October 11, 2011

big leaguer

Major League Baseball is in the midst of a preposterously entertaining postseason, with major upsets and wild finishes happening almost every night. As I typed that, Nelson Cruz hit a walk-off grand slam, the first in playoff history, to give the Rangers a victory over the Tigers in the ALCS. Even better for MLB’s image (if not the ratings) is the success of small market teams like the Tampa Bay Rays and the Milwaukee Brewers, the latter of which has surged into the National League Championship Series, quieting the yearly calls for an NFL-style salary cap. With that and the cheap-team strategizing of Moneyball still in theaters, I thought I’d highlight two scrappy low-budget baseball movies which deserve more attention (read: a home video release): It Happened in Flatbush (1942) and Big Leaguer (1953).

The recent history of baseball on film is not a particularly inspiring one, with screenwriters as prone to mawkish inspirational cliché as their sports-writing brethren. The established “classics” of the genre,  like the The Natural or Field of Dreams, are unendurable parades of New Age philosophical claptrap, which make Moneyball seem as austere as Bresson in comparison. Michael Lewis’ book about the 2002 Oakland A’s described how the team utilized advanced statistical analysis to massage their low-cost club into the playoffs. It’s the first baseball-themed movie to become a substantial hit since The Rookie in 2002. Which is not to say it’s terribly good. Director Bennett Miller and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin take this absorbing, but essentially undramatic, tale of market inefficiencies and pump it up into an inspirational tear-jerker. Brad Pitt gives a finely detailed performance – see the multifarious ways in which he spits out sunflower seeds – but he’s stuck in the iron maiden of the dispiritingly conventional plot, complete with invented family drama and wise cracking sidekick (Jonah Hill). To see how it also gets the history wrong, see Kevin Goldstein’s review at Baseball Prospectus.

The best baseball films seem to be loose and episodic, as unconcerned with structure as an extra inning game. That’s part of the reason I have a fondness for It Happened in Flatbush (1942), a modest, jokey trifle about an unpopular managerial change by the Brooklyn team (the Dodgers were not cooperative with the shoot, even forbidding use of their name). It was directed by Ray McCarey, who like his brilliant brother Leo, started his career as a gag man for Hal Roach, and later worked his way over to Three Stooges shorts. Some of the slap-happiness from the Roach shorts is retained in this squirrely film, in which battle-ax owner Ms. “Mac” Mcavoy (Sara Allgood) hires disgraced former shortstop Frank “Butterfingers” Maguire (Lloyd Nolan), who cost the team the pennant years before, to take over as head coach. The script was loosely based on the 1940 season of the Cleveland Indians, during which the players agitated for manager Oscar Vitt to get canned because of his constant criticisms. It opens with an on-screen title joke that could have come from a Fatty Arbuckle short. Over a shot of crashing breakers, the text reads:

“This story is fictional but anything might happen, and usually does, on a strange island just off the eastern coast of the United States. It’s people are friendly…could even be taken for Americans, but they have a language, customs, and a tradition all their own… the name of this island is–BROOKLYN!”

The movie hums with clashing working class accents and a relatably insane obsessiveness about the game. Maguire was coaching a semi-pro league in a rural nowhere called Clovertown when McAvoy came calling. Maguire rattled off the Dodgers’s schedule with ease, saying, “I haven’t missed a box score in 7 years.” Then there is the depiction of the fan-base, animalistic and near-rabid. After a disputed call at home plate, a particularly aggressive Irish fan tumbles onto the field and decks the ump just because he can (real game footage from Ebbets Field is intercut with studio inserts). When the team has a successful road trip, they are greeted by mobs at the train station eager for a winner. The movie sparks with unbridled passion perhaps because of technical advisor Johnny Butler, who, according to the AFI catalog,  “was a veteran of twenty-three seasons of major league baseball, including two season as shortstop for the Dodgers. According to studio publicity, at the time of the film’s production, he was working as a studio policeman.”

Another laid back baseball movie is Big Leaguer (1953) the directorial debut of Robert Aldrich (Kiss Me Deadly). This amiable drama concerns a summer training camp for amateur talent in Florida, put on by the New York Giants. Edward G. Robinson stars as Hans Lobert, the director of the camp and former third-baseman for the team (Lobert was a real player, who hit .274/.337/.366 over 14 seasons for five teams). Unlike It Happened in FlatbushBig Leaguer was granted full access to the Giants franchise, and was filmed on their actual training camp in Melbourne, FL, and offers cameos by legendary pitcher Carl Hubbell and head scout (and former 2B) Al Campanis. It is airier than Flatbush’s succession of busy interiors, but is granted a hackneyed script, with constant clichéd voice-over by invented sportswriter Brian McLennan (Paul Langton). Not a lot of Aldrich’s acidic personality comes through in his first venture, although the presence of combative male friendship is present, to be fuller fleshed out in his more despairing war films (Attack, The Dirty Dozen).

Aldrich gets a joyous performance out of Edward G. Robinson, who huffs and puffs his way through like an over-agitated uncle, repressing his love of his boys through hoarse-voiced criticisms. There is one shockingly funny sequence in which Richard Jaeckel, who would appear in Aldrich films until the last one in 1981 (…All The Marbles), brushes Robinson back off the plate with a high fastball. Robinson tumbles backwards with the grace of a frozen turkey. He then rages towards the camera, and in extreme close-up his hair is standing on-end, his eyes flared, ready to brawl like a hot-headed 18 year-old. Robinson brings this childishness to bear throughout, even doing a twirling jig to one of the big band tunes the kids play relentlessly.

I prefer both of these raggedly entertaining items to Moneyball’s slick insularity, and wish Pitt had as much space to play (and dance) around as Robinson does in Big Leaguer. Now if only MGM would release the 1953 film in their on-demand “Limited Edition Collection”, or if the Twilight Time label would poach  It Happened in Flatbush from the Fox library for a future DVD, this MLB postseason would truly be one for the ages.


November 3, 2009


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.