Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Wide Angle: Games People Play (And The Movies They Watch)

An article? A "think piece"? An indulgent journal of an LA cinephile? It's all part of my non-reviews in 'Wide Angle'

One of my favorite Roger Ebert sayings is this: “A movie is not about what it is about; it’s about how it’s about it.”

I think about this little grammar-taxing axiom often in relation to sports movies. Conventional wisdom holds that a movie or television show must be careful about how much sports action it employs, lest it alienate those who are indifferent toward athletics. Even then, the sports movie operates within a strange economic niche in North American cinema (you can forget about international, especially if the sport in question is baseball, football, or hockey), where a modest world-of-mouth hit with mostly favorable reviews qualifies as a smashing success.

I am referring to Moneyball, the true-life story of the general manager of a pro baseball team (Brad Pitt) who uses unconventional strategies to field a competitive squad despite considerable financial disadvantages. And if that synopsis sounds more like a cerebral workplace drama than a stand-up-and-cheer sports flick, well, that’s because it is. Moneyball’s dichotomous reception is especially fascinating; it’s been lauded by many movie critics but picked to death by baseball analysts and insiders. This is, to some extent, normal. Any film about a specific subculture or pastime – anything, really, that can be described as a ‘______ movie’ – has inaccuracies or omissions that send aficionados into a pedantic rage.

While the baseball blogosphere did respond positively to Moneyball as an entertaining movie with stellar performances and a sharp script, some people like Yahoo! Sports writer Jeff Passan were left cold by a perceived lack of emotion. Passan argues that baseball movies used to give the impression that the game could teach us something about our shared humanity, but Moneyball’s topic isn’t sufficiently human. It’s not teaching us life lessons via the trials of ground-down minor leaguers or corn farmers with daddy issues. It’s a decent film, he acknowledges, but it’s “just not a baseball movie.” With a damning sense of get-off-my-lawn finality he laments, “ They don’t make those anymore.”

To which I say, “Good!” Assuming that the standard for a successful, resonant sports movie hasn’t changed in the past 20 years ignores the massive changes in sport culture in that time span. In the 21st century, two major innovations have completely altered the public’s relationship with sports: fantasy games and the microscopic scrutiny of athletes under a 24/7 news cycle. The former has fostered a greater understanding of the capricious mechanics of games and the business of sport, and the latter has been demolishing the myth of the athlete-as-hero brick by brick (or sext by sext). The best narrative sports movies of the past few years all recognize the increasing savvy of even the casual sports fan. Not one of them is “about” sports in the literal sense, or even the slightly metaphoric sense favored by Passan.

Moneyball is one, of course, and is plenty emotional is this baseball fan’s opinion, a fable (that happens to be true) about how people affect and respond to change. The 2008 indie drama Sugar is another, the best baseball movie you’ve never seen where the game represents the most untenable parts of the American Dream and illustrates how this dream is truly realized by defining it on your own terms. 2009’s Big Fan might be the best of the bunch, a character study of an obsessive loner (Patton Oswalt) whose chance encounter with his favorite football player forces him to consider whether his fandom is worth the psychological torment that goes along with it. It’s quite dark at times, but also very funny and ultimately bittersweet and completely indicative of what it means to be a sports fan in the oversaturated ESPN era. All three movies are real cinematic treats in a sub-genre that typically has televisual aspirations. Instead of merely attempting to replicate what it’s like to have a life in sports, they take a widescreen perspective and investigate what effect sports have on life.

The conventional sports movie is not going away. You can still choose from The Blind Side or Gridiron Gang or Coach Carter and follow along with the up-from-the-bootstraps narrative that has dominated sports coverage since Jim Thorpe was winning at everything. You can get the warm nostalgia fuzzies from a mashup marathon of The Invincible Rookie Miracle. You can watch the interchangeable Remember the Titans and Glory Road to see if the dialogue eventually syncs up. You can be a Warrior or a Fighter (or just be Fighting). These movies are all very direct. That can be enjoyable – some of the films I mentioned in this paragraph are quite good. They are about what they are about. They are movies about sports, but they are not “sports movies.”

They are just starting to make those.

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