Tennis Vagabond: a story of tennis, evil and everything else

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Sans Everything depends not only on its writers, but also its readers. Given the huge difference between daily site visits and replies to our posts it is clear that the vast majority of visitors to the site are content to read quietly, which is perfectly fine with us. We are also delighted, however, to have some regular readers who themselves have become a part of the blog through their regular responses, and in no case is this more true than with David Sachs.  His interests are as varied as our posts and then some, and he adds immeasureably to our ongoing conversation.

What Sans Everything readers may not know is that David has put together a highly original and very funny podcast entitled Tennis Vagabond, based on a novel he wrote called The Life on Court of Bacon O’Rourke (you can subscribe to the podcast for free). As David explained to me, “Tennis Vagabond follows the young tennis legend Bacon O’Rourke who travels the open road with whiskey in his flask and a racquet on his back, serving and volleying and drinking and toking his way across the land. This comic epic is, in short,  Jack Kerouac with a tennis racquet, and some serious bad guys. The story covers tennis and evil, sex and death, drugs and physics, and the dangers in commodifying that which we love. The bad guys in hot pursuit of Bacon and his underground tennis caravan include the mythical Tennis Illuminati (secret masters of the Game), and a down-and-out coach with a taste for detective novels, Zen quips, and funk music. God and the Devil make cameos as tournament umpires.” It also has a physics blog, a tennis blog and some memorable video extras (trust me: the strip tennis match is sure to hold the attention of people who otherwise don’t care for tennis).

Tennis Vagabond‘s mix of lowbrow and highbrow will appeal to many Sans Everything visitors, and it is also timely in its central message: “a parable of consumerism, commodification, and the progression of open-ended capitalism at a time when those things are being questioned.” But why tennis in particular? David’s answer: “I’m not too sure, but it worked. As Tom Robbins says about hitchhiking in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues, the Truth is there in anything, if you push it far enough (‘when it has been pushed far enough it contains everything else’).”

Congratulations, David, and we look forward to hearing of O’Rourke’s continuing adventures!

Magnetic suns and moth balls

Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's <i>Two Lovers</i>
Joaquin Phoenix and Vinessa Shaw in James Gray's Two Lovers

Leonard Kraditor (Joaquin Phoenix) does not on the face of it seem like the kind of man who would end up with two attractive lovers at the same time. He is in his mid-thirties and lives with his parents. He works as a delivery man for his father’s antiquated dry cleaning business. He takes black and white photographs as a hobby, but shoots only buildings. He takes medication for a variety of bipolar disorder. And in the opening scene of the film, he attempts to commit suicide (not for the first time, his worried parents remind themselves) by jumping off a pier.

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A Misunderstood Radical

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Steve Ditko’s Mr. A.

She hated religion and thought faith was “extremely detrimental to human life: it is the negation of reason.” She asserted that abortion was “a moral right” and believed the pro-life movement was motivated by “hatred.”  For her, creative work was more important than family, friendship or any human relationship. She had no use at all for conservatives, Republicans, or liberatarians. She was a cultural populist, celebrating pulp writers like Mickey Spillane while dismissing celebrated classics like Shakespeare. She heaped scorn on National Review was “the worst and most dangerous magazine in America.” She despised libertarians as “emotional hippies-of-the-right who play at politics without philosophy or consistency.” She was “profoundly opposed to Ronald Reagan” and thought he was motivated by power lust.

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Come out, come out

Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's Milk
Sean Penn in Gus Van Sant's "Milk"

Not being a card-carrying progressive — by which I mean only that I’ve long suffered from an instinctive pessimism about what humans are capable of achieving, though it’s a reflex that I’ve gradually gotten better at keeping in check — I’m occasionally struck with a deep sense of amazement (and related feelings of both gratitude and guilt) at the amount of social change that has in fact occurred in the past century. My amazement can be triggered by something as simple as the visual memory of a British pub filled with a thick haze of cigarette smoke (a memory that takes me back only to 1990), an image that feels almost barbaric in comparison with the clear-aired restaurants of today, or by something as shocking — in fact, as forgotten — as the black and white news footage playing behind the initial credits of Gus Van Sant’s Milk, which shows gay men being herded out of taverns and, their faces turned away from the cameras, into police paddy wagons. North American society has travelled quite a distance from that time to this.

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The Choice

The Choice is an absorbing documentary about the 2008 election available on PBS’s Web site. I wasn’t able to sleep the other night and wound up watching the whole thing. It tells the life story of the two candidates and recounts their paths to their respective nominations. McCain comes off as a sympathetic figure on an individual level, albeit one who has had to make compromises with the religious right in order to please his party. The material on Obama is especially interesting. It describes his experiences as both a community organizer in Chicago, “the capital of black America,” and as president of the Harvard Law Review. A former editor of the Review who went on to become White House counsel describes the political battles inside the law journal as more nasty and vicious than anything in Washington. Obama, however, managed to unite the fractious staff, which we can hope is a sign of things to come should he win the presidency.

A bunch of other PBS documentaries, including several about Bush and Iraq, are available here.

End zones

A few years back, I came across the interesting observation — I think it was in an essay on Sophia Coppola — that most directors address only a single theme or question across all the movies they make in their careers, using each film to come closer to an answer they’ll be satisfied with. This observation almost certainly applies to Coppola’s oeuvre to date, which focuses on the lives of alienated young women, just as it applies, with somewhat less consistency, to the careers of directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen.  And while one might at first hesitate to place Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón in this category — his work, after all, includes a modernization of Dickens’ Great Expectations, a version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and, of all things, a Harry Potter film — his two greatest films, Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, have enough thematic similarity to at least make the question worth raising.

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Many a true word

The Joker
The Joker working the room

As superhero movies go, The Dark Knight is certainly the best of the bunch — although why Christian Bale’s perfectly normal voice had to descend to a guttural rasp every time he put on his bat helmet escapes me, and one must also assign a few demerit points to the filmmakers for portraying the Russian national ballet as a group of blond and unfeasibly pneumatic ski bunnies. But it’s entertaining and occasionally thoughtful, which is more than one can normally ask of the genre.

The late Heath Ledger, as widely proclaimed, is indeed the best actor in the film. His portrayal of the Joker is far less cartoonish than Jack Nicholson’s own go at it, and Ledger takes the character seriously, giving him a consistency, a style, and a realism wholly absent before. Continue reading

A bonfire of vanities

An evil omen — of that there’s no doubt. After Llewelyn Moss (Josh Brolin), hero of Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men, shoots and wounds a deer while hunting in the West Texas desert, he comes across a trail of fresh blood crossing at right angles the trail of deer blood that he has set out to follow. Looking through his binoculars, he sees a heavy black fighting dog limping away through the sagebrush. The dog glances back, unaware of Moss’s presence and perhaps looking out for a pursuer, and then continues on.

In medieval folklore, a black dog was one of the forms taken by the devil in his wanderings in the world of men; to the English, a spectral black dog was seen as a portent of death, as were the hounds that took part in the ghostly Wild Hunt of Herne the Hunter. In Goethe’s Faust, somewhat amusingly (to modern minds, at least), Mephisto takes the form of a black poodle, while in the 1976 film The Omen, Gregory Peck’s character is attacked by aggressive Rottweilers in the Etruscan cemetary where he has found the body of the jackal (another important member of this canine mythology) that gave birth to his adopted son and future Antichrist. Continue reading

The things we don’t choose

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The neighbourhood is the kind of place where ten-year-old boys on bicycles tell you to “fuck yourself and fuck your mother” when you ask them to move out of the road. Where the local tavern is frequented by a skeleton crew of thugs and broken-down old men at two o’clock in the afternoon. Where the mother of an abducted child — an event that has put her at the centre of a regional media frenzy — is a foul-mouthed, hard-faced, homophobic drug-addict.

This is south Boston, as envisioned by Ben Affleck — now a very capable director — in Gone Baby Gone (spoiler warning), a movie based on Dennis Lehane’s book of the same name. Over its opening scenes of weathered walk-ups with overweight and under-dressed local girls hanging around on ground-floor balconies, the film’s hero, a young private investigator named Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck), comments on the nature of identity: “I think that it’s the things we don’t choose that make us who we are. Our neighborhoods, our families…”

His thesis is borne out by element after plot element. When Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), Kenzie’s girlfriend and professional partner, recognizes a friend of the missing girl’s mother as a former classmate, the woman instantly takes note of Angie’s clean hair and pressed clothing and snaps, “I see you’re still as conceited as ever.” Lionel McCready refers to his sister Helene’s alcoholism and drug addiction as an affliction rather than a sin: “She’s got the gene,” he says simply. And Kenzie, in his search for 4-year-old Amanda McCready, is able to draw on a network of childhood connections which give him trusted access to the criminal king-pins of his neighborhood. In Affleck’s and Lehane’s Boston — as in the Boston of Lehane’s earlier Mystic River, where cop, gangster, and suspect started as boyhood friends — your past follows you everywhere.

After a stop-start investigation in cooperation first with two Boston PD detectives (Ed Harris and John Ashton), and then with a local drug lord and long-time acquaintance, Kenzie finally discovers that the missing girl has been abducted by none other than the head of the police department’s missing-children division, Capt. Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman), whose own child had been murdered years ago. In a near-final scene, Kenzie and Doyle confront each other at the captain’s country house, tensely debating whether Amanda should be returned to her mother.

Their debate is short but fascinating. The policeman argues from a vantage point of ends-justifying-the-means instrumentality. With a wastrel as a mother, Amanda probably would be doomed to a life of poverty and crime. Living with Doyle and his wife, by contrast, she has a chance to grow up loved and in prosperity. Doyle tells Kenzie that if he calls the state police, he’ll condemn himself to watching the child grow up in terrible circumstances, and will live to regret his decision.

Casey Affleck’s acting is powerful not because it is uncommonly subtle or dramatically expressive, but because it convincingly portrays the public face of a quiet and wary young man who has been conditioned since childhood to use bluff and bravado to ward off violence, and who knows that in the unforgiving world he inhabits, he cannot let down his cool-eyed persona for a moment. When faced with tremendous moral choices, therefore, his expression does not change — but he pauses, and as he does so we fill in the gap; we join him in his mind and desperately attempt to help him find the right answer. So when he finally does respond to the dilemma, we are relieved that he has found an acceptable articulation of at least a few of our own thoughts. Something had to be said, and he has managed to find something to say.

Yet what he actually says is surprising. Against Doyle’s extreme pragmatism, he doesn’t oppose high-minded concepts like the rule of law or universal ethics — this is not A Man for All Seasons — but relies instead on an equally emotional and equally valid pragmatism. Helene might never change, Kenzie admits, and he knows he might live to regret his decision. But he cannot face the possibility that Amanda might one day discover her roots, and might ask him why he knew that she had been abducted, taken by a strange family, and yet did nothing about it. His emphasis on the girl’s authentic origins is a casting back to Kenzie’s opening words about the things we don’t choose making us who we are. To him, Amanda McCready is from south Boston, born of Helene McCready. It might not be much of a birthright, but it’s hers. To abduct her was a grave sin, but to deprive her of her rightful identity would be theft of an equally terrible kind.

Ben Affleck has co-written and directed a thoughtful and often gripping movie about identity and origins. Yet it’s an interesting development for him: the last time he co-wrote a film set in south Boston, Good Will Hunting, he had his math-genius protagonist (Matt Damon) doggedly intending to stay forever in the old neighbourhood among the friends he grew up with, and having to be read the riot act by his best friend (played, ironically, by Ben Affleck) in order to get him to pursue a higher destiny elsewhere, anywhere — far away, at least, from south Boston.