Monday, January 5, 2009

What Doesn't Kill You Only Makes You Less Likely To Rebound: Seven Seconds Or Less And The Dark Knight

Joker: Oh, and you know the thing about Chaos?


Joker: It's fair.

I had that line up as a status message on GMail. Why, because it tapped into some deep, philosophical paradigm that I feel implicitly connected to? Because it represents a heartfelt sentiment about the state of the world that I subscribe to? No. Because I think it is sounds cool.

Josh Coleman dropped me a little note out of the blue about it.

"Chaos isn't fair, it is merely indiscriminate and random. That doesn't equate to "fair" or "unfair". Chaos still affects the "innocent" just as much as the "guilty"."

Which led me to respond. And when I responded, something hit me.

"The chaos argument is tempting, because it seems to make sense. You have to hold on to certain tenets to not be suckered in by it. It's like 7SOL, really."

I meant it as a joke, but in reality, it's pretty accurate.

The crux of what the Joker says in that speech is that there is a perceived way to function in the world, and when you threaten that, people's fear overcomes them and drives them to irrational behavior. And similarly, he offers to Harvey an alternative to the lifeview that resulted in the death of his fiance, the release of every criminal he'd helped detain, and of course, that little matter of the left side of his face. He proposes to him a path of unhinged action, of violent opposition to a system that clearly fails to uphold the ideals it claims to value. And the temptation for Dent is how easy it is to give into the alternative, because it rewards all of the dark impulses that exist inside of him, namely, murder, destruction, and most importantly, revenge.

Now, the natural reaction to this line of thinking, despite its temptations, is twofold. First, there's the fact that, you know, unrestrained, indiscriminate destruction and violence is inherently wrong. But of course, the chaos side of the argument gets around that by disavowing the entire concept of right and wrong as part of those tenets you have to hold on to. Secondly is the matter, that the Joker ends up getting his ass kicked, swinging from a roof after his master plan completely failed. But think about why it failed. In the end, his failure, even in the short-term, was the result not of the caped crusaders' punching and kicking and bataranging. It was the inability of people on the boats to push the button. The decision not to go through with the most chaotic of impulses, the disregard of those exact tenets. In reality, the tenets didn't dictate the action, the action validated the tenets through their existence. People are inherently good because they didn't push the button. This of course goes back to a fairly long-standing and unspeakably more complex philosophical debate than I can articulate, but that's neither here nor there, so bear with me.

How does this relate to a mustached coach and Al Harrington? I'll tell you.

One of the things that's been noted by many people in the basketball world is the fact that SSOL tempts you into playing their game. You'll notice teams that get suckered into the pace, throwing themselves up and down the court, trying full court outlet passes, transition threes. It speaks to the funnest nature of basketball. Bill Simmons, actually, surprisingly, nailed it pretty well in his recent article.

"When you exert a seemingly chaotic run-and-gun pace, opponents invariably get caught up in that tempo—you know, because deep down every player really wants to shoot every seven seconds—and that's exactly what Coach Mike wants. He trains his teams to play that style and looks for players who make it work, giving him an inherent advantage every night. "

Now, Simmons' article is heavily flawed in several respects, as outlined here, and here, but that point is pretty accurate. There's a reason you're seeing Al Harrington having a renaissance there and why the Knicks as a whole look like they've been released from prison. D'Antoni has tapped into something ethereal that exists in players that tend to falter in traditional systems. Players that are made of athleticism and style, but little toughness or resolve. He is, somehow, able to tap into something philosophical with his teams and bring out the best in players that previously had nothing resembling a "best." He does so by feeding what many consider the worst parts of them previously. He takes their little world and he turns it in on themselves. It's fun. And it's tempting. It's that chaos being introduced to a system. And from a player's standpoint, it allows them to freelance and always look to score. It's... fair.

Now, conversely, Simmons' article also is a good reference point because it speaks to the prevailing counter-argument. The tenets of rational order, you might say. The tenets are that defense wins championship, toughness always wins over flash, and that you can't play basketball like that and expect to win. And just like in the Dark Knight, the end seems to justify that train of thought. The Joker got caught, the Spurs won the title, and all is right with the world (don't even get me started on the similarities between Batman accepting the responsibility of being hunted by the police and criticized for his good intentions and the Spurs being constantly dogged as "boring"). But there's also something telling in what the Joker tells Batman, hanging there, laughing at him.

"I think you and I are destined to do this forever."

Just because SSOL failed in the desert doesn't mean it will always fail, and it didn't mean the end of the movement. Because tonight, when the Knicks, with Al Harrington firing threes and Nate Robinson splitting defenders, beat the Celtics, with all their defense, all their fundamentals, all their strength, you saw a glimpse of it. The battle's eternal, and necessary between the two. Chaotic, freewheeling mania versus controlled, disciplined order.

Now, of course, this isn't meant to idolize the violent murder the joker takes as whimsy, nor to link D'Antoni to that kind of behavior. But there's a reason that no one goes around quoting any of Christian Bale's lines from that film, a reason that Ledger is posthumously up for an Oscar and was spoken of a nomination before his passing, a reason that when you think of that film, you think of the Joker. And it's the same reason kids love to dunk, that we like the fastbreak more than the halfcourt, and why Gilbert Arenas is on the All-Star ballot despite not playing a tick and Bruce Bowen has never been a serious DPOY of the year candidate. It's human nature, and it plays out every night on the court.

The best part is that there will never be an answer to the question. The fundamentalists will respond with "Who's got the rings?" and the other side will respond with a cackle and just a simple...

"You'll see. I'll show you."

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