Archive for February, 2010

Rant: What’s Up With Figure Skating?

Saturday, February 27th, 2010

It’s partly a symptom of having so many information outlets and so little to report that we get endless stories on the Vancouver Winter Olympics. We get not just the competitive events and their qualifying events, but back-stories, athlete profiles and a look back at the honorable history of every sport represented in The Games. From downhill racing to curling, there’s a constant and apparently endless supply of pictures, sounds and words available on demand, just like tap water in most parts of North America.

Oksana Domnina and Maxim Shabalin of RussiaNow I don’t care much for sports, as a whole. But I’m as impressed as the next guy when someone’s willingness to hurl herself at 100 km/hr down an ice-coated chute on nothing more than a light frame with runners. It’s fun to watch anything fast and dangerous. And then there’s the skill factor: I’ll watch gymnastics not just for its soft-porn effect, but because there’s a certain thrill that comes with watching technical prowess, with seeing someone perform an act that is so far beyond your own ability that it seems almost super-human. [It’s that circus effect. Clowns are either dull or scary. But acrobats are always good entertainment, especially when they’re half naked.]

Of all the events that have occupied prime space on the front page of the New York Times over the last few weeks, I’m the most — and most continually — baffled by figure skating, and particularly by the events known as “ice dancing.” What’s the idea here and why on earth does anyone want to watch it?

On the one hand:

Yes, those people are out there doing things I can’t do. And the skills involved clearly require long hours of training, sweat and dedication.

On the other:

Why bother?

Any thrill we might find in the technical daring — say a triple axel — is dulled beyond sensation by the “artistic” factor. And I get the impression that it’s this “artistry” that really makes the crowds swoon:

  • It’s not just a “routine,” it’s “choreography” built to produce an emotional response: tender and romantic, slapstick funny, or adorably sweet. Skaters lose points for attempting to blend emotions or to introduce subtlety.
  • Music is key. It establishes the tone of the emotion for an audience unwilling to come to its own conclusions: high-brow (Tchaikovsky); romantic (Air Supply); dramatic (Celine Dion). Novelty tunes are allowed, but traditionally score low.
  • And the costumes dazzle the crowd before the program has even begun. Figure skating costume designers form a small and insular group. The aesthetics of their designs refer only to themselves; they are sealed off from the outside worlds of fashion and stage craft. As each designer picks up on the costume decisions of his peers, he’ll channel it into his own designs and broadcast the results to the world. The effect is an endless loop of visual amplification, feedback and distortion which eventually becomes too painful for all but the most hardcore fans to bear.

There is no irony in figure skating. There is no world beyond. It is self-contained and locked down, like a maximum-security psychiatric ward of the 1950s.

Kim Yu-Na of South KoreaMost important of all: it’s just not pretty. The simplest gesture becomes a technical feat. It’s fine to hold one foot behind your head while you skate on the other. But if doing that contorts your body into an unpleasant form, what have you accomplished?

Ice dancing?

Dance uses technical prowess as only the necessary foundation on which to build something of beauty. Precision and technique are just points along a path toward making something that hopes to transcend those pieces. They still require years of study and practice; but they’re the means and not the end.

When dance is at its best, the audience doesn’t see the steps and the leaps. We see abstractions of pure form and movement. We see music and all the complex emotions and associations it brings with it.


Dr. Seuss Goes to War

Friday, February 26th, 2010

For people of a certain age, it’s impossible to think back on our childhoods without conjuring images drawn by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Seuss Geisel, to his friends and family). Even looking through his books today, their style seems fresh and their stories an eye-opening guide to the world of life’s adult complexities. I still have to watch How the Grinch Stole Christmas several times each holiday season just to sob every time.

America First Image by Dr. SeussPutting the man behind Green Eggs and Ham into the larger context of his life and times is bound to seem like an awkward fit. Our childhood icons seem to resist being fixed in the real world.

But his kids’ books were only part of his career. For starters, Dr. Seuss wrote some of the military’s WWII instructional shorts in a series called “Private Snafu,” working with such cartoon notables as Friz Freling, Bob Clampett and Chuck Jones (with whom he’d later create that TV version of The Grinch).

Seuss was also a political cartoonist for several years before and during the war. And to see his familiar style put to such specific political messages feels … well, kinda weird. But now that U.C., San Diego’s Mandeville Special Collections Library has put a number of these images on their Web site, you can experience that discomfort for yourself and come to your own conclusions.

Two hundred of these cartoons are also collected in the volume Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel by Richard H. Minear.

Seuss’s attitude about the war in Europe is pretty clear in the cartoons. American feelings about  our involvement in a war across the ocean — particularly with the first World War being only a short while behind us — were mixed. Moreover, anti-semitism and anti-communist sentiments led a great many Americans to approve quietly of Nazi genocide and empire-building, however little they expressed their feelings out loud.

Anti-Semitism at Home by Dr. SeussSeuss appears to have had little patience for isolationists and Fascist sympathizers, particularly for Charles Lindbergh and his America First movement (yes, that Charles Lindbergh, the trans-Atlantic pilot). Seuss’s attitudes about racism and anti-semitism were pretty clear, too; at least at home. When it comes to his portrayal of Japanese figures across the Pacific, he falls back on the same dehumanizing caricatures that appeared in every war poster to feature images of the enemy. Germans and Italians usually came out looking just oafish; but the Japanese appeared inhuman. The UCSD collection can’t be the last word on Seuss’s political cartoons, but still there’s a conspicuous absence of anything addressing the matter of the internment of Japanese-Americans, even while Seuss demonstrates in a number of his cartoons that he’s brave enough to hammer on the War Department for discriminating against African-Americans.

Tojo Caricature by Dr. SeussIt’s hard to see our childhood heroes tethered to the real world in which they lived. But it’s also interesting to get some perspective on the pieces of their lives beyond the edges of the stuff we remember them for best.

Thanks to the folks at Shakesville for bringing this to everyone’s attention.