I Like to Watch

Mad respect to the disrespectful, from gold medalist Usain Bolt to the authority-questioning Marines of "Generation Kill" to the thoughtful artists on HBO's "The Black List."

Published August 24, 2008 11:00AM (EDT)

I knew Bob Costas would do it eventually. For more than a week, he'd managed to hold down the Olympic Spirit Desk in Beijing without throwing too much fanciful pontification into the mix. He'd refrained from unpacking his adjectives. He'd shown an unusual degree of self-control, smiling gamely and interviewing a grinning Michael Phelps or an outraged Bela Karolyi, the Romanian Captain Kangaroo of women's gymnastics, all without any extracurricular diatribes.

But then a few nights ago, that old, familiar self-righteous Costas emerged to take issue with 100-meter (and eventual 200-meter) gold medalist Usain Bolt from Jamaica. In case you've been hiding out in your nuclear bunker all week, Bolt broke his own world record and took the gold when he ran the 100-meter dash in an astonishing 9.69 seconds. But most amazing of all, Bolt not only appeared relaxed during the last 20 meters of the race, but he slowed down slightly, looked around him, and then, seeing that no one was even close, beat his chest with pride as he crossed the finish line. Naturally, to Costas and a few other pundits, this was a complete and total outrage.

Forget that the slow-motion shots of Bolt, casually speeding across the finish line and throwing his arms out to celebrate while the men next to him looked ready to spontaneously combust with the effort they were exerting, may constitute the most incredible Olympic footage ever. Using track and field commentator Ato Boldon's remarks as a launching point, Costas hopped on board the controversy train with his usual recklessness on Monday night, marveling with Boldon over Bolt's performance, then playing the scold, unprompted: "From where I sat ... it's disrespectful to his competitors and it's disrespectful to the Olympics and to the audience because they deserve to see the best possible performance." Boldon agreed but wouldn't go quite so far with his criticisms, merely saying, "It was a display that should not have been there."

Funny, if the screaming audience in the Bird's Nest felt disrespected, they certainly didn't show it. When Bolt ran over to give his mom in the stands a hug, he even ended up hugging two wildly enthusiastic Chinese fans along with her. It was the most unbridled display of sheer Olympic glory we'd seen all week, with Michael Phelps' gesturing and screaming during the last leg of the 4x100 freestyle relay taking a close second.

But Costas is so hot to stir things up that he can't help overstating the entire affair. Like the square football announcers who tsk-tsk endlessly about "showboating" in the end zone like it's the end of modern civilization as we know it, Costas has been trilling about "class" and "classiness" among athletes for decades now, as if it's the pinnacle of human achievement to reach a seemingly impossible goal, and then celebrate by acting like you're waiting for the F-train. What kind of bizarre WASPy mentality suggests that raw emotions should be saved for the most appropriate time and place, and then expressed in the most proper, so-called classy way?

Bolt enjoys joking around with his competitors. One of his shoes was untied when he ran the 100-meter race. His technique is described as sloppy and amateurish. He polished off a bunch of Chicken McNuggets right before the race. He's that kind of a guy. He's 21 years old, for Chrissakes! He became the fastest man on earth by a long shot, breaking his own record, while every other contender huffed and puffed along several feet behind him. How would anyone dare to claim that he owed it to the fans to run even faster, or that he disrespected them by celebrating a little early? What in the world is Costas, space alien from Planet Honky, talking about? Why should Bolt care about class, of all provincial, bourgeois values? What the hell is class, anyway, but some arbitrary code that soulless, high-capitalist professional robots live by?

You know what I like to see in the world's greatest athletes? Exuberance, and joy, and tears. I'd like to see them rip their clothes off and run around the Bird's Nest naked. I'd like to see a guy who's fast enough to beat his competitors then walk slowly across the finish line while grabbing his package. There's your world record right there, motherfrackers. Take that, masters of the corporate-sponsored Olympic universe. I'm just too goddamn fast to heed your mortal concerns.

Dissing R-E-S-P-E-C-T
Disrespect is seriously underrated these days, let's face it. We're a nation founded on disrespect, founded by individuals who disrespected their own homeland, people who disrespected their peers, people who told their king he could kiss their asses if he didn't like what they were doing in the wilds of Maine or on the coasts of North Carolina. Look how our once willfully irreverent nation has taken to celebrating "class" and "respect" and "self-control" in some desperate attempt to beat back the untamed, uncontrollable world pressing in on us at every turn. Old capitalists and the like can bemoan these changing times, wringing their hands over losing the slightest sliver of their enormous share of the global pie, but the rest of us are excited by the possibilities of a populace that might be empowered to think for itself for once.

The struggle between respecting authority and standing up to leaders whose decisions strike you as morally insupportable lies at the heart of "Generation Kill" (the finale airs at 8 p.m. EDT Sunday, Aug. 25, on HBO), David Simon and Ed Burns' colorful portrayal of the 1st Recon Marines' experiences during the early days of the Iraqi invasion. Based on the book of the same name by Rolling Stone journalist Evan Wright, who was embedded with the Marines at the start of the war, "Generation Kill" has been attracting an average of 3.5 million viewers a week, which puts its popularity up there with reruns of "According to Jim." But then, who wants to be reminded once a week that five years ago, the patriots of this great nation respectfully and politely followed our honorable president into a devastating, long-term, no-win war overseas?

If you've missed this miniseries from the start (and missed my interview with co-creator Ed Burns), I'd suggest TiVo'ing an upcoming marathon. (All seven episodes will be replayed starting at 8 p.m. Sept. 9 on HBO2-East.) Although the style and tone of the series and the rapid-fire banter of the Marines can be a little difficult to follow at first, as the series progresses, the main characters onscreen slowly take shape as complicated, conflicted individuals. We start to see that, while lead characters Cpl. Josh Ray Person (James Ransone) and Sgt. Brad Colbert (Alexander Skarsgard, who also shows up as a sexy vampire in the fourth episode of Alan Ball's new HBO series, "True Blood") make some off-putting, offhanded remarks as they ride across the desert into Iraq, they're both struggling to keep their cool and make the right calls in enormously stressful circumstances. "Stay frosty!" Colbert warns his men over the com as he peers into his gun's sights, but the atrocities that he and the other Marines experience over the course of a few weeks shake them to the core in spite of their extensive training.

Colbert in particular finds himself moved to question the Marines' roadblock tactics, which lead to the deaths of several Iraqi citizens. "Marines aren't cops, Brad," Lt. Nathaniel Fick (Stark Sands) tells Colbert, "We're an aggressive force." We're reminded of this difference, and the delicacy of trying to corral a population that's at war, throughout the series.

In fact, one of the most important messages of "Generation Kill" is that the troops may struggle mightily to make honorable choices, but in many cases their hands are tied. Although it may have seemed alarmist for antiwar protesters to lament our sinking into "another Vietnam" a few years ago, the rampant destruction and suffering endured by the Iraqi people reflected so devastatingly in Simon and Burns' series makes it clear that we're closer to Vietnam than most of us ever thought we could be.

Or, as Person puts it in the series, "This is really interesting, Brad. You know, Iraqis don't really seem good at fighting. But they never really completely surrender, either." The interplay of Person's quips, Colbert's icy silences, Captain America's spine-tingling lapses in judgment, and Ferrando's scratchy imperatives make "Generation Kill" a riveting exploration of the different ways human beings cope with stress, guilt, boredom, traumatic experiences and ethical dilemmas within the strict confines of the military hierarchy.

But the most informative and unnerving aspect of "Generation Kill" may be its portrayal of the ways that civilians in Iraq have been thoroughly, heavily, repeatedly screwed by our invasion. The Marines can't help those who took up arms and joined the insurrection or keep them from being assassinated by Iraqi troops, despite pamphlets that promised the U.S. would protect them. They can't help the farmers who were robbed and stripped naked (some assassinated) by Iraqi soldiers. They can't help the crowds of civilians fleeing Baghdad as the bombs are falling, and they don't help the people in neighborhoods in Baghdad who need protection from bandits robbing them at night. It's no wonder this miniseries isn't a massive hit for HBO; watching it pounds home just how impossible Iraq was from the start, and just how difficult it's going to be for us to extract ourselves from that country without leaving its people high and dry in the middle of a raging civil war.

One of the most disturbing scenes of the series shows 1st Recon encountering Iraqis fleeing Baghdad with their children and babies in tow. After the company doctor remarks that about one-fourth of the babies are going to die along the way, Lt. Fick remarks, "This humanitarian stuff. We get lost in it, we're not combat effective." The soldier he's with responds, ominously, "This is our future here."

While they may have entered the war with attitudes ranging from cavalier to gung-ho, almost every last one of the Marines depicted here is changed irrevocably by the experience. "Do you realize the shit that we've done here, the people we've killed?" says Tony. "Back in the civilian world, dog, if we did this? We would go to prison."

"You're thinkin' like a Mexican again," Colbert responds. "Think like a white man. Over there they'll be laying on the medals for what we did."

Black and white
This disconnect between the white man's thinking and the realities of life for minorities is also on display in the upcoming HBO documentary "The Black List" (8 p.m. Monday Aug. 25), a simple but moving collection of first-person accounts, anecdotes and musings by notable black artists, writers and public figures from Kenan Ivory Wayans to Colin Powell.

The film is quite simple: Each subject sits against a gray backdrop and reflects on his or her life and experiences while the camera rolls. The stories told here range from personal memories to reflections on the challenges faced by African-Americans in general. Toni Morrison explains how there's freedom in writing in a way that ignores the expectations of white society; Serena Williams remarks on the frequency with which sports journalists describe her as having "overpowered" her opponent while ignoring the mental side of her game; Kareem Abdul-Jabbar remembers working out in the gym with Miles Davis; Chris Rock recalls his low expectations of himself when he was younger -- he once thought, "If I work at UPS, I'll be really lucky."

Al Sharpton's interview is a highlight of the documentary, from his remarks that he "learned about manhood" from James Brown to his observation that the hip-hop generation has "become the gangsterized, thug Uncle Toms, that entertain whites' worst opinion of black folks." But nothing annoys him more than those who refuse to recognize that they're standing on the shoulders of giants. "I had a black conservative tell me on a talk show once, 'You gotta remember, I didn't make it 'cause of civil rights. Civil rights didn't write my résumé.'" Sharpton says. "I said, 'Yeah, but civil rights made somebody read your résumé.'"

Together, these first-person narratives form a contemplative quilt of personal experiences. Taken separately they may seem unremarkable, but together, they build into a disparate but coherent story that reaches its climax at the very end, when Tony Award-winning choreographer and dancer Bill T. Jones delivers an unforgettable treatise on black identity. Don't miss this moving documentary, and props to HBO for putting both of these important stories on the air.

Disrespectfully yours
Whether it's reflected in the elation of Usain Bolt, the haunting questions of the 1st Recon Marines or the pensive musings of Toni Morrison, a healthy dose of disrespect frees the individual from the bounds of the mundane. Those who are naturally disrespectful don't rebel for the sake of being rebellious, like angry teenagers. In fact, they excel in part because they refuse to be hobbled by protocol.

So let's give mad respect to the disrespectful! May we strive to emulate your unapologetic, rabble-rousing, insolent ways.

By Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

MORE FROM Heather Havrilesky

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Documentaries Hbo I Like To Watch Olympics Television