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Izzy on the train

All the time they seemed to be skating in fathomless depths of air, so blue the ice had become; and so glassy smooth was it that they sped quicker and quicker to the city with the white gulls circling about them, and cutting in the air with their wings the very same sweeps that they cut on the ice with their skates — a dream of ice-skating during a hard frost, the Thames, Virginia Woolf, Orlando


Margot Robbie as Tonya Harding

Friends,

While last week’s account was the last about Milan and nearby environs, I have yet to speak of why we came when we did: the World’s Championship Ice-Skating contest was held from March 21st to 25th at a nearby (just outside the city proper) forum. My daughter Isobel is a devoted expert, blogger, fiction writer, evaluative fan of ice-skating. There are people who know as much as she does of the recent history of ice-skating, but I doubt you’d find anyone who knows more.

Starting Wednesday mid-morning when the tickets were handed out (no, you could not print out the tickets on any website, though you were advised to buy them well ahead), until late at night for the next four nights, and Sunday 2 to 5 for a gala performance (aired on TV), she absorbed herself in the ice-skating. She also went to a couple of early morning practices:

Laura and I joined her for three afternoons and the gala.

I could wish you had her to blog here as I’m sure she could and would describe all that happened and the many technical and other contexts with a knowledgeable critical eye. Here you may read her many blogs since Izzy gave up on her own Miss Izzy and stopped blogging there for Fan-Sided for several months, and now to where Laura moved her website from “I should have been a blogger” to Miss Izzy Ani & Izzy. I can’t.

There is also an underside, the realities of the life, the pressures, and the politics of ice-skating. What happens to ice-skaters mirrors what happens to ambition in sports in American and global life (as seen in media too) today.  I review a movie, which, if you at all interested in ice-skating as presently experienced in the US, you ought to see: I, Tonya: Tonya Harding, an ambitious working class girl (and many of those who go in for the championship and those who go are working to lower middle people) driven by the lack of wins because she was not playing the role of a sweet gentile middle class girl, either herself encouraged or was instigated by her violent desperate husband, Jeff Gilloly (Sebastian Stan) into directly attacking her rival, Nancy Kerrigan. The husband and a thug friend tried to destroy one of Kerrigan’s knees. It was quickly found out who had done and became the scandal not only of the decade but perpetually of ice-skating itself.


A photograph Laura snapped of one (athletic) pair

I can tell you something of the experience of watching ice-skating in the Milan stadium. We took a train from where we were staying some 8 stops to just outside the city. About half an hour’s journey after a 5-7 minute walk both ways. Here is what the place looks like from the outside:


Daytime from the side


Nightime from within looking out.

It looks innocuous enough but as one reporter who regularly goes to these mass events, the least of the stadium’s concerns were the human needs of the customers. There two toilets for thousands of women. Two. The lines were not as horrendous as you might imagine because I suppose most women did like me: held themselves in until they got home. Long lines were the order of the day and night. It took hours to collect our tickets. Huge crowds forced to move into five crowd and then thin lines, and all you needed was one person to have troubles on any given line.

Inside the forum you had to wait on three lines to get any food. A line to pay and get your tickets. A line to put in a ticket for whatever food or drink was available. Another line to collect your purchase. I was told this was because very few people were empowered to sell tickets because few were trusted with money. Why two lines and not one were then called for I know not. Maybe because food was so minimal, unvaried, and poor by the time you got it your spirit was cowed. You were not allowed to bring in food or drink. Three years ago I went with Izzy to a stadium in Boston also set up to prevent people bringing food: prices were exhorbitant and I didn’t recognize as food most of what was sold, but there was just one line and there was a large variety of food and drink. Most of the customers in Milan stadium played safe and bought water & simple chip snacks.

Inside the forum the seats were small, the steep incline of the stairs painful if you went up and down more than say twice. The ushers appeared not to know their own stadium and misdirected Izzy, Laura and I at least three times. It was not freezing cold as other ice-skating stadiums I’ve been to are, but it seemed to me the noisiest of all the stadiums I’ve ever been to. Constant loud music inbetween events, flashing commercials from a central turning box, strobe lights when a new turn in events was about to proceed. As if this wasn’t enough, they had hired a bellowing clown to demand of individuals in the crowd that they make spectacles of themselves, of groups to wave flags and clap and hammer the floor with their feet.

More than a decade ago, the first time I went to an ice-skating event at a stadium in DC, I was enchanted. It was not a competition, but a show, not televised. Each of the pairs or individuals performed as personalities; there were shared group sequences. There was no excess noise in the one intermission. Since then in DC no shows come anymore, and it is all fierce competition for places in line-ups for the next contest.

Our prize-obsessed culture has won out. Just about every event is a competition or contest, and the whole atmosphere of the event is intermixed with that of an ordeal. Each of the skaters has thrown their lives into this sport, and they have spent hugely (or their parents have) and it is crucial to win. Some of them fall away quickly; those who stay the course can become anorexic (if girls) or otherwise suffer the various ills that come from such a lifestyle. Their sexual orientation becomes a matter of speculation, and until recently gay men had to hide their sexuality. A figure like Michael Weiss did very well because he is so obviously stereotypically heterosexual white male.

In Milan stadium, after a given contestant’s routine was over, the contestant was led to sit before a replica of the Milan Cathedral waiting for their score: scores in ice-skating are subjective when it comes to decimal differences. most of them are trained not to show deep disappointment but now and then you would see it.

Do most of the people sitting there “tune out” what is going on about them? or does it excite them to feel they are in some celebrity aura? I know this celebrity aura is hard to resist, and when you are near someone thought so famous, and feel the way others about them, you yourself (I myself) act oddly. I once met a Prime Minister of the UK at a Trollope dinner: John Major. I found it hard not to try to impress him somehow in our talk and afterwards felt ashamed of myself.

In watching these young people, I found the earlier dancers (who were the less competent or less be-prized) sometimes more interesting. I wish some overt attention were paid to grace and lyrical beauty, but the way the scores are talked about are in terms of feats of physical derring-do or if the person defied physics in this or that way in how many times they twirled or jumped or in a pair stayed in dazzling sync while risking falling. Many hurt themselves on the ice.

During the Sunday gala I was impressed how a ballerina who was hired to do highjinks on a wire, was carried from the ice. I’ve seen announcers carried too. It’s hard to walk, and hard simply to skate, much less do the kinds of things these young people do. I keep saying young people because their career is usually over by their early 30s.

At Milan I found three hours my limit. The shows I’ve gone to with Izzy usually last two and one half hours with half an hour intermission. I went to one championship with her in Boston five years ago now and found I couldn’t last more than three hours either though the place was more comfortable. I couldn’t endure the noise, the flashing lights, and in the one case where we found ourselves the audience in a show that was televised — asked to sit utterly still, to clap here, to endure boredom there, to not mind all the cameras, I felt we were badly exploited.

People endure this because they have been taught that they don’t count, that it’s some how bad sportsmanship to complain of bad treatment. Attitudes like these are fostered by the celebrity culture and regarding some people as superior to others.

Most of the time I find individuals skating not as varied as the couple dancers and the athletic pairs, and enjoy the couples much more. Best of all are in shows when long-time trained performers know how to keep their individuality and yet be part of a group configuration. But if you watch carefully or take a photo and look later, you can appreciate individual feats & grace — though it’s hard to feel in the atmosphere of intense competition and in this particular case the discomfort of the Milan stadium.

Here is someone gliding:

Sometimes the camera captures gestures in dancers that in motion would be prettier:

Each set begins with the contestants lining up:


Men

When they won, they were put into ritualized tableaux in princess or prince costumes:

One the elements of the experience that interested me was the difference between what we in the forum were experiencing and seeing, and what those watching broadcasts saw and experienced. It seems somehow to prefer the false to say ice-skating is more pleasurable (and much less expensive) in the comfort of your home watching TV or a digital computer screen, but I like to remember how thrilled I was in the early years as dancing, skating, athletics on the ice is hard. You won’t experience the same thrill that you do when you are there near the body that can fall or mess up and then doesn’t. Izzy is so invested in a number of individual skaters for her to see them is a kind of validation of herself, her dreams.

This gets me to the movie, I, Tonya. The actress who played the harridan mother of Tonya, La Vonya Fay Golden (Allison Janney) won a Golden Globe. I wish I could think the this prize did not reflect the misogynist pleasure of our world where people get a kick out of seeing a mother figure made into a cruel bitch. The mother is presented as the one who originally drove Tonya into becoming a competitive ice-skater. She is presented as deeply bitter because her husband (rightly) left her her; no berating is too far for this woman as she “coaches” her daughter; she also will do anything for money. At the close of the movie she accepts money from court authorities as she tries to trick her daughter into confessing she was the instigator of the crime while she has a tape going around her body.

The movie is darkly funny: part of the way it’s done is that the actors play the people being interviewed by a unseen reporter and there are continual flashbacks as the story in chronological order unfolds before us. This allows for many occasions for irony. We identify with the downtrodden working class Tonya, and she is not caricatured or condescended to nor the mother. But her husband is: he is presented as most Americans’ idea of someone trying hard to be a macho male and not quite succeeding because among other things he hasn’t got the competence to make enough money to support the role with the necessary paraphernalia: fine house, fancy car, “in” clothes. He has an idiotic sidekick who reminded me of Trump: continually lying, ceaselessly boasting, profoundly ignorant, he has the foggiest idea of how to to a deed and cover it up. It was apparently the sidekick’s continual re-parking of a car outside the event where the attack took place that provided the police with their first clues.


The scene where the police confront Tonya and her husband and coach

The value of the money is to expose the hidden injuries of class and the impoverishment of the American working and middle class. We see that in the mother’s life especially, in the dives these people eat in. As Helen O’Hara says, it was a trial by media, the very media which builds up celebrity. This is brought out. The acceptance of violence of American life is seen in Tonya’s relationship with her mother and then husband: they both beat her. The one half-humane relationship in the film is between Tonya and her trainer Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), but from what I have been told by college students in colleges where I’ve taught, these people are bullies too.

By the end of the film you feel for Tonya while at the same time are left unsure how complicit she was in the attack on Nancy Kerrigan. She is presented as someone with decent impulses whose life and surroundings teach her to make bad choices (in her husband and leaving school) and drive her to rages like the others around her. The jury decision suggests that the jury was undecided how guilty she was but convinced her husband and the friend who literally attacked Kerrigan were criminal. Harding did not lose her ambition or her turning to physical competition for prize money: later in life she tried professional wrestling, and even became a celebrity boxer. She was made part of the sordid underbelly of movies: for example,a video of her having sex with her husband was released. She used this notoriety to keep afloat.

I suppose what makes the film a story for 2017 is she is not a victim heroine but someone part of a system that is fosters internal war in people’s psyches, which they then bring to their social experience. I recommend reading Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas for the full context for all this.


Fixing her shoes — she is crying from dismay and hurt

It can all begin with innocent enough dreams of accomplishment, of pride, of achievement in the world’s eyes. I’ve been asked more than once if Izzy skates. She has, mostly for fun, and except for the one time I tried to skate with her by herself. I can think of five sequences in books and films where ice-skating is presented — H. E. Bates’s Love for Lydia, the opening; Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, the opening; John Gay’s early 18th century poem; Trivia, or the Art of Walking in London, where a central sequence is devoted to showing life on the ice in the midst of one of the intense frosts of the 18th century in England , and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina where Levin and Kitty as ideal sweet lovers yearning for one another ice-skate together. In all these the moments are idyllic, a halycon hiatus, physically beautiful too. The fifth is in It’s a Wonderful Life where George’s brother falls on thin ice, and George risks his own life to rescue him. Deep heroism, self-sacrifice. It is somehow indicative of the human psyche that this sport is rarely presented with any reality to our eyes.

About two weeks before we went, Izzy took herself ice-skating (partly looking forward to our trip) and fell. When much younger, she did ice-skate regularly by herself. But I had to drive her and it was not that much fun by herself. Now she was kindly taken care of while there and came home limping. It was only a twisted ankle, and within a couple of days she had no pain. A couple of weeks after we came home, she went with her JCC social club ice-skating. She didn’t fall.

For her I believe the time was very good and she is planning to go to Nationals (as she calls them) the next time they come to Boston or perhaps the World’s at Montreal. She loves to blog about ice-skating, participates intensely in this world of ice-skating, knows the politics which she reports on too. The sport and her participation in it help give her life meaning. There are thousands of people like her; each time I’ve gone to an event I’ve been impressed by the variety of types of people who are there fully absorbed. I think they were not well treated in by the Milan stadium owners. Izzy used to put up lovely YouTubes on her old blog, and I would share some too — where she shows her gift for elegant concise writing and carrying much knowledge lightly — but the commercialization of YouTube has taken most of her hard-worked efforts down.


The famous Nathan Chen whom Izzy and I first saw as a 12 year old seeking a scholarship at a Michael Weiss run skating event in (remote) Maryland — what has his life been.

I liked how he made a point of dressing simply. I wondered if that was part of his way of dealing with the stress.

Miss Drake

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