(Russell Martin hit by a pitch. Photo by Jon SooHoo by way of Sons of Steve Garvey.)
The best baseball movies-- The Bad News Bears, Bull Durham, Cobb, Eight Men Out-- are the ones that capture as much about the atmosphere surrounding the game, the eccentricities and/or obsessive nature of those who play it, and the importance of the game’s history toward forming the skeleton of what we might term heroism in this country, as least as far as the term applies toward athletes and athleticism, as they do about the game itself. But even these exceptional (and in a couple of cases I would argue, great) movies, and some lesser, but still entertaining ones, like Major League or For Love of the Game, have a hard time capturing what you might naturally think would be an easy call for the movies— the essential physics of a bat on a ball, a figure in motion at the plate on in the field, or a strong sense of what happens on the mound, and in the air, between the time the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand and when it pops in the catcher’s glove. One of the most glaring deficiencies in Ron Shelton’s Bull Durham, a movie often cited for its accuracy in terms of the entirety of the minor league baseball environment, is the performance of Tim Robbins on the mound as the exceptionally wild but occasionally devastating Ebby Calvin “Nuke” LaLoosh, whose pitching eventually lands him in the Show. Robbins’ acting as LaLoosh in general is spot-on and very funny, a naturally gifted athlete who hasn’t the discipline-- until he is adopted as a cause by baseball siren Annie Savoy, played by Susan Sarandon-- to sculpt those natural abilities into athletic, artistic consistency. But one look at him on the mound for the Durham Bulls, whether hurling a wild pitch at his catcher Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or delivering a laser-sharp fastball down the pipe, betrays an actor who isn’t the slightest bit believable from the perspective of pitching form and mechanics. It is surprising to me every time I see this movie that Shelton, himself an ex-minor league player who fashioned the script from his experiences playing the game, wouldn’t have found a pitching coach who could have better schooled the actor rather than let this glaring visual tell stay in the finished film.
Even a movie like Sam Raimi’s For Love of the Game, which lavishes a lot of cinematic attention on the minute processes of pitching (Costner is far more believable as a Detroit Tigers pitcher here than was his Bull Durham cast mate, but then so was Tatum O'Neal), distracts from a certain verisimilitude by suggesting, through its central dramatic conceit, that a washed-up pitcher who finds himself hurling a perfect game would be able to shift his focus enough to reflect on major moments and failures in his life over the course of nine innings. To the extent that such an idea works at all, credit must be given to Costner and Raimi, but I can’t imagine even the most mediocre pitcher in an actual game being able to face a major league line-up without the most thorough concentration he could muster. The minute he starts musing about his love life, the pitches start missing their mark and he gets pulled by an irate manager before the story even has a chance to peak and tug at our heartstrings.
And a movie like The Natural, mystifyingly beloved by many a baseball purist, tries to get at the physical glory of the baseball player by means of every cinematic trick in the book—primarily artfully-applied slo-mo, slick editing, golden-hued cinematography and Randy Newman’s syrupy score, which in modern baseball coverage on TV has become synonymous with the triumphant majesty of the long ball. But all Barry Levinson’s movie does in the end is showcase, apart from the crusty quality of lived-in history brought to the dugout by Wilford Brimley and Richard Farnsworth, a special kind of fabrication, the movie myth brought to bear on the myth of god-like feats of athletic prowess (which was, unless I misunderstand it, the opposite intention of Bernard Malamud’s book, from which the movie was ripped and restitched), all rendered in a showboating key of bombast and glowing nostalgia that exposes everything seen through its lens as phony.
The ascendance of CGI and the Bay-Bruckheimer aesthetic to dominance in commercial American cinema doesn’t exactly raise my hopes that this deceptively simple goal of presenting the particular physics of the game, coupled with the sights, sounds and smells of what it is to really be down on the field, will ever fully be achieved. It is good that Shelton is still in there taking his hacks (his film of the nonfiction book on the BALCO steroids scandal, Game of Shadows is due soon, as well as the intriguingly titled Our Lady of the Ballpark which is currently in preproduction), but I can’t think of another filmmaker I’m already aware of who could or would be interested in taking a stab at really capturing the game from the inside out. To this end, I would submit that the best place to look for this kind of eye toward detail and showcasing fleeting moments in time that seem cinematic in every way except their ability to only suggest movement, is through the lens of great baseball photographers. And one of the best is right here in Los Angeles, shooting incredible images of things that everyone thinks they see every night, but in ways that no one can quite see on their own. Jon SooHoo is the official team photographer for the Dodgers, and his work can frequently be seen on the Dodgers official site. But more recently he has been the subject of much celebration by the sharp-eyed observers who man the keen Dodger blog Sons of Steve Garvey, where some of his most spectacular photography has been highlighted. The Sons posted an examination of this photo yesterday as evidence of the value of SooHoo’s everyday presence with the team—when everyone else is snapping away at all the moments surrounding the aftermath of Andre Ethier’s game-winning walk-off home run in the 13th inning of Monday’s series opener against the Colorado Rockies, it was SooHoo who knew of Ethier’s tendency toward game-ending dramatics (he leads the team in walk-off hits this season) and was there with digital precision, brilliant timing and a perfect angle to highlight, in a way no other photograph did, the dramatic momentum of that moment of impact between bat and ball which capped nearly four and a half hours of intense baseball.
Other links from the piece on SOSG highlight the explosive spectacle of a breaking bat in mid-shatter (the man at the plate again, Andre Ethier) and the various shades and gradations of emotion available to the naked eye, amplified by SooHoo’s naturally artistic documentation, on Opening Day 2009. But my absolute favorite of SooHoo’s recent work is an image that perfectly encapsulates his ability to capture the paradoxically cinematic drama of the game in a single brilliant still—his shot (seen above) of Russell Martin attempting to jump away from an inside fastball, only to have the ball caught as it passes Martin’s chest, making tactile, undulating waves out of the fabric of his jersey as well as contact with the batter, speaks a language of motion and emotion that a hokey carnival like The Natural doesn’t even seem to know exists, let alone can’t come close to getting on film. SooHoo’s exemplary work is a gift we Dodger fans get whether we fork over the price of a ticket or not. It brings the magic, the majesty and the mystery of the game a step closer, and augments our memories with images that make us feel like we’ve seen things we couldn’t possibly have seen otherwise. One day maybe a movie will get at baseball the way great photographers like Jon SooHoo seem to be able to conjure with ridiculous ease. Like baseball itself, that image-conjuring magic eludes the majority of those who try to work it to their advantage. But as most Dodger fans already know, an image directed by Jon SooHoo, like a Sandy Koufax start or a Jonathan Broxton fastball, is almost always a masterpiece.
(Thanks to the Sons of Steve Garvey and Jon Weisman for sparking this post, and of course, to Jon SooHoo for the photographs.)
I'd love to see your favorite baseball photographs too. Please feel free to leave links to the photos, as well as the usual commentary, in the bull pen below!