February 04, 2014

Running The NORTH DALLAS FORTY With A Crap-Ton Of Chili On Super Bowl Sunday

"I don't want a job.  I want to play football."
My beloved New England Patriots got close to the Super Bowl once again this year, but ultimately came up short.  After a season full of miraculous come-from-behind wins, the other shoe finally dropped in the AFC Championship game when quarterback Tom Brady was stymied by his longtime rival Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos.  That meant that Super Bowl XLVIII* was a game in which I had very little emotional investment, other than my default position of rooting against the Manning family.  Jamie was slightly more torn, wanting to support Seattle coach Pete Carroll, former fearless leader of her USC Trojans, but hesitant as the Seahawks had previously eliminated her New Orleans Saints.  And while she grew up in New Orleans, she was also born in Denver so she decided she'd be rooting for the Broncos that night.  As history shows, she chose poorly.

More importantly, the game was an excuse to have friends over, drink beers and consume an ungodly amount of food.  I help out here and there, but the kitchen is largely Jamie's domain and she loves any excuse to make a series of elaborate and delicious dishes.  Along with a monster pot of chili containing five pounds of ground beef and spicy Italian sausage, there was also buffalo chicken in little pastry cups, honey garlic wings, homemade chips and salsa as well as Bob Armstrong Dip, a local Austin queso with large dollops of guacamole and sour cream on top and a layer of seasoned taco meat underneath.  Yeah.  My wife doesn't fuck around.

Most of the day was dedicated to cleaning up the apartment and food prep (Pro Tip: Start the chili 24 hours in advance because it's always better on the second day) but I also had to squeeze in two movies.  Why two, you ask?  Not only was it Super Bowl Sunday, but it was also Groundhog Day and there's no way I was passing up an excuse to watch one of Bill Murray's greatest films.  Groundhog Day is like Blazing Saddles, so good you almost take it for granted if you go too long without watching it.  Then one day you pop it into your DVD player and suddenly remember, "Oh yeah, this isn't just good, it's brilliant."  How long does Phil Connors actually spend reliving the same snowy day in Punxsutawney?  Estimates range anywhere from eight to ten thousand years, but there's a pretty great detailed breakdown right here.

Halfway through the movie, Jamie brought my attention to her laptop and the news that Philip Seymour Hoffman had died of an apparent drug overdose.  Fuckin'...fuck.  Hoffman was one of my absolute favorites, a guy whose mere presence in a film made it infinitely more substantial and intriguing.  He could elevate a blockbuster like Mission: Impossible III or The Hunger Games: Catching Fire but he also has a slew of personal, low-budget indie films like Owning Mahoney, The Savages or Love, Liza that offer his typical brilliant, often heartbreaking work.  This feels very different from the recent passing of Paul Walker; both deaths came suddenly and without warning, but whereas Walker's was a freak accident with an ironic undertone, Hoffman became one more name on a list of brilliant performers who ultimately lost a battle with addiction and substance abuse.  It somehow feels even sadder because, like any drug overdose, it seems like it should have been preventable with enough help and support.  And then there's the stark differences in their careers and performance styles.  It would be macabre to say one was more "important" than the other, but let's just say that while Walker certainly had plenty of franchise success in his future, the loss of Hoffman feels similar to that of Heath Ledger, a man whose work should have only gotten better with age and who I was looking forward to enjoying for years to come.  I suspect that the full weight of his loss won't sink in for some time - it's the weird quasi-immortality of film.  Hoffman just had the spy film A Most Wanted Man premiere at Sundance and he was already deep into shooting the next two Hunger Games films.  In fact, he only had seven days left of filming Mockingjay: Part II at the time of his passing.  There's no word yet as to how Lionsgate plans to proceed, but I expect he'll still have a strong presence in both movies, although it's weird to think of The Hunger Games as his last on screen role.  It should have been a P.T. Anderson film.

I almost considered watching a Hoffman movie right there, but I figured I'd stick with the football theme of the day and try to fit another Hoffman film in before the month is over.  I've seen a most of the contemporary football films of any quality so I decided to go with something a little older.  I considered stuff like The Longest Yard (the original with Burt Reynolds), Heaven Can Wait or Brian's Song, but I settled on North Dallas Forty instead.  I love young Nick Nolte and I'd always heard good things about this one, a partially fictional story based on the memoir of former Dallas Cowboys player Peter Gent.  It's a fascinating peek behind the curtain of pro football players of a bygone era and Nolte shines as a former starter-turned benchwarmer who's becoming more scar tissue than muscle and id left facing the insecurities of old age and forced retirement.  Today there's a lot of discussion on the physical toll that NFL players undergo over the course of a career, from broken limbs to serious brain damage.  In a world where physical ability reigns supreme, everyone is pushing themselves to perform by any means necessary, and while the film never really dips into steroid territory, there is plenty of focus on players who heavily self-medicate in order to ignore serious injury and keep themselves on the playing field.  It might seem obvious now, when this stuff gets dealt with in a James Van Der Beek movie, but I suspect that North Dallas Forty was a pretty surprising wake up call to a lot of audiences in 1979.

There's also a real old school sensibility at work here, at times equally refreshing and horrifying. The players frequently exhibit morally reprehensible behavior, particularly in their dealings with women who they treat as trophies to be passed from player to player.  Most of these guys are mindless brutes on top of being vaguely racist, hardly surprising for Texas in the late seventies (or, you know, today).  And while I'd hardly consider any of these guys to be role models, they are products of a simpler time in the game of football.  The coach is starting to use computer modeling to track player performance and it's clear that none of the players trust that infernal machine.  The management is aware of just how much money is at stake and they're starting to treat the team as a business, a corporation that has to win championships not for athletic glory, but in order to remain profitable.  It's a philosophy that does not sit well with the players, who in all likelihood are not exactly seeing the lion's share of those profits.  These guys are not millionaires adorned with gaudy bling and driving luxury cars.  There's no talk of endorsement deals or personal branding, and when a linebacker talks about opening a restaurant ("Jo Bob's Fine Foods - Eat Here Or I'll Kill Ya!") you never for one second take him seriously.  These guys care about one thing and one thing only: playing the game of football.  That's kind of awesome.  With that in mind, I would have liked to see a little more actual gameplay; most of the action takes place over the course of one week between games, so we get a few flashbacks to the previous game against Seattle and then once the big match up against Chicago starts, the movie jumps from the pre-game locker room right to the final two minutes of the game.  Instead of on-field heroics we get a lot of team workouts and scrimmages, made endlessly more entertaining by the fact that Nolte is usually wearing a sort of motorcycle cap and smoking a cigarette.

Super Bowl XLVIII didn't offer up much excitement other than the sheer joy of watching Peyton Manning completely and utterly choke while little brother Eli sat pouting in his luxury box.

But as is often the case, we at least found some entertainment value in the commercials.  I particularly enjoyed Stephen Colbert's pistachio ad, Radioshack's commercial full of 80's celebrities, and Coke's America The Beautiful spot which angered the intellectually stunted and, if Twitter is any evidence, the grammatically challenged all across the country.  Let it serve as a litmus test for weeding out your particular social circles.  Most importantly, Sunday night was spent with good friends, cold beers and delicious food.

Only 11 more days till pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training.

*What are the odds that in two years they move away from Roman numerals and end up calling it Super Bowl 50 instead of Super Bowl L?

Title: North Dallas Forty
Director: Ted Kotcheff
Starring: Nick Nolte, Mac Davis, Charles Durning, Dayle Haddon, Bo Svenson, John Matuszak, Steve Forrest, G.D. Spradlin, Dabney Coleman
Year Of Release: 1979
Viewing Method: Netflix Instant - TV

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