May 10, 2012

"The Avengers" as 1970s NY Yankees soap opera

One Post-Sixties cultural change was the erosion of the Organization Man code that workplace bickering and bad behavior should stay behind closed doors. In baseball, for instance, this custom was first cracked by washed-up pitcher Jim Bouton's 1970 book Ball Four. By the late 1970s the New York Yankees were a nonstop kvetchathon in the New York tabloids featuring owner George Steinbrenner, manager Billy Martin, and slugger Reggie Jackson. 

In contrast, the Los Angeles Dodgers followed the post-WW2 code that employees maintain a bland and positive face to the outside world. This didn't mean there weren't tensions in the Dodger locker room, just that you barely heard about them until they reached a crisis point. For example, in August 1978, future Hall of Famer Don Sutton made disparaging comments to the Washington Post about slugger Steve Garvey. Garvey confronted Sutton about breaking the code. Sutton responded that Garvey's wife was being seen in the company of songwriter Marvin Hamlisch. A brawl ensued. But, unlike the Yankees, where this would have built up over weeks beforehand in the newspapers, this came out of the blue to Dodger fans.

When the Yankees won the World Series in 1977-78, this was widely seen as endorsement of their more open policy of fighting in public. Certainly, it made more and better newspaper copy than the old-fashioned Dodger way.

It might have been a cultural watershed. For instance, when I moved to Chicago in 1982, the top comic disk jockey was Steve Dahl, a major precursor of Howard Stern. A huge fraction of Dahl's shtick was complaining about management and his contract. It was hugely funny, but at the time, it was surprising. It was the kind of thing that just wasn't done. 

Pretty soon, though, it was widely done. Today, behind the scenes bickering is the meat and potatoes of reality TV (American Idol being a notable exception). 

But reality TV is for proles. On the other hand, at the elite level, we're heading back toward the old Dodger way, just in a cooler, more nod-and-a-wink po-mo fashion, with the press reveling more in their role as insiders and gatekeepers. Kevin Costner explained to Tim Robbins in Bull Durham in 1988:
Crash Davis: It's time to work on your interviews.
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: My interviews? What do I gotta do?
Crash Davis: You're gonna have to learn your clich├ęs. You're gonna have to study them, you're gonna have to know them. They're your friends. Write this down: "We gotta play it one day at a time."
Ebby Calvin LaLoosh: Got to play... it's pretty boring.
Crash Davis: 'Course it's boring, that's the point. Write it down. 

The rise of access journalism into an expert art form has elicited little protest except from journalists who can't get access, those losers. The careers of, say, Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan suggest that modern journalists respect, above all else, a well-tuned marketing campaign.

I was reminded of all this while watching Joss Whedon's movie The Avengers, in which the superheroes bicker endlessly, with Robert Downey Jr. in the Reggie Jackson role as the straw that stirs the drink, before finally putting aside petty grievances and winning the big one. I don't know if Whedon was a Yankees fan, but he was a 13-year-old in New York City while all this was going on.

In fact, Whedon appears to be one of the few top-hole folks who hasn't gotten the memo that we've moved beyond all that Airing of Grievances and back to an age where celebrities have PR people to mold their public statements. 

When something doesn't go right for Whedon, he loves throwing colleagues under the bus:
[on the infamous line spoken by the character Storm in "X-Men" (2000) (video)] That's the interesting thing. Everybody remembers that as the worst line ever written, but the thing about that is, it was supposed to be delivered as completely offhand. [Adopts casual, bored tone.] "You know what happens when a toad gets hit by lightning?" Then, after he gets electrocuted, "Ahhh, pretty much the same thing that happens to anything else." But Halle Berry said it like she was Desdemona. [Strident, ringing voice.] "The same thing that happens to everything eeelse!" That's the thing that makes you go crazy. ...  
The worst thing about these things is that, when the actors say it wrong, it makes the writer look stupid. People assume that the line... I listened to half the dialogue in Alien 4, and I'm like, "That's idiotic," because of the way it was said. And nobody knows that. Nobody ever gets that. They say, "That was a stupid script," which is the worst pain in the world. I have a great long boring story about that, but I can tell you the very short version. In Alien 4, the director changed something so that it didn't make any sense. He wanted someone to go and get a gun and get killed by the alien, so I wrote that in and tried to make it work, but he directed it in a way that it made no sense whatsoever. And I was sitting there in the editing room, trying to come up with looplines to explain what's going on, to make the scene make sense, and I asked the director, "Can you just explain to me why he's doing this? Why is he going for this gun?" And the editor, who was French, turned to me and said, with a little leer on his face, [adopts gravelly, smarmy, French-accented voice] "Because eet's een the screept." And I actually went and dented the bathroom stall with my puddly little fist. I have never been angrier. But it's the classic, "When something goes wrong, you assume the writer's a dork." And that's painful....
[about why he was unhappy with Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1992)] The thing is, people always make fun of Rutger Hauer. Even though he was big and silly and looked sort of goofy in the movie, I have to give him credit, because he was there. He was into it. Whereas Donald [Sutherland] was just... He would rewrite all his dialogue, and the director would let him. He can't write - he's not a writer - so the dialogue would not make sense. And he had a very bad attitude. He was incredibly rude to the director, he was rude to everyone around him, he was just a real pain. And to see him destroying my stuff... Some people didn't notice. Some people liked him in the movie. Because he's Donald Sutherland. He's a great actor. He can read the phone book, and I'm interested. But the thing is, he acts well enough that you didn't notice, with his little rewrites, and his little ideas about what his character should do, that he was actually destroying the movie more than Rutger was. So I got out of there. I had to run away. (The Onion A.V. Club Interview with Joss Whedon, 2001)

Good stuff! 

But not the kind of thing you hear much of anymore. In fact, this might explain why Whedon, with all the commercial talent in the world, was mostly puttering on the fringes of the big time up until age 47, when he finally got to grab for the brass ring. 

37 comments:

Anonymous said...

Whedon is to geek-y for his own good

ricpic said...

Donald Sutherland's a great actor? Maybe it's the Canadian factor but I don't connect with him. Ever. Where's the there there? There is none. He's not even cold. No temperature at all. But maybe that's what appeals to some.

[enter username here] said...

The self-pitying saga of the dunce actor screwing up the great writer's script is all the more hilarious for having the nugget of truth. Janet Leigh probably had a real good scream of terror workshopped before Alfred turned on the cold water for her.* I think Whedon was exposed to unsafe levels of self-esteem as a child

helene edwards said...

In '69, a year before Bouton's book appeared, Billy Martin decked one of his pitchers on the Twins, Dave Boswell, in a Detroit bar. And sportswriters continued covering up for him well after his Yankee years. When he was managing the A's, he was dating a 16-year old girl, but the public wasn't told until after his death. Also, it's just possible that Reggie Jackson is responsible for the overweening arrogance of blacks over the last 25 yrs. He was the guy who said, "It's not bragging if you can back it up," a nonsensical formulation but one which, since nobody ever called him on it, seems to have unleashed an entire era of twisted black logic.

[enter username here] said...

"seems to have unleashed an entire era of twisted black logic" - well, the subsequent generations will always screw up things by witless imitation.

Gil Scott-Heron's 1970 hit "Whitey on the Moon" seems like obvious poetic petulance and semi-sarcasm in context, not that this keeps latter-day diversicrats from imbibing the concept unironically as a manifesto. "Yeah, f moonshots, what a waste of available cash... which, now that I think about it, is rightfully mine"

Lucius said...

I'm aware of Whedon's grievances with "Alien: Resurrection" from the past, tho whatever interview I read, he didn't tell this particular story.

The thing is, "Alien Resurrection" looks and feels so much like a Whedon project, I can't for the life of me figure out what he *intended* the film to be.

It can't be that he wrote it entirely 'straight': it's got a lot of the same snarky, PoMo stuff as Buffy (albeit it plays both as unfunny and ugly on screen).

I don't think Jeunet knew English at the time, so that couldn't help. Basically, I don't like either his or Whedon's sensibility that much though, so it's not hard to think the film would've been a dog, no matter how played.

Incidentally, doesn't the research vessel nuke SubSaharan Africa when it crashes into Earth at the close of that film? Subtext?

Anonymous said...

Christ, complaining about your management/publicly-held parent is the preeminent phony cliche of American radio jocks now. I wonder if El Cucuy and Piolin do it as well.

Interesting that Dahl started as a teen at the venerable KPPC 106.7 (which ultimately became Infinity's corporate rock flagship, KROQ)

TGGP said...

The guy who wrote "My Cousin Vinny" also thought the director totally screwed things up. Vinny was supposed to be a sometimes thug/bagman for the mob (the studio's original choice of Danny DeVito could not have pulled off that tough guy persona, while the screenwriter wanted DeNiro) and unable to pass his bar exam due to dyslexia rather than a lack of studiousness.

Anonymous said...

I love the NYC sports press. Remember 6 months ago how "Tom Coughlin's job seems to be in danger"

green mamba said...

when I moved to Chicago in 1982, the top comic disk jockey was Steve Dahl, a major precursor of Howard Stern. A huge fraction of Dahl's shtick was complaining about management and his contract. It was hugely funny, but at the time, it was surprising. It was the kind of thing that just wasn't done.

Hit me with a nostalgia bat why don't you. As a precocious pre-teen and teenager, I spent countless afterschool afternoons snickering at Dahl's audacious antics. Crass and jerky as he could be, he was a pioneer of sorts, a bit of a performance artist even.

The other day I remembered the tribute to management he wrote as a song parody of "Sister Christian":

Mr. Gehron*, oh the time has come
To immortalize the one that we call scum...


*WLS Program Director John Gehron

Anonymous said...

"It might have been a cultural watershed. For instance, when I moved to Chicago in 1982, the top comic disk jockey was Steve Dahl, a major precursor of Howard Stern."

It's funny that now Dahl's sidekick, Gary Meier, is on WGN in the afternoon and Johnny Brandmeier, who was on the Loop starting in "83, is now the morning guy at WGN. These guys were considered weird by adults and now they are on the station that had Wally Phillips in the morning.

agnostic said...

Same for the music industry, with Spinal Tap and Madonna: Truth or Dare.

Can't imagine that being made for popular music of the past 20 years.

Udolpho.com said...

Whedon just isn't a good writer.

beowulf said...

Mickey Rivers was amazed one day to learn that Reggie Jackson claimed to have an IQ of 160. "Reggie's got an IQ of 160?" he laughed. "Out of what - a thousand?"
http://www.anecdotage.com/index.php?aid=4198

Oh and Whedon's series Dollhouse was awesome.
http://www.hulu.com/watch/56826/dollhouse-what-everybody-wants#x-4,vclip,2,0

Anonymous said...

This week's expertly calibrated gay couples meta-event also received rapturous admiration: every journalist/critic's Top 10 Narratives list for sure. Even lovable klutz Joey Biden dropped in a perfect cameo!

John Cunningham said...

Martin's bout with Boswell was in the ally behind the Lindell AC, a legendary Detroit bar across the street from the Federal Bldg. Our agency guys used to get hammered there regularly. it was also the joint where Alex Karras tended bar the year he was suspended from the NFL for gambling.

Jason said...

Whedon can't write a consistent character to save his life - he drives them around to serve the plot of the hour, with little to no consistency. To the point that he finally just gave up and created a show with the premise that the main character was reprogrammed every episode to meet the needs of the story. (Dollhouse.) Acting his scripts must be hell. If anything, this anecdote makes me love Donald Sutherland all the more.

K(yle) said...

"The thing is, "Alien Resurrection" looks and feels so much like a Whedon project, I can't for the life of me figure out what he *intended* the film to be."

Yeah. It certainly has a very distinctive Whedon feel to it. It's kind of disengenious to try to shift blame away from that one. Still though, I'm sure it could have been better though, even if it did retain some of its' silliness.

I've read that there was a lot of studio meddling as well that required rewrites. The big one that comes to mind is that the original script didn't contain Ripley, and she had to be added in somehow without a total rewrite, which is pretty close to qualifying as legitimate sabotage.

Alien: Resurrection was going to be bad no matter what, but also I feel that it could have been the 'Robocop 2' of the series that was an OTT self-parody. Trying to continue Ripley's story and maintain continuity while throwing out lines like Weyland-Yutani being bought out by Walmart just didn't work.

Googling for production background of the film shows the director claiming credit for the 'dark comedy' in the film, so maybe all of the unfunny Whedon-esque quirkiness was ironically not a result of the writer, but who knows for sure.

Anonymous said...

http://youtu.be/d_iSQ65ZDAE

Simon in London said...

Hilarious stuff - reminds me why I love Joss Whedon.

Anonymous said...

I was going to say that Buffy still plays on a ghey television channel [doubtless because of the Tara/Willow nonsense], called LogoTV, and that, a decade later, Buffy does NOT stand the test of time - not even the early episodes.

However, I just noticed something interesting in googling for it: Apparently there's a little tete-a-tete [a catfight?] breaking out in ghey-dom, between the phags, who say, "GLBT", and the dykes, who say, "LGBT".

For instance, "Downelink" is "the largest LGBT social network", but OUTtv is "the World's First GLBT Television Network on Livestream."

Chris Anderson said...

Two other contrasting baseball teams in the early 70's playoffs and Series were the Reds and the A's.

Reggie Jackson, of course, was an Athletic during that era. Coincidence?

Anonymous said...

There was a Buffyverse novel about the '77 Con-Ed blackout... *NOT* written by Whedon. Anyways, uh, The Bronx Is Burning would prob be a worthy addition to the Sailer Modern Home Library editions (maybe not so much the music chapters but otherwise has sturdy themes)

Anonymous said...

Steve, how about that new Aaron Sorkin concept? An Olbermann knockoff suddenly exhibiting unseemly discord in public. I think he has it backwards--real cable anchorfolk invent conflict for the cameras but stay fairly buddy-buddy behind the scenes

Anonymous said...

Helene, Dizzy Dean is usually cited as the originator of that quote. Ty Cobb, one of the most virulent racists ever to lace them up, also used a variation of the line.

Steve, you seem to forget one of the best quotes from Bouton's writings, "Sportswriters? You can buy them with a steak dinner."

Anonymous said...

Buffy does NOT stand the test of time

Firefly, OTOH, seems to be holding up very well.

I'd love a sequel to Serenity [with at least an "R" rating] wherein Malcolm hooks up with Saffron when she's released from prison.

We don't get enough gratuitous T&A in our scifi anymore.

Marlowe said...

No more books by figures like Don Regan revealing how Nancy Reagan wore the trousers in the White House? I suppose it goes without saying that we will see Lives of the Saints style hagiography when Obama's time comes.

Writers complained about shoddy re-writes back when Irving Thalberg picked up Oscars. In the Silent Twenties however no one had to worry about how the actor enunciated the line. Nice to hear we can mark Alien Resurrection down as a film Destroyed by Diversity. A Frenchman who speaks little English directing a cast of English actors sounds like the scenario of a farce. Not quite the downfall of Western civilisation, still ...

Anonymous said...

>>I was reminded of all this while watching Joss Whedon's movie The Avengers, in which the superheroes bicker endlessly, with Robert Downey Jr. in the Reggie Jackson role as the straw that stirs the drink, before finally putting aside petty grievances and winning the big one.<<

But hasn't that shtick been a [the?] prime ingredient of buddy movies, at least since 1939's "Gunga Din"?

>>He was the guy who said, "It's not bragging if you can back it up," a nonsensical formulation but one which, since nobody ever called him on it, seems to have unleashed an entire era of twisted black logic.<<

Pretty sure Dizzy Dean came up with the quote. He certainly used it long before Reggie came on the scene.

Anonymous said...

I remember Steve Sadl's premier on Chicago radio. I used to listen to his station all the time. Then he came on. Two days later I switched stations. I still hate his voice.

Whiskey said...

Steve -- that feature of the Avengers, bickering, dates back to the 1960's, when it was a competitive feature against the DC JLA which never argued. It appealed to rebellious little boys, which is what comics first and foremost were about then. In some ways still are.

As far as Whedon goes, he's like Spike Lee. When the studio holds him down, he can under pressure write a popular script. But the things he WANTS TO DO are not ...

POPULAR.

THAT is why he's failed, indeed as a Hollywood minor royalty/nobility he's had chance after chance: Angel, Firefly, Serenity, Dollhouse. NONE of which proved popular.

BECAUSE: Whedon is a feminist. Arch-liberal. And Hollywood insider. That makes him about as alien to most of the male 13-45 Demo as say, Raila Odinga or Jacob Zuma. He has basically, their level of understanding of what that audience WANTS. [Interestingly, Erika L. James of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" and JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer fully understood WHAT their female audience/readership wanted.]

Whedon is famous for saying you have to kill off favorite, likable characters to wake the audience up. Seth Green of Robot Chicken parodied him as "There is no God! There is no God! Everything is awful!"

This is why there is like Spike Lee, a ceiling on what Whedon can do. He can't understand the money-maker part: the audience. He's more concerned with his GLAAD awards (yes literally).

Still, his lines in the movie where Loki demands bowing and obedience were favorites, coming likely from his own frustration at his will being thwarted by execs focused on making money, not feminist-clap-trap. But still, remarkable, as most ordinary Americans are FED UP with kowtowing to PC idiocy.

Whiskey said...

Additional on Whedon: in TV he's been pretty good in casting, but ended up feuding with a number of his actors and had a weird man-crush on a very limited actor, James Marsters "Spike" on Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Sarah Michelle Gellar was forced on him by the network (WB) to get her soap fans, but his record of finding/casting: David Boreanaz, Eliza Dushku, Anthony Head, Allyson Hannigan, Michelle Trachtenberg, Ron Glass, Adam Baldwin, Seth Green, and Nathan Fillion is pretty good.

Summer Glau, Amy Acker, Charisma Carpenter, and Morena Baccarin are certainly TV competent. Its hard to find a real dud in Whedon's casting. He did end up feuding with Gellar over Buffy storylines she hated: falling in love with her rapist, degrading public sex, etc. He had a hissy fit over Carpenter's pregnancy. And another actress's demands for more money in a guest-role.

But even after that he got Firefly, Serenity, and Dollhouse. None of which seem to have made much money. His "Cabin in the Woods" got mixed reviews, one FT.com reviewer ravaged him saying that when you don't really have anything to say, being ultra-clever and "subversive" cannot fully mask that. The movie itself didn't seem to do well at the Box Office.

Which brings up another problem Hollywood has. Unlike say, Spielberg and a few others who dreamed of mass market success, for a third-generation guy like Whedon, that's something to be actively avoided. It is interesting that no casting, or even base characterizations of the Avengers, were in Whedon's hands. Given that Favreau had already established the Stark character, Branagh the Thor character, and the Hulk and Captain America movies had established those characters.

Hollywood's nepotism problem means guys with talent want to run away not towards the mass market, and towards peer accolades NOT the audience. That's why Hollywood is strip mining old movies, TV shows, comic books, for concepts done by first-generation guys hungry for mass market success.

Execs know they have a problem -- this is their way of addressing it.

Marlowe said...

Whedon is a feminist. Arch-liberal
[...]
He did end up feuding with Gellar over Buffy storylines she hated: falling in love with her rapist, degrading public sex, etc. He had a hissy fit over Carpenter's pregnancy. And another actress's demands for more money in a guest-role.
-- Whiskey

A hypocritical I am Nerd Boy hear me roar feminist?

Anonymous said...

Is LGBT pronounced leg-but?

Glaivester said...

[Interestingly, Erika L. James of the "Fifty Shades of Grey" and JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer fully understood WHAT their female audience/readership wanted.]

To be fair, JK Rowling seems to have written for both sexes.

As for Whedon's feminism, I remember a scene where a person running a homeless shelter or abused teen shelter said that the problems of abused teens made the hell demons seem like nothing. Seems sort of a feministy thing to say.

As for Dollhouse, I never watched it, because the main premise of a person having their personality overwritten was too traumatic a concept. It would have been like watching a show about a prisoner who gets raped a different way each episode.

K(yle) said...

Whedon is a feminist, although his feminism seems to be less doctrinaire than I'm accustomed to. He reminds me of Hugo Schwyzer a bit in how his feminism strikes me as being rooted in personal demons and pathological relationships with women in his life. Then again a lot of straight female feminists strike me as suffering from some kind of bizarre sexual aspergers; like the ones that complain about thinking about rape every day in the presence of men, which isn't something any sane person does.

As for Dollhouse, I never watched it, because the main premise of a person having their personality overwritten was too traumatic a concept. It would have been like watching a show about a prisoner who gets raped a different way each episode.

I watched it on Netflix after it had been canceled (it only ran 24-26 episodes IIRC). The same thing you mention put me off when the show initially aired, but its' really a matter of poor marketing.

The organization that runs the Dollhouse and is responsible for the mind-rape are actually the villains of the series. The Dollhouses' sinister and unethical use of the technology is central to the show's plot, rather than just being some intrinsic part of the setting that is never explored.

pat said...

Those of us with Home Theater won't see The Avengers for about two more months so I'll post my reactions then and I expect everyone to reload this thread to read what I wrote (er, will write).

American Idol is indeed prole fodder. For a rather more upmarket singing competition I recommend Die Meistersinger.

I sympathize with Donald Sutherland. I was contemplating the fate of being a gorgeous blond newscaster the other day while watching Fox News. Being beautiful is not enough - they're all beautiful. Being competent to enunciate the text isn't enough either. There is a great heard of young nubile blond news readers on Fox.

You could try to set yourself apart from that herd by ad libbing your own news. For example, you could break into O'Reilly with a story that you made up about Obama playing "TSA Gropper" with all the young male interns. That would get you noticed. But probably only once.

I don't know what these girls can do. I only know that Megyn Kelly broke out and so did Donald Sutherland.

Sutherland was an unlikely movie star - too tall to ever co-star with Tom Cruise, and quite funny looking. Apparently he liked to make up his own dialog. His dialog might be bad but it's certainly going to be better than his profile.

My favorite movie star who asserted himself was Vincent Pastore. He was playing just another background mobster in Al Pacino's Scarface in the ballroom scene early in the script. He got up from his table in the middle of a shot, walked across the dance floor and said something to Pacino's character. De Palma fired him on the spot but Pacino like it. A star was born.

Albertosaurus

SFG said...

"Then again a lot of straight female feminists strike me as suffering from some kind of bizarre sexual aspergers; like the ones that complain about thinking about rape every day in the presence of men, which isn't something any sane person does."

I'm convinced feminists are the female equivalent of nerds. They believe things that only someone with no real-life experience would...