Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Beating the Damn Yankees in Living Color

Play ball! I’m glad the Washington (D.C) Nationals are in the 2019 World Series, given that they beat my home team, the L.A. Dodgers, to advance into the National League finals. There’s also the fact that this team, which until 2005 was known as the Montreal Expos, had never before won a pennant. It’s a shame, though, that when the Nationals come to bat this evening, their opponents will be the Houston Astros, not the New York Yankees. The Yankees did come close to making it into the World Series, until the Astros defeated them in game six with a walk-on homerun. I have nothing against the Astros, but the Nationals versus the Yankees would certainly have been poetic justice.

You see, once upon a time there was another D.C. baseball team, the Washington Senators. They were American Leaguers, and year after year their success was stymied by the presence in the league of the formidable New York Yankees. That was the era (circa the 1950s) when the Yankees—the best team money could buy—seemed impossible to beat. So Senators fans annually ate their hearts out. Author Douglass Wallopp, born and bred in Washington, D.C., took matters into his own hands in 1954, publishing a little novel called The Year the Yankees Lost the Pennant. The cover image, which showed a pin-striped Yankee player being hoisted on a pitchfork by a demonic-looking creature, hinted at the novel’s imaginative take on this classic baseball rivalry. Borrowing from Faust and the whole “deal with the devil” meme, the novel establishes that a middle-aged diehard Senators fan makes a pact with the mysterious Mr.  Applegate that turns him into a handsome young baseball phenomenon, one capable of singlehandedly winning the pennant for the Senators.

If this novel sounds familiar, it’s because it was quickly turned into a hit 1955 Broadway musical, Damn Yankees. The role of the demonic Mr. Applegate was played by Ray Walston, but what most people remembered was the female lead, a temptress named Lola who shows up to keep the newly-minted Major Leaguer Joe Hardy from straying from his satanic pact. I’ve discovered that the stage role was offered to Hollywood’s Mitzi Gaynor and  to French ballerina Zizi Jeanmaire (whom I remember from the first big movie I ever saw, Hans Christian Andersen with Danny Kaye). But it ended up being played by a redheaded dancer, Gwen Verdon. When she met the show’s choreographer, Bob Fosse, sparks flew, both onstage and off. They married in 1960, and their lives and careers were intertwined from that time forward.

Of course the Broadway hit about baseball quickly became a movie. Most of the stage cast was retained, so that little boys (and big ones too) could watch in astonishment as Verdon strutted her stuff with “Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets.” Ray Walston, who up to that point had been mostly a stage actor, went on to have a long movie and TV career, ending up as “My Favorite Martian” before passing away two years later in 2001. The one big change from the stage company was that the leading-man part went to Hollywood hunk Tab Hunter, who did no harm in his key role. I should also mention that one of the smaller roles, that of an enthusiastic female fan, was played on both stage and screen by Jean Stapleton, the future Edith Bunker.

I know the cinematic Damn Yankees very well indeed. When it first aired regularly on television, my parents had just purchased a color TV set. Wow! Copper-curled Lola and handsome blond Joe made color TV essential.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Rooting Out (and Rooting For) the Parasites

Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite, which picked up the Palme d’Or at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, put me in mind of a trip I made to Seoul, Korea in my long-ago student days. Coming from Tokyo, where families enjoyed a fairly high standard of living, I was mesmerized by the differences I found in Seoul. The city seemed vibrant; its swirl of colors was a welcome change from the much more muted Japanese palette. But amenities that were common in Japan (and basically obligatory in America) in the late 1960s seemed far rarer in Seoul. I spent the night in the home of a schoolgirl my own age, a student at one of Korea’s best universities. Her father was an architect, and I gathered the family was economically comfortable. But the tiny kitchen contained – in place of a refrigerator – a huge jar of kimchee. And there was a fish in the bathtub.

Cut to 2019. Today Seoul (I’m told) is a high-tech wonderland where everybody owns a smart phone, and pizza has apparently replaced kimchee as s mealtime staple. Some Koreans, especially those at the top of tech companies, live very well indeed by anyone’s standards. But there are also plenty of would-be entrepreneurs, far down on the social ladder, who are desperately scrambling to get by. It is in the contrast between Korea’s haves and have-nots that Bong Joon Ho finds his story. Such is the complexity of Parasite that even its title invites conjecture. Who are the true parasites in this film? Are they the members of the Kim family who, having failed at various lowly business ventures, try to rise above their basement existence by dreaming up jobs for themselves in the household of the Parks? Or can the Parks themselves be considered parasites, as they drain the nation dry while pursuing the fabulous lifestyle of the superrich? 

The action cuts between the miserable sub-basement of the Kims, where a heavy rain causes raw sewage to swamp the cramped living quarters, and the  architect-designed concrete and glass cube in which the Parks live a life totally cut off from the grime of the city. Partly Bong’s film seems a timely comment on what we’ve come to call income inequality. But there’s also something almost heroic, and very funny, about the way the Kims manipulate their social betters, inventing creative ways to make themselves seem essential to people who have money to burn. And yet, it would be wrong to romanticize the Kims as “the deserving poor.” They are not above hurting others of their station to get what they want, and the result is an unlikely but poetically justified twist that turns this outrageous comedy into something far different.

There’s so much going on in this thematically rich film, which comments in passing on Korean politics and on the passion felt by high-status Koreans for all things western, whether these be consumer goods or degrees from the University of Illinois. (Even a yen for things Native American finds its way into the story.)  But fundamentally this tale of two households is an arch comment on how money can’t buy familial love. The wealthy Parks, mildly discontented with themselves and with each other, aren’t quite clear on how to raise confident, happy children. The Kims (father, mother, daughter, son) are scoundrels through and through, but their self-confidence rarely falters and their loyalty to one another never flags. If it weren’t for that subterranean secret beneath their employers’ spectacular home, there’s no telling how far they might be able to rise.