' ' Cinema Romantico: Phase Infinity

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Phase Infinity

After Purdue and Virginia’s epic NCAA Tournament regional final clash in March, I yearned for a Curry Kirkpatrick game story of it in Sports Illustrated, one of his pun-laden pieces of stylistic prose that lingered over the individual moments yielding the end result as much as the end result itself, less concerned with x equaled y monochrome specifics than the specific sensation aroused by the contest itself. Of course, Kirkpatrick has long since retired and Sports Illustrated is now just a brand, literally, the once legit, legendary literary mag recently purchased by the repugnantly named Authentic Brands Group who will undoubtedly finally drive, once and for all, this formerly proud institution that made me fall in love with the written word into the ground. Needless to say, no one writes game stories like SI once published. No, all I could find in the wake of Purdue v Virginia was AP-ish boilerplate with blah press conference quotes signifying absolutely nothing, or articles in the vein of Matt Norlander at CBS sports who took a pre-packaged storyline and built the game story around it. The latter evokes the late Paul Zimmerman, also of Sports Illustrated, who frequently lamented TV sports broadcasts telling you what the storyline of the game would be in advance (and who would literally call out blah press conference quotes in his pieces as signifying nothing); the game itself, as he said, produced the storyline, and once you unearthed the storyline then the game story became a means of reckoning with how and why it became the storyline and what that meant.

It is not that the game story has become an anachronism in an age when every sporting event is televised. No, game stories reached far beyond mere recaps; essentially they were theater criticism, an aesthetic appraisal of a game or event in which the appraisal sought to extract a deeper meaning, or lack thereof. That’s why, I realize now, those game stories were more my introduction to movie reviews than movie reviews themselves. I not only devoured those game stories when my Sports Illustrated came in the mail, I tried to ape them. After the first weekend of my first Winter Olympics in 1988, so overcome by the pairs figure skating short program routine of Ekaterina Goordevea and Sergei Grinkov, I took a prosaic crack at my first review, in a manner of speaking, trying to summarize the awe-inspiring experience of watching their routine in my crude 4th grade language. (This is the first time I’ve ever admitted this out loud.) Few writers who dabble in sports, though, aim for such contemplation, if they are even allowed the space to attempt it. Louisa Thomas can do it about tennis. Spencer Hall can do it about college football, even if he writes true game stories too infrequently.

That lack of game stories speaks to a tweet from earlier this year sent out by Nathaniel Friedman, who used to run Free Darko, a legendary NBA blog that has long since shuttered but once used its space to see the metaphysical side of sports. After Portland’s Damian Lillard sank in an impossibly deep buzzer beater to oust Oklahoma City from the NBA Playoffs this spring, Friedman essentially noted how the instant nature of everything in our current age prevents people from lingering over such spectacular individual moments. Rather than waxing discursively in print about it, people fire off a few tweets and move on, gobbling up the experience and searching for another one rather than reveling in the one they just went through. The invaluable Bryan Curtis mentioned this Friedman tweet on his Press Box podcast a few months ago in discussing whether movie reviews of “Avengers: Endgame” had any real point in the grand scheme. Fans, he and co-host David Shoemaker agreed, of the MCU (Marvel Comic Universe) were not looking for aesthetic appraisals of the film or the franchise. It’s the franchise itself, Curtis argued, the experience surrounding it, of going to it, that excites its legions of fans. That’s why, Shoemaker said, in Kevin Smith’s podcast “review” of “Endgame” he was essentially just reciting plot. To take the old Roger Ebert quote and twist it, it’s no longer how a movie is about something nor even what it’s about but just, like, what it is; it’s the thing itself, the product – all meaning is concluded with the production of the content in the first place.

I thought of that in the wake of Phase 4. That’s the latest series of films, apparently, to come out of the MCU, announced at San Diego Comic Con, with five movies coming in 2020 and 2021 from Marvel and five more, apparently, through the Disney Plus streaming service, a big reveal that kicked up as many fireworks, if not more, than the actual movies themselves probably will. It evoked the conclusion of the recent NBA season where a wonderfully weird, theatrical Finals roared briefly and then was quickly supplanted by free agency, the entire league shifting so seismically and swiftly that it’s as if everything that happened before went up in a puff of smoke. The finer details of that Finals, the twists and turns, the plays and players, all the splendid moments that yielded the end result, just sort of fell by the wayside as everyone moved, rapidly, on to the next thing.

My observations here about the state of the movie industry are not new. After all, we have long known Phase 4 was coming, and anyway, you don’t have to watch Marvel movies, as faux-edifying tweets will always scold, until you look at the movie times for the summer of 2019 and realize Phase 1 and 2 and 3 have, sure enough, phased out Hollywood’s middle class; go big or stay home and watch Netflix, I guess. Mark Harris saw all this coming in his vital 2014 Grantland piece The Birdcage which in the wake of Marvel’s rollout for Phase 3 (“at a fan-service event that had every bit of the importance and money-consciousness of a shareholders’ meeting,” Harris wrote) led him to predict a Hollywood built not from any “evident love of movies” or “joy in creative risk” but “spreadsheets, P&L statements, demographic studies, risk-avoidance principles, and a calendar.” We’re here: in the thick of The Birdcage. And if the future has always been a place to look when the present has seemed too much to bear, I’m unsure where to look when the future is consciously designed to just be more of the present, and vice-versa, an endless and noisy echo drowning out everything else, a business model that accounts for everything except a sense of discovery, the meaning and storyline conferred beforehand, nothing left to appraise but the full-fledged arrival of our Disney overlords. After all, Phase 5 is already planned.

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