After the War is Over

I’ve been carefully biting my tongue for the past month, careful not to impose my opinion of the war on you, but now that things have calmed down, think I can poke my head over the parapet. There are a few things worth pointing out at this stage.

Just because we won, doesn’t make it right. [This is, of course, using “we” in its broadest sense, as a Brit living in America. It never was my war to begin with] Going by the crowing of “told you so” from conservative commentators, it seems as if might now equals right. The outcome was never really in doubt, but part of me was hoping it would be tough enough to dissuade America from thinking it could ride rough-shod over every regime it dislikes. Or at least long enough for to flog all the yellow ribbons on which we stocked up.

It’s always nice to see a bully get punked – the only problem is, here we had two of them going toe-to-toe. Sure, the world is a better place without Saddam…but did the end justify the means? On the plus side, America’s ability to ignore the UN and take unilateral action should hopefully quiet the conspiracists who reckon the United Nations is being queued up to become a one-world government.

Where are those pesky weapons of mass destruction? This was the main justification for going – that Saddam posed a threat to his neighbours by having these evil devices – but as yet, nothing has been found. Surely our leaders couldn’t have been (gasp!) lying to us, could they? Don’t be stupid. Of course they could. And going by the way the contracts to rebuild Iraq are being handed out, the WMD are looking more and more like an excuse. This season of 24 features a war created for economic purposes. Life imitating art, or what?

Oh, but now Hussein was in bed with Al-Qaeda. So says a document conveniently found in the rubble of Iraq’s intelligence service. This was found by The Sunday Telegraph, part of a group often rumoured to have intelligence links. Also, odd how the US soldiers guarding the place – who presumably would have searched such an important site – managed to miss the document. Pardon my paranoia, but this could hardly smell more of a plant if it tried.

Where’s Saddam? And what now? Looks like we’ve had as much success finding him, as we have with Osama Bin-Laden. One suspects he’ll be quietly forgotten about, unless he does something dumb like check into the Ritz under his own name. He’s served his purpose. The acid test of this New New World Order will be how America deals with North Korea which, like Iraq, is a country ruled by a brutal dictator who supposedly has weapons of mass destruction. But – and this may be important – he is not sitting on 14 billion barrels of oil.

Interesting times, indeed…

It’s a Baseball World After All… The growing global appeal of the US national sport

Like drive-ins and line-dancing, baseball seems a quintessentially American icon, a facet of the culture that has never quite caught on elsewhere. Yet the sport is more global in nature than might be suspected, and the international aspects have been around for almost as long as baseball itself. The origins are lost in the myth and mists of time, but legend has it that the first Mexican game took place at Jalapa in 1847, when American soldiers celebrated victory, using the artificial leg of defeated general Santa Anna as a bat. As early as 1878, Cuba had a league, with the proceeds funding rebels fighting for independence from Spain.

The spread of the game has largely been driven by American influence; for example, gold propectors brought Australia the game in the 1850’s. Due to this, baseball is most popular in areas with ties to the States: Central America, the Caribbean and the Far East. However, the record attendance for a game took place outside these strongholds, in Berlin, where over 120,000 people watched a demonstration match-up at the 1936 Olympics. More currently, the International Baseball Federation now boasts affiliates in 110 countries.

As well as exporting the game, America also imports players, drawn both by high salaries, and the opportunity to test their skills – the major leagues are universally regarded as the best in the world . Some deride the notion of a “World Series” involving only Canadian and American teams, but more than a quarter of the players currently in the major leagues were born outside the US, including natives of Australia, Germany, and even Englishman Lance Painter. This is not a modern innovation. Even in 1871, the first officially recognised season, history records ten players born in the British Isles, and Liverpudlian Tom Brown took part in more than seventeen hundred games while Queen Victoria was still on the throne.

Lance Painter
St. Louis Cardinals pitcher
Born: Bedford, England

Those in charge of the sport are aware of its international potential. “Baseball was born in America, but now it belongs to the world,” said commissioner Bud Selig, and the 2003 season was scheduled to start in Japan until the invasion of Iraq took place. The Montreal Expos are also playing several “home” series in Puerto Rico, pending a decision on where the team should go. Further down the road, plans have been floated to play in Europe at some point, probably in Italy, where there’s already a semi-pro league whose games are shown on regional television.

The task is not without pitfalls. Witness the failure of soccer to achieve mass popularity in the States, its place in public consciousness largely defined by Brandi Chastain’s post-penalty strip-tease. A quick straw poll revealed that many Americans are unable to name a member of their men’s soccer team, proving that people are averse to being told which pastimes to enjoy. Pure hype can work only in the short term. The London Monarchs won the 1991 World Bowl of American Football in front of 61,000 fans at Wembley Stadium; seven years later, barely five thousand watched the Monarchs’ final game.

Mark Grace on world baseball:
“I would love that.”

Despite the potential for failure, the Arizona Diamondback players we spoke to all supported the idea of playing worldwide. It wasn’t just the rookies either: “I would love that,” said Mark Grace, a player now in his 16th major-league season. Similar opinions were echoed elsewhere – typical was infielder Craig Counsell’s reaction, “It’d be a fun experience.” Despite such enthusiasm, there were some doubts expressed as to whether baseball could displace soccer in European hearts, and reliever Mike Myers raised the possible financial implications, especially for small-market teams. But the challenges were still felt worth the risk.

There was less consensus over the best aspects of the game: how do you sell baseball, in a market where people aren’t familar with it? Most commonly mentioned was the strategy involved, and certainly, that’s part of the attraction for me. Both beautifully simple – throw the ball, hit the ball – and deliciously complex, “It’s a thinking person’s sport,” said Counsell, and David Dellucci described it as, “A chess match, with the manager using the players as pieces.”

Other factors came up: “No clock, and no ties”, was Mark Grace’s view. Counsell feels it’s a sociable sport, in that it can be a link between parents and their children, with time within the game for interaction and relaxation – “You can enjoy a beer and a hot-dog,” agreed Delluci. Mike Myers appreciates the way centimetres, and even millimetres, can be crucial, plus the uncertainty of the outcome until the very last pitch. Or as the immortal Yogi Berra said while managing the New York Mets, “It ain’t over, till it’s over.”

Catcher Chad Moeller brought up the importance of building interest from a young age. He enjoyed soccer as a child, so has an appreciation of the tactics and skills: “Good soccer players, like good baseball players, have been playing all their life.” Attracting kids is certainly significant, and perhaps Major League Baseball should consider building from the bottom up, rather than sending teams to countries which can’t fully appreciate them. It is possible to come to the game late and still love it – I didn’t see my first game until I was in my thirties – but if you grow up alongside baseball, the chances of enjoying it as an adult are much greater.

Dellucci on one attraction of baseball:
“You can enjoy a beer and a hot-dog”

Moeller isn’t the only major league player with additional sporting talent. While growing up in the Dominican Republic, Sammy Sosa’s first love was cricket – had things been slightly different, he could be knocking balls out of the park for the West Indies team, instead of the Chicago Cubs.

Baseball is a wonderful sport, and there’s no reason why it can’t become as global as soccer. Perhaps eventually we’ll see the London Lions facing the New York Yankees, for a true ‘World Series’ place against the Hanshin Tigers. However, recent history cautions us that it’s best not to rush these things, organic growth offering the most secure route forward – anything driven solely by publicity is likely to leave the baseball cap as the game’s only contribution to international culture.

[Thanks to Susan Webner, Arizona Diamondbacks media coordinator, for her help with this piece]

3rd Phoenix Film Festival

AMC Arizona Center, April 11th-13th, 2003

It seems that the Arizona Center and the Arizona Film Festival are going in opposite directions. While the latter goes from strength to strength, the entire second floor of the Center has now been cleared of retail, to make way for an upcoming change into office space – yeah, like that’s something which downtown Phoenix desperately lacks. [Readers outside Arizona, please ladle sarcasm onto that phrase with a bucket] It’s probably significant that the last time we were at the Center was…hey, for last year’s film festival. A change of venue might be required soon, given the mausoleum-like atmosphere generated by most of the place.

Or maybe the air of gloom and doom was caused by the films – for no readily apparent reason, this year’s selections seemed largely downbeat and depressing. Not that this was in any way a reflection on their quality – in only one case did we feel like we wasted our time, even if we frequently came out with a strong desire to slit our wrists.

How much is that doggie in the window?
Shelter Dogs

This time round, we really don’t expect the TC Awards to match up with the festival ones. We only saw three of the ten films in competition, because most of the others just didn’t appeal. Here are a sample of the program descriptions that sank our interest, and sent us scurrying off to other movies:

* The Journey: “Eric Saperston set out in a VW bus with a couple of friends, on an odyssey that would take them across America, and into their own and each other’s souls”.
*Melvin Goes to Dinner: “A casual dinner…turns into an all-night confessional where secrets, skeletons and existential beliefs get passed around the table.”
*Shelter Dogs: [Documentary] “If you have a soul of any kind, bring tissue to this movie.”
*Totally Blonde: “In this comedic relationship film, Meg Peters can’t seem to find Mr. Right. That is, until she gets a bottle of blonde hair dye…”

I find it sad to see indie films getting inspiration from Reese Witherspoon studio pics. Maybe it’s just us. Going by the descriptions, entries also subscribed to the view that talk was cheap. While true (thus a significant saving on a low budget), it’s a philosophy uncomfortably close to that of daytime soap-opera. Resorting to talking heads is a disappointingly safe approach, when film-makers could use their independence to explore bleeding-edge cinema.

On the plus side, there was an greatly-increased quota of films from outside America. Although the official entries were all from the US or Canada, there were also movies from Spain, Australia, the UK, Japan, the Czech Republic, Mexico and China, giving a welcome global flavour. Unfortunately, the attendance at the ones we saw was disappointing, perhaps partly due to the brief coverage in the festival literature. The opposite was true of the short film programs: the two we checked out were both standing-room only, with people sitting on the floor for one of them.

The pope of trash,
John Waters

Celebs in attendance included James Foley (Glengarry Glen Ross) and Edward Burns, director and star of Confidence, which opened the festival. John Waters was also in attendance to perform his one-man show, The World is Trash – nice title – and going by the queues waiting to get into that, it was a popular attraction. Brian O’Halloran also made a return appearance, to present the awards ceremony and present a late-night screening of Clerks. Our son saw Lindsey Crouse at Paradise Valley Mall over the weekend, but don’t think she was actually in attendance at the event. 🙂

Despite the disappointing selection of films in competition, the renegades outside made up for it, and The Hard Word is certainly an early contender for a top 10 slot come the year end. While the event may be getting bigger, kudos are still in order for the friendly, informal atmosphere, and nothing happened this year to change its position as our favourite film festival, even putting home-town bias aside – though I admit having such a fine event 30 minutes drive away is not exactly a deterrent! The queue begins here for Phoenix 2004…

Visit the Phoenix Film Festival website.

Festival Reviews

TC Awards

  • Best Film: The Hard Word
  • Best Actor: Kelly Harms, The Happy Couple
  • Best Actress: Maya Zapata, Streeters
  • Best Director: Zhu Wen, Seafood
  • Best Supp. Actor: Peter Stormare, The Movie Hero
  • Best Supp. Actress: Rachel Griffiths, The Hard Word
  • Best Script: Scott Roberts, The Hard Word

Official Festival Awards

  • Best Short Film:
  • Best Feature Film: Melvin Goes to Dinner
  • Best Director: John Carlos Frey, The Gatekeeper
  • Best Screenplay: Chris Philpott, The Happy Couple
  • Best Ensemble: Melvin Goes to Dinner
  • Arizona Filmmaker Award: Wayne Dickmann, The Sum of One
  • [Our reaction: You have got to be kidding…]
  • Audience Ballot Award: The Gatekeeper
  • Best Student Short