125: Catching Hell

I started playing baseball around 1986 as a young teen. The problem with playing baseball in Holland was the extremely limited access to events in the Major League here in the U.S. There was no internet and hardly any baseball game was broadcast over there. Unless maybe it was a World Series, then it would get a spot in one of the major sports programs on TV. I’m telling you this, because I have been watching the 30 for 30 series from ESPN. I am only a few episodes into it, but already I love it. I am learning stuff about sports events I never even knew about. Events that are still very much in the mind of the American sports fan.

One of these events is the Steve Bartman incident that occurred on October 14, 2003. During Game 6 of the National League Championship Series the Chicago Cubs were on the verge of reaching the World Series for the first time since 1945. The fans were ecstatic, but then a fly ball went into foul territory over in leftfield. Outfielder Moisés Alou ran over to snag the ball, but a fan by the name of Steve Bartman reached out for it and deflected it just before it reached Alou’s glove. This fateful moment sealed the Cubs’ fate and the Florida Marlins went on to score eight runs and ultimately the National League championship. While there were other errors made that facilitated the loss the fans united in chastising Steve Bartman for his collision with fate.

Since 1945 the Cubs have been playing under the weight of what they call the Billy Goat Curse and lifting the curse has been on every Cubs fan’s mind ever since. Steve Bartman was at the wrong place at the wrong time and caught hell for something any fan would have done, because catching an official Major League baseball is a dream of any baseball fan. But I also understand that in the heat of the moment people wanted to lynch Bartman. The tensions ran so incredibly high, that any incident would have sparked some kind of controversy. Having somebody within reach to blame the loss on was a gift from the baseball gods for the people who were there. Blaming a loss on a player remains something remote. They are on the field and disappear into the catacombs after the game. Bartman didn’t have that option. He couldn’t jump onto the field to flee from the irate fans around him. I don’t know if I would have acted any different from the way that entire ballpark was acting. Gibney makes the argument that he was doing something anybody would have done, and that is true, but he was still the one who did it. People who still carry a grudge against Bartman after all these years should, however, rethink their priorities.

Gibney doesn’t just focus on the Steve Bartman incident. He also goes back to 1986 to investigate another baseball incident: an infamous error made by first baseman Bill Buckner. The situation was very much like the one with the Chicago Cubs. The Boston Red Sox were also on the verge of clinching a championship and with that eliminating their own curse they had been carrying with them since Babe Ruth moved to the New York Yankees in 1920. So the expectations were high when the Red Sox were in the lead in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. However, the Red Sox botched their lead by making some crucial errors during that fateful last inning. The last of which was a slow roller that inexplicably went through the legs of Bill Buckner. Because he made the last error everybody focused their rage on him and subsequently made his life a living hell. It took years before the Red Sox finally won the World Series and then they started thinking about forgiving Buckner.

While Gidney is certainly interested in telling Buckner and Bartman’s stories, the main focus of Catching Hell is the scapegoating of a single person to get rid of this unending frustration about a losing team. Why were these two people singled out and blamed for the losses and why were the other players that also made mistakes conveniently forgotten? It is a question that lingers all through the movie and to be honest, nobody really knows an answer. Gibney gives the people involved ample time to explain what happened back then at both incidents and that sheds a light on some of the events, but he never really answers his own thesis in a satisfying manner. But, then again, do we want him to. I think not, a lot that goes into sports is the rabid fandom of people and the strange workings that can entail. It’s a mysterious pastime that unites people in ways they probably couldn’t even explain to themselves. I am not one to start shouting at someone in my every day life, but when I am at a ballgame I let myself go regularly. Sometimes out of frustration, sometimes out of happiness. There is so much drama to get caught up in.

At the very end of Catching Hell Gibney does go into a bit of a preachy mode by letting people tell the viewer that what happened was wrong, that they feel sorry for Bartman, that everybody should look at what happened at that game back in 2003 and make sure it never happens again. While some of this might be true it also comes across as wiping your own nose clean after committing exactly the things they are riling against. Hindsight tends to always be 20/20, so let’s not kid ourselves: if something like this were to happen again in the future people will not react any differently than before. It is human nature and in the heat of the moment anything can happen.

It is also human nature to forgive someone for their mistakes. Gibney shows us that Buckner actually was officially forgiven by the fans of the Boston Red Sox. Eventually he went back to Fenway Park and walked onto the field to throw the first pitch at the Opening Day game in 2008. He got through this ordeal of being scapegoated and can now move forward. The same thing can still not be said of Bartman. He is still living with the burden of being the guy who botched the Cubs’ chances to win a championship and he wasn’t even a player. I am not a Cubs fan, so I can’t speak for those fans, but let’s give this guy a break and focus on the stupid errors the players made during that game. I hope one day this guy gets to walk onto the turf at Wrigley Field to receive some kind of apology from the fans. I really do.

Although it seems like Alex Gibney’s 2011 documentary Catching Hell is a part of the ESPN 30 for 30 series, and therefore shouldn’t be included in this blog, it actually isn’t. It is part of a spin-off documentary series called ESPN Films Presents. It is also longer than a regular episode at 1 hour and 42 minutes and it is listed on the IMDb as a stand-alone documentary.

> IMDb

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070: Goon

Goon was decidedly not a movie I was looking forward to. The main reason being that this not the adaptation of the Eric Powell comic The Goon, which is still somewhere suspended in development hell. This Goon is about hockey, a sport I don’t really like and Seann William Scott plays the lead and he is not what you would call an actor I get excited about. But early buzz around Goon made me take a closer look and I must say I was pleasantly surprised. This is by no means a masterpiece, but you can do much worse in the category of violent sports dramas.

Goon is about bouncer Doug Glatt (Scott), who works in some dive and has no real outlook on life. He is a bit of an embarrassment to his family, who are all doctors and such. When one night Doug’s friend Pat (Jay Baruchel, who also co-wrote the screenplay) starts to taunt the visiting team at a local hockey game things get out of hand. Pat is attacked by one of the players, but Doug defends him and floors the player without any problems. His actions catch the eye of the coach of the local team and he is asked to become an enforcer for the team. An enforcer is a player whose task it is to defend other players by any means necessary and clear a path to the enemy’s goal. A job well suited to Doug. If only he could skate. Doug goes on to become a successful player for the Halifax Highlanders, a minor league team. But relationships on the team are strained and morale is not exactly high. Goon is based on the book Goon: The True Story of an Unlikely Journey into Minor League Hockey by Adam Frattasio and Doug Smith.

Seann William Scott is excellent as the thuggish Doug. Doug is not the brightest bulb in the box and doesn’t aspire to be more than he is. He is content with what he does best… enforce. He is not one of those smart-mouthed players that we know from Paul Newman’s Slap Shot (1977) or Rob Lowe’s Youngblood (1986). Doug knows his place in the universe and that is refreshing to see. In fact, the only thing he aspires to is kicking the ass of Ross Rhea (played by a deliciously grubby Liev Schreiber), an aging enforcer from a rival team who knocked the wind out of one of Doug’s fellow players three years ago.

Make no mistake, Goon is an incredibly violent movie. Besides being a funny comedy the blood is splattered freely onto the ice. Teeth are broken, skulls crushed and bodies squashed against the boarding. If you are squeamish about bodily sports harm then you should maybe forego on watching Goon. I had a blast watching Goon. I could, however, live without Baruchel’s intense Boston accent, which was really hard on the ears. Scott is a revelation as the lovable thug. He gives Doug just enough depth for us to root for him. I can heartily recommend Goon to just about anybody.

> IMDb

041: The Color of Money

Back in the day I watched The Color of Money before watching The Hustler. I had no idea who Fast Eddie Felson was, but the movie had Tom Cruise, so I had to see it. I really, really liked Top Gun. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that The Hustler was a big part of watching The Color of Money. Now, I watched them both back to back and although the latter is not as good as the former, it is still an excellent film. It has actually aged rather well.

After 25 years we reconnect with Fast Eddie Felson. The last time we saw him he walked out of that poolhall with some money and a little bit of dignity. Now he is a hustling liquor salesmen who sells second grade spirits as if they were the finest drinks in the world. On one fateful night he sees a young guy (Tom Cruise) playing pool and decides to take him under his wing. Along with the young man’s girlfriend (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) he starts off on a roadtrip that will take them to Atlantic City for a high stakes pool tournament.

Paul Newman reprises his role as Fast Eddie and it is a delight to see him in this role again. After having been nominated for an Oscar numerous times (also for The Hustler), he finally won the coveted golden man. This older Eddie is much more calculated then the young Eddie. You never really know when Eddie is hustling somebody. Even when it seems to be clear that Eddie has been hustled by Amos, you still can’t entirely be sure that it wasn’t just a ploy to get Vincent riled up. The same sensibility was evident in The Hustler and it is to Scorsese’s credit that he manages to include this here. It is as if the director is hustling the audience while they are watching the movie. A brilliant move.

Also very good is Scorsese’s casting of Tom Cruise, who by that time was still building his career. Cruise is perfect for the role of Vincent. He is a young guy who has the world to conquer, but he needs to learn how to do that without getting getting sucked into a vortex of greed and hubris. You get the sense that a lot of Vincent is Cruise himself. He needs a mentor, and that’s where Eddie comes in, though it is never clear what Eddie’s intentions really are. Throw into the mix the dodgy and conniving girlfriend played by Mastrantonio, who wants the best for Vincent, no matter how, and you have a very potent mix.

The Color of Money is a movie that struck me as slow and cumbersome when I first saw it, but with a few more years under my belt and have watched The Hustler in a double feature I must say that Scorsese’s movie holds up very well. It is a compelling piece of work.

> IMDb

040: The Hustler

Paul Newman may be my favorite actor of all time. He made name for himself playing men who are flawed, but still very confident. Especially his early career was full of these roles. Somebody Up There Likes Me, Cat On a Hot Tin Roof, Cool Hand Luke, all powerful performances. His performance in The Hustler certainly belongs in this esteemed string of movies and may be one of his best ever.

I watched The Hustler for the first time about twenty years ago on television in a horribly disfigured pan and scan version. This however didn’t diminish my enjoyment of this masterpiece. It was later that I realized this was the prequel to Martin Scorsese’s The Color of Money, but more on that in my next post. For years I looked to buy The Hustler on whatever medium was available then. But all I could find were, dare I say, colorized versions or pan and scan debacles. It wasn’t until recently that I found a good version on blu-ray.

The Hustler on blu-ray is a delight. The picture is crystal clear and the aspect ratio is as wide as you would want it. Mainly this last factor cements the genius of The Hustler. In the wide format it becomes clear why this movie won Oscars for Cinematography and Set Decoration. The placement of all the elements in the frame make the relations between the characters even more painfully clear. This is a textbook example of how it should be done.

Paul Newman as Fast Eddie Felson an insecure mess. He never knows when to quit, even when the reasons for quitting spit him in the face. He alienates everybody and is vulnerable to all manner of bad influences around him. It is only when the one person he actually cares for—even though he wouldn’t acknowledge this—is taken from him that he takes his life into his own hands. Newman plays this conflicted man with the intensity we have come to expect from him. He is absolutely riveting. The same can be said for Piper Laurie, George C. Scott and Jackie Gleason. They form the perfect storm for Newman to get sucked into.

Even though The Hustler is more than fifty years old, I believe more people should watch this brilliant piece of filmmaking. Director Robert Rossen regretfully passed away far too young a few years after The Hustler, so he wasn’t able to create more of these masterpieces. Luckily Paul Newman lived to be 83 and he certainly left us with a body of work that a lot of actors would kill for.

> IMDb