Sunday, October 02, 2011

Sunday Word: Inspiration

You probably didn't know this, but I once attempted to write movie reviews.

I mention this because this weekend "Sunday Word" is "inspiration", and in the past week I've seen a lot of references to the word as well, not only in this weekend's episode of The Office but also in the dopey movie Invictus, which I happened to catch this weekend.

Going back into my past as a "movie reviewer", I talk a bit about sports movies, "inspiration" - and a bit about the Ivy League and Patriot League as well.  (more)

Somewhere in the late 1990s, a site was unleashed on an unsuspecting public called the Hollywood Stock Exchange.

It was an online game that was at least a decade ahead of its time, where the users could buy and sell "shares" of movies and "bonds" of actors, fusing Wall Street and the entertainment business perfectly.

One day, my co-workers came up with the idea of a fan site to, in essence, blog about investment strategies in order to make virtual money.  And I enthusiastically became a part of the site, helping start that community and continuing to play the game until I gave it up in the early 2000s.

While the investment strategies were definitely interesting, playing on my interest in math, what really got me going, though, was trying to review movies.

Trying very hard to be like Joe Queenan, I would try very hard to use my withering prose to cut down movies that deserved it.  While I couldn't come close to his side-splitting antics and caustic put-downs in Tales of a Cineplex Heckler, I did my best, perfecting this craft of writing and developing a style that wasn't quite Joe, but getting there.

(My review of Contact was a particular favorite, calling that huge pile of horse dung what it was before the "critics" discovered that it was actually a false, tensionless rewrite of Carl Sagan's tome.  And history has proved me right, dammit!)


But I discovered my problem with movie reviewing.  I relished cutting down bad movies - or, better yet, movies that thought they were great but most definitely were not.

But when it came to explaining why I liked a movie - it never worked right.  The words came out wrong.  I found that it's really easy to rip a pretentious movie that deserves it.  It's hard to say why a movie is good, without coming off as an insufferable know-it-all, or worse, a sufferable know-it-all.

But I did find one of my biggest writing "inspirations" in my movie-review days, however.

I never stopped reading Joe Queenan's wit, who publishes a book every so often and become somewhat of a curmudgeon-at-large these days.

His excellent book True Believers, a tome where he breaks down Philadelphia sports fans, the special torment of New York Jets fans, and even for good measure includes an eyewitness account of a Five Nations rugby match between France and Scotland.

Whenever I get stuck for words writing about Lehigh, I end up going to Joe and that book, talking about Notre Dame mythology, front-running fans, or even about the epic Philadelphia Phillies collapse of 1964.

If you're going to write about anything, you need to be constantly "inspired" by different people or different topics.  Joe is one of mine.

*****

Which leads me to Invictus.


To give folks some perspective, I am a big fan of sports movies.

I still watch Rudy before football season starts - not because I'm a huge fan of Rudy Ruttiger, but because the fictionalized account of his life, strangely, seems to trascend the man and embody the idea of something else.

Whenever Rocky comes on, I always stay to watch the fight at the end - or the roller-skating scene, too.  Somehow, I turn off the not-so-subtle race element of the movie and focus on the human side - somehow, against all odds, Sylvester Stallone manages to create a fictional boxer, and take this idea of a character and make him almost more real than a real boxer.

(Strangely enough, Queenan wrote about boxing movies not all that not long ago. "It's not as if I'm asking Hollywood to start making movies about hermaphrodite boxers or blind Macedonian boxers or boxers who slug it out from wheelchairs or boxers who can cite Arthur Rimbaud in the original French. I'm only asking Hollywood to occasionally make a film that more closely reflects the reality of the boxing world as we know it. If you can have six Rockys, why do we only have one Ali?")

But after sitting through Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela and Matt Damon, the could-have-been-a-white-supremacist-but-changed-his-ways-rugby-player, I was not only disappointed, but insulted.

The way director Clint Eastwood tried to make us think that Mandela was trying to use the team in such an overt way to "inspire" the divided nation of South Africa to think of itself as a nation bordered on the ridiculous.

Freeman manages to make himself look a lot like Mandela, and even sounds like him, at first.  But the single-minded script seems to take one of the more "inspirational" leaders of our time and make him seem like a dangerously out-of-touch leader who cares more about the outcome of a rugby match than matters of state.

I was never once convinced that the real Mandela was as obsessed with the team as the movie wanted us to believe.  (And it's a good thing, too, since the country would have devolved into chaos had he done that.)

Even on the level of a pure sports movie, too, it sucked.

I can't think of a movie that treated its sports scenes with so little respect for the game they were showing.

Rugby has to be an exciting game - millions in Australasia, Europe, and elsewhere follow the game with the same passion that I follow Lehigh football.

But there was no effort to explain the game, teach folks what a scrum is, or even about the scoring.  I'm guessing that the response to what's happening in the big game - that (spoiler alert!) South Africa wins, of course - shouldn't be, "Who's winning?", as my wife and I asked each other multiple times before the end of the movie.

Furthermore, none of the athletes were portayed as anything but parodies of actual athletes.

I'm guessing that the other actual Springbok players had interesting stories to tell, too, and didn't only exist as extras who grunt or to look at the captain to see what to do next.

And we are asked to believe that the team captain Damon, who purposely is made up to look like an Ivy Leaguer down Cape Town Way, suddenly bucks the lineage of hard-core racists in his family in order to take valuable time out during the Rugby World Cup (and drinking beer in celebration) in order to take a morning trip to where Mandela spent 26 years in prison.  (Yeah, riiiight.)

Mandela's actual story is truly "inspiring".  Ending apartheid and guiding South Africa from its oppressive past to its reasonably successful, but still simmering, reality today is something that certainly deserves to get some glory.

But the thought that Mandela would prostitute his experience in prison in order to have some rugby team win a football game is beyond stupid. 

Teams can represent a club, a school, or a nation.  They can have lots of individual stories that are worth telling.  But it's the stories of the individuals that are "inspiring" for the most part.

I am "inspired" by Mandela's ability to live in captivity for that amout of time, as I am "inspired" by John McCain's tale of captivity in Vietnam as a prisoner-of-war.

But winning a game or a tournament isn't really an "inspiration" for a person, or a nation, unless there some compelling a story concerning the team where the members underwent some sort of tragedy, or personal struggle, and overcame them to win something significant.

Rocky is fiction.  But it works, since in the fictional land of Rocky, he overcomes personal struggle to do well against the heavywight champ, and win the girl he loves.

Rudy is mostly fiction.  But it works, since Rudy overcame his fictional personal struggles, and lack of physical attributes, to play a series of downs on a pretty good college football team.

Invictus is mostly fiction, but it fails miserably, because if doesn't understand what "inspiration" really is.

*****

So what does all this have to do with Lehigh whomping Yale this weekend?

Much is made of the Ivy League and the Patriot League being very similar in many ways.  Both are comprised of private institutions of learning.  Both have a national reach in recruiting athletes.  Both have academic indexes to ensure that the members of the team are representative of the rest of the class.

But there is a key difference: the Patriot League has an autobid to the FCS playoffs on the line for its champion, whereas the Ivy League chooses to prohibit its members from playing any postseason games.

So going into this game, what "inspires" Lehigh to win?

Aside from "revenge", of course, there's also the position in the polls - which indirectly point towards the postseason.

Out-of-conference wins against good opponents are critical for postseason aspirations.  A couple of spots in the national rankings can be the difference between a first-round bye, an at-large playoff spot (if necessary), or even a seed.  For teams that play postseason games, these spots are critical.

But from Yale's perspective, the game against Lehigh almost has to be seen as a preseason game.

In the Ivy, the only thing that matters is that conference championship.  Whether Yale is at No. 25 in the coaches' poll, or just receiving votes, it really doesn't matter in the end, since there's no postseason to play for.

That's not to say Yale isn't filled with competitors - far from it.  For sure, they want to compete against the best, and the game this weekend gave them an opportunity to do so.

But the Bulldogs had to have come into this matchup with such a different perspective than Lehigh did.  Sure, they'd like to win the game - as it relates to the rest of the Ivy League season.  But it wasn't critical for much else as it relates to their ultimate aspirations for the season.

I found myself watching this game, and wishing that both teams had the same things at stake.

Think about it.  What is Yale playing for?  An undefeated season?  Yes, certainly - but even if they do go undefeated, they almost certainly won't finish No. 1 in the nation, which is almost ceremoniously given to the team that wins the FCS National Championship game in January.  An Ivy League championship?  It matters to the players and coaches - but doesn't get a lot of play outside the Northeast, and only in certain places at that.

But Lehigh is playing for a national championship.  If they win every game from now until the end of the postseason, they'll be FCS national champions.  The main goal right now is the Patriot League championship, but with the understanding that winning that first will qualify them to play for a national championship later.

It's easy for the Ivy League to say, on principle, that there should be no postseason for its football members - despite all other sports teams in the Ivy League have some form of postseason in the form of an NCAA championship.

But their postseason ban is also a form of purposeful diminishment of any excitement that might build around their football teams as well.

It prevents their teams from finishing the season No. 1 in anything.

It means a game in October against No. 12-ranked Lehigh is, in effect, a preseason game - nice to win, but not critical.

And if the Ivy League deems certain games not critical for their teams, why would their fans make the trip to Bethlehem, PA, Worcester, MA, or Hamilton, NY to follow them there?  Why go see Lehigh, when the game versus Penn means more to the ultimate goal?

This also has effects on Lehigh, too.  The game against Yale now ends up being crucial to their positioning nationally, but without the same amount of buzz and excitement that another playoff-playing team might have brought to Murray Goodman stadium.  There was an electricity in the stadium when nationally-ranked Liberty came to town that just seemed to be lacking when Yale was here.


I don't know if outcome of this particular game would have been different if both teams were "inspired" by playing for the same ultimate goal.  But the teams of the Ivy League deserve that chance.  They are too good to be treated the way they are being treated now by the leadership of their own league.

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