For Love of the Cliché, Part I
By Michael Nye
I am, and always have been, a sports fan. I grew up in Cincinnati, at first wanting to be the next Barry Larkin and play shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds, until I realized I was terrible at baseball. Basketball became my game, in large part because I could practice dribbling and shooting jump shots by myself for hours. College basketball was big in Cincinnati thanks to several elite programs (Cincinnati, Xavier, and Kentucky, to name just the three most influential); I attended Ohio State, where college football is more like—to use the old cliché—a religion. As a child, I studied baseball box scores and frequently reorganized my baseball cards, simply for the sake of doing so, based on whatever odd criteria I decided on that day: batting average, home runs, team names, alphabetical by last name, and so forth. Today, I play basketball four times a week; I play fantasy baseball; my TV is almost always tuned to ESPN. I have the NBA and MLB apps on my phone and most of my workout clothes have team emblems across the chest or at the hemline of my shorts.
One of my other favorite things is movies. As a child, I rewatched movies that we recorded onto Beta tapes, anticipating the upcoming scenes I had already seen several times. As a teenager, I recorded movies off HBO and Showtime, cramming up to three films on each VHS tape, and watched my favorites over and over. I’m an omnivore: I love the big, loud, exploding movies like The Dark Knight and Star Trek, and I also love the independent, low budget spirit of movies like Fruitvale Station and The Lives of Others. Growing up, the independent film boom of the 90s made early Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino movies the dialog I mimicked in my everyday speech. The slow motion of fight scenes or character awareness, car chases through exotic cities, film scores that softly (or, often, loudly) expand the emotion of a scene, lighting techniques that cultivate mood: I love all of it, and often need to rewatch a film multiple times because I love re-experiencing these skills while also loving the movie in totality. Being a frequent solo moviegoer, I continue to enjoy the experience of going to the movie theaters: sitting in the dark in a large seat, the entire movie on a massive sixty foot silver screen, the cool air of the theater, waiting for the credits to snag the name of the actor or actress who I hadn’t seen before.
But for me, sports and movies are like oil and water. Sports movies are the most formulaic, boring, melodramatic, and insipid type of filmmaking. These movies are often preordained into two general narratives: the plucky underdog(s) that wins It (championship, division, beat big opponent) in the end, or the guy that gets really close and loses but learns An Important Life Lesson That Transcends Sports. As a viewer, you see these storylines a mile away. I have no affinity for your typical best sports films, like Hoosiers or Rudy or Rocky. And, it’s worth noting that there would not be a single film made in the last decade that would have a prayer of making anyone’s list of great sports movies. Perhaps the recent inability to make a halfway decent one only adds to my jadedness on the matter.
Movies are like short stories. They are one continuous experience, focused on a specific emotion spectrum that lasts for two hours or so, and then they are over; like the best stories, a good movie resonates long after the credits have rolled and each time the movie is rewatched, the viewer seems something new. Movies and short stories are emotionally simple: both are narratives of compression, of what can be achieved in the minutiae of two hours or one paragraph. Movies need to revisited, re-experienced, and there seems to be something new and amazing there each time you rewatch it. You almost have to see a movie more than once to truly appreciate it.
Sporting events aren’t conducive to being rewatched. Obviously, you can’t rewatch a game that you attended, unless you have a time machine. On television, once you record a game, there is a limited amount of time to watch it before you lose your interest. In a 24/7 news cycle, it’s difficult to hide from the game results and box scores: you learn pretty fast who won and who lost. Further, the experience of watching a game in real time is part of the appeal. You don’t know what will happen. Unlike almost anything else on television, you have no idea what the outcome will be and it hasn’t been predetermined. The television shows we watch were filmed and edited months ago; same too of reality shows. Even if you don’t know the outcome, you do know that it has, in some way, already been decided.
This isn’t true of sports. At any given time, you really might see something you have never seen before: the helmet catch in the Super Bowl, the Celtics rallying from 25 down to win game four, Kobe dogging a game 7 against the Suns, Bo Jackson hitting a gargantuan home run, a defensive play that defies superlatives. The anticipation of “ohmygod ohmygod ohmygod we’re gonna win!” isn’t captured in any other way.
Inherently, then, movies strip sports of their essential nature: unpredictability. Advanced metrics can only give you probability, but not certainty. The slice of the possible, of seeing or doing something that cannot be anticipated, is what makes sports great. In what movie does Andres Gallaraga’s perfect game—an early season game of no immediate consequence hurled by an average starting pitcher at best that became a one-hitter only due to a blown call by umpire Jim Joyce, an error he brutally acknowledged afterward—make narrative sense? What is that story? Who would watch such a mundane setup of a May baseball game?
Sports movies are based on reassuring narratives. Team games, like football and basketball, focus on a group of disparate and unruly kids—always kids—who come together and learn to be winners. Think of movies like The Bad News Bears or Remember the Titans. There are more sports movies about boxing and baseball because they inherently set up one-on-one conflicts: two fighters in the ring, pitcher versus hitter.
The beauty of baseball movies is that you can have your cake and eat it too: the team uniting to win, like in Major League, and also the one-on-one scenes of pitcher vs. hitter, such as the end of The Natural, that could make for terrific drama. Baseball’s history, spanning over 150 years, gives it several additional advantages as the sport most appropriate for film. It is pastoral, even if only in suggestion (the open air, the green grass). It has a rich history. There is a morality inherent to the game: an error is given for not doing what should have happened; official scorers making rulings like an act of God; the “warning track.” There is no clock, and games can be as long or as short as the players on the field dictate with their actions. The game has more anticipation, stoppage, and—arguably—narrative tension, than other sports.
Watching every sports movie and reading every novel written about sports would be an impossible task (or at least a very long one) so I picked a film based on a book, both of which I have never seen or read, respectively, and gave it a spin. How is Hollywood currently doing the sports movie, what is the source material, and what do these two narrative forms suggest about the way we live our lives?