Monday, June 22, 2009

On Moneyball and the Death of the Sports Movie

It's true: The film adaptation of Moneyball, the book that spurred an ongoing Civil War between cranky sportswriters and brilliant nerds who are much more interesting when dissecting politics, appears to be dead. This saddens me for several reasons, not the least of which is that, like every other semi-rational human who read this book (incuding the author, Michael Lewis), I cannot even begin to imagine how this movie's narrative would have progressed without inducing somnambulance in theatres, and I cannot imagine how Brad Pitt would have gone about embracing his inner SABRmetrician, and I cannot imagine what the marketing campaign would entail (A Beautiful Mind meets Little Big League!). That, in itself, would have been kind of awesome to see (as would anything involving Demetri Martin).

But it's more than that. It's that there are certain filmmakers you trust, just as there are certain writers you trust, and certain musical artists you trust, and you are prepared to follow them wherever they go. This is why, if Radiohead decides to re-record the soundtrack to Les Miserables using kitchen utensils that once belonged to Roman Polanski, I will purchase said album. This is why, if Philip Roth writes a novel about an alternate universe where Dolph Schayes became the commissioner of the NBA, I will purchase said book.*

And this is why, if Steven Soderbergh somehow does con a studio into allowing him to make a movie about baseball statistics and the geeks who love them, I will be there. Because there is no cinematic category quite as moribund as the modern sports film. In fact, given this list from a 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, I can easily make a case that the only truly great sports films since the release of 1988's Bull Durham** are documentaries: When We Were Kings, Hoop Dreams, much of HBO Sports' recent catalogue, ESPN's SportsCentury***, Murderball, certain unboring segments of Ken Burns' Baseball, Dogtown and Z-Boys, etc.

This is due, obviously, to the increasing commodification of Hollywood, and to the notion that the only sports-related feature films that appeal to mass audiences are the ones that adhere to blatant stereotypes and facile storylines. But I think it's also happened because we are so overexposed to sports these days--to that which seems real and unreal, to the ugly storylines and the bizarre twists and sick reveals of the modern age (see: Vick, Michael)--that the real thing can generally be presented in far more vivid form than anything that might have been filtered through the visions of seven Hollywood producers, including at least two who believe Oddibe McDowell was a member of Hootie and the Blowfish.****

I think Soderbergh, who works in verite, whose low-budget films (including The Girlfriend Experience, which was stolen away by my friend Glenn Kenny's freakishly creepy performance) are so "real" as to arouse a certain amount of discomfort, might be the one person in Hollywood who could actually break through this incredibly low ceiling. And even if Moneyball kind of sucked--even if it were the incoherent mess we all suspect it might be--well, at least we've tried something different.***** Because the only way a sports movie can succeed with actual sports fans in an age where sports have essentially become reality television is to make it so unbearably real that it somehow seems truer than real life.

*Note to self: This is an idea to develop.
**Which has also gotten a little hokier with age.
***Which remains the greatest thing that network has ever done.
****I have heard that this movie, Sugar, about a young Dominican pitcher, is excellent. But I have yet to see it.
*****And there is no possible way it could be any worse than Benjamin Button.

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