Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Brokeback Ontogeny

I assume that one of the more intriguing (and often overlooked) aspects of adulthood is the ability to watch others grow up. I mean this in a literal sense just as much as I do in a figurative sense. Obtaining and understanding a 401k also falls under this “adulthood” umbrella, but that’s a completely different matter.

Being able to fully grasp and analyze another’s maturation process is distinct only to adulthood and subjects other than yourself. You could never accurately evaluate your own life from birth to adulthood, for obvious reasons. It is also basically impossible to do this with anyone else’s life while you are growing up, regardless of whether this other person is older or younger than you; your outlook changes far too drastically and frequently during your developmental years to comprehend someone else going through those same stages. But when you’re a fully materialized adult (generally 35+), you essentially are what you are (and are going to be), in spite of whether it’s good or bad. You seem to vary as an individual much less from the ages of 35-55 than you do from 11-27.

As an adult, you can watch others develop and mature from infant to grown-up with your same personal perspective and understanding of life, throughout the entire process. You can recognize whether an 11-year-old is actually funny or simply believes he/she is funny. You can see just how snooty and deplorable the popular high school girl is, or how little the college student is appreciating his ability to get tanked, talk to random girls, jump off a frat house into a swimming pool, and yet still be able to wake up for his 8 a.m. class the next day, integrity still intact. I view people, events and surroundings entirely different as a 22-year-old than I did as a middle schooler or high schooler, and I’m sure I’ll see those same things differently still in five years and ten years. But as an adult, this often isn’t the case. You can see things with a balanced and actualized eye, even if that view is right or wrong or different overall than how the next adult might see it. Your perception is more or less static, which makes the focus much easier to grasp. Your personal awareness has peaked.

This realization became evident to me on two occasions, in spite of the fact that I’ve not yet reached full adulthood. The first occasion was when I turned 22, and I realized that it is the earliest moment attained in one’s life in which you actually want to be younger. When you’re 17 (or so), you know everything and want only to be older – to grow up. When you’re 22, you discover that how much you know is trivial, because you’d much rather go back to being a day over 21 and would prefer to know nothing at all. To contemplate this concept further, listen to Face’s (or more simply, Rod Stewart’s) song “Ooh La La.” Oh, and my second encounter with this revelation came while watching Jake Gyllenhaal in the movie Source Code.

None of this recognition actually has anything to do with the plot of the film, but simply what it represents or says about Jake Gyllenhaal and his career maturation. It seems to me that Gyllenhaal’s acting résumé is the perfect representation of human development and maturation. I can’t know this for sure, partly because I am not yet a fully developed adult (skewering my perspective) and partly because Gyllenhaal’s own professional development is incomplete. Even still, it seems apparent to me that Jake’s track record is some type of microcosm for everything I’ve discussed, if only because the analysis of celebrities isn’t quite as convoluted as that of actual people.

Gyllenhaal has been acting on the big-screen since he was 10, but it wasn’t until October Sky in 1999 that he made a name for himself and truly began the maturity process (an actor’s development starts later than basic human development, a statement which is pretty obvious when you think about it). October Sky showed (or represented) the infinite potential Jake had. This was followed by Donnie Darko (2001), which at the time mirrored that weird, angsty teenage phase everyone kind of goes through, and in retrospect is more influential and coherent than initially assumed. Bubble Boy (2001) was evocative of those idiotic high school-ish years, in which they are funny and enjoyable in the moment, embarrassing and stupid immediately afterwards, and then looked back upon somewhere down the road as simultaneously funny and enjoyable while also slightly embarrassing.

The Good Girl (2002) – which at the time was Gyllenhaal’s most well-rounded, professional, and mature role – is when that potential of his was truly tapped into for the first time as a young adult, when the first significant steps are made. This was followed immediately – and not surprisingly – by a stint of egotism and bravado (something that would naturally result from sleeping with Jennifer Anniston…in The Good Girl, not real life…although you never know); it’s represented in Jake’s career by the blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow (2004). In real life, this stage of audacity is defined by the binge drinking, frat-house-pool-jumping and random-girl-flirting discussed earlier. In Gyllenhaal’s film life, however, this stage is defined by outrunning a preposterous tidal wave that happens to be gushing through the streets of New York City.

Next up is a return to that potential, a much deeper and perceptible step into self-actualization and maturity. The moment is defining, not so much because it is the best or most successful, but because it is the most glaring and recognizable. For most people, it generally occurs late in college or early in their career path. For Gyllenhaal, this moment was 2005’s Brokeback Mountain. This particular film appears so clearly to be that significant occurrence for Jake, simply because of how different I personally view it now than I did when I was 16, and the fact that I’ll undoubtedly view it different yet again at some point. Also, there’s the fact that the movie and role evoke an immediate and identical labeling by those watching the entire process…regardless of how odd it is for that labeling to be “gay cowboys.”

The aftermath of Brokeback allowed for a continuation of more mature, idiosyncratic and challenging roles by Mr. Gyllenhaal, such as his parts in Jarhead (2005) and Zodiac (2007). This was followed by exploration of varying paths and emotions, whether it be dramatic (Brothers in 2009), self-indulgent unintentional comedy (Prince of Persia in 2010) or romance (Love and Other Drugs in 2010). And all of this leads us to Source Code, a film that establishes the role Gyllenhaal will probably be playing for the next few years of his life, embodying his acting maturation from youngster to adult.

Chances are that Gyllenhaal’s character in Source Code is basically the character he will be portraying over the course of the next decade or so. It’s a role we’ve seen many times before, and yet multi-faceted enough to allow for a talented actor like Jake to showcase the many layers of his onion. He gets to be a dramatic/charming/witty/funny action star all at once. He can still show off those emotional chops, while at the same time tossing in pithy or comedic dialogue and flashing his irresistible smile and/or abs at whichever bombshell they decide to complement him with. He has reached a distinct and more fixed level of maturation.

Sure, he may peel off into a few indie films to keep things interesting and explore his artistic side, and at some point he will probably deal with his mid-life crisis by completely transforming himself into the personification of another person, like Christian Bale did in The Fighter or Leo DiCaprio did for J. Edgar. But ultimately, each stop along the way for Gyllenhaal has served to develop him into what he has become. He is not just funny, or just dramatic, or just introverted, or just romantic, or just handsome, or just self-indulgent; he is not simply one-dimensional, just as very few actual people are simply one-dimensional. He is little bits and pieces of each of those things, a transformation that took place much like the growth and development of you and I.

Just as actor development starts a bit later than human development, it ends a bit later as well. Gyllenhaal is in his early 30s, meaning he will have at least one more significant developmental stage as an actor. He won’t be able to rely on this “good looks” or “action hero” phase forever, which is when those witty/dramatic capabilities will start to take over.

It is then that his career will be able to be viewed and analyzed as a whole, and done so more accurately by people slightly older (and pop culture-versed) than me. Jake Gyllenhaal will probably have a slightly better understanding of his own self (or his actor self) at that time too. He’ll finally be able to look back on those Donnie Darko days, The Good Girl days, The Day After Tomorrow days and the Brokeback Mountain days. And whether or not he recalls those moments as good or bad, successes or failures, you can pretty safely assume that Jake will wish he knew then all that he knows now…just like the rest of us.

Ooh la la.

Thanks for reading

Friday, November 18, 2011

Vacating Morality

Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.” 
                                               – Bob Dylan

As a society, with the way today’s 24/7 media coverage works, we tend to overanalyze and pile on things. If Tim Tebow had played quarterback in 1987, he might have been an interesting topic, but there certainly wouldn’t be endless segments on Sportscenter where a bunch of dudes just sit around and argue about him for five minutes. And that’s just one example. A lot of things are that way. Everything is that way. Until something drags you back to reality.

College sports are a fascinating subject. Interest is high, passion is fervent, coverage is limitless and scandals are rampant. Investigating top-tier college football and basketball programs is a bit like doing a kitchen inspection at your favorite restaurant: if you look long and hard enough, you’re probably going to find something you don’t particularly like. And in recent years, it’s been more like doing an inspection of that small, poorly lit Chinese restaurant down the road from your house. You know, the one that has all those stray cats hanging around out back.

Just in the past few years, we have seen colleges exposed for providing improper benefits to student-athletes, whether it be providing funds or accessories for the kids and their families, giving the kids more money than they actually deserve for a fake job, or simply handing them envelopes of cash. We’ve heard of team members getting in trouble for selling their own jerseys and memorabilia, booster members throwing ridiculous parties or providing lavish gifts to players, and coaches getting in trouble for calling a player too many times, sending text messages at the “wrong” time, or picking up the tab on a recruit’s dinner.

We condemn these acts, condemn the kids, condemn the coaches, condemn the system. We argue over whether or not student-athletes should be paid, whether that would solve the problems or simply make them worse. We balance getting free tuition and education against players being a slave to money-hungry schools, conferences, championships, bowl games and sponsors; “why isn’t a free education enough?” vs “why don’t they deserve a cut of all the money they bring in?”. We tear down the secrecy, greed and under-the-table deals as if the entire structure were the most despicable and wicked institution in existence.

And then Penn State happens.

Consider the Ohio State football situation. I live in Cincinnati, go to school at Ohio University in Athens, and have a roommate whose brother plays for the Buckeyes, so I’m more than aware of all that has gone on there in the past year at OSU, and yet removed enough to have a somewhat objective opinion on it. Essentially, star quarterback Terrelle Pryor and a few other players (some more notable than others) got busted for exchanging autographs and memorabilia for free/discounted tattoos, and probably some cash or other benefits (although to be fair, we can’t know for sure). Pryor was also seen driving numerous nice cars around campus, something of which you can probably draw your own conclusions on.

Anyways, Ohio State was practically crucified for these transgressions. Head coach Jim Tressel was fired, players were suspended, a few left the program, and one of the top teams in the country came out the other side with a far inferior squad and one heck of a black eye. Shambles. Complete and utter shambles.

And then Penn State happens.

It’s early enough in the Penn State process that we can’t say for sure what has happened, as nothing has gone to trial. But because you’d have to be a hermit (or Aston Kutcher) to not know about the situation, here’s the short version: a PSU assistant coach has allegedly been molesting and sexually abusing young boys over the past few decades, largely using his position with Penn State to commit these acts. He was apparently questioned about it very quietly in-house in the ‘90s (with no public punishment or acknowledgment), and was then allegedly caught by another assistant coach while raping a 10-year-old boy in the locker room shower in 2002. This coach, after seeing this take place, allegedly told (legendary) head coach Joe Paterno about the situation, who allegedly reported it to his “superiors,” who then allegedly handled the situation very quietly (again) without taking any legal action (again). And in the past few weeks, all of this information came gushing out. As a result, just about everyone involved with the university and program that supposedly had knowledge or a hand in the situation has been fired or put on administrative leave. Once more, I’m sure I’m not telling you anything new here. But what stands out (aside from the horrible accusations of this case, which have been covered at length by reporters that are far more competent than I) is how stark the contrasts are between this situation and the other so-called “scandals” surrounding college sports.

I’m not condoning the acceptance of improper benefits. I’m not suggesting coaches should be able to take whatever measures they please when recruiting potential student-athletes. I’m not even sure where I stand on the whole “should college players be paid/compensated” argument, because I feel like there are legitimate points for each side. But I do know that, retrospectively, it feels pretty stupid raising such a big stink about free tattoos or illegal text messages when children are possibly being raped and molested, and then coaches and administrations are spending eight or nine years keeping quiet about it. What Jim Tressel did (or didn’t do, in terms of reporting his team’s violations) was wrong. But when thinking back to how his character and integrity were questioned and vilified, and then comparing it to what  Paterno did (or didn’t do, in terms of taking further actions with the rape/molestation charges), it kind of makes you sick to your stomach.

Oddly enough, Paterno saw an outpouring of support from Penn State football fans through this whole ordeal. Now I understand what JoePa has meant to that program over the years, and no, Paterno isn’t even the main villain here. But he’s one of them. Jerry Sandusky, the assistant coach accused of committing these crimes, is obviously the biggest offender. And yet that doesn’t change the fact that all of those involved were clearly in the wrong. Jerry Sandusky not only committed alleged morally offensive and reprehensible acts (I think child molestation is one of those few universal “wrongs,” regardless of one’s belief or culture), but he allegedly committed crimes – serious crimes – that could hold some serious punishments. At the very least, they deserve to be investigated. Paterno and the rest of the Penn State administrators that knew of these things prevented those investigations from happening for almost a decade. Sandusky will have to answer (and pay) for these allegations, one way or another. You can be sure of that. It just shouldn’t have taken this long to start the process.

Should Paterno’s slate be washed clean simply because he fulfilled the duties of his job description by notifying his superiors? Hell no. What about his duties as a citizen, as a human being? How can he be trusted or qualified to lead young men if (as the record currently states) he had at least some knowledge of Sandusky’s actions and did nothing to protect those young boys? Reporting to your superiors really doesn’t hold much clout if you see them on a daily basis for the next handful of years and never once bring up the accusations again or do anything about it on your own. If what we know now is in any way true, then Sandusky’s crimes are gross and obvious. But so are Paterno’s (and everyone else’s involved).

JoePa wasn’t fired for “lack of morality,” although in this case, those grounds probably would have been justified, as slippery a slope as that may be. But he was fired for the crimes and misdeeds that his “lack of morality” allowed to take place, unpunished and unbeknownst to the public or proper authorities. Don’t let his career wins or the fact that he “fulfilled his duties” let you think otherwise.

I generally refrain from delving into such deep or controversial topics on this blog, mainly because I don’t really think this is the proper venue for that. But I found it striking how harsh we as a society judge college sports, and how fundamentally it all seemed to change with the allegations at Penn State. Even as I type this, an investigation is being launched regarding a longtime assistant basketball coach for Syracuse and allegations of child abuse and molestation in the 1980s. One accuser has pointed to the Penn State situation as motivation for him to come forward in the Syracuse case. It pretty much puts everything into perspective, huh?

Again, I’m not condoning what took place at Ohio State or any other university that has faced punishment or allegations. What I can tell you is that if I were a 20-year-old dumbass college athlete (as opposed to the 22-year-old dumbass college student I am now), and someone was trying to give me cash or cars or whatever simply because I was good at sports, I would have had one heck of time wrestling with myself over whether to accept those things or not. And if I was that athlete, and knew that one of my teammates was accepting benefits or one of my coaches was using some fishy recruiting methods, I probably wouldn’t say anything. That doesn’t make it right, but it’s just the truth. If most people were being honest, they’d probably tell you the exact same thing. But if it were a Penn State situation? If cars and cash became child abuse? Yeah, that changes everything. And I think that says something, if the difference wasn’t already obvious enough.

I’m a big  fan and follower of college sports, and as a potential (and hopeful) journalist, it is part of my job to know and report and possibly hold opinions on these types of subjects, just as it is for others in the field and profession and society. And the next time a big-name collegiate athlete gets caught taking some cash or driving a car he didn’t pay for, or a coach gets busted for recruiting violations, you can probably assume that it will be looked upon a little differently by those parties. It doesn’t make it less wrong, but it’s certainly not the same either. We now know too much. We’ve seen the darkest of the dark side.

College sports can be a seedy, disturbing and scandalous business. And that was before Penn State happened.

Oh but we were so much older then…

Thanks for reading