fact that 65% percent of their encounters involve someone referencing his wife's affair.  The Guiness Smiley, though is a revelation in that those feelings become tamped down into a man with a singular purpose that cannot be deterred from his investigation even when that investigation involves his own life.

Guiness as Smiley from the BBC series with Terence Rigby as Roy Bland.  
Bland doesn't have a huge part in either the series or the film (he's 
played by Ciarán Hinds, Julius Caesar in HBO's Rome in the movie) although 
I much prefer the BBC's version because his schtick is constantly puffing 
on cigarettes and then falling into coughing fits and being made almost 
entire of muttonchop

The power of George Smiley is that there is nothing extraordinary about him-- peering out through his thick glasses, he blends easily into the background.  Yet, Guiness's Smiley possesses an extraordinary unshakable resolve.  He's introduced getting dragooned into a dinner and drinking session with a hapless old gossip and for what appears to hours, Smiley remains a stone.  He offers nothing, refuses to attack old colleagues, and deflects questions, his words always precise and polite while his tone and the pauses that Guiness puts in to weight certain words radiate contempt; his Smiley talks at all times like he assumes a transcript of all of his conversations is being prepared for Moscow Center.  This opening scene both sets up the rest of the series (the gossip is also there to fill in the audience on all of the goings-on at the Circus from my favorite expository device, a person spending a long time saying hey do you remember all of these things that happened to you) and establishes everything you need to know about Smiley as the rest of the series unfolds as a piece of office gossip with dire geopolitical implications.  

Smiley spends the rest of the film talking to old friends, colleagues, and enemies about the events that had led to his downfall and, even as people praise him, tell him he has been done wrong, yell at him, cry, and threaten, he never ever reacts, hammering away at his questions like a sculptor turning a block of granite into a statue of himself, staring at them.
The BBC Series also features spies looking extremely spy-like, from Ian 
Bannen's Prideaux modeling 1979's most fashionable Espionage 
Turtleneck to Guiness's Smiley dressed at all times like an East Berlin walk signal

The more I think about Guiness's Smiley, and please remember that I have done so while literally in the thrall of numerous antihistamines and fever reducers, is that he is played as a monster that we all root for because he is the main character.  Guiness's Smiley sits, stone-faced and unmoved, as he manipulates everyone around him to unearth the mole.  He cajoles, threatens, and plies people with alcohol, always at the emotional center of a story about betrayal and camaraderie but unable or unwilling to register anything emotionally, always keeping everyone at arm's length.  Yes, the search for the mole has grave Cold War implications and the lives of hundreds of British informants and agents scattered around the world.  And yes, Smiley has been the victim of a literal communist plot.  But Smiley's main motivation seems to be revenge and power, not as an end in itself like for his rival Percy Alleline, but because he does not trust anyone else to do the job properly-- even though it's a job that Smiley himself comes to question by the end of Smiley's People.

Le Carré, especially in the Smiley books, sought to demystify spies.  His British operatives are not martini-soaked, gadget-mongering James Bonds but dreary Oxbridge functionaries obsessed with office politics and consumed with their own affairs.  That was the MI6 he knew before he was exposed by the famous double-agent Kim Philby (there's a strange documentary currently on Netflix about Philby called The Spy Who Went Into the Cold that features a guy pointing an iphone camera at a dilapidated building in Beirut and saying that is where Philby sat around and drank).  Smiley's heroics come from his unshakable competence in the face of a sclerotic organization that no longer values it.  Guiness brilliantly conveys Le Carré's ambivalence about the use of this organization by stripping his performance of almost anything to latch onto-- it is only at the end when Smiley cracks for an instant and allows his feelings about his personal betrayal to show.  "Poor George. Life is such a puzzle to you," his wife Ann tells him.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

THE NBA DRAFT LOTTERY IS A ROTTEN SCAM PREVENTING ME FROM ENJOYING THIS INCREDIBLY DUMB BULLS WIN STREAK

The Chicago Bulls, a collection of castoffs, incompetents, and basketball players recruited from postapocalyptic mutant wastelands, have won six games in a row.  They are undefeated since the return of Niko Mirotic, that maddening Montenegrin pump fake maestro who was sidelined for the opening months of the season because Bobby Portis did the exact thing that it always looks like Bobby Portis is about to do.  They are winning because Kris Dunn has become a viable NBA player after a disastrous rookie season, because scrap-heap bench find David Nwaba has quickly become a Bulls folk hero through his defense and his thunderous dunks, and because Fred Hoiberg appears to actually run some sort of an offense sometimes.  In a season where the Bulls had managed to win three entire games while spending most of their time on the court running into stanchions and suffering crises of confidence wrought by jaunty, canned organ music, this should be a minor miracle.  Instead, it is a goddamn disaster.

The NBA bloggerati have spent the past decade sifting through the Great NBA Tanking Question in the three modes of NBA blogging: analysis of where draft position means relative to success Per Synergy Sports, describing Sam Hinkie as a Reflection on Late Capitalism, and performative JR Smith fandom by quoting tweets.  There is no doubt that any rational person can see that the Bulls as presently constructed have no chance at winning anything and their best chance at a championship is to gather up lottery ping pong balls and hope that one of the numerous strapping teens available at the top can be good enough to convince actual good players to join the Bulls, but it is equally true that the Bulls play on bleak winter Tuesdays and is it so much to ask that them somehow beating NBA teams because Niko Mirotic is dominating everyone and then flexing and beard screaming except when he's in the general radius of Portis, whom he sort of gingerly avoids not be fucking poisoned by draft talk?

Of course the Bulls' win streak is not sustainable, but that's what makes it miraculous.  Of course they aren't going to keep barely beating other crap teams and of course Nikola Mirotic isn't some bizarre talisman who will rally them to the Eastern Conference playoffs although let's be honest it would be incredibly funny if he did. 

The Bulls are a listing team run by delusional incompetent and phrenology textbook cover models.  They are bad and confounding and the only joy we've gotten from the Bulls recently has been their occasional refusal to go away and keep inflicting themselves upon basketball fans.  This is now their identity.  Forget about Jordan and Pippen; the Bulls should be represented by their greatest achievement of the twenty-first century, a forgettable playoff series victory led by a vomiting Nate Robinson.  Of course the Bulls should lose as many games as possible, but let me ask you what is more entertaining-- watching Gar Forman's lizard eyes staring hungrily at lottery balls as the remnants of his weirdo Fifth Element hair undulate against his scabrous scalp so he can draft a prospect who will immediately become felled by nineteenth-century illness that was thought to be eradicated or to watch Robin Lopez completely humiliate a team filled with NBA players who can't figure out why they're down by five to a team that features Denzel Valentine forever driving in the lane like he is trying to find his footing across a river on slippery rocks?  Do you want to watch Fred Hoiberg attempt to develop a raw, superathletic wing into a competent NBA player or watch David Nwaba dive across four rows of seats on a Wednesday night against the Suns? 

These Bulls were built by maniacs and for the past six games we have had the pleasure of living in their fever dreams: a world where Kris Dunn hits pullup jumpers after spending a season throwing basketballs at the hoop like he's trying to knock someone into a dunk tank, a world where Fred Hoiberg's team actually does pace and space and where somehow Shot Doctor Hoiberg has taught Dunn how to shoot after unleashing the brickiest basketball team on the NBA for the past several seasons, a world where draft picks pan out and Mirotic looks like the star he was in Europe and Markkanen looks like an offensive force, and Bobby Portis does things on the basketball court other than look like he is bursting into rooms in the Overlook Hotel, that somehow this slapdash, improvised, panic-traded version of the Bulls makes sense instead of sinking to the bottom of the NBA standings for years and years while Paxson and Forman pretend they have their own version of the Process.

Yes, this win streak is bad for the Bulls' draft, especially in this year's hyped draft and with lottery reform coming next year to make it slightly harder for a team like them to secure a top pick by being profoundly shitty.  Everyone knows that.  Fine.  But what kind of insane, ludicrous sport are we watching when it is literally bad for the team to rally behind a man who has been resurrected after having his face broken by his own teammate who is still on the team and they sometimes fist bump each other have we talked about how completely odd this is when for me watching a team as dumb and weird as the 2017-18 Bulls somehow pull off a seemingly-impossible win streak is the entire point of watching sports? 

Friday, December 8, 2017

ILLINOIS/NORTHWESTERN RECAP


I.

There was nothing at stake beyond the Hat in this game.  Northwestern had already locked up a mid-tier bowl, cemented its best winning streak in decades with a preposterous series of overtime wins literally unprecedented in the history of the sport, and the Fighting Illini had spent the season laying in a ditch and getting poked.  The game had originally been planned for Soldier Field, but had been moved back to Memorial Stadium after a hilarious debacle of low attendance and Interim Coaching; now the game took place in front of an equally woeful smattering of brave Illinois fans who had come out to see the team collectively thumbs up and sink into an orange morass of melted steel.  This series of events is exactly like the decline of the Hanseatic League.

"The Hatman Cometh," Bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com

The Wildcats have many reasons to be favored. But it's now or never for the Illini, who hope to avoid their second winless Big Ten season since 2012. The last time Illinois beat Northwestern was 2014, when the current seniors were freshmen. There should be added motivation to capture the Land of Lincoln Trophy. Can the Illini catch the Wildcats looking forward to a bowl game?

Shannon Ryan, "Saturday's Matchup, Prediction: Northwestern at Illinois," Chicago Tribune

Line: Northwestern by 16 1/2

Lance Gravedigger's Guide for Northwestern Football Bettors and Other Maniacs

Guys I'm at the game and I think there are legitimately 45 people here.

Stilltalkinboutthechief, Comment on "Gamethread: Northwestern vs. Illinois" at AvoisTheNois.com

It was the lady refilling a tray of mini-hamburger buns in the press box who informed me that stadium staff had been told to expect a crowd of less than 10,000 — far punier than the announced crowd of about 30,000. I took her word for it. There was no need for a specific confirmation to see there was no one here.

Steve Greenberg, "Northwestern crushes Illinois 42-7 in a setting with no, um, rival," Chicago Sun-Times 

I've spent the afternoon in a fine purple Lincoln get-up rousing the purple horde and antagonizing our Intrastate Rival with some fine oratory from ol' Honest Abe, my friends, and the few Illinois fans are cowed and concerned #HATHATHAT

@Arch_Hatton

guy dressed as a Purple Lincoln tripped over his enormous, draping coat and fell into a tray of cotton candy and he's trying desperately to pick it out of his fake beard.

Stilltalkinboutthechief, op. cit.


II.

There was the sound again, that thin roar.  Not much of a crowd.  Looked like the gray concrete stands, cracks of orange, smattering of purple, couple of Ditkas.  

bill cubit

It was all on the line, though. One win, two wins, no wins, I would say listen up, men.  Men.  This isn't fly fishing.  This isn't high tea with the Cultural Attache of Azerbaijan.  This isn't middle school social dance where they teach you the fox trot instead of the 2 legit 2 quit dance.  This is football, gentlemen.  That's the kind of thing you would hear from Ron Zook.

ron zook

I checked to see and they still had the Hat.  Still the trophy.

bill cubit

Hats. Trophies.  Trinkets.  For me, it's about looking them straight in the eye and telling them, gentlemen you know what you did out there.  Hold that feeling.  Wear it.  Carry it with you when you leave here, in your greatest triumphs of designing skyscrapers and piloting hydrofoils or at your lowest moments of being abandoned by your love at the top of Aconagua and having to silently make your way down the mountain alone carrying nothing but your supplies and your perforated heart with you and I say, do you really need a cooper hat?

ron zook

I always thought the hat was kind of sharp.

bill cubit

It's mounted on a base.  I really wanted to wear that hat.

ron zook

There's a hollowed out area there where you could stick it on your head.  You didn't know that?

bill cubit

Ah, hell.

ron zook

III.

And yet, hapless, beleaguered, and starting a true freshman quarterback in the place of Chayce Crouch and Literally Jeff George Jr., the Illini managed to stop Northwestern and take a 7-0 lead; it was as if the vast football cosmos had decided that if the Wildcats were going to do the win an impossible three overtime games in a row to preserve a ridiculous win streak and look great against Purdue and Minnesota dance , they would have to pay the losing to the most wretched vintage of the Illini in a god-forsaken away game and watch as the Hat transfixes the entire state and ushers in an Illinois football reniassance piper, this is a single sentence.

Bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com, op. cit.
 
TOUCHDOWN! some teens are playing keep-away with the lincoln guy's hat, he's calling them ignorant dough-faces and one of them is telling him that he's using the insult anachronistically.

Stilltalkingaboutthechief, op. cit.

As I mentioned before, this type of shameful display is the type of thing you would expect from Pat Fitzgerald, who, I shouldn't even have to mention, had spent the beginning of this season cavorting around in short pants.

Fanofcats95, "Game Thread," IncessantWildcatNoise.com forums


IV.

The sun had already started setting.  4:30 tops this time of year, in Champaign-Urbana.  Probably still playing after Thanksgiving, those turkey and gravy leftovers still sloshing around in the linemen's bellies, maybe putting on a little paper pilgrim hat that their baby cousin made before coming back here to put a hat on a guy and drive 'em into the field turf.

bill cubit

We were stuck watching as they gave up the lead, completely unable to do anything about it.  The first few years, I tried.  Tried to grab a linebacker and give 'em a butt slap.  Tried jump into a huddle and say listen up, how you respond today is not just about lines of scrimmage and yardage.  Gentlemen, it's about how you respond when you're in trouble, when you're down, when you're laid off and offered a buyout with a kind of crappy severance package because the online crane and heavy equipment online rental startup couldn't handle the recession and you've got to get back out there on the road and you're about three weeks from having to park the car in the White Hen lot down the street to throw off the repo guy.  Nothing.  No one saw me.  No one heard me.  Hands went right through the butts.  Tried to rip off my shirt and just kept having more shirts.

ron zook

Spent a long time ripping shirts.

bill cubit

It was because they were weak.  And soft.

tim beckman

Ah shit.

ron zook


IV.

I remember the smell of the workshop.

tim beckman

Oh jumping junipers.

bull cubit

Yes, that smell, my friends.  The smell of freshly-sawed wood, wood glue, the smell of steel and sparks and ash from the stove in the corner.  Grandad hammering away with the records on his old phonograph of that man reading the bonesaw catalog.  Grandad took me on a walk and we hit that clearing, the sun straining through the branches around us.  It was like a stadium, I thought.  Like the one over at the school on Friday nights, all lit up with bark grandstands a few curious squirrels cheering us on and that's when Grandad turned to me and said Timbus (it was a family name), Timbus take a look around you at this clearing right here in the woods.  I want you to ask yourself if there's ever been a better spot that the good Lord could have made if he was making one of those pretty paintings like in your Grandmother's book, just look around and imagine a more perfect spot for a bear to come out of absolutely nowhere and maul the absolute shit out of us.

That night, he showed me The Book.  It must've taken him years, lonely years sitting in his old chair by the window, sipping on that rotgut that Mr. Millman used to slip him even though he wasn't supposed to, drawing up detailed plans for a suit to repel a bear attack.  But he was getting older and gaunter and more tired and he said to me Timbus there is one thing I want from you in this life and that is for us to build this suit and when you're big enough we're gonna put it on you.  And then I want you to fight a bear.

tim beckman

Oh gravy, the bear suit.

bill cubit

Grandad wouldn't let me use the power tools, but sometimes I'd fetch wood and sometimes he'd measure my skull, and much of the time he had me sitting in the corner practicing my headbutts against a bear head that he took from the lodge one night because he said those sons of bitches owed him money.

You know, we moved away and I didn't see Grandad much and I got bigger and into football.  But every once in awhile I'd hear from him-- a card on my birthday, maybe a quick trip (never more than a night) around Christmas time, a flip book of a person in armor just socking a bear in the jaw.  I sort of indulged him, I didn't think he'd ever finish it.  Then one night, a truck pulls up in front of the dorm and a guy brings by a giant crate and tells me he believes in me and vanishes.  Shit, fellas.  Shit.

Dad told me Grandad was sick, and I have no idea how he managed to finish the thing, the will it took to even polish it up and stencil URSA DANGER onto it while he coughing and shaking, but I couldn't just ignore it.  Couldn't.  There was a note written in a brittle, fading hand that said "Promise me."  So I tried.  Spent the whole summer driving around, suit in the trunk, looking for bears.

tim beckman


I told him to get to the part about the circus.


ron zook

Why on Earth would you do something like that?


bill cubit


Gotta be honest, I kind of like the part about the circus.


ron zook


Long and short of it, fellas: couldn't find a bear.  Not on any land where I wouldn't immediately be searched and questioned.  So we were all drinking one night and I told my buddy Dewey about the whole thing and he said, Timmy ya gotta fight that bear.  I'm gonna help you.  Your problem is that you're trying to go to the bear.  Why not make the bear come to you?

Ya know, I thought it would be tricky to find a bear circus desperate and on the brink of financial ruin, but let me tell you fellas: that's pretty much all of them.  And we found one and pooled some cash that I made running a football camp where I clobbered 12-year-olds with one of those American Gladiator jousting q-tips and Dewey got from selling gray market iguanas and he came back he told me with a bona fide circus bear, probably pissed off and ferocious.  So I went out there and I put the thing on for the first time-- I just couldn't bring myself to do it before and it took ages, there were diagrams and strap mechanisms and epaulets that were just for show, and I threw that sucker on and hit the claw deployment button and prepared to kick some bear ass Beckman-style, and I saw what Dewey had done.  It was a cub, tiny, shaking. I couldn't hit that little guy.  I have no idea if it even knew how to fight a regular man, let alone a man with spring-loaded foot-talons and pneumatic karate chops.  Dewey you asshole, I told him.  He was laughing his ass off in the corner, snapping pictures.  I wouldn't fight that bear unless it at least had a helmet and maybe some shoulder pads.  Dewey, you shifty lizard fuck.

I drove hours in silence.  I was going to do it.  I was going to lie and tell the old man I beat the heck out of a bear, that it tried to slash and claw and maul me, but Grandad the neck guard held perfectly and I was able to snare the big ol' bastard with the wrist net, would've been the easiest thing.  But I just couldn't.  I looked at him, wasting away in that sad bed, and I told him.  Look, we found a bear.  But he was small, and he needed at the very least some kneepads and a mouthguard, and Grandad just lay there, blank and shrinking.  Christ, Timbus, he said.  Christ.

I drove out of there and threw the suit into Lake Erie.  Every day, I tell myself he would have eventually understood that deep within him he'd want to make a bear an anti-human suit. I have to.  I have to.

tim beckman


And that's why you always had walk-ons running windsprints in papier-mache wildcat heads while you threw cans of fancy feast at them?

bill cubit


Did you know there was a hollowed out recess in the hat trophy where you could stick your head?

ron zook


You're shitting me.


tim beckman

V.

It didn't take long for Northwestern to take its first lead following the turnover on downs as Thorson threw a 53-yard pass to Bennett Skrowronek on the first play of the drive to put the Wildcats at the Illini's five-yard line. A jet-sweep handoff to Jelani Roberts on the ensuing play went for six and put Northwestern in front, 14-7. It was the second touchdown of Roberts' career.

"Wildcats Earn Seventh-Straight Win, Keep Land of Lincoln Trophy" Nusports.com

The Wildcats scored on a Joe Gaziano strip that defensive end Samdup Miller recovered and ran in from 3 yards out for a 21-7 third-quarter lead. Linebacker Paddy Fisher's interception led to Jeremy Larkin's 4-yard touchdown run for a 35-7 edge in the fourth quarter.

Shannon Ryan, "Northwestern wins seventh in a row with 42-7 drubbing of Illinois," Chicago Tribune

this is fucking miserable, the lincoln guy found a stephen douglas guy in his section; they're doing debates at each other, and the security guy told me that he'd have to throw me out if i whipped some polish sausages at them, but he said believe me, buddy. i know

Stilltalkingaboutthechief, op. cit.

Meanwhile, the Danish forces of Queen Margaret battled a gang of ruthless privateers known as the Victual Brothers who kept running the blockade. They later evolved into a group of other raiders called the Likedeelers whose most important legacy is the creation of this stupendous Wikipedia Sentence: "Their most famous leader was Captain Klaus Störtebeker, who first appears in the record as a Victual Brother around 1394.[7] The Low German word Störtebeker means "Down the beakerful". He allegedly got his name because he could swallow four litres of beer without taking the beaker from his mouth."

Bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogspot.com, op. cit.

What no one realizes is that I have concealed copper spray paint on my person and i'm sanding my hat.

@ArchHatton 


 VI.

We found quickly that we could pass through and somehow stay inside of people.  Inhabit them.  But not really compel them to do anything.  Like tracking down Paul Kowalcyzk and hitting him with a pool noodle.

bill cubit

That's not quite true.

ron zook

You could nudge them.  Coax them.  Maybe draw their attention to something just out of view.

bill cubit

You could coach 'em up.  Get in there and really focus and let that vendor know in his mind that for a split second that he might want to select not the popcorn nearest his hand, but the next one to his left.  Gentlemen, I would sort of radiate out of my being into this person, you can think about the obvious popcorn but I say we surprise 'em, we call an audible on this one, just you and me right here, looking at the guy dressed like purple lincoln.

ron zook

Yeah, you got him to pick the other popcorn.

bill cubit

I immediately managed to inhabit a guy who was going to chest bump just to feel it.

ron zook

We weren't sure how Beckman figured it out.

bill cubit

Next thing we know Beckman's floating through a scrum and he's sort of melting straight into the big kid's nostrils and he's talking about the flag.

ron zook


Couldn't make anyone do anything they didn't want to do, it's a Hat Game and you've got to do flag stuff.

tim beckman

We tried to stop it, tried to float through the other nostril.  Whole time I'm yelling Son, you're on television, this isn't the XFL, you don't have a nickname like Dale Unsportsmanlike on the back of your jersey.  This is football.  You go for the ball.  You go for the ball.  Well not really yelling, sort of emanating into a corner on the horizon of the consciousness.  

ron zook

It was too late.  The kid grabbed the flag and just underhanded it right into the ref's face.  Guy flew backwards like he was a kung fu henchman. Beckman cackled.  First time I ever heard that guy laugh.  Usually it was all yelling and bear anecdotes.

bill cubit

God damn I always wanted to do that.

tim beckman

Of course you wanted to do it, I had to be held back from chop blocking a line judge in '97.

ron zook

I wanted to stab a ref with a dial-a-down.

bill cubit

Let's see if I can get someone to knee a Wildcat in the scrotum.

tim beckman


VII.

"This doesn't happen by accident," Fitzgerald said. "There were a lot of people taking shots at (our players) There were a lot of people taking shots at our program, taking shots at the coaching staff.
"I thought (our players) answered that by shutting the noise off and doing the only thing you can in those circumstances: Go to work. The Chicago work ethic. Roll your sleeves up and go to work. That's what they did and that's why we're Chicago's Big Ten team."

Shannon Ryan, op. cit.

Chicago's Big Ten Team

A billboard on I-94

Illinois. Our State. Our Team.

Short-lived billboard on I-94

And so, after a rampage over a reeling Illinois team, Northwestern collected its ninth victory and bowl berth.  The Hat returns safely to Evanston in a Hat Transport Vehicle.  An improbable season where Northwestern was all of about a minute of overtime away from barely scarping a berth in the Disused Robocop Set Dressing Bowl sees them going to Nashville against a squad of Pretender Wildcats.


Northwestern found itself at the center of minor bowl intrigue.  As Ohio State fans raged about the Playoff and the impossible and arbitrary selection system did its job of consistently riling up at least one particularly annoying fanbase, the Outback Bowl committed crimes.  They selected Michigan over Michigan State and Northwestern despite the Wolverines' inferior record and head-to-head loss to the Spartans.  Apparently there was some sort of arcane rule that would prevent the 'Cats from appearing in the Outback Bowl because Northwestern players are still being peeled from the Raymond James Stadium from a New Years' Bowl game only two years ago that seems impossibly distant, when Tennessee under Butch Jones was thought to be an ascendant young team and not a collection of flop-sweating bureaucrats desperately mailing out job offers and self-addressed-stamped envelopes to football coaches and television personalities.  The Holiday Bowl selected Michigan State despite their head-to-head loss against Northwestern due to their stronger Football Brand.

Here is where I am going to admit that any rage about Bowl Game Hierarchies on the part of this blog is disingenuous because I don't really care what game they go to, but raging about slights is a large part of the fun of following this insane sport that is literally governed by committees of weirdo bureaucrats and committees just picking things.  College football takes a chaotic sport and supports the entire thing with an impossible infrastructure built from a century of going from a few side-whiskered hooligans literally stomping each other to death to an unwieldy and inexplicable billion dollar entertainment complex.  Of course there's a loose hierarchy of prestige around the 40 more or less interchangeable bowl games that, on the margins, disappear and reappear with the regularity of pun-named headshops on a main shopping street near a college campus.  But the decisions of these bowl committees make sense only when you consider them as a money-making apparatus; wherever there is a mid-December bowl game played in front of fifty people, there is some guy in a tophat skimming money somewhere, someone making money off of merchandise that looks dated and ridiculous exactly 12 minutes after the game ends, someone somewhere making off with a truck of stadium nachos destined for the black market.  

Bowl prestige is ridiculous, funny, and fits perfectly with college football, which is run completely on grievances.  So yes, Northwestern probably could have gone to a slightly more prestigious bowl, but they have 80 fans and no National Brand, so they will go to Nashville to play their SEC mascot doppelgangers as a reward for this bizarre season of overtime fist-clutching.  They will try to hoist their second bowl trophy in a row and fourth all time, and they will send out a remarkably successful group of graduating players including Justin Jackson, an all-time great while letting Pat Fitzgerald complain about Bowl Position for an entire month.

Bringyourchampionstheyreourmeat.blogpost.com, op. cit.


VIII.

The lights juddered and turned off.  The spectators filed out leaving a trail of soda cups and anguish.  And as the last of the security, vendors, stat-men, and mascot wranglers all left, a pale, unearthly light began to light up the stadium brighter and brighter invisible except to us, standing on the fifty yardline.  

bill cubit

It was only then that we could really see each other as more than just murky forms and abstract blobs.  Cubit, face contorted into a grotesque yowl, his heart perforated by daggers.

ron zook

Zook, squinting quizzically, his limbs frozen into a waterski ready position.

Beckman dragging himself across the ground, holes where his hamstrings had once been, and covered in tattoos depicting his enemies the University of Illinois Board of Regents, the 2012-14 Northwestern Wildcats, the clerk who had kicked him out of home depot when he lost patience waiting for someone to help him grab a lawnmower bag from the top shelf and took a ladder himself before he fell sending a palette of lawn care accessories crashing to the floor and rolls of duct tape rolling through the toilet aisle, tripping other customers who unleashed a rain of plungers and rakes, ad signs that say "caution: venomous reptiles."

bill cubit

I told them, Gentlemen, the light had arrived.  And sure enough, we were starting to dissolve, to fade.  I had no idea what our purpose was.  Before, it was always clear.  To get the ball.  To control field position.  To get off the field on third and short.  And off the field to make sure that the guys were growing, preparing to take what they'd learned about getting the ball and figuring out how to take it to the boardroom, to their families, to writing and directing a one-man show that sure, maybe a lot of people aren't coming to, but it wasn't really about the audience, it was about getting it off their chest and moving quickly through the impression of their dad and their eighth-grade science teacher who told them they wouldn't be shit and wouldn't he like to see them now, not specifically in that moment, in a dank basement performing for a chagrined grandmother, but you know, in the larger sense, they've got families and jobs now, is the sort of thing that I would break down the players with after practice.

But here, I don't know exactly what the point is.  There's no score.  There's no winning.  There's showing up for this exact game somewhere in Champaign-Urbana, in Evanston, in a baseball stadium or neutral site only with the two other souls, with no idea why we're flung together or what we're supposed to accomplish with nothing in between.  Just an endless cycle of fading in and out, an endless cycle of Northwestern and Illinois football games.  Gentlemen, I said.  Gentlemen, we might not know each other or like each other, but here we are and it's been an honor...

ron zook

He faded out.  It wasn't gentle.  Not awful either, just a bizarre sensation of sort of loosening but all over. 

bill cubit

It's kind of like taking off eight layers of bear armor, except your entire being.

tim beckman

I asked him if he thought this was all just some interim state, something that happened to everyone-- professors sent as whatever we are over to academic conferences, insurance adjusters sent to floods and mudslides, plumbers appearing whenever they pull out one of those hundred-ton municipal sewer grease balls?

bill cubit

I had an answer for him.  A good one too.  But he had already begun to fade and soon I would too.  But I'd tell him that we were here to win the Hat.  That's the concrete goal.  That's what unites us.  That's why we're at the Hat game.  I believed that the Hat, wrested from that jowly crewcut, grayer than I remember, would absorb us and let us finally rest.  The Hat, glowing, pulsating.  That was why.  But we couldn't do it.  We watched them get bowled over and touchdowned.  There had to be football at the root and the goal had to be winning the football game; you win the game and you win whatever the hell this is and we'd be stuck here until we figured out how.  I had to believe that because anything else, manifesting, as it were, forever at an Illinois-Northwestern football game with no purpose and no escape was otherwise too bleak to 

tim beckman