Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Pan Am TV Show and the Changing Nature of Air Travel

At the most basic level, Pan Am is a paean to the airline industry before deregulation. With government-controlled routes that excluded competition, Pan Am dominated international travel.  As a result, it charged high fares and provided services that one would never see today, at least on domestic routes.  Passengers were treated to a number of benefits, such as spacious seating and food service that you would only find in first class today.  Several films have portrayed this in a limited way.  Think of Indiana Jones flying Pan Am in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Leonardo DiCaprio posing as a pilot and recruiting stewardesses in Catch Me If You Can.
Taking place in 1963, the show portrays the stewardesses’ lives as emblematic of the coming feminist movement, which was only in the early stages at the time.  One woman sees her job as a way to assert her independence; her sister joins Pan Am after fleeing her wedding in Graduate-style fashion to avoid a life of 1950s domesticity.  Christina Ricci plays a stewardess who lives as a bohemian in Greenwich Village.
Though Pan Am largely romanticizes their lives, the show does depict some of the downsides of working as a stewardess in that time.  The airline routinely checked your weight and you had to quit when you got married.  Indeed, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, air stewardesses were one of the first groups to challenge gender discrimination under Title VII of the landmark law.
With the passage of airline deregulation during the Carter Administration in the late 1970s, new competitors emerged which undercut the domination of Pan Am, TWA, Eastern, and other older carriers.  The growth of discount airliners made flying accessible to many more people, but at the cost of the services that made air travel luxurious.  When was the last time someone offered you a meal on a domestic flight, let alone playing cards?  In the aftermath of the Libyan-sponsored bombing of Pan Am 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988, the airline was forced to declare bankruptcy.  Eastern and TWA suffered the same fate in the 80s and 90s.  If one were to make a 21st century version of Pan Am, it would be called Southwest.  It doesn’t sound nearly as romantic, though it is certainly more affordable.

Monday, September 12, 2011

How Football Came to Dominate America

The start of the football season provides an interesting window into American culture.  The incredible hype surrounding the beginning of the NFL, following all of the fears there wouldn’t even be a season, only reinforces how football has become the most dominant sport in the country by a large margin.
It wasn’t always this way.  For years, baseball was the “national pastime” and the most popular sport in the nation.  Opening day used to attract the kind of attention that the first Sunday of football now receives.  This past summer, however, talk about a possible NFL lockout subsumed discussion of the actual baseball season.  What happened?
Throughout the first six decades of the 20th century, the three most important sports in the country were baseball, boxing, and horse racing.  The World Series was the most important annual sporting event and the Super Bowl did not even exist.  College football was actually more popular than pro football until at least the 1950s.
Pro football’s coming out party was the “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 NFL Championship game between Johnny Unitas’ Baltimore Colts and Frank Gifford’s New York Giants.  One of the early games on TV, it ended in dramatic fashion as the Colts’ Alan Ameche scored on an one yard run in overtime.  Many credit the exciting contest for raising the NFL’s profile.
The popularity of the sport grew during the 1960s as the rivalry between the newly-formed AFL and NFL eventually resulted in the merger that created the modern NFL at the end of the decade.  The first Super Bowl, held in 1967 as a contest between the AFL and NFL champions, was not a major event, but quickly grew in the following years.  The famous Super Bowl III victory of Joe Namath’s New York Jets, indicating the competitiveness of the AFL, was another marker in the sport’s rise.  By the early 1970s, polls showed pro football ahead of baseball in popularity.  The Super Bowl became the biggest sporting event in the nation, a virtual national holiday that even non-fans feel obliged to watch.
What else accounted for the rise?  No doubt television was instrumental.  While baseball has made a tremendous amount of money from TV, football is more suited to the medium.  NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, who was probably the greatest pro sports commissioner, developed relationships with the networks in the 1960s that helped grow the sport.  Moreover, the wealthy owners embraced a kind of socialism, equally distributing the television money so that Green Bay could be as competitive as New York.  This helped to bring about parity between large-market and small-market teams, giving every fan hope at the start of each new season.
Still, as recently as the mid-1980s, football was still barely ahead of baseball in popularity.  In 1985, a Harris Poll showed 24 percent of fans choosing pro football as their favorite sport while 23 percent chose baseball.  By 2010, 35 percent picked the NFL while only 16 percent picked major league baseball.
I think a number of factors account for the growth in the gap.  Clearly, baseball’s labor strife during this time, including multiple strikes and the cancellation of the 1994 World Series, hurt the game.  At the same time, the NFL had labor peace from 1987 to 2011, with no games lost to labor stoppages in that period.
Furthermore, football is a game more suited to the shorter attention spans of Generation X, raised on MTV and USA Today, and Generation Y, used to downloading music or receiving information immediately.  The languid pace of baseball, which may account for declining Little League participation, doesn’t seem to suit those 40 and under.
On a personal note, I grew up a bigger baseball fan than football fan, but in recent years my allegiances have changed.  I still love baseball, but it is a more difficult sport to follow as an adult.  I enjoyed following the batting races and memorizing statistics as a kid, but I don’t have the time anymore.  Part of the genius of football is that we can follow it by watching one day a week during the fall and winter, when the weather in most of the country precludes other activities

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Post 9/11 Popular Culture

As we approach the 10th anniversary of 9/11, we are about to see a great deal of commentary about how the attacks altered the country.  Over the last few months, I have procrastinated by watching a number of films that deal with terrorism and related issues.  They provide a window into how much the culture has changed because of the attacks.
When you look at films that deal with terrorism from the 1980s and 90s, the humorous tone of the movies is noteworthy.  Both Die Hard (1988) and Die Hard 2 (1990), for instance, are full of Bruce Willis’ wisecracks and public officials who don’t take the situations seriously.  The lack of airport security is notable in Die Hard 2, as John McLane engages in full-scale firefights within the airport itself while security seems to exist solely of glorified rent-a-cops.  I realize that some of these elements exist for dramatic effect, but it would inconceivable today for a film to depict the head of airport security ignoring a shooting in his own airport, as occurs in Die Hard 2.
Similarly, 1994’s True Lies, one of the first films to deal with the possibility of terrorists getting nuclear weapons, features a similar comedic tone.  The film is a complete farce with cartoonish terrorists and includes a scene with Jamie Lee Curtis and Arnold Schwarzenegger kissing as a loose nuke explodes in the background. 
Some film franchises provide clear demarcations between pre and post 9-11 culture.  For example, the 90s Batman films, particularly Batman Forever (1995) and Batman and Robin (1997), feature over-the-top villains and cartoonish plots reminiscent of the Adam West TV show from the 1960s.  On the other hand, the 21st century Christopher Nolan directed Batman Begin (2005) and Dark Knight (2008) have depicted relatively realistic threats similar to terrorist plots, such as Raz-a-Ghul’s attempt to poison the water in Gotham and the Joker’s multiple attacks.
Another clear contrast can be seen in the difference between the James Bond films of the 1990s and the post 9-11 007 movies.  While Pierce Brosnan revived the franchise, the films are notable for ludicrous plots that couldn’t possibly be taken seriously, culminating in 2002’s Die Another Day, where Bond uses an invisible car and drives through an ice palace.  It makes Moonraker look positively believable!
On the other hand, the Daniel Craig films feature a Bond that is ultra-serious and doesn’t even bother to engage in the usual puns and wisecracks.  The plots of Casino Royale (2006) and Quantum of Solace (2009) are relatively believable and it seems as if genuine issues are actually a stake.  Bond doesn’t even use the usual gadgets that have been such a trademark of the franchise as Q doesn’t appear in either movie.  One couldn’t imagine Roger Moore, the Bond of my childhood, starring in these films.
Indeed, the Craig films seem inspired by the Bourne movies.  Though based on the Robert Ludlum novels of the 1970s, the movies update the plots for the post 9/11 era.  Bourne is a somber CIA-trained assassin trying to figure out his own identity.  The third film, the Bourne Ultimatum (2007) is replete with commentary on the Bush era.  When Joan Allen’s ethical CIA officer questions the agency’s extreme tactics, asking “When does this end,” her counterpart played by David Straitharn says, “It ends when we win!” When Bourne later asks Allen’s character, Pam Landy, why she is helping him, she responds, “This isn’t what I signed on for. This isn’t us.”
Generally speaking, action adventure films have taken a more serious tone in the years after 9/11.  We will see if this continues or if this development will fade as we gain more distance from the attacks