A difficult choice that usually boils down to personal taste…
In the case of the two silent screen greats, they evinced different personalities, but both were possessed of physical grace, a tremendous work ethic, and the ability to make audiences root for the little guy.
Their enduring influence on physical comedy is evident in the boxing scene mash up above, which pulls from Keaton’s star turn in 1926’s Battling Butler and Chaplin’s widely celebrated City Lights from 1931.
Even cut up and spliced back together in alternating shots, it’s a master class on building anticipation, defying expectations, and the humor of repetition.
Both films’ plots hinge on a mild fellow going to extraordinary lengths to prove himself worthy of the girl he loves.
Chaplin, besotted with a blind flower-seller, is drawn into the ring by the prospect of prize money, which he would use to cover her unpaid rent.
The pas de trois between the ref and the two boxers represents the pinnacle of Chaplin’s long affinity for the sport, following 1914’s Keystone short, The Knockout and 1915’s The Champion.
Battling Butler is built on a case of deliberately mistaken identity, after Keaton’s milquetoast rich boy impresses his working class sweetheart’s family by allowing them to think he is a famous boxer whose name he incidentally shares.
The editor who thought to score this mashup to Mariachi Internacional’s cover of Zorba El Griego is certainly a contender in their own right, but readers, what we really want to know is in this championship round between Chaplin and Keaton, who would you declare the winner?
Wouldn’t we enjoy seeing our cities like an architectural historian, in command of deep knowledge about the technology, ideology, and aesthetics of the buildings we pass by every day? For most of us, this would hugely enrich our experience of the urban environment. But then so, less obviously, would seeing our cities like a skateboarder, in command of deep knowledge about how to glide, jump, and bounce along the streets, the buildings, and all the myriad pieces of infrastructure as a surfer rides the waves. The architectural historian learns the city with his mind; the skater learns the city, no less painstakingly, with his body.
The Vox video above brings mind and body come together in the persons of Iain Borden, author of Skateboarding and the City: A Complete History, and Tony Hawk, to whom even those wholly ignorant of skateboarding need no introduction. Their complementary interviews reveal the history of modern skateboarding through the sport’s “legendary spots”: public-school campuses, abandoned swimming pools, dry drainage ditches, forgotten sections of concrete pipe. In the main this selection reflects the highly suburbanized 1970s in which skateboards first came to popularity in the United States. But at its outer limits, such as the Mt. Baldy pipeline in northern California, it also shows how far skaters will go in search of the ideal place to ride.
Though purpose-build skate parks do exist (their numbers kept low by formidable insurance challenges), serious skaters prefer spaces not expressly designed for skating. This is thanks in large part to the innovations of a skater with less wider-world name recognition than Hawk, but no less influence within the sport: Natas Kaupas. Hawk remembers the thoughts triggered by footage of the young Kaupas skating masterfully through his neighborhood in the 1987 film Wheels of Fire: “Wow, you can skate curbs like that? You can skate benches? You can skate fire hydrants? The whole world is a skate park now.” Suddenly, Borden adds, “you didn’t need to be in California, or in the Arizona desert, or in Florida anymore. You could be anywhere.”
Reviewing Borden’s Skateboarding and the City, Jack Layton in Urban Studies highlights its history of “how the assemblage of materials that makes up cities has been – in countless ways – re-imagined by the skateboarder to create acceleration, rotation, friction and flow.” It’s easy to forget, Layton writes, that “along with facilitating commerce, transport and habitation, cities can be spaces that facilitate play, exhilaration and pleasure.” Despite often having been regarded as public nuisances, skateboarders are “a constant reminder that our cities are creative and rich places,” says Borden. With the exception of the skate parks secretly constructed in hidden urban spaces across the world, skaters, of course, don’t build the city — but they do show us some of its untapped potential.
The 10-part ESPN documentary dissecting Michael Jordan and the Bulls’ six championships has provided some much needed sports during the pandemic, roping in even sports haters with a mix of game highlights and behind-the-scenes drama.
Your hosts Brian Hirt, Erica Spyres, and Mark Linsenmayer are joined by Seth from The Partially Examined Life to interrogate the event: Was it actually worth 10 hours of our time? Did its “time-jumping” structure work? Its its treatment of Jordan really “hagiography” sanctifying the man, or is the picture of grudge-holding ultra-competitiveness actually pretty repulsive? Why was he like that? Why are sports amenable to creating cultural icons out of its heroes in a way that, say, physics isn’t? Are we going to see many more of these long-form treatments of sports heroes?
For more discussion, here are some articles we looked at:
Baseball season won’t start today, on what would have been Open Day. So here’s your next best bet. As Sam Barsanti writes at AV Club, “PBS and the world’s preeminent director of extremely watchable and extremely long documentaries have a special treat: The entirety of Ken Burns’ Baseball—over 18 hours—is now available to stream for free on the PBS website and all of its related apps.”
It’s no coincidence that Burns’ documentary becomes free during COVID-19. On Twitter, Burns adds: “With events canceled & so much closed, I asked @PBS to stream BASEBALL for free so we can participate in the national pastime together. Watch at the link below or on any streaming device. And please look out for those with greater needs. Play ball.”
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How is spectator sports different from other types of entertainment? Dave Revsine (lead studio host for the Big Ten Network and former ESPN anchor) joins your hosts Mark Linsenmayer, Erica Spyres, and Brian Hirt to discuss the various sources of appeal, team identification, existing in a sports-filled world as a non-fan, watching vs. playing, human interest stories, sports films, and more.
Some of the articles we looked at to prepare included:
The first two links above were part of a series of 2016 editorials in the Washington Post coinciding with March Madness. As the whole series is definitely worth a look, just follow the links at the bottom of those articles.
How would Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and other famous ballplayers of bygone eras fare if put on the diamond today? Variations on that question tend to come up in conversation among enthusiasts of baseball and its history, and different people bring different kinds of evidence to bear in search of an answer: statistics, eyewitness accounts, analogies between particular historical players and current ones. But the fact remains that none of us have ever actually seen the likes of Ruth, who played his last professional game in 1935, and Gehrig, who did so in 1939, in their prime. But now we can at least get a little closer by watching the film clip above, which shows both of the titanic Yankees at batting practice on April 11, 1931.
What’s more, it shows them moving at real-life speed. “Fox Movietone sound cameras made slow-motion captures of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig at batting practice during an exhibition practice in Brooklyn, New York,” writes uploader Guy Jones (whose other baseball videos include Ruth hitting a home run on opening day the same year and Ruth’s last appearance at bat a decade later). “With modern technology, we can witness this footage adjusted to a normal speed which results in a very high framerate.”
In other words, the film shows Ruth and Gehrig not just moving in the very same way they did in real life, but captured with a smoothness uncommon in newsreel footage from the 1930s. For comparison, Jones includes at the end of the video “more footage of the practice (shot at typical fps) and the original un-edited slow-mo captures.”
Unfortunately, what this film reveals doesn’t impress observers of modern baseball. “Ruth and Gehrig in no way look like a modern ballplayer,” writes The Big Lead’s Kyle Koster. “Ruth is off-balance, falling into his swing. Gehrig routinely lifts his back foot off the ground. Again, it’s batting practice so the competitive juices weren’t flowing. But even by that standard, the whole exercise looks sloppy and inefficient.” Cut4’s Jake Mintz gets harsher, as well as more technical: “Tell me Ruth’s cockamamie swing mechanics would enable him to hit a 98-mph heater.” As for the Iron Horse, his “hack is a little better,” but still “absurdly low” by today’s standards. It goes to show, Mintz writes, that “these two legends, while undeniably transcendent in their time, would be good Double-A hitters at best if they played today.” We evolve, our technologies evolve, and so, it seems, do the games we play.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.
This time each summer, as the conclusion of this year’s fortnight-long championship at Wimbledon approaches, even the most private of the tennis enthusiasts in all of our circles make themselves known. Love of that particular game runs down all walks of life, but seems to exist in particularly high concentrations among cultural creators: not just writers like Martin Amis, Geoff Dyer, and David Foster Wallace, all of whose bodies of work contain eloquent thoughts on tennis, but composers of music as well.
Take Arnold Schoenberg, who well into his old age continued not just to create the innovative music for which we remember him, but to spend time on the court as well. Though born in Vienna, Schoenberg eventually landed in the right place to enjoy tennis on the regular: southern California, to which he fled in 1933 after being informed of how inhospitable his homeland would soon become to persons of Jewish heritage. Few famous composers of that time had less in common than Schoenberg and George Gershwin, but their shared enjoyment of tennis made them into fast partners.
According to Howard Pollack’s life of Gershwin, fellow composer Albert Sendrey left a “revealing account” of one of the weekly matches between “the thirty-eight-year-old Gershwin and the sixty-two-year-old Schoenberg, contrasting the alternately ‘nervous’ and ‘nonchalant,’ ‘relentless’ and ‘chivalrous’ Gershwin, ‘playing to an audience,’ with the ‘overly eager’ and ‘choppy’ Schoenberg who ‘has learned to shut his mind against public opinion.'” Any parallels between playing style and musical sensibility are, of course, entirely coincidental.
The cerebral nature of Schoenberg’s compositions may not suggest a temperament suited for physical activity of any kind, but even in Austria Schoenberg had been a keen sportsman. And as a fair few tennis-loving writers have explained, the game does possess an intellectual side, and one made more easily analyzable, at least in theory, by a system of Schoenberg’s invention. “Toward the end of his life, Schoenberg — always fascinated by rules, analysis, and invention — would come up with a form of notation to transcribe the tennis matches of his athlete son Ronald,” writes Mark Berry in Arnold Schoenberg. You can see this system laid out on the sheet above, recently posted on Twitter by Henry Gough-Cooper.
The marks look vaguely similar to those of certain dance notation systems, a natural enough resemblance considering the kind of footwork tennis demands. But ideally, Schoenberg’s notation would also have rendered a game of tennis as comprehensible as one of chess — another pursuit to which Schoenberg applied his mind. He came up with “an expanded four-player, ten-square version of the traditional game,” writes Berry, “involving superpowers and lesser powers all compelled to forge alliances, with new pieces such as airplanes, tanks, submarines, and so forth.” Schoenberg’s “coalition chess,” as he called it, seems to have caught on no more than his tennis notation system did. But then, the man who pioneered the twelve-tone technique never did go in for mass acceptance.
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