Sunday, August 29, 2004

The Godfather Part III

(If you don't care at all about nitpicking through the Godfather Part 3, feel free to skip this one)

I don't want to devote excessive time to "movies I don't like", because there would just be too many of them. Remember my axiom: Most Movies Suck. So why nitpick over Godfather 3? Or Star Wars for that matter? Well, it's because certain movies should have been fantastic. Nobody particularly had any expectations for say, Catwoman; so it's not really big news if Catwoman ends up sucking.

And a movie like Godfather 3, which should have been superb but was instead a huge let down, doesn't entirely suck. When compared against the average gangster movie, it holds up fine. When compared against Hollywood product in general, it's very good. But when compared against the Godfather Parts 1 and 2, (my two favorites movies) it's a godawful mess.

The first charge I accuse Godfather 3 of, is that it's simply an unnecessary movie. GF2 concluded with such enormous finality, it did such a skillful job of wrapping up the whole story, that any Part 3 is going to end up feeling tacked on, like an appendix. These movies are about the story of the Corleone family, and specifically Michael's story, and that story was, well, finished. In his feverish and paranoid desire to protect his family from harm, he became the instrument of its destruction. He loved his family so much, he destroyed it. The end.

Godfather 3's uber-story, the overall theme, is Michael trying to find redemption. The surface story is about Michael trying to legitimize the family business and find a successor. The surface story is perfectly adequate for a Godfather movie, the underlying story is not.

Many people have remarked that the Godfather movies are a family drama first, mobster moveis second. I think that characterization is correct. For Godfather 3 even to exist, it must continue to evolve and develop the characters and relationships of the Corleone Family. Because so many of those characters are dead, this becomes an enormous challenge. Coppola's weak solution is to try to find deep emotional resonance among the characters who used to be peripheral but are now thrust into center stage by virtue of having not been killed off. Thus we have expanded roles for fundamentally uninteresting characters like Connie and Al Neri.

In GF1, Michael lost his brother Sonny. In GF2, he lost his brother Fredo. For Godfather 3 to work, and for the redemption story to be possible, GF3 must, MUST, MUST be about Michael's relationship with Tom Hagan. There is no alternative to that choice. Tom is the last brother. Tom gave Michael unconditional love and support, though at the end of GF2 Michael viciously abused him. The path to Michael's redemption, if it exists, leads through Tom, the final brother.

Robert Duvall apparantly turned down his role in GF3 on the basis of a weak script. I applaud Duvall. But of course, they made the movie anyway, rationing off Duvall's role in the story to other characters like Connie and the quickly-invented lawyer character B.J. Harrison. Duvall's refusal to be in a weak GF sequel should have slammed the brakes on the project. To go ahead without him was the death knell of the whole enterprise.

So we have problem #1: the fact that the movie is unneccesary, and #2: the inexcusable absence of Tom Hagan. Problem #3 is what they did to the character of Connie. In all of the reviews and commentary I've heard about GF3, I haven't heard a single person make an observation about the remarkable and ridiculous metamorphasis Connie makes from gentle, naive soul to bloodthirstly ruthless shrew who is inexplicably a member of Michael's murderous inner circle.

Did anyone else notice this?

Connie actually murders a man in GF3 in case anyone forgot. She feeds him a poisoned canole at the opera. First of all, since when were women admitted to the inner circle of the family business? (It's not that I'm personally opposed to that, only that it is 100% incongruous with the established rules of the family) In GF1, Connie was a naive, abused wife. In GF2, she was a jaded, spoiled rich girl. When we see her last, she's tearfully begging Michael to forgive Fredo. Suddenly in GF3 she's a cunning, violent Lady Macbeth. (yet she still doesn't know that her brother Fredo was murdered. Huh?)

Another problem that plagues GF3 is this desire to recycle every idea possible from the two previous movies. To be fair, GFs 1 and 2 are good choices if you're going to be reverent about a movie, but the constant allusions in Part 3 to past adventures, and all the recycling of ideas, well, cheapens Part 3. The flashbacks, the 'hey, remember when's, the complete recycling of the musical score.... Consider the famous baptism scene from the first Godfather. A jarring juxtaposition of religious humility and an orgy of violence. At the center of it: Michael the hypocrite. A brilliant scene. Now consider the very similar opera sequence that is the climax of GF3. What were they going for there besides an obvious recycling of the baptism scene? A montage of murders set to beautiful music. Check. Frequent cuts to Michael looking pensive. Check. Okay, so on a surface level, they're pretty similar. But in GF1 there was much deeper resonance emotionally. This was Michael's completion of his coming-of-age. This was the first time he fully embraced evil. Plus the scene was unique cinematically, directorially. A true original. What is the opera sequence from GF3 besides a lame attempt to conjur the power of the baptism scene without doing any of the corresponding heavy lifting in the story, emotional, or character development department?

Can you see why I don't like this movie?

And I'll leave it there I think. Notice I didn't even mention Andy Garcia, Joe Mantegna, and the famously bad performance by Sophia Coppola. I'm not even getting into the incest subplot, the squandering of the Kay character, the non-use of Michael's son, etc. These are all secondary issues.

Take my advice: pretend the Godfather series ends with Part 2.

Tuesday, August 24, 2004

60 Annoyances

41. People ashing into slot machine change buckets

42. DVDs that claim bullshit standard items as "Special Features"

43. Abbreviating “address” to “addy” and “tournament” to “tourney”

44. When you ask what day it is, just a few minutes after midnight, and smart asses give you the technically correct answer.

45. Mormons

46. Mexico

47. The "I'm a bad ass" look on fake IDs

48. A clumpy pack of Sweet n' Low in a humid environment

49. Animals that have longer lifespans than humans

50. The fact that Scott Bakula never Quantum Leaped to the 90s (and the 80s hardly ever) even though according to the conceit of the show, he was supposed to be leaping around randomly between 1952 and 1999. Think about it: the show aired in the 80s. He could have leapt to the 90s… which would have been the past for him, but the future for us… That’s sci-fi gold!

51. People who don’t seem to mind walking barefoot on dirty city pavement.

52. A 16 year old sportin' a mustache

53. Jeopardy questions that really have nothing to do with the category. (like if the category was poetry: This city, Vermont's capital, was said to have inspired Robert Frost")

54. Tobacco chewers who spit into clear containers

55. That uncookable mucousy part of the egg

56. Gift certificates that expire

57. The way old people's heads can just bob around

58. People who could have that huge, disgusting, hair-sprouting mole or growth removed from their face anytime they want in a quick, inexpensive, painless trip to the dermatologist, yet don’t.

59. When the HDTV widescreen-TV owners deliberately stretch out the square-TV broadcast to fill the whole screen. Doesn't that run counter to the image you're desperately trying to project of caring so very deeply about picture quality?

60. Novelizations of movies that are themselves based on books (e.g. The novilzation of the Robert de Niro Frankenstein and also Francis Ford Coppola’s Bram Stokers’ Dracula).

Here's a funny parody of that last trend:

Thursday, August 19, 2004

The Cable News Super-Story

It’s good that we have several cable channels dedicated to round the clock news. And even within the round-the-clock news business there are channels dedicated exclusively to specific topics like finance, sports, headlines, etc. This is all for the good.

What I’m not wild about is the obsessive search that goes on at all times for the “Super Story”, a news story that can be milked for months and months at the exclusion of everything else. It all started in 1995 with OJ. This was the first super story. Don’t you remember how during that entire year it was all OJ, all the time?

Here’s my thesis, and if it’s true then it’s very disturbing. The structure of 24 hour news requires that the journalists find stories that can be reported on endlessly, constantly, with little to no updates of consequence for months at a time. It needs to be a story suitable for endless discussion on talking head programs, where guests can speculate and ramble on for hours. It’s all because of the format of 24 hours news. This consideration of finding a story with long-term reporting prospects contaminates the decision process of what is newsworthy and what is not. A dog can chew on a bone for hours, but he’ll be done with a steak in 90 seconds. Because of this reasoning, we the viewers are served the “bone” of the Scott Peterson trial, and denied the Porterhouse of say, a report on the erosion of democracy in Musharraf’s Pakistan.

The cable news networks need stories that can fill time, and they all know that an all-consuming Super Story, like OJ, brings in the viewers and the advertising revenue like no other news can. So they must constantly look for the super story, and reject items that don’t fit that mold.

The result is that what is “news” has changed. I’m no fan of Bill Clinton, but I’ll make this concession for him. It was the hunger for the Super Story that catapulted “Monica Lewinsky” (the scandal, not the person) into a yearlong drama. This may be a stretch, but cable news and the Super Story phenomenon may have led indirectly to Clinton’s impeachment because the fires of that scandal were stoked so well for so long. Back in the days when news was just the paper in the morning and Tom Brokaw in the evening, “Monica Lewinsky” might have just been a week of embarrassment for the president rather than a yearlong ordeal.

Let’s be clear on some basic facts. Scott Peterson is not news. Nor is Kobe Bryant, nor Michael Jackson.

Elian Gonzales was not news. Gary Condit was not news.

The missing girl-of-the-week is not news. The political smear book-of-the-week is not news. The celebrity breakup-of-the-week is not news.

Occasionally, what I’ll call “real news” and the Super Story are both the same. This was the case with 9/11 and both Gulf Wars. These kinds of occasions are when cable news and their 24 hour capabilities really shine. When real news can be reported 24/7, outlets like CNN kick into high gear and do a great job. But most of the time, what we see on CNN is not real news.

The reason we heard so much about Elian Gonzales beyond the point of all reason is because the cable channels were desperately groping for the Super Story. Isn’t that stupid? Elian wasn’t big news because he was big news, he was big news because the story had legs, could be discussed indefinitely and brought in viewership. This in turn caused other news media to report more on Elian, like the newspapers and the network newscasts and the internet. I believe that the reason your local paper had so much to say on Elian Gonzales was because they were taking their cues from CNN, MSNBC and Fox, all of which are looking for the Super Story, not what's really important.

Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Star Wars Special Editions

Before I rip into the Special Editions and tell you why they sucked, let me give credit where credit is due and mention the few things they did right.

1) They brought a beloved classic back to the big screen. I think more great movies deserve to be rescreened in theaters for audiences who have never seen them that way.

2) The new cityscapes for Cloud City were nice, and some obvious mistakes were corrected, like the blur effect under Luke’s Landspeeder and the smudge on the emporer’s face.

3) Lucas effectively introduced the entire concept of the “Special Edition”. Previously, a classic film may have gotten a restoration treatment for a revival, but nothing on the scale of the Star Wars SE. The concept of the “Deleted Scene” we owe entirely to Lucas. The Star Wars SE was released in theaters, not DVD, and yet the entire industry of the Special Edition DVD was pretty much born out of this event. Essentially, Lucas started a revolution of taking old films and sprucing them up for a new (DVD) release by demonstrating how profits could be made from it. Because of this, many many films that were on the verge of complete deterioration were rescued. This may wind up as being George’s last great contribution to movies before he goes completely insane.

So that’s what I like about the Special Editions. Now for the bad. The primary error in the Special Editions is a misunderstanding of what Star Wars fandom is all about. We don’t prefer the “originals” and wince at the new changes because we are freaky purists who can’t stand change. For most of us in our teens, twenties and thirties, Star Wars is about childhood. It’s about a seminal film experience that we had in our childhood. The more Lucas changes the movie, for better or worse, the more he distances me from that childhood memory. Take the Yub Yub song for example, when the Ewoks are dancing and using Stormtrooper helmets as drums. It’s a silly song. It’s a stupid song. But damn it, it’s the Yub Yub song! Why the fuck would you want to change it? Are you insane?

And so the problem, generally, with the most of the special edition changes is that they take something that was good, that was fine, that carried a warm memory and change it for no reason. Again, like I mentioned in my previous Star Wars entry, if Lucas kept the originals available, I’d have a whole new attitude about any changes he wanted to make. I’d be much more interested and receptive. It would ultimately be my choice whether or not to accept the changes.

Beyond this general critique, there are plenty of specific things that bug me about the SEs. Many choices that are out and out stupid, and in some cases so idiotic as to be totally baffling.

Number One of course is Greedo firing first. This angers me so much I can’t talk about it anymore. If I ever meet Lucas, I won’t be able to thank him for Star Wars. I’ll have to immediately start smacking him in the face for GFF until his bodyguards remove me.

Number Two is the frequency with which Lucas felt he had to spice up a static background by throwing some shit in there. Be it a landscape, a starfield, a quiet room, you’ll just notice an excess of new moons and starships and droids that weren’t there before. At best, these additions are merely pointless. At worst, they can interfere with the mood and the story. The Tatooine landscape is supposed to be stark and lunar. The constant attempts to make all the shots more “busy” make the environment feel less alien. At the beginning of Empire, when the imperial fleet is introduced, the music swells just as the camera cuts to Vader, looking out of the bridge of his flagship. He stares out into the inky blackness of unbroken space, as if searching every star for his son. Except he’s not looking at the inky blackness of space anymore. He’s staring at a fat Star Destroyer, and a new moon or planet of some kind sitting in the middle distance. Thanks Lucas.

3) The Sarlaac (the creature who digests you for 1,000 years) used to be much scarier when it was just this anus in the ground. There’s something just primordially scary about a hole in the ground. Add a few jagged teeth in the sand and a couple of ropey tentacles to grab your feet and pull you in and the look is complete. Turning the Sarlaac into some kind of lame bird’s beak is, well, lame.

4) The deleted scene from Empire where Vader is shown getting on his shuttle after his tussle with Luke on Cloud City, and then later disembarking on the Star Destroyer is worse than useless. It seriously interrupts the tight pacing of the ending. Vader’s gruff, angry line: “Bring my shuttle” is perfect. He’s lost his son again and is obviously choked with emotion. The replacement, the casually spoken “Tell the Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival.” is terrible. Why would Vader, at this moment, care at all about the pomp and formality of his entourage on the Star Destroyer?

5) The replacement of the Yub Yub song and also the song in Jabba’s Palace. Thank God they didn’t touch the cantina song.

6) CG Jabba of course.

That’s all I can think of right now. I’m sure if I popped in a tape and watched them (which I won’t) I’d remember a dozen more. Strangely, the one thing I wished Lucas would have fixed for the special editions is the one thing he didn’t. Those black boxes around the Tie Fighters. They’re still there.

Thanks Lucas!

Monday, August 16, 2004

Giving Products "Future" Dates

I'll come back to Star Wars in a minute.

I can't stand these "future" dates on products. This is the phenominon where a product is launched with some sort of date stamped to it, but that date has not yet occured, and may not occur for a while. The biggest offender is magazines. One of my favorite magazines comes out monthly. It's supposed to be placed on newstands on the first of the month (subscribers get it a few days early) and any unsold copies removed from newsstands at the end of the month.

So why is the issue that ships in March, is placed on newsstands on April 1, and removed on April 30th called THE MAY ISSUE? This has bugged me for years.

I'd like to comment further on this, offering possible explanations on why the April issue is called the May issue - maybe offering theories about how the purpose is to sell a few more magazines past the freshness-date, but I can't. It's just too stupid. Charging gas station customers for 99% of a cent is only mildly stupid compared to this. It goes on the shelf April 1st. It departs April 30th. It's the April issue.

How about cars? The 2005's are here! All right! It's like the future! Only now!

And let's not forget video games, one of my favorite hobbies. The sports titles take huge liberties with the dates. All the football games that are released in summer and fall carry the next years date. EVEN THOUGH THE FOOTBALL SEASON IS 95% CONTAINED WITHIN THE YEAR.

Let's penetrate to the source of my frustration here. I think I can trace this anger back to the "presumption of idiocy" syndrome. Someone out in marketing land has determined that I, the customer, am an idiot, and therefore he will pander to my idiocy. So we get this baseball game. It was released in March of 2004. It is supposed to coincide with the 2004 Baseball season. The baseball season does not extend into 2005. In fact, by the time 2005 arrives, the game will be hopelessly obsolete, and a replacement will be on the way.

Despite how obvious those facts are, I'm supposed to feel a little thrill that an artifact from the future has arrived in my local Target or Kay-B-Toys. It's so advanced, calling it MLB 2004 just wouldn't be right. I mean, hello? 2004? Yawn!

I say, screw all these crap products who rely on this lame headfake to squeeze a few extra dollars out in the subsequent year. You know, if it's a magazine like Cosmo or Horse-Fancy, or something like that, it doesn't really matter if you post date the issue. One issue of Cosmo is just like any other. But if it's a magazine that reports on current events, then what are they thinking?

Tuesday, August 10, 2004

The Ban on the Original Star Wars Trilogy

I have so many angry complaints about Star Wars these days, where do I begin?

I was a huge Star Wars fan as a kid of course. I'd have to be. Anyone who didn't grow up loving Star Wars wouldn't have the energy to muster the bitterness that I now harbor over the whole franchise. If you've never loved Star Wars, then you can look at all the current Star Wars mediocrity and just shrug your shoulders. There's a lot of crap out there right now; why should Star Wars be any different?

When I watched The Phantom Menace in the theater with a friend one time, he remarked after the movie: "Wow that sucked." And later: "Well, at least he has the original trilogy. No one can ever take that away from him."

He was right with his first statement, (I now freely admit that Phantom Menace did indeed suck, though I didn't at the time) But sadly, his second proved false. George Lucas is taking away the original trilogy. Taking it away from himself, and from all of us. What he left in its place is the Special Edition, a remake where (in my estimation) about 75% of the changes were huge mistakes.

The original trilogy is floating around on old VHS tapes and laserdiscs, and that's it. Unless the new crazy-George changes his mind, we'll never see it again.

A few months ago, I read an article on the internet about a California film festival that was going to screen one film from each decade of the twentieth century, each film chosen to represent the best of that decade, as a sort of celebration of film. They did George Lucas the great honor of selecting Star Wars to represent the seventies. They asked Lucasfilm to lend them a print of Star Wars for the festival. Lucas refused to give them a print of the original, offering them a Special Edition print instead. The festival managers responded gently that they were interested in the historical significance of the 70's version, and that the 90's Special Edition was not suitable. Lucas still refused to lend it, citing his bizarre and unprompted promise made in the 90s that he was withdrawing availability of the original trilogy for good. The festival asked, reasonably, if that promise was meant to refer to commercial availability, and not to, say, a one-night only honorary screening at a festival for historic prints. Lucas said no. The festival had to reluctantly choose another film.

Ladies and Gentleman: fuck George Lucas.

It's not easy saying fuck George Lucas. It's painful. The guy is responsible for bringing great joy and happiness to millions of lives through his brilliant cinematic fantasy. But he's gone nuts. He lives on a kind of compound in California, surrounded entirely by worshipful, fawning employees who don't dare disagree with anything he says. Never trust people who live on "compounds". Or are surrounded by worshipful sycophants. You end up with L. Ron Hubbards that way. And L. Ron is responsible for a whooooole lotta bad sci fi himself.

So the Special Editions are being released this fall on DVD. The originals, of course, will not be included. In fact, these aren't even the 1997 special editions. They're new special editions, edited even further to incorporate things from the new trilogy. Apparantly the apparition of Anakin at the end of jedi is now going to be replaced with Hayden Christensen. Supposedly there is new stuff on Alderaan.

Lucas likes to point out that they are HIS movies. He can change them however he wants. He can withdraw access to earlier versions if he wants. I wish I could somehow organize a boycott of these DVDs, to show him exactly how much he can keep HIS movies all to himself.

For the record, I have no objection to George tinkering forever on the Original Trilogy, making more edits and additions for the next 30 years, so long as he keeps the originals for sale in the meantime. He's not capable of understanding that his new trilogy is distinctly inferior. He's not aware that all his efforts to tie the original trilogy with the new one through new Special Editions simply cheapen the superior originals.

I refuse to buy the new DVDs. I refuse to pay for anything special-edition related. I have a set of Asian DVD bootlegs of the original trilogy. Widescreen. They have visual hiccups between chapters, and the audio synching is off by about half a second. But I'll take those bootlegs anyday over George's special editions.

Next time: my full case against the special editions. Man, Lucas pisses me off.

Sunday, August 08, 2004

The Holiday Season

These are the dog days of summer, but it doesn't hurt to plan ahead - or in this case to whine ahead. For the fall is coming, and that means one thing: the ever-earlier beginning of the "Holiday Season".

It used to be that we weren't bombarded with Christmas until December, and sometimes not even until the second week. These were the good times. The salad days. Now of course, Christmas has been encroaching on us earlier and earlier, under the disguise of The Holiday season. Every year I keep my eye out for the very first time I spot some kind of Christmas-themed display or marketing. For the last few years, it's been in October. Most recently it was Barnes and Nobles trying to clear out their previous years stock of Christmas books.

I think the "Holiday Season" was originally meant to be a polite way to refer to Christmas but also include Hannukah. Somewhere along the line Thanksgiving was included, and now even Halloween seems to be part of the season as well.

I have nothing against grouping Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas into one big "Holiday Season" category. Call it whatever you want. What I do have a problem with is hearing "The Twelve Days of Christmas", on acoustic guitar, playing in my local Starbucks IN NOVEMBER.

This drives me up the fucking wall. Using the logic that the Christmas spirit makes people more inclined to spend and shop, commercial America is bringing us Christmas earlier and earlier, using "The Holiday Season" as an excuse.

I'm far from the first person to point this out, yet I'd be remiss if I didn't bitch about this in a journal devoted to bitching. I hope that the fact I'm doing it in August lends credence to the idea that it really does piss me off. Obviously Christmas is overcommercialized. It's always been that way. But only in the last 10 or so years has Christmas become so firmly entrenched in November. And let me say in no uncertain terms: Christmas works wonderfully as an exclusively December-y celebration. But once you expand Christmas into November, and it occupies a full one-sixth (or more) of the year, it starts getting really annoying, really fast.

Some commercial outlets manage to hold off on shoving Christmas in your face until the day after Thanksgiving. This is the longest anyone can restrain themselves. Other people, like I've said, start in October.

I propose a fair compromise. Absolutely nothing Christmas related before Thanksgiving. You can talk about Halloween and Thanksgiving all you want, but no Christmas. Then, after Thanksgiving, but before December, you can open the floodgates on the Christmas sales and displays, with one exception: nothing audible. No Christmas carols piped over the PA system, no ho ho ho's, no sleigh bells. Commercials on TV can talk about Christmas all they want, but again no carols, no santas, no bells. That has to wait until December.

I think that would be fair. You see, "The Holiday Season" problem is related to the old Digimon problem. We the consumers agree collectively to suspend our disbelief. We know that Christmas is being shoved in our face by the entire commercial establishment in order to manipulate us into spending freely. But we agree to pretend that the reason is actually to make us happy and fill us with good cheer. When Christmas arrives with such insistance in November, the greed of the marketers is too apparant. It's too obvious that we are being manipulated. We need it to be less obvious in order to feel comfortable. Don't make us listen to carols until December.

Thursday, August 05, 2004

Rubber Bridge

I played a lot of bridge on my recent beach trip, and let me tell you something. Bridge is an amazing game. Possibly the best game ever designed from a deck of cards. It takes skill, intelligence, memory, teamwork, and it never gets old. Like chess, it's fun and playable at the beginner level and the intermediate level, and takes on a whole new level of strategy at the expert level.

But I have one giant complaint when it comes to bridge, and frankly it's stupid that I should be the one making it, as it's such an obvious flaw in the game. But someone has to point it out. If you don't know the rules of bridge or don't care, you can skip this. This goes into the minutae of the game.

My complaint concerns the scoring. Bridge has a somewhat convoluted scoring system, one that actually reminds me of tennis in its arbitraryness. (0-15-30-40-game?) In bridge you have two different values for contracts in the major vs. minor suits, vulnerability, scoring above and below the line, points for overtricks, 2 games to a rubber, part-scores, etc. It's a big mess.

But my complaint with the scoring is not the complexity, it's the fact that the scoring, well, ruins the whole game.

Let me start with my underlying philosophy in this matter: the scoring system of any game or sport exists to service the game. It exists as a way to keep tabs on who is performing better than who. A good scoring system rewards the best play and therefore encourages the best play. A bad scoring system is one that rewards the players for something other than optimal play.

Don't you feel a little uneasy when football players call timeouts, not because they need to confer with the coach on strategy, but because they want to put more time on the clock? Or how about when basketball players decide that their best strategy is not to score baskets, but to keep possession and just let the time expire? These are perfectly legal moves, and yet they suggest an error has been made at the rules level. The players are exploting loopholes in the rules, and in some fuzzy way are violating the spirit of the game.

But those are mild problems compared to the one in rubber bridge. The one in bridge, as I said, ruins the game. Here's my case.

Bridge is at its best and most challenging when the partnership arrives at the highest contract possible, in the highest valued suit possible, and then makes that contract. When a player picks up a new hand, his object should be to communicate carefully with his partner, try to figure out how many tricks are possible, and then reach for that goal. The scoring system in rubber bridge, sadly, actively discourages players from arriving at an optimal contract almost every single time.

Here's the simplest example. You and partner, it seems, can almost certainly make 5 hearts. 6 won't be possible, since you know you have two losers. But really, you don't expect to lose more than those two. Let's say you know all this information at the 4-level of bidding. What do you bid?

Well you won't bid 5 hearts, that's for sure. Why would you? There is absolutely no reason to bid 5 hearts, the way the game is scored. It's either 4 or 6. There are several contracts that you just can never bid in rubber bridge, despite the fact that they may be the most challenging contracts that a savvy partnership could reach through intelligent bidding. These contracts include 5 hearts and spades and no trump, 4 diamonds and clubs and no trump. You would just never settle on these contracts, unless you had to perform an emergency stop on 5 spades en route to slam. Either way, you aren't getting any more points for making 5 spades than you would if you had bid 4 and made an overtrick. Right off the bat, out the 35 possible contracts in bridge, 6 of them have automatically and arbitrarily been declared worthless by the scoring system, even though one of those contracts might be the "optimal" contract, the best one to play.

The other, more general way rubber bridge scoring actively discourages optimal contract bidding is by always putting the players within arm's reach of game. If you've got a partial, why the heck would you try for 5 diamonds when 3 diamonds could be made easily? Ever hear your partner with the scoresheet remind you "All we need is one"? Screw that! Thinking in terms of reaching game instead of how to make the best contract possible absolutely sabotages the essence of the game. And in rubber bridge this kind of compromise attitude towards the bidding happens almost every single hand.

Ah, comes the retort, That's the beauty of duplicate bridge! Pure skill is rewarded! Those meaningless overtricks in rubber bridge are highly significant on the duplicate scoreboard!

Well, you know something? That answer isn't good enough. It's hard enough getting four players together for a game around the kitchen table, let alone 40 for a duplicate tournament. For lots of us, that option isn't there.

But even duplicate bridge doesn't solve the problem. Sure, you don't have to worry about partials, but the core scoring sytem is still in place. There's still no advantage to bidding 5 hearts if you can bid 4 and make an overtrick. And small differences like that are really where expert skill comes into play. Duplicate will remain flawed as long as the rubber bridge scoring system remains at the core of scoring.

The whole concept of vulnerability also interferes with optimal bidding and play, as it can give one partnership different priorities and levels of risk-aversion than the other. But this isn't as serious a problem because it will generally affect both teams equally. Finally, 100 Honors rewards a lucky hand, not skillful play. It should be dropped.

So what, therefore, would be a good scoring system for bridge? The answer: I don't know yet. It would have to set a goal, similar to game or rubber, but one that a) didn't encourage compromise bidding, and b) didn't place arbitrary high value on certain random contracts. It would reward play based on pure skill. It would have to go even further than establishing a ratio of tricks to points. The ideal scoring system would have to be savvy enough to know the difference between a 6 heart contract that was skillfully bid and made, and a 6 heart contract that was overbid through sloppyness but made through wildly good luck. That's a tall order. I'll work on this new scoring sytem and report back when I have it.


Hmm. Jessica Tandy wasn't actually in The Whales of August. I was convinced she was. I would say that I was really thinking of Bette Davis, but I wasn't. I really thought it was Jessica Tandy. I would have bet a lot of money. Weird.