Our release of Bull Durham features the following excerpts from a classic New Yorker column by Roger Angell, originally published July 31, 1989. For more on Angell, read Criterion managing editor Anna Thorngate’s interview with the writer, who reflects on the film and the way it undercuts the “national dream” of baseball.B
aseball movies make baseball fans feel good for the wrong reasons. Watching actors taking their Aunt Hattie cuts at the plate, turning the twelve-second double play (was that slo-mo, or what?), or striking out the side with high-parabola fastballs, we smile unpleasantly in the dark, smug in the knowledge that our sport and its practitioners are beyond imitation. This tingle of superiority isn’t particularly satisfying, since we fans of the game are there in another capacity, as moviegoers; more than anyone else in the audience, we want the baseball on the screen to work, to sweep us up and make us care about the story, so we can forget how badly these guys on the screen play ball. Sometimes that happens, but more often we can feel the old Susp.-of-Disb. gears creaking and groaning inside, particularly during baseball movies in which the plot depends heavily on stuff that happens on the field. Real baseball drama takes its time, as we know, and its thrilling or melodramatic resolutions tend to be minor events—a misplayed grounder, a little flare that drops in behind second, a hit-and-run bouncer that finds its way through the created aperture in the infield defense—which feel gigantic or explosive because they release us from a debilitating anxiety. All the accumulating and seemingly eventless previous innings have been crammed with news and notices and gnawing concerns for the fan in the stands. Does our pitcher have his good breaking ball today, and (a few minutes later) what’s he doing nibbling away at this no. 8 hitter? . . . Why is Straw playing so deep? . . . Why does Davey have Keith guarding the line like that, now that Randy’s out there firing? . . . Hey, look at this—there’s two up-pitches from Browning, he’s beginning to lose it for sure, but let’s get him before they can bring in Franco, okay? . . . Come on now, you guys. C’mon . . .
Not much of this is translatable into movie language, of course, since it is silent and lengthily ongoing, and since the focus of our concern—the difference of a foot or two in the placement of the infield defense, or of millimeters in or out as the pitched ball flashes across the plate—is daunting for the cinematographer and invisible to the inexpert moviegoer. Movies have to keep moving, and thus can’t wait around for the slow, hourglass slippage of baseball time, in a game or in a summer. Baseball is mostly lowlights, but baseball movies must suggest otherwise, often by edited, close-up snatches of bats meeting balls, gloves gobbling up grounders, spiked feet toeing a base, and so on, or by the opposite distortion—the super-slow-motion shot of the batter waiting and tensing as the ball spins in from the mound with all stitches showing, and then, after a flurry of intercut batter movements and grimaces, operatically soars up and away and, most of the time, into the bleachers. On-screen baseball action leans toward the grotesque: swinging strikes that miss by a mile; wild pitches that hit the screen on the fly or comically nail some bystander on the noggin; and that game- and series- and movie-winning homer into the upper deck, accompanied by rainbow lights, music up, and fan feelings down. Movie baseball is inexorably entertaining, while real baseball, as every fan knows, is too serious, most of the time, to be fun at all.
“It’s the first baseball movie that gets things right without trying: there isn’t a line in it that feels reverent or fake-tough or hurriedly explanatory.”
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