Friday, December 19, 2014

#782. Farewell to Craig and Geoff

Tonight marks the final episode of The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, and I for one am pretty sad about that.

I mean, who else in the history of late night television ever had a robot for a co-star?  Good ol' mohawked Geoff, I think I'll miss you most of all.

But seriously, Ferguson always looked like he was having a blast, and his enthusiasm was contagious.  Jimmy Fallon knows how to have a good time, and Conan O'Brien is a master of the absurd, but the rowdy Scot who once penned a memoir entitled American on Purpose, was perennially unheralded but always great, in an era of hosts clearly aware of tradition and usually overly constrained by it.  Ferguson always played fast and loose.


Sunday, December 14, 2014

#781. 2014 in Parentheses

This is a story that does not yet have an ending.

A little over a year ago, I moved back home.  Yeah, I was part of the financial crush that hurt a lot of people, but the reason I was needed was much more simple than that: my mother was dying.  She was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer in the fall of 2010, and it spread throughout the rest of her body in due order.  When I arrived last fall, she was still ambulatory, but that was a story that has since concluded.

She has deteriorated in regular intervals this year.  To say it has had a profound effect on me would be an understatement.  Everything that I have done over the past twelve months has been affected by her developing condition.

The first order of business, as I reported in my commentary a year ago, was to move my parents out of the house our family had lived in for thirty years.  The specter of her decreased mobility was present even then.  She couldn't walk up the stairs without terrifying those who witnessed her, and as such was the motivating factor for the move.  Falls seemed imminent each time.  At that point, they had not become a regular feature of her life.  This would change early in 2014.

When they began, they almost seemed harmless.  She was never seriously injured in any of them, unless you count the number of times her head struck the floor.  The day we had to have emergency services help us get her back up, we couldn't imagine, my father and I, that our evening would only grow worse when we got back home, after she was reoriented and evaluated at the hospital.  She couldn't climb the stairs to the house.  She had no power in her legs.  We struggled to help her.  I won't go into further details, but suffice to say at one point she became dead weight and lost all cognizance.  In some ways this was a mercy.  I looked into her face and saw someone I didn't recognize.

Last year I said I'd already experienced the worst moment of this whole ordeal, and I still stand by that statement, but it seems more hollow from this vantage point.  My sister's father-in-law helped us install a ramp.  She went from using a cane to a walker to what's called a transfer seat but by all appearances is basically a wheelchair, in rapid succession.  We started receiving assistance in the home.  It was only a matter of time before we could no longer adequately care for her in this manner.  A few weeks back she was moved into a nursing facility.

I have no idea how or when the story ends.  We visit twice a day, and she has good days and bad days.  Our victories are counted in what she has managed to eat.  She is barely communicative at this point.  There are flashes of the person we knew, and then there are times when all she can say is a series of numbers, and then when all she can do is open her eyes long enough to acknowledge us.  Sometimes her voice is only a whisper.

Thanksgiving was spent with her.  We ate with her, and other residents, in the dining room.  Christmas, hopefully, will be better.  She says the only gift she wants is coffee.  Actually, that has been the most pleasant thing to come from the past year, discovering how such a simple thing can so reliably give her at least one happy thought.

I hope you understand if I don't tell you the ending.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

#780. Fifty-One Years, Twenty-Two Days...

Last month held the dubious distinction of being yet another anniversary in the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which has now crossed the half-century mark.  Someone at work turned up a copy of that year's Time magazine, dated November 25, 2013.  The issue carries two articles on this singular note in American history, David Von Drehle's "Broken Trust" and Jack Dickey's "Debunker Among the Buffs."

You may remember that I've written about the assassination here in the past, including on the fiftieth anniversary itself and in relation to Stephan King's novel 11/22/63.  To say the event fascinates me is about as good a way to put it as I can find.  I'm not exactly a conspiracy theorist.  For one, I'm probably half the age most of them tend to be, because those with the most vested interest were alive when it happened.

Time's coverage concerns the conspiracies.  Why is it, the magazine asks, we can't move past this, accept that what appears to have been the case was the case, that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, fatally shooting Kennedy from a perch in the Texas School Book Depository overlooking Dealey Plaza?

I'm not going to do an in-depth discussion here.  The whole reason I'm writing about it today at all is because of Time's articles.  Time is one of the most-respected names in print journalism, an institution that seeks to maintain the integrity and dignity of a medium that has been declared a dinosaur waiting for extinction.  I myself have read it casually for years and have generally respected its contents.  When I saw this copy in the break room, I was excited to have stumbled into the opportunity to read its perspective on the anniversary.

I wonder now if this were one of those instances where fate plays cruel tricks on us.

Neither article is well-reasoned, actually.  They are blatantly written from a skeptic's eye, outright dismissive of the idea they seek to explore.  I'm not indicting the whole magazine, but it's certainly sad to see such an important moment covered so cavalierly by a major media outlet of any form.

For one reason or another, the assassination became a touchstone; arguably it was more important to Kennedy's legacy than his thousand days in office or the handful of crises he handled or even the ambitious projects his successors helped see to fulfillment (given how monumental they were, the moon landing and civil rights, that's certainly saying something).  Historians debate how significant the man was, but there's no denying the significance of his death.  That much Time properly acknowledges.

Von Drehle purports to examine the various conspiracies that have been propounded over the years, but right away, he turns it into a sensation piece, describing the assassination itself as so shocking it can't be explained in words even today without causing trauma to his readers.  "I recently waded into the thicket of theories," he continues, "trying to understand the roots and fruits of this vast enterprise, which is part scholarship, part fever dream.  I got just far enough to see how quickly the forest can swallow a person up."

In other words, he admits that the task he set out to accomplish immediately overwhelmed him.  Time might have done everyone the service of assigning this piece to someone else.

The thing everyone knew about Kennedy while he was alive was the image of Camelot, the romantic ideal he embodied as a young President who by his very presence promised something new, an occupant of the White House fit for the emerging age of the media.  While his policies split the country down the middle, Kennedy himself and his wife Jackie seemed to have stepped out of a fairy tale, one that ended like one of the Brothers Grimm stories indeed.

The day he died, it became impossible to reconcile the way it happened with the outsize role he filled in the public imagination, and so, as Von Drehle argues, the public responded by creating a reality where the facts fit the fantasy.  Or in other words, the conspiracy theories began.

This is not the same as saying it's impossible to believe that anything but what the Warren Commission concluded could be true.  Unfortunately, that's exactly what Von Drehle says, without once more than flippantly dismissing and hardly addressing any other possibility.  This isn't responsible journalism, and not the way to mark what the magazine has already determined to be an enduring moment.  Dickey's follow-up is a shorter, and correspondingly condensed, version of Von Drehle's lead.  He talks about how he eagerly debates theorists, but not how and without admitting that he could ever be wrong.  There's another word for that, and it's not argument.

Even from reading a work of fiction like King's 11/22/63, a strong case can emerge that supports plenty of justification to believe the portrait of Kennedy's assassination is murkier than history seems determined to make it, even as King himself vehemently concludes in the orthodox view.  It doesn't take a conspiracy for an assassin to act.  Every other President murdered in American history was a fairly open-and-shut case.  What makes Kennedy different?  A journalist would have explored that.  Even if Oswald did act alone, that's what a journalist's article in Time should have done.

This is not the time to brush the whole affair under the carpet.  Those who were alive on that day still say, like my father, "We'll never know the truth in our lifetime."  That's how deep this goes.  It's not even about specific theories, but the belief that there is, bottom-line, a wider portrait to be had than the one we've been given.

It's not so crazy to think that way, no matter what Time apparently feels justified in implying.

Friday, December 12, 2014

#779. Mock Squid Soup: Pulp Fiction

via Wallpaper Vortex
The merry meeting of the Mock Squid Soup society has nothing to do with Marvel Comics and less to do with counterfeit cephalopods (what a horrible thought!), but does involve a dude named Mock and another dude named Squid and movies that they've selected and sometimes watched together, because they don't just know each other on the Internet but somehow still communicate here and not through social media invented this millennium (I kid because of the soup!).

This month they selected Pulp Fiction, which was released twenty years ago but only five and a half films ago from director Quentin Tarantino, who lately has built his career out of helping Christoph Waltz win Best Supporting Actor honors from the Oscars.

It's a great selection, one of the defining pieces of modern cinema, and I don't just say that because there have seemingly been whole careers for critics built out of trying to identify which filmmakers were inspired by it.  Personally, I'd recommend you watch The Usual Suspects, Smokin' Aces, In Bruges, London Boulevard, Seven Psychopaths (incredibly those last three movies star Colin Farrell, but no one has ever identified him as prime Tarantino material), but start at the beginning with On the Waterfront and maybe Casablanca.

Tarantino has been called the child of pop culture, but that's not really true.  He's a veteran of the video store era, back when people watched movies as a hobby, and there was no bigger aficionado than Tarantino.  Except maybe this was a kid who grew up in the '70s and spent the '80s dreaming of a way to pay his respects, because that's what his budding career looks like, the best way to summarize Pulp Fiction.

Everyone remembers John Travolta, Uma Thurman, and especially Samuel L. Jackson, but perhaps the most telling elements of the movie revolve around Bruce Willis.  And mind you, Pulp Fiction is basically a Western, born from the aftermath of Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name emerging and John Wayne dying and then later Eastwood's modern cowboy Dirty Harry, but with all the good guy glamour finally drained.  Pulp Fiction is a world of bad guys.  It's also a world without a defining war for the first time in the 20th Century, when such things came around every twenty years.  You can't be an American and not have thought about that.  But Bruce Willis is part of a new generation.  His character's great-grandfather fought in WWI, his grandfather in WWII, and his father, as memorably explained by Christopher Walken, in Vietnam.  Willis is a boxer, smack dab in the era when boxing began to become culturally irrelevant, Mike Tyson's career crumbling and nobody emerging to replace him.  This is also around the time when football began to take over with two Super Bowls dominated by, you guessed it, the Cowboys.

How any of that makes sense: actually, pretty much the same way as the pretzel logic of Pulp Fiction, in which Willis shoots Travolta dead in the middle, apparently, of Travolta's adventures.  I can't possibly argue that Americans liked the idea of war.  By Vietnam we positively revolted it, and that's shaped our culture ever since.  We'd once again be stupid enough to let Hitler run rampage through Europe.  It's the idea of individuals running around doing exactly how they please.  Not exactly lawless, but the law of the land is chaos.  The boxer is free to go unscrutinized.  Tyson bites someone's ear off, everyone screams bloody murder, then forget that boxing is already a pretty brutal past time and then decide, hey! MMA looks like an acceptable alternative!  So then we embrace football, where chaos is definitely the law of the land, and by the time another war or two rolls around, everyone decides that we should end them as soon as possible regardless of whether or not our objectives are clearly identified let alone met, and yeah, so ISIS.

And crazy people running around with guns executing people.  I'm not calling Tarantino a visionary, but his hand was definitely on the pulse.  In his later movies, he worries less about tricks than he does explaining himself so that he can't be misunderstood with all that showmanship he's so good at, everything people expect from him.  And somehow, his message keeps getting lost.  I think Tarantino gets away with breaking rules because people ultimately decide, it's Quentin being Quentin, but like the old rock critics, they also proclaim that he's not as good as he used to be and they'll never make another like him.

Whatever that means.

All his good guys are bad guys, and there are huge pieces of his stories that are never told.  Ving Rhames already has a band-aid on the back of his head when we first meet him, chronologically and story-wise.  It's not quite as extreme as Brad Pitt with the giant scar on his neck throughout the whole of Inglorious Basterds, but it's also the visual equivalent of the story Travolta and Jackson share about the last time someone had the task of babysitting Thurman, the story Travolta has in the back of his mind through most of the movie, and by turns, the idea of the watch Willis inherited from three previous generations, and even the mystery of what's inside Rhames' briefcase that Jackson carries around throughout, what he refuses to give Tim Roth, because it belongs to someone else.

Because it belongs to someone else.  That's it, really, isn't it?  It's the idea of greed, and what some people are willing to do and what some aren't.  Twenty years and counting without a war at that point.  Everyone was waiting for the next shoe to drop.  And it seemed like it never would.  What does that say about us?  It's a heck of a responsibility.  Everyone talks about peace, but even Jackson wants to retire but to "adventures," which is to say no peace at all.  The idea of "pulp fiction" harks back to a time when we glorified the bad guys (who else do you think Jesse James and Billy the Kid were, guys who helped inspire this subject matter?).  Pointedly, until Willis kills his opponent in the ring, without even realizing it, without giving it a second thought because he desperately needed to save his own hide knowing that he's made a deal with Rhames to lose the fight, he's never killed anyone.  He kills several people after it.  He kills one person with a samurai sword (the whole idea of Kill Bill percolates throughout Pulp Fiction).  It becomes a farce.  Okay, the whole thing's a farce.

It's a movie with multiple narratives, like the later Traffic, Crash, and Babel, but strangely I don't know that Pulp Fiction is thought of in that way.  Like I said, usually as a Tarantino film, a Travolta film, a Jackson film (arguably, somehow, still the only movie to have truly appreciated having him in it), but not a Willis film.  But it is a Willis film.  Watch the later 16 Block.  You wouldn't have 16 Blocks without Pulp Fiction.  But it's all of these things, and it doesn't even start with Travolta or Jackson or Thurman or Rhames or Willis, but with Roth, who has the least to do with anyone else.  By the time he interacts with Jackson, at the end of the movie, Roth's presence has completely vanished.  He's the least important element, but he's also a crucial element.  What is it that belongs to somebody else but has crucial value to yourself?  It's the movie's unspoken riddle, the answer you don't even realize you were looking for.  Maybe this is a movie about life in general.  It's a topical movie, eternally so, without even looking like it's trying to be.  That's film-making.

Of course it changed everything.  It's not an easy movie to figure out, and so you have all these people trying, and failing miserably, to do so, and identifying all the wrong elements about what Tarantino's contemporaries did after its release.  You might as well say it's exactly the same movie as Forrest Gump or The Shawshank Redemption, which by the way it basically is.  It's just, Pulp Fiction has flare.

Just as Willis is routinely overlooked, there's also Rhames.  Do you even know Ving Rhames offhand?  You probably should, but the fact that you might not speaks about all the injustices Tarantino is really talking about, the little crimes we perpetrate against each other (a foot message, say) while focusing on all the bad guys shooting their guns all over the place.  That's why Jackson and Travolta seem to talk in trivialities, because Tarantino realized that suddenly it's no longer the big events happening, at that time, but all the mundane little moments that get to us.  We try and focus on everything else, but really, who are we kidding?  That's what Jackson is thinking at the end of the movie.  Harvey Keitel shows up and he's the only guy who can calmly talk people through a crisis, until Jackson, the only one who learns anything, replicates the fete.  Love and war.  It's the idea of breaking eggs to make an omelette.

Rhames, by the way, has appeared in all of the Mission: Impossible movies, and starred in the excellent Rosewood, another unusual Western.  He's still routinely overlooked.  I think Thurman as a brunette in Pulp Fiction causes a lot of people to forget she was in that, too, why it took Tarantino to collaborate with her again in Kill Bill for people to remark that she was still making movies and very much capable of turning heads (you know, or decapitating them), but somehow still like Pam Grier and Robert Forster in Jackie Brown, a couple of born stars who outside of Tarantino can't catch a break.

And you know who I realized seems to have adopted a lot of her persona from Thurman in Pulp Fiction?  Zooey Deschanel.  Obviously there are differences, but not as many as you'd think.  People tend to overlook her, too.  And she's as least as lethal a catch in (500) Days of Summer as Thurman in Pulp Fiction.

This is not my favorite Tarantino film.  Lately it's been whatever the newest one was, and that started with Kill Bill Vol. 2 and continued with Inglourious Basterds and currently rests with Django Unchained.  Because Quentin Tarantino is, ultimately, restless.  He's never happy unless he's challenged himself.  He's said that he's looking to retirement relatively soon.  He got angry after his script for The Hateful Eight was leaked, vowed he wouldn't make it as a result, but of course he will.  This is a guy who has probably spent his whole life telling himself stories.  You can see that in Reservoir Dogs, and even Death Proof.  That's why he's such a vital storyteller, because he believes in stories, the stories other people have told, and the ones he wants to tell as a result.  Some claim that he's nothing but a glorified rip-off artist.  I call him aware.  More and more, he's trying to make his viewers aware, too, cut through all the nonsense we like to tell ourselves (the telling scene in Django Unchained as Leonardo DiCaprio explains his version of why the black man is inferior, and the irony of Waltz explaining to him later that his idol, Alexander Dumas, was black).

Anytime you compare someone to Shakespeare, you have to have a really good argument, but you also have to remember, if it hadn't been for the folio of his works, Shakespeare likely would have been forgotten, and we wouldn't be sitting here explaining the eternal brilliance of him, either.  Tarantino, I'm convinced, is in Shakespeare's league. Pulp Fiction might be considered, above all else, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

And yeah, it's still cool, after twenty years.

Monday, November 24, 2014

#778. How is there a better film this year than Interstellar?

Interstellar is the best movie of the year.

There's no way there can be serious competition.  This is a filmmaker at the height of his powers, the culmination of everything Christopher Nolan has done so far in his career.  How does he top it?  That's the only question here.

Interstellar is Nolan challenging an entire generation, asking all the biggest questions mankind has ever had, and coming up with conclusions.  Time and time again, he's challenged audiences and then left them to come to their own conclusions.  Interstellar is different because this time, he presents his.  He wants to know whatever happened to the idea of human ingenuity, human ambition.  In some ways, only Darren Aronosky's The Fountain, a film that didn't offer answers, has ever even approached the scope of Nolan's achievement.  You've no doubt heard a parade of critics present 2001: A Space Odyssey as Interstellar's natural predecessor and obvious better, but that's exactly the idea Nolan is completely rebuffing in his film.

2001 came at the height of the era Nolan is addressing in the movie.  It was originally released in 1968, a year before the moon landing (a crucial plot point in Nolan's vision), and represented not only the high point in writer Arthur C. Clarke's career, but also, arguably, director Stanley Kubrick's, an experience that completely redefined "scope" in storytelling in any medium.  Its conclusions, though, were muddled, "cosmic" if you want to be generous.  Interstellar is littered with echoes, and so that certainly made the job of those critics easier, and their conclusions were easiest of all: critics always prove conservative.  They went with the older model.  They're exactly who Nolan is looking to refute.  In 2001 a mysterious monolith appears and leads to a journey into the unknown, and the unknown remains the unknown, which is certainly a message in itself, but has no real scientific impetus behind it.  It is instead a symbol of all the hope of its era, when everything seemed possible.

We know, however, that all that hope led only to one disaster after another.  The Cold war continued.  The Vietnam War continued.  Nixon resigned the presidency.  Race relations remained unresolved.  Politics only became messier.  The Middle East exploded.  You name it.  And science has been reduced to the toys you play with instead of interacting with other people.  We've become increasingly self-centered.  And we have no ambition.

The next time films had an epic vision, it was Close Encounters of the Third Kind, another film that left the ending somewhere in the viewer's imagination.  Which is fine.  Spielberg returned to aliens with E.T., and then his grandest ambitions in A.I., a movie that was dismissed as his poor imitation of Kubrick, who'd initially conceived the project.  I never agreed with that assessment, but it does acknowledge how Spielberg failed to nail his ending.

Terrence Malick, in The Tree of Life, and Duncan Jones, with Source Code, delivered a pair of game-changers, mind-widening wonders that were generally overlooked.  J.J. Abrams is the next filmmaker ready to take a crack, but so far his greatest projects have been on television, Lost and Fringe, the latter of which was something like an answer to its predecessor, the one disgruntled fans were looking for but failed to follow.  Super 8 was called a Spielberg film.  After Star Wars, what else can Abrams do?

Nolan, meanwhile, has been tackling one epic vision after another, starting small and always branching outward.  From Memento to The Prestige to Inception, and his deepening of superheroes in the Dark Knight trilogy, he sought to challenge himself and his audiences, help each other grow.  With Interstellar he's finally delivered his thesis.

Interstellar is about ambition and love, about science and about progress, about the past and the future, and certainly the present.  It's a human adventure most of all.  He wants to know why we stopped being explorers, started letting setbacks get in our way, and why we no longer embrace big stories.  Gravity was the last time we went into space at the movies, but it wasn't about the possibilities of space at all, but about its tragedies, like Apollo 13.  Ridley Scott turned the Alien franchise back to its origins with Prometheus, but was scoffed at when he left the story unfinished, another Matrix where humanity is left to fight yet another battle, look to settle another score just when it seems victory was already attained, that happy ending found.  "They" in Interstellar is "us."  This is what M. Night Shyamalan has been trying to say for years but never found the words.  Nolan did find them.

Interstellar does what Source Code only did if you figured out what really happened.  Nolan has done away with riddles.  And he does it with gusto.  Great acting.  Great visuals.  Great storytelling.  Great music.  And a conclusion.  Not an implication.  A statement.

Any serious observer, any real movie fan, will admit that Interstellar has done the impossible.  Sometimes the best films are intimate journeys.  This time it's truly epic, in every sense, what filmmakers have been trying to do from the very start.  Give us a truly magical experience.  Many have tried.  Nolan succeeded.

It's the best movie of the year.

Friday, November 14, 2014

#777. Mock Squid Soup: Space Battleship Yamato

via Star Advertiser
The Mock Squid Soup society is meeting again to discuss Space Battleship Yamato, a 2010 Japanese movie based on a 1970s anime.  As always, Mock Squid Soup is, astoundingly, presented by a couple of people named Mock and Squid, but not by a mock squid.  That would just be silly.

This is the first selection of theirs that I had not previously seen.  I scrambled for a few weeks attempting to find a copy, and when all else failed I did what people have done for thousands of years: bummed it off the Internet for free.

A large swath of Space Battleship Yamato is right up my wheelhouse, which is to say it features significant portions of spaceships going boom! boom! boom!  I have an incurable knack this kind of movie, and an even worse impulse to like the result regardless of its overall critical merits, which include things like what everyone else says about it.

But Space Battleship Yamato has a secret weapon in that regard, in that it's not generally known among American audiences, who tend to hate even the things they like.  So I was pretty safe this time.

The thing about this movie, however, is that it owes more to fan films than to Hollywood.  That's okay.  I've watched my share of foreign productions.  In my first year of college there was a standing date when a new one would be screened every week (or whatever the interval was), movies like Earth (1998), The King of Masks (watch for the teapot!), and Dancing at Lughnasa (in which Meryl Streep convincingly plays Irish!).  

I've watched plenty of Japanese movies, too, including a bunch of anime, far too little Kurosawa, and probably the most similar experience to Space Battleship Yamato, the trippy Versus.  But I would probably call the most relevant experience Clint Eastwood's Letters from Iwo Jima, the movie that made its predecessor Flags of Our Fathers instantly irrelevant in comparison.

If you've never seen Letters, you should correct that as soon as possible.  Outside of Tora! Tora! Tora! it's probably the only movie a classroom should screen regarding the Pacific Theater during WWII.  Ken Watanabe leads a cast that explores the face of the enemy in such a way that you can't help wondering...these guys were the enemy?  WWII wasn't exactly known as that kind of war (but then, what war is?), and no matter what Quentin Tarantino did with Inglourious Basterds no one will ever manage that with the Nazis (except, Christoph Waltz!), so that's a heck of an accomplishment.

Space Battleship Yamato is sort of that kind of experience, in that it relates the Japanese perspective of WWII via allegory via aliens and spaceships.  Watching it, you probably don't even realize the bad guys are essentially those dastardly Americans.  Although you have to admit, it's probably wrong to say "those dastardly Americans" so flippantly when you think that the only use of nuclear weapons in warfare on record was in fact by Americans on the Japanese.  Twice.

This is a grim movie in a lot of respects.  The actors talk almost uniformly in solemn tones, which makes for tough listening after a while (if you're looking for something other than one-note performances, this is not the movie you're looking for).  Putting the story in its proper context (the historic Yamato was Japan's last best hope for glorious victory, so to make a futuristic one carry the same role and to actually accomplish it is not just science fiction but wish fulfillment in a way you probably hadn't thought of before; it's not all Godzilla over there in terms of the national post-nuclear psyche) takes a lot of the wind out of its escapist sails.

I think I would have to watch it again to quit worrying so much about its implications and just lose myself in the experience.  But in all seriousness, that goofy captain's hat has got to go.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

#776. The 24th annual PWI 500

Okay, so my readers can ignore this one.  It's time once again for me to pretend anyone actually cares when I blog about wrestling!

And it's time, once again, to talk about the PWI 500.  This is the annual list Pro Wrestling Illustrated compiles of the best wrestlers in the world.  For as long as I've been blogging here, I've been commenting on this list, now hitting its twenty-fourth year.  I value this effort a great deal, but I'm always hoping the magazine will take its responsibility more seriously.  This year is no exception.

Before I get into my reaction, I want to repost comments I made to PWI's blog when it issued its own statement on the difficulty of putting the list together (here).  They said that the PWI 500 is as difficult a thing to do as ranking the year's best actors.  This is what I said in response:

As far as actors go, evaluating/ranking them would probably look something like this: Tabulate the numerous awards and nominations they've received for the year. Tabulate the box office/ratings. That second tabulation alone gives actors who haven't gotten awards and/or nominations a shot. By that point, you've already got a good sampling. Then go deeper. Look at what people have been saying that isn't necessarily reflected in awards/nominations/box office/ratings (a good recent example of that would be Tatiana Maslany from Orphan Black, whose name always comes up from disappointed fans because she's been overlooked by the awards/nominations again). Then look at how much work the actor has done in the past year (popularity within the industry itself), how much they have lined up for next year.
It seems like sometimes some of these considerations aren't taken into account in the higher slots for the PWI 500. Some years you've blatantly determined no big name fits your criteria for a whole grading year, so you've gone with someone you like (here I'd single out RVD, but there have been other cases). Some of it has to do with the kayfabe nature of PWI. We all get that PWI still wants to maintain the illusion of what we watch is basically real, but in doing so you end up shortchanging a lot of excellent work, rely more heavily on some of your criteria than other indicators. That's my evaluation, why I sometimes get upset at your choices.
Overall, we all appreciate the undertaking. It's incredible, it really is, the best single thing the whole wrestling industry gets done for it year after year. 
It's just, it would have more credibility if it were also the one time of the year you...break kayfabe. Recognize the talent all the way around. Just a thought.
The blog editorial was published in the PWI 500 issue itself, along with a different one looking at the lack of Japanese talent reaching the top of the list.  Never mind that a clear bias has always been given to WWE even before WCW and ECW closed shop in 2001.  Other than the extremely suspect top ranking of Dean Malenko in 1997, Sting's win in 1992 was the only instance until A.J. Styles in 2010 where someone other than a WWE won the honor.  In fact, nearly every top pick has been the guy who had the WrestleMania push, and whenever that's been within WWE itself, the PWI 500 has had to look for someone else to top the list, hence why in 1997 when Shawn Michaels threw everyone's plans out of whack PWI scrambled to find an acceptable alternative, eliminated all the likely candidates, and ended up with Malenko, who never even came close to main event status, let alone in 1997.  To keep the acting analogy in play, it would be like calling Adam Sandler the best actor of any given year, even in 2002, when his best-received role in Punch Drunk Love nonetheless completely failed to alter the course of his career in the perception of critics.

Speaking of 1997, the editorial about Japanese wrestlers, which uncomfortably and unexplicably suggested a possible bias has something to do with the lingering effects of WWII (to borrow the Miz's line, Really?), no matter how Stanley Weston might have felt, that idea just doesn't wash.  It explains how Bret Hart, Undertaker, Hulk Hogan, Shawn Michaels, Dallas Page, and Steve Austin were all eliminated from consideration "due to injuries or key losses."  Again, really?  Keep in mind the list is published in the fall and so generally covers the period from one summer to the next, meaning that the 1997 PWI 500 covered mid-1996 to mid-1997.  Here's what the years of those wrestlers actually looked like in very broad strokes:

  • Bret Hart - Had been away for much of 1996 following the loss to Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XII.  Came back for November's Survivor Series with a win over Steve Austin...Lost in a title match against champion Sid at the next PPV...Was one of four competitors at the Royal Rumble involved in the finals that were later contested...Won the WWE championship in February...Quickly lost it...Defeated Austin again at WrestleMania XIII in what was instantly considered a classic match...Formed the new Hart Foundation...Bottom line for Hart's year is that it really wasn't worthy of consideration for the top honor.  He had better years before and after this particular grading period, including an extended championship run just after its conclusion.
  • Undertaker - Lost to Mankind (Mick Foley) at Summer Slam 1996...Defeated Goldust at the following PPV...Defeated Mankind in a "Buried Alive" match...Defeated Mankind again at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated the Executioner...Lost to Vader at Royal Rumble 1997...Was one of the final competitors at the same event in the finals that were later contested...Defeated champion Sid at WrestleMania XIII for the title...Successfully defended it against Mankind, Steve Austin, Faarooq (Ron Simmons), and Vader...Bottom line for Undertaker's year is that arguably he was the most worthy, even by PWI's own standards, of being ranked first that year.  Instead he ended up sixth.
  • Hulk Hogan - Formed the New World Order...Defeated the Giant (Big Show) to become WCW champion...Defeated Randy Savage to retain...Lost to Roddy Piper in a nontitle match...Defeated the Giant to retain...Defeated Piper...Lost the title to Lex Luger...Bottom line for Hogan's year is that it was downright criminal for PWI to have significantly downplayed everything he accomplished.  He was ranked 55th that year.  Really!  It's insane.  That's what leads people to question the credibility of the list, impressive as it is.
  • Shawn Michaels - Defeated Vader at Summer Slam 1996 to retain the WWE title...Defeated Mankind to retain...Defeated Goldust...Lost the title to Sid at Survivor Series 1997...Defeated Mankind...Reclaimed the title from Sid at Royal Rumble 1997..."Lost his smile"...Battled Steve Austin to a draw...Bottom line for Michaels' year was that it clearly continued the success of the previous one, in which he'd topped the list.  Clearly a few bumps, but any grading period with two separate championship reigns should be taken seriously, even if there were shenanigans that followed.  He dropped to 18th instead.
  • Dallas Page - Defeated Chavo Guerrero...Defeated Eddie Guerrero...Lost to Eddie at Starrcade 1996 in the finals of a tournament to declare a new U.S. champion...Lost to Scott Norton...Defeated Buff Bagwell...Defeated Randy Savage...Lost to Savage...Bottom line for Diamond Dallas Page this year was that it was clearly his breakthrough campaign as he helped WCW fight the NWO.  But this could not have been a serious name to toss out in contention for the top spot.  His career improved thereafter, but there's nothing here that would remotely warrant consideration.  Except for the fact that he ranked 4th on the list that year.  For some reason.
  • Steve Austin - Defeated Triple H...Lost to Bret Hart at Survivor Series 1996...Defeated Goldust...Technically won the 1997 Royal Rumble...Lost to Hart at WrestleMania XIII...Defeated Hart...Lost to Undertaker in a WWE title match...Had a draw with Shawn Michaels...Bottom line for Stone Cold this year was that this was what his career looked like right after his King of the Ring breakthrough and before the 1998 explosion.  PWI had always been hot on him, even in the WCW years when WCW clearly wasn't (a rare instance of PWI recognizing talent despite how it's used), so it's no surprise that it leaped on the bandwagon before the bandwagon actually arrived.  But there's no way he warranted serious consideration.
I don't follow Japanese wrestling closely, so I don't know how Mitsuharu Misawa's year compared, but that was the guy the editorial talked about as being the closest shot yet at having someone from that country top the list.  PWI is always giving a token high placing for a Japanese star but rarely has adequate coverage in the magazine itself to justify it, except in the wrap-up reports from several back-of-the-issue columns.  The magazine can be considerably sloppy in acknowledging even its own enthusiasm.  A TNA wrestler known as Gunner today was once identified, when he was known as Phil Shatter, as a potential star by PWI itself, but can't catch a break in the magazine now that he has an actual opportunity.

Which leads me to what I really wanted to talk about concerning this year's list.  After some consideration I decided PWI was right to give Mr. Anderson a relatively low ranking, but its explanation as to why was baffling: "Renewed his TNA contract last year, but it must have included a secret clause prohibiting him from being relevant in 2014."

Really?  In the first half of the grading period Anderson helped end the Aces & Eights arc by defeating Bully Ray in a feud.  2014 has seen him feud with Samuel Shaw, an up-and-coming prospect whose feud with Anderson has so far helped shape his career, and has since gone on to feud with...Gunner.  Not only was Anderson crucial in the formative development of someone's career, but he's helped open the door to giving Gunner something distinctive to do, which presumably is what everyone's been waiting for, especially PWI.  I just don't get it.  If Anderson himself, back when he was known as Mr. Kennedy in WWE, had gotten similar treatment, instead of a slapdash beating-numerous-former-world-champions push and then extended feuds with Undertaker and Shawn Michaels, his career would probably look a lot different today.  I'll always champion the guy.  Main event personality with an in-ring talent that was never given a chance to be taken seriously.

The opposite, basically, is true of Bray Wyatt, the would-be successor to Jake "The Snake" Roberts who without the benefit of the massive push he's received for the past year would be a nobody, and certainly would have been laughed out of PWI's own offices if suggested for a top ten finish in this year's list.  A great gimmick, but he's nowhere near that great a talent.  Daniel Bryan claimed the top spot.  I'm more than okay with that.  Good, obvious choice.  But PWI's twisted logic left CM Punk off the list.  Left Brock Lesnar off the list.  Nonsense.  Only Roman Reigns of the former Shield faction cracked the top ten, when all three of them (including Seth Rollins and especially Dean Ambrose) should have warranted it.

I appreciate that PWI puts this thing together every year, but it just seems like it drops the ball in too many ways to have the credibility it ought to have.  Wrestling has a hard enough time being taken seriously.  Having what's now the only publication taking its own responsibility so flippantly is unacceptable in 2014.  This is a list that has been compiled for nearly a quarter century now.  There should be no question about how to do it, and do it right.
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