' ' Cinema Romantico

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Last Black Man in San Francisco

San Francisco is home to director Joe Talbot and his leading man, Jimmie Fails, playing a version of himself, a character named, conspicuously, Jimmie Fails. They grew up together as teenagers, brainstorming the whole time for “The Last Black Man in San Francisco.” It shows, the movie bulging with bits and ideas, as if the two men took notes of every encounter and every experience to be used later, evoked in Mont (Jonathan Majors), best friend of the movie Jimmie, a playwright cataloguing what he sees and who he meets. Talbot and Fails’s film, then, having seen San Francisco slowly take its gentrified shape, becomes both a love letter and a lament, about a man trying to find space for himself in a city squeezing people like him out. As such, “The Last Black Man in San Francisco” begins not with an establishing shot of the glittering Golden Gate Bridge but men in hazmat suits cleaning up a contaminated shipyard in Hunter’s Point. Across the way, Jimmie and Mont wait for a bus that won’t come. This is not, however, the enigmatic city transit of “Ghost World” because these two men have some life left in them yet, together boarding Jimmie’s skateboard, a four-wheeled bridge from the Bay’s fringes to its downtown, virtually soaring as the whole populace – coastal cosmopolitans and eccentrics – seem to rise up around them.

This idea of belonging – this idea of where you belong – is paramount. Jimmie and Mont almost seem out of time, living together, sleeping together in the same bedroom, not because they’re in a relationship but more like a less comic version of Laurel and Hardy. Outside, a group of trash-talking males – literally billed as Greek Chorus – loom every time Jimmie and Mont come or go. If this Greek Chorus embodies a rougher kind of masculinity at odds with Jimmie and Mont’s genteel, sad-eyed natures, they are also staking claim to this block, a kind of emotional right of property possession that is deliberately juxtaposed as small scale compared to the overwhelming overall urban displacement.

That displacement is epitomized Jimmie’s old family home in a gentrified neighborhood. Upon first arriving there, Jimmie enters through the vine-covered gate, and a point-of-view shot finds him looking up at the house, toward the turret, bushes on either side of the path framing it, momentarily rendering the Victorian-style architecture as an almost otherworldly wonderland. In a way, it is. Though his family once lived there, it now belongs to a middle-aged white couple who bemusedly stand off to the side and wonder why Jimmie, painting and trimming, is playing maintenance keeper. Indeed, in brief encounters with his father and mother, where something seems to flicker behind Fail’s eyes and then disappear, you sense Jimmie sensing his own sense of history vanishing beneath his feet. If the character feels a little short on lived-in details, almost as if Fails and Talbot know the real person so much they forgot to sculpt a character, this lack of a persona also functions as inadvertent underlining of his overriding fear. Sometimes he hops the back of trucks with his skateboard in tow, evoking Marty McFly, and like Marty McFly was in danger of being erased from history, so too does Jimmie fear his impending erasure.

That’s why when the white couple is forced out of the home, Jimmie and Mont movie right in, squatting since they can’t afford the hefty price tag. Here, they act like kids, shouting at their top of their lungs and talking dreamily of big restorative plans. Home, in other words, becomes an antecedent to the outside world, an idea taking root elsewhere too, like the car where Jimmie’s Uncle Ricky (Mike Epps) lives. That’s an idea steeped in tragedy, though Uncle Ricky has spruced up his vehicle with Christmas lights while Epps’s air emits pride in his wheels. In one scene, late at night, we see him parked near the water when a gunshot echoes off screen. It’s one of several times Talbot alludes to violence without showing it to us, as if home, even if it’s this car, functions like insulation against all the encroaching meanness out there, holding it at bay.

But it can’t be held there forever. Even if Talbot eschews the specifics of gentrification and real estate law, a fatalism permeates the film, like a San Franciscan fog that settles and refuses to dissipate, evinced in an indelible closing shot where we finally see the Golden Gate Bridge, not in its normal splendor but half-shrouded in darkness as Jimmie pulls the oars of a small rowboat toward some unknowable destination. He looks like a refugee in his own city.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Ad Astra

“Ad Astra”, as a concise opening title scrawl makes clear, means To the Stars, a phrase full of awe though director James Gray’s film often feels in direct opposition to such wonderment, glimpsed in the space of a shot of Saturn outside a spaceship window equating the sixth planet from the Sun with a thumbnail-sized Grand Canyon seen from a passenger airline. Indeed, despite considerable space-set derring-do, “Ad Astra’s” oft-alone astronaut, Roy McBride (Brad Pitt) is nothing more than an emotionally scarred son journeying from the Earth to the Moon to Mars to Neptune to try and reconnect with an emotionally distant father. It is, frankly, a funny metaphor when you type it out, and therefore can only be as good as how the movie peddles it, which, between Gray’s controlled aesthetic and Pitt’s austere performance, is pretty good.

“Ad Astra” opens with an incredible sequence marrying show-stopping action to character as Roy, working on the International Space Antenna, extending from Earth up through the atmosphere and then into the low rung of space, takes a tumble in the wake of a mysterious power surge. This plummeting turns your stomach as his body turns over and over, though the surrounding chaos only stresses Roy’s professionalism in the face of such peril, hardly batting an eye as he doesn’t so much fight to maintain consciousness as just unflappably keep it, eventually parachuting to safety on our blue marble below, heart-stopping and bizarrely serene all rolled into one. Afterwards, his Space Command superiors track these surges to the Lima Project, a spaceship out toward Neptune prowling for intelligent life and captained by Roy’s father, the legendary H. Clifford McBride (Tommy Lee Jones), long presumed dead. And here Gray, who wrote the screenplay with Ethan Gross, smartly forgoes techno-babble, relaying only pertinent information, that 1.) The entire universe is threatened by these surges and 2.) Roy’s father might still be alive, triggering a quest from Earth to the Moon to Mars to Neptune.

This defines “Ad Astra’s” general indifference to exposition. Liv Tyler, playing Roy’s wife Eve, might hardly be in the movie, but this is shrewd filmmaking, not an inconsiderate filmmaker. Her few flashbacks function as snippets of Roy’s memories, demonstrating his tendency to block out everything, including, sure enough, her, glimpsed in a cruel, evocative shot where she is virtually blurred out in the background, like he’s losing focus on her in the moment. His voiceovers too, while occasionally grasping for too much Malick-y religiosity, function as deliberate contrast to his outward placidity, giving you a sense of the terse tempest kicking up inside. They also call to mind the film’s recurring computerized psych evaluations, as if L. Ron Hubbard’s Auditing has become standard practice.

The psych evaluations are one element of Gray’s excellent world-building, accentuated by Kevin Thompson’s production design and Karen O’Hara’s set decoration, sculpting a world that isn’t the joyous future of “Star Trek” nor the dystopia of “Blade Runner” but a bizarrely believable-feeling progression from where we are now to where we might be if space travel became a reality, with Virgin Atlantic flights to the moon and the framed Welcome to the Moon picture – “Where worlds come together” – comically suggesting a lunar visitors center, like you’ve just crossed Iowa/Illinois border. Seriously, that poster is hilarious. The dark, red-infused interiors of the Mars outpost, meanwhile, suggest a lack of daylight akin to Antarctica’s famed Palmer Station, an unmoored sensation that also comes through in the narrow, claustrophobic settings and in the performances, Ruth Negga’s dour fatalism and a walk-off cameo you deserve to discover on your own if you don’t already know about it implicitly summarizing Martian bureaucracy. Even the action scenes feel built off such matter-of-factness, Roy’s rover escort on the moon coming under attack from pirates, recounted with a sober lyricism that not only befitting Roy’s level-headedness.

This grim, believable world-building is not simply for its own sake but illustrative of Roy’s strange, strangely familiar journey, where pushing the limits of human achievement are deliberately juxtaposed against conventional human failings, reimagining the reckoning of “Apocalypse Now” as nothing more than a son finding his father puttering around in the garage, a sequence where the thought “This is it?” says everything. Yup. This is it. This is all we’ve got. And that’s why we’ve got to hang onto it, which is why it’s so affecting when he lets it go. And if too often as a true leading man Pitt has languished, as Achilles in “Troy” and in the more recent “Allied” where he mistook stiff sullenness for searching, here Gray emphasizes that stiff sullenness as part and parcel to the character which Pitt translates by turning his face into a blank slate where the slightest physical flourish, like an eye twitch, feels like foreshocks before the concluding seismic eruption, brought home in a cup of coffee packing as much punch as a nuclear explosion.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 8

November 3, 1990: Georgia Tech - 41 Virginia - 38

For all its accompanying hype, the Super Bowl is merely the last game of a season, a logical end point, which is why an NFL champion is official, like getting a vendor contract notarized. Bo-ring. In college football, on the other hand, playoff-less for 145 of its 150 years, national champions were colloquially, wonderfully referred to as mythical, like the culmination to an adventure book. Occasionally, if the stars aligned, a New Year’s Day bowl game doubled as a kind of Super Bowl, like the 1987 Fiesta Bowl, but those instances were rare and still created less by a linear process than bowl game official skullduggery. No, the most famous college football games have taken place during the regular season, which is why no other sport’s regular season can compare, and those games have come replete with their own overblown moniker – The Game of the Century. There have been fourteen Games of the Century, which is not to suggest that each one was a Game of the Century because every Game of the Century was the Game of the Century, see, part of a whole but simultaneously singular. And though all these Games of the Century have featured #1 vs #2, not all #1 vs #2 showdowns have been Games of the Century, a kind of dream logic that only exists in this mad, glorious sport, where a rare confluence of events – polls and P.T. Barnum-esque press proclamations – will such contests into being. The playoff will kill them, of course, since it is designed to manufacture its own ersatz super bowl, conforming to supersized normalcy. Boo. Hiss. But don’t get me started.

Virginia and Georgia Tech’s showdown for the ACC title in 1990 was not an (un)official Game of the Century. The former Cavaliers were undefeated and ranked #1 but more a novelty than a blueblood, while the latter Yellow Jackets, destined to split the Mythical National Championship with Colorado, entered this game once-tied and ranked merely 16th. The setting, meanwhile, was not hallowed gridiron ground like South Bend, Indiana or Tuscaloosa, Alabama but modest Scott Stadium in Charlottesville, before it expanded, when one end zone was still open, autumn-colored trees swaying in the breeze. Of course, that’s what made it feel different, not inevitable but a joyous quirk in the college football order, emblemized in the contest itself, not a defensive struggle born of coaching conservatism a la the first Game of the Century, or the most recent one, but a frenetic, sloppy, magnificent shootout.

It began in the sunshine but ended in the fall twilight, sort of mirroring Virginia’s day, roaring out to a 28-14 halftime lead only to have Georgia Tech claw its way back, aided by two Cavalier turnovers, and then a final quarter seesaw that ended the only way a game like this can – on a last-second field goal. If the end was familiar, in its way, the game itself felt like something close to emotional pandeonium, desperate even, especially as the sky got darker and the conclusion drew nearer, where the notion of this being each team’s opportunity on the biggest stage imaginable didn’t fade into the background but rose to the top. You could sense it; you could see it. In re-watching the goal line stand, there comes a moment when the CBS camera is right in Virginia coach George Welsh’s face. “Can you move the camera, please?” he says, right to it, to us. He is oddly polite but completely on edge, befitting color commentator Tim Brant’s recurring observation that Welsh is someone who has never been in this position and might never be in this position again, which befit the entire game’s air. It still felt to me now as it felt to me then – like it was The Game of the Century.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Friday's Old Fashioned: Navy Blue and Gold (1937)

“Navy Blue and Gold” is a nice movie. That’s not to suggest “Navy Blue and Good” is a good movie, per se, though that is not to suggest it’s a bad movie, necessarily, just that it’s, you know, nice. Like, it’s apple-cheeked, fresh-faced, scrubbed and shampooed and ready to go. It’s a Navy recruitment film, after all, in the guise of a Hollywood production, where despite its football scenes being filmed at the L.A. Coliseum, plenty of Annapolis footage is still served up, letting viewers behind the hallowed walls of the Academy, a how the silver screen of the 1930s could double as a tourist trap. And that seems the point as much as the drama, which is all dutifully recounted, emphatically hitting each story beat right on cue, in the manner that you would expect a Naval plebe to, I suppose, where rigorously adhering to the inherent structure is preeminent. That might be why they don’t offer a film directing program at the Naval Academy. Film encourages mavericks and, as we all know, Maverick wasn’t admitted to the Naval Academy.

As military films often do, comedic, dramatic, or otherwise, director Sam Wood brings three disparate personalities together as dorm mates at Annapolis, each one a football player, or aspiring football player. Dick Gates Jr. (Tom Brown) is a more privileged Rudy, obsessed with football and desperate to make the team; Roger Ash (Robert Young) is the lazy rebel, walking out on his current team once he gets accepted to the Naval Academy, punching out his hard-charging coach’s lights along the way, but loafing around on the field for Navy, wasting his considerable talent; Truck Cross (Jimmy Stewart), meanwhile, is something of the man in the middle, emblemized in how Stewart pulls the neat actorly trick of managing to both look like he finds Roger’s light razzing of Dick funny while simultaneously sympathizing with Dick for putting up with the razzing in the first place. Truck is also, though, the one with a secret, which becomes the one angle that skews a little less than nice.

The lesson here, of course, is one for all and all for one, imparted through a series of events we’ve all seen a hundred times before, whether it’s Roger getting even with the upperclassmen who take their hazing of Dick too far or Dick and Truck tracking down Roger when he goes on a bender, all of which is rendered professionally if less than thrillingly. Not that a movie like “Navy Blue and Gold” wants to make too much of an aesthetic stink. No, like Roger, praying to the statue of Tecumseh, the moment when he truly goes all-in on the Naval tradition he has resisted, the film colors inside the lines, only getting a little hot under the collar in the form of an instructor unwittingly telling a story about Truck’s Dad that Truck stands up to say isn’t true, revealing that he used a false name when enrolled, meaning possible dismissal right before the big football game.

If you can figure out how it ends, Stewart still makes it count. Indeed, in the last couple years I’ve watched a few of Jimmy’s old westerns for the first time, most of which are not only refreshingly morally ambiguous but studies of an individual reluctantly forced to work within a collective. “Navy Blue and Gold” is sort of that in reverse, at least where Stewart’s Truck Cross is concerned, a guy excited for the collective but only wants to remain within it so long as he is able to maintain his individual honor which in what’s otherwise an Arrow Shirt Man of a movie feels pretty radical.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

Some Drivel On...Zombieland

“Zombieland” begins by dropping us straight into its infested New America. We are not dropped into it, however, alongside an unknowing surrogate, a la “28 Days Later”, learning everything as he learns it. No, we are introduced to Zombieland by Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), who has already been here a long time, evoked in elaborately staged shots of him wandering through post-apocalypse America’s wreckage on the interstate with his rolling suitcase in tow like all the world’s now a depressing airport concourse. He has survived, he explains in voiceover Eisenberg gives the ring of a man leaving behind auditory instruction manual, by adhering to a strict set of rules, which comically pop up on the screen as he demonstrates them, like shooting a zombie twice to ensure it is dead (Rule 2: Double Tap). In other words, “Zombieland” is both acknowledging and sending up the clich├ęs typically inherent to such films, a deft balance director Ruben Fleischer strikes throughout.

A flashback to his Columbus’s pre-Zombieland life shows him as a gamer recluse, and when he lets in a panicked female only for her to be revealed as a zombie, the Meet Cute cum Self Defense set-up sort of suggests a burgeoning Men’s Rights Activist. That trap, glory hallelujah, is avoided, as it is elsewhere, like with Wichita, (Emma Stone), a con artist in cahoots with her sister Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), who fleece Columbus and his cohort Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson) not once but twice. Columbus, summarized in Eisenberg’s comically courtly air, still chooses to put his trust in her, and when they finally start to fall in love, the movie allows Wichita to be more of the romantic aggressor.

This relationship epitomizes the film’s overriding theme of togetherness which ingeniously does not impede the essential matter of killing zombies but becomes part and parcel to it in more interesting ways. Indeed, if the group is being chased by ravenous freaks, as Columbus puts it, Fleischer boldly diffuses the traditional tension this situation implies, coloring the action scenes more as the strengthening of bonds and, even better, stress relief, most notably in Tallahassee, whose relish for undead-slaying Harrelson plays with an amusing gleam in his eye matching the movie’s. If this is the new world order, he’s just rolling with it, which is sort of lyrical in its own violent way, and offsets the more extreme instances of blood and gore. (A scene where they smash up one of those interstate Indian trading outposts doesn’t feel insensitive but like the logical end point to Manifest Destiny.)

This not just the characters but the movie itself honoring Rule 11 – Enjoy the Little Things. That’s true of the movie’s celebrated cameo, Bill Murray, playing himself as a guy impersonating a zombie, spiritually tipping a cap to “Shaun of the Dead’s” best scene, explaining how this disguise allows him to “get out and do stuff”, and Enjoying the Little Things proves true of Wichita, too, whose foremost goal is taking her little sister to Pacific Playland on the faraway left coast for a playdate. That playdate culminates the film when Wichita pushes away from Columbus after getting too close, taking Little Rock with her and suddenly severing their proxy family ties.

If it’s merely a way to set herself up for a rescue from Columbus – and Tallahassee – which, sure enough, comes true, Stone alternating throughout the film between exuding smoky charisma, emotional brusqueness, and dry disdain here becomes almost quietly unhinged, which Breslin smartly plays off with an air of dubious Big Sister Knows Best, I Guess, deference. “Zombieland” never shies away from the knowing the ostensible zombie-less paradise of Pacific Playland is just a pipe dream and in these moments Stone leans hard into it, negating any deGrasse-ish Plot Holes Criticism of turning on amusement park lights at night which is sure to attract zombies.

The nigh maniacal look in Stone’s eyes is so convincing that despite having seen this movie several times before, I momentarily let myself think the movie might indulge in her expressive fatalism. That’s not what it does, of course, which isn’t bad, the happy ending here earned and emotionally true. But it’s not as if a night out at the amusement park with the fam won’t make one think they can see the end of the world from the top of the rollercoaster. And that’s what the conclusion of “Zombieland” feels like – a subversive family outing where the family unit threatens to come unglued only to emerge even closer than before.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Movies as Theme Parks Theme Parks as Movies

If I briefly checked out of the Film World to try and let the cacophonous, ahem, discourse surrounding the forthcoming “Joker” film die down a little, I underestimated the never-ending war between cinephiles and the commonalty. Because not only did the “Joker” brouhaha remain at a fever pitch, another Film Twitter tempest kicked up when Grandmaster Marty Scorsese told Empire Magazine that Marvel movies were, ahem, not cinema. “Honestly,” Scorsese said, “the closest I can think of them, as well made as they are, with actors doing the best they can under the circumstances, is theme parks. It isn’t the cinema of human beings trying to convey emotional, psychological experiences to another human being.” Thus begin the great theme park outcry.

I’ve had plenty of mean Marvel commentary on the blog, but it’s mostly connected to their role as unrelenting content producers, setting up a new Studio System as a Studio System of 1, attempting to cast themselves as sole tastemakers of an increasingly closed-off cinematic landscape, preferring to have a conversation within the context of their franchise rather than with the world at large. And anyway, given their increasing dominance and constant opening weekend box office success I’m always hearing so much yapping about, you’d like to think Marvel fans, basically rooting for the Mongol Empire at this point, could just let Marty’s comments roll off their shoulders. But then, Genghis Khan didn’t conquer by just hanging back. And that’s not what I’m here to discuss anyway. I’m also not here to discuss whether Marvel movies are theme parks. Because I’m just sick of it, okay, I’m just absolutely sick of it. And that is why I’m here to discuss theme parks becoming movies.

Now I’m not talking about, say, the Griswolds going to Six Flags, “Beverly Hills Cop 3” taking Axel Foley to Paramount’s Great America or even “Adventureland”, which was filmed at Kennywood Park in Pennsylvania, sadly, and not in my old Central Iowa home at Altoona’s Adventureland, because these movies are tacking original narratives around amusement parks. What I’m talking about here is more like when I’d hop the Sky Ride at Altoona’s Adventureland and soar over the park in a gondola dreaming of an action movie taking place almost entirely on the Sky Ride (a non-existent precursor to “Frozen”), ending, perhaps, with a plunge into the Raging River.

There have, of course, been movies based on theme park rides, like 2003’s “The Haunted Mansion” and 2004’s “Pirates of the Caribbean.” The latter, you might recall, was, in a rare convergence, at once properly rated, overrated and underrated; properly rated because of Johnny Depp’s performance, overrated because the rest of the movie (beg your forgiveness, Keira!) did not match Johnny Depp’s performance and underrated because Johnny Depp’s subsequent turns in subsequent sequels, never mind Depp’s real-life turn into abhorrent burlesque, have caused the supreme quality of that original performance to egregiously, irrationally lose some luster. But I’m getting distracted. And the point is, we want to go above and beyond movies as mere theme park rides.

We don’t just want, say, Richard Linklater making a movie about the world’s largest lazy river at BSR Cable Park in Waco, Texas where, I dunno, like, Jenny Slate and Natasha Lyonne float along and encounter eccentrics, even though we really, really want that too, just as a sweeping epic about conceiving and constructing The Matterhorn Bobsleds might make for a solid helping of Oscar bait but does not go far enough for our purposes. (Btw, I can’t wait for the Indiana Jones movie that isn’t based on actual Indiana Jones movies but on Walt Disney World’s Indiana Jones™ Epic Stunt Spectacular! which would be an Epic through the looking-glass moment.)

No, I’m thinking something more along the lines of Mt. Olympus Water & Theme Park in the Wisconsin Dells, a resort based, as the name implies, on Greek mythology with its Hermes Swing and Cyclops Rollercoaster. I’d like to think we could somehow use this theme park to convey a theme of consumer culture being our own mythology, or something, but, then again, that sounds an awful like cinema. Ack! Cooties!

In the invaluable Bryan Curtis’s piece at Grantland (rip) about the father of America’s Water Park, he writes “Waterslide designers compete in a parallel-universe version of The Right Stuff, vying for height and speed records because — this can be the only reason — it seems like a really awesome thing to do.” Well, that sounds like something. That, or perhaps we take Orlando’s since shuttered Wet ’n Wild, home of a wave pool called Surf Lagoon, also cited by Curtis, and have the wave pool go rogue and transform Wet ’n Wild into The Poseideon Adventure? Is that possible? I’m not sure. We’ll have some people set up the typewriter, see what comes out.

While we’re working that, though, what about Yellowstone Bear World? Up there in Idaho? Did you see the entrance sign to this place? That’s a “Jurassic Park” just waiting to happen!

If the Bear Lobby, however, takes umbrage, fear not. Have you heard about this upcoming NPR Dolly Parton podcast, Dolly Parton’s America? “In this intensely divided moment,” NPR explains “one of the few things everyone still seems to agree on is Dolly Parton—but why? That simple question leads to a deeply personal, historical, and musical rethinking of one of America's great icons.” It sounds excellent! But it also sounds a bit, uh, shall we say, erudite. So let’s make Dollywood about a magical journey to find Parton, like “The Wizard of Oz.” Except Dolly can’t be a fraud. Hmmmmm. Maybe then we’ll make it like a Muppet movie where some true blue baddies have taken over Dollywood and are trying to bleed it dry and some good-natured folks have to find Dolly and rise up to help save her theme park.

If Dolly doesn’t sign off, though, where does that leave us? I’ll tell you where. In Bruce Springsteen’s recent autobiography, as well as in Steven Van Zandt’s memoir, the two E Street cohorts tell the story of trying to visit Disneyland and not being allowed entrance because of their bandanas. “Silently, morosely, we drive back to Los Angeles and for two solid hours,” writes Bruce Springsteen, “Steve pours it on. The Constitution! The Bill of Rights! Fucking dress codes! Nazis!” Where am I going with this? I think I forgot.

Forget it. I’m with Steve. I’m calling the whole thing off. The blog is back and I’m still in a bad mood. Let’s burn theme parks to the fucking ground.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

My Favorite College Football Games: Game 7

November 10, 2012: Texas A&M - 29 Alabama - 24

Keith Richards once observed that rock ‘n’ Roll is music for the neck downwards, evoking something innately physical rather than intellectual, which is why it’s humorous that multi-National Championship winning Alabama coach Nick Saban is frequently cited as a Rolling Stones devotee, as he was in Alan Siegel’s piece for The Ringer earlier this summer. After all, Saban’s success is built on the back of his so-called Process, a kind of lifestyle psychology stew of focus and preparation, which is more Airport Marriott conference than Rock ‘n’ Roll. But if Saban describes even the libertine Stones through the banal vernacular of coach speak, proclaiming their “exceptional ability to deal with success and maintain a high standard of how they do things”, he occasionally flouts his intentional vagaries, astonishingly admitting of “Gimme Shelter”, his preferred post-victory tune, “if you’re digging for purpose, I can’t really give it.”


What’s remarkable about the single best college football play of the twenty-tens is what precipitates it – that is, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, on a third down and goal from the ten-yard line, against undefeated and top-ranked Alabama in 2012, standing in the shotgun and then looking to the sideline where, the coaches having examined the defense on his behalf, signal in a change of play. This is modern college football’s preeminent recurring image – eleven players turned toward the sideline, like video game characters waiting to receive their command. In this case, however, Manziel essentially unplugs himself from Coach Kevin Sumlin’s Matrix when no receivers get open and Manziel’s pocket of protection closes in on him. As it does, Manziel, stepping up, collides with his own lineman, the ball momentarily popping into the air, though Manziel snatches it and then instinctively rolls to his left where the defense has suddenly given way because they think they have him trapped. So does CBS play-by-play man Verne Lundquist. “Got him,” he says with an air of finality. And then, “No, they didn’t!” And Manziel side-arms a touchdown to Ryan Swope who has come wide open in the end zone from the sudden burst of awe-inspiring confusion. A year later, after the infamous Kick Six, in which Auburn returned Alabama’s missed try at a game-winning field goal 100 yards to win instead, cameras caught Saban mouthing “I told you that would happen” through his headset to the assistant coaches, suggesting the Process foresaw all outcomes, even the worst one. After Manziel’s play, on the other hand, when the camera found him, Saban merely had the look of annoyed incredulity. Sometimes if you’re digging for purpose, you can’t really give it.


Saban’s Process is essentially risk management, suggesting college football as akin to running an insurance company (Steve Spurrier weeps), an aversion with roots in Woody Hayes’s old crotchety line about three things can happen when you pass and two of them are bad. If it portrays Big, Tough Football Men as Scaredy Cats, it also suggests how football, which can appear so chaotic in the scrum of 22 players, as mere exertion of coaching control, like how Mario Verduzco, quarterback coach of my beloved Nebraska Cornhuskers, subjects his, ahem, student-athletes to 700 question tests meant to account for every possible on-field situation. I imagine Manziel being given this test and then showing up at Verduzco’s door to explain he’s not taking it, a la goalie Jim Craig of the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team to Coach Herb Brooks. No rehearsal could account for Manziel, which is why even when Alabama ground its way back from a 20-0 deficit, the outcome of that 2012 tilt felt inevitable in Manziel’s improvisation, like watching the reverse of Deep Blue make Kasparov go batty, an antidote to Saban’s Process in spirit as much as (non) strategy. That’s not to say Manziel was drawing plays up in the dirt, of course, but that his coaches smartly crafted a system around his unique penchant for what the esteemed Charlie Pierce deemed “real-time audibles”, just sort of making it up as he went along. And in a sport increasingly more about factions of angry old men in khakis conducting war games, that’s a virtue to remember and encourage – to play college football from the neck downwards.