Days of future past

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One of the neat characteristics of a legacy blue collar industrial city like Green Bay, Wis., is the endurance of commercial markers long since erased from mainstream America. You’ll find them hidden in plain sight, typically in older parts of town — the shoe repair shop on University, the hardware store on East Mason and Main where the guy will make duplicate keys for you, and, dotted around pockets of downtown with surprising frequency, the traditional barbershop.

To walk into a barbershop on Broadway on the west side of downtown, as I did recently, is to glimpse vestiges of not just the past, but a host of pasts associated with various period accoutrements. Like an archaeologist digging through layers of history, you’ll find pieces of the 1940s in the building’s size (tiny); the ’50s in its male-only clientele; the ’60s in the classic stainless steel chairs and other barber paraphernalia; the ’70s in the bulky (not flat screen) TV affixed to the wall; and ’80s and ’90s in the VCR and DVD player connected to it. It seems any number of bygone eras find representation here.

The most interesting archaeological discovery for me was a hardcover booklet, mixed in with the assorted Field & Stream and Sports Illustrated magazines spread around a table in the waiting area, based on the popular 1970s “Six Million Dollar Man” TV series. Part kids reader and part graphic novel, such digests were fairly common as producers tried to cash in on a hit show with accompanying light literature, posters and lunch boxes. I remember as a kid happily thumbing through beat-up “Star Trek”- and “Star Wars”-associated publications at our public library. They tended to be heavy on visual elements to go with simplified variations on the plots established by the parent franchise.

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The adventures of Steve Austin were never that complex. But the idea of a six-million dollar man was fairly high-concept, in effect juicing up the traditional superhero narrative with highly plausible technological underpinnings. Spiderman derived his powers from the bite of a radioactive spider, and failing further explanation, you simply had to take it on faith that that could happen. “The Six Million Dollar Man” gave you a wonderful mix of robotics and medicine that, while fantastical, didn’t require too large of an imaginary leap from the actual advances of the 1970s (much less today). How Col. Austin’s bionic eye actually worked, or how, as my sister once pointed out, his unbionic back could withstand the strain of lifting a car, weren’t of much concern if you accepted, as Americans have done since the latter half of the 20th century, that scientists and doctors knew what they were doing and it was Luddite to question them.

As little understanding as I had of science and technology as a youngster, the appeal of a show like “The Six Million Dollar Man” having a foundation in reality would connect with later pseudo-scientific adventure series like “MacGyver.” Even the feature film “Back to the Future” captivated me with its fairly detailed, although entirely ludicrous, explanation of how time travel could be achieved. The whole idea was to marry fantasy with reality via test tubes and beakers.

So what happened? Hollywood’s current addiction to superhero franchises like “Spiderman” and “X-Men” has shifted the adventure narrative toward men and women transformed by murkier processes than doctors in lab coats. But really, we’re talking about distant cousins here — these are all stories that involve people coping (and sometimes struggling) with superhuman powers. Given their preference for established brands, it wouldn’t surprise me if studio executives saw easy dollar signs in a TV reboot or even feature film version of the “Six Million Dollar Man.” I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but for now, Steve Austin belongs, like the Green Bay barbershop, to another era.

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A win for the fanatics

We’re all familiar with sports-as-war metaphors. I see them regularly in my day job with Packersnews.com: the “battles” between linemen “in the trenches,” the quarterback as “field general,” the NFL draft “war room.” It can be a bit much, particularly for those who have served and suffered in the real deal.

But there’s a purpose to such staged combat. Sports provide a safe outlet for our primal inclination toward periodic social conflict. Uniforms and logos establish which tribes we belong to. The winner is decided in accordance with game rules enforced by mediators, all of which is agreed to by combatants who shake hands as compatriots regardless of the outcome. We’ve satisfied our tribal and territorial impulses, with no one getting (badly) hurt.

Modern organized sports thrive off of the cohesion that has otherwise gone missing in a much of Western society. Outdated concepts such as honor, loyalty and territorial defense still matter — at least in the stands. While players play for whoever pays them, fans exhibit a devotion that, as the “fanatic” root word indicates, borders on the irrational. It’s about the hometown, the colors, the mascot. “We” define ourselves by not being “them.” It’s a tribal thing.

All of this is fairly harmless (not to mention big business) as long as people let it go at the final gun. Sure, there will always be sporadic bar fights and intra-family snubs as a few of us take the big game a little too seriously. But what happens when a sports team grows beyond a mild dalliance into tribalism, beyond geographical borders and comes to define an ethnic or racial identity? That’s the subject of “Forever Pure,” an Independent Lens documentary recently screened on PBS.

“Forever Pure” explores the unique story of the Beitar Jerusalem Football Club, an Israeli soccer team that is historically identified with the nation’s political right. Supported by a rabid fan base that has not only embraced but steered the team’s ideological bent, Beitar demands enthusiastic and vocal allegiance from any Likud party member with political ambitions. So it was a bombshell in Israeli sports and politics when in 2012, Beitar’s enigmatic owner, Arcadi Gaydamak, signed a pair of Muslim players. Never mind that the two athletes were Chechnyan; for supporters of a team that had never signed an Arab player, the act was tantamount to treachery.

The documentary follows the football club through its turbulent 2012-13 campaign, as sports and politics intermingle to sometimes uncomfortable degrees. After a smiling, highly orchestrated public welcome to Israel, the two young Chechnyans are subjected to Jackie Robinson levels of taunts, abuse and threats from fans. Their Israeli teammates, some well-meaning and others reluctant, offer half-hearted encouragement that scoring goals and winning games will turn the crowds in their favor. But as the Israeli players begin enduring collateral damage from the stands, whatever initial lukewarm support extended to the guest Muslims fades, and all quickly sour on the experience.

Gaydamak presses on, touting motives that on the surface appear altruistic, although somewhat perplexing. He admits he has little interest in the game of soccer, or sports in general, and seems intent on conducting a massive social experiment. But as losses pile up and fan boycotts leave the team playing in a nearly empty stadium, the businessman succumbs to the bottom line and ultimately sells the club. For the Beitar faithful, purity, with all its racial and ethnic connotations, is restored.

Sports movies are notoriously sappy. If “Forever Pure” had been a scripted Hollywood feature, Beitar would’ve gelled midseason, rallying together for an improbable championship run that wins over fans. A Chechnyan Muslim would score in overtime to end the title game, and Jews and Arabs would hug in the streets. Pie-in-the-sky to be sure, but there are brief flashes in “Forever Pure” that hint at such possibilities. You want it to happen. The reality that makes that scenario impossible is an overriding political narrative that relegates the players on the field, the coaches on the sideline and the wealthy owner in the luxury box as secondary figures to the irrational fanatics in the stands.

Turning the world on to feminism

It’s a fair assumption that Mary Richards and early feminism had a complicated relationship. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” character was perhaps a little too refined, a little too feminine (quick to cry, always stylishly dressed) and only a few years removed from its earlier incarnation as the model of urbane, wifely domesticity in the “Dick Van Dyke Show’s” Laura Petrie. Feminism, meanwhile, took on a militancy in the 1970s that contrasted Richards’ (and Moore’s) sunny outlook.

But make no mistake: The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” made an immeasurable contribution to the feminist cause. Through television’s vast influence on the popular culture, Americans were exposed to a female archetype that was nothing short of revolutionary. Men saw a woman in the workplace other than a receptionist — a woman whose considerable responsibilities included supervising other men. Both men and women watched an over-30 single woman proceed through life with no particular desire to be married. This was a time when most women were married in their early 20s and had several children by 30. And most importantly, women were shown a new world of possibilities for themselves, their sisters or their daughters. You could get a job in a male-dominated industry. You could advance, and it was OK to be ambitious in your career. And, unthinkable for many at the time, you could be happy as a single woman. But it helps to bring a smile.

Ah, the famous smile that turned the world on. It was that smile that made “Mary Tyler Moore” so deceptive. Who could object to such a radiant intrusion into the workplace? As her naive optimism wore down gruff male co-workers, it also won over America. This wasn’t a rowdy street protest of butch extremists demanding equal rights. It was Mary. She smiled her way into a producer job for a Minneapolis TV news broadcast, then made the job made her own by countering male bluster with quiet competence. She wasn’t selling out the cause but advancing it with a Trojan horse of charm offensive. Behind the smile, Moore was producer of the show. She was the star — the only actor credited in the introduction via the show’s title — and led a cast that featured three strong (even dominant) female supporting characters. She had an array of female writers posing unique storylines that hadn’t been considered by male contemporaries.

But here’s the thing — it wasn’t exclusively female writers. It wasn’t an all-female cast. It was a vision of real life that, in terms of gender, gave a more balanced presentation than anything TV viewers had seen before. And it did so without compromising quality. The “Mary Tyler Moore Show” remains one of the most acclaimed and beloved series in TV history. Because for a half-hour, we got a peek into a world in which women and men lived and worked in relative harmony, and we found it fun, even comforting at times, and, oddly, not all that threatening.

A brief shining moment: A “Mary Tyler Moore” scene to remember

 

Defying convention

There was a time when television news was boring. When stone-faced, gray-haired anchors soberly announced, without any particular flair, the events of the day and then signed off. No commentary. No punditry or analysis. Just the facts.

It was not a particularly lucrative model for networks. In fact, it was a money loser but considered a public service duty as a condition of their FCC licenses. Johnny Carson and Dick Van Dyke brought in the profits, while the evening news was essentially a charitable write-off.

Today, television news is dominated by highly profitable cable networks who have developed a model that presents news as entertainment through a variety of programming innovations. We see younger, more attractive anchors. The coverage leans toward more sensational topics. And less sensational topics are presented with a sense of urgency (“BREAKING:”) that overhypes the subject. And finally, with 24 hours to fill each day, networks devote an increasing amount of airtime to reflection, analysis and debate. These three activities, and particularly the last, have given birth to what I’d call the punditry class — a group of people, typically ex-politicians, military leaders, scholars, authors, minor celebrities and other public figures who bring whatever expertise they have to the discussion at hand. And watching them hammer away at each other adds a uniquely entertaining flavor to what is otherwise an academic exercise.

The punditry phenomenon didn’t emerge as an epiphany from the offices of brilliant cable news executives. But you can bet they were paying attention when it was so skillfully demonstrated, long before the advent of cable, during the 1968 presidential campaign. It was then that relative news neophyte ABC, in a money-saving move, eschewed gavel-to-gavel coverage of the Republican and Democratic conventions and instead staged debates in what is now the classic left-vs.-right format.

Representing each side were the preeminent political thinkers of their time, William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, who agreed to a series of televised debates as a way of digesting the convention coverage. Featured in the 2015 documentary “Best of Enemies,” the conservative Buckley and liberal Vidal were intellectual giants, unmatched in any forum, until they met each other. Their hubris and arrogance was self-righteous at best, insufferable at worst, earning them devotees and critics alike who were all too happy to see either of them knocked down a peg on national TV.

The premise must’ve seemed tempting for viewers accustomed to the mindless minutia of a political convention, but the appeal only grew as the personal hostility between Buckley and Vidal became sharply evident. Throughout the summer the debates devolved into shouting matches of a particularly vindictive and, amazingly for such great minds, childish nature. Viewers became spectators, tuning in for knockout zingers rather than a succession of mental thrusts and parries. It all boiled over when Buckley, goaded by Vidal’s “crypto-Nazi” taunt, countered with a vicious tirade punctuated by a homosexual epithet and physical threat. The stunned network shut down the show, but as the lights came down, the smirking Vidal, presuming himself the winner, quipped to his still flushed rival that “we gave them their money’s worth.”

And that’s what it was all about. The debates earned ABC derision among its established, “proper” competitors, but the network got the last laugh. The experiment effectively ended gavel-to-gavel coverage of conventions, and plans for the 1972 campaign included enthusiastic nods to the Buckley-Vidal model. It was cheaper, less labor intensive and, most importantly, a ratings winner.

That’s the model cable networks have picked up on and what has since largely dominated television news. Is it a win for the viewers? Few of the pundits on the air today have the intellectual chops of a William F. Buckley or Gore Vidal, and with the substance of the discussion often getting lost in the shouting, the scale tilts heavily towards entertainment at the expense of information. But it’s not boring.

A brief shining moment

Far be it from me to step into Hallmark card territory, but I think there’s truth to the idea that life is really about the small moments. Maybe it’s a quick cup of coffee with your dad, an unexpected phone call from a friend, or that presentation you nailed at the office today. These are the experiences that carry us through the humdrum existence that makes up the other 99 percent of our time.

If art imitates life, great art captures the Hallmark moment with snippets so sublime that they rise out of, and in some cases above, the work that contains them. Eric Clapton pulling notes from the air like tears with his guitar slide on “Let It Grow.” Robert De Niro and Harvey Keitel sizing each other up as rivals for Jodie Foster in “Taxi Driver.” Paul Newman breaking down when he realizes he’s been suckered in “The Color of Money.” Such moments stand alone, as strong as any personal memory.

“The Mary Tyler Moore Show” has a well-earned reputation as one of television’s finest sitcoms because of its ability to stage life’s beautiful snippets. The series benefited from uncannily spot-on casting, which contributes to the genuine nature of the characters’ relationships. That’s on full display when, for instance, it falls upon Mary to explain the facts of life to Phyllis’ daughter Bess. Or when Edie leaves Lou in one of the more heart-breaking exchanges in television history.

But my favorite “Mary” moment comes early in the episode “Once I Had a Secret Love,” in which Lou confides in Mary about his one-night stand with Happy Homemaker Sue Ann Nivens. The scene, which takes place entirely in Lou’s office, highlights his innocence and Mary’s comparative worldliness in a reversal of their usual roles. The acting is masterful. Lou’s sexual naiveté is believable, while Mary’s mix of concern and amusement probably reflects the reaction of most viewers. There’s a natural friendship, an abiding respect and love for each other that will be tested later in the episode. The drama that plays out only enhances the longing for those cherished 4 minutes and 40 seconds, in Lou’s office with the door closed, that set the story in motion. It’s no surprise that’s where the two return to resolve their differences in another memorable scene to end the show.

Here’s the full episode. The scene I’ve described runs from 1:00 to 5:40.

Their history, our history

What does it say about us that we deem February, the shortest and (in the Upper Midwest, at least) most miserable month of the year as a time to reflect on black history? I have no idea how the designation came about, but the cynic in me has always regarded this segregation of  history as indicative of our country’s utterly dysfunctional approach to race relations. Luckily, I’m able to set the cynicism aside enough to appreciate the value of bringing a much-needed spotlight on black Americans’ contributions to our nation. And it’s not just about doing those folks a favor; it enriches me in return.

Without Black History Month, for instance, would I have been able to see original Freedom Rider Hank Thomas speak to a rapt audience of students and faculty at UW-Green Bay a few years ago? Probably not. I know the Freedom Riders’ story well, but to hear a flesh-and-blood participant relate the terror and the triumph of their mission was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I wouldn’t have seen students of both races, some shaking, others near tears or stuttering as though addressing a demigod during the Q&A session. Nor would I have gone home with the comforting notion that Thomas’ message of nonviolent resistance, of quiet but determined commitment to social change, represented a measure of hope for our society, even if that message reached just one student.

Without Black History Month, would I have learned of Vel Phillips, who despite her contributions to Milwaukee, Wisconsin and U.S. history escaped mention in my school textbooks and classes? While we were studying the adventures of Jean Nicolet and Bob La Follette, Phillips was breaking down racial and gender barriers and fighting for a downtrodden class of people that 95 percent of us Wisconsinites never knew existed. No, it took Black History Month to bring her story to my  attention. Suddenly it wasn’t just something that happened in the South, or in New York City. I don’t think it was a deliberate omission by the people charged with educating Wisconsin school children, but I do feel I was deprived for having missed this chapter of our state’s history, and richer for having subsequently discovered it through the flurry of dedicated promotion that occurs in February.

The cynic in me returns, however, as I wonder what happens to these stories on March 1. Why are we content, having done our annual duty, to put that book back on the “blacks only” shelf, only to collect dust until next February? Such is the quandary of Black History Month, which, by its designation, obscures the underlying principle that what we’re really seeing is, after all, American history.

Taking care of business

There are times in football when a running back or receiver busts loose, with nothing between him and the end zone but a smaller, lighter defensive back. The DB has a choice: 1) sacrifice his body any way he can to bring down the charging runner, or 2) half-heartedly grasp at an arm or leg in hopes of slowing him down or wrangling him toward the sideline. The second option, not uncommon, is what’s known as a “business decision.” A significant injury can derail a player’s season and possibly shorten a career that’s worth millions of dollars for each year it can continue. Why risk that to prevent one touchdown in a game that can turn on so many other plays?

I saw a lot of business decisions in Super Bowl 50, but not on the playing field. It happened in between the action, during the commercial breaks, when advertisers call out the big guns for their annual bonanza of the comical, the outlandish, and in some cases, the just plain bizarre. Seth Rogen and Amy Schumer shilled for Bud Light, Willem Dafoe channeled Marilyn Monroe for Snickers, and Steven Tyler was doing some sort of schtick for Skittles (I think?).

What prompted these A-listers, each well established in their respective fields, to take on these gigs? We can guess it has little or nothing to do with the quality of the product they’re selling. Perhaps the wheelbarrows of cash parked under their noses? Yes, there’s that, but beyond the sheer dollars, there’s the power of name recognition. In show business (there’s that word again), talent is part of the equation — and these people have it in spades — but if your name isn’t known out there, you may as well be nothing. Just ask Betty White, who revived her career for the umpteenth time with a Super Bowl commercial a few years back. Few people may remember what the ad was for (our old friend Snickers!), but she’s enjoyed plenty of legitimate success since then.

Dafoe, for instance, must be aware that film producers have to consider more than acting ability alone when casting roles. They need a name that will sell tickets (or DVDs or streams) off the marquee, so to speak. Had Will Smith, for instance, not taken the lead role in “Concussion,” would the movie currently be enjoying the company of Oscar heavyweights?

So guess what: Rogen, Schumer, Dafoe and Tyler all made business decisions. It’s likely Aerosmith saw a bump in downloads/streams in the days after Tyler’s Super Bowl spot. And maybe plans for a concert tour have a little more juice than they did a week ago. So who am I to judge? A cornerback opting to bail on a tackle may realize several additional years of million-dollar contracts. Even his coach may prefer having a healthy, effective player at that position long term rather than saving one stinkin’ touchdown in one stinkin’ game. That’s between them. The bottom line is that, more often than not, the business decisions people make are nobody’s business but theirs.