Monday, February 02, 2004

Callanís Critique of the Super Bowl
Panthers vs. Patriots, Callan vs. the TV experience
by Callan Bentley

Last night, I joined my friend J in watching the Super Bowl on television. Neither J nor I are sports fans, but this was the third year in a row that we gathered at his house in Takoma Park to watch the big game. Why do we bother? I canít speak for J, but I enjoy participating in the spectacle of the game. Iím interested in the Super Bowl more as a sociological phenomenon, and as a carefully orchestrated piece of entertainment. Yesterdayís game was in Houston, a match between the New England Patriots and the Carolina Panthers.


Perhaps the most basic observation I can make on the Super Bowl is that the game is an extravaganza of visual imagery. The digital graphics employed by CBS in the broadcast of the game are the advance guard of the imagery to come. This yearís Super Bowl was the 38th, but it is written in Roman numerals, making this year officially ìXXXVIII,î as unwieldy a number as you will encounter until the 88th Super Bowl (ìLXXXVIIIî) fifty years from now. This top-heavy number was crammed into the screen at every break between game and commercial advertisements, an almost-seamless transition that took place every minute or two. A play, a commercial, another play, another commercial.

The coaches wore fantastically large headsets this year. I presume these headsets are connected to a sort of walkie-talkie network that allows coaches to communicate with their sub-coaches and perhaps even with their players. But why are they so big? As anyone who uses a cell phone knows, wireless communication devices have been getting smaller in recent years, not larger. Jís wife, E, speculated that these enormous contraptions were purposely distorted to intimidate opposing coaches. She postulated a sort of arms race between teams, with headsets getting bigger and bigger over time. It canít go on forever, though ñ sooner or later the coachesí necks started listing permanently to port. As of yesterdayís game, they resembled bighorn rams with only one horn.

Another notable aspect of dress were the athletic stripes on Deion Sandersí collar. Though wearing a pinstripe suit to demonstrate his new status as a commentator, I assume Sanders opted for the bizarre piping on his collar to demonstrate how deeply athletic he actually is. Or perhaps just to emphasize his former prowess on the field, especially in comparison with his pasty fellow talking heads. You can take the player out of the game, but you canít take the game out of the player?

The players themselves were dressed disconcertingly similarly. Itís hard enough for a novice football fan like me to follow whatís going on without the two teams wearing identical uniforms. Even the teamsí logos were remarkably akin to one another: little triangular wedges of speeding cat/Elvis heads.

Some of the Carolina Panthers had dark visors that hid their eyes inside their helmets. I can imagine that hiding oneís eyes is a sort of ìpoker faceî strategy for a football player, masking the micro-expressions that might broadcast an imminent move. Possibly they were emulating their hammer-headed coaches, and did it to intimidate their opponents. At any rate, the came off looking like Storm Troopers in Star Wars.


There were other aspects of Star Wars in yesterdayís game, too. A new camera that dropped to just above field level suspended on cables provided some magnificent close views of the action. By and large, CBS trimmed shots that included this camera hovering above the field. They left it in a few times, though, and it resembled the drone stalking Luke Skywalker on the ice planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. Iíd like to see this camera technology taken to the next level, with the camera swooping down to follow the ball as itís kicked down the field, a few meters behind the pigskin as it soars high in the air, far from any human. J seconded this motion, suggesting that it be akin to the camera shot in Robin Hood, where the camera follows the perspective of an arrow as it streaks through Nottingham Forest.

Another advance in Super Bowl camerawork was the ìMatrixî shot. In replaying certain mid-field plays, the action would be shown from one angle, then freeze, the perspective would swing around 90 degrees to the opposite corner of the stadium, and then action would resume. The cumulative effect of this trick was to resemble the 3D time-pausing action sequences in the Matrix movies. As the football froze in mid-air, I couldnít help but be reminded of Carrie-Anne Moss about to deliver her patent-leather karate kick.


The two gentlemen giving the play-by-play commentary during yesterdayís game were Greg Gumbel and Phil Simms. Mainly the television audience just heard their voices, but occasionally they were shown on camera. This shot was invariably set up so that the leftmost two-thirds of the screen were dominated by a television monitor with the golden ìXXXVIIIî imprinted overtop an American flag, the monitor itself set on a cross-braced scaffolding. Simms stood next to the TV on the right side of the screen, and Gumbel was squeezed into the very rightmost area. In several shots, Gumbel was cut in half by the edge of the camera angle. It was a weird set-up: why so much emphasis on the television screen?

For all the ignominy of being clipped by the camera, Gumbel at least delivered reasonable commentary. At least he didnít say anything directly stupid, as Simms did. While Gumbel acted in a sort of ìyes manî role to Simms, with ìOh yeah?î and ìThatís rightî being his stock phrases, Simms made gaffe after gaffe. As the halftime show ended and play resumed, Simms made the observation that ìHistory tells us that a lot goes on in the second half of these Super Bowl games.î No kidding, Phil; as much as the first half? And, in the most dramatic moment of the game, when in the final minutes the Panthers evened the score with a dramatic touchdown, Simms quipped, ìWhat a turn of events for the New England Patriots! ÖAnd the North Carolina Panthers!î Yes indeed: a dramatic turn of events for both teams. Not just one. Simms obviously sees the Big Picture; I guess that's why he's the commentator, and not me.


Game time is weird. Time extends towards the end of each half of the game, or at least thatís how it seemed yesterday. There is official Game Time, which is four quarters of 15 minutes apiece, and then there is the actual amount of time that it takes for me, sitting with Jís cat on the couch, to watch the game. With timeouts and off-sides and commercials, Actual Time is far longer than Game Time. But for the first half of the first half and the first half of the second half, the two timescales were pretty close. In the final few minutes of both the second quarter and the fourth quarter, though, Game Time overwhelmed Actual Time. It seems to be correlated with points being scored. As touchdowns are made, time slows down. Iím sure Einstein must have meant to include that in the theory of relativity. No points were scored in the first 26 minutes of the Super Bowl (i.e. most of the first half), but then in the final three and a half minutes of the second quarter, 24 points were scored (and the Game Time expanded to take up well over half an hour of Actual Time). The same thing happened at the conclusion of the fourth quarter, when again the ratio of Game to Actual was about one to ten. Half an hour before the Super Bowl ended, there were less than three minutes on the clock.


The halftime show was a frenetic burst of glitz. Jessica Simpson began the performance by negating a preceding voting commercial (ìChoose to care, choose to voteî) by screeching, ìHouston, choose to party!î Though she was billed as one of the hot celebrities to watch in first-half advertisements for the halftime show, these four words were Simpsonís only contribution.

Other performers had similarly abbreviated performances. Janet Jackson wore plumes resembling an ostrich tail for her first song, which lasted 40 seconds. She arrived on the stage by descending a cylindrical elevator from nowhere. Nelly followed with a 45 second song, whereupon he was joined by P. Diddy for a duet that lasted 20 seconds. MTV, which sponsored the halftime show, definitely conformed these performances to their short-attention span rule, where no camera shot lasts more than 5 seconds. As soon as you had absorbed the fact that one performer had taken the stage, their time was over, and it was on to the next big name.

Kid Rock was next on the revue, and he had the longest solo song, lasting a minute and seven seconds. He wore an American flag like a poncho, his greasy head popped through a slit in the center of the flag. He sang about himself singing at the Super Bowl halftime show ñ postmodern irony, though he may not have intended it as such.

Then the camera panned over to a Rollerball Terrordrome sort of stage, where Janet Jackson again rode an elevator to the stage (an ascent this time), wearing a sort of leather Samurai outfit. She sang a number which had as its tag line, ìItís time to give a damn, letís work together.î This song mentioned combating illiteracy, which is certainly a noble cause. But it seemed a weak effort at do-gooder reform, considering that U2ís Bono was rejected from performing at this yearís halftime show because he said he wanted to sing a song about fighting AIDS. Because I knew that the Super Bowlís organizers had made a deliberate decision to not mention AIDS, this token illiteracy name-drop struck me as a bit shallow.

The Terrordrome was surrounded by banks of grey balloons. Just in case viewers werenít sure which superstar was performing on stage at the moment, their names were projected up onto this bank of balloons, white graffiti on a stone wall. It changed from JANET to JUSTIN, and Justin Timberlake rode Janetís elevator to the stage. They sang a ìsaucyî duet which lasted 30 seconds, and concluded with Timberlake ripping off the bodice of Jacksonís costume, revealing her right breast for a fraction of a second before CBS cut away from the shot. Both performers, MTV, and CBS have all issued apologies for the incident.


One of the most celebrated aspects of the ìpopular entertainmentî portion of the Super Bowl is the creativity of the commercials that accompany it. This yearís commercials fell flat, in my opinion. There werenít any really great ones, though a few made me laugh.

For my money, the big charmer was the donkey who wants to be a Budweiser Clydesdale. Voiced over by a sensitive, thoughtful man, the Donkey explained his training (hauling a six-pack in a cart) and hair implants (on his legs) and final interview with the Clydesdales (where he brayed, and was accepted as their lead hoofer). There was also a memorable race between a pair of cutthroat senior citizens, each sabotaging the other in a quest to eat a bag of potato chips.

Other than those two, there were a bunch of car commercials, and a bunch of impotence drug commercials. Erectile dysfunction drugs have proliferated in the past year. Viagra is now the establishment, and Levitra is dominating commercial airtime in an attempt to challenge the incumbent. While they continue to employ their tired football-through-the-tire-swing analogy, Levitra took a new tack this year with an exposition by Mike Ditka comparing football to baseball, and concluding that baseball was as flaccid as a limp dick, whereas football was a proud, erect cock (not in so many words, but that was the implication). Nice work, Mike, I hope they paid you well to make that statement. Cialis is another drug for the same purpose, and they also bought some Super Bowl airtime. Their commercial was unremarkable except for a subdued warning statement in its final seconds: the disconcerting reminder that ìErections lasting longer than four hours, though rare, require immediate medical attention.î


I still donít care about football, but the Super Bowl was fun to watch. Thereís a lot going on there besides the game. Iíll be tuning in again next year.

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