Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Interview with Gustavo Arellano on KPFK today @ 4:00pm

Listen to KPFK 90.7 today @4:00pm for my interview with Gustavo Arellano. Arellano is the brilliant mind behind "Ask A Mexican" and host of Four O'Clock Tuesdays at KPFK.

[The interview is archived here & here - It was a lot of fun: I am a big fan of Arellano's writing, so was thrilled & honored to learn he's reading this blog. One correction: I named AEG as a sponsor for Man U, I of course meant AIG, the troubled insurance giant. In this interview, I also talk about MacArthur park - just to be clear: I do not know for sure exactly what will happen with the field. The contractor & the engineering office at Parks & Rec both confirmed that the turf would not be marked - read my previous blog entry for the nuances. Early blog articles that address issues raised in our conversation: Red Card/Man U, FA Apologizes for Ban, Really? - see this month's articles for discussion of park politics. Thank you Gustavo for reading From A Left Wing, and whenever you want a conversation partner to process fútbol craziness, I'm yours!]

Friday, May 22, 2009

What's going on with MacArthur Park?: from la cancha to "synthetic meadow"

In fall 2008, the city broke ground on the "MacArthur Park Improvement Project." More specifically, the city fenced off and dug into the dry ground pictured here - the two fields marked out on the packed dirt served a range of leagues, including a large children's league and a women's league that was the subject of a June 2008 Los Angeles Times story (Guatemalan Women Kick Aside Constraints in the U.S.). Thousands of people have been kicking up dirt in this spot over the years.

As the improvement project takes shape, people in the neighborhood have started wondering what happened the long-promised soccer field. The story had been that the city was replacing the dirt with an artificial turf field. From a November 2008 LA Parks press release:
A 37,000 square-foot synthetic field will replace the existing dirt field. When completed the new field will be added to the half dozen synthetic turf playing fields managed by the Department.
An October 2008 Los Angeles Times story on the temporary displacement of the leagues using the dirt field reports that
The new synthetic field promises to be a hit when it reopens next summer. But for now, the upheaval and lack of field space elsewhere has alarmed players and upset team rosters.
Well, folks have become more alarmed as this huge field has taken shape: a gently sloped, bean shaped expanse of green has replaced the dirt field. There are no lines on it. It is big - big enough to house a field, certainly, but with no markings league play is impossible - in fact, it is hard to call it a "soccer field" - if by that one means a field on which refereed league matches are played. [Actually, since posting this I've had a closer look - it is not big enough to play 11 aside.] That LA Times story and much of the press surrounding this redesign promise a return of league matches, but this seems not to be the case at all.

When I phoned the engineering department for Parks & Rec, I was told there was no plan to put lines on the field, and that it wasn't in fact being called a soccer field, but a "synthetic meadow." A spokesperson from contractor Parkwest Landscape, Inc said that while the turf is "top of the line" (featuring heat-resistant flexsand), the field is unlined and has gentle slopes (I can't see this slope, however, from the above photograph, culled from A View from A Loft.)

A 2007 Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks memo describes the MacArthur Park Improvement Project's plans for the fields in the following terms:
Expected improvements include reconstruction of an existing dirt soccer field with artificial turf, installation of...light poles approximately 50 feet in height around the soccer field....(Dec 26, 2007/p. 9)
But an October NBC news report identifies the space as "MacArthur Park Synthetic Field and Meadow," and this same space is described on Ed Reyes's own blog as "a synthetic children's meadow."

In the incoherence of public discourse on this space, we see something of the deeply conflicted place of fútbol in Los Angeles. The presence of the turf says one thing (fútbol will be played here), the absence of lines another (fútbol can be played here, but not in any organized way - those who want to watch full field games will have to go elsewhere).

In an excellent article for Progressive Planning ("Playing Out Democracy in MacArthur park," Summer 2008) Kelly Main gives an overview of the major role played by soccer in MacArthur Park, and also of the dumbfounding resistance fútbol communities face from a range of quarters like gentrifying residents and park and city officials invested in pastoral fantasies of green "passive use" parks - which are in fact more conducive to crime than active use parks which host the beautiful game. For many, park improvement means green grass and pretty pictures. Their fantasies about such public spaces are skewed - where we see community, they see crowds. Where we see pleasure, they see chaos. Where we see game, they see dirt.

Of the recent and significant drop in park crime Main writes: "despite claims that police surveillance has 'cleaned up the park,' many park goers assert that the soccer league and the people it brings to the park are primarily responsible for the safer conditions." The more people use the park every day (returning frequently, making themselves known, getting to know others in the park), the safer it becomes. It's been the games that have brought people into the park in this way - recent arrivals to the country find their way to MacArthur Park on the weekend, where they'd return again and again to watch league matches, route for their favorite teams, and eventually feel at home.

Will a "children's meadow" serve that function? I guess we'll have to wait and see.

In the meanwhile, I find myself turning to Donna Summer's disco anthem, and for the first time I am able to make sense of its infamously mysterious lines. It's about losing your turf.

Spring was never waiting for us dear
it ran one step ahead
as we followed in the dance
MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left my cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'cause it took so long to bake it
I'll never have that recipe again
Oh No...
I recall that yellow cotton dress
Foaming like a wave on the ground beneath your knees
Birds like tender babies in your hand
And the old men playing Chinese checkers by the trees

MacArthur Park is melting in the dark
All the sweet green icing flowing down
Someone left my cake out in the rain
I don't think that I can take it
'Cause it took so long to bake it
I'll never have that recipe again.
Oh No.

Queer Sport Spectacle: Article in X-TRA

The new issue of X-TRA: Contemporary Art Quarterly features an article by yours truly. The article includes discussion of work by my favorite fútbol artist Yrsa Roca Fannberg, the collaborative couple "Marriage," Adrià Julià, and Moira Lovell. X-TRA is plotting a launch party on June 9 in LA, details to follow.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Rudo y Cursi: Homosocial/Homoerotics of a Buddy Movie

Rudy y Cursi is a satire of the buddy film. The brothers love each other. They hate each other. They can't live with each other, and they can't live without each other. Cuarón's film parodies the clichés that define the cinematic adventures of rivalrous "odd couples" - think Lethal Weapon, or, more recently, Harold and Kumar. The buddy movie is possibly the most anxious of Hollywood genres as these stories of male bonding and intimacy often have to go a great distance to generate heterosexual alibis to reassure audience members that the love these men feel for each other is, uhm, not gay. (Thus the presence of otherwise completely forgettable female characters - cardboard cut-outs usually played by actresses with minimal celebrity so as not to distract from the actual characters in the films - Rene Russo breaking the mold with her star turns in LW 3 & 4. See "Male homosociality and the buddy movie" for a more scholarly take than I offer here and see "Isn't It Bromantic" for David Fear's great comment on the topic.)

Rudo y Cursi continues the line of thought initiated by Y tu mamá también. Carlos Cuarón wrote the script for Y tu mamá también with that film's director, his brother Alfonso. The earlier film explores the blurry lines of intimacy and desire that define the friendship between its central characters Julio (García Bernal) and Tenoch (Luna). They share girlfriends, they get off together in dreamy afternoon masturbation sessions, and it all changes when they go on a road trip with an older woman who is absorbing the news of her cancer diagnosis and leaving her philandering husband. She seduces one, then has sex with the other. (If their inexperience with women wasn't clear to the audience at the film's outset, it is painfully obvious in these scenes.) The two friends argue with each other, and she puts an end to their bickering by seducing them both at once. The suggestion is that this is what they've wanted all along, but they needed the road trip and the magical presence of a dying older woman in order to make it happen.

There's this incredible moment when she dips down below the frame of the camera, and the two embrace in a passionate, sensual kiss (I can't remember if we see them make out, or the the film cuts away just before contact). They wake up together, and things are weird. They go home, their friendship falls apart as do their relationships with their girlfriends. The woman who surfaced their desire for each other dies - her death is not shown, but told to us in a coffeeshop conversation between the now former friends. (Hammering home the fact that she was always, in essence, a plot device.)

Rudo y Cursi feels very much like a comedic followup to that film.

What makes it a satire of a buddy movie (rather than just a buddy movie) is its sustained parody of the homoerotics which animate the genre & its macho sentimentality. Rudo y Cursi is unusually self-aware in its send-up of homosociality - of spaces like the soccer team's locker room, which is, in this film, barely a half a step away from being a gay porn set. The coach for one team is a closet queen. The brothers are full of feeling, clearly in "love" with each other (a love made safe by the story which sets them off as brothers), and totally incapable of functioning without each other. The women around them are props - they are far too wrapped up in each other to really notice what the women in their lives want or need (an ignorance that Beto/Cursi's girlfriend exploits ruthlessly). All the male athletes in the film constantly grab their crotches - in part because the brothers are hazed by teammates who gang up on them in the shower and shave their balls. These scenes in and of themselves don't make for a parody - buddy films are rife with testicular jokes and locker room humor. It's the tone, the weird and soap opera sweetness of it all that makes these scenes feel more interesting than phobic - as if the film goes just a little bit farther than is usual - perhaps because it is a lot less anxious than we are used to.

At the end of their misadventures, the two brothers are together - more or less back where they started, as the film's odd couple.

The term "homosocial" describes social relationships between people of the same sex - relationships that are usually defined against the sexual/romantic. But as scholars in gender studies have pointed out (most famously, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick), male homosocial relationships are shot through with anxiety about homosexuality, and so expressions of romantic desire, tenderness, and affection between men are policed with a particular force, and women are drafted into the story to, uhm, keep things from, well, being gay. Thus the bizarre way "women" are integrated into men's soccer - see the Chivas Girls and this bizarre footage of the LA Galaxy's fan section waving blow-up dolls dressed like them. The awkward integration of sexualized images of women into these scenes serves one purpose, and one purpose only: to make these guys, who spend a good portion their lives worshiping men as fans, hanging out with men talking about and looking at men, feel straight.

Both Y tu mamá también and Rudo y Cursi explore how male friendships traverse the line between the homosocial and the homoerotic - or, perhaps more accurately, the films experiment with how far you can go in eroticizing homosocial relationships before all parties panic.

As evidenced by this interview (see clip below), Diego Luna (fresh off his turn in Milk) and Gael García Bernal (who was outstanding in Almadóvar's La mala educación) seem to enjoy the beautiful game of keeping these things in play (as host and audience laugh awkwardly).

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Rudo y Cursi: From A Left Wing Goes to the Movies

Rudo y Cursi, Carlos Cuarón's comedy starring Gael Garcia Bernal & Diego Luna is as much about soccer as Footballer's Wives. It is less a sports film than a parody of fútbol culture - of everything that the game produces around itself. But where the British television series marries the drama of the spoiled and fabulously rich characters who grab headlines across the world to the cheesy glamor of a nightime soap like Dallas, the film by the writer of Y tu mamá también marries the texture of ordinary fútbol culture (the weekend warriors, the alternately bored and enthralled cantina audience, the throbbing stands, the pipe dreams of day laborers) to the low-tech histrionics of a telenovela like María la del Barrio.

To everyone's credit, neither Luna nor Garcia Bernal try to pass themselves off as "real" footballers. The film opens with Tato "Cursi" (Garcia Bernal) taking a penalty against his brother, keeper Beto "Rudo" (Luna). There is no attempt to make this confrontation look like a face off between athletic giants.

The only time we see them acting like wizards on the ball is in obviously manipulated video footage which appears on screen when a character watches them on television. I swear one clip of Cursi dribbling past a tight cluster of defenders looks like a well worn bit from a Maradona highlight reel, and Rudo is shown playing with the sure hands of Petr Cech.

Throughout the film, the game is studiously kept off-camera - often with great comic effect. When Cursi takes the field for his try-out with a pro team the camera stays on the scout and the coach, who negotiate the coach's cut from the touchline. The back end of the goal's net can be seen on the margins of the screen, bulging again and again with the ball as Cursi, completely off-screen, scores at will. When we do glimpse Luna and Bernal playing on television, it's so obviously fake that it's hilarious. Cuarón's handling of the sport spectacle points to our readiness to believe that this aging wannabe pop star and his brother, raised on and harvested from a banana plantation, can play for a professional team.

Although some viewers might be annoyed by film's refusal to pretend that Luna or Bernal can actually play like professionals, this very thing - the amateurishness, the ordinariness of the football playing we do see - is what actually made the film more than a simple comedy.

It is no accident that the film ends with the scout (who narrates it) returning to the dusty fields of no-place, where beat-up amateurs are playing. This - the scrappy patch of dirt on which people play after working themselves to the bone - is really where the film's heart is located. This space of free play is exactly what everyone is really after, in one sense of another.

After the screening, I asked Cuarón to speak a little about the games he plays with Luna & Bernal and what positons they play - I read somewhere that they've had a long standing friendly kickabout. He claimed that they all seem to have pretenses to being strikers. Cuarón asserted he was the only one of the three to have any such talent.

I wanted to ask a more serious question, but a promotional screening hardly seemed the right place to explore the following: One of the film's subplots has Rudo's wife working as a distributor for Wonderlife (an Herbalife-like company). This is obviously a dig at Jorge Vergara, the owner of Chivas and president of Omnilife, the Mexican Herbalife. (Vergara, it should be said, was one of the producers of Y tu mamá tabién.) This plotline is plainly intended to comment on this kind of exploitation of the desires of the working poor for economic independence. (This site - in Spanish - surveys those moments in the film which take on the 'multinivel' scheme.) At the screening in Los Angeles, I wondered if Cuarón was at all aware of the presence of these multi-level marketing companies in professional soccer in the US, and Herbalife's involvement with AYSO (see my April 30th post on Amway's sponsorship of the LA Sol). In those pacts made between the companies that own US soccer and their most visible sponsors in this region, we see a cynical avowal of the kind of money to be made off of the soccer fans persistently ignored by mainstream media.

As funny as Rudo y Cursi is, it cuts awfully close to the bone in its parody of the pipe dreams of the disempowered. (Oh, the strained laughter in the Los Angeles audience at Cursi's first articulation of his desire to go to Texas - where he knows a guy working at a radio station - so he can be a pop star. It's hard to pretend sophistication in relation to such dreams when you are literally two blocks from the Capitol Records building. And just down the street from Scientology's sprawling campus.)

Rudo y Cursi (which translates roughly as "tough and corny") doesn't pretend that the brothers' fantasies of easy money are anything but avenues of exploitation. These dreams allow them to be hooked into the schemes of people just slightly higher up on the foodchain, like the "scout" who brings the brothers to Mexico City and plugs them into professional teams where more people can take a cut of their pay. (The film implicitly draws a parallel between this kind of corruption in soccer business and the multinivel Wonderlife.)

Characters dream of making millions playing soccer, of becoming pop stars, or, more modestly, of "owning your own business" (the dream of Rudo's wife when she signs on as a Wonderlife rep). Nibbling at the edges of the comedy of Rudo y Cursi is the grim reality of precarious living, from which these day dreams provide at least an illusory scrap of relief. On this point Rudo y Cursi approaches satire - no one gets off easy in this story except for the Narco criminal, who swoops in to save the day by marrying Rudo y Cursi's sister, and providing their mother with the beachfront mansion her feckless sons could never manage to build for her.

Stay tuned for post number two on this film - in which I tackle the film's homosocial/homoerotics.
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