Monday, May 24, 2004

The K Scale

Instead of thumbs up or down, a five star system or a ten point scale, or even the SF Chronicle's "little man" whose posture indicates levels of approval, I am introducing a new system, the K Scale, for the evaluation of new movies.

This new scale is needed I believe because of the sheer awfulness of the vast majority of new movies that ruin the taste of perfectly good cardboard popcorn in 987-screen cineplexes throughout the land.

But more than that it's a highly personal scale. It reflects in part my maturation from a young curmudgeon, mortally offended by degradations upon the cultural potential, to my present state of practicality, and acceptance that demographics have passed me by, additionally leavened by mortality awareness.

So now I make no apologies for my personal taste, and my general priorities of don't waste my time, let alone my money.

I introduce the K Scale in time for the summer movie season. This is actually the time of year I am likely to see new films in the theatre. I know I should be more moved to see the wintry serious films but I find myself spectacularly uninterested in the emotional upheavals of younger Hungarians or the spiritual, sexual and shopping traumas of younger denizens of Manhattan, London or Beverly Hills. The operative words here are "younger" and "trauma." I figure I've paid my dues over the years in having my own emotions wrenched and wrung out for art, through two hours or more of seduction---getting to identify with or care about the characters-and abandonment, as awful things happen to them, with perhaps a couple of glib minutes of hopefulness at the end. Life is taxing enough, thanks.

Which doesn't send me to films of mindless violence either. Possibly due to some mental defect, I find violence disturbing rather than entertaining, even if only as it pushes the fight or flight button. I'd rather not go through that unnecessarily.

Not all action films are just violent. Some are just dull. For instance, the currently popular Kung Fu style fighting bores me to distraction. The fight sequence in the second Matrix film (which I saw only because the first was intriguing; I wasn't dope enough to see the third) only had me yearning for Fred Astaire. He could have done that sequence with so much more style, and with better music.

So the dramas are too draining, the comedies are mostly not funny (and whatever is funny I've seen in the TV promo) and the action pictures are largely without redeeming value. Add to these feelings my new preference for DVDs. In terms of pure viewing---the picture, the sound---they easily beat theatres for me. Plus I can pause, rewind, fast forward, repeat, and indulge in the textural extras and commentaries. All for prices much lower than I would pay for the privilege of sitting in badly proportioned seats behind an excessively tall person who talks throughout the film, my feet sticking to the floor, the picture so dim I can see through the letters in the titles, and the sound pitched to ear-splitting explosions and incomprehensible buzzes of dialogue.

Still, most of my viewing life came before videos, and I have strong affinities for the experience of the movie theatre. I've seen hundreds of films in theatres, including scores I've seen repeatedly. (Glancing through the lists of the ten best film comedies, thrillers, westerns, musicals, fantasies, histories, and dramas in The Book of Film Biographies, edited by Robin Morgan and George Perry, I note that while of course I don't agree with all the choices, I've seen them all except one-"Goodfellas", which I don't miss in the least.)

I also have a partner who likes to go out once in awhile. So once in awhile, and a bit more often in the summer, I'll see a first-run film when it opens. I've always liked science fiction, my favorite as a kid and still appealing if for additional reasons. Science fiction, comic book mythology, fantasy of a certain kind---that's where the new magic is. (Though the Tolkien films were often striking, they were more effect than substance, and the effect was less enchantment than special effects battlefield exhaustion. And I am definitely not interested in the strongest-survive, "fight evil with evil" war movies disguised as science fiction or fantasy.)

So there are a few films I want to see this summer. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban first and foremost-I think this is going to be a good one. I'll see "The Day After Tomorrow" somewhat for professional reasons, but I enjoyed "Independence Day" and found a lot to see and think about, even if I can't say I totally admire it. I was a big Spider-Man comic book fan, so I'll see that one. There are a couple more of that ilk. And of course we all await "Farenheit 911." All this is made easier by a Christmas gift of a movie pass card. Because now that I don't get in free as a reviewer or important art person, money is an object.

So fittingly enough, money is the basis of my K Scale. (What? You think I forgot?) In everyday terms, in our house we tend to rank upcoming films as "see at theatre," "never see until trapped on an airplane with it" or mostly "something to rent when it hits the $1 rack." My K Scale is an outgrowth of this method of thinking.

Instead of rating films based on how much I liked them, which is a sucker's game anyway because you have to see them first, I've decided to rate films I haven't seen by how much money I will require to be paid in order to go to a theatre opening weekend and see it. (I suppose this is also based on habits of mind derived from being a film reviewer, when I saw lots of films only because I was paid to write about them.)

Though the exact K Scale is still in development, here's the basic idea. I start with the smallest amount, say $20. Say there is a film I wouldn't mind seeing and sort of would like to see, like Shrek 2. (I enjoyed Shrek. I loved the Billy Crystal character, and the Harry Hausen in-jokes.) A total stranger could convince me to see it by handing me $20. Then again, I might see it anyway, if I simply wanted to go to a movie and it was playing, or my partner did, or some friends. (Though they are more likely to want to see some serious wintry film, and so I'll go... if it doesn't happen too often. )

After that, we get into serious application of the K Scale. Now we're talking about movies I wouldn't see unless I got paid to see them. (This amount, by the way, is in addition to a free ticket and a pre-paid tub of popcorn.)

So for current movies, the K Scale would be:

VON HELSING.........$30

This is a film I'll probably rent someday, since I'm mildly curious, and I can watch it on fast-forward. But for $30, I'll go to the theatre.


A film I am unlikely to see even on video unless I'm doing research on the Zena Era of Anachronistic History.


A worthy if not brilliant film I'm sure, but I just don't want to go through all that, thank you very much. But for $75, I'll see it.

And so on, up the scale until we get to the likes of:

KILL BILL (any number).... $10,000
That's what it will take to get me to see these films. The idea of going to see the decadent corruption of filmmaking talent wasted on hip shock and unrelenting cynical violence has no appeal, but $10,000 will soothe the pain, especially since I can contemplate it during the film, plus it will pay for some extra Dots and maybe one of those big Snickerdoodles.

I also apply the K Scale to individuals. For instance, I will go to a film with a cast that includes Ben Stiller or David Spade only for the price of $15,000. (For each film. If both are in it, I'll give you a break and take $25,000.)

Though I reserve the right to adjust the scale according to the continuing deterioration of film quality and the level, sanity and agenda of the general culture, I do have a top, or bottom, point of the scale so far. It is:

PASSION OF THE CHRIST....$50,000 (in advance, cash or cashier's check only.)

Sunday, May 23, 2004

Free Barry!

I’ve watched Barry Bonds play baseball since his rookie year for my hometown team, the Pittsburgh Pirates. He hit his sixth home run on my fortieth birthday. His homeruns in those days were memorable mostly for the speed with which they left the park, though he did hit some titans. He was a line drive hitter, but they were the hardest line drives I’ve ever seen. The last Pittsburgh Pirates game I saw at Three Rivers Stadium was at the end of his last season there. He didn’t homer but he had five or six hits, rockets to right, center and left.

Lots of people in Pittsburgh didn’t like him, including sportswriters, but Pittsburgh always had to have a dark hero to go along with the favorite, especially when both were black. Willie Stargell was the beloved Pops, Dave Parker was his bad boy shadow. Bobby Bonilla was the popular favorite when Bonds was in the same stellar outfield, on that brilliant and tragic late 80s, early 90s team that one year came within an out of going to the World Series, and never could quite get past the Atlanta Braves several years running. Pittsburgh hasn’t had a contending team since.

Since 1993, Barry has been on the San Francisco Giants, which came within a single win of winning the division that year, and couple of outs of winning the World Series two seasons ago. And of course in the past several years, Barry Bonds has emerged as probably the greatest baseball player of all time. He followed his record-setting single season home run year with the batting average title the next year.

I’ve only managed to see one game in San Francisco since he’s been there, late last season. He did something rare for him---he struck out twice. Still, it’s a great ball park with great fans, and everyone holds their breath when Barry comes to the plate. So often he rewards them with the kind of home run that takes your breath away, like a Michael Jordan dunk or a Kobe Bryant drive, or some of those amazing things the women gymnasts do.

This year, despite his father’s death last fall, and the shadow of the Balco drug scandal, and turning forty himself this season, he started out with tremendous hitting. In mid April he tied Willie Mays (his godfather) for third for total home runs with a shot that practically bears his patent: out of the park in right field, and into the Bay. The next day he moved ahead of Mays with a shot to the same spot (both balls, incredibly, retrieved by the same guy, out there amongst the other boats and kayaks positioned just to chase Barry Bond home runs.)

A few days Scott Ostler, San Francisco Chronicle sports columnist, let loose the rhetoric along with the statistics. “Barry Bonds is rewriting the Book of Baseball Wisdom. The hardest thing to do in sports right now is to miss Barry’s round bat with your round pitched ball.”

At that point, Bonds was hitting .500, with 7 homers and 16 RBIs in 34 at bats. “His slugging percentage is 1.265, a figure so high that only dogs can read it." Ostler wrote about a Sunday against the Dodgers, where Barry hit a double, a homer, another homer, and an RBI single. “Bonds’ second homer caused the Dodgers to do some soul-searching at two different meetings on the mound in which there were seven participants. I think the group included a Bonds specialist the Dodgers flew in from Zurich. I’m pretty sure I could hear them singing ‘Kumbaya.’ It’s the first time I’ve ever seen a meeting at the mound broken up by the fire marshal.”

Then Bonds hit at least one home run in eight straight games. This is the major league record, held by several players (I believe the first one was Dale Long, for the Pittsburgh Pirates in the 1950s. One of those stats I memorized from a bubble gum card.) But Barry didn’t hit a homer in the ninth game. He wasn’t allowed to. The San Diego Padres intentionally walked him, every time.

That, my friends, was poor sportsmanship to the extreme. It used to be that in baseball and some other sports, it was a matter of honor to let a player going for a record have a fair shot at it. You didn’t tell your pitcher to throw a fastball down the middle, but you didn’t tell him to walk the guy out of a chance.

But it was only the beginning. By early May Bonds had been intentionally walked 29 times, at a pace to break the single season record of 68 before the season was half over. (The record is held by, you guessed it, Barry Bonds.) By mid May, he had been walked 54 times in 35 games. At first he shrugged it off, saying that the important thing was that the team wins the game. That worked while they were winning. When they slumped, he talked about the strain of it, of staying mentally and physically prepared when he never gets the chance to hit. Then he started talking about being traded. Then his back started acting up again, and he was out of the lineup.

Walking Bonds so much is statistically bad baseball by some accounts (if the idea is to win more than you lose by walking him), but by my account it’s bad for baseball. It corrupts the game. It’s also obviously bad for the baseball business. People don’t go to baseball games to watch the greatest living hitter and maybe the greatest of all time not get a pitch to hit. This is a guy who in the best of times gets maybe a couple of hittable pitches in a game, hardly ever more than one during an at-bat. That he hits as well as he does has to be measured against this.

But this titan of hitting in the last years we will ever get to see him hit is being denied the opportunity to do what he does best, and we are denied the opportunity to see him do it, if only on TV. We’re denied the chance to see him break Babe Ruth’s all time record, which he could conceivably do this season, though not with the at-bats he’s being currently allowed. Then there’s Henry Aaron’s record still to go. There’s no reason that Barry Bonds can’t become the all-time home run champ, except for all those walks.

It’s far from the biggest crime against humanity currently in the docket, but it’s a disgrace to the game of baseball nonetheless. And we can use all the grace and inspiration and wonder we can get.