THE AGONY OF DEFEAT: FOUR FALLS OF BUFFALO (2015)

December 15, 2015

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On January 3rd, 1993, the Buffalo Bills trailed the Houston Oilers 28 – 3 at halftime. I was 11 years old, and had gone to the Wild Card playoff game at Rich Stadium outside of Buffalo, NY with my father, uncle and grandfather. They were ready to pack it in and go home, to beat the traffic and avoid the humiliation of watching the end of a blowout defeat. There was no hope, what with franchise quarterback Jim Kelly on the bench with strained knee ligaments while his replacement Frank Reich scuffled. The opposing QB Warren Moon was calmly throwing lasers appropriate for his space age name, with his second TD pass going to one Webster Slaughter, and it certainly was. Better luck next year, we must have told ourselves, when Kelly would be healed and the team that went to back-to-back Super Bowls in ’91 and ’92 returned to full speed (their offense was based around the no-huddle, up-tempo offense). But I wanted to stay to the bitter end. I savored sitting on those aluminum benches, with my Bills Starter Jacket pulled over orange overalls, pinioned in between my beer-bellied family. It was 34 degrees but I was warm, there was still time to cheer and yell and let oneself go.

So we stayed, and a miracle happened. The Oilers went up 35-3 early in the 3rd Quarter, and then the Bills preposterously kept scoring, over and over again, until they pulled off the greatest comeback in NFL history, winning 41-38. It was a dream but I was there in my seat, it was impossible but there it was, right in front of me. The Bills would lose the ensuing championship, of course, as they would the following year as well, an unprecedented four-year feat of Super Bowl failure.These years are captured in all their depressing grandeur in the latest documentary in ESPN’s 30 For 30 series, Four Falls of Buffalo. 

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The story of the Bills is a story of loss, and it could not be told without the cooperation of Scott Norwood, the most infamous loser in NFL history. He was the kicker who missed a 47-yard field goal wide right as time was winding down in Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants. Many players made mistakes that game, as Hall of Fame defensive end Bruce Smith notes, including the coaching staff for failing to adapt to defensive coordinator Bill Belichick’s defensive scheme (two down lineman and a slew of coverage LBs and DBs), but it was Norwood who had the bad fortune of making his mistake at the end. Despite having a productive follow-up season, Norwood could never live down that miss, and was caricatured in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective as a lunatic and in Buffalo ’66 as a decadent perv. He is the heart of Four Falls of Buffalo, a calm, sensitive, deeply sympathetic figure who tears well up at that long-ago defeat, wishing he could have done more for the fans of Buffalo. After the Super Bowl XXV loss, the team gathered in Niagara Square to a crowd of more than 30,000. Norwood did not intend to speak, but the crowd started chanting “We Want Scott!” as a kind of group catharsis, so he took the podium and said, “I’ve never felt more loved than right now.”

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The team was adored in Buffalo, and despised everywhere else. A narrative emerged that the Bills were ruining the Super Bowl by continuing to appear in it, and proto hot take artists like Mike Lupica took constant shots at the team. There were jokes on Beverly Hills 90210 and The X-Files, and even a self-lacerating commercial for Snickers. The real reason media types were disappointed at the Bills’ success was that they were a small market, and wouldn’t deliver the same ratings as any other franchise. But the media and the Bills were stuck together for four years, and the animosity between the team and the press is captured in gruesomely uncomfortable press conferences in which the players’ faces ash and crumble.

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The most beloved figure in Buffalo was and remains Jim Kelly, a living totem to perseverance. He was a cocky QB in the vaunted draft class of 1983 (along with John Elway and Dan Marino), who had no intention of playing for small town Buffalo, not after enjoying the sunny climes of the University of Miami. So he skipped out on the NFL and suited up for the upstart USFL’s Houston Gamblers until that league folded two seasons later. It was only then that Kelly agreed to play for Buffalo, since they retained his rights and were the only league in town. It turned out Kelly’s go-go-go demeanor was ideal for the developing no huddle offense, later dubbed the “K-Gun”, that would drive the team’s success. Much of that story is detailed in the 30 for 30 doc Elway to Marino, directed by Ken Rodgers of NFL Films. It was during that production that Kelly suggested to Rodgers that he make a film about the Bills. Despite his original rebuke of the city, Kelly has now become one of its biggest proselytizers, and has lived in the area since the end of his playing days. The city has supported Kelly through a brutal series of tragedies, from the death of his son Hunter from Krabbe’s disease, to the cancer that spread through his jaw. Interviewed atop Niagara Falls, now cancer free, Kelly embodies the town’s battered, indomitable spirit.

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My favorite player on those teams though, was probably Bruce Smith, one of the greatest sack artists of all time. He was a soft spoken type who had a gift for hoodwinking offensive lineman, slipping past with astonishing quickness. Director Ken Rodgers had Smith and Hall-of-Fame running back Thurman Thomas (who also still lives in Buffalo) sit on a comfy leather couch and watch all four Super Bowl games, and record their increasingly queasy reactions. Thurman Thomas famously lost his helmet on the bench during Super Bowl XXVI against Washington, forcing him to miss a critical series. It is revealed that a member of Harry Connick Jr’s band, who were performing at halftime, moved it while setting up (Connick is now dead to me). Rodgers does a cringe-inducing job of twisting the knife by showing a gaping hole that Thomas could have run through for a touchdown if only that fugitive helmet could have been found.

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The Bills’ four-year run of Super Bowl futility generates endless what-if scenarios, but the reality we are left with is one of defeat. It is brutally sad, and remains so this many years later. The perennially insecure city could have used just one of those wins. Sometimes I wonder how a Super Bowl victory would have affected my personality – maybe I would be a swaggering hedge fund manager instead of a DVD producer and film blogger if Scott Norwood could have pushed that kick a few inches to the left. But he couldn’t, and I’m not. The city no longer seems to care about those Super Bowl losses. These teams are ingrained in the town’s psyche. When a Buffalo News article by Tim Graham revealed that Bills LB Darryl Talley was suffering from symptoms related to CTE and was struggling financially, Buffalonians set up a crowdfunding campaign and raised over $150,000 to give to his family.

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There is an intimacy for Buffalo’s love of the Bills that runs deep. Mine was cemented in that Wild Card game against the Oilers, when I witnessed a miracle. So I, like so many other displaced Buffalonians, will watch and suffer as the team stumbles towards their sixteenth straight season without making the playoffs, the longest current streak in the NFL. It is a long, painful drought. This is what cheers up a Bills fan: clips of Jim Kelly zipping in a crossing route to Andre Reed,  Thurman Thomas crashing through a hole, or Bruce Smith spinning his way into a sack of Dan Marino (who will scream at his O-line after picking himself off the turf). This was a team of transcendent losers, and I can only hope to fail as beautifully as them.

PIGSKIN ADDICTS: COLLEGE COACH (1933) AND EASY LIVING (1949)

December 10, 2013

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Staring disconsolately at a blank wall as the Buffalo Bills are eliminated from playoff contention is one of my longest held traditions. It’s been fourteen years since that benighted franchise has played in the second season, and any damp flickerings of hope this go ’round were quashed after consecutive demolitions by league doormats (Falcons and Buccaneers). To avoid reflecting on these latest humiliations, I escape into pigskin fantasies of the silver screen. Luckily, TCM is airing a whole day of football flicks tomorrow, from 6:45 AM to 8PM. For heartsick fans of other downtrodden teams, may I suggest William Wellman’s College Coach (1933) and Jacques Tourneur’s Easy Living (1949)? The first is a speedy campus comedy with Pat O’Neil in short pants and a crooning Dick Powell, while the latter is a downbeat relationship drama with declining QB Victor Mature and his glory-hogging wife Lizbeth Scott. Neither will rescue your franchise from irrelevance, but they will pass the time until the indignities of next football Sunday.

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College Coach was the sixth and final movie that William Wellman directed in 1933, right after his Great Depression youth-in-revolt classic Wild Boys of the Road . College Coach looks like a slice of reassuring Americana in comparison, but his portrait of an opportunistic college football coach makes corruption look as American as apple pie. Pat O’Brien plays Coach Gore, a fast talking operator who wins at all costs (and it often costs him a pretty penny). He stacks his rosters through bribes that would make the 1990s University of Miami blush. The money-starved Calvert College is seeking ways to boost revenue after investing heavily in their chemistry department, so they lure Gore away to lead their moribund team. Swiftly importing a trio of jacked up goons to add to their one bonafide star (Dick Powell), Calvert suddenly has a powerhouse franchise, a marketable gimmick, “The Four Aces”, and bursting box office coffers (also keep an eye out for cameos by Ward Bond and John Wayne).

Pat O’Neil has a ball as the con-man coach, massaging his players past academic requirements and ordering game-time hits on the competition’s star player. Reminiscent of Gregg Williams’ bounty scandal when with the New Orleans Saints (players would win prizes for knocking out opponents), in College Coach such an order leads to a player’s death. When confronted, Gore icily responds, “40-50 die every year…that’s football.”  Perfectly encapsulating the attitude that led to concussion research getting swept under the table, as detailed in the Frontline documentary “League of Denial”, Gore sees football as a warzone in which the ends justify the means. What’s remarkable is that Gore somehow remains the hero of the tale, his illegal activities the actions of an engaging roue rather than a hardened criminal. Like so much of Warner Brothers’ pre-code output, criminality is no sin when the whole economic system had collapsed. It was simply common sense.

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Made for a reported $245,000, Wellman gooses things along with some snappy montage. Gore’s hiring at the start of the football season is heralded with close-ups from students to janitors that exclaim, “They hired Gore!”. It’s like he had just watched Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) and wanted to experiment with musical dialogue of his own. His other visual flourish is to express characters’ state of mind through the feet . Gore’s much ignored wife (played with verve by Ann Dvorak) is introduced from the shins down, cutting holes in the rug with her nervous walking. Later, Wellman will stage a fight between Powell and a loud-mouthed Lyle Talbot and focus entirely on the ground, their dancing feet telling the tale of the bout. Talbot is keen on wooing Dvorak, so this bit of visual rhyming displays that they might have a future.

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As Marlene Dietrich said of Orson Welles in Touch of Evil, Victor Mature’s future is all used up in Easy Living (1949), Jacques Tourneur’s melancholy football melodrama. Mature plays the star QB of the New York Chiefs, Pete Wilson, whose image adorns the banner outside the stadium (although he still takes the subway to work). Nicknamed “King Football”, he may have to hang up his spikes after being diagnosed with a serious heart condition. Having bankrolled his wife’s interior decorating company, and aware of her eagerness to climb the social ladder, Wilson is reluctant to give up the mantle of fame. The story is very punishing towards female ambition, and includes a tacked on ending of casual misogyny. For Tourneur it was a job he was not enthusiastic to take. He had just completed Berlin Express for RKO, and turned down the opportunity to make A Woman’s Secret, which would end up as the second film by Nicholas Ray. Not wanting to push the limits of his power, he accepted the next script offered to him, which was originally titled Inteference. He accepted what would become Easy Living even though he had never seen a football game before. As he is quoted in Chris Fujiwara’s The Cinema of Nigthfall, Tourneur admitted, “I’m not interested in any sports.” This is evident in Mature’s awkward throwing motion in practice, a short arm heave with no follow-through (although Philip Rivers has made a similar motion work in the pros).

With little interest in the game on the field, Tourneur focuses on the business of the game, as outlined in Charles Schnee’s script. Early on a long-time Chiefs player is cut loose, with no pension or health care to see him through the rest of his days. The team secretary, played with world-weary resignation by Lucille Ball, says the ex-player only has himself to blame. Ball is spectacular in one of her final pre-I Love Lucy roles. Having once been an RKO contract lead player, she was now relegated to supporting status. She could probably relate to the also-ran status of her character, she is widowed by by a deadbeat and now carries an unrequited torch for Wilson. Ball displays her whip-smart timing in acid exchanges with Wilson, as she nurses his hangovers and hurt feelings. She is a mitigating force against the screenplay’s sexism, which focuses its ire on Wilson’s wife Liza (Lizbeth Scott). She is the gold-digging harpy of misogynist fantasy, holding back her husband’s masculine birthright to be the sole breadwinner. Scott does what she can in a thankless role, but it is Ball who walks away with the picture.

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Tourneur creates a cramped atmosphere in the locker room, pushing his camera into packed frames of jock straps and high socks. In the city scenes he positions his actors in positions of non-communication, backs turned and looking at cross-purposes. Some of the compositions look like they’re straight out of Antonioni, including one striking image of a magnate’s mistress sitting disconsolately in the foreground, separated from her lover by Liza’s figure in the middle. Later Victor Mature will be separated from Lucille Ball in a similar fashion, this time by an analog boxing arcade game. As hackneyed as the script can get, these are striking images of alienation, and Mature gives a withdrawn, grieving performance as Wilson, as if death would be a release. The egregious Hollywood ending prevents such a peek into the void, but it’s something that Tourneur leads us there. He said of Easy Living that, “This is a very bad film for a reason that I must keep secret.” I would say it is these unspoken secrets that make it worth watching.

PIGSKIN PSYCHOLOGY: SEMI-TOUGH (1977)

September 3, 2013

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The NFL regular season begins this Thursday night when the defending champion Baltimore Ravens face the Denver Broncos. It has been a tumultuous offseason for the National Football League, as they battled a lawsuit brought by 4,500 ex-players seeking liability payments for the long-term health effects of head trauma. Last week the league settled the suit, paying $765 million, a small price to pay for an organization that brings in $10 billion in yearly revenue. While that will temporarily quiet the calls for wider reform, the investigative PBS program Frontline will air “League of Denial” in October, which promises to show how the NFL “covered up how football inflicted long-term brain injuries on many players.” ESPN was originally a co-presenter, but backed out after receiving pressure from the NFL.

Hollywood has yet to catch up with these unsavory developments, still grinding out a cycle of post-Blind Side inspirational football dramas. It’s way past due for another dig in the dirt like North Dallas Forty (1979) or at least the amiable satire of Michael Ritchie’s Semi-Tough (1977), which is streaming on VUDU. North Dallas Forty was recently named the greatest football movie ever by NFL.com, although it was denied the league’s cooperation on its initial release. Now it’s pill-popping wide receiver is feted on the league’s website. Semi-Tough has not been so rehabilitated. Michael Ritchie’s follow-up to The Bad News Bears, it focuses less on the violence of the sport than its megalomaniacal personalities.

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Semi-Tough was adapted from the novel of the same name by sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who expressed dismay at how much Ritchie and screenwriter Walter Bernstein departed from his original. There had already been a foiled attempt at a musical version, which Jenkins relays in a production diary for Sports Illustrated (Semi-Pro made the cover). They added an entire subplot about a self-help guru (modeled on Werner H. Erhard), shifting the story’s focus from bad boy athlete antics to a Design for Living love triangle. Billy Clyde Puckett (Burt Reynolds) and Shake Tiller (Kris Kristofferson) are Miami’s star running back and wide receiver, making a deep run into the playoffs and hotel bars. They are best friends with Barbara Jane Bookman (Jill Clayburgh), the daughter of eccentric team owner Big Ed (Robert Preston). The trio lives together in playful platonic harmony until Shake gets mystical, and proposes marriage to Barbara.

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Michael Ritchie had already made a career out of competition. His films delineated the preening vanity required to win at all costs, which is a cardinal virtue in his vision of America.   Downhill Racer (1969) used skiing, The Candidate an election and Smile a beauty pageant, but all abided by Ricky Bobby’s maxim in Talladega Nights: “If you’re not first, you’re last.” The Bad News Bears opened a new path for Ritchie, the slackers who rust out the competitive machine. Semi-Tough is an amalgam of both of these approaches, because while Billy and Shake are both supreme narcissists, they are also incredibly lazy – too eager to drink and shoot the shit to care about career advancement. Early on Billy is introduced to a supercilious publisher (“Intellectuals are the jocks of the mind”) eager for a gossipy tell-all, requesting stories of drug use and excess.  Although it would be an instant best-seller, Billy could care less, leading him on with absurdist tales of pre and post-game orgies.  The only thing Billy and Shake seem to care about is Barbara.

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Burt Reynolds is fabulous as Billy, using his snickering humor to undercut his matinee good looks. In her review for New York Magazine, Molly Haskell puts it better: “He can be subtle and ironic without betraying the basic simplicity of his character, and, with that total confidence that comes out as generosity rather than narcissism, he is one of the most effortlessly romantic male stars on the screen. His subtlety is in the tilt and tease of his swagger.” Jenkins recalls Reynolds improvising many of his lines on the set, “all of them in keeping with the spirit of the novel.” Jill Clayburgh does some teasing of her own, a footloose woman who can talk dirty with an innocent gleam in her eye. Kristofferson can’t compete with their layered performances, but his haggardly handsome mien is always a welcome presence regardless.

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For both men football is an afterthought. Billy is a Gene Autry fanatic, and Ritchie scores a muddy playoff game to Autry’s “You’re the Only Good Thing to Happen to Me”, as if the game were an extension of his leisure time. Ritchie pays little attention to game details, even placing Miami against Green Bay in the Conference Champoinship, even though those teams are in different leagues. The game is an afterthought. What Ritchie seems most fascinated by is the culture of continual self-improvement in the celebrity set, represented by a “Human Potential Movement” group called BEAT, of which Shake becomes a devotee. The opposing QB (Carl Weathers) espouses “Pyramid Power”, while Miami owner Big Ed is into “movagenics”, which involves crawling on the floor like a baby. The most uncomfortable program is espoused by Clara Pelf (Lotte Lenya), whose full body intrusion massage is a painful parody of “Rolfing”, a “soft tissue manipulation” fad.

BEAT is modeled on Werner Erhard’s est seminars, which professed “to transform one’s ability to experience living so that the situations one had been trying to change or had been putting up with, clear up just in the process of life itself.” It’s Zen Buddhism with a higher price tag, and Barbara is attracted to Shake’s emerging sensitivity. All of these self-help mechanisms replicate the win-at-all-costs mentality again, but instead of elections or football games, it’s infiltrated philosophy and religion. The priest at the climactic wedding offers money laundering tips as if he’s a numbers man in the mafia. When the even the spirit has become commodified, it’s time to blow it all up and start over. And so they do.

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THE AESTHETICS OF FOOTBALL

December 1, 2009

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A few weeks backI examined the directorial decisions that went into Fox’s World Series broadcast. Every play in baseball contains an inherent drama easy for a camera to pick out – the duel between pitcher and catcher. This offers an easy, lucid way for the production team to escalate tension, and the natural rhythm between pitches dictates the pace. Football, with its spread out action and endless commercial breaks, presents a more difficult challenge in creating and maintaining a rhythm and a narrative. There are almost too many shots for a director to choose from. There are 22 players on the field at all times, and any one of them can become the focal point.

Drew Esocoff is the director for NBC’s Sunday Night Football broadcast, with Fred Gaudelli as the executive producer. Esocoff describes himself as the quarterback to Gaudelli’s head coach, executing the game plan as tightly as possible and improvising when necessary. I took a closer look at this past Sunday night’s game to see how their relationship might play out. It was the Baltimore Ravens at home facing the defending champion Pittsburgh Steelers, both teams on the outskirts of the wild-card race and in desperate need of a win.

The biggest story of the game, and one Gaudelli obsessively focused on, was the status of the Steelers starting quarterback, Ben Roethlisberger. Still suffering the effects from a concussion the previous week (he felt exercise-induced headaches), he was held out of this critical game as a precaution. His backup Charlie Batch was dinged up with a wrist injury, so Pittsburgh was left with Dennis Dixon, a second year man out of Oregon with one pass attempt to his name. The NFL has been hit with a series of negative reports on their handling of concussions, which has led to a more conservative approach to treating the injury. Roethlisberger’s benching was just the latest iteration of this ongoing saga. With Dixon’s underdog story and the wider impact of the concussion issue, Gaudelli has a lot to work with here, although it leaves the Ravens out of the spotlight. This continues in the announcer’s open, which lays the groundwork for the entire contest. Al Michaels leads with the Roethlisberger/Dixon story, while Collinsworth adds a minor note about the Ravens’ possible heavy use of the blitz. Again, the game is treated as secondary to the Steeler QB situation.

The opening kickoff sequence sets the stage for how Esocoff will handle the game. He opens with the equivalent of pitcher-catcher, with two 10 second shots of the kicker and return man. Then he opts for a quick cutaway to Ray Lewis on the sidelines- probably hoping for some of his legendary pre-game intensity that never arises. He quickly shifts to what will become the main theme of the game, a 1 second close-up of Dixon followed by a 5 second shot of Roethlisberger applauding by his bench. Then he returns to Dixon in a frontal close-up – an extended 10 seconds of tension building before he returns to a brief shot of the back of Lewis. Then he locks in the default action camera, the slightly high-angle sideline view that is the default for all broadcasts of the sport.

This opening bit of montage exhibits the sheer profusion of elements that the director has to balance in a football game. Esocoff attempts to set-up the opening play, the arc surrounding the Steeler QB situation, as well as establishing the competition between the two teams. But the latter gets lost in the shuffle, the few rote shots of Lewis seemingly out of place, jammed in between the Dixon-Roethlisberger drama out of obligation more than anything else. He is also shot from the back and rather immobile, a faceless on-looker to the drama on the other sideline. At least this is what the opening sequence conveys.

This continues on into the main action of the game. In the 2nd Quarter, with Baltimore up 7-0, the Steelers have the ball at the Ravens’ 35 yard line. It’s first down. Dixon fakes the handoff, rolls right, and slings it to Santonio Holmes streaking across the middle of the field for a touchdown. This is the first emotional peak for the narrative that Gaudelli has set up, and Esocoff nails it down. He cuts from the sideline cam to a medium shot of Dixon pointing to the sky, and then a rapid montage of Roethlisberger beaming, Dixon’s Dad screaming in the stands, and another medium-shot of Dixon getting smacked by his ebullient teammates. This is a well-balanced bit of editing, emphasizing Dixon’s shockingly effective drive rather than Roethlisberger’s sideline antics, but incorporating it enough to massage the ongoing storyline.

It’s also worth considering the more banal plays, how a director handles the endless number of 1 yard runs and incomplete passes that constitute half  of the action. In a Ravens drive midway through the 3rd quarter, they are holding onto a 14-10 lead and just received a punt deep in their own territory. Baltimore QB Joe Flacco runs onto the field in a close-up before a zoom-out reveals the offensive line that recently led to a tweaked ankle. Esocoff opts for a slo-mo replay of his twisting leg in a super-zoom the network annoyingly calls its NBCEE IT camera. Then he cuts to a live, low-angle close-up shot of Flacco’s heavily bandaged right angle, following him right up to the center before cutting to a wide shot of the play, a short wide-receiver screen to Derrick Mason.

This is television sports at its lucid best. Chris Collinsworth remarks upon the nicks Flacco had been dealing with all year as the slo-mo replay flashes on-screen. With Esocoff’s cameraman getting a clean shot of Flacco’s ankle, it sets up a mini-arc that can be teased out the rest of the game, one which can finally be used as a counterpoint to the Steeler QB narrative which had dominated up until this point. It’s Esocoff improvising with finesse, and an example of how much more difficult it is to craft a clean story in the NFL than in MLB, which is more appealingly geometric and partitioned for the cameras.

So while I prefer the calm build-up of Bill Webb’s Word Series coverage, one can’t help but be impressed with the high-wire act Esocoff has to perform every Sunday night – a game with herky-jerky pacing that occasionally takes flight into moves of balletic beauty in the midst of 22 helmeted behemoths. He doesn’t even have the benefit of the human face, obscured by enameled hardened plastics. It’s a marvel he gets anything resembling continuity within this jumble of action, but he does in selected spurts, all of which seems moot next to the individual glories of a Drew Brees touchdown pass or Chris Johnson’s burst through the line. But Esocoff and Gaudelli set-up the edifice that contains these athletic glories, and they should be honored like the solid craftsmen they are.

THE AESTHETICS OF BASEBALL

November 3, 2009

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As I sit on my mysteriously stained couch watching Game 5 of the World Series, my mind wanders to the decision-making process of the game’s director, Bill Webb. He’s orchestrated 13 of these Fall Classics, with new technologies opening up more vistas of sweat and crotch grabs each time.  Webb, alongside producer Pete Macheska, makes decisions on shot selection and duration every second of the game, all of which subtly shape the viewing experience. Baseball is a game of lulling rhythms that occasionally spike into frenzied bouts of athleticism. How Webb handles the former, the batting-glove adjustments, talks at the mound, and endless foul balls, is the most fascinating aspect to his anonymous craft.

Idly charting his shot selection over the first few innings, a few patterns emerge. He averages around 5 shots per at-bat, but incrementally increases their number and cutting speed at more dramatic moments. In the top of the fourth inning, with no-one on base and a comfortable 6-1 lead, Cliff Lee is facing Nick Swisher with the count at 2-1. Webb starts with a medium shot of Swisher, cuts to a medium shot of Robinson Cano on deck, then shifts to a close-up of Lee, before settling in to the centerfield camera for the pitch. This is one of his routine setups: batter, on-deck, pitcher, pitch. It establishes the basic conflict while adding context for the next one.

Later in the inning, Webb alters his approach to match the actions of the crowd. With two outs and Brett Gardner at the plate, the crowd rises in applause to urge Lee to end the inning. Responding to the situation, Webb goes with the following shots: medium of Gardner, CU of Lee, wide shot of fans, CU of Lee, centerfield camera. In cutting back and forth between the crowd and Lee, Webb is subtly adding a narrative to this pitch, that the crowd is in a conversation with the pitcher, which he soon repays by getting Gardner to ground out to short. He generally dislikes crowd shots, and has limited their use at Fox, as he told USA Today:

‘Crowd shots I’ll do between pitches; it’s dead time,’ he says. ‘I’m not a big fan of them. During the regular season, you’ve got a lot more liberty. But in a platinum game like this, every pitch means something. You stay with what’s going on in the field.’

In other pitches, he cuts between the opposing coaches to juice the sense of conflict between each toss. He also opts for push-in close-ups on the pitcher and hitter to add an extra dollop of tension. His most aggressive technique is the split-screen, framing pitcher and hitter in the same shot, and adding the catcher’s signals in an insert between them. He thankfully uses this segmented shot sparingly. Michael Hiestand writes, again in USA Today:  “[They are] pretty busy. But, says Webb, at least viewers know what pitch is coming. And not as busy, notes Webb, as when on past Series action he split the screen four ways when bases were loaded — ‘too confusing, that was a strikeout.”

Webb also turned down the use of cameras that are suspended on cables and fly down the foul lines, which TBS used in their coverage. His aesthetic is appropriately conservative, eschewing most of the bells and whistles that Fox Sports likes to impose (their dancing NFL robot, the ill-fated glowing hockey puck), and toning down the tricks he does use:

‘Viewers may like them the first time but then the toys become redundant,’ he says. ‘The best way to cover baseball is to cover the baseball game. And the only real difference between a regular season game and the World Series is it’s more emotional. You need to make sure the technology never gets in the way of showing that emotion.’

Even in higher leverage situations with runners on base, where his shot selection is more varied, his cutting speed increases only slightly. He maintains a use of fairly long takes, even with his cut-ins (I’m curious to compare his shot length with the other networks, in case this is just the industry standard, but I suspect he’s slower than most). In only one instance did I detect any quick cutting: Ryan Howard’s walk on a full count in the first inning, where Webb  employs rapid-fire shots of the crowd, who were again riled up and waving their white towels (this was after the incredible Chase Utley and his hair hit a three-run home-run).

In a bit of serendipity, the MLB Network was showing Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen’s perfect game over the Brooklyn Dodgers, at the same time as 2009′s game 5. Flipping back and forth, it’s a quick and dirty way to see how camera angles effect the way one views a game. The default camera position in 1956 was an elevated view behind home plate that would pan up to catch a ball in play. There are also cameras on the first and third baselines, but they are only used for accents, either introducing a player or offering a profile of the pitcher. It distances you from the action, with no sense of balls and strikes, and no close-ups of the players. Mickey Mantle seems even more otherworldly from the back. After he breaks up the scoreless game with a mammoth home run, one feels it appropriate that his face is hidden. One shouldn’t look too close to such (drunken) godliness. The distance of the camera must have added to the mystical aura that surrounded these 50s titans.

In a fascinating article for Slate, Greg Hanlon offers a brief history of the centerfield camera, which he claims was introduced in 1950 on NBC’s Game of the Week. Apparently it took a while to become standard, but now almost every team uses this look, which provides a more intimate view of the details of the game, from the catcher’s signals to the pitcher’s fidgeting in his glove. What Hanlon explores is the distorted angle of this view, as most of these cameras are located 10 to 15 degrees off-center to left field, offering a skewed view of the ball’s path to home plate. Only the Red Sox, the Cardinals, and the Twins place it at dead center, which requires a higher camera elevation to keep the pitcher from blocking the view of the catcher. But for the majority of telecasts, including Fox’s coverage of the World Series, the view is distorted, sacrificing verity for intimacy. Hanlon says the biggest impediment to switching to dead-center views is simple architecture:

In Oakland, Calif., a wall of luxury boxes precludes placing a dead-center camera. The Crown Vision center field scoreboard provides a similar obstruction in Kansas City. In Denver, the “Rock Pile” bleacher seats make installing a dead-center camera a “seat-kill,” in producer parlance. Other stadiums have advertising signage where a camera would be placed.

ESPN attempted to install a dead-center camera for all of their 2001 broadcasts, but it was declared impractical after less than a year.

Webb simply deals with the cameras he has given, and does a wonderful job. The fact that he also directs the Mets broadcasts (my sad, sad favorite team), has no bearing on this praise. He simply stays out of the way, elegantly incorporating dramatic arcs during down time, and limiting graphic bells and whistles that clutter too many other broadcasts. All he’s missing is “..a camera operator on the fields, just to trail pitchers to the mound or batters to the box. ‘I don’t see what the problem is when there’s no action going on. … I won’t get in your way.’” Bill Webb is a master of not getting in the way.