Monday, October 27, 2014

The New York Jets: a Post-Mortem (or, Ghost-mortem...)

Now that we have had several weeks to accept that their season is over, it's time to examine what the fuck happened to the 2014 New York Jets, one of the jokes of the NFL. 

You know, that line has been used before, but it's been a really long time when you think of it.  For all the ups and downs of the past fifteen or so years, the team has managed to make the playoffs a couple of times and even to the AFC championship game thrice.  But it was Gary Myers in his column for the Daily News that brought up the dreaded name from the past:


That's right.  Rich Kotite, the one-time Jets offensive coordinator and two-season head coach who managed to win just four games out of thirty-two.  

Kotite, who became a symbol of all that was wrong with the Jets and their management approach.

Kotite, who was fired from his previous head coaching job with the Eagles for losing his last seven games when they were looking like a shoo-in to make the playoffs, only to be hired by the Jets, whose one-season coach -- some guy named Pete Carroll -- got canned because he blew his last six.

Kotite, who was hired personally by then-owner Leon Hess because Mr. Hess didn't want to wait and give Carroll a chance to develop his team.  "I want results now," the old man said. 

Kotite, who won three games his first season, was given a Super-Bowl QB in Neil O'Donnell in his second, who promptly got hurt after losing the first six games.

The management of the Jets was so inept that they didn't even officially announce that Kotite was fired, and Kotite said he did not really resign; despite the fact that he had a contract for a third season, the Jets announced simply that he would not be returning for the 1997 campaign.

Could the Jets be this dysfunctional again, with owner Woody Johnson?  Consider:

He replaced one cap-ologist, Mike  Tannenbaum, with another, John Idzik; was Idzik the best candidate? No, but he was the only one who was willing to a) keep Rex Ryan as his head coach instead of being given the chance to hire his own, and b) trade star cornerback Darelle Revis, coming off ACL surgery, because Revis had been a pain in the ass about salary pretty much every year he'd been with the team.  Some candidates wanted their own coach, and other candidates were reticent about trading away the best player on the team, even if he was costly, and not a quarterback.  And to do both -- keep Ryan and take away his best weapon, when healthy -- made little sense to most candidates.

So Idzik traded Revis and did turn one of the picks he got from Tampa Bay into his only worthwhile draft choice, Sheldon Richardson.  Otherwise his drafts have been poor, and he's very much on the hook for his second-round selection of QB Geno Smith, who, yesterday in a dreadful first half against the mediocre Buffalo Bills, managed to do something not seen in about eight years -- throw more interceptions (3) than receptions (2).  He left the game before the first half ended, with a Blutarsky-level QB rating: zero point zero.  Smith has been a disaster this season, after showing promise late last year. 

Idzik was  a bit handcuffed his first year because there were several big contracts still on the books, including QB Mark (Butt-fumble) Sanchez, who had been Tannenbaum's first-round pick in Ryan's first season as coach.  But when Sanchez got injured in a preseason game -- at a point in the game that he had no business being  in, and that's on Ryan for screwing that up -- that paved the way for the Geno era to start last season.  With Sanchez's contract and a few others coming off the books, Idzik was free to spend some money, yet with a pretty good free-agent class of cornerbacks out there -- including, of all guys, Revis -- Idzik brought in garbage.  Other free agent choices have either been so-so (like WR Eric Decker, who has been hampered by not having Peyton Manning throwing him the football) or dreadful (like RB Chris Johnson, who seems to have lost it completely). 

Rex Ryan's team is undisciplined (they make lots of penalties) and unfocused (several players got screwed up by the time-zone change when they went to San Diego and missed a team meeting the night before the game, a brutal loss to the Chargers where the Jets didn't even make it to midfield until it was garbage time).  He's made some bad decisions, and he sometimes seems to prefer acting the clown that being a professional.  But the Jets' problems run deeper than this.

This is about an owner who looked to sell PSLs by bringing in Brett Favre, a gamble that almost worked -- until Favre hurt his shoulder just enough to be ineffective in the last five games and cost the team a playoff spot and coach Eric Mangini his job. (Mangini was not initially on board with bringing the aging legend in, and the previous QB, the injured but otherwise steady Chad Pennington, won eleven games and the division with the Dolphins, who'd been 1-15 the year before.)  This same owner brought in Tim Tebow, for no real good reason other than to sell seats and jerseys.  (Tebow was hardly used during his one year here.)  Eventually, Tannenbaum lost his job, though he got to be around for the butt-fumble.  

It's about an owner who doesn't really have a clue. 

And we're back to the Kotite years. 

Which might not be so bad, if the Jets could blow the season and then get a top-tier quarterback in the first round, though none of these guys is as impressive as the group that came out two years ago. 

Speaking of Kotite, his 1-15 final season did give the Jets the first pick of the draft. 

That was the year Peyton Manning graduated from Tennessee.  Bill Parcells was hired to be the coach and the President of football operations.

But Manning opted to take one more year of his eligibility (which he had as a red-shirted freshman) and stay at Tennessee.  The Jets, needing so much help, traded the pick instead of drafting future HOF lineman Orlando Pace, who won a Super Bowl with the Rams, protecting Kurt Warner.

So even if the Jets get a good young stud quarterback, we all expect them to blow it. 

Ryan is gone.  He's not really meant to develop young quarterbacks.  The thing you can say that Sanchez and Smith have in common is bad decision-making.  They throw bad picks, including in the red zone.  Ryan needs a steadier hand, a veteran who's not too old, someone like Brad Johnson when he managed the Bucs to a Super Bowl in 2002.  Idzik needs to go back to his actuarial tables.  But what of the owner? 

Indeed.  What of him. 

If he fires Idzik, he'll be looking for his fifth GM and and fifth head coach since getting the team just at the dawn of the century.  The New York Giants have only had three GMs since 1979.  They have been to five Super Bowls, winning four.  

The math on this is simple.  

Friday, October 10, 2014

Film Friday: Lesser than Macbeth, and greater: Random thoughts on Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood

Kurosawa Akira’s version of Macbeth, released in the West as Throne of Blood (it’s not a literal translation), has become one of the most enduring adaptations of any of Shakespeare’s plays.  It’s a demonstration of how a filmmaker can represent the major thematic elements of a text from one language and translate them not only to a second language, but also to a second, medium, from drama to film.  Some may scoff at seeing this as “Shakespearean,” but this is one the essential aspects of Shakespeare’s art: his stories all have their source material, and he transformed them into some of the greatest poetry of his language.  (You hear anyone going around these days saying, oh, man that dude ruined Holinshed’s Chronicles?  Not now, not then.)  
Kurosawa takes the medieval Scottish play and places it in roughly a similar period, of feudal Japan, with rival warlords fighting ceaselessly.  The question of nationhood is much less significant in the film than in Shakespeare. (For Shakespeare, nationality was a crucial component, since his new boss was the James VI King of Scotland, now James I King of England. There was likely an understood lineage between James and Banquo, whom the three witches told would beget kings though never be one himself.)  What likely drew Kurosawa to the play was the question of man's control over fate: how much of Macbeth's fate is out of his hands?   
Shakespeare was "discovered" in Japan during the era of the Meiji Restoration (1862-1912), a period of openness between the island nation and the West.  The notions of Individualism, which had become more or less taken for granted since the Renaissance, where comparatively new to Japan, and since Shakespeare was writing in the midst of that era, and whose plays were often set in times where the individual struggled in relation to fate (or to the collective),  the tales told held fascination.  The traditional Noh theater used many different narrative forms, but the supernatural was often a theme: one genre is known as "demon play."  Kurosawa used Japanese theatrical conventions as a central element in Throne of Blood. The three central actors -- Chieko Naniwa as the "forest spirit" (Kurosawa's version of the "weird sisters"), Isuzu Yamada as Lady Asaji Washizu, and the legendary Toshiru Mifune as Lord Washizu -- were given Noh masks to study as part of their acting process.   
It was during the Meiji era that cinema was introduced to Japan (as it was to much of the planet, between 1895 and 1900).  Japanese theatrical conventions again determined how the cinema was to be received and presented. (In its earliest days, the projection of a film itself was performance; historian Donald Ritchie writes of a screening where the projector was presented one side of the stage, and watching the projectionist was really the object of attention.)   The tradition of the benshi --- men who explained the action of early silent films -- was borrowed from theater, especially puppet theater.  In many respects Japanese cinema always retained an aspect of self-awareness; the audience was not usually "lulled" into the drama of the film to forget that it  was just that, only a film (unlike in Classical Hollywood cinema, which almost always sought to "hide" its processes).   
Kurosawa's film is a fascinating mixture of  Japanense theater and Western-style film-making.  I just want to make a few short observations, mainly using some images from the film.   
On the subject of Washizu's control over his fate, I am inclined to believe, as many scholars have said, that he is even less in control than the Thane of Cawdor.  The film begins with a misty scene of ruin and death, with a chorus telling us that a mighty fortress once stood there, that a great warrior, ruined by ambition, met his destruction because of it.  We're about to see that story unfold: the mist begins to move, in patterns that vaguely resemble horses, and suddenly we see Cobweb Castle (translated by most video versions of the film as "Forest Castle"); a soldier rides toward it to tell the Lord Tsuzuki news of the battle. (The opening events resemble Duncan's first scene in Macbeth: the witches are not needed, since the chorus has already filled us in.)  When we meet our hero, and his friend, Lord Miki, they are riding hard after their successes, struggling in the rain ("so fair and foul a day," indeed!) to get through the natural labyrinth of the forest that surrounds his Lordship's castle.   They hear a haunting, echoing laughter, then declare that an evil spirit is keeping them from finding their way.  They finally stumble upon said evil spirit; the shot resembles a theater setting: 

The spirit drones on about the doomed nature of humanity, suggesting perhaps she's listened to a lot of Smiths albums (speaking of western influence), spinning at her wheel, reading the future of the brave warriors.  Note also, as Jack Jorgens did in one of the first books on Shakespeare films (which in one edition featured a picture of Mifune-as-Washizu on the cover), that the loom resembles the reels of a film projector:  
Cinema as Fate: The spinning wheels

Their futures told, the spirit vanished, the two men ride through the mist and ride through the mist and ride some more through the mist and then ride some more, and when they finally see the castle, they stop to rest.  I really like this shot of the two of them, in repose, their future laid before them, visible in the form of the castle.  They have joked about the prophecy, but both warriors wonder if there is some truth in them. (Dreams are a reflection of our desires, Washizu, pre-Freudean, says.) 

Something about the composition of the shot is so powerful:  the two friends, laughing uneasily, amid the gray, death-marked dirt and the fog, not quite fully lifted, showing us how close their doom lies. 

Some more theater: Asaji is very much a figure out of Noh traditions, as this shot demonstrates: 

Yamada's performance is stoic, chilling; she rules her roost, carefully manipulating her husband into murder.  Mifune's performance runs his classic, intense range: he's angry, guilty, helpless.  

Noh, or "NO!!!" ?
 She moves heel to toe, her dress almost squeaking as she prepares to get the wine to drug his Lordship's guards, and as she does so, she fades into the darkness: it's a great fifteen seconds of movement.  

fade into darkness...

Notice also the way that Washizu is "trapped" by the framing, by the architecture.  While his lordship stays in their quarters upon visiting Wahizu's castle, husband and wife stay in a room where one of the traitors killed himself, leaving blood on the wall that would not come off. (Foreshadowing, obviously, but that's the point: we the audience know what's coming.)  Here is  a shot of the wall as Washizu's servants enter the room to prepare it.  

and now, here is Washizu, trapped in the room by the screen, by the drama, by his fate.  

The most obvious example, an image often used in the books, is of Washizu's final moments, as the forest has moved toward his castle, and his own men shoot arrows at him and kill him.  

talk about lines of fate
Throughout the film, the wildness and mystery -- or should I say mist-ery -- of the forest is contrasted with the straight lines of the castle, the men's uniforms, and their weapons.  Washizu is ultimately trapped by both.  

Kurosawa's composition owes much to theater, but his camera work is also very fluid, especially in the scenes where men race through the forest on horseback.  His use of hard-wipes to change scenes may seem a bit old-fashioned, but it is keeping within a tradition of the use of screens in Japanese theater to change time and space.  But then, perhaps one of the oddest possible mixes of west and east comes in this shot:  

Isn't that Captain Jack Sparrow next to Washizu?????

Thursday, October 9, 2014

F words: failing our students to inspire...

Today, I shot an e-mail off to one of my students working on a thesis.  The gist of it was this: since you haven't handed in the required amount of work by the first deadline, you'd better withdraw from the course, or receive an F.  Within hours, I got a response, pleading for more time.  It was the first message from said student in about three weeks.

It really is funny how that works.

I've been doing this kind of thing for years, as the deadline to withdraw from classes approaches.  Doesn't matter what the class is: you announce in class (or now electronically) that students who have handed in little to no work after five weeks should withdraw, and amazingly, their calendar clears, the work obligations change, their personal problems or health issues subside enough to... ask for more time! And to be truthful, sometimes they actually hand in work!

Every situation is different, and how I respond to late submissions can depend on too many variables to share here.  But one scenario is among the most interesting: the choice between failing a student and giving the student a grade of Incomplete.

In theory, this is an easy deal, because there are usually rules at any college that govern when a student can be given an Incomplete grade.  It's supposed to be given in cases where a student needs more time to complete the course work, and has a "serious reason" why s/he cannot complete the work on time.  There's a lot of vagueness out there in student handbooks. For most classes, a student who hands in, say more than half the required work, has taken all the tests, but has one more assignment and needs more time because s/he got sick for two weeks near the end of the term, might be a good candidate for an Incomplete.  Someone else who did hardly any work, did poorly on exams (or even skipped the midterm), is not a candidate.  Common sense can prevail. 

But common sense does not always apply to the college student.  Many see a grade of Incomplete as another means to slack off, and if the professors don't follow up, the grade lingers beyond the standard deadline, and not all institutions just automatically change such grades to F.   So, let's say you've got a student who could use a little more time to get the work done, especially the work of a senior thesis, which means someone who is really really close to getting his/her degree.   In the old days, we might just not submit a grade at all until the work was done, but that really fosters laziness and apparently missing grades is a no-no because of financial aid issues.  So: do you just give the kid an F, and THEN, when the stuff actually comes in (usually within 48 hours of the student realize s/he's just screwed up bigtime), file a change of grade form from F to whatever?  Or give the Incomplete grade, often prolonging the inevitable change to F?

I think it's all psychological:  you see that F and you realize the gravity of your situation.  The Incomplete grade is a license to ignore the problem until the last minute.  (Of course the last minute should really be in the fourteenth or fifteenth week of the term, not three weeks after finals.)

But is that the right thing for faculty to do?  Doesn't changing a grade from an F to a passing grade, and doing so a few times a semester, defeat the purpose of the F grade?   We're supposed to change grades infrequently; the reason for grade changes, aside from Incomplete grades (or the notorious "ABsent from final exam" grade, wherein a student doesn't show for finals, gets a reprieve, and takes a makeup test that may be easier than the one his/her classmates got), should be compelling: maybe you reconsidered some grades after the student appealed, or maybe you actually did make a computation error.  To go from F to, say, a B seems like a big jump; it says you're circumnavigating the Incomplete-grade system by accepting work after the grade is in. 

Again, theory and practices don't often mesh. In some ways, giving the F is also a short cut, since some of the students might not even bother to do the work.  (I've had more than a few students simply disappear after they've asked for more time, or a chance to hand in late work to change a bad grade.)   But I gotta say: it's  a short cut that can really produce prolific undergraduate scholarship.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A thought about football

So there's been a lot of talk about football these days, and I actually have many thoughts about the domestic violence discourse in the nfl context, but I'm just too drained right now to put them together.  I have become overloaded in my head, my back has given out again, and I just don't feel compelled as I had recently.  But as I listened today about the latest information on the Sayreville (NJ) high school football hazing scandal,  I thought of this poem by James Wright, who captured small town america of a long time ago, and yet maybe not so long ago. 

Autumn Begins in Martins Ferry, Ohio

James Wright, 1927 - 1980
In the Shreve High football stadium,
I think of Polacks nursing long beers in Tiltonsville,
And gray faces of Negroes in the blast furnace at Benwood,
And the ruptured night watchman of Wheeling Steel,
Dreaming of heroes.

All the proud fathers are ashamed to go home.
Their women cluck like starved pullets,
Dying for love.

Their sons grow suicidally beautiful
At the beginning of October,
And gallop terribly against each other’s bodies.

There are many places in our country where high school sports transcends all else; young men dream of getting out of a future of slow-death hard labor, or quick-death-drug-trade-violence.  Being teenagers, and of course believing themselves to be immortal, they may still be choosing a shorter path to the grave by playing sports.  But they may not have any other luxury in a country where so many of us are really expendable. 

I think of some of the servicemen and women I know, who also had few options; the army gave them a sense of purpose, and if they can survive these endless middle-east wars, they can actually have a chance at the good life, if they don't let their memories and madnesses wear them down.  I've seen it on their faces; sometimes you know which ones will make it okay and which ones won't.  

Those of us who choose certain professions, even those that come with physical damage as a price, can't quite grasp, except at a distance, what those high-profile, high-risk-high-reward jobs like football player means when there are no options. And Wright's poem just simply nails it.  And so when you read about this scandal at Sayreville, or read about the NFL's troubles, I hope you reflect on the images Wright creates here.