Review: “Last Days of Knight” is flawed but essential

Cross-posting at duresport.com 

ESPN is gambling these days.

The new “30 for 30” documentary, Last Days of Knight, gambles on three levels:

  1. It’s being shown exclusively on ESPN+, the company’s new pay service, a good way to draw attention to it but not the best way to get this film the wide audience that many previous 30 for 30 entries have found.
  2. It tells the story of a journalist, CNN’s Robert Abbott, who pursued the story for months. As an Awful Announcing review says, the film attempts to tell Abbott’s story and Knight’s, and it sometimes falls between the two stools.
  3. A lot of people still maintain loyalty to Bobby Knight after all these years.

Others can debate No. 1. The questions here are No. 2 and No. 3, and the disappointment of Last Days of Knight is that we get too much of No. 2 and not enough exploration of No. 3.

Like all 30 for 30 films, LDON is a slick presentation. And the story is compelling, even with the unusual focus on Abbott. CNN’s reporting became part of the story itself, for better or for worse, and you don’t have to be a journalism junkie to appreciate the insights on how everyone involved interacted with the media — Knight as one of several bullies, players and staffers afraid to speak, administrators being weasels, etc. Abbott’s reflections and the nitty-gritty at CNN, including some clumsy threats by people working on Knight’s behalf, provide a new angle to an old story.

But that story bogs down with an extended, guilt-ridden take on the post-scandal life and death of Neil Reed, the player Knight assaulted in a video that hastened his downfall. It’s a sad and yet sweet story of someone who reclaimed his own life and was clearly loved before his untimely death from a heart attack, but its placement in this film is odd, as if it’s suggesting Reed’s death was somehow collateral damage from Knight’s antics and/or the media coverage. Abbott regrets making Reed uncomfortable in his pursuit of the story, but it seems a bit much for him to interpose himself in the family’s mourning process.

And we’re left wanting something more. Abbott and some of his colleagues are seeing the old story in a new light. Anyone else?

Perhaps it’s me — I wrote about irrational mobs in my review of Jesus Christ Superstar — but I really wanted to see some reflection from the people who defended Knight when he was quite clearly indefensible. Knight, predictably, wasn’t interested in participating. But what about the students? Former players? Now that the heat has died down, what would they do differently?

But even if we don’t see such reflection on camera, we have to hope it’s happening elsewhere. It’s not happening in this dismissive review from The Daily Hoosier.

The value of a story like Knight’s is that it holds up a mirror to us. How much are we willing to excuse if a guy wins some basketball games? Can a man impart military-style discipline and behavioral values if he doesn’t live up to it himself or hold himself accountable?

We see hints of these questions in Last Days of Knight. Just not quite enough.

 

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Jenna Fischer’s wonderful new show … and why it won’t last

I checked out the first episode of Splitting Up Together today, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

That said, I’m not sure I’m interested in watching another episode.

Of course, I’m *rooting* for it because I just love Jenna Fischer. She was wonderful on The Office, and I enjoyed her WTF podcast interview talking about her book. And she is, as you’d expect, absolutely terrific in this. Maybe TOO terrific. There are times you want to reach through the screen and slap Oliver Hudson for taking her for granted. What were you THINKING, dude?

But Hudson is good, too. While things may seem a little stereotypical — Mom fastidiously assembles every ingredient for the kids’ breakfasts and lunches, while Dad gives them some lunch money and lets them fend for themselves — it’s not that Hudson is a neglectful jerk. It’s the “free-range vs. helicopter” parenting dilemma at play here, and it’s done with both earnestness and good humor. Fischer’s character really thinks parents can and should solve everything for their kids; Hudson’s character sees reasonable limits for that concept.

So if this were a short-run series — one of those British shows designed to run six episodes — it would surely be worth watching.

The problem: There is no way they can drag this out to a full sitcom for multiple seasons.

Some of the reviews I’ve seen pick up on the issue. It’s an unrealistic long-term premise. Money is part of it — we can understand why a newly divorced couple in the era of overpriced real estate can’t afford separate places, but some reviewers have pointed out that both parents have lax attitudes toward employment and financial restraint, undermining the “financial necessity” point.

The other part is that we’re going to like both of these characters, and we’re not going to wish a divorce on either of them. Even in the first episode, we see Hudson starting to realize what a great life he has thrown away. What will we see in episode 45?

Even in The Simpsons, where they can create and then destroy an alternate reality in each 22-minute episode, they’ve gone to the “Homer and Marge split up” well far too many times over the years. Imagine if Homer was living in the garage, pining for a reunion with Marge for 10 seasons.

It’s a pity, because the first episode is certainly worth watching. The scene in which they inform family and friends over dinner is priceless. I like the supporting cast, too, especially the guy who worships his wife and can’t comprehend why Hudson didn’t do the same. (But again — he makes such a convincing case that the writers are going to have to contrive ways to make Hudson not listen.)

They could surely get about six good episodes out of this, ending either with a reconciliation or one of the parents finally moving all the way out. But we’re probably not even going to get six good episodes out of it because they’re going to have stretch things out and rely on sitcom cliches (oh, no — a misunderstanding and jealousy!) to keep this couple apart long enough to make a second season.

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Sinclair and muddled media-ownership rules

Deadspin is not one of my favorite media outlets. They tend to favor snark over substance, and they intentionally cover sports without getting to know any of the people involved so they don’t have to think about the consequences of their words.

But let’s give credit where it’s due. This piece on Sinclair Broadcast Group forcing its member stations to read a subtle propaganda script on “fake news” (cleverly worded to sow doubt on all “other” media while giving the appearance of transparency) is worth checking out, if only for the video showing the absurdity of scores of “news” anchors all reading the same script.

The definitive word on Sinclair, though, still belongs to John Oliver:

The Nation, itself an erratic publication I wouldn’t cite on every topic, digs in a bit to point out that the issue isn’t editorial bias per se. It’s media consolidation.

I’ve worked in the belly of the media consolidation a couple of times, and it’s funny to Sinclair doing the things — particularly central editorial control — that readers often thought my old papers were doing. In Wilmington, a lot of readers seemed convinced that our owners at The New York Times were micromanaging every page we printed. The truth was that we could pick from several wire services (including the NYT service) for national/world content (my job on many days), and the NYT rarely noticed anything we wrote locally. The actual problem with non-local corporate ownership in Wilmington was far duller — due to geography, we had a monopoly over several fast-growing counties, and we were not coincidentally severely understaffed. I’d love to see the Star-News profit margin for the 1990s.

So to quibble with The Nation, it’s both media consolidation and irresponsible use of that consolidation. As the John Oliver piece notes, Sinclair is essentially spreading fake news while subtly discrediting other media.

Now here’s the question …

Why is Sinclair allowed to do this shit (and why is Facebook allowed to reap the revenue off journalism), but your local newspaper can’t combine ownership with a local TV station?

Yeah, we’re still talking about that. Oddly enough, it’s the Republicans who want to roll back the restriction on such things, while the Democrats are suspicious of more media consolidation.

I get the suspicion. If Sinclair were to start buying up local newspapers to run the same crap they’re running on local TV, that’d be pathetic.

But consider two trends:

  1. Local newspapers continue to put out vital journalism while their staffs shrink like the demand for carbon paper.
  2. Local TV stations rarely have online content worth visiting. It’s usually a few pictures of the on-air personalities and bad rewrites of stories from the local paper. That reality tends to throw some cold water on any concerns over “media consolidation.” If your local TV station (and often your local radio news outlet) is just ripping and reading, you might as well let them make it official.

Surely we’d all benefit if a local TV station and local newspaper could combine news-gathering organizations. An enterprising local TV station could dominate the news market with the best and biggest journalism shop in the region. A newspaper wouldn’t have to keep struggling to move into video.

We’d need rules in place to keep Sinclair from buying everything. But allowing a TV/newspaper combo might actually open the door to some more competition. Maybe when one local TV station combines with a newspaper, another TV station hires more journalists to create online content to compete. And then you’ll have the diversity of voices we need.

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Neil Peart through the ages

Observe how Neil Peart plays a particularly tricky passage of Tom Sawyer around the 3:05 mark in this video from the early 80s:

Now see how he did it in 2011:

Looks like he’s using two hands to do what he used to do with one.

My guess is that’s a pretty impressive adaptation to a natural decline in hand speed. Or maybe just more ergonomically correct.

(Yes, I know I need to be blogging at MMM more. I still love this blog.)

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When to ask the tough questions and when not to

Had a legitimately interesting conversation on Twitter yesterday, starting here:

Journalists have indeed been far too passive in recent years. We covered Trump because he was entertaining, and then we were shocked to find people actually believed anything he said. Maybe he couldn’t kill a bunch of people in Times Square and still keep his whole base, but he could tell people Hillary Clinton killed a bunch of people in Times Square, and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if a bunch of MAGA-bots on Twitter piled on in agreement.

But in this case? I wasn’t so sure.

So I replied:

My friend and colleague Andrea Canales responded:

I’d recommend the whole discussion. Andrea raised a lot of good points, and I had to stop and think about them overnight. In the general sense, I absolutely agree with her.

And yet, I still think there’s some truth to the idea that the best way to expose a narcissist who has lost touch with reality is to just stick a microphone up to his face and let him speak. It’s the only reason I can see for keeping Trump’s Twitter account active, for one thing.

As a Duke trustee said in a controversy over The Chronicle publishing something incendiary: “Gotta flush a snake out of the grass in order to kill it.”

So in this case, I’m assuming the Times had a limited interview window. They couldn’t just stay there all day and confront Trump with every falsehood. (Granted, that would take more than one day.) He’d eventually hop back in the golf cart.

By racing through a set of questions with limited follow-ups, the Times got Trump to race through several falsehoods. They count 10. The Post counted 24 (some of them iffy). CNN added “outrageous lines” to falsehoods and came up with 47.

If the Times reporter had pressed one topic, we’d only have one topic to dissect. Now we have many.

Another aspect of this interview: Sometimes, the best way to get good quotes in an interview is to make people feel comfortable. They’ll be more candid. Indeed, this interview tactic just played out in the soccer world, where Grant Wahl basically just let an aging state association president dig his own hole with a series of outrageous comments about his endorsement of U.S. Soccer presidential candidate Kathy Carter — or, as this state president calls her, “the girl.” When the soccer public’s jaw dropped, someone took to the state association’s Twitter feed to rip into Grant for not expressing any opinion about how outrageous those comments were during the interview. (Those tweets have since been deleted.)

In other words: This guy is pissed off because he was quoted accurately, and then everyone pointed out how out of touch he was.

So I’m still of two minds about this Trump interview. As Andrea says, Trump already provides a scattershot look at his delusions on Twitter each day, so perhaps the Times didn’t need to do that. Maybe I would’ve asked a follow-up or two. Then again, I’m not sure I would’ve had the data in front of me to show Trump that he was wrong, and I still think there’s some news value in seeing the president of the United States stumbling his way through an alternate reality in person, not just behind a computer keyboard.

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Star Wars NEVER made sense. Get over it.

Oh no! The Last Jedi ruins our sense of canon! Why would Luke act that way?

(For the record, Mark Hamill has walked back some of his misgivings:)

But the Star Wars saga has always been embedded in our culture despite its flaws. I don’t just mean the things that make less sense as more movies are made, such as Kenobi’s failure to recognize R2 or the one that recently popped into my head — why did the Hidden Chosen One, The Son of Anakin Skywalker, hide out on Anakin’s home planet with the last name “Skywalker”? Why isn’t he “Luke Lars” (Uncle Owen’s last name) or “Luke Smith” or “Luke Totally Not a Fallen Jedi’s Son”?

We had those problems in the original trilogy as well. Mostly the “OMG, if Leia always knew Luke was her brother, then why …” problem.

But even in the first film, we have a few issues.

Selective empathy. I think Robot Chicken put it best.

But it’s not just that. In the attack on the Death Star, we see Porkins losing his battle with gravity and joining many other longtime rebels in the great beyond. All of these deaths pass as routine. But when the hillbilly kid who just turned up at the base flies through something hot, everyone’s all, “Luke! Are you OK?”

And speaking of expendable rebels, why does Wedge get a free pass? X-Wing fighters don’t have any rear weapons, so the wingmen in the Death Star trenches aren’t really doing anything other than flying around as human shields to make it slightly more difficult for TIE fighters to take out the dude with the targeting computer switched on. But when Wedge takes a glancing blow to his ship, he gets a doctor’s note excusing him from the rest of the battle.

Stormtrooper shooting. Yes, it’s a big joke — the stormtroopers can’t hit anything.

bird.jpg

Which would be somewhat understandable if not for:

A. Scenes in which the targets (Luke, Han, an occasional droid) are just standing right there.

B. Say it with me now: “These blast points, far too accurate for Sand People. Only Imperial Stormtroopers are so precise.” That’s a bit like a Delta in Animal House saying Bluto is the champion of dieting and sobriety.

“They let us go.” Oh really, Leia? That’s your conclusion, even after you just hugged a Wookiee to celebrate Han and Luke’s victory over the TIE fighters (and, given the massive explosions that TIE fighters apparently have when blasted, somehow managing to do so at sufficient range to the Millennium Falcon wasn’t melted)?

Did no one on the Death Star think to inform the TIE fighter pilots that they needed to back off? Or did they just receive a mission briefing like this:

“OK, folks, our prisoners are escaping.”

“No problem, sir! We’ll blast them out of the sky, er, space or whatever.”

“Actually, no. Go out and pretend that you’re doing that. Land a few shots on the ship’s shield and do that funky side-to-side thing that makes you really difficult to hit. But then just stop and let them shoot you.”

(silence)

“Why the hell would we do that?”

“Look, this whole thing is about to be blown up in … well, it apparently takes less than a day to get to the rebel base … so you’re just saving yourself some aggravation.”

So fret all you want about Luke’s grumpiness in The Last Jedi or Rey picking up light saber skills as quickly as … well, as quickly as Luke did. The fact is we fell in love with a flawed mythic saga because of the imaginative, immersive universe (or galaxy) with John Williams music and classic characters. The light side outweighs the dark side.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to get to work. My next story is due in three parsecs.

 

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A response to “Liberals Need to Take Their Fingers Out of Their Ears”

Dear Mr. Edsall,

Please forgive me if the salutation is too formal. I was brought up in the South to say “yes, sir” and “no, ma’am,” and while I have modernized a bit depending on context, I felt it appropriate in this case to lead with traditional manners.

I’m writing in reference to your op-ed in The New York Timesthe latest in a series of pieces in the past 15 months or so alerting “liberals” to our alleged blind spots and biases.

I should say at the outset that I’ve never understood what a “liberal” is, particularly in U.S. politics in my lifetime. To paraphrase Rebecca West, I only know that people call me a “liberal” when I express sentiments that differentiate the less fortunate from doormats or women from prostitutes. I keep hearing that the Democratic Party is going farther and farther “left,” but surely that’s a function of the old conservative “Dixiecrats” finally abandoning a party label that hadn’t made sense since Reconstruction. Social programs that the “conservatives” readily accept in Europe would be considered “socialist” here.

Your piece is frankly a confusing read. At the outset, it appears that “liberals” fail to understand their own role in creating Trumpist populism. Then it veers into a Karen Stenner’s argument about tolerance and inevitable conflict, which frankly struck me as a bit nihilistic. Next up was Eric Schnurer suggesting the “left” is ravaging the manufacturing industry, which I’d think most relatively objective economists would point out is a by-product of a rapidly changing global economy in which technology has revved up productivity. See the frightening headline “Robots Could Steal 40% of U.S. Jobs by 2030.

The underlying assumption here is that “liberals” clustered in “blue” states lack the capacity or the will to understand Middle America’s concerns. You could probably come up with some evidence of that, sure. I’ve often joked that The Washington Post views everything south and west of the Potomac, even those of us just a few miles away, as a giant experiment in anthropology.

But these “liberals” have made a considerable effort to understand what’s going on, before and especially after last year’s election. Much of that effort has bordered on self-flagellation.

Why? Well, to paraphrase another Southern centrist now labeled “liberal”: “It’s the empathy, stupid.”

It’s also empathy based on a long-term view. You mention “Republican strengths” in your second paragraph, and you include: evisceration of key regulatory policies, economic growth, the Dow Jones, the unemployment rate and the new tax plan.

Unfortunately, “liberals” understand that any gain from all of these things is short-lived. Without those regulatory policies, climate change will continue unabated, eventually plunging coastlines underwater. The tax plan forces graduate students to include their tuition waivers as income, effectively reducing access to postgraduate education that would drive future economic growth as the world automates.

It’s too facile to dismiss these concerns as elitist East Coast-ism. If you’ve spent any time in the blue states and cities, you know that a lot of us are from somewhere else. I’m from the South, born and raised to be suspicious of “Yankees” and social programs. I went to summer camp and learned muscular Christianity, in which we would all grow to be good little Christians by beating each other up in preparation for the real world.

As I’ve grown older and moved northward, I’ve realized a few things. First of all, no matter how hard we work, we can’t predict the future and guarantee our financial success. I went into journalism, an industry that has sharply declined thanks to the Internet siphoning away readership and ad dollars. Others went into manufacturing, where their jobs have been lost to automation.

I’ve also realized that these “Yankees” ain’t such bad people. Living in a cold city fosters a mutually reliant community — in short, a sense that we all have to pull together to face whatever difficulty is in front of us. They’re also not ignorant about the rest of the country, in part because many of us are from the rest of the country. I’m not the only Southerner in Northern Virginia. Everybody here is from somewhere else.

And the most “elite” of these Yankees, you’ll note, are voting against their self-interests. Does a “limousine liberal” benefit from the GOP tax plan? Most definitely. And they’re not the ones who’ll lose access to health care. They’re not the ones whose water will be poisoned.

These elite blue-staters are in pain right now not because of what they will experience. They’re in pain because of what others will face.

And they grasp the problems in the red states with greater acuity and greater empathy than the populists.

The populists, you see, are lying. And the blue-states know that.

The blue-staters know that the promises of manufacturing jobs are hollow. They know that today’s young people are emerging into a “gig economy” that leaves them without employer-sponsored health insurance, which means they’re one bad diagnosis away from bankruptcy. They know the populists’ weeping for the decline of traditional moral values is a bunch of poppycock — for goodness’ sake, the Democrats just tossed Al Franken, and Alabama is about to elect Roy Moore.

So while I appreciate your concern for liberals misunderstanding America, may I humbly suggest that what we need instead is better communication so that we Americans are less susceptible to demagogues? The Democrats, quite frankly, need a lot of help doing that.

You see — the problem isn’t with liberals’ ears. It’s with their mouths.

I wouldn’t be a good Southern gentleman (albeit a modernized one) if I didn’t thank you for your time. Thank you for reading.

Best wishes,

Beau Dure

 

 

 

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