Saturday, December 12, 2020

Masque of the Red Hat

In the past weeks, Pat Fitzgerald strutted around screaming the team's new motto of "how dare you call us Rece Davises," then Northwestern ate shit to a bad Michigan State team, claimed the Big Ten West crown via e-mail, and watched the entire Big Ten Conference eat itself over the question of whether Ohio State would get to face them in the championship game, so it was about a normal two weeks in this ridiculous college football season.  

In several years this is going to be an insane sign (photo taken from the Northwestern Football twitter account)

The math on the Big Ten West appeared to work to Northwestern's favor two weeks ago because of their win over Wisconsin and because of a new tiebreaker that had been used to disqualify teams because they or enough of their opponents had come down with a disease, a metric that was almost instantly moved away from the horrific implications of teams incubating dozens of cases to be just another Factor in Division Championships.  Under the ancient Big Ten Laws codified in September, Wisconsin was disqualified from appearing in the championship, but under the new Oh Shit Ohio State Could Miss The Playoffs Laws signed in an iron-clad google doc signed with the blood of all fourteen Big Ten Athletic Directors, now Wisconsin could have qualified if they hasn't already lost to Indiana in a straightforward series of events that could have been clearly laid out to the Badgers if the Big Ten had worked out how to manipulate the space-time continuum. 

So sometime last week, Northwestern officially won the Big Ten West outright, which I learned about when they sent me an e-mail offering to sell me 2020 West Champions merchandise.  This itself was funny, but I think it would have been even funnier if Northwestern fumbled the ball in the Michigan State endzone and then were presented with the Big Ten West trophy because of Covid Cancellations.  The apex of this season would then be if Wisconsin had beaten Indiana the next week, then the conference activated the Actually We Were Kidding About The Six Games rule on Tuesday, and a Big Ten official in some sort of protective bunny suit was forced to extricate the trophy from Pat Fitzgerald's office as he levitated over the multi-billion-dollar facility in a state of ecstatic apoplexy.  They could have existed as Schrodinger's Wildcats having both won and not won the Big Ten West indefinitely as the conference continually adjusted its rules.

The Big Ten's Great Rules Kerfuffle has been one of the most enjoyably ludicrous highlights of this godforsaken season.  It is not funny or enjoyable that the conference and the sport in general has been plowing blithely ahead through the ever-worsening pandemic with unflagging, dead-eyed determination to get their TV money, but watching the bureaucrats flailing away with the desperation of Homer Simpson chasing a roast pig has at least been entertaining.  The question of whether it would be fair to leave Ohio State out of the championship game is beyond the point; nothing about this rotten sport is or ever has been fair, and the idea that the Big Ten's phoney-baloney rules were about to fuck over the team whose hopes of getting the Big Ten a slice of that playoff money is one of the reasons why all of this is happening in the first place while the most deranged Ohio State fans went nutso on the internet was a wonderful several hours. 

The entire Ohio State debacle served to unleash the absolute stupidest debate in college football discourse this season where teams upset by a rival team cancelling games from a Covid outbreak accuse the other team of ducking them.  In this case, the conspiracy theory is that Michigan has been so delightfully inept at football this season that Jim Harbaugh and the Michigan Athletic Department have used a rampaging team outbreak as an excuse to avoid humiliation at the hands of the Buckeyes and potentially disqualify them from the Big Ten Championship.  First off, the idea of spitefully cancelling a game to disqualify a rival is incredibly funny and should be allowed.  But also, the theory is so profoundly oaf-minded, a plainly moronic way of thinking where fans are angry at the Covid-riddled team for not welcoming opponents to the stadium so they can aggressively breathe on them because it might affect how the Playoff Committee thinks about their Football Resumé.  

Needless to say, this theory was espoused by Kirk Herbstreit who then appeared hours later in a self-filmed apology video from his wood paneled Football Office with his face looking like a bulbous dried mango strip; I would suggest that this entire turn of events would be one of those insane and unfathomable 2020 events that would be impossible to explain to the naive pre-March world, but I believe that if you told any 2019 college football fan that teams would still play games during a world-crippling pandemic it would take them approximately five seconds to guess that teams would instantly accuse rivals who have come down with a plague and subsequently are reluctant to play games as ducking them, and honestly they could probably guess that the person most responsible for this would be Dabo Swinney.


For the second time in three years, Northwestern and Illinois face a Hat Game where Northwestern has more incentive to rest players than win.  They have already clinched the Big Ten West and will once again face Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship and therefore have little incentive to play their top players in a quest to do the impossible and upset the Buckeyes and complete the Northwestern mission of ruining the Big Ten's entire season.  This Hat Game scenario happened in 2018, and Illinois quarterback A.J. Bush played heroically, undone by some unfortunate turnovers and an Illinois field goal try so cowardly that even Northwestern fans groaned.  

This year, once again I will approach the Hat Game with mixed feelings.  On the one hand, of course I want Northwestern to win the coveted Hat, the prize in North America's greatest sports rivalry.  Northwestern is very close to evening the all-time series with Illinois and, in coming years, achieving a winning record against a Big Ten team that isn't Rutgers.  On the other hand, the idea of Northwestern losing to Illinois and limping into the title game infuriating Wisconsin and Iowa fans is funny, and I am sort of nurturing a theory that the shittier Northwestern looks heading into Indianapolis the more powerful their conference-ruining powers will grow.  

It will be interesting to see how Fitzgerald approaches the game.  Last year, Northwestern narrowly clung to a lead and then almost literally kneeled out the entire second half, and it seems that this has gone from a tactic used to beat Illinois with third-string players in the fourth quarter to an entire governing team philosophy.  The only way to play more conservatively if they do manage to get a lead on an Illinois team that I think looks pretty dangerous this season would be for the quarterback to run backwards in the pocket to drain time off the clock resulting in an intentional safety or some sort of weird abuse of rules demanding a ten second runoff.


I do not know why but in the past several months I have become obsessed with classic rock documentaries.  I believe there are two reasons for this: one was hearing a Crosby, Stills, and Nash song on the radio and then being drawn for the first time into reading about their entertaining web of cocainous feuds and grandiose insults and then watching the Peter Bogdanovich documentary on Tom Petty around the Wildflowers re-release and falling victim to the twenty-first century malady of looking for similar content before next thing I knew I had consumed something like fifteen hours of Bob Dylan-related films in the course of two stressful late-October weeks.

There are two things that stand out in the D.A. Pennebacker film Dont Look Back. One is the insane gaggle of press conferences and interviews that are used to besiege a young Dylan on a 1965 tour of Britain.  Dylan is short with reporters and various hangers-on and, as noted in Roger Ebert's original review of the movie, comes like an irritating prick, but at least for me the entire spectacle of a twenty-four year-old guy with a guitar and harmonica necklace subject to press conferences like he is a politician expected to represent an entire generation is unfathomably bizarre.  The other is how close Pennebacker got to Dylan and how much of the movie is just him killing time before shows, obsessively reading about himself in the papers, hanging out with his entourage who all are identically dressed and sunglassed, dicking around on the guitar, and being at the center of a party that he never wants to be at.  In one memorable scene, Dylan bangs on a door demanding to know who threw that fuckin' glass off the balcony, man, getting into what looks like it might spiral into a physical altercation with an extremely drunk and high man and a middle-aged Beard Guy, and generally yelling at people with his Dylan Voice.  Only the Radiohead documentary makes being a famous rock star look more unbearable, and the confluence of that energy with constant interviews asking him to sum up the state of the world made his abandonment of the folk scene so he could play rock music and have his fans all turn up to his shows to tell him to go fuck himself palpable.

The best part of the enormous and sprawling Martin Scorcese Dylan documentary No Direction Home is the transition from acoustic to electric Dylan.  This transformation, complete with a fan screaming "Judas!" at him, has fallen into pop culture lore, but the sheer anger captured in the documentary is really something.  Scorcese mines several minutes of footage of young British people who are absolutely livid about Dylan.  Many of them have just seen or are about to see Dylan in concert, but they are more than happy to spend several minutes getting extremely flustered and agitated about how Dylan is now "simply rubbish and rot, with the electric. It is shocking how he is not even wearing the harmonica."  This vitriol toward Dylan expressed precisely by scandalized teenagers is one of the funniest moments in the history of popular music and if they had any dignity they would have reacted by throwing beer bottles at a chicken wire fence.

No Direction Home is filled with extensive Dylan interview segments, but they are conducted by his own manager and allow Dylan to weave his own mystique, which is a fancy way of saying that Bob Dylan loves to say a bunch of lies and bullshit.  This is at least somewhat understandable-- the entire Bob Dylan persona was willed into being from his first moments in New York when he pretended to be from New Mexico instead of a sleepy Minnesota town, and one can certainly understand why the Bob Dylan of Dont Look Back had no interest in saying anything particularly interesting to the ravenous press that is desperately trying to shape him, package him, and sell him to their own ends. 

Dylan's commitment to myth-making about himself perhaps explains why he was willing to collaborate with Scorcese again on The Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story, a sort-of documentary about his bizarre, small-venue 1976 tour that combines old footage that Dylan shot for what has been described as a very bad fictionalized version of the tour he made as a 1978 movie called Renaldo and Clara with contemporary interviews that include several actors playing fake characters including a Danish tour impresario, a fictional head of CBS Records, and even Sharon Stone pretending she joined the tour as a sort of teenaged groupie.  The tour itself, even before all of the hokum, included a lot of elements of acting and dress-up; performers wore masks and facepaint and Dylan enters the phase that all rock musicians hit in their 30s when they invariably become Hat Guys.  Present-day Dylan is once again croaking out his reminisces to the same manager who interviewed him for No Direction Home, but he really comes alive when he gets to do some belabored acting so he can take some potshots at a fictional person named "Stefan Van Dorp."  To be fair, I have not seen any of Dylan's actual acting work other than the GIF of him throwing what might be the world's funniest punch, but it seems like Dylan really only comfortable playing Bob Dylan.

These two approaches from Scorcese and Pennebacker-- Scorcese relying on archives and cagey interviews from Dylan and everyone from the expanded Bob Dylan universe, and the Pennebacker fly-on-the-wall method from Dont Look Back and the almost incoherent, druggy follow-up  Burn the Document that you can find as a bootleg on the internet-- at some point rely on Dylan as the steward of his own story where the price of access to Bob Dylan comes due as indulging in Bob Dylan's bullshit.  One of the stranger efforts to get around Dylan himself is to not use Dylan at all, as Todd Haynes attempted with the bizarre 2007 film I'm Not There that uses several quasi Dylan-like figures to represent different eras of Dylan, which is both a fascinating approach and eerily similar to the way Bill Simmons would approach making a Bob Dylan movie.  The standout performances for me are Cate Blanchett as the Dont Look Back Dylan who goes electric as Blanchett performs a miracle of physicality by transforming herself into a twitchy, irritable Dylan complete with the Dylan Voice actors love to do and Heath Ledger as a loutish actor who represents the 1970s Blood On The Tracks Divorce Dylan.  The movie switches between sections that also include an 11 year-old boy who calls himself Woody Guthrie and presents himself as a world-weary 1930s hobo traveling around in the 1950s, Christian Bale doing Folk Dylan and later Born Again Dylan, and Richard Gere floating through a nonsensical magical cowboy world, but it is a wonderfully odd attempt to make sense of this one person and his numerous reinventions and well-guarded personal demons.

Of course, no documentary or book or any other sort of media will ever give me what I am looking from Dylan which is not a painstaking deconstruction of his lyrics or puerile gossip about his personal life, but a sense of what it is like to be Bob Dylan, to reach a bizarre level of fame and influence that 40 years after his greatest heights he is having movies made about him that involve Richard Gere in bizarre Western Stunt Show dreamscapes.  I don't think it is possible, not for Dylan nor for anyone in any of the other documentaries I have watched because that level of fame is so deranging and warping that anyone who achieves it has to lose all sense of perspective and wrap themselves in a cocoon in order to survive.  The Baby Boomer Rock Doc narrative always involves listening to the Beatles, forming a band, the giddy rush of fame, and then years of drugs, divorces, and probably losing a large amount of money on ill-advised real estate or boat boondoggles that culminate in them going on reunion tours.  

Dylan has made more of a meal of it both by being more famous and held to more importance than his peers and by shrouding himself with mystique that makes fans desperate to try to peel back the curtain, leading to an opening for professional Dylanists.  He has returned in 2020 with a new album featuring the apotheosis of the 1960s Legacy Artist: a 20-minute song about the Kennedy assassination and an announcement that he has sold his catalog for an estimated $300 million, meaning it is likely we are going to be hearing Blowin' in the Wind in the background of one of those pharmaceutical commercials with people in bright clothing cavorting in parks.  The more Dylan that you see, the more he appears as a fascinating enigma and shameless huckster trading on mystery, and both might be the same thing.

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