Friday, September 25, 2015

September 2015 Pop Culture Roundup

Five items for September...

1. I read and enjoyed Stagg vs. Yost: The Birth of Cutthroat Football by John Kryk this month, which chronicles the early days of college football when the Ivy League schools ruled the East, and a handful of schools that would eventually be part of the Big Ten ruled the West. The teams in the West really revolved around the rivalry between the University of Chicago coached by Alonzo Stagg, and the University of Michigan coached by Fielding Yost. Access to a large volume of official documents from both schools as well as personal correspondence allowed Kryk to reconstruct the ways teams even in the earliest days constantly tried to one-up each other for recruits, including cutting corners and offering benefits. The big takeaway is that there was never a "good old days" where college football was pure; free from all the temptations and extra incentives offered to today's players. I had a personal interest in learning more about one of Michigan's legendary coaches, but this is a great historical gem for any college football fan regardless of affiliation.

2. I followed up Stagg vs. Yost with Endzone: The Rise, Fall, and Return of Michigan Football by John U. Bacon. Previously, Bacon presented an inside look at the troubled tenure of Rich Rodriguez as Michigan's football coach in Three and Out; this is his oral history of the equally troubled tenure of Brady Hoke as the coach, which actually focuses much more on Dave Brandon's public and private miscues as Athletic Director (of which there were many). Sharing accounts from a variety of former players, alumni, past and present AD employees, and others who knew the University best, the result is story after story of what happens when well-meaning people get it exactly wrong by putting themselves first, not appreciating the culture of where they are, and not listening to their primary constituents. For me, a lot of it seemed to be a rehashing of what I already knew, since Brian Cook of MGoBlog was right on top or in the middle of much of it. But it is well-researched and well-written, which I've come to expect from Bacon.

3. I'd been meaning to watch the movie Birdman since it came out to critical acclaim last year, and I finally sat down to watch it this past month. Michael Keaton stars as an actor on the downside of his career, trying to shake the stigma of a past Hollywood superhero role that was his most notable accomplishment by staging a play on Broadway. He wrestles with issues of relevance and mortality as he tries to keep his show together. Ed Norton stars as his method acting foil, and Emma Stone is his estranged daughter in recovery, among a host of other recognizable names. It's part ode to theatre, part reflection on existence itself in all its messiness, and is shot mostly as a long continuous scene while evoking an extended piece of improvised jazz. I wish I'd watched this sooner, because the whole thing is incredibly well-acted, philosophically rich, and creatively filmed.

4. I've been keeping up with Fear the Walking Dead, the Walking Dead spinoff series that premiered last month. This show begins just before the zombie outbreak really begins taking over, and features a family trying to keep themselves together as events start ramping up. While The Walking Dead certainly has a bleakness to it, that bleakness takes a different tone on this show because you know where everything is going: the good guys don't win and it's just going to get worse. Still, I like that they began the series the way they did because even though the viewer has a pretty good idea about how things will go, the characters don't; they have to react to each new piece of information about their situation as they discover it. It's been a good complement to the original. And as a bonus, Elizabeth Rodriguez from Orange is the New Black is a supporting character.

5. Ben Caplan came out with a new album this month, Birds with Broken Wings. I loved his previous album In the Time of the Great Remembering, and had been waiting for news of a follow-up ever since. It again features his unique mix of folk, blues, and bluegrass. Here's a track from it, "40 Days and 40 Nights:"